Book Write-Up: A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments

John Dickson.  A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments: How, For Better or Worse, Our Ideas About the Good Life Come from Moses and Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

John Dickson has a Ph.D. in Ancient History from Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.  In A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments, Dickson comments on each of the ten commandments.  Although Dickson in his comments shares his knowledge of ancient history with readers and refers them to scholarly books, this book is popular rather than scholarly.

Here are some of my comments on the book:

A. Narrowing down Dickson’s approach to the commandments is difficult, for Dickson does a variety of things throughout the book.  On some commandments, he refers to what the commandments may have meant in light of their ancient Near Eastern context.  In other chapters, by contrast, that sort of analysis was sorely lacking, and Dickson focused instead on philosophical issues (i.e., is God necessary for morality to exist?) or how Judaism and Christianity compare with other world religions.  Both of these issues are relevant to contemporary debates between Christians and atheists.  Parts of the book are rather homiletical, as Dickson quotes such thinkers as C.S. Lewis and John Calvin.  Throughout the book, Dickson discusses the significance of the commandments in the New Testament: how the New Testament interprets, applies, or amplifies the commandments.

The book had a lot of asides and was somewhat meandering.  In some cases, Dickson seemed contradictory, as when he was addressing the question of whether God in the Old Testament blessed people materially as a reward for good behavior and whether that affirmed the prosperity Gospel.  Dickson is against the prosperity Gospel, but he was rather contradictory on material blessings in the Old Testament.  There were also occasions when his point was a bit unclear.  He says more than once that what has influenced Western civilization for the better has been the commandments as they have been interpreted in Christianity, rather than Judaism or their original meaning.  What exactly Dickson’s point was in making that statement is difficult to determine.  Was this his justification for looking at what the New Testament said about the commandments?  Was he somehow marginalizing what the commandments meant in their ancient Near Eastern context or Judaism?  But Dickson does discuss what they meant within those contexts, often positively!  Even the subtitle of the book is confusing: “How, For Better or Worse, Our Ideas About the Good Life Come From Moses and Jesus.”  Better or worse?  Dickson argues consistently that the ten commandments made a positive contribution to Western civilization.  Where’s this “worse” come from?

Part of the book’s charm is in its thoughtful, informed, and honest meanderings.  Still, perhaps the book could have been better organized, with more consideration of the commandments’ ancient Near Eastern context and their place in biblical religion.  In each chapter on the commandments, Dickson could have had sections on what a commandment meant in its original context, how Judaism and Christianity interpreted it, and that commandment’s relevance to today.

B.  Dickson’s overall approach is to see biblical religion as different from, and superior to, other religions.  It is interesting how Christian apologists take different approaches in their comparison of biblical religions with other religions, and the point that they believe their comparison is making.  Dickson stresses the contrasts: he contrasts the Sabbath commandment with ancient views on rest and work, the biblical God with pagan gods, and Christian attitudes on charity with pagan attitudes.  He regards biblical religion as distinct, superior, and revolutionary.  Yet, there are other Christian apologists, such as David Marshall, who look at similarities between Christianity and other religions and imply that this shows God is revealing Godself to humanity, cross-culturally.  (Marshall also makes contrasts and believes that biblical religion is revolutionary.)  Do the biblical religion’s differences from other religions attest to its truth, or are its similarities with other religions what demonstrate the truth of what it is saying?  Such a discussion would be interesting!

The points that Dickson makes are certainly relevant and important to consider.  There may be truth in a lot of what he says about the differences between biblical religion and other religions.  At the same time, one should remember that there are other perspectives on this issue, and that these other perspectives, too, may be referring to details that are true, or that are part of the picture.  Atheist biblical scholar Hector Avalos recently quoted on John Loftus’ “Debunking Christianity” blog a statement by Christian scholar John Goldingday.  This statement appears on pages 42-43 of Goldingday’s book, Do We Still Need the New Testament?:

“What difference did Jesus’ coming make to the world? It has been argued that ‘The Church has made more changes on earth for good than any other movements of force in history,’
including the growth of hospitals, universities, literacy and education, capitalism and free enterprise, representative government, separation of political powers, civil liberty, the abolition of slavery, modern science, the discovery of the Americas, the elevation of women, the civilizing of primitive cultures, and the setting of languages to writing.

“It is easy to dispute this claim. The church resisted some of these developments just listed, some are not particularly Christian, and all were encouraged by humanistic forces and reflect Greek thinking as much as gospel thinking.”

There are passages in Greco-Roman literature that depict Zeus as just and compassionate.  Hospitality was an honored value in the Greco-Roman world, which is why Josephus tried to present Judaism as a compassionate religion to his Roman audience.  Morton Smith, in his article “Common Theology of the Ancient Near East,” which appeared in the Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952) 135-147, argued that the ancient Israelites resembled other ancient Near Eastern societies in their belief in a god who was just and compassionate.

This is not to suggest that Dickson should repudiate his viewpoint.  This book would have been better, however, had he thoughtfully wrestled with the other side, as he thoughtfully engages perspectives throughout the book.

C.  There are times when Dickson makes claims without telling the reader the source for his claims.  When he does document his claims, however, he is very helpful.  When Dickson contrasts Christian attitudes on charity with pagan attitudes, he refers readers to a scholarly book on the subject.  When Dickson contrasts Jesus’ stance on vows with Jewish stances, Dickson refers readers to specific passages in the Mishnah about vows that are not binding.

D.  The book is informative.  Dickson’s interpretation of the Sabbath commandment in light of ancient conceptions of work is noteworthy.  Dickson also refers to a medieval Christian concept that a poor person who steals to feed his family is technically not stealing, since the poor person is entitled to provision.  Dickson probably does not say this to recommend such behavior, but rather to show that the commandment against stealing is about more than what’s yours is yours, and what’s mine is mine.

E.  Reading the Sermon on the Mount can be difficult.  When Jesus tells us to reconcile with our brother who has something against us before we offer our gift to God (Matthew 5:24), does that mean we have to make everyone like us, before we can worship God?  But Jesus offended people!  When Jesus says that those who lust after women are adulterers at heart (Matthew 5:27-32), does Jesus forbid men to have a natural sex drive?  And is Jesus really equating hate with murder and lust with adultery?  When I told a secular therapist that, she was baffled: of course, she thought that actual murder was worse than hating someone!

An asset to this book is that Dickson engages these questions.  In some cases, he merely makes assertions.  In other cases, he offers an argument for his interpretation, as he does regarding Matthew 5:27-32.  His sensitivity to these issues was impressive.  His interpretations are reasonable, yet they maintain the challenge of the Sermon on the Mount.

F.  There were discussions in Dickson’s book that were inspiring and edifying.  A discussion that particularly comes to mind concerns how Christians can love everybody, while still maintaining high standards about what is right and wrong.  Humility about one’s own shortcomings plays a key role in that, according to Dickson.

This is a good book, and I am definitely open to reading other books by Dickson.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

 

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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