Francesca Stavrakopoulou on her new book about God

January 16, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Reader Edward called my attention to a new video by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter with a specialty in the Old Testament (but she knows her Jesus, too). She’s my favorite Biblical scholar because she’s an out-and-out atheist and a strong skeptic, not accepting much of the Old Testament as true. As Wikipedia notes of her:

The main focus of Stavrakopoulou’s research is on the Hebrew bible, and on Israelite and Judahite history and religion.Stavrakopoulou supports the academic consensus that important figures in the Hebrew bible were not historical figures as represented in that text.[ She has further stated that she believes “very little, probably” of the Hebrew bible is historical fact, based on the arguments that ancient writers had an understanding of “fact” and “fiction” very different from a modern understanding, and that the Hebrew bible “wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past”; she concludes, saying she does not believe accounts of Moses and King David in the Hebrew bible to be factual, and that “as an historian of the bible, I think there is very little that is factual”. In her 2021 book, God: An Anatomy, Stavrakopoulou “presents a vividly corporeal image of God: a human-shaped deity who walks and talks and weeps and laughs, who eats, sleeps, feels, and breathes, and who is undeniably male. Here is a portrait–arrived at through the author’s close examination of and research into the Bible–of a god in ancient myths and rituals who was a product of a particular society, at a particular time, made in the image of the people who lived then, shaped by their own circumstances and experience of the world”. This book has been described by John Barton as showing that the non-corporeal God of Judaism and Christianity “was not yet so in the Bible, where God appears in a much more corporeal form”.

I bow deeply to Dr. Stavrakopoulou in Biblical expertise, but I’m wondering how she knows for sure that “the Bible wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past.”  I’ll grant that it is fictional, but then why did Church fathers like Augustine the Hippo, Aquinas, and many others take both the Old and New Testaments literally? Were they unaware why the Bible was written? (Granted, some of these theologians saw both a metaphorical and literal meaning of Scripture, but the literal meaning was always there.)

That aside, Dr. Stav (pardon the shortening, but it’s laborious to write her whole name) is discussing her new book and Biblical worldview in this video with Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, an organization much less woke than the American Humanist Association. Her book, which comes out in a week in the U.S., is called God: An Anatomy , and got good reviews in the UK.

I could describe the high points, but I think the whole video worth watching, for you’ll see somebody the addressing the Bible as a work of historical fiction. She also has an engaging style of speaking, why is why she often appears on British t.v. and did a 3-part BBC special that you can find, in bits, on YouTube.

She describes the story of Job as as “God screwing over Job for no reason” (true!), and my favorite bit of chat is at 8:40: “Christianity in particular has done a tremendous job of trying to pretend that there a triune God and that God is one and then three at the same time—what a scam!” How refreshing is that? I wonder if her students are flummoxed when they take her classes and learn that they’re being taught by a total nonbeliever.

As similar nonbelievers, it’s our job to know more about religion than believers themselves, for you can always best them by knowing your Scripture. If you haven’t read the Bible—painful as it is—do it. And read Dr. Stav’s book.

She pulls no punches on Twitter, either:

h/t: Edward

12 thoughts on “Francesca Stavrakopoulou on her new book about God

  1. Were they [Aquinas etal] unaware why the Bible was written?

    Likely yes! They were a millennium later, after all. For example, they probably thought that “Mark” wrote his gospel as a history recording recent events to which he was among the witnesses. But, more likely, “Mark” wrote a theological parable, some time after AD71, linking the destruction of the Jewish Temple to themes in the OT about a dying Messiah.

    I wonder if her students are flummoxed when they take her classes and learn that they’re being taught by a total nonbeliever.

    Since she teaches in a UK university, likely not. More likely the students would be flummoxed by a lecturer who did believe!

    1. The myth of the “first temple” – there’s bedrock and wells under the later buildings, as well as copious temple building under Herod – is itself a theme of the older myth package IIRC. Isn’t that what the particular variant of the many “covenant” myths was for Jewish messianism?

      I thought these additions were compiled during the many sects’ infighting under Roman rule. That could make sense, the first myth package was spawned by the Hellenistic conquest and the second by the Octavian conquest.

  2. The “Hebrew bible” part of the myth package is formally the youngest and was compiled 1,000-1,300 years ago. But the datings of the first text fragments, the Dead Sea Scrolls, are 2,300 years old. Those were still in a fluid form, which politics may be what Stavrakopoulou is thinking of, or else the same politics of later cut and paste compilations until the “Hebrew bible” was frozen.

    It is hard to tell what texts older than 400 years or so was describing, c.f. how Newton’s “Principia” is rather unreadable. The active revision work here makes it more readable, and we can recognize the oldest “king lengths” and younger “law book” formats of early states. The former seems to have been an attempt to base the regent power in a lineage from the state gods over demigods and mythical kings to the current regent, a style of “power makes right and right makes power” reign that continued into medieval times.

    Marrying organized superstition to power was the sine qua non of its survival. The other parts of the myth package agenda is harder to tell.

    As an aside, the SAPIENS magazine has always been too much soft science and what this site call “woke” to be readable to me. But of course “biblical science” is per definition cherry picking pseudoscience.

  3. Slightly off topic. There’s some interesting research about atheism is mentioned in The Guardian – the government mandate on religious education in Germany was removed in different regions at different times, allowing for comparisons to be made by researchers. Unsurprisingly, atheism increased as RE was abolished but there was, of course, no impact on morality since you don’t need g*d in order to be good:

    1. I find this conclusion remarkable, perhaps tainting the study: “But less religion did have wider effects, reducing the prevalence of people thinking that gender should determine who does what job or indeed that women cannot use technical devices as well as men. It’s not a coincidence that up went labour market participation and earnings and down went marriages and children.” I’ll guess other factors drove gender equality, and less marriage and children, not just less religion, if the latter is a factor at all.

  4. It was an interesting discussion – the rabbis trying desperately to rationalise whether Moses and Adam were circumcised was a new one to me.

    1. I’d be satisfied to know just if Adam and Eve had belly buttons. If I was a painter, I’d put the fig leaves there, not worry about the naughty bits.

      I realize this is a tired old trope and I can’t be bothered to review it in detail. I will say that those who say the navel is “just a scar” and therefore not tied up in our DNA. biological or theological, know nothing about embryology.

  5. The most obvious way of checking the Hebrew Bible is corroborating it with archaeological evidence. There have been kingdoms of Judah and Israel, and the Hebrew Bible accounts for what happened, to a certain extent of course, as the authors had their own agendas. And much of it most likely is fiction. There has been a course on Coursera called The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose and Political Future of Professor Jacob L. Wright of Emory University in the United States that gives an impression of how the Hebrew Bible emerged and how to assess its contents.

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