A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing: A Philological Note to a BioLogos Discussion

One of the frustrations of web discussions about theology and science is that so many of the participants in the discussions choose to argue with a vigor all out of proportion to their knowledge of the subject at hand. It is easy enough to summon examples of individuals from all camps (YEC, OEC, atheist/materialist, TE/EC, and ID) and from all sites (such as Uncommon Descent, The Skeptical Zone, BioLogos, and Panda’s Thumb) who are guilty of forming opinions about authors they have not read, of taking strong positions in advance of learning the subject-matter, of affecting to more knowledge than they have, etc.

This is less of a problem when the person who is doing the intellectual bluffing is obviously a dilettante and autodidact. There is, for example, a poster on BioLogos who regularly jumps in with strong opinions on just about every subject imaginable (and in just about every BioLogos discussion) who appears to have no formal training in any of the subjects on which he is discussing, who frequently looks up evidence for his stands only after he has planted his feet, and who, five minutes after being introduced to a subject by a Wikipedia article or some other internet source, counts himself as a peer of people who have been studying the subject in university libraries for years or decades, and demands to be treated as such. Such overconfidence is irritating, to be sure, but such people are less likely to mislead others (at least, others with even a modicum of intellectual training), because it is obvious to most readers that they are just making up their arguments as they go along. They are there for a barroom argument, and everyone expects that in a barroom argument there will be liberal doses of “B.S.” So readers learn to take the opinions of such people with a grain of salt.

More likely to mislead are those commenters who have some genuine knowledge — at least, substantially more than that of most of the readership — of the subject at hand, and have learned enough of the jargon in the field to sound — at least to a non-specialist reader — intimately familiar with it. To all but those with extensive training in the field, such people will sound very learned and will be very persuasive. Yet such people may well be wrong, on points both small and large.

Such a person is my erstwhile sparring partner on BioLogos, Jonathan Burke. Burke has a degree in the humanities — in Classics, according to his self-description — and he has in fact read a great deal in the field of Biblical studies. His knowledge is not (like that of certain others in the BioLogos discussions) based primarily on what he has quickly looked up on websites, but on years of reading actual scholarly articles and books such as one might find in a university library. Though he is an autodidact in theology, he is an intelligent one, and he has shown a degree of understanding in many areas of the subject. Also, he is articulate, and his combination of articulate writing and knowledge makes him seem persuasive on many points. And in fact, many of the points he makes are quite correct and would (if they were not so often advanced in an aggressive and belittling tone) be useful additions to BioLogos discussions. However, sometimes he is wrong or misleading, and his literary style (mimicking that of a scholarly authority) covers that up. An example is found in this discussion at BioLogos.

On the ninth comment down on the BioLogos page, another poster, “Steve Buckley” (which may or may not be a real name) had written:

“The addition of the IM, is making the word- Yom, plural.
Same with the word- Eloh for God, and Elohim, for God-plural.”

To which Burke, in the tenth comment down, responded:

“There’s no such thing as “God plural”. The word elohim only has one morpheme, “elohim”. That morpheme can be read either singular or plural, depending on grammatical context. It’s cognate with the Ugarit ‘l-h-m. When you write “eloh”, to which Hebrew word are you referring?”

Burke puts on the air of a philologist in his response, using the technical term “morpheme” (which most BioLogos readers won’t immediately recognize, but will sound learned to them), but in fact the term isn’t necessary to discuss the substantive point, and Burke’s rebuke actually obscures the subject rather than clarifying it. But perhaps, drawing on my own training in Hebrew, I can shed some light on the disagreement.

What Steve Buckley appears to be referring to is the fact that there is in the Hebrew Bible a noun, ‘eloah (occurring about 60 times, in texts such as Job and Deuteronomy), which means “God” or “god”, and that some Hebrew scholars have suggested that this word is an ancient singular form of the usual Biblical word for “God”, ‘elohim (which is plural in form, as indicated by its -im ending). The idea is that this original singular form later fell largely out of use, because the plural form ‘elohim (originally meaning “gods”) came to have a singular meaning (in all but a few Biblical passages) and to displace ‘eloah as the normal word for “God”. (The reasons why the plural form ‘elohim took on a singular meaning don’t concern me here, as I am discussing only form and etymology, not semantics.)

Steve confuses matters by using the form ‘eloh, rather than the aforementioned form ‘eloah. But he means the same word. The word ‘eloah is the same word as ‘eloh, only with a short a-sound, called a “furtive pathah”, slipped in before the final h. (The furtive pathah is very common before guttural final consonants.) But this difference in pronunciation would not show up in the most ancient Hebrew texts of the Bible. In the original Hebrew script, there were (with some qualification) consonants only; the reader was supposed to supply the vowels from experience with the language. That is, the ancient Hebrew text looked like, “Th ct st ‘n th mt”, whereas the pointed text used in Hebrew worship today (for which the rabbis have supplied the vowel-points) looks like, “The cat sat on the mat”. So the word for “God” that Steve is talking about, whether pronounced ‘eloh or ‘eloah, would in a Hebrew text of, say, 600 B.C., look like this:

‘ – l – h

(with no vowel-letters showing; the ‘ represents an English-unpronounceable guttural consonant)

The rabbis of late antiquity, in adding vowel-marks to the text (an activity known as “pointing” the text), added vowels to indicate that this word should be pronounced as ‘eloah, but in the unpointed earlier text, all one would see was the three consonants.

(The qualification mentioned earlier means that sometimes one might see four consonants, ‘ – l – w – h, with the “w”, a switch-hitting semi-vowel, standing in for the “o” sound, but that refinement need not concern us here.)

Now, following Steve’s line of thought, one can see from the pattern of consonants in ‘eloah / ‘eloh and in ‘elohim how easy the transition from the singular to the plural would have been:

‘ – l – h (‘eloh or ‘eloah, singular)

‘ – l – h – m (‘elohim, plural)

So Steve, thinking only of the root consonants, might not have thought it necessary to mention the ‘eloah form.

Steve could have been more exact by citing the Biblical form ‘eloah, and he overstates things by implying that all scholars have agreed that ‘elohim is simply the plural of ‘eloh / ‘eloah. But he is not wrong to state that ‘elohim is a plural form, and he would be right to say that ‘ – l – h, meaning “God” or “god”, is found in the Hebrew Bible; and he is not wrong to suggest that there is a plausible derivation of ‘elohim from that ‘eloah. Burke is wrong to brush aside Steve’s point as if Steve was entirely in error.

Is Burke aware of the form ‘eloah in the Hebrew Bible? And does he understand the furtive pathah, and realize that the triliteral root looks the same regardless of the vowel? If so, then his question to Steve wasn’t sincere; he knew what Hebrew word Steve had in mind, and he could have settled for gently correcting Steve’s spelling, instead of throwing down the gauntlet and demanding that Steve provide the word. Or is Burke unaware of the form ‘eloah, and of the other things that I’ve explained? In that case, he shouldn’t be posing as an expert in Hebrew on BioLogos.

On the most charitable interpretation, Burke was perhaps trying to stress that the form ‘elohim is the normal word for “God” in the Hebrew Bible, and that it is not usually felt as a plural, even though it is plural in form. And Burke would be right to say that much, if Steve had argued that ‘elohim should always be translated as “gods”. But Steve made no such argument. He merely pointed out that ‘elohim, being plural in form, is probably derived from an earlier singular word, and that the singular word could have been ‘eloah. So Burke’s “correction”, by making out that Steve was utterly uninformed, was non-constructive. This is a case where if Burke had actually studied Hebrew (and if I remember a remark of his on BioLogos correctly, he said that he hadn’t) he might have been less quick to “correct” someone else. Burke does know something about Biblical studies, but he isn’t a Hebraist, and it doesn’t help the discussion when he tries to sound like one.

Edward Robinson

About Edward Robinson

Edward Robinson (Eddie) started his university career on a science scholarship, but ended up as a philosopher/theologian researching the relationship between religion and natural science. He has published several books and articles on religion/science topics in both mainstream academic outlets and denominational and popular periodicals. He has also taught courses in various departments in several universities.
This entry was posted in Politics and sociology, Theology, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing: A Philological Note to a BioLogos Discussion

  1. Robert Byers says:

    Its a balance between people who study things and people who don’t and people who judge both groups of people.
    I find in origin matters on forums/blogs that it ends up only well studied people who tip lances. In other words only the officier corp on all sides fights each other. the mass troops, regular folk, can in a instant whip up a passion on one side or another, but then don’t go any further.
    Intellectually its only the officers that do and can debate. Mostly those with lots of stripes.

  2. Edward Robinson Edward Robinson says:

    An interesting metaphor, Robert.

    I think it is a good one, if you slightly expand on it. The “officer corps” in an army comprises many ranks, from top generals down through colonels, majors, captains and lieutenants into the non-commissioned officers such as sergeants. In these internet debates, you will find people with a range of knowledge and of general intellectual ability, corresponding to such ranks. Some will know a great deal about biology, or cosmology, or geology, or history of science, or philosophy of science, or Hebrew, or Greek, or Christian theology; others will have only a middling knowledge of such subjects; others will have only a slight knowledge of the same. Yet many of those with only a little knowledge of philosophy, theology, climatology, genetics, paleontology, cosmology, Hebrew, Greek, etc. habitually write in such a tone and manner as to sound authoritative.

    Using your analogy, someone like Jonathan Burke would be the equivalent of a sergeant in Christian theology, maybe even a lieutenant in Biblical studies, but only a private, i.e., not in the officer corps at all, when it comes to global warming or any scientific subject. But Burke speaks to those who disagree with him on all subjects as if they are the privates and he is the general. In the case I record above, he drops a casual reference to Ugaritic, which is a specialist skill acquired after learning Hebrew, when he himself has not studied even Hebrew. He thus gives the impression that he is a philological colonel or general straightening out an ignorant private. But in fact if his knowledge of Hebrew were even as high as that of a lieutenant, he would not have failed to recognize what his opponent was talking about.

    But the point of my article was more general than that; the point is that half-baked knowledge appears to be the most common kind of knowledge in these debates, and half-baked knowledge is dangerous because it allows those who really don’t know a subject to appear as if they do, to those who know even less.

    The question arises whether anyone at BioLogos will see this article and thus benefit from it. Hopefully one of our regulars — maybe Merv or Jay or you yourself, Robert — will post a link to it in a comment under the BioLogos column it refers to. I can’t because I’m banned from the place.

    There isn’t enough time in the day for me to write columns like this every time someone on BioLogos makes an unwarranted claim, so I have had to let hundreds of comments go unchallenged. For example, George Brooks keeps saying that BioLogos endorses guided evolution, when there isn’t a single member of the BioLogos management team or regular columnist team that ever has or ever would endorse guided evolution, but I simply have no time to keep correcting him on that. I could do it easily, in one line, before I was banned from BioLogos, but now I would have to go to the trouble to write a column to introduce George Brooks and link to the BioLogos column etc. before I could make my remark, and it just isn’t worth the time. So Brooks continues to spread his misinformation. The same could be said of Beaglelady and others. But life is finite, and one must pick one’s battles. Thanks for reading my column.

  3. Robert Byers says:

    I agree with your using the rank concept.
    Yes a sergeant in this and a private in that.
    YES people leave their ranks in subjects of knowledge.
    Your thread is about your witness of this.
    I think, before the people, incompetence does show itself.
    As i said it always ends up JUST the officers , usually higher ranks, who intellectually continue in the contentions.
    A attrition does take place and in fact is why there are so FEW forums/blogs where these things are discussed.
    Despite it being a famous contention about origins.
    Why is there not hundreds of blogs with hundreds of posters.
    So few and indeed those very easily punish and censor to a foolish extent passing a wrong extent long ago.

Leave a Reply