If the Biblical authors wanted to describe historical events, would they do so with the precision of a modern physicist or police investigator?

What if they wanted to leave an impression? Were they just providing information or would they have wanted to illicit a response from their recipients?

The first rule of hermeneutics is to understand the original context of the text in question. What was the reason to write it? To whom was it written? What is its genre and how does that influence its meaning?

When flipping open the ancient pages in today’s skeptical climate, here are 3 reminders that might prove useful:

1.) The Bible is limited
2.) Unanswered questions are not proofs to the contrary
3.) Truth comes in various forms

Biblical Stories are Limited

What we have are snapshots, really, of what ancient authors deemed important. Good writers know what to leave out; editing and cutting are the key to keeping stories focused on the main point. The main point of the Bible, to put it in its most general terms, is “God relating to humanity.” The various genres and themes are all woven together into this unified purpose.

By its nature, the Bible will be limited because it’s a focused story. What’s important is to let the words speak in their original context.

Anyone with a Google search bar knows that determining the original context of the Bible is the question that millions of books, and trillions of hours of study try to answer. Unfortunately, an objective approach to Biblical studies is impossible for humans, and the results are prone to contamination due to human presuppositions. The best we can do is learn to weigh the angles of each issue and understand our biases before we make a conclusion. If we disbelieve in miracles and supernatural activity, then of course we’ll discredit the veracity of the Resurrection or the parting of the Red Sea. If we’re fundamentalists, we’ll find it hard to accept any view that isn’t a literal reading of the text.

Even so, the Bible should not be seen as internally  erroneous. The only reason so much ink has been spent over its “problems” is because so much of it is already reliable, and the exegetical issues that remain are merely a result of our desire to polish it. The problem is when we disagree on how to polish it!

Unanswered Questions are not Proofs to the Contrary

SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is spending heaps of cash looking for aliens. Why? They’re not trying to prove something that’s been disproved; they’re trying to answer an unanswered question. We don’t know whether there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but scientists are hoping to discover it.

Likewise, there’s inevitably unanswered questions when dealing with the Bible.

When the Jews left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years, surely they left artifacts or bones of their deceased behind. But nothing has been found, and no record of the Exodus (as recorded in the Bible) has been found in the Egyptian archives. Was the Exodus account a myth constructed by the Jews to help propagate their identity?

Is this proof that the Exodus never happened? Many would say so. Many call it a myth. But this is simply an unanswered question. We must not be too hasty to equate unanswered questions with proofs to the contrary. This is what’s called the “Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy.” Perhaps there’s other explanations for the “lack of evidence” but we simply don’t have the necessary pieces to solve the puzzle. Perhaps we’ll never have the answers, but does that mean it never happened?

Humanity once believed the world was flat, that the Hittites never existed, and that platypuses were a myth. Some today contend that the Holocaust never occurred. Others are convinced we never landed on the moon in 1969. These examples show that conclusions are often tentative. It’s reasonable to withhold dogmatic conclusions when the evidence is incomplete, but it’s unreasonable to belittle evidence when it supports a conclusion contrary to your worldview.

In the name of science, SETI is not abandoning the possibility of ET life. Should we, then, in the name of skepticism, discount the historicity of the Bible because we don’t always have the information we demand? If the conjoined puzzle pieces begin to picture a house, do we doubt the image when we can’t seem to find the pieces where the door should be?

It’s easy to disbelieve something when you demand 100% certainty from it.

Archaeology, pertaining to Biblical texts, is not as cut-and-dry as what’s implied by the History Channel shows that conveniently pop up around Christmas and Easter. It must be remembered that what’s found in the ground can’t explain itself; it must be interpreted by modern-day scientists. Scriptural texts, contrarily, come with self-identification. When a text says “______ happened,” we’re forced to decide whether it’s true or false–whether it’s history or myth.

Truth Comes in Various Forms

“Myth” is a strong word, and too often it’s used in only one way: to denote something that’s untrue. But what about “myths” that describe actual events? Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 12:1-7a is a perfect example of this; the story’s principles paralleled those in David’s life, but the explicit connections were concealed. The “myth” provided a lens through which David could see his own misdeeds from a more objective perspective.

The purpose of Nathan’s parable was to illicit a response from David. Telling the facts of David’s scandal with Bathsheba, as if Nathan were a modern psychoanalyst or journalist, would not have been effective for his purposes.

Similarly, many scholars see Job, Jonah and the account of Jericho’s fall as Jewish fiction. They suggest Job and Jonah were attempts to correct Jewish prejudices and assumptions, and that Jericho’s fall was a paradigm for how the Israelite conquest of Canaan should have been. The Biblical writers, they argue, wanted to speak truth in a way that was more potent than the bare facts.

Then there’s the example of Genesis 1. It wasn’t based on eyewitness accounts, but Jews and Christians see it as history. This is considered “nonliteral history” in that the details are construed in a way that doesn’t destroy the facts. To say “God said, ‘let there be animals,’” may not be what happened (i.e., did God’s voice thunder over the world?), but it’s the idea that matters. It’s meant to leave an impact.

Still, we must be careful. We can take this principle and apply “myth” and “nonliteral history” to the whole canon if we give it too much rope. Judaism and Christianity are based on historical events, and given the care Herodotus and Luke took to compile accurate data shows the ancient authors didn’t see everything through “mythical lenses.” Most of Biblical history is exactly what it presents itself to be; it’s important, though, to acknowledge the reality that there are different angles with which to view the biblical texts (hence the ocean of scholarship that attempts to figure out which interpretive method is best). Wise readers of the Bible will keep their eyes and ears open to as many angles as possible; this, with the help of sound reason, helps make a balanced conclusion about the texts in question.

When the Bible purports to describe actual historical events, even when these include supernatural activity, miracles and predictive prophecy, we cannot just shrug it off as mythical or an embellishment of the facts (because that’s what our presuppositions tell us to do). The authors can’t defend what they wrote; they saw what they saw and heard what they heard and wrote it down for posterity. If they truly witnessed the events described in the Bible, who are we to say they were liars or misinformed? If one disbelieves in God and his activity in the world, then of course the supernatural texts will be postulated as mythical.

Biblical studies requires careful analysis of the many angles of interpretation, including angles that make us uncomfortable. Fundamentalists, liberals and everyone in between require self-examination when approaching the Bible. Rather than staking a claim on uncertain ground, we must learn to live in the realm of “that might be possible” and “I might be wrong.” If the puzzle begins to form a house, who cares if we can’t describe the door with certainty? Does that mean it’s not a house? It’s best to trust the evidence we have, not ignore the image in favor of the evidence we demand.

One last thought: would the Biblical authors be pleased by how we treat their literature? In other words, is the Bible to be analyzed, or read? Is it a path to follow or a machine to understand? Are we to process the words or critique them as literature? Is analyzing the Biblical texts just another excuse to avoid the self-examination it wants to initiate in us?

Do we use our eyes when it’s telling us to listen?

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dscn8611In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.

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Sources:

Carson, D.A. “Matthew.” In Matthew, Mark, Luke The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 3-600. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1984.

Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Howard Jr., David M. An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1993.

Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Matthews, Victor H. and James C. Moyer. The Old Testament: Text and Context. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.

Merrill, Eugene H. An Historical Survey of the Old Testament (2nd Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991.

7 COMMENTS

  1. If the QURAN authors wanted to describe historical events, would they do so with the precision of a modern physicist or police investigator?

    What we have are snapshots, really, of what ancient authors deemed important. Good writers know what to leave out; editing and cutting are the key to keeping stories focused on the main point. The main point of the BOOK OF MORMON, to put it in its most general terms, is “God relating to humanity.” The various genres and themes are all woven together into this unified purpose.

    By its nature, the TAO-TE-CHING will be limited because it’s a focused story. What’s important is to let the words speak in their original context.

    Unfortunately, an objective approach to VEDA studies is impossible for humans, and the results are prone to contamination due to human presuppositions. The best we can do is learn to weigh the angles of each issue and understand our biases before we make a conclusion.

    Even so, the works of L. RON HUBBARD should not be seen as internally erroneous. The only reason so much ink has been spent over its “problems” is because so much of it is already reliable, and the exegetical issues that remain are merely a result of our desire to polish it. The problem is when we disagree on how to polish it!

    • “ATHEISM doesn’t care about understanding, even though it relentlessly strives for it. CHRISTIANITY is concerned only with evidence and concerns itself only with that for which there is evidence. L. RON HUBBARD is comfortable not knowing, but not comfortable asserting.

      From my perspective, it is ATHEISM that must fill any gaps of understanding with something… a deity. And remains far too comfortable with that non-answer.

      It is ATHEISM that says we don’t need to keep looking for answers because “MATERIALISM did it”. It is THE QURAN that says that what you do in this life doesn’t matter, because your belief earns you forgiveness and a free pass to a better life after this one. It says that praying is a substitute for doing something. It says authority is a substitute for critical thinking.”

      I just did what you did, Paul: cut and pasted comments and inserted words here and there into statements that you’ve made in the past. Kinda fun but, now what do we do?

      • Well, you didn’t quite play the mad libs game correctly… the category on each noun is “holy book”. You used a few philosophies and world views. It’s ok… if materialism or atheism had authorities or sacred texts, I’m sure you’d have used them. The point is, of course, that such ideas have no arbitrary authoritative texts… and that all such texts can be substituted in the original article with little consequence to the narrative.

        Kinda fun… yes, I refrained from using Dr. Seuss titles, some of which also work.

        Now what do we do? Ideally we stop defending a specific text with vague notions that apply equally to other texts which you would reject if given the same arguments. Special pleading.

        Or not… everyone has word counts to fill.

        • Ah, thanks Paul. I prefer clear claims to mad libs any day.

          “The point is, of course, that such ideas have no arbitrary authoritative texts…” Are you suggesting that an authoritative text negates the truth value of an idea? So the idea that the supernatural realm exists is no longer true because an authoritative text happens to express that? What if I could infer that there is a supernatural aspect to existence purely from contemplating some compelling philosophical arguments (as Plato did)? I don’t see how the existence of an authoritative text undercuts the truthfulness of these ideas. Do you?

          “Ideally we stop defending a specific text with vague notions that apply equally to other texts which you would reject if given the same arguments.” What do you mean by “vague notions that apply equally to other texts”? I think it’s pretty clear how different world religions are exclusive only to themselves; so, I’m not sure what you’re trying to say here.

          By the way, Paul, the true test of a religious text is not whether a particular hermeneutic can somehow be applied to two or more texts in the same way. Simply pointing that out does nothing to disprove religious texts. The test of a religious text is whether or not its internally coherent and whether or not its claims accurately reflect reality.

          • ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT AN AUTHORITATIVE TEXT NEGATES THE TRUTH VALUE OF AN IDEA? SO THE IDEA THAT THE SUPERNATURAL REALM EXISTS IS NO LONGER TRUE BECAUSE AN AUTHORITATIVE TEXT HAPPENS TO EXPRESS THAT?

            No, it is certainly possible that an individual statement or claim by an “authoritative text” is true. However, in no cases should a statement or claim be considered true solely on the basis that it is contained within an “authoritative text”.

            (I’m using quotes so as to avoid being accused of affirming any text authoritative.)

            WHAT IF I COULD INFER THAT THERE IS A SUPERNATURAL ASPECT TO EXISTENCE PURELY FROM CONTEMPLATING SOME COMPELLING PHILOSOPHICAL ARGUMENTS (AS PLATO DID)? I DON’T SEE HOW THE EXISTENCE OF AN AUTHORITATIVE TEXT UNDERCUTS THE TRUTHFULNESS OF THESE IDEAS. DO YOU?

            The bible talks about pigs, sheep, goats, Jerusalem and other things that I definitely accept as things that exist. But I don’t accept that any of them exist because the Bible says so.

            Spider-Man is fiction. Spider-Man is set in New York. New York does not become fictional by appearing in Spider-Man. Spider-Man does not become real because New York is real.

            I think you know all this.

            WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY “VAGUE NOTIONS THAT APPLY EQUALLY TO OTHER TEXTS”? I THINK IT’S PRETTY CLEAR HOW DIFFERENT WORLD RELIGIONS ARE EXCLUSIVE ONLY TO THEMSELVES; SO, I’M NOT SURE WHAT YOU’RE TRYING TO SAY HERE.

            My comments are meant to point back to Alex’s original article.

            His vague apologetic notions include interpreting original context, multiple genres, not concerning oneself with unaddressed questions, and truth being a spectrum. I no problem with those hermeneutic concepts individually or collectively, but none of these are unique to the bible…

            BY THE WAY, PAUL, THE TRUE TEST OF A RELIGIOUS TEXT IS NOT WHETHER A PARTICULAR HERMENEUTIC CAN SOMEHOW BE APPLIED TO TWO OR MORE TEXTS IN THE SAME WAY.

            … and it seems we agree on this.

            But Alex’s introduction is even less concrete, making guesses about motive. “What if they wanted to leave an impression? Were they just providing information or would they have wanted to illicit a response from their recipients?” (in direct contrast with an assertion about the “care Herodotus and Luke took to compile accurate data”)

            The tone of this entire article is to encourage the reader to gloss over problem areas, just because it’s the bible. A plea for special pleading.

            SIMPLY POINTING THAT OUT DOES NOTHING TO DISPROVE RELIGIOUS TEXTS.

            Of course not, but it calls out the special pleading being made for the Bible. But whoa, whoa, whoa, wait… wow, that was a huge flip in burden of proof you tried to slip in there. Each religious text is a claim that needs to be proven. A religious text is not true until proven false.

            If you disagree with me on this, then at one point you must have believed the Quran, Book of Mormon, Tao-te-ching, Veda, Dianetics, etc? Perhaps you still do. At least until you disproved them. What are those disproofs, by the way? (The best Christianity disproofs tend to come from Jews, Muslims, Scientologists, Mormons, etc. Silly Atheists keep looking for that positive evidence.)

            Or is it chronological? Only the first holy book you read needs to be disproven?

            THE TEST OF A RELIGIOUS TEXT IS WHETHER OR NOT ITS INTERNALLY COHERENT

            Having worked in the continuity group for two major entertainment franchises, I can tell you that internal coherence is not a mark of the divine.

            Of course, incoherence might be one of those disproofs you talk about. If so, then maybe I do have disproofs after all.

            (Oh wait, Alex says those are just exegetical issues to be polished. Never mind. At least for the Bible. The other holy books are allowed to be incoherent since you let me know that “it’s pretty clear how different world religions are exclusive only to themselves”.)

            AND WHETHER OR NOT ITS CLAIMS ACCURATELY REFLECT REALITY.

            We end on a point of 100% agreement! I’m going to take that as solid ground. (But I think you should tell Alex. I don’t think he’s with us on this.)

          • Paul, my article is about the Bible and skepticism towards it. I suggest going to a Muslim for answering skepticism towards the Quran, or Mormon about the Book of Mormon, etc. The principles in my article can be applied to any text of course, but where are you getting the notion that I’m arguing for the exclusivity of the Bible? This isn’t the intent of the article.
            .
            As for my “vague apologetics,” I’m just asking questions. Not stating something to defend. The point of my article is not to gloss but to point to the complexity of Biblical studies.

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