Saturday, January 20, 2018

Is The Bible True All The Way Through - part 2

In our last episode we learned that there are two ways to study the Bible - with faith and with skepticism. It used to be that believing scholars would approach the scriptures as being completely trustworthy in every respect. When the scriptures spoke of spiritual realities or of historical events, it was assumed that it was all true. The skeptics of the Bible made no such assumption and even seemed to go out of their way to discredit the Bible whenever possible. They developed Critical methodologies to pretty much make the Bible into a good book though riddled with error and myth.

Then a new group of evangelical scholars (those who believe in the basics doctrines of the Christian faith like the Trinity and the atoning death and resurrection of Christ) began using the Critical methodologies to study the Bible, but with some significant differences. They did believe that the Bible contains the Word of God, that it was inspired and authoritative but that not all of it was necessarily true. They generally held fast to the fundamentals of the faith (for example, the Apostles' Creed) while questioning the accuracy of some of the historical narratives.

They also often accepted the Critical idea that some of the historical narrative should not be read as history but as myth. Myth, they say, is not necessarily "false" simply because it has no basis in history. Instead it is like fiction. Fiction does not mean, as some Christians think, something that does not tell the truth, but something made up that is supposed to tell a truth. There is fiction in the Bible. Now before you stone me consider the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In it Jesus tells us the truth about God's attitude toward those who have departed from Him and returned. He is overjoyed to see them. But the events in this parable did not actually happen. It is not an historical depiction of events that have transpired. A parable is often a form of fiction that conveys a truth the teacher wishes to convey. However, everyone listening to the story knows that it did not actually happen. Yet the parable is truth.

Can the same thing be said about myth, and can certain events in the Old Testament, like the Noahic Flood, be considered truthful and unhistorical at the same time? Is it a true myth? These new evangelical scholars would say "yes". The two most common so-called myths are, of course, the creation story and the flood story. They note that ancient peoples almost all have both creation and flood stories in their traditions. They tell about how their own god or gods made their community and also of a flood that almost wiped them out. The Bible, it is claimed, just has another version, a "true" version of these similar stories. One of them writes:
God adopted Abraham as the forefather of a new people, and in doing so also adopted the mythic categories within which Abraham - and everyone else - thought. But God did not leave Abraham in his mythic world. Rather, God transformed the ancient myths so that Israel's story would come to focus on its God, the real one [as opposed to the false gods of others].
So, according to this scholar the purpose of the creation and flood accounts are not to tell us what happened historically, but to tell us who we should worship. In this view, we should not expect historical truth but theological truth. That is the truth that really counts - in their view.

Skeptics of the Bible had already been saying for a very long time that the creation and flood stories of the Ancient Near East (ANE) are very similar to those in the Bible. They believed that the biblical writer (they don't even acknowledge Moses as the author) simply took the older myths and reworked them. The new evangelical scholars like the one quoted above agree that they basically copied the story, but that they changed who the God was.

Let's examine these claims. First, we should note that even historical legends and myths usually have an historical root even if many additions and alterations have been made. Take the Homeric legend of the Trojan War. Homer wrote about it hundreds of years after the events that were depicted. Scholars used to doubt that there ever was a place called Troy and thought the whole thing was made up. Then an archaeologist decided to look for Troy and he found it. It was right where Homer said it had been. So we realize that legends and myths are not always purely made up but there is something that really happened at the root of it.

ANE scholars have studied the myths like the creation and flood stories of the Babylonians. Their myths were written down before Moses wrote and it is likely that Moses knew about them. He was a very educated adopted son of Pharaoh and likely had learned about them. So, did Moses just copy them and change the God who did all these things? Or did Moses know the historical root, the truth, about the events depicted in Genesis?

How can we tell? It is actually very easy to tell which story is more original and closer to the truth of the events depicted in mythologies. As a story is adopted by one group from its origin, two things happen. All irrelevant details are stripped away, and the story becomes increasingly long and complicated. Which story is short and simple and which is long and complicated. There is no doubt about it. The Babylonian myths are extremely long and complicated. Therefore, they are the newer stories and Genesis has the earlier stories. In fact, the creation story is summed up very simply as "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." There is more but it too is quite simple. So Genesis has by far the earlier stories and along with every Bible-believing Christian, I say they are the original, true-to-history stories.

So this idea of "true myth" does not bear up under close scrutiny. Besides this, the new evangelical scholars also claim that all of Genesis chapters 1 through 11 are mythological while the rest is historical. There is a problem that any language teacher will point out. All of Genesis is written as historical narrative. There is no break or distinction or even change in writing style or genre between the supposedly mythical parts and the historical parts. They are written in the same manner. So there is no grammatical reason to claim one story as myth and another as history.

Besides all this, there is a great danger here. Despite the insistence of the new evangelicals that they firmly believe in the resurrection of Jesus, what is to stop someone from saying that it is one of these "true myths"? One could say, and some have, that if what is inspired in the Bible is theological truth and not historical truth, then how do we know for certain if Christ was raised from the dead. There are already those who say that Christ's resurrection did not actually happen in an historical sense but it is a spiritual truth only. So it is easy to see where such an approach can lead - to the denial of the fundamental truths of the Christian faith.

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