Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Conservative and Liberals: both in error in their approach to the Bible

*Disclaimer: I completely believe that all the words of the Bible are true and are the authoritative word of God.  (Having said all that, don't forget that Jesus IS the word.)

The Conservative Fundamentalist error:
- Scripture was written down by Moses in ~1400 b.c.
- All texts are to be understood in their very literal form.
- Any correspondence into this point of view is considered heresy.

The Liberal error:
- Most scripture in the Old Testament was written down after the exile, that is after 500 b.c. Some dates even get pushed as late as 140 b.c.
- Since scripture was written down so long after the events were purported to occur, they are really just texts that are made up to serve a political purpose.
- The texts can not be trusted as true, and have no bearing on the God of the universe.

I happen to believe that both of these positions are wrong. The two sides debate off against each other, throwing mud at each other thinking that the others side's agenda drives their scholarship. There is something significant though that is completely missing from the argument. Both sides of the argument are so embedded within a world view of literacy that they can not imagine another world view.

What do I mean by a world view of literacy? 
Let me give some parallel examples from the modern world. Try asking a 10 year old to imagine a world without the internet,  a 40 year old to imagine a world without the television, a 70 year old a world without radio, anybody you know a world without electricity or the car. Each of these people would find it hard to imagine such a concept. A time in the world when these things did not exist being before our lifetimes. There are still people around who speak of a different world so we can consider their claims with wide eyed wonder.

Consider a world without writing. Now such a concept is so much further removed than the birth of the car, electricity, radio, tv or the internet. In fact as we consider such a concept we only know of such a world from books and written records. None of us who comes from a world of literacy can easily imagine a world without writing. The world view of literacy so strongly pervades our thinking that some people draw the conclusion that the world is no older than 6000 years. Writing itself has its birth about 5000 years ago.

What is a world of orality?
The oral world is one where all knowledge is transferred to the next generation through the means of oral stories. Oral cultures have a strong structure to their stories. Their forms are secure and the stories do not get forgotten or lost. Oral languages use hundreds and thousands of elaborate word pictures to explain concepts. These word pictures link together easily in a chain. The story teller does not have to remember a string of hundreds of words, but rather a set of well known word pictures to tell a story.

What connection does the Bible have with orality?
Far more of the Bible is oral than we care to acknowledge. This means that many, many of the early stories were carried in oral form for centuries, even millennia. All of Genesis has its roots in early oral stories. Many of the stories right through the age up to King David are also oral stories. We from a literate world view need to be careful how we respond to this claim. We need to recognise that an oral text is not invalid in anyway. We need to realise that it carried great strength for the people who passed these stories on, more strength than it does for those of use who look the stories up in a book.

What about literary criticism and scholarship claims that the Old Testament was written in the post exilic period?
Peter Enns in his essay for the BioLogos Foundation says that:

...the Pentateuch as we know it is the end product of a complex literary process—written, oral, or both—that did not come to a close until the exile (586-539 BC) and post exilic period...

There are many source texts for the early books of the Bible. I tend to think that originally many of them were oral texts. Through out the history of the people of Israel, many of these stories began to be written down at different times for different purposes. It is hard to determine exactly at what point various texts and stories were written down. This is largely because they were then put through a final editing stage around the time of the exile.

Consider the stories of the Kings. Each time the story closes the chapter on the reign of a king the editor writes:
As for the other events of Solomon’s reign—all he did and the wisdom he displayed—are they not written in the book of the annals of Solomon?  

This is because the writer(s) was working from source documents that recorded the activities of the king, called annals. These are very much like the notes kept in parliaments today. In Esther it talks about scribes, whose full time it was to write down everything that the king did. They had rooms full of documents. It would have been a massive task to put together texts like Kings and Chronicles. The writers basically sifted through the documents and included the highlights and lowlights (as the case may be).

So even if there is a late date of compilation of the old testament, this does not mean that the stories are not a lot older. It does not mean that they are not true.

The liberal error, based in a literacy dominated world view thinks that the stories only came into existence when they were written down. These are the seeds of disbelief. This error is a result of completely failing to understand the world view of orality and a long oral tradition.

The conservative error also thinks that the stories only came into existence when they were first written down. So they therefore must cling to a belief that a great prophet like Moses received the story from God and wrote it down in dictation style. This world view also completely fails to acknowledge the oral world view.

The liberals say "we know that the text was written at a date much later than the conservatives admit, therefore their claims are completely wrong". The fact is though, on one hand many stories are much older than conservatives admit (because they are oral), and on the other hand written down much later.

The controversy comes in most of all with the stories of creation. I have no doubt that these stories were oral tradition for millennia. This is easy to believe because there are many cultures around the world that also have creation stories. The striking thing is that there are many similarities in the other creation stories, from peoples who are removed from the middle east for many thousands of years.

Arguments are made from both the conservative and liberal side on how these stories should be interpreted. But when they are interpreted on an oral spectrum there is much that can be understood even in a scientific sense. I tend to think that the creation story of Genesis 1 says that everything was created from hydrogen. The word for hydrogen in the story is simply water. Read my earlier essay on this topic here.

The Old Testament is all about people interacting with God. Bono explains the purposes of the Old Testament very well:

I accept the Old Testament as more of an action movie: blood, car chases, evacuations, a lot of special effects, seas dividing, mass murder, adultery. The children of God are running amok, wayward. Maybe that's why they're so relatable. But the way we would see it, those of us who are trying to figure out our Christian conundrum, is that the God of the Old Testament is like the journey from stern father to friend. When you're a child, you need clear directions and some strict rules. But with Christ, we have access in a one-to-one relationship, for, as in the Old Testament, it was more one of worship and awe, a vertical relationship. The New Testament, on the other hand, we look across at a Jesus who looks familiar, horizontal. The combination is what makes the Cross.

 This is an excerpt from the book "Bono on Bono: conversations with Michka Assayas". You can read a portion of the interview here.

It is God's nature to work through people. He therefore does this as much as possible, not as little as possible. The same is true with how the Bible came together. There are many more people involved with the development of the Bible than we will ever know. All of the oral stories come together from the people who were in the midst of the action movie. There is nowhere in scripture that actually says that Moses wrote down all of the pentateuch/ Torah. We are not required to believe this to be a follower of Jesus. But as I said earlier, this does not discount the stories as being holy scripture still.

It should not be surprising that the Old Testament did not come together in its entirety until the post exilic period, the Torah in its current form at a similar time. When the people in the Bible referred to the "law" they were likely referring to the actual legal documents found in Exodus and Leviticus. Deuteronomy repeats much of those two books anyway. It is only a later term of Jews to refer to the law as all of the first five books of the Bible. I had always thought it strange that Genesis would be referred to as the "law".

The New Testament did not come together in its entirety until the fourth century. This does not make it any less true. Conservative Bible scholars readily admit that the New Testament came together in stages. There was a growing and common understanding of what scripture was, but it was only finally defined in the Constantinian era. People in the first century saw "scripture" as all of the Old Testament. People in the pre-exilic period would have seen scripture as a lot smaller, a collection of some stories and some writings. In fact they may not have even seen them as scripture apart from the actual law itself (the legal documents of Exodus and Leviticus). The rest of the stories may very well have been viewed as simply history. (We still view history books today from more recent times as true.)

I would loathe to be labeled as a liberal in my faith for writing this. I very much hold to all of the precepts of God's creation and the gospel and Jesus' death and resurrection. Before some protestants begin to try labelling me as a liberal, please consider what Catholics or Orthodox people would say of protestants. As protestants we do not recognise the apocryphal books of the inter-testamental period as scripture, even though they are true. Catholics and Orthodox people could easily turn around and label us all liberal in the faith for picking and choosing what we consider scripture to be.

The very concept of scripture is connected to the fact that it is (a) preserved from ancient times and (b) is true. The Bible is full of God's interactions with people and people's interactions with God, it is true. It does not need to be subjected to the narrow world view of literacy that says people practically dictated it from God. The Bible firstly went through the filter of messy human lives before it ended up on the pages we have today. The Bible we have today is a result of the intersection in world history between oral and literal cultures.

*(I feel I need to start writing disclaimers these days, in case people misunderstand what I write or say.)

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