Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical. Show all posts

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Preliminaries to the Study of the Pentateuch

There are about a thousand different issues that need to be thought through in the texts of the first five books of the Bible, and they start popping up from the very first verse. Christians in particular can have a really difficult time going through the Old Testament because we are exceedingly unaccustomed to the kind of literature it has - narrative, not didactic material.We try to get the text to answer the question "how does this apply to me?" and can get into some knots, jumping over flaming hoops backwards to try and get an "application." That's not to say there is no application question to be asked - it is simply going to be found in a manner quite different to how one would find "what St Paul is telling us," were we to read a Pauline epistle.

The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible are traditionally ascribed to Moses, although scholars mostly agree now that this idea of authorship is somewhat outdated [1], and other theories have taken its place. The most prominent of these is a four-source theory, that says that the Pentateuch is made up of four sources labelled J, E, P, and D. I do not speak ancient Hebrew (in any of its forms), I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, and so I cannot truly comment on the merits of this theory. Nonetheless, I wish to point out that the final editors of these texts (according to one version of the theory, the writers of the priestly source were the ultimate redactors) had a theological point to make, and that these texts do not read as a poorly made collage of different sources. Instead of trying to pick apart which source is which, it is of far more benefit to Christians to understand the richly textured world of the final product - all the while understanding that there is not one author. This point is readily understood, since we are accustomed to saying things like "John and Paul use that word differently" or "James means something different by 'justified'" - we know that words can be built up to have different meanings in materials from different authors, and it is this point I wish to emphasize from the JEPD theory. We will understand the text differently -ultimately, more fully - if we grasp that passages where the Hebrew word "YHWH" denotes God, and others where it is "Elohim" that is used for him, really do have a subtly different focus. Yet although we distinguish between Paul and John, Matthew and Luke, and all the rest of them, we Christians ought not fall into the trap of saying "I am a Pauline Christian", or others "I am a Johannine Christian", or even "I am a Jesus Christian" (meaning they adhere strongly to one or more of the gospel accounts, or epistles). To do so would be to have picked apart the Bible too much for any spiritual use. Such a fragmented Bible may be of interest to the scholars, but to the Christian, it profits little.

So those two vital points must be made before considering the Old Testament, but the Pentateuch in particular - that it is of a genre largely unused in the New Testament, and that, for the Pentateuch, one person's pen did not write the whole. One last point which seems at times forgotten is that these books are written in a historical and cultural context which is entirely different to ours. Some of the ideas which to them appeared self-evident will be exceedingly difficult for us to grasp, their questions will be totally distinct to those we might ask. So the last point is this: we must ask the text what information it wishes to convey, and not demand it tell us what it does not contain. To do so, we ought to consider the audience, the culture, the time and the place of its writing. Armed with these preliminaries, we may now go on to Genesis.

[1] Not to say all old things are wrong, which seems to be the implication of this expression. I mean simply that uniquely Mosaic authorship is the traditionally held dogma which is now viewed with as having a certain naïveté these days, now that we know significantly more. This still does not rule out Mosaic authorship, particularly as it is sometimes seen as heroic to doubt religious things which rest on much stronger evidence than more secular beliefs.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Historical Argument Against the Bible

Before I commence this post, I think it prudent to make clear two crucial things. First, I am a follower of Christ Jesus because I looked into history to try and show that he did not rise from the dead, and found that I was wrong. Secondly, I want to affirm the role that Biblical documents have played in history - from discovering monuments in Siloam, the pool of Bethesda or any other number of matters in history, many of these documents have helped historians better understand the ancient world.

So, having said that, I now want to try and formulate a historical argument against it. There are, I think, at least two ways of doing this: first, pointing out that historically, two things that are described in the Bible could not both have happened, and secondly, that what the Bible says disagrees with what happened in reality.

Both of these are possible, but the latter is more difficult to do in a blog post, and I would say that it is far less convincing, since it is difficult to know things with certainty when they happened so long ago. Without further ado, I want to mention two bits of evidence of the former sort:

  • The differing accounts of the conversation with Pilate.
  • The differing accounts of the apostle Paul's journeys after conversion.
The first one I believe is quite simple, because in three of the four canonical gospels, the synoptic gospels, there is not very much talking, yet in bet. See Mark 15:1-6, for instance, where the only words Jesus says are "You say so." Matthew 27:11-14 records a similar encounter.  Luke 23:1-7 seems to suggest that there is a bit more conversation, since the previous two said quite clearly that Jesus gave no more replies, but when Pilate asks Jesus if he was a Galilean, it appears Jesus may have responded. Perhaps - the text does not say Jesus speaks, but only that Pilate "learned that he was under Herod's jurisdiction."

John's gospel has a bit more of a to-and-fro between Pilate and Jesus, captured in John 18:28-38. Here, Jesus is much more talkative, saying such memorable lines as "my kingdom is not from here," and here he admits more clearly who he is: "You say that I am king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." to which Pilate responds, equally memorably: "What is truth?".

So which one is it? Now, what is interesting is that these are actually two independent sources (because the synoptic gospels are related in some way, but John is distinct) that there really was a sort of sentencing by Pilate, and indeed, there exists at least one extra-biblical document that corroborates this. Historically speaking, this means that this encounter probably occurred in some form - but which? This is not a question with an easy answer, at least not from a historian's point of view.

Next, and for me more crucially, is the missionary movements of Paul and the discrepancies between Acts of the Apostles and Galatians. Here, I struggle to find some story that could magically tie them together, and even if I could, it would probably have to be more complicated than accepting one account or the other. I shall let you, the reader, attempt to figure this out. The relevant passages are Galatians 1:15-22 and Acts 9 (and onwards, but the point can be made just from Acts 9) - check for yourself.

Very simple, the modus ponens into which I have been putting the arguments is this:

1.If the Bible contradicts itself (or contradicts with reality), then it is errant.
2. The Bible does contradict itself.
3. Therefore, it is errant.

I feel pretty unorthodox writing that, but I think the premises are true and the argument is valid, so I cannot do otherwise.

Finally, then I have come to an argument which I think is quite solid. If the Bible contradicts itself, by the way, it follows that at most one of the events could have occurred, so it is also in dis-accord with reality. What can I say to that? One thing to do could be say that one ought not to believe a word of it. Another thing one might do is limit the scope of the Bible to some smaller range of topics, such as "matters relevant to salvation". However, I would want to say something else, improving on the latter option:

The Sacred Scriptures are not quite the same as a history book, or a scientific manual, and it is crucial to the study of the Bible to realize that. So when one author makes a point in one way and another makes a similar point that seems to contradict (such as "where did Paul really go?, "what did Jesus really say?" or any number of other ones). What difference does it make where Paul went, really? The divine truths are equally accessible to us either way, and if Acts gets some of the journey details chronologically out of order, then so be it! [It could be the case that Galatians gets it wrong, but since that is a Pauline epistle, one would then have to infer Paul had gone senile, or was lying.]

To end, I quote the relevant bit of Dei Verbum:

"the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation."

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Does the Old Testament provide an argument against Christian belief?

Let me take a moment to explain the title - most people do not speak Latin, and even fewer (although I admit, I have not checked the statistics) have taken a class in formal logic. The modus ponens is a form of logical argument which is so good (or old) that it was given a Latin name. It has a brother, the modus tollens, which is basically the reverse.

Modus ponens means "way that affirms by affirming" and it has a formal statement in terms of P and Q (which you can find on the wikipedia page), but it basically says that if some proposition definitely entails another proposition, but that second proposition is false, then the original one is false also. For example:

If I always have a cold during winter, and I do not have a cold, it follows that it is not winter, by modus tollens.

How does this apply to Christianity? A few days ago I wrote a post entitled "Why the Old Testament Cannot be Waved Away", and although I tried to simultaneously point out why it cannot be ignored and why it cannot be taken at face value...some things just seem obvious. I can imagine that with some form of Old Testament authority in mind, one can construct at least three types of modus ponens or modus tollens arguments: 

1) Moral
2) Scientific
3) Historical

Now, all three will need to be examined individually by each Christian (when actually formulated, of course). Anyone who is going to consider the Bible as a source of information about God will have to wonder about the arguments against it at some point if they are to be rational beings. I shan't formulate them now because I want you to think for yourself whether there is anything in the Bible that could disprove its validity. I can think of at least a few contenders.