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Thursday, May 26, 2011

John Gray on Biblical Literalism

"Until a few centuries ago the Genesis story was known to be a myth – a poetic way of rendering truths that would otherwise be inaccessible. At the beginning of the Christian religion, Augustine warned against the dangers of literalism. The Jewish scholars who preceded him always viewed the Genesis story as a metaphor for truths that could not be accessed in any other way." -- The Immortalization Commission

19 comments:

  1. At the beginning of the Christian religion, Augustine warned against the dangers of literalism.

    I would have said the Christian religion began with Christ. According to the records we have of His thoughts on the subject, He actually believed in Old Testament miracles, for example that Jonah lived in a fish/whale* for 3 days.


    * This version says "fish," but I have seen "whale" elsewhere.

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  2. "I would have said the Christian religion began with Christ."

    Yes, perhaps Gray should have said, "in the early days."

    "According to the records we have of His thoughts on the subject, He actually believed in Old Testament miracles..."

    So if I say "Just as Odysseus was tied to the mast to resist the call of the sirens, so I will bind myself to my oath," you will conclude that I clearly believe there was a guy named Odysseus and some creatures called sirens, etc?

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  3. Which parts of Genesis? Luke's genealogy takes the historicity of Adam for granted. And the author of Hebrews 11 has no doubt that many of the events described in Genesis actually happened.

    I doubt it was lost on the primitive Christians that the early chapters of Genesis, and Genesis 1–3 in particular, were replete with poetic license. Theirs was a cultural in which historians were expected to take certain liberties even in relaying contemporary events. (Coining speeches, for instance, was a standard practice.) But to reject the historicity of certain elements in a story is not to reject the historicity of the story in toto.

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  4. Sorry, PSH, I just don't see it in Hebrews 11. Yes, the author references these things. They were the common stock of images and stories upon which he had to draw. But I see zero evidence in the passage that proves he wasn't looking at them the same way I was looking at Achilles if I said, "Just like Achilles, we all have our mortal weakness."

    When Plato writes about Phaeton driving the chariot of the sun, do you take that to mean he literally believed the sun was pulled by a chariot?

    I'm not sure the category of "historicity" was even in the minds of people citing the Old Testament in AD 60.

    And I'm *not* saying that this author (or Jesus) did not literally believe in these events, just that these passages being cited are utterly unconvincing evidence that they did do so.

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  5. Unless the author also doubted the historicity of Exodus and a great deal more of the Old Testament, he would have to be blending together historical and mythical elements in an unusual way. But what is conclusive for me is verse 39: "And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect."

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  6. Well, we can say with about as much historical certainty as can ever be permitted to us that Exodus certainly does not describe something that actually occurred as written -- 600,000 people wandering around in the Sinai for 40 years would have left massive archaeological evidence, and there is none, and their departure certainly would have made a huge impact on Egypt, where the quite extensive records show absolutely no trace of such an event -- so we can always hope they understood it mythically!

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  7. "Unless the author also doubted the historicity of Exodus and a great deal more of the Old Testament, he would have to be blending together historical and mythical elements in an unusual way."

    Oh, and there is just NOTHING unusual about ancient authors blending together history and myth in this way.

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  8. As Augustine noted, the terrible problem with Biblical literalism is that it discredits Christianity. To anyone who looks at the historical record, it is obvious that nothing like what is described in Exodus never happened. We have quite extensive records from Egypt, but we are supposed to believe they just forgot to mention all of these horrible plagues and what not?

    Now, if someone has been presenting this book as one containing great spiritual truths told through stories, that is no problem. But what is a person aware of the historical record supposed to make of someone who keeps insisting that, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever where the evidence ought to be massive, this story really happened?

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  9. All I'm suggesting is that our first-century Christian would not have regarded the story of Moses as a wholesale fabrication. Whether we, as occupants of another block of the space-time continuum, should agree with him is another matter.

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  10. Well, I just don't see why you think they could not have been as sophisticated in their handling of myth as Plato or Augustine.

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  11. Gene wrote:

    To anyone who looks at the historical record, it is obvious that nothing like what is described in Exodus never happened.

    I agree.

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  12. OK Gene I'm trying to understand you here. What you are suggesting isn't analogous to, say, me learning that Paul Revere never said, "The Redcoats are coming!" It's more like me finding out that the American colonists never fought a war for independence.

    So you're saying the whole thing with Passover and all that was just invented out of whole cloth? There was never actually a mass Exodus from slavery? They just decided to start a tradition to thank God for something He didn't do?

    About the archeological evidence: What exactly would you think people would find, in a desert, thousands of years later? If the Biblical account is accurate, they literally walked around, eating manna and their clothes didn't wear out. So there wouldn't be much evidence, except 5,000 year old dung buried under piles of sand.

    And assuming you are correct that there is no Egyptian record of their leaving, is that really so surprising? Don't you think the Pharaoh would want to keep it a secret that a bunch of slaves defied him and ran off?

    I understand that you think it's impossible for hundreds of thousands of people to wander around for 40 years without leaving all sorts of evidence, but I think that's because you already don't believe the story could be true.

    As far as Jesus believing the Bible literally, how about this passage? He is relying on the Genesis account to answer a question. I suppose this isn't a smoking gun, but all the evidence suggests Jesus believed in the OT literally. I.e. I don't think you can point to a single place where Jesus suggests He thinks it's metaphorical.

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  13. "So you're saying the whole thing with Passover and all that was just invented out of whole cloth? There was never actually a mass Exodus from slavery?"

    Oh, I think *something* happened. And I don't think anyone was just making things up. Perhaps a number of Jewish slaves did escape, and as the story was passed on it grew to the whole nation of Israel. Stories grow like this all the time.

    Do you know that at least the English, Scottish, Irish and Romans all had traditions that they were descendants of Aeneas after he left Troy?

    "What exactly would you think people would find, in a desert, thousands of years later?"

    One archaeologist has found the remains of 1300 Egyptian army camps from that period in the Sinai desert. So, quite a bit.

    "And assuming you are correct that there is no Egyptian record of their leaving, is that really so surprising?"

    There is also no record of them ever having been in Egypt. And not just written -- no archeological record either.

    Let's say God appeared on your doorstep tomorrow and said, "Bob, you were taking these stories literally? No, by revelation, I meant I was giving you spiritual stories that would teach you lessons you need."

    Would that make you sorry to be a Christian?

    Now, let's say God shows up and tells you, "Oh, everything happened literally like the Bible said. But there is no lesson for you in these stories at all: Hinduism is the true religion!"

    Would that make you sorry to be a Christian?

    So what is important: the spiritual or the historical truth of these stories?

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  14. Gene wrote:

    Now, let's say God shows up and tells you, "Oh, everything happened literally like the Bible said. But there is no lesson for you in these stories at all: Hinduism is the true religion!"

    But that's impossible. If the Biblical accounts are literally true, then Jesus is one with Yahweh and is the path to salvation. So maybe Hinduism is correct as far as it goes, but the really important things for how I view "my religion" would all still be true.

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  15. BTW Gene I fully admit that you know way more history than I do, even Church history. (At some point I want to rectify that, either by studying or by having you offed.)

    I just bristle when you say things with such confidence a la "every serious scholar knows that Exodus didn't literally happen" when I know there are plenty of scholars who sure sound smart to me, that think the Bible is quite accurate historically.

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  16. Well, the problem arises more when you consider the magnitude of the exiting population—which Dr. Callahan has actually understated. (It's 600,000 men, plus an unspecified number of women and children).

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  17. Psh, I wanted to break the 1,000,000 figure to Bob slowly. There is also the difficulty that Canaan was Egyptian territory at the time Exodus was supposed to have taken place, so it would be like trying to get away from Bloomberg by moving to the Bronx.

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  18. I'm sorry to come so late to the comment section. . . Memorial Day and all that.

    To say that stories are a metaphor is terribly unsatisfying -- at least from a discussion/debate point of view. If I say, "5000 years ago, Thing X happened," it is very easy for someone to counter, "No, Thing X did not actually happen, it was just a metaphor, and anyone during that time period that referred to Thing X knew that it was a metaphor."

    Well, ok, then that works for just about anything.

    You state:
    "One archaeologist has found the remains of 1300 Egyptian army camps from that period in the Sinai desert."

    This type of evidence strikes me as strange: exactly how much evidence is needed to prove something? So 1300 Egyptian army camps were found. This is supposed to prove what exactly? That 1300 army camps existed? How do we know that there were not, in fact, 13,000 army camps? 1300 army camps mean how many Egyptians were alive? What is the ratio?

    In other words, how much archaeological evidence is needed to prove whether something did or did not happen? I would say that 1300 army camps is a relatively small number compared to the scope and span of the Egyptian people during this period of time.

    Also, as Bob mentioned, the Bible already records the Israelites time as one that was miraculous. (Clothes did not wear out and feet did not swell.) Additionally, much of what the Israelites took with them were things stamped with "made in Egypt" since they plundered the Egyptians through the hand of God. So, some of the archaeological evidence that would have been left behind by the Israelites would have been categorized as Egyptian.

    Finally, it seems to me that the historical record is open for change, especially as new archaeological discoveries are made. Maybe the discovery will be made to change your mind.

    Maybe not.

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  19. "To say that stories are a metaphor is terribly unsatisfying -- at least from a discussion/debate point of view."

    No one claimed the *every* story is a metaphor and *nothing* literally happened!

    "Well, ok, then that works for just about anything."

    Which is why we have to use historical and philological research to sort out what things were literal accounts and what things fables, legends, etc.

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