Tuesday 5 February 2013

The Bible as non-History

There's precious little history in the Bible.

That's comforting.  It means we - those of us raised to regard the Bible as holy writ - can relax somewhat.  Whatever we might mean by 'inspired', it sure as heck doesn't mean factual.  How did we ever imagine otherwise?

The first part of Genesis is the obvious (and overused) example.  It didn't happen.  No Adam, no Eve, no talking snake, no fall, no global deluge.

But there's more.  There was no exodus from Egypt.  Millions of refugees wandering about on the Sinai peninsula for all those years?  No evidence whatsoever, and evidence would still be there for any diligent researcher if such an event had really happened.

The entire history of Israel prior to the Second Temple period seems dubious.  It was at this late stage that the national narrative of Israel was probably created as part of a religio-political agenda.  It seems they cooked the books!  No evidence for a powerful United Kingdom under David and Solomon.  A truckload of evidence to the contrary.

These are some of the conclusions reached by minimalist scholars.  They're hard to disregard simply because the evidence from a variety of disciplines converges here.

Yet great literature transcends bare facts simply because it speaks to the human condition.  Does anyone care that Homer's Iliad and Odyssey is something other than objective reporting?  Is the value of Herodotus diminished by the improbabilities salted throughout the text (and Herodotus does at least contain some solid history).  We think of these ancient texts as examples both of literary art, and ripping good yarns.  We accept that ancient literature had norms and standards very different from today's.  Knowing that wily Odysseus is more of a character in a novel than a historical figure doesn't detract from the power of the storyline.  Troy endures as a city of the imagination (Schliemann's misidentification notwithstanding), and we too are caught up in Priam's pain at the death of Hector. Surely Homer's one-eyed Cyclops will also exist in legend till the end of human civilisation.  And if, along the way, we're led to think about the fruits of lust, pride and obsession, that can't be a bad thing.

While there's no way back to a naive understanding of the Bible, if we can extend these courtesies to Homer, is it any great stretch to do the same for the authors of Samuel and Kings? Could it be that the problem isn't - and never has been - the Bible itself, but the lying delusion that lifts it beyond criticism, that fashions it into an instrument of oppression, and that wilfully ignores its very human origins. 


  1. The problem is that you don't see preachers starting whole churches and organizations based on the Iliad or the Odyssey and telling all that Odysseus demands the tithe and has rules and such that can end you up rotting in hell if you disobey him or the preachers. No one uses the Iliad to gauge just where we are in prophecy or how short time is to motivate humans with fear, guilt and shame. Nothing in the Iliad demands loyalty or makes some chosen and others unchosen. Christians scoff at Zeus, Adonis, Aphrodite, Dionysius, Mithras, Hercules and a thousand other deities great or not so great, but mention YHVH,Jesus,Elohim and "oh yes! they are real and you must accept that."

    The COG gurus don't see themselves in the pages of the Iliad or the Odyssey. They do however see themselves in the pages of the Bible and nothing but trouble and harm to others can come from this difference.

    I agree, the Bible is fiction and the OT a very small cultic nation giving itself a very large pedigree . They do it to this day and are one of the most violent, troublesome and "wish you guys didn't think you were so chosen," nations on the planet.

    Dedication to the Iliad or the Odyssey never could result in World War III The Bible and that ignorant book of Revelation surely can.

    1. The possibility of World War III is the scary part. I used to cheer the Jews on, but now I see what a perilous thing zionism is. I also used to think the Bible was the answer to everything. I now see it as one of the most dangerous forces extant. It infects everything!

    2. I think that if the world doesn't move away from the superstitions of the book religions it could very well mean the end of the world. Now, I'm not saying that atheism is the answer to the world's ills but neither is personal relationships with ghosts/spirits. As Christopher Hitchens said, "Religion Poisons Everything". It's only a matter of time before some superstitious leader thinks he is doing God's will by pushing the button or releases the biological agent that destroys mankind. Too many people in the government of the US actually believe that if they can bring on the Apocalypse Jesus will return...it's scary enough when only one person high in government believes that but when half the Republican congress believes that...well, it may not have as happy an ending as Stephen King's "The Stand".

  2. Through cultural exposure and study, many disadvantaged, have been elevated its Hebrew wisdom, Elizabethan English.

    "A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education" Theodore Roosevelt

  3. Agree with all three comments so far. But also -- I do agree with Gavin's thought that the problem is not the Bible itself, rather the mis-characterization (mis-handling)of what it is and what it means. Taken as individual writings (outside of being bound together as an "authority"), it's a fascinating bunch of literature mixed with historical artifacts and concepts of the human endeavor to truth and meaning.

  4. From a web source: "No archeological evidence exists which can be directly related to Exodus, and most archaeologists have abandoned the investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit". This kind of observation is hardly determinative. After all, in a few more decades, after the continued decay of radiation products, there will be no evidence of the destruction Hiroshima and Nagasaki, except the written record, which distant future generations may well regard as suspect. And there are people who deny the Holocaust living on the planet right now. So the august testimony of vaunted historians is really not that persuasive.

    I support the incarnational model developed by Peter Enns for the Bible. I believe Otagosh is proposing that the Bible might occupy the status of literature with some redeeming cultural value, like the Iliad. The incarnational model states that the Bible was delivered in historical context, expressed within the boundaries of the extant history, language and culture. I would take this even further in the direction of the Incarnation and assert that the various elements of the Bible were instantiated within the Fallenness of the World. The Bible is not a document that always clarifies. It is not meant to be the Maker's Handbook and other ideas current in evangelicalism. The obscurantism of the Bible is part of the penalty we pay for rejecting God. The Bible is not the optimal form of communication with God, it is rather a poor substitute. It possesses a majesty as literature but in my view it was never intended to be a blessing but rather one of the undesirable outcomes of rebellion.

    -- Neo

    1. What rebellion? Millions of churches and temples represent rebellion? The fact of the existence of the Bible itself represents rebellion? "Rejecting God", are you kidding me? The bible itself shows a desire and attempt by men to discover and obey God. Your "rebellion against God" is all in your head, planted there by people who use a fictitious "fall of Adam" to explain away the confusion and suffering in the world. The problem is, there was no Adam - and the bigger problem is, no need of a second Adam who removed the curse - which has evidently not been removed as promised but still lingers, lo, these 2,000 years even though it was to be soon and to shortly come to pass. I don't think it would be much of a gamble to say that it never will.

  5. Before everyone starts getting carried away by the dearth of "archeological evidence" to support whatever notion they have, one should consider that, based on archeological evidence alone, it would be rather difficult to definitively prove that World War I ever took place.

    1. I KNEW...I knew I shouldn't have come back to this topic...now, my brain has been turned to mush and I'm flabbergasted and just plain in awe of what some people can suggest. But, since we have aircraft and ships left over from WW1 - not to mention a million other relics - I'd say, Pfffffffft.

    2. Corky, that is true. But, it has been less than 100 years, and I suspect there aren't nearly as many as you think. But, what about battlefield evidence?? It is getting pretty slim.

      And, what about 200 years from now? or a 1000? Or, as in the case of the Exodus, 3400?

      Unknown's statement about Hiroshima and Nagasaki is poignant.

      It is quite possible that in the distant future (or even, the not too distant), the very idea of ever using a nuclear weapon would be so ridiculous (think: Exodus), that no one would believe it ever took place. Written records might be sketchy, and discounted in the face of zero archeological evidence.

      Our ancestors were much smarter than you give them for. Just remember that....

    3. Moving the goal posts from WW1 to the Exodus is kinda weird but, nevertheless, there would be archeological evidence of 3 1/2 million people spending 40 years wandering in a desert of that small size. There have been much older artifacts and evidence of people passing through found in the Libyan desert as large as that desert happens to be. The evidence would be there if it happened - it's not. Therefore, it didn't happen.

    4. Corky, once again...."Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

      Frankly, you don't want it to be true, so you are more than happy to interpret this "lack of archeological evidence" as support for your philosophy.

      But, why don't you try to explain then, why the Egyptian government refuses to allow intense archeological investigation of the area (Goshen) where the "Hyksos" lived? And, what about the interesting so-called "Hyksos Expulsion", when a very large group of people were supposedly "kicked out" of Egypt and sent east?? Hmmmmm....

    5. Ooh, conspiracy theories! Yummie! Let's shuck and jive! Let's play the apologist game! Let's take any far-fetched story we find and hold it up as proof! "Could possibly have been" becomes "proof" in this game! It doesn't matter of how unlikely - any explanation will do!

      Reality check: An internet search of "Hyksos" reveals that Josephus tried to say they were the Israelites, but evidence proved otherwise. No reasonable modern scholar gives it any credence.

      Oh, wait, I forgot ... the intellectuals must be suppressing the truth!

    6. So, why don't you explain who the Hyksos were? Because the historians don't seem to know but most think they were Asiatics from western Asia. I don't know about the archeology of "Goshen" but the Hyksos ruled Egypt from Memphis and that was a loooooong time before the biblical Exodus.

    7. "...one should consider that, based on archeological evidence alone, it would be rather difficult to definitively prove that World War I ever took place."

      Wow! Larry, do you actually consider this to be true, and reality-based?
      BTW, "archeological" isn't even a real word.

      And to Corky, thanks for reminding me of Mott the Hoople's song, 'All The Way From Memphis'- Youtube has it happily and of course.


    8. First. To Larry- Yes, "archeological" is indeed a real word. I shot from the hip on that one and missed. Best not to find fault with grammar, but rather, substance.

      Next. Larry's assertion that, "based on archeological evidence alone, it would be rather difficult to definitively prove that World War I ever took place." almost put me into a state of shock.
      Maybe I should not be all that surprised. Some people just really, really, want the Bible's mythologies to be literally true, and go to great lengths to advance their literalist beliefs.
      An example on one end of the spectrum is the late con-man Ron Wyatt, who claimed that his plethora of hokey archaeological "evidences" proved so many of the Bible's stories to be true.
      On the other end of the spectrum, we have Larry who claims that a lack of archaeological evidence means nothing, and in supporting his idea he goes so far as to claim there's not enough archaeological evidence to even support the reality of WWI.

      Maybe some people just don't understand that literal belief isn't necessary for enduring myths/tales to have value.


    9. Yes Norm, I chose to ignore your criticism of my vocabulary, because that is what it deserved. But, my statement about WWI was to make a point. It has been less than 100 years since the war, and you would be surprised at the dearth of evidence for it, that archeologists would accept as proof of a worldwide conflict.

      It was the worst war in human history up to that time, and has had the lengthiest and most profound effects on human geopolitics of any. But, the Earth with the help of humans, is amazingly efficient at removing or covering up the scars of human exploits and occupation. So it does.

      A more interesting question or observation would be: Why are you (and others here) so anxious to dismiss as mythology, one of the few written records that survives from the Bronze Age? If a copy of the New York Times (and we know how reliable that is!) were discovered 2000 years from now, you (and archeologists) would embrace it as if were made of platinum.

      No, it is clear that the dismissal of the Bible as written history (take Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Esther, Ezra, Nehemiah) stems primarily from anti-religious prejudice!!!; i.e. it purports to be true, therefore it cannot be.....

  6. Reality check: the Sinai peninsula is one of the most intensely-studied places on earth. Archeologists have been all over the Sinai, especially the possible routes the Iraelites could have taken, most with the intent of proving the bible true. Their techniques are very refined - they can identify a campfire from 4,000 years ago. If there were ever a time when 2 million people lived here, they would know about it.

    Don't just make it up, guys, ask the experts. What do archeologists say? Do they say "well, we don't know" or do they say "we can safely conclude it never happened"? And I don't mean one or two church archeologists - I mean unbiased archeologists.

    The same can be said for the "holy land" in general. In the 19th century, when the science of archeology blossomed, a multitude of archeologists descended on the holy land intent on demonstrating the "truths" of the bible. They studied it extensively and intensively. At first they thought they found many proofs, and they jumped at many conclusions: this city with fallen walls was Jericho, that location was where Samson pulled down the temple, etc. Sadly, further study showed these conclusions were untrue, case after case after case. It was an embarrassment, frankly.

    Of course, some of the bible "history" is true, much like a James Bond movie where there really are places like London and Athens but the rest is fiction. But not very much. A great deal of Bible history is untrue, and a great deal more is uncertain or only partly true.