Saturday, August 11, 2007

Guest Post: Fundamentalists and Sceptics both Misunderstand the Bible

Today we have a guest post from Stephen of Outside the Box and Emerging from Babel. We've been commenting on each other's blogs for a long time and he's always been thoughtful and open-minded.

I'll leave my response as the first comment.

1. Premodern people

If you want to know what a premodern person looks like, don't suppose that fundamentalists constitute a contemporary case study. Paradoxically, fundamentalists (whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish) are a product of modernity.

In The Battle For God (there's a good review here), Karen Armstrong argues that fundamentalism arose in reaction to modernity. Two inferences follow:
  1. Fundamentalists of the contemporary sort did not exist when the Bible was written.
  2. Contemporary fundamentalists are thoroughly modernist in their mindset.
Contemporary fundamentalists are modernists because they attempt to read the scriptures literally, as if they were lab reports or newsreel footage. Sceptics read the scriptures that way, too, and find them an easy target for mockery.

If you want to know what a premodern person looks like, natives (Indians) provide a better example. I'm sure that Indians have been co-opted by modernity in many respects. But insofar as they have preserved their ancestral way of life, they also preserve elements of a premodern worldview.

In native communities, we see a mindset starkly different than that of fundamentalism. The difference is, Indians understand the literary genre, myth. Of course "myth" is our label, not theirs; they would perhaps speak of "our traditions" or "the wisdom of the elders". Regardless, Indians "get" myth in a way that fundamentalists manifestly do not.

For example, each Indian community has its own creation myth, often giving primordial animals a pivotal role. No one seems troubled by the fact that the tale circulated in one region contradicts the tale circulated in another region. No one asks whether Earth was "really" made from foam or mud, or whether the trickster is "really" a coyote or a raven. And no one feels compelled to take up arms to slay the infidel. It's all good seems to be the general attitude: because Indians relate to the stories as myth.

Even if the stories can't be taken literally, they have value because of the worldview they inculcate. They tell Indians how to relate to their world (e.g., respect Mother Earth; always give something back to her when you take something). They tell Indians what their place in the world is (man is not the focal point of creation, but just one of Mother Earth's inhabitants). And the stories inculcate not only a mindset but also a way of life. The stories look backward, and the way of life involves preserving the practices of the past.

If you told an Indian that her traditions have no value because they are not science or history, she would tell you that you have a queer value system.

2. Genesis 1-11 as myth

Contemporary Indian communities have many traits in common with the ancestral Israelites. The following examples come to mind:
  • communitarian (not individualist) orientation;
  • tribal organization;
  • ruled by elders;
  • focus on ownership of land as crucial to survival and community identity;
  • traditional wisdom and mores expressed in narrative (not propositional) form.
  • traditions passed down orally. (Indian communities still rely on the oral transmission of their most important traditions, even today.)
  • the way of life involved preserving the practices of the past. (In Israel, the prophets introduced a future-oriented perspective. Even then, the prophets continued to point Israel back to its origins in the Exodus.)
I'm suggesting that the ancient Israelites probably regarded their origin stories approximately the same way as contemporary Indian communities regard theirs. I presume that they didn't take the stories literally. They wouldn't have been troubled by contradictory details. They wouldn't have insisted that this thing or that thing "really happened".

For example, scholars believe that there are two variant accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2. Both accounts insist that humankind is the focal point of creation. Genesis 1 makes the point by recounting that humans were created last — the crowning jewel of creation. Genesis 2 makes the point by recounting that humans were created first — thus taking precedence over everything else:
These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.

When no bush of the field was yet in the land [or "yet in the earth"] and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up — for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land … then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground….

(Genesis 2:4-7a, English Standard Version)

Note that there is only one "day" of creation, not seven (per Genesis 1). And human beings were created before there was any vegetation (contra Genesis 1, in which vegetation was created on day three and human beings on day seven).

Sceptics might suppose that the editor of Genesis was sloppy, and didn't notice the hopeless contradiction between the above text and Genesis 1. This is a constant temptation: to suppose that "primitive" peoples lacked intellectual sophistication. More likely, the editor considered that he had two creation stories which approached the topic from two different vantage points, and he was loathe to lose either of them. The presence of variant details (was it "really" a coyote, or was it a raven?) was simply immaterial.

Fundamentalists betray a modernist mindset when they insist that the variant details Can too! be reconciled, and they set out to devise convoluted explanations to prove it.

The first eleven chapters of Genesis constitute Israel's prehistory. The narratives were told and retold (or re-enacted, as a kind of dramatic performance) in communal settings. Each performance would vary in small details, reflecting the individual storyteller's personality and artistry. This process went on generation after generation, until the stories were crafted into the (stylized) forms they now take. Only then were they compiled and shaped into a continuous narrative by an anonymous editor. (Moses? It's unlikely, since Moses was a man of action, not a man of letters; but in any event it doesn't matter — it's beside the point.)

Everything in the first eleven chapters of Genesis is myth, pure and simple. The traditions are nonetheless invaluable to people of faith.

3. Myth and history elsewhere in the Bible

What of the later chapters of Genesis, plus the rest of the Pentateuch and the later historical books? Here the division between myth and not-myth is not so straightforward.

The general picture — oral tradition, re-enacted with variant details over countless generations — still applies. Thus even the historical traditions that have come down to us are highly stylized.

And even when the oral traditions were set down in writing, it was only a sort of first edition. The editorial process continued unabated. Scholars maintain that the traditions were re-edited at critical junctures to keep them current in new historical circumstances. This process continued until the exile in Babylon, during which the Hebrew scriptures evidently took their final form.

Did Abraham even exist? Did the Exodus happen? Did Elijah defeat the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? The only access we have to these events is through Israel's stylized traditions. We certainly don't have enough data to convince a "scientific" historian, because science always begins from a position of scepticism. Historians do not concede the benefit of the doubt.

In some cases, the appeal to myth continues to serve us very well, even in ostensibly historical settings. For example, the Akedah — the binding of Isaac. When God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac, Abraham was ready to obey. He didn't even pause to plead for Isaac's life, as he had for Lot's family when God resolved to destroy Sodom.

If we regard the story as history, it is morally repugnant. But what if we regard it as myth — a kind of morality play? We can then distance ourselves from a literal application: Obedience to God must be absolute, even if God asks you to murder your own child. We can instead focus attention on the moral progress which the story brought about: The descendants of Abraham learned from this narrative that child sacrifice is contrary to God's will.


I hate to leave the reader hanging at this point. There's at least one crucial question that I haven't addressed: What method shall we use to interpret premodern traditions in a (post)modern era? I could share a series of hermeneutical principles in response to that question, but the post is already too long.

At least I have made the following points:
  1. Fundamentalists are modernist in their mindset;
  2. Ancient Israel probably regarded its traditions approximately the way that contemporary Indians regard their traditions;
  3. The process of oral transmission has distanced the texts from the actual historical events, and cast them in a highly stylized form;
  4. Therefore the biblical traditions cannot be interpreted literally, like a lab report or newsreel footage;
  5. But the traditions are still invaluable to people of faith: even if they are entirely (Genesis 1-11) or partially (Genesis 12-50) mythological in nature.
I don't suppose that any of Jewish Atheist's readers will assent to all of the above points. The point of view that I represent (influenced by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur and the Protestant Christian exegete Walter Brueggemann) is alien to sceptics and true believers alike.

Whether or not people find my perspective persuasive, I wanted to make the point that there is a "third way" on offer. This "third way" avoids the dichotomy that is usually represented in debates over religion: a literal reading of scripture (on the one hand) and a repudiation of scripture (on the other).

In my view, fundamentalists and sceptics both misunderstand the Bible because they apply a modernist mindset to it.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.


Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks for the guest post, Stephen!

I don't think this essay quite addresses the point where you depart from the skeptics. Most of us have no problem seeing the Bible as mythology. I know that I've expressed skepticism in the past about whether the authors knew they weren't always telling history, but I think it's obvious that Genesis especially, with the Creation stories, Noah's Ark, Babel, etc., is mythological in nature and probably always was.

When I criticize the Bible on this blog, I'm generally doing so with an Orthodox Jewish audience in mind. They (mostly) believe that the Torah was literally dictated by God to Moses. Many believe that Genesis 1 is not exactly true, but even then they will attempt to reconcile the Genesis story with reality using arguments like the yom-means-era-rather-than-day one.

That Genesis 1 (seen as history) contradicts itself and reality is irrelevant to you, but it's a serious threat to many, and probably most, Orthodox Jews. That Noah's ark is obviously mythological in nature and even later events like the Exodus may not have even happened (and certainly didn't happen as described) is simply devastating to Orthodox Judaism.

Finally, I've read Armstong's book and I think she had some interesting points about modernity and the rise of fundamentalism. However, I'm sure my Orthodox readers will be quick to point out that the Sages were interpreting the Bible more-or-less literally way before the modern era began.

B. Spinoza said...

I'm not sure he's correct about the ancients not taking their origin myths literally. I recently saw a documentary about how DNA shows that all people migrated originally from Africa. When the scientists showed their findings to the aborigines, they denied it based on their legends which said that they came from the ground in Austalia. It sure sounds to me like they took it literally.

But in the end does it really matter how the ancients understood their myths? hat really matters is how we should view it. Are they still meaningful to us or not? That's the question

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• JA:
I don't think this essay quite addresses the point where you depart from the skeptics. Most of us have no problem seeing the Bible as mythology.

I think I diverge from the sceptics in retaining the possibility that there may be a kernel of history in the texts, albeit passed down to us in a highly stylized form. More importantly, we obviously disagree on whether the worldview itself is worth believing in.

You and I have always agreed to a considerable extent in our overall values and mores (e.g., I'm just as liberal about same sex relationships as you are). Insofar as your objection is to fundamentalism, and not faith in general, we're on the same page.

Thanks for your willingness to host this post!

• b. Spinoza:
I'm not sure he's correct about the ancients not taking their origin myths literally.

The same objection has already come up elsewhere. I can see this is going to be a recurrent objection, so I'll repeat what I said there.

Whether Indians understood their origin stories literally, pre European contact, may be hard to nail down. I've always conceded that popular religion tends to be pretty naive (gullible, superstitious, whatever unflattering term you want to supply). I'm not convinced, however, that there was anything equivalent to the doctrine of inspiration, with word-for-word equivalence.

Turning our attention back to the Hebrew scriptures —
The ten commandments, carved in stone, would constitute an explicit exception to the general rule. Here (and only here?) there is a direct word-for-word correspondence, thus conferring a higher degree of authority on this small part of the Bible.

Bottom line, contemporary fundamentalism is born of fear — that's Armstrong's argument. Modernity constitutes a threat that causes people to circle the wagons in this hyper-conservative way. I am persuaded that such hyper-conservatism didn't exist pre modernity.

Jamie said...

Stephen: Very interesting post. I never would have thought of comparing Israelites, Indians, and fundamentalists.

I have no doubt that ancient Israelites read the Bible, and specifically Genesis 1-11, quite different than modern fundamentalists. I have no difficulty believing that the Israelites' understanding of their origin stories was similar to how Native Americans understand their own stories.

The problem I see, however, is that for the ancient Israelites and for the Native Americans, there would have been only one category of origin stories: what you call myths. Now modernism has presented us with two: "myths" vs. "reality" (science). According to the modernist mindset, the myths might contain truth, but science is considered to be more real and true to fact than those myths.

For this reason, I'm not sure we have the option today of continuing to read the texts as the Israelites did (or as the Indians read theirs). I mean, back then, they wouldn't (I suppose) have had to distinguish between "truth" and "fact." There weren't two categories; just one, so the distinction would have been nonsensical. But now we do have two categories, and we can't ignore that fact.

You appear to want to let the myths guide our conception of "truth" (in a qualitative, moral sense) while science guides our conception of "fact" (in a quantitative sense, referring to hard data).

But in a culture that values fact, what do we do when "truth" and "fact" contradict, as they do frequently? As the most obvious of examples, what does one do when "fact" says that the mechanism driving the universe is blind and purposeless, while mythical "truth" makes plain that it is all purposefull?

Your "third way" of interpreting Genesis is helpful in showing that the Israelites would not have read the texts as modernists (of either the skeptic or the fundamentalist stripe) would read them now. However, I seriously doubt we can continue reading the texts as the Israelites did, so I am not currently seeing how this "third way" offers any help in dealing with the problem modernism has foisted on us.

Jamie said...

However, I seriously doubt we can continue reading the texts as the Israelites did

Wait, I take that back. Maybe we can read the texts the way they did. And maybe we should. I personally am highly unsatisfied with the myth/science distinction, given that science produces its own sort of myths. It would be fine with me to abandon the myth/science split. But wouldn't that require being "unscientific"? And isn't that something you are uncomfortable with?

Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Jamie:
Maybe we can read the texts the way they did. And maybe we should.

If you're even exploring the possibility in your mind, that's all I could hope to accomplish in a single post.

As I indicated in the conclusion, I need to follow up with some interpretive principles. It is a hugely significant question: if the texts are premodern (which they manifestly are), how do we interpret and apply them in our (post)modern setting? I have five principles in mind, so far, which will probably appear as a follow-up in due course on Emerging from Babel.

For now, let me just say this: I am highly attracted to the notion of dialectic (dialogue). Even before I began to read Brueggemann, this was a guiding principle for me. Brueggemannhas opened my eyes to new opportunities for it. It is very amenable from a postmodern (rather than modern) point of view.

Science and biblical faith stand in uneasy tension with one another, obviously. Instead of fighting that tension, I prefer to embrace it as presenting us with an opportunity. That is, we shouldn't explain science away, and we shouldn't explain faith away. We should allow them to stand as opposing worldviews, each effectively critiquing the other.

In that dialectic process, I hope we can be spared from the worst errors and excesses that either principle would carry us to, left unchallenged. My objection, therefore, is to those who would eliminate either the one principle or the other, thereby depriving us of an opportunity for a constructive, dialectical engagement.

Michael said...

I'm sure my Orthodox readers will be quick to point out that the Sages were interpreting the Bible more-or-less literally way before the modern era began.

I have not read Armstrong, so perhaps she considers the rise of Greek thinking to be the beginning of the modern era, and, if so, there would be no problem because there is no evidence that the Jews/Israelites approached the text critically before then, but, if that is not the case, then the question that you don't address seems to be pretty telling against Armstrong's idea.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

The Sages were interpreting the Bible more-or-less literally way before the modern era began.

Perhaps, but that's only one piece of data to consider.

I'm not Jewish, and my knowledge of Jewish history is spotty at best. But allow me to reflect on a period of Jewish history that I know a little about: the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and the subsequent reorganization of the faith. In effect, that period was the birth of Judaism as we know it.

The destruction of the Temple, and the assumption of pagan control of Jerusalem, constituted a crisis even more grave than the crisis of modernity. What I want to point out is that the rabbis reacted in two ways: in part, by creating something radically new, and in part by a conservative retrenchment.

Something radically new:
The destruction of the Temple brought about the end of the sacrificial system. In response the rabbis devised a system wherein prayer, Torah study, repentance, and good works became means of atonement. I know you know this already, but here are a couple of relevant quotes from G.F. Moore's history of Judaism in the first two centuries of the Christian era:

[The rabbis maintained that] Moses foresaw that a time would come when the temple would be destroyed and the bringing of first fruits would cease, so he ordained that Israelites should pray thrice each day. (Moore, vol. 2, p. 218)

Did Moses really intend that prayer would one day take the place of sacrifice? I seriously doubt it, but the rabbis needed Moses' sanction for the Judaism they were inventing out of the materials available to them.

For the cultus itself the learned found a surrogate in the study of the ritual laws, the kinds of sacrifice, their respective modes, applications and significance, the whole cultus thus being perpetuated in thought and feeling when the fulfillment in act was made impossible. (vol. 1, pp. 505-06)

This does not constitute a literal interpretation of scripture. Obviously the rabbis were forced to take radical measures because of the historical crisis. But forced or not, they took a huge creative leap. To their credit, they introduced a radical reinterpretation of scripture, thereby equipping the faith to move forward into the future.

(This is off topic, but fundamentalists don't demonstrate a similar degree of creativity in confronting modernity.)

A conservative retrenchment:
On the other hand, I must acknowledge that the rabbis took a conservative turn (along with their radical reinvention of the faith).

Moore says that the rabbis refined the Hebrew language (giving rise to "the language of scholars") in order to express their theological conclusions more precisely. Classical Hebrew owes its charm to the wealth of its diction and the subtlety of its syntax, neither of which excellences is conducive to the juristic precision which the schools of the Law aimed at. (vol. 1, p. 100)

The rabbis agreed on a standard text of the Hebrew bible. In earlier centuries there was no such uniformity, as appears not only from a comparison of the Hebrew text used by the early Greek translators with that which we have in manuscripts and printed editions, but from a collation of parallel passages in the Hebrew Bible itself. The later Greek versions, beginning with [Rabbi] Aquila, on the other hand, are evidently based on a Hebrew text substantially identical with ours. (vol. 1, p. 101)

Translations also took a conservative turn. Aquila translated this text with extreme literalness for Greek-speaking Jews; others made more readable versions of it.

This conservative turn isn't surprising: the survival of the Jewish faith was imperiled, now that Jerusalem and the Temple no longer held the center constant.

However, we also see indications that things were not so conservative in the past. Biblical Hebrew was not an overly-precise language. No one had established a standard Hebrew text. There was no canon, which was probably also established during this period. Translations were often free: e.g. the targumim — sometimes relatively literal but other times rendered very freely, obliterating the line between text and interpretation.

We should also remember the allegorical school of interpretation, most famously represented by Philo of Alexandria. Clearly everyone wasn't a literalist. Evidently the allegorical school died out after the destruction of the Temple — when Judaism took its conservative turn.

Here are my conclusions. (1) That in response to a crisis that shook Israel's world, the rabbis made a radical interpretive leap to equip the faith to survive into the future. (2) That while the Temple and Jerusalem were still anchoring the faith, the faithful felt free to take a less conservative approach to scripture. The targumim and Philo are perhaps especially pertinent to my argument.

jewish philosopher said...

Has anyone here ever met any real Indians? I have a few times.

Anyway, myths are similar to what we, modern people, would call science fiction. It's an interesting story, based on some fact but mostly fantasy. Some people do take science fiction somewhat seriously, like Trekkies for example.

The Bible is something entirely different. It's history.

Have you ever wondered why Africans and Native Americans abandoned their myths so quickly, in most cases, after encountering Christianity or Islam? Or why Christianity and Islam spread so quickly to begin with? Because myths were always understood to be more or less fictional. The Bible, based on history, was much more impressive.

Stephen (aka Q) said...

For the record: yes, I have had a fair bit of contact with Indians. In Canada, we use the term First Nations. I work for the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch of Health Canada.

I agree, there are parts of the Bible that are clearly offered as history. But other parts are utterly indistinguishable from First Nation traditions.

It's inaccurate to say that Indians abandoned their traditions for Christianity. Traditional medicine is still practiced, for example, and the wisdom of the elders is still respected even in communities which have embraced Christianity.

The two faiths are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Syncretism has a venerable history where one faith encounters another.

jewish philosopher said...

The implication, however, that primitive people (meaning they have never seen a car) cannot think straight as we advanced people do is entirely false.

Z said...

I think that in ancient times the bible was looked upon as even better than scientific fact - it came from a higher source - revelation, which cannot be mistaken. This idea pops up very often in jewish hellenistic texts. That's why hellenistic jews needed to reinterpret the bible allegoricaly in an attempt to syntehsize it with greek culture. A proof from scriptures was always enough to establish that something was the case.

Michael said...

The Sages were interpreting the Bible more-or-less literally way before the modern era began.

Perhaps, but that's only one piece of data to consider.

Stephen, you don't address the question (that you raised yourself.)
Furthermore, your over-reliance on Moore leads you to a lot of factual errors. According to the Talmudic tradition that Moore quotes, for example, the same Aquilas created a non-literal Aramaic translation a few years after his literal, Greek translation.
The Talmud claims that the canon was fixed during the time of Ezra, but, even if we suppose that it was later, there are was certainly an effort to fix the canon well before the destruction of the Temple.