Bibical Scholarship and a Rational Faith

One of the challenges in attempting to have a rational faith in the 21st Century is that many of the most beloved parts of the Bible are unprovable myths--or at least are claimed to be so by modern scholars. The challenge is to shift through the scholarship and determine what is good scholarship and what is bad. I was therefore fascinated to read in the New York Times Book Review today a review of a new book by a believer st rugging with these same issues.

The book is How to Read the Bible James Kugel, an emeritus professor of Hebrew literature at Harvard and an Orthodox Jew. Although a believer, Kugel takes a brutally honest view of the Old Testament:

Some of the territory Kugel covers will be familiar to lay Bible doubters already. He reviews the “documentary hypothesis,” which demonstrates pretty conclusively that the first five books of the Bible were not written by a single person (Moses, according to tradition), but actually cobbled together from four, or maybe five, different writers. Kugel points out the Bible’s plagiarism from earlier, non-Israelite sources: laws nicked from Hammurabi; chunks of the Noah flood story lifted from the Epic of Gilgamesh; prophecies of Ezekiel inspired by Middle Eastern temples. He even implicates the Ten Commandments, which were apparently derived in part from ancient Hittite treaties.

Modern scholars have also unmoored many of the most beloved stories in Genesis and Exodus. These tales are now viewed as etiological — that is, they were invented to explain how the world got to be the way it is. In this reading, the conflict between Jacob and Esau isn’t a true story of sibling rivalry but an account of why, at the time the story was written down, the Israelites had such hot and cold relations with the Edomites, a nearby tribe identified with Esau. Similarly, the “mark of Cain” that God places on Cain after he murders Abel, promising sevenfold vengeance for anyone who harms him, was probably a tale designed to highlight the brutality of the Kenites, Israel’s notoriously fierce neighbors.

Most unsettling to religious Jews and Christians may be Kugel’s chapters about the origins of God and his chosen people. Kugel says that there is essentially no evidence — archaeological, historical, cultural — for the events in the Torah. No sign of an exodus from Egypt; no proof that Israelites ever invaded, much less conquered, Canaan; no indication that Jericho was ever sacked. In fact, quite the contrary: current evidence suggests that the Israelites were probably Canaanites themselves, semi-nomadic highlanders or fleeing city dwellers who gradually separated from their mother culture, established a distinct identity and invented a mythical past.

Yet despite all this Kugel, in the end, justifies his Orthodox Faith:

One purpose of “How to Read the Bible” is to recapture the Bible from literalists, and Kugel certainly succeeds. His tour through the scholarship demonstrates why it makes no sense to believe that every word of the Bible is true history. Piling on, he also contends that modern Bible literalism, that brand of six-day-creationism favored by fundamentalists, is wildly out of step with traditional Christian interpretation. Such monomaniacal focus on the Bible’s literal truth is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s not so much that readers of yore didn’t believe the Bible’s truth; they just didn’t waste a lot of time trying to prove impossible events like the Flood.

But vanquishing the literalists is only half of Kugel’s project. He also seeks a safe haven for rationalist believers. In other words, having broken all the windows, trashed the bedroom, stripped the wires for copper, sold the plumbing for scrap, and jackhammered into the foundation, Kugel proposes to move back into his Bible house.

Kugel spends the final chapter trying to salvage the Bible for rational believers like himself. And give him credit: he refuses to take an easy way out. He won’t say — as many Reform Jews and Christians do — that the Bible is just a series of excellent moral lessons. (After all, Kugel asks, what then are we supposed to make of all the ugly, morally repellent laws and stories?) He also won’t say that Jewish observance is enough, that following God’s laws — independent of accepting their truth — is satisfactory. Instead, Kugel tries to separate scholarship and belief. At bottom, Kugel seems to conclude that, scholarship be damned, there is some seed of divine inspiration in the Bible, even if he can’t say exactly where it is. The fact that we can’t prove any particular passage isn’t important, and the fact that it’s a pastiche of myths and plagiarized law codes doesn’t extinguish the holiness that’s in it, and doesn’t diminish how it still inspires us to love and serve God. That’s a humane and humble conclusion, but it won’t reduce the delight of Bible skeptics, cackling with glee about Chapters 1 through 35.

Read it all here.

A few observations are in order. First, most of the books in the New Testament were written decades after the events they describe--not the centuries (or more) of the Old Testament. This is not to say that the New Testament accounts should be taken literally. Modern scholarship has made a good case that much of what is reported in the New Testament accounts may very well be a latter addition. Indeed, there are entire letters of Paul that were likely written by someone else.

Second, it is important to read modern scholarship with some scepticism. Some of the techniques used may be persuasive, but they are not infallible. For example, some noted scholarship about the book of John gave it a very late date--only to be discredited when much earlier manuscripts were found.

So what is a believer to do? I agree with Kugel that we need to both be open to the truth of scholarship, but also avoid the cop out of discounting the importance of historical truth. Our faith makes claims of historical truth and if we are to be true to our faith we can't avoid tough questions by arguing that our faith is unmoored by fact.

I remain persuaded in the rationality of a belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ for a variety of reasons that I can only summarize here: the reaction of the early Christians, the quite early account of the resurrection by Paul, and the philisophical discomfort that the claim of resurrection would give both a Jew and a Greek.


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