As part of my research for my book on evolution and creationism, I have been reading a lot of books and articles about how to read the Bible. From this reading I have learned a great deal, but I also find certain things a bit puzzling.
For example, consider the book Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, by Marcus Borg, published in 2001. According to the back of the book, Borg is a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University.
For obvious reasons I was especially interested in what Borg had to say about Genesis. Early in his discussion, Borg writes:
Major battles about the factual truth of these stories have marked Western culture in the modern period. Prior to the birth of modernity in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, the factual truth of Genesis was accepted in the Jewish and Christian worlds without controversy, even though its stories were not always read literally. There was little or no reason to question their factuality. Theology and science alike took it for granted that the universe was relatively young and that the earth and its continents, mountains, oceans, and varieites of life were created in very much the same form in which we now find them. Common estimates of the time of creation ranged from 6000 BCE to 4000 BCE.
That seems clear enough. Certainly not everyone hewed to modern YEC orthodoxy, but the consensus was far closer to modern creationism than it was to modern theological liberalism. Was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely allegorical, with no historical content at all?
Of course, that all came to naught as science progressed. Here is Borg’s summary of the modern consensus among Biblical scholars:
But contemporary biblical scholarship does not read these stories as historically factual accounts of the world’s beginnings. Instead, it sees them as ancient Israel’s stories of the world’s beginnings and interprets them as profoundly true mythological stories. In this chapter I will describe these stories as seen through the lens of contemporary scholarship. More specifically, I will offer a historical-metaphorical reading, focusing primarily on the creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis.
Borg is very fond of the phrase “profoundly true.” He uses it multiple times throughout the chapter. For example, after providing a brief summary of his own experiences in moving from a generally literal to a more liberal interpretation of Genesis, he writes,
I now see these chapters quite differently. Reading them through the lens of historical scholarship and with sensitivity to their meanings as metaphorical narratives has enabled me once again to see them as profoundly true stories. And because their purpose is not to provide a factually accurate account of the world’s beginnings, it is beside the point to argue whether they are accurate or mistaken factual accounts. They are not God’s stories of the world’s beginnings; rather, they are ancient Israel’s stories of the world’s beginnings.
Skipping ahead just a few more paragraphs:
Second, to call these early chapters of Genesis prehistory means that they are not to be read as historical accounts. Rather, as ancient Israel’s stories about the remote beginnings before there was an Israel, they are to be read as a particular kind of metaphorical narrative — namely as myths, about which I will soon say more. For now, I simply note that while myths are not literally true, they can nevertheless be profoundly true, rich in powerfully persuasive meanings.
There is much to comment upon in these paragraphs. That the accounts in Genesis are Israel’s accounts, not God’s accounts is, of course, what any atheist would say. We should not let slide the fact that Borg has very casually discarded huge swaths of Protestant theology. Inerrancy? Not a term you apply to purely human writing. Perspicuity? Borg has already informed us that virtually everyone misunderstood these narratives prior to the dawn of the Enlightenment. Sola Scriptura? It is pretty hard to argue that Israel’s factually inaccurate creation myths are a supreme source of knowledge to which all human inquiry must bow.
My impression is that the views Borg describes here are the consensus among Biblical scholars, but I can tell you how conservative evangelicals would respond. They would argue that Borg’s account gets derailed right at the start. Historical scholarship is not the lens through which Scripture should be read. Scripture is a direct revelation from God to man. God is ultimately the author of the text, not fallible humans. That hermeneutical premise must inform a correct reading. This, for example, was one of the main arguments made by the contributors to The Fundamentals in response to the Higher Criticism of the Bible.
Finally, what really strikes me is Borg’s insistence that these stories are not intended as historical narratives. This, too, is ubiquitous in the writings of Biblical scholars, but I can find no credible basis for thinking it is true. Consider, for example, the following paragraph from Borg:
Because the Jews were sharply reduced in numbers during this period of history, distinctive practices as a means of sustaining their identity as a people became vitally important. Among these practices was the observance of the sabbath (the seventh day of the week) as a day of rest. Though sabbath observance predated the exile, it became even more important during and after the exile. So why does creation take six days in the P story? To make the point that even God observes the sabbath. Rather than being intended as a literal account of how long creation took the six-day creation story was meant to reinforce the importance of the sabbath.
Some version of this paragraph appears in virtually every book on this subject that I have read. I find it very frustrating, because I do not see how that final sentence follows from what came before. In fact, it seems like the exact opposite of what the previous material suggested.
We are told the P story makes the point that even God observes the sabbath. But it only makes that point if the story is true. This is not a situation where we might use a fictional story to illustrate a moral principle, as in Aesop’s fables or Jesus’ parables. Fictional stories can be excellent vehicles for presenting general truths, but they are not so useful for explaining how various traditions came to be established, or for justifying the correctness of specific beliefs. It does not make sense to say that Israel viewed the P account as an explanation for the importance of keeping the sabbath, but that they did not view the story as true.
This sort of thing is very common in scholarly discussions of Genesis. It is often said that Genesis teaches theological truths. For example, its monotheistic outlook was a rebuke to the prevalent polytheism of its times, and its emphasis on God creating everything by divine fiat was a rebuke to pantheism. Indeed. But if these ideas were taken to be truths about how the world is, does it make sense to say the Israelites justified them with stories they did not believe to be at least substantially true?
Consider this further example:
The P story of creation was likely adapted from an ancient Israelite liturgy or hymn of praise to God. Its use of repeating phrases suggests refrains such as are found in hymns and liturgies. Each of the following is repeated seven times: “God said, `Let there be …’”, “And it was so.” “And God saw that it was good.”
“There was evening and there was morning …” is repeated after each day of creation. Moreover, the six days of creation suggest six stanzas. If a liturgy does lie behind the first chapter of Genesis, we should imagine it being sung or chanted, perhaps antiphonally with a cantor and one or more choirs.
The recognition that the P story is likely to have been a hymn or liturgy has an immediate implication: we do not expect hymns to provide accurate factual information.
Here, again, does not the conclusion seem out of all proportion to the evidence provided? A few repeated phrases does not transform a straightforward historical account into a hymn or liturgy. The repeated phrases are more simply understood as being for emphasis. Furthermore, what is written in Genesis 1 does not at all read like a hymn. It reads like a very specific accounting of actions taken by God. Borg suggests that the repetition of “evening and morning” and the six day structure suggest six stanzas. To me, by contrast, they suggest six days, each one marked by the passing of an evening and a morning.
If it is really so simple to infer the non-historical nature of the text from a handful of repeated phrases then we really must explain how the finest scholars in Christendom missed that point for so many centuries. Borg told us that prior to the birth of modernity people had no reason to question the factual truth of Genesis. But these repeated phrases were as obvious to them as they are to us. Apparently they did have reasons for doubting the literal truth of the text.
At the end of his chapter Borg is kind enough to enumerate the profound truths he takes Genesis to be teaching us.
But I can hear the truth of their central claims. “This” — the universe and we — is not self-caused, but grounded in the sacred. “This” is utterly remarkable and wondrous, a Mystery beyond words that evokes wonder, awe, and praise. We begin our lives “in paradise,” but we all experience expulsion into a world of exile, anxiety, self-preoccupation, bondage, and conflict. And yes, also a world of goodness and beauty: it is the creation of God. But it is a world in which something is awry.
The rest of the Bible is to a large extent the story (and stories) of this state of affairs: the human predicament and its solution. Our lives east of Eden are marked by exile, and we need to return and reconnect; by bondage, and we need liberation; by blindness and deafness, and we need to see and hear again; by fragmentation, and we need wholeness; by violence and conflict, and we need to learn justice and peace; by self- and other- centeredness, and we need to center in God. Such are the central claims of Israel’s stories of human beginnings.
As profound truths go these seem pretty banal. Let us consider them in sequence.
Borg tells us the universe was not self-caused and is instead rooted in the sacred. On what basis does he describe this as a truth? It certainly places him at odds with the thrust of modern physics. When he suggests that this is a profound truth taught by the Bible he means simply that he believes it to be true.
That the existence of the universe is mysterious and awe-inspiring is hardly something you need the Bible to tell you. It is obvious to even the most unreflective person. Likewise for the notion that life in the womb is generally cozier than life in the world. Likewise again for the idea that world is a mix of beauty and rottenness. If Borg is correct that these are the central teachings of Genesis, then Genesis has absolutely nothing to teach us about the human condition.
Mind you, this is what he calls “taking the Bible seriously.” For centuries we were told the Bible was an inerrant communication from God, chock-full of facts directly relevant to understanding our plight as humans and our proper relationship with God. Now here comes Borg to tell us that modern scholarship has shown us the correct way of reading the text. It’s real intention was to embed a handful of vague platitudes into a collection of entirely fictional stories. Charming.
I agree completely that the lights of modern historical scholarship and textual criticism are the proper lenses through which we should read the text. Moreover, I would argue that this view is the only one that leads to a satisfying understanding of the Bible. Any attempt to treat the Bible as an inerrant communication from God, whether we are talking about YEC, OEC, or more liberal interpretations, runs afoul of its innumerable inconsistencies, tensions and contradictions, and the obvious evidence of redactions and revisions by its human editors. Treated as an anthology of ancient documents reflecting the religion, culture and politics of its times and places the Bible has much to teach us. But if you try to treat God as coauthor then the book is just a mess.
Once you take this view, however, it becomes very difficult to maintain any notion of the Bible’s elevated importance relative to other works of literature. If you want literary depth and moral force, you will do much better with Shakespeare, Hugo or Dostoevsky than you will with the Bible.