Reading Genesis

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 Was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely allegorical, with no historical content at all?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.

Comments

  1. #1 perpetualstudent
    September 7, 2010

    My understanding is that Augustine of Hippo understood the creation week as a metaphor. According to Wiki (which is, of course, inerrant :) ) he thought that the earth was created instantaneously and so the creation week had to be thought of as metaphor.

    Borg, as a Christian, is trying to keep the Bible relavent to a modern audience. The danger is that most of these arguments seem to imply that this was the original intent of the Biblical authors. It seems like it would be easier to admit that the authors of the Bible are wrong, but of course then the Bible is no longer special.

  2. #2 Andrew G.
    September 7, 2010

    I’ve encountered similar issues when attempting to debate the meaning of the Deuteronomistic History with Christians (especially parts like Joshua). The arguments I get regarding the meaning or ethical justification for the books are all implicitly predicated on them being in some sense factually true; now that we know not only that they are not but also a fair amount about when and why they were written, it’s no longer possible to square the old arguments for, for example, why it was morally justified for the Israelites to slaughter entire Canaanite tribes, with the fact that the Israelites did not actually do that.

  3. #3 miller
    September 7, 2010

    I am reminded of an old quote, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. The opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” The internet attributes it to William Blake.

  4. #4 Tyler DiPietro
    September 7, 2010

    I’ve seen people try to save the Bible by arguing that the creation myth was really always understood as metaphor and allegory. They expect you to believe that prescientific Iron-Age goat-herders were really sophisticated people who were careful to demarcate their idle storytelling and fact. I’ve learned that dealing with such sophistry is a waste of time. Theological liberalism may be a more benign reaction to the progress of scientific knowledge, but it’s every bit as silly as its fundamentalist counterpart.

  5. #5 Physicalist
    September 7, 2010

    Was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely allegorical, with no historical content at all?

    Augustine was the first name to come to my mind too. Perhaps not “no historical content,” but he seemed pretty willing to read things as loosely as necessary. (He even advocated a preformationist version of evolution, if I recall.)

  6. #6 Brian Utterback
    September 7, 2010

    I recently watched the debate from Darwin day between Richard Dawkins and Bishop Harris. When asked if he believed all of the Bible literally, the Bishop said of course not. When asked how he could tell what was literally true and what was metaphor, he replied with what sounded to me like a very bizarre system, where each story is given a kind of “weight” that said how important it was for that particular story to be true, with Adam and Eve on one end of the scale and The Resurrection at the other. Which implies to me that the default is that a story is considered true until it would be embarrassing to admit it, unless it is really important. So, some stories are generally considered metaphor, others literally true, with most falling in the middle where it can go either way, and probably does depending on the context.

  7. #7 tamakazura
    September 7, 2010

    I think your understanding of the six day creation story as a hymn would benefit from a look at other ancient religious poetry.
    For example:
    http://i-cias.com/e.o/texts/religion/egypt_hymn_aten.htm
    This particular example doesn’t have a lot of repetition. It does have some very formulaic elements such as the reference to the king as living eternally.
    Something important to remember for both the Hymn to the Aten and the Creation Story is that you are seeing them through the lens of translation. In the case of the Hymn to the Aten, it’s a victorian translation, complete with king-james english and arbitrary stanzas. The real poem doesn’t have the thees and thous and neat line-endings. We don’t know how the Egyptians would have approached it from a literary analysis standpoint, or even how it was phrased or set to music. Egyptian has a lack of punctuation, and I think ancient Hebrew does too.
    As for the creation story, you are viewing it through the lense of thousands of years of translations and changing beleifs. You say it doesn’t feel like a hymn, but do you know what a hymn would feel like to an ancient Israelite? What would a hymn look like if countless generations of scribes forgot it was originally a hymn and wrote it in prose?
    I think Mr. Borg’s argument that the repetitions and formulae are clues is pretty sound.

  8. #8 tamakazura
    September 7, 2010

    I think Borg might be right in interpreting the six day creation as a hymn. I think it is very useful to approach all of the bible from the perspective that it was written by an ancient people with their own literary tradition and genres and with neighbouring communities from which they borrowed ideas and techniques freely.
    However, this does not mean I agree with this struggle to shoehorn the bible into modern worldviews so that the message remains relevant. Yes, it’s a beloved text. Yes, it disagrees with reality. A lot of biblical scholarship seems to have the goal of redeeming the Bible from its status as an ancient document. How can it still be sacred and be false factually? Let’s reinterpret it until we get one that jives with our modern understanding of the world!
    This sort of scholarship is not based in fact and we need to accept that. It’s more like art appreciation or philosophy…all interpretations are only meaningful to the interpreter and mean nothing to anyone else. Let’s be clear with that. The minute we start saying: “well, this is what the ancient hebrews really meant by this” or “THIS is the nugget of meaning here that the writer intended, not the literal interpretation,” we are on shaky grounds.

  9. #9 Charles Sullivan
    September 7, 2010

    Have you read The Genesis Enigma by Andrew Parker? I haven’t, but the reviews paint it as a strange book coming from a scientist.

  10. #10 eric
    September 7, 2010

    I think Borg might be right in interpreting the six day creation as a hymn.

    That might be a reasonable way to interpret it, but it doesn’t get around the theological problem Jason mentioned. Whatever Genesis is, enormous numbers of Christians in different eras (and in different sects today) have believed its meaning to be different from other eras (and sects). That necessarily means whole decades, or centuries, or sects must have been wrong. This undermines inerrancy…and even just common bible study. After all, regardless of whether the bible is “right” or not, if we can’t be sure we have the right meaning, inerrancy is irrelevant.

    When so many people historically get it wrong, the bible becomes like the Douglas Adams joke about 42: even if the bible is the right answer, its useless without the right question.

  11. #11 James F. McGrath
    September 7, 2010

    Who is “we” in your claim that “we” have been told for centuries that the Bible is inerrant?

    We’ve been told for decades that historically people for whom the Bible is important have treated it as inerrant, and have treated it at literally factual, and so on.

    What all this suggests to me is that it is time to stop believing fundamentalists who claim this and look instead to see whether their historical claims are justified, and whether their claims to “believe the whole Bible” and/or “take it literally” are consistently true or merely a PR claim that too few see through.

  12. #12 Tuco
    September 7, 2010

    Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally, by Marcus Borg

    What?! Ten comments in and nobody has made a Star Trek joke? I’m not even a Trekker (Trekkie? Trekist?) and that’s the first thing I thought of.

    Come to think of it, though, maybe the whole “hive-mind-resistance-is-futile-monolith” metaphor is a little too apropos…

    Can phasers be set to “rational?”

  13. #13 Mandrellian
    September 7, 2010

    Borg insists that the ancient Israelites *always* intended for Genesis to be allegorical and non-literal. Given the preponderance of evidence to the contrary, the only logical conclusion to draw is this:

    Borg’s insistence is futile.

  14. #14 Stewart, aka Luigi
    September 7, 2010

    Very well-argued, and of course generalizable to all liberal Christian arguments, on Genesis and the OT. Some argue that, for example, the creation story or stories were never meant to be taken literally, which is surely false, while others argue that we now know that they aren’t literally true and that their truths are similar to those of great fiction [though that must surely make them uncomfortable - they want to, and need to claim more than just 'fictional' truth and hence grasp at ideas of 'profound' truth]. It’s an impossible situation for them, and one almost feels sorry for them, while always hoping to land that killer blow. Or is it that the killer blow has already been landed and they’re going around thinking they’re still alive, religiously speaking.

  15. #15 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 8, 2010

    tamakazura –

    As for the creation story, you are viewing it through the lense of thousands of years of translations and changing beleifs. You say it doesn’t feel like a hymn, but do you know what a hymn would feel like to an ancient Israelite? What would a hymn look like if countless generations of scribes forgot it was originally a hymn and wrote it in prose?

    You make a good point. But the fact remains that Borg was the one who argued, solely on the basis of a few repeated phrases, that the creation story was adapted from a hymn, and therefore was not thought to contain historical content. That seems a bit thin, especially given that the repeated phrases can also be seen as emphasizing certain important points. For what purpose was the hymn adapted into prose at all if the intent was not to record historical events?

    I am no expert on ancient poetry, but the hymn to the Aten to which you link is precisely what I picture when I think of a hymn. I was also thinking of the hymns I learned in Sunday school, like Adon Olam. In both cases the praise to substance ratio is rather high. Neither of these reads remotely like the first chapter of Genesis. The creation account is not written from the perspective of someone on Earth praising God for his beneficence. It has no praise language at all. It is just an accounting of specific things God is said to have done.

    Furthermore, as I said in the post, it seems clear that the creation account was meant to provide an explanation for the origin of the sabbath, and to contrast Jewish beliefs favorably against its rivals of the time. I don’t see how a story with no historical content at all could serve that purpose.

    James McGrath –

    Who is “we” in your claim that “we” have been told for centuries that the Bible is inerrant?

    Well, at a minimum “we” refers to all of us who have questioned the divine inspiration of the Bible.

    We’ve been told for decades that historically people for whom the Bible is important have treated it as inerrant, and have treated it at literally factual, and so on.

    What all this suggests to me is that it is time to stop believing fundamentalists who claim this and look instead to see whether their historical claims are justified, and whether their claims to “believe the whole Bible” and/or “take it literally” are consistently true or merely a PR claim that too few see through.

    I don’t think you can fob this off on modern fundamentalists. I’m pretty sure that overly grandiose claims about the Bible’s significance have a long history in Christian thought. If your point is that fundamentalists are frequently ignorant of what the Bible says and do not apply its principles consistently then I certainly agree. But they are not the ones who invented the idea that the Bible is an inerrant communication from God.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “their historical claims.” To which claims do you refer?

  16. #16 freetoken
    September 8, 2010

    Besides Augustine, also recommend you read Origen for how one of the prominent early Church fathers looked at Genesis.

    As for the first parts of Genesis being a “hymn”, please keep in mind that since nearly everybody in that day would have been illiterate then the ability to memorize a story would have great importance.

    Finally, another thing to keep in mind is that creationism (as a movement) is a reactionary movement. Indeed, Protestantism is a reactionary movement. Certain doctrines become important in reactionary circles because of what they are *not* as much as what they are.

  17. #17 386sx
    September 8, 2010

    I look at “profoundly true” the same way I look at my neighborhood Burger King®. When you go to Burger King, you can “have it your way”, whatever you want. (Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, etc.)

    “Profoundly true” is the “have it your way” of religious apologetics. They can have it true and false both at the same time, and they can have it as profound as they want. For example it is very profound that God observes the Sabbath, and it is also very shallow. There isn’t anything profound about God observing the Sabbath, and it’s actually kind of a stupid thing for a god to do, and yet it is also very profound. Hold the pickles, no pickles whatsoever at all thank you, plus an order of extra pickles.

  18. #18 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 8, 2010

    386sx –

    I look at “profoundly true” the same way I look at my neighborhood Burger King®. When you go to Burger King, you can “have it your way”, whatever you want. (Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, etc.)

    Excellent analogy! When I first read Borg’s discussion of Genesis, my first, somewhat cynical, thought was that “profoundly true” was just a euphemism for “false.”

  19. #19 Pseudonym
    September 8, 2010

    Jason:

    But the fact remains that Borg was the one who argued, solely on the basis of a few repeated phrases, that the creation story was adapted from a hymn, and therefore was not thought to contain historical content.

    That’s a fair criticism, which would be a good thing to put in a peer review of a paper in a history journal which made this claim without so much as a citation. For a book intended for lay people, it’s a little more forgivable, because it’s tangential to Borg’s main point.

    I don’t think you can fob this off on modern fundamentalists. I’m pretty sure that overly grandiose claims about the Bible’s significance have a long history in Christian thought. If your point is that fundamentalists are frequently ignorant of what the Bible says and do not apply its principles consistently then I certainly agree. But they are not the ones who invented the idea that the Bible is an inerrant communication from God.

    I think you’re oversimplifying this by quite a large margin.

    When you ask “Was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely allegorical, with no historical content at all?”, the answer is almost certainly that there were very few if any.

    But similarly, was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely historical, with no allegorical content at all? If we’re talking prior to the Reformation, the answer is, yet again, very few if any. And the further back in Christian history you go, the more allegorical it gets.

    It’s the position that Genesis 1 is purely historical and scientific which is a modern fundamentalist position. That is what I believe James was trying to say.

  20. #20 yogi-one
    September 8, 2010

    As human understanding, and in particular, scientific understanding of humanity’s past grows, there are times when we will have to revise or give up completely old narratives that seemed to satisfy us in the past.

    The truth that is unfolding about the Bible is that it is basically a collection that has been translated, added to, and more than once severely edited, over a time span that basically covers our whole western civilization (last 5000 years or so).

    It is a a collection of stuff that can tell us a lot about the early history of Western Civilization, containing not only myths, hymns, and stories, but also genealogies, lists of laws, and a cultural feel for the times in which they were written.

    That’s pretty profound, and a great store of knowledge, if you ask me.

    And that’s before we introduce the idea that “God” somehow divinely authored the material.

    So the Bible is basically an ancient cultural collection. I think the time has come to be realistic about that. But I also think that is what makes it so great.

    I think looking to the Bible for the presence of God fogs your brain up and makes you miss the treasures that it actually contains. To the degree that you want the Bible to confirm what you already believe, or to use it as a tool to make other people believe what you want them to believe, or as an emotional crutch to help you face life’s unknowns and uncertainties, to that degree you block out the true richness of a collection such as the Bible, which lies precisely in its preservation of culture over an enormous timespan (well, enormous compared to the timespan of most written historical accounts).

    So in a certain sense, I’m advocating the reverse argument: that growing out of trying to believe the Bible literally or as being written by God is precisely what will help people get a higher quality of knowledge and wisdom from it. The idea of the Bible as a cultural preservation in no way “desecrates” it, but instead allows a greater, as well as more reality-based, understanding of it, and of the culture(s) that produced it.

  21. #21 Anton Mates
    September 8, 2010

    Furthermore, as I said in the post, it seems clear that the creation account was meant to provide an explanation for the origin of the sabbath, and to contrast Jewish beliefs favorably against its rivals of the time. I don’t see how a story with no historical content at all could serve that purpose.

    I think “explanation” is probably the wrong word, at least under the position Borg holds (and I mostly agree with him on that limited point.) The creation account wasn’t meant to explain why Jews kept the sabbath, it was meant to reinforce the command that they keep the sabbath. It was, to paraphrase you, intended to illustrate a moral (or at least normative) principle. “Even God kept the sabbath, so you’d better do it too, readers.” For this purpose, I think it’s correct to say that the question of historical content was largely irrelevant.

    Similarly, yeah, Genesis may* have been intended to defend monotheism against polytheistic rivals. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was intended to do so using factual arguments. It could simply serve as an illustration of how to be monotheistic/henotheistic, taking proper care to credit your god for everything in creation. Whether your praise happens to be accurate isn’t really the point–it makes God happy regardless, and strengthens the reader’s loyalty to him.

    This is often the case with myths. Think of, for instance, the Aeneid. It was celebrated by Vergil’s contemporaries because it provided examples and justification for (a certain version of) Roman values. (Or, at least, a certain take on those values which was popular in the Augustan court.) But it’s unlikely that anyone at the time thought the Aeneid was particularly factually accurate–Vergil wasn’t considered a prophet or an infallible historian or anything like that. He was just a guy writing, essentially, historical fiction, but historical fiction with a really good message.

    *I’m pretty skeptical of this claim, though you’re quite right that Christian theologians often advance it. For one thing, if the authors of Genesis meant it to be monotheistic, they did a really crappy job. For another, many polytheistic faiths have no problem with the idea of a supreme creator god, so why the creation accounts of Genesis would serve as a “rebuke” to them I’m not sure.

  22. #22 GravityIsJustATheory
    September 8, 2010

    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 … 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.

    This seems like a non-sequiter to me, and I’m not talking about the claim that repetition implies liturgy.

    Why shouldn’t a hymn or liturgy contain factual information?

    Or at least, why should the congregation not think it is factual information?

    If every Sabbath, the priest started the service by chanting “On the 1st day, God…”, and the congregation answered with “And God saw that it was good”, why would they not take it to be true? (Assuming the priest didn’t follow up by saying “Of course, that was all just a methaphor – we don’t know how God really made the world. All we can say for sure are the laws God insisted we live by, which is what my sermon in going to be about”).

    ***

    Also, something that has been bothering me for a while: what are “Truths”? Its a word that I see used a lot in religious apologetics, but I’ve never seen a clear definition of it.

    Truth (dictionary definition) is “the state or quality of being true”, and true is “accurate, factual, correct, not false”.

    So you would think “truths” are just the plural of “truth”, i.e. several things that are not false.

    However, as far as I can tell, the word “Truths” (often capitalized, and/or given a qualifier such as “deep” or “profound”), seems to be used to describe vague platitudes and truisms like “life is hard” or “the universe is mysterious”, or “helping other people makes society function better”.

  23. #23 eric
    September 8, 2010

    Freetoken @16: As for the first parts of Genesis being a “hymn”, please keep in mind that since nearly everybody in that day would have been illiterate then the ability to memorize a story would have great importance.

    I think that’s a good point. In a preliterate society, you would expect pretty much everything to have a cadence or form that would make it easy to memorize – factual information along with nonfactual. Rhymes and songs make pretty good mnemonics, after all. So literary style is probably not a good guide to deciding ‘literal or figurative.’ To the extent that Borg’s argument relies on any hymn-like structure to imply allegory, its a weak argument.

    I also think we tend to see past viewpoints as monolithic where they weren’t. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Jewish rabbis in 500 BC had fought this same argument, and the same goes for Christians 100 AD – 1900 AD. From what I vaguely recall reading Elaine Pagels (so I could be wrong on this), some early sects of Christians took even the ressurection story to be allegory.

  24. #24 MKR
    September 8, 2010

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how it is only after the Bible’s narratives have been proved false that we learn that they were meant in a non-literal sense all along.

    I am reminded of Peewee Herman taking a spill on his bicycle and then saying, “I meant to do that!”

  25. #25 Greg Laden
    September 8, 2010

    Interesting, and well analyzed. I’ll be looking forward to this book!

    The following is a list of my own profoundly true version of the bible, and a bonus “bible sed” project post:

    http://scienceblogs.com/gregladen/series/bible_as_ethnography/

  26. #26 heddle
    September 8, 2010

    MKR,

    It’s funny, isn’t it, how it is only after the Bible’s narratives have been proved false that we learn that they were meant in a non-literal sense all along.

    Only if it has to be true to be funny. Because long before there was any scientific reason not to take Genesis literally we have (as mentioned) Augustine and Origen adopting non-literal views. And then there was Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, … (a veritable who’s who of church fathers.)

    The pithy “Isn’t it funny how the interpretation only becomes non-literal when it is proved wrong” sounds like a nice bitch-slap—but in truth it is demonstrably false. At least in the case of the creation account.

    On the other hand…

    I am in rare agreement with my YEC brothers on one point regarding Genesis–it must be historic, especially when talking about Adam. Given the multiple and theologically important NT references to Adam it becomes impossible not to do extreme violence to the NT text if you try to support the argument that Adam was not an actual person. If you could just dismiss Genesis in vacou that would be one thing–but you can’t.

    Interesting post Jason.

  27. #27 Kevin
    September 8, 2010

    So, he’s defining “objectively false” as “profoundly true”.

    Mr. Orwell, meet Mr. Borg. Mr. Borg, Mr. Orwell.

  28. #28 James Sweet
    September 8, 2010

    I like this whole “profoundly true” thing. I can see all sorts of uses for it.

    “It is profoundly true that I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” –Bill Clinton

    “It is profoundly true that I never took steroids.” –Mark McGuire

    “I am profoundly not a crook.” –Richard Nixon

  29. #29 James Sweet
    September 8, 2010

    @heddle:

    Still, you have to admit that MKR’s comment reveals a profound truth…

  30. #30 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 8, 2010

    Pseudonym –

    But similarly, was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely historical, with no allegorical content at all? If we’re talking prior to the Reformation, the answer is, yet again, very few if any. And the further back in Christian history you go, the more allegorical it gets.

    It’s the position that Genesis 1 is purely historical and scientific which is a modern fundamentalist position. That is what I believe James was trying to say.

    If that was James (McGrath’s) point then I have no problem with it (except for the small caveat that I don’t think YEC’s view Genesis as purely historical with no symbolic content at all). However, I really don’t think I oversimplified anything. I wrote, “Certainly not everyone hewed to modern YEC orthodoxy, but the consensus was far closer to modern creationism than it was to modern theological liberalism.”

    Augustine’s name keeps coming up in this discussion, and certainly he endorsed the idea that the days in Genesis were not 24 hour days. But his exegesis of Chapter Two is very much along the lines of modern creationism. He also regarded the flood and the tower of Babel as real events. And he believed that scripture clearly taught that the Earth was on the order of six thousand years old.

    The reason I phrased things the way I did is that it seems to me that accepting modern science means discarding pretty much any historical content from the first eleven chapters. That is, they must be treated as purely allegorical. Many people today justify that view on the grounds that people like Augustine were endorsing non-literal interpretations even before the birth of modern science (even to the point of saying specifically that scripture should not be interpreted in a way that contradicts science). In reply I think it is important to point out that he was willing to countenance non-literal interpretations on certain points (for reasons that are not entirely convincing I would add) but sounded very much like a modern creationist on many others. As far as I am aware, there is no tradition of interpretation within Christianity that says that literal history does not begin until Chapter 12 of Genesis.

    Anton Mates –

    This is often the case with myths. Think of, for instance, the Aeneid. It was celebrated by Vergil’s contemporaries because it provided examples and justification for (a certain version of) Roman values. (Or, at least, a certain take on those values which was popular in the Augustan court.) But it’s unlikely that anyone at the time thought the Aeneid was particularly factually accurate–Vergil wasn’t considered a prophet or an infallible historian or anything like that. He was just a guy writing, essentially, historical fiction, but historical fiction with a really good message.

    But I think you have put your finger on a key difference between the Aeneid and the Genesis text. No one considered Virgil a prophet or an infallible historian. The P story was written, it is generally assumed, by the priests of the time, and they were generally considered to have special insight into questions about God. Furthermore, Genesis 1 simply lacks any of the sort of language that one would expect from epic poetry or a work of fiction. (Contrast it with the story of Jonah, for example, which I think contains many literary constructs (exaggerations, plays on words, fantastical elements) that clearly identify it as fiction). The Aeneid is a good yarn, Genesis is not.

    The Genesis story is simply a list of specific things God did. I find it hard to believe that the religious authorities of the time would be so casual about making such specific claims about God unless they believed them to be true. In Exodus the events of Genesis 1 are referred to specifically as the reason for keeping the Sabbath. Again, I don’t see how this makes sense unless the story was believed to be true.

    Incidentally, in light of our previous discussion about whether it is reasonable to say that the Bible was written by both God and men, I can’t resist this quote from Borg (this from a section entitled “Why Our Perspective Needs to be Either-Or”:

    To anticipate a possible objection: Why see the question as an either-or choice? Why not see the Bible as both divine and human? In my experience, affirming that it is both only compounds the confusion.

    Ha! Take that!

    heddle –

    Glad you found the post interesting.

  31. #31 Dan L.
    September 8, 2010

    Pseudonym@19:

    But similarly, was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely historical, with no allegorical content at all? If we’re talking prior to the Reformation, the answer is, yet again, very few if any. And the further back in Christian history you go, the more allegorical it gets.

    It’s the position that Genesis 1 is purely historical and scientific which is a modern fundamentalist position. That is what I believe James was trying to say.

    I’m not sure I understand your argument. To the extent that I can follow the quoted text, you seem to say:
    (1) There are very few clerics espousing purely allegorical readings of the Bible prior to the reformation,
    BUT
    (2) There are very few clerics espousing purely literal readings of the Bible prior to the reformation
    Therefore
    (3) Therefore, early Jewish and Christian clerics must have considered them allegorical.

    Do (1) and (2) imply (3)? I don’t see how. In fact, (2) is explained nicely by (1) if we just assume that it was commonly understood to be a factual account. We have to consider the local standards of a factual account, of course, which were at the time well short of scientific or historical standards of evidence for today, and much more permissive of hyperbole and other rhetorical flourishes.

    But that’s kind of my point. The early authors and audiences of the Torah and Bible would have accepted such clearly mythological accounts as factual because they had no alternative means to understand the world around them. When you say Genesis wasn’t meant to be scientific or historical I can agree because those cultural endeavors were not known to those who compiled Genesis. But it’s not clear that they weren’t meant as factual accounts, which amounts to largely the same thing as a historical/scientific account.

    On the other hand, I agree it’s too simplistic to assume that everyone always considered these stories to be factual. Ebonmuse has some good stuff in “Conspiracy of Silence” about early Christian apologists seeming to argue that the gospels are purely allegorical (even while other Christian apologists evidently disagreed).

  32. #32 Your Name's Not Bruce?
    September 8, 2010

    Thank you Mr. Borg for telling us what those long dead writers “really” meant. So now we have not only a god of the gaps hiding in the details of quantum physics but a literary god of the gaps as well, trying to stay alive (or “relevant”) somewhere amongst the metaphors. Liberal theology has beaten a hasty retreat in the face of the patent absurdity of maintaining the literal accuracy of the parts of the bible that clash with how we know the universe really works. This goes along with the retreat from biblical morality (and punishments). Most Christians and Jews have long ago dropped many of the odious and abhorrent “moral” injunctions which would now be regarded as barbaric. (If only the followers of Islam could do the same.)

    I have never heard an explanation of how the “godness” of the bible got in there to begin with. What exactly does “divinely inspired” actually mean? How does that work? Did someone take dictation? Were the prophets and patriarchs interviewed? Did they write stuff down themselves? Did the scribes hear voices in their heads? Did god take up pen and papyrus (or stylus and clay)him/her/itself? How exactly is this supposed to work? Where is the chain of evidence that there was godness in it in the first place? As Tom Paine points out in The Age of Reason, someone might receive a revelation, but as soon as they tell someone else (or write it down) it is no longer a revelation to those who are told of it or read about it.

    And what about all the editors and compilers? Did they hear voices or get memos from god directing them on how to arrange it? It is not miraculously protected from typos and insertions. Apart from the fact that there are people who still believe it is somehow holy, there is no reason to regard the bible (or the koran) or any other “sacred” book as anything other than a completely human product. Who takes the sacred writings of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome or any other extinct religion as the words of divinities anymore? What makes the sacred writings of any currently practiced religion any different other than the belief of its adherents?

  33. #33 gillt
    September 8, 2010

    Let’s assume that the Borg is right, that Genesis was intended as allegory. As unlikely as that seems, what is the justification then for building one’s faith around something which may or may not have really happened as told?

  34. #34 J. J. Ramsey
    September 8, 2010

    Rosenhouse:

    The Aeneid is a good yarn, Genesis is not.
    The Genesis story is simply a list of specific things God did.

    You are using “Genesis” far too loosely and confusingly. When you write, “The Aeneid is a good yarn, Genesis is not,” it looks like you are comparing the whole of the Aeneid with the whole book of Genesis. Most of the book of Genesis is an extended soap opera, not just a list of things God did, so one might question the whole “good yarn” part.

  35. #35 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 8, 2010

    J. J. Ramsey –

    In context I think it is pretty clear I am talking about the first chapter of Genesis.

  36. #36 themann1086
    September 8, 2010

    gillt:

    Let’s assume that the Borg is right, that Genesis was intended as allegory. As unlikely as that seems, what is the justification then for building one’s faith around something which may or may not have really happened as told?

    This is the point I always bring up. “Ok, so what is it a metaphor about? What is the allegory intended to relay?” I’m usually brushed off with hand-waving at this point though…

  37. #37 eric
    September 8, 2010

    Ok, so what is it a metaphor about? What is the allegory intended to relay?

    Beware of naked women offering goodies?

    Even God takes a break from virtual world-building occasionally, so should you?

    When the snake starts talking to you, you’ve probably already eaten the magic fruit and you’re in for a bad trip?

  38. #38 Wowbagger
    September 8, 2010

    gillt wrote:

    Let’s assume that the Borg is right, that Genesis was intended as allegory. As unlikely as that seems, what is the justification then for building one’s faith around something which may or may not have really happened as told?

    No no no no no no – you’ve got it wrong. All the really important bits happened; as someone upthread already noted, it’s only the bits that blatantly contradict science, and/or contemporary moral/ethical standards, and/or those interpretations that, despite being equally valid and supported by scripture, don’t support your particular sect’s position on things are the parts that didn’t happen and are (and always were – no, honest!) intended as metaphor.

    Remember, the liberal Christian cafeteria has a neverending supply of the most elusive of baked goods: the cake you can both have and eat, too!

  39. #39 Tim Harris
    September 8, 2010

    A very nice fisking of Mr Borg. One thing that intrigues me is how far we are justified in asserting or accepting at face value the claim that the monotheistic religions are in fact monotheistic? There are seraphim, cherubim, archangels, angels, devils, djinns and evil spirits, not to mention, in Christianity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (apologies for the capitals) – in fact whole menageries of supernatural beings… There seems in fact to be no fundamental difference from those polytheistic religions that the ‘monotheists’ have spent centuries decrying.

  40. #40 oldfuzz
    September 8, 2010

    To see where one contemporary religious scholar, Don Cupitt has gone, visit his The Religion of Ordinary Life at http://www.doncupitt.com/philosophylife/don-cupitt-philosophy-of-life-religion-of-ordinary-life.html

    Another interesting contemporary writing is Lloyd Geering’s Coming Back to Earth.

    Both are colleagues of Borg and scholars with The Westar Institute, home of the (in)famous Jesus Seminar which published The Five Gospels.

    It took you a long time to get to what I see as the main point, “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.” Spot on.

  41. #41 Pseudonym
    September 8, 2010

    themann1086:

    This is the point I always bring up. “Ok, so what is it a metaphor about? What is the allegory intended to relay?”

    First off, it describes creation as a deliberate act of love by a single deity. This contrasts it from pretty much all other creation stories of the time and place, where the world is formed more or less indirectly while a pantheon of deities conflict with each other.

    Secondly, it describes a state of innocence followed by a fall. As with “just so” stories from pretty much all cultures, it provides a fanciful origin story for an observable phenomenon. Humans have this tendency to do what they’re not supposed to do and not to do what they know they’re supposed to do. Christians refer to this as “original sin”. The metaphor argues that we were supposed to be better than this.

    That’s just a couple of points off the top of my head. They may not be relevant points to you, but for theologians, they make sense.

    Dan L:

    I’m not sure I understand your argument.

    I get that a lot. Sorry.

    When you say Genesis wasn’t meant to be scientific or historical I can agree because those cultural endeavors were not known to those who compiled Genesis. But it’s not clear that they weren’t meant as factual accounts, which amounts to largely the same thing as a historical/scientific account.

    The closest equivalent we have today is indigenous animist religions, such as Native Americans, Australian Aborigines and so on. It’s clear that those people do not see the vast majority of their cultural stories as being in any way literal.

    It’s not a perfect comparison, to be sure. But if it helps, you also get the strong impression from the Pentateuch that Yahweh was specifically the god of the Hebrews. Other religions and other deities are spoken of in a way that’s a bit closer to what we today would call “relativism” than the exile-era material is. Those other “false” religions and “false” deities had power, they just weren’t as powerful as Yahweh. Consider the Egyptian priests who could do tricks, just not ones that were as impressive as Moses’ tricks.

    So my main point is that Genesis 1 doesn’t really fit into our modern categories such as “allegory”, “science”, “fact” and so on. It’s much more fluid than that. To fail to recognise this is not to take the Bible, or indeed any other comparable text, seriously.

    Tim Harris:

    One thing that intrigues me is how far we are justified in asserting or accepting at face value the claim that the monotheistic religions are in fact monotheistic?

    If you’re talking about medieval Roman Catholicism, I think you’re 100% correct. I don’t think that it was monotheistic, certainly not in the modern sense. If you’re talking about Marcus Borg, your objection doesn’t apply. For everyone in between, your mileage may vary.

  42. #42 Ahab
    September 8, 2010

    I’ve never been comfortable with this interpretation of Genesis as “theological truth” because it sugar-coats the intended messages of the text. While the Genesis creation story may inspire awe toward creation, it also contains content that elevates humans above other creatures, denigrates women, and discourages the pursuit of knowledge. I have no need for such toxic so-called truths, literal or metaphorical.

    As mythology, the Genesis creation story is a fascinating book. As a source of spiritual truth, not so much…

  43. #43 Ian Thompson
    September 8, 2010

    You ask “Was anyone of prominence during this time arguing that the first eleven chapters were purely allegorical, with no historical content at all?”

    One simple answer from previous centuries is Emanuel Swedenborg: see the Theology section. He bases all his major work on finding a internal meaning to all the bible, and especially insists that Genesis 1-11 do NOT have true historical intentions. Genesis 12 on, however, he does take historically. That is where he draws the line.

  44. #44 H.H.
    September 9, 2010

    My understanding is that Augustine of Hippo understood the creation week as a metaphor. According to Wiki (which is, of course, inerrant :) ) he thought that the earth was created instantaneously and so the creation week had to be thought of as metaphor.

    So the reason Augustine of Hippo doubted the six day creation myth found in Genesis wasn’t that six days is far, far too short a time-frame to encompass the formation of the earth and the development of all life, but that six days was too much time? Wow, that’s hilarious.

  45. #45 Anton Mates
    September 9, 2010

    eric@23,

    In a preliterate society, you would expect pretty much everything to have a cadence or form that would make it easy to memorize – factual information along with nonfactual. Rhymes and songs make pretty good mnemonics, after all. So literary style is probably not a good guide to deciding ‘literal or figurative.’ To the extent that Borg’s argument relies on any hymn-like structure to imply allegory, its a weak argument.

    At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the version of Genesis that we have is not–almost by definition!–the product of a preliterate society. It drew on preliterate sources, certainly, but it was put together in a post-Iron Age society under Babylonian or Persian rule, where the elite had been literate for probably over a millennium.

    So it’s entirely possible that the composers and redactors of Genesis saw that structure as hymn-like and a marker of figurative language, even if their nonliterate forebears actually used it for plain factual statements.

    But I agree that Borg’s argument there is very weak. He’d need to bring in a lot of examples of both literal and figurative language from the same milieu to make his case.

    I also think we tend to see past viewpoints as monolithic where they weren’t. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Jewish rabbis in 500 BC had fought this same argument, and the same goes for Christians 100 AD – 1900 AD.

    Rabbis were certainly fighting over it in 200-500 AD; Talmudic commentary (particularly in Tractate Hagigah) records a wide variety of different rabbinical takes on the creation account(s). (Needless to say, none of these takes particularly match our modern understanding of history.)

    In the medieval era, both Maimonides and Nahmanides took heavily allegorical approaches to interpreting Genesis; Nahmanides cited the Talmudic sources in arguing that the meaning of Genesis accounts was obscure, largely spiritual and meant to be understood only by the enlightened.

    From what I vaguely recall reading Elaine Pagels (so I could be wrong on this), some early sects of Christians took even the ressurection story to be allegory.

    From what I recall reading Bart Ehrman, a lot of them took it to be flatly false. The Ebionite-ish sects, who were closer to traditional Judaism, saw Jesus as a human messiah who had died and wasn’t physically resurrected. On the other end, the docetic sects and a lot of the Gnostics saw Christ as a non-physical being who couldn’t have been killed in the first place.

  46. #46 Pseudonym
    September 9, 2010

    I’m curious how many people here who are making judgements about the validity of Borg’s arguments have some expertise (lay or otherwise) on the literature of the Ancient Near East. Show of hands?

    Otherwise this is the equivalent of a bunch of economists deciding how good the evidence is for climate change.

  47. #47 Tim Harris
    September 9, 2010

    No, pseudonym, I am not talking solely about mediaeval Catholicism, although I will agree that things were more obvious there; I am talking about all self-proclaimed ‘monotheistic’ religions, now and they always have been. They posit the existence of numerous supernatural beings – archangels, satans, et al – who may be denied the name of ‘gods’ but who would be cheerfully regarded as gods in any non-monotheistic religion; what seems to have happened in the monotheistic religions is the arrogation of the highest god to a position of nearly unchallenged power (so that he doesn’t have to take account of his wife’s feelings or squabble with her, as, say, Zeus does). There are also, in contemporary Catholicism at least, the saints and Mary, who intercede on behalf of men, and who do not seem radically different to the demi-gods of old or, say, to the bodhisattvas of Buddhist tradition; very shortly, an Englishman, John Henry Newman, will be beatified so that eventually he may be made a saint (that is to say, a demi-god) who has a particular place in Heaven and may act as an intercessor. And then you have the triune nature of the Christian god at least, a nature that is accepted by all Christians and that is described as a mystery in part, it may well be, because of a desire to prevent the monotheistic Christian faith from being seen as just another polytheistic cult.

  48. #48 Tim Harris
    September 9, 2010

    ‘now and as they always have been’.

  49. #49 Tim Harris
    September 9, 2010

    And ‘made a saint’ would better read as ‘recognised as a saint’.

  50. #50 Tim Harris
    September 9, 2010

    And finally, pseudonym, in response to your final sally, it is a ploy of last resort to judge an argument by its provenance rather than by what it addresses and examines.

  51. #51 eric
    September 9, 2010

    Otherwise this is the equivalent of a bunch of economists deciding how good the evidence is for climate change.

    Indeed. Its also equivalent to a pseudonymous non-logician arguing logic, wouldn’t you agree?

    In any event, I take it then that it is your contention that Borg’s arguments have not been shown to be invalid? I.e. they remain valid? That Borg is right when he says that (a) historically, Genesis wasn’t taken literally and (b) it is irrelevant whether the Bible is factually true or false? Its seems to me that that outcome is worse for fundamentalists than the alternative!

  52. #52 Gingerbaker
    September 9, 2010

    “… From what I vaguely recall reading Elaine Pagels (so I could be wrong on this), some early sects of Christians took even the ressurection story to be allegory.

    From what I recall reading Bart Ehrman, a lot of them took it to be flatly false. The Ebionite-ish sects, who were closer to traditional Judaism, saw Jesus as a human messiah who had died and wasn’t physically resurrected….”

    I don’t think you will find that Borg or any other modern Biblical Scholar will deny that Jesus was, in absolute fact, resurrected. It is the One True Miracle that they will allow to reside inside their otherwise modern philosophy. (Would you not agree, heddle?)

    As a singularity it can be held in unconscious compartmentalization and rationalized away, like a particularly unflattering mirror that they always avoid without a second thought. Which is a particularly useful trick, considering that nearly every Biblical Scholar’s employment contract mandates explicitly a sworn belief in the historicity and resurrection of JC.

    I also can’t help but detect the slightest hint of an antisemitic musk to the common and utilitarian jettison of so many Old Testament truths in order to support modern New Testament apologetics. The OT really seems to be truly useful to the modern Biblical Scholar, in the main, as a proof source for Original Sin. Which, as Jason points out, is a remarkable idea since the whole Eden story is now supposedly allegory. Nevertheless, it does raise its ugly head a lot in most theodicy, which is primarily NT apologetics after all.

  53. #53 Divalent
    September 9, 2010

    It would appear that “profoundly true” refers to something that, upon various degrees of consideration/reflection/contemplation, evokes a strong, important, and desired emotional response in an individual, regardless of whether it is literally true or not, *OR* would evoke a strong undesired response if it were clearly false. While being literally true is best, various degrees of “lesser truth” (e.g., metaphorical or allegorical) will suffice to hold off cognitive dissonance, but avoidance and/or denialism can also be used if necessary if that particular profound truth is important enough.

    Most modern “liberal” sects of Christianity are comfortable with using metaphorical, allegorical, or historical interpretations to hang on when reality says something cannot be literally true. But those intermediate options are not available for sects that hold the bible as a literally true “God’s word” account of the state of the universe; avoidance (e.g., don’t read parts of the bible too closely) and denialism are often the only options.

  54. #54 heddle
    September 9, 2010

    Gingerbaker,

    I don’t think you will find that Borg or any other modern Biblical Scholar will deny that Jesus was, in absolute fact, resurrected. It is the One True Miracle that they will allow to reside inside their otherwise modern philosophy. (Would you not agree, heddle?)

    If I understand you, I think you are not correct. I don’t know about Borg. But the Jesus Seminar denied that Jesus was bodily resurrected. Even voted on it with their colored beads, like serious scholars do. And people like Bishop Spong also deny the bodily resurrection.

  55. #55 RPS
    September 9, 2010

    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.

    Source please. I can’t pretend my research is exhaustive, but I don’t find much of significance about inerrancy before The Fundamentals in the early 20th C. The concept seems to be a reactionary construct and to have emerged beginning no more than about two centuries ago.

  56. #56 H.H.
    September 9, 2010

    So the OT writers thought like Tea Partiers. It is not true that Obama is a Muslim, it is profoundly true that Obama is a Muslim.

  57. #57 Modusoperandi
    September 9, 2010

    MKR “I am reminded of Peewee Herman taking a spill on his bicycle and then saying, ‘I meant to do that!’”

    Francis: “Pee-wee listen to reason.”
    [Pee-Wee cuffs his hand around his ear in a listening motion]
    Francis: “Pee-wee!”
    Pee-wee: “Shh! I’m listening to reason.”

    themann1086 “This is the point I always bring up. “Ok, so what is it a metaphor about? What is the allegory intended to relay?” I’m usually brushed off with hand-waving at this point though…”
    “Obey.”

  58. #58 Gingerbaker
    September 9, 2010

    Heddle said:

    ” I don’t think you will find that Borg or any other modern Biblical Scholar will deny that Jesus was, in absolute fact, resurrected. It is the One True Miracle that they will allow to reside inside their otherwise modern philosophy. (Would you not agree, heddle?)

    If I understand you, I think you are not correct. I don’t know about Borg. But the Jesus Seminar denied that Jesus was bodily resurrected. Even voted on it with their colored beads, like serious scholars do. And people like Bishop Spong also deny the bodily resurrection.”

    Cute! Ok, I should have proofread better. Change “any other” to “almost all”. Or do I need to post Seminary, Divinity School, and Theological school employment contracts?

    Heh heh – nobody likes the Jesus Seminar, including the Jesus Seminar!

  59. #59 oldfuzz
    September 9, 2010

    “For centuries we were told the Bible was an inerrant communication from God…” Until Galileo, science had little to offer that refuted a literal interpretation of the Biblical account. Even then, the scientific news was about a created mechanical world with no evidence suggesting an evolutionary one until geology and Darwin added that element. Galileo upset the Pope. Hooke and Darwin sank the boat.

    While science is about realism, religion has always been about non-realism. For those who dismiss the concept, religion is mistaken. Since the concept of non-realism requires conjecture with no hope of proof who could argue with those who dismiss it as meaningless. Not I, but the central issue of religion is the idea of the meaning of living a human life adhering to appropriate values as one goes.

    Being told the Bible is literally true is one thing. Buying it is another. Why would anyone do so? Ignorance? Fear? Unwillingness to think for themselves? (Would not that be a sin? Genesis admonishes to eat all you can from the tree of life. Is not thinking–reason–the fruit of that tree?)

  60. #60 Wowbagger
    September 9, 2010

    oldfuzz wrote:

    Is not thinking–reason–the fruit of that tree?

    Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has.‘ – John Calvin.

  61. #61 heddle
    September 9, 2010

    Wowbagger,

    ‘Reason is a whore, the greatest enemy that faith has.’ – John Calvin

    ‘fraid not. John Calvin is da Man. He’d never say such a thing. Must’ve been some lesser Reformer.

  62. #62 Anton Mates
    September 10, 2010

    But I think you have put your finger on a key difference between the Aeneid and the Genesis text. No one considered Virgil a prophet or an infallible historian. The P story was written, it is generally assumed, by the priests of the time, and they were generally considered to have special insight into questions about God.

    I don’t think that’s true at all. The Aaronite priesthood, the Kohanim, formed a separate institution from both the prophets and the judges–they were not expected to communicate or interpret the nature and desires of God. They were, essentially, religious technicians, qualified by heredity, behavioral purity and physical perfection to perform temple sacrifices and other such tasks. Ancient Israelites would not have expected them to offer special theological insight, any more (probably even less) than ancient Romans would have expected Julius Caesar to do so just because he’d served a couple of terms as pontifex maximus.

    Beyond that, the P story was usually thought to have be written by a priest, one unknown to us, and edited and added to by several others as it circulated through the Aaronite community. That doesn’t suggest that it was initially viewed as immaculate revealed truth by even the Kohanim themselves, let alone the larger society.

    Finally, the P story was probably written as a response to, and largely in opposition to, the older J & E material. Early readers are likely to have been well aware of the factual disagreements between those texts, and there’s no reason they would resolve all those disagreements in favor of P.

    Furthermore, Genesis 1 simply lacks any of the sort of language that one would expect from epic poetry or a work of fiction.

    I agree that Borg’s structural argument here is quite weak, but you’re bending over backwards to refute it. Genesis 1 contains (for its size) plenty of epic poetic language–the list structure, the repeated formulaic phrases. The Enuma Elish is an epic, and you would have to work very hard to ignore the similarities between it and Genesis 1.

    Now, does that make it fiction? I doubt it–I don’t even know if they had a category of “fiction” at the time.

    (Contrast it with the story of Jonah, for example, which I think contains many literary constructs (exaggerations, plays on words, fantastical elements) that clearly identify it as fiction).

    It’s rather odd to say that a story about a God creating the entire universe contains no exaggerations or fantastical elements! Regardless, yes, Genesis 1 (and the rest of the P source) is in a very different style from the Book of Jonah. But they’re from different authors, and written maybe a century apart–and the story of Jonah was not traditionally considered fiction any more than Genesis was!

    I suspect that Jonah’s distinctiveness comes largely from it being a reworked folktale, but maybe that’s just me.

    The Aeneid is a good yarn, Genesis is not.

    I find most of the Aeneid pretty awful, personally, but yeah, it’s still more entertaining than Genesis! But my point was that it was endorsed by the Augustan regime and included in the standard Roman school curriculum, not because it was a good yarn, but because it was an ennobling and instructive story–even though it was not a sober factual history.

    The Genesis story is simply a list of specific things God did. I find it hard to believe that the religious authorities of the time would be so casual about making such specific claims about God unless they believed them to be true.

    First, again, I doubt that the authors of the Genesis story were religious authorities of any note. Of course Israelite religious authorities must have eventually endorsed that story, as part of a redacted and “canonical” Torah, but that would have come later.

    Second, Jewish religious authorities have always sanctioned factually questionable claims about God. Tons of doubtful and mutually incompatible claims about God and his actions are sprinkled throughout the Talmud and Midrash, endorsed by some eminent rabbi and rejected by another, but considered by all to be worth preserving. (See some of the examples on the creation narrative I mentioned earlier in the Tractate Hagigah.)

    Remember that Jews have historically not been nearly as heresy-phobic as Christians–for the former, the worst offenses against God are those of impious behavior, not incorrect belief. If a story misled the reader into believing that God had rested on the Sabbath when he really didn’t, but also led the reader to keep the Sabbath more faithfully, I think the former flaw would be considered far less important than the latter virtue.

    In Exodus the events of Genesis 1 are referred to specifically as the reason for keeping the Sabbath. Again, I don’t see how this makes sense unless the story was believed to be true.

    Or–more conservatively–the author of that chunk of Exodus intended his audience to believe that it was true. However, I’m not sure your premise holds. The events of Genesis 1 are definitely connected to keeping the sabbath, but the particle ki is not limited to logical implication–it can be a more general connective. Which is simply to say, I don’t think the language of Exodus rules out the possibility that Genesis 1 is meant to exemplify or emphasize the Sabbath commandment, rather than serve as the causal reason for it.

    To anticipate a possible objection: Why see the question as an either-or choice? Why not see the Bible as both divine and human? In my experience, affirming that it is both only compounds the confusion.
    Ha! Take that!

    Ah, but are you willing to acknowledge Borg as a competent judge of his own clear-mindedness? Re-ha!

  63. #63 Wowbagger
    September 10, 2010

    heddle wrote:

    ‘fraid not. John Calvin is da Man. He’d never say such a thing. Must’ve been some lesser Reformer.

    Gah. You’re completely correct; that particular quote is from Martin Luther, not John Calvin.

  64. #64 Pseudonym
    September 10, 2010

    Tim Harris:

    I agree with you about much of monotheism not really being monotheistic. My point about medieval Roman Catholicism was that it was one end of the spectrum, and people like Borg are at the other end. Most of Christianity is/was somewhere in the middle.

    And finally, pseudonym, in response to your final sally, it is a ploy of last resort to judge an argument by its provenance rather than by what it addresses and examines.

    That’s true, and I didn’t mean to dismiss what are no doubt valid concerns. But still, at least one or two of the objections that I’ve seen here are assumed basic knowledge for a historian of the ANE. Those are only the ones I spotted, not being an expert myself.

  65. #65 Jason Rosenhouse
    September 10, 2010

    Anton –

    I don’t think that’s true at all. The Aaronite priesthood, the Kohanim, formed a separate institution from both the prophets and the judges–they were not expected to communicate or interpret the nature and desires of God. They were, essentially, religious technicians, qualified by heredity, behavioral purity and physical perfection to perform temple sacrifices and other such tasks. Ancient Israelites would not have expected them to offer special theological insight, any more (probably even less) than ancient Romans would have expected Julius Caesar to do so just because he’d served a couple of terms as pontifex maximus.

    Beyond that, the P story was usually thought to have be written by a priest, one unknown to us, and edited and added to by several others as it circulated through the Aaronite community. That doesn’t suggest that it was initially viewed as immaculate revealed truth by even the Kohanim themselves, let alone the larger society.

    Finally, the P story was probably written as a response to, and largely in opposition to, the older J & E material. Early readers are likely to have been well aware of the factual disagreements between those texts, and there’s no reason they would resolve all those disagreements in favor of P.

    Thank you for the history lesson, but the fact remains that Genesis 1 and the Aeneid are very different kinds of stories. The Aeneid is a tale about various adventures that befell a particular person. It has clear educational and inspirational value regardless of whether or not it is true in all its particulars. Not so for Genesis 1. I don’t see how it could have served the purposes it is said to have served unless it was believed to have been substantially true. Those purposes, according to Borg and many other scholars, were to explain the importance of keeping the Sabbath and to refute polytheism and pantheism. Fictional stories cannot establish the basic facts of the world.

    It is news to me that the P story was written in actual opposition to the J story. Do you have a reference I can look at? The traditional exegetical claim, after all, is that there is no conflict between the two stories. They are just two different aspects of the same story. They certainly have very different emphases. Regardless, your argument seems to presuppose that these stories were believed to be substantially true. Otherwise why the talk of taking stands regarding the differences between the two? Why the later attempt to unite the stories in the early chapters of the Bible?

    The issue is not immaculate revelations or perfect factual agreement between P and J. Instead, the issue is whether the Israelites generally believed these stories to be historical in nature. I could read two different biographies of Charles Darwin and find contradictions and inconsistencies between them. But I would still think I had a generally accurate picture of Darwin’s life. Likewise for these creation stories. Certainly there were different traditions and different views among rival Jewish tribes. But my suspicion is that their traditions and origins stories were viewed as variations on a basic theme, and not as made up stories with no historical content.

    Finally, if the priestly class of the time endorsed these stories as the reason for observing the Sabbath, it is had to believe the people would have shrugged that off as an opinion worth no more than any other. It is no different today, where a Rabbi’s opinion on questions of Jewish belief and observance are considered to have great authority. The picture you’re painting of headstrong commoners taking a casual view of the wisdom of their religious authorities seems implausible.

    I agree that Borg’s structural argument here is quite weak, but you’re bending over backwards to refute it. Genesis 1 contains (for its size) plenty of epic poetic language–the list structure, the repeated formulaic phrases. The Enuma Elish is an epic, and you would have to work very hard to ignore the similarities between it and Genesis 1.

    Now, does that make it fiction? I doubt it–I don’t even know if they had a category of “fiction” at the time.

    What is this, The Invention of Lying? “Fiction” is not a difficult concept. Somehow I think the people of the time understood that someone might tell a story that was not actually true.

    As I said in the post, I do not think a few repeated phrases convert a historical account into poetry. I’m also not sure why you’re bringing up the Enuma Elish here. For one thing, as far as I know the going theory is that the Babylonians believed it to be an accurate statement of their place in the world. For another, while there are certainly similarities between Genesis and the Enuma Elish there are also major differences in both style and substance between them.

    t’s rather odd to say that a story about a God creating the entire universe contains no exaggerations or fantastical elements! Regardless, yes, Genesis 1 (and the rest of the P source) is in a very different style from the Book of Jonah. But they’re from different authors, and written maybe a century apart–and the story of Jonah was not traditionally considered fiction any more than Genesis was!

    I suspect that Jonah’s distinctiveness comes largely from it being a reworked folktale, but maybe that’s just me.

    What is fantastical in the idea of an omnipotent God methodically creating the world in a manner meant to instruct us regarding the proper manner of structuring our work week? Genesis 1 is almost boring in its reasonableness. It certainly does not feature rival Gods engaging in battles, with the Earth being created out of the resulting viscera. Nor does it talk about a man living in the belly of a fish for three days. That’s fantastical.

    The reason I brought up Jonah is that I also recently read Steven McKenzie’s book How to Read the Bible, which opens with a lengthy discussion of Jonah. So I kind of have Jonah on the brain. He makes a very convincing case, based solely on the text, that it is a fictional story intended to make a point, as opposed to an historical account. That there is a tradition of treating it as history seems a bit mysterious.

    First, again, I doubt that the authors of the Genesis story were religious authorities of any note. Of course Israelite religious authorities must have eventually endorsed that story, as part of a redacted and “canonical” Torah, but that would have come later.

    Again, explain the basis for your doubt. Who but notable religious authorities would be conjuring up detailed accounts of God’s creative activity? Accounts that were later considered sufficiently authoritative to merit inclusion in the Torah, no less?

    Second, Jewish religious authorities have always sanctioned factually questionable claims about God. Tons of doubtful and mutually incompatible claims about God and his actions are sprinkled throughout the Talmud and Midrash, endorsed by some eminent rabbi and rejected by another, but considered by all to be worth preserving. (See some of the examples on the creation narrative I mentioned earlier in the Tractate Hagigah.)

    But the Talmud and the Midrash do not have the same authority that the Torah has. They are not thought of as revelations from God. That rabbis disagree over the minutiae of Biblical law, or might make dubious claims in defense of their views, is hardly the same thing as saying the Torah opens with eleven chapters of fiction.

    Or–more conservatively–the author of that chunk of Exodus intended his audience to believe that it was true. However, I’m not sure your premise holds. The events of Genesis 1 are definitely connected to keeping the sabbath, but the particle ki is not limited to logical implication–it can be a more general connective. Which is simply to say, I don’t think the language of Exodus rules out the possibility that Genesis 1 is meant to exemplify or emphasize the Sabbath commandment, rather than serve as the causal reason for it.

    Now who’s bending over backwards! Exodus 20:11 says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” That “therefore” is awfully suggestive don’t you think? The verse rather loses its force if it just means, “Since that made-up story that opens the book uses a six-day creation as a poetic device, therefore you should keep the Sabbath.”

    Ah, but are you willing to acknowledge Borg as a competent judge of his own clear-mindedness? Re-ha!

    Actually, overall I liked Borg’s book quite a bit. Genesis was just one chapter out of the book, and even in that chapter I found many of his discussions enlightening. Likewise for the rest of the book. It’s just that the part of greatest relevance to me is also the part where I find him unpersuasive.

    Hanging over many of these discussions is that so much modern biblical scholarship has an agenda of trying to defend the Bible’s continued relevance as a book of wisdom and moral insight. Apparently it’s just too galling to people like Borg to say forthrightly that the Israelites were wrong in their beliefs about the origins of the world. So we get a lot of silliness about the story being “profoundly true.”

    Of course, I am currently reading Hector Avalos’ book The End of Biblical Studies, so perhaps now I have Avalos on the brain!

  66. #66 Marshall
    September 10, 2010

    I think “explanation” is probably the wrong word… The creation account wasn’t meant to explain why Jews kept the sabbath, it was meant to reinforce the command that they keep the sabbath. It was … intended to illustrate a moral (or at least normative) principle. “Even God kept the sabbath, so you’d better do it too, readers.” For this purpose, I think it’s correct to say that the question of historical content was largely irrelevant.

    I agree entirely with Anton.

    As Tim Crane pointed out last week in The Stone, it’s important to realize that the man in the street doesn’t give much thought to how the Universe came about, although he likes a good show; but he is very concerned about relating to his wife.

    People here believe in complicated things emerging from simple things by natural processes. Why shouldn’t that apply here? Moral values emerge out of a reflection of those same natural processes, isn’t it? So our interpretation of the basic texts, the universal human myths, changes over time, so what???

    Remember that Jews have historically not been nearly as heresy-phobic as Christians

    The Western Tradition is still heresy-phoic. They should get over it, I say.

  67. #67 Blaine
    September 10, 2010

    The point of Genesis 1-3 ( I am an atheist btw, not Jewish, not nothing ), is to make the distinction between immanent power vs. transcendent power. The sun and moon, etc are just rocks in the sky, whereas ‘our’ god is transcendent and made the sun and moon which others think are gods or powers. You find the same argument in Jeremiah over disobedient Jews making cakes for Astarte the sex goddess. She represented an immanent power. Of course, a reader 2500 years ago would no doubt have read it literally, but the message was/is the contestation over transcendent power vs immanent power.

  68. #68 JonJ
    September 12, 2010

    Getting into this discussion a little late, but just wanted to point out that the category of “biblical scholars” includes a lot of very “free-thinking” scholars — indeed, out-and-out atheists (scholars of both the Tanakh and the NT). People can be interested in studying the Bible as a purely historical document, like any other historical document, after all. People can study the Gilgamesh epic without “believing in it.”

    Indeed, I think atheists who don’t know much about the Tanakh and the NT could profitably read these free-thinking scholars. Avalos is a good example; others I would mention (in the NT field, since I don’t know much about the Tanakh) would be Ehrman, Robert Price, and especially Burton Mack, my current Main Man. I find atheists who haven’t read authors like these to be quite unsophisticated about what kind of document “the Bible” actually is–who (as far as current scholarship can tell) wrote the various parts of it, when and where they wrote them, and the purposes for which they wrote them. All this is really quite complex when you get into it. Much more complicated than most atheists who hang out on the Internet seem to be aware.

    Of course, the Tanakh and the NT are both anthologies of myths, and not “factually true,” given our current scientific knowledge of the world. And a lot of atheists are people I would call “mythologically deaf” — they just don’t care about mythology, can live quite well without it, and are naturally disposed to dismiss it as sheer nonsense that isn’t worth anyone’s time. But the same is true of the way tone-deaf people, or people who just have no interest in music (there are such people), regard music, which has very profound meaning to other people. Nothing wrong with either type of person: if some people just don’t care about mythology, they are perfectly entitled to take that point of view. But they probably don’t really understand much about myths, because they just aren’t interested enough in them to investigate them closely.

    Where the real bitter struggles take place, of course, is between people who take mythologies so seriously that they insist on imposing the moral/political implications of them on everyone. For example, “God says abortion is evil, so we have to outlaw it.” That sort of thing just doesn’t go these days; you can’t (I think) impose the mythological world view of a limited group on everyone.

  69. #69 Anton Mates
    September 13, 2010

    Apologies for the delay; real-world obligations and a computer crash conspired against me. I’ll have to do the second half tomorrow!

    The Aeneid is a tale about various adventures that befell a particular person. It has clear educational and inspirational value regardless of whether or not it is true in all its particulars. Not so for Genesis 1. I don’t see how it could have served the purposes it is said to have served unless it was believed to have been substantially true.

    I think you’re drawing a false dichotomy here; “substantially true” and “true in all its particulars” are not the same thing. The authors and earliest readers of Genesis 1 could well have believed it to be substantially true–that is, that the universe and mankind were divinely created in relatively recent historical time–without considering the six-day schedule to be literally accurate. Certainly, if Borg thinks that Genesis 1 was intended as fiction from end to end, I wouldn’t agree with that.

    It’s true that the Aeneid is about the adventures of a particular person, but so what? Is a story about a man more likely to be figurative than a story about a god? I would think just the opposite, personally.

    Those purposes, according to Borg and many other scholars, were to explain the importance of keeping the Sabbath and to refute polytheism and pantheism. Fictional stories cannot establish the basic facts of the world.

    But “it’s important to keep the Sabbath” is not a basic fact of the world; it’s a statement about the author’s values. Ditto for at least some defenses of monotheism/henotheism.

    The purposes of the Aeneid ranged from legitimizing the Julian family as descended from gods and the founders of the Roman people, to explaining and justifying Roman hostilities with Carthage, to exemplifying Roman civic virtues, to retroactively prophesying the military and political greatness of Augustus. If it could serve such purposes using material largely understood as fictional–and I agree that it could–then why couldn’t Genesis 1 do the same?

    It is news to me that the P story was written in actual opposition to the J story. Do you have a reference I can look at?

    I’m no expert, so I can’t do better than point you to these Wikipedia articles. It does appear to me that pretty much every scholar who accepts a P source at all thinks it was written as a refutation/revision of JE., intended to exalt the status of the Kohanim and plug their favored legal code.

    The traditional exegetical claim, after all, is that there is no conflict between the two stories. They are just two different aspects of the same story.

    That’s the traditional claim from the Talmudic era onward, but of course that’s centuries after those stories were first combined and redacted. By analogy, a Christian tradition developed that the four gospels were inerrant and consistent, but early Christian scholars (e.g. Eusebius) seem to have been aware of conflicts.

    Regardless, your argument seems to presuppose that these stories were believed to be substantially true. Otherwise why the talk of taking stands regarding the differences between the two? Why the later attempt to unite the stories in the early chapters of the Bible?

    Again, I’m not disagreeing that they were considered substantially true. But I would observe that those stories were united, and apparently united successfully as far as the Hebrew audience was concerned. If they really did read Genesis 1 as providing important historical facts about the timing and order of creation, it’s rather odd that they had no problem with Genesis 2′s divergent account following immediately on its heels.

    Finally, if the priestly class of the time endorsed these stories as the reason for observing the Sabbath, it is had to believe the people would have shrugged that off as an opinion worth no more than any other.

    A priestly class of the time endorsed those stories. There were others–a primary purpose of the P source was to elevate the Aaronids above their rivals! And the persistence of the JE material clearly suggests that the people did not consider the P faction’s opinion worth more than that of some others. Otherwise JE would have been replaced by P, not merged with it.

    All that said, yes, I’m sure commoners would have been quite impressed if a big chunk of the priesthood endorsed some particular story about the Sabbath. But I find it hard to believe that their respect would depend on the factual particulars of that story. If the priests tell you that God decided you should honor the Sabbath, do you care whether the events that led him to that decision occurred exactly as described? Or do you just figure you should honor the Sabbath, because pious behavior is the kind of thing priests know about?

    What is this, The Invention of Lying? “Fiction” is not a difficult concept. Somehow I think the people of the time understood that someone might tell a story that was not actually true.

    Of course, but “fiction” and “lie” are not the same thing. In the case of fiction, as I understand it, both author and audience explicitly agree that elements of the story were made up–and that’s a good thing.

  70. #70 Anton Mates
    September 14, 2010

    As I said in the post, I do not think a few repeated phrases convert a historical account into poetry.

    A few? There are four different repeated formulas per day of the account. It seems extremely poetic to me.

    I’m also not sure why you’re bringing up the Enuma Elish here. For one thing, as far as I know the going theory is that the Babylonians believed it to be an accurate statement of their place in the world.

    Really? As I understand it, going theory is that it was a ritual work, ceremonially recited during each New Year’s festival to glorify both the god Marduk and the city of Babylon, and to help reconquer primordial chaos and renew the world. Kind of an extended hymn, in fact! Which doesn’t mean that Babylonians didn’t consider it historically accurate, but does suggest that factual accuracy was not really the point.

    For another, while there are certainly similarities between Genesis and the Enuma Elish there are also major differences in both style and substance between them.

    Not enough to move them into two different genres, so far as I can see. Genesis 1 is not explicitly polytheistic, and it’s a lot shorter and less political, but that’s about it. (And since it’s only the start of the P material, which as a whole is quite long and quite political, that’s not even a very significant difference.

    What is fantastical in the idea of an omnipotent God methodically creating the world in a manner meant to instruct us regarding the proper manner of structuring our work week? Genesis 1 is almost boring in its reasonableness. It certainly does not feature rival Gods engaging in battles, with the Earth being created out of the resulting viscera. Nor does it talk about a man living in the belly of a fish for three days. That’s fantastical.

    Sorry, my sarcasm detector’s aging badly–you are joking above, right? I’m trying to avoid unnecessary cranial explosions. :-)

    BTW, and off-topic, and you probably know this already, but: Like the Enuma Elish, Genesis does show the universe being created by filling the primordial waters with wind and splitting them horizontally into sea and sky. The only reason this isn’t “viscera” is that those waters aren’t personified in Genesis. (Of course, they are personified elsewhere in the OT, and Yahweh does battle them–see Rahab and Leviathan, in the Psalms and Isaiah.)

    So I kind of have Jonah on the brain. He makes a very convincing case, based solely on the text, that it is a fictional story intended to make a point, as opposed to an historical account.

    I would be quite willing to believe that Jonah was written as fiction or fable, yes.

    Who but notable religious authorities would be conjuring up detailed accounts of God’s creative activity?

    I’m not sure why being a notable religious authority has any bearing on whether you’re inclined to write stories about God, to be honest. People write detailed accounts of God’s activity all the time. Sometimes they post them on the internet.

    Regardless, if it’s correct that the P material was written by Aaronid priests, then they weren’t religious authorities in the relevant sense–they weren’t the guys in charge of handing down new communications from God. The Hebrews had prophets, and the Kohanim weren’t them.

    Accounts that were later considered sufficiently authoritative to merit inclusion in the Torah, no less?

    But not because of the eminence or status of their original authors. We can be pretty sure of that, since their authorship was completely forgotten!

    But the Talmud and the Midrash do not have the same authority that the Torah has. They are not thought of as revelations from God.

    So what? When we’re talking about the writing of the Torah, we’re talking about an earlier era. We have no indication that its material was considered divine revelation then–unlike, for instance, the writings of the Prophets.

    That rabbis disagree over the minutiae of Biblical law, or might make dubious claims in defense of their views, is hardly the same thing as saying the Torah opens with eleven chapters of fiction.

    No, of course not. But the Talmud cites rabbis as claiming that Adam was originally as tall as the sky; that the heavens were created before the earth, or after the earth, or simultaneously with it; that the heavenly bodies were created on the first day, or on the fourth; and that Adam spent 130 years fathering ghosts and demons after his expulsion from Eden, before he had any human children. In the classical Midrash, rabbis claim that other worlds were created and destroyed before our own; that Adam and Eve originally had tails, or were originally fused into a single hermaphrodite being; that there were several floods at various times, and that Noah’s flood was local rather than global.

    Evidently there was a lot of room for religious authorities to play around with the creation narrative.

    Now who’s bending over backwards! Exodus 20:11 says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” That “therefore” is awfully suggestive don’t you think?

    Er, no. That “therefore” links one bit of Yahweh’s behavior, in the story, to another bit of his behavior, in the story. The connective that links all of this to what the reader should do about the Sabbath is the ki, translated as “For” in your quote. That’s the one I was talking about. It’s the meaning of ki that bears on whether the six-day account is the reason to keep the Sabbath.

    The verse rather loses its force if it just means, “Since that made-up story that opens the book uses a six-day creation as a poetic device, therefore you should keep the Sabbath.”

    Well, yeah, of course it doesn’t mean that. The Aeneid doesn’t say, “By the way, this story is made-up bullshit but you should support Augustus because I wrote a really moving fake prophecy about him,” either.

    Hanging over many of these discussions is that so much modern biblical scholarship has an agenda of trying to defend the Bible’s continued relevance as a book of wisdom and moral insight. Apparently it’s just too galling to people like Borg to say forthrightly that the Israelites were wrong in their beliefs about the origins of the world. So we get a lot of silliness about the story being “profoundly true.”

    And I don’t really see how Genesis can be “profoundly true” even by Borg’s standards, even as a matter of moral insight. Let’s say it was meant to reinforce the importance of keeping the Sabbath–well, does Borg agree that it’s incredibly important to keep the Sabbath? He’s a 21st-century Lutheran, so I’m pretty confident that he doesn’t respect the Sabbath in any way that the ancient Israelites would accept. Likewise, I assume he knows that he’d have some fairly sharp moral disagreements with the writers of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

    So assuming that he’s not a devotee of reconstructed ancient Hebrew religion…what’s left? He just thinks it’s a pretty story?

  71. #71 Edward T. Babinski
    September 23, 2010

    Jason!

    On Genesis 1 I suggest reading “The Cosmology of the Bible,” chapter five in The Christian Delusion. If your library nor bookstore has a copy, let me know, but you should be able to read some of it online via google’s look inside feature.

  72. #72 pandemonium
    October 5, 2010

    this blog got me thinking, this stuff reminded me of a video that i saw at one point, Zeitgeist, which has a lot of interesting ‘points’ about religeon, at the begining of the first video. if you want to check it out search for it on google or somthing.

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