In the New Testament Jesus tells many stories. For the most part there is no reason to think he is even attempting to give literal historical events. For example, he talks of people getting the same wages even though they start working later than others. He tells the story of a person allowing another to watch his property. He tells a story of someone selling everything for a pearl. He tells a story of a wedding and a prodigal son etc. etc.
If he told those stories today I feel like many people (including Christians) would interrupt and say “wait a second, whose wedding was this? Are you talking about the Jefferson’s wedding because that wasn’t what happened!” Or “wait a second are you talking about John? Yeah sure he did some bad things but he didn’t actually get his father’s inheritance early!” I mean he does not always start his story by making it clear to everyone this is not offering a literal history. (Keep in mind the subtitles are not part of the actual scriptural text) Could the story of the prodigal son be literally and historically true? It seems possible. If we found out it was true in a literal and historical sense what difference would it make? Absolutely nothing. The actual literal history is completely irrelevant to the point of the story.
When we read scripture we do not think God is telling us these stories because God is randomly picking various historical facts that he wants us to memorize. No the stories of the old testament, just like the stories Jesus told, are told because there are meanings that God is trying to convey. Whether the story is historically true or false is often completely irrelevant. Take the “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews. The author goes through scripture and offers stories that God gave us to understand how he will reward faith. Just like Jesus gives stories that help us understand other aspects of God. Whether the events actually happened or not does not change the point of the stories.
But then does that mean it is always irrelevant if a story is fictional? No. The point of the story helps us know whether it is important that the story is fictional or not. And sometimes in scripture the author is explicit. For example in Luke and John they explicitly offer their intentions. Luke starts out with this:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John explains that that purpose of telling us about Jesus Miracles:
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
So it would be odd to say John did not intend at least some of his stories of signs to be taken literally. I think there many questions that are addressed in the bible but modern readers tend to read the bible as though it is only addressing one. Here are just a few questions the authors seek to answer:
Is there a God?
Is Jesus a reliable mouthpiece of God?
How should we understand our relationship to God and others?
What does God want us to do?
Modern readers seem hung up on the first question but I think that is very rarely what the author is addressing. John makes it explicit that the second question is something he is addressing. I believe the other gospels and NT scriptures have that intent as well.
I think much of the Old Testament human authors are rarely dealing with questions 1 and 2. They already believe in God so they have moved on from the first question. They do not know much about Jesus yet so it would not be informative to establish he is a reliable source of God’s will. But three and four would be important. But as we have seen from Jesus’s parables it is irrelevant if the stories that convey answers to questions three and four are literally true. So the literal historical truth of the OT stories are in fact largely irrelevant.
But what about the New Testament? Well two seems to be a very important message of the New Testament writers. So how can they establish that Jesus is a reliable source of God’s will? Let’s just think this through for ourselves – without a bible. If I were to say I am a mouthpiece of God, how could I give evidence of that? One obvious way would be to perform a miracle. This would be a sign from God that yes I am not just like every other person but God is singling me out. But, of course, there is nothing miraculous about just making up fictional stories of miraculous events. So the only way to serve that purpose of proving I am singled out by God would be is if I actually performed miracles. That is why the New Testament is understood as intending to tell actual history.
This is not just me cherry picking what I will decide to read literally or what I won’t. I am just applying common sense to the text.
How do we know when an author intends their writing to be taken as literal historical fact? I think the best way to tell is to ask the author. But when we are reading the bible not only can we no longer ask the author – we may not even know who the author was and indeed there may be several. But that doesn’t mean there is not evidence which might strongly suggest what the author intended. We can get an idea based on context.
For example I have suggested that when the author of Genesis speaks of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” that is strong evidence that he is not talking about a literal fruits and trees that we might find in our neighborhood.
On the other hand when John says “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” https://www.biblehub.com/niv/john/20.htm The author is explicitly telling us his purpose of writing about these signs/miracles. That is he wants to tell us of them so that we may believe Jesus is the son of God. Of course, that implies Jesus really did miracles. The author’s ability to make up miracle stories would not be a reason we should believe Jesus is the Son of God. Only Jesus’s actual ability to work miracles would be evidence that he is the Son of God. So that context is strong evidence that the author of John intends at least some of his miracle stories to be taken as literal and historical factual occurrences.
Luke also tells us about his purpose and so we can gleen his intent to give actual facts from the work itself as well. But of the books of the bible this clear statement of intent seems to be more the exception than the rule. So we are left to rely on less probative evidence.
In my last post I argued that we shouldn’t feel we must know what the author was trying to communicate and there is no reason to presume that the intent was to give literal history. Rauser is sympathetic to non-literalist readings however he has some issues with adopting a non-literalist reading. Here I want to address what I consider what Rauser considers the biggest obstacle to interpreting these old testament passages in other than as literal historical truth. He says:
“A particularly effective way to see the problem brought to life is with the great Hall of Faith chapter of Hebrews 11 which seeks to inspire the contemporary reader with illustrations of devotion from past saints. The story begins with Abel who provided a faithful offering to God (v. 4). The narrative then recounts the faith of a long list of saintly figures including Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Rahab and many, many others. The writer concludes, “These were all commended for their faith” (v. 39). Needless to say, the whole point of the writer to the Hebrews is that these are real people who did real things which are exemplary of faith and thus which provide inspiring guides to the disciple in our own day. Thus, if these stories are really just that, stories, mere historical fiction, then the entire chapter is evacuated of its motivational gravitas.
To illustrate, a baseball coach who wants to inspire his team may pump them up with the great achievements of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Jackie Robinson. But he will not spend any time recounting the achievements of Roy Hobbs because Mr. Hobbs is a fictional character from the film The Natural (and the 1952 novel of the same name). You might invoke Hobbs to illustrate a point, but if you want to inspire an athlete you tell them the story of another real athlete: you don’t tell them a fiction. By the same token, if you want to inspire a real spiritual athlete, you tell them stories of other real spiritual athletes who accomplished great things: you don’t tell them a fiction. Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 206-207). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
Ok first I would concede the point that at least to our modern mind telling a story about a real person seems to be more inspirational than telling the story of a fictional person. After all there was a time when it seemed every movie would say something like “based on a true story” and the purpose of that line was to no doubt try to make the movie somehow more compelling. So I am not saying his reason supplies no evidence. But I do want carefully consider each of the claims he makes and how much weight they should carry.
In my law school ethics class, we all had to watch the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And in particular we focused on the lawyer Atticus Finch and how he dealt with ethical issues as a lawyer. There is no question the purpose was to inspire us to act ethically as future lawyers. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and Atticus Finch played an inspirational role in my desire to be a lawyer. As I was thinking of this example I actually started to wonder if Atticus Finch was a real lawyer or at least based on a real lawyer. But before I looked it up I asked myself if I would be any more or less inspired by him if I found out he was “based on a real person.” And I honestly decided it wouldn’t matter.
I think it is a mistake to underestimate the role fiction plays in motivating and forming who we are. If I set religion aside, I suspect that most of those that inspired me are first and foremost the actual people I have encountered in life, then second stories of fictional people, and then third historical people.
Now fictional heroes become especially important when we consider these are fictional heroes whose stories were chosen by God. Whether Abel actually existed is completely unimportant to the message God is trying to convey in the story of Cain and Able. In Hebrews the author seems not so concerned that the people are becoming atheists. Rather he seems to be addressing a community of religious Jews that would know these stories. They need inspiration to help them through difficult times. They are not looking for proof that God exists. They seem to know God exists and they also seem to assume that God gave them these stories in order to help them understand what he expected from them and how he would respond. That is what was important.
They want to know that God will see them through if they continue to be faithful. Faith is belief and trust in God. They seem to mostly be concerned about the trust part. Whether these characters actually existed is irrelevant. If God tells me I should act like Atticus Finch and I will be rewarded then it doesn’t matter one bit if Atticus Finch was a real person.
Notice the last line of my quote from Rauser where he says “Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?” I have read these passages from Hebrews several times and I never remembered the author talking about the “actual” collapse of the walls of Jericho or the “actual” faith of Rahab. So I reread to see if the passage talks about or otherwise suggests these are actual historical events or if they just repeat the story. In fact the author never says the walls “actually” fell or that there was an “actual” faith of Rahab. The author just repeats the story.
“30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient”
If I say “Atticus Finch argued in his closing argument that Tom Robbins was innocent because the victim suffered wounds to the right side of her face and he was right handed and also had limited use of his left hand.” I am not saying Atticus Finch actually existed and there was an actual trial of Tom Robbins etc. No I am simply repeating the story. There is nothing in my quoted statement that should make you think I believe I am retelling “actual” historical events. Hebrews is no different.
Now to be fair Rauser gave the “gravitas” explanation for why he thought the author of Hebrews intended these stories to be taken literally. (I addressed that argument above by explaining fictional characters can be motivational) So he may not be thinking that just because the author of Hebrews is retelling the stories that means the author of Hebrews thought they were literal historical fact. But I often see that when some other author of scripture repeats a story from some other part of scripture some people will try to argue that proves the later author thought it was a literal historical event. For example, if Jesus refers to Adam and Eve some people will try to say that proves he thought they were real people. But really Jesus may just be recounting the story from scripture.
When that happens the person arguing for a literal reading is often just projecting his own interpretation on the other scripture writer. The person is assuming the question in dispute. They think we should interpret the story literally so they think anyone retelling the story must be intending to tell it in a literal sense. But that is the question we are trying to answer!
Why do modern readers tend to assume a literal interpretation? At least two reasons lead to this assumption, first the printing press and second, Sola Scriptura. The printing press and later technology allowed us to record and reproduce a huge number of actual historical events. This meant that we can learn a large quantity of actual literal history. This means our heroes can often be real people because we have a huge catalogue of people to draw on for whatever positive trait we want to highlight. I admit in some ways that is preferable to simply fictional heroes. (but it also has drawbacks) It also means that much of what we learn is intended to be taught as literal history. It is far from clear that assumption applied in the ancient past.
Like I said if you want to know the intent the best way is to ask the author. Certainly, whoever first told the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal history based on eyewitnesses. It is hard to believe people who heard the story for the first time would have thought it was some sort of historical story based on eyewitness accounts. If someone told you about conversations the very first humans had wouldn’t you wonder how they could know? Again the ancient people may not have understood science but they could look at all the people around them and realize that they were pretty far removed from the very first humans. They weren’t all born yesterday. And like I said of course the original person telling the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal facts from eyewitnesses.
The other reason I think modern readers tend to interpret scripture literally is because of Sola Scriptura. A theme of the reformation was the bible was sufficient and we really don’t need anyone to tell us what it means. Well it seems the answer is somewhere in the middle. People can learn a huge amount from reading the bible on their own. But also it turns out there are many different possible interpretations. And that is well evidenced by all the different churches that interpreted scripture so differently than other churches they found they had to break off from the others.
What to do? Well Martin Luther had already decided he would not change his position unless you could convince him based on scripture alone. This statement was so romanticized there was no turning back. So appealing to church fathers or Tradition was out of the question. Unfortunately, the disagreements were from interpretations of scripture itself. So certain rules of interpretation started to come into favor. One of those rules has to do with defaulting to a literal reading – which I believe martin Luther endorsed.
Was this rule based on information we learned about ancient peoples that were writing or telling these stories over a millennium and a half before these rules? I doubt it. I suspect these rules have more to do with us imposing our beliefs and desires on the ancients rather than bending our beliefs and desires to the intentions of the ancient authors of scripture. But despite precious little evidence that this is actually how the ancient authors intended their works to be read this default to literal history has gained popularity. Rauser notes that it is mainly after the reformation that literal readings of some of the old testament passages were used to justify wars. That is not surprising to me.
In future blogs I will address how Rauser deals with these issues as well as some problems with how certain Catholics view these issues.
Randal Rauser wrote a very good book about Old Testament Passages.
I mostly agree with him and I am glad he wrote the book. I do not intend to do a review of the book as much as do a few blogs where I talk about a few places where I diverge from his views. Do not think because I am disagreeing with the book I think it is not worth reading. It covers many important issues.
One topic is how we might interpret Old Testament passages. I definitely take what he calls the “spiritualized” approach to some of the Old Testament. I believe Origen used the term “spiritualize” to describe his own non- literal reading of scripture and indeed I draw many of the same conclusions Origen did. However, I would simply say I am taking a “non-literalist” approach to many parts of the old testament.
I think saying I “spiritualize” the text suggests that I promote a certain particular interpretation. Sometimes I do, but often I don’t have any interpretation other than to say I would not take that passage literally. If I had to choose how to interpret the Old Testament passage of the Canannites I would choose the method chosen by Origen. (I was not aware he interpreted it the same way I do until I read it in Rauser’s book) But I am not saying I believe it is, more likely than not, the true intent of the author. I just think the probability that Origen’s interpretation is correct is higher than the probability a literalist reading, or other options, are correct/true.
Over all, I am happy to admit I am not sure what message was intended by particular passages of the old testament – including that one. And indeed much of the old testament may not even be true or false. It can be artistic. Is a poem or work of art “true or false”? Scripture may be intended to invoke feelings and mindsets rather than just offer literally true and false facts about the world. How would those feelings and mindsets have played a role for cultures distantly removed from us in time is often just an exercise in wild speculation.
It is for this reason that I do not find fault with the Church for omitting certain parts of the Old Testament from the lectionary. If we don’t know what message the Holy Spirit is trying to convey why would we spend time on that passage as opposed to other passages that are more clear? Christ is our guide and he was repeatedly challenged with this or that particular passage from the old testament. Again and again he reinforced what the fundamental take away of the old testament was.
He did not get into the weeds about what this Hebrew word meant and how we can understand it this or that way. So it is just not concerning to me that I must admit I am not sure what specific message the Holy Spirit was trying to communicate in a particular passage. And often I think we don’t know very much at all about what the Holy Spirit was doing to guide people.
Let’s say you find this song.
Further assume you know nothing about the context of the song, you don’t even know who wrote it let alone what the political issues of the day were let alone what his political or religious views were. You can at least translate the song and when you translate it you can see that some of the lyrics are things like, “We’re moving night and day to go to Meadowlands / We love Meadowlands.” Based on the beat and the lyrics you might think the writer of the song really liked the meadowlands and was happy to move.
In reality, it was written as a protest song in South Africa protesting the forced move many black people had to make from Sophiatown to the Meadowlands. South Africa had censorship of music that went against government policy. So the music was deliberately upbeat to suggest to the government it was in favor of the move. But in fact the upbeat nature just added to the irony and sarcasm that was intended by the author Strike Vilakazi, and his audience that heard it.
Some officials in the South African government took it literally and so they played the song on the radio. Those government employees were living in the context but still misunderstood. The joke was on them and that inside joke shared by a community makes the song inspiring. But how do we know this? We know this because the song was written less than a century ago at time long after the printing press and even video cameras that documented the history and intent of the author. But what if you just found this song without any of that context. What if you didn’t even know who wrote the song, all you could do was translate it? Almost certainly you would get a completely wrong message.
The way this song played a role in South African history is wonderful. I might even call it historical scripture. Is the song “true”? Did people misunderstand the song then, and might they misunderstand the song later if they lack the context? Yes but their ignorance adds to the songs brilliance.
When we read the Old Testament we should not pretend we know all the meanings or purposes the writers had in mind if, in fact, we know precious little. But some people will insist they know God wants them to read it literally as a default. How they know this I have no idea. Instead I think the view of interpreting scripture and other material literally has come about as a consequence of sola scriptura and also the printing press. I will explain that in another blog.
Origen is one of the earliest commentators on Old Testament passages whose works still exist. He was onve of our closest in time sources to understanding what these authors would have intended. He did not interpret them literally. My own approach is I might read a passage where “God says” kill every soldier, and I think ok, but, if this is literal how do we know this is God saying this and what does he look like etc. But ok maybe we can get past that. But then “God says” kill every male even if they are not a combatant. And there I think hmm that seems questionable based on other writings like the fifth commandment not to mention what God said and did when he came to earth as Jesus. But then I read “God says” and kill every woman. At this point I am definitely thinking the author is up to something other than literal history. More likely than not this is not simple recording of literal history. And then “God says” kill every infant! And here I am definitely thinking God is communicating in a non-literal way. Beyond reasonable doubt this is not literal. But then even if you are still not understanding this is not intended as literally what God said the author writes God also said kill every one of the enemies donkeys! Ok at this point unless your name is Dwight Schrute you have to be thinking the author is up to something other than a simple transcript of what God literally said.
Is the author making an inside joke about certain hard line priests/rabbis/political leaders of his time? Would certain rabbis misunderstand the intent that more sensible Jews/Rabbis understood as happened with the song meadowlands? I am not necessarily saying that. I am saying we don’t know. And I am certainly saying that I think that is much more probable than the intent was that he literally believed God thought we should take vengeance on the farm animals of our enemies. I also believe that inside jokes against arrogant powerful leaders is likely one of the oldest forms of entertainment and expressions of solidarity for oppressed people. If it was intended as a jab at certain overzealous preachers of the day I can see why it was handed down as a classic.
My own view – if I had to choose one – is that the author was using symbolism where the canannites represented sin. My view is similar to Origen’s view. But even that I do not think is more likely than not true. I just think that is more probable than a sarcastic interpretation. Both of those interpretations are not combined to be over 50% in my mind. But either the sarcastic or symbolic interpretations seems much more likely than a literalist interpretation. The biggest part of this pie graph is – we really can’t say what to make of this passage.
I often hear/read that authors of this literature lived in a time where science was non-existent and therefore ignorance was everywhere. We hear that most people could not read and write and therefore they must have been very stupid. I have read many times claims that people in ancient times thought things like thunder was made by Thor banging his hammer. And they thought the world was on the back of a tortoise etc. And I wonder how do these people know what the ancient authors thought? Today we tend to read this literally and so we project our views on the author. But how do we know they interpreted these stories literally? And if I am able I will ask the person making the claim how he knows that. Rauser offers some decent reasons in support of a literalist interpretation, (which I will address in another blog) but for the most part there is no response other then they repeat what is said and assume it is to be taken literally.
But If some myth author suggested that the earth rested on the back of a tortoise and some person asked the author “what does that toroise stand on?” or “well how does the tortoise get enough water to drink” I think the author of these myths would not praise this person hung up on literalism for their insight, but rather shake their head and possibly consider them someone that is difficult to communicate ideas to. I don’t think the ancients writing myths and stories that were handed down for centuries in any culture were just dumb people. In particular I certainly do not think that of the ancient Jews that wrote the stories that were considered scripture for their culture were dumb.
People often assume they are smarter than others. They especially think other people distant in time, culture or space lack their understanding. I really think we apply this prejudice to ancients, in ways that are not unlike what the South African apartheid government did to black people. The joke was on the government leaders. The culture that revered the books of the Old Testament was not a culture of idiots. But I think there is a certain prejudicial arrogance that allows some modern people to think their literature really was just crude ignorance in word form.
The bible has 73 books. We should not claim we know what every passage means. It is ok to say we don’t know what that particular passage means. Just because all scripture is good for instruction 2 Timothy 3:16 that does not mean every passage is good for every person at every time in history. It may very well be that parts of the bible were revered for reasons that are lost. Denying this possibility is not going to help anyone gain understanding.
It is for this reason that I would push back on Randall Rauser’s view that we shouldn’t “omit” certain Old Testament passages. I think there are Old Testament passages that we do not really understand well at all. I think they are properly left out of church lectionaries and Sunday school. Why read scripture when we don’t know what to make of it? Especially when there is so much scripture that we can understand and provides wonderful instruction in how to live in the modern world?
But people might say well how could God let this happen? Why wouldn’t God make sure people always understood what the author was communicating? And I would respond, why should he? God reveals himself differently to people at different times. Why would we assume we need exactly the same messages people of a different time and place needed?
And anyway the answer is that in reality the meaning of written words in our world/reality does often get lost. The written words may stay but the full meanings are often lost not just in scripture but other writings as well. So what would we expect God to do to help us not be lead astray? Well Scripture tells us 1) he wrote his law on our hearts as a guide. 2) He created a Church, and 3) if you are Christian you also believe God came down from heaven and told us the important takeaways from the old testament. I don’t think it is reasonable to ignore God’s commentary on the Old Testament just because you decided literal readings should be the default. Start with God’s commentary on the Old Testament. If someone’s literal interpretations puts them at loggerheads with the author’s interpretation of his own work we can acknowledge the literal interpretation is wrong. We should do the same with scripture.