Tuesday, January 7, 2014

What Was the Intention of Biblical Writers, Then?

(Image credit)
Normally, in the St. Louis area, temperatures rarely fall below 20 degrees, and and snowfall doesn't get over 4 inches at most (our biggest problem most years is sleet or sleet/snow mix, actually). Typical pattern is temps in the 20's or 30's (Fahrenheit of course, I'm in 'murica), occasional snow, then it flips back to 40's or even 50's with rain,  and it keeps going back and forth between those two patterns.

This week, that pattern was shattered. 12-15 inches of snow fell over the area, and temperatures feel to lows not seen in over 25 years. Yesterday morning, we had a low of -6. I had pipes freeze in my basement, despite a heater being down there.

What is the relevance of all this snow discussion, you might ask? Well, because of the snow, I couldn't get out the the Unitarian church I've become a part of recently (they canceled services) and the had an experiment with having a form of "e-church" on their Facebook page. I signed up for Facebook, and joined in on my phone. Links were posted to videos of music, and the minister gave a short sermon in a post on their page.

Gutenburg Bible. Credit: Wikipedia
His sermon really got me thinking about how I view the Bible. Of course as a former "fundigelical", I thought of most everything in the Bible as being literal truth, unless it's painfully obvious, even to a child, that it's a metaphor. It's interesting to think that a primarily literal interpretation of the Bible didn't even come about until around 110 years ago.

As writer Jonny Scaramanga points out in his great post Was Jesus a Creationist? early theologians, Christian and Jewish alike, considered much of the Old Testament to be figurative. It wasn't until the birth of the modern American fundamentalist movement that people started taking stories like Adam and Eve seriously as literal truth.

Now, I don't know what to think about the intentions of Biblical writers. Did many of them mean for the Bible to be taken so seriously, or did they play around a lot with metaphors and allegories to get a point across? It's especially possible that the second case could be true, seeing as how common allegorical stories were in the ancient Middle Eastern cultures that the writers came from.

If I open my mind to that possibility, then Biblical interpretation becomes quite a mess, because it's hard to tell what is or isn't literal. Case in point: my UU minister was bringing up the story of the Magi, the three "Wise Men", as they are commonly known as.

The Unitarian church, though they don't swear allegiance to any religion, and accept people from all faiths,  they have a lot of historical and traditional roots in liberal/universalist Christianity. They seem to have picked up a lot of traditions from Catholicism and mainline Christianity along the way (Episcopal church, UCC, etc).

The minister was talking about the ancient Christian tradition of Epiphany, and reflecting back on the Gospels, and their accounts of Jesus' birth, and the Three Wise Men. I'll include an expert of his statements here, I'm not going to link to their Facebook page for my own privacy reasons. (Yes, I no longer have anything to do with my parents or my former church, but I still like my privacy).

I was ushered to this topic today by a chance question from (name redacted) with whom I visited this past week. (Name redacted) always been good at asking provocative questions and this time he asked, “Have you had any epiphanies lately?” 

It happened to be a good week to ask. Many churches across Western Christendom today celebrate the Epiphany, the visit of the wise kings to the baby Jesus. We UU’s usually hear about that stuff for Christmas and then let it go. Imagining that we want to keep up better with what our neighbors are doing and talking about in their religious settings, here’s an invitation to a short reflection on Epiphany and what it could mean to us in our faith and spiritual lives.

Thumbing through the four canonical gospels, only two of them include stories about the birth of Jesus. In Luke we find the part about the shepherds watching their flocks by night and being visited by all those singing angels; you know, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, heavenly hosts praising God to the Highest, and all that. Only Luke shares that little vignette.

And only Matthew says anything about the visiting kings. If they’re only known by Matthew, can they possibly be historical figures? If they’re not historical, why bother retelling the story? Maybe he’s only using them to say that Jesus will one day include the Gentiles in his ministry. It’s hard to know what to make of something that seems so surely fictional – which is of course how so many UU’s feel about the whole of the Judeo-Christian Bible.

Which leads one to consider: How can we rely on non-historical narrative to tell us anything about the world today? Should we rely on literary slights of hand to lead us to where we want to go? What role does fable and myth play, if any, in your own spiritual life?
Some people might consider that assessment a bit harsh (especially the last two paragraphs), but so long as there is no proof or statements outside of the Bible to back up such claims, it's hard to take them seriously as literal truth. I've noticed a curious habit in the Gospels of some writers mentioning rather extraordinary details which are only mentioned by one other Gospel writer, or none of the others. Details so extreme, that you would think there would be external mentions of them by historical writers of the time, especially Josephus, but external mentions are nowhere to be found.

I especially found this rather baffling/amusing when it comes to the zombies mentioned in Matthew. Matthew claimed that when Jesus died, people both long dead, and recently deceased came back to life in the Jerusalem area. No other Gospel writer mentions that, and of course, there is no historical record of that.

So why are such stories included in the Bible if they aren't meant to be taken literally? Were they meant to be taken literally? If not, then what was the purpose and meaning of them?

Sometimes I wonder if I should even be pondering such things, after all, I'm somewhere between being an agnostic and an atheist, but I suppose it's hard not to look back when I spent almost all my life obsessed with the Bible, trying to interpret it, and live by it.

Old habits die hard.


  1. Hey Sheldon - thanks for this, these are great thoughts. Have you read any Marcus Borg? I just read something by him called *Reading the Bible Again for the First Time*. Borg explores many of themes you touch on here. He is a (non-evangelical) Christian, so I don't know if you'd want to read it, but just thought I'd share the similarities.

    1. Never heard of Marcus Borg, some people when I have brought up this issue have referred me to Bart Erhman.

      I might get around to reading some works like that, I'll make a note of his name.

  2. I can definitely appreciate this kind of an approach.

    One thing I picked up concurrent with my journey out of fundigelicalism was a history minor, and that's informed my perspectives on the first century and the historicity of the New Testament. Arguments from silence have to be REALLY well-thought-out in order to have much appeal to me. Like the zombies in Matthew. Was this a one-off fable, an embellishment, hearsay? Maybe so. But lack of mention in extrabiblical sources isn't really enough to say so definitively. So much of history is lost.

    1. I'm trying to remember which atheist thinker said it, maybe it was Hitchens, but I kind of go with the theory that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". I don't presume claims that extreme to be true until proven to me.

    2. Everybody has said that by now.

      That particular phrasing comes from Carl Sagan. Ultimately it gets traced by to David Hume or Pierre-Simon Laplace.

    3. Ah, thanks. I thought it was Hitchens, but I wasn't sure

  3. I consider the Bible to be a combination of historical events (embellished and biased, of course) and myths. When they were written down, the myths may have been considered fact, but future audiences would have seen them as allegorical. What intrigues me is how non-fundamentalist believers separate facts from allegory in scripture.

    I'm sorry to hear that your pipes froze. Did they burst? The weather is equally uncomfortable here in the mid-Atlantic -- it was 9 degrees and windy when I went out for my lunch break today.

    1. What intrigues me is how non-fundamentalist believers separate facts from allegory in scripture.

      Me too.

    2. @ Ahab, nothing burst, I found the culprit later, an old basement window (which I need to replace all of them, they're probably twice my age), had come loose, and was letting air in. I could see my breath in there, it had to have been 20-30 degrees inside that basement.

      A few hours later, the water was working in the bathroom, no ruptures yet.

    3. @Alice, I've noticed that liberal Christians tend to interpret everything on a case by case basis, or consider most of it to be figurative, there's really no set standard on what classifies the difference.

    4. How do people separate facts from allegory in scripture?

      By utilizing the lens of confirmation bias (i.e., faith).

  4. "So why are such stories included in the Bible if they aren't meant to be taken literally? Were they meant to be taken literally? If not, then what was the purpose and meaning of them?"

    NT---Some people are suggesting that the gospels were written to make theological points for or against other prevalent Christian doctrines of the time (recall---the Nicene creed did not form until the 4th century---325, revised in 381---?---) In other words---there were many Christianities (as they are now too). So a group of Christians who are called the proto-orthodox by some scholars advocated for particular views and these are somewhat (but not completely) reflected in the gospels. That is why the Gospels differ---because they (the writers) are addressing different theological issues for different audiences often at different times.....and IMO, that is also one of the reasons for so many Christianities today---because the NT deals with so many differing doctrinal issues that it is open to a variety of interpretations....

    Many Christians may miss this nuance because they do what is called "eisegesis" ---which is---the process of taking a preconceived belief and interpreting a biblical passage in a way that supports that belief---and it may possibly be one of the reasons that the Christian interpretation of the Torah/OT is so vastly different from Jews.

    OT---The purpose of the Torah (according to one Jewish person at least) was "remembrance"---Theology (study of nature/concept of God) is pretty simple (One G-D (Shema) begins and ends "theology" more or less).
    Some scholars (such as Christine Hayes of Yale university) have interesting ideas about the purpose and meaning of OT stories and the intention of the various (Torah/OT) writers---her lectures are on the net....


    1. I didn't think of the council of Nicaea. There had to be a semi consistent narrative to put together, because Christianity was going to become the state religion of the Roman empire, and later, the Byzantine empire.

      There was already conflicts, you can see that from New Testament alone, how Paul was arguing against the points of gnostics, who felt that Jesus didn't have an earthly body, that his human existence was mere illusion, because holiness can't exist in the flesh.

      It's really something to ponder, what the core concepts of Christianity might have been had it not been for it being co opted by Rome and the Council of Nicaea. I haven't gotten into the Apocrypha before, since Protestants consider them heretical. I was told once on a forum for ex-Christians several years ago by a very scholarly man that most of them were rejected, and the Gospels were accepted in their place because in many books in the Apocrypha, Jesus makes no claims of divinity, or out rightly rejects the idea. He mentioned one, the Gospel of Thomas, that depicted Jesus' teachings as being something more resembling Buddhism.

      It's good to have you back, CM!

    2. I increasingly find that the Gnostic interpretation makes more "sense" than Orthodoxy. Yahweh as a flawed, fallen fragment of any true, ineffable godhead beyond material reality who forged said flawed material reality and wishes to trap us within it. Jesus as a messenger from beyond material reality.

      A better answer to the character of Yahweh in the Old Testament and the Problem of Evil than orthodox apologetics, at least!

  5. Good to be back too! thanks

    "It's really something to ponder, what the core concepts of Christianity might have been..."---as a Muslim, I ponder if there are any...(or ever were) ....!....

    apparently there is quite a list of "heretical" Christianities...marcionites, Aranism, ebionites nestorians, gnostics.......etc....etc... Then there are the splits over nuances in doctrine and other things... such as the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Church, Roman Catholic...etc..etc....and then there is the diversity in modern Christianity....!....If one views the history of Christianity as a slice of the human quest to understand the Divine/God---it is fascinating----if only Christians themselves valued it as such........

    Then, there are the different bibles such as the diatessaron of the Syriac Church (a harmony of the 4 gospels into a single narrative) and the Assyrian (or Ethiopian Church) which also has some lost books included...?....its all very interesting----though much of the nuance is lost on me as I am not a Christian.

    @Brian M---interesting perspective. ---under such a framework, what would the "message" be?



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