My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 1: Genre Matters

Picking up where we left off before–

Sam Harris wants to tie his interlocutors to a specific dichotomy about the Bible.  It’s either the inerrant word of God or a purely mortal product.  Because he knows his fundamentalist target audience already believes that, he doesn’t bother to make the case for accepting that dichotomy, nor does he bother to tell us why we should reject other views of the Bible between the extremes.  But there certainly are viable views in between the extremes that still allow for the scriptures to be authoritative for our faith without the need for an over-rigid theory of inspiration.

For what it’s worth, here’s where I am when it comes to issues of Biblical inspiration and authority:

1) No one wrote a history before someone wrote a history.  Okay, that’s tautological, I know.  But the point is that genre is important, especially regarding the Old Testament.  It is generally acknowledged that the first person who set out to write a history in anything close to the modern sense was Herodotus in 5th century B.C. Greece.  That was the beginning of a new discipline that sought to record events in a way that faithfully represented the accounts of those who were there.  Before Herodotus, there weren’t distinct histories, just epic stories that combined parts of what we would now label history, legend and myth.  If a superior intelligence wanted to communicate in written form to the tribal peoples of the ancient near East, he would be unlikely to choose to do so through history, a genre that was completely unfamiliar to them.  (It is so familiar to us that this is hard to imagine–we just have to do our best to get into the mindset of a 13th century Hebrew slave.)  If you compare the early sections of Genesis to other ANE creation accounts like Atrahasis or the epic of Gilgamesh, you’ll see some pretty marked similarities.  Skeptics consider that evidence against the Bible, but it’s only reasonable that God would communicate in a cultural form that was already familiar to the Hebrew people.  Giving them a history would have been a huge misservice when they only knew how to interpret cultural myth.  And here I mean myth as a literary form, not implying falsity, but noting that exacting historicity was not the point.

Is it possible to communicate theological truth through ahistorical stories?  Would God do such a thing?  Well, sure he would, and if you’re a Christian, you think so too.  Because we believe that Jesus was God and Jesus communicated through parables–one of the most culturally relevant genres of first century Palestine.  If Jesus chose stories about vineyard workers and banquets to communicate genuine truth about God and the kingdom, why couldn’t the Father have chosen ANE style epic form to communicate essential truths about himself and the world he created?

The Bible communicates through a tremendous variety of genres: songs, proverbs, letters, parables, apocalypses, law codes, gospels, prophecies, dramatic monologues, genealogies, and, yes, histories.  But there is no compelling reason to assign the label “history” to many early sections of the Bible, and I suspect that we only do so because of the weight of tradition and our own cultural familiarity with the genre.  When Genesis is laid alongside other contemporaneous literature, it’s clear that epic myth is a much better fit for genre.

And that doesn’t make Genesis less inspired or less authoritative, any more that understanding that there wasn’t a historical good Samaritan or prodigal son make those stories less authoritative.  (You do think that those are preachable, right?  And they tell us something about God, right?)  But it does mean that arguing about whether the days of creation were 24-hour days or eons, or whether the flood was world-wide or local, ultimately is about like arguing over what color the good Samaritan’s donkey was.  It’s not the point of the story.

I think it’s important to say that I didn’t come to this view of Genesis because I wanted to disregard it in any sense–and I don’t.  I came to this view because my evangelical Bible teachers taught me that to interpret a passage well, I had to understand its genre.  To me, the most conservative approach I can take is to assume that the Bible was written in the genres appropriate to its era(s), and not impose on the scriptures the forms and preferences of my own era.  To force the early Biblical passages into the genres I know and like regardless of the original cultural context is not a conservative move–far from it.  God communicated clearly within the constraints of the literary forms that were available to his readers.  He could not have done otherwise and expected them to understand.

Next up, assumption #2: Some Things That Seem Important to Me Don’t Matter to the Biblical Writers

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4 Comments

Filed under Atheism, Bible

4 responses to “My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 1: Genre Matters

  1. wjcsydney

    Wow. I discovered your blog through your participation on Michael Spencer’s. You are addressing the issues I am wrestling with!

  2. Glad you dropped by! I hope these ramblings are helpful. Leave a question or a comment if something strikes you. I have a small audience and am delighted to interact with new friends.

  3. Clint Latham

    Kirk, Long time, no see. I just came upon your site. This is a good post. Is part two in the offing?

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