Science and the Sacred

Science and the Sacred


Mesopotamian Myths and “Genre Calibration”

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Every Friday, “Science and the Sacred” features an essay
from a guest voice in the science and religion dialogue. This week’s
guest entry was written by Peter Enns. Enns is an evangelical Christian
scholar and author of several books and commentaries, including the
popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament
, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional
views of Scripture. This is the third of his multi-part series on an incarnational model of Scripture.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, since the nineteenth century, the discovery of texts and artifacts has given scholars a backdrop against which to understand more clearly the nature of Israelite religion in general and Genesis specifically. The texts that were discovered in the nineteenth century contained Mesopotamian stories of creation and a flood. The names of these stories are known to us as Enuma Elish, Atrahasis, and Gilgamesh.

These texts were written in Akkadian, the language of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. It was a new language to scholars and it took a bit of time to decipher them, but once these texts were translated, their impact was immediately felt. Whereas beforehand, the biblical creation and flood stories could safely be read in a self-referential manner, these texts placed Israelite religion in a larger context. It was inevitable that discerning readers would begin comparing and contrasting Israel to her neighbors and forbearers.

Placing Israel in its broader cultural and religious context has been referred to as the “comparative approach.” This is a sometimes-maligned term, as it is unfortunately understood by some to imply that Israel was simply copying or “borrowing” what was around them. This is not the case. Rather, the literature of Israel and that of her predecessors and neighbors reflect a common way of looking at the world.
The value of these ancient texts is not in telling us from where Israel got her ideas. Instead, they help us understand what kind of a text Genesis is. I like to refer to this as “genre calibration.”

By comparing Genesis to the creation and other primordial tales that other cultures of antiquity produced, we gain a clearer understanding of the nature of Genesis. I understand that some object to allowing something outside of the Bible to tell us what the Bible is doing. It seems to put ancient stories on the same level as the Bible, so to speak. But the fact of the matter is that faithful readers of the Bible looking to things outside of the Bible to help us understand what the Bible is doing. A glance at a good study Bible will put to rest any notion of trying to isolate the Bible from its ancient setting.

To put it another way, genre calibration guides us in seeing what we have a right to expect from Genesis. To cut to the chase, despite whatever unique elements we see in the opening chapters of Genesis, comparing and contrasting Genesis to the Mesopotamian texts discovered in the nineteenth century (not to mention to the broader ancient Near Eastern world of subsequent discoveries) leads to the conclusion, quite inescapable in my mind, that Genesis 1-11 is not prepared to answer the kinds of questions that occupy modern scientific or historical studies.

The biblical descriptions of creation and the flood are ancient texts that address ancient issues within the scope of ancient ways of knowing. These stories are not to be read as if overlapping with or informing scientific investigation of human origins or modern notions of historiography. To think that they do is a genre misidentification of a most fundamental order.

But there is something more important than just excluding certain genre options. Calibrating the genre of Genesis by ancient standards will lead to positive articulations of the nature of Genesis that also respect its ancient setting. In the Genesis/science dialogue, it is not enough to say “we know that Genesis is not science” and be done with it. We must also attempt to articulate, in as direct and unflinching manner as possible, what Genesis is. What was the book of Genesis written to do?

Addressing this question will help us articulate positively how Genesis contributes to Christian thought. The synthesis of Christianity and evolution is all too often perceived as taking something away from Genesis (its literal, historical, scientific value) and leaving nothing behind. Rather, a comparative approach will leave us with a proper notion of what Genesis contributed to ancient Israelite thought, what it now contributes to Christian thought, and the extent to which that entire dynamic can be brought into the Christianity/evolution discussion.

A comparative approach, therefore, has helped modern readers “calibrate” the genre of Genesis, and thus has helped us understand how to read it

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Knockgoats

posted November 27, 2009 at 8:30 am


Is it not the case that current Bible scholars, fundamentalist cranks excepted, consider the current text of the Pentateuch to have been produced by a complex process involving multiple authors, editors and redactors, over some centuries during the first millennium BCE – with most of the details still disputed? Hence “What the Book of Genesis was written to do” is itself an ill-formed question, since it was not written at one time or with one purpose. Notoriously, it retains traces of the pre-Exile polytheistic or henotheistic beliefs of the ancient Hebrews’, such as the “sons of God” who married the “daughters of men”, who produced “giants” or “mighty men” as a result. According to one hypothesis, the entire Pentateuch was revised in the post-Exilic period, as part of a successful attempt by the elite to impose the monotheism they had copied from Zoroastrianism during the Exile.



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dopderbeck

posted November 27, 2009 at 11:29 am


Pete, I’d like to follow up on Knockgoats’ question.
First — Pete, I’d appreciate correction if I’m wrong here — KG, many or perhaps most who accept a post-exilic date for much of the Pentateuch don’t accept the narrative that the Israelite religion became essentially a copy of Zoroastrianism during the exile. I think most mainstream Biblical scholars in fact reject the extreme version of this view. There may be interaction with Zoroastrian beliefs, but the thesis that the post-exilic Israelite religion basically encodes Zoroastrian myths that are then taken up in the Jesus story is not one, to my knowledge, that most scholars accept.
Second — that said, it seems that KG makes a good point here. How do we determine the “authorship,” “audience,” and “genre” of texts that were compiled and redacted over centuries? I could be wrong, but I’d imagine that, for example, if we could reconstruct the origins of the Gen. 1 and Gen. 2 creation stories, from an oral context to some set(s) of writings to an editorial process to the shaping of the canonical texts during and after the exile, we’d be able to identify multiple intents and genres. And, I think you make some good points in your book (Pete) that the NT writers in many cases reinterpreted the OT texts and essentially assigned them new genres as used in the NT. So — does “genre” analysis require the same sort of fixed referentiality of meaning that the literal-historical-grammatical heremeneutic tries to find?



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Knockgoats

posted November 27, 2009 at 11:47 am


dopderbeck,
KG, many or perhaps most who accept a post-exilic date for much of the Pentateuch don’t accept the narrative that the Israelite religion became essentially a copy of Zoroastrianism during the exile.
Yes, I’m aware of that – I said “According to one hypothesis”. I don’t claim expertise here, I’m just going on readily available material written for general audiences. It doesn’t in any case affect the main point, as you recognise.



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Jacob

posted November 27, 2009 at 8:16 pm


Great blog! Totally agree.



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Albert the Abstainer

posted November 28, 2009 at 11:10 am


I see the author’s aim as disentanglement of Genesis from the overlay which occurred as a reaction to evolution, liberal theology and higher criticism of the Bible, arising from the Niagara Bible Conferences of the late 19th century..
The problem for fundamental-conservative Christians is a result of their establishing a line in the Biblical sand about what constitute the fundamentals of Christian faith. The specific stumbling block is:
The Bible is the inspired Word of God, and is without flaw in its original form.
The author seeks to reveal to a Biblical fundamentalist a context for Biblical narrative within its time and culture to accommodate a view that the narrative can be inspired and flawless in its original form, but misinterpreted by projections born of reactions to 19th century discoveries. Squaring the circle requires abandonment of that projection as necessary to be a Christian. Genesis can be placed in its proper context and not looked upon as a necessary history, and doing so relieves the believer of internal schism caused by buttressing an irrational belief in the modern age.
The other possible approach to the problem is post-modern, though it also requires a contextualization of belief. Within a society, (be it a church, community, family), where one of the binding elements is an irrational but strongly held belief (which causes no harm in itself), it is possible to occupy a role within that society which includes that belief. The belief is local to that society, and does not carry over into other roles in other societies that the same individual occupies. This only becomes a problem when a person is concurrently trying to play roles in which a strong attachment to a belief and its bipolar opposite occur. Some will take issue with this as fragmentation of core personality/identity, though I suggest that the emergent personality/identity reflects underlying brain function/structure. As members of an adaptive and social species, we already do this a great deal. So how do some beliefs acquire such a level of vestment that the in-divid-ual becomes selectively non-adaptive? (This can be witnessed in other areas than religion. Consider paradigm shift in different schools of thought, even the hard sciences.)



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Pete Enns

posted November 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm


David,
Back to you…. Great question.
Re: the postexilic nature of Genesis and Zoroastrianism, you are right in your perception. That issue is not on my radar screen, although the postexilic final form of Genesis (and the Pentateuch) most certainly is.
The second point is related. You are certainly right that Genesis was not written out of whole cloth in the postexilic period. It has a pre-history, likely both oral and written. That should affect in some respects how we think of an author was trying to get across. My basic position re: Genesis is that it was written as a statement of national/religious self-definition, to declare how Israel was different from the other nations–particularly how their God was different.
Locating this notion in the wake of the exile in Babylon in think heightens this position, since Genesis 1 at least seems to have some sort of specifically anti-Babylonian polemic in mind–although I do not think this is absolutely certain, nor even necessary. Throughout its history, Israel was distinguishing itself from other nations, not just during the postexilic period. In this respect, every nation was engaged in some sort of self-defnition.



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Knockgoats

posted November 28, 2009 at 1:01 pm


Throughout its history, Israel was distinguishing itself from other nations, not just during the postexilic period. – Peter Enns
What is the evidence for this from earlier periods? (I take it you are referring to earlier periods.) As I understand it, there is no agreement on what sources the postexilic writer/editors had access to, or how they used them, although there is general agreement, based in part on inconsistencies and repetitions, that they had some.



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Beaglelady

posted November 28, 2009 at 1:02 pm


KG,
It sure sounds like Christians are dangerous. Have you gone into hiding yet? What country do you live in? Any plans to move to Japan or the Scandinavian countries, where you will be safe?
And I suppose you realize that by being a male you are part of the most aggressive, deadly and dangerous group of humans on earth?



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Knockgoats

posted November 28, 2009 at 2:07 pm


Beaglelady,
As I’ve said on another thread, Christians appear to include much the same mix of good, bad and indifferent as everyone else. It is the institutional systems of religion, and specifically Christianity, that are dangerous. As Voltaire said:
“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.
Christianity’s central aim is to make people believe a particular set of absurdities. The atroicities have only too often followed.
As someone else said, without religion (or, I would add, some structurally similar secular belief system such as Leninism, fascism or libertarianism), good people will do good, and evil people, evil. It takes religion (or its substitutes) to persuade good people to do evil.



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Scott Jorgenson

posted November 28, 2009 at 5:03 pm


…and to persuade evil people to do good.



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Knockgoats

posted November 28, 2009 at 5:42 pm


Scott Jorgenson,
Despite American mythology, neither the USA nor Britain was a democracy in the 19th century. Foreign policy remains largely outside democratic control even now. Christianity had no problem with slavery for nearly 2000 years, and the Bible says nothing against it: its end coincided with the decline of Christian influence, despite the laudable role of many Christians in ending it (Lincoln, of course, was not a Christian). Christianity has long been in the forefront of moves to keep women and gays down, and remains so. It has also, as you can hardly deny, fronted the attack on science and rationality in many times and places, including the present-day USA.



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JustGuessing

posted November 28, 2009 at 9:33 pm


Knockgoats
In summary, I do what I can to undermine religious belief because I consider it a great evil; and I have the evidence on my side.
I doubt you will convert anyone to atheism or even get anyone to quit going to church. But those of us who go to church should absolutely be mindful to what to have to say and make sure our individual churches are based on love and not intolerance.



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Knockgoats

posted November 29, 2009 at 4:30 am


To return to the interesting subject of this thread (I note that at least in this case, I was not the hijacker!), I would be interested to learn what anyone with relevant knowledge thinks can be deduced about the religious beliefs and practices of the pre-exilic Hebrews, and from what evidence. How different were their beliefs and practices from those of their neighbours? Were they monotheistic, or did they adopt this from Zoroastrianism? (They certainly did not adopt the admirable religious tolerance shown to them by Cyrus the Great.) Was there a separate priestly caste? How much had been written down, and when?



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Albert the Abstainer

posted November 29, 2009 at 12:14 pm


I should never write when I am hungover … yada, yada, yada.
KG: Voltaire said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.
Christianity’s central aim is to make people believe a particular set of absurdities. The atrocities have only too often followed.
As someone else said, without religion (or, I would add, some structurally similar secular belief system such as Leninism, fascism or libertarianism), good people will do good, and evil people, evil. It takes religion (or its substitutes) to persuade good people to do evil.

This is an unfortunate but all too self-evident weakness that people have, whether if be with regards to Christianity or any other _ism which is used to group people into an “us” and a “them” which is exclusive, definite, and where we are good and they are not-good. It is particularly problematic at times where people feel greater uncertainty and want “solutions”, and particularly “final solutions”.
Complexity and uncertainty are not things we deal well with. There is a natural tendency towards templating to simplify and reduce uncertainty. In the earliest stages of grappling with new ideas and experiences templating provides a means to reduce the angst associated with not-knowing, but all templates must be tentative and allow the setting aside of false assumptions as experience and evidence displace the original assumptions. The problem is templates can become rigid frames, and it is easy to encourage this when uncertainty and angst are high, and especially in groups driven by a charismatic personality.
In the case under discussion here: A 19th and early 20th-century template, (“The Fundamentals of Christianity”) was a reaction against emerging forms in science and literary analysis. That template, which has become a fixed frame for many conservative Christians, provides a false certainty, and it has been buttressed by utilizing fears of hell to guard against challenges from emerging discoveries and forms of criticism. This is why attempts to convince many conservative Christians to consider evolution is so very difficult and encounters a very visceral and irrational reaction. Many are aware that if the first card in this house of cards falls, (i.e. Genesis), then the structures which they have built upon it are vulnerable to collapse. (Mere Christian provides an excellent example: He is typical for a significant number of conservative Christian groups and people.)
There are a great many societal and psychological questions which become evident when trying to decide whether and to what extent it is necessary to deconstruct non-adaptive templates held strongly by individuals and collectives.
Please note: People who disturb the slumber of sleeping dragons, often get eaten.



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Beaglelady

posted November 29, 2009 at 3:26 pm


KG,
You didn’t answer my questions.

Christianity’s central aim is to make people believe a particular set of absurdities.

It’s absurd to you and that’s all that matters, of course.

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities”.

So authors of diet books can make us commit atrocities?
btw, Slavery never ended.



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Amy B

posted November 30, 2009 at 12:03 am


I hope someone can answer Knockgoat’s questions about pre-exilic Hebrews.
Dr. Enns, you mention that the purpose of the final post-exilic form of Genesis 1 was to differentiate Isreal and her God from her neighbors. What then becomes the message for modern Christian readers about their God?



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Amy B

posted November 30, 2009 at 12:19 am


Knockgoats, I am interested, Do you spend any time combating any other religious or secular institutional systems which you consider harmful?
Albert the Abstainer, I hope you have recovered from your hangover. The post you wrote is no different in quality from any of your other entries, so either you handle your alcohol well or you always write hungover :)
Albert wrote: “This only becomes a problem when a person is concurrently trying to play roles in which a strong attachment to a belief and its bipolar opposite occur. Some will take issue with this as fragmentation of core personality/identity, though I suggest that the emergent personality/identity reflects underlying brain function/structure.”
How so?
Albert wrote: “As members of an adaptive and social species, we already do this a great deal. So how do some beliefs acquire such a level of vestment that the in-divid-ual becomes selectively non-adaptive?”
Though maladaptive in that it causes fragmentation, isn’t it adaptive in terms of reducing cognitive dissonance? I agree with Piaget who stated that we are strongly predisposed to seek cognitive equilibration. This is especially helpful in extreme circumstances, where individuals are traumatized (such as in dissociative identity disorder).



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dopderbeck

posted November 30, 2009 at 10:15 am


KG asked: I would be interested to learn what anyone with relevant knowledge thinks can be deduced about the religious beliefs and practices of the pre-exilic Hebrews, and from what evidence.
I respond: I am not an expert on this, but from what I understand there is some helpful though ambiguous and contested archeological evidence, and there are the Hebrew scriptures. Again from what I understand, a synthesis of this evidence suggests that the pre-exilic Hebrews tended to practice syncretistic religions that blended Yahwism with Canaanite religions. A conservative scholar once recommended this book to me, but I’ve only read small parts of it on historiographic method. If you subscribe to Biblical Archeology Review, you’ll quickly notice that these questions are hotly, fiercely debated by scholars.
In this respect, the Hebrew scriptures seem to line up pretty well with the archeological data. Over and over again, the Hebrew scriptures note that God’s people rejected Him in favor of other Gods. Biblically speaking, this repeated turn to idolatry is the reason for the Exile.
Pete — am I on track here?



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dopderbeck

posted November 30, 2009 at 10:18 am


BTW, another interesting approach to synthesis is Long, Longman and Provan, A Biblical History of Israel.



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Knockgoats

posted November 30, 2009 at 10:29 am


Thanks dopderbeck, I’ll see if the university library I can access has the references you give. Of course, they may provide the evidence I ask for below.
Again from what I understand, a synthesis of this evidence suggests that the pre-exilic Hebrews tended to practice syncretistic religions that blended Yahwism with Canaanite religions.
For the pre-exilic Hebrews to be practising a syncretistic religion, there would have to have been a “pure” Yahwism preceding it. Is there any evidence of this other than from the post-exilic texts which could, to be blunt, just be “Yahwist propaganda”? The pre-exilics could all have been polytheists, with a repeatedly “forsaken” monotheism simply “retconned” onto them by the post-exilic Yahwist priestly elite.



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dopderbeck

posted November 30, 2009 at 1:52 pm


Here is another one I wanted to mention, but that I haven’t read at all, by a very conservative scholar: Richard Hess, Israelite Religions: an Archeological and Biblical Survey.



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dopderbeck

posted November 30, 2009 at 1:59 pm


Ah, and one more I thought of, from a moderate scholar: John Goldingay, An Old Testament Theology: Israel’s Life. Goldingay includes some interesting perspectives on the use of the Hebrew Bible as a source. This book isn’t directly about the historiography of Israelite religions, but it touches on the question in the context of his theological study. Goldingay’s book Models for Scripture might also be interesting to read in this connection, as it explains his perspective on the Bible as “scripture” in light of critical approaches.



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Martin Rizley

posted December 1, 2009 at 5:48 pm


“These stories are not to be read as if overlapping with or informing scientific investigation of human origins or modern notions of historiography. To think that they do is a genre misidentification of a most fundamental order.”
Dr. Enns,
How can you possibly say that a concern with what actually took place in the past is a concern belonging to the “modern notion of historiography”? There is nothing “modern” about people wanting to know the facts about where they came from, why the world is the way it is, etc. The book of Genesis was written precisely to give answers to questions about origins– the origin of the world, of the human race, of sin, of death, of the nation of Israel, etc., and it is abundantly clear that the ancients understood the book of Genesis to deal with matters of real history. Are you saying that Jesus and the apostles committed a blunder of “genre misidentification” when they read Genesis as historical narrative, rather than myth? How can you say that in light of Jesus claim to teach only truth?
Moreover, on’t you think that the book of Genesis stands out from among other ancient writings about creation precisely because of its non-mythological character? As Josh MacDowell points out, “Babylonian and Sumerian accounts describe the creation as the product of a conflict among finite gods. When one god is defeated and split in half, the River Euphrates flows from one eye and the Tigris from the other. Humanity is made of the blood of an evil god mixed with clay. These tales display the kind of distortion and embellishment to be expected when a historical account becomes mythologized. . .The common assumption that the Hebrew account is simply a purged and simplified version of the Babylonian legend is fallacious. In the Ancient Near East, the rule is that simple accounts or traditions give rise (by accretion and embellishment) to elaborate legends, but not the reverse. So the evidence supports the view that Genesis was not myth made into history. Rather, the extra biblical accounts were history turned into myth.” MacDowell goes on to point out that the discovery of the Ebla tablets confirms the fact that Babylonian and Sumerian creation stories are corruptions of an earlier monotheistic tradition: “Ebla’s version (of creation) predates the Babylonian account by some six hundred years. The creation tablet is strikingly close to that of Genesis, speaking of one being who created the heavens, moon, stars, and earth. Parallel accounts show that the Bible contains the older, less embellished version of the story and transmits the facts without the corruption of mythological wanderings. . .the force of the Ebla evidence supports the view that the earliest chapters of Genesis are history, not mythology.”
On what basis can you say, from a purely literary standpoint, that MacDowell is mistaken in his analysis of the relationship between the Genesis creation account and other ANE creation stories? In order to say that he is wrong, don’t you have to appeal ultimately to the “assured results of science” and your own deeply held conviction that human evolution is an established fact? In other words, isn’t “science,” rather than ANE studies, what is really driving this concern to recast Genesis 1-11 as myth?



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Pete Enns

posted December 3, 2009 at 12:50 pm


Martin,
I am not sure Josh McDowell is your best guide here (although what you report him as saying sounds like Kenneth Kitchen.) But if the matter were as simple as you say, no rational personal would disagree. Do you think there might be more to it?
If you are interested, I would suggest reading some scholarly (but readable) treatments of this issue, e.g., B. Batto, Slaying the Dragon, or R. Clifford, Creation Accounts in the Ancient Near East and the Bible. Perhaps also J. Tigay, The Evolution of the Gilgamesh Epic (so you can understand how difficult–indeed, wrong–it is to say that the Ebla version predates the Babylonian).
You also seem to have misunderstood the point of my post.



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Martin Rizley

posted December 4, 2009 at 10:43 am


Dr. Enns,
I don’t see how you can justly say that I have misunderstood the point of your post. I believe that I have understood your point quite well. You are saying that the church has “misread” Genesis by not understanding the “genre” of literature it represents. Because of its ignorance of ANE literary conventions, the church has treated Genesis as if it were an historical record written to provide factual information about actual events in earth’s remote past, when in fact, it is nothing of the sort, but rather, a theological tract dressed in the garb of ANE origin myth. Genesis 1-11 was not written to answer questions that concern modern historiographers; rather, it was written to provide men with a theological explanation of the relationship between God and His creation in a literary format that was common in the ancient world. The fact that Adam and Eve (in your view) are not actual historical figures who lived in the past, but symbols representing humanity before God, would not have concerned the ancients as it concerns us, with our modern concern for “scientific” accuracy. We need to get rid of our modern way of reading the Bible and begin reading Genesis in a different way; not with our mundane modern concern to “know the facts” of what actually took place in space and time in earth’s remote past, but with the same concern the ancients had– namely, to understand the relationship between God and His creation. If we read Genesis in order to gain historically or scientifically factual information about cosmic and human origins, then we are committing a “genre misidentification of a most fundamental order,” and are failing to understand the whole reason that Genesis was written. Can you deny that is what you are saying? Therefore, I have not misunderstood the point of your post. I was simply making the further point that, if what you are saying is true– that is, if the church has indeed “misread” Genesis in the way that you describe– it has done so because of the example set by Jesus and His apostles– for they, too, obviously understood Genesis to provide historically factual information regarding cosmic and human origins. Indeed, Paul’s understanding of the scheme of redemption in Romans 5 not only presupposes, but depends for its validity, on the historicity of Adam as a real person; for in that chapter, Paul teaches that human beings are redeemed from sin in the same way that they were constituted sinners– not through their own deeds, but through the deeds of a representative head. Just as Adam’s one act of rebellion brought condemnation on all his descendants, so too, Jesus’ one act of obedience brings righteousness and life for all believers. If Adam “evaporates” into thin air as an historical figure based on the “genre recalibration” of Genesis that you propose, I don’t see how Paul’s teaching in Romans 5 can continue to mean anything at all. The same thing is true concerning Paul’s doctrine concerning male headship in marriage and male teaching authority in the church; that doctrine is based on the actual historicity of the events recorded in Genesis 2 and 3. Consequently, if what you are saying is true, Paul was just as guilty of “misreading” Genesis as us moderns. In other words, I don’t see how you can accuse the church of doing anything other than following the example set by Jesus and Paul. Moreover, I don’t see how the doctrine of biblical inerrancy can be long upheld, once this line of thinking is taken to its logical conclusion. Jesus claimed to teach only truth; He claimed that His teaching was not His own, but was backed up to the hilt by the authority of God the Father. If that is so, then Adam and Eve must be regarded as the literal parents of the human race, for that is what Jesus and His apostles clearly taught. If the “scientific consensus” in our day doesn’t agree with what Jesus and His apostles on this issue, that only shows how fallible men are in their judgments. For we have to decide whether we are going to regard the question of human origins as most reliably determined by testamentary authority (God’s own testimony in Scripture, which is infallible), or scientific authority (the testimony of men, which is always fallible). It would not be the first time in history that “the scientific consensus” has proven to be wrong.



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#John1453

posted December 4, 2009 at 2:40 pm


Re Rizley’s recent comments (Dec. 1 & 4)
1. Rizley writes, “it is abundantly clear that the ancients understood the book of Genesis to deal with matters of real history.” It is, firstly, not abundantly clear that this is the case, nor has Rizley provided evidence or rationale to support his statement. Secondly, “real history” is an anachronistic term that would not have been used by the ANE Hebrews, and would not likely describe a concept that would be used by them to discuss the origins of the world. Thirdly, the ANE wrote “history” differently than we do, based on different presuppositions, in a different literary form, etc.
2. Rizley writes, “Are you saying that Jesus and the apostles committed a blunder of “genre misidentification” when they read Genesis as historical narrative, rather than myth?” Rizley is assuming that Jesus and the apostles read Genesis as a historical narrative. Again, that is an anachronistic understanding of what they were doing and thought they were doing.
3. Nothing in the Bible is “straight history” or “narrative history” as we would understand it and write it. It is all “theological history” or “narrative theology”.
4. Rizley writes, “How can you possibly say that a concern with what actually took place in the past is a concern belonging to the “modern notion of historiography”?” Rizley needs to get out more, and I do not mean that disparagingly. Most North Americans have very little idea regarding how extremely different other cultures can be, whether they be removed in time or space from ours. To project any “modern” desires of North Americans onto any other culture is so off-base and entirely useless as to be almost beyond addressing. It’s an argument that wouldn’t wash even in first year anthropology or sociology university courses. Even if a desire to know one’s origins were universal (and arguably it is not), that desire could be expressed and addressed in widely varying and fundamentally different ways.
5. Rizley’s assertion of how Jesus and the apostles would have used the Old Testament texts betrays an ignorance of such New Testament texts as (a) 1 Corinthians 10:4 wherein Paul refers to a Jewish legend that a well of water followed the Israelites during their journeys in the wilderness, (b) Jewish legends of angelic activity in the giving of the law to Moses, which is referenced in Galations 3:9, Acts 7:53 and Hebrews 2:2, (c) 2 Peter 2:5 which calls Noah a preacher of righteousness, based on a Jewish legend, (d) Jude 9 which refers to the extrabiblical tale of the archangel Michael’s dispute with the devil over Moses’ body, (e) Jude 14 – 15, which cites a prophecy found in the extrabiblical book of Enoch (1 Enoch 1:9), and (f) the legend of Moses’ education in Egypt is referenced by Stephen in Acts 7:22. None of these tales are found in the Old Testament, but form part of the Jewish extrabiblical stories.
In the cultural milieu of Jesus and the apostles, these tales were just part of the accepted truth and part of how the Old Testament was understood–just as Moses and the early Hebrews believed that the earth was flat, the sky was a solid dome, the sun went around the earth, the earth was the centre of the cosmos, there was water on the other side of the solid dome, it rained when God opened doors in the solid dome, etc.
regards,
#John



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Martin Rizley

posted December 4, 2009 at 5:43 pm


John#,
Actually, it is abundantly clear from the gospels that Jesus regarded biblical figures like Noah, Abel, Adam and Eve as historical figures. He spoke of the “blood of righteous Abel” as having been actually shed in space and time (like the blood of other Old Testament prophets) by the spiritual ancestors of the Pharisees; he foretold that the time prior to His second coming would be similar in certain ways to the days before the flood of Noah. He affirmed that God personally ordained the institution of marriage between one man and one woman for life based on the fact that He sexually distinguished the man from the woman at the time of their creation. Moreover, I provided evidence to show that Paul undeniably regarded Adam and Eve as historical figures (Romans 5). To say that the ancients had no concern about and/or no ability to distinguish between historical fact and historical fiction is ludicrous; in fact, I would go even further and say that this distinction is deeply rooted in the Bible. The apostle Peter strongly insists that the account he gave of what he saw on the Mount of Transfiguration was not a “cleverly crafted fable” (i.e., something belonging to the realm of human imagination and invention), but an actual historical event in space and time involving the five senses. He saw with his eyes the glory of Christ revealed on that holy mountain; he heard with his ears the voice of God speaking. It is not the concept of “real history” that was foreign to the ancients, but rather, this modern, Barthian notion, so rampant in liberal seminaries, that the Bible can be true on the level of “heilegeschichte” while being false on the level of “historie”! It seems to me that if you classify Genesis 1-11 as myth, in spite of the New Testament writers treatement of these chapters as sober history, you are dangerously close to saying that the entire Bible reflects a mythical worldview that is unacceptable to modern man, and that you can only arrive at the real meaning of Scripture by “demythologizing” it.
“the early Hebrews believed that the earth was flat, the sky was a solid dome, the sun went around the earth, the earth was the centre of the cosmos, there was water on the other side of the solid dome, it rained when God opened doors in the solid dome, etc.:
This statement is based on the unproved assumption that the pre-scientific descriptions of nature we find in the Psalms, etc., are intended by the biblical writers to “map,” in a pseudo-scientific way, the physical structure of the cosmos. There is no way that assumption can be proven. In a pre-scientific culture, it is natural– indeed, inevitable– for people to describe the world around them using the only language available to them– the language of analogy and metaphor. Thus, if the sky appears to them like a dome, they will naturally speak of the “dome of the heavens” without necessarily intending to make any pseudo-scientific statement about the physical structure of the cosmos. If rain falling from the sky appears to be poured out from on high the way a person might empty a bucket of water from a second-story window, they will speak of God “opening the windows of heaven” without necessarily intending to assert that God has opened some little hinged door in the solid sky dome to pour out water on the people below. We must not confuse the Bible’s use of pre-scientific language with pseudo-scientific statements on the level of alchemy! Pre-scientific language is not the same thing as pseudo-scientific language; therefore, one has no grounds for asserting that the biblical writers intended to give a structural cosmology of the universe, simply because they used pre-scientific language to describe the natural world around them (after all, how else could they have described the natural world, since the instruments of modern scientific investigation were not available to them)? To call such pre-scientific statements “false“ or “erroneous” shows a complete failure to grasp the intent of such descriptions, which is to give analogical, phenomenological descriptions of nature, rather a pseudo-scientific, structural description of the cosmos.



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Pete Enns

posted December 6, 2009 at 4:52 pm


Martin, you said: “In a pre-scientific culture, it is natural– indeed, inevitable– for people to describe the world around them using the only language available to them– the language of analogy and metaphor. Thus, if the sky appears to them like a dome, they will naturally speak of the “dome of the heavens” without necessarily intending to make any pseudo-scientific statement about the physical structure of the cosmos.”
I am selecting this comment from your many comments to illustrate where you are misunderstanding some things. Of course the ancient writers are not “intending to make any pseudo-scientific statement.” They are simply observing and describing what they see. There is no “science” pseudo or otherwise that is an option for them. But that is the point.Their observations reflect their limitations, and God is pleased to accommodate top such a limited state of affairs.
I think if we can agree on that, there might be much more we could agree on.



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Your Name

posted December 7, 2009 at 11:09 am


Rizley, Dec. 4 writes, “This statement is based on the unproved assumption that the pre-scientific descriptions of nature we find in the Psalms, etc., are intended by the biblical writers to “map,” in a pseudo-scientific way, the physical structure of the cosmos.”
Actually, it is Rizleys 21st century American and anachronistic interpretation of the bible that is unproved. What we do know about the Hebrews from inscriptions, from related contemporaneous cultures, and from Hebrew extrabiblical stories is that they indeed believed that the sky was a solid dome. There is no evidence whatsoever that they believed that their descriptions of the sky and other phenomena were merely phenomenological language that described something that had a different reality from their description. This latter, phenomenological point of view, could only be held by a modern, not by an ancient.
What Rizley fails to recognize is that when the Hebrews described the sky as a solid dome, they in fact believed that it was a solid dome. It’s NOT that they believed that the sky was something else and then used “firmanent” (i.e., solid dome) as the term for it.
The Hebrews, including the writers of the Bible, believed as true things that were and are scientifically incorrect.
regards,
#John



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Martin Rizley

posted December 7, 2009 at 12:07 pm


John#,
“What we do know about the Hebrews from inscriptions, from related contemporaneous cultures, and from Hebrew extrabiblical stories is that they indeed believed that the sky was a solid dome.”
This statement forgets the fact that the authority for what we ought to believe is not what the Hebrews themselves believed but what the Hebrew Scriptures teach. The Jewish rabbis were not infallible interpreters of their own Scripture. There is a huge distinction to be made between the Hebrew Scriptures themselves– which were given by divine inspiration through the mouth of the prophets and are therefore infallible– and Hebrew tradition, which is a mixed bag of truth, fable, and fantasy. Only those aspects of Hebrew tradition which find confirmation in the written Scriptures may be regarded as true, for the fact that those aspects of tradition are affirmed by the Spirit of God Himself proves their truth, since the Spirit of God does not lie. It is not surprising to me that if a biblical writer (under divine inspiration) described the heavens phenomenologically as a “dome,” some rabbi would come along later and embellish that biblical statement by expostulating on the precise nature of the sky dome as a solid object enclosing the earth, etc. But we must not confuse the misguided pseudo-science of Hebrew tradition (or Babylonian or Sumerian tradition) with what the Scriptures themselves affirm. To equate the overly literalistic interpretations of Jewish rabbis (which are false) with the phenomenlogical statements of the inspired writers themselves (which are true) is to call into question the authority of the Holy Spirit Himself, since He only speaks truth.



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Your Name

posted December 8, 2009 at 1:39 pm


Rizley writes, “phenomenlogical statements of the inspired writers themselves (which are true) is to call into question the authority of the Holy Spirit Himself, since He only speaks truth.”
How does Rizley know that the Holy Spirit used phenomenological language? And how does Rizley know that the inspired writers knew that the descriptions they used in the Bible were factually false and only phenomenologically true? Rizley cannot know this from the text itself nor from any historic literature or cultural artifacts. Rather, he can only know those propositions by previously developing a particular view of the inspiration of scripture and then bringing that view of inspiration to the Bible and interpreting the Bible in the light of and consistent with his pre-established beliefs about inspiration.
So we must then look at whether his theory of inspiration is valid, and it is not obviously true that it is. How then should we formulate our theory of the nature of inspiration, and should the character of Genesis 1 – 11 inform our thinking?
regards,
#John



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Martin Rizley

posted December 9, 2009 at 11:04 am


John#,
“How does Rizley know that the inspired writers knew that the descriptions they used in the Bible were factually false and only phenomenologically true? Rizley cannot know this from the text itself. . .”
I am not saying that the inspired writers knew that the descriptions they used in the Bible were factually false. To know that the moon is not made of cheese, for example, one would have to have knowledge of its actual composition– something inaccessible to the ancients. What I am saying is saying is their intention when they described the world around them was not to assert anything scientifically “factual” about the physical structure of the universe, but simply to describe the natural world as it “appeared” to them, using the language of analogy and metaphor. Their intention did not go beyond that. Yet many modern scholars slander the biblical writers by putting into their mouths cosmological assertions that have nothing to do with the author’s intention. They say, for example, that when the prophet Isaiah speaks of the “circle of the earth,” it was his intention to assert that the earth is literally in the shape of a flat disk or pancake; and in so doing, he taught “error.” That is a complete misreading of the text, however, for several reasons. First of all, as Edward Andrews points out, the Hebrew word for “circle” in this verse can be variously translated “circle, arch, vault, or compass.” Says Andrews, “Like our own vague word ’round,’ it can be used to indicate both two and three dimensional objects. Almost certainly, Isaiah meant ’vault’ and was referring not to the Earth at all but to the heavens.” In other words, “the circle of the earth” is a poetic way of describing the arched or vaulted sky above the earth. That Isaiah is speaking poetically is obvious from the fact that he goes on to say that the God who sits above the “vault” of the earth (that is, who is higher than the heavens) also ’stretches out the heavens like a curtain and spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.’ Clearly, Isaiah is describing the natural world poetically and metaphorically, with no intention of giving us a technical, structural description of the cosmos.
We know from our own experience that it is the most natural thing in the world for human beings to describe the natural world as it “appears” to them, without any intention of asserting anything about its physical structure. For example, despite our modern knowledge of the physical structure of the universe, we continue to speak of the sun “rising” and “setting,” just like the biblical writers. Are we asserting anything about the physical structure of the universe by the use of such language? Obviously not. Then why do we use it? Because it is natural for human beings to describe the natural world as it appears to the human eye.
So authorial intention has everything to do with whether or not we are justified in ascribing error to the biblical writers‘ descriptions of the natural world. If an author’s intention in describing the sky as a dome is simply to let us know how the sky appears to him, he cannot be accused of teaching error. That accusation can only be made if it were his intention to assert something dogmatically about the physical structure of the universe. We have no basis whatsoever of saying that this was the intention of the biblical writers.
As far as my view of biblical inspiration, it is the same as that of the apostolic writers, who believed that “What Scripture says, God says” and that the Spirit moved holy men to write so that what they wrote, though expressing their own personalities, vocabulary, etc., is exactly what God wanted them to write. God superintended the whole process of prophetic writing, so that the words of Scripture can be regarded as God’s own words. For that reason, we can regard the Scriptures as being “without error in all that they intend to affirm.”



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Your Name

posted December 9, 2009 at 8:10 pm


Rizley on December 9th wrote, “What I am saying is saying is their intention when they described the world around them was not to assert anything scientifically “factual” about the physical structure of the universe, . . .”
But how does Rizley determine that their intention was not to assert anything factual about the earth?
Moreover, the point is not that the Biblical writers were engaging in an analysis of cosmology and then making assertions. Rather, the point is that the Biblical writers assumed the factual truth of these things when they wrote. The Biblical writers assumed that the sun went around the earth, and so when they wrote that the sun rose and set they meant that the sun indeed did rise up and go around the earth.
As to the circle of the earth, it is much more likely that the Hebrews shared the ANE assumptions of the time, such as a flat earth with a physical hard dome over it (like a snowglobe).
If, on the other hand, Rizley is write that the Biblical writers did not intend these descriptions to be taken as factually correct, is that not the same point that Enns et al. make? just in regard to different texts?
regards,
#John



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Martin Rizley

posted December 9, 2009 at 11:13 pm


How does Rizley determine that their intention was not to assert anything factual about the earth?
I determine that by paying close attention to the biblical context of the passages which allegedly teach bogus ideas about cosmological structure, and I regularly discover, upon close examination of the text, that the biblical writer is clearly intending to use poetic imagery. Take the passage from Isaiah that I quoted. Do you think the prophet– who clearly understood God’s immaterial, spiritual nature– believed that God literally measured the waters of the earth in the hollow of some gigantic, fleshy hand? Or that he literally held the dust of the earth in an enormous swinging basket? Or that he literally weighed the mountains in a pair of scales? (40:12) If not, why would you assume that he believed the sky to be a literal canopy stretched out over the earth or the people of the earth literal grasshoppers, or the earth itself a flat, circular disk? The context suggests otherwise, that the prophet is not asserting pseudo-scientific ideas out of ignorance, but is describing nature using the poetic language of analogy and metaphor (even if the “circle of the earth” refers to the earth itself, and not to the sky, it could still be simply a poetic description of the horizon stretching out on all sides like an enormous circle). The fact that certain false cosmologies were circling around in the ancient world does not mean that those cosmologies found their way into the teaching of biblical writers who writing under divine inspiration. Can you give me one clear example where that is what they are doing– making scientifically false assertions about cosmological structure, rather than describing nature in a poetic or phenomenlogical fashion? Bring on your example; I’d like to examine it closely, for that is the key to getting at truth; It will not do simply to talk in generalities like “the Babylonians believed. . .” or “the Sumerians believed. . .” We must look at particular biblical texts in their context, to determine what particular biblical writers were intending to say or assert.



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