Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is there error in scripture?

I have not the vaguest idea whether scripture can be or is in error in part or not. I am inclined to say that insofar as it is truly the communication of a supremely good God that it is not in error and insofar as it is a human production it is almost certainly in error in part. But I don't claim to be able to tell which is which and whether even what I've just said is true or not.

So how do I go about it, i.e. reading scripture? Well I read it as if it is error free on the supposition that anything I really need to know will be correct. I also read it with discernment based on the innate sense of right and wrong that God has given each of us. If something doesn't seem to make sense to me, I don't automatically assume it is wrong, I assume that it doesn't make sense to me, i.e. I acknowledge my lack of understanding. There are many things in scripture that are obscure to us because we live such different lives so much later on the time line. Straightforward customs of ancient times, things that would not need to have been explained to anyone and are just understood will completely pass us by. Occasionally some of these are pointed out by the author, likely others simply mystify us even to the point of not being translated.

The scholars of the late nineteenth century decided that the bible was full of doubtful material. All those miracles for example could not be true. What happened was a whole lot of rethinking of biblical material always questioning the accuracy of the accounts. Theories were advanced of a long period of oral tradition before the accounts were written down. Now in fact there is no particular reason to believe in a long period of oral tradition. Nothing we know of demands it except the suppositions of skeptics to begin with. Tradition has assigned the accounts to eye witnesses or those who knew eye witnesses. There is no particular reason to doubt the traditional assignments except that it would call into question the theory of oral tradition.

I want to take a particular case in point and talk about it. That is the rather timely case (since it is within the Christmas Season) of the Nativity accounts. There are two accounts of the birth of Jesus, one in the gospel of Matthew and the other in the gospel of Luke. Christians typically conflate the accounts and scholars say that the accounts are irreconcilable. Now I think it is pretty silly to claim that they are irreconcilable when the average person reading the accounts doesn't leap to the conclusion that something is wrong. I think the reason for that is that harmonizing the accounts, far from being particularly difficult, is actually fairly easy. There are no outright contradiction only silences which disquiet scholars who are used to printed texts and instant communication. The ancient world wasn't like that. Books were expensive since each had to be individually written out. One did not multiple details that were irrelevant to one's purposes so it is not at all surprising that two writers writing at different times for different purposes might give different accounts of the same story, Matthew writing for a Jewish audience and Luke writing for a Gentile audience. If we keep those factors in mind we can almost immediately see why the accounts differ. The details in each case that are left out are details of little interest to the other evangelist because his audience is different. It is also quite possible that their own sources differed and that they were simply unaware of some details and so didn't touch upon those matters they did not know in common. We'll look a bit more closely at these two Nativity accounts in the next post.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

An Aside on Biblical Interpretation and the Nature of Revelation

Before going too much further it might be worthwhile to say a few words about biblical interpretation and the nature of revelation. Let me divide that into a few steps:

Step 1: Definition of Revelation — I am defining revelation (here understood as Divine Revelation) as a communication between God and man. Now God is the primary agent in such a communication. God has all the properties of God which make everything he says certainly true and so forth. But communication has two side and the other side is human. Human beings are fallible. There are plenty of occasions in the bible where God is not understood by the human side of the equation. So step one is a communication from a perfect God to an imperfect human or humans.

Step 2: The Communication of the Revelation to Succeeding Generations — requires that it be written down or remembered as an oral tradition. This requires a chain of accuracy to be maintained if the communication is not to be distorted. In Christian circles it is assumed that the revelation is preserved in accuracy by the action of the Holy Spirit. Exactly how this happens is a matter of theoretical concern and one has to overcome the existence of an awful lot of variants in the texts to take it too literally. This is particularly true of whole passages which appear in some manuscripts and do not appear at all in others.

Step 3: The Interpretation of the Revelation by Each Generation — is where the rubber meets the road. We can't even interpret William Shakespeare with perfection, English has changed so much. Why do we think we can interpret scripture which comes to us from ancient Hebrew or koine Greek or Aramatic over a span of many millenia?

I only raise these issues because they are real ones. One can't always wave one's hands and say "It's a miracle!" The divisions of the churches over iota's is a history of tragedy and suffering. A bit less hubris seems called for. Since this blog is not just for Christians, nor even just for believers, I am taking a rather low road. My definition of scripture will be books held by the Judeo-Christian tradition as inspired. This only selects the books. Then I will treat them as one might treat any other books giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are what they claim to be, insofar as they make any claims at all. It is appropriate to point out that scripture typically doesn't identify itself as scripture. Moreover, many books not in the canon are quoted within the canon as if they are authoritative, ex. the book of Enoch.

Here is a link to a site that presents a Catholic view of revelation. Click Here I don't know anything about it as I just stumbled upon so my link is not a recommendation. I add more links as I stumble upon them.

Abram and the Covenant

The prehistory of Israel continues with the story of Abram who becomes Abraham patriarch of Israel. Abram is son of Terah of Ur of the Chaldees, and Abram is the older brother of Nahor, and Haran. Haran died before his father but not before he begat Lot, Abram's nephew. I'm not qualified to comment technically, but various genetic markers suggest that there is DNA evidence for a common ancestor to the Hebrew and Arab peoples that is contemporary with the biblical Abram See Here
Terah took his children and their wives to the land of Canaan to Haran. The death of Terah at the age of 205 in Haran ends Genesis 11. The question of dating comes into play. When did the historical Abraham walk the earth? Obvously this is a highly speculative question that requires a lot of cross referencing of events, locations, individuals and the like. We will explore these questions in the following order:
  • Dating of Abram/Abraham
  • Abram's Story
  • The Covenant