Sunday Meditations: Knowledge Problems

This morning, my good friend and alter ego Cory gave a talk on Bible study.  It was very good.

Cory and I talk about this subject off and on, and we agree on most of it and share the same concerns.  There are a few things we see differently or would handle differently, and as I was driving home meditating on his talk, I think some of that comes from what we see when we look at the Western church, and “what we see” is probably at least partially shaped by our personalities and gifts.

On the one hand, Cory sees a Western church that is in love with knowledge but not so in love with doing anything about it.  He used this great illustration of a group of summer staffers sitting around debating theology while one staffer was going around cleaning up their trash, stacking the chairs, etc.  From this standpoint, the Western church loves to hear and debate, but we don’t like to do.  We invest a lot of time and energy into articulating the right WHY, and we consider that to be the sum of our Christian duty.  As long as the correct WHY gets out there, that’s all that’s really important.  If we have time for the occasional WHAT, that’s icing on the cake.

He’s not wrong.

I mean, think about the last few blow-ups in evangelicalism where the lines were drawn defining who the true and false Christians were.  Were those lines about behavior, or were they about doctrine?  Because somewhere along the line, being a true Christian became equated with “believing the right things.”  We are saved by believing the right things about being saved.

I don’t know that there’s one, specific thing that is the cause of this.  Part of it may be that the West has always loved knowledge and inquiry for its own sake.  Part of it may be the Protestant backlash against “faith plus works,” and “faith” got defined as “the stuff you believe” as opposed to “trust.”  When you tell people that the only thing God cares about is believing that Jesus died for your sins, that’s bound to create a strong skew toward what you know versus what you do, and it takes a lot to turn that ship around.

“Ok, so if I believe this thing, I’ll go to heaven when I die, and my works will not affect this in any way, shape, or form?  Ok, done.  Oh, now you want me to do stuff?  Oh, ok, well, if I get around to it.”

Another cause is that, culturally, the church tends to define faithfulness by what you abstain from rather than what you proactively do.  As long as you are keeping yourself from moral impurity, this is the faithful, Christian life, and you don’t even need to talk to someone else to do that.  In fact, it’s probably easier if you don’t.

Whatever the causes may be, it’s hard to look at Western evangelicalism and not see it.  People will happily attend a Bible study for an hour once a week, but they will not go pack food for a soup kitchen for an hour once a week.  They will teach Sunday School, but they will not pay their neighbor’s bills to help them in an emergency.  They can explain the various Greek words for love and the distinctions in their meaning, but they will not forgive a slight.

This is not an insignificant problem.  If you look at biblical passages that portray groups that have plenty of accurate knowledge but are not faithful with their actions, you know that does not turn out well for them.  If you look at biblical passages that portray people who probably don’t have it all together in the belief department but are, as John the Baptist might say, “bearing the fruits of repentance,” those people are held up as examples to everyone else.  We do not have the luxury of having churches full of people who are passionate about correct doctrine and do very little in terms of the faithful expression of what they say they believe.  God is not ok with this, and it says something that one of the mainstays of what makes a Protestant Protestant is the protestation that my works are irrelevant to my standing with God.

It is also true, however, that we see episodes in the Bible where people were doing the things God had asked, but their hearts were far from Him, and this also seems unacceptable, and that’s sort of a segue into what I see when I look at Western evangelicalism.

When I look at Western evangelicalism, I see a lot of people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or why.

If you’ve never seen the movie version of The Scarlet Letter starring Demi Moore, first of all, don’t, second of all, you will find that the relationship of that movie to the book is kind of tenuous.

Your first clue is that the movie begins with a disclaimer: freely adapted from the novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  So, they’re adapting it, which you have to do if you’re going to make a movie out of a book; you can’t just convert a book into a movie by changing all the “she said” or “he said” to the characters’ names and a colon.  And they’re doing it “freely.”  What does this mean?

Well, all the characters are there.  Hester, Pearl, Dimmesdale, Chillingworth, the Puritans, etc.  And the adulterous affair and the community response to it is a big part of the plot.  Seems legit so far.

However, where the novel focuses entirely on the aftermath, the movie wants to tell you a story of tragedy and burgeoning love climaxing (no pun intended) in the consummation of the actual affair (which happens in a grain silo, thus illustrating that you should always be careful about where you get your bread).  Chillingworth is sort of a psychotic commando who skulks around at night gathering intelligence and killing animals.  Hester and Arthur are both condemned to execution, but they are saved at the last minute by Metacomet and his Indians who take revenge on the Puritans for their unjust treatment of them.  After the slaughter of the Puritans, Demi Moore closes the movie by saying something along the lines of, “You may think it was wrong for me to sleep with this other guy, but who knows if God agrees with you?”  The End.

Those of you who have read the novel realize that, although we can clearly see that the movie was informed by the book, it bears only the broadest of resemblances to the book’s actual story (much to the delight of high school English teachers, I guess, who can spot someone who just watched the movie in a heartbeat) and the central point it presents is kind of light years away from anything intended by Hawthorne.

The relationship of that movie to the original novel is analogous to how I see Western evangelicalism and the Bible.  The same characters are important, and you see at a very abstract level some of the same elements, but it’s really a different story broadly informed by the first one rather than being that same story brought into present day in a different format, and the main point it wants to get across may not be antithetical to the author’s intent, but it’s also not where He was going with it.

So, where Cory sees an unhealthy love of a body of knowledge that is taking away from our drive to do good works, I agree with that and also want to throw in that the “body of knowledge” we are addicted to is also pretty much crap.  It is scholarship that is built to hold up an edifice that we have created using the raw materials of the Bible as inspiration while paying very little attention to what those writings are actually about in and of themselves.  It is a Western Theology Perpetuation Machine (WTPM) that is a great vehicle for doing that, but a very poor vehicle for helping me step into the world of the text and understand Jesus’ sayings through his own eyes, which I hope we agree is an important thing to see.

I don’t care about a lengthy etymological study that helps me appreciate some subtle nuance of a Greek prefix.  I don’t care about some trivial cultural detail that makes the world of the Bible more interesting or more lifelike.  I care about scholarship that grabs me by the collar, yanks me out of my 21st century white guy American plain reading of a 2000 year old Near Eastern document, drops me into the world of the text and says, “Deal with me NOW.  This is MY HOUSE, and you are here on MY TERMS.  Now, LISTEN.”

That is something that, I’m sorry, will not happen without scholarship and teaching.  It could have happened without scholarship and teaching.  We could have always made it a point to pass down the Bible’s world, context, and narrative.  We could have always decided that the story was more important than the integrity of a body of doctrinal formulations.

First century illiterate Judean fishermen do not need help understanding where Jesus is coming from, not because they don’t have fancy book larnin’ getting in the way, but because they already live in that world, and even then, they needed a little help from time to time.  They are right smack in the middle of the Bible’s world – the political circumstances, the travails of Israel, the idioms, the cuss words, the debates – they’re already there.  We are 2000 years removed from that, and because we have not made it a careful point to pass down the narrative, the most brilliant of Bible scholars among us has to work their butt off to close that distance.

And does that distance need to be closed in order to understand Jesus?  Yeah, you bet.  And I don’t just mean to correct a bit here and there; I mean to change the game.  We are so, so far away from Jesus’ perspective if we think the gospel is, “Believe Jesus will save you, and you’ll go to Heaven when you die instead of Hell,” and the church’s mission is to get as many people to also believe that as possible.  Because our WHY is screwed up, our WHAT is screwed up, too.

This influences not only how the church spends her time, money, and people power – it influences life and death in the real world.  One group of American Christians wants to keep immigrants out of the country.  Another group wants to let them all in.  Neither group is coming from the standpoint that they know what God wants but they just don’t feel like doing it.  The issue isn’t (well, mostly isn’t) an unwillingness to obey, it’s that our Obeyinator Device is all screwed up.  Both groups are fighting for things that have real ramifications for people in the world, and both are convinced they are obeying God.  Same with support for Israel and/or opposition to the Palestinians.  Same for policy in the Middle East.  Same for what you think you should do if you get mugged in a parking lot.

I think more knowledge will not help us with this if what we mean by knowledge is scholarship that just shores up our systematic theology.  However, I do think more knowledge will help us with this if that knowledge helps us break out of our present filters and dispositions (and theology) to come to grips with our formative texts in new ways.  But by definition, that’s not something we can just produce ex nihilo.  If I just keep reading the Bible the way I always read my Bible then my reading can’t be critiqued.  Where will the critique come from?  The Bible?  I’m the one reading it.

The critique has to come from the outside, and maybe that will happen as a mystical operation of the Holy Spirit, but it is far more likely that critique will come from another person – a person who is more capable than I am of helping me get out of that paradigm.

To bring this to a close, I guess you could say the situation is like all of us being on a ship.  Cory pointed out this morning that, if we all just keep talking about the right direction, the mechanics of sailing, how navigation works, etc. we will still be broken on the rocks.  I could not agree more.  But then, I look at our oars, and they are full of gaping holes.  And I look at our rudder, and it’s barely hanging on – one more good wave will probably break it right off.

By all means, THE most important thing is that people quit talking about navigation and hydrology and start rowing.  But I think we are without the tools with which to row, and if we keep rowing with this crappy stuff, we’re just going to have a harder and harder time of it.


Sunday Meditations: Inerrancy

Occasionally, people read this blog who are not from the United States of America and, as such, you may be unaware that a person’s position on what we call “biblical inerrancy” is a huge deal in the States and often used as a boundary marker between “true Christian” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

It is worthy of note that different people can mean different things by “inerrancy,” so for the purposes of this article, I’m going to define inerrancy as the view that the canon of Protestant Scriptures contains no statements which could be considered false from the standpoint of 21st century interpretation.

Or, to sum it up a little differently, whatever we as modern readers think the language of the Bible claims, those claims cannot be false.

So, for example, in Genesis 1, it describes the world being created in six days.  We know that a day is 24 hours, so it must be the case that the Earth went from non-existence to plants, animals, and human beings in less than a week.  This is what it means, for the purpose of this article, to affirm inerrancy.

To state that that the author of Genesis 1 does not mean this and/or to state that the Earth was actually formed over a period of time much longer than a week would be a violation of inerrancy.  In other words, to an inerrantist, you are essentially saying the Bible is wrong, and it cannot be wrong.  Even if rabbis don’t understand Genesis in this way, they are also wrong, according to this view.

This principle applies to the totality of statements to be found in Scripture.  Each one must be true in every way we as modern readers could regard a statement to be true.  Whatever evidence or argumentation can be produced to show that this is not the case needs to be reinterpreted in such a way as to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the primary axiom on which we should evaluate anything.

So, as we discover things like the life-cycle of new stars and planets, the dating of various strata, the distribution of minerals, etc. – all these things must be understood in some kind of framework that still allows for the Earth to have been fully formed in less than a week.  Because, if it turns out that the Earth wasn’t formed in less than a week, that would imply the Bible was claiming something that is factually untrue.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wouldn’t that just challenge our understanding of the passage?  What if we’re just reading it wrongly?”  Please stop asking questions, you godless heathens, because as it turns out, “my 21st century Western white guy reading of a passage” and “what the Bible says” are functionally the exact same thing.

As you can probably tell from that last bit, I don’t have a lot of respect for this view.  I do respect the intent of the view.  People hold to this view for various reasons, but at least one of them is usually the desire to honor God as trustworthy and truthful.  That is a noble thing to do, and something I would also affirm.  However, I think at least the firmer versions of inerrancy actually fail to do this and sort of force God into being deceptive.

Before I get too far into this, I should note that there are statements of faith on this issue that only affirm inerrancy for the original, biblical manuscripts.  I am bemused by this position.  Nobody has seen the original manuscript of a biblical writing in two thousand-ish years or more, which basically makes the value of this statement nonexistent, at least from any kind of practical perspective.  As a profession of faith, ok, thanks for that, but why?  All we have to work with – and all we have had to work with for a very long time – have been copies of copies of copies that display a great range of diversity.  I guess I would say that I don’t really have much of a beef with this particular view of inerrancy so much as I consider it pointless.  And, functionally, the people who hold to this view tend to behave in the same way as people who hold to stricter forms of inerrancy – as if the manuscripts we have / have been chosen for their preferred translation / the English translations therein are also inerrant.

Here are some of the issues I have with inerrancy, at least the way it typically comes across.

The Bible Does Not Claim This About Itself

This is one of the bitter ironies about inerrancy – it depends on coming to the Bible with this assumption already in your head.

One of the things we as modern readers of the Bible need to be reminded of is that no text in the Bible ever refers to the Bible because the Bible did not exist when that text was written, nor was the text written for the purpose of adding it to the Bible.  Terms like “word of the Lord” or “word of God” or “the Law and the Prophets” or “Scriptures” need to be understood within the historical context of the passage in which they appear, and these references vary.  Sometimes, “the Law” refers to the book of Deuteronomy.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the man Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the news about the man Jesus Christ.  So, when you read a verse that uses terms like this, you have to figure out what the boundaries are, and that boundary is never “the Protestant canon as we know it, today.”

The next thing we need to keep in mind is how to interpret whatever statement is made about the Scriptures or the word of God or whatever passage we happen to be reading.  For instance, Psalm 19:10 says, “The Law of the Lord is perfect.” (Sorry narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, and… oh yes… psalms).  But what does this mean?  We might assume it means “complies with 21st century standards of verification,” but this is unlikely.

It turns out that even words like “perfect” are contextually defined.  If I’m trying to get a crate open, and you hand me a crowbar, I might say, “Oh, thanks.  This crowbar is perfect.”  What I mean is that it’s perfect for the use I have in mind.  The crowbar is not a perfect meal or a perfect orator.  My statement also does not imply that the crowbar has no flaws or weaknesses.  It means that the crowbar is perfect for the intended use in that situation.

I’m not declaring that’s what Psalm 19:10 necessarily means (although that’s probably what it means), but I’m just illustrating that even very strong terms used for Scriptures do not automatically equate to an inerrantist view.

Perhaps the most famous example is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

There is some debate over whether or not that opening phrase is best rendered “all scripture that is inspired by God is useful….”  It certainly can be translated that way, but I think the traditional translation is probably correct for a number of reasons linguistic and otherwise.  Of course, we have to keep in mind that when Paul says, “All scripture,” the very most he can mean is, “everything in the Protestant canon that was written up until 2 Timothy.”  And he probably doesn’t mean that.

But the thing is, what does “inspired by God” actually mean?  The word theopneustos is an invention seemingly just for this passage.  We have nothing to compare it to.  Does it mean, “Factually true according to all standards of verification throughout time?”  It might mean that, I guess.  But you know what else was breathed out by God?  Adam’s life.  You know what else had the Holy Spirit in it?  David.  You.  Me.  Has that been a guarantee of perfection?

You might counter with, “Well, the Holy Spirit is perfect.  But when it works through me, my own sins and limitations will sometimes produce imperfect results.”  Well, I hesitate to bring this up, but the “Holy Spirit working through Person X” way of operating is pretty much how we got the Bible.

And isn’t it interesting how Paul says the Scriptures are “useful” and then defines the purposes under which they are useful that end up with equipping people for good works.  Does this mean the Bible is also “useful” for geology or aging fossils or constructing a seamless genealogy from me to Adam?  And if you want a reference for that word “useful,” it’s ophelimos which makes another appearance in 1 Timothy 4:8 where Paul says that exercise is a little useful, but godliness is useful for everything (ironically, godliness appears to be useful in more in more areas than the Scriptures are, according to 2 Tim. 3:17).  It’s kind of a loose word to use for something that is supposed to be the inerrant guide to all truth about everything.  Can you imagine an ordination exam where the candidate says, “I think the Bible is pretty useful for instruction in righteousness.  Definitely worth studying for pastors?”

And then of course, there is the logical problem.  Let’s say that 2 Timothy 3:16 definitely means that every statement in the Bible, including itself, is factually true in every way a statement can be evaluated.  Isn’t this question begging?  What if that verse is in error?  If it is, then it is wrong about itself.  It’s basically like someone claiming that they never lie.  Well, that’s great, unless they’re lying.

This is what I mean: inerrancy depends on you bringing inerrancy to the Bible, not discovering it from the Bible.  You have to begin with the assumption.

Inerrancy Can Cause Us To Miss What the Bible Says

Inerrancy is a form of eisigesis – we are basically bringing expectations to the Bible and reading it in such a way as to make our expectations work out.  In this case, the expectation is that whatever statements the Bible makes, they have to be factually accurate according to our modern reading of a text.  Our reading is assumed to be axiomatically correct, and the texts must conform to this.

Did you know there are Christians, today, who quite seriously maintain that the Earth is the immovable center of the universe?  They are called geocentrists, and they are a real thing.  Because if it turns out that the Earth moves around the Sun, then the Scriptures would be in error.

Most Christians would probably mock this, but I don’t understand why when inerrantists basically agree on all the same assumptions but aren’t gutsy enough or find themselves incapable of standing against such a huge tide of evidence.  We forget that there was a time in Church history when everyone just knew this was how cosmology worked because that’s what the Bible said.  Because the Bible is useful for training us in astronomy, right?

Honestly, even though I think the geocentrists are a flock of fruit bats, they are far more consistent (and gutsy) than their non-geocentrist inerrancy counterparts.  Inerrantists who are not geocentrists have capitulated in a sense.  They’ve said, “In light of overwhelming evidence, obviously we were reading the Bible wrongly and making figurative statements based on early cosmology literal scientific statements, and this was a mistake.  But we are totally not doing this for anything else.  It’s a fluke.”

Let’s take a test case that has come up with me in recent discussion – Isaiah 34.

In this chapter, Isaiah describes the destruction of Edom.  It begins with God destroying the sky and all the stars, and then turning that destructive power toward Edom.  When this happens, Edom’s soil will turn to sulfur and her streams will turn to pitch, and the whole land will turn into burning pitch that will burn forever.  At the same time, owls and hyenas and buzzards will live there.

Edom had a prosperous national empire for several hundred years, then things started to go downhill and they were ultimately destroyed by Babylon in the 6th century BC.  What remained of the people were forced out of their territory, and they became sort of a satellite of Judea until, through assimilation, they more or less vanished altogether.

One could (and I would) argue that Isaiah 34 is describing this.  Yes, hyperbolic and cosmological language is being used, but this is typical of apocalyptic/prophetic judgement literature both inside and outside of biblical writings.  Edom is destroyed, their power is broken, their nation is razed, they never get it back, and they gradually disappear altogether from the world stage.

This, however, is unacceptable to the inerrantist.

Because stars were not actually destroyed and lands were not actually turned to burning pitch that never goes out, this prophecy (along with several Old Testament passages) is unfulfilled.  Since these things did not happen, the prophecy must be referring to a future event, where Edom will come into existence, again, and God will wipe it out in a format more literally appropriate to the imagery of Isaiah 34.  Oh, and somehow owls and other animals will have figured out a way to live in the burning pitch and sulfur.  Maybe technology will have advanced to that point by the time this prophecy occurs.  I’ve got my eye on you, owls.

Because, you see, the Bible says that, when this day happens, the skies will roll up and the stars will be destroyed.  And the soil will turn into sulfur and so on.  If Edom’s destruction and expulsion in the 6th century is what’s being described, then those verses are wrong.  Heck, lots of that stuff didn’t actually happen in the 6th century.  The Bible can’t be wrong, though, so it must be referring to something that just hasn’t happened yet (the last refuge of all “unfulfilled” prophecy).

Harmless?  Well, maybe within the walls of your Sunday School class, but you only need to look at the violence and death tolls on both sides of the Israel / Palestine conflict or America’s relationships with various nations in the Middle East and the strong evangelical influence in America’s policies in those areas to know that hermeneutics matter.  Sometimes, they’re life or death.

One of the ironies, here, is that if we just allowed the Bible to be “wrong,” (I don’t really consider the use of non-literal language to be wrong, but whatever) Isaiah 34 would be a strong statement of hope to the original audience that the God who they covenanted with would punish their oppressors and deliver them, and historical events would bear out the veracity of God’s words and purposes.  If Isaiah 34 is about some event in the far future, it has no value for the original audience and one wonders why it even needed to be in the Bible at all.  The only purpose it could possibly serve is just to demonstrate that prophecy works.  Ok, well, great, I guess.  Way to go, Isaiah.

We are losing our ability to hear the Bible because, instead of just letting it do its thing, we have to construct a meaning where the text is not “wrong,” and that becomes the meaning.  In some cases, maybe this makes little difference.  In other cases, it makes a big difference.  In all cases, if we really cared about the Bible the way we claim, we’d want to make sure we allowed it to be what it is, warts and all, instead of hammering it into a book that is “perfect” by our standards.

Inerrancy Makes God Deceptive

In some ways, we have to make a little room for this.  In 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah says that God deliberately sent a spirit to give false prophecies to the other prophets because He wanted to lead Ahab into a trap.  Assuming this Scripture is inerrant, well, I guess we have to deal with this along with the inerrant Scripture in Titus 1:2 that declares that God cannot lie.

I haven’t looked, but I’ll bet there’s a fair share of articles explaining that God, technically, did not lie; He just deliberately sent a spirit who lied because God wanted him to lie, but He technically did not tell the lie, Himself.

This sort of argumentation litters inerrancy explanations of difficult passages or apparent contradictions.  God created the world with the appearance of being billions of years old, but it’s really only 6000 even though literally every method we have of determining age and progression says otherwise.  God gave a prophecy through an ancient Israelite to an ancient audience, but actually it’s meant for a future audience thousands of years later.  I know it probably looked to them like it was for them, but it wasn’t.

In order for inerrancy to work, we have maintain that God caused many things to appear a certain way only to discover that those appearances are false, in reality.

Along with this, the inerrantist God’s deception continues into narrative.

For instance, in Matthew and Mark, Mary Magdelene (and others) comes to the tomb, the stone is rolled away, and a single angel waiting there has a dialogue with her.  In Luke, two angels appear out of nowhere and explain things.  In John, she finds the stone rolled away and runs back to tell everyone that Jesus’ body has been stolen.

Now, folks, if you aren’t already committed to the idea that all of these stories have to be exactly correct in every detail – if you suspended that for a moment – and just read these separate accounts over time (and they were produced by very different people over a different span of time), would you ever come away from this thinking, “Yep, this is all a single, cohesive account that agrees in every detail?”

No, you wouldn’t, because they don’t.  You would most likely assume that each author had access to different information and, if you were familiar with ancient historiography, you would recognize that narratives are generally tweaked and shaped to fit the point the author is trying to get across, and this takes precedence over the objectivity of the report.

But, if we come to these stories with our preconceived beliefs about them and how they have to work, then we have to concoct some really intriguing apparatus to make them all actually be saying the same thing, more or less.

My favorite is the argument, “Well, if there were two angels, then there was one angel.”  That is mathematically correct.

However, keep in mind that these are narrative accounts, and if the inerrantist assumptions are correct, it’s actually very deceptive for Matthew and Mark not to mention the second angel and uproariously deceptive for John to omit them altogether and have Mary run back laboring under a misconception that the angel(s) correct in the other accounts.

If you asked your kid how many cookies he ate before dinner, and he said, “One,” and later you found that it was actually five, how would you feel if he said, “Well, technically, if I ate five, then I ate one, so what I said was the truth.”  Or, if your kid is John, “I ate no cookies, and I’m surprised you’re asking.  Oh, you know I ate five?  Well, of course.  How does that contradict what I said?”

Actually, I’d probably think that was pretty funny and let him off.  But regardless, we would never, ever, in any other circumstance use that mathematical reasoning to “explain” omissions.  Can you imagine a trial witness saying they saw one person commit a murder, then later it turns out that two people were involved, and they said, “Well, sure, I knew that going in, but I said one, didn’t I?  If there were two people involved, then there was one person involved, so what I said was still true.”  We’d have that person up for perjury.

My point isn’t that the gospel writers are required to report everything that happened.  I don’t believe that at all.  I think gospel writers are free to leave things out, move things around, put events in different places, and do so because their shaping of the story teaches us.  The differences teach us, which is precisely what they are meant to do.  We are supposed to have contradictory gospel accounts, and it’s not because God is a liar because God didn’t write them.  God uses them.

My point is, that if inerrantists are correct, it’s very difficult to say that God is trustworthy.  In both general and special revelation, He is making things appear a certain way, but it turns out the appearance isn’t the truth, but He is also directly responsible for both, so we have to concoct some technicality that gets Him off the hook.  Whole books have been written full of these technicalities to allow God to squeak by.

Ironically, many of these technicalities are not in the Bible.  Did the centurion at the foot of Jesus’ cross say, “Surely, this was a righteous man,” like Luke says or did he say, “Surely, this man was the Son of God,” like Matthew and Mark say?  Well, maybe the centurion said both of those things, or maybe there were two centurions and they each said one of those things.  Funnily enough, neither of those scenarios is in any of the gospels.  We have to make it up to make inerrancy work.  We almost literally have to add to the words of Scripture to make it inerrant.

But this is wholly unnecessary if we don’t come to the Bible with the assumption that every statement in it has to be factually true in every way a statement can be true according to our modern standards.

We Have Other Options

It is usually at this point that the strict inerrantist points out that, if the Bible is not inerrant, then it is wholly untrustworthy.  We can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t, what really happened and what didn’t, and therefore we can place faith in none of it.

First of all, I would argue the inerrantist has this exact same problem.  Who knows what statements of Scripture appear to be true but are actually not the whole truth due to some technicality that gets God off the hook?  How do we know that God elected Israel?  How do we know God didn’t also elect Edom and it just didn’t work out?  I mean, if God elected two nations, He elected one nation, right?  How do we know there weren’t two or eight Sons of God?  How do we know that the world wasn’t created ten minutes ago, and God just created the world with the appearance that it is much older, including the presence of the Bible and the history within it?

Second, I would point out, before we even get out of the gates, that God wants our faith in trust in Him, not prophets and apostles, not the things they wrote down, but Him.  These other things may be trustworthy by virtue of God working through them, but God Himself is the epicenter of our trust.  Prophets and apostles point us to God, and insofar as they point us to the true God, they are trustworthy, but things like “perfection” and “all-knowing” belong to God alone.  Even if it turned out the Bible was totally untrustworthy (I do not think this at all), the true God who is there is there, and He was there before there was a Bible and He acted in the world before anyone put pen to parchment.  If every Bible in the world is destroyed by oppressors, God will still be there, and He will still be at work in the hearts of all those who are called by His name.  Most of the great heroes of our faith functioned without any kind of Scriptures at all.

Third, I would point out that most, if not all, of what the inerrantist or the critic might describe as “errors” in the Bible are really more problems with our expectations and interpretations.  If Isaiah 34 is talking about the historical destruction of Edom, I do not consider all the language about burning pitch and stars dying and owls and hyenas to be “errors.”  I consider them apocalyptic imagery used to get across the totality of Edom’s destruction to a people who suffer the predations of Edom who seems unstoppable to them.  If the world is billions of years old and it formed over a very long period of time, I do not consider Genesis 1 to be in “error” when it talks about six days.  I consider the six days to be a storytelling device that is used, primarily, to line up the various domains of the world with the rulers of those domains, culminating in the creation of man and experience of God being over all in the Sabbath.  Instead of making things fit my reading, I call my reading into question.  I allow my reading to be shaped by evidence.  It’s my understanding of the Bible that is fluid, negotiable, and often wrong – not the contents.  And it’s my expectations of it, such as that it’s an astronomy or a biology textbook, that can be grossly out of step with what God intends for it.

Fourth, I would point out that these ambiguities do not make the Bible untrustworthy or useless.  If that were the case, then every book ever produced would be untrustworthy and useless.  What book does not contain mistakes – at least as defined by a certain way of looking at them?  What book has not been shaped by its historical context?  What book does not have limitations, if nothing else than to its scope?  Does this actually mean that every book is useless and untrustworthy?

Well, no, not at all.  But what we have to do is approach books with knowledge of those parameters and shape our expectations accordingly.  When a young man writes his first love letter and says, “I thought of you as I watched the sun set,” the young lady does not spit on it and tear it up because that statement is not astronomically correct (the sun does not set).  I do not expect my car manual to give me information about George Washington, and if it did and was mistaken, it would not really affect the value the car manual has for me.

The question is, is the Bible useful (Paul’s word) for doctrine, reproof, and teaching righteousness so that we all might be equipped to do good works?

Yes.  Unflinchingly, unhesitatingly, yes.  Nice, inerrant statement.

Sunday Meditations: Begging the Question

“Begging the question” is not the same thing as “raising the question.”

Raising the question means that something happens or occurs to you that makes you want to ask a question.

Begging the question means you assume the truth of your conclusion as part of trying to prove your conclusion.  The phrasing is confusing because “begging” sounds like you’re asking for something and there actually isn’t a literal question involved.  You don’t actually ask a question when you beg the question.


“My roommate, who has been unemployed the whole time I’ve known him, just walked through the door wearing a Rolex and carrying a new plasma TV.  This begs the question: how did he afford all this?”

No, it raises the question, “How did he afford all this?”  It would be perfectly ok to say, “This raises the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or, “This prompts me to ask the question: how did he afford all this?”  Or even, “This demands that all right-thinking individuals ask themselves the question: how did he afford all this?”

But “begs the question” is the wrong expression to use because there’s nothing there about assuming the truth of unproven conclusions.  Something provokes you to ask questions; that is not begging a question.


“My roommate told me his brother never lied to him.  I asked him how he knew this.  He told me that, once, he accused his brother of lying, and his brother looked him in the eye and said, ‘I would never lie to you.’  I told him he was just begging the question.”

Here, your roommate has made a claim: My brother has never lied to me.  To prove this claim, your roommate refers to his brother’s statement that he has never lied to him.  The proof of the claim rests on the claim already being true.

See, if your roommate’s brother is a compulsive liar, of course he would still say, “I’ve never lied to you.”  And that would be a lie.  It doesn’t work.  You can’t prove the honesty of someone on the basis of their own insistence that they are honest.

In order to use the brother’s own statement that he has never lied, you have to believe he isn’t lying.  The evidence depends on you assuming that the conclusion is already true.  This is what it means to beg the question.

Another example:

“Jesus never existed.  I know because there is no evidence outside of the Bible that Jesus ever existed, like there is for other historical figures.  The mentions of Jesus outside of the Bible are obviously forgeries by Christians, because Jesus never actually existed.  Obviously they were made up.  Therefore, there’s no real evidence.”

This is begging the question.  In order for the arguments to work, the conclusion already has to be assumed to be true.  Once the question-begging train has left the station, it becomes an almost impenetrable argument.  What could you possibly show such a person to demonstrate extra-biblical evidence for Jesus’ existence?  Nothing, obviously, because it will always get rejected.  Such a person is assuming the truth of their conclusion and using it to evaluate evidence for that very conclusion.

Christians, themselves, are guilty of their own versions of question begging.

But this is not truly about claims about Jesus or the Bible or anything particularly spiritual.  I just get tired of people using the phrase “begs the question” wrongly.

What Did You Go Out to See?: Matthew 11:7-10

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way before you.’


Matthew 11:7-10 (NRSV)

This comes on the heels of messengers from John the Baptist who ask if Jesus is the Messiah Israel is expecting or if they should look for someone else.  Jesus answers them by pointing to the events that precede the Day of the Lord, and off they go.

It is here that Matthew records Jesus giving a sort of extended speech about John the Baptist, which is interesting considering how little air time he tends to get in the stories we tell amongst ourselves and from the pulpit.  His primary purpose is to announce Jesus, and when Jesus shows up, we don’t need him, anymore, so he drops off our radar very early on in the meta-gospel we have in our heads.  And, in fairness, he makes few other appearances in any of the gospels.

But here, we get a window into Jesus’ estimation of John the Baptist, both as a person and in terms of mission.

In the start of the John the Baptist speech, Jesus draws a contrast between John and the powers of his day.  You go to rich palaces to see rich people in fine clothes.  The “reed shaken by the wind” is an odd image, but may refer to Herod since Herod’s emblem was a reed.  The overall point is that, if you want to find the rich and powerful, you go to the palaces and there they are.

But people found John in the wilderness.  You go out to the wilderness to find prophets.

Jesus is going to make quite a bit out of John’s role as a prophet, so it helps to remember the often uneasy relationship between prophets and royalty in Israel’s history that only got worse as time went on.

You see, a prophet’s job was not primarily to predict the future, although that’s often what we think of when we think of prophets and prophecy.  A prophet’s job was primarily to speak for God, and this primarily for the purposes of calling them to repentance and forecasting the things that might befall them if they were unfaithful.  “Predicting the future” was a very small slice of what prophets did, and in most cases, their predictions were not so much spontaneous oracles as looking at the situation, seeing where Israel was going and what the landscape of powers looked like in and around her, and making a prediction and theological interpretation of what was likely to happen if she pursued her current course or turned aside from it.

When Israel’s rulers were interested in faithfulness, their relationship to prophets might have been awkward at times, but they were overall good.  We might think of David and Nathan, for example.

For much of Israel’s history, though, and especially the centuries immediately prior to Jesus’ day, this relationship was openly antagonistic.  It turns out that people in power do not care to be told that what they are doing is wrong and, unless they lead the people in justice and righteousness, God will bring a horrible calamity upon their regime.  Prophets found themselves in the wilderness often to hide from the powers that sought their lives moreso than the wilderness being a particularly spiritual place.  The wilderness was a season of trial from which they hoped to emerge vindicated, and we see this in both Israel’s history in general and Jesus’ history in specific.

So, we have the contrast as we have seen so often in Matthew.  On the one hand, we have the rich and the powerful and the established who may have the appearance of being favored by God but who are actually opposed by Him.  On the other hand, we have these dirty homeless guys ranting about those rich and powerful in their palaces.  It just so happens that God is on their side.

The quotation at the end of our passage is similar to the opening passages of Isaiah 40, but is more closely a quotation of Malachi 3:1.

We don’t know much about the book of Malachi.  Malachi simply means “My messenger” and, as such, may be the author’s title and not his name.  We also have no direct cues in the text as to what particular historical situation the writer is talking about.  Because the Temple has been rebuilt and certain Persian political terms appear, we have a general idea that it is probably around the 5th century BC, but specific nations and battles and monarchs and events that are prevalent in some of the other prophets are absent from Malachi.

Yet, Malachi paints a very clear picture of the situation he is prophesying against.  In Malachi, Israel’s priesthood is depicted as corrupt individuals going through the motions and lining their own pockets.  They are faithless professionals who have led Judah astray, and as a result, Israel’s God is no longer paying attention to her.  The wicked prosper, and people shrug their shoulders and assume that God must approve of them.  Others wonder where the God of justice is in the midst of this situation.

God then announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way for Him to come into His Temple, but this messenger’s arrival will be a day of judgement that is to be endured as he “refines” the priesthood and purifies Israel.  When this happens, God will arrive and set things right, putting down the evil, exalting the good, and restoring Israel.

Malachi delivers this message to encourage the people of Israel to return to faithfulness, but the book closes on a rather ominous note – that God will send Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

So, to recap, Israel’s leadership has become corrupt.  God seems absent.  The prophet calls the people to repentance and announces a messenger who will come and refine Israel, and this will immediately precede God coming to the Temple in judgement to throw down the wicked and rescue the faithful.

It is very appropriate, then, that Jesus will take this passage and announce that this is about what’s happening now because… well… I mean… come on, right?  This is exactly what’s happening in Israel in Jesus’ day.

And in this scenario, John is the messenger who refines Israel prior to the terrible Day of the Lord.  He is Elijah, as Jesus will mention in the very next set of verses.  John comes calling Israel to repentance, baptizing her into renewed faithfulness, and warning that the judgement of God on the powers of the age is near.  When Israel’s religious leaders show up, John quite clearly indicates that they are the very people who are supposed to fall in that judgement.  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist did not go to evangelism training.

All these things boil down to a powerful conclusion: Jesus’ expectation was that the great and terrible Day of the Lord was at hand, and John was the prophesied messenger sent to refine Israel before it happened.

It is interesting to me that Jesus does not identify himself as this messenger.  In fact, he even changes the text of Malachi (do not try this at home).  In the original passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “me,” meaning God Himself, presumably.  When Jesus quotes the passage, God announces that He will send a messenger to prepare the way before “you,” which I assume is Jesus.  I’m not sure what other “you” Jesus would be talking about.

After all, Jesus also calls Israel to repentance, also leads her into renewed faithfulness, and also announces a coming judgement.  Very John-the-Baptisty kinds of things that, at least in this regard, seem to be a continuation of John’s mission.

But remember, Jesus has just sent a message back to John that Jesus is the expected Messiah, and he establishes this by pointing to the actual deeds he is doing – healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead.  It would seem that Jesus sees his role less in terms of forerunner and messenger and more in terms of instigator and implementor.  What John announced, Jesus has started doing.  It is Jesus who is not only calls Israel to repentance, but also forgives her sins.  It is Jesus who not only announces the coming kingdom, but also heals the lame and the blind and casts out demons.  It is Jesus who will take up all authority in heaven and on earth, given to him by God.  And it is Jesus who will judge the world, first to the Jew, and then to the Gentile.  Jesus may be announcing similar things to John, but where John was preparing Israel for an event, Jesus has brought the event with him.  Whereas John is preparing the way for what God will do, Jesus is how God is doing it.  Jesus is not Malachi’s Elijah; he is Daniel’s Son of Man.

We will explore the depth of this as Jesus continues to praise John the Baptist, but for this opening passage, it sets the stage.  John is the prophet speaking against the rich and powerful in Israel, and like the prophets before him, he is being persecuted by Israel’s leaders.  But this is what prophets do, and in this particular case, this prophet is the last warning before the great and terrible Day of the Lord.

Consider This

  1. Given what prophets actually did in the Scriptures, how does that influence how we might understand the gift of prophecy, today?  Are there people you know who are gifted in speaking for God to His people, calling them to greater faithfulness and warning of what might happen if they continue to go astray?  Do you do this?
  2. What is our responsibility in speaking to power?  How does power typically respond?  How does the church typically respond to power?

Are You the One?: Matthew 11:1-6

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Matthew 11:1-6 (NRSV)

I had grown up in church, and yet it wasn’t until college that I actually ran across this passage – the one where John the Baptist questions whether or not Jesus is the expected Messiah.  I guess it might be one of those uncomfortable passages.  It sort of disrupts our narrative.  John the Baptist, the man who so forthrightly declared the arrival of the Messiah in Jesus, is not supposed to question this, have second thoughts, and demand some answers from that same Jesus.

But this occurs during the period of time when Jesus sends his disciples out to prepare towns for his arrival.  They are supposed to proclaim the kingdom, forgive sins, heal, cast out demons – basically all the things that Jesus has been doing this entire time.

It is because Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by this that we can sympathize with John’s confusion.  First you overthrow the bad guys, then you restore Israel.  Jesus, by contrast, seems to be about the work of restoring Israel, but the bad guys are still in power.  In fact, John himself is rotting away in Herod’s prison.

What’s supposed to happen, from John’s perspective, is that Jesus brings the judgement with him.  He’s supposed to defeat Herod in an epic sword fight, put all Israel’s corrupt leaders to the sword or drive them out, and ultimately break Roman power over the land.  When John talks about the coming Messiah earlier in Matthew, it is all in terms of the coming judgement.  In fact, when Pharisees and other religious leaders show up, John pointedly asks them, “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

And John’s not wrong.  The prophetic hopes as well as the established pattern of God working in Israel’s history are that she undergoes a time of troubles, but when she repents and calls to God for help, He destroys the powers that threaten her and restores her to safety.  I can’t tell you how many Christian sermons and commentaries I have read that say that the people of Jesus’ day were mistaken to expect this, and I do not agree with this at all.  They had every reason to expect this.  In fact, if anyone suggested that all these Old Testament events and prophecies were really describing what the coming Messiah would do spiritually, and no one should actually expect God to do what He had done several times up to that point, they probably would not have gotten a favorable hearing, and rightly so.

It is true that the pictures we have of God’s deliverance in the prophetic imagination also have a spiritual component.  In these visions, God wants to win Israel back, and she returns to Him in faithfulness and repents of her sins, and He forgives her and restores their broken relationship.  But the wrath, salvation, deliverance, and restoration of God always manifests as a historical event; it does not happen exclusively or even primarily within the chambers of an individual Israelite’s heart, even though it certainly includes the changing of that heart.

It is also noteworthy that Jesus continues John’s message; he doesn’t correct it.  Jesus, too, will announce a coming calamity that Israel will only survive if she repents of her sins and turns back to her God in faithfulness.  The wrath of God is at the doorstep, and everyone needs to deal with this situation right now.  There is no time to work your repentance into your long-term planning.  Following Jesus does not get added to your Five Year Goals.  The building has caught fire and you need to get out now before the boilers explode.

So, we need to put ourselves in John’s shoes.  You are a prophet.  In your heart burns the message of an imminent judgement that the Messiah would herald, and with it comes your deep compassion and sense of mission to the lost of Israel to help her prepare herself to make it through.  And now the Messiah is here!  The clock has struck!

But what happens in the world?

This Messiah goes around proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand.  Yes, we agree with that.  The judgement is near and all must repent and trust in Jesus.  Yes, quite so.  Jesus has the authority to forgive Israel’s sins and is going about doing this.  Ok, that’s a little weird, but God forgives sins as part of delivering Israel, so ok.  Jesus is demonstrating that the kingdom is near and that sins are forgiven by healing people and casting out demons.  Ok, well….  And now Herod has put you in prison.  Ok, seriously, what is going on here?

Where is this imminent judgement?  Where is the whole setting the world back to rights?  I’m here.  The Messiah is here.  Israel is responding.  What’s the deal?  Why am I in prison?  Why does Herod even still have his head attached?  Where are the consuming flames that burn away the chaff?  Where is the winnowing fork the Messiah would wield to eliminate the weeds that have sprung up in Israel?  Everything seems to be right about the timing and the circumstances, so what gives?

Well, maybe we got the wrong guy.

What if Jesus isn’t the Messiah?  What if I was supposed to prepare the way for someone else?  What if someone is out there like that Barrabas guy or that Judas Iscariot who was always making trouble for the government, and that’s who I was supposed to be guiding people to?  What if I need to tell my followers to look for the real Messiah so we can get this program back on track?

I hope you can see where this is all coming from.  I hope we are not judging John too harshly, looking back on it.  Who among us can’t resonate with the idea that God has promised a world that looks a certain way, but when we look around us, it looks very little like that, and we begin to have second thoughts?

Jesus is not in the least upset.  In fact, in the next few verses, he can’t say enough good things about John the Baptist.  I get my hackles raised when someone questions my decision to get burgers for lunch, but John questioned Jesus’ very identity and mission as the Messiah, and he appears to be totally fine with it.  But he also doesn’t leave John where he is.

Jesus quotes a bit from Isaiah 35, and he makes a few additions to the list: raising the dead and cleansing the lepers – both things Jesus has done.

Isaiah 35 comes at the end of an extended description of what God will do for Israel to restore her fortunes.  This description spans chapters.  Near the beginning, the oppressor is Assyria, but as we get into the neighborhood of chapter 34, Babylon gets identified.  These chapters are followed by a huge Assyrian invasion and the faithfulness of the king in the midst of it.

John knows this.  John knows that God gave this word to his people while they were in the midst of oppression.  He knows that it got a lot worse before it got better.  He knows that these promises were intended to give Israel faith and hope that would keep them faithful even when the heat turned up, which it did.

Jesus is bringing Isaiah into his day to help John understand what is going on.

The great things described in Isaiah 35 are happening.  The great day of the Lord in this age is imminent!  But remember, John, Israel still had to hang on.  The worst of her oppression was yet to come, but at no point did that invalidate the promise of God.  You may be in a prison cell right now, but Assyria and Babylon are dust.  God will do what He said, and the fact that you are seeing the healing and deliverance that you’re hearing about is the proof.  Be faithful and steadfast, even though the oppression around you may increase.

We do not know what John’s response to this was.  We do not know if he threw up his hands in frustration or nodded thoughtfully and returned to his prayers with a renewed faith and determination.  I like to think it was more the latter.

When we hear about John, again, it will be in chapter 14 when he is executed by Herod.

We do not know what John’s last thoughts were as he faced the sword.  We do not know if he thought his life was a failure or if he was full of regret.  But the author of Hebrews may give us a clue:

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:32-40 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

All these died in faith, seeing the promises far off.  For John, those promises were actually very near, nearer than to anyone in the list the author of Hebrews presents.  Yet, he would not see the deliverance he proclaimed in his flesh.

And surely, centuries earlier, there would be those in Israel who had received the promise of deliverance, but fell to Assyrian swords or languished in Babylonian slave pens.  Isaiah told them to wait upon the Lord, for the great day was near.

Look, John, from the doors of your prison.  The blind receive their sight.  The lame leap for joy.  The lepers are cleansed.  And the dead, John?  Those who have died in their faith?  THEY ARE RAISED.

Deliverance is coming, John.  It is coming for Israel.  It is coming for those in prison.  It is even coming for those who have died.  Lift up your head, in that terrible, dark, damp cell, for your salvation draweth nigh.

Consider This

  1. What promises do we have from God, today, and what circumstances around us make it difficult to believe them?  Can we, like John, take any comfort from God’s promises and actions in the past?
  2. What things has God provided to help His people remain faithful and hopeful as we continue to wait in faithfulness?

Sunday Meditations: Biblical Distance

I’ve been having conversations with my good friend Bill, who is a very sharp thinker and is a Christian Who Means It and has taught me a lot – directly and indirectly – of what it means to work through being a Christian who has a relative level of prosperity.  We’ve been talking about what happens to us after we die.

That was almost what I wrote about, today, because that conversation and others have made me think about this topic a lot, but yesterday, Bill had mentioned several passages from various parts of the Bible with some exploratory thoughts on each one and different ways we might look at them, and one thing that struck me was whether or not we should read an account like Saul speaking with the ghost of Samuel in 1 Samuel 28:3-25 differently than, say, Luke’s account of Jesus telling the thief on the cross that, today, he would be with him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).

I’m going to say yes, although it’s not because one of the passages involves a ghost.  That’s a whole different topic.  What I’ve been thinking about is the relative distance of biblical passages from the events they describe and what impact that has on how we read them.

Before I get too far into this, I want to remind people who maybe are reading my posts for the first time that this blog is largely an experiment for me.  That’s one of the reasons I don’t put my real name on it or turn on comments.  It’s primarily for me to work through ways of understanding the Bible and my faith, and if that happens to be helpful to others, I’m very glad.  I did put it on the Internet, after all, so I hope that does happen.

However, it also means that sometimes I’ll bounce off a few walls to see how it goes.  I may write things that I don’t agree with perhaps even months later.  I doubt I’ll look back on all this in five years and discover that I continued to hold on to all these thoughts.  My own history teaches me that I cannot afford to be too dogmatic at any stage in life because I change, and the thing I feel 100% certain of today becomes next year’s rejected hypothesis.

So, while this meditation does reflect where I’m at, and if you actually know me in person and want to talk about it, please do, but also keep in mind that I’m just working through these things the same as anyone, and God is kind and merciful to me while I do it, so I encourage you to adopt a similar posture.

When we think about the production of a scroll that eventually ended up in the Bible, there are a number of things to keep in mind, but for the purposes of this meditation, I’m only going to look at two.

One: The Way Ancient History Works

I’ve written about this, before.  The upshot is that the idea that a good historiography is one that is the most objective and accurate account of exactly how the events happened is, relatively speaking, a very modern development.

It’s such a common assumption to us that it seems almost absurd to evaluate a historical document by any other standard.  If a writer tells us exactly what happened in a manner that closely matches the actual events, and if they avoid injecting their own views and interpretations into the narrative, that is “good” and “reliable” history.  If a record deviates from what actually happened and/or includes a great deal of interpretation or speculation on the part of the author, that is “bad” and “unreliable” history.

This, however, has not been the case for the majority of the activity of writing history and was certainly not the case in the ancient world.  True, the basic activity is similar – someone is trying to communicate the past in the present, and this largely fails if there is no correspondence at all between what the historian is writing and what happened at the time.  However, historians to this day typically have some kind of agenda for producing their history other than communicating rote events, and nowhere is this more evident than in the ancient world.  The concept of something like a news report simply did not exist.  Instead, history was written to teach lessons, sway politics, bolster or destroy reputations, create common mission or identity, or provide an explanation for current circumstances.

This does not make ancient historical documents useless for determining what “really” happened; it does mean that we have to have our expectations set correctly, and the reality of how and why these histories were written have to be worked into how we understand them.

By analogy, take Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist:”


The Old Guitarist, Pablo Picasso

I have doubts that this painting has an exact correspondence to an actual old guitarist and, if it does, Picasso needed to quit painting and get someone some serious medical assistance.  His flesh is a zombie grey-blue and his neck is bent at an angle that even a contortionist would have trouble replicating.  This is actually one of the more realistic paintings Picasso has done.

But Picasso’s intent is not to give us a photo-realistic portrayal of an old guitarist – it’s to present the vision he has in his head as he thinks about an old guitarist and present him in a way that communicates the misery, melancholy, and tragedy of the subject.  Ancient historiography was a lot like this.  It was more art than science.  It beckons us to enter into the historiographer’s world and see, not the actual events as they happened, but see the events through his eyes and thoughts.

Whenever we read an account of an event in the Bible, we have to keep in mind that we are reading someone else’s interpretation of those events after the fact, presented to us in such a way as to get the writer’s point across moreso than to give us details about the fact of the event itself.

This leads us to the second consideration.

Two: Biblical Distance

A biblical passage as we know it was not created until after the events they describe and, in many cases, a very long time after the events they describe.  That doesn’t mean that other stories and traditions about the event didn’t exist before the passage came into its final format, but it does mean that what we read is reaching back, not just days, but often decades or even centuries (or longer) to the events it describes.  Often, those other stories, accounts, and traditions floating around heavily influence what we end up getting, either in support of them or in reaction against them.

I do not have Andrew Perriman’s talent for creating diagrams, but if I were to make a diagram, I might start on the left side with Genesis 1.  There would be a dot near the bottom representing the actual events, and another dot way at the top to represent the recording of the text of Genesis 1.  Just a huge, massive span of time between them.

I would then extend the timeline(s) to the right, with the gap shrinking as we move through the Pentateuch and get into the records of the kings of Israel, then taking a huge drop when we get to the Exilic and Post-Exilic writings – now the distance between the event and the record is much shorter, comparatively speaking, even though we’re still talking about potentially centuries depending on what passage we’re looking at.

When we get to the Gospels, the distance between the dots gets even closer, although we’re still talking about decades.  Finally, with the other New Testament documents (Revelation being an exception, since it reverses the trend), the distances become much shorter, as Paul will even write multiple letters to the same church.

In this vein, it’s important that, even when we look at the Gospels, even if we believe the Gospels were written by the names tradition has associated with them (and that is a big “if” that, in some circumstances, seems barely plausible), they were some time after the fact.

Take, for instance, the Gospel of Luke.  Even if we hold that Luke the physician wrote that Gospel, he begins the Gospel by saying that “many” have already endeavored to write accounts of Jesus and what happened around him, and the reason he’s decided to write his own gospel is basically to set the record straight.  So, note, this is a decision Luke would have come to after other gospels had been written, by his own admission.  In other words, Luke would not have been walking around with a notebook making copious documentation of everything for a gospel he planned to write, later.

He and the other gospel writers are going off their own memories, other people’s accounts they also remember after the fact, other written accounts, stories, traditions, hearsay, and best guesses at filling in the gaps.  What we read in the Gospel of Luke is not an objective recitation of eidetic memory, nor is it Luke going back over his copious notes he took while traveling around with Jesus and the other apostles.  It is a narrative reconstruction of events that, by this time, would be at the very least a few decades in the past.

If you think this might create some dissonance between what Luke wrote down and what literally occurred when the event happened, I would say that you are probably right, and the differences between the Gospel accounts, although they are rarely big differences, seems to indicate this.

Now, imagine this occurring over a span of hundreds, or perhaps thousands (in the case of much of the Pentateuch) of years.  The distance between the record and the event becomes massive.  By the time anyone writes the texts that became what we know today as Exodus, the distance between that writing and an actual Moses is difficult to comprehend.  It would be like you, today, writing about Leif Erikson’s attempt to settle America without any of the benefit of any modern historical research.  All you could use to write that history was what you’d heard, what people you’d talked to had heard, and whatever remaining vestiges of Leif Erikson’s story were in the air in America or Norway, today.

Granted, the role of oral tradition and tribal memory was much sharper in ancient times because it was the primary way information was communicated, and it is also true that stories of Moses were more foundational to Israel’s culture and identity than Leif Erikson is to modern day America, but still, memory is still memory and stories behave the way stories behave and a thousand years is a long time to play the Telephone Game.

So, when we read the account of Saul consulting a medium to talk to the ghost of Samuel, apart from the metaphysical difficulties this passage raises, we also have to keep in mind that there is a large historical gulf between the recording of this story and when the event might have actually occurred.  It is unlikely this story was just fabricated out of nowhere when 1 Samuel was written, but it is also unlikely that it is basically a transcript.

Did a ghostly Samuel appear for all to see and make these dire pronouncements?  Did these things all come from the medium, herself, speaking on Samuel’s behalf?  Did Saul go for a walk with his entourage because he was at the end of his rope since the prophets weren’t talking, and he suggested all kinds of crazy appeals to other gods or diviners, and someone just snapped and said, “Saul, Samuel never would have put up with this crap.  We’re going to lose to the Philistines because we’ve turned against the God who has brought us this far.  That’s why the prophets aren’t talking, and if you think talking to some spiritist is a good idea, well, that’s just going to make things worse,” and it turned into a story where Saul did go see a medium and Samuel’s ghost said all that?  Did a chronicler many years later try to figure out why King Saul could not be victorious over the Philistines as opposed to King David, and he knows the characteristics of Saul’s reign, and with that in conjunction with various stories and traditions about Saul, he figures something like this probably happened?

Somewhere between those polarities is our passage.  It is Israel’s story, and it communicates to her and us a message – a purposeful, intended message.

But that very purpose of communicating a message also makes it shaky grounds for a metaphysic about the afterlife.