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.