Jeffrey Small, Please Stay Away from the Bible

Seriously, he shouldn’t be writing about it.  Small once again attempts to sell his books by writing articles for HuffPo about the Bible.   In his article he lists reasons why ‘most modern scholars’ reject a literal reading of the Bible and why they reject reading it as history.  But he is off in his explanations of what ‘most modern scholars’ think.  Below I break down his points.

1. In an age of science and technology, too much of the Bible is simply unbelievable to today’s mind and turns people away from the underlying messages. From a scientific standpoint, many of the “facts” in the Bible are simply wrong. One of many examples: according to Genesis, the universe is just over 6000 years old. According to physics, the Big Bang occurred 13.7 billion years ago.

Actually, believability is precisely what drives faith.  The majority of the world is still made up of religions, and has little, if anything, to do with today’s mind.  Whether or not a story is believable depends entirely upon the subjectivity of the believer.  There are still young-earth creationists out there and, regardless of science (which does not make room for a God, nor should it since ‘God’ and ‘Science’ deal with separate questions entirely), about or over 50% of the population of the united states–and this includes a great deal of scholars–believes in creationism over evolution.  This is so, even with this so-called ‘unbelievability.’  What does this mean?  It means nothing is too unbelievable for the modern mind.  And believing in something doesn’t necessarily mean the underlying messages are missed.  Not at all.  This statement is plain ignorant.

2. Many of the stories are also scientifically impossible, like the tale of Joshua stopping the sun moving across the sky. This story assumes (as was the thinking then) that the earth was flat and was at the center of the universe. We simply know this to be false. Second, for the sun to stop would mean that the earth would have to cease rotating on its axis — an event which would destroy the planet.

Actually, in the story of Joshua stopping the sun, the narrative doesn’t assume the earth was flat, nor that the earth was the center of the universe.  None of that is implied in the narrative.  And while the period was primitive, the readers of this narrative were not stupid.  They had sensibilities and rationality, the same as every human being.  The narrative, in fact, highlights the power and awesomeness of God through the eyes of the author of the poem (Josh. 10:12-13) and the editor who compiled the poem fragment and interpreted it (10:14) as a part of this narrative.  The literary value of the narrative is that God had the power to both lengthen the day and fight for Israel (v. 14), but even in the verses current state, the meaning of the original poem is unclear and all we have to go on is the editors understanding.  The narrative is all about the power of God and his ability to bend the will of nature to fit his own will.  Interpreting a flat earth and earth at the center of the universe is a modern eisegesis that ignores the context and underlying theme–the very thing Small accuses believers of doing.

3. For many of the miracle stories, natural explanations exist. The authors of these stories lived in an age when people believed that solar eclipses were divine omens, disease was divine punishment, and mental illness was caused by demon possession. In the case of Jesus, healing was an important part of his ministry. However, today we can find faith healers in Haiti who practice voodoo and in tribal Africa who practice witchcraft. Many of these modern-day faith healers have patients who are actually healed by these practices. Doctors call this the placebo effect, an effect so powerful that drugs must undergo double blind experiments.

This is troubling on many levels.  First, the placebo effect cannot heal leprosy nor can it make the lame walk, the blind see, or the def hear.  The placebo effect is a temporary effect–not a permanent one–and it doesn’t actually heal anything.  One might say that, in the case of Jesus, the people he ‘healed’ weren’t really sick, but that would follow the narrative and in fact would be creating an entirely new context to the narrative which doesn’t exist.  This sort of rationalization is precisely what causes misunderstandings of the text.  And it leads into the next criticism quite well.

Saying ‘natural explanations exist’ is a statement that is thrown around by laypeople far too often when it comes to Biblical topics and, as a matter of fact, is the main reason why people like Small miss the thematic elements of the narrative.  His example is a good case-in-point; relating, anachronistically,Haitian faith healers to the Gospel narratives does a disservice to the narratives literary motifs and fails to recognize the underlying message yet again.  If we consider one healing narrative in Jesus, like the raising of Lazarus in Jn 11, Small might say that those who were ‘raised’ weren’t really dead.  But isn’t this in some manner taking the Bible literally?  Isn’t it taking it as history?  It gives credit to the authors for writing about what happened, even if exaggerated.  Instead, if we read the narrative as it is, we see clearly the motifs and intertextual references to the raising of the widow’s child in the narratives of Elijah (1 Kgs 17-18).  As Thomas Thompson has laid out in his book, the narratives are composed of three literary trends:

  1. A loved one is sick (and/or dies) and in need to healing; the prophet is fetched to heal
  2. The prophet arrives at the house (after being delayed in some cases) and finds the child is dead
  3. The prophet acts and the child is raised

I would add another trend: the recognition of Godliness in the prophet by those around him.  The narrative of Elijah from 1 kgs 17 follows this pattern (summarized):

  1. Elijah is told the son of the woman of the house is dead.
  2. Elijah asks for the child, who is given to him, and whom he places his hands over three times.
  3. The boy is raised, and Elijah says ‘Look, your son is alive’.
  4. The woman acknowledges that Elijah is a man of God.

In Jn 11, the same theme is present (summarized):

  1. Jesus is told that Lazarus is dead, but he stays where he is for two days longer before heading to Bethany.
  2. When Jesus arrives, he finds that Lazarus has been dead for four days.  He goes to the tomb, is told that the stink is such that he has been dead too long to be raised, but Jesus prays aloud, and calls to Lazarus to ‘come out’.
  3. Lazarus comes out of the tomb and Jesus commands his wrappings to be removed so all can see he is alive.
  4. All are amazed and in wonder and many who were with him ‘believed in him’.

These trends are repeated elsewhere in the Bible and are seen in other healing stories, like Mk 5 where Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter and in 2 Kgs 4 where Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son.  The same sorts of trends and motifs are seen in similar Elijah/Elisha miracle narratives and in Jesus’ miracle narratives.  Attempting to locate the ‘natural explanations’ for things in the Bible will always fail as doing so attempts to subvert the literary value of the text, the underlying thematic elements (God’s healing power).  Small would do better to leave the narratives alone and stop trying to come up with scientific reasons for why stories exist.  The stories don’t come from historical events, elaborated upon or otherwise.  They stem from theological narratives.  Small, as a fiction writer, should have recognized that.  Most modern scholars do.

4. Some of the mythological stories in the Bible are not original, but were borrowed from other traditions. The Epic of Gilgamesh — a Sumerian poem detailing the creation of the universe that predates the writings of Genesis by many centuries — contains a flood story whose plot points are almost identical to the story of Noah.

Not necessarily.  The Epic of Gilgamesh contains more than a flood story; much of the epics are histories of the human face, ending at the flood narrative, and not all of them so detailed.  For example the old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t contain the flood narrative at all, but the late one does.  And ‘almost identical’ is overstating the facts, as there are many deviations in plot from one narrative to another.  For example, at what point is Noah granted eternal life?  Stay away from online sources, Small, and start reading scholars like Hallo and Tigay.

5. The other world religions also contain rich histories of mythology and fantastical sounding (to us) stories. On what basis can we Christians claim that our miracle stories are legitimate, yet theirs are flights of fancy? The mythology surrounding the Buddha, who lived 500 years before Jesus, includes tales of how he healed the sick, walked on water, and flew through the air. His birth was foretold by a spirit (a white elephant rather than the angel Gabriel) who then entered his mother’s womb! At his birth, wise men predicted that he would become a great religious leader. Twentieth-century scholars Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell wrote that certain archetypal religious myths are found across cultures, histories, and religions. Examples include the Cosmic Tree, the Virgin BIrth, and The Resurrection.

That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.  In fact, just because a story is mythical and ‘fantastical sounding’ doesn’t speak towards its historical value as a whole.  Josephus’ Jewish Wars is full of mythical and fantastical stories, some that are wholly invented, but as a document it is quite useful at times and tells us a good deal about certain events during the war.  Likewise Caesar’s accounts of his conquest in Gaul, Philostratus’ account of Apollonius, Iamblicus on Pythagoras, and so on, contain historical nuances in the text that are useful even among mythical narratives.  Each document from antiquity must be weighed according to its own worth.  Anyone who believes all documents, myths, or narratives should be weighed equally is a dilettante–they cannot be weighed equally as all are different!  Still, I would agree that miracle stories are not at all legitimate.   This might be one of Small’s valid points.  Though I would not recommend ignoring the miraculous in the narratives, as they help make the narrative what it is.

6. The Bible itself is full of inconsistencies. How can it be an accurate historical record, when the various books contradict each other?

Again, we have multiple cases of inaccurate histories proving to be valid to some degree.  Even Lucian’s True Stories, a fictional work written to satire historiographical works of his time, contains useful historical information.  This is not a valid point at all.  Some information might very well be accurate; Pontius Pilate was a Prefect, there had been a Herod the Great, there had been a Persian empire, and so forth.  While the narrative tales surrounding these facts are probably fictions, that doesn’t mean we cannot locate accurate historical information in the narrative.  It might not be a literal history, but it is still history.

7. Reading the Bible as a literal historical account of events from the past limits the power of these stories. Rather than expressing universal truths, a literal interpretation limits the actions of God to certain events in history.

So does attempting to subvert the narrative with rationalities like ‘some narratives have naturalistic explanations’.

8. A literal reading of the Bible alienates much of our society. The stories were written in a different age with different views on social justice — an age in which slavery was legitimate, an age when discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation was the norm. Too often because of this history, the Bible is used to justify intolerance today.

via Jeffrey Small: The Bible: History or Myth?.

On this point, Small and I agree.


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