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.


Jesus the Buddhist?

This idea is not new.  Certain Buddhists and Christians have held to conclusions that the two are interrelated in many ways, so much so there is an academic journal dedicated to Buddhist-Christian Studies.  There is even a wiki page, where it offers some early Christian evidence of an awareness of Buddhism.   And the BBC had a program about Jesus being a Buddhist monk:

So this subject is really quite popular, even among some scholars.  Dwight Goddard, for example, published a comparative analysis on the similarities between Jesus and Buddha in 1927.  A recent article on the Huffington Post has brought attention to this concept and its recent genre move from fringe scholarship to fiction and, along with it, a lot of problems for historians.  First among them is the parallelism that one finds in ‘movies’ like Zeitgeist and pseudo-scholarship which readers of my blog have long since known I cannot stand (and dedicate a whole page to this nonsense).

Jeffrey Small (who should know better with that MA in the Study of Religions he has) has written a novel integrating the parallels between Jesus and Buddha and claims, “Although the book is fiction, the research behind it is historical…”.  I’m sorry to say it isn’t. Even in the first paragraph where the author is giving a quiz about Buddha he gets things wrong.  Of Buddha (in his attempt to stretch the narrative of Buddha’s life over to Jesus) he writes:

A shimmering spirit appears to a young wife in a dream, tells her that she will give birth to a son who will change the world and then enters her womb.

But this isn’t correct.  There are different traditions about the narrative and that ‘shimmering spirit’ in a dream is a the Bodhisattva who, on an elephant, enters the side of Buddha’s mother.  There is no discussion of foreknowledge of the greatness of her child, like in the Gospel accounts.   The elephant is symbolic and was probably interpreted as a holy message, but Small is quite wrong to give the false impression that something ‘appeared’ and ‘told’ Maya anything of the sort.

His next failed attempt at creating a faux-link between Jesus and Buddha is also based on a loose parallel between one of Buddha’s teachings and one of Jesus’ teachings, of which, in dilettante fashion, he completely misses the point:

Digging deeper into ancient India, we can also uncover Hindu scripture (a group of writings known as the Vedas), which contain parables that sound eerily like those told by Jesus centuries later. For example, in one oft-recited parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed. Similarly, in the Chandogya Upanishad, this ancient Sanskrit text tells of the master who asks his student to open the Banyan tree fruit, extract the tiny seed and then break it in half, revealing a hollow center. When the student notices that the seed is empty, his teacher replies that from that emptiness comes the great Banyan tree, and, he continues, that same creative essence is in the student, too.

This seems to have been a superficial match based only on the word ‘seed’. If this is the link that Small is trying to make, he might be surprised to find that seeds and crops are useful metaphoric language throughout the ancient Near East, dating back to the Sumerians.  So this language is not useful in establishing a dependent tradition.  And Jesus’ mustard seed parable has a completely different meaning than that of the Sanskrit text.  Jesus is speaking of signs of the coming Kingdom; he uses the mustard seed as an expression of faith–that is to say, he is not using it as an expression of self-worth, which the hallowed fruit seems to represent in the narrative in the Chandogya Upanishad.

But there are more reasons not to trust these forced parallels.  The mustard seed parable is part of a triadic pattern of parable giving in Mark (spec. Mk 4:31-32 for the mustard seed), which means that it is formulated off an understanding of the other parables in the set which also involve the Kingdom and crops/seeds metaphoric language, but also the two other parable sets before and after the parables of the Kingdom (all of which deal specifically with faith; the calming of the sea, the feeding of the multitudes, etc…).  And there is no need to look outside the Jewish scriptures for intertextual relevance.  The underlying metaphor of Jesus’ generation or, rather, the generation of Isaiah and their ignorance towards the enlightenment that is right in front of them, as well as Jesus’ reluctance to explain things to them, has strong ties to the same tropes found in the Hebrew Bible, in the prophets (Is. 6:9-10; cf. T.L. Thompson, Messiah Myth [New York: Basic Books, 2005] 67-71).

Finally, there is no need to fabricate nonexistent links between two different world philosophies which both happened to preach wisdom and enlightenment and goodwill towards man; there were plenty of those already extant at the time of the first century CE.  Aside from all of the Greek and Roman mystery schools we know about (and perhaps the dozens–if not more–of other schools of which we know nothing), there were also Jewish mystics and mystery schools we have evidence of, who taught similar virtues and of the wisdom of enlightenment.  In fact that is a whole text about the esoteric nature of the world, the way to enlightenment, and how the cosmic world aligns with it all (Eugostos the Blessed, which predates Christianity); it had such a similar message to that of some early Christians that a clever educated Christian wrote a new version (the Pistis Sophia, also known as the Sophia of Jesus Christ) to assimilate those meanings with those of his sect.   So there is simply no reason to assume that these similarities stem from a Buddhist philosophy at all and any case that might be made for a dependency must also exclude these other, more probably intertextual links.

Then Small asks a question which assumes the absurd:

Why do we see these parallels between the religions of the East and the teachings of Jesus, who was considered a subversive in his Roman and Jewish community? Why do the contemplative practices of Jesus, which seem to confuse his disciples, seem so similar to Eastern meditative techniques?

The answer isn’t, as Small would like you to believe, because “Jesus studied at a Buddhist monastery” and it isn’t because “Buddhism influenced Christianity”.  And creating fictional links between the two will not make the case.  In fact, to prove such links requires a more strict methodology than ‘A(a) is similar to A(b), ergo A(a) = A(b)’ or ‘ergo A(a) influenced A(b)’.  For example, just because early church fathers in the second and third centuries  (around the time the biographies of Buddha were written and distributed, I might add) knew of some basic principles of Buddha’s life does not mean they (or especially the Gospel authors) could read Sanskrit, which would be required if they were to base the narratives they wrote of Jesus on the stories of Buddha.  This would have to be proven, or at least argued convincingly enough to suggest the possibility/probability of this.  Since there is absolutely no evidence they had the ability to read Sanskrit, it would be quite an undertaking to make the case and I doubt a suspense novel could accomplish this task.  Not to mention the availability of these narratives.  How common were Sanskrit texts found in the Near East in antiquity?  Who would have owned them? Would they be accessible to anyone? These questions would have to be addressed.  Would the Gospel authors have had access?  Paul?  The early church fathers?

Jesus as Orpheus (Catacombs of Peter and Marcellus in Rome, 4th Century CE)

It is easy to make all sorts of claims about the past, especially when you aren’t challenged to present an actual argument for them.  Small does a great job in his article throwing together all sorts of seemingly possible connections between Buddhism and Christianity; maybe there are some connections but is it possible that one influenced the other?  I doubt it.  The developmental influence in the creation of the Gospel narratives stems most probably from what the authors had and the tradition in which they were educated (Classical/Roman education with some Torah training).  Meaning that the probability that they had any access to Buddhism is nearly nonexistent.  These sorts of claims resemble those found in the pseudo-scholarship of Zeitgeist Mythicists and Dorothy Murdock.  She has already made similar claims, and they fail just as easily as Small’s claims here.

So let this be a warning; be on the lookout for these sorts of stories.

%d bloggers like this: