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The Bible Bill

June 13, 2011

Some time ago a reader of this blog asked me to write about some statements about a bill then being considered in Arkansas. I do actually respond to requests, if slowly, and so here’s the response (some time after the bill appears to have died).

The bill in question attempted to set curriculum standards to allow the Bible to be studied in a non-religious academic course. Of more interest, and the main subject of the question I received, were the statements the bill’s sponsor made about it. One rather hostile recounting includes the key statement I was asked to comment on: Denny Altes, the bill’s sponsor, describes the Bible as “the oldest, the most popular, the most accurate history book on the face of the earth”. This appears to have been his impetus for sponsoring the bill.

Now, there are, no doubt, a number of problems with this approach from the governance side of things. It does appear that Representative Altes believed that by introducing an academic study of the Bible he might be able to transition to getting the Bible to be used as a history textbook which would, one assumes, make students view the Bible as authoritative. Somewhere in there the spirit of the Constitution seems to have been crossed. Although, not being a Constitutional lawyer, I can’t comment on the letter of the law. However, this isn’t a blog about legal issues and so I’m going to leave that particular set of problems to others.

I happen to have some sympathy for Representative Altes here (and, of course, I’m working off some pretty fragmentary comments). I’m not in agreement with plenty of what he said but before I start pulling things apart I’d like to point out that I’m much happier with “The Bible is the oldest, the most popular, the most accurate history book on the face of the earth,” than I am with, “The Bible is a pile of nonsensical, unhistorical crap.” In fact, when Altes follows that particular quote with:

“Sometimes I’ll be reading my Bible and I’ll run across something in there like some tribe, and there will be footnotes and they’ll say archaeologists thought for years this tribe didn’t exist, and then they got to studying, got to looking, and they found it, you know? So it’s true, yes”

I know what tribe he’s talking about. It’s the Hittites. He’s got some details wrong (people did know the Hittites existed, they failed to realize the full extent of when and where their empire ruled) but his general impression that archaeologists have frequently dismissed the Bible only to find out that it contains better history than they thought meshes well with my own reading. For instance, most of the David narrative has been written off by literary critics as a later creation. However, there’s reason to believe that Goliath is an actual Philistine name of the correct time period1 and David’s own name also appears in the now-famous “House of David” inscription found at Tel Dan (hence the alternate name “Tel Dan Stele”). This inscription appears to describe the military defeat of several kingdoms including “the house of Israel” and “the house of David” (given the time frame and the kings named these would be the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, Israel and Judah).

However, there are also things to complain about in Altes’ statement. The whole attempt looks ill-conceived. I personally developed my related views against school prayer in high school when I considered exactly what it would mean to have my first-period English teacher (who told us about poltergeists and experiments to weigh the souls of people as they died and who thought the transcendentalists were amazing) lead a class prayer. I have to suspect that Representative Altes feels that the Bible speaks for itself in clear enough language that even a high school student could see the truth despite the steering of a bad teacher. This strikes me as inordinately simplistic, although the view seems fairly common among fundamentalists.

There’s also the minor matter of chronology which leads directly into the main issue. Is the Bible the oldest history book? Well, this depends on what you mean by “history book”. If a book is a history book simply because it contains history then there are a number of contenders for the spot. Altes would need to tell us what theory of Old Testament composition he holds to for us to judge how old he considers the Bible to be. But one likely contender, the traditional idea that Moses authored the first books of the Bible, would have the Bible pre-empted by a number of other texts. However, if “history book” means specifically a book written for the purpose of explaining history then the Bible has many fewer competitors. Herodotus is often called “the father of history” because he wrote the first books generally considered to be histories in genre. Herodotus lags the Bible by several centuries even under the theories that place the Old Testament’s composition in the Babylonian Exile. The accuracy of Altes’ statement would then seem to hinge on what genre the Bible is.

However, if Altes has gotten his chronology correct he’s done it by getting the genre wrong: the Bible is not a history book. It’s certainly not a modern history book with all that implies. Attempting to read it like one will produce completely predictable results. The reader will not find that the Bible is much like a history book and so the reader will almost certainly simply recall what they’ve been told each section means. If the reader has been taught well, then that is all well and good: if they haven’t, then who knows what they’ll get out of each section. Since they are reading the text as something it isn’t they won’t really be being taught by Scripture.

But how, specifically, does the history book genre differ from the historical sections of the Bible? Obviously some books, like the Psalms for example, are not historical in genre. I’m going to assume that Representative Altes is well aware of this, though, and would say so if he were asked to expand upon his ideas of the Bible as history. The historical sections of the Bible, the sections that are composed of the stories of past events, differ from modern history texts in the presence of a narrator. Modern historical texts attempt to be as objective as possible and so the author of the text is less narrator and more assembler. A history textbook attempts to be nothing but an assembly of facts with some analysis on the side. The historical sections of the Bible, in contrast, are stories being told with a very present narrator who shapes them.

One of my favorite sets of passages to demonstrate this is Matthew 21 and Mark 11. Both passages discuss the cleansing of the Temple and the cursing of a fig tree. In both passages these stories are pretty similar. However, there are differences. In Matthew Jesus cleanses the Temple, leaves, and curses the fig tree the next day on his way back into the city. The fig tree withers on the spot and Jesus discusses the nature of faith with his disciples. In Mark Jesus begins by looking for figs, finding none on the tree, and cursing it. He then goes into Jerusalem, cleanses the Temple, and leaves. On his way out of the city the disciples see that the fig tree cursed that morning has now withered and Jesus delivers the same lecture on faith as in Matthew.

If the Bible were a modern history to be viewed with the lens appropriate to that genre one of our main questions about this discrepancy would be, “Which one is correct?” Attempts to defend against this question have resulted in reconstructions where Jesus curses two fig trees, preaches three sermons from three different mountains, is anointed by two women, and so on. Attempts to answer that question as asked have resulted in such things as people discarding the entire Bible.

If, instead, we believe that there is a narrator in each story we could ask, “Why does the narrator of Matthew separate these two stories and the narrator in Mark interlace them?” We’d see that in Matthew 21 verses 11-17 form a single unit about Jesus’ authority. The Temple is cleansed and people come to him to be healed there. What’s more, some of them hail him as King (“Hosanna to the Son of David!”) making the Temple leaders unhappy. When they challenge Jesus he asserts his authority again. After all this, in the next unit (verses 18-22) the fig tree is cursed. This unit is about faith. When we examine Mark 11 we see something different. First Jesus finds the unfruitful tree and curses it. Then Jesus goes into the Temple and cleanses it. Without any further action the story moves on to the conclusion of the fig tree incident. While the discussion of faith still occurs there’s also a single narrative block running from verse 12-15. I think it’s fairly clear that we’re supposed to understand that the Temple (which represents Israel, which is itself constantly represented through agricultural metaphors in the Old Testament) is the fruitless fig tree. Jesus has come ready for a harvest – the long-awaited Messiah arrives at last to do God’s work. What he finds, though, are not people steeped in righteousness ready to see God’s goodness unfold but a hostile society whose major questions about the Messiah include such things as, “Who will the Messiah murder with swords first and how awesome will it be?”

By re-including the narrator we can suddenly see a lot more in the story. A lot of hesitance to do this probably comes from the idea that if we let the narrator back in the Bible will stop being history and so it will stop being true. Well, it will stop being a modern history in genre. That doesn’t say much about whether or not it’s true, though. In fact, the huge irony of this is that the same Christians who worry about the effects of letting the narrator back in are exactly the ones who think that narrator is barely (if at all) Matthew or Mark. Instead, many of these Christians think that the narrator they’ve locked outside is mostly or entirely God Himself2.

If God has inspired the Bible (at any level) then we should listen to His narration. Shoving a hand in His face and saying, “Just the facts,” would be simply stupid. One of my worries is that the reason there are a lot of people out there who have been exposed to Christianity but now regard the Bible as a book devoid of facts is because they’ve been taught by Christians who saw the Bible as nothing but a collection of facts. If we read the Bible in the wrong genre we’re going to miss stuff. If we miss stuff our message will suffer. I don’t believe, at all, that everyone wants to hear the gospel message of love. It comes with burdensome things like responsibility and a willingness to admit that just as we have not been loved we do lots of unloving things to others. However, there are a lot of people out there with very little regard for Christianity who would probably respond much better to the beating heart of the gospel. We need to embrace doing things right. Doing things wrong doesn’t get us where we want to go.

1Based on a discovery made by Dr. Aren M. Maeir of a labeled potsherd with a name which would be transliterated “Goliath” in Hebrew (except, of course, that “Goliath” is actually the English rendering of the Hebrew rendering of a Philistine name). The original article appears to be “Excavating Philistine Gath: have we found Goliath’s hometown?” by Dr. Maeir and Carl S. Erlich in Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 27, no 6, 2001, p 22-31. However, I cannot access the full article.

2When I say “mostly” God Himself I’m describing a sliding scale which moves from a secular view in which God is uninvolved to one in which God is more and more directly involved. For instance, one could believe that Matthew, or someone using his name, wrote the gospel of Matthew and that’s it. One could believe that Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew under God’s inspiration but with large traces of Matthew in the final work. One could also believe that God so controlled the process that anyone could have replaced Matthew in the writing of the gospel of Matthew. I tend towards the middle position, that Matthews Matthew-ness was part of what God used. Many of the Christians who are worried by the views I’ve presented here are likely to express views about inspiration in which Matthew is to God as a trumpet is to a musician: interchangeable, instrumental, and not responsible for content.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. antonio permalink
    June 13, 2011 10:26 am

    [We need to embrace doing things right. Doing things wrong doesn’t get us where we want to go.]

    I could tell you stories about how fundamentalists I have encountered use that line to defend all kinds of craziness. But, perhaps some other time. I both understand and appreciate your meaning here.

    My question to you is this:

    Given what you have implied about the need for a proper approach to instruction in Biblical things, what then is your take on ‘morning prayers’ in schools?

    Once again your writing has provoked me to thought and I am immediately recalling stories that I have heard about ‘morning prayers’ gone all wrong. Am I interpreting you correctly by saying that you believe the risk of getting it wrong is so high, that it is not such a bad thing if ‘morning prayers’ is disallowed?

    Even as I type another question comes to mind. I have often wondered about the ‘Religious Studies’ curriculum we encounter in school. My memory of the primary school experience is blurred, but I recall that in secondary school we had clergymen as instructors (for the most part). I now know of teachers who, because they are known to be ‘christian’, are charged with teaching the Religious Studies class. All the ones I know of use this as an opportunity to ‘spread the gospel’ and even though I didn’t always agree, I never considered what might be happening in cases where the teacher isn’t as grounded as he/she thinks. So that, I am now forced to really ask myself – do I believe that the Bible should be taught (in the way that it currently is) in Religious Studies classes? Do you?

  2. Eric permalink
    June 13, 2011 10:09 pm

    I generally think that if morning prayers were re-instituted in American schools the result would be very strange and ultimately unhelpful (how can you pray without preferring one religion in any meaningful way?). Essentially, I think the real value would be zero. However, the politics around it would be a nightmare and it would become a flashpoint for craziness. This would subtract value and so the end result would be worse than nothing.

    I have no experience with Religious Studies classes at anything but the college level where they were more the stomping ground of “critical people don’t really believe this” sorts. So I can’t really answer whether the current manner of teaching is any good – I’m just not familiar with it.

  3. antonio permalink
    June 14, 2011 5:55 am

    Fair enough. Only fashion and certain types of music seem to be able to survive this kinda large-scale resurection anyways.

    But, what did/do you think about the removal of morning prayers in the first place? Was is an indicator of evil’s growinng strength (as some claim)? Or was it the natural consequence of the abuse of the system?

  4. Eric permalink
    June 14, 2011 10:33 am

    I tend to think it was the natural result of the country growing more pluralized (more non-Christian religions to object to Christian prayers) and more non-religious. I think those to are somewhat related as well: if everyone is Christian and you don’t really care about God you still probably say that you’re Christian. If you know a lot of non-Christians and you don’t really care about God you probably don’t call yourself a Christian because a space has been made for you to do that without social penalty. But I don’t know that this is “growing evil” as much as “those who don’t care now being honest”.

  5. antonio permalink
    June 14, 2011 10:51 am

    And for those who still have prayers, should they fight to keep them going? Or surrender to the natural progression of things? (That honestly is not meant to sound as pejorative as it might)

  6. Eric permalink
    June 14, 2011 4:07 pm

    I suspect that by the time it’s a fight the important thing has already been lost. But this isn’t an area I’ve spent a lot of time considering.

  7. antonio permalink
    June 14, 2011 4:36 pm

    Fair enough.

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