Last summer I was in Ecuador for work. In that time, I had the opportunity to read some ten or eleven books. One of the few that stands out to me is William Dever’s Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? It’s a pretty astounding book that I picked up in the bargain section at a Mardel here in OKC. Dever’s goal in this book is to lay out a manageable amount of the archaeological data pertaining to ancient Palestine and demonstrate his analysis of it, in a way that the average reader could handle. I think that he did an excellent job.
But my intent here is not to review a book I haven’t picked up in a year. I’d like to make a proposition about scripture itself, based on Dever’s conclusions, which are essentially that the earliest Israelites were natives of Canaan, and that they reformed the stories that were characteristic of the pagan Canaanites and made them part of the YHWH cult. At first this was a challenge for me to accept. I was raised in a borderline fundamentalist household where the truth of scripture was that it was all historically true and anyone who said otherwise was not a believer.
But what I’m reading here, in Dever, is that maybe there is a need for a much more nuanced view of scripture than what I was raised with. How do we challenge the very rigid definition of truth that has infiltrated the thinking of believers in the U.S. without totally rejecting truth?
Should we say, with John Dominic Crossan, that the authors of scripture meant what they wrote to be taken as metaphors or allegories? No, that would be to ignore the fact that the cultures from which the scriptures came were not beholden to the deceptive idea that knowledge of reality is only contained within propositional statements. There should be room for the creative liberties taken by the evangelists with their respective tellings of the gospel story without throwing them into the rubbish heap of fiction.
Not long after I read Dever’s book I came across a review by Craig Blomberg of one of Bart Ehrman’s books. Ehrman questions the truth of scripture because there are so many differences in the different texts. Ehrman seems to think that if the Bible were divinely inspired, there would have been no real human involvement in its transmission and therefore there would not have been errors. Ehrman is, I believe, the jaded result of an intensely fundamentalist upbringing. Here are the last few lines from Blomberg’s review:
“It would have been a far greater miracle to supernaturally guide every copyist and translator throughout history than to inspire one set of original authors, and in the process it probably would have violated the delicate balance between the humanity and divinity of the Bible…”
I believe that the stories in the Old and New Tesaments are true in a way that transcends fact. I believe that even in the cases when a story is not historically factual they are true in that they offer a way of somehow grasping the transcendence of YHWH. We see in the flood, not an account of primary history similar to what we call the news. Rather we see a people trying to redeem one of the stories of pagan communities to tell a tale of YHWH’s faithfulness.
Even in the case of something that happened within history (e.g. the resurrection) the truth is not contained in the facts but in the transformation that comes about from such an earth-shattering event. It’s a telling of a story to live in its wake. This is why so many of the messianic movements in the first century attempted things like re-crossing the Jordan to introduce the new conquest of the land. They weren’t digging up artifacts to determine the truth of the stories they were told any more than we challenge the truth of TV and movies. Today in the west we believe that we have separated ourselves from the “fiction” that we see, hear and read. Yet people are driven to plastic surgeons by the clearly air-brushed images in magazines. We look to movies, TV and music to shape our identity in the same ways that stories, poems and songs influenced the early Israelites. The difference is that we think modern science has become our way of knowing.
I hope this sparks some conversation.
Grace and Peace,