Sep 9, 2009


I just got home from my 3rd class of Old Testament Literature. I'm loving the class - great textbook, great teacher, great school and setting (we have our classes at the chancery of the Tulsa Diocese).

I've always struggled with reading the Old Testament; I don't think I've ever approached it with a good context. And the first couple of classes did precisely that - focused on history, geography, languages, and cultures of the ancient near east. It's incredibly helpful to know the setting - it's the difference between watching a movie from the beginning and catching it anachronistically in 10- or 15-minute clips.

Here's some general ideas about the Old Testament, stop to think how controversial they seem to you. (I'm not going to say if I believe all of these or not, just think about them.)

  • There are many passages that copy older religious texts from Babylon, Assyria, Egypt, and other ancient near eastern cultures.

  • The Pentateuch (first 5 books) was NOT written down by Moses.

  • There are duplications and contradictions in the text.

  • Genesis is a mix of myth, legend, and saga - not literal history.

Let me talk just a bit about that last one, since that's what we talked most about tonight.

So, jumping right in, Genesis can be roughly divided into Genesis 1-11 and Genesis 12-50. Gen 1-11 is "primeval" history; the story of what happened before history - before people began recording what was happening. This seems to be a spot where lots of Christians get themselves into trouble. This isn't an historical record nor a science textbook; it wasn't written as such, and I don't believe it should be received as such.

Does that mean it isn't true? No, of course not. But it's like Tolkien says:
There are truths that are beyond us, transcendent truths, about beauty, truth [itself], honor, etc. There are truths that man knows exist, but they cannot be seen - they are immaterial, but no less real, to us. It is only through the language of myth that we can speak of these truths.

In light of this, the Truth of Genesis 1-11 may not be that a talking snake seduced a man and woman in a Utopian garden, nor that a global flood killed every creature on the earth except for those which were loaded in pairs (or 7 pairs?) onto a big boat. Because similar myths are in fact prevalent in Babylonian and Assyrian texts which pre-date Genesis by a long time. God uses the myths of Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah & the Ark, and the Tower of Babylon to speak the Truth of His preeminence and creativity, His transcendence and intimacy, His righteousness, justice, and mercy. These attributes of God are altogether unique to Genesis in contrast to the chaotic, superficial, very human-like gods of the other ancient near eastern cultures.

And that's the Truth you have to establish if you're going to tell the Patriarch sagas in Genesis 12-50. God picks Abram, seemingly at random, from among the Hebrews and calls him especially out - to depart from Ur and the rest of his people. He promises land and progeny.

Abraham answers God's call, but that's about as much as you can say for him - he offers his wife on 2 separate occassions to be had by a foreign king, he doubts God's promise and impregnates a slave girl, he exiles his own son by that slave girl. Of course, to his ultimate credit and at the pinnacle of his story, he is faithfully willing to offer his son Isaac to God.

Isaac is a pretty small character in Genesis; he seems to mainly serve as an eponymous bridge from Abraham to Jacob. Though he does manage the same trick of offering his wife to the same foreign king to whom his father did.

Jacob is a freaking mess. He tricks his brother out of his birthright, then tricks his father and his brother out of the patriarchal blessing. For his trouble, he has a personal exile back to distant family and falls in love with a young daughter, the father of whom demands, as payment, 7 years of service and then tricks Jacob into marrying the older daughter instead and demands ANOTHER 7 years of service for the younger daughter. He stays for a while, tricks his father-in-law into giving him a large number of his livestock, then decides to sneak back to his home land with his wives and their children. The younger wife steals some possessions of her father and conceals them when he catches up with them to demand them back. They make a pact and go their separate ways.

I had to ask my teacher about all this because honestly, the patriarchs are really quite shifty relative to our idea of 'Godly' people. Without naming names, I'll just mention that the 'heroes' of the sagas of Israel, at various times engage in or attempt: fratricide, sex outside of marriage, polygamy, incest, deception and fraud ... the list goes on.

Eventually Jacob is renamed Israel by God, and his, really all the Patriarchs', story is redeemed by his son Joseph - really the only character in all of Genesis whom I can personally admire and would seek to imitate. He's the one with the fancy coat and the interpretation of dreams; sold into slavery, taken to Egypt, rises to become Pharoah's right-hand-man and eventually uses his position to enact a grandiose scheme of reconciliation with his brothers and father, thru which he coincidentally brings all the 12 brothers - whose names just happen to be the names of the 12 tribes of Israel - down from Palestine into Egypt under the Pharoah.

Curtain. End of Act 1. Act 2 is Exodus.

Seriously, if the primeval history of Genesis (1-11) speaks the transcendent Truth of God's divine nature, the patriarchal history of Genesis (12-50) speaks, very loudly, the very imminent truth of a very flawed human nature living out under that divinity.

Taken in context, it seems obvious that Genesis is meant largely as a preamble to Exodus. So, here's my question that my instructor intentionally left open to me:

How much, and which parts, of Genesis is myth, legend, saga, and/or historical fact?


Caedmon said...

I ask a different question. Assuming that the Bible is inspired by God, what does it mean to read the Bible as if it is what it says it is?

The student in me is willing to look at Scripture through the lens of historical criticism, but the disciple just reads it as it is and listens.

To the specific question your professor asked, I would suggest most of the story in chapters 1-11 should be taken as representative. Stories to pass on values, rather than CNN footage.

luke said...

Interesting thought on "what it [the Bible] says it is" ...

Another way of looking at the structure of Genesis is in 10 toledots - the Hebrew word meaning "line", "story" or "account." E.g., 2:4 reads "Such is the story of the heavens and the earth at their creation." and then 5:1 says "This is the record of the descendants of Adam." and a similar phrase at 6:9, 11:10, 11:27, 25:19, etc.

In these maybe the Bible itself is saying that these are "stories" - not historical facts?

Caedmon said...

It's interesting what happens when we stop assuming ancient easterners wrote according to modern western custom. From what I've heard, this preoccupation with "fact" is new to the past few hundred years and fairly isolated to European (and descendant) thinking.

I think /an/ answer might be found in Deuteronomy 6:1-9.

Living A Liturgy said...

Your post reminded me of an archeological documentary that my husband and I watched the other night. It's rather lengthy, but maybe it could bring some good discussion to your Genesis class as it does talk about Genesis as stories and written by multiple authors, etc. Here's a link to the documentary:

Monk-in-Training said...

Living, that is a great documentary, I enjoyed it.

I don't belive that Gensis is what we modern people call literal. I DO belive it is true.

One of it's stories gave me great comfort when I was dealing with the death of my wife. I don't belive in a physical tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but the story tells me that God retains some knowelege for Himself, and we just don't get to know everything.

I get it, and can live with it.

luke said...


It's so true. What strikes me as so profound about Genesis is the concepts it introduces and preserves about God and His deeper Truth.

I'm watching to documentary now. It's great.

Saint said...

I think you nailed it pretty much. Not all of the OT is literal, nor do I think it was meant to be literal. The purpose of the Bible is for salvation, not for historical study or interpretation. It tells the story of Man's Fall and Redemption. It doesn't need to do this through a literal approach. Heck, Jesus rarely even did that Himself. When talking to the masses, he spoke in parables. It doesn't matter if there was a guy saved by a Samaritan or not, the point is the same. If God chose to relay information in this way while He was Flesh, why wouldn't He do this in other means?

Anonymous in ATX said...

Thanks for linking this to the WOF forum - awesome!

Matt said...

I would tend to agree with the previous opinions. While much of, if not all, of Genesis may not be literally factual, it is no less meaningful. Each story teaches us a little bit more about the nature and authority of God.

(I'm watching the documentary now. It reminds me of other History Channel shows I have seen on the subject, which are all fascinating.)

Living A Liturgy said...

Congrats on Clover! We just found out a few weeks ago that we are pregnant, so looks like we are joining your ranks! We are also doing a hame birth! (or that is or goal, rather)!


p.s. You should post a picture of your little one when you get a chance!

Bill G said...

Probably all of Genesis is just stories, not factual at all. The circumstantial evidence against Genesis is pretty strong.

Now archaeologists are saying that much of Exodus is myth.

My feeling after reading the evidence for the last 2 years is that its ALL myth.

luke said...

ALL of what? Genesis? Pentateuch? Old Testament? Bible?

I don't know if it's possible to say with any certainty that ALL of it is myth. My (basic) understanding of archeological science is that it can only give us a very broad and generic sense of time, place, and people; except in the case of finding textual records.

So the fact of the matter may be that there weren't 600,000 Israelites who left Egypt all at once - there's no piece of evidence to suggest such a mass migration in that region at the time. But, there is evidence of an increase of houses with Israelite floorplans in the land of Canaan I believe around 1300-1400 BC. (They mention this in the video.)

Similarly, there are records from other cultures of encountering the "House of Israel" in Canaan and Mesopatamia during the alleged time of the Exodus. (Also in the video.)

In any case, you can be sure that archeology will probably never be able to uncover Abraham's remains, or Moses's staff - archeology just doesn't apply to specific people. It doesn't mean they didn't exist, it just means we have to rely on their individual stories.

Bill G said...

Hi Luke, thanks for the reply.

Probably the entire Bible. We can be pretty sure the following things are just myth.

No Adam and Eve
No Flood of Noah
No Tower of Babel
No Exodus

We also know that most of the Bible was written by people other than who is officially credited with the chapters. For instance the 4 Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There are several letters in the book supposedly written by Paul that are actually written by someone else.

We don’t know with certainty that we have the actual words of Jesus because most of the books were written second hand by people who didn’t actually see or hear or know the man, and they were written many, many years after his death. We know there are well over a hundred discrepancies in the book some of which if you believe one verse it makes the opposing one completely false and useless.

To me at least, the many actual problems with the Bible make it loose authority, as we can’t tell what is true and what is myth. That should not be a problem that a Holy book has. If it’s the actual Word of God, we should be able to trust it implicitly, in all ways, with no doubts as to its authenticity.

Matt said...


You raise some interesting points, some of which I'll admit I don't think I've heard before. Who, in your opinion, did write the gospels and the questionable letters of Paul? I don't know if I've heard of any such controversy before.

In doing some very brief (i.e. bing) research, it appears one of the protagonists of this position is Dr. Randal Helms of Arizona State University. Is this your source? I haven't heard any of his arguments before.

Bill G said...

Hi Matt, thanks for your reply.

Nobody knows anymore who wrote them.

The Catholic Encyclopedia that is on the New Advent website alludes to this problem. The following is an excerpt from the above named encyclopedia:

"Enterprising spirits responded to this natural craving by pretended gospels full of romantic fables, and fantastic and striking details; their fabrications were eagerly read and accepted as true by common folk who were devoid of any critical faculty and who were predisposed to believe what so luxuriously fed their pious curiosity. Both Catholics and Gnostics were concerned in writing these fictions. The former had no motive other than that of a Pious Fraud." Catholic Encyclopedia

Also the book “Jesus Interrupted” by Bart Ehrman discusses the same thing and he tells that this is taught in Princeton Theological Seminary which he attended. It seems that it is common knowledge among Biblical scholars that for the first 300 or more years in Christianity many bogus scriptures were written by forgers, some of whom would use Apostles (and other popular) names to “legitimize” their writings…and from the excerpt above the Church undoubtedly followed along with this.

Another source to check out is retired Bishop (Episcopal) John Shelby Spong’s book “The Sins of Scripture”

Many years ago I was at the point where you are now and followed through. At some point, years later, I came across some articles that piqued my interest And as I am a very inquisitive person I researched the information that the articles suggested to me and I have never looked back.

Just sayin'


luke said...

that quote is out-of-context; it's referring specifically to the Apocryphal gospels - Gamaliel, Egyptians, Peter, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, etc.

in any case, the issue of authorship doesn't denote something as myth or not. just because we can't be 100% certain of authorship and accuracy in detail doesn't mean we should assume 0% certainty. for example, I'm not 100% certain of the authorship nor accuracy of the Amarna letters, but in my mind, they are still authoritative history records of Egyptian-Canaan relations of the time, until I see some contrary evidence.

the Bible is as you say - an incomplete authority. hence the Catholic rejection of Sola Scriptura. in establishing a canon of Scripture, the Church has generally endeavored to meet "fruits and roots" qualifications - i.e., does the text square with holistic Christian tradition, and does it have widespread and ancient tradition of apostolic origin.

I'm open to judging uncertainty in either of these standards from new theories or evidence, but I'm always cautious because I want to pull from the text itself, and not my own presuppositions. I have no problem admitting that I converted to Catholicism in large part because I was 'primed' for it already - I read some compelling books and believed them because I *wanted* to believe them.

in your statements I detect a desire on your part to believe the authorship and accuracy of the Bible to be unknown? when we make such a matter-of-fact absolute statement like, "the 4 Gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John" - we're revealing our presupposition and bias; the authorship of these texts is still debated among scholars. if we ignore or discount that, we're accepting our own authority over and above that of the broader scholarship community.

to be sure, we have enough of our own authority to say texts like the Enûma Eliš, the Legend of Adapa, the epic of Gilgamesh, the Noah Flood, and Jainist creation myths (in which humans are six miles tall and live for millions of years) are not naturally and literally true - they are myths, or else they are supernaturally true.

the mythic nature of a text has very little to do with its authorship and detail. a news story can still be true if it comes from an anonymous source. the epic of Gilgamesh is a very detailed and cohesive text that is obviously myth.

there's no easy yes/no matrix for the mythology of ancient near eastern religious texts; unless maybe you're trying to popularize and sell a preconceived notion of them. ;)