Friday, April 23, 2004

I'm glad you asked-4

II. Bible Criticism

1. Miracles

Hume’s objection to miracles shares a criterion in common with his objection to natural theology—namely, the principle of proportionality. An extraordinary report demands extraordinary evidence.

By defining a miracle as a "violation" or "transgression" of natural law, Hume makes it sound as if God were a squatter or house-burgler, whereas, from the Scriptural standpoint, God is the homeowner. The Creator doesn’t "break into" his own house. Rather, the world was designed as a divine billboard. For a Christian, every "natural" event is an act of God.

This is also why the definition of a miracle as an "improbable" event is question-begging. A miracle would be a work of personal agency. It is not a random event. It is not a throw of the dice. There are no odds either for or against the occurrence of a miracle. And even on statistical grounds, the evidentiary value of a word (prophecy) and sign (miracle) in tandem (Isa 35:5-6; Mt 11:4-5) is far higher than either in separation.

To judge the objection on its own grounds, Jesus is not an ordinary person doing extraordinary things, but an extraordinary person. So there's a natural match between the nature of the agent and the nature of the deed.

But to judge Scripture on Scriptural grounds, the reason why folks don’t ordinarily rise from the dead is the same reason they die in the first place. It is not owing to natural causes, but God’s judgment on Adam’s sin. The impediment is not natural law, but moral law. So the claim that the Second Adam rose from the dead is perfectly consistent with the ordinary state of affairs inasmuch Christ reverses the curse and begins to restore the primordial norm. As Bishop Wright remarks,
"The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation. The fact that Jesus' resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim. It is part of the claim itself," N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress 2003), 712.

And this brings us to another problem. Why assume that we must begin with a definition of the event rather than the very event itself? Definitions are ordinarily descriptive, not prescriptive. We begin with the phenomena and then set about to classify them. But Hume is using his grid to as a fine-mesh filter to screen out miracles in advance of observation. Yet you could establish a miraculous event qua event before you establish a miraculous event qua miraculous. While a miracle assumes the prior existence of God, it doesn’t assume a prior belief in God. That confounds the orders of being and knowing. If Hume were an Egyptian, would he say to himself, "I won’t believe my own eyes unless I can attribute the plague of hail to freak atmospheric conditions!" Methinks he would stuff his scruples and dive for cover or run for dear life!

It is also illogical to say that I need an unusual amount of evidence for an unusual event. How could there be more evidence for a rare event than for a commonplace event? One reason we believe that snow leopards are rare is the rarity of their sightings. It is unclear how Hume would establish any out-of-the ordinary event. Moreover, how many inductive instances to I need? The only evidence I need of a four-leaf clover is a four-leaf clover. One will do—no more, no less.

Hume discounts the testimony to miraculous incidents on the grounds that the witness pool is recruited from the backward and barbarous peoples. One can’t help but sense a suppressed circularity in this objection: Why don’t you believe in miraculous reports? Because the reporters are ignorant and barbarous! How do you know they are ignorant and barbarous? Because they believe in miracles! At most, all Hume’s argument amounts to is that dumb people believe dumb things. But that is hardly argument for the proposition that any particular witness is dumb.

In addition, the general character of a witness is not only irrelevant to a specific claim, but may be all the more impressive when out-of-character. Even liars only lie when they have a motive to lie, and not when it runs counter to their own interests. And it is not as if the Apostles and prophets were rewarded for their testimony with a tickertape parade.

Hume tries to play off the miracles of one sect against another. However, most major religions don’t stake their dogma on miraculous attestation. But even if they did, the Bible doesn’t deny the power of witchcraft (e.g. Exod 7-8). And there is no reason why a living faith should have to duel a forgotten faith. Killing it once is quite sufficient. One hardly needs to disinter the remains and have another go at them. For if the "gods" of a long dead faith were unable to defend or resuscitate it (Judges 6:31; 2 Kgs 18:27), then does that not expose them as false gods?

2. Mythology

Critics of the Bible discredit the claims of Scripture on the basis of comparative mythology. The unargued assumption is if mythology is false, and if there are parallels between the Bible and mythology, then that falsifies the Bible.

To say that pagan mythology is false is an ambiguous charge. Does it mean that that never happened, or that nothing like that ever happens? There is quite a difference. In a novel, none of the incidents may be historical, and yet they are true to life. So even if mythology were wholly fictitious, it might still be lifelike in certain key respects.

Indeed, one of the problems with this dismissive approach is that it fails to explain anything. For it fails to explain why pagans believed in magic and evil spirits and paranormal events. Was there something in their experience which gave rise and substance to these beliefs?

There is, of course, a stock explanation, or what purports to be an explanation, which attributes such credulity to ignorance. But even if this enjoys a measure of truth, it suffers from the circular limitation of any tautology: it's true when it's true, and not when it's not. Even if it holds true for the uneducated masses, it doesn't apply to the educated classes. And the fact is that illiterate peasants don't write mythology, for they don't know how to read and write. So, by definition, the record of mythology comes down to us by the hand of the educated classes.

Another problem with this elitist criterion is that there's a sense in which a man of letters is at least as gullible and superstitious as a peasant, for a man of letters gets his information second-hand whereas a peasant is an amateur scientist who lives off the land, relies on his eyes and ears, survives and prospers by dint of his direct and accurate observation of the natural world.

Actually, the real correlation is not between ignorance and belief but quite the reverse, between ignorance and unbelief. What I find credible or incredible has a whole lot to do with the measure of my personal experience. If nothing out of the ordinary has ever happened to me, then I find the report of an extraordinary event less believable than if I've had some brush with the paranormal. For a psychologist, the abnormal is normal, and for an exorcist, the paranormal is normal. So some men don't believe the Bible because the world of the Bible doesn't resemble the world they see out the window, whereas other men do believe the Bible because the world of the Bible does resemble the world they see out the window. It's like the old saying about the face at the bottom of the well.

In fact, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't pray because I don't believe in prayer, and I don't believe in prayer because I don't pray!

For some, the objection takes a more philosophical form. Especially for those approaching every truth-claim from a scientific standpoint, you often get the argument that they don't believe in the supernatural because nature is all there is. But that's a rather prejudicial stance to strike, even on its own grounds. Science is supposed to be a descriptive rather than prescriptive discipline, based on observation rather than stipulation, discovery rather than definition. To insist, in advance of the facts, that every event must be confinable to naturalistic parameters is not knowledge, but secular superstition. From the assumptions of empirical science, the only way of knowing what is knowable is by investigation.

The Bible has its own analysis of mythology. It identifies mythology with idolatry. Fallen man is a mythmaker. His strategy is to suppress and supplant the knowledge of God with surrogate deities and proxy pieties (e.g., Jn 3:20-21; Rom 1:18ff.). And lying in the background is the Devil, who has many front-organizations and aliases (Rev 12-13).

So what we read in Genesis is not a myth of origins, but the origins of myth. Genesis can account alike for piety and idolatry, miracle and magic. For the account of creation unveils the origin of all our cultural universals, as God ordains the social institutions that recur in art and literature, religion and drama; while the account of the Fall unveils the origin of their debasement, as apostate men and angels bow before the creature rather than the Creator of all.

The popularity of the occult, ufology and the SF genre go to show that science does not extinguish the mythic impulse. Indeed, evolution repristinates a number of stock mythical motifs, viz., Everyman, the quest, rites of passage. In the Darwinian creation myth, the "hero" comes down from the safe-haven of the trees (fall from innocence). By passing through various ordeals (survival of the fittest) he attains enlightenment (higher brain functions) and achieves apotheosis (monkey to man). The popularity of evolution owes much its popularity to this folkloric appeal. (Cf. M. Landau, Narratives of Human Evolution [Yale, 1991].) It’s just variation on Puss-n-Boots and the domestication of Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Sometimes the parallel is said to be more precise, in terms of genealogical dependence. But the only case I've seen where there's a persuasive parallel is the Flood account. Yet since, according to Scripture, both the Babylonians and the Jews were descendents of Noah (Gen 10), the fact that Mesopotamian literature possesses a parallel account of the Flood is hardly prejudicial to the historicity or independence of the Biblical account, for their synoptic outlook is easily attributable to factual rather than literary dependence. They share a common source in a shared historical event.

Another case is the alleged parallel between Gen 1 and the Enuma Elish. Cf. A. Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis (Chicago, 1963), 129. But all Heidel has done is to use the narrative framework of Gen 1 as an interpretive grid, and then map that back onto the Enuma Elish. But if Heidel had begun in the opposite direction, without using Gen 1 as his point of reference, the alleged parallels would have sunk back into the cluttered plain of events, for there are no structural parallels between the two.

Since real life has a cyclical character, the stereotypical pattern of many literary themes needs no special explanation. Art imitates life. Cultural universals derive from the universality of human nature and experience in the natural world. God made mankind a racial unit with natural needs and a normal life-cycle. There are patterns in biography as well as history. Great men often exemplify the trials and traits of the epic hero (e.g. quest, ordeal, rites of passage). To classify common literary themes as mythical only pushes the question back a step, for it fails to account for the origin of the "mythic" category itself. So there’s a danger of substituting a disguised description for an efficient explanation. As Pierre Benoit remarks,

"A merely literary comparison does not authorize any such [fictitious] conclusion. The truth-value of these forms depends on the circles in which they have their origin, not on the forms themselves.

Is there any other way of relating a miracle? Do they follow a different method at Lourdes? Nothing is more like the story of a true miracle than the story of a false one. It is not the literary form which distinguishes one from the other; it is the substance, the external authentication, the internal probability," Jesus & the Gospel (Herder & Herder 1973), 1:33-34.

Since Genesis records the historic origin of our archetypal institutions, mythical and literary parallels, such as they are, cast no prejudice on the veracity of Scripture. In the nature of the case, certain formative events in Genesis and Exodus acquire a thematic status. And the cultural diffusion of such themes makes all the more sense if the human race radiated out from a common point of origin—as the sons of Noah repopulate the earth, both by land and sea (Gen 10-11).

Because some giant animals have become extinct in historic times (e.g., Irish Elk), we should not exclude the possibility that "mythical" animals in Scripture (e.g., Rahab? Leviathan?) are stylized versions of once living beasts. For example, the dragon-motif is quite widespread in world mythology. Sometimes mythopoetic imagery is used for decorative, polemical or ironic effect. In Ps 104, Yahweh is pictured in the regalia of a storm-God, yet this is no more descriptive than the personification of the waters (v7).

At the same time, there are disanalogies as well as analogies. For there is a subversive element in Biblical typology that breaks with conventional associations. Images of descent carry a classically negative connotation, yet Yahweh’s descent on Mt. Sinai, the Spirit’s descent at Pentecost and the baptism of Christ, as well as the descent of the New Jerusalem, reverse the ordinary expectations. In addition, a number of stock themes in world mythology are missing in Scripture, viz. apocatastasis, apotheosis, primordial chaos, primeval caverns, ritual masquerades, magic circles (labyrinth, mandala, wheel of karma), transmigration, descensus ad infernos, &c. (Acts 2:27, Eph 4:8-9 and 1 Pet 3:18-20 have been widely misconstrued. See commentaries by Grudem, Hoehner, Marshall, Schreiner, and O'Brien)

The history of Scripture is remarkably restrained in comparison with pagan mythology. If the Bible writers felt free to make up fantastic incidents, it is odd that they passed up so many tempting opportunities to indulge their over-heated imagination. For example, Mark records the empty tomb, and the other Gospels record some Easter appearances of Christ, but none of the canonical Gospels record the actual moment of the Resurrection, or have Christ appearing to Pilate or Caiaphas and saying, "I told you so!"

Moreover, the miracles of Scripture have always some moral or meaningful purpose to them, in manifesting the mercy and judgment of God, or advancing his redemptive designs. This is quite different from the frivolous entertainment value of magical or supernatural incidents in so much mythology.

And beyond their historic origin is their prehistoric origin. We live in a sacramental universe. In the Fourth Gospel, sensible events are a form of heavenly sign-language—a visible pointer to the invisible God. The reason why so many natural metaphors are religious metaphors around the world is that God has established a code language linking the inward and outward, moral and material, visible and invisible, sensible and spiritual realms, viz. ascent/descent; bondage/release; light/dark, death/rebirth; straight/crooked; lost/found.

We must also make allowance for the role of dead metaphors. Based on bare etymology, one could conclude that Holy Week (Ash Wednesday, Maundy-Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday) was a pagan rather than Christian festival; but allusions to Wodin, Thor, Freya and Saturn are purely conventional. Likewise, I can identify a chemical substance as "spirits of turpentine" without endorsing its alchemical background, just as I can "fumigate" a house without trading on necromantic associations.

Folklorists tend to read a lot of symbolism into mythology (e.g., Sisyphus, Prometheus, Midas, Narcissus, Psyche, Phaeton, Pygmalion, Tantalus). But is that the way an old bard and his audience took the tale, or was it just a great campfire story? Hard to tell at a distance.

3. Contradictions

It is commonplace for unbelievers to say that Scripture is riddled with contradictions. We can spare ourselves a lot of unnecessary time at the outset by precisely defining our terms and drawing a few elementary distinctions. For this charge often commits a level-confusion. Scripture is inerrant if it's a truthful account of a historical event, if it is harmonious with the facts.

To express this distinction rather differently, we need to distinguish between the first-order historical harmony and the second-order literary harmony, or the first order factual harmony and the second-order formal harmony.

There is nothing essentially errant about a formal disharmony. For example, the variant accounts of the temptation of Christ in Matthew and Luke are formally discrepant inasmuch as they present the order of the temptations in a different sequence.

That does not, however, render them factually erroneous or unhistorical unless it was either the aim of the author to replicate the original sequence, or unless such replication is somehow essential to the veracity of the record.

What makes a record true is whether it is true to the fact it does report, and whether it supplies the minimal amount for information relevant to its aim and fair to its subject.

Formal variants would only falsify the historical record if the historian has set out to produce a linear, chronological, verbatim account, and if that's a necessary condition of accurate reportage. I can't see why. The difference between inerrancy and errancy is a difference between truth and error. Merely formal discrepancies do not impugn the inerrancy of Scripture because they don't go to matters of fact.

To express this distinction from another angle, it is one thing to say that synoptic accounts record underlying events which all line up in space and time; quite another to say that we can deconstruct the editorial process and recover the original order.

The issue is not so much whether synoptic accounts harmonize with each other, on a formal plane, but whether they harmonize with the underlying events, at a factual level—just as tree branches reconnect, not at the top, but at the trunk.

For us, the historical trunk is submeged. The evidence of the historical trunk exists at the surface level of the literary twigs. By tracing out the curvature we can extrapolate a trajectory from the twigs back down to a common trunk. But much remains out of sight.

Technically speaking, it is impossible to replicate every detail of a historical event because there's too much raw data. What was the temperature, humidity, dew-point, elevation, wind speed and direction, intensity of light, pollen count, &c.?

Since our only access to the first-order level is via the second-order level, any attempt at a literary harmonization is bound to be conjectural and inconclusive.

But such an exercise is, in any event, irrelevant to the inerrancy of the record, for what makes it true is not its formal, literary consistency, but its factual, historical consistency.

Inerrancy is perfectly compatible with selective reporting, topical sequencing, paraphrastic citation, round numbers, variant names, and literary dependence.

The charge of inconsistency also assumes that you know a contradiction when you see one. Yet when you study a writing from the past, you need to know something about the conventions and compositional methods of that time and place, viz., idioms, round numbers, hyperbole, editorial asides, paraphrastic citations, narrative compression, thematic sequencing, calendrical variants,, audience adaptation, eye-level descriptions, &c. We can’t just jump from the 21C to the 1C or the 2nd Millennium BC—using our own literary models as the assumed standard of comparison.

The best way of recovering the reportorial techniques of the Bible is to study the way in which the same writer records the same event:
(a) Oath of Abraham's servant (Gen 24:3-8; par. 37-41).
(b) Prayer of Abraham's servant (Gen 24:12-24; par. 42-49).
(c) Pharaoh's dream (Gen 41:1-7,18-24)
(d) Résumé of the wilderness wandering (Num 33:1-49; Deut 8-10:11; 29:1-8).
(e) Decree of Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4; par. 6:1-5).
(f) Resurrection/Ascension (Lk 23:13-53; par. Acts 1:1-11).
(g) Conversion of Paul (Acts 9:1-30; par. 22:3-21; par. 26:4-20).
(h) Conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10; par. 11:1-18; par. 15:7-9).

If we study our parallel accounts with a modicum of critical sympathy, we can see that the historians of Scripture were dutifully pedantic in all they say and summarize. They stick with a rigid outline, sometimes saying more, sometimes less, but pedantically faithful to the sense and substance of the speeches and events—with precious little stylistic variance. The whole thing has the formulaic quality of a well-rehearsed memory, using much the same words in much the same place, over and over again—like a workhorse doing the rounds. What comes across is the incurious absence of imagination, the utter lack of originality, the stubborn stenographic tenacity, the dull disinclination to break with routine. The Bible writers are only too happy to repeat themselves. They would be perfect in the witness box, ideal as court reporters—dreadful as screenwriters, aweful as novelists. This must all be terribly disappointing to the critic who had hoped to find in Scripture a creative license untrammeled by the facts.

Another popular target of the charge are the Passion and Easter narratives. But this objection overlooks the technical challenge of presenting simultaneous events in a sequential narrative. In the Passion and Easter narratives you have a number of different people in different places doing things at more or less the same time. Yet a narrative is a linear medium, and so it is not possible, as a practical matter, to position all these players in their real time relations.

This is a choice that every historian must face. Does his block his material by time or space? Usually, a historian jumps back and forth, tracing out the timeline of one place for a little ways, then going back and tracing out another, then returning to pick up where he left off. He can either be continuous in time or space: if he’s continuous in time, he’s discontinuous in space and vice versa. To equate a narrative sequence with a historical sequence confuses a medium of communication with a series of events. In reporting parallel action, some dislocation is inevitable—for the presentation must be broken down into separate scenes. To treat this as a contradiction commits a category mistake. The blunders belong to the critic and not the Evangelist.

Most of the other discrepancies in Scripture involve names and numbers. I suspect that most all of these attributable to transcriptional errors. Numbers are especially susceptible to miscopying. In addition, written Hebrew, with its unpointed script, invites the interchange or transposition (metathesis) of consonants. Imagine how much damage a dyslexic scribe might do! And once a mistake is made, a later scribe may further compound the error by emending the text. Let us also recall that a scribe might have to copy a faded MS in bad lighting—this was pre-Edison, remember!. And this was, as well, in the days before corrective lenses! Textual criticism has also shown that the differences between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles are largely owing to a variant Vorlage.

A final area in which the inerrancy of Scripture is often impugned is the phenomenon of "failed" prophecy. Here the critic points to a prophecy in which the prediction was falsified by non-fulfillment.

What this characterization fails to take into account is the conditional nature of most Biblical prophecy. The classic text is Jer 18:7:10. Take careful notice of the sweeping terms of the text: it is sweeping in time ("if at any time"), space ("any nation or kingdom"), and scope--whether salvation or judgment ("to uproot/tear down," "to plant/build up").

In other words, the presumption is not that all prophecy is unconditional unless otherwise stated, but that all prophecy is conditional unless otherwise stated. If sinners will repent of their sin, then God will "repent" of his threatened judgment. And if sinners will defy their God, then God will withhold his promissory blessing.