Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Bible background

1. I was asked to comment on the idea of knowing culture background to better understand the Bible. It's hard to give a general answer to that question. On the one hand, there are certainly many instances where background knowledge aids the reader in understanding the text. For instance, books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and 1-2 Kings are full of references to the international politics of the day. Much of this is obscure or opaque to a modern reader. So it's useful to fill in the background.

Likewise, knowing about the nature of Egyptian religion can help the reader understand how the miracles in Exodus are sometimes an attack on the pretensions of Egyptian religion. The cult of Pharaoh. The sun god Ra. The role of the cobra. The "divine" Nile river, as a personification of the god Hapi. 

By the same token, knowing that ancient Israel had an agrarian economy, common property, tribal social structure, knowing about the climate and topography, can help explain the function of some of OT laws. 

In addition, this can sometimes be useful in terms of genre criticism and literary conventions. 

I'd add that the OT is often countercultural. It doesn't just mirror the ANE, but often provides a corrective. 

2. However, when scholars like John Walton, Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, Kyle Greenwood, Bill Arnold, Charles Halton et al. talk about the need to read the OT in the original context, they have something additional in mind. They mean Bible writers rely on obsolete conceptual categories. Bible writers unwittingly posit as true what we now know to be false. Carried to a logical extreme, this leads to atheism. The view that the whole notion of external divine intervention from a God (or angels) who exists beyond the earth is part of this (allegedly) antiquated cosmography.

They think they are viewing the OT through ancient Near Eastern eyes. Up to a point, that's a good objective. We should attempt to read the OT as the original audience understood it. However, I don't think the scholars in question are actually viewing it through ANE eyes. Rather, they are viewing it through the eyes of Western high-tech urbanites who are out of touch with the experience of ancient Near Easterners.  

The exercise is potentially circular, for unless you know how ancient people viewed the world directly, you can't say how literary or pictorial depictions of the world were meant to reflect the world. Let's take a few comparisons, moving back in time. 

3. Suppose a scholar inferred from Holman Hunt's The Light of the World that Victorian Christians thought Jesus knocks on everybody's front door. Of course, that's a fallacious inference. 

4. Suppose a scholar wrote a monograph on Verne's cosmography. He cited Journey to the Center of the Earth to demonstrate what 19C Europeans thought about the earth's interior. But, of course, Verne's story is fictional. 

Perhaps someone would object that that's an equivocal comparison. We classify his work as fiction because a scientifically educated man of his era would know that's not what the earth's interior is like. By contrast, the same thing can't be said for ancient Near Easterners. 

However, I doubt that at the time of writing (1864), Europeans knew that much about the earth's interior. Not to mention that Verne wasn't even a geologist. Moreover, he's writing in a genre that had been around for a while. There were literary precedents. Consider earlier examples like Casanova's Icosaméron (1788) and Niels Klim's Underground Travels (1741). How much did 18C literati know about the earth's interior? 

5. Suppose scholars inferred from spirituals that black slaves thought that at the moment of death your soul was transported to Palestine, where you had to ford the river Jordan to enter Beulah land?  

6. Suppose a scholar wrote a monograph on Buyanesque cosmography. He cited The Pilgrim's Progress to demonstrate that 17C Englishmen thought heaven was a place on earth. Heaven lay just beyond the Delectable Mountains. You could walk to heaven on the King's Highway, although you had to ford the Thames to reach the Celestial City. The scholar produces a roadmap with landmarks and place names to document the state of 17C English cosmography. 

But, of course, that's a fallacious inference. Bunyan's work is fictional. 

7. Suppose a scholar wrote a monograph on Dantean cosmography. This seems like a more promising example. Dante's Comedy is cobbled together from Aristotelian physics, Ptolemaic astronomy, and Greco-Roman depictions of the Netherworld. Dante believed the underlying science was true. And you can certainly map out the world of the Comedy. 

That said, did Dante really think Purgatory a mountain? Moreover, even if he thought the scientific underpinnings of the story were true, he knew that he was inventing the details every step of the way. The landscape of hell, and the climate of hell, with boiling rivers of blood, sleet, brimstone, deserts of burning coals, bleeding trees, &c., is a figment of his imagination. 

Furthermore, there's a major plothole running through the entire story. The character of Dante is still alive. He has a physical body. But most of hell's denizens are discarnate spirits: ghosts and demons. If hell is physical, how can it contain and confine discarnate spirits? If hell is physical, how can the sleet, brimstone, boiling rivers, &c., have any affect on them? 

In theory, it could be like a psychological simulation. A stable, collective nightmare. But in that event, the character of Dante would be outside the dreamscape, not inside the dreamscape. 

So there's this constant paradox. If the character of Dante can interface with hell, then most of the inhabitants cannot. If most of the inhabitants can interface with hell, then his character cannot. It requires the willing suspension of disbelief. 

8. Suppose a scholar wrote a monograph on Homer's oceanography. He cited The Odyssey to demonstrate what ancient Greeks believed about the nature of their world. 

But there are problems with that inference. In The Odyssey, the action is set around the Mediterranean, Aegean sea, Ionian sea, Strait of Messina. Sicily, Ithaca, the Peloponnese, &c. The travelogue of Odysseus includes encounters with the Calypso, Circe, Sirens, Cyclops, Laestrygonians, &c.

Surely, though, ancient Greek mariners who were familiar with the harbors and islands along his route. Yet they never encountered anything like he relates. Wouldn't Greek sailors be skeptical about these tales?  

I can't give a firm answer. My point is that it doesn't even occur to scholars like John Walton, Peter Enns et al. to ask questions like that when they make assumptions about ancient Near Easterners. 

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