Is scripture only scripture if it is a inerrant record of what really happened?
There are some people who believe that the only difference between the Greek myths (as an example) and the Bible is that Samson really killed a lion with his hands, but Hercules did not; that God really sired Jesus, and Zeus did not really sire his mortal children; that ravens really fed Elijah, but Telephus was not suckled by a deer; that Jesus really turned water into wine, but Dionysus did not; and that Balaam’s ass and the serpent in the garden really did talk, but, oh wait, there are no talking animals in Greek mythology. That is, for some people the difference between the Bible and any other ancient myth is that one tells an accurate history, while the others are all untrue history.
I am afraid that anyone who is reading the scriptures as a guide to history is profoundly missing the point. This view that finds the value of scripture in historical accuracy is a product of 19th century fundamentalism. Suffice it to say that ancient people’s would have never taken such a narrow view of scripture, seeing that they offered access to the divine and to deep truths about the nature of the universe and the nature of humans being and the relationship between the human and the divine.
The problem with this view that insists on a sort of scriptural literalism and inerrancy (besides its incoherence within a Mormon framework) is that it is a losing position. The fact is the Bible cannot be taken as historically accurate. At many points, it is inconsistent with verifiable historical facts, and inconsistent with itself. In all the worry about the Bible as fiction, the irony is the greatest fiction is that the Bible is unassailable factual history.
I want to address two aspects to this question. First, what is myth? While some thinkers want to insist that any myth in the scriptures makes them entirely meaningless as scripture, do we need to accept this view? Second, what is scripture? Does historical accuracy determine what is scripture, or is there some other standard that makes one thing scripture and another thing not?
What is Myth?
Besides the difficulty in identifying and defining myth, the most important interpretive problem comes in trying to figure out how to understand the significance of myth. In sum, is myth a good thing or a bad thing? Basically, two different options emerged that dominated 19th c. biblical studies.
The first, the Enlightenment view, comes from Diderot, Voltaire, Paine, and others, who argued that myth is essentially useless, premodern accounts for how the world works. This view operated on a dichotomy between history and myth where one was fact and one was fiction. In the age of science and reason, myth is primitive superstition and should be discarded. With talking donkeys, burning bushes, and angels handing out gold plates, how can a modern person possibly accept such tall tales? Such a view is held by many popularizing atheists today, and many apologists agree with this view. Hence, the binary thinking that governs both perspectives.
The second view, the Romantic view, suggests that myth, while not literal history, it is not fiction either. Rather, it is an extremely important symbolic aspect of human experience. Myths are not premodern schlock, but express fundamental truths about life, humanity, and the world. Jesus’ healing miracles, for example, teach us about God’s love for the poor and the sick, and symbolizes healing the soul. The fall narrative tells the “truth” about gender relations and the imperfect state of humanity. Modern scholars of religion like Eliade have developed this view.
At the turn of the 20th c., Rudolf Bultmann’s demythologizing project attempted to find value in the Bible by interpreting the existential meaning of the myths in Scripture. This view combined both elements of the Enlightenment and Romantic views by arguing that the myths must be abandoned precisely because of the deeper, existential meaning.
The study of myth continued to be influential in Hebrew Bible scholarship, but mostly lost favor in NT scholarship with the repeated returns to the study of the historical Jesus. The most influential school of though is known as the Myth and Ritual school, a German movement which was closely related to the History of Religions school, both of which were conversation partners for Bultmann. This school took a sympathetic view of myth, adding a sympathetic view of ritual as further expression of great symbolic truths.
Basically, the claim that something is a “myth” should not be understood necessarily to be an insult, though it is often used this way in common discourse. Rather, it is also a technical term that is distinct from literature because it is understood to convey some truths about the world, human beings, or the divine. Basically, a myth is more true than literature. But this distinction is not inherent in the story. One person’s myths are another person’s literature. Myths function differently in part because they are taken to be more true than fiction, not because they are objectively more true, but because a religious practitioner or community gives the text that foundational status.
What is scripture?
In the study of religion, the nature of scripture is a common topic. Why do some traditions have writings and others do not? Are there non-scriptural canons? How do those with writings understand the nature of those writings? What rules govern how they should be read? How do communities enforce some readings and what is at stake in variant interpretations?
Before we take for granted the idea of scripture itself as a necessary feature of our religion, it should be noted that for several centuries there was no scripture as such in Israelite religion, and even in Christianity has only ever been read by a small fraction of those professing the faith. Additionally, without exception, no author of any of the texts in the Bible considered themselves to be writing for a “Bible,” much less could have envisioned how their texts would be interpreted by so many readers centuries later. Scripture is the product of certain literate hegemonies, which have been tiny minorities of our religious tradition for centuries. Even the idea of distinctly Christian scripture seems to appear more than a century after Christ’s death, with a few more centuries before the question of which scriptures is really settled at the tip of the sword. It is the compliers of the texts and the communities which selected those texts from among competing options that gave them their significance, not the authors.
As a matter of faith, one set of scriptures may be preferable to another, but there is none that can pass a test of historical accuracy, let alone some other external criterion. Instead, scriptures are community accepted devices for flexibly divining God’s will for the religious practitioner or community. The ontological question is entirely separate, and is not a question that can be answered by appeals to some independent source. Basically, whether Abraham lived or not cannot possibly answer any question about God anyway, nor can it give any more or less of an answer to whether or not God was really involved with his life. This does not mean that historical questions cannot or should not be asked. Indeed, they may even help us to better understand scripture and improve our interpretations. Rather, I am saying that the historical question simply cannot address the ontological question at all, even when historicity can be established.
Scripture is what we affirm it to be as an act of faith. Nothing more. As individuals and as a community, we see God speaking to us through a text, and we respond to that call. The places, people, experiences, and promises are sacred only insofar as a community gives them such a status. This is the difference between fiction and scripture, not some inherent qualities possessed by one or the other, but their designation as sacred by a community, and the practice of putting these texts to use to understand God’s relationship to humanity.
The moment we try to pin our decision to be a disciple on historical accuracy, we build a house on a sandy foundation. The apologetics which would give us the plans to such a house is problematic from the beginning. They offers the appearance of a stable home, but do not inform the inhabitant of the product that the first tiny tremor brings the whole thing down. Too much of our apologetic effort is in trying to convince us that those aren’t really cracks in the foundation, rather than in simply offering you a home build on a different, more stable foundation, that can withstand the troubles that will come. A true apologetics defends the defensible, and distinguishes the historical from the ontological, giving solid tools to navigate both questions productively.
PS- In preparing for this post, I came across TYD’s old post on the subject of scripture. Still excellent: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithpromotingrumor/2011/09/on-biblical-scripture/