Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Bible: What is it? Part II

In my previous post I detailed my first three lectures I give in my freshman level "Introduction to the Christian Scriptures" course.  My main goal in those lectures is to give the historical context for the compilation of the Bible that we as 21st century Christians take for granted.  Yet, as my wife pointed out, my lectures, and several other biblioblogs are more concerned with saying what the Bible is not, rather than explaining what the Bible is.  That is, our posts seem more negative than positive. 

So, what is the Bible? First, let me point you to Larry Hurtado's blog where he refers to the texts of the Bible as "historically conditioned scriptures."  He writes,
There is nothing in principle that requires divine revelation to be unconditioned by history, and nothing that disqualifies historically-conditioned texts from serving as Scriptures.  Indeed, one would think that Christians would readily affirm that any true divine revelation must be historically conditioned.  The biblical witness is that the biblical deity has acted within history, not apart from it.  So, how could there be a divine word/revelation/action that was not conditioned by the historical circumstances in which it came?
Following on this sentiment, I would refer to the texts of the Bible as the "culturally conditioned word of God."  That is, the scriptures record the human understanding and witness to God's actions in history.  As a human understanding and witness, the scriptures are culturally and historically conditioned.  Therefore, any scientific view set forth in the scriptures will be conditioned by the state of science at the time.  That means that when biblical writers refer to the world, they are thinking of a flat earth with heaven (or the heavens) above and hell (Sheol, underworld, Hades) below, what Bultmann referred to as the three story universe.

Therefore, what does this mean for us?  How are we to use the scriptures?  Are they merely historical relics?  I don't think so, they are still the word of God, but in order to understand them, one must first understand their culturally conditioned nature. 

In biblical studies it is common to separate two meanings of the text: What did the text mean then, and what does it mean now?  The first task in understanding a scripture, is to understand what the text meant then, in its original context.  This requires a fair amount of historical investigation, investigation of other contemporaneous texts, archeological evidence, sociological theory, etc.  This is what scholars do (and what I am engaging in on my other blog on rhetoric in the New Testament).  Once one has a grasp on what a text meant then, one must engage in a translation process to determine what the text means now.  This process of translation is given the fancy name hermeneutics. 

Since I am lecturing on Genesis 1-3 today, let us look briefly at the Genesis 1 creation narrative.  What did it mean then?  First, most OT scholars believe that the Genesis 1 creation narrative came from the exhilic or post exhilic period (that is during or after the Jewish exile in Babylon).  While in Babylon, the Jews were confronted by other creation stories, like the one narrated in the Enuma Elish.  In an attempt to reiterate their own theology of creation and to make sure their children continued to remember their God, the Jews formulated the creation narrative of Genesis 1.  Therefore, the first thing to notice about the text in its historical situation is that to an extent, this story was polemical, or it was warring against other texts with creation narratives.  The second thing to notice about the text is that it is more poetic and literary than it is prosaic.  There is a definite structure to the 6 days of creation, each day corresponding to the opening lines of Genesis that the world was "formless and empty" (tohu and vohu).  Days one through three narrate God "forming" the world and undoing the formlessness, while days 4-6 narrate God "filling" that which was empty.  This text was not written as a scientific treatise, but it was written during a pre-scientific age.

Therefore, how does one translate what the text meant then, to what it means now?  Well that includes dropping from the text the necessity that this is a scientific treatise on "how" the world was created.  That is not what the text meant then, and that is not what it means now. No, this text was a story that communicated some very important truths about God and humanity.  The text affirms that there is one God, and that this one God created the world, and more importantly, that the world was good.  It also affirms the importance of humanity as the capstone of creation, the epitome of the created order.  Finally, it lays the foundation for the Sabbath rest.  All of these things are still important today, but do not require one to engage in polemics against modern science.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo! I love this explanation of what Genesis 1-3 means for us now. But...I'm still a little fuzzy on the *how* part of determining what the Bible means to us now and *how* we modern Christians interact with it. More please!