I’d like to take the opportunity to open up a general discussion with my readers about my motives here and what the study of the Bible’s texts actually is, and is not, since this seems to be a recurring issue. It is notably an issue for passing Christian readers who arrive here through a Google search and miss the larger picture of what I’m doing. Certainly, and to some extent, I am partially guilty of creating this misunderstanding given the title of this website—Contradictions in the Bible.
At any rate, setting the record straight is important to me because in all honesty I’d like more of these passing Christians to take an interest in the biblical texts as well as this site and its aims—note, I said “the biblical texts” and not that which is implied or imposed in the label “the Holy Bible.”
Let me begin our discussion by reproducing a section from the Introduction of my forthcoming book whose subtitle is the title of this post.
Being Honest to the Texts and Their Authors
The subtitle of this book identifies our main objective as readers of the biblical text. Indeed, being honest to the Bible’s texts, their authors, and their beliefs should be our first, and in many regards our only, priority and goal. Believe it or not, however, this is often not the case at all. Often the Bible’s texts are read in such a way as to support a completely different agenda—legitimating the reader’s beliefs about the text.
Thus, it might initially be asked: what exactly does being honest to the texts and their authors mean, and conversely not mean? Furthermore, why is it that Creationists are neither honest to the texts nor their authors, although they would have you believe otherwise?
In general it might be said that being honest to the biblical texts and their authors means just that. It means that the biblical texts and the beliefs, worldviews, ideologies, culturally formed perceptions and even biases of their individual authors are our object of study. It means that our task, even obligation I would argue, is to read and understand these texts on the terms of the texts themselves, not on the terms, beliefs, nor contexts of later readers. It means understanding these ancient documents as their authors intended and as products of their own unique historical, cultural, and literary worlds. It means understanding what the texts say and perhaps more importantly do not say, and even why they say what they do. It means objectively identifying and understanding the beliefs and views of the authors of these texts, their original purposes for writing their texts, and in response to what historical circumstances, to whom, and in the context of what other literary works. In other words, the focus of our investigation are the texts, what the texts themselves reveal about their compositional nature, their authors, their historical and literary contexts, and their cultural worldviews and beliefs—and not what later readers have been conditioned to claim, believe, or think about these texts as the result of later interpretive frameworks and theological constructs.
In many regards, then, being honest to the texts requires that we distinguish between what the texts say on their own terms and as products of their own unique historical worlds, and what later readers have claimed or continue to claim about these texts. Being honest to the texts themselves, in other words, does not mean starting from theological or interpretive assumptions handed down to us by later interpretive traditions, such as those embedded in this collection of ancient literature’s title, “the Holy Bible.” This and similar interpretive frameworks are reader-oriented, theological constructs that were created centuries after these texts were written and to suit the needs and purposes of later readers. That is to say, the label “the Holy Bible” and the ideas and beliefs implied in this label—namely, that the text is the word of God, that it is a homogenous inerrant narrative or revelation, a unified doctrine of salvation history, etc.—represent the beliefs and theological convictions of later readers and how they, guided by their own theological concerns, perceived these texts, now conceptualized as a text in the singular, indeed as a holy book. Being honest to the texts and their authors, then, requires us to move backwards in time to the texts and their original contexts before they were co-opted for different purposes and meanings by later readers who imposed their own beliefs, labels, prejudices, and theological constructs onto this collection of ancient literature. Being honest to the texts puts the texts in their original contexts as our first priority.
Thus, like any field of study, knowing the meaning of these ancient texts, what their authors believed and why, what historical crisis or concerns were they writing in response to, etc. requires education. It requires possessing knowledge about ancient literature in general, about the historical contexts of texts written from approximately the eighth century BCE to the first century CE and from within two vastly different cultural contexts, the ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world. It requires knowing the literature of these two cultures, and the literary genres they shared with our biblical scribes. It requires knowledge about who wrote ancient texts in general, why, and to whom. It requires knowledge about the literary precursors that our biblical scribes used in composing their texts, and so on. When modern readers profess to know the meaning of these ancient texts while ignoring or lacking this knowledge, what they are in fact doing is merely professing their own subjective beliefs about the text. They are spouting their meaning of the text and not the meaning of these texts per their authors. More than often they are professing a meaning of the text that accords with what the label “the Holy Bible” has come to mean to these readers personally, and not the meaning of the texts according to their once independent authors.
Of course, a Fundamentalist might respond by saying that the proper meaning and understanding of the Bible’s texts only come through divine guidance or inspiration, usually understood at the whims of the reader. But this is precisely my point: this and similar such interpretive frameworks are all reader-oriented, subjective constructs imposed upon these ancient texts centuries after they were written, and by a readership that possessed little to no knowledge about ancient literature in general and the historical contexts that produced these texts in particular. In this and similar scenarios, the starting point for the so-called “reading” of these ancient texts becomes the reader’s own subjective or inherited beliefs about the text, and not the texts themselves! Although this is an important part in understanding how later readers came to view this collection of ancient literature as the word of God, in this book we are interested in what the texts themselves reveal about their own compositional nature and the beliefs of their authors long before they were co-opted by later readers and impregnated with new meanings, beliefs, and theological frameworks. Reproducing, understanding, and even defending the beliefs and messages of the authors of these ancient texts—against those of later readers—is one of this book’s central aims.
Thus I often find myself articulating that my aim is to defend the biblical texts, their authors, and their beliefs. This means that I am not interested in defending the beliefs, views, and agendas of later readers or faith communities, or the theological assumptions and beliefs implied in the label “the Holy Bible.” These are all the apologist’s agenda. As a biblical scholar my interests and aims are the beliefs of the authors who penned these ancient texts, to understand them, and to faithfully and objectively reproduce them. After all, this is not a book about my beliefs about these texts. Neither is it a book about the reader’s beliefs about these texts. Rather, it is a book about the beliefs and messages of the authors who penned these ancient texts long before they were edited together by later scribes and impregnated with new meanings by later readers who simply created new interpretive frameworks through which to “read” these ancient texts. Thus defending these once independent texts, their individual authors, and their unique beliefs is quite different from defending what is implied and often understood in the label “the Holy Bible.” These are two completely separate and even opposing aims. The latter advocates an understanding and “reading” of these texts through the theological lens of later readers where that which is implied in the label “the Holy Book” becomes the dominant message of these texts, now conceived as a text in the singular, while the former advocates being honest to the biblical texts on the terms of their individual authors and the cultural contexts that produced them before these texts were appropriated by later readers to be “read” through later interpretive and theological frameworks.
What I am proposing then is that the biblical texts themselves, each independently, become our object of study and each from within their own cultural context, so that it is the texts themselves in comparative study that reveal what they are and conversely are not, that reveal what their authors believed and conversely did not, that reveal the literary techniques employed by these ancient scribes in legitimating their beliefs, and so forth. In this paradigm learning about what these individual authors believed themselves, why they believed what they did, and the historical and literary circumstances that shaped those beliefs become our primary goal—not the varied and subjective beliefs of readers living centuries later. More specifically, this book is about the beliefs and worldview of the author of Genesis 1, regardless of the beliefs or non-beliefs of its modern readers. The point is not our beliefs about the text, but the author’s. Allowing this ancient document to invite us into its worldview—rather than imposing ours onto it—is our main objective. And this is accomplished by reading the text on its own terms and as a product of its own historical and literary context—not on the terms nor contexts of later readers and later interpretive frameworks.
. See my forthcoming, The Making of God‘s Book: How a Collection of Competing and Contradictory Texts Became the Word of God.