Being Honest to the Texts of the Bible (Part 2a)

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

In reading the most recent slew of comments to my original post (Being Honest to the Texts of the Bible, Theirs Authors, and Their Beliefs), many of which fail to address or grapple with the specific points raised in that post, I’ve decided to reply in the form of yet another post that yet again attempts to clarify the objectives of this website specifically, and of biblical scholarship in general. I’d prefer to be having conversations about the texts and the perspectives and beliefs of their authors—rather than those of their readers! Some of my visitors just can’t seem to grasp this.

Additionally, some of my readers, or rather visitors—for these few rarely if ever actually read my posts which on the whole deal with the texts, their authors, and their beliefs—are actually leaving comments that respond to their own assumptions and prejudices that they themselves bring to their subjective understanding of the title of this website “Contradictions in the Bible,” to the aims of my work, and to the biblical texts themselves. So let me address some of these comments in this rather lengthy re-post as yet another attempt to clarify these few visitors’ misassumptions about this site, myself, the biblical texts, and biblical scholarship in general. I have categorized this into 3 sections:

  1. Differing Reader Perspectives, Approaches, Persuasions, or Beliefs
  2. The Documentary Hypothesis: What exactly is a Hypothesis?
  3. The Biblical Texts as my (our) Object of Study.

I apologize; these sections have now become so lengthy that they have morphed into individual posts. So here is #1 or Part 2a.

 1. Differing Reader Perspectives, Approaches, Persuasions, or Beliefs

A recent visitor (or an older visitor under a new alias), has targeted a number of my past comments and has arrived at the conclusion that I quickly, and perhaps unfairly, discourage differing perspectives, approaches, and beliefs about this collection of ancient literature that we now call the Bible, and have for this reason banned them from the site. This is not entirely accurate. Indeed, I have in the past locked 1 or 2 visitors from commenting, but not based on differing attitudes or perspectives, but rather because this website wasn’t set up to discuss the readers of these ancient texts, their differing beliefs and approaches, but the authors—their differing beliefs, perspectives, and attitudes! Identifying and understanding the hows and whys behind their compositions, messages, religious tenets, ideologies, historical and literary influences, culturally-conditioned beliefs and worldviews, etc. are the aims here.

So I’m not interested in reader-oriented or reader-imposed beliefs, approaches, or interpretive frameworks. The issue is not the varying perspectives of my visitors. Commenters don’t get banned because they have different perspectives—or, let me phrase this more carefully: they don’t get banned when they draw different conclusions from the textual data. Indeed I have welcomed this on numerous occasions. They get banned rather when they repeatedly ignore the textual data and embark upon long theological diatribes, subjectively based reader-focused perspectives, or later interpretive reader-focused frameworks and beliefs about the texts, about God, about themselves, about myself, or about other commentators. Readers who continuously discuss theology or subjective reader-oriented beliefs/perspectives, and/or are attacking other commentators, not least of all myself, are warned to turn the conversation toward the texts and draw conclusions from the textual data, and most importantly on the terms and contexts of the texts themselves—not through the terms or contexts of later theological reader-oriented subjective prisms or interpretive frameworks. Labeling another commenter a “varlet,” for example, is not only a spiteful and ignorant comment, but more disconcerting reflects this particular visitor’s inability to draw proper conclusions from the observable data which is the main objective of this website (see #2)!

In large part then, I am attempting to change the focus of the public conversation about religion, God, and the Bible (and I don’t even deal with the first two topics here, although readers often bring their own subjective beliefs and assumptions about this to this site) from a subject-based focus, where such cliches as “you believe this and I believe that, end of conversation” are pontificated, to an objective-based conversation about the beliefs and perspectives of the authors of these ancient texts, our object of study (see #3). And that discipline itself requires knowledge. A good part of being honest to these ancient documents is not only possessing knowledge about the texts but also possessing knowledge about the literary and historical contexts that influenced the creation of these compositions, about the scribal cultures behind these texts and how scrolls were written in the ancient world and the literary conventions scribes used, etc. So it’s not an issue of me believing or you believing that an author’s beliefs are X, Y, and Z. Rather it’s an issue of what do the texts say or disclose about the beliefs and messages of their authors, and read on the terms of each author’s text and his cultural context—not through the lenses and theological contexts and beliefs of later readers.

So it is an objective pursuit—not a subjective one. What does each text or literary tradition reveal about its own compositional nature and the beliefs and views of its author. Readers who impose an umbrella theological interpretive framework onto this collection of texts, most often influenced by that which is implied in this collection’s title “the Holy Bible” are not being honest to the texts themselves, but to later constructed beliefs and interpretations about the texts. Indeed, I am interested in this too, but that is a different pursuit and objective study. Here our goal is being honest to each text on its own terms and the beliefs expressed in them (what this means is enumerated in the original post Being Honest to the Texts)—that is, to acknowledge them and to attempt to understand them from within their own historical and literary context and then comparatively with other texts in this collection of ancient literature.

So we’re not attempting to support an interpretation of Genesis 1 through the beliefs and interpretive claims of the author of the Gospel of John; nor are we attempting to interpret Old Testament Laws and Covenants through the theological convictions of Paul; nor are we attempting to understand the sacrificial cult through the perspective of the author of Hebrews; nor are we attempting to understand Scripture however conceived through the subjective belief claims of the author of 2 Timothy 3:16; nor prophecy through Matthew, and so on and so on. Rather, we are attempting to understand—and the first part of understanding is acknowledging (the core of the problem)—the belief claims of the authors of these texts on their own terms—not on the terms of later readers. When we get to the New Testament we will examine the beliefs of these later readers-now-writers and what cultural influences shaped their beliefs. And likewise, we will not be imposing the beliefs of the author of Leviticus for example onto our interpretation of the author of Hebrews’ beliefs. Each text merits equal consideration, on the terms of its author and its cultural underpinnings.

So readers insisting on a subjective-based reader-focused hermeneutic that interjects Jesus into the text of Genesis 1 for example, and then proceeds to allegedly discuss “the text” of Genesis 1 through this interpretive framework are guilty of not reading Genesis 1 on the terms of this text’s author. They are reading it on the terms of the author of the Gospel of John, or the terms of their own faith traditions, or the terms of their own subjective beliefs. Thus, this is not a difference in reader-oriented approaches. This is a conflict between a subjective-based hermeneutic that has predefined the nature and meaning of the texts in accord with later theological convictions, AND, a methodology that seeks to start with the text and its observable textual data and objectively draw conclusions from it, that is from our object of study. One cannot tease Jesus out of the text of Genesis 1. He is not there, nor is he in the beliefs nor message of the author of this text. This is an objectively supported conclusion drawn from the terms of the text. It is being honest to this text and the beliefs and message of its author. The only way one gets Jesus out of an “interpretation of the text” is to change its author to God and then to engage speculatively and speciously in theology, not textual criticism. But again, we are doing objective based textual analysis here. Recognizing the beliefs of the author based on his composition and the hows and whys behind it.

Every student wishing to enter University in the U.S. is required to take the SAT. One of the skill sets that this exam tests is reading comprehension. In this section of the exam, prospective students are given passages where they have to identify its author’s message or main point. It’s disconcerting that these basic skills that our culture asks of our citizens wishing to enter into higher education are abandoned when it comes to the texts of the Bible. Being able to read a text and identify its author’s main point, message, and even beliefs is a rudimentary reading comprehension skill. The same skill I’m imploring my more fundamentalists readers to acknowledge and employ. And this starts with the texts, on the terms of the text.

In short, it is these readers’ subjective relationship to the text and their subjective reader-oriented meaning of these texts that inhibit them from reading the texts of the Bible on the terms of the texts and the terms of their authors. So if a so-called “reader” cannot even identify basic rudimentary textual information, then there is really no place for such readers here, because I’m not going to entertain subjective-reader imposed meanings, beliefs, or approaches, unless such reader approaches represent later writers of other texts in this corpus of literature. But then these shall be used to understand this particular author’s beliefs about another text or tradition.

Let me try to clarify this non-subjective approach in another way. I am often asked by both Christians and atheists, certainly for different reasons, what my beliefs are about the Bible. For example, I often get asked if I believe that the Bible is the word of God? In both cases I find it difficult to respond to such a subjectively oriented question—a question which asks me, the subject, what I believe. I do not have an answer for such questions. I don’t engage with the biblical texts, my object of study (see point #3), on a subjective bases. That is, I don’t harbor subjective beliefs or non-beliefs about the biblical texts. Rather, they are my object of study. If I want to know something about the nature of my object of study—if for example it is the word of God or not—then I apply a scientific methodology that draws conclusions about the compositional nature of my object of study—the biblical texts—from the observable textual and often extra-textual data (discussed more fully in #2 & #3). So there is no room for subjective opinions or beliefs in our analysis. Certainly, how objective an analysis is is open to debate.

I could simply just set this up as a homework-type assignment, the task being, to pull one example out of dozens, to read critically the text of Leviticus for example and be able to objectively identify and summarize this author’s main point, beliefs, message, reason for writing, and even ideology—which are all discernible from his composition. Now, add to those findings some research about ancient literature, who wrote texts in antiquity, to whom, and why, what were the literary conventions employed, etc. and a whole slew of other textual and cultural data become available to us to better allow us to draw conclusions about the compositional nature of the text to the best of our objective abilities. Furthermore, we could then compare our textual and cultural data with the same set of questions now applied to the text of Deuteronomy, to Jeremiah, to Paul’s letters, to the letter to the Hebrews, etc. Are these authors’ beliefs, messages, reasons for writing, ideologies, etc. the same as those of the author of Leviticus? If you answer yes, then you’re not allowing these texts to speak their messages, but rather you’re guilty of imposing later theological frameworks and constructs on to these texts, later constructs that were created exterior to these texts and by later readers! Labeling this collection of texts as a “Book” (bible) is one small example of just how unconsciously persuasive these later interpretive traditions work on readers. Here, however, I have set the parameters differently—on the texts themselves!

Let’s try another analogy. If I had chosen to get a Ph.D. in Platonic studies, my engagement with Plato’s texts would not be on a subjective bases either. I would not be presenting papers at conferences and writing books about what I believe about Plato or trying to convince others that I believe what Plato believed and they should too! Rather, my scholarly objectives and interests would be in understanding Plato’s beliefs and what historical and literary events influenced and shaped those beliefs. (A question that most readers of say Leviticus cannot answer, but they have the brazen audacity to pontificate meaning on this text anyway!) Indeed I might be interested in how later readers understood Plato—for example there was a strong harmonizing tendency in Stoicism to harmonize Plato’s and Aristotle’s philosophies—but I wouldn’t let these later reader-oriented lenses influence my more objective aims—understanding Plato on the terms of his own texts and as a product of his own cultural world. So my scholarly task is never what I believe Plato believes, but rather what the texts and their cultural contexts disclose about what Plato believed and how and why. In pursing this to the best of my abilities I would also have to read and reread everything that Plato wrote and in his language and cultural context—not through the beliefs of later writers—and I would also have to read everything that Plato himself read as well as grasp a good understanding of the geopolitical and literary world that Plato was a part of.

So this is not a forum whose object of study is some mysterious thing of which we have no knowledge about (see #2) so that we can all voice equally weighted subjective beliefs about the nature of said-object. This might be said of theology whose object of study is God. But here we know a good amount about ancient literature and there is nothing new in this corpus of literature that later readers collected and codified as the Bible that we also do not find in other ancient Near Eastern or Greco-Roman literature. So methodologies or approaches that start with predefined subjective-oriented beliefs are not the conversation I’m interested in here. We’re not playing the “I believe, you believe game” here. And any reading of these texts through the theological lens created by this collection’s title “the Holy Bible” is a subjective, exterior, interpretive framework that starts from the belief claims inherent in this title! The title “the Holy Bible” already asserts a variety of “I believe” claims upon these texts—belief claims which in the end do violence to these once individual texts because they replace these individual texts with their competing beliefs, messages, ideologies, and cultural worldviews with that which is now created and imposed by this exterior interpretive framework. I am making a simple plea here—that we start with the texts, on their terms!

Again, I realize, and am sensitive to, the challenges that this poses to Christians who have a subjective relationship to these texts and define these texts, and their lives, with respect to their subjectively drawn meanings and understanding of these texts. And frankly this is the conversation I’d prefer to be having. But alas before we get there we have to first learn how to be honest to these texts. They are not our texts. They do not represent our cultural values, beliefs, worldviews, and ideologies. They belong to a diverse group of scribal guilds, rival priestly schools, poets, theologians, and different secular writers from all walks of the ancient Near Eastern landscape. These texts represent their stories, their experiences and perspectives, their beliefs, hopes, tragedies, etc. Let us as a mature responsible culture start acknowledging this—that is being honest to these ancient texts as well as to ourselves.

So in the end the challenge that Fundamentalists face is deciding whether they wish to be honest to these ancient texts and the beliefs and messages of their authors by simply acknowledging them, and acknowledging also that we in this century no longer believe in the same beliefs and worldview, or be honest to centuries-later interpretive claims and beliefs about these texts which represent the concerns and beliefs of later readers rather than those of the individual authors of these texts. And if being honest to these texts, their authors, and their beliefs and messages leads us to conclude that our most cherished beliefs about these texts, indeed what have become cultural “truths” for many, are not supported by the texts themselves when objectively studied and read on their terms, then that is the conversation that we as a culture must embark upon, openly, honestly, and courageously.

One thought on “Being Honest to the Texts of the Bible (Part 2a)

  1. I feel ya Steven. I am often asked, “You’re an atheist, why do you study the bible so much?”. I find the bible an interesting work of literature, and most likely the best preserved ancient text from that region and era, spanning somewhere near 1000 years of composition. It gives a glimpse into that era, that really existed throughout Mesopotamia. Your site has brought many things to light, for me, and clarified much. Subjective studies on the bible, have resulted in a skewed understanding on what was originally written, which is fine for someone to accept their subjective view on the biblical writings, but as you have stated it is an injustice to the original writers and the message they wanted to get across to their public. I look forward to when this journey can continue.

Leave a Reply