Defending the Biblical Texts: What It Entails and Why Secularists Ought to Care. Genesis 1 as a Test Case

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I often find myself articulating that my aim is to defend the biblical texts, their authors, and their beliefs (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, xii).

Many of my readers will undeniably object to my use of the word “defend.” After all, why would a secularist, atheist, agnostic, or de-convert (the majority of my readers) wish to defend the Bible the biblical texts? And precisely, defend it how and from what or whom?

Indeed, these readers’ apprehensions are not unwarranted. “Defend scripture” is usually a concept and phrase associated with Christian apologetics. In fact the Greek word apologia means just that— “a defense of.” Thus an apologist’s goal is to “defend the Bible.” But what exactly does this mean and not mean? And conversely, what exactly does “defending the biblical texts” mean and not mean?

Let me be frank here. One of my reasons in choosing the word “defend” to describe my aims as a biblical scholar and author was in part to attract Christian apologists to my work and hopefully to get them to read these ancient texts on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts and to create a conversation around the biblical texts, their authors, and their competing beliefs, messages, worldviews, theologies, etc. As you can imagine this has proven quite difficult, nay impossible. Many Christian apologists and fundamentalists just cannot read, or simply identify, the text on its own terms separate from the beliefs and assumptions about the text handed-down through this collection of ancient literature’s title, “the Holy Book.” That is, when these readers attempt “to read” the biblical text what they are in fact doing is nothing more than reading all that is implied and assumed in the title “the Holy Book” in place of the unique messages and beliefs of these once independent texts and traditions. As one of my endorsers wrote:

DiMattei shows convincingly that although Creationists claim to read this story literally, they are not reading it carefully at all. —Dr. Marc Brettler, Duke University

So my book as well as such phrases as “honest to the text, its author and his beliefs” and “defending the biblical texts” were meant to illustrate that while Christian apologists, fundamentalists, and creationists claim to be defending the texts of the Bible, they are in fact not even reading the text at all! I go on to textually display how they are actually disingenuous, dishonest, and even hypocritical toward the biblical texts and the messages and beliefs of the ancient peoples and cultures that penned these texts.

Yet on the other hand, my use of the term “defend” rightly defines what I do as a biblical scholar and how I engage with these ancient texts. In this regard, my usage of this seemingly alarming word is meant to have us as a culture (secularists and Christians) rethink how we view these texts and the assumptions we harbor about them. In my brief exchange with a number of secularists and atheists it has become apparent that not only do Christian readers harbor erroneous misconceptions and assumptions about this collection of ancient literature, but many secularists and atheists do as well! So in part, my use of the term “defend” was meant to drum up some thinking. This too, however, has proven difficult. We live in a world that is language-reflexive. “Defend” sparks a reflex or reaction and most often devoid of thinking or rethinking. Indeed we now live in a culture where language stands in and substitutes for any type of critical thinking. But that conversation would bring us too far adrift.

So let me clearly put forth my claim, and then clarify my position with an example: The job of Christian apologists is to “defend their faith” and this is a far cry from what I am advocating as “defending the biblical texts, their authors, and their beliefs.” First, I want my readers to note how I’ve articulated this. Apologists engage in eisegetical interpretive practices where the sole aim is to defend their faith, or said differently, defend their beliefs about the Bible, which more often than not are no different from the beliefs and assumptions implied and indeed created by this centuries-later interpretive framework, “the Holy Book.” Moreover, this type of reader-oriented hermeneutic often comes at the expense—and ignorance—of the biblical texts themselves and the beliefs and worldviews expressed therein. This is precisely what happens when fundamentalists, apologists, and creationists attempt to harmonize the messages of Genesis 1 and 2 together.

When modern readers attempt to “harmonize” these differences [the textual data put forth in my book] away what they are actually guilty of doing is placing their own beliefs about the text or those they inherited through that which is implied in this text’s later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible,” above the independent messages and beliefs of the authors of these texts. And this places these readers in a precarious situation because they not only place their beliefs about the texts above the individual beliefs and messages of the authors of these texts, but they also display—unintentionally I assume—a certain disdain and negligence for the texts themselves and what they reveal about their own compositional nature and the beliefs and messages of their once independent authors. Such reading practices negate our authors’ beliefs and unique messages, and replace them with those of the reader! (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 122)

So “defending the Bible”—the apologist’s game—often means defending those beliefs, assumptions, attitudes, etc. associated with the ideas and beliefs inherent in the title “the Holy Bible”—a label that was created and applied to this collection of ancient literature centuries after these texts were written. These might include the belief that the Bible is the word of God, the belief that the Bible is a moral guide, the belief that the Bible narratives a single homogeneous divine plan of salvation, etc. All these beliefs and ideas are unconsciously transmitted and even created by this centuries-later title “the Holy Book.” Defending this title and the ideas and beliefs implied in it are the Christian apologist’s job, and this is radically different from what I’m calling for us to do—defend these ancient documents themselves, and the beliefs and messages of their authors—and specifically defend them from the erroneous, disingenuous, and even hypocritical claims of creationists, fundamentalists, and apologists.

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 (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, xii).

To spell this out even more, what I am claiming here is that Christian apologists, fundamentalists, and creationists who claim to be “defending the Bible” are in actuality rather defending the beliefs and assumptions associated with this centuries-later interpretive framework/title, “the Holy Book.” They are defending their beliefs about this corpus of ancient literature—beliefs carved and shaped by powerful interpretive and theological traditions—and this stands in stark opposition to reading, understanding, and defending the texts themselves, each with their individual and competing culturally-conditioned authorial messages and beliefs.

This centuries-later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible,” exerts more power and influence upon the reader than the once unique and independent beliefs and messages of this collection of ancient literature’s sixty some different texts and authors. The modern tendency to harmonize these two creation accounts together, and by extension toss out the individual beliefs and messages of their authors, exemplifies the power and sway of this later interpretive framework over and above the individual beliefs and messages expressed in the texts themselves. Through the aid of this later interpretive framework, it is the reader who now supplies the meaning and message of the text of Genesis 1–2, and not its independent authors. Indeed this later interpretive framework creates a new author—God himself—for the sole purpose of legitimating the beliefs about the text held by its reader which were forged by the interpretive tradition in the first place. Meanwhile the independent and competing messages and beliefs of the authors of Genesis 1 and 2 are relegated to the sidelines, if even that, and the reader now appropriates the text to substantiate his or her views and beliefs about the text, and ultimately in this case about the nature of the world as well. All of this happens, of course, without the reader knowing any better, and this is precisely because this is how interpretive traditions work. . . (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 122-23)

So what I am engaged in doing, what secularists ought to also be involved in, is defending these ancient texts from the apologists, fundamentalists, and creationists. I should also ward off any potential misunderstanding here. In defending the biblical texts, and precisely from those readers who would, and do, impose their beliefs onto these ancient texts, I am not advocating that we of the 21st century believe in the beliefs represented in these ancient documents. For as I amply stress and textually demonstrate in my book, this is impossible. That despite their ardent claims, Creationists do not in fact believe in the beliefs and worldview represented in Genesis 1 (see below).

Think of it this way: we are giving back these texts, with their culturally-conditioned and even competing beliefs, messages, and worldviews to their authors! Or, said differently, I am moving the goal posts—from subjective claims about these texts to objectively reading and understanding these ancient documents and the belief claims of their individual authors, and listening to the texts themselves and what they reveal about their compositional nature and the beliefs and messages of their authors. This I have also deemed as attempting to combat the ever growing, systemic problem of biblical illiteracy that is sweeping across our nation.

The very fact that Creationists can claim that they believe in the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis 1 and use this text to substantiate their own modern agendas and beliefs, when the text itself adjudicates against their claims and makes contrary claims of its own, is just one small example of the growing problem of biblical illiteracy in this country. Part of that problem, as outlined above, is that most readers have mistaken the messages and beliefs of these once independent texts for the message and beliefs that are now supplied and imposed by these texts’ later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible.”

But Creationists take their hypocrisy to new levels. Not only do they wish to pawn off their own subjective beliefs about the text of Genesis 1 and about the nature and origin of our world as the beliefs of the author of Genesis 1—and ultimately of God as well—but they also seek to present their unsubstantiated beliefs as biblical creationism and advocate that this gets taught in our classrooms! This is not only grossly negligent of the text itself, as has been sufficiently demonstrated, but it also displays our negligence as a culture for allowing such practices to even be entertained. For in what other discipline would we allow an individual unschooled in a particular field of study to teach their own subjective beliefs and pawn them off as the viewpoint and beliefs of the primary texts of that discipline? We wouldn’t accept this in any other field of study or profession. If we wanted to teach biblical creationism in our schools, which of course as a biblical scholar I have nothing against, then I’ve just written that book! The educational task was to reproduce an unbiased, objective, and culturally contextualized reading of the worldview and beliefs represented in the texts of Genesis 1 and 2, and to understand them on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts. But to allow individuals outside a particular field of study to teach their own subjective—and religious—beliefs in place of the knowledge that that field of study has accumulated over the past few centuries and to pawn their subjective unschooled beliefs off as the beliefs of that field of study’s texts is nothing short of malpractice and should be prosecuted as such. The fact that we as a culture are allowing this speaks to the impoverished nature of education in general in our country and of biblical education in particular (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 124-25).

It is my sincere belief, then, that we all need to participate in combating biblical illiteracy.


Genesis 1 as a Test Case: Defending the Views and Beliefs of its Author

Let’s put this “defending the text, its author, and his beliefs” into practice and see, here visually, the results that this methodology produces. After approximately 25 pages of textual and cultural analysis of Genesis 1:1-10, with the sole aim of being honest to this text, its author, and his beliefs, this is what defending the text looks like visually. I reproduce pages 27-28 of my Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate.

Thus, far from presenting God creating Earth, a spherical planet orbiting a sun in one of many galaxies in infinite space (none of whose ideas existed to the author of this text), the text of Genesis 1 presents its god forming the substance earth, that is per our text dry, habitable, flat land which now rests on the waters below, and encasing it within a finite area of space, itself enclosed and defined by a solid domed expanse called the sky, which further functioned to hold back the primordial waters above it. In short, what the god of Genesis 1 creates is this:

Genesis 1

not this:

BlueMarble

In other words, our author’s presentation and imagination of how God created the material stuff of his world were shaped by his own subjective and culturally defined perceptions and beliefs about his world. These beliefs were deduced from what ancient man (mis)perceived on an empirical level: for example, rain fell from water which existed above the sky; whereas natural springs, deltas, and flooding led to the belief that the earth “floated” on and was supported by waters that existed below the earth, that is, below the dry ground beneath one’s feet. These beliefs, which for all intents and purposes functioned as “truths” for our author and his culture, were then legitimated by presenting the creator deity creating the world as the author himself perceived it to be! In the end, what the god of Genesis 1:1-10 creates miraculously conforms to ancient Near Eastern man’s perceptions and beliefs about the world, and not what we today know the world, and the larger cosmos, to be.

Thus any Creationist professing belief in the creation account of Genesis 1 is just being negligent about what this text actual says and does not say, as well as being disingenuous toward the text and the beliefs of its author. This again exemplifies the problem at hand as well as our modern educational malaise concerning the literature of the Bible. No so-called Creationist believes the creation account in Genesis 1, but rather feigns belief out of ignorance about the text and the beliefs, messages, and worldview expressed therein. . . I find this whole interpretive enterprise intellectually and spiritually damaging and dishonest, not to mention negligent of these ancient texts themselves and the beliefs and messages of their authors.

This then is defending the biblical text, its author, and his beliefs.


Conclusion: Why Secularists Should Get Involved with Defending the Biblical Texts

We clearly see from the example above that “defending the biblical text”—and NOT the Bible—not only defends these ancient documents from the misuse, abuse, and false and hypocritical belief claims made about these texts by creationists and fundamentalists, but more so places these ancient texts on the side of secularists and atheists in the debate against fundamental theism.

I should clarify here that personally I am not interested in combating religion per se, combating “God” however conceptualized or the belief in God, nor faith in general. As a biblical scholar I am invested in combating biblical illiteracy—that is false, erroneous views about this collection of ancient literature! I might just end here with a couple quotes from my conclusion.

Let me back up a moment and clarify what I am saying and conversely not saying. First, this is not a book that argues against belief in God. It is not a book that argues against faith in general. In fact, it doesn’t even argue against believing that the world was created by God or a god, however one wishes to conceptualize this. Rather, it is a book that argues against holding certain traditional beliefs about the texts of the Bible in a day and age when our knowledge about these ancient texts, about ancient literature in general, and about the historical and literary contexts within which these texts were composed reveals that such traditional beliefs are no longer tenable. Why? Because the biblical texts themselves tell us this. Unfortunately, however, the authoritative nature of this centuries-later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible,” and all that this title implies still dictate what this collection of literature is for many readers despite the fact that the texts themselves when read on their terms—not the terms and beliefs imposed by this interpretive framework—reveal that these traditional beliefs are not supported by the texts themselves (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 121-22).

Another reason for the growing rate of biblical illiteracy in this country is that we have mistaken religious freedom—the freedom to choose, believe, and practice whatever religion we so desire—for the freedom to believe whatever we want about whatever we want. No one would deny the importance of the freedom of religious beliefs. But religious freedom is not the freedom to believe whatever one wants, whether that be about these ancient texts or for that matter about the world. Most beliefs that ancient peoples and cultures held about the nature of the world, including those represented in Genesis 1:1—2:3, have been eradicated or reformulated through an objective study of the world and the knowledge acquired through that study. Likewise, over the past few centuries the objective study of the biblical texts has led us to realize that longstanding traditional claims about these texts are not actually validated by the texts themselves. When our knowledge about any object of study advances, whether that object be agriculture, meteorology, human anatomy, medicine and diseases, Shakespeare’s texts, or the texts of the Bible, we cannot just hold on to traditional pre-scientific beliefs when the object of study itself has revealed certain truths about its own nature that clash with longstanding traditional beliefs, no matter how authoritative they’ve become. Believing that the Bible is the word of God, is an inerrant homogeneous narrative with a single-voiced message, etc. are beliefs that are no longer tenable. Not because I say so. This has nothing to do with subjective claims. Rather it is because our object of study—the biblical texts themselves—have revealed that these beliefs are not supported by the texts themselves!

I realize that these conclusions may be discomfiting to many Christians and pose insurmountable difficulties. But we must start acknowledging these texts and their messages on their terms, and stop carelessly and hypocritically using them to legitimate our own cultural beliefs, whether about the texts or about the nature of our world (125).

So in the end the challenge that Creationists, Fundamentalists, and literal Evangelicals 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 read on their terms, then that is the conversation that we as a culture must embark upon, openly, honestly, and courageously (126).