The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country

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In the wake of one of the most fatal religiously motivated crimes in a string of other recent religiously-fueled terrorist attacks, I’d like to run a series of posts about one of the root problems behind such fatalities. Indeed, there may be many root causes, but as a biblical scholar I am interested in one in particular—biblical illiteracy, and even quranic illiteracy.

A survey done not too long ago revealed that while most American Christians professed belief in the Bible, only 10% were actually found to be literate about the Bible. This survey defined biblical literacy as possessing knowledge about these texts’ content—characters, plots, etc. So in this paradigm biblical illiteracy was seen as being unable to identify a text’s characters, plot, etc. But as a biblical scholar I define biblical illiteracy in radically different terms. In short, biblical illiteracy or even biblical ignorance is the lack of knowledge about the compositonal history and nature of a collection of ancient texts that later became codified as scripture: lack of knowledge about how, why, and by whom these texts were later codified as scripture; a lack of knowledge about what the texts themselves reveal about their own compositional nature, history, and the literary techniques scribes used in composing them; a lack of knowledge about what the texts themselves reveal about what they are and more importantly are not; a lack of knowledge about who wrote them, to whom, and why; a lack of knowledge about the historical contexts and concerns that prompted ancient scribes to write what they did and in essence even believe what they did, etc. When this lack of knowledge—when ignorance itself—creates fatal situations that cause the senseless deaths of others, then we as a culture have a responsibility not only to provide education and deter ignorance, or biblical illiteracy in this case, but even to publicly pronounce such ignorance and the acts it spurs as nothing short of criminal! The crime here is ignorance—misunderstanding or holding erroneous beliefs about an ancient text due to the lack of possessing knowledge about the text itself.

I will attempt to write about this in more detail, and specifically about the number 1 fatal illiterate problem—lack of knowledge about who wrote these ancient documents and what they actually represent—in forthcoming posts. Here, for today, let me simply reproduce the section entitled “The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country” in the conclusion of my recent book, Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate: Being Honest to the Text, Its Author, and His Beliefs—Not Ours!

Indeed, the book itself attempts to combat biblical illiteracy by putting forth a textual, objective, demonstration that shows that despite their claims of belief, modern day Creationists and Fundamentalists do not actually believe in the text of Genesis 1. Their professed belief is feigned; it is built on ignorance about the text of Genesis 1, its author, and his message, worldview, and beliefs. From the book:

Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate

In the introduction to this book, I claimed that the real debate with regards to Creationism was not between science and religion. Rather, it is between what the texts of Genesis 1 and 2 profess on their own terms about the beliefs and worldviews of their authors, and what modern day Creationists pontificate about the texts. Despite their fervent claims, the texts themselves have revealed that they do not in fact believe in the beliefs, worldviews, and messages represented in these ancient texts. The biblical text, in other words, adjudicates against the belief claims made by modern day Creationists! Thus it’s not science that posses a threat to the ideas and beliefs represented in these ancient texts, but Creationists themselves! They have become the enemies of these texts and of the beliefs and messages of their individual authors (126).

Again, let me start from what I’ve already written, and then build upon one specific point expressed below. So again from the conclusion.

The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country

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.

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. If as a culture our most cherished beliefs about these texts—beliefs handed down and forged by powerful, longstanding and authoritative interpretive traditions—are called into question by what the texts themselves reveal when objectively studied, then we have an obligation to these texts and their authors to acknowledge that, and move forward (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 124-125).


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.

20 thoughts on “The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country

  1. Actually the more I think about it Steven, the more I think you’re right. Failure to acknowledge context results in a kind of illiteracy. It’s a disregard, a shallow comprehension, a bewildered misreading employed with innocence among lay people and probably an intentional, willful philistinism among their scholars, and some of their leaders.

    The result is a striking disconnect with the text. One look at that Orwellian nightmare in Kentucky and I think we need to call it what it is: Blatant Illiteracy.

  2. I believe that the behavior you are describing is normal. When I read the early chapters of Genesis back when my approach was quite a bit more literalist than it is now, and I came across the “floodgates of heaven” opening, I assumed it was metaphorical. When I thought about the Great Flood I imagined the flooded area as being a sphere. When I came across the word “firmament” I had no idea what that meant so I moved on. Of course I imposed my own cultural context on the text. I wasn’t aware of Ancient Near Eastern cosmology and didn’t have an Ancient Near Eastern cultural context to work with. It doesn’t mean I was being dishonest to the text, and I think if someone were to call me illiterate I would immediately stop listening to that person.

    Now I’m older, more skeptical, much less sure of what I believe, and find physical evidence a lot more persuasive than ancient texts, so I’m not saying that you’re wrong. I just think that if you are serious about having a dialogue with Biblical literalists then calling them illiterate is being counter-productive.

    (Of course, if you are talking specifically about young-earth creationists who believe in a literal seven-day creation period I’m not sure there’s any way of talking to them, anyway.)

    1. Robert, thanks for your reply. I’m not aiming at calling people illiterate. That’s not my goal at all. Rather my intention was to merely note our country’s biblical illiteracy—specifically in the sense that it is the reader-oriented imposed beliefs, assumptions, and messages inherent in the title of this collection of texts that defines the texts—now a text in the singular—for many Christians. So knowledge about what the texts say and don’t say, why they say what they do, etc… is absent, ignored, neglected. Furthermore, if one is illiterate about, say the intentions, purpose, theology, and message of the author of Leviticus but nonetheless feels that they can pontificate on its meaning—through the aid of imposed beliefs about the text in the singular supplied by its title or tradition—this merely fuels more religious hypocrisy…. and ignorance about these texts.

      Granted I realize the some what arrogant stance I’m taking here, because under my definition of biblical literacy it would seem that only scholars and/or well-read individuals can say anything about these ancient texts. But on a more holistic level, I am merely trying to get Christians (let me generalize) to realize that there is a gross difference between say the author of Leviticus’ message, theology, beliefs AND the message, theology and beliefs brought to his text by a centuries-later process of canonization that then imposes certain reader-oriented exterior beliefs, messages, and theologies onto his text, which is now merely a vehicle to promulgate later theological views… Tradition claims ‘this’ about this text, BUT the text itself claims something else. I believe, perhaps naively, that if Christians can acknowledge this—and it’s purely a textual demonstration—then we as a pluralistic culture may be able to enter into more beneficial conversations about the Bible, its competing texts and traditions, about how culture’s establish authority around them, about how this authoritative view then defines our lives, about how the biblical scibes used Yahweh, and later Jesus, as authoritative mouthpieces to legitimate their own views, etc…

    1. Yea, this is spot on. I can only hope that scientists out there combating creationism will eventually team up with biblical scholars such as myself. As the article, and my book, clearly indicate, Ham and other Creationists do not actually believe in the cosmology of Genesis 1! As Hector Avalos wrote as my endorsement, “creationism is flawed on biblical grounds.”

  3. Steven I don’t really disagree with anything you’re saying. I’m only suggesting that since The rest of the Bible isn’t beholden to being “Honest to the text” of Genesis, why should Christians be? If Deuteronomy misreads Genesis, and Galatians misreads Deuteronomy, then why shouldn’t they keep going with it. “Inspiration” or whatever they want to call it is a license to read however they wish. Thats the magic trick of the Bible, and everything you’re writing proves it. A group of people thought there was a sky full of water above them, and wrote it down. Everyone following them seeks to evade what they are saying, while still keeping the text simply because its held to be important. The mistake is thinking Genesis matters either way. I appreciate your thoughtful replies and in depth erudition! Thanks.

  4. I must admit I have some problems with your use of the terms biblical literacy and biblical illiteracy. For one thing, by your definition there are very few, if any, people who actually are biblically literate because we simply don’t know how, when, where, and by whom the texts were written. Scholars have wildly different theories about when J was written, when P was written, whether E exists at all, whether P is a separate source or a redaction, and so on. In the end we are all just making guesses because there just isn’t a lot of evidence to work with.

    Also, don’t call Christians biblically illiterate if you have any desire to have a dialogue with them. It is insulting and, in my opinion, unfair.

    1. Robert, while I certainly share in these concerns and critiques, I’m not using the term “illiterate” in that broad of a context—that is not knowing about JEPD and the problems associated with source-criticism. My use is more specific to knowing the text on its own terms, what it says. In my book, where I first use the term, it is used to speak of Creationists, or even broadly Christians, who claim that they believe in Genesis 1. I would counter by expressing that such belief-claims actually display these readers’ ignorance about the text (and its author, audience, message). For these readers do not believe in a solid sky above which is a vast body of primordial waters; they do not believe that the material substance earth emerged from the primordial waters below; they do not believe that the creator of our cosmos created the moon to indicate the necessity of observing Yahweh’s holy days, the most important being the Sabbath; they do not believe that the 7th day from the new moon and each consecutive 7th day is a consecrated holy day set apart by the creator deity, etc. In short they do not believe in nor share in this ancient scribes worldview.

      What they do believe in, on the contrary, is their beliefs about what this text is claiming, or one or two specific belief-claims that this author is actually making. This illiteracy is exacerbated when a sect such as fundamentalists/creationist then insist that their beliefs about this ancient text be taught in schools as the beliefs of the text itself and its author! Additionally, and related to why I chose the subtitle I did for my book, this type of violence to the text, this neglect of the text itself on its own terms, is not being honest to this ancient document, its author, and his beliefs and messages. The interpretive lens through which these ancient documents are being read—that which is implied in their title “the Holy Book”—so determines to most fundamentalist Christian readers the message and meaning of these texts that the texts themselves and their authors’ messages and beliefs are simply relegated to the sidelines at best.

      Our SAT entrance exam has a reading comprehension section that asks its exam-takers to be able to read a passage and identify the author’s main point, or his thesis, or his main message. It’s a shame that many cannot do this simple exercise when it comes to these ancient documents (e.g., what’s the main point of the author who wrote Leviticus? Compare that with the author of Deuteronomy, or Paul, etc.) And as I’ve articulated, I think one of the main reasons why they cannot is because of the presuppositions and beliefs about the text that such readers bring to the text even prior to reading these ancient documents themselves and from within their cultural context. If you believe Genesis 1 is God’s word on the creation of our cosmos, then you are never going to be able to listen to what the text itself is saying and conversely not saying, its real author’s message and set of beliefs, and then even ponder why our author believed what he did. And lastly, most damaging to the texts themselves is that an objective culturally-sensitive reading and understanding of say Genesis 1 on its own terms clearly shows that the text itself adjudicates and argues against the belief-claims made about these texts by such modern readers. In short, the texts in this collection of a now sanctified book could say anything and be anything—meaning for most modern readers is not derived from the texts, but from later interpretive traditions about the texts. I address all of this in more detail in my conclusion. I hope this clarifies my use here.

  5. Steven, Though I appreciate your book (half finished and will have done shortly) and I will give it a glowing review on Amazon, I have some misgivings about your arguments here, even though in substance I agree with everything you say. Just a couple of comments…

    1. Why did the writer of Deuteronomy re-interpret Genesis? Why does Paul reinterpret Deuteronomy? Why did some editor back there put Genesis 1 and 2 together despite their obvious differences? Perhaps to him the contradictions didn’t matter, he was after something else, maybe that is lost to us. Perhaps it made sense to have conflicting views to prevail upon a wide variety of cultural variation. Or maybe, he was reading the texts the same way Kathy is, internally–placing upon the text the burden of his own assumptions. It’s unfair to accuse Christians of ignoring context when the entire Bible as a complete whole, is a misrepresentation of each author. My point is: The dishonesty here begins with the compilation of the Bible from the get-go. There is no reason to accuse modern Christians of not reading the Bible, when obviously the Biblical editor(s) themselves seemed not to have read it.

    2. Faith like Kathy’s seems to engender Bibliolatry. A group of words, have to matter more than any other. Their claim to one moment in History (or multiple key moments) must always matter more than the present or even the future. All that matters is our sanction of their content whatever that might be mean–one grunt of affirmation and they leave us alone. It is only our attitude toward the text that matters to them, not the content of what we say about it, or what it says without all of that. If you said to Kathy, “I have a personal relationship with God and speak to him every day and I’ve been praying about what I’ve been finding as I study God’s word. With-in I see that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are so very different from one another, but amazingly so showing the variation of God’s depth and possibility, I feel his plan for us by these different authors who were inspired by him.” You’d be speaking her language, and she would be more apt to accept what you say.

    3. Human clever-ness was involved in turning the Bible into what it has become. It took clever writers in Deuteronomy, New Testament, Church Fathers, Commentators, Reformers, Modernists, Answers in Genesis! etc. to keep Genesis relevant by re-interpreting it, misreading it etc. Your entire enterprise in my opinion is a clever way of exposing the magic trick of Christianity itself–the way it reads its scared text. This is the real value of what you’re doing. Secularism needs to focus on what you’re saying since this is exactly where Christians are most vulnerable. Its not their meaning of their text, its the actuality of their text that is most damning to their faith.

    4. In reality No Text actually fulfills any other. No Text can truthfully claim one moment of History as more important than another. No Text can morally demand that we sanction it without any evidence. Writing is a human invention made for human ends. One reply to Christians is that since all they have is a book of words, It’s remarkably inept at defending itself. The best Christian arguments come from outside the Bible–even as they defend it, they are more eloquent and reasoned, and moderate than it is. This is reason enough to discount all of it. The existence of Answers in Genesis is the best argument against Genesis I can think of. It obviously needs millions of dollars of theme park to be compelling…. Where is God in all of this? No where.

    5. I think most Christians will not make it through your book or your website. I look at Kathy’s post, and your brilliant response and I realize you two are speaking two different languages. Nevertheless your contributions are invaluable for skeptics, would be skeptics or Christians who are on the fringe and are looking to understand the texts in their own right. Your best scholarship will never be able to penetrate a Christian’s personal relationship, which is a metaphor for a Bible that exists without language; textual meaning is relative to their faith–whatever that may mean today, and the details don’t matter. This is by a group of people who accuse people like me of being moral relativists…

    1. Eric,

      Thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful comment/critique. Let me try to respond to some of your “misgivings.” First, I would agree that the tone and frequency of attacks on Creationists, or more so modern Christian readers in general is a bit too much. In retrospect I wish I had the time to edit some of this down a bit. I even had a reviewer who declined to endorse the book because he felt its tone was “too combative.” In the end, as you point out, that might discourage modern Christians from engaging in a conversation about the texts rather than encourage them. To a large extent, chapter 2 is without this combative tone. But really may main point was merely to show, with the text, that once we modern readers understand and acknowledge the authors’ worldviews and beliefs then it becomes quite apparent that we of the 21st century cannot and do not share in his/their beliefs and worldview.

      Second, the questions pertaining to why a later writer would rework an earlier tradition in contradictory ways, and why an even later editor would preserve both of these competing versions is more speculative in nature. Following one particular line of speculation, I’ve merely suggested that in the case of Genesis 1 and 2, the editor may have preserved them both simply because they were variant traditions! Once I get to posting contradictions again, and on the book of Deuteronomy, I will address this question more fully since the Deuteronomist does indeed consciously change, alter, and contradict the traditional tellings of the wilderness period now preserved in parts of Exodus and Numbers when he has his Moses renarrate these events in Deuteronomy 1-11. I think part of our culture’s misunderstanding about this reinterpretive process is that many modern readers don’t realize the significance of stories and storytelling in the ancient world. I will argue that when the author of Deuteronomy has Moses alter the way an event/story was narrated in an earlier tradition it was to emphasis a specific theological or ideological point that the Deuteronomist wished to insert into the ancient story. Thus, the data tells us that even for biblical scribes, what was important was not historicity or how well a text re-presented history, but the message it told to its specific historical audience. That is we have textual data showing that the Deuteronomist did not change the story so that it was more “historically accurate” but so that its message now conformed to his and his audience. Bernard Levinson’s book Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Legal Innovation does a great job discussing this.

      More specifically, I guess I would accuse the author of Deuteronomy of also subverting his sources and misreading them. As you note: texts don’t represent truth; they represent a particular guild’s or culture’s perspective of the world, which may indeed become cultural “truths.” This is not exactly the same hermeneutic process that modern readers engage in when they “read” these texts through, say, the interpretive lens of Christianity or what is implied in the title “the holy Book.” But indeed it does offer us a paradigm to understand modern interpretive agendas. To a modern reader what is “true” is not necessarily Genesis 1’s solid sky and its water above it and the earth flat, floating on the waters below, but again what is implied in the title “the Holy Book.”

      Or, when the Deuteronomist has Moses renarrate the Sinai revelation, where the original sources claim that Yahweh descended, and Moses and Aaron et. alia eat with Yahweh on the mount, because of the Deuteronomist’s theology Moses claims that Yahweh did not descend, and that there was nothing to see. Yahweh is without form and image—a staple theological idea in Deuteronomy. Add to this Moses’ renarrations that omit to mention Yahweh’s angels when they are referenced in the earlier traditions also reveals that this author had a different theological image of the godhead. So his retelling re-imagines god Yahweh in the terms of its author and culture. I think modern readers still do much of this—not rewrite these texts, but impose their or later ideas of God onto these ancient documents thereby inadvertently subverting and suppressing the image of god Yahweh that our author held and ultimately believed in. For instance, I once heard a modern Christian say, “we are all brothers under God.” A nice idea, but for the author of Deuteronomy and his conception of god Yahweh, this could not have been further from the truth (see specifically Deut 23:1-5).

      In the main, my book, as does all my research, attempts to change the parameters of the discussion of the Bible—away from a reader’s subjective beliefs about the text to the texts themselves. How well I’ve accomplished this is certainly to be questioned.

      I suppose that the ultimate byproduct I’m looking for in this as well as forthcoming books is to create a sort of acknowledgment in the public sphere—that yes, biblical scribes held various and divergent beliefs and views about a multiple of things; that yes, biblical scribes consciously rewrote earlier traditions often in competing ways so that authoritative tradition better represented their/their culture’s ideology and theology, and that yes, this process continues in “subversive” reading/interpretive practices; and that yes to authenticate these new re-readings culture’s usually use a hemeneutic that assigns divine authorship to these new interpretive enterprises. If we as a culture can acknowledge that yes while the biblical scribe of so-and-so text of the Bible held specific beliefs and worldviews that we moderns no longer hold, then we can move the conversation forward. The conversation that needs to happen is an acknowledgment that while a particular author had one belief and another author held a contradictory belief and the beliefs about these texts when formed into a holy text in the singular postulates yet another belief about the text, etc. etc. . . This then must become the objective data for a conversation that reveals how man creates and recreates religious traditions, his gods, and certainly a narrative that defines and gives meaning to his reality. Many fundamentalist readers that visit my site often misunderstand my motives. It’s not necessarily to do away with religion (although I’m open on this issue), but rather to understand it. And part of that understanding is to see, as an objective science, how even the biblical scribes themselves rewrote in contradictory ways religion, re-imagined God in competing manners—in short recreated religion, ideology, and God that supported and reflected their specific, and ever-changing, cultural worldviews. You notice that the concluding paragraph to my book is this appeal: simply to acknowledge the contradictory beliefs and worldview of the once independent authors of Genesis 1 and 2 and to furthermore acknowledge that although we as a culture might believe in one or two of his points, we no longer believe in his worldview and core perceptive about the world. We live in and have created a God for a radically different culture. Being able to see the biblical rewritings objectively allows us, or should allow us, to see how we too (specifically Americans) in the 21st century recreate images of God that conform to our culture’s needs, concerns, historical perspective and worldview. After this acknowledgment, where the conversation goes, I don’t know. But in general I’m gravely disappointed that as a “superior” species we cannot be honest to these texts by just acknowledging the competing beliefs of their authors, acknowledging that the texts themselves reveal that they represent culturally-conditioned and subjective beliefs and perspectives about the ancient world, etc. and more so cannot be honest to ourselves and how we in the modern culture manipulate these ancient texts to support modern agendas and perceptions of our world. Our inability to acknowledge these things paints the human species in a pathetic spiritual stagnation rather than growth and progress. If we create our gods and religion, and reinterpret religious texts to validate our views and beliefs and authenticate this subversive process by claiming that these texts, against the texts themselves, were written by God (and that would be an image of our cultural God), then so be it. Let’s talk about this. It’s fascinating and revealing about the human spirit.

  6. Kathy makes your point for you Steven, and mine.

    Your book arrived today I started it. Its great. I’ll have a review for you shortly on Amazon.

  7. This is nothing new. Men have been trying to disprove the Scripture since its beginning. You may have a good study of history, but you were not there when God spoke to Moses to write the first 5 books. And I would say that you have not experienced the presence of God Almighty either. To look only to other data is also to make your own personal conclusions about Genesis or any other page of Scripture, which Jesus said cannot be broken. Studying the vast details and concluding mistakes are the Fundamentalists is also making errors in looking at how the books work together like no other ever in history, Sir. The prophecies of which Jesus fulfilled over 300 so far, cannot be ignored, but instead challenge opinions like yours that the Holy Bible is in fact THE Word of God. And the ONLY Word of God. Merciful that He is to give us books from Him by men of His choosing. I pray you come to know THE True God personally.

    1. Kathy, Thanks for your contribution, but you are grossly mistaken about what I do as a biblical scholar, what my aims are, and unfortunately about these ancient texts as well. I have written much on this website and nowhere do I ever use the language “disprove scripture” nor speak of such ideas! In fact, if you have been reading, my goals are just the opposite and I often articulate these as “defending the texts and their authors’ beliefs” and “being honest to the text, its author, and his beliefs“—and not, in other words, honest to or in defense of personal/communal/traditional beliefs about this collection of ancient texts. You should be more careful in being able to distinguish between the two.

      Furthermore, I am a trained scholar in ancient literature, not a theologian. In other words my object of study is a collection of ancient texts that only centuries after they were written and divorced from their original literary and cultural contexts become “the Holy Book” by readers of a later generation. What they thought about these texts, I’m certainly interested in; but first and foremost I’m interested in the texts themselves and what they—not you nor I—tell us about what they are and more importantly are not. You’re conflating this field of study with theology whose object of study is, pompously, God. I am making no claims one way or the other here about God. If I do talk about god Yahweh, for example, it is always how a particular author in this collection of ancient literature views/conceptualizes, etc. his god, or his theology. Our goal as mature responsible readers of the 21st century is to understand these authors’ beliefs, theologies, etc.—not to pontificate on our own beliefs and theologies while blatantly using their texts and disregarding their beliefs and messages.

      As another commentor pointed out, you’re actually making my case for me. That is there is a huge difference between what you have been taught/instructed, etc. to think, believe, or feel about this collection of ancient literature—such that it is the word of God, and more so how you perceive God (quite a haughty claim to begin with)—and what the texts themselves (my object of study) reveal about their own compositional nature, their authors, and their beliefs, their god or perception of it, and their worldviews, ideologies, theologies, etc. And if you were honest to these texts you’d easily perceive that many of the authors in this collection of 60 some ancient texts written over 1,000 years and from drastically changing cultural perspectives exhibit numerous competing and even contradictory views about god Yahweh, about the function and purpose of the cult, about who were Yahweh’s priests, and numerous contradictions in worldviews, ideologies, and even theologies. This is being honest to the texts. Your comment above tells me that you’d rather be honest to a label, honest to the beliefs and ideas associated and created by a centuries-later label. Granted most people don’t stop to think about the compositional nature nor of the cultural and literary contexts that produced these ancient texts; they are so guided by centuries-later beliefs about these texts that they never actually listen to the competing views and beliefs of the authors of these texts. Biblical scholars defend the texts and their authors—and here mainly by getting modern Christians to simply acknowledge these texts and their competing authorial beliefs, agendas, ideologies, theologies, etc. It’s a difficult and relentless task because the interpretive framework for this collection of ancient texts, the label “the Holy Bible” in other words, has become more authoritative to modern readers in telling them what these texts are than the texts themselves and their authors!!! That’s the problem; that’s the challenge.

      When modern Christians claim that they believe in the Bible what they are actually saying is that they believe in the belief claims made about the text by later tradition, and not the unique, once independent, and competing beliefs and messages made by the Bible’s sixty some different texts and authors. Sure they might have a specific verse in mind that they do in fact believe in, but in general the assertion “I believe in the Bible” boils down to a belief in the ideas and beliefs inherent in—and created by—this collection of ancient literature’s later interpretive framework. And that interpretive framework goes by the name of “the Holy Bible.”

      Said differently, modern claims about believing in the Bible are often assertions that profess belief in what “the Holy Bible” as a label implies or has come to mean to the reader on a personal or communal level. The believer believes in the ideas and beliefs that have become associated with this centuries-later interpretive framework, and indeed created by it. These include beliefs that this collection of literature is the word of God or written by the holy spirit, that it is inerrant in its entirety, that it is a homogeneous single-voiced narrative or divine revelation—in short, a holy book. Yet these are all later interpretive constructs that reflect the beliefs of readers who lived centuries after these texts were written and often void of any knowledge about the texts themselves, the historical circumstances that produced them, who wrote them, to whom, and why. In most cases, we can even trace when these beliefs emerged and under what external influences. But presently it needs to be recognized that all of these later reader-oriented beliefs come at the expense of the texts themselves and of the once independent voices, messages, and competing beliefs of the authors of these ancient texts. (Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 120-121)

      As an analogy, before humans had the knowledge and technology to pursue research on Mars, we all could speculate about the compositional nature of Mars. And in this paradigm your belief about what Mars was made up of might be just as valid as an expert in the field when there was a lack of observable data about Mars. But as soon as man was able to actually start studying Mars itself, what it is and what it is made of is now, and must be, derived from the object of study itself—Mars. It is Mars, the data collected from observations, that inform us about the compositional nature of Mars. Likewise, we now know an enormous amount about ancient literature in general, its composition, who composed it, how, to whom, why, about the cultural and literary contexts that produced the once independent writings that only centuries later became the Bible, about ancient priests, scribal and material cultures, etc. And like the Mars model, traditional beliefs about this collection of ancient texts are no longer tenable. Not because I say so, or because a group of scholars say so—but because the texts themselves say so! In other words the handed-down traditional beliefs you harbor about the texts are negated by the texts themselves when we/you allow the texts to speak their messages and beliefs in the cultural and literary contexts that they were produced in. Again, I am making no claims, for nor against God. You are bringing God into this equation, due to your beliefs about these texts. I am merely defending the texts themselves which upon objective analysis (that is collecting and listening to the textual data itself), and when we add to this the cultural data, the texts themselves adjudicate against such traditional beliefs.

      My book’s aim is to present an unbiased, objective, and culturally-contextualized presentation about the beliefs, messages, and worldview of the once independent authors of Genesis 1 and 2. It is their beliefs and messages I am defending—not those of later readers. To anticipate you objection: again it is the texts themselves that inform us that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 were penned by two different scribes who held radically different views about the origins of the world and especially of man and woman. This textual data, which is enormous and quite convincing, is also presented in my book. That is why its subtitle is “Being Honest to the Text, Its Author, and His Beliefs” because that is what we all need to start doing. I end my book with this plea, and so too I’ll end my long response. If you’re brave enough to look into my book, you’ll see that, for me, it’s all about the texts, their authors, and their beliefs and messages—what they thought and believed, and even why.

      On a more sympathetic note, I realize that the beliefs of Creationists and for that matter millions of Christians are cherished and extremely significant and important in defining their lives. But we as a culture can no longer tolerate an interpretive methodology that substantiates our beliefs at the expense of the beliefs and views of these ancient texts and their authors. That is, we have an obligation to these texts and their authors—not to mention ourselves—to acknowledge their messages, to understand them, and then to confront our misconceptions about them, bravely and honestly. But blindly claiming belief in these ancient texts while being ignorant about their authors’ own historical and literary worlds and their competing messages and beliefs is not only negligent, but it does nothing in the way of furthering the human species on both intellectual and spiritual grounds. Sincerity and understanding is what is needed, even if that path forces us as a culture to entertain questions and a conversation that most would rather not face.

      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.

  8. I just ordered your book from Amazon! Your point is well taken. It must be very frustrating dealing with an entire group of people who deny your life’s study! American Christianity is generally a “know nothing” brand of faith dependent on “weak” mis-readings (not even compelling ones!). One look at Answers in Genesis and their Orwellian monstroscity of a theme park is enough to convince me that the inmates have taken over the asylum when it comes to the Bible and any kind of honesty. Though your book is not intended to “argue against faith,” I think it does.

    In my humble opinion, faith is the reason the plain sense of the text is harmed in the first place. Some editor back there put Genesis 1 and 2 together and injured both writers. I’m anxious to read your ideas on Deuteronomy and the initial mis-reading. I know some scholars think the editor may have been the Deuteronomist. That is fascinating, interesting and worthy of study but not for a Christian! American Christianity wouldn’t exist if it didn’t hold up the “Holy Bible” as both the object of their faith, and their faith’s control over it simultaneously. Catholicism saw the Bible as a tool of the Church, and Protestantism reversed that. An evangelical can live in both worlds with all cognitive dissonance of a Bible that is both author of and product of the Church. This doesn’t make them illiterate, just inconsistent, and in this one area, stupid.

    Their usage of “Inspiration” is particularly egregious when it comes to the intentions of the text itself. The result is a book that has no words in it, except the over-all point of a book that can’t disagree with itself. The only choice is to cherry pick emphasis and subject the rest of it to textual slavery. The Old Testament is in chains behind the New. Deuteronomy is forever subjected to Galatians. You suggest (and I’m sure you’re right) that Genesis is in slavery to Deuteronomy and on it goes.

    A Bible Christian is thus told to read the Bible constantly, pour his life into it, and see it as perfect with all the answers. This is impossible, so he doesn’t really read it. He reads some of it, with lots of other books that comfort him and tell him he is on the right path. The rest is is done at Church where someone will gladly read it for him.

    1. Eric, your comments are very articulate and display a good well-rounded working knowledge of the subject, in many cases better than mine. Thanks for the contribution. I particularly thought this sentence hit home: “The result is a book that has no words in it.” Exactly, the texts are secondary at best, the meaning supplied by a reader-oriented interpretive framework is first. Many of these broader ideas I do not treat until the conclusion of the book. Another excerpt.

      The relationship between a later interpretive tradition and the text(s) it purports to re-present is something that I have been interested in ever since I was a graduate student, even prior to my interests in the Bible. What we find in almost every case where a later interpretive tradition is imposed upon an earlier text, is that it is the later interpretive tradition that becomes the authoritative voice in asserting what the “true meaning” of the target text is. The interpretive tradition, in other words, becomes more authoritative than the text itself in determining the target text’s meaning. This may not in and of itself be so surprising, but the subversive nature of this interpretive phenomenon is. While innocuously setting itself up to be the voice of the target text(s), the later interpretive tradition actually steps in for the message of the text(s) asserting that its message about the text(s) is the “true” message of the text(s)! This is exactly what has happened with the relationship between the later interpretive framework “the Holy Bible” and
      the texts it purports to re-present. In fact, it could be argued that the very purpose and function of this later interpretive framework is to re-present
      and repackage the message of the text(s) that this later interpretive tradition purports to re-present as the “true” meaning and message of the target text(s). But what is often happening behind the scenes as it were is that this new reading of the target text and the message its interpretive tradition
      purports it to have are none other than a reflection of the very beliefs and views of this later interpretive tradition’s readers, who created the interpretive tradition to begin with! So the “reading” of the target texts through this later interpretive tradition—“the Holy Bible”—only confirms this later readership’s beliefs about the text as represented by the interpretive tradition itself. Thus, the interpretive tradition moves the meaning of these texts as determined by the texts themselves to the meaning of these texts as defined by the terms and belief claims now imposed by this later tradition. In
      other words, “the Holy Bible” not only physically transforms this anthology of ancient literature into a holy book, but it imposes ideas and concepts—whole belief systems and a homogeneous narrative message—onto these texts that once expressed unique messages carved from specific historical circumstances that spanned a thousand-year period of vast geopolitical and religious changes. The reader’s beliefs are now substantiated not by the texts themselves but by the interpretive framework that now stands in for the texts and their once independent messages. And this is precisely the situation that we find ourselves in with Creationists and the claims they are making about the texts of Genesis 1 and 2.

      I would greatly appreciate it if you could write a review on Amazon after you’ve finished reading the book… if you felt so inclined. Thanks, Steven

  9. Oops.. The Steve Jobs quote was something like “There is nothing that somebody knows that I can’t also know.” My point was that it needn’t take a Phd in Hebrew to discern that the Bible is problematic.

  10. I have been thinking about this for over 20 years. I am an atheist who grew up in a Christian home, with lots of Christian schooling. I always felt that my friends and family have been unable to digest the plain sense of the texts that became big stumbling blocks to me. Biblical Illiteracy IS a problem outside of scholarship circles. Christians in Churches endless complain about how their knowledge of the Bible is in decline. Basic illiteracy is also on the rise. People aren’t reading. There is a Bible that has just been released that is written with Emoji’s. Look at ‘The Message’ and other translations and its obvious that everything is being dumbed down. I have 2 thoughts on this.

    1. There is a growing amount of real illiteracy. Most people hardly read. Most Christians I know hardly read. Reading is dead. Facebook has predicted that reading will be gone soon. Real reading comprehension is in decline, and the Bible is a difficult book. Scholars might be the only ones capable of reading the Bible unfiltered by a devotional or other guide–and of course their goal is to become that guide!

    Steve Jobs suggests that “There is nothing in the world that you cannot understand.” This is doubly true for the Bible, and once I trusted myself enough it was obvious that the Bible would be THE book that would make me an atheist. This is why it should be taught in Schools (Critically!) Students with skills in comprehension should be able to read it for themselves. The Bible is Christianity’s biggest enemy really (this is your point and its well taken). Its not just in the sciences and contradictions. Its in the doctrines too. How many non-Lutheran passages are there? Hundreds.

    The other day a Christian friend approached me and he said “I can see why you are an atheist, I was reading Genesis by myself and WOW I couldn’t make heads or tails of all of that. We had a lot of discussion about it in our small group and I felt so much better, but I could really identify with you for a bit” My reply was: “What if you didn’t have the small group?” Church is obviously designed to shape how the book is read. Thus reading the Bible is probably discouraged without some sort of guide which will explain away the plain sense of the text.

    2. I wouldn’t go as far as you to say that scholars are illiterate. Lay people probably are, only in the sense that they choose not to read the Bible as you and I might read it (Critically). If we are to call it Illiteracy it is willful one (not because of any inability on their part). Smarter people than you or I are Christians, but this demonstrates that even smart can fall prey to group think, cherry picking and confirmation bias.

    The entire practice of “Biblical Christianity” is a dishonest process in my opinion, and it probably was from the start but it is generally capable of comprehension–and more to the point its highly capable of a willful “mis-comprehenstion”. Instead of “illiteracy” I propose Harold Bloom’s designation for Poets who “contend” with one another through the willful and subconscious process of “Misreading.” I recommend his book The ‘Anxiety of Influence.’ There are sequences with-in and outside the Bible of “revisionary interpretation” of it. A “strong misreading” or “mis-prison” seeks to change the plain sense of an original text sometimes successfully like for instance the New Testament vs. the “Old. From Bloom’s point of view, I’d guess the New Testament is a huge success of a strong misreading since there is not a single passage in the Old Testament about Jesus, yet after one reads Matthew it is as if Jesus is the whole reason for it. (This is grossly unfair to the text… Are we to say that the Apostle Paul was Illiterate too? Or the writer of Matthew? Or is he simply guilty of the same fallacy–of imaginative misreading? (This seems to be a common Jewish process too) To be fair the language of the Bible is vague. You make it clear but its still vague enough for metaphor and imaginative speculation. The fact that it has been edited repeatedly with hundreds of contradiction make it highly susceptible to imaginative interpretation. The human mind naturally wants to solve the puzzle. This is why Christians can so easily resist your point with a huge superstructure of Theology.

    I guess my point is don’t be so hard on them. :) There is a kind of art to what they do.. But I wouldn’t mistake it for history or science. I have directed several Christians and friend skeptics to your site. Thanks for your erudition.

    1. Eric, thanks for the thoughtful reply. I agree with much of everything you say, even your critique that I may be using “illiterate” too broadly. When I was a grad student I read Bloom’s book, and the ideas you’ve expressed there I’d like to talk about them when I start posting contradictions for the book of Deuteronomy since this author had the older Elohist tradition before him and consciously “misread” it. I believe it’s our earliest example of rewriting biblical tradition. The fact that this author consciously modified and contradicted in his alterations the stories of the Elohist tradition raises some interesting questions with respect to what this scribe thought about the earlier “biblical” tradition.

      Your point #1 really hits home for me. I think, or at least I’ve conceptualized the problem now in this manner: most fundamentalist Christians don’t read the texts on their own terms (are biblical illiterates) because of the power and sway of all that is implied in this collection of ancient texts’ title, “the Holy Book.” From my book:

      When modern Christians claim that they believe in the Bible what they are actually saying is that they believe in the belief claims made about the text by later tradition, and not the unique, once independent, and competing beliefs and messages made by the Bible’s sixty some different texts and authors. Sure they might have a specific verse in mind that they do in fact believe in, but in general the assertion “I believe in the Bible” boils down to a belief in the ideas and beliefs inherent in—and created by—this collection of ancient literature’s later interpretive framework. And that interpretive framework goes by the name of “the Holy Bible.”

      Said differently, modern claims about believing in the Bible are often assertions that profess belief in what “the Holy Bible” as a label implies or has come to mean to the reader on a personal or communal level. The believer believes in the ideas and beliefs that have become associated with this centuries-later interpretive framework, and indeed created by it. These include beliefs that this collection of literature is the word of God or written by the holy spirit, that it is inerrant in its entirety, that it is a homogeneous single-voiced narrative or divine revelation—in short, a holy book. Yet these are all later interpretive constructs that reflect the beliefs of readers who lived centuries after these texts were written and often void of any knowledge about the texts themselves, the historical circumstances that produced them, who wrote them, to whom, and why. In most cases, we can even trace when these beliefs emerged and under what external influences. But presently it needs to be recognized that all of these later reader-oriented beliefs come at the expense of the texts themselves and of the once independent voices, messages, and competing beliefs of the authors of these ancient texts.

      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. (120-22)

      Perhaps I’m too hard; but at times I just get tired of the hypocrisy and more so of the neglect actually hurled at these ancient texts when their meaning is derived from the title “the Holy Book” rather than the individual messages and beliefs of their numerous authors. Indeed, I do make a sympathetic gesture to my “opponents” in Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate.

      I also have an article coming out on bibleinterp.com some time next week entitled “The Biblical Texts on Their Terms Versus the Bible on Its Terms: Genesis 1 and 2 as a Case Study” which highlights the point I’ve made above.

      It’s always nice hearing from you,
      Steven

  11. I always enjoy reading your thoughts. I’d be interested to learn more about Biblical literacy. I wonder if there are any social scientists working in this area. It would be cool to see them referenced in your posts, if there is an relevant work out there right now.

    1. Ryan,

      Thanks for your comment. I think what I’m attempting to do here is to argue that in modern Christian society (to plug the social aspect), knowledge about these ancient texts, what they in fact are and are not, is rare. This I define or label as biblical illiteracy. Today, even when trained theologians or apologists speak of supposedly the Bible, they are in fact doing theology, not biblical studies. Indeed, perhaps I’m being a bit unfair and biased, since my definition of biblical literacy almost exclusively is limited to biblical scholars. Or, in fact anyone who is engaged in reading research about these ancient documents in the terms I listed above—indeed one doesn’t need a PhD to study objectively a collection of ancient literature. In this regards, there are many secularists who are quite knowledgeable in this regards. My particular aim was to point out the irony, sad and woeful irony, in the fact that those who often claim belief in the Bible are actually those who are most illiterate about these ancient documents. The issue is more complex, but as other scholars have articulated, as I have too, there is a huge difference between believing in the Bible in the sense of believing in what this title implies, and believing in a diverse collection of ancient texts that each had competing theologies and/or ideologies.

      I think there is a growing awareness, not just in the scholarly community, but indeed perhaps by social scientists as well, that most Christian’s beliefs lie with what the title the “Holy Bible” implies or imposes on this collection of texts or with a specific verse that the reader does in fact believe in, rather than with a collection of 60 some diverse texts—most are ignorant about the compositional nature of these texts, their independent authors, and these authors’ competing messages and beliefs.

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