What the Texts of the Bible Claim versus What Later Tradition Claims about the Text

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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.

We saw this very fact through our reading of the first two chapters of Genesis on the terms of the text—that is, before the Holy Bible was ever created and Genesis’ two creation accounts were codified together and reinterpreted through this later framework. One cannot believe simultaneously in both of the beliefs, messages, and worldviews represented in these two creation accounts precisely because, first, they express competing and at times contradictory messages and beliefs about the nature and origin of the world and of man and woman, and second, they no longer reflect our own beliefs about the nature of the world. When modern readers attempt to “harmonize” these differences 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!

This particular phenomenon brings me to my last point: 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.

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. (excerpted from my Conclusion in Genesis 1 and the Creationism Debate, 120-124)

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