If the first talking snake had kept shtum, we wouldn't be here. Eve wouldn't have eaten the forbidden fruit. But she listened and was curious. So she fell into humanity, thank God. Good old snake, say I. I celebrate its independence of mind. Satan? Neh, that's a later interpretation. The snake was part of the divine purpose. God allowed it into the garden, aware of its linguistic abilities. He knew what would happen. Jesus commended dove-like innocence. AND the wisdom ... of the snake.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Inerrancy problems

There were no human witnesses to events of days 1 - 5 of Genesis 1’s Creation Week. Same goes for all creation myths of course, but it only becomes problematic if you try to anchor your philosophy on the literal truth of these narratives.

So how do we know, for example, that God created his firmament on Day 2 but left the separation of water from land until Day 3, leaving him plenty to do as he then had to create all the plants and decide where to put them? Might it not have been more sensible to separate the land from the water on Day 2, giving it time to dry out overnight? How do we know that other couples were not created to enjoy life in Eden as well as Adam and Eve, which would be a natural enough reading of Genesis 1.27 taken in isolation from ch. 2? (It also sidesteps the perennially recurring question of who Cain’s wife was - typical creationist answer: one of his sisters, dummy. You have a problem with that?)

The answer of course is that God knew what he did when, and dictated a summary to the writer of Genesis, whom creationists identify as Moses. For creationism to work, it’s essential that Moses’ audio-scribing skills were infallible, although can be no check, in the nature of the case. The transmission must be totally reliable. We must know the Bible is a book we can trust in every respect; on history, geography, biology, physics, the lot.

Any internal contradiction or factual error that can be shown to exist in the Bible skittles this. To a fundamentalist, the Bible can no more be slightly fallible than a man can be slightly dead, or a balloon slightly pricked. Fundamentalism is an all-or-nothing, high-anxiety world view and unsurprisingly the apologetic struggle between fundamentalists and their critics to prove or disprove inerrancy is intense. It only takes one prick to pop the balloon.

An enormous database of alleged Biblical errors is maintained here and continues to grow as readers identify new ones. It must be said that many of these are trivial and could indeed result from copying errors, which does not violate the dogma of inerrancy in the original manuscripts. The unavailability of any original manuscripts might be seen as an escape hatch for the fundies, but they are welcome to it: they’re in plenty of trouble as it is. Many contradictions remain which are far from trivial and cannot be waved away as textual glitches. Fundies have their work trying to reoncile them but note the assumption: an apparent error cannot actually be one. They know without having to look that the Bible is inerrant; the task is to dispel any contrary impression.

The "Skeptics' Annotated Bible" (link above) also collects verses which display God’s fondness for slaughter, prompting the question: do we want this book to be held up as holy from cover to cover? I much prefer to think that the ancient Hebrews were a bloodthirsty lot, in common with other nations, and projected their militaristic ambitions onto the God they believed would fight for them. Christians and Jews alike should want to distance themselves from such a primitive deity; it’s when Christian fundamentalists on the one hand or Zionists on the other revere him that we get trouble.

So far as I’m concerned, John 19.14 & 31 make it clear that Jesus was crucified one day BEFORE the Feast of the Passover, in contradiction of the Synoptics according to all of whom he met his death ON the feast day. But I’ve used this one before, so let’s look at something else: the problem of "big numbers". This one interests me because it played its part in breaking down the nineteenth century literalist consensus. John Colenso, later to become bishop of Natal and something of a folk hero in South Africa, started out as a mathematician and was troubled to discover that some of the sums in the Pentateuch don’t add up. These books are inaccurate, he concluded, and can’t be literally true. Colenso’s rebellious thinking (he also challenged the doctrine of everlasting punishment, and refused to insist that polygamous men converted to Christianity should renounce all but one of their wives, since this would be to condemn the others to destitution) gave the Anglican communion a headache. The bishop of Capetown tried to excommunicate Colenso, but he carried on his pastoral work regardless. The first ever Lambeth Conference was convened in 1867 to resolve the issues he had raised. The hymn "The Church’s One Foundation" was written at the time in defiance of what was thought to be his apostasy.

Colenso had calculated that if 600,000 able-bodied men and their families had escaped from Pharaoh (Exodus 12. 37), it would have involved the movement of 2,000,000 people at dead of night. There would also have been the sick, the infirm and more than 200 mothers in the throes of childbirth. That would be comparable to the total evacuation of a city the size of Philadelphia. Not even the most disciplined army in the world today could achieve anything like that.

He also noted that if the part about the slaughter of passover lambs was taken literally, 1250 animals would have had to be killed every 60 seconds and each priest would have had to sprinkle the fresh blood of 333 lambs per minute for two hours. The task would have been impossible.

More recently David Fouts, a theology professor in Tennessee, has published a paper defending what he calls a "hyperbolic interpretation" of such number problems as these:

Judges 12:6 states that for mispronouncing "Shibboleth" 42,000 Ephraimites were slain at the river Jordan, a number that exceeds the census total for that tribe in either Numbers 1 (40,500) or Numbers 26 (32,500). Even allowing for an increase of the Ephraimite warrior population after the conquest does not alleviate the problem of the enormity of the number of those slain.

1 Kings 20:30 asserts that after Israel had killed 100,000 Syrian foot soldiers at a nearby battle, 27,000 more  into the city of Aphek where a wall fell on them, apparently killing them as well. One would think that this wall or its remains would be somewhat comparable to the Great Wall of China to be so calamitous in its collapse and that it would have been at least partially unearthed by now. If there is some other signicance to the large numbers, however, the size of the wall may not matter.

One of the most perplexing problems involving large numbers is the different numbers in the 2 Samuel 24 (1.3 million) and 1 Chronicles 21 (1.57 million) accounts of the census ordered by David. Like the censuses of the book of Numbers, the totals are entirely too large.

Fouts’ worries are fuelled by conservative attitudes to scripture; he’s a supernaturalist and doesn’t like Colenso’s "mocking attitude". But he is a thorough and honest scholar too, that’s to say I can live with his conclusions though I doubt a fundamentalist could:

Scripture is similar to other annalistic inscriptional literature in that the historical narratives of the OT often employ figurative language in the near environment of the large numbers, a fact that may support the thesis that the large numbers themselves are hyperbolic. It appears that all enumerated preexilic censuses in the OT may employ hyperbolic numbers.....

The large numbers have often been a stumbling block for accepting the Biblical accounts as legitimate records of history. If the numbers are simply reflective of a rhetorical device common in ancient Near Eastern literature, however, one may no longer question the integrity of the record by use of this argument. The large numbers are often simply figures of speech employed to magnify King Yahweh, King David, or others in a theologically based historiographical narrative.

All I wish to do is press home a point of logic, granted that Fouts is correct. The use of hyperbolic numbers is a literary device, whose effect is to overlay the facts of history, which we cannot now retrieve. In other words, in the kinds of passage Fouts has examined, the Bible does not tell the literal truth even though the presence of statistics may convey the appearance of matter-of-fact prose. Something else is going on in the chronicling.

At this point we have abandoned the view of Scripture as directly dictated by God, substituting for it a naturalistic explanation for the nature of the text. It’s the way it is because human writers, consciously or instinctively, have decided to embroider the plain facts in a manner not intended to deceive but to convey theological rather than factual truth. It’s called creativity, which doesn’t preclude inspiration, indeed may be seen as dependent on it: but it does preclude inerrancy in the usual bone-headed fundamentalist sense. The way is paved for seeing other passages of scripture, for example the opening chapters of Genesis as a kind of writing other than objective chronicle; as imaginative literature. Once that point is conceded, I’m home and dry. Which means creationists won’t concede it, of course, I’m not that daft.


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