Saturday, August 15, 2009

Some more notes on Bible and History

There's generally not a lot of commentary in this blog. I do however post most entries on my Facebook page and often there's a bit of discussion there. People who know me will often email me comments as well. And so late last month I received this comment on my Bible and history posts. I responded then that it was something I should take up on my blog and tonight I'm finally giving it a go.

The other thing I'd briefly say is re that vexed question of truth and the OT, it could almost be summed up in the odd old proverb "You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear". If the OT has no real truth historically while Jesus is about the fulfillment of a historical promise-cum-revelation and he sees himself as to some extent incarnate in that past history, one can't then easily maintain his truth is as good as the negation of that same history. Lies, falsehoods and distortions can't produce Truth-in Itself and although there is such a thing as mythic truth it's only because we understand truth to fact that we can even assume such a notion as a more elastic mythic truth exists. I realize you don't like, perhaps even detest, the book of Joshua and I won't deny it has its difficulties for us

There are a number of issues here but I think the key one revolves around Jesus and his relationship to the collections of texts known as Old Testament. Even with that statement I had to pause because there are a number of ways that it could be qualified, not least because there was no such thing as an Old Testament let alone Jewish Bible in Jesus' day. Both were constructed by Christians and Jews in the years centuries after Jesus' execution (there still is and never has been a definitive Christian Old Testament while the Jewish Bible was probably standardised by the 3rd or 4th centuries CE). Nevertheless we can say that in the first century there was a world of authoritative text and story that we can call biblical or scriptural. Probably the heart of this world was Torah, the 5 books of Moses, shared by Jew and Samaritan alike. Psalms and David were also important for Jews, as well as Isaiah and, for many, 1 Enoch (from the evidence at Qumran).

Part of the problem is that Jesus seems to accept the validity of most of these stories. He talks about Moses and Abraham and Noah as if they were real people. He talks about David and Solomon in the same way and even claims some kind of descent from David. But if David and Solomon weren't real people and neither were Moses and Abraham and Noah well then what do we say about Jesus? Because if Jesus is divine isn't he supposed to be omniscient? Why isn't he speaking like a modern historian or archeologist or even a modern biblical scholar? It's a bit like the creationists. Despite their claims, they aren't the least bit interested in the verbal inerrancy of Genesis 1 or Genesis 2. Nope it's the Gospel inerrancy that concerns them especially those passages where Jesus seems to talking about Adam and Eve, Noah etc as if all of that is real. In other words we don't have any texts in which Jesus speaks like a modern evolutionary biologist or a palaeontologist or a geologist.

But even more importantly is the fact that Jesus claims to be some kind of fulfilment of the stories and other literary materials that we term Old Testament. His claims are grounded in them so what do we make of that? Surely if these stories didn't actually happen but are instead fiction what does that make of Jesus' claims?

I'll attempt some kind of answer by responding to the allegation that I 'don't like' even 'detest' the book of Joshua. Now I wouldn't be the first person to be troubled by Joshua. It has sat like a fishbone in the throat of Christianity for centuries. And lets face it, if Joshua was a straightforward no holds barred historical account, then there is no alternative from a human, from a Christian perspective but to condemn it as a brutal and genocidal text. And tragically it is a text that has been used to give warrant to genocide, in the Americas, in Australia and now in Palestine.

But I don't detest Joshua, although there was a time when I might have done. However when I realised that reading it as history was the wrong way to read it that I came to appreciate that this text is so much richer than a simple catalogue of events. Reading it as history actually misses the point because one very striking pattern is the play between who is in this Israel and who isn't. What is this Israel is the central issue of the book. Because the other surprise that happens when reading Joshua as story not history is that all of a sudden you see that the text is constantly undermining any notion of a 'pure' Israel. At the beginning we meet a unified homogenous Israel. At the end, Israel is merged, blended with the people of the land while religiously it is indistinguishable from them. The Israelites are worshipping the Baals and Astoreths of their neighbours as Greek Joshua declares at its conclusion. It's almost as if Joshua knows that Israelites once were Canaanites and is determined to make sure that we the readers know that fact. Fro that perspective Joshua is forcing us to face up to the othering processes we humans engage in to create communities, to determine who is inside and who is outside. I still hope to write something on the Girardian processes in the book of Joshua.

The real history lies in the texts themselves not the stories they contain. The texts represent a process of cultural/religious transformation in the Levant/Palestine over the preceding centuries. It was that transformation that set the preconditions for Jesus. Without that transformation there could have been no Christ event, pure and simple. So Jesus does represent a fulfilment. He's not the only one, there's also the Mishnah and the Memar Markah. The processes of transformation these texts represent include a range of trajectories, some of which find in Jesus a major turning point at which they become Christian trajectories.


  1. Hi Michael,

    from my perspective there is no way to prove conclusively that Jesus is or was as he is recorded.

    For me there is no hope of proving what is a 'belief'. To believe something, as opposed to knowing that same something. There can be no proofs for Beliefs since if there were they would not be beliefs but Facts.

    I find that the difficulty for most of us, perhaps all of us is that we may be losing our faith and turning to Empiricism to prove our Faith - our brand of it - so that we can put it in a box to say that we, and only we have, hold and know the 'Truth'.

    Hence the trawl through the Myths, plays, essays, songs, adages and fortune telling of scripture.

    As for parts of t he Bible - Joshua is a story of Genocide as.

    Kali the Terrible is a fine example - to me - of the cruel and dark side of God, a side that is oh so present in the world - if there is a god - otherwise it has all to do with us and there is no god's Will in it at all.

    Andrew Blair - must go away and write this more academically

  2. I'd imagine that whatever was understood of as Scripture during the time of Jesus was not so much the stories in their so-called "original" contexts, but rather the stories in the culturally contingent contexts as was their audience. I imagine that these stories created the very cultural matrix and realities that their interpreters understood as their own lives. I think it's important to remember the fluid lives of the texts when understanding how the interpreters would have understood what their heroes of old were about. It's obvious enough that in Jesus' community, Scripture was "about him" and "about his message". That doesn't mean that it's the only way to interpret the stories but it does mean that it was a way that they were interpreted in their history. It seems obvious that in Christian literature, ancient heroes weren't esteemed for their violence or mayhem, but for their faith and devotion, and in keeping with Michael's previous blog post, in the very spite of their brokeness and failings as human beings.


  3. There is a very good book out by Michael Grant entitled "Jesus", published by Phoenix/Orion, London. It is fascinating in that it outlines what was prophesised in the Old Testament, what the synoptic gospels quote Jesus saying and what was overlayed by the early and later Christian churches. It also contextualises how language was used in terms of metaphor and parable at different times, pre, during and post Jesus. Worth a look.


  4. I think it was Wesley of leading Christian figures who first took the line that we could judge books like Joshua from a Christian standpoint and find it wanting - which taking it at face value I dare say it is. However I still think it's extreme to call accounts like Joshua's genocidal and brutal if we give it no historical and other contexts.

    If the Canaanite society was, as it may have been, like the Indian society that practiced thugee and suttee or the Aztec society that increasingly couldn't sacrifice enough people to the sun, would it be so wrong, particularly in earlier eras basically run on violence, to take over such a society by any means possible? Even today it is controversial when troops are sent anywhere at America's convenience that troops aren't sent into Burma to deliver by force its totally oppressed people whom no amount of peaceful protest seems able to liberate. Likewise if Mugabe were shot dead and even in the name of God, it might not be such a bad thing and could stop the suffering of thousands.

    Short of holding to an absolute and total pacificism one would be willing to be martyr to it can finish judgement to call genocidal anyone who takes action against immovable situations within evilly organized societies.

    I dislike what the book of Joshua has effected in terms of influence across history but I find it hard to blame it to the extent its policies exist like certain laws of the Torah as something for the Jews only and never meant to be applied by others outside the covenant. Accordingly the issue is almost more metaphysical than ethical namely did the Jews have the vocation claimed? If they did then perhaps they were meant to do what they did and we should regard it like shooting Mugage for the sake of Africa.

  5. Genocide is genocide. But then Joshua is fiction which means a lot of other stuff is happening which gets overlooked if people think it's fact. It's the other stuff I;m intersted in.