4. Crayons

The Blind Side

I have asked myself how a serious Christian with a penchant for reading, educated at an evangelical university, including six semesters of biblical studies, could come to be as blindsided by all of this as I have been.

During my undergraduate years, my studies certainly included a broad range of liberal scholars – Bultmann, Whitehead, Hegel, etc. I had felt comfortable that my exposure had involved no sheltering of viewpoints. But I realize now that we were left to assume that the liberal versions of Christianity developed essentially from syncretistic motivations: the liberals didn’t like the hard line of the Bible and wanted to soften it. I recall no hint ever having been given that textual and historical problems had actually triggered the onset of those movements. Certainly no serious examples had ever been given. Yet this is the case; the liberal movements were birthed from an honest recognition that we cannot continue to make the traditional claims about the Biblical texts.

My impulse for scrutinous study of theology faded as that heady season passed, and readings since have been more Christian-Normal – a variety of Christian books, coupled with Sunday instruction. Authors included the usual suspects: C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, etc., combined with more science-oriented readings by folks like C. John Collins, Stephen Meyer, etc. Outside of the tribe, I of course read other science authors like Carl Sagan, Michio Kaku, Stephen Hawking, and Brian Greene. Overall, neither hiding out nor out to lunch.

The blind side – my astonishment and shock during this recent period – required an explanatory hypothesis. After due consideration, I believe that a sort of passive insularity and denial continues to pervade and encapsulate the conservative church.

Cookie Jar

Opening a crisp new copy of the ESV Study Bible, one will find front matter describing the authorship of Genesis and the Pentateuch [10]. The traditional view of Mosaic authorship is discussed as the long standing position of Jewish and Christian believers. It goes on to mention that this view came to be rejected by scholars during the 19th and 20th centuries. But the commentary then gives the reassurance that, as time has passed, uncertainty has grown regarding the modern view.

Though the paradigmatic reversal alluded to may well have gripped some scholars, no reading that I can find indicates that the consensus has shifted in the slightest from the citation already given by Enns [14]. The commentary discussion skirts the edge of being misleading. It certainly helps to curtail inquiry about any rumors that  a person may have heard regarding the Mosaic problem.

But instead of acknowledging how widespread the rejection of Mosaic authorship continues to remain, the commentary continues with its agenda of reassurance. It describes the centuries of lag which passed between the partriarchal events and Moses’ writing. It gives a few general historical parallels, and then concludes with an awe-striking assertion that “Genesis is quite reliable”.

This summary statement is, of course, a misrepresentation of the first order. Textual scholars, by any reading, do not consider several centuries of lag to be conducive to textual reliability. The consensus among archaeologists and historians is that the Pentateuch falls well short of quite reliable. If considered by similar rules of historical evaluation that are applied to Egyptian or other texts, the majority of historians do not appear to grade the Pentateuch as quite reliable. Indeed, the opposite.

On the question of which Jewish texts are historical reliable, William Dever summarizes the historians’ view aptly [11]:

With most scholars, I would exclude much of the Pentateuch, specifically the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. These materials obviously constitute a sort of “pre-history” that has been attached to the main epic of ancient Israel by late editors.

~ William G. Dever. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel

Dever’s statement checks out. The ESV commentary material is not painting with a true brush. Integrity demands that it justly be called misleading, even deceptive. The reader is left with the distinct impression that the traditional view continues to command broad scholarly respect and stands on firm footing. It may be noted, however, that with care of wording, this is never explicitly stated. Such obfuscation from a trusted source… It is, after all, a Bible.

How Deep, How Wide

What percentage, I asked, of the basic ‘factual’ data that I have been taught about the Bible falls into such a category? I continued my readings until the answer to that question had essentially reached a steady and unchanging value. And the answer was: quite a lot.

On the shelf beside me sits an ubiquitous example, The Case for Christ, which provides a Pollyanna portrait of the situation facing the Gospel accounts in terms of authorship and historical reliability [47]. On both points it appears to present the minority view among textual critics and historians, but I dare say the reader would not know it (I certainly didn’t) [4, 12, 13, 43]. This lensing can be observed in a great deal of the material that I have read.

Finger Snap

Conspiracy? No. Likely nothing beyond the organic weavings of group-think.  The materials described above reflect the traditional view, long held by the church as fact before there was evidence to the contrary. That it continues to be disseminated evinces not conspiracy, but denial: that it is not possible we were wrong about our sacred writings for the tenure of the church. Yet a line has been decidedly crossed when our authors indicate the solidarity of the traditional viewpoints among scholars. The community has placed revered traditions over honesty in reporting. It would be better not to discuss such topics than to feign having given legitimate answers to them.

Muted reflection on the past yields a lucid coalescence… What can compare with that distinct sense of having been the pawn on someone else’s board?

I have been given selective answers for a long time, sheltered from the more uncomfortable but very real issues. I had been reading authors who had either not stared down the data themselves, or had done so and thought it in the reader’s best interests to prefilter the facts for them. The accusations of the critics are substantially vindicated on what I have observed. The coloring books and crayons of Christian reading material have left me with a necessary bias of suspicion toward other such sources. It seems that legitimate and complete answers must be sought elsewhere.

The old trust is gone now, and the music has stopped.

Next: [5] Reparations >>

4/5/2013

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