by Pastor Doug Kings
The church has wrestled with the question of how to read the Bible through most of its history. Beginning In the Enlightenment, scientific discoveries which seemed to challenge Bible teachings created a new source of controversy which has remained to the present day. Also difficult has been the use of scholarly research to study the history of the ancient Near East and the text of the Bible itself.
Since the mid-twentieth century, mainline churches have by-and-large accepted the results of such scholarship, especially in their colleges and seminaries. They still struggle, however, to know what to do with the findings of such research because, frankly, they’re afraid of how “the folks in the pews” will react to such information.
Several years ago, the ELCA began an adult Bible study program called the Book of Faith Initiative (BOFI). When it debuted, I was not impressed and wrote a critical review of its introductory book called Opening the Book of Faith. It was written by Diane Jacobson, the director of BOFI and a seminary professor of Old Testament.
I sent Jacobson my review and her response was gracious and appreciative of what I had written. But as often happens, we mostly talked past each other and, to me, her points only served to illustrate the problems I had with BOFI and our confusion over what to do with the Bible.
In my review, I criticized one of its sample studies (written by her) of the story of God’s appearance to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3). The study never made clear whether in this text we are reading a report of actual events or a piece of literature, a mythological tale about Israel’s origins. I noted that virtually no non-fundamentalist scholar would say this is an eyewitness account by Moses. Further, many would say that little if any of the Exodus saga was supported by historical evidence.
In reply, Jacobson said she agreed that the Bible is not primarily eyewitness history; “No CNN” as she put it. Yet such a clear statement is nowhere to be found in the book. But then she muddied the waters in a way typical of the current approach to the Bible in mainline churches. Jacobson said that she believes “that Israel (or some tribes of Israel) were slaves in Egypt and followed a leader named Moses.” But then said a little later, “You say ‘there is simply no historical evidence for any of the Exodus saga.’ Perhaps. I simply am not at all bothered or much interested in this.”
What’s going on here? Jacobson says she “accepts” the basic story that Israel was enslaved in Egypt and led to freedom by Moses. Yet to my flat-out statement that there is no historical evidence for this, she replies, “Perhaps.” In effect, she’s saying: Yes, that may be true, but I can’t or won’t come right out and say so. Which means that BOFI has stopped being scholarship and become something else.
I don’t mean to pick on Jacobson because she is simply representative of the fog that has descended on biblical scholarship in much of the church. Consider this statement:
Actually, I am not at all worried about avoiding controversy over historicity. I simply think such questions are often not at all helpful. There are two reasons for this opinion. One, because I do not think the main question of history is “did it happen?” I think the main question for historical study of the biblical text is “What insights from history would be helpful to know in order to hear, read, study, or understand this passage more accurately?”
In my experience, most mainline pastors and educators are deathly afraid of “controversy over historicity,” and not without reason. I still remember vividly an adult education class on Genesis at my first congregation, led by a seminary Old Testament professor. That night ended with one of our members screaming at this poor man about his heresy in saying that the Genesis creations stories were not historical fact. He later quit our church and joined a fundamentalist “Bible church.” The other fifty participants remained and enjoyed the class.
And so, Prof. Jacobson’s first statement is simply nonsense. One of the main questions—and certainly the first question—of history is always “did it happen?” Because if something didn’t happen, then it’s not history. Her second statement, on the other hand, is a subtle sidestep away from the historicity question. Here she is talking about the value of history in helping to understand a text and, of course, this is true for any kind of literature. Knowing English history is essential for fully appreciating Shakespeare, for example. You would certainly miss a lot reading Gone with the Wind if you knew nothing about the Civil War and Reconstruction.
So is the Bible more like Shakespeare and Gone with the Wind than a history textbook? The emerging consensus of biblical scholarship is simply, yes. Just as you will search in vain for Scarlett, Rhett or Tara in Georgia state historical records, or for Hamlet in Danish ones, so too has the historical search for Moses, Aaron, or Pharaoh’s drowned army been a fruitless one. Prof. Jacobson knows this but won’t say so ostensibly because she is “not at all bothered or much interested in this.”
Well, I just don’t buy it. Personally, I find the history questions fascinating but I am not (any longer) bothered by them. In fact since I stopped viewing the Bible as history my interest in it has grown and it has become more credible. I no longer feel like the White Queen having to believe “impossible things” every day. Which is why I believe it is so important to teach this and not avoid it: the Bible is more valuable to modern people when read non-literally, not less.
Church leaders should stop being afraid of telling people what we know. By not doing so we are only creating more trouble for ourselves, not avoiding it. For every member who reacts in horror to the notion of a biblical character or event not being historical, I have had many more ask, “Why wasn’t I told this before?” Jacobson denied my charge that the church has been paternalistic in avoiding this topic, yet I often talk to people who feel like they have been treated like children, as if they were incapable of handling “the real story.”
I believe the Bible is the world’s greatest collection of ancient religious literature. It can’t be anything more than that, but neither does it need to be. The church can only be relevant in this world when it is honest with itself and others that its scriptures are a product of the ancient world—a world which no longer exists. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, but it does tell us how the Bible, like all ancient literature, needs to be read and appreciated. It indicates both its value and its limitations. We accomplish nothing by pretending we can turn back the clock. The church and its members live in this world, and God is in this world. All of us can handle that fact, and so can our two-thousand-year-old Bible.
Blessings in your life and ministry.