I ended up really liking this book – but there were some bumps along the way.
Some of these ideas are much more obvious than others (did Adam and Eve eat an apple?) and some are more obscure (did Moses have horns? What the hell?) Many of these discussions will already be familiar to students of the Bible (such as the “apple”, above, and chapter 30’s eschatological [end of times] issues). Though they are valuable to remind us where these ideas came from, what was originally intended, and to remind the hordes of people that believe them that they’re just not Biblical. (Left Behind is pure made up fancy to garner big bucks for folks like Tim LaHaye and others who want to sell a spectacle).
I feel like he starts off on a bad foot. In an attempt to begin “in the beginning”, he starts with a confusing discussion of what “in the beginning” should say – with no resolution. From this chapter it appears that the entire book is going to be a linguistic challenge, and we will only be able to count on his Hebrew and Greek scholarship to know if what he is arguing makes sense.
The next chapter makes a lot more sense – a description of the creation story and describing why it was never intended to be taken literal. This is a decent logical approach, and I’m glad the book ended up being more like this.
The creation story isn’t history, and it was never meant as history. This basic fact would have been obvious to anyone living before the scientific era. After all, right there on the page are two contradictory accounts. Of course they couldn’t both have happened, not in the same sense that we use the word “happened” for things that we witness in our own lives. Why would anyone think they were meant to be historically accurate? The only reason we do so today is that we are obsessed with science.
Chapter 3 on the worldwide flood describes the well-documented fact that Genesis contains multiple narratives and that the flood story is a combination of two stories – suggesting that this maybe shouldn’t be read as historical fact.
Chapter 4 – lifespans in early Genesis. I wish the author was better at sourcing his information. But it does makes sense. He suggests the unusually long lifespans in early Genesis were clues from the author(s) that this part of the narrative shouldn’t be taken literally. Interesting.
Chapter 5 – contradictory David stories. Maybe they are intended to be lessons and not historically accurate factual accounts.
Chapter 6 (on the contradictory and inaccurate lineages of Jesus) explains something that should be obvious to Bible students; and was for a long part of history, even though many modern fundamentalists reject the idea:
We should remember that it is the text itself that forces an honest reader to move beyond a narrow, literal interpretation of the words.
Chapter 7 indicates that the New Testament writings may have focused more on the roles of the Jews in the death of Jesus – and downplayed the Romans. I haven’t heard this suggestion before. Interesting! I wonder if this can be attributed to changes over time as the books were copied.
History and Paradigms
Of course, ancient authors (and readers) had a different paradigm for historicity than do modern authors and readers:
It’s not just that ancient authors didn’t have the resources that modern ones do. The whole notion of science—“just the facts,” as it were—hadn’t been born yet. So even ancient authors who wrote pure history also embellished their accounts.
But, we have to keep in mind:
And for that matter, no one writes without a bias, both because of their own agenda and because of the circumstances of their writing. The historian Martin Cohen teaches that the most important question to ask about any historical document is “Who paid for it?”
This last thing is, of course, true of modern authors, though we tend to forget that when providing our schoolchildren with textbooks.
Wordplay and Mistranslation
Chapter 8 is interesting in that the author suggests that the Hebrew for covet should be translated as take – making it an action rather than a heart issue. I couldn’t find anything on this online so I consulted a friend of mine who’s a Jewish scholar, and she suggested he might have a point, thought it’s probably much more complicated than it merely meaning take instead of covet.
The author goes on to spend some chapters on wordplay in the untranslated language that we miss in translated bibles.
Along these lines, in chapter 14, the author discusses a mistranslation of the words of Jesus, which suggests the popular saying “All who live by the sword will die by the sword.” But as he goes on to say, it’s really a misquote. If you look at almost any translation – it really says “take up the sword” which means using violence, not living byviolence. Jesus’ true words are much stronger against violence.
Further chapters clarify more meanings that may have been lost in translation.
And nearly halfway through the book he talks about words and their meanings, and how they’ve changed. Some of this is good, but some seems superfluous. Do a lot of people need this book to figure out that kings in ancient times weren’t just figureheads like today?
And about this time he begins to merely argue meaning and translations of words and phrases. It’s okay; it’s kind of interesting. Like talking about copiers of the Bible intently re-interpreting phrases and passages.
He has an interesting thing to say about fulfillment of prophecy in the NT. The word translated “fulfill” is more accurately translated “match”. So these passages aren’t suggesting fulfilled prophecy – just analogous (or parallel) stories and situations. Which makes a lot more sense to me. How could the New Testament writers suggest that a story completely unrelated to the coming of a Messiah be a prophecy which is fulfilled in the life of Jesus?
Chapter 24 has an interesting discussion on the virgin birth. The author states that Matthew’s writings confirm that Jesus was indeed borne of a virgin, but that nowhere in the OT was a virgin birth actually prophesied.
The Bible, It’s Laws, and It’s Teachings
This is the best, though: “…one of the most widespread ways of interpreting the Bible is to take a single account out of context and claim that Bible tells us to emulate the people in the account.”
This is what divides Christians today. And indeed, it’s the signifier of certain Christian traditions – particularly one I grew up in.
People so ready to define Biblical marriage take note: In a study of the OT laws, Hoffman says, “So we have nonconclusive examples of biblical men who had multiple wives, descriptions of how to behave with additional wives, and at least one regulation requiring multiple wives.” (Emphasis mine.) One man + one wife is a false statement.
I like that chapter 34 shows how all the scriptures used to support the prosperity gospel are taken out of context.
The Bible and Current Issues
I love how in chapter 37 he talks about men and women, citing a story (Samson’s mother) about a smart, godly woman with a dumb, lazy husband. And how Song of Solomon is about a couple (unmarried, BTW) and their sexual relationship and how they see each other as equals.
And this is fantastic:
Inequality between men and women in the Old Testament, then, seems to have been like warfare and like slavery: All three were established patterns that society would be better without.
Chapter 39, what the bible says about homosexuality, echoes what other scholarly works have said:
In short, these three passages combine to create only one clear message: Leviticus frowns on male homosexual sex. The rest—the degree to which it is undesirable, homosexuality more generally, its connection to sin, etc.—is all a matter of interpretation.
So in the end, the only truly biblical stance on homosexuality is limited to rejecting male homosexual sex with the same vehemence as, for example, clothing made from wool and linen mixtures; and to remaining open-minded about everything else. Any more specific position is an interpretation.
This was some good stuff.
I love this from the conclusion:
One sweeping gap we saw was the disconnect between our scientifically driven society and the pre-science days of the Bible. We as modern readers are like children enchanted with a shiny new toy. Our toy is science, and we can’t stop playing with it, shoving it in where it doesn’t belong, particularly into the pre-scientific Bible. In this sense, dividing the Bible into “scientific” and “unscientific” makes as little sense as doing so for art.
Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for a copy in return for an honest review.