Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

I have lately been reading Homer’s epic poems: first The Iliad, and now I am nearly done with The Odyssey.

I figure there isn’t anyone alive today that believes that Zeus literally caused thunder in answer to a prayer, or that Athene really transformed Ulysses between having a youthful and an aged physical appearance at a whim.

Despite our understanding that these poems don’t reflect a literal truth, we still find meaning and truth in them. It is for this reason that they are read by high school and college students all over the world. This same reason drives our reading of more modern plays and novels — everything from King Lear to Catcher in the Rye. We learn something of the author’s world, something about our world, and if we are truly lucky, a deeper understanding of the universal truths of human life.

And it is with that preface that I suggest that the Old Testament — or parts of it, at least — ought to be read in the same manner.

Modern Christianity speaks of a loving, caring God, one who is deeply concerned for the wellbeing of all. Under this understanding, forgiveness is more desired than retribution, and helping the week is better than enslaving them. How then can one square that with a literal reading of the Old Testament?

This was a key question I asked over a span of perhaps 15 years. I was perplexed that the God of Love ought to turn someone into a pillar of salt for turning her head the right way, that almost all life on earth might be extinguished by a flood, that slavery is condoned and regulated, and all sorts of people being stoned to death, animals killed for no reason. In short, the God of the Torah, at least, didn’t seem to me to be even the same person as the God the Church talks about.

I raised this question with many people, and there was even a seminar on it at a convention I went to in 2001. The answers I got usually were of one of two types: 1) God is beyond our comprehension, and this is one of the mysteries we will never understand because that’s just the way it is; or 2) the arrival of Jesus changed things, and it’s impossible for a modern person to fully appreciate the laws as they existed prior to that. These are really two sides of the same stick: they’re both saying, “Yep, that’s odd. But we have to believe that the Bible is inerrant and literally true, so we just have to accept the mystery and move on.”

Except I’m not so good at accepting mysteries and moving on.

It strikes me as odd that nobody even mentioned the third option: that some of the stuff in the Old Testament is, to be blunt, made up. This even though I have come to learn later that some of those people probably believed this to be the most correct explanation.

Now, that doesn’t mean it has no value or that is doesn’t show us truth. Romeo & Juliet was made up, but we learn from it.

A typical example of this is the creation myth. There are some that are very defensive about it, perhaps thinking that it weakens their religion to admit it might not be literally true. To me, I find that insisting upon its literal truth weakens the religion; can we not see how a piece of literature speaks to us today and leave it at that? Need we say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is an inferior play because it is a work of historical fiction?

The position I suggest here is not some crazy nutjob position. Wikipedia has a concise overview of some of the scholarship surrounding these ideas.

I now count myself as somewhat inspired by Homer to read the Old Testament in the same way that I read Homer: as a story that can speak to us today, one that inspired a nation in captivity and after, and launched perhaps the most amazing religious movement in history.

I only wish that more people would admit the possibility of a non-literal reading of the Bible. This return to an earlier era of Christianity is, in my mind, the only way that Christianity can maintain its relevance in this age.

Update: A note I received suggests I ought to make a bit of a clarification. I am not bothered by the fact that people have differing opinions about the historicity of Genesis. I’m all for putting all the opinions out there for sure. I think that really the concern over whether Genesis is literally true or not is mostly irrelevant. I have no problem with Christians that find Genesis to be literally true. What I’m lamenting is the attitude that “you’re not Christian if you’re not sure that Genesis is literally true” or “saying anything else about Genesis undermines Christianity.” I believe neither of those statements, and would really rather that we collectively got past the creationism vs. evolution debate already.

Update 2: It appears that my use of a bit of technical language has caused some confusion. A creation myth can be defined as “a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe (cosmogony), often as a deliberate act by one or more deities.” It is a category of explanations. Simply calling the Genesis story a “creation myth” is an act of categorization only, and doesn’t imply anything about its accuracy or value.

105 thoughts on “Greek Mythology and the Old Testament

  1. #1 is an excellent point. How many times have churches split over what they think of as imperfections in each others’ doctrine? Or people felt estranged from churches because of not being good enough or having the “right” beliefs.

    #2 is an interesting point. It reminds me of the Socratic Paradox that I read in Plato’s Apology a few months ago. Socrates rigidly insists that he knows nothing, as part of his method of keeping an open mind and questioning things. He is told that he is the wisest man in Athens, and thinks that is odd because he knows nothing. I think that humility along those lines could serve the church well.

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  2. I found the following two books (by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein) of interest because they examine whether the Old Testament stories can be supported by recent findings in archaeology. I have long been comfortable with the concept of Genesis not being historical. But I was somewhat surprised to learn that lack of historicity extends beyond the Pentateuch all the way to the book of Kings.
    _”The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts”_
    _”David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition “_

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Thanks for the recommendations — they look interesting.

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  3. > I do not think myself qualified to decide what bits of the Bible are literally true, but I do not think it really matters most of the time.

    That implies that you don’t think it really matters whether:

    * the universe was created by an all-powerful intelligent being
    * this all-powerful creator has a direct interest in how humans live their lives
    * humans survive the death of our bodies and go on in another life
    * our fate in another life is crucially determined by what sexual acts we perform or food we eat

    You really think it doesn’t matter whether those are literally true?

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  4. John, you wrote (in a comment with no “Reply” option):

    > I don’t think the core of Christianity lies with intellectual assent to a particular creed. It is more about inward transformation and right relationships with everything.

    So, does the core of Christianity include the claim that Jesus was the son of God? Does it include the claim that he dies on the cross in order that God could forgive the sins of humanity? Does it include the claim that Jesus returned to life several days subsequent to him dying on the cross?

    It’s rather difficult to discuss things unless we agree at least on what is actually being said.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    No, it doesn’t. The core of Christianity isn’t about claims, it’s about changing yourself and our world. Claims (creeds, beliefs, whatever you want to call them) were tacked on later and aren’t really all that important, in my opinion.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    So as far as I can tell, you’re saying that the core of Christianity involves *no* claims about anything in the world.

    How, then, does it have anything to do with the Old Testament, or even the New Testament, which *does* make a great many claims about events and facts in the world?

    It seems that you’re identifying something that is totally divorced from any basis that could give it the name Christianity.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I disagree, vehemently, with your last point. I am suggesting something that was once the norm of Christianity, prior to the Romanization of it, and which also is likely to be the future (Harvey Cox is particularly informative about it). Christianity can be a faith, without a set of intellectual beliefs. The Bible informs our actions and speaks to us, but the Bible is not God.

    Saying that the “core” of a religion is about something doesn’t, by the way, exclude everything else; it is merely a statement of relative importance.

  5. > I am suggesting something that was once the norm of Christianity, prior to the Romanization of it

    How do you know this? You speak much about Christianity and the Bible, but how do you know that what you call Christianity has any basis in history?

    More importantly, how can you know whether what you call Christianity is the same as, or different from, what someone else calls Christianity?

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    Forgive me, that seems very hostile. I mean only to ask how, since you claim the Bible is *not* to be taken as expressing claims of fact, you make the factual claim that your description of Christianity “was once the norm of Christianity, prior to the Romanization of it”. How do you know this?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    There are many sources of information about this; the scholarship is wide. I am currently reading The Future of Faith by Harvard Cox, a Harvard theologian, and it is perhaps the best I have seen. He devotes the first few chapters to analyzing the two different models of faith seen over the history of Christianity: what he calls the Age of Faith, which lasted for the first 200-300 years of Christianity, and the Age of Belief, which extended from that point until roughly now.

    He notes that modern scholarship has upturned the notions of early Christianity that he learned in seminary a few decades ago.

    I have no problem with what I call Christianity being different with what others call Christianity. After all, that will inevitably occur with anything mysterious and important — and has. Pentecostals, Mennonites, Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have some pretty different ideas about Christianity. I don’t see that as bad; merely inevitable.

    Here are a few quotes from Harvey Cox:

    “It is true that for many people “faith” and “belief” are just two words for the same thing. But they are not the same, and in order to grasp the magnitude of the religious upheaval now under way, it is important to clarify the difference. Faith is about deep-seated confidence. In everyday speech we usually apply it to people we trust or the values we treasure. It is what theologian Paul Tillich (1886–1965) called “ultimate concern,” a matter of what the Hebrews spoke of as the “heart.” Belief, on the other hand, is more like opinion.”

    “The French writer Simone Weil (1909–43) also knew. In her Notebooks, she once scribbled a gnomic sentence: “If we love God, even though we think he doesn’t exist, he will make his existence manifest.””

    “Creeds are clusters of beliefs. But the history of Christianity is not a history of creeds. It is the story of a people of faith who sometimes cobbled together creeds out of beliefs. It is also the history of equally faithful people who questioned, altered, and discarded those same creeds.”

    “But both the doctrinal canons and the architectural constructions are means to an end. Making either the defining element warps the underlying reality of faith.”

    “During this first period of both explosive growth and brutal persecution, their sharing in the living Spirit of Christ united Christians with each other, and “faith” meant hope and assurance in the dawning of a new era of freedom, healing, and compassion that Jesus had demonstrated.”

    “To focus the Christian life on belief rather than on faith is simply a mistake. We have been misled for many centuries by the theologians who taught that “faith” consisted in dutifully believing the articles listed in one of the countless creeds they have spun out. But it does not.”

    “Jews always say their religion is best understood not as a creed, but as a way of life. Slowly it dawned on me that the same is true of my religion. The earliest term used to describe it in the New Testament is “The Way.”8 Once I realized that Christianity is not a creed and that faith is more a matter of embodiment than of axioms, things changed. I began to look at people I met in a new way. Some of the ones I admired most were “believers” in the conventional sense, but others were not.”

    I’d highly recommend this book for more insight on the perspective I’m advancing, even if you turn out to disagree with it.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    > [Harvard Cox] devotes the first few chapters [of “The Future of Faith”] to analyzing the two different models of faith seen over the history of Christianity: what he calls the Age of Faith, which lasted for the first 200-300 years of Christianity, and the Age of Belief, which extended from that point until roughly now.

    I’m unable to find excerpts of this book that deal with the questions I’m asking: how is this known to be so? That is, what evidence do you have (from Cox, or elsewhere) that the many factual claims made in the Bible were not taken as fact by early Christians?

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  6. Well Ben, IMO you have blown the lid off the proverbial can of worms. I sent this to John privately:

    “IMO, empirical evidence, logic and reason calls the usefulness of current
    organized religions into great doubt. Not that our Christian congregations
    cannot or do not serve a good and appropriate role in society but the irony
    of them claiming to guide our spiritual lives but actually thwarting us
    instead is most sad. Fortunately church often provides a (unintended good
    consequence) critical social support system for us-often while
    poopooing/downplaying the importance of that (very) aspect. I believe there is a
    creator/God/Higher Power that we have no specific knowledge of…who must be
    sorely disappointed in our spirituality. And while I believe it would be
    really neat to know how we arrived on this little planet I am mostly okay
    with my ignorance in this regard. But that we have strapped ourselves with
    these God-awful (pun intended) organized religions with all these half-baked
    concoctions of explanations for our existence does not reflect kindly on us.
    It is mind-numbing that (“Christian”) folks should have such a problem with
    being honest and stating clearly “WE DO NOT KNOW!!!!” And I believe GOD is
    okay with us discussing this in this manner…certainly has to be preferable
    to the “organized religion” dogmatic garbage. I believe in an intelligent
    design of some sort but I make no claims as to who/what this entity is.

    I am ready for a post-religion world where we nurture the goodness that our
    creator built into us and simply and humbly acknowledge our fallibilities and
    limitations…and ignorance.

    Faith, hope and charity…but the greatest of these is charity. Well, at
    least, they got something right :) It is most curious that we humans
    require love and hope to live physically. But maybe y’all can help me with the value of “faith”. We have
    this intuitive sense of right and wrong…but what (the hell) does faith
    have to do with anything here??????????????????? This question, as much as
    anything, calls the validity of our religions into question for me. I tell
    people that all they need to know is “Love the Lord your God with all you
    heart, soul and might and your neighbor as yourself”…the end…the rest of
    “it” is a useless, harmful, destructive distraction.”

    So: I was raised in the “spiritual” tradition of Anabaptist Christianity and claim to meet the definition of being a Christian. The fact remains that my claim is arguable because many would disagree. Many would claim that I am a “Humanist”. I would not disagree…don’t see the conflict here. I will argue that acknowledging our humanness and our lack of knowledge of God actually brings one closer to God than the religions humans have otherwise constructed. I believe a sense of integrity and truth have been innately built into us by our creator and the most authentic Christian imperative is to strive to live out those principles…and I think this is what John’s point is as well-correct me if I am wrong. What Jesus actually meant in his teachings is surely debatable…and we can chase each other around this table ad nausea. Let me get out of this thing by simply returning to what I stated in my earlier post, “the Bible is a ‘figure it out’ work”…written by men who were created by God….but they are no different than you and I…

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  7. How about a fourth option, both the Old Testament and the New Testament are made up?

    There’s a danger in choosing a non-literal reading of the Bible: how do you know you interpretation is the One True Way?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    How do you know there is a One True Way?

    Humanity seems not to agree on one.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    The scriptures make a great deal of factual claims. Do you think it matters whether your interpretation of those claims match reality?

    If you do not think it matters, how is that different from delusion?

    If you do think it matters, on what basis do you determine whether your interpretation of scripture matches reality?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    My point was that I have no basis to claim that the Christian scriptures have a monopoly on truth. Likewise, I have no basis to claim that science or Buddhism has a monopoly on truth.

    Having said that, is there truth in the Christian Way? Sure. There is also truth in science and, I’m sure, in Buddhism, Beethoven, and Shakespeare.

    I am somewhat conflicted about your first question. On the one hand, we are asking questions about things that are definitionally beyond our ability to understand. So I would maintain that on a certain level, it is impossible for us to achieve an understanding that matches reality. The best we can do is approximate reality. Towards that end, we can rely on the text itself, as well as corroborating evidence about the times and place — historians have a lot to tell us, as Harvey Cox points out.

    The conflict comes about when I think of people that have done things based upon an interpretation that I think modern scholarship cannot support. I think, for instance, of the execution of “heretics”, the fact that Christians have started numerous unnecessary wars, and some modern Christians supporting discrimination against homosexuals. These, to me, are at least partly product of excessive reliance upon doctrine, perhaps partly a product of human greed and hunger for power, and partly due to insufficient reliance upon inward transformation (“The Way”).

    As to the factual claims in the Bible, I think first of all we need to get beyond the point of whether the claims were meant to be factual, and move to the point of how the Bible informs our lives today. So, in a sense, all of the above is irrelevant.

    roy_hu Reply:

    Let me ask another question: what beliefs distinguish you, a Christian, from a non-Christian?

    You said that “the core of Christianity isn’t about claims, it’s about changing yourself and our world”. I don’t think I’ve ever met a single Christian who shares this view (I came to the US 5 years ago and lived in Virginia ever since, and before then I never met a Christian).

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I would first restate: Despite what may look like 1700 years of evidence to the contrary, the core of Christianity is not about beliefs. It’s about The Way, the inner transformation, and about bringing God’s Kingdom of peace on earth.

    Creeds and beliefs mattered little during the early history of Christianity. Harvey Cox is particularly informative on this point, pointing out that there was no such thing as heresy before about 350, and also pointing out that Christianity lived in a multi-religious part of the world. I see no problem with Christianity having fuzzy lines of demarcation from other religions, and in fact, if you look closely at it, it always has. Where does Judaism end and Christianity begin, for instance?

    There are a great many Christians that share the view that “the core of Christianity isn’t about claims, it’s about changing yourself and our world.” To name a few prominent thinkers, I’d name Marcus Borg, Huston Smith, and Harvey Cox. I think that you could even find broad agreement from the likes of N. T. Wright and C. S. Lewis with the broad strokes of that sentiment at least.

    The confusion of faith with belief, and the elevation of belief as somehow important along with the creeds, has done a tremendous disservice to Christianity.

    Why should I be concerned about distinguishing Christians from non-Christians? I’m out there to change the world. If I call it “Jesus work” and a Buddhist and a Muslim do it alongside me, maybe they have a different name for it, but why should that concern me?

    In The Future of Faith, Harvey Cox describes a meeting of Christians in Hong Kong:

    “It was also clear to me that they thought arguing over doctrines and beliefs was too “Western” and a little boring. Their idea of interfaith dialogue was to work with their fellow Asians of whatever religion to advance the Kingdom that JEsus had inspired them, as Christians, to strive for, regardless of what the others called it… They seemed more attuned to the element of mystery at the core of Christianity and to its vision of justice. They were also clearly impatient with many of the disputes that preoccupy the different wings of the American churches.”

    roy_hu Reply:

    That’s a very honest answer, and I appreciate your frankness. No offense here, but it’s just too hard for me to accept your definition as Christianity, based on my conversations with Christians here. Probably they’re just less open-minded and more conservative. I don’t know about you, but here in Virginia, being a non-Christian is kinda a shameful thing to the Christians. As a foreinger, I often compromise and pretend to enjoy their nonsensical words.

    So, do you just think of Jesus as a very good teacher? Do you believe that God is omnipotent, that he created us, that our ancestors sinned against him, and that Jesus died so that we can reunite with God? If you believe these things, why do you then reject some other factual claims? If you don’t, then why read the Bible? You could probably look into other religions, or even make up your own religion.

    Again, thanks for your openness and the thought-provoking discussion. You’ve changed my impression of Christians.

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Roy,

    No offense taken. I completely understand why you have the impression you do. I live in Kansas, where I think there is much the same culture in a way.

    “Christian” is a very broad label. The church as a whole is incredibly diverse, and sadly also incredibly fractured. I’m not sure, but I think you’re describing a set of Christians known as fundamentalists. I disagree with a lot of what they say, though I must say that I know some of them personally and have known them to be good, well-meaning people. Some are open-minded, though I grant that the position that there are certain non-negotiable aspects of religion makes it hard to see that (and it isn’t always there, in truth.)

    I would caution you, however, against drawing conclusions about Christianity as a whole, or even protestants as a whole, based on your experience in one area. Christianity in Virginia probably looks a lot different than it does in Portland, Rome, or Istanbul. Or even Kansas, in some ways.

    I proceed to your second paragraph with some hesitation. I will try to give you honest answers, but with the disclaimer that questions about “what do you believe” have often led to division and exclusion, and ultimately are, to me, of secondary importance.

    Yes, I think the Jesus of the Bible was indeed a very good and wise teacher. I think that his example — often called the Way — of inward transformation, right relationships with others, peace and justice work, etc. is a model that is vivid and moving to us today.

    As to the questions about omnipotence and the like — my most honest answer is that “I don’t know for sure, nobody can, and that we must find a way to live life given these facts.” If we accept the possibility of an existence of some sort more than the physical reality that meets our eyes — and I believe we must — then we have to accept the possibility of things that are real but which we cannot understand. The very concept of omnipotence seems to boggle the mind, and I don’t know that a human mind can really understand what it means.

    To get right down to it, I don’t think it matters what shade of omnipotence God is, what his exact involvement in our creation/evolution was (if any), or the precise nature of the relationship between Jesus and God. These are all things that the human race is ill-equipped to answer anyhow.

    The fortunate thing for us is that literal facts aren’t the only, or even best, ways of learning valuable truths. As I’ve pointed out before, we can learn from Shakespeare and Mozart. Here is where the Bible (and other sources) shine. If you read it with an eye not for a history lesson, but for what we can learn from a beautiful and moving story, what inspiration we can draw, then there is where it is at its most powerful and valuable. If we venerate Homer for the Iliad and the Odyssey and how they still speak to use today about the human condition, how much more moving must be the Bible, assembled over centuries, telling the stories of a people? It is far more an epic than Homer, and calls us to a higher purpose more effectively.

    I owe this thinking in large part to Marcus Borg’s eye-opening book The Heart of Christianity. He strongly suggests that we not worry ourselves so much about the factual debate, because it really isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. If we have made the right changes in ourselves and in our world, what does it matter if we are slightly mistaken about some obscure theology?

    Harvey Cox added insight to that, pointing out that until the Romanification of Christianity, the earliest Christians didn’t agree about probably any of the questions you posed (even about what should go in the Bible), and it wasn’t a big problem for them until church leaders started getting real power. In short, this concern over belief seems to me to be a human invention rather than a divine one.

    Thank you very much for your kind words and interesting comments.

    roy_hu Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts in a greater detail. I wonder, have you ever looked at other religions (maybe better described as philosophical systems)? Confucianism avoids talking about Gods and focuses on the “changing oneself and the world” part. Taoism has many Gods. Buddhism doesn’t really worship any God; everyone can be his own God. I would label myself between an atheist and a pantheist.

    PS: I would love to see more technical posts, especially on Haskell!

    John Goerzen Reply:

    I haven’t looked at other religions in any great detail. Huston Smith in Why Religion Matters recounted a story of a Methodist theologian meeting the Dalai Lama. The Methodist asked, “What must I do to achieve enlightenment?” The Dalai Lama replied, “Continue seeking along your own path.” In other words, Smith thinks that the world’s major enduring religions are different paths up a single mountain, and once you’ve chosen a path, it’s best to stick with it rather than go all the way back down and start with another one. I think this explanation makes a lot of sense. I’ve started (though perhaps barely) with my path, and it makes the most sense for me to stick with it. This does not imply, however, that my path is somehow universally superior to the others; just that it’s superior *for me* since I’ve already made some progress along it.

  8. I’m deliberately avoiding “truth”, since you have what I consider to be an unworkably vague definition of it. That’s why I’m speaking specifically here about our interpretations and their conformance to reality.

    > On the one hand, we are asking questions about things that are definitionally beyond our ability to understand.

    I’m talking about the factual claims made in the testaments. There are many, and there are a great many of them that are about things well *within* our understanding: the structure of the cosmos, the movement and position of astronomical bodies, the shape of our planet, the nature of species on this planet, the distribution of people and languages, the events of history.

    Those are the things that I’m asking about at the moment. Do you think it matters whether the factual claims made in the testaments, on matters that clearly are within our understanding today, conform to reality?

    Reading your opinions here, I honestly do not know whether you think it matters whether these claims conform to reality or not. I’d love to get a straight answer.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    To be blunt, it’s hard to give a straight answer to what I believe is a misleading and irrelevant question.

    Let’s pick a specific example — since you speak of the cosmos, let’s look at the creation story in Genesis. You might ask whether it matters if the “factual claims made” are within our understanding today, conforming to reality.

    To that, I would make two points:

    1) That those were not intended to be factual claims in the first place;

    2) Moreover, the question of whether they were intended to be factual claims, or whether they are indeed factual claims, is irrelevant.

    In other words, the question we ought to be asking is not “what happened?” but “how should we live?” How does that story speak to and inform our lives today? That is the question that matters, not the question of whether the universe was created in 144 hours. In short, this whole debate of factual claims misses the point.

    So, to summarize my answer to your question:

    1) I think that you are mistaking ancient literature. Homer’s Iliad reads like it is making factual claims, but nobody thinks that the entire story is. It’s describing humanity and its relationship to a mystery, its struggle and its hubris. So I invite you to revisit whether factual claims were intended when you think they were.

    2) There are many ways to learn truths. Archeology, science, and history are some. So are poetry, theater, and music. Can we learn as much from Shakespeare as from Newton? If so, then how ought you to read religious texts? Can you get meaning from them if you read them as poetry?

    3) The importance of the Bible is how it illustrates we ought to live our lives, and how it illustrates what God is all about. Historicity is secondary.

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  9. > Homer’s Iliad reads like it is making factual claims, but nobody thinks that the entire story is.

    I’m trying very hard to distinguish “what we think” from “what the text itself says”. Homer’s Iliad *does* make factual claims, and so does the Old Testament. I would say, whether those factual claims correspond to reality *does* matter. Would you?

    I really want that question addressed before any consideration of how people in any particular age treat the text. *Does it matter* whether the claims in these texts conform to reality?

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Ben, I feel like you are trying to ask me a question I’ve said repeatedly I can’t answer because it is ill-framed and doesn’t matter anyhow. Now that’s fine, I’m perfectly prepared to agree to disagree on this issue, and that’s not a problem. But I want to say that continuing to ask that question in the same manner isn’t going to further the discussion.

    I mostly disagree with you that the Iliad makes factual claims. You are reading it as if it does, but that doesn’t mean that it was intended to do so.

    If you go to the library and pick out a copy of Jurassic Park, and read it, it might look to you like it was making factual claims. It might look like it described some incredible disaster. A historian 2000 years from now looking back might wonder if we really did bring dinosaurs back to life in the 1990s, or debate whether that part of the story was invented but the other people were real, etc. Yet today we are happy to say, “Jurassic Park is a work of fiction, and although it reads as if it is making factual claims of real events, we have a cultural understanding that it is not.”

    Now here’s the key part.

    If you ask me, “Does it matter whether the factual claims in Jurassic Park conform to reality?” I would have to say, “I do not believe Jurassic Park makes factual claims; therefore, there is no possible answer to your question.”

    More importantly, since we (I hope!) can agree that Jurassic Park makes no factual claims, we can also agree (I hope) that its value (such as it is) has its source in some other factor.

    Now, I will admit that the case of the Bible is not as simple as a book conveniently located for us in the Fiction section of a library, but hopefully this example illustrates what I’ve been trying to say.

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    Ben Finney Reply:

    > Ben, I feel like you are trying to ask me a question I’ve said repeatedly I can’t answer because it is ill-framed and doesn’t matter anyhow.

    I don’t see how the question is ill-framed: Does it matter whether the factual claims made in ancient works (like The Iliad or the Old Testament) conform to reality? In saying the above, you appear to be answering it with a direct “yes”. If so, I thank you.

    > I mostly disagree with you that the Iliad makes factual claims. You are reading it as if it does

    No, that’s exactly my point. The Iliad, like the Old Testament, *does* make factual claims: these events happened, these events were observed and testified. Completely independent of belief, the *text itself* makes those claims.

    It is our interpretation that determines whether we take those factual claims as conforming with reality. But the text, taken as it is, makes statements of fact.

    There is also a *completely separate* question of our interpretation of the original intent of the writers. You keep jumping to that question, but it’s not one I’m yet asking. More importantly, it is an utterly different question from: what does *the text itself* claim as fact?

    Here’s what I’m asking you, and attempting to tease loose from any muddying about intents of authors or interpretations. These claims of fact conform with reality to some degree, from “not at all” to “perfectly”. To what extent does it *matter*, to humanity now, whether those claims (recorded in the text itself and independent of the views of the writers in making these texts) conform with reality?

    I’ve tipped my hand and said that I think their conformance (or otherwise) with reality matters. But before getting into why that is, I’d like your opinion.

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  10. Late to the party, but I think you might enjoy reading Karen Armstrong’s work. She’s a biblical scholar and theologian who argues for a return to a more sophisticated, less literal view of the Bible and other religious works.

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  11. Ben,

    Let me just storm in here, two weeks (plus) after the thread shut down.

    You’re coming off as a bit of an evangelical skeptic. That is to say, argumentative with hints of proselytization.

    Whether or not John is an atheist is not the most important thing about his world-view. I say this as a militant atheist myself–“militant” in the sense of Dawkins and Hitchens, in these sense that religious belief as we’re experiencing it today is causing a significant number of large social and political problems around the globe.

    But those negative consequences don’t spring directly from a belief in God. A person can believe in God, or even in the divinity of Jesus. These positions do not ineluctably lead to any creed of political or moral consequence, or to any particular form of social or political conduct.

    That is precisely why fundamentalist evangelicals demand subscription to a much larger package.

    I do admit to a bit of Manicheanism; I do see the world as largely arranged into a two-sided struggle. The labels I attach to the good guys and the bad guys shift as I make inevitable concessions to a more complex reality, but one conflict I don’t see as essential is theism vs. atheism.

    I have a much bigger problem with someone who denies the capacity of science to illuminate meaningful facts–even truths–about the universe around us than I do with someone who embraces that power. A person who rejects the Abrahamic God in favor of magic crystals is, on an individual basis, just as opposed to human intellectual maturation as a Bible-thumping creationist.

    I have a much bigger problem with someone who feels LGBT people should disfranchised or disadvantaged than I do with someone who sees them as politically as social on par with boring straight people. Whether someone serves the agenda of oppressing gays due to a sincere belief in the moral assessment of some passage in Exodus, or due to a political calculation to win an election, that stance is reprehensible.

    None of this is to say that I don’t think religious belief isn’t correlated with reactionary politics and anti-intellectualism. I do think they are correlated–but much, much more so with some religious traditions than with others. Once you zoom out to encompass all forms of religious belief I think your coefficient of correlation is getting pretty small.

    All this is to say, accept your intellectual allies where you find them. If you want to make the world a better place, focus on the essential. If you could wave a magic wand–he said ironically–and delete the notion of God from everyone’s heads overnight, the world would not look all that different tomorrow. Most people’s intellectual processes are not terribly coherently constructed. Most people are not Wittgenstein. Most people have patterns of thought and feeling which they follow unconsciously. Cynically, I suspect the people who do the most damage to human culture and civilization in the name of God don’t actually spend very much time thinking about God, or what He wants. By contrast, they have very clear ideas about what *they* want and are focused and motivated on achieving it.

    A bit of that same focus would serve atheists and secularists well. Christians like John and my friend Stuart Parker are not the opposition. And, selfishly, I get a lot more value out of in-depth conversations exploring my differences with them than I would from being able to count them as teammates in the Infidels Football Club.

    Which isn’t to say there’d be NO satisfaction in the latter. ;-)

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I’d have to second that sentiment in your last couple of paragraphs. Indeed, the reason I post these things in public isn’t that I love to be attacked in public by those that know more theology and philosophy than I; it’s because I enjoy and find valuable the entire discussion. And, in truth, there is value to people finding flaws in my thinking.

    Your statement “religious belief as we’re experiencing it today is causing a significant number of large social and political problems around the globe” is an interesting one, and deserves a bit of attention.

    I suspect that by “religious belief” you are thinking of “religious fundamentalism”, as manifest in certain quarters of at least three religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. And, if we are to take that more limited view of the problem, I agree 100%.

    It might be hard to see, but there is a global liberal religious left, and in many countries (especially in South America and certain parts of Europe) it is more powerful than the fundamentalist religious right. But even outside those narrow confines, there are plenty of people — even fundamentalists — that are inspired by religion to do good.

    The other interesting trend is that “religious belief as we experience it today” is certainly on the way out, and perhaps one could even say that religious belief itself is on the way out. However, religion is on the rise in the world, so the conclusion must be that the shape of religion is changing, and I think for the better. We are seeing the last bitter defensive crouch of a certain side of several religions that is fading. I hope that within my lifetime, creationism museums will be a thing of the past, but not because of the demise of religion.

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  12. Hi John,

    Thanks for following up!

    I don’t blame you for not staying on my road 100%. I haven’t decided myself, yet, whether religious belief is particularly susceptible to dogmatization. Thanks to the books that were laying around the house when I was young, I am deeply familiar with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, and am all-too-aware of how it came to resemble a fundamentalist religious cult (complete with a sexual scandal at the top of the organization). It wasn’t Heaven’s Gate or FLDS nuts but it was about as close as you can get without breaking any actual laws.

    It should go without saying that ideologies which have no essential or specific religious component can be perverted to terrible ends. In fact this, with citations to Mao and Stalin, is one of the favorite arguments of fundies who take offense at the proposition that Christian churches have countenanced slaughter. I think it’s a bit grotesque to get into a pissing war over such things when both pans of the scale are piled with millions of corpses.

    I am conscious, too, of the fact that scientific teachings can be dogmatized. The saving grace appears to be that the better educated you are in science, the more you learn about the sorts of events that Thomas Kuhn writes about. You learn to be critical, even self-critical, and acquire some humility. (At the very worst, the field is self-correcting due to the Planck Effect: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” This has got to be more difficult to accomplish in belief systems in which eternal life, eternal truths, and even papal infallibility.)

    Then, too, I keep running into people who’ve been to seminary of whom I could say the same. Some of the best conversations I’ve had on religion in my life have been with people who have received advanced degrees in the subject from religiously-affiliated schools.

    Shorter version: my apprehension about religion in general is in significant measure a bellyfeel and I want to be frank about that.

    I guess what I’m after is an anti-ideology serum. Or, failing that, an ideological phenolphthalein which I can use to determine which thought systems are going to lead to human misery rather than the common weal.

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  13. “…whether religious belief is particularly susceptible to dogmatization.” Without a dogma one has no identity or ‘brand’ to market to others. I remain convinced, as Rand said, religion is primitive philosophy. Both attempt to influence the behavior of others and economize the blowback from coercion. For example, “Thou shall not kill” (unless, and only, if you accept the exceptions our dogma provides). But if you kill outside of our exceptions, then we give ourselves a license to kill you…if it pleases us..or show ‘mercy’ if that pleases us. Carrot and stick is dogma itself.

    One sect will beat you with the carrot and another sect will beat you with the stick. Both are dogma.

    I enjoyed the discussion. It left no bruises.

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  14. I’m probably many days late on this thread but I find it to be some of the most useful discussion I’ve seen of late.

    The reason I think all of this discussion is relevant is because some of us who grew up as “Christians” are having a hard time accepting the Bible as inerrant truth and are searching for a place to fit in. We believe in the core tenants of Jesus’ teachings and we may even have faith that in fact he is the savior. But we internally understand (and sometime agonize) that our other beliefs (or perhaps questions on beliefs) don’t permit full entrance into the “Christians” club. I think we just want someone well schooled in theology to validate our way of thinking and say you have just as much of a chance at salvation as does any “Christian” (or ideally any religion).

    The more I read the OT and the more I research the historical accuracy of those events the more I’m left scratching my head. And I’m having a heck of a time finding a group that shares my faith and my beliefs.

    I was probably better off back when mindlessly I thought babies should be baptized, if you just go to religious class they’ll let you eat this little wafer and you’re good until next weekend, and that God actually cared if your football team won the big game and you scored 3 touchdowns.

    But somehow I have to think that God really does demand the we dig deeper, ask the hard questions, and be prepared that the answer may not be in agreement with how the western “religious mainstream” interpret the bible.

    Thanks for the thought provoking thread.

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  15. okay. let me explain something to you to answer your 6th paragraph statement. God gives all of us humans a free will. point blank. slavery was condoned and regulated for example because of humans wish to do so. God’s law was not intended for us to use slavery in such a manner but of course us being the great humans we are had to disobey his law. which is why you will find in most of the bible stories we were condemned in the first place, because of disobedience. Its like our parents. they set down rules for us to follow but if we dont obey them there will be consequences. but whatever God does he’s just in whatever he does because he is all knowing and bc we are HIS creation. however, of course none of what i said will be recieved by you if you dont believe in or have faith in God in the first place which it sounds to me like you dont.

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  16. oh yea. and another thing…john thinks he’s educated but he is totally ignorant. i can rebut ANY attack he tries to make against the bible. if you have a question john or some kind of misunderstanding of how these biblical things work, please feel free to contact me at any time at: music-peace-love@hotmail.com

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I am puzzled — though honestly not surprised — why you think I am attacking the Bible. Is it truly an attack to state that I think that some things are more instructive taken allegorically instead of literally, or that the question of literalness is really moot and standing in the way of progress? To state that there were many sources available, some of them incomplete, sometimes different?

    If you take everything in the OT as literal, how can you conclude anything but a vengeful God that would turn a person into a pillar of salt? I think it is only by letting go of the literal interpretation and digging into the story that it becomes truly meaningful and instructive.

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  17. John,

    Please forgive me for responding a year late, and also for not reading all of the earlier discussion. Your retrospective on 2010 posted late Jan. 2011 pointed to this, and this is an area in which I have an opinion and feel inclined to share.

    I hope and expect your mythological reading of the Bible bore fruit. You don’t really say one way or another in your retrospective. As a convert to Judaism, I think you’re right on the money. In fact, let me recommend the book “How to Read the Jewish Bible” by Marc Zvi Brettler for exactly this analysis. Brettler’s premise is that the Bible is a collection of many different kinds of literature. Some of it is historical, some poetic, some obviously fiction, allegory or fable. His method is to discuss different books or passages in the context of their genre, based mainly on historical or linguistic analysis of the text. I think this gets one a lot further than starting with the conclusion (“this is an inerrant text”) and trying to arrive at first principles (“G-d is infinitely good”).

    My own feelings are that there is less of a contradiction between Hebrew and Christian G-ds than you see (or saw?). The Jewish perspective on the Torah is that it is really the history of our relationship with G-d, and that G-d has personality traits and you clearly see evolution and growth on both sides of that relationship. I think many of the problems you are seeing arise from the dichotomy between Greek and Hebraic world views. Thinking of G-d in terms of philosophical absolutes like omniscience, omnibenevolence and omnipottence is certainly a foreign mind set to that of the authors of the Hebrew Bible. However, these ideas arrive with Christianity and neoplatonism. Growing up in the West, we all absorb this world view to a lesser or greater extent.

    I think it would be fruitful for Christians to be mindful of the Greek framing of their revelation when doing a close analysis on the Hebrew revelation, and cut the Hebrew a little slack for having different priorities. Working out the contradictions wasn’t as high a priority for my ancestors as narrating the history of the relationship and its growing pains. There are also a greater diversity of authors, genres, styles and preoccupations in the Hebrew Bible, simply because it was cobbled together from a wider number of sources over a wide area and a longer period of time. We are more distantly removed from them in time and mindset, and have more trouble discovering their intentions.

    Anyway, I hope you don’t mind one more comment on this most interesting of topics, and I appreciate your leaving this post open for comments for so long. All the best!

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Hi Daniel,

    I much appreciate the detailed comment and perspective. I particularly find the perspective of finding “evolution and growth on both sides of the relationship” to be particularly thought-provoking.

    Due to various events, and in particular my interest in amateur radio and reading of War and Peace, I haven’t yet delved into this project as I had intended. Hopefully this year.

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  18. I have read all down through these strings and wondered how soon Kant would get into the picture. I believe that every Christian tenet regarding what constitutes a “right action” can be reasoned out as a Kantian “Categorical Imperative” without resorting to the trump card of religion. The OT is utterly undecipherable by any modern rational standard, especially those that have any dependence on human beings having rights. Viewing these stories as mythology (i.e. deep truth) without regarding them as literal historical truth seems to be the only approach able to reconcile with Christianity (or modern philosophy).
    I am ill at ease hearing utilitarian arguments (God doing the most good for the most humans) put forth as justification for OT accounts of God’s actions. God as beneficent despot. Hmmm.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    I am also ill at ease with the utilitarian OT justifications. I usually find utilitarian arguments easier to formulate and defend than non-consequentialist ones, but in this case I think they fall down. Perhaps because they fall into one of the classic utilitarian controversies (that utilitarianism could be used to condone murder). Perhaps also because they have to admit on the surface that, say, murdering all the people in some towns doesn’t seem justifiable on utilitarian grounds, but then turn around and insist that, despite all appearances, it IS justifiable on utilitarian grounds, and we would all agree that was the case if we had a God-sized intellect.

    Linking Christian and Kantian ethics is an interesting approach which I hadn’t heard of before, but I must say I like it. I think you are probably right overall.

    If I’m remembering this stuff right — it’s been a little while — there are some situations that I think Kant doesn’t deal with particularly well, but they may also be situations that the NT also doesn’t particularly address. One such hypothetical runs like this: you are a switchman on a railroad line. Heading towards you is a passenger train with broken brakes, speeding along the tracks. Just past the railroad switch is a pedestrian, fallen down on the tracks, and unable to get up in time to avoid getting hit by a train. Your only options are to set the switch such that the train kills the pedestrian but will eventually glide the train to a stop, or to put it on a different track that will send it hurtling down the side of the mountain resulting in the deaths of 100 people 2 minutes later. Do you treat the lone pedestrian as a means towards the end of saving 100 other lives, or save that life at the cost of 100 others?

    Utilitarianism and Kantian analysis seem to produce different results here, though which one is “clearly right” appears to be in the eye of the beholder.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Incidentally, “My God is a beneficent despot” would make an excellent bumper sticker.

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    Dwight Yoder Reply:

    The use of stock situations to define moral dilemmas and evaluate outcomes is interesting, but the various scenarios all require that we know outcomes before they happen. I use a variety of these ‘pediastrian falling on train track,’ ‘pushing pedestrian onto train track,’ ‘pushing trap door switch so pediastrian falls onto train track’ scenarios when talking with my son. He actually enjoys that stuff. The utilitarian version of the Good Shepherd might go something like, ‘…if you cripple one sheep and toss it to the wolves while fleeing with the rest of the flock…’
    Excepting most of what Paul wrote, the NT is pretty much anti-utilitarian and utterly counterintuitive from a utilitarian point of view. Taking back the prodigal son or paying the workers the same whether they worked one hour or ten probably did not produce a “greater good’ benefit.
    Here is the test for these scenarios. Let each begin with “The kindgom of heaven is like … scenario x….”

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    The sort of armchair philosopher opinion I’ve developed is that I can’t take either utilitarianism or Kantian analysis to give the right answer 100% of the time. Having scenarios that illuminate (what may be) counterexamples to a theory is useful to me to illustrate what its limits are. The scenarios for utilitarianism (would it conclude it is right to kill a person for his organs to save 10 lives, for instance) also are useful in the same way.

    Excellent, and thought-provoking point, about the NT being anti-utilitarian. The paying of the workers especially is a clear violation of rule utilitarianism in particular in my mind. I think that dissonance has always been with us — the story is so counter-intuitive to our utilitarian analysis, even if we don’t recognize that we want to perform a utilitarian analysis of it — that it grabs our attention.

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    Dwight Yoder Reply:

    Really like the statement that neither mode of evaluation “gives the ‘right’ answer 100% of the time.” There is a lot of good questioning going on, especially by you, and the point of it all really is not to change anyone’s mind (though that may happen). For me the object of considering an argument from different points of view is to figure out why I believe what I believe. Lacking a unifying “theory of everything” I fall back to my high school history teacher’s position that “we choose the inconsistencies we can live with.”
    And sometimes the inconsistencies I can live with change. As Groucho Marx said: “These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

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  19. Hello John,

    The Bible should be read carefully as it is pretty tough.
    We have the Holy Fathers that fought for a few hundred years to explain the Bible to the people who were not monks or preasts.
    Now a few more centuries later we have their writings along with the advice we can get from the people who choose to live their life fully dedicated to Hrist.

    The Exodus can have many meanings, the literal one – the historical story and a more profound one.

    About the profound, spiritual meanings, one of the saints in the 4th centry wrote a book.
    This book is called „The live of Moses”.
    It is written by the Saint Gregory of Nyssa.
    A little about him you can learn from here:
    http://en.orthodoxwiki.org/Gregory_of_Nyssa
    And the book, translated in english you can find it in here:
    http://www.orthodoxbookstore.org/gregoryofnyssa-thelifeofmoses.aspx

    Anyway, if you are trully curious about what Cristianity truly is, visit for at least a week the Holy Mountain Athos in Greece.

    May God be with the.

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  20. For years as an agnostic I did not have the diplomacy or politeness you expressed to even believe that Genesis 1 was a myth or mystical — I just saw it as a fairytale and lie. Recently, I wrote a paper entitled “Is Genesis 1 Believable?” I will be glad to send it to you for consideration (Word doc. File). Thank you for your open mindedness to consider a new viewpoint.

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    John Goerzen Reply:

    Sure, by all means send it along. I’d be happy to have a conversation.

    Reply

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