The world created by biblical bloggers is chock full of interesting conversation. But it is too vast and variegated for any one person to keep up with. In the midst of other obligations, I sometimes find, almost by accident, a pearl of great price in the midst of much that is not. It is no different when I pick up and read a scientific journal in the field. The difference is that, in the case of more academic publications, the “much that is not” is often very long-winded and for that reason a more painful waste of time.
One example of a finely written post I just ran across is by N. T. Wrong entitled “James Barr advises Christians and Scholars to Take the Bible Literally.” He quotes Barr as follows:
In my opinion, it was a big mistake for many of the mainline religious organizations when they opposed the creationists by saying that the Bible should not be taken literally. This is not what the creationists do. It is, on the contrary, what the churches and other organisations should do: that is, to argue that, in this respect, the Bible’s figures should be taken literally, because it is when they are taken literally it becomes clear that they are not historically or scientifically true.”
The basic point that Barr was making is that correct interpretation of any text, biblical or otherwise, involves correct identification of the text’s genre. If a text’s genre is not history in the sense of chronicle, it is not taking the text literally to treat it as chronicle. It is, simply, a misreading. If a text’s genre is not science in the sense of the result of formulating a hypothesis and testing it via empirical investigation, it is not taking the text literally to treat it as science of that kind. It is, rather, a misreading.
N. T. Wrong’s conclusions, which I will now quote, are exactly wrong from a Jewish or Christian point of view, but they are logical and deserve to be addressed:
James Barr set himself against those who would construct an artificial separation of theology and science/history, realising that both stand and fall together. The attempt to defend the bible as ‘theologically true’ but not a ‘textbook’ on history or science is, first, a false dichotomy, and, second, a division that its authors simply could not have conceived of. The bible is ‘theologically’ false because it is ‘historically’ / ’scientifically’ false - if these categories are understood emically (and so, non-exclusively). Disproof of the bible’s own conception of history or science (not our categories, mind you) is disproof of its own theology. Any denial of this stems from an imposition of modern categories which attempt a separation where none was thought possible.
I agree with Wrong’s line of reasoning. The Bible is a textbook of history and science, not just theology. All three subject matters hang precisely together for the biblical authors. But Wrong does not adequately address the following question: what kind of history and what kind of science do the biblical authors traffic in?
The Bible and Science
The question of science. Genesis 1 might be called a cosmological treatise. Traces of myth are detectable, but they have been thoroughly resignified. The result is absolutely striking: the refining power of the affirmation of a single, all-powerful God is so great that Genesis 1, which stands on that assumption, succeeds as does no other text, ancient or modern, in describing an orderly, intelligible, and positively splendid creation in which humankind is given awesome responsibilities by the author of the whole. It is not too much to say that the text has a scientific cast. The text also provides cogent grounds for pursuing science in every imaginable direction.
This is not to say that Gen 1 is science as the term is usually understood. It aims higher than that. It seeks to answer questions that are beyond the purview of science as conventionally defined.
Here Thomas Aquinas got it right: theology properly understood is the queen of the sciences. From its theological viewpoint, Gen 1 is able to address questions with a full reconnaissance of data, questions which other sciences can only address in a fragmentary way. The subject matter of theology after all is the principle and author of all that is, at the very least, theology concerns, as Einstein knew and believed, "Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world." According to Gen 1, a being capable of fiat created heaven and earth and everything in them, saw what he made, and declared it good. These affirmations entail the positive goodness of the material world, its sustainability by the same immense power which created it, and the very possibility of science.
But if Gen 1 is a cosmological treatise which plays off of and reworks motifs whose origin lies in the realm of myth rather than in history as these terms are usually understood, it is nonsensical and confusing to describe Gen 1 as “historical.”
On this view of things, Genesis 1 is a supremely scientific (=wissenschaftliche) text without having to be a historical (=historische) text.
The Bible and History
The question of history. In what sense are texts like Gen 11:27-12:3 and 15:1-6 history? The problem was definitively solved by Jacob Neusner in an essay that has not received the attention it deserves. Neusner does not discuss the sense in which biblical texts are historical, but the sense in which rabbinic texts that recount the dealings of Yohanan ben Zakkai with Vespasian are historical. But Neusner’s conclusions are no less valid for the epic literature of the Bible. He claims that the rabbinic accounts are historical, not in terms of chronicle, but in a structural anthropological sort of way, however unlike the structures Claude Levi-Strauss concerned himself with. That is, the accounts are historical in terms of social conflicts they describe, the stuff of history over entire epochs. The problematization of those conflicts and their resolution is what the rabbinic accounts – and the biblical accounts - are about.
It is not the case that epic texts like those in Genesis are a-historical. They are history of another kind, in which the history of an entire people is collapsed into the life of a single progenitor and viewed, as a historian like Toynbee might put it, as a series of challenges and responses in which God the creator and sustainer of all is the one who calls and challenges and elicits a response, good or bad. It is no different in Homer's Iliad, except that a squabbling pantheon, not a single God, sustains and intervenes.
Epic literature contains more history, not less, than chronicle. Both the Bible and the Iliad explore the deep structure of history, personal and collective, in terms of a powerful metaphysic which continues to resonate with readers the world over.
James Barr, “Pre-scientific Chronology: The Bible and the Origin of the World,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 143 (1999) 379-87 (online here); Jacob Neusner, “Beyond Historicism, After Structuralism: Story as History in Ancient Judaism” Henoch 3 (1981) 171-199 [ = The 1980 Harry Sindel Memorial Lecture (Bowdoin College, Brunswick Maine, 1980], reprinted in Neusner on Judaism: History (Contemporary Thinkers on Religion: Collected Works: London: Ashgate, 2004) 242-266 (viewable in large part online here via Google books).