Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Bible's Human Origins: Genesis 1

Many Christadelphians approach the Bible from the perspective that it is the inerrant word of God, and thus free of any errors or contradictions. I grew up with this belief as well.

But is it justified?

If we look objectively at the Bible, does it hold up as a reliable source of information? Can it be trusted?

I want to provide an overview of the entire Bible and highlight several major problems with it. Obviously this will take some time and several articles. Some of this material may be new to you, but where possible I will provide links and suggestions for further reading. Feel free to ask me for more info if there is anything I left out.

Table Of Contents

This article is the first in a series that looks at the human origins of the biblical texts.



Inerrancy

For a start, the Bible does not actually claim to be inerrant. Not once. It does claim to contain the "word of the Lord", but you are free to interpret that how you like. It does not describe in any way the process by which God's words might have ended up in writing. Probably the closest hint is in 1 Peter 1:21 where it says that "men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (NET). But that verse says it is referring to prophecy, and it is quite obvious that merely speaking is not sufficient to get words onto a page. Again, the Bible never fully describes the process by which the words can be said to be the words of God.

2 Tim 3:16 mentions the word "inspiration" but does not define it. So it is anyone's guess what that word means in the context of that verse.

Yet Christadelphians are bound by their Statement of Faith to believe in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. It is right there in the Foundation Clause. Look it up. So already we have strong evidence that Christadelphians are required to believe something that the Bible does not claim in any way, and some people have been disfellowshipped over this. I personally was threatened with disfellowship on this point as well (I ended up being disfellowshipped for accepting evolution instead).

But is that all we can say about inerrancy?

No. Not even close.

Genesis

Just like many Christadelphians, my introduction to the book of Genesis was in Sunday School, as a child. I learned about creation, not as a part of Israel's cultural history or tradition, but as literal world history! But scholarship has not stood still on this, and there is a lot more behind these texts than what my Sunday School teachers knew. If you love irony, consider that Christadelphians like to call themselves Bible Scholars, but most of them don't have any idea what the actual field of biblical scholarship can tell us about the Bible.

In fact, in the age of information, these details and so much more are available to anyone who is curious, but sadly very few Christadelphians are interested in actually discovering the truth about the Bible. Many would rather believe what is comfortable, and assume that the person who taught them was somehow an oracle of wisdom (even though they never did any research either), than to question and find out for themselves. To do that would mean running the risk of discovering they were wrong. The horror! I'm also quite baffled by the fact that people would apparently trust their own modern interpretation of a translation of an ancient book of dubious or unknown origins, over evidence they can see for themselves with their own eyes, for example by visiting their local museum.

Then again, I once thought like that. I was wrong. Being wrong is an opportunity to learn something new.

Genesis was not the original story

In 1875, scholars discovered some clay tablets in some ruins of an old library in Nineveh. The tablets contained fragments of a text written in Akkadian, known as the Enuma Elish. "Enuma Elish" simply means "When on high" and is derived from the opening line of the text. Most scholars date the text (not the tablets) to around the 18th - 16th centuries BCE.

"Many scholars hold that the first of the two creation stories in the Book of Genesis was probably derived from the older Mesopotamian creation myth "Enuma Elish," or its predecessor. (The first biblical creation story is found in Genesis 1, in which God, or Elohim, creates the heavens and the earth first. Genesis 2 tells an apparently different version.) 
According to this theory, the vision of the Spirit of God "hovering over the face of the waters" and other language in the opening verses of Genesis is derived from Enuma Elish's vision of Apsu and Tiamat generating primordial creation. 
The six days of creation in the Genesis story also parallel the six generations of gods in the Enuma Elish myth. Marduk, a sixth generation god, creates man and finally allows the gods to rest."
New World Encyclopedia

So what do Christian scholars say about this?
"To address the similarities between the accounts, Christian apologist Conrad Hyers of the Princeton Theological Seminary, stated that the Genesis account polemically addressed earlier Babylonian and other pagan creation myths"
Wikipedia

I recommend reading "The Lost World Of Genesis One" by John H Walton, as an excellent overview of the background of Genesis and some insight into how it might be interpreted. You can also find several good articles on this topic at biologos. Here is one to get you started.

Whether Genesis 1 is a polemic or not, many scholars agree that the Akkadian creation myth predates the biblical one, and that's even if you insist that Moses wrote Genesis around 1400BCE (spoiler alert - the early chapters of Genesis are widely believed by scholars to have been written around the time of the Babylonian exile).

Whatever view you take, the fact is that there are similarities (and also many striking differences) between the two creation stories. Even if Genesis is interpreted as a polemic against the earlier myth, that still does not constitute evidence for divine inspiration. It still disagrees with reality. Moreover, if we can accept that the Enuma Elish paints a primitive and unscientific view of the cosmos, then by implication Genesis 1 follows in the same vein.

There have been many attempts to rescue Genesis from the genre of mythology, which is where I think it belongs along with the Enuma Elish. To be clear, I don't think mythology is a derogatory term at all. If anything, it demands respect as part of the rich tapestry of an emerging ancient culture and belief system. But believers are not content with that. They want, or rather need, the book to be divinely inspired in some way. Some claim it uses metaphor, though I am not sure what it is supposed to be a metaphor of. They never say.

Polemic or not, is it true?

Much has been published on the interpretation of Genesis 1, but there is a famous quote from St Augustine, speaking against a literal interpretation, that I think is quite clear:
"It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation."
Wikipedia (see listed source within)

This quote is often used in defence of a non-literal interpretation of Genesis. But that is not what stands out to me. The point I want to make loudly is that if by some coincidence the creation account in Genesis did actually align with modern science, no one would be asking us to read it metaphorically or allegorically. No one!

The simple fact is that a literal interpretation is falsifiable. An allegory is not. Note the pattern. It comes up a lot when looking into biblical claims. An interesting exercise I submit to you is to prick up your ears every time you hear a religious apologist offering an unfalsifiable or unverifiable alternative when their beliefs are falsified by reason or science.

But why should we accept an unfalsifiable answer in this case? The two options are:
(a) The biblical text has been proven false. See my previous articles herehere and here.
(b) The biblical text is metaphorical or allegorical.

It is not clear to me that the answer could not just as well be (a) as (b). If every time we are faced with such a dilemma, we always insist that the Bible could not be false, is it at all surprising if we arrive at a position that says the Bible has not been proven false? It's circular reasoning. The only reason it hasn't been proven false (given this example) is because for every claim that was proven false, you substituted an unfalsifiable claim in its place. But what have you really achieved? Unfalsifiable claims cannot be proven true, and since positive claims require positive evidence, you are left empty-handed.

The only people who would accept unfalsifiable claims are those who think every claim is true until proven otherwise. If you are one such person, I challenge you to prove that the Earth was not created by Tiamat, as per the Enuma Elish. Remember, the text is metaphorical. While you're at it, also prove that there is not a teapot floating in space behind the sun.

The deeper connection between Genesis and mythology

Genesis 1 is not the only biblical text that has parallels with ancient mythology from surrounding nations.

Almost every story in the first 11 chapters of Genesis is in some way connected with Sumerian or Babylonian mythology.

And that is the subject of the next article.

On a personal note...

I aim to produce an entire series, walking the entire Bible and illuminating all of the major areas where our modern understanding differs from a literal understanding of the Bible.

I want to make it crystal clear that I do not claim to have proven the Bible false, because as I have already mentioned, that is impossible. It is impossible precisely because not every interpretation of the Bible is on equal footing, and many modern interpretations of the Bible are in fact not falsifiable. In many cases believers cannot even agree on which interpretation is correct. Often there is simply no way to know which interpretation is correct, or whether the correct interpretation is yet to be discovered. If it comes down to faith then you might as well believe whatever you want and stop wasting your time looking for evidence or proof. Faith works equally well for the Tooth Fairy and Santa. Have fun with that.

There are few, if any, falsifiable claims made in the Bible that have not already been falsified by science. In every case, believers simply move to an unfalsifiable position and continue on as if nothing happened. Only now they believe in a proposition for which there is no evidence, or where the evidence could be explained just as adequately (if not more so) without reference to any gods or supernatural entities.

In this series I will focus mainly on claims that are falsifiable. That is because I am interested in truth. Those who will happily accept unfalsifiable ideas as though they are facts are not concerned with truth. They are only seeking defence and confirmation of what they already believe.

Next Article: Genesis 1-11

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