Professor Reza Aslan, who holds a master’s in theological studies and a Ph.D. in sociology focusing on religion, has bad news for biblical literalists: The Gospels are “replete with historical errors and with contradictions,” and for over a thousand years, religious leaders did not take the Bible as literal fact.Even though I don’t have a master’s in theological studies, I think I’m prepared to call that last clause into question. But first, a little more from the article:
“We come from a world in the 21st century in which we assume that biblical literalism, the notion that the Bible is literal and inerrant, is just sort of an inherent part of belief in the Bible.”
Aslan explains that biblical literalism is actually a relatively modern phenomenon.There are three stages to this argument. First, the Bible is an error-ridden document, both in that it says false things about the world and in that it contradicts itself. Second, the proper method of interpreting the Bible is therefore to find a deeper truth in its words that stands apart from its superficial factual claims. Third, pre-modern interpreters of the Bible believed both of those theses, and a reading of the Bible as both true and literal is an invention of the modern world.
“Let me just say that one more time,” Aslan continued. “In the 2,000 year history in which the Gospels have existed, the idea that what you are reading in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John is literal and inerrant is a little more than 100 years old. It was the result of a very interesting movement, a backlash to Christian liberalism and the Scientific Revolution at the end of the 19th century … by a group of American Protestants who began a movement that was launched by a series of tracts that were written called ‘The Fundamentals’ and that is where we get the term ‘fundamentalism’ from. It’s a very new phenomenon.”
All three of these theses are extremely common in liberal religious circles. Born of a desire to simultaneously condescend to ignorant Alabamans and shore up faith in the face of the four horseman of the non-Apocalypse, they add up to a religious system that affirms the value of the Bible, disputes Fundamentalists’ claims to represent the authentic Christian tradition, and firmly rejects a superstitious, anti-scientific attitude to the world. I want to say here that the first thesis is obviously true, that it’s up to us whether we accept the second, and that the third is a laughably gross historical falsification. It’s that one which I’m going to argue against.
The claim that Fundamentalism is new is an ingenious piece of historical narrative, and is more than compensated for its lack of truth by its comforting implications. What if the medievals were actually on the side of Liberal Protestantism? What if the ancient church was filled with partners in our skepticism? That would imply that Darwinism and modern Biblical criticism are no real obstacles to faith; that we have just as much of a religious foundation to rely on as Maimonides and Aquinas.
But the claim is wrong, and ironically wrong to boot: as it happens, not taking the Bible literally is the phenomenon that’s actually recent. The reason that few people talked about the factual truth of the Bible before the early modern period is not that said factual truth was considered unimportant. It’s that it was taken completely and utterly for granted. With the possible exception of parts of Genesis and books like Esther and Judith, denying that the Bible was a source of literal historical truth would have been like denying today that microscopes tell us anything about molecules. (Actually, the one exception was the very early Christians, who made a fierce and concerted effort to convince the gentile world that their Messiah really had performed miracles and risen from the dead.)
Historical Christian belief in Biblical inerrancy is hard to demonstrate, if only because the evidence for it is so ubiquitous that it’s hard to know where to start. It might be helpful, though, to note how much of the entire medieval cosmology of Christianity was based on the literal truth of Scripture. For example: without the historical factuality of the Adam and Eve story, almost nothing that Augustine (or Aquinas or Luther or Lombard or Tertullian or Irenaeus) says about Christ’s redemptive mission makes any sense. By Augustine’s account, that is, man was mired in sin by his own fault, and faces destruction absent Christ’s intervention. But this fault was incurred in a distinct historical moment: Adam’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden. If that moment never occurred, all of Augustine’s Christianity falls apart. And that’s just on one point—I don’t even need to mention the importance that the literal Resurrection had to early Christianity.
But, Aslan objects here, what about the more minor points of the narrative? The Church fathers, he says, were so unconcerned about the inerrancy of the minor details of the gospels that they deemed them dispensable in their emphasis on the story’s deeper truth. But for a better treatment of how Christians dealt with the the internal contradictions in the gospels, I refer you to a fantastic Wikipedia article on the subject. Before the eighteenth century, as it turns out, Christian interpreters found more ways to harmonize the gospels with each other than our decency allows us to even think of. In fact, what struck the ancient Christian far more than the contradictions in the gospel was the extent to which they related the same basic story. Nor should we underestimate the power of a determined effort to ignore inconvenient elements of the text. Marcion, for instance, uncomfortable with the Old Testament references in Luke and the letters of Paul, simply chopped them out of his editions of those texts. As far as I can tell, Aslan sees the contradictions in the text and concludes that they must have been obvious to everyone. In fact, no one who wasn’t actively hostile to the New Testament—Jews and Muslims, for instance—was at all capable of seeing them.
In any case, before the eighteenth century, even the atheists, who believed that religion was at best a noble lie crafted by princes to keep their populations in check, had no reason to doubt the general factual foundation of the Bible. The author of Theophrastus Redivivus, a seventeenth-century screed against religion, thus drew conclusions about Judaism from the Old Testament, which was held to testify to the Jews’ original instruction at Moses’s feet. Moses by Theophrastus’s account might have been a clever prince rather than a true prophet, but he certainly existed.
At this point, the objection usually comes up: weren’t there allegorical readings of the Bible dating back to the beginning? What about Augustine’s reading of Genesis? And don’t Jesus and Paul themselves give explicitly non-literal interpretations of the Old Testament?
The first part of the answer is that yes, pre-modern Christians and Jews obviously laid allegorical meaning onto their texts. Nevertheless, it was commonplace to the ancient and medieval mind that a text could contain many stacked layers of meaning, including a literal one. God, for instance, tells Abraham to go out of his land. No self-respecting Early Christian would have denied that this was a real event that took place. But that didn’t stop Paphnutius, John Chrysostom, and others from reading it as an allegorical injunction to leave Earth itself; that is, to despise the cosmos and take refuge in spiritual life. (The Greek gē has the double meaning of “country” and “Earth”.) Much later, Pico della Mirandola, who never once doubted that Jacob really spent a night in Bethel, was able to give an elaborate allegorical interpretation of the ladder-vision, saying that “all things appeared in figures to the men of those times.”
The reason no one doubted the Bible’s basic, literal truth was that there were no possible criteria against which it could be measured. This is difficult for us moderns to grasp, who are raised with the tools to find external evidence for every text’s reliability; and with the instinct to discount the text if we can’t. But before the early modern period, there were no means of questioning the historical circumstances supplied by tradition for a given ancient work’s composition. Thus even the most ardent atheist in 1650 had to reckon with the Bible as a true record of history. (Spinoza, for instance, gave a long list of naturalistic explanations for the supposed miracles recounted in Exodus.)
|Clearly just algae.|
I do not at all measure this mystery with the measure of human reason, or subject it to the laws of nature. I ask you whether it is from physics we have learned that Christ feeds our souls from heaven with his flesh.In other words, Jesus’ words to his followers at the Last Supper, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, are to have more weight with a Christian than the most persuasive doubts of a scientist. The modern method of evaluating the Bible is thus completely—and perfectly logically—inverted. Instead of measuring the Scripture by the evidence of our senses, Calvin would have us measure our senses by the Scripture. When an evangelical today asks why he should he should believe the Origin of Species over the Bible when the former was written by an Englishman and the latter by God Himself, he’s participating in an extremely old epistemological tradition.
So yes, if you asked a medieval Christian whether the Bible was literally true, he probably wouldn’t have understood the question. But that’s not because he didn’t believe in the Bible’s literal truth; it’s because its falsity would have been a meaningless proposition.
By the way, as for Aslan’s odd claim about the modernity of the word “Fundamentalism”: he seems to be bizarrely conflating the existence of a phenomenon with the existence of our contemporary word for said phenomenon. No one uttered the word “theism” either before the seventeenth century, clear proof that no one ever believed in God before then. And Jesus never used the English word “ruckus”, which means that there’s no way he could have possibly overthrown the moneychangers’ tables in the temple.
Aslan seems to be arguing that ancient and medieval Christians held by Rudolf Bultmann’s early-twentieth-century interpretation of the New Testament. Bultmann is famous for arguing that the spiritual truth of the New Testament—that is, God descending to earth to save mankind—is so important that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to get caught up in the sordid details of what he did on Earth, and certainly shouldn’t get fixated on the miracles. I think this is a perfectly fine way of looking at things. There is, after all, no disembodied logical hand that will suddenly throttle us for applying bizarre hermeneutics to our sacred texts.
And after all, a nonliteral reading of both testaments does have the advantage of soothingly affirming a liberal religious mindset. It allows us to gleefully cleave to what we see as the inner truth of the Bible while jettisoning the parts we don’t like, like all the weird rules and scientific oddities. (Those uneducated and homophobic Southern Baptists, of course, aren’t wise enough to separate grain from chaff, and could do with a few educational brunches in Cambridge, MA.) As I’ve said before, I don’t have anything against buffet religion.
I am, though, opposed to any historical falsification committed for the sake of picking-and-choosing with a clean scholarly conscience. We can believe what we want, but we shouldn’t say that our ancestors believed it too. There is, of course, no logical or even moral demand to stand up for historical truth either, but that’s what backbones are for.
THE DEATH OF CHRISTIANITY, AD 120.
A summer villa in Tibur. 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
RUFUS: I’m home!
AGRIPPINA: Welcome! I have something to tell you. It’s very good news.
R: I like the sound of that! Is your sister finally pregnant?
A: Even better, if you can believe it. We’ve been rescued from death!
R: I didn’t know we were in trouble in the first place.
A: That’s not what I mean. Just before the Jewish War, there was a man in Jerusalem—named Jesus—who died and came back from the dead, and went up to heaven. But Jesus is the king of the world, and more powerful than all of the gods. If we only agree to repent and be his servants, we get eternal life too!
R: Who told you this fairy tale?
A: Cinnama, and at first I didn’t believe it. But then I thought some more...
R: If you believed everything the slaves said, you’d end up drinking hemlock to cure your gout.
A: But it makes so much sense!
R. All right. First of all, how do we know Jesus actually came back from the dead?
A. Whoa, whoa. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that he literally came back from the dead. That’s what the closed-minded fundamentalists in Antioch say.
R. What? It’s just a story?
A. Not just a story, Rufus. It’s a metaphor that has the power to change our lives if we interpret it spiritually.
R. Oh. Well, so is the play I saw last night. Have I told you about this yet? The main character ended up sleeping with his mother, who had disguised herself as his mistress!