Well. Here’s a post that EVERYONE will hate. 🙂
So, as we have previously established, the Liturgical Churches (namely, the Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican Communions) all agree that the Bible is a manual for spiritual growth, and not to be used as a textbook of science or history. The Evangelical Churches, on the other hand (Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc.) all insist that the Bible must be read as if it were literally true. In English, no less.
Now, a full examination of Semitic idiom will be beyond the scope of this post… except to say that if you’re reading more than a few words of something written in Semitic language (as all of the books of the TaNaKh and the Peshitta were), then there’s probably some idiom in there. If you didn’t catch it (note that “catching it” is an idiom in English; can you imagine how that translates into other languages? Exactly.), then you’re not getting the full meaning. Nor will this piece explore the numerical and symbolic content of written Hebrew characters (also important to understanding things written in, for example, Hebrew).
Rather, I’m going to use a couple of stories from the TaNaKh (the Hebrew Bible, or essentially the Christian Old Testament) to demonstrate why modern standards of history cannot be applied to writings from before the invention of history (Herodotus lived during the Fifth Century BC), and how Biblical stories can be true without requiring historical accuracy. To prepare yourself for this, think about the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. Certainly, there have never been talking grasshoppers nor talking ants, nor ants who provided charity to grasshoppers. Therefore, we may readily say that this story has zero historical or scientific value. However, if we understand the meaning of the story, grasp the value of hard work and planning ahead, then we have found that the story is actually a truth (A truth which most of modern American society has forgotten, and is suffering for its loss). This same fact applies to Biblical writings, although they are significantly more nuanced.
Let us begin with the Exodus.
In the story of the Exodus, we begin with a spirtually powerful man, Moshe (Moses), who must lead his people out of bondage in Khemit (Egypt). His people are led through the Reed Sea, which kills the soldiers of the Pharoah, and then follow pillars of smoke and fire through the desert. They remain lost for four decades until, eventually, Moses dies; afterward they find and enter the Promised Land.
Several years ago, I read a book called The Bible as History, I believe by Werner Keller. Significant text is dedicated to proving the historical authenticity of the Exodus; I remember specifically (but not verbatim) a passage about certain gates of Egypt mentioned in the Bible, and when the author travelled to Egypt, he found that those gates were real! Therefore, the Bible must be historically accurate. Of course, while there probably was an Exodus, all that this establishes was that the author of the story of the Exodus was generally familiar with the geography of the most powerful nation in the world at that time.
Let us examine the story from a different perspective. At the time this was being composed (very roughly 4,000 BC), Egypt possessed a number of what we refer to as “mystery cults.” (Most of what we know about ante-Christian mystery cults comes to us from Greek sources, so Greek vocabulary will be used here.) The most common structure of a mystery cult would involve four levels of initiation:
1. The Hylic Initiation, or baptism by earth. This would be the physical birth of a person from the womb. At this level, the person is seen as helplessly controlled by the forces of the world.
2. The Psychic Initiation, or baptism by water. This was a ritual bath, indicating the end of a person’s life of purely material pursuits, and dedication to a new spiritual life.
3. The Pneumatic Initiation, or baptism by air. This was conferred upon those who were seen as spiritually mature, and ready to begin an earnest study of the “mysteries.” “Mysteries,” here, refers to spiritual experiences which could not be expressed verbally. It is important to note that they could not be expressed verbally, not that they should not be; today we would refer to them as “right-brain” experiences.
4. The Gnostic Initiation, or baptism by fire. This should be seen as the same as the Buddhist doctrine of “enlightenment”; death of the ego.
Why explain all of that? Well, let us suppose that Moshe (the spiritually powerful director of the Hebrews) is the ego, and that the Hebrews represent the person’s soul. Khemit is not only the most powerful nation on Earth, but literally translates as “black earth”–and the Hebrews begin the story in bondage to the forces of Khemit. The ego takes over and leads them through an initation of water (the Reed Sea, which frees them from the forces of the world/Khemit), and they then follow air (a pillar of smoke) and fire into a desert. It is not until the ego (Moshe) dies, however, that true enlightenment (the Promised Land) is reached.
So, while again the Exodus was probably a true event, the Biblical account was not recorded for the purpose of exacting historical accuracy which we expect today, but to illustrate a spiritual truth.
How about another favorite from the TaNaKh, the story of “Adam and Eve?”
To begin this section, a word on names: while in modern English usage, we treat “Adam” and “Eve” as if they were given names, in fact, “Adam” is a Hebrew word for “Man”, and “Eve” (actually, “Hawwah”), roughly translates as “mother” or “life-giver”.
When Man is created, he is originally tasked with naming everything in creation. Later, God makes a suitable partner for him from part of his own body. The couple are basically free to do whatever they want, with the exception of eating “the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.” At some point, the Life-Giver is approached by a “serpent” in the garden, who convinces her to eat from the Tree, and to convince her husband to eat from the tree. As a result, they are banished from the Garden forever.
Now, if we take this story literally, we have not only God Himself as a physical person walking through a garden, but talking snakes, trees which impart knowledge, and several other significant issues. Let us look at this story from a less-literal perspective:
What was Man’s job in the Garden of Eden? He was to name all of the things in God’s creation. The Life-Giver was made from a part of Man, and was subordinate to him. Her job is to create, and to keep Man from getting lonely and bored–but she is to be subordinate to him. Can we think of any pairs significant to human beings, one of which deals with numbers and language and the other of which deals with creativity?
What we are looking at is probably the earliest examination of left brain/right brain psychology. Again, the modern science would obviously have been beyond the ken of the author(s), but the fact that they were examining the concept is fascinating. What, then is the Garden? The Garden is childhood, or innocence; that time in our lives when we are free to do as we like. The serpent is actually curiosity; that to which our imagination (Eve) is subject, and which leads us to mature knowledge (the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). Once we have tasted that fruit, once we understand the concept of good and evil, we are no longer innocents. We must “put on clothes” (be constrained by society), and we can never have our innocence back (we are cast out of the garden forever).
These are only two examples. I challenge you to think about these as you read the Bible, and find more. Studying Hebrew and Aramaic will certainly assist you, as will an examination of early Christianity and the Mystery traditions (many of which survive in modern Christianity, despite vehement denial by people who really don’t understand them). One of the great failings of the modern Church, in my opinion, has been its relentless drive to evangelism and abandonment of mystagogy. It does no good to simply get people in the door and then have nothing substantial to give them when they arrive. Have something savory for the guests, and they’ll show up on their own. (I hope that allegory wasn’t lost on you.)
Update Not that the historicity of the Egyptian bondage has anything whatsoever to do with the content of this article, but for the satisfaction of one poster’s bizarre obsession with my aside comment, here is an article on Israelites in ancient Egypt…
And here’s David Wolpe… stating that the best archaeological evidence supports EXACTLY my position at the bottom of page one.