Tuesday 3 March 2009

Reading the Bible 101

Before Darwin (1859), everyone took the whole Bible literally, yes? Yes and No. They read it in all sorts of interesting ways. From at least the time of John Cassian (c360-435), Christians read the Bible (1) literally, (2) allegorically, (3) morally and (4) anagogically. Nicholas of Lyra used to teach his students at the Sorbonne in the fourteenth century a ditty to help them remember this:
Littera gesta docet
Quid credas allegori,
moralis quid agas,
Quo tendas anagogia
which being translated means:
Literal teaches what happened,
Allegorical what you believe,
Moral what you should do,
Anagogical where you’re going
But they believed Genesis literally before Darwin, didn’t they? Here’s Origen, (185-254), On First Principles:
Now what man of intelligence will believe that the first and the second and the third day, and the evening and the morning existed without sun, mooon and stars? And that first day, if we may so call it, was even without a heaven? And who could be silly enough to believe that God, after the manner of a farmer, planted a paradise eastward in Eden and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life of such a sort that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life; and again that one could partake of good and evil by masticating the fruit taken from the tree of that name? And when God is said to walk in the paradise in the cool of the day and Adam to hide hmself behind a tree, I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual event...
Radical stuff. The idea that the “factual/ original” meaning of a text is its only real one dates back to Benjamin Jowett in 1859, the year the Origin of Soecies was published. People who lived before then were not fools. Wooden fundamentalism about the Bible was not the only option before Darwin.

In the same way as “original instruments” recordings are not, in fact, the only or even the best possible ways to get your Bach, we have to lay aside earnest Victorian literalism and come alive again to the riches of the Biblical texts as they are. Ancient wisdom integrated what you read and how you read it, what it meant to you and what you did about it, rather than trying to extract any single “meaning” from it using Victorian historical science.

We need to find a way of reading and rightly handling the scriptures that integrates Text, history, Canon, spirituality, and sets the poetry of it free. Perhaps the Victorian tyranny of “facts” has taken us as far as it can, and it’s time for another revolution by tradition that will set us free to read the Scriptures as they have been received, lived and interpreted over thousands of years, so as to own them, and live them ourselves with all their shades and levels of truth, and richness.


Tim Atkinson said...

Personally, I've always thought a quick glance at Genesis 1 and 2 should convince the most hard-line fundamentalist that you can't possibly take both literally. Never seems to work, though!

Unknown said...

I remember as a teenager being taught by our Reformed Evangelical pastor that not only was creationism wrong it was a misuse of scripture and pretty much heretical. He has the same view of the sort of dispensationalist eschatology offered in The Left Behind books.

Heresy! He said it with a smile.

16 years later both are on the rise in the UK it seems.

One of the telling things about the error of creationism is it argues that if the first chapters of the bible can't be taken 'literally' then neither can the rest. And so we could argue back if we misread Genesis the chances are we misread the rest of scripture too.

June Butler said...

So. The fundamentalists were late to the party. Try telling that to a good many of the present day fundamentalists, and they will call Nicholas of Lyra and Origen heretics.

Thanks for the post, Bishop Alan.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks for great and interesting conversation. DT I remember being struck as a student by the way the difficulties for a new model fundamentalist reading of Scriptures arose from text of Scriptures themselves. All that explaining away to do, and selectivity. Edward, I tend to agree with your reofrmed pastor, certainly about Left behind stuff. But maybe we're only saying that because we've been left behind. All the real Christians have been taken away already and are in fact partaying somewhere way beyond the blue. That would show us.

GM, suspect you're right. Shades of the old Yorkshire saying (including quaint Victorian use of Queer not to mean Queer, if you follow me) "Whole world's queer save thee and me, and I've been wondering about thee recently."

June Butler said...

Bishop Alan, in the olden days, (not quite back to Victoria) I sometimes quoted the old Yorkshire saying, but nowadays, it would have a whole new meaning. I'm sure that only a very few (save thee and me) would remember the original context.

By the way, in a few weeks, I shall be in the Yorkshire area.

Steven Carr said...

Origen continued in a sentence or two with 'same style of Scriptural narrative occurs abundantly in the Gospels, as when the devil is said to have placed Jesus on a lofty mountain, that he might show Him from thence all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them. How could it literally come to pass, either that Jesus should be led up by the devil into a high mountain, or that the latter should show him all the kingdoms of the world...'

And Origen continues 'And many other instances similar to this will be found in the Gospels by anyone who will read them with atten­tion, and will observe that in those narratives which appear to be literally recorded, there are inserted and interwoven things which cannot be admitted his­torically, but which may be accepted in a spiritual signification.'

I guess the Gospels aren't historical narratives.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Steven, the gospels are what the gospels are, no more no less. It all depends what you mean by historical. Unless you take the idiot line, which both Christian and atheist fundamentalists rely on to sustain their fantasies, why would that cause anyone discomfort?

When I went through my own short childish phase of being an atheist, years ago, I remember it was terribly important to the narrative of progress and being right in which I believed to suppose that somehow everyone had been a Fundamentalist before my heroes Darwin and A. J. Ayer had somehow come along and disabused them. What did for that was

(1) reflecting on historiography, and moving on from a childish obsession with facticity (which I discvered to be based in itself on shakier foundations than I had hoped) to a post Victorian view of what history is and how it works.

(2) getting in touch with the facts, I discovered people who lived before 1859 were not in fact, total idiots; just a similar mix of blindness and reason, hope and fear, that we all are. Certainly when I came to study theology I began to realise the richness, poetry, passion and diversity of the phenomenon of Christianity, as opposed to the Aunt Sally reduction of it in which I had disbelieved.

Steven Carr said...

'Steven, the gospels are what the gospels are, no more no less.'

I find nothing at all to disagree with there.

They are not historical, if by historical , you mean that many of the events in them happened.

Or at least there is no evidence that the writers did more than search the scriptures to find stories.

As for reading the Bible, people have always misread the Bible.

Just look at the Epistle of Barnabas finding the cross in the number of Abraham's servants.

Such misreadings were not confined to non-canonical authors.

Take 1 Corinthians 9:9
For it is written in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned?

Well, Paul, it *was* about oxen that God was concerned,as you would have known if you had read Deuteronomy 25 in context.

To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes an ox is just an ox....

Anonymous said...

Last year I was asked by a marketing consultant researching the topic to 'position the Bible'. I suggested (somewhat flippantly) that perhaps it was God's Facebook page. Not that God agreed with everything people put on it or linked with it but was happy to be associated with all of it. I hope this isn't as off topic as it might sound.

Questions about how to 'interpret' a facebook page sound pretentious and odd. In truth issues of interpretation are almost entirely predicated by the contextual framework. And when Origen talked about interpretation he meant something different from Cassian and us. Because what they understood about the Bible was different and culturally conditioned. It doesn't mean however that there is no possiblity of interpretation - just that it would be foolish to impose a single one.

This has been a fascinating exchange because it is a vivid reminder that there is an alternative to those who attempt to close down any other form of interpretation than the one they want (without any Biblical mandate for doing so). I'm grateful for it and have linked it to a couple of forums.

Anonymous said...

Good post! I like the quote from Origen.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks John for capturing the central point in a clearer way than I did — all is contextual and all texts make hermeneutical demands on us. Thanks Richard for your kind words.

Steven, it strikes me that your comment does exactly what I suggested it is foolish to do — applying a Victorian single hermeneutic of the Jowett model to the text as an absolute critique. You then take some patristic texts that are equally mainly comprehensible only as what they are, and apply your single anachrionistic hermeneutic equally insensitively. Why not just read these texts as what they are, instead of importing a lot of post-Enlightenment hermeneutic expectations into your reading, and then sneering at them for not measuring up to your own assumptions? My old Hebrew tutor used to talk about trying to use post-enlightenment jelly spoons to eat chicken. I'd say it's like trying to mow your lawn with a vacuum cleaner. Not enitrely, but 95% futile and ineffective.

Your comments about historicity take me back to the days I first studied theology 35 years ago, when BUltmann was all the rage. Actually the result of pretty much all the more detailed scholarly work of the past 35 years has tended to establish the substantial historicity of the narratives — for a fair account from a non-Chistian source see the works of Geza Vermes. The texts come up as far more hisyorically fgrounded now than they did thirty years ago. The turning point, for me, backin the 70's and 80's was JATRobinson's priority of John, and Morna Hooker's seminal article "On using the right tool." I don't agree with JATR's conclusions, but his methods showed how the whole silly Bultmann based approach could be turned inside out on its own assumptions, and how scientific stdy of the text actually established its substantial historicity.

Steven Carr said...

I'm sorry, but I do not understand the phrase 'hermeneutic expectations'

Many Gospel stories are as historical as the Koranic stories of Talut testing his armies by seeing how they drink water from a river.

Like Muhammad, the Gospel writers would often take Old Testament stories, scenes and plots and simply adapt them to suit their new books.

Sceptics know all this, but the average churchgoer does not...

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Without owning up to and understanding your own assumptions it is impossible to understand any text, because you cannot reliably differentiate between what it is actually saying and what you think it's saying.

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