While I like to be rational and value healthy scepticism I am not interested in “disproving” the Bible. The idea of having any sort of agenda to “prove” or “disprove” anything to do with things or persons biblical seems quite pointless to me. (Who was it who said when asked if he believed in the Bible, “Sure do! Why I have even seen one with my own eyes in my parent’s home!” That’s about as far as I want to go with “proving the Bible” too.)
One reason is because the very notion of “proof” contains within it something far more certain and dogmatically assured than I can ever feel comfortable with. It is to remove the concept beyond all doubt, and without any room for doubt, what is left but room for intolerance, or mere incomprehension, against one who later comes along and questions?
The sorts of things I want to be able to prove and disprove have to do with my reputation. Back in February this year when I was paying a regular visit to check up on a resident in the Toowoomba Brodribb Home for aged and infirm the lady I was visiting did take a severe medical turn and I was unable to raise help for her from any of the staff I contacted until I triggered a phone button alarm. A security guard obviously leased out for cheap from a goon squad then turned up and decided it was his responsibility to assault me presumably for what he took to be acts of trespassing and disturbing the peace on my part. The following evening someone in the same home rang the police to say that I had returned to the ‘scene of my crime’ and was calling out threateningly for the person who had assaulted me. The police questioned me and I was very keen in “proving” my complete innocence and “disproving” the allegations against me. I was able to appeal to my medical condition (I was unable to talk above a whisper given the injury inflicted on me the night before) and I had a witness able to verify my whereabouts the whole time. Now that’s when my “prove-disprove” mindset goes to work. But when attempting to understand things like the origins of Christianity it doesn’t seem quite the appropriate tool to use.
What does fascinate me is understanding what I can of the nature and origins of the biblical texts and the origins of religious and cultural edifices that claim to have been built on them. In the realm of ancient history the evidence is simply too insubstantial for anyone to even so much as definitively say who wrote the gospels or when or where or for whom or why. There won’t be much opportunity for me to use my “prove-disprove” thing here. But each time someone looks at the evidence anew and someone else looks at all those ‘new looks’ and compares with the ‘old looks’, with new questions and insights being honed along the way, we are learning more all the time. Nothing wrong with that. No-one dismisses Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton because they did not understand relativity, quantum physics and dark matter.
But there’s another reason the whole idea of “proving-disproving” things biblical — especially re questions to do with the historicity of the gospels or Genesis. People don’t walk on water and snakes don’t talk so it’s silly to even suggest that books telling these stories might be “historical”. I would simply feel like I was being set up for Candid Camera if someone attempted to engage me in a serious conversion that assumed such stories or their ilk had some basis in reality.
But the objection is not limited to the tales of the fabulous. Now whether there is some historical event ultimately associated with those mythical tales or if a document is a daisy chain of mythical and historical stories is another question. But whatever might be historical cannot be determined solely by the self-testimony of such a text. (Note, I do not say historicity cannot be determined at all by the testimony of texts of various certain kinds. So to be safe I better repeat: “But whatever might be historical cannot be determined solely by the self-testimony of such a text.”)
Some might cry “Foul” against this view, and point to Bauckham who marshaled the support of Coady’s significant philosophical work on Testimony. But the umpire who knows both Coady and the text in question will have to disallow the appeal. At issue is not the testimony of human community but a piece of literature of unknown provenance. Without external controls everything within that piece of literature is by elementary definition “literary”. It’s characters and places are all literary. Even if the text speaks of governor Pilate and the city Jerusalem both of those are, within the context of that text, by definition as “literary” as London Bridge and the King of England in a fairy tale. They may share some traits with their historical counterparts, but without some method, reasons or external controls to enable us to determine that the text can indeed be taken as a serious historical source then we cannot treat it as one. The characters and events we study in such texts are literary constructs and need to be studied as such, not mistaken for something “real” like a little child might imagine his toys to be real when he’s asleep.
Merely deciding to take a text as an historical source on its face-value or self-witness is gratuitously to impute judgments and assumptions about the text that are unsupported, baseless, naive. An assumption of historicity would be in itself as naive and baseless as an assumption the text is meant to be read allegorically.
And texts that are subsequent adaptations derived from that original literary document are disqualified as external controls. Literature spawned by a document cannot itself be independent testimony to the historicity of what is contained in that original document.
Some may object, We can know the provenance of the gospels! We can work out from their contents a pretty good idea where and when and for whom they were written and therefore something about their authors. This objection is circular. Again we are relying on the self-testimony of a single text to inform us without an external leverage to inform us how to interpret or understand that self-testimony. Another problem with that objection is that what we “know” about a text from its self-witness is varies over time and from scholar to scholar, depending on their starting assumptions and values they place on different data within the text. Result: opinions vary widely; no one really “knows”.
And uniqueness is not a proof; it is a disqualification from the discussion. Uniqueness is a meaningless claim as it stands. Every piece of literature, every person, is unique. So are both like any other piece of literature or person. No literature can be created ex nihilo. Every text is evidence of the broader culture from which it originated. To treat it as if it is not a cultural product in some respect, and to use ‘uniqueness’ as a “proof” of some kind, has no place in serious historical and literary analytic studies. One can study “uniqueness” in fields of the occult or the ‘otherworldly’ or in discussions of ‘spirituality’, but not in textual and historical studies.
Nor do I accept that one must be a believer or religious to validly study beliefs or religions any more than one has to be a psychopath to study psychopathology with valid understanding.
And as for claims that the relative sobriety of the canonical accounts of miracles is “proof” of their “uniqueness” and “historicity” when compared with later apocryphal counterparts? The canonical Gospels and Acts read with so much more restraint, we are told, in contrast to the flamboyantly miraculous nonsense we read in the some of the apocrypha. While there may be a discernible literary trend towards the frequent depiction of certain types of miracle stories over time, I suspect that much of this claim stems from us being less shocked by the familiar. So while the Infancy Gospel of Thomas may contain ludicrous scenes of the young Jesus petulantly zapping people dead then restoring them, we don’t seem to blink when Peter zaps Ananias and Sapphira dead, or when Jesus deliberately waits till everyone is completely heartbroken before intervening to raise whomever from the grave, or sending in an angel to rescue prisoners and thus leaving poor hapless guards to be executed as a consequence, or petulantly zapping a fig tree for following its natural cycle, or sending 2000 pigs and someone’s livelihood screaming into the ocean, or finding money he needs not by working for it but by performing a miracle to produce it, or having zombie saints rise up out of their graves and walk around the day he died. If there is a model of sobriety in the telling of miracles the life of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus would be an easy winner against the gospels by far.
So nope, I’m not out to ‘disprove’ the Bible. Simply seeking to understand what I can about the nature and origins of some texts that have had a significant role in our culture — and to share tidbits as I can with anyone else interested. That’s all, really.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- The Big Question We Should Be Asking of Human History - 2021-12-06 22:51:36 GMT+0000
- A New History of Humanity — And Hope for Those of Us Who Want It - 2021-12-05 09:02:13 GMT+0000
- How the Holy Spirit Replaced Jerusalem in a Power Game - 2021-11-05 07:56:55 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!