Fear not folks – this isn’t a piece on the Magisterium and Protestant “private readings”.
Recently my Christian reading has been in a decidedly academic vein – which might not be saying much, but anyway…I have been enjoying the fresh perspective that Dr Mike Heiser has given to reading the Bible – and when I say “fresh” I really mean “sort of new to me.” Those of you who will happily sit down with the likes of NT Wright, Jonathan Klawans, or Michael Coogan will appreciate where I’m coming from.
One of the tasks that a Christian faces in his or her reading of the Bible is the problem of passages that seem “weird.” (Don’t worry folks this isn’t a post on Revelation or anything eschatological.) A variety of options present themselves in this situation:
-Ask your pastor/priest
-Ask a friend or contact a Bible teacher
-Try and research the topic yourself using commentaries, articles, books, etc.
Now I’m not necessarily talking about things that are defined by creeds, councils, etc; there are parts of the faith in pretty much every denomination where Christians have freedom to disagree – provided they treat their opponents with respect and civility. In these areas of freedom our own conscience, inclinations, and abilities will play a large role in trying to make sense of difficult and strange Bible passages. Traditionally Christians in these circumstances have had recourse to consult the Fathers or learned expositors like Matthew Henry or John Calvin. But what does one do when these sources disagree? Much as we would like to affirm complete unity across the great men of the faith, we have to accept that this was not always the case. Try as one might, one cannot reconcile S. Hippolytus and S. Jerome on some issues: either one is right and the other wrong or both are mistaken – they can’t both be right.
This is where modern scholarship can be very handy, provided it is accessible. We need to remember – and this is no criticism of our august forebears – that the doctors of the Church didn’t have access to the archaeological materials and other sources that have more recently been discovered. It is the lot of more recent generations of churchmen to make sense of materials that can challenge and enlighten our understanding of the context in which the books of the Bible were written.
These discoveries have not always been happy, and they have challenged Christians to reconsider some of their “traditions” (by which I don’t mean an attack on Tradition as Catholics and the Orthodox would understand it). But our faith is built on firm foundations, and nothing could ever challenge the true authority and sovereignty of our God.
A case in point is the discovery of tablets in Mesopotamia that recounted the Flood story, but not in the form we know from Genesis. In these accounts the Noah figure is referred to as Uta-napishtim (“I have found life” in Akkadian) or Ziusudra (which has a similar meaning in Sumerian). Uta-napishtim is alerted to the Flood by the god of wisdom, Enki or Ea, and he proceeds to build a “boat” (more like a cube) which he lines with pitch to keep out the water. Like the Biblical Noah, he is accompanied by family and animals, and he sends out birds following the Flood to search for dry land. Upon his exit from the “boat” he offers a sacrifice and Enlil, the god who sent the flood, is appeased.
When these tales were discovered they caused controversy: for some they were an affirmation of the Bible’s Flood narrative, for others the discoveries undermined the Bible – the Hebrews’ account was just a derivative of the Babylonian material. How could one believe any claims about Biblical authenticity?
We have to live with the results of these discoveries; but rather than igonoring them, we should allow them to help us form a better picture of the Ancient Near East (ANE), the context in which the books of the Tanakh were written. But rather than seeing the Biblical account as merely derivative of older traditions, we should understand it as a polemic against the beliefs and practices of the world surrounding the Israelite nation. The Biblical writers were not afraid to use material from their neighbours and their ancestors – but they subverted it to affirm the truth of the revelation given to them as a nation (vide Rom. 3:2 “to them were committed the oracles of God”).
The Bible consistently claims that Yahweh is the creator and that His sovereign purposes stand. There is no god like him in the heavens above or the earth beneath. It was He who saved Noah from the Flood, He who accepted sacrifice and promised never to send a flood again.
So, the next time you come across something strange in the Bible, don’t be afraid to search for a reputable Christian scholar – you may just learn more than you bargained for. They too serve God and His Church: “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.” (Gal. 6:6)