Saturday, May 01, 2010

Historicity and Sacred Scripture

One of the interesting things about the New Atheists is that they take essentially the same position as Biblical fundamentalists when they read scripture. They take it word for word as if it is meant to convey facts in a literalistic fashion. Their response, of course, is different from fundamentalists. While the latter accept it as a word for word account of what happened, the former compare it to their own world view and reject the whole thing.

I'm happy that as a Catholic I am not bound to such an impoverished perspective when I read and interpret scripture. I understand that the written scripture of the Old Testament developed over a period of time and that it is not all to be taken as literal history, nor is it to be confused with a scientific presentation of the ancient world. The New Testament gospels, unlike the older scripture, is largely historical, although not in the blow-by-blow narrative form we accept as history now days.

This understanding of scripture goes back to the early Church Fathers. St. Augustine wrote several incomplete works on the literal interpretation of Genesis and in another work noted that we shouldn't present the first chapters of Genesis as if they were a scientific presentation of the creation of the world. My favorite example to illustrate the problem with reading scripture like a science textbook comes from the Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-2:

I also am mortal, like all men, a descendant of the first-formed child of earth; and in the womb of a mother I was molded into flesh, within the period of ten months, compacted with blood, from the seed of a man and the pleasure of marriage.

Scientifically, there are obvious problems with this statement. It is not a medically precise description of conception and pregnancy. However, given the understanding at the time, anything other than this description would be anachronistic and would likely cause people to raise their eyebrows. Such precise scientific language would be inappropriate in that context.

Now, none of this is to say that we should dismiss any historical relevance of Hebrew scripture. Here's a case in point. In 1 Samuel 14:4-15, Saul and his son Jonathan are facing down the Philistines at Michmash, a town on the road to Jerusalem from the north. Jonathan grows restless and takes his armor bearer through a hidden pass and attacks the Philistine encampment from behind. The camp is thrown into chaos, and the remainder of Saul's army takes advantage, putting the Philistines to rout. It's one of those stories about the glory of Israel that may or may not be factual. Who knows? However, we are free to see it as historical if we wish, so long as we don't put it at odds with another teaching of the Church, and it certainly can teach us something regardless of whether it happened exactly as it occurred.

However, it is dangerous to claim that any story is devoid of any historical accuracy. In World War I, the British under General Allenby were facing off against the Ottoman at Michmash. Major Vivian Gilbert recalled the place name from scripture and went to 1 Samuel to recall what he had read there. Using the information from scripture, he found the hidden pass mentioned in 1 Samuel 14 and used it to out maneuver the Turks, and the British took Michmash.

So it's important, then, not to assume either extreme. There may very well be much that is historical in Hebrew scripture. However, if we insist on reading Hebrew scripture as history or science, we miss the point of it, which is often to tell an edifying or instructional story (mashal or pl. meshamlim). The narrative is there to instruct us about the truth God wants us to know. That may or may not involve the military history of ancient Israel. It very likely has to do with learning to put our trust in Him.
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