Sunday, January 10, 2010

Biblical Literalism or "Is That Really What It Says?" II

Paul Marston has written a paper called Understanding the biblical creation passages. It is illustrative of the sometimes overwhelming problem of interpreting even what we think are common scriptures:
One problem in modern times is that many people think they know what the Bible teaches, but actually are following a popular culture which misreads it. For example, at Christmas we may send cards with “three kings” around the manger, and winged angels in the sky. In the Bible, however, angels never appear with wings, and the magi who came to see Jesus were an unknown number of wise people (not necessarily all men), not kings, who came to see Jesus after he had relocated to the house (Matthew 2:1) and as a young child (paidos) not a baby (brefos).
With this as a backdrop, he turns the bulk of the paper to the creation narratives, which have vexed biblical historians for centuries. Marston's key point is that it is perfectly reasonable to read many passages as symbolic because that is the way that Jesus used the language. The verse that obviously comes to mind is John 2:18 where Jesus speaks of raising up the temple in three days. As Marston notes, Jesus was speaking of himself and not the actual physical temple because, in his mind, they were one and the same. That was plainly not what he "literally" said, and it confused the disciples and the pharisees mightily.

Other examples of Jesus using symbolic language throughout the gospels abound. Clearly, he did not mean for his speech to be taken literally but, at the same time, he appears to be taking delight in these passages at the fact that his followers and the pharisees didn't "get it." We read these passages and it is easy to think "silly disciples, how dense could they be." Would we have been any better at interpreting them? We laugh when we hear the joke about the zen master asking the hot dog vendor for "one with everything," because we know the context. Replace "zen master" with Ford Prefect and the joke is gone. Everything is context. The disciples and the Pharisees didn't have the proper context to understand what Jesus was saying. Do we? When we read the creation passages, do we "get it?" When Christians adopt the young earth model of creation, are they reading it without context, without understanding?

Marston, in dealing with the persistent, out-of-context misreading of the creation narratives, somewhat humorously uses the work of the late Henry Morris, the grand dean of young earth creationism to illustrate how we interpret scripture almost without consciously knowing it. About the use of "days," Marston writes:
Morris allows the word ‘day’ in Gen 2:4 to mean ‘the whole period of creation’ i.e. six days, even though elsewhere he says that the word ‘never’ means a ‘definite period of time with a specific beginning and ending’.
This, of course, presents a problem because the YEC model clearly calls for six literal days. It is not enough that you can say "well, there was light out there and God created in the light." It reads "days." These problems are so obvious as to be almost facile. It is bad enough when you can pick the model apart because of the scientific inaccuracies. When you can point to theological inaccuracies as well, the model becomes even less credible. Marston heaps on example after example in which the text plainly cannot be taken literally without resulting in a lot of head-scratching.

The head scratching continues when we consider just how recent this warped misreading of the primeval history actually is. As Marston recounts:
Popular culture can hardly be expected to rightly understand Scripture. But how are we to explain the obsession with physical literalism that has infected a large sector of the church in modern times? The actual origins of this literalistic or young-earth creationist movement are well documented. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and the early years of Fundamentalism in the twentieth, it was virtually impossible to find any scientist or Bible teacher who thought the world was a few thousand years old and was made in seven literal days. The idea arose in the early twentieth century through the work of the Seventh Day Adventist George McCready Price. Price was inspired (as he says) by the words of the Adventist prophetess Ellen White, he insisted that the seven day cycle went back to creation and he formulated an elaborate alternative geology (although he had no scientific training) suggesting that all the strata were laid down in one flood. Ellen White, of course, had strongly attacked the early Fundamentalists for not keeping the Sabbath on Saturday, and none of the early Fundamentalists adopted Price’s system.
I would venture that most people that espouse the YEC model don't know exactly how it came about and the "Joseph Smith"-like characteristics that it entails. It is fair to say that Henry Morris and John Whitcomb launched the modern creationism movement by adapting the models of Price and marketing them to the evangelical Christian movement by linking them to proper scripture interpretation and pitting them against an increasingly secular culture. That the biological theory of evolution had been seen as part of that secular culture since the 1920s was just an added bonus and it was made the prime target.

Like Daniel Harlow's paper, this one is a real eye-opener and should be required reading for every Christian.

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  1. Anonymous1:22 PM

    I agree with this take on the paper - but the info about the 7th Day Adventist influence is not anything new. Ronald Numbers, The Creationists, which has been around for quite some time, should be required reading and is probably where Marston draws his info (haven't read the paper yet).

    It is actually a disservice to the Biblical text to assume a literalist interpretation from the start - as YEC's do. It is essentially a modernist reading rather than giving the text the authority it deserves. Such irony that those who pride themselves as seeking to be as faithful to the original text as possible are actually the ones who are as abusive in misusing the text as any group of readers in the 21st century.

    Sad as well as ironic.

  2. I enjoyed this blog. Just to add further comment on the Christmas quote from Marston.

    He refers to the wise people attending the child Jesus in the house. This is correct, of course, but the reference to 'relocating to the house' suggests Marston considers Jesus was born in a stable.

    The reason people think this is because of the old english: 'he was laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn'. Now, the word Inn is only used in two contexts in the NT, and the other reference is to the 'guest chamber' also called the 'upper room' Lk 22.11 and Mk 14.14.

    The cultural truth is that no Jewish family would have left a pregnant woman to have a baby in a stable!

    And also, archeology shows that even simple homes had two areas to the house, and sometimes a guestchamber added on, or on the first floor. The one area of the main room was raised, for the living area, and the other area would be used to bring in the animals at night. There were mangers on the raised level, for the animals to put their heads into.

    The home Joseph and Mary were welcomed into, obviously did not have any room in its guest-chamber, as so many other relatives were gathered. So the baby Jesus was prepared a cradle in one of the mangers on the floor. Clearly, still a humble birth, no decrying that, but not a stable birth, and Inn embellishments!

    And while I am at it, Marston also mentioned that angels never appear with wings. I assume he means they never APPEAR to humans on earth as with wings? Clearly, the seraphim (who I assume are a type of angel?) in Isaiah 6 had wings (six of them), and they appeared to Isaiah in his vision, and cherubs (another type of angel?) have wings for God to fly on in Psalm 18.11, and the living creatures in Ezekiel (angels?) have wings in chapter 1 and many times through the book to chapter 11, and the living creatures in Revelation 4.8.

    So, not sure whether the angels who appeared to men on earth had wings, but it seems they did in heaven?

    But I still agree with the point he was making - these additional details only prove his point further!


  3. I would welcome your contribution to ongoing discussions about my recent blog post entitled "Why I Am Not a Young Earth Creationist".

    I will read your article with interest.

    Roger Morris

    Qld, Australia.