Can Noah’s Ark Be Salvaged? (From The Archives)

This post is not about whether a ‘real ark’ can be found on a mountain somewhere. The question is whether the story of Noah’s Ark can be told today in a way that continues to serve any healthy, positive, meaningful purpose. The story is so familiar from childhood that we can forget that it is about God obliterating not merely the whole human race except for Noah and his family, but also every other living thing. The fact that this is clearly not a story about something that actually happened can alleviate some of the difficulty, although not all. The same applies to other morally difficult stories in the Bible, such as the accounts of genocide in Joshua – that these are not factual historical accounts helps, but does not resolve the issue entirely. Like these, the story of Noah’s ark remains a story that depicts God as though God would do this sort of thing, and it is imperative to ask why, and whether we can make sense of it.We can certainly use the story to ask difficult questions about how we personify and anthropomorphize God, but in doing so we will have to read against the grain of the story. We will need to ask whether God is to be thought of as a celestial Andrea Yates, who even though she knows every hair on each of her children’s heads, nonetheless submerges each one in the water until they are drowned, because she knows she cannot protect them from turning away from her and living evil lives in the future. But in so doing, most would say that she herself has crossed the border into evil and/or insanity. The flood story can make us ask: do we depict God as evil or insane? But the story still sits uncomfortably in our tradition even if we try to answer “no”, and all the pairs of cute furry animals in the world will not make the story one that is appropriate for children.

The best way to make sense of the story is to show how it, like all the Biblical literature, reflects the development of human thinking about God that has led us to where we are today, rather than as static proclamations of things one ought to believe about God. The story of Noah and the flood makes the most sense (even if it remains problematic) when contextualized in this way. The author of the story in the Bible (who seems to have drawn on two earlier Israelite accounts) ultimately derives the story from his broad Mesopotamian heritage. The Israelite authors were trying to make sense of a story they could not simply discard, in the context of their monotheistic worldview. In the earlier story found in the Gilgamesh epic, the polytheistic context allows one to make sense of the story – some gods want to wipe out the noisy humans, but one that does not saves Utnapishtim. There is no need, in that context, to have a deity who at once is interested in saving human life and destroying it. In the context of ancient Israel’s ethical monotheism, the author of the Noah story does the best he can with what he had inherited, and attributes the flood to the one God (what else could he do?) and explains the action as judgment on human sinfulness (how else could he make sense of it?).

In our various canons of Scripture, we have not only the story of Noah, but that of Job, which shows (as do other stories) that one cannot simply do what the author of Genesis did, and Job’s friends did: i.e. blame disasters on humans having done things wrong and thus having deserved to have bad things happen to them. In light of what we know from geology, which the author of Genesis did not, namely that such a worldwide flood never happened, we have other options available. In light of the book of Job, and our scientific understanding of floods and tsunamis, we not only have the option of exploring other approaches, it is absolutely imperativethat we do so.

In the end, the story of Noah reminds us that we think about theology in historical contexts, with limited human reason, in partial and piecemeal ways. Its challenge to us is that any language that we today use about God will look as inadequate and perhaps even as horrific to future generations of humans, as that in the Noah story does to us.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    I know we went over this before, if you remember, but I have
    a few questions on the subject. These questions are based on the Hebrew Scriptures.

    1. If we can reject certain stories or accounts in the Bible
    as authentic, what prevents us from rejecting the entire Bible under the same or similar reasons for rejecting certain stories?

    2. Based on number 1, how are we to know what stories to
    accept as historical and which ones are not?

    3. What exactly should prompt us to put faith in God when we
    read certain biblical texts that merely “reflects the development of human thinking about God.”

    4. Having faith in God means believing what he says and
    doing what he asks. How do I accomplish this if a good portion of what I read is man’s thinking? Or when I can not distinguish which parts of the Bible he actually inspired?

    5. In your opinion, are biblical accounts, such as the Noah
    story approved by God, or do they misrepresent him?

    6. Am I being too restrictive in my use of the word inspiration? Does it simply mean that what we find in the Bible is a collection
    of writings from men reporting their own personal religious experiences of what they think God has said and done? Or did some or all of them really communicate with God.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    I know we went over this before, if you remember, but I have
    a few questions on the subject. These questions are based on the Hebrew Scriptures.

    1. If we can reject certain stories or accounts in the Bible
    as authentic, what prevents us from rejecting the entire Bible under the same or similar reasons for rejecting certain stories?

    2. Based on number 1, how are we to know what stories to
    accept as historical and which ones are not?

    3. What exactly should prompt us to put faith in God when we
    read certain biblical texts that merely “reflects the development of human thinking about God.”

    4. Having faith in God means believing what he says and
    doing what he asks. How do I accomplish this if a good portion of what I read is man’s thinking? Or when I can not distinguish which parts of the Bible he actually inspired?

    5. In your opinion, are biblical accounts, such as the Noah
    story approved by God, or do they misrepresent him?

    6. Am I being too restrictive in my use of the word inspiration? Does it simply mean that what we find in the Bible is a collection
    of writings from men reporting their own personal religious experiences of what they think God has said and done? Or did some or all of them really communicate with God.

  • Anonymous

    “the author of the Noah story does the best he can with what he had inherited”

    This sums up my attitude just about the entire Bible.

  • Scott__F

    “the author of the Noah story does the best he can with what he had inherited”

    This sums up my attitude just about the entire Bible.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    The best way to make sense of the story is to show how it, like all the Biblical literature, reflects the development of human thinking about God that has led us to where we are today, rather than as static proclamations of things one ought to believe about God. 

    Hindu, Muslim, Shinto, Greek and many more literatures can do the same.  So why go to church and study the same stories over and over.  If you are all about trying to reflect on “the human thinking about God”, best to keep reading all the stuff you never read.

    Wait, could be called Anthropology or Sociology or Psychology or …  
    I think what you say here confirms some of what Hector Avalos said when he called for the End of Biblical Studies.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    The best way to make sense of the story is to show how it, like all the Biblical literature, reflects the development of human thinking about God that has led us to where we are today, rather than as static proclamations of things one ought to believe about God. 

    Hindu, Muslim, Shinto, Greek and many more literatures can do the same.  So why go to church and study the same stories over and over.  If you are all about trying to reflect on “the human thinking about God”, best to keep reading all the stuff you never read.

    Wait, could be called Anthropology or Sociology or Psychology or …  
    I think what you say here confirms some of what Hector Avalos said when he called for the End of Biblical Studies.

  • Anonymous

    “what prevents us from rejecting the entire Bible under the same or similar reasons for rejecting certain stories?”

    Bingo, Howard!  You have the choice of swallowing these stories whole, accepting that God is a being whose morality you will have to defend against even your own sense of right and wrong -or- redefining your view of the biblical collection and, possibly, opening your eyes to the possibility, thrilling and terrifying, that you can seek your own understanding of the world, morality and your place in it.

    But you probably won’t :)

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @Scott, Your absolutely correct, and that was the point I was
      trying to make. I strongly believe that you must either accept the Bible as a
      whole as the word of God or reject it as a whole as the scribbling of ancient
      farmers. I know James does not agree with me on this point. Selectively picking
      certain parts of the Bible to be historical or inspired, would be nothing more
      then re-establishing the biblical canon. In my view, if there is a God and if
      he is truly responsible for the Bible and the accepted canon for the purpose of
      communicating his will to man, then I find the idea that large sections of the
      Bible are not inspired and in fact misrepresent God, to be absurd. Why would
      God approve of a Bible that misrepresents his will? Why would God associate
      himself with a text that was incapable of revealing who he really is? Some
      scholars want to have their cake and eat it to. On one hand they say they
      believe in God, but on the other, they treat the Bible as nothing more than an ancient
      literary text used for academic exercise. So where did the God that they
      believe in come from? Did he come from the historically plausible parts of the
      Bible? Simply put, if the Bible is truly the word of God, he would protect it
      and he would make sure it contains exactly what he wants it to contain. If the
      story of Noah seems too farfetched to be taken as historical fact, then it is
      our duty to trust that God had a reason for putting it there, and not treat it
      merely as the thoughts of men.

       

      As for the morality issue, I have no problem with how the Bible
      represents God’s morality. I find it hard to believe sometimes that people are
      unaware of the different levels of morality. For example, if a man stole your
      car and you eventually caught him, would it be accepted morally by the community
      if you imprisoned this criminal in your basement for a few years? Probably not,
      but no one will bat an eye when the government does the exact same thing. So
      there are probably things that God can do that would be morally wrong for us to
      do. So we should not judge him by our standard of morality. It is also helpful
      to remember that God can completely reverse any action he takes. If God chose
      to bring back to life everyone he put to death as if they had never died, what
      then? Why exactly would the creator be bound by the morality and wishes of the
      creation?

      • Anonymous

        @Howard, your average fundamentalist atheist :) agrees.  We just can’t hold the OT and NT God in our head at the same time.

        This is where I part ways with James.  To say that our understanding of God has “evolved” is true 0n the face of it.  However, while the God of Genesis and the God of Norman Vincent Peale may have a familial link, they are so different in nature that you can’t really treat them as the same being.  A whale is not a bacteria.

        If our concepts of God can shift so radically then one has to conclude, barring further evidence, that all those properties that we have serially assigned to God are in reality reflections of ourselves and not any portrayal of an actual entity.  If God didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.  Once stripped of the projections of our own, very current, needs, there is just no there there.

        • Howard Mazzaferro

          @Scott, I can certainly see how some people could believe that the Bible is nothing more then a collection of writings from ancient Hebrews, no different then all other religious texts from history. It may very well turn out to be just that. But at present, I choose to believe that there is a God and he authored the Bible. Are there problems and unanswered questions? Yes, but I believe there is too much agreement and continuity in the underlying theme of the Bible for it to be merely the work of men. Why I believe others can not see this agreement and continuity, is because they can not grasp the concepts of the Bible. For example, if I were to take a current tech magazine back in time about 300 years and had scientists of the day read it, what do you think they would say? They probably would say that it was pure fantasy, but we would know different. why? Because we can grasp the underlying concepts and principles of how things work today, they can not. Although, with time they could be taught some of these concepts so they would come to believe the things they read were in fact true. I believe it is the same for the Bible. If you do not properly understand the underlying concepts such as who is God, what is he doing, why is he doing it, how is he doing it, the Bible would seem like pure fantasy. At least that’s how I feel about it. Also, so you are not completely confused about what you see and hear in the world of the Christian religion, I believe most Christians for the past 2,000 years are the wheat from Jesus parable, they are not true followers of Jesus. Thus, their actions and teachings ARE the thoughts of men.

  • Scott__F

    “what prevents us from rejecting the entire Bible under the same or similar reasons for rejecting certain stories?”

    Bingo, Howard!  You have the choice of swallowing these stories whole, accepting that God is a being whose morality you will have to defend against even your own sense of right and wrong -or- redefining your view of the biblical collection and, possibly, opening your eyes to the possibility, thrilling and terrifying, that you can seek your own understanding of the world, morality and your place in it.

    But you probably won’t :)

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @Scott, Your absolutely correct, and that was the point I was
      trying to make. I strongly believe that you must either accept the Bible as a whole as the word of God or reject it as a whole as the scribbling of ancient farmers. I know James does not agree with me on this point. Selectively picking certain parts of the Bible to be historical or inspired, would be nothing more then re-establishing the biblical canon. In my view, if there is a God and if he is truly responsible for the Bible and the accepted canon for the purpose of communicating his will to man, then I find the idea that large sections of the Bible are not inspired and in fact misrepresent God, to be absurd. Why would God approve of a Bible that misrepresents his will? Why would God associate himself with a text that was incapable of revealing who he really is? Some scholars want to have their cake and eat it to. On one hand they say they believe in God, but on the other, they treat the Bible as nothing more than an ancient literary text used for academic exercise. So where did the God that they believe in come from? Did he come from the historically plausible parts of the Bible? Simply put, if the Bible is truly the word of God, he would protect it and he would make sure it contains exactly what he wants it to contain. If the story of Noah seems too farfetched to be taken as historical fact, then it is our duty to trust that God had a reason for putting it there, and not treat it merely as the thoughts of men.

      As for the morality issue, I have no problem with how the Bible
      represents God’s morality. I find it hard to believe sometimes that people are unaware of the different levels of morality. For example, if a man stole your car and you eventually caught him, would it be accepted morally by the community if you imprisoned this criminal in your basement for a few years? Probably not, but no one will bat an eye when the government does the exact same thing. So there are probably things that God can do that would be morally wrong for us to do. So we should not judge him by our standard of morality. It is also helpful to remember that God can completely reverse any action he takes. If God chose to bring back to life everyone he put to death as if they had never died, what then? Why exactly would the creator be bound by the morality and wishes of the creation?

      • Scott__F

        @Howard, your average fundamentalist atheist :) agrees.  We just can’t hold the OT and NT God in our head at the same time.

        This is where I part ways with James.  To say that our understanding of God has “evolved” is true 0n the face of it.  However, while the God of Genesis and the God of Norman Vincent Peale may have a familial link, they are so different in nature that you can’t really treat them as the same being.  A whale is not a bacteria.

        If our concepts of God can shift so radically then one has to conclude, barring further evidence, that all those properties that we have serially assigned to God are in reality reflections of ourselves and not any portrayal of an actual entity.  If God didn’t exist, we would have to invent him.  Once stripped of the projections of our own, very current, needs, there is just no there there.

        • Howard Mazzaferro

          @Scott, I can certainly see how some people could believe that the Bible is nothing more then a collection of writings from ancient Hebrews, no different then all other religious texts from history. It may very well turn out to be just that. But at present, I choose to believe that there is a God and he authored the Bible. Are there problems and unanswered questions? Yes, but I believe there is too much agreement and continuity in the underlying theme of the Bible for it to be merely the work of men. Why I believe others can not see this agreement and continuity, is because they can not grasp the concepts of the Bible. For example, if I were to take a current tech magazine back in time about 300 years and had scientists of the day read it, what do you think they would say? They probably would say that it was pure fantasy, but we would know different. why? Because we can grasp the underlying concepts and principles of how things work today, they can not. Although, with time they could be taught some of these concepts so they would come to believe the things they read were in fact true. I believe it is the same for the Bible. If you do not properly understand the underlying concepts such as who is God, what is he doing, why is he doing it, how is he doing it, the Bible would seem like pure fantasy. At least that’s how I feel about it. Also, so you are not completely confused about what you see and hear in the world of the Christian religion, I believe most Christians for the past 2,000 years are the wheat from Jesus parable, they are not true followers of Jesus. Thus, their actions and teachings ARE the thoughts of men.

  • Beau

    There is a rich heritage of preserved writing in the Judeo-Christian heritage – no question. This has great value in anthropological studies of human civilization and religion. The emphasis on writing may explain the longevity of Abrahamic religions in the world.

    However, the bible is filled with the sorts of errors, inconsistencies, and fantasies one would expect of any ancient mythological oral or written tradition. To base our morality or “worldview” on the inspiration of the bible, makes no more sense than basing it on the inspiration of Ikhernofret Stela.

  • Beau

    There is a rich heritage of preserved writing in the Judeo-Christian heritage – no question. This has great value in anthropological studies of human civilization and religion. The emphasis on writing may explain the longevity of Abrahamic religions in the world.

    However, the bible is filled with the sorts of errors, inconsistencies, and fantasies one would expect of any ancient mythological oral or written tradition. To base our morality or “worldview” on the inspiration of the bible, makes no more sense than basing it on the inspiration of Ikhernofret Stela.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ Howard,

    … then it is our duty to trust that God had a reason for putting it there, and not treat it merely as the thoughts of men. 

    No such duty exists but you state well what separates many in this dialogue.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @Sabio, Sorry, the implied meaning is the duty of those who believe the Bible is God’s word.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ Howard,

    … then it is our duty to trust that God had a reason for putting it there, and not treat it merely as the thoughts of men. 

    No such duty exists but you state well what separates many in this dialogue.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @Sabio, Sorry, the implied meaning is the duty of those who believe the Bible is God’s word.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , thank you for your provocative questions. Let me give my answer to each in turn:
    1. If we can reject certain stories or accounts in the Bible as authentic, what prevents us from rejecting the entire Bible under the same or similar reasons for rejecting certain stories?
    A. Clearly nothing prevents one doing so, since people do in fact do just that. I find it unnecessary to take that all-or-nothing approach, and see evidence in the Bible itself for later authors not merely preserving or jettisoning what others wrote before them, but also choosing selectively, adapting, editing and changing.
    2. Based on number 1, how are we to know what stories to accept as historical and which ones are not?
    A. Historical criticism – not a foolproof method, by any means, but the best we have.
    3. What exactly should prompt us to put faith in God when we read certain biblical texts that merely “reflects the development of human thinking about God.”
    A.  In my opinion, faith in God should be prompted by an awareness of our human limitations, which Biblical authors shared. For some, “faith in God” means “believing certain things are true about God” while for others, such as myself, it means an attitude of reverence and trust towards a God that we realize we do not understand.
    4. Having faith in God means believing what he says and doing what he asks. How do I accomplish this if a good portion of what I read is man’s thinking? Or when I can not distinguish which parts of the Bible he actually inspired?
    A.  I don’t think that human beings have access to a revelation that has not come by way of “man’s thinking.” If there is any revelation to be found in any Scriptures, it is not by distinguishing them from human compositions. They are human compositions, and the New Testament is helpful in making this clear, since it actually attributes some of its contents to named human authors. And so I don’t see why a Christian would be opposed to accepting that they are dealing with human thinking in the Bible, even if some may also want to say more than that.
    5. In your opinion, are biblical accounts, such as the Noah story approved by God, or do they misrepresent him?
    A. I obviously don’t believe that I have some way to step out of my limited perspective and transcend my human perspective or travel through time to find definitive answers to such a question. I could simply say “Yes, I think they misrepresent him” and leave it at that. But I think that a big part of the problem is the reading of such stories with no attention to their context or prehistory. In adapting earlier stories to a monotheistic outlook, the author offered an innovative perspective, and so there is a sense in which a story like this misrepresents God only when we cease to recognize that it represents an ancient author trying to make sense of earlier stories and develop them in a different way, and instead treat it as “the last word” and/or a factually true account of a historical event.
    6. Am I being too restrictive in my use of the word inspiration? Does it simply mean that what we find in the Bible is a collectionof writings from men reporting their own personal religious experiences of what they think God has said and done? Or did some or all of them really communicate with God.
    A.  There is the old dilemma that we cannot distinguish between God speaking to someone in a dream and someone dreaming that God spoke to them. The impact of the Bible and careful study of it suggests that at the very least your second sentence is on target. As to the third, I suppose the question is whether we can know even if they did, and if so how.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @James, I do understand were you are coming from, I just have a few more questions and comments on what you wrote.

      James: “I find it unnecessary to take that all-or-nothing approach, and see evidence in the Bible itself for later authors not merely preserving or jettisoning what others wrote before them, but also choosing selectively, adapting, editing and changing.”

      I’m not denying that the Bible has been edited and altered to a degree over time, but isn’t your approach in complete opposition to what the text actually says? For example, the phrase “This is what the Lord YHWH has said” occurs more then 500 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Are you implying that we should not take this at face value? If that is the case, then how do you reconcile your inconsistent statements? On another post concerning Earl Doherty’s book you said:  “The attempt to treat the reference to “James the brother of the Lord” as simply one more example of the use of “brother” for all Christian believers fails, because it does not do justice to what Paul actually wrote.” So I have to ask, if you do not believe God actually spoke these things, are you also not doing justice to what Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel actually wrote? However, if you believe these men did not actually write the books that are attributed to them, could we not say the same for Paul’s writings? Unless there is something I am missing.

      James: “Historical criticism – not a foolproof method, by any means, but the best we have.”

      I understand, but the only problem I have is this. If stories like the flood, Adam and Eve, and other implausible or supernatural accounts in the Bible should be rejected on the bases of historical criticism and scientific scrutiny, could you share with me the supernatural accounts in the Bible that are supported by historical criticism and scientific scrutiny that leads you to believe in an invisible supernatural God?

      James: “while for others, such as myself, it means an attitude of reverence and trust towards a God that we realize we do not understand.”

      What exactly is it that you trust about a God you do not understand? I trust that the things he said in the Bible are true, but you do not believe they are God’s actual words.

      James: “I don’t think that human beings have access to a revelation that has not come by way of ‘man’s thinking.’”

      I guess this is the crux of our disagreement. I believe when the Bible frequently and consistently says that the Bible is not man’s word, but God’s.

      James: “They are human compositions, and the New Testament is helpful in making this clear, since it actually attributes some of its contents to named human authors.”

      This was probably just a way of identifying what part of the Hebrew Scriptures were being discussed. The same thing we do today.

      James: “And so I don’t see why a Christian would be opposed to accepting that they are dealing with human thinking in the Bible, even if some may also want to say more than that.”

      I do not really understand, what would be the point of that? Is man’s thinking going to resurrect me? Is man’s thinking going to provide me with everlasting salvation? Is man’s thinking going to bring about God’s kingdom? If the Bible is really man’s thinking, then the promises it holds out are meaningless, are they not?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , thank you for your provocative questions. Let me give my answer to each in turn:
    1. If we can reject certain stories or accounts in the Bible as authentic, what prevents us from rejecting the entire Bible under the same or similar reasons for rejecting certain stories?
    A. Clearly nothing prevents one doing so, since people do in fact do just that. I find it unnecessary to take that all-or-nothing approach, and see evidence in the Bible itself for later authors not merely preserving or jettisoning what others wrote before them, but also choosing selectively, adapting, editing and changing.
    2. Based on number 1, how are we to know what stories to accept as historical and which ones are not?
    A. Historical criticism – not a foolproof method, by any means, but the best we have.
    3. What exactly should prompt us to put faith in God when we read certain biblical texts that merely “reflects the development of human thinking about God.”
    A.  In my opinion, faith in God should be prompted by an awareness of our human limitations, which Biblical authors shared. For some, “faith in God” means “believing certain things are true about God” while for others, such as myself, it means an attitude of reverence and trust towards a God that we realize we do not understand.
    4. Having faith in God means believing what he says and doing what he asks. How do I accomplish this if a good portion of what I read is man’s thinking? Or when I can not distinguish which parts of the Bible he actually inspired?
    A.  I don’t think that human beings have access to a revelation that has not come by way of “man’s thinking.” If there is any revelation to be found in any Scriptures, it is not by distinguishing them from human compositions. They are human compositions, and the New Testament is helpful in making this clear, since it actually attributes some of its contents to named human authors. And so I don’t see why a Christian would be opposed to accepting that they are dealing with human thinking in the Bible, even if some may also want to say more than that.
    5. In your opinion, are biblical accounts, such as the Noah story approved by God, or do they misrepresent him?
    A. I obviously don’t believe that I have some way to step out of my limited perspective and transcend my human perspective or travel through time to find definitive answers to such a question. I could simply say “Yes, I think they misrepresent him” and leave it at that. But I think that a big part of the problem is the reading of such stories with no attention to their context or prehistory. In adapting earlier stories to a monotheistic outlook, the author offered an innovative perspective, and so there is a sense in which a story like this misrepresents God only when we cease to recognize that it represents an ancient author trying to make sense of earlier stories and develop them in a different way, and instead treat it as “the last word” and/or a factually true account of a historical event.
    6. Am I being too restrictive in my use of the word inspiration? Does it simply mean that what we find in the Bible is a collectionof writings from men reporting their own personal religious experiences of what they think God has said and done? Or did some or all of them really communicate with God.
    A.  There is the old dilemma that we cannot distinguish between God speaking to someone in a dream and someone dreaming that God spoke to them. The impact of the Bible and careful study of it suggests that at the very least your second sentence is on target. As to the third, I suppose the question is whether we can know even if they did, and if so how.

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @James, I do understand were you are coming from, I just have a few more questions and comments on what you wrote.

      James: “I find it unnecessary to take that all-or-nothing approach, and see evidence in the Bible itself for later authors not merely preserving or jettisoning what others wrote before them, but also choosing selectively, adapting, editing and changing.”

      I’m not denying that the Bible has been edited and altered to a degree over time, but isn’t your approach in complete opposition to what the text actually says? For example, the phrase “This is what the Lord YHWH has said” occurs more then 500 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Are you implying that we should not take this at face value? If that is the case, then how do you reconcile your inconsistent statements? On another post concerning Earl Doherty’s book you said:  “The attempt to treat the reference to “James the brother of the Lord” as simply one more example of the use of “brother” for all Christian believers fails, because it does not do justice to what Paul actually wrote.” So I have to ask, if you do not believe God actually spoke these things, are you also not doing justice to what Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel actually wrote? However, if you believe these men did not actually write the books that are attributed to them, could we not say the same for Paul’s writings? Unless there is something I am missing.

      James: “Historical criticism – not a foolproof method, by any means, but the best we have.”

      I understand, but the only problem I have is this. If stories like the flood, Adam and Eve, and other implausible or supernatural accounts in the Bible should be rejected on the bases of historical criticism and scientific scrutiny, could you share with me the supernatural accounts in the Bible that are supported by historical criticism and scientific scrutiny that leads you to believe in an invisible supernatural God?

      James: “while for others, such as myself, it means an attitude of reverence and trust towards a God that we realize we do not understand.”

      What exactly is it that you trust about a God you do not understand? I trust that the things he said in the Bible are true, but you do not believe they are God’s actual words.

      James: “I don’t think that human beings have access to a revelation that has not come by way of ‘man’s thinking.’”

      I guess this is the crux of our disagreement. I believe when the Bible frequently and consistently says that the Bible is not man’s word, but God’s.

      James: “They are human compositions, and the New Testament is helpful in making this clear, since it actually attributes some of its contents to named human authors.”

      This was probably just a way of identifying what part of the Hebrew Scriptures were being discussed. The same thing we do today.

      James: “And so I don’t see why a Christian would be opposed to accepting that they are dealing with human thinking in the Bible, even if some may also want to say more than that.”

      I do not really understand, what would be the point of that? Is man’s thinking going to resurrect me? Is man’s thinking going to provide me with everlasting salvation? Is man’s thinking going to bring about God’s kingdom? If the Bible is really man’s thinking, then the promises it holds out are meaningless, are they not?

  • Gary

    To give another example, from my current favorite book “Who Wrote the Bible” by Friedman. The showdown between King Hezekiah (Judean) and King Sennacherib of Assyria who surrounded Jerusalem. News report, from the bible, 2 Kings 19:35; “And it was, that night, that an angel of Yahweh went out and struck one hundred eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp, and they rose in the morning and here they were all dead corpses. And Sennacherib traveled and went and returned, and he lived in Nineveh”. News report, from Prism Inscription of Sennacherib found at Nineveh (currently in the British museum), talking about Hezekiah “Himself, I locked up like a caged bird in the midst of Jerusalem, his royal city…The fear of the splendor of my majesty overcame Hezekiah, and the Arabs and crack troops that he had brought in for the strengthening of Jerusalem his royal city ceased working. He sent a heavy tribute and his daughters, and his harem and singers, together with thirty talents of gold….and sent his ambassadors for the giving of tribute and the performance of vassal service”.  Another example from the bible itself, origin of the city of Shechem, capital of Israel, burial spot of Joseph. J story, Gen 34. E story, Gen 33:19. To quote Friedman, “How did Israel acquire Shechem? The E author says they bought it. The J author says they massacred it.” So, human writers influenced by God, some more than others…and difficult to determine God vs human motivational source. I am sure there is a factual basis for the flood, but I am also sure it is localized, and maybe based upon oral history of the flooding associated with glacier melt 10,000 years ago, or associated dam breaking of the same – with humans incorporating the story for their moral allegory.

  • Gary

    To give another example, from my current favorite book “Who Wrote the Bible” by Friedman. The showdown between King Hezekiah (Judean) and King Sennacherib of Assyria who surrounded Jerusalem. News report, from the bible, 2 Kings 19:35; “And it was, that night, that an angel of Yahweh went out and struck one hundred eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp, and they rose in the morning and here they were all dead corpses. And Sennacherib traveled and went and returned, and he lived in Nineveh”. News report, from Prism Inscription of Sennacherib found at Nineveh (currently in the British museum), talking about Hezekiah “Himself, I locked up like a caged bird in the midst of Jerusalem, his royal city…The fear of the splendor of my majesty overcame Hezekiah, and the Arabs and crack troops that he had brought in for the strengthening of Jerusalem his royal city ceased working. He sent a heavy tribute and his daughters, and his harem and singers, together with thirty talents of gold….and sent his ambassadors for the giving of tribute and the performance of vassal service”.  Another example from the bible itself, origin of the city of Shechem, capital of Israel, burial spot of Joseph. J story, Gen 34. E story, Gen 33:19. To quote Friedman, “How did Israel acquire Shechem? The E author says they bought it. The J author says they massacred it.” So, human writers influenced by God, some more than others…and difficult to determine God vs human motivational source. I am sure there is a factual basis for the flood, but I am also sure it is localized, and maybe based upon oral history of the flooding associated with glacier melt 10,000 years ago, or associated dam breaking of the same – with humans incorporating the story for their moral allegory.

  • tolkein

    I won’t comment on the theology behind the story of Noah. I will comment on the reality of something like a series of world wide floods at the end of the Ice Age. The first two were associated with the Older and Younger Dryas events . The third, around 8,000 years ago has been described as possibly the largest single flood in the last 2 million years (Fletcher & Sherman in Journal of Coastal Research Special Edition 17, 1995, pp141-152.)When the Larentide icesheet was flushed into the North Atlantic it would have raised sea levels on its by 50-10 metres, virtually instantaneously. But the knock on effect meant the rise could have been up to 25 metres. That’s a lot. Enough to cause a real Flood.

    This would have been a catastrophe. There would have been earthquakes, giant tsunamis, the land would have seemed to be rising out of the sea, as the weight of the icesheets suddenly disappeared. I don’t think there’s any doubt, except among Old Testament scholars that there were ginormous Floods around 8,000 years ago. The Old Testament has a good go at trying to give a theological explanation for what happened.

  • tolkein

    I won’t comment on the theology behind the story of Noah. I will comment on the reality of something like a series of world wide floods at the end of the Ice Age. The first two were associated with the Older and Younger Dryas events . The third, around 8,000 years ago has been described as possibly the largest single flood in the last 2 million years (Fletcher & Sherman in Journal of Coastal Research Special Edition 17, 1995, pp141-152.)When the Larentide icesheet was flushed into the North Atlantic it would have raised sea levels on its by 50-10 metres, virtually instantaneously. But the knock on effect meant the rise could have been up to 25 metres. That’s a lot. Enough to cause a real Flood.

    This would have been a catastrophe. There would have been earthquakes, giant tsunamis, the land would have seemed to be rising out of the sea, as the weight of the icesheets suddenly disappeared. I don’t think there’s any doubt, except among Old Testament scholars that there were ginormous Floods around 8,000 years ago. The Old Testament has a good go at trying to give a theological explanation for what happened.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Hello Howard,
    You said: “@Sabio, Sorry, the implied meaning is the duty of those who believe the Bible is God’s word.”

    But I think James would not, as you say, agree with you when you said, “… then it is our duty to trust that God had a reason for putting it there, and not treat it merely as the thoughts of men. ”

    Thus, though I said, “No such duty exists but you state well what separates many in this dialogue.”

    I think when James said “If there is any revelation to be found in any Scriptures, it is not by distinguishing them from human compositions.”  You can see that he also disagrees with this “duty”. 

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      Sabio, of course you are correct. It should be worded like this: “I feel it should be the duty of those who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.” Phrasing it like this should certainly leave James out of this duty. :-)

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Hello Howard,
    You said: “@Sabio, Sorry, the implied meaning is the duty of those who believe the Bible is God’s word.”

    But I think James would not, as you say, agree with you when you said, “… then it is our duty to trust that God had a reason for putting it there, and not treat it merely as the thoughts of men. ”

    Thus, though I said, “No such duty exists but you state well what separates many in this dialogue.”

    I think when James said “If there is any revelation to be found in any Scriptures, it is not by distinguishing them from human compositions.”  You can see that he also disagrees with this “duty”. 

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      Sabio, of course you are correct. It should be worded like this: “I feel it should be the duty of those who believe the Bible is the inspired word of God.” Phrasing it like this should certainly leave James out of this duty. :-)

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ Howard
    I wish Disqus somehow could put one’s faith/sect next to their names to facilitate the discussion and link to sites.  Something like this:
    Sabio Lantz (Buddhish Atheist)
    Howard Mazzaferro (Jehovah Witness)

    Would yours be accurate?

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      Sabio, Not really. Although I share much of the theology, I am not, nor have I ever been a Witness.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ Howard
    I wish Disqus somehow could put one’s faith/sect next to their names to facilitate the discussion and link to sites.  Something like this:
    Sabio Lantz (Buddhish Atheist)
    Howard Mazzaferro (Jehovah Witnessish)

    Would yours be accurate?

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      Sabio, Not really. Although I share much of the theology, I am not, nor have I ever been a Witness.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I don’t think you are so much trusting what God says in the Bible, as trusting that what authors wrote in the Bible was spoken by God. At the very least, the latter has to occur before one can even discuss the former.

    I self-published the little book The Burial of Jesus precisely as a way of discussing for a general audience one of the biggest challenges of historical-critical study for faith. It isn’t that it calls some events and sayings into question that is the biggest issue for traditional, supernaturalist faith. Rather the biggest issue for such a viewpoint is that historical tools of inquiry, because they deal in probabilities, can never provide us with reason to think that a miracle is probable, since miracles are by definition improbable, and thus it is always going to be more likely that there is some more mundane explanation for why we have a story about a miracle in some text. But even in the best case scenario, as it were, if historical study could render a positive judgment about something like the resurrection, then it would still only be “Jesus probably rose from the dead,” which I think many Christians would consider an inadequate Gospel.

    That’s the nature of historical study, and I don’t see that faith gives us a way around it. And so what I wrestled with in the book, and continue to wrestle with, is what Christian faith can mean under such circumstances.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I don’t think you are so much trusting what God says in the Bible, as trusting that what authors wrote in the Bible was spoken by God. At the very least, the latter has to occur before one can even discuss the former.

    I self-published the little book The Burial of Jesus precisely as a way of discussing for a general audience one of the biggest challenges of historical-critical study for faith. It isn’t that it calls some events and sayings into question that is the biggest issue for traditional, supernaturalist faith. Rather the biggest issue for such a viewpoint is that historical tools of inquiry, because they deal in probabilities, can never provide us with reason to think that a miracle is probable, since miracles are by definition improbable, and thus it is always going to be more likely that there is some more mundane explanation for why we have a story about a miracle in some text. But even in the best case scenario, as it were, if historical study could render a positive judgment about something like the resurrection, then it would still only be “Jesus probably rose from the dead,” which I think many Christians would consider an inadequate Gospel.

    That’s the nature of historical study, and I don’t see that faith gives us a way around it. And so what I wrestled with in the book, and continue to wrestle with, is what Christian faith can mean under such circumstances.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ James
    Excellent reply to Howard.  Applause!

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ James
    Excellent reply to Howard.  Applause!

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, It is quite obvious that we are approaching these issues from two completely different and opposing angles.  I have no problem with you or anyone else examining the Bible as a historical literary text. For me, I don’t find that it is a valid approach to the study of the Bible. The Bible is a special and unique text that should not be compared with traditional man made literary texts. It just gets a little tiresome hearing you imply that anyone who believes in such a way lacks sense because they are not willing to face the truth. But that is your truth, not mine, and not the truth of the many brilliant men and women through the years who share a similar view of the Bible as me. I was never trying to convince you of anything, except maybe to get you to realize that my view of Scripture is just as plausible as yours. As I said before, I just can not grasp your view, you say you believe in God, who is a supernatural being, which would imply a supernatural world or existence. But if someone on earth was inspired from this supernatural place to write about it or about how this place has affected the physical world, you say it probably is not a true account, because miracles are not probable. So why believe in a supernatural God in the first place? I guess we now know the answer. It is clear that you think God probably exists.

    “. . .But let him keep on asking in faith, not doubting at all, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven by the wind and blown about. 7 In fact, let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is an indecisive man, unsteady in all his ways.” (James 1:6-8)

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, It is quite obvious that we are approaching these issues from two completely different and opposing angles.  I have no problem with you or anyone else examining the Bible as a historical literary text. For me, I don’t find that it is a valid approach to the study of the Bible. The Bible is a special and unique text that should not be compared with traditional man made literary texts. It just gets a little tiresome hearing you imply that anyone who believes in such a way lacks sense because they are not willing to face the truth. But that is your truth, not mine, and not the truth of the many brilliant men and women through the years who share a similar view of the Bible as me. I was never trying to convince you of anything, except maybe to get you to realize that my view of Scripture is just as plausible as yours. As I said before, I just can not grasp your view, you say you believe in God, who is a supernatural being, which would imply a supernatural world or existence. But if someone on earth was inspired from this supernatural place to write about it or about how this place has affected the physical world, you say it probably is not a true account, because miracles are not probable. So why believe in a supernatural God in the first place? I guess we now know the answer. It is clear that you think God probably exists.

    “. . .But let him keep on asking in faith, not doubting at all, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven by the wind and blown about. 7 In fact, let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is an indecisive man, unsteady in all his ways.” (James 1:6-8)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I think that it is crucial to treat the texts in the Bible as at least literature. Whatever their uniqueness or specialness may be, it doesn’t seem to consist of their not being literature
    Reduced by human authors.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @Howard, I think that it is crucial to treat the texts in the Bible as at least literature. Whatever their uniqueness or specialness may be, it doesn’t seem to consist of their not being literature
    Reduced by human authors.

  • Lucian

    The last ice age never happened?…

  • Lucian

    The last ice age never happened?…


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