N.T.WRONG

Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Correlating biblical traditions and “extra-biblical” evidence – Answering a Childish Dilemma

Posted by NT Wrong on April 30, 2008

In 1974, the late Brev Childs compared two rather extreme approaches to correlating the biblical traditions and “extra-biblical” evidence:

There are two traditional approaches to this … problem, both of which, in my judgement, are inadequate. The first is the ‘supernaturalistic’ viewpoint. According to this position the biblical witness is the normative, and therefore historically accurate, record of the event in accordance with which the extra-biblical evidence must be corrected and controlled. This position suffers in that it seeks to employ categories taken from outside the Bible, such as historicity, objectivity, and the like, and yet to retain without criticism the content of the canonical witness. It seeks to guarantee a reality testified to in the canon by means of dogmatic controls employed outside the area of faith. The second position, which is that of rationalism, represents the opposite extreme. It seeks to determine the truth of the biblical testimony on the basis of critical evaluation according to rational criteria, based on past human experience. It suffers from assuming that its criteria are adequate to test all reality, and it eliminates the basic theological issue by definition. In terms of the manna story, the supernaturalists claim that the exodus story is a historically accurate report of a unique miracle which is unrelated to any natural food of the desert. The rationalists conversely claim that the exodus story is an imaginary (or poetic) projection into the supernatural sphere of a natural phenomenon of the desert which can be fully described scientifically.”
– Brev Childs, The Book of Exodus 1974: 299, 300; cited by Philip Sumpter, Narrative and Ontology Blog

Childs identifies two opposite positions which can be taken. Both are distinctly modernist, but not in a properly self-reflective way. One tries to defend ancient ‘miracles’/’the supernatural’ in terms of the modern category of ‘history’. So, the bible is judged to be correct according to a misapplied modern criterion. The other position tries to explain ancient ‘miracles’/’the supernatural’ in terms of modern material monism. So, the bible is judged to be false, and is re-explained according to a modern criterion that should never be applied to a miracle story.

How do we avoid these two mistakes? I’ll suggest a couple of ways. First, we need to recognise that the particular mythistory done in the Bible is not the same genre as the mythistory done in modernity. The conceptions and boundaries of reality differ. So any criterion which unreflectingly imposes a modern distinction of ‘the supernatural’ and ‘historical’ (or ‘real’) is on dangerous gound. Second, we might realise that the modern standard of historiography, with its deliberate sifting of materials according to criteria and recognition of bias in cultural memory, has a significantly different focus from ancient historiography. We can write a modern history of Israel, or we can examine Israel’s history, but the two don’t usually greatly overlap. Hence the form of Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel.

2 Responses to “Correlating biblical traditions and “extra-biblical” evidence – Answering a Childish Dilemma”

  1. Once you’ve properly identified the nature of biblical historiography, how in practice do you go about deciding on the happendness of miracle stories (for example)? Recognising that “history” meant something different to the biblical writers than it does for us today shows the complexity of the issue, but it still doesn’t solve the historical question of whether something happened or not. The NT writers didn’t make the distinction between event and significance either, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t believe that the happendness of events was insignificant.

  2. ntwrong said

    Phil asked:
    Once you’ve properly identified the nature of biblical historiography, how in practice do you go about deciding on the happendness of miracle stories (for example)?

    NT Wrong:
    Bless you, Phil.

    The nature of the biblical historiography provides many indicators. The fact that the genre mainly utilises stories in the subgenre of folktale and legend (leaders prophesied from birth, killing of giants, conquests of cities carried out by magical rites, mythical peoples of the land, etc, etc), and that it fits these stories into an artificial chronology, provides evidence that supports the non-reality of that to which it is supposed to refer. Comparison with Herodotus and other ancient historiographers–where the closest comparisons are in the misty ancient times rather than well-known recent history–also provides evidence that the stories are more likely to be invented tradition than fact. The biblical historiography is more Pausanias than Herodotus.

    Phil commented:
    The NT writers didn’t make the distinction between event and significance either, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t believe that the happendness of events was insignificant.

    NT Wrong:
    I quite agree. The boundaries on reality may have been different. For example, some or all of the NT writers had trouble distinguishing a dream from reality, as the NT demonstrates. But they still distinguished fact from fiction–just not how moderns distinguish fact from fiction.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

 
%d bloggers like this: