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”
Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.