Very early on, when choiceindying.com began receiving some more recognition, a biblical scholar paid a visit, and responded to the effect that he meant to teach me a thing or two about the Bible, and how it is used in Christian faith. He alleged quite plainly, regarding my post on Denis Alexander’s “white paper” over at Biologos, that I am sadly uninformed as to how ancient texts work, how they were contexualised, and how they function for the faithful who use them as sacred texts. Well, being a biblical scholar, and familiar with the original languages, this man undoubtedly knows more than I do about biblical scholarship. However, as someone who used the scriptures for many years as a priest in the Anglican Church, I do have some idea, at least, as to how biblical texts are used in an ecclesial setting.
So far as the question of how ancient texts work, while, certainly, students for ministry do undergo limited training in modern biblical scholarship, the emphasis is not on how they were used in an ancient setting, but how such ancient texts can be used now, how they are used in the context of the liturgy, where the readings for every Sunday and holy day during the year are prescribed, and are read in the context of Christian belief. So, for example, the readings leading up to Easter, almost always follow the journey of the Israelites from Egypt, and into the desert, for their journey from bondage to freedom, through the Red (reed?) sea, the people walking dryshod through the sea. And, of course, for the Christian, these stories inevitably remind us of the waters of baptism, and the liberty that Christians know in Christ, having passed through death to life in the cleansing sacramental waters that symbolise Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.
And it’s very hard, once you have the pattern of the church year in your mind, not to give the biblical texts a context and function which they never had for those who wrote them. Nor is it an easy thing merely to blot out from your mind that these things, so redolent of myth and story, if they did not, in some sense of the word, actually take place, then they cannot, in any real sense, do the work that they must do for the believer.
As a consequence of this, Adam and Eve are at once metaphorical and real, mythical and historical. It is an inescapable consequence of using stories to underlie ideas of personal transformation through faith. So it is not at all surprising to find that people talk boldly about the metaphorical nature of scripture, and explain so wondrously how stories function in a religious context. But you can have all the theories about the meaning of myth, as primitive stories somehow bearing within them the meaning of the cosmic drama, though not to be taken literally, and yet they will be, in the end, taken with a very large dose of literalism, even by those who most insist that they are metaphors.
And that’s precisely why Denis Alexander needs to have a “model” of what it is that takes place in the story of Adam and Eve. We know, now, that it cannot be simply historical, that we cannot funnel the whole of the human species through the bottle neck of one primordial couple. So we need a model of how it could work, just as the early church fathers had models too, such as the theory or model of ”recapitulation”, which imagined all of humanity as somehow mystically at one with that first couple. Of course, they saw that first couple, much more literally, as the original fons et origo of the human family, but they also knew that there was no literal link between every human being and that first imagined sin which had to be overcome on the cross. And so different theories or “models” were provided as to how the interrelationships would work so that it made sense both to say that in Adam all died, and that in Christ the faithful would be made alive.
But I don’t need a lot of information about how ancient texts work in order to understand this. In fact, while we do know much more about early texts now than we used to do, it is not clear that we do have a good understanding of how they worked in situ, in the ancient communities in which they came to be written. If Tom Thompson is right, the texts themselves may have been composed or redacted quite late, and might in fact have been an attempt, by the Persians, who conquered the Babylonians, to colonise that part of their empire with people who were given a ready-made, but quite fictitious story to tell themselves and their children. You can read all about this in Thompson’s The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. Of course, this may not have been how it happened, but it is one possible scenario, and Thompson gives examples of how this was done in other cases of Persian colonial administration.
The point that I want to make is that, while biblical scholars may know a lot about ancient texts, they have to remember that texts are used by churches, by faithful people reading their Bibles piously — perhaps like my mother and father, the last thing before going to bed at night. And what they make of these stories is very different than can be imagined, even by biblical scholars and students. These are people for whom the Bible is the living word of God, and it is hard for such people even to begin to think that the tales that are told are merely fanciful ways of talking about eternal things. The people they read about are real people, and their deeds are real deeds, and if they are not, then it will be very hard for them to see what it is that Jesus is for, and what he had to save them from.
So, contrary to the man who challenged my knowledge of these things, think I do have an understanding of how the biblical text works for many people. I certainly know how difficult it is, and how much patience is required, in order to get people to see these stories as less literal than they seem to be. And I know, too, how, for many people, doing this, and succeeding, is often simply to empty faith of meaning, and believing of purpose. It is simply absurd to suppose that you can take a text like the Bible, composed as it is of so many different types of literature written by so many different hands, poetry, even erotic poetry, wisdom literature, liturgy, some of it even appearing to be straightforward history — as I say, it is absurd to think that you can take this text and get people to think of it simply as myth and story. It doesn’t work, and very few people can manage to regard it so for very long. Even those who work at it as scholars are quite familiar with the way that their own speech about the scriptures lapses easily and comfortably into perfectly ordinary, everyday ways of reading texts like this, supposing, without hesitation, that the words of Jesus in the gospels were really spoken by Jesus, and that the stories told about Abraham happened precisely as we are told they did. When you weight texts with the kind of eternal significance that is given to canonical religious texts, this is almost unavoidable, and I daresay that the scholar who took me to task finds himself reading the texts in precisely this way from time to time, all scholarship forgotten, and his eyes bright with the joy and faithfulness of believing.