Saturday, April 17, 2010

Is the Bible allegory or history?

I would like to explore a point I made in my previous post, which is captured in the title to this one. What is the Bible, exactly? Is it history? Is it allegory? Is it both? (I am sorry, but my mind couldn’t help jumping to that old Saturday Night Live Sketch, “Is it a dessert topping, or a floor wax?”) CAN it be both? Is that even possible?

In light of our understanding of the universe in the 21st Century, it is difficult to take Genesis as a literal description of how the universe was created. Yet, a huge number of Christians take the Bible as factual history. It is no secret that a number of archeological discoveries have correlated at least part of what is in the Bible as being a true account of what happened back then.

As the early books of the Bible are concerned, there is little direct evidence for the characters in the Bible. There is, however, a huge amount of indirect or circumstantial evidence—names, places, business contracts, marriage contracts, migratory patterns. An enormous amount of information in the Bible has been borne out by archeology.

That is as far as the early books of the Bible are concerned, but once we get to later books, like the Book of Kings, for example, there is excellent direct evidence, written records of other emperors, etc. But the early events exist more or less in a historical vacuum and, unfortunately also in an archeological vacuum.

Keep in mind that the same thing that applies in a court of law applies to archeology: Lack of evidence is no evidence of lack. The fact that I haven’t found Abraham’s camel saddle doesn’t mean Abraham didn’t have a camel or a saddle. And, indeed, there is a huge amount of circumstantial evidence supporting the basic historicity of the Bible.

Archeology doesn’t definitively prove the Bible, and it certainly doesn’t discredit it. In fact the more we find, the more we see that there’s a tremendous amount of historicity in the text.

In summary, the Bible is not a book of history, yet it contains history and culture, which is more or less borne out by archeology. It’s a book of teachings, and it’s the ideal way to learn the patterns of history. And if we understand that the reason why we’re learning history is to learn lessons, then we have to pay extra special attention to what is going on in the Bible.

Here’s a specific example (from National Geographic News):

Researchers using sophisticated radio-dating techniques have concluded that a tunnel running under ancient Jerusalem was indeed constructed around 700 B.C., during the reign of King Hezekiah, just as it is described in the Bible.

The tunnel, which is about 500 meters (550 yards) long, brings water from the Gihon Springs, located some 300 meters (330 yards) outside the walls of old Jerusalem, to the Siloan Pool inside the ancient city. It was built to protect the city's water supply during an Assyrian siege.

Naturally, Christians and Jews are quite happy when archeological evidence supports Biblical narratives.

The City Of Jerusalem Today

Sept. 11, 2003 ” ”
Modern science has thrown its weight behind Biblical historians, backing their account of an Old Testament king who drove a tunnel under Jerusalem to ensure water supplies for his besieged subjects.

The underwater aqueduct is known as the Siloam Tunnel or “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” in honor of the embattled Hebrew king reputed to have ordered its construction in order to bring water from Gihon Spring, outside the city, to Siloam Pool in Jerusalem’s ancient heart.

Historians have long contended that this event is described in two Old Testament texts, 2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:3,4.

These recount how Hezekiah (727-698 B.C.) had to grapple with denying water to the besieging Assyrian king Sennacherib, yet also provide water for the besieged:

“When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come, intent on making war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officers and warriors about stopping the flow of the springs outside the city and they supported him.”

“A large force was assembled to stop up all the springs and the wadi that flowed through the land, for otherwise, they thought, the king of Assyria would come and find water in abundance …”

“It was Hezekiah who stopped up the spring of water of Upper Gihon, leading it downward west of the City of David.”
The historical record, however, was only indirect, and no evidence has ever been found that directly links the tunnel to Hezekiah.

Now, however, science has provided powerful backing, thanks to forensic evidence found buried in the tunnel’s walls and the latest tools in chemical analysis.

Israeli scientists took samples from a layer of ancient lime plaster that the tunnellers used to line the aqueduct to prevent the precious water from draining back into the Earth.

They found the plaster — since covered with other protective smotherings over the years — included tiny pieces of bone, rare charcoal and ash to bind it, as well as chips of wood and “extraordinarily well-preserved” plant fragments. Radiocarbon-dating at a laboratory at Oxford University put the age of the wood sample at between 822-796 B.C., and that of two plant samples at 790-760 B.C. and 690-540 B.C. respectively.

That gave a ballpark date of 700 B.C. which also tallied with a radioisotope estimate of an ancient stalactite found in the tunnel’s ceiling. “Our dating agrees well … with the date commonly assigned to King Hezekiah,” the authors said.

“The three independent lines of evidence — radiometric dating, palaeography and the historical record — all converge on about 700 B.C., rendering the Siloam Tunnel the best-dated Iron-Age biblical structure so far.”

There are other examples, such as the finding of Herod’s palace. And, although this story is not contained in the Bible (it is in “The Jewish War” by Josephus), the fortress of Masada is now quite famous and is a destination for many tourists.

Christians and Jews alike are delighted when archeological proof confirms parts of their beliefs. Although no one ever comes out and says this, the implication is that, since parts of the Bible are now obviously true, doesn’t it stand to reason that the rest of the Bible is true as well?

However, as I stated earlier, there are many parts of the Bible that, outside the context of being included in the Bible, would be laughed at if someone were to seriously propose them as true history. It is then that most people recognize that archeology, scientific knowledge and, indeed, logic will be of no help and that the standard response is that the Bible should not be taken as historical fact and that the stories in the Bible are actually allegories from which the Truth must be extracted by the reader.

From Keene Online:

Allegory in the Bible by David E. Teubner

The public has been befuddled for centuries concerning the Bible and its various stories. Today the Genesis story, for example, seems implausible from a scientific perspective. Yet, I suggest (along with others) that the stories in the Old Testament should not be taken literally, but are best understood as allegory. The Ancients (for example, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, the ancient Americans) knew the allegories very well and embedded their esoteric knowledge into narratives for safekeeping. The written language had yet to be systematized, thus a narrative was an excellent way to communicate to the culture at large the beliefs of the shamans or the priests.

Indeed, many people, including, Mr. Teubner, the author of the writing above, go to great lengths to explain Biblical writings in terms of allegory. Again, from Keene Online:

The ancients believed in a dualistic (two-part) aspect of the divinity. The female was know as the Void, Mother, Matter (mater, in Latin) Water or Mary and was seen as the Cosmos. It was believed that the male part of the divinity could not interact directly with the female because the male was thought to be Eternal and Unchangeable. Thus, many ancient myths, describe the god as "sending his seed" or "sending his breath" to effect the Void (the Mother). Other myths talk about the male aspect of the divinity being cut up or fragmented, in effect, planted like a seed into the Material, feminine Void. (see Genesis Explained for more about the creation story).

For reasons that will not be fully explained here, some ancient people believed that the male divine impulse was shattered into fragments (the Big Bang?). These fragments fell through the seven celestial spheres, each of the seven spheres polluting the soul in some way. As a result of decending through the spheres, the fragments became forgetful of their heavenly home. They became "polluted" as they passed through the spheres and entered human (animal) bodies.

As a result, humans became forgetful of their divine inheritance. This divine inheritance was the spark that made us divine, the mixture of breath (Father) and material (Mother). (The pattern, or papa that was laid on the material, mama.)

The Ancients symbolized our very own human body as EGYPT. Egypt was the metaphor for human life as incarnate in an material body. Our bodies contained something divine, planted in effect, in a material (clay) vessel.

Therefore, allegorically speaking, Egypt became the land of bitterness and slavery, the land of forgetfulness:

[The Egyptians] made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly. Exodus 1:14

The divine sparks were embedded into the female yet lost their memory of their true source. (The result of the deity being "torn asunder" is what Buddhist call Forgetfulness, or Ignorance.) Who will awaken the forgetful, slumbering sparks of the divine male-force that has been hidden in the female? For the Israelites it was Moses.

I am a very literal person, perhaps too literal for my own good. I have a great deal of difficulty when it comes to symbolism in literature or film. I usually take whatever story is being told at face value. So, I suppose it comes as no surprise that I have difficulty with the concept of taking the Bible as allegory. In fact, it appears to me that the author above is bending over backwards to put some logical sense into a story that, on its surface, appears to be very illogical. I maintain that you could take any sort of literature and find a way to make it meaningful and full of wisdom that the reader must take pains to understand.

For example, what would be the allegorical wisdom of the story of Little Red Riding Hood? Wolves are evil? Little girls are often too gullible for their own good? The wolf is a symbol for Satan, that Satan is everywhere and may even be masquerading as your own grandmother and intends to do you great harm?

Again, my reaction is, what a stupid way to teach a lesson. If you want to teach someone, tell him straight out what it is you want him to know. Why give knowledge to someone in a form that will undoubtedly be misunderstood by a great deal of people, each of them arguing that their interpretation is the one and only correct one? That, to me, is really idiotic.

Yet, that is exactly what many people would have us believe of the Bible. It is a collection of allegory that must be interpreted, and interpreted correctly, in order to extract the knowledge that the authors intended. The writer above claims that, “The Ancients (for example, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, the ancient Americans) knew the allegories very well and embedded their esoteric knowledge into narratives for safekeeping.” How he knows this, he does not say. Perhaps there is literature out there that supports this claim. However, as his main argument rests upon this point, you might think he would provide us information in order that this basic assumption might indeed be a valid one. That would be what scholars would do.

I see absolutely no evidence that the writers of the Biblical texts had any sense of allegory. In fact, I believe it to be exactly the opposite. They intended for these stories to be taken as fact, as the true history of the Jewish people. Their very early readers certainly took them as fact. Current readers take the Bible as fact. For example, arguments today continue whether or not Mary, the mother of Jesus, was really a virgin when she bore Jesus, the baby. This text, for example, is a scholarly examination of whether or not Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. However, why is this story also not considered to be allegory as something of higher meaning? A virgin girl bearing a child is certainly something modern science would look upon with great skepticism. But yet, that is taken as a fact.

To me, it appears that Christians and Jews would like to have it both ways. When historical evidence backs up their beliefs, they take great pleasure in announcing this to the world. “See, my beliefs are validated! The Bible (Christian or Jewish) is true!” On the other hand, when scientific evidence can be used to refute parts of the Bible, the standard response is “Oh, the Bible isn’t meant to be taken literally. It is allegory and it is a great mistake to take it as anything but allegory.”

My question is, how are readers and students supposed to decide? My answer is that they can’t. And this is exactly why we have so much trouble with fundamentalists of all sorts (not just Christians, but also Jews and Muslims) who get to decide for themselves what their particular religious screed actually means. If it is God’s Truth that He hates gays and lesbians, then viola! Their hatred of gay people is validated. If God’s Truth is that the Earth is 6000 years old, then most, if not all, science is pure bunk and dinosaurs lived during the same time period as man, because their views don’t allow for anything different.

The biggest problem, in my view, is that people of all persuasions do not want to look at their belief system using logic and rational thinking. Their beliefs are spiritual and would be somehow be demeaned if any logical introspection were to be used.

I do not understand this. I really don’t. If there is a God and He created mankind in His own image, I can’t imagine that He would give us the ability to think and reason and not want us to use it. Modern Christianity, for example, seems to want to suppress logic and curiosity. They would have us believe that modern science is no more than alchemy or astrology. If their belief is fervent enough, then that is enough to overcome any obstacle, even when it is scientific proof. That is what occurred when the Church made Galileo recant his view that the Earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. That identical approach is being used today.

Believers should make up their minds. Either the Bible is true history or it is allegory. Either way, there needs to be some additional explanation or guidance given, because right now, how mankind views religion is a huge mixed up mess and yet, no one except a few people really want to take that one on. This is to mankind’s detriment.


Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

Good post~! You revive my thoughts of Arthur and that other tome of contention, The History of Kings of Britain. My preference for parables and ideas / ethics are Arthurian. Same can be said of both books, the other with it's tales of the healer Yeshua...
it's a good post~!

Gwendolyn H. Barry said...

I'm always reading you...

Anonymous said...

I love this post and as a "non-fundamentalist" very liberal Christian, I agree with what you have written. I have reconciled my faith with my beliefs in science. And it bothers me that conservative Christians do an injustice to their faith by acting in so many of the ways you succinctly outlined in this post. However, I still think that since the Bible is a collection of books and writings from different eras and on different topics and categories and not just one book, that it is meant to be read as such. For instance, there are books meant to be historical accounts and narratives like the Gospels in the New Testament (although I do believe it's possible that the facts can be biased and diluted). And then there are books that are obviously meant to impart wisdom like Proverbs. So they can't be read in the same way. Genesis is obviously not factual in its telling of creation. Science has proven that, but maybe the authors at the time didn't have a way to explain the answers to the questions that the people were asking so they did the best they could. Maybe we weren't meant to take it literally. Humans have a way of messing up everything. Francis S. Collins, the author of The Language of God and former leader of the Human Genome Project, writes that this literal interpretation of Genesis is a fairly new concept that came about as a backlash to Darwin's ideas of human evolution and natural selection. Not sure if that's true but if it is, how interesting. Anyway, great post!

zeppo said...

Thanks kindly, anon....

thesithempire said...

Keep in mind that symbols and metaphors are not the same as allegory. The Bible uses both, and all of them can be helpful to impart truth. We find that in fantasy, science fiction, horror, fairy tales, myths, etc., the utilization of symbolic and/or allegorical aspects to impart morals and truths that would otherwise be blocked or ignored by certain people.

The fundamentalists don't understand symbols either, neither do they represent the Bible. By the same token, if you allow preconcieved notions and an aversion to non-literal approaches to prejudice you, you'll never understand what the Bible's actually saying. Jesus used parables on a regular basis to reach people. Likewise, prophets and visionaries like Daniel and John employ what Tolkien called "unfamiliar embodiments" to express things that required deeper thinking.

You can find much to admire in the Bible, even in just the Sermon on the Mount alone, a philosphy that's unrivalled in human discourse.

Check out Tolstoy's "What I Believe" and/or "The Kingdom of God is Within You" for a discussion of why Christ's teaching makes the most logical sense, and how the State and Church have tried to obfuscate and suppress that, while at the same time making a pretense of supporting it. You should also check out Albert Schweitzer's similar philsophy of 'reverence for life,' which also extrapolates from Christ's teachings. Great stuff!

zeppo said...

Thanks, sith, for the thoughtful comment.

I am still of the opinion that symbols and allegory are so vague that the reader can make exactly what they want to out of them.

Yes, there are some very good lessons in the Bible. No doubt about that. But I also see war and hatred of the other. I see much done in the name of "The Lord" that I find deplorable. How about the sacking of Jericho? God says that you can have a city, and I guess you get to go kill anyone who lives there. I have no idea what lessons I am supposed to learn from that, true history or allegory.

Anonymous said...

Bible is allegorical, you can't take the story of the garden literally, only a child can take that story literally. If it's literal, then you must explain it logically. God bless.

Anonymous said...

"I see absolutely no evidence that the writers of the Biblical texts had any sense of allegory."

Jesus taught in parables. Definition of "parable" "a short allegorical story designed to illustrate or teach some truth, religious principle, or moral lesson."

Psalm 78:2, "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old:" Dark sayings are allegories.

Paul himself says the word allegory in this verse in Galatians 4:24, "24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar."