Thursday, 2 April 2015

Fideism and the Bible do not mix - how not to read the Bible literally

The tired aphorism which states that fish don't have a word for water - the reason being that it is so pervasive that its presence is simply assumed - does however describe perfectly the fundamentalist attitude to their belief that a plain reading of the text is the default option. It is simply assumed, taken for granted, and never justified. Typical of this thought is this assertion by a Christadelphian fideist:
Firstly, it is not my ‘interpretation’, it is the plain narrative of the text and the evidence in it is in clear sight for everyone to read.
One of course could say the same thing about the instances of demon possession in the Gospels. The mainstream Christian who believes that demons are supernatural entities that can possess people and cause disease can readily appeal to these passages to justify his belief. Furthermore,in response to the Christadelphian who offers a rational explanation for them, he could justifiably claim that it is "not my ‘interpretation’, it is the plain narrative of the text and the evidence in it is in clear sight for everyone to read." Needless to say, it is special pleading by the fundamentalist Christadelphian to claim that his literal hermeneutic applies only to Genesis.

By far the bigger objection to this facile defence of special creation is that the Christadelphian fideist is not reading the plain narrative of the text. He is reading a modern translation of a Hebrew text, and automatically assuming that 21st century historiography applies. If he wanted to tell us what the plain meaning of the text is, he'd need to tell us what the plain meaning of the following text, as understood by a 6th century BCE audience would be:

7 וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָרָקִיעַ וַיַּבְדֵּל בֵּין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מִתַּחַת לָרָקִיעַ וּבֵין הַמַּיִם אֲשֶׁר מֵעַל לָרָקִיעַ וַיְהִי־כֵן׃
8 וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָרָקִיעַ שָׁמָיִם וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם שֵׁנִי׃  פ  
9 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יִקָּווּ הַמַּיִם מִתַּחַת הַשָּׁמַיִם אֶל־מָקוֹם אֶחָד וְתֵרָאֶה הַיַּבָּשָׁה וַיְהִי־כֵן׃
10 וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לַיַּבָּשָׁה אֶרֶץ וּלְמִקְוֵה הַמַּיִם קָרָא יַמִּים וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב׃
11 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים תַּדְשֵׁא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי לְמִינוֹ אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ־בוֹ עַל־הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי־כֵן׃
12 וַתּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ דֶּשֶׁא עֵשֶׂב מַזְרִיעַ זֶרַע לְמִינֵהוּ וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה־פְּרִי אֲשֶׁר זַרְעוֹ־בוֹ לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב׃
13 וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם שְׁלִישִׁי׃  פ  
14 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי מְאֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם לְהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הַיּוֹם וּבֵין הַלָּיְלָה וְהָיוּ לְאֹתֹת וּלְמוֹעֲדִים וּלְיָמִים וְשָׁנִים׃
15 וְהָיוּ לִמְאוֹרֹת בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמַיִם לְהָאִיר עַל־הָאָרֶץ וַיְהִי־כֵן׃
16 וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים אֶת־שְׁנֵי הַמְּאֹרֹת הַגְּדֹלִים אֶת־הַמָּאוֹר הַגָּדֹל לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַיּוֹם וְאֶת־הַמָּאוֹר הַקָּטֹן לְמֶמְשֶׁלֶת הַלַּיְלָה וְאֵת הַכּוֹכָבִים׃
17 וַיִּתֵּן אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים בִּרְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם לְהָאִיר עַל־הָאָרֶץ׃
18 וְלִמְשֹׁל בַּיּוֹם וּבַלַּיְלָה וּלֲהַבְדִּיל בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב׃
19 וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם רְבִיעִי׃  פ  
20 וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁרְצוּ הַמַּיִם שֶׁרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה וְעוֹף יְעוֹפֵף עַל־הָאָרֶץ עַל־פְּנֵי רְקִיעַ הַשָּׁמָיִם׃

Furthermore, it needs to be stressed that the sources of the original text drawn upon by the scribes in Babylon who gave the book of Genesis its final form would have been written in the palaeo-Hebrew script, rather than the Aramaic:

The number of Christadelphians who could read any existing text of Genesis in the original palaeo-Hebrew is vanishingly small.

Furthermore, translation by definition involves some degree of interpretation. The naive claim by the fundamentalist that the creation narratives must be read as a plain literal narrative ignore not just the fact that they are not reading the original Hebrew sources (as best as we can reconstruct) but an English translation, and then assuming that an ancient audience shared a 21st century concept of historiography. When we recognise these facts, the claim by the fundamentalist that his interpretation is the original meaning is frankly incredible.

This does not mean that the modern translations are unreliable. Far from it. However, those who claim that they are taking the 'plain meaning' of the text are making completely unjustifiable assumptions about what would have been the 'plain meaning' to the original audience. For those who want to shed their fundamentalist blinkers and see how the original audience would have literally read the narratives, the following is highly recommended. Once we recognise that Genesis 1 is ancient cosmology and not modern science, we can begin to enter that ancient world, and contextualise the message for our time.