BY DR. AGONSON
If it is allowed, I would like to consider a dream I had. I was terrified to go back to college, too scared to decide. I only knew two things: I needed to finish my degree, and I had a clear calling to pursue theology. However, I couldn’t make a decision; there was some unspeakable fear that I could not express to myself. Then, I had a dream:
I was at a train station, and I was describing to anyone who would listen all the intricacies of the railroad, how far apart the tracts were, how the engine worked, the history of trains. Then I realized that I was all alone and the train had left the station. I stood there destitute, knowing I had failed to truly appreciate the train, that is, had lost my focus; In all my knowledge I did not know what a train was for.
When I woke up, my fear was relieved: I had been worried that in studying the Bible and theology I would, in turn, become a useless intellectual who never really knew God, and to whom God would say, “I never knew you.”
As I consider the subject of this paper, I feel like I am back in that dream, quibbling over unimportant aspects of the Bible: Our last paper discussed the different traditions of the Bible which we do have and how to integrate that knowledge into a better understanding of the scripture, but in preparing for this paper I keep reading and listening to possibilities, to theories about a bible, a text which may have existed at some time, that we do not now have. It is not uninteresting, it is not meritless; it is not, however, enlightening—Even if I were to accept the extreme position of the historic Jesus versus the Easter Jesus, that would not change the Gospels as to what they say; Even if I accepted wholesale the JEPD theory, the text we in fact have would not change.
I have no daydream that the Bible is something like Plato’s Forms, that, as I have heard the Quran described, some perfect Bible exists in Heaven. The Bible recounts its own history—the Bible was lost at some point!—and it is a slow development, God time and again struggling with a stiff necked people, God wrestling with Israel.
It does not trouble me that the Bible was written with human hands, that letter by letter it had to be formed, and subsequently, it does not trouble me that the Bible has developed, that the books within it evince anachronistic edits. It is very hard for a young knight to fight dragons nowadays: There are no dragons. It is very hard to care about the JEPD theory or the Historical Jesus theory because they are imaginary. I am not being flippant, for I hold many imaginary things as important and true, but by their nature these theories are not about reality. They argue from reality, from real points in the text, but their conclusions remain useless as regards the Bible itself, as regards what is.
I have personally never heard, in conversation with my peers, anything touching upon the development of the Bible—I don’t think my generation is asking these questions—but let’s imagine, based off of underlying assumptions I know my generation generally holds, what sort of questions they should be asking:
Assumption 1: The Bible is a collection of old myths, a fairy tale. I have personally heard someone say something like this; in fact I have heard it twice, years apart, from different people. Turning this into a question, we might presume: Isn’t the Bible just a myth? Here, the very fact that the Bible develops, that it is a collection of varying genres by various authors written over a huge span of time, works in the apologist’s favor. I remember explaining to my friend that the Bible did in fact have poetic, non-literal, sections (Psalms) but also contained historical accounts, or at least claims to hold historical accounts, the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms. As we talked, I suggested to my friend that he was criticizing something which he knew nothing about, that it might behoove him to have some personal knowledge of the Bible before accepting or rejecting it. This, I think, was where the conversation ended, and was the last time I remember us talking.
Assumption 2: The Bible is propaganda. I have suspected this underlying belief from certain individuals, though I do not think anyone has ever been bold enough to make the claim outright, or perhaps has just never thought enough about what he thinks to know it is indeed what he thinks. In either case, as regards the composition of the Bible, we could imagine a question which runs, Wasn’t the Bible just a nation’s propaganda? Wasn’t it written disingenuously from the start? This is a bit more difficult as a very loose usage of the word propaganda might accurately describe aspects of the Bible. Aspects of the Bible are nationalistic, are celebrating the Nation, the Davidic dynasty, or the reconstruction of the Temple. However, actually reading the Bible, it cannot be long held that the work is merely propaganda, for alongside the celebration of the miraculous formation of a Hebrew state, is the account of that people’s unworthiness to the position to which God calls them, beside the Praise of David, the Bible also records the king’s great sins and the destruction of his dynasty, and even in the accounts of the rebuilding of the Temple and of Jerusalem, the Bible makes plain the humiliation, the loss of glory which once was. In all, the fact that the Bible was composed, that it developed, helps to bolster its validity: It was not the work of one man or one age seeking to put forth some ideology or manifesto.
Assumption 3: The Bible is a series of nonsensical contradictions. Turning this into a question, a question more befitting the subject of this paper, we may imagine such a phrase: Are there not loads of contradictory manuscripts for the Bible? Are not Christians only picking and choosing what they want their translations to say? I do not think such a question would be likely, but the basic belief represented is a firmly held conviction of some of my peers. Here, ignorance is the great problem: There is some truth to the general assumption, but, divorced of any context or any specific instance of conflicting traditions, the apologist has nothing firm to grapple with. If such an opportunity presented itself, I think I would endeavor to explain some of the basics of text criticism, such as going over one or two of the five guidelines, and maybe use the example of the different versions of Creation (such as the Platonic interpretation of “without form and void,” plus a comparison of the more polished tradition versus the more complex tradition).
So, I think it would be possible that my peers ask these questions, or at the most raise these questions in their assumptions about the Bible:
- Isn’t the Bible a collection of myths and fairy tales?
- Isn’t the Bible a piece of propaganda? (Opiate of the masses)
- Isn’t the Bible untrustworthy as there is no definitive version?
I hope I have given good answers to these questions. The topic at hand seems marred in useless imaginings. In both educated and uneducated circles, people will be talking nonsense about the Bible as they throw the Bible aside for some low-resolution, effervescent imagination. Our lectures did not delve far into the JEPD theory, and so I will not pretend to argue against it. However, it does not pass the smell test: It is a theory by which imagination is allowed to trump reality, where countless unknowns are allowed precedent over knowns. Similarly, even ignoring my grave, theological reservations as regards the Historical Jesus, where anything remotely unpalatable for the critic can be thrown aside as unhistorical, the theory does not seem to contend with what actually is, with the Bible as it exists, instead dreaming up some history for which no solid evidence was seemingly considered. In all, the Bible has a use, has a purpose, and like a locomotive’s purpose, it should move you. The Bible brings the reader, in some sense, to a better relation and knowledge of God. The intellectual theories and crude assumptions I’ve considered in this paper all seem to me ways of avoiding getting on the train, of actually experiencing the Bible, and so whether they are true or not, they are useless dreams.