Are the early Genesis stories historical accounts?

by Steve Douglas

June 13th, 2008 | 42 Comments

Before I “took the road less traveled by” into historical linguistics, I was highly interested in ancient history, especially as it related to the Old Testament. I wanted to learn Sumerian, Egyptian, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and of course Hebrew so that I could study the Ancient Near East (ANE) and how it related to the Bible. The more I read on my own, the more I realized that such studies did not confirm the Bible as a purely divine record of history. ANE archaeology and history demonstrate the ANE heritage of the Bible; but once we acknowledge the ANE context of the Bible, we should not expect to see those aspects which differ from 21st century Western ideals to be omitted from it and should likewise not expect to see our modern ideals in place. Sadly, it is difficult for readers of literature to approach any text fully aware of the ideals, mindsets, and motivations of the authors even when contemporaneous with them, much less when separated by changes to culture, social context, and language wrought by millennia of intervening time; the unconsciously anachronistic depositing of ideas and concepts foreign to the author and original audience are also hard to identify and purge from our readings.

Readers of this blog should know that I believe the Bible is no less subject to anachronistic misinterpretation than other literary works, and I would point out to those who disagree that there are myriad cases in which they themselves make provision for this problem – any time they insist on doing anything beyond a surface reading that doesn’t take into account the history and culture of the people involved with the writing of the Bible. Educated evangelicals in particular have a tendency to eat up any book they can get their hands on that purports to show the Bible in its original context, provided the conclusion is “conservative” and is treated as upholding the historicity of the Bible. I myself tend to do this even today, and with some just cause: zealous secularist debunkers approach the text looking for erroneous information they suppose invalidates the message of Scripture. For most evangelicals, an appeal to historical/cultural contextualization is especially lauded when it is used to clear up apparent challenges to scientific inerrancy. Take for example Edwin Thiele’s observation of Judah and Israel’s alternating usage of accession and non-accession year dating in recording regnal lengths in First and Second Kings, a situation somewhat perplexing to anyone advocating the “plain reading” approach. This has caused some conservatives (especially fundamentalists) to attack Thiele’s explanation as an end-run around God’s intention to provide us all truth provided we use a plain, literalist hermeneutic (witness one such person reviewing Thiele’s book, Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, on Amazon).

The “plain literalist” hermeneutic is useful for upholding the current ideals of historiography in the Old Testament narratives. The problem is that this is a dreadfully anachronistic endeavor: the modern genre of historiography was not developed before a Greek movement that took place centuries after the supposed origin of the stories, and even then it took quite a while for those ideals to saturate Greek historiography and then the rest of the world through Hellenism. It’s not that those before the turn of the first millennium A.D. were incapable or too ignorant to write history the way we expect it in our post-Enlightenment world. It’s just that they had different ideals for what they wanted from a story. Cold, dispassionate, scientific history without any foreseeable application failed to supply the meaning or entertainment they demanded from their stories. They wanted colorful stories that gave them meaning, not history for history’s sake. Modernists, however, tend to believe that an exact recounting of history is the highest or most important use of narrative. As I wrote elsewhere, “The difference between the ancient and the modern motivations for and method of speculation about unknowns is that the ancients used mythological stories in order to apply meaning to the subject of their speculation and we tend to use scientific enquiry to sever meaning from the subject, and are thus generally skeptical that any meaning can or should be applied. The ancients were content to be ignorant of the mechanics of how, as long as they knew why. Modernists feel satisfied to have discovered the natural causes, the how’s, and seem convinced that this abolishes meaning.”

But the use of mythology to convey meaning is not something that disappeared without a trace with the onset of the Age of Reason. Gordon Glover likes to point out that the American tall tales about such figures as Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are not intended to explain topographical features such as the Grand Canyon, but they do acknowledge the existence of those features as integral aspects of the frontier and use fantastic stories about their creation as entertaining vehicles of meaning to illustrate character virtues such as strength and courage which have now successfully been associated with the frontiersmen who tamed the wilderness.

Would it be so scandalous if the Israelites, like all their neighbors, had little use for a cold recounting of geological, astronomical, and biological history, preferring stories chock-full of meaning? What would be wrong if God saw it fit to communicate the truths most relevant and significant to them in the way most familiar to them? The self-centeredness of the objection that this genre isn’t as relevant to us is readily apparent and needs no comment here.

ANE scholarship has long pointed out the similarities between the early Genesis stories and the myths of the ANE, from the obvious Utnapishtim/Noah parallel to shades of Enki and Ninhursag in the Garden narratives. Nevertheless, literalists have a few preferred methods of explaining these parallels away. First, they will deny any similarity of style between the Genesis narratives and the ANE myths. Other times they will insist that the similarities are merely chance or so general and vague that they are hardly significant. Lastly, when the parallels are undeniable, they break out their ace in the hole: they claim that Genesis is the original, historical basis for the ANE stories, regardless of the fact that the latter predate Genesis by as much as a millennium.

I want to share a few of my thoughts on these literalist responses.

Let’s consider the claim that Genesis is “obviously” an historical narrative. The biggest problem is that, since the genre of mythology has become unproductive in our culture, our default is to assume a literal, historiographic reading of narratives unless a particular narrative explicitly declares itself to be non-history, someone has told us that it is non-history, and/or there are cues implicit in the text, e.g. formulas such as “Once upon a time…”

Now, obviously, the text of Genesis doesn’t say that it’s not history, but mythology and most other types of non-historical narrative never do. The cues for mythology are subtle and often wholly disguised to modern readers, especially given the nature of the Bible: fantastic occurrences and descriptions of supernatural events are commonplace even in the historiographic portions of Scripture (talking snakes are no more miraculous than resurrections), so we don’t automatically assume that the Genesis mythology is non-history on that basis. And if we’re waiting for someone to tell us that early Genesis is mythological – well, our most respected Christian leaders insist that the Genesis narratives are history and, in fact, that those who deny this are theological liberals, which is immediate grounds for dismissing anything else said. Unfortunately, many who read what I’m writing now will do just that.

There is also the important issue of the ambiguity of generic classification. Tell someone that Genesis 1-11 is mythology and they’ll often come back, “Why stop there?” It’s an understandable question: unless we are able to identify genre, we will not know where to demarcate distinctions in genre and will often consequently subsume works from multiple genres under one we understand better – in our case, history. Classifying genre is not a no-brainer, but there are real literary indicators, and there is no excuse for pretending they don’t exist, ignoring them, or indiscriminately charging those who do recognize them with attempting to compromise the authority of the Bible. The patriarchal stories, while by no means modern historiography, are definitely removed from mythology in intent, structure, and source: that’s why Genesis 1-11 is usually called aside and given the extremely imprecise label “mythology”. The narratives in Genesis 2-4 are the most clearly adapted from mythology, but even they have not been left in pure mythological form such as we find in the Akkadian or Sumerian stories: the editor (traditionally Moses) has systematically revised the material to emphasize and characterize the Jewish God and to show the Jews their heritage.

But we certainly have reason to believe that the Garden narrative contains material that should not be expected to convey actual historical/scientific information. In any other work of ancient literature, we would recognize thematic emphases such as immortality, temptation, and the origin of evil as archetypal material more at home in mythology than in historical narrative; we would not think for a minute that an extrabiblical ANE story that explained woman’s travail in childbirth, the cause for the necessity of backbreaking labor, and why snakes don’t have legs purported to be a scientifically historiographic account; we would see references to “the tree of life” and “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and recognize an undisguised morality tale. But because we’ve somehow got this notion that mythology is pagan and synonymous with “lies”, too many of us refuse the possibility that it is present in our holy scriptures. But this is absurd: mythology is no more pagan by nature than poetry or record-keeping, which are both applications of literature that predate the Bible and originated in pagan lands, and no more full of lies than an allegory; those of us Christians who insist on reading the Bible in its original cultural and literary context affirm the theological veracity of early Genesis. So what are we so afraid of? Isn’t the theology what really matters?

Of course the greatest part of the objections levied against a non-historical interpretation is the issue of references to Genesis 1-11 outside of Genesis. For instance, in Exodus we read, “For in six days God created heaven and earth…” But what is the creation story invoked to demonstrate? Here Genesis 1 is used as the theological basis for the seven day week: the literalness of the days is no more demanded than the historicity of Wendy in Peter Pan when a couple decides to names their daughter “Wendy” after her. In actuality, the seven day week predates the people of Israel’s occupation of Canaan and was apparently begun in Mesopotamia (ancient Babylon or perhaps even Sumer) as a fourfold subdivision of the lunar month, wherein the seventh days were originally considered unlucky; compare the Hebrew adoption and revision of this system that resulted in the Sabbath becoming the holy day. Given the pagan background of the week, it is no surprise that the Jewish leaders felt they needed to show the holiness of the institution of the week by tying it to something that YHWH had done, namely, the creation of the universe. Of course, the structure of Genesis 1 is itself analogous to the seven-day consecration period of the temple; note also the importance in the Old Testament of the number of completion, number 7. So we have all these things tied in together, a uniquely Israelite complex of sacred symbology and numerology. Hardly does this demand even a late Israelite/Jewish misunderstanding of the origin of the seven day week: Genesis 1 was being used for higher purposes than a bit of mere historical trivia.

More troubling to literalists are Jesus’ comments in Mat 19.4-6.

He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Now keep in mind that Jesus’ point was that divorce was against God’s design. Did Jesus chase a rabbit here? What does an out-of-the-blue reference to the creation of Genesis 1 have to do with anything? Well, look at it this way: Jesus’ point was not to cite an historical, biological dissertation on the differentiation of the sexes at the beginning of the universe. Rather, notice the inverse parallelism: divorce is against God’s plan because, although in His design our race is divided into two down the gender line, He was not content for us to continue as individual islands. Marriage and family is essential to God’s economy. God made men and women as separate sexes, then joined them in sex/marriage, so woe unto anyone separating them again. His point stands wholly independent of the historical, biological particulars of how humans are made up of two genders, although it bears mentioning that from the beginning of humanity 200,000 years ago, we were indeed already male and female.

Then we have Jesus’ comments about the days of Noah in Luke 17, used as an analogy for the coming of the Kingdom in “the days of the Son of Man”. If He had referenced the days of a universally recognized mythological figure instead of Noah, we would not think for a second that Jesus was affirming the historicity of the figure and the stories associated with him, because the historicity of a narrative is not a prerequisite for its applicability as an analogy or metaphor – after all, universal applicability is one of the hallmarks of a good myth. It was only natural that Jesus would use the stories of the Jews to communicate with the Jews.

[The other usually cited NT reference to Genesis is Paul’s juxtaposition of Adam and Christ in Romans and 1 Corinthians, which I have dealt with elsewhere (1, 2).]

Now, of those that I mentioned, the most interesting argument against a non-historical interpretation of Genesis is to ascribe the parallels between ANE literature and the Bible to a reliance of the former upon the latter: in other words, the biblical stories that seem similar to ANE literature do so because the events recorded as perfect history in Genesis echo faintly throughout ANE literature. I held this attractive stance until I began to realize that it wasn’t just the characters and plot devices “echoing” through ANE literature: the literary form, the emphases and themes addressed, also matched one another quite well. We’d have to say that the historical events of Genesis just happened to look like the mythology of people groups all over the world; then, those events passed into legend, and were obscured sufficiently so that only some of the material remained; and then those much-altered legends became myth and, coincidentally (because God wouldn’t try to fool us), at this point they happened to retain their mythological characteristics to such a degree that they matched the actual historical events of Genesis that only coincidentally appeared to be mythological. Eh…possible, I suppose. Are there any other things to consider that might make better sense of this?

I think so. One of the clearest indicators for me was eminent Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer’s observation about the Sumerian myth “Enki and Ninhursag”, which contains a number of creation metaphors often cited as parallel to the Genesis story, some interesting and others easy to chalk up to the universality of certain mythological themes and imagery. Even acknowledging a genetic relationship between the stories, it’s easy to claim that the Biblical version was the original. That is, until you come to one aspect that Kramer notes in his important History Begins at Sumer.

…Most remarkably, this myth provides an explanation for one of the most puzzling motifs in the Biblical paradise story – the famous passage describing the fashioning of Eve, the mother of all living, from the rib of Adam. Why a rib instead of another organ to fashion the woman whose name Eve means according to the Bible, ‘she who makes live’? If we look at the Sumerian myth, we see that when Enki gets ill, cursed by Ninhursag, one of his body parts that start dying is the rib. The Sumerian word for rib is ‘ti’ . To heal each of Enki’s dying body parts, Ninhursag gives birth to eight goddesses. The goddess created for the healing of Enki’s rib is called ‘Nin-ti’, ‘the lady of the rib’. But the Sumerian word ‘ti’ also means ‘to make live’. The name ‘Nin-ti’ may therefore mean ‘the lady who makes live’ as well as ‘the lady of the rib’. Thus, a very ancient literary pun was carried over and perpetuated in the Bible, but without its original meaning, because the Hebrew word for ‘rib’ and that for ‘who makes live’ have nothing in common. Moreover, it is Ninhursag who gives her life essence to heal Enki, who is then reborn from her. (pp. 144)

Now by no means do I take this to mean that the Garden material is a direct descendant of the Sumerian myth; for one thing, the Genesis source came long after the Sumerian civilization passed off the stage of history. But the Sumerians left their cultural and literary footprints all over the Akkadian (and later Babylonian) world much in the same way that the Romans carried the Greek myths and traditions with them the whole lifetime of the Roman Empire. No matter how it happened, that there is a Nin-ti/Eve connection seems to me undeniably compelling. And if this is the case, it won’t work the other way: one can’t argue that the Nin-ti character was taken from Eve because the linking factor is a linguistic pun (quite common in Sumerian myths, and especially this one) that only works in Sumerian, and would have been lost in Akkadian, Canaanite, Hebrew, or any other language when it was translated.

I can’t tell you how confused I am by the assumption that we aren’t taking Genesis 1-11 seriously when we deny its place as historiographic narrative. On the contrary, we believe that the non-historical literature in the Old Testament should be taken quite seriously, as seriously as any other genre in Scripture. What we don’t take seriously is the modernist elevation of modern cultural norms over those of the ancients such that we are supposed to wrest literature written from within an ancient mindset by men with that mindset to other people sharing that mindset and insist that the literary forms of the Bible conform to our norms regardless of how useless our preferred account would have seemed to the original audience. Many are upset that God would put within His book a form of literature that requires us to dig a bit deeper past our own cultural values, but I submit that it would have been much more of a problem if God had spoken to His earliest followers in a form they could not recognize or relate to. Like the “appearance of age” arguments, these radical attempts at “conservatism” do more harm to the character of God than the beliefs they’re trying so hard to dismantle.

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June 13th, 2008

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  • http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/ James McGrath

    I hope you’ll finish this post! :lol: I think the similarities to other stories told in earlier times shows that, at its heart, this story was part of a ‘story war’, challenging other dominant viewpoints expressed in story with a different story. That’s a very different approach than the modern scientific one, which asks not ‘what values are expressed in each story?’ but ‘which story can we prove to be true, if any?’

    As for the genre of the story, it has a main character named Human and a talking snake. Why so many people are persuaded it is history is alas simple: they think they are supposed to think that way about it.

    The important question then becomes how to liberate people to actually read and appreciate stories like this one in the way they would if they didn’t feel compelled to read them against the grain.

  • http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com James McGrath

    I hope you’ll finish this post! :lol: I think the similarities to other stories told in earlier times shows that, at its heart, this story was part of a ‘story war’, challenging other dominant viewpoints expressed in story with a different story. That’s a very different approach than the modern scientific one, which asks not ‘what values are expressed in each story?’ but ‘which story can we prove to be true, if any?’

    As for the genre of the story, it has a main character named Human and a talking snake. Why so many people are persuaded it is history is alas simple: they think they are supposed to think that way about it.

    The important question then becomes how to liberate people to actually read and appreciate stories like this one in the way they would if they didn’t feel compelled to read them against the grain.

  • http://thecreationofanevolutionist.blogspot.com/ Mike Beidler

    Steve,

    I never saw this post until James posted! What happened to it?

    As for James’ comment, it’s spot on! They read the Bible a certain way (i.e., in a literal fashion with 21st-century trappings) because they have been raised to believe that it has to be read that way, and that all other alternatives have their source in God-denying liberalism (of the religious sort).

    In my own journey, I’ve come to realize that the ANE approach is actually the more “conservative” and “literal” of the two approaches, whereas the woodenly-literal approach actually obscures the truth that God meant for these documents to express.

  • http://www.thecreationofanevolutionist.blogspot.com Mike Beidler

    Steve,

    I never saw this post until James posted! What happened to it?

    As for James’ comment, it’s spot on! They read the Bible a certain way (i.e., in a literal fashion with 21st-century trappings) because they have been raised to believe that it has to be read that way, and that all other alternatives have their source in God-denying liberalism (of the religious sort).

    In my own journey, I’ve come to realize that the ANE approach is actually the more “conservative” and “literal” of the two approaches, whereas the woodenly-literal approach actually obscures the truth that God meant for these documents to express.

  • http://heathershodgepodge.blogspot.com/ Heather

    Wow! I think this is the first time I’ve ever read one of your long posts in one sitting! Usually I have to read a bit, go look up a bunch of words, and then come back and finish reading. :D I understand where you are coming from, although I don’t understand it completely. I’m impressed with the amount of reading you must do in order to cite as many works as you do in your posts. I hope you’ll be able to use some of your posts when you write your dissertation! Do you write more for the purpose of educating those who read your blog, or do you write as a way to work out your own position on things as you write?

  • http://heathershodgepodge.blogspot.com Heather

    Wow! I think this is the first time I’ve ever read one of your long posts in one sitting! Usually I have to read a bit, go look up a bunch of words, and then come back and finish reading. :D I understand where you are coming from, although I don’t understand it completely. I’m impressed with the amount of reading you must do in order to cite as many works as you do in your posts. I hope you’ll be able to use some of your posts when you write your dissertation! Do you write more for the purpose of educating those who read your blog, or do you write as a way to work out your own position on things as you write?

  • http://www.netzarim.co.il/ Anders Branderud

    Hello! I found your website. My name is Anders Branderud and I am from Sweden.

    You do quote from Matthew 19.
    Who then was the historical J*esus?

    I am a follower of Ribi Yehoshua – Mashiakh – who practiced Torah including Halakhah with all his heart.
    He was born in Betlehem 7 B.C.E . His faher name was Yoseiph and mother’s name was Mir′ yâm. He had twelve followers. He tought in the Jewish batei-haknesset (synagogues). Thousands of Jews were interested in His Torah-teachings. The “Temple” Sadducees (non-priests who bought their priest-ship in the “Temple” from the Romans, because they were assimilated Hellenist and genealogically non-priests acting as priests in the “Temple”; they were known by most 1st-century Jews as “Wicked Priests.”) decided to crucify him. So they did – together with the Romans. Ribi Yehoshuas followers were called Netzarim (meaning offshoots [of a olive tree]) and they continued to pray with the other Jews in the synagogues.

    Christianity does not teach the teachings of Ribi Yehoshua. Ribi Yehoshuas teachings were pro-Torah.
    When it comes to the Christian Matthew that you quote:

    “The earliest extant Church historian, Eusebius further documented (EH III.xxvii.4-6) that the original Nәtzarim accepted only the Jewish Tana”kh as Bible and only The Netzarim (“their own”) Hebrew Matityahu (NHM) as an authentic account of the life and teachings of Ribi Yәhoshua, never accepting the the 2nd-4th century, heavily gentile-redacted (Greek), NT.”
    source: http://www.netzarim.co.il

    Anders Branderud
    Follower of Ribi Yehoshua in Orthodox Judaism
    If you want to learn more – click at our website http://www.netzarim.co.il — than click at the link “Christians”; click at my photo to read about what made my switch religion from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism.

  • http://www.netzarim.co.il Anders Branderud

    Hello! I found your website. My name is Anders Branderud and I am from Sweden.

    You do quote from Matthew 19.
    Who then was the historical J*esus?

    I am a follower of Ribi Yehoshua – Mashiakh – who practiced Torah including Halakhah with all his heart.
    He was born in Betlehem 7 B.C.E . His faher name was Yoseiph and mother’s name was Mir′ yâm. He had twelve followers. He tought in the Jewish batei-haknesset (synagogues). Thousands of Jews were interested in His Torah-teachings. The “Temple” Sadducees (non-priests who bought their priest-ship in the “Temple” from the Romans, because they were assimilated Hellenist and genealogically non-priests acting as priests in the “Temple”; they were known by most 1st-century Jews as “Wicked Priests.”) decided to crucify him. So they did – together with the Romans. Ribi Yehoshuas followers were called Netzarim (meaning offshoots [of a olive tree]) and they continued to pray with the other Jews in the synagogues.

    Christianity does not teach the teachings of Ribi Yehoshua. Ribi Yehoshuas teachings were pro-Torah.
    When it comes to the Christian Matthew that you quote:

    “The earliest extant Church historian, Eusebius further documented (EH III.xxvii.4-6) that the original Nәtzarim accepted only the Jewish Tana”kh as Bible and only The Netzarim (“their own”) Hebrew Matityahu (NHM) as an authentic account of the life and teachings of Ribi Yәhoshua, never accepting the the 2nd-4th century, heavily gentile-redacted (Greek), NT.”
    source: http://www.netzarim.co.il

    Anders Branderud
    Follower of Ribi Yehoshua in Orthodox Judaism
    If you want to learn more – click at our website http://www.netzarim.co.il — than click at the link “Christians”; click at my photo to read about what made my switch religion from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism.

  • http://castleofnutshells.wordpress.com/ Damian

    I have to say, I’m impressed by your thoroughness, having only been aware of your site for a short while. I really like the linguistic angle you’ve taken at interpretation.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the reasons why people interpret the mythological aspects of the bible literally, but I still wonder what you think the theological implications of this is.

    I suppose that the reason people are opposed to the interpretation of biblical narrative as decended from ANE narrative is that it casts doubt on the OT as the word of God, as if something is based on something worldly, how can it be from God?

    Whilst I tend to agree that regardless of it’s decent something can be Gods’ word, I wonder how you answer this question. For example, given that the Genesis Narrative seem to be decended from or influenced by the Enki/Ninhursag Narrative, how do you address this theologically? Or is it an issue theologically at all?

    That said, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of any literature that I might read to begin grounding myself in this field – you mentioned a few, but where would you suggest I start?

  • http://castleofnutshells.wordpress.com Damian

    I have to say, I’m impressed by your thoroughness, having only been aware of your site for a short while. I really like the linguistic angle you’ve taken at interpretation.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the reasons why people interpret the mythological aspects of the bible literally, but I still wonder what you think the theological implications of this is.

    I suppose that the reason people are opposed to the interpretation of biblical narrative as decended from ANE narrative is that it casts doubt on the OT as the word of God, as if something is based on something worldly, how can it be from God?

    Whilst I tend to agree that regardless of it’s decent something can be Gods’ word, I wonder how you answer this question. For example, given that the Genesis Narrative seem to be decended from or influenced by the Enki/Ninhursag Narrative, how do you address this theologically? Or is it an issue theologically at all?

    That said, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of any literature that I might read to begin grounding myself in this field – you mentioned a few, but where would you suggest I start?

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Heather wrote:

    Do you write more for the purpose of educating those who read your blog, or do you write as a way to work out your own position on things as you write?

    Thanks for the kinds words. Great question! It’s definitely more of the latter: I am working things out for myself and using the blog as a testing ground, which means that I am absolutely sincere in my requests for contrary opinions. Of course, I do want to share what I’m thinking, and this leads to the “educating” aspect.

    Anders,
    Thanks for coming by. I would respond more if I thought there was a chance for meaningful interaction, but seeing that you didn’t respond to a thing I said (beyond the fact that I quoted Matthew), I must assume that you are essentially spamming me to get me to your site. But if you do come back to see my response, let me ask you how you can claim to know and follow Jesus’ teachings, if the Gospels were corrupted so early. Do you just wade through, find the parts that don’t conflict with Orthodox Judaism, and then conclude that “Rabi Yehoshua” taught those things?

    Damian,
    I appreciate your thoughts!

    For example, given that the Genesis Narrative seem to be decended from or influenced by the Enki/Ninhursag Narrative, how do you address this theologically? Or is it an issue theologically at all?

    The way I see it, this is just like the Christmas/Easter issue. Some Christians can’t get past the pagan origin of those holidays and celebrate what they now mean to us as Christians. The concept of God’s design for the integral relationship of man and woman is affirmed at the end of chapter 1, and so it’s not surprising to see it brought out (of Adam’s side!) in chapter 2. The origin of the literary material used for this story had no influence on what the story could be used for. In short, the work of the author(s) of Genesis sanctified the old stories, inspired with God’s breath of life to become more than the sum of its pagan literary parts. Is this what you’re asking?

    That said, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of any literature that I might read to begin grounding myself in this field – you mentioned a few, but where would you suggest I start?

    Well, the indispensable introduction in my opinion is the excellent book Reading the Old Testament: an Introduction by Lawrence Boadt. His survey of the Old Testament is a reverent look at the Old Testament that shows God’s message clearly displayed even when we accept scholastic ideas typically considered “liberal”, such as the documentary hypothesis (JEDP). Dr. John H. Walton has a book I’ve heard is quite good called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, but I don’t know how in-depth he goes on particular passages. BTW, I checked out your blog and thought it looked really interesting – I’m adding your link to my blogroll.

  • http://undeception.com Steve

    Heather wrote:

    Do you write more for the purpose of educating those who read your blog, or do you write as a way to work out your own position on things as you write?

    Thanks for the kinds words. Great question! It’s definitely more of the latter: I am working things out for myself and using the blog as a testing ground, which means that I am absolutely sincere in my requests for contrary opinions. Of course, I do want to share what I’m thinking, and this leads to the “educating” aspect.

    Anders,
    Thanks for coming by. I would respond more if I thought there was a chance for meaningful interaction, but seeing that you didn’t respond to a thing I said (beyond the fact that I quoted Matthew), I must assume that you are essentially spamming me to get me to your site. But if you do come back to see my response, let me ask you how you can claim to know and follow Jesus’ teachings, if the Gospels were corrupted so early. Do you just wade through, find the parts that don’t conflict with Orthodox Judaism, and then conclude that “Rabi Yehoshua” taught those things?

    Damian,
    I appreciate your thoughts!

    For example, given that the Genesis Narrative seem to be decended from or influenced by the Enki/Ninhursag Narrative, how do you address this theologically? Or is it an issue theologically at all?

    The way I see it, this is just like the Christmas/Easter issue. Some Christians can’t get past the pagan origin of those holidays and celebrate what they now mean to us as Christians. The concept of God’s design for the integral relationship of man and woman is affirmed at the end of chapter 1, and so it’s not surprising to see it brought out (of Adam’s side!) in chapter 2. The origin of the literary material used for this story had no influence on what the story could be used for. In short, the work of the author(s) of Genesis sanctified the old stories, inspired with God’s breath of life to become more than the sum of its pagan literary parts. Is this what you’re asking?

    That said, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of any literature that I might read to begin grounding myself in this field – you mentioned a few, but where would you suggest I start?

    Well, the indispensable introduction in my opinion is the excellent book Reading the Old Testament: an Introduction by Lawrence Boadt. His survey of the Old Testament is a reverent look at the Old Testament that shows God’s message clearly displayed even when we accept scholastic ideas typically considered “liberal”, such as the documentary hypothesis (JEDP). Dr. John H. Walton has a book I’ve heard is quite good called Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible, but I don’t know how in-depth he goes on particular passages. BTW, I checked out your blog and thought it looked really interesting – I’m adding your link to my blogroll.

  • http://castleofnutshells.wordpress.com/ Damian

    Steve,

    That certainly answers my question – and resonates with me. Your analogy with the Christmas/Easter holidays are apt.

    I’ve ordered the books you suggested from Amazon, so hopefully in a few months time when I’ve had a chance to study them I’ll be able to look at biblical literature from a new angle.

    And thanks that you found my blog interesting – I admittedly am not an astounding original thinker, but I find (as you said to Heather) that blogging is a great way to hammer out your own thoughts and get some constructive criticism in the process.

    Thanks for your reply.

  • http://castleofnutshells.wordpress.com Damian

    Steve,

    That certainly answers my question – and resonates with me. Your analogy with the Christmas/Easter holidays are apt.

    I’ve ordered the books you suggested from Amazon, so hopefully in a few months time when I’ve had a chance to study them I’ll be able to look at biblical literature from a new angle.

    And thanks that you found my blog interesting – I admittedly am not an astounding original thinker, but I find (as you said to Heather) that blogging is a great way to hammer out your own thoughts and get some constructive criticism in the process.

    Thanks for your reply.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    I’m no original thinker, either, Damian! But the ways you and I put those non-original thoughts together are indeed original :)

    I especially liked your emphasis on maturing your theology, and that’s such a worthy endeavor. I’ve found a lot of what the evangelical majority of Christianity has insisted upon is startlingly off-track, but instead of abandoning the faith as many I know have done, I’ve found that acknowledging the fallibility of our theology and the necessity for it to evolve makes God bigger and me humbler. Alerting Christians to the need to evaluate the theology they’ve been handed is what this blog is all about.

    Oh, and if you get through it before I do, let me know what you think of the Walton book :)

  • http://undeception.com Steve

    I’m no original thinker, either, Damian! But the ways you and I put those non-original thoughts together are indeed original :)

    I especially liked your emphasis on maturing your theology, and that’s such a worthy endeavor. I’ve found a lot of what the evangelical majority of Christianity has insisted upon is startlingly off-track, but instead of abandoning the faith as many I know have done, I’ve found that acknowledging the fallibility of our theology and the necessity for it to evolve makes God bigger and me humbler. Alerting Christians to the need to evaluate the theology they’ve been handed is what this blog is all about.

    Oh, and if you get through it before I do, let me know what you think of the Walton book :)

  • http://www.netzarim.co.il/ Anders Branderud

    Steve,

    Ribi Yehoshua is documented to be a Ribi even in the Christian NT. If he taught something that contradicted the Pharisees teachings he wouldn’t been allowed to teach in their synagogues. It’s documented in 4Q MMT Qumran Dead Seascrolls that Pharisees followed Torah including Halakhah.
    He would have been a false prophet according to Devarim (some translate it Deuteronomy) 13:1-6.
    http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0513.htm

    If the account of the gospel of Matthew is true than he is a false prophet.
    So the choice is up to you. Do you want to follow the historical Ribi Yehoshua or do you want to follow the redacted NT.

    “The earliest extant Church historian, Eusebius further documented (EH III.xxvii.4-6) that the original Nәtzarim accepted only the Jewish Tana”kh as Bible and only The Netzarim (“their own”) Hebrew Matityahu (NHM) as an authentic account of the life and teachings of Ribi Yәhoshua, never accepting the the 2nd-4th century, heavily gentile-redacted (Greek), NT.”

    Anders Branderud
    Follower of Ribi Yehoshua in Orthodox Judaism
    If you want to learn more – click at our website http://www.netzarim.co.il — than click at the link “Christians”; click at my photo to read about what made my switch religion from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism.

  • http://www.netzarim.co.il Anders Branderud

    Steve,

    Ribi Yehoshua is documented to be a Ribi even in the Christian NT. If he taught something that contradicted the Pharisees teachings he wouldn’t been allowed to teach in their synagogues. It’s documented in 4Q MMT Qumran Dead Seascrolls that Pharisees followed Torah including Halakhah.
    He would have been a false prophet according to Devarim (some translate it Deuteronomy) 13:1-6.
    http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt0513.htm

    If the account of the gospel of Matthew is true than he is a false prophet.
    So the choice is up to you. Do you want to follow the historical Ribi Yehoshua or do you want to follow the redacted NT.

    “The earliest extant Church historian, Eusebius further documented (EH III.xxvii.4-6) that the original Nәtzarim accepted only the Jewish Tana”kh as Bible and only The Netzarim (“their own”) Hebrew Matityahu (NHM) as an authentic account of the life and teachings of Ribi Yәhoshua, never accepting the the 2nd-4th century, heavily gentile-redacted (Greek), NT.”

    Anders Branderud
    Follower of Ribi Yehoshua in Orthodox Judaism
    If you want to learn more – click at our website http://www.netzarim.co.il — than click at the link “Christians”; click at my photo to read about what made my switch religion from Christianity to Orthodox Judaism.

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  • http://castleofnutshells.wordpress.com/ Damian

    I think that’s the exact place I’ve found myself over the past few years – finding that evangelical christianity is off-track, but instead of abandoning my faith I began to explore it in new ways, to attempt to cast aside old ways of thinking and try to find new perspectives that might cast a fresher light on the gospel. Looking for such perspectives is what led me here, in fact!

    It takes an age for amazon to ship over the pacific, so I don’t expect to read Walton before you do, but count on me posting on it when it does arrive!

  • http://castleofnutshells.wordpress.com Damian

    I think that’s the exact place I’ve found myself over the past few years – finding that evangelical christianity is off-track, but instead of abandoning my faith I began to explore it in new ways, to attempt to cast aside old ways of thinking and try to find new perspectives that might cast a fresher light on the gospel. Looking for such perspectives is what led me here, in fact!

    It takes an age for amazon to ship over the pacific, so I don’t expect to read Walton before you do, but count on me posting on it when it does arrive!

  • Dan Werner

    Steve,

    Great post. I especially liked the Sumerian rib background as a good argument against pagan dependence on the Hebrew creation narratives.

    Your post made me interested in hearing more about how the ancients, before the Greeks, did historiography. What, for instance, in Ge 12-50 (or in other historical narratives) parallels the ancient way of doing history, i.e. not with exacting facticity but true in the sense that it conveys more meaning and purpose than our modern histories often do. Is Lawrence Boadt’s book good on this stuff as well? Also, in what ways did Hebrews do history differently than their neighbors?

    Dan

  • Dan Werner

    Steve,

    Great post. I especially liked the Sumerian rib background as a good argument against pagan dependence on the Hebrew creation narratives.

    Your post made me interested in hearing more about how the ancients, before the Greeks, did historiography. What, for instance, in Ge 12-50 (or in other historical narratives) parallels the ancient way of doing history, i.e. not with exacting facticity but true in the sense that it conveys more meaning and purpose than our modern histories often do. Is Lawrence Boadt’s book good on this stuff as well? Also, in what ways did Hebrews do history differently than their neighbors?

    Dan

  • Doug Moody

    Steve,

    You said:

    It was only natural that Jesus would use the stories of the Jews to communicate with the Jews, especially since that is the origin of the story and its place in the Bible anyway.

    Your thesis that the old testament is full of myth can also be denomstrated in teh New Testament. The best example I can find is the Christian teaching of heaven and hell, based on the story Jesus told of Lazarus and the rich man. The whole modern idea of heaven and hell is a composite of Dante’s Inferno and modern interpretations of Lazarus. Dante knew, in the Divine Comedy that what he was writing about was pure fiction. He used it for illustrative purposes, but it resonated so well with ignorant parish priests as a vehicle to scare the hell out of people, that it became accepted as FACT in the middle ages, but later, as modern readers read about Lazarus, they combine it with Dante’s work, and have come up with this pastiche of ideas about heaven and hell.

    A true reading of the Lazarus shows that Jesus was intentional when He told the story to HIS audience! He knew that THEY knew the mythology about the “gulf” between heaven and hell. He also knew they understood the symbology about the 5 brothers of the rich man who were “left behind”, and what they symbolized. Jesus made a clear impression on the ruling Jews, and it was a stinging rebuke to them. But I don’t believe that they (the Pharisees) compromised their belief about the resurrection just because of a popular story about heaven and hell that was extant in their own popular culture.

  • Doug Moody

    Steve,

    You said:

    It was only natural that Jesus would use the stories of the Jews to communicate with the Jews, especially since that is the origin of the story and its place in the Bible anyway.

    Your thesis that the old testament is full of myth can also be denomstrated in teh New Testament. The best example I can find is the Christian teaching of heaven and hell, based on the story Jesus told of Lazarus and the rich man. The whole modern idea of heaven and hell is a composite of Dante’s Inferno and modern interpretations of Lazarus. Dante knew, in the Divine Comedy that what he was writing about was pure fiction. He used it for illustrative purposes, but it resonated so well with ignorant parish priests as a vehicle to scare the hell out of people, that it became accepted as FACT in the middle ages, but later, as modern readers read about Lazarus, they combine it with Dante’s work, and have come up with this pastiche of ideas about heaven and hell.

    A true reading of the Lazarus shows that Jesus was intentional when He told the story to HIS audience! He knew that THEY knew the mythology about the “gulf” between heaven and hell. He also knew they understood the symbology about the 5 brothers of the rich man who were “left behind”, and what they symbolized. Jesus made a clear impression on the ruling Jews, and it was a stinging rebuke to them. But I don’t believe that they (the Pharisees) compromised their belief about the resurrection just because of a popular story about heaven and hell that was extant in their own popular culture.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    What, for instance, in Ge 12-50 (or in other historical narratives) parallels the ancient way of doing history, i.e. not with exacting facticity but true in the sense that it conveys more meaning and purpose than our modern histories often do. Is Lawrence Boadt’s book good on this stuff as well?

    Yes, Boadt does a good job of explaining the features of the rest of Genesis, explaining that the stories of the patriarchs read much like the Icelandic saga and describing some of the characteristics of it.

    Also, in what ways did Hebrews do history differently than their neighbors?

    For this, I thought I’d generate another post.

    Doug,

    I couldn’t agree more. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not Jesus’ detailed description of the geography of the otherworld nor a theological treatise on the shape of the afterlife, but a story using the popular understanding of those things without removing it from the Hellenistic mythological background. The setting is irrelevant: it merely serves as a familiar backdrop behind which to describe His main message. This message, as you said, would be clearly understood by those to whom it was directed. The religious leaders, clothed in purple and benefiting from the promises of the Mosaic Covenant, were about to be expelled from that covenant and those not of Abraham’s physical lineage would soon be the ones comforted in “Abraham’s bosom”. “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Eleazar”, Abraham’s foreign servant who would have been Abraham’s heir but for his natural children; that Jesus would show them with the short end of the stick would have eaten the Pharisees up. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://undeception.com Steve

    What, for instance, in Ge 12-50 (or in other historical narratives) parallels the ancient way of doing history, i.e. not with exacting facticity but true in the sense that it conveys more meaning and purpose than our modern histories often do. Is Lawrence Boadt’s book good on this stuff as well?

    Yes, Boadt does a good job of explaining the features of the rest of Genesis, explaining that the stories of the patriarchs read much like the Icelandic saga and describing some of the characteristics of it.

    Also, in what ways did Hebrews do history differently than their neighbors?

    For this, I thought I’d generate another post.

    Doug,

    I couldn’t agree more. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is not Jesus’ detailed description of the geography of the otherworld nor a theological treatise on the shape of the afterlife, but a story using the popular understanding of those things without removing it from the Hellenistic mythological background. The setting is irrelevant: it merely serves as a familiar backdrop behind which to describe His main message. This message, as you said, would be clearly understood by those to whom it was directed. The religious leaders, clothed in purple and benefiting from the promises of the Mosaic Covenant, were about to be expelled from that covenant and those not of Abraham’s physical lineage would soon be the ones comforted in “Abraham’s bosom”. “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Eleazar”, Abraham’s foreign servant who would have been Abraham’s heir but for his natural children; that Jesus would show them with the short end of the stick would have eaten the Pharisees up. Thanks for the comment!

  • http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/ James McGrath

    You may want to take a look at Kenneth Bailey’s most recent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, which treats the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a “pearly gates story”.

  • http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com James McGrath

    You may want to take a look at Kenneth Bailey’s most recent book, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, which treats the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a “pearly gates story”.

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Thanks, James, for the recommendation, and thanks for dropping by! I have read a few summaries of Bailey’s remarks on this parable. I agree with him that this story prefigures our pearly gates stories to some degree, and that observation jives with Doug’s and my statements that the Hades/Abraham’s Bosom/Great Chasm imagery was but Jesus’ culturally relevant way of couching His main message, not a tacit or overt confirmation that this was how the afterlife looked.

    But regarding the main message of the parable, allow me to go on a bit of a tangent here. I am familiar with and largely uphold Bailey’s approach, but unless I’m greatly mistaken it seems that he has a good knack for recovering cultural context but the bad habit of making the medium the message; in other words, although it is a highly valuable effort to look at cultural attitudes that Jesus was talking from within and that his audience was hearing, we must be careful not to think that those observations are themselves the point of the parables or that we can always recover the main intent by looking at those factors.

    That main intent is much more dire than a condemnation of materialism and self-aggrandizement. In such a run-of-the-mill sermon as that, we would have no answer as to why Jesus breaks with form and starts naming his characters rather than stating in an oblique fashion, “A certain man…” The central message of the Lazarus/Eleazar parable, as with most of Jesus’ parables, was one of so-called replacement theology, solemn warnings of judgment on the religious leaders of Judah, not personal enrichment lectures.

    Don’t get me wrong, guys: I think there are tremendous benefits from Bailey’s research and observations, but from what I’ve read of his statements on the Lazarus parable, I think he misses the forest for each carefully identified tree. Again, I think there is much more to be gained by examining and identifying every tree than the Church is doing right now, but “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.

    Check out this article that gives a little more background on my understanding of the parable.

  • http://undeception.com Steve

    Thanks, James, for the recommendation, and thanks for dropping by! I have read a few summaries of Bailey’s remarks on this parable. I agree with him that this story prefigures our pearly gates stories to some degree, and that observation jives with Doug’s and my statements that the Hades/Abraham’s Bosom/Great Chasm imagery was but Jesus’ culturally relevant way of couching His main message, not a tacit or overt confirmation that this was how the afterlife looked.

    But regarding the main message of the parable, allow me to go on a bit of a tangent here. I am familiar with and largely uphold Bailey’s approach, but unless I’m greatly mistaken it seems that he has a good knack for recovering cultural context but the bad habit of making the medium the message; in other words, although it is a highly valuable effort to look at cultural attitudes that Jesus was talking from within and that his audience was hearing, we must be careful not to think that those observations are themselves the point of the parables or that we can always recover the main intent by looking at those factors.

    That main intent is much more dire than a condemnation of materialism and self-aggrandizement. In such a run-of-the-mill sermon as that, we would have no answer as to why Jesus breaks with form and starts naming his characters rather than stating in an oblique fashion, “A certain man…” The central message of the Lazarus/Eleazar parable, as with most of Jesus’ parables, was one of so-called replacement theology, solemn warnings of judgment on the religious leaders of Judah, not personal enrichment lectures.

    Don’t get me wrong, guys: I think there are tremendous benefits from Bailey’s research and observations, but from what I’ve read of his statements on the Lazarus parable, I think he misses the forest for each carefully identified tree. Again, I think there is much more to be gained by examining and identifying every tree than the Church is doing right now, but “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”.

    Check out this article that gives a little more background on my understanding of the parable.

  • Vance

    Great work in this post!

    I have been promoting these very same concept for a decade now, and it is SO gratifying to see so many intelligent folks working on this angle. Again, terrific job!

  • Vance

    Great work in this post!

    I have been promoting these very same concept for a decade now, and it is SO gratifying to see so many intelligent folks working on this angle. Again, terrific job!

  • http://undeception.com/ Steve

    Thanks for the thumbs-up, Vance. Truth is, a lot of my current understanding on these matters was developed while interacting with you and the others at Christian Forums (Didaskomenos here). Are you still posting at Submerging Influence?

    Glad you found my blog!

  • http://undeception.com Steve

    Thanks for the thumbs-up, Vance. Truth is, a lot of my current understanding on these matters was developed while interacting with you and the others at Christian Forums (Didaskomenos here). Are you still posting at Submerging Influence?

    Glad you found my blog!

  • Vance

    I am not posting there now that Theologica is up and running. I had taken some time off and by the time I came back this new site seemed the better venue for stuff. Hope to see you over there!

  • Vance

    I am not posting there now that Theologica is up and running. I had taken some time off and by the time I came back this new site seemed the better venue for stuff. Hope to see you over there!

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  • http://davidvs.blogspot.com/ David V.S.

    Anders visited my blog with the same troll-writing. My rebuttal is here.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve

      Thanks, David. I just the other day saw him posting the same crap on another site. *sigh*

  • http://davidvs.blogspot.com David V.S.

    Anders visited my blog with the same troll-writing. My rebuttal is here.

    • http://undeception.com Steve

      Thanks, David. I just the other day saw him posting the same crap on another site. *sigh*