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Subject: The intended veracity of the Bible rss

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Sam Carroll
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Some time ago, I bumped into a short discussion on a Geeklist regarding the Bible. Various people were expressing the views that:
A) The Bible is not literally true.
B) The Bible is not intended by its authors to be taken as literal truth (not, for example, an actual history of the Jews); rather, like Aesop's Fables, it's full of fictional stories which are intended to illustrate broad truths.
Therefore, C) People who think the Bible IS true are nitwits. Or, as one person put it, they "haven't done the required reading."

I've frequently encountered point A before; as far as I can tell, most people in the world believe that. It was point B, and its corollary, C, that floored me. I posted a short response but decided to leave the discussion, since I didn't want to hijack the Geeklist. Instead, I'm posting my response here in the RSP folder where it belongs.

Please note that I'm not discussing point A here; I am concentrating on point B and, by extension, C. I am leaving open, for purposes of argument, the possibility that the Bible is fiction disguised as fact. I am arguing that the Bible either is factual or else pretends to be factual.

I will leave aside the observation that millions of people (some of them quite intelligent and educated) believe the Bible is true, while I have never encountered anyone who thought that Aesop was literally true. Instead I will argue from the style of the Bible itself.

My first observation is that there are parts of the Bible that read very much like Aesop's Fables, the best example being the parables of Jesus. Consider their similarities:
Both are populated by unnamed, generic characters: a widow, a king, a father, a boy, a fox.
Neither include details of place or time, beyond perhaps "a distant land."
They are both intended to illustrate broad truths. In fact, my edition of Aesop gives you the moral in italics after each tale. Interestingly, most of Jesus' parables are explained in the text, either at the moment or directly afterwards to the disciples.

It is also notable that Jesus' parables are almost always identified as such in the text: "Jesus told them a parable: The Kingdom of Heaven is like . . ." Why this careful distinction if the whole thing is a fable? Rather, this argues that the authors wanted the parable to be clearly distinguished from the history.

While we're on the Gospels, let's note the differences in style between the parables and the rest of the text.

We have observed that the parables have generic, unnamed characters. By contrast, the Gospels (and indeed, the Bible) as a whole are flooded with names. The characters who are not named are generally those whose names the writers could not be expected to know: the Roman centurion or the hemophiliac woman. But even the servant of the high priest, whose ear was cut off and re-attached in Gethsemane, is identified by name: his name was Malchus. St. John makes a point of telling us this. Why does this matter to us? We're not going to see him again; we don't care about him. Telling us his name is a detour from the story. The only reason his name would matter is if he were a real person that you could hunt down and ask about the incident. Or, I suppose, if the author were trying to deceive you into thinking the story was true. ("Merely corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative!") Neither reason fits the criteria of point B above.

Similarly, the Gospels, particularly the gospel of John, are full of seemingly unnecessary details: times, dates, places. To the casual reader, it makes no difference where Jesus was going when such-and-such event occurred. Who cares that "it was about the third hour"? These things are not crucial to the plot of the story, but they are the mark of an eyewitness.

Today, many novels, particularly in the fantastic genre, are filled with such details, thereby making the readers feel that they have entered into a history which was already going on. This is what Tolkien does so well. But this is a relatively recent literary development. One certainly does not see this in the classical epics, nor very much in, say, the Canterbury Tales. Either John, an unlearned fisherman, was anticipating literary trends by at least a millennium, or he intended for his story to be read as a true account of things that actually happened.

The other section of the Bible that uses the parabolic style is the wisdom literature, specifically the books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Again, the stories in these books have no specifics. They may or may not be literally true (did Solomon actually see a city that was saved by a poor wise man?), but the stories' morals are the point. So as far as these books go, point B holds true.

Aside from the wisdom literature and the gospels (which we might call biographical in style), the Bible consists of the Law (Genesis through Deuteronomy), history (Joshua through Esther, also Acts and many of the apocryphal books), prophecy (Isaiah through Malachi, Revelation and some apocrypha), and epistles (Romans through Jude). There are a few borderline books (Daniel has both history and prophecy) but I'm just going to treat each section broadly.

The Law mostly reads like . . . well, a code of laws. It includes specific instructions on how to deal with a wide range of offenses, instructions for many kinds of sacrifices, and so on. There is also some history, particularly in the books of Genesis and Numbers. Some would argue that early Genesis reads more like mythology than history; I would say that that is to be expected of an oral tradition from the very distant past, but the point is not crucial to this argument. Most Christians would say that many things in the Law, in addition to their obvious meaning, are also foreshadowings of Jesus Christ. (The sacrifices are a good example of this.) But the Law is, in its plain sense, a set of instructions that the Jews followed and were still following at the time of Jesus.

The historical books read very much like history in textbooks. Not exactly like textbooks, since they are not textbooks themselves, but very much like them. If anything, they are actually less interesting than most history texts, because they don't include much commentary, nor any interesting sidebars.

They read absolutely nothing like fables. (Read Joshua 13-19, about the division of the land of Canaan, and tell me what broader truth this is intended to illustrate.) In fact, I very much doubt that a reader who didn't think the Bible was true would even make it through this section. Why? It's flat-out boring. Now there are some interesting parts in the history (I used to read the gory bits of Judges during sermons in my childhood - the story of Ehud, the left-handed judge, is a perennial favorite), but on the whole, the history is pretty dull.

The books of prophecy are a category of their own. The prophets certainly claimed that they saw certain visions and received certain words from the Lord. The prophecies are full of figurative language and subject to interpretation; in this they are like fables. But whether they are actual prophecies that foretold future events or frauds written after the events they claimed to predict, they are certainly meant to look like real prophecies. Most of them say they were written during the reign of a particular king or kings, thereby dating themselves.

Lastly, the epistles, written mostly to specific churches and also to "the church" as a whole. These are full of theology and practical instructions; they also include instructions which have no relevance for anyone except the actual addressees. (I'm not going to be bringing St. Paul his heavy cloak anytime soon.) They are also full of names (that's where Schulz got the name Linus from) which don't interest the modern reader. Why do we care that Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus have showed up? This is, again, a mark of a personal letter; it's full of details that don't matter to the outsider.

So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended. The history reads like history, the gospels read sort of like biography, the letters read like letters, and so on. Whether or not it is actually true is a discussion for another time.

Thank you for reading so far. Thoughtful responses are welcome.
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True Blue Jon
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You're right.
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spartax wrote:
So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended.


I think this is due to the time of the writing. The people weren't savvy enough to understand allegory. Its intended to SOUND real so people would believe it.

Its a common literary device.
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Geosphere wrote:
spartax wrote:
So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended.


I think this is due to the time of the writing. The people weren't savvy enough to understand allegory. Its intended to SOUND real so people would believe it.

Its a common literary device.


Not savvy enough to understand allegory? Please tell me you're joking.
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David desJardins
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I think the bible was made up in a time when people did not have the benefits of modern knowledge and so were more credulous of things that people now know are not credible. So this creates a problem for people who want to find truth in the bible. Often they fall back on the idea that it's not supposed to be taken literally, because if they insist it's to be taken literally then they either have to admit that it contains errors, or defend the absurd.
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Eldon Nichol
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"I want to make the message clear. Most people who don't believe the Bible have never read it!" - Paul E. Little
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CHAPEL
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nichol wrote:
"I want to make the message clear. Most people who don't believe the Bible have never read it!" - Paul E. Little


"I want to make the message clear. Most people who believe the Bible have never read it!" - Mike Chapel
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MWChapel wrote:
nichol wrote:
"I want to make the message clear. Most people who don't believe the Bible have never read it!" - Paul E. Little


"I want to make the message clear. Most people who believe the Bible have never read it!" - Mike Chapel

I'd tip you for that, but
-you are a gg cresus while I am poor
-you put cheetos dust on games
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Eldon Nichol
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MWChapel wrote:
nichol wrote:
"I want to make the message clear. Most people who don't believe the Bible have never read it!" - Paul E. Little


"I want to make the message clear. Most people who believe the Bible have never read it!" - Mike Chapel


I agree but probably not for the intent you are making.
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If you wrote a fictional story that you wanted other people to believe true, what style would you use?
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HeinzGuderian wrote:
If you wrote a fictional story that you wanted other people to believe true, what style would you use?


I'm sure this fictional person would lay around all day and eat food heated by dung like what's written in Ezekiel. That would be a good style to use.
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Sam Carroll
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Geosphere wrote:
spartax wrote:
So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended.


I think this is due to the time of the writing. The people weren't savvy enough to understand allegory. Its intended to SOUND real so people would believe it.

Its a common literary device.


But the problem with this is that some sections of the Bible (parables, proverbs) are obviously allegorical, while most of it is not. Why the difference?
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spartax wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
spartax wrote:
So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended.


I think this is due to the time of the writing. The people weren't savvy enough to understand allegory. Its intended to SOUND real so people would believe it.

Its a common literary device.


But the problem with this is that some sections of the Bible (parables, proverbs) are obviously allegorical, while most of it is not. Why the difference?

But it's normal. It's not supposed to be written by the same person. It's called a book but it would be better described as a sacnctionned (since some text were left out by councils) collection of books.
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spartax wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
spartax wrote:
So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended.


I think this is due to the time of the writing. The people weren't savvy enough to understand allegory. Its intended to SOUND real so people would believe it.

Its a common literary device.


But the problem with this is that some sections of the Bible (parables, proverbs) are obviously allegorical, while most of it is not. Why the difference?


To lend credence to the "real" parts by people like you asking the question. If you have "fake" parts clearly labelled, well, then, the real MUST be real.
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Sam Carroll
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Geosphere wrote:
spartax wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
spartax wrote:
So we see that although some parts of the Bible (specifically the wisdom literature and parables) are not intended to be taken literally, the vast majority of the Bible is so intended.


I think this is due to the time of the writing. The people weren't savvy enough to understand allegory. Its intended to SOUND real so people would believe it.

Its a common literary device.


But the problem with this is that some sections of the Bible (parables, proverbs) are obviously allegorical, while most of it is not. Why the difference?


To lend credence to the "real" parts by people like you asking the question. If you have "fake" parts clearly labelled, well, then, the real MUST be real.


. . . which is my point. The Bible is intended to be perceived as real. Remember, I'm not arguing that it necessarily IS true, just that it's intended to be perceived as such.

And to reiterate, writing things that are not true as if they were (to be more convincing) is a common literary device NOW. It was not in the times when the Bible was written.
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Sam Carroll
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HavocIsHere wrote:
But it's normal. It's not supposed to be written by the same person. It's called a book but it would be better described as a sacnctionned (since some text were left out by councils) collection of books.


Quite true. However, some of the obviously allegorical parts are written by the same people who wrote some of the parts that claim to be factual. The parables vs. the rest of the gospels, for example.
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DarthXaos wrote:
I suspect in 1000 years, Scientologists will be talking about how the Xenu story was clearly intended as a parable.


1000 years of Scientology is a concept I'd rather not envision.
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DarthXaos wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
DarthXaos wrote:
I suspect in 1000 years, Scientologists will be talking about how the Xenu story was clearly intended as a parable.


1000 years of Scientology is a concept I'd rather not envision.


I bet people in the first/second century said the same thing about Christianity


Err?

Darilian
 
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DarthXaos wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
DarthXaos wrote:
I suspect in 1000 years, Scientologists will be talking about how the Xenu story was clearly intended as a parable.


1000 years of Scientology is a concept I'd rather not envision.


I bet people in the first/second century said the same thing about Christianity


And the same thing I'm sure was said about Zoroastrianism, which as we know, is making a comeback.

All Hail Zoroaster!

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Sam Carroll
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Geosphere wrote:
DarthXaos wrote:
I suspect in 1000 years, Scientologists will be talking about how the Xenu story was clearly intended as a parable.


1000 years of Scientology is a concept I'd rather not envision.


I'd have to agree with you on that one.
 
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The Bible is the epitome of precision, written by Bronze Age geniuses.
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DarthXaos wrote:
Darilian wrote:
DarthXaos wrote:
Geosphere wrote:
DarthXaos wrote:
I suspect in 1000 years, Scientologists will be talking about how the Xenu story was clearly intended as a parable.


1000 years of Scientology is a concept I'd rather not envision.


I bet people in the first/second century said the same thing about Christianity


Err?

Darilian


Nero* wrote:
1000 years of Christianity is a concept I'd rather not envision.


*not an actual historical quote



You're darn right that's not an historical quote.....

Rome was actually quite fertile ground for Christianity. It grew to be very popular, especially with its calls for the ethical treatment of others in a time when life was cheap. Many of the 'avant garde' (especially women) embraced the new faith in Nero's time as a reaction to what they saw as the emptyness of Roman life.

Darilian

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Darilian wrote:
Rome was actually quite fertile ground for Christianity. It grew to be very popular, especially with its calls for the ethical treatment of others in a time when life was cheap. Many of the 'avant garde' (especially women) embraced the new faith in Nero's time as a reaction to what they saw as the emptyness of Roman life.


And then they fed them to a lion.
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Well, Nero did.

Not like Rome was a democracy at this point, eh?

Darilian
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I think the people that wrote down the Bible captured the truth to the best of their ability. So I don't think they lied.
Look at books concerning WWII. You can find wildly different versions of some events in WWII written by modern historians with a wealth of evidence at their disposal both written and pictorial. If they can't nail down something that happened within their own lifetime with tons of evidence, what would happen if you tried to capture "truth" say 100 years after the fact with nothing but an oral tradition prior? How about 1000 years or more? Keeping in mind that people in OT times lived extremely short lives.
So, I don't look at the Bible as a pure history book. Rather, it's a spiritual guide that was written within hostorial context.
I find the things like tracing Jesus' lineage as pretty silly. If it was literal, don't we all share the same lineage? Adam and Eve right? So all the Kings would be no higher than anyone else taken to the begining. Other than Jesus being 1/2 literal Son of God I suppose, for those that think it matters.
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