Bible offers theological lessons, not scientific ones

Published 9:08 am Thursday, February 8, 2018

Biblical literacy vs. literalism


Contributing columnist

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Joseph Gerth of the Courier-Journal got it right!  We need more attention in our schools to the enhancement of U.S. Constitutional literacy, and we need more vigilance about the classes that are being introduced to advance “Bible literacy.”  There is a difference between education and evangelism.

“Kentucky teachers shouldn’t be trying to convert our kids.” That was the title of the Gerth column that was reprinted in The Advocate-Messenger on Jan. 18. Gerth cites an American Civil Liberties Union survey that found some Kentucky teachers promoting Christianity through “Bible literacy” classes that have been introduced this year in some schools.

The Bible holds an important place in his life as a Roman Catholic, but he objects to public school teaching that goes beyond teaching about the Bible or religion to promotion of a particular brand of the Christian religion. He is troubled to find that Sunday School lesson material and worksheets are being used. Some students are required to know about 34 Protestant Christian missionaries. Some are being told that the creation stories in Genesis are actual descriptions of the earth’s formation when there is strong scientific evidence that they should not be taken literally.  

When school prayer and posting of the Ten Commandments were ruled out by the courts, some assumed that there could be no teaching about religion in the public schools. That, however, is a false assumption. And one can argue that an educated person should have some basic knowledge of the Bible and of the major world religions. It is distressing to hear that some believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife and that the Bible Belt is a stiff drink before church.

While spending my professional career teaching religion courses to college students, including a Biblical survey that aimed at “Bible literacy,” I came to realize that a few of them did not know a Mass from a scroll in the ground. In approaching the study of the Bible with students, I acknowledged at the outset that the Bible was authoritative for my personal faith, but that considering its writings inspired did not mean that they were inerrant or authoritative in matters of science.  

What if we consult Biblical scholarship and archeology in our quest for “Bible literacy?” We will learn how writings by various writers at various times in the history of the Hebrews got combined and edited and finally accepted as sacred scripture. We will learn about the probable dates of the writings in the New Testament and how they were finally accepted as sacred scripture to the exclusion of other writings. We will learn that the authors of the Gospels ordered the events surrounding Jesus differently and that there were even disagreements among authors of New Testament epistles despite a common faith.  

In the Old Testament, we will find that there are conflicting accounts in Joshua and Judges of the Israelites’ occupation of Canaan. There are also differing accounts of how and where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and the story of the exodus from Egypt is the merging of two sources that are partly contradictory. There are also changing views of God as the story unfolds.  This recognition need not dismiss these writings as sources of truth, but it does suggest that every word in scripture is not divinely dictated or historically accurate.

Two examples of my literacy-versus-literalism point are the stories about creation and the flood, which just happen to be in focus in Kentucky’s Creation Museum and its Ark Park. Both of them probably aim at Bible literacy, but both of them miss the non-historical nature of the literature that they take literally.

In the case of the flood story in Genesis, we actually have the melding of two flood stories written hundreds of years apart. They differ on how many days the flood lasted (40 or 150), on the kinds of animals saved (two of all animals as opposed to seven pairs of clean and seven pairs of unclean animals), and the water source (rain or “the fountains of the great deep” and “the windows of heaven”).

The earliest of the Genesis sources dates to around 800 B.C.E., while a much earlier Babylonian flood story (The Gilgamesh Epic) dates to around 2000 B.C.E. (The Sumerian story was even earlier). The 10 rulers in the Babylonian genealogy ruled an average of 43,200 years, while the life-span of the earliest Biblical characters averaged 333 years of life.  It sounds mythic in both instances, doesn’t it?   

Archeology has found no evidence of a universal flood, but all of these ancient cultures had mythic material with involvement of their gods in the recurring suffering of humans due to floods in their regions. The Genesis merged story offers its own theological spin on the flood traditions, but it is not historical. It is mythical — which does not strip it of theological truth.

And then there are the two creation stories that introduce Genesis. This time, the two are not merged. The latest one comes first, and the creation takes six days. Why? Because the priestly writers were affirming that the Sabbath (rest on the seventh day) was built into the very fabric of creation. The second, a much older and more primitive story, has a different sequence of creation, depicts God’s relationship to the creation differently (molded by hand as opposed to ordered by word), and moves toward a second central Israelite institution, namely marriage.  

Seventeenth century Irish archbishop James Ussher took the times in early Genesis literally and dated the creation during the evening of Oct. 23, 4004 B.C.E. He did not recognize the mythic nature of the creation stories. When we take into account that the earth is approximately 4.54 billion years old, and modern human are estimated to be at least 200,000 years old, and our oldest Biblical writings might be placed around 800 B.C.E., we can say that these stories are not historical, which does not deprive them of religious truth.

The Kentucky theme parks have something in common. The Ark Park founders believe the Genesis flood story (or stories) to be literally and historically true because they believe that every word in the Bible is divinely dictated. The Creation Museum founders need the creation stories to be literally true because they do not think that belief in God can coexist with acceptance of evolution, which is not necessarily so. If public school classes are supporting these ideas, there is a Constitutional literacy problem.