On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament

Modernity, From Original Sin to the Day of the Lord

The news lately has put me thinking a lot about the origins and destination of the modern world. By “modern world,” I mean the social, political, cultural, institutional, and industrial structures of the post-Enlightenment West and other regions and peoples who have been influenced by it. It is a very peculiar world, with certain developments and features which are simply unprecedented in any other time and place. It is at present a frightening world, undergoing severe turmoil of many kinds. And like all worlds before it, it will someday be destroyed. All things fade. Only the kingdom of God will remain.

In this post, I will attempt to put together a hypothesis about the theological narrative of modernity. For God is always behind history, working in, with, through, and even against the people, institutions, and forces which drive it on the surface. The modern world, like Christendom, the Roman Empire, Babel, and the ante-diluvian world, started and will end with theological significance. The Bible largely consists of theological narratives about people and nations, and it would be strange to assume that such accounts were only truly relevant until Jesus came.

For the purpose of this post, I will stylize my proposed theological narrative of modernity with certain allusions and symbols (and no doubt some admitted hyperbole). This is in order to draw links to biblical themes and accounts as well as to simplify what might otherwise be a rather technical and complex analysis of history and philosophy. I will also note upfront that my narrative is largely informed by C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Andrew Perriman’s work, and the writings of people like Peter Leithart, Rod Dreher, N. T. Wright, and Alastair Roberts, to name a few of the many sources. So without further ado, I present an account of the modern world.

In the beginning of modernity, God had taken the world order of the Roman Empire and subjected it to the authority of His Son Jesus Christ. This took the form of Christendom, an imperfect but authentic Christian world order. The nations confessed Jesus as Lord and honored God’s will in their law. Christendom was the world for a thousand years, but man was restless and would not so easily submit to God forever.

Internal troubles and tremors began to plague the old order, with guilt on all sides of all conflicts. At the same time, knowledge of the human and nature worlds began to increase, and with this tool Western man began to see his opportunity. By the time the Reformation had done its work, he found excuse and opportunity to rebel. The Church could apparently no longer be trusted, being deeply fragmented from corruption, violence, and strife. So perhaps the Church had been seriously wrong in several ways. No matter! With the Western man’s newest tools of science and philosophy, he could find truth for himself. Maybe he could find it by reinterpreting the Bible, or disposing of the Bible, reinterpreting God, or even disposing of God.

With these new ideas in place, he went to work on reconceptualizing the world in new terms, terms influence by the old world of Christendom but innovative in many ways. Under these new terms, God was either too transcendent or too immanent to give man the rules under which the West had been governed for so long. So he made new rules. These rules put man in charge of himself, enabling him to use his own reason and techniques to reshape the world as he thought it ought to be. To this task he took. Modern man would construct a new world to replace the decaying world of Christendom: a world with a new physical order, a new socio-political order, and a new economic order. This world, he supposed, would be infinitely superior to the old one. Revolutions of science, philosophy, and religion had given him everything he needed to create a new heavens and earth in man’s own preferred image.

The rebuilding project affected three major areas. Man would reconstruct the economic order, the socio-political order, and the natural order. Each of these took polarized forms, two opposite but twin trajectories. The economic rebuilding slowly became the alternative techniques of capitalism and socialism. The socio-political rebuilding led to the parallel projects of liberalism and totalitarianism. The rebuilding of the natural world eventually split into industrial polution with uninhibited scientific manipulation of the elements and radical environmentalism which prizes animals, minerals, and raw “nature” above human flourishing.

While the project had many successes, particularly where it worked by explicitly or implicitly retaining classical assumptions from the old world, and sometimes on its own, it also bore wicked fruit. Wars and rumors of wars, destroying of the earth, neighbor rising against neighbor, rich who sell the poor for a pair of sandals, men who shame themselves with other men, women who think they are men and receive in themselves a due penalty for their anti-transcendant error—all of these began to bleed forth from the new order. These were not so much new phenomena as phenomena with a new historical character and shape. In essence, modern man drove the world a new kind of mad. The new insanity was a profoundly humanistic one. Man artificially constructed a brand new world order in his own depraved and limited image. Yet this image is not only wrong but mortal, produced by radically finite wisdom, ignorant, and subject to corruption. The foundations of modernity were as unstable as man himself, who is but a vapor.

For this reason the wrath of God is coming upon the modern world. As He did to all of the old world orders, He will judge righteously. The societies which have set aside divine givenness for the artifices of men who deem themselves wise and experts will crumble. The Lord will demonlish the artificial world of modern man in all of its parts, and men will seek relief and mercy, but will not find it.

Economics will fail. God will topple the pretensions of the economists, and the rich and the poor will oppose each other. The self-made man will be unmade, and the man with nothing will have even less. Society and politics will fail. People will be divided brother against brother, race against race, class against class, party against party until the house cannot stand. All self-constructed identities and artificial sexualities will fall apart and leave homes broken in every place. The environment will fail. The radicals who wish to use environmentalism to gather power or restructure society will be resisted and fail. Politically-motivated climate change-deniers will be washed away by hurricanes, incinerated by fires, and poisoned by pollutions. Economic, social, and environmental catastrophe will bring the West to its knees.

The modern world invented by rebellious man will pass away. The kingdom of our God will remain forever.


All of this should be taken with a grain of salt. It is oversimplified, stylized, and the eschatological conclusion is obviously guesswork. But it’s what has been whirling around in my head as a late, so take it and do with it what you will.

Modernity, From Original Sin to the Day of the Lord

The Caleb Statement

Preamble

Time are tough. People disagree on lots of things. We Christians need to stand together on the big, important issues lest the rising tide of secularism sweep us all away and destroy the Gospel. To do this, I issue the following statement, and I hope that others will sign it to show their courage and solidarity with Christ. For He says, “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

Article 1

I affirm that bow-ties are cool and are the proper attire for all men of class and virtue, day or night.

I deny that wearing a bow-tie is sufficient for salvation, though the Christian will certainly be rewarded in heaven for doing so.

Article 2

I affirm that lifelong celibacy is God’s will for more people than most would expect, particularly including my sister and most Game of Thrones fans.

I deny that lifelong celibacy is God’s will for pastors and priests. Take that, papists!

Article 3

I affirm that God might have created Adam and Eve in 3930 BC.

I deny that I (or most anyone else) have any actual idea how or when creation took place.

Article 4

I affirm that my wife is my superior in all respects except for the ability to do stupid things.

I deny that my wife, however much she appears to be, is actually a goddess. Because, you know, monotheism.

Article 5

I affirm that postmillennialsm is cool, amillennialism is cool, premillennialism is a’ight, and dispensational premillennialism is totally bunk.

I deny that panmillennialism is any fun at all, and that Nicholas Cage should ever be associated with biblical eschatology.

Article 6

I affirm that The Legend of Zelda is the most excellent console gaming franchise, over and above Mario, Smash Bros, or any of that dumb stuff on Xbox or PlayStation (with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings: Conquest).

I deny that recognizing Zeldine superiority is a test of orthodoxy for Christians, though whoever denies it should be admonished in love.

Article 7

I affirm that Windows 10 is really pretty alright.

I deny that any distribution of Linux, however sexy, will be qualified to replace Windows altogether until they get a version of Microsoft OneNote, or at least get it working on Wine.

Article 8

I affirm that white supremacy is of the devil.

I deny that white self-flagellation is any better.

Article 9

I affirm that my baby Jonathan is the cutest baby on the planet.

I deny that any mother should take this to mean her baby isn’t the cutest baby on the planet.

Article 10

I affirm against the papacy!

I deny that I’m being serious. Lol jk, I luv you guise!

Article 11

I affirm that it is our Christian duty to speak the truth in love at all times.

I deny that this leaves out the important truth that Hillsong music isn’t very good.

Article 12

I affirm that Joan of Arc was of God, and that she was flippin’ awesome.

I deny that anyone who says otherwise deserves to live.

Article 13

I affirm that Lord of the Rings and its related works are infinitely better than A Song of Fire and Ice, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.

I deny that the reasons for this can be limited only to LOTR’s lack of gore, profanity, and debauchery, however important those factors may be.

Article 14

I affirm that the afffirmations and denials of the Nashville Statement are basically correct.

I deny that the statement is itself sufficient for much good, but requires for usefulness a complete evangelical theology of the body and sexuality, which sadly is missing from the preamble or most of the commentary on the statement.

I furthermore deny that this qualifier means I stand in any judgment over any of the signers, many of whom I greatly respect. In particular, Alastair Roberts is a great resource for some of what the statement itself lacks.

Signers

Me

The Caleb Statement