Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Has the Bible been redacted?

I recently received a query from a FaceBook friend, who asked “in your reading, what has been redacted, or more importantly, why? And what does it change? Anything important?”

Here is my reply;

The question of redaction can get highly contentious, especially if you're talking to someone who wants to capitalize the subject to say either "so, you don't believe the Bible, then", or "you can't trust anything that's written in there". Personally, I think the question of the extent of OT redaction is highly subjective, so I’ll stick to what can be demonstrated, and I'll remain circumspect about what can't.

For instance, the archaeological evidence (as far as I understand it has been demonstrated) points to the Chaldeans not arriving in Ur until about 900 BC. That's after Abraham (about 1900BC) and after Moses (about 1500 BC - though more traditional scholars put him at 1200 BC). So, when Genesis 11:31 etc refers to "Ur of the Chaldeans", you have to ask whether it was written or altered or redacted after Abraham and after Moses.

I find this quite an instructive example because it changes nothing in the Abraham story (Abraham came from the city that was later occupied by the Chaldeans), or the theology that the story tells (God still covenants Himself to Abraham and his children).

What it does change (or challenge) is our perception of how the Biblical texts have come to us. Not even the most hardened inerrantist would argue that, in the beginning, Moses sat down with a ball-point pen and wrote on a piece of paper "Genesis chapter 1, verse 1" (see how many anachronisms there are in that scenario). However, there is an expectation that God dictated the text, and it remained unaltered from that time on. (Ironically, this is the exact scenario that Joseph Smith was working to.)

I believe (and I could be wrong) that the text itself invites us to think otherwise, and I would argue this by citing Jeremiah 1:11 and 1:13 - the Word of the LORD asks us "what do you see?" (emphasis mine). There is, I think, a mystery here - it's not what we see that matters as much as what we infer from it, and this, I think, is where we need the Holy Spirit to guide us.

Now, here's the real problem, and I might not have come to a satisfactory answer. If the Biblical texts were limited by the human author's understanding of what happened in the past, how could we regard them as divinely inspired?

My two responses are these;

The first goes back to my "inference" idea - it's not the story that matters as much as what we get from it. In other words, God has given us these stories so that we might live by them, and many (all?) of the stories are actually historical. We don't have a decent word in English to describe this; "myth" has too closely aligned with fiction and "legend" is too closely aligned with super-heroes. This might sound quite esoteric, but I'm sure you're familiar with at least one concrete application; Christians are called to "live out" the story of Christ, and we get that story by reading our Bibles. Personally, I think the story of Christ is fully historical, but it doesn't change God's call on me to make that story a living reality by the way I choose to live. It just makes it more compelling.

Secondly, the delivery of the word of God into the world has much in common with the delivery of the Word of God into the world, and there is a deep mystery here. Jesus Christ is/was both fully human and fully God. How can he be both? How can he be so totally unlimited, and yet so confined in his human flesh? It is only by faith that we can even attempt to bring these two polar opposites into one, undivided person. By the same token, it is only by faith that we can bring the fallible, limited thoughts of the human Biblical authors and the perfect, unlimited Word of God into the same book. That doesn't stop us asking how, and it is right to do so. Maybe, if we spent time thinking about this, we might begin to understand what it means for God and us to be brought together in our limited, fallible lives.

Summing it up, my personal view is this; Jesus Christ is the intersection of heaven and earth. This is truly good news, because, like you and me, he is fully human, which means that you and I are also fully capable of this without the need to become what we are not. The Bible tells us about this in its own limited way, and it often mines stories from the past, however they came to us, to point us in Christ's direction. Even if (and that's a big "if") it gets some of its source data wrong, it still comes to the right inferences. Not everybody sees it this way, and it is right to wonder why. In the end, it's not my ability to convince myself of the historical and scientific precision of the Biblical accounts, nor even my faith in my faith that counts, but Christ's ability to work in me that counts. In this sense, I believe the Bible to be true.

And that's good news for those of us who, inevitably, might have missed the bus on some of these important issues.

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