Harmony of the Bible?
For those interested in Scripture, I highly recommend The Bible as Literature Podcast. In a recent episode (149), the hosts (whom I know personally) make the case that reading the Bible literally (though without prooftexting) is a good thing. In fact, they call out those that “[spout] platitudes about the ‘dangers’ of taking the Bible literally.” In this post, I will examine this claim and why I have a difficult time coming to grips with it.
On the surface, there are admittedly many strange and discomforting passages in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The intellectual underpinnings of the exegetical view above, it seems to me, is the assumption that the unsavory parts of the Bible can be explained away by using the literary context surrounding the offending passages. In other words, if the Bible is saying something “bad,” then you haven’t read that section of the Bible correctly. The mistake that the fundamentalist makes, this view goes, is to prooftext and thereby ignore what the context of their chosen passages is, missing the greater picture. Another related axiom that can be implied from listening to the podcast (as I understand it) is that the individual books of the Bible also harmonize into a cohesive whole, producing one singular message of goodness about God.
I find these assumptions difficult to accept (though I try) for reasons of historical context. Mores change. The past seems more barbaric to us than the present as civilization progresses to reduce rates of disease, poverty, illness, homelessness, ignorance, and other ills. An alternate view of the Bible emerges than that put forward in the podcast. The Bible, rather, is a collection of works spanning centuries and the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures are murky waters filled with questionable moral standards from a time of primitive understanding and tribal justice. We should take into account not only the literary context but also the historical context and recognize that some stories in the Bible are good and others come from a time less civilized than our own.
This alternate view is not entirely convincing to me either. An argument can be made that we are no less barbaric than in previous eras. Also, what is the litmus test for measuring whether something is good or bad in the Bible? Don’t you put those principles above the Bible itself and create a new holy book (or pamphlet) by which to judge the Bible?
In other words, I’m in an epistemological conundrum. In a time such as this, Socrates, I think, would remind one of the importance of asking the right questions. So let’s have a go at it. Is it true that the books of the Bible are in harmony with each other and that all passages are, in context, good?
One may make the claim that it doesn’t matter whether it is true or not as long as it is good. But then what basis does one have for putting faith in the Bible? Why is it good that this is the case? Haven’t you likewise set a standard by which to judge the Bible apart from what it itself contains?
One is tempted to agree with Nietzsche (if I remember his ideas correctly) that situations like these are purely aesthetic decisions, like all moral choices. But one wishes this were not the case. So, asking again: is it true that the individual parts of the Bible are in harmony and that all passages therein are, in context, good?