Browse Search Feedback Other Links Home Home
The Talk.Origins Archive

The Sin of Imposing our Perspectives on Writings from the Past.

Post of the Month: February 2010


Subject:    | On myth
Date:       | 04 Feb 2010
Message-ID: |

In the ongoing discussion about whether those who wrote the Bible were goatherders and primitive, a few points occur to me.

  1. It is not surprising that those who were thinkers of any kind at an early time were engaged in the economic activities of the day. Imagine if someone in two thousand years says of our best narratives, "Well, if you want to believe the stories written by a bunch of automotive makers". Goatherding is actually a complex activity (I once had one of the buggers, and they make sheep look like robots). To do it well takes skill and knowledge. Granted, not knowledge of astrophysics, biology and geography, but then neither does car manufacture.

  2. To claim that the myths of the past were intended to be read as literal history presumes that they had a notion of literal history. Arguably (at least it was argued to me when I did historiography in university) such a notion wasn't invented until Herodotus and Thucydides wrote their investigations with an attempt to get it right rather than to get it politically or religiously acceptable. Nobody even knew about history until then. The annalists and chroniclers of the ancient and more recent periods were largely engaged in presenting political and religious myths for the purposes of propaganda than presenting objective histories. We have to reconstruct the past histories rather than simply read them. Even as late as the mid-20th century, histories were being written to do this, as a result of which each generation has to critically examine the histories of the past as myths, to correct any interpretations that are local to the period and culture. Even the idea that one might give correct details is a late addition.

  3. To understand a narrative, one has to treat it with respect. Genesis and the patriarchal histories must be read as if you were one of the intended audience if you are to grasp it. Once that is done, of course you "re-enter" your modern persona, but to interpret the past in terms of today is a specific historical sin called "Whiggism":
    and it does nothing worthwhile other than make you feel all warm and cozy about yourself. If that is what you want from history and other cultures, fine, but do not expect the honest scholar to find that all that attractive.

The Bible was not written as history (with the possible exception of Luke-Acts, as the author of that work seems to have read his Thucydides) and to critique it for not being what it was never intended to be, or to be read as, is simply dishonest. I say that of the literalists as well as the scienticists of our disputants. You can't understand those texts by sitting in a 21st century western mindset; although of course you want, whether you are a believer or not, to interpret the results in your own terms.

This is called "exegesis"; and it is a canon of historical interpretation that before you can impose an interpretation on a text, you must understand it in its own terms. Genesis is not a scientific text, and sensible people know this because even the very notion of "science" was absent when it was written. Not until the late classical period do people start to interpret the Old Testament in scientific terms, which is when the problems begin.

Now how a modern "Abrahamic" theist reconciles their scriptures with the knowledge we have from science is their own problem and not mine, but at the very least a sensible theist must realise this is not a science text, a history text, nor even, I would suggest, a particularly deep psychology text. It is, however, and was always intended to be, a set of myths around which a tradition clusters. Some of it may also be true.

Home Page | Browse | Search | Feedback | Links
The FAQ | Must-Read Files | Index | Creationism | Evolution | Age of the Earth | Flood Geology | Catastrophism | Debates