Thursday, 24 April 2014

Part 1: Can we still believe the Bible? A hermeneutical perspective.

In this series I consider the question: Can we still believe the Bible? from different angles, namely from hermeneutic (interpretive), archaeological, scientific and prophetic perspectives. This essay focuses on the hermeneutic aspect.

The Bible is probably the best-known book in the world. The Biblical narrative includes stories from ancient Sumer (6000-2000 BC) to the end of the apostolic age (100 AD). There are more than two billion people today who adhere to the Christian and Jewish religions and who take the Bible (or at least the Old Testament) as the basis for their faith. Many among these believe that the Bible is the "Word of God". This would necessarily imply that the Bible is a trustworthy document. Over the past several hundred years, however, some Biblical scholars in the Biblical Criticism tradition have levelled severe criticism against the trustworthiness of the Bible. Most academics in secular society have accepted these criticisms. So, the question is: Can we still believe the Bible?

It has become widely accepted in academic circles that the Bible was written long after the events mentioned therein by authors who did not have any direct connection to those events. This would imply that we cannot take the historical information in the Bible serious. It has also been argued that the Biblical authors wrote with particular agendas to forward their own viewpoints. We should, therefore, view the Bible as propagandist and untrustworthy. Some archaeologists do not even want to use the Biblical text in the archaeological reconstruction of Biblical history because they reject it as a valid source about that history. In this essay, I discuss the philosophical background within which these views originated and ask if they are still valid. Both the modernist and postmodernist approaches are evaluated. What is the best hermeneutic approach to the Bible and what is the implications thereof for Biblical scholarship? What does it say about the credibility of the Bible?

Hermeneutic approaches to the Bible

One of the main reasons why the Bible is regarded with scepticism in contemporary secular society is because of the learned opinions of Biblical scholars in the Biblical Criticism tradition over the past few hundred years. These people were regarded as scholars who knew their field of study and their views impacted enormously upon the scholarly views regarding the Bible. Students at universities were brought up within that scholarly paradigm and many scholars in their particular fields of study have been influenced by those views. But were they right? Did they use an acceptable approach in their study of the Bible? Today it is generally acknowledged that the modernist framework in which they operated is deeply flawed and that their views in this regard should be discarded. But the scholarly paradigm that they started persists, sometimes with minor adaptions, even today. And generations of other scholars have been influenced in their thinking by these distorted views. Many of their basic standpoints have become well-established "truths".

I previously wrote a critique of Biblical Criticism in which I focused on the modernist roots of that discipline (this is a very important essay [1]). The hermeneutic (interpretive) approach used by those scholars assumed that the scholar could have an objective viewpoint on the text, wrongly thinking that their hypotheses could be confirmed in the same or similar manner than in the natural sciences. They believed themselves to be masters of the text. But what they were in fact doing was to reflect their modernist perspectives onto the text. Their basic working principle was: "What the text clearly states can, by no means, be true" [2].

This radical doubt with which they approached the texts reflected their modernist radical doubt of all tradition, but especially Biblical tradition. The agendas which they ascribed to the Biblical authors reflected their own scholarly psychology. The settings and interpretations which they ascribed to the Biblical texts, did not reflect respect for the views of the authors and their tradition but only for the view of the readers. We can compare this with someone with whom you are in conversation, who are sceptical about everything you say, who do not think much of your views, who ascribes all sorts of agendas to you, who speaks all the time and tries to force his view on you.

The postmodern paradigm was built upon this. Although the postmodernist reader criticized the modernist paradigm, he/she did not start from scratch in their study of the Biblical text. They all came from the modernist perspective and it was, therefore, impossible to turn a clean page. Those modernist conclusions that have become widely accepted, became the basis on which the new paradigm was formed. Now, following the hermeneutic views of  (especially) the philosopher Derrida, they accepted that in any text the meaning is fluid and could give rise to any amount of interpretations. The endless multiplication of meaning is celebrated. Every person can develop his/her own interpretation and we cannot affirm the one above the other.

Although we can understand that Derrida rejected fixed meanings, which he called the "logocentric" bias of Western tradition, as is typical of the modernist hermeneutics, he went to the other extreme where all stable meaning is discarded. This immediately means that there is no sensitivity to the voice/word (logos) of the author of the text. Even though we cannot reconstruct the intentions of the author, we should surely have an openness to listen to the voice of the authors and their traditions. We cannot disrespect the author and empower the reader at the cost of the author! We can say that whereas the modernist view killed the author, the postmodernist view accepted his/her death and believes that we can freely form our own individual interpretation. Whereas the modernist approach violated, yes, "raped" the text, the postmodernist approach accepts that she is silenced and that we can use her as we like.

A very important question is: Can we find a middle way between these two extremes? Is there a more balanced hermeneutic approach available? [3]. Yes, there is. In this regard, the hermeneutic approaches of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur are of great importance in the study of the Biblical text. Although Gadamer agrees that meaning is independent of the intention of the author (we cannot reconstruct the intention of the author), he nonetheless believes that in the interaction between author and reader some stable meaning comes into being (considered as an ontological "event"). For Gadamer, it is important that we respect the author and the tradition from which he/she originates and have an openness in our listening to the text. He wrote: "I must allow tradition's claim to validity, not in the sense of simply acknowledging the past in its otherness, but in such a way that it has something to say to me" [4]. Ricoeur built upon this approach and says that we should approach the text not as the master, but as a disciple. We should learn from the text.

The respect with which these philosophers approach the text and the tradition in which it stands is in direct contrast with both the modernist and postmodernist approaches. Although we cannot say that the text has just one meaning, we can formulate informed meanings of the Biblical text in which the words of the authors and their tradition are respected. We cannot doubt the credibility of information in the text from the start, we cannot attribute all sorts of agendas to him/her - although we should obviously acknowledge that he/she worked within a particular perspective as well as tradition, just as we do. Although it is very difficult to really hear the voice of the authors given all the noise caused by the misuse of the text, it is important that we do exactly that. That we take their statements regarding their own tradition (history) and their own times serious. That we treat their views with the seriousness that it deserves. That we try to put our preconceived ideology apart and focus on listening to their perspectives.

When we do this we find that the Biblical authors often mention how much care they have taken to correctly preserve their own traditions and the events about which they were writing. The author of Chronicles, for example, mentions exactly which sources he has used, namely histories written by the prophets Samuel (who operated in the time of King Saul), Nathan, Gad (from the time of King David), Ahijah (from the time of King Solomon), Shemaiah, Iddo (from the time of king Rehoboam), writings by Elijah (from the time of King Ahab), Isaiah (from the time of King Hezekiah) and others. The author of the gospel of St Luke mentions that the events surrounding the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth were handed down by eyewitnesses and that he himself had done a "careful investigation" going back to the very beginning (Luk. 1:1-2). 

Basic principles of hermeneutics

With this background, a more detailed account of what counts as good interpretation can be provided. I have often said in my essays that we should avoid the two extremes of thinking either that we can achieve one final objective interpretation (modernism) or that we can freely form interpretations (postmodernism). We must search for "better" interpretations. But what is a better interpretation and is it not too subjective an approach? 

The main problem in hermeneutics is that we do not have the tools of the empirical sciences available (see my discussion in [1]). This, however, does not stop readers from seeking some foundationalist grounds in interpreting texts. Some Christians, for example, are unaware that there is an enormous gap between us and the authors, between our traditions or paradigms and theirs. They think that they have access to the intentions of the Biblical authors and that they, therefore, have access to the final truth in our understanding of Biblical passages. Some think that the Holy Spirit guides them in this - forgetting that other Christians, who also have the Spirit, follow other interpretations. The apostle Paul cautions in this regard when he says: "now we know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12). 

Others think that tradition can serve as the foundation for final objective interpretations, arguing, for example, that the Catholic tradition is the correct one, in part because God entrusted to them the affirmation of the Biblical canon. This view forgets that the canon was already accepted in the early church [5] and that the Roman Catholic Church made many other decisions that are clearly ungodly, for example in establishing the Inquisition which led to the murder of great numbers of Christians. One good decision (i.e. accepting the canon) does not give it any foundational ground in establishing truth in all interpretation.

The acknowledgement that we do not have access to objective interpretations does not imply that we are stuck with relativism. Not at all. But we should accept that our human mind restricts us (we do not have a so-call God's eye view) in a manner that we cannot overcome. All our interpretations are coloured by our individual and traditional/paradigmatic backgrounds [6]. All our interpretations are underlain by our system of belief which could be religious (with all its variety) or agnostic (atheistic), but which are always situated within a certain informal (cultural) or more formal (academic) paradigm. This is the basic ground from which we interpret texts.

Furthermore, there is an uncrossable gap between us and the world of the texts. In Kantian terms (in reference to the philosopher Immanuel Kant), we can speak of the world in which the authors operated, the tradition from which they came, their worldviews and their personal intentions, as a "world in itself", i.e. the world of the authors as it really is beyond any possibility of us ever accessing it. (In the rest of the essay I will also use some examples from Kantian interpretation). This includes the manner in which that world is presented in the text as well as the background behind the coming into being of such texts (for ancient texts like the Bible, the real textual history is forever lost [7]). Since we are so severely restricted, both by our own human condition as well as the inaccessibility of the world-in-itself of the text, and we do not have the tools of the empirical sciences available in hermeneutics, we can never arrive at an objective interpretation which can be empirically confirmed. 

This inaccessibility of the ancient world of the text as it really was, is also the reason why there are certain aspects of the earliest Biblical world which we would probably never fully understand, for example, why the early forefathers mentioned in the Book of Genesis (and those mentioned in the ancient Sumerian King List with which the lists in Genesis show agreement) have been accorded such long lives. Some agnostics and atheists are quite good in snuffing out such passages, but it is unclear to me how that helps their case. Once we understand the reasons behind such passages we would probably also be able to make sense thereof.  

Although we cannot achieve objective interpretations, we can nevertheless formulate certain rules of interpretation which should guide our interpretation of texts. We should bring all interpretation of texts under these basic rules of understanding. These are well-founded (but not foundational) and enable us to discard wrong interpretations (on both sides). They show that we have good reasons to discard certain interpretations (and therefore reject relativism) but also that we cannot achieve one single objective interpretation (and therefore reject foundationalism). And they force us to acknowledge that other interpretations than our own (even from other paradigms than our own) could be valid interpretations of the Biblical text. These are

1. No internal inconsistencies. We can accept that any rational author would try to eliminate inconsistencies in his/her writing. Although it is possible that the text does, in fact, contains inconsistencies of its own, often perceived inconsistencies are caused by the distance between us and the texts and are therefore pseudo-inconsistencies. Pseudo-inconsistencies arise due to insufficient information about the world of the author and the events that he/she is writing about. It can also be due to artificial conflicts created by simplistic readings, sometimes by scholars who think it is scientific to accentuate and articulate all sorts of assumed conflicts in the textual accounts.  The use of this rule implies that interpretations which find important inconsistencies in the text should be rejected in support of those which reduce inconsistencies to a minimum. The reason for such inconsistencies lies with the interpretation, not with the text! In Kantian studies, for example, the so-called two-object interpretation has led to many notorious inconsistencies in his view. Since these disappear in the alternative two-aspect interpretation, we know that these are not of Kant's own making. 

In Biblical studies, the same thing happens all the time. Often inconsistencies appear when readers interpret the Bible from a scientific standpoint, forgetting that the authors did not write with such factual perspectives in mind; they wrote with integrity, but we should not take everything that they wrote as if they made scientific statements about the world. Writing with integrity implies that they wrote what they saw and experienced, not about things far beyond their knowledge (except with regard to prophecy, which involves a particular form of divine inspiration). We, for example, find in the six solar day interpretation of creation in Genesis 1 the glaring inconsistency that God made the sun only on the fourth solar day. So there were three solar days without the sun! Clearly, it is wrong to think that the author made a scientific statement that God created in six solar days! He did not. There are other better interpretations in which this inconsistency does not occur (see my discussion of these issues in the series on the Book of Genesis [8]). On the other hand, agnostics and atheists often use these pseudo-inconsistencies as evidence that the Bible is full of errors.

2. Sufficient use of context. The background in which texts were written, the relevant historical and archaeological data, related texts from that period etc. should be used to establish well-grounded (but not foundational) interpretations. We cannot arrive at good interpretations of Biblical texts if we do not take the world from which the Bible originated into account. In texts from more recent periods, such background information can establish final confirmation of some aspects of texts. In ancient texts, like the Bible, we often find that the text can be situated in various possible contexts. Often traditional scholars would place the time of writing in an early context whereas Biblical Criticism scholarship would place it much later. 

How do we solve this problem? This is where the insights of Gadamer are important. If we have insufficient external data or there is no good reason to distrust the textual account, we should have an open attitude and be willing to really listen to the voices of the authors and the tradition from which they originated. We should not just automatically assume that the textual tradition is untrustworthy. One of the reasons why contemporary Biblical Criticism scholarship date many Biblical texts to the Babylonian exile and later is due to their belonging to that paradigm - they cannot absolve themselves from that paradigm in spite of all the major errors made by previous scholars, for example, in their formulation of the documentary hypothesis (see [1]). 

The errors of modernist scholarship have resulted in many contemporary scholars from that paradigm accepting a postmodern perspective - but, as I have shown above, even this is indirectly grounded on the interpretations of modernist scholarship (it is a reaction to that). Such scholars will find every possible reason to adhere to the established paradigmatic grounds for interpretation for the simple reason that it is deeply ingrained into their very being by the paradigm in which they operate (the same is, obviously, true for the traditional paradigm, but in that case we do not have such obvious errors which discredited the general Biblical Criticism approach in interpretation (see [1]).

3. Use the hermeneutic circle. We should accept that any author writes a unified account in which he/she weaves all the parts of the narrative into a whole, irrespective of the sources that are being used in doing so. This allows us to use the parts to understand the whole and the whole to understand the parts. We should also value the continuous tradition in which the authors wrote. The reason for this is simple: At that period tradition was still very resistant to change; it is only with mass media that culture can be changed quite rapidly. This rule allows us to treat the Old and New Testaments as part of one continuous and interwoven tradition, rejecting all approaches which atomize the Biblical material.

This rule gives preference to synchronic (unified in time) approaches to the text and reduce diachronic (distinguishing the parts and their singular histories) approaches to secondary status. Often diachronic approaches bring the text into internal conflict with itself. The various parts (supposedly derived from different sources) is thought to stand in conflict with each other. Such diachronic approaches assume that the best manner to understand the text is to use a patchwork approach. But often this approach itself creates the very pseudo-inconsistencies which such scholars think that they find in the text! It is only when we cannot find any unified key (and this does not mean that one will not eventually be found), that we can provisionally allow such approaches.

Many examples can be given in this regard. It has, for example, become custom to use patchwork approaches to understand Kant's view on freedom in his Critique of Pure Reason. But some authors like Henry Allison have shown that we can, in fact, arrive at a unified interpretation in this regard. The same thing happened in Biblical Criticism where the documentary hypothesis, which finds various "sources" in the text of the Pentateuch, have created a patchwork of epic proportions. The unity in the text is reduced to an absolute secondary consideration. The various parts (sources) stand apart and in conflict with each other since they are supposedly written in different epochs and later crudely combined. The text is taken apart like a motor engine. This goes against the very grain of the principle of the hermeneutic circle and should be discarded (except when clear evidence to the contrary is provided as in the case of Tatian's Diatessaron, which group passages in the gospels together in one integrated work).

As I mentioned above, these rules are always applied from within a certain perspective. We cannot go beyond that. So, when it comes to metaphysical questions, our worldview which is grounded in the paradigm to which we belong will determine our view. As evangelical Christians, we can insist on the Biblical pronouncements regarding miracles, prophecy and the divine inspiration of Scripture (II Tim. 3:16, 17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21). As such, we cannot accept that the Biblical text is placed on an equal footing with other ancient texts. We cannot but make a decision in this regard: either we take the Biblical perspective as the basis or we take other perspectives, which cannot be anything but a rejection of this perspective, namely that the Biblical text is divinely inspired.

Re-reading the Bible

We can now focus in more detail on the material in the Book of Genesis, especially in the "ancient history" (Gen. 1-11), to illustrate the point. When reading the Bible one is struck by the amount of Mesopotamian material used in this ancient history. Clearly, the author has been influenced by Mesopotamian historical and cultural perspectives. But how did that material end up in the Bible? We can discern two obvious possibilities, namely 1) that a historical Abraham brought that material from Sumer from where he is said to have originated, i.e. from the city of Ur, after which it was handed down in the family until it was used by an early author (like Moses) when he wrote the Book of Genesis, or alternatively, 2) that the author came into possession of the material due to Israel's Babylonian exile.

Some scholars who adhere to the documentary hypothesis think that some of the sources which they find in the Pentateuch, in which that material is used, originated in the in-between period, somewhere during the monarchical period. This is not necessarily in contrast with the first view but would be if it is assumed that the Mesopotamian material diffused to Israelite circles during this in-between period. Since all the material is grouped together in a well-presented whole in the ancient history of Genesis 1-11, and clearly includes much more than accidental or occasional borrowing, it is difficult, however, to see how this could have happened in any other period than those mentioned above, in which Israel had no direct contact with Mesopotamia.

The first view assumes that the material in the book is very old and had been delivered down in patriarchal and Israelite circles since the eighteenth century BC; the second view assumes that the material dates from the sixth century BC or later. The first view strongly suggests that the rest of the Old Testament narrative is historically correct and refers to real historical persons and events. The second view doubts large parts of that narrative.

Many scholars in Biblical Criticism circles believe that the second view is correct. But can this be? There is a substantial problem with this view since there is no post-Abrahamic (post-Old-Babylonian) material included in the Book of Genesis (even if we view the relevant passages as containing some argument against other contemporary views). (Definitely not from the Babylonian Enuma Elish as is often argued without any substantial evidence!). But how is it possible that there is no Neo-Assyrian or Neo-Babylonian material per se included in the book if the author lived in or after that period? How did it happen that he ignored all contemporary material? He would surely have included at least some material which reflects the period in which he was writing! But none at all! 

I challenge any Biblical scholar to show me any Mesopotamian material included in the Book of Genesis which dates from the post-Old-Babylonian period per se. That places a large question mark over this position. It seems that this hypothesis is accepted without good argumentation. It is accepted simply because of the presupposition which accepts that the Bible was written late and that no early inclusion of such material could have been possible. If we are more open-minded, we can allow for the possibility presented in the text and Biblical tradition, namely that the book was in fact written early.

There are many features in Genesis 1-11 which underlines the ancient character of the text. It is not possible in this essay to discuss all the material in any detail (see my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel)). I can mention a few things. One is the above-mentioned Mesopotamian material included therein. Another is the lists of genealogies, the exceptionally long lives of those people and the short remarks in between, all of which also occur in the Sumerian King List which date from about 2000 BC. (No document from the exilic period shares these features).

There is a lot of other data which confirms that the material in the Book of Genesis must be very old. A good reason to think that the Abrahamic history was written down early, is because it also records the oracles of God given to him. We know from other Middle Eastern data from that period (from Mari) that such oracles were in fact written down [9]. Also, some historical data regarding Abraham's period could only have come from historical sources in this regard. This includes, but is by no means restricted to, the fact about the Elamitic incursion into northern Syria (there was only one), the name of the leader of that incursion (the shortened form shares the root structure k-d: Chedor/Kudu), the period when it happened (1822 B.C., which agrees perfectly with the dates in the Septuagint) etc. I discuss the evidence for a historical Abraham in detail in my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel). Furthermore, the Book of Genesis also includes material which obviously goes back to the time before the name Elohim became established. This older stratum is visible in the name under which the Abrahamic family worshipped their God, namely El-Shaddai (God Almighty), as well as the name of Melchizedek's God, namely El-Elyon (Most High God) [10].

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to argue in any detail that one author wrote the book (recognizing that he obviously used older source material handed down from the fathers), I can mention a few things in this regard. Single authorship is disputed in the documentary hypothesis, according to which the book is regarded as a patchwork of sources. The book is divided between the Y (Yahweh), E (Elohim) and P (Priestly) sources. Just in the ancient history of Genesis 1-11 we find the following division: Y: 2:4b-4:24,25c; 6:1-8; 7:1-5,7,10,12,16a-20,22,23; 8:2b-3a,6,8-12,13b,20-22; 9:18-27; 10:8-19,21,24-30; 11:1-9. P: 1:1-2:3; 6:9-22; 7:8,9,11,13-16a,21,24; 8:1,2,3b-5,7,13a,14-19; 9:1-17; 10:1-7,20,31,32; 11:27-31. E: starts from chapter 20.

There is, however, reasons to think that the "ancient history" forms a single whole which was written by one author as a single document. The most important of these are the very particular and unique features which clearly sets it aside from the rest of the Pentateuch (and even from the rest of the Book of Genesis!), namely the use of ancient Mesopotamian material, combined with pre-patriarchal lineages with long lives and short comments in between. The material, as well as its presentation, is typical of Sumerian sources, as mentioned before (I have already mentioned that no post-old-Babylonian material whatsoever is found therein!). We also find, unique to this ancient history, that a strange and clearly very ancient way of referring to God as "us" is used on three occasions in the material which supposedly belong to different sources, namely in Genesis 1:26, 3:22 and 11:7. Since it is extremely unlikely that any later editor of the text (who may have combined the Y and P sources) would have used such archaic terminology, this is a clear sign of single authorship.

In the Masoretic text, the divine name Yahweh-Elohim is used only in the garden story. This usage does not appear again in the "ancient history" (Gen. 1-11; except once in Gen. 9:26). In the Septuagint [11], however, we find that the divine name Yahweh-Elohim is used throughout the ancient history and even sporadically thereafter in the Book of Genesis. The unity of the ancient history (as is manifest from the use of the Godly "us") strongly suggests that the Septuagint incorporates the original reading. What is also interesting about the Septuagint reading, is that the divine names Elohim and Yahweh-Elohim alternate (i.e. both are used) throughout the ancient history. This totally negates the documentary hypothesis which allocates the sources according to the supposed use of different divine names by the authors. So, on the whole, it seems that we have good reasons to reject the documentary hypothesis and accept single authorship of the ancient history in Genesis.

In trying to preserve the documentary hypothesis one can argue that it at least explains the use of Elohim and Yahweh respectively, which typically appear in passages where God is presented as aloof (Elohim) or in anthropomorphic form respectively (Yahweh often appears in human form in dreams or in person). But this usage can easily be explained differently. In my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel) I show that we can clearly distinguish two early forms of El in Israelite literature, namely El-Shaddai and El-Elyon which is closely associated with the roles of "king of the gods" (Gen. 49:23-25, see especially the Septuagint reading; Ex. 15:18, which should be read with Ex. 6:2; Ps. 95:3 etc.) and "father of the gods" (Ps. 82:6 etc.) in the council of the gods [10]. Without taking the ancient concept of the council of the gods (see 1 Ki. 22: 19-22; Ps. 82: 2; 89: 7, 8; Ezek. 28: 16; Is. 14: 13) into consideration, we lose all connection with the ancient manner of thinking.

Now, it seems that the name Elohim, which could originally have been a plurality, developed as the unified form of God in which both these El-forms were combined (see Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel)). So, it makes sense that the divine names are distinguished. This would explain the usage of the divine "us" by Elohim in the ancient history (in Gen. 3:22 the Septuagint, which I take as the correct reading, have Elohim, not Yahweh-Elohim, speaking as "us"). It also makes sense that Yahweh is typically presented in anthropomorphic form. He had a special connection with the patriarchs and their early forebears (starting with Adam and Eve) because we read that this name (Yahweh) supplanted El-Shaddai, the forefatherly name of the Abrahamic family after it was revealed to Moses (see Ex. 6:2). So, El-Shaddai, the forefatherly name of the patriarchal family was replaced with Yahweh, the God of Israel, after they became a people during the exodus. The author of Genesis obviously wrote after that, which is why he used the name Yahweh when referring to that particular manifestation of God. (I plan to discuss this issue in more detail in future essays on this blog).

In the same manner, we can also argue for the unity of the Book of Genesis as a whole. There are various features unique to the book which does not appear in the rest of the Pentateuch, namely the repeated use of the expression "(the book) of the generations of" (Gen. 2:4a; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10,27; 25:12, 19; 36:1,9; 37:2), the references to the oracles of God to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-22; 18:1-33; 22:1-2, 15-18) and the other patriarchs (although this also appears sporadically later in Israel's history), the unique patriarchal setting of the narratives, the use of the divine name El-Shaddai (Gen. 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; other than here, this name only appears sporadically in Hebrew literature) as well as the corresponding name El-Elyon (Gen. 14:18,19,20,22).

According to the documentary hypothesis, this whole is cut into a lot of bits and pieces (see above). The Abrahamic oracles are divided between the Y and P sources (P: only Gen. 17:1-22) and the use of the divine name El-Shaddai is also ascribed to both the Y and P sources, as well as EYE (Editor of YE)! (Y: 49:25; P: 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 48:3; EYE: 43:14). The expression "book" of generations (see Gen. 5:1) seems to imply that the original author used source material which could be ordered as "books" when he wrote Genesis; not that a later editor used the terminology. These sections of "generations" stand in direct contrast with the source theory, which negates the unity of these sections and cut it into various pieces. In the light of all the unified features of the Book of Genesis, the source theory seems unconvincing. There is, in fact, nowadays a general trend to discard such diachronic approaches for synchronic ones; clearly with good reason!

An early date for and a single author of the Book of Genesis does not imply that editors did not later add and reworked parts of the book. In the Israelite tradition, it often happened that later authors added comments or clarified the information in the text. We, for example, find that a later author included the words "of the Chaldees" after the city name Ur to affirm which city is referred to (Gen. 11:28, 31). The Chaldees are the Neo-Babylonians who appeared after the turn of the first millennium in the area of the city of Babylon. This reference, however, does not mean that the whole book was written in this period! This would be a very simplistic reading of the book. It merely shows that someone such as Ezra edited the book.

We can now come back to the original question: Can we still believe the Bible? If the approaches that were previously used in the academic study of the Bible are so deeply flawed, then the present consensus in a large segment of secular society is just plain wrong. The fact that so many people believe that the Bible was written late and can therefore not be trusted as a source of history, does not make it the correct view. Informed readers should reject that assumption - on good grounds. How do we swipe all these centuries of bad scholarship off the carpet? How do we restructure deeply held opinions - assumed to be academically arrived at? In my opinion, the documentary hypothesis should not be salvaged, it should be discarded. If it fails in the ancient history or the Book of Genesis, it fails in the Pentateuch as a whole. Instead, we should recognize that we need to approach the Bible anew - with an open mind and ready to listen to the authors and their tradition who speak to us through the text. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot believe the Bible.


In this essay, I have focused on only one basic aspect regarding the credibility of the Bible, namely hermeneutics. It is immediately clear that the modernist approach to the Bible - as well as the new postmodernist one - did/do not listen to the authors speaking with us through the text. It forced a modernist "objective" perspective onto the text - distorting the message in the text beyond recognition. Current philosophical thought rejects that approach - hermeneutics involves an open conversation between author and reader. Although we cannot reconstruct the intention of the authors, we can arrive at valid interpretations. We can confirm that there is a healthy middle ground of possible interpretations, some better than others. The rules of good hermeneutic principles should guide us in this.

Although it has become generally accepted in secular society that the Bible was written late and is an unreliable source regarding history, we can remind ourselves that society has often in the past held views that we consider to be wrong today. The problem is that the acknowledgement of the errors of modernism did not lead to a radical new beginning, but to a new phase which built on the ruins of the past. We should reject that. We can conclude that the Bible is trustworthy. In my studies, I have not found any reason why we should doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible.

[1] Click on: A critique of Biblical Criticism as a scholarly discipline
[2] I took this from Eta Linnemann's book Historical Criticism of the Bible, Methodology or Ideology (1990), page 87. She was a Biblical Criticism scholar (professor at Marburg, East Germany) but renounced all her previous work after her conversion. Chapters 6-8 of her book is highly recommended and reflects her in-depth knowledge of Biblical Criticism. Some criticism can, however, be levelled against the rest of the book. In my opinion (as a scientist) her view is too anti-science. Her arguments about the unscientific nature of immature science are generally acknowledged by philosophers of science. When the natural sciences reach maturity, however, they are empirically well-grounded (even though the theory could include unconfirmed perspectives). The main problem with historical Biblical Criticism which she should have accentuated is that it tried to establish itself as an empirical science. This is not possible since it is merely a hermeneutic discipline (see [1].)
Another possible criticism that I have of Linnemann's work, concerns her hermeneutics. When she says that God's Word is independent of interpretation (p154), it can (I assume, incorrectly) be taken as meaning that we have access to it without interpreting it. This, however, is wrong. But it is true that the text as divinely inspired is independent of any particular interpretation. This is reflected in 2 Peter 1:19-21 where we read: "no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit". This verse does not negate all human interpretation of the text (we have no choice but to interpret the text); it says that the text did not come into being as the result of mere human interpretations (i.e. those of the prophets regarding their times and future events). There is no reason why we cannot develop better interpretations of the text when new information about ancient times etc. becomes available. But, for evangelical Christians, such interpretations should adhere to basic evangelical principles.
[3] Gerald Bray argues that a new hermeneutic paradigm has opened up in the academic study of the Bible, namely that three approaches to the formal, scholarly study of Scripture have evolved, namely the historical-critical tradition (which no longer possess the monopoly that it once had), the "social trends" approach (which focuses on current social and political issues) and "conservative evangelicalism" (Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, 1996, InterVarsity).
[4] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1994. Truth and Method (translation revised by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, second, revised ed.). New York: Crossroad. Gadamer is one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century.
[5] Although it took some time before the canon as we know it was widely accepted in the church, the early church used a very basic principle to decide, namely that the authors of the New Testament had to be either an apostle or brother of the Lord (Hand. 1:14 etc.), or wrote under the guidance of and with the approval of the apostles. They included only those texts in the canon of which they were convinced that they adhered to this principle.
[6] Kuhn, Thomas S. 1962. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago. Click also on: Paradigmas in konflik: Bybelwetenskap vs traditionalisme
[7] Only in later periods, when known texts are used, is it possible to compose a (partial) textual history. I discuss this issue in the second part of the following essay (click on): A critique of archaeology as a science
[8] The Book of Genesis, Part 1 etc.
[9] Click on: Bible prophecy: Predicting the distant future? 
[10] Herbert Niehr argued in his book Der hochste Gott (1990) that these names for God are a late development. But this view cannot explain why El-Elyon is regarded in the Biblical writings as the "father of the gods", which is a very ancient concept. It can also not explain why El-Shaddai is closely connected with the role of "king of the gods". The only way to distinguish these roles is to take the ancient concept of the council of the gods into consideration as well as the Israelite reworking of developments in that council (see my book Abraham en sy God (2012, Griffel).
[11] Click on: The importance of the Septuagint in Biblical studies

Author: Dr Willie Mc Loud. Posted on
The author has written a book on the Sumerian roots of the Bible (Abraham en sy God (Griffel, 2012)) and is a philosopher and scientist (PhD in Physics, MA in Philosophy). He writes on issues of religion, philosophy, science and eschatology. 

For a more in-depth discussion of the Book of Genesis, see my series of essays on it. To read, click on Part 1 etc.  
Read also 
Part 2: Can we still believe the Bible? An archaeological perspective.
Part 3. Can we still believe the Bible? A scientific perspective
Part 4. Can we still believe the Bible? A prophetic perspective

Readers are welcome to share the essay with friends and others.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

A message for the church

Dearly beloved

I write this letter to you at a time when the church faces enormous challenges. We experience a period of dramatic change in our country and around the world. This is a time in which all those whose hearts are concerned about the decline and falling away should come together and ask: what must we do? With the psalmist, we can ask: When the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do? It is in a time like this that the call goes out: Where are those among them, who should make up the hedge, who shall stand in the gap before the Lord for the land, that it would not fall into total destruction!

The answer came to me during an early morning of prayer with some dear brethren. Sometimes we are confused. Sometimes we do not see things clearly. Sometimes we are unsure about what we should do. That is the time when we should inquire about the foundations. What are the foundation stones without which no building can do? What are the basic principles of the church? We should go back to these. We should clearly discern what are the fundamental truths of the gospel.

I believe that God made it very simple. Given in a nutshell: there are only two basic principles. The one regulates our relation with Him and the other our relationship with all people. These are 1. Obey God  2. Forgive each other. Can it be so simple? Yes, it is. In our day and age, the principles of obedience and forgiveness have fallen out of favour. Why? Because these are not typical democratic values. Obedience is not the language of democracy. Forgiveness is not the language of the market. But the kingdom of God is not a democracy! The Lord Jesus is our King. We belong to God's kingdom. And these are the principles of His kingdom.

We should remind ourselves what a kingdom is like. The kingdom in old Israel was based on a tribal/clan system. The king was a father; he was a father to all those who had no father, approachable by all his subjects. He was also a leader who commanded them against their enemies. As Christians, we belong to God's kingdom - which, I repeat, is a kingdom, not a democracy! And the essence of God's kingdom is obedience. Obedience flows from the deep trust that we have in God, our father. God is our spiritual father who loves us, who gave His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to die for us. But as King, we also hold Him in awe. Love, trust and awe - that's why we obey Him. We need to rediscover the principle of obeying God. Absolute obedience.

With democracy came the greed of an absolutely free market. Here the principle is: To get somewhere you must use people. You must use them to reach your goals. And this leaves many people with grudges. But in the kingdom of God, the exact opposite is true: We must forgive because God forgave us. We should reconcile with those who have grudges against us. And this is an absolute rule: Forgive and live as far as possible in such a manner that others do not have to forgive us. We experience the full joy of freedom if we forgive and are forgiven by others. To be free of anger, distrust, hate, grudges - there is only one answer: forgive each other in the same manner in which God forgave you. That is: absolute forgiveness.

When we carefully consider these principles, then we ask: Can we really live that in the full sense? Is it really possible in practice? A better question is: How can this be done? There is only one answer: This is only possible if we are crucified with Christ. In fact, we are already crucified with Christ! But it is not enough to say that Jesus has done that for us on the cross. It is not enough to recognize that we should live crucified lives and try our very best to do so. Rather, we must participate in that salvation. We must in faith accept and experience that salvation. We must be able to say with the apostle Paul: I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me! Only then can we experience the fullness of our inheritance in Christ as members of God's kingdom who are able to live according to the principles of that kingdom.

Christians who are living uncrucified lives have a quarrel with the principles of obedience and forgiveness. But nothing will change this basic rule of the kingdom of God: the key that unlocks the power of God's Spirit working through us is crucifixion. When we in faith reckon ourselves to be crucified with Christ as the same apostle Paul says in his letter to the church in Rome, yes, and die by God's grace to our selfish desires, to our own interests, then we can be fully committed to God and have the disposition to obey Him. When we bend our knees before God and humbly pray: I am willing to let go of my pride, my selfishness, my laziness, even my right to myself, only then will we experience the full power of Christ's resurrection. Then will we be able to say: Lord, I am fully thine, do with my life as you please. It is only when we experience such a crucified life, such a life of full surrender to God, that we would be able to obey God and forgive each other in a really profound and even radical way.

Some of you will say: But what about love! Is not love the central message for and of the church. Should we not love one another. This is indeed the basic commandment of Jesus. This love, however, will only be realized in and through our lives when we are fully committed to God. Only when we are crucified with Christ and live such a life in faith will we experience that the reservoir of God's love in us is unlocked. Then will we be able to obey and forgive, and experience the love of God in action. Then will the dynamic Pentecostal power of God's Spirit flow through our lives like a river of living waters. The love for God, each other and all people, is not from ourselves - it is God's love that flows through us. God loves through us. Love will characterize our lives and that of the church.

I, therefore, repeat, beloved, that we should obey God and forgive each other. How deep is our obedience? How deep is our forgiveness? How deep are we committed to God? To what extent do we live according to the basic principles of the kingdom of God? We should not let the spirit of this world govern our lives. We should not allow the norms of the time to dictate to us how we should live. Those who try to form our opinions according to this world hate these principles. They attack it. But we belong to another kingdom. And if we want to see the power of God in action, if we want to see God's kingdom come in power, we should implement the basic principles of that kingdom in our lives. So, we have to ask ourselves: Do I really live according to these principles?

I want to encourage you all. The end is drawing closer. Times will become more difficult. But Jesus, our leader, will lead us to victory. Let's obey Him and forgive each other. Let's consecrate our lives to Him anew. Let's take hands and become one in our love for Him and each other. Let's ask ourselves: Is this how I lead my life? We should make time to go on our knees and consider these things in the presence of God. When we allow God to realize these things in our lives we will experience the presence of God in our lives and in the church. Yes, even the awful presence of God in revival.

May God be with you all.

Your brother in Christ

Willie Mc Loud (Ref.
Strand, South Africa

Read also
Die profeet
God hoor
Wrong choices
The Power of God
Something or Someone is Missing
Revival is of the Lord
Om God te glo