We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Historically Reliable?

As reported in the Washington Post (here) and elsewhere online, Mr. Steve Green has developed a high school course for the study of the Bible, which will be tested next school year at a high school in Oklahoma.  In an editorial entitled, "Is the Hobby Lobby Bible elective objective?" commentator Stephen Prothero raises two objections to the curriculum.  First, he argues, it betrays a Christian bias; it is not secular and objective.  Second, in various, subtle ways the authors uncritically promote the idea that the Bible provides reliable historical data.  He particularly points to a summary box in the text that reads, “We can conclude that the Bible, especially when viewed alongside other historical information, is a reliable historical source.”

Understanding the point Prothero is making, still one can argue that the assertion in the summary box is a correct one if properly understood.  The condition that the Bible is a reliable historical source when viewed along other historical information is crucial depending on how we understand the meaning of "other historical information."  If it includes the mountains of research and commentary devoted to the Bible by reputable biblical scholars then I would have to agree that the Bible, read critically, is indeed a reliable historical sources.  This does not mean that every event asserted in its text happened as described in its pages.  It does mean that the text of the Bible opens important doors for our understanding of the past.  It beautifully describes an ancient cosmology.  It hints at the emergence of monotheism from polytheism.  It describes among other things political developments in Western Asia over many centuries.  It provides insights into the person of Jesus and of Paul as well as data useful for understanding the emergence of the Jesus Movement in the first century AD (or CE, take your pick).

One has to read the text critically, consult other sources, and immerse oneself in the relevant scholarly literature.  And one has to be circumspect in claiming what information is available through careful readings of the text.  Still, given these conditions, the Bible is a reliable historical source—recognizing that some biblical texts are more reliable than others.

Before I returned to pastoral ministry, I devoted 16 years to the study of church history in Thailand.  I have spent a good deal of time with Protestant missionary sources.  There are scholars who refuse to use those sources for the study of Thai history generally "because they are biased."  My response is, "Yes, of course, they are biased.  But they also contain a wealth of information on subjects other than Protestantism in Thailand if one read them critically and knowledgeably."  The bias is generally clear, indeed so obviously apparent that it is not that difficult to sift it out just as if one were panning for gold.

By the same token the biblical texts are important sources for the study of the ancient world.  Yes, the authors of the curriculum mean something different by the phrase "reliable historical source," but they are still right that it is reliable—even if for the wrong reason.