Posted by: dacalu | 23 April 2015

Fact and Myth in Scripture

A friend asked a question about the plain reading of scripture and I thought it was worth sharing along with my initial thoughts.

How do you distinguish between biblical metaphor and biblical reality? If we can safely say the creation is biblical myth, how then can we say Jesus walked on water?

I think we can only call the genesis creation story a “myth” if we understand myth as a story that conveys a fundamental truth.  Myth does not mean false, just as it does not mean “historically factual.” Henry VIII’s divorce and the Continental Congress both come close to mythical status.  They were historical events.  Because they are also myths, they have accumulated a great deal of commentary – some of it helpful, some of it not.

I would put the question like this:

If the plain reading of scripture is not always inerrantly true (unambiguously factual with regard to science and history as well as faith and morals), how do we know when it is and when it isn’t?

The first question to ask is “what is the central message?” (Read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God for an account of “belief” as giving your heart to something, rather than assenting.)  The first point (of many) to be found in Genesis 1-3 is about our relationship with God.

The second question to ask is “does the Bible (or tradition or reason) tell a conflicting story?” The conflict will always tell you something important.  Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 do not agree on the sequence of events. They are radically different from the the account of creation in John.  This tells us we need to approach them carefully and look for where they agree – God is the source of light, life, and order; God is the context in which all other things make sense. (Read Donn Morgan’s Fighting with the Bible, L William Countryman’s Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? or really any academic Bible scholarship post 1950.  Walter Brueggemann is one of the most broadly respected scholars.)

The third question is “does science or logic suggest that the plain reading will not work?” If God is a sophisticated author, as I believe is the case, there will be layers of meaning in any text. Logical or physical inconsistency is either a sign that we have misread OR a clue. Teachers often present material that is off in some way to prompt students to react. (Read Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter and Phil Dowe’s Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking touch on Galileo’s reading of Augustine.)

In more general terms, I recommend Guy Consolmagno’s Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? for a very readable introduction.

As to your specific question – Jesus walking on water – let’s take a look.

What is the central message? Jesus power is greater than the elements. Jesus defies expectations.  Jesus’ power extends to his followers (Peter). Jesus hydrophobicity appears to be secondary.

Does the Bible have conflicting stories? No, and this story appears three times.  The Gospels do not always agree, but on this point they do. Luke does not contain the story, but also does not deny it.

Does tradition or reason (within the tradition) have a conflicting story? No.

Is walking on water inconsistent with physics as we know it? Yes, but note that that’s part of the point of the story. As with the resurrection, we are told that people reacted with surprise and fear. This is understood as a highly unusual event.

So, on the whole, I think the story is true factually as well as mythically.  Scripture is the story of those who followed. For those of us who follow, it is instructive.

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