Friday, June 25, 2010

The (Dubious) Authority of Scripture

Two questions that get to the heart of why one should be skeptical about scripture (in both the big-s and little-s senses).

Question 1: What method distinguishes words that have been divinely inspired from words that have not?

Question 2: What method reliably determines when a sacred text is speaking figuratively?

With the first question, I'm thinking that many religious traditions claim divine inspiration for their texts. For instance, some traditions hold that the deity even authored texts. But can we tell that a certain text--or parts of it--is the result of divine inspiration or authorship? And if so, how? Is it a matter of the words? The expression? Sophistication of ideas? Verbal and numerical patterns? Something else, as in a special experience while reading?

Regarding the second question, we know that some interpreters view elements of scripture as figurative. For example, they might say that the snake in Genesis didn't actually talk. Or they may say that the sun in Joshua did not really stand still. Yet, for thousands of years, people seem to have thought the Bible was speaking literally.

Our approach to scripture often rests on authority. Maybe you trust the authority of the rabbis--they have the right interpretation. Or maybe you trust the Church. Perhaps you have a study Bible and buy into the framing of the annotator. Heck, one can even get a completely different kind of commentary from Project Reason or Conservapedia.

What's more, the authority of these authorities seems to be based on granting ultimate authority to the holy texts themselves. However, this move appears to be more rhetorical than actual, since the preacher claims to speak the book and to speak for the book. He claims to be a conduit through which the book's intent becomes revealed to others. It's the mediation of the preacher or commentator that formulates the authority of the text and the justification that supposedly precedes the preacher/commentator.

It's a scam, in other words. You can't understand this book fully but I can. And this book reigns over both of us, so you better follow my reading and my book-based counsel. If you question or go against me, you betray the book, and you will be subject to divine wrath for your obstinacy.

I don't buy it, either the authority of the preachers and teachers or the authority of the texts themselves. Now, I do realize that we trust in authorities for all sorts of things and not just in the sphere of religion. Indeed, I am not certain we can get by without trusting some authorities at some time.

But to return to the two questions at the beginning: why should we trust religious authorities if there doesn't seem to be a clear method for unambiguously identifying the divine word and the literal or figurative registers of the sacred text? Really...why?

So, if a preacher enjoins you to follow your "calling" and turn to God, or to fight against what other consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom, or to feel guilty about your curiosity about the world--just remember that the preacher's authority is self-appointed and self-serving. You're better to do your own learning and your own decision-making.


  1. Shalmo5:55 PM

    I think you need to do some reading on how ancient literature worked. The idea that ancient people always took their stories literally is not true.Often mythology was invented to preserve history.

    Some native tribes for instance would make up a theology on how their tribes rose from specific seas, but this was actually a way of keeping the history that they crossed those seas to come to the new world.

    Many scholars agree Genesis was never written to be taken literally (orthodox judaism is just wrong on this), but was an esoteric tale of paradise lost by man. This is particularly true of semetic texts, which emphasize metaphorical language because emotional responses that the stories produce are what mattered, not their veracity.

    For an upper level educated christian the bible have errors, scientific or otherwise are simply irrelevant. The Bible is not a book to learn science, its a book of narrative values, ethics and used for biulding a coherant epistemology. nothing more and nothing less!!!

  2. Shalmo,

    "I think you need to do some reading on how ancient literature worked. The idea that ancient people always took their stories literally is not true.Often mythology was invented to preserve history."

    I probably could use more background on "how ancient literature worked," but that's not really what I am talking about. I am talking about how people today--particularly those aligning themselves with "the tradition"--engage the central texts of the tradition.

    Which sources are you thinking I should read?

    Now, I do indeed have some knowledge of "how ancient literature worked." The central and indisputable fact of this literature--and I am thinking specifically of Torah--is that it is understood as cryptic. The earliest commentators understood that the text required explanation and was open to interpretation.

    Therefore, my two questions still stand. I don't think that they can be evaded by framing the Bible in a special way, "a book of narrative values." First of all, now I think you are eliding the real interpretive history of the Bible. Second, by limiting the Bible to a tool "for building a coherent epistemology," you locate the Bible (as any other sacred text) in its proper realm: culture.

    And it's here we agree. I think the Bible must be a fully human invention: produced, understood, theorized, and re-conceived under ever-developing and multiple cultural contexts. I think this is the process any central holy text follows. The coherent epistemology of the Bible is quite different, or quite differently understood, across the centuries and and the miles. I believe the same applies to other coherent epistemologies, too.


Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.