Bible as literature

Atheists who love the Bible

Both Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins have written recently about their love of the KJV. The new-atheist glitterati are doing their bit to pry the Bible out of the hands of “the religious” and into the hands of English teachers.

There’s a great article on The Punch by the Bible Society’s Roy Williams responding to this trend of atheists damning the Bible with faint praise. It’s well worth a read. The comments aren’t. They’ve become a playground for the type of person who thinks writing lengthy rant comments to reinforce one’s own views is a good use of one’s time. While I love comments here. And discussions (online and in person) there’s something about the complete lack of respect that anti-theists show to any “woo believers” on the internet that just makes me angry and pushes me from my position of centre hugging moderate towards religious extremist. If I read many more of these threads I’ll be voting Family First and donating to the Australian Christian Lobby in the hope of making atheism illegal.

From the article:

“Dawkins is quite candid on this score. He admits that he cannot abide translations of the Bible other than the KJV, whether they are closer to the meaning of the original ancient texts or not. He wants the KJV taught in schools “not as history, not as science and not (oh please not) as morality. But as literature.”

There are serious problems with this argument.

For a start, the 47 men who “wrote” the KJV would have scoffed at any suggestion that their primary task was to produce fine literature. Appointed and supervised by the Bishop of London (later Archbishop of Canterbury), Richard Bancroft, they were chosen on the basis of two criteria.

First, their pre-eminence as biblical scholars – in particular, their detailed knowledge of at least one of the three ancient languages in which the books of the Bible were originally written (Hebrew and Aramaic in the case of the Old Testament; Greek in the case of the New Testament).”

Biblical Theology 101: Demster’s Dominion and Dynasty

Just to add another Biblical Theology into the mix, Demster’s work is part of Don Carson’s “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series.

Like everybody else in the Biblical Theology world he starts with a bit of background on the discipline. He says “of the sixty biblical theologies written in the last hundred years there are almost as many theologies as there are theologians.”

Demster, in a vaguely Hegelian movement, critiques the application of both postmodernism and modernism to Biblical text. This is a cool quote:

“Theologians sailing in the waters of contemporary western culture have to avoid two opposite errors: they have to navigate between the Scylla of modernism and the Charybis of postmodernism. The error of modernism is objectivism, that is the idea that individual subjects can attain the entire value-free truth when examining an object – they can see it as it really is; while the error of postmodernism is subjectivism, the idea that because observers are never value-free or objective, they see the object according to their subjective perspective – they see it not as it is, but as they are (and therefore never really see it). A truly Judeo-Christian epistemology will navigate between these extremes…”

That’s a nice elegant critique with a reference to old school Greek mythology right there…

Barr championed the notion that the books of the Bible must be read separately because they were written separately, and stored as such until a later collation. He says notions of unity are “read into the text” rather than “read out of it.” The same could be said of the Lord of the Rings.

Demster provides a good quote for anybody tackling a question about the ordering or importance of keeping particular books in the Pentateuch:

“The larger literary context of the Tanakh has significant hermeneutical implications. For example, it begins with Genesis rather than Exodus, signifying that Israel’s national history is subordinated to that of world history.”

And one for anybody writing on Judges (this afternoon’s readings) – “The monotonous refrain at the end of Judges that there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25) supplies the appropriate context for interpreting the rise of kingship in the subsequent book of Samuel.”

Demster affirms the cohesive literary value of the whole Old Testament, under its primary role as “scripture.” T.S Eliot said “the Bible has had a literary influence upon English literature not because it has been considered as literature, but because it has been considered the report of the word of God.”

Here’s another cool Eliot quote about primarily enjoying the Bible as ‘literature’:

“While I acknowledge the legitimacy of this enjoyment, I am more acutely aware of its abuse. The persons who enjoy these writings solely because of their literary merits are essentially parasites.”

He uses the analogy of approaching the Bible with a wide angled lens (Biblical theology) as well as a zoom lens (textual criticism). It’s only really worth interpreting with the latter if you understand it in perspective.

Demster, in his summary of the story from Adam to David (conveniently the period covered by our exam) says:

“This story is about the reclamation of a lost human dominion over the world through a Davidic dynasty. In short it is about the coming of the kingdom of God, and it is unfinished.”

His understanding of the Kingdom is essentially the same as Goldsworthy’s, though curiously (given that it was written in 2003) does not reference or interact with his work at all.

Then he brings out the hourglass structure – God’s people starting as humanity, narrowing to Israel, narrowing to Judah, narrowing to Benjamin, and then narrowing to David, before expanding. And he sees this as a typology of Jesus, the new David.

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