By Johnson, Luke Timothy
Commonweal , Vol. 136, No. 10
Bible (Sacred work)--Criticism and interpretation
Biblical Literature--Criticism and Interpretation
Biblical Scholars--Beliefs, Opinions and Attitudes
Truthfulness and Falsehood--Analysis
It seems an obvious thing to say that Christians read the Bible in order to search for truth; that we do not read these ancient texts simply as a source of arcane information, but because they have something to do with the truth of our lives.
But what is the truth of the Bible? I would like to provoke some thought by complicating the relation of truth to the collection of compositions that make up the Christian Scriptures. My premise is that, like the character in the song who is "looking for love in all the wrong places," readers of the Bible--particularly American readers--have been looking for truth in all the wrong places. Specifically, we've been looking either in the past or in the future. But there exist other places and other ways to look for truth. I want to suggest that a more complicated understanding of truth leads to a richer and more satisfying way of asking how the Bible is true.
Looking for Truth in the Past
Two apparently conflicting ways of reading the Bible characterize the American culture wars. Among educated Americans the dominant paradigm is the so-called historical-critical method. Its assumptions are those taught in seminaries and college religion classes. The paradigm assumes that the truth of the Bible is to be found in its character as a historical document. Written in an alien culture, the Bible's texts must be understood within their own symbolism, but their truth is to be found in the accuracy of their historical assertions.
Belief in the historical truthfulness of biblical narratives was, to be sure, shared by all Christian readers up to the time of the European Enlightenment. They simply assumed that things happened the way the stories said they did. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, world exploration discovered peoples and cultures never imagined by the biblical story--Augustine's City of God was the last credible attempt to subsume all empires into the framework of biblical chronology--and the development of natural and historical sciences exposed the factual basis of the ancient stories to withering criticism.
In the centuries since then, Christianity's cultured despisers--a surprising number of them Christian themselves--and its beleaguered defenders have waged a running battle over the historical truthfulness of the Bible. Its historical credibility suffered with each blow of the critical hammers. The Mosaic authorship of Torah; creation in seven days; the parting of the Red Sea; the conquest of the land; the Davidic kingdom: all had to be abandoned in the face of inexorable criticism. The quest for the historical Jesus is the supreme manifestation of the historical-critical paradigm. Rejecting the church's Christological doctrine as a falsification of "the real Jesus," it searches for a more accurate historical representation of Jesus based on the deconstruction of the canonical Gospels and the reshuffling of what credible pieces can be salvaged from them. One can have the "truth about Jesus," it says, only at the cost of the "truth of the Gospels."
The battle over the Bible and truth continues today in an American Christianity deeply divided between modernist and fundamentalist. For the academics who make up the Jesus Seminar, televangelists are the enemy; for many Evangelicals, academic biblical scholars are apostates from the faith. Yet after centuries of conflict, most Christians simply bypass serious engagement with biblical truth--and do so by avoiding sustained engagement with the texts of the Bible. Liberal Christians are content with broad principles they consider derived from Scripture, but pay little attention to the actual texts, which seldom actually conform to those principles. Many conservative Christians, meanwhile, are even more selective in what they read, fervently defending biblical truth while avoiding passages that give rise to genuine critical questions. What's notable here is that for liberal and conservative alike, history is the measure of truth. …