Interpreting How Abraham Belongs to Many of the Book

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Interpreting How Abraham Belongs to Many of the Book


Byline: Robert Royal, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The great modern literary critic Erich Auerbach observes in his classic study "Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature" that we can easily appreciate the force of the ancient Greek poet Homer even if we have doubts about the truthfulness of the stories in the "Iliad," or the very historicity of the Trojan War. About the Bible, however, no such purely literary stance is possible. Or as Auerbach put it: "without believing Abraham's sacrifice [of his son Isaac], it is impossible to put the narrative of it to the use for which it was written. Indeed, we must go much further. The Bible's claim to truth is not only far more urgent than Homer's, it is tyrannical - it excludes all other claims."

This was not meant as a criticism, but as a sheer description of the case. And that is one of the reasons why various claims about the Bible raise such fierce controversies among believers and nonbelievers alike. Arcane archeological matters related to the Bible and the dating of texts have an importance that they have nowhere else. Some scholars believe, for example, that "Homer" may have in fact been a school of poets. And while those who argue for a single author may succumb to petty partisanship, there is little other than professional prestige riding on the outcome.

When we deal with the Bible, however, we are in a different - singular is not too strong a word - realm. That is the main reason why the historical critical method, so useful in the examination of other ancient texts, was controversial when it was applied systematically to the Bible. Initially, it seemed that discoveries of later additions or editorial interventions in both Old and New Testaments disproved the claim that the Bible was inspired and true. Archeological evidence - to say nothing of growing geological and biological discoveries that the world was far older than the Bible suggested - cast further doubt on its reliability.

Much of that, however, now looks like a rickety relic of 19th-century materialism, at least in the form it first appeared. Virtually every reader today accepts that some kind of editorial process shaped Scriptural texts over time. Some books of the Bible, such as Isaiah, may be the work of several authors. But these things hardly invalidate the core meaning of those texts.

No one was present at the Creation, for example, yet believers need not shy away from the essential truth of Genesis, even if the creation account was first written down billions of years after the Big Bang. The text we have, the result of centuries of reflection and inspiration, still takes us back to the absolute beginning. Similarly, archeology has raised all sorts of questions about Scriptural matters, but it has not made any central tenet of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam simply unbelievable. The Bible itself is inconsistent on some historical points, but not on the religious questions. The latter remain, after all assaults, pretty much where they have always been in the classic traditions.

In "The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism," David Klinghoffer the former literary editor of National Review, offers a winsome and remarkably wide-ranging review of what the Jewish Oral Tradition brings to our understanding of Abraham, the crucial figure in the emergence of the several peoples of the Book. He addresses early on the question of whether Abraham ever even existed. There are no archeological or other confirmations outside the Bible, he concedes.

So anyone writing about Abraham cannot write a biography, in the modern sense of the term, as a fact-based, critical account of his life. What we can do, and Mr. Klinghoffer consciously aims at, is "an interpretive narrative," based on oral tradition and scholarly history. This has importance for all of us because Abraham has been so influential that even the God that "agnostics and seekers wonder about is also Abraham's God.

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