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Can Skeptics Take the Bible Seriously?

This blog is called Skeptical Faith because one of its goals is to show that skepticism and faith are not mutually exclusive. That’s because though our religious beliefs may not be provable through the kind of evidence used in the “hard sciences,” faith is nonetheless reasonable and rational.

The evidence for the existence of God, for instance, is at least as rational as evidence that is commonly presented in a court of law. Such evidence includes the testimony of millions – perhaps billions – of witnesses over the centuries, and inferences from studies on the origin of the universe and the origin of life. Inferences aren’t “proofs,” for sure, but in most parts of our lives, inferences are the best we have.

Here’s what I mean by inferences. Since moving to Colorado and doing a bit of hiking, I’ve been more interested in identifying footprints in the snow and mud. Looking at them carefully, you can make inferences about the kinds of animals that have passed by, and even how recently that has happened. You can’t be absolutely certain of the kind of animal in question, but as I’ve mentioned often in these blogs, certainty is hard to come by in this life.

Ancient “Gobbledygook?”

Many people are especially skeptical about the Bible, seeing it as ancient “gobbledygook,” not worthy of the attention of contemporary “thinking” people. My view is that just because something is old (like me), it’s not useless to contemporary people.

Literature, music and art are in this category, seems to me. Scientists study them today to learn how they originated and how they have affected societies in the past and society today. They don’t lose their relevancy, and neither has the Bible.

Contemporary scientists – archeologists, paleontologists, historians and linguists also study the Bible, revealing much more than has ever been known about the culture, lifestyles, economies, politics and social relations of biblical times. Those revelations help us understand the Bible’s message.

Helps to Distinguish

So, how does this help skeptics to take the Bible seriously? For starters, it helps them distinguish between the factual material in biblical writings and what may not be, and their teachings, which are paramount. It reminds us that the Bible is “the word of God in the words of men.”

I vividly recall years ago while in the seminary learning that many incidents described in the Bible are not historically accurate. I was shocked, and so were many of my classmates. Sure, I had had my doubts, but learning that several popes, dating back over a hundred years, had endorsed the study of the Bible using modern sciences to better understand the Bible was a wakeup. And it allowed me to take the Bible seriously.

Those sciences have included archeology, study of ancient literature and languages, and giant strides in understanding the “manner of speaking, relating, and writing used among the ancients (Pope Pius XII, 1943).” And the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Biblical Commission in a 1950 document, said that the results of these studies are to be generously shared with clergy and laypeople.

Among the incidents modern biblical scholars believe to be mythical are the “crossing of the Red Sea,” part of the description of the Jewish exodus from Egypt, and the “infancy narratives,” the enchanting description of Jesus’ birth. The first is from the Hebrew Bible; the second from the Christian Bible. Factual or not, these stories have great value, similar to the value of the Gospel’s parables.

Shaken Faith?

I believe many clergy fear that if lay people knew about the church’s position on study of the Bible, their faith would be shaken. They may think that if God didn’t part the Red Sea as described in the Bible, Jesus didn’t rise from the dead – as if those two incidents were factually equivalent.

Personally, I think people’s faith suffers precisely because they see the whole Bible as factual (or all non-factual) and don’t understand that each book of the Bible, each incident, each word has to be understood in its religious, historical and cultural context. The dozens, perhaps hundreds, of authors of the various books of the Bible used factual, historical material, as well as mythical material – often stories they heard from their ancestors or borrowed from other cultures – to illustrate God’s relationship to his people.

So, the short answer is “yes,” skeptics can take the Bible seriously, especially if they go to the trouble of studying it with the help of modern biblical scholars. Many of these scholars, perhaps most, are believers and show their readers how they can read the Bible skeptically and still be resolute in their faith. And studying the Bible, I believe, is crucial in the search for God in the Jewish and Christian traditions.

Here’s a recommendation for a summary of biblical scholars’ insights on the gospels: “Jesus, An Historical Approximation,” by Jose Antonio Pagola. Available on Amazon.

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