Understanding The Bible   Part Three   Literal, Poetic, Symbolic, And Historical Critical Interpretations Of The Bible
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Understanding The Bible Part Three Literal, Poetic, Symbolic, And Historical Critical Interpretations Of The Bible



Part Three examines selected biblical stories which are better understood using the historical-critical method rather than the literal, fundamentalist approach.

Part Three examines selected biblical stories which are better understood using the historical-critical method rather than the literal, fundamentalist approach.



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Understanding The Bible   Part Three   Literal, Poetic, Symbolic, And Historical Critical Interpretations Of The Bible Understanding The Bible Part Three Literal, Poetic, Symbolic, And Historical Critical Interpretations Of The Bible Presentation Transcript

  • Understanding the Bible
    A Six Week Bible Study Program Using the Historical-Critical Method
    Edward J. Hahnenberg, BA, MA, MA, Ed.S
  • Literal, Poetic, Symbolic, and Historical-Critical interpretations of Scripture
    For most of the Church’s history, a literal interpretation of the Bible was accepted.
    However, with the publication of Pope Pius XII’s encyclical DIVINO AFFLANTE SPIRITU in 1943,  the Church opened the way for rapid developments in biblical research. The use of modern methods in analyzing the sacred texts was allowed and encouraged. It is sometimes refered to as the Magna Carta of Catholic Biblical Scholarship.
    THE INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE IN THE CHURCH, the most current document of the Pontifical Biblical Commission was presented on March 18, 1994. This document will be referenced often in this presentation.
    For a long period the church showed herself very reticent in responding to the problems of a literal interpretation of the Bible, for often the historical-critical method, despite its positive elements, had shown itself to be wedded to positions hostile to the Christian faith.
  • The Fundamentalist approach
    Fundamentalist interpretation starts from the principle that the Bible, being the word of God, inspired and free from error, should be read and interpreted literally in all its details. But by "literal interpretation" it understands a naively literalist interpretation, one, that is to say, which excludes every effort at understanding the Bible that takes account of its historical origins and development. It is opposed, therefore, to the use of the historical-critical method, as indeed to the use of any other scientific method for the interpretation of Scripture.
    The fundamentalist interpretation had its origin at the time of the Reformation, arising out of a concern for fidelity to the literal meaning of Scripture. After the century of the Enlightenment it emerged in Protestantism as a bulwark against liberal exegesis.
  • Problem with Fundamentalism
    The basic problem with fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible is that it refuses to admit that the inspired word of God has been expressed in human language and that this word has been expressed, under divine inspiration, by human authors possessed of limited capacities and resources. For this reason, it tends to treat the biblical text as if it had been dictated word for word by the Spirit. It fails to recognize that the word of God has been formulated in language and expression conditioned by various periods. It pays no attention to the literary forms and to the human ways of thinking to be found in the biblical texts, many of which are the result of a process extending over long periods of time and bearing the mark of very diverse historical situations.
  • Inerrancy and Fundamentalism
    Fundamentalism places undue stress upon the inerrancy of certain details in the biblical texts, especially in what concerns historical events or supposedly scientific truth. It often historicizes material which from the start never claimed to be historical. It considers historical everything that is reported or recounted with verbs in the past tense, failing to take the necessary account of the possibility of symbolic or figurative meaning.
  • Fundamentalism & Language
    Fundamentalism often shows a tendency to ignore or to deny the problems presented by the biblical text in its original Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek form. It is often narrowly bound to one fixed translation, whether old or present-day… for example The King James Version.
  • Fundamentalism & “Sola Scriptura”
    in its attachment to the principle "Scripture alone," fundamentalism separates the interpretation of the Bible from Tradition, which, guided by the Spirit, has authentically developed in union with Scripture in the heart of the community of faith. It fails to realize that the New Testament took form within the Christian church and that it is the Holy Scripture of this church, the existence of which preceded the composition of the texts. Because of this, fundamentalism is often anti-church, it considers of little importance the creeds, the doctrines and liturgical practices which have become part of church tradition, as well as the teaching function of the church itself. It presents itself as a form of private interpretation which does not acknowledge that the church is founded on the Bible and draws its life and inspiration from Scripture.
  • Fundamentalism is intellectual suicide
    The fundamentalist approach is dangerous, for it is attractive to people who look to the Bible for ready answers to the problems of life. It can deceive these people, offering them interpretations that are pious but illusory, instead of telling them that the Bible does not necessarily contain an immediate answer to each and every problem. Without saying as much in so many words, fundamentalism actually invites people to a kind of intellectual suicide. It injects into life a false certitude, for it unwittingly confuses the divine substance of the biblical message with what are in fact its human limitations.
  • The Great Flood
    A skeptical approach might be to discount the biblical account of the Great Flood as folklore or as a fairy tale. The historical-critical scholar would probably point to the Epic of Gilgamesh as a pagan story from which the writer of Genesis would have drawn most his material.
  • The Epic of Gilgamesh
    The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest written stories known. It comes to us from ancient Sumeria, and was originally written on twelve clay tablets in cuneiform. It is about the adventures of the historical King of Uruk (somewhere between 2750 and 2500 BC). Tablet XI (the Flood Story) has come down to us intact, containing some three hundred lines. The original date of composition is placed in the Ancient Near East Texts (1950) at the turn of the second millennium BC, if not earlier.
  • Gilgamesh and Bible stories compared - 1
    The Genesis story describes how mankind had become obnoxious to God; they were hopelessly sinful and wicked. In the Babylonian story, they were too numerous and noisy.
    The gods (or God) decided to send a worldwide flood. This would drown men, women, children, babies and infants, as well as eliminate all of the land animals and birds.
    The gods (or God) knew of one righteous man, Ut-Napishtim or Noah.
    The gods (or God) ordered the hero to build a multi-story wooden ark
    The hero initially complained about the assignment to build the boat
    The ark would be sealed with pitch.
    The ark would have with many internal compartments
    It would have a single door
    It would have at least one window.
  • Gilgamesh and Bible stories compared - 2
    The ark was built and loaded with the hero, a few other humans, and samples from all species of other land animals.
    A great rain covered the land with water.
    The mountains were initially covered with water.
    The ark landed on a mountain in the Middle East.
    The hero sent out birds at regular intervals to find if any dry land was in the vicinity.
    The first two birds returned to the ark. The third bird apparently found dry land because it did not return.
    The hero and his family left the ark, ritually killed an animal, offered it as a sacrifice.
    God (or the gods in the Epic of Gilgamesh) smelled the roasted meat of the sacrifice.
    The hero was blessed.
    The Babylonian gods seemed genuinely sorry for the genocide that they had created. The God of Noah appears to have regretted his actions as well, because he promised never to do it again.
  • Gilgamesh and Bible stories compared - 3
    There are many differences between the two stories also. However, the commonalities are striking. It is generally accepted the Gilgamesh story was written before the story of Noah.
    The Great Flood was a very unusual and singular event in its telling. Because of the magnitude of destruction, it would have left an indelible and permanent mark on the minds of any survivors. This story would have been told and retold, passing down from generation to generation. Over 600 of these stories throughout the entire world have been carried down to the present age.
  • Gilgamesh and Bible stories compared - 4
    There are other theories about the Great Flood. Some investigators have claimed that there was a great boat which was swallowed up by a glacier and is still on Mt. Ararat in Turkey. However, the flooding necessary in order to raise a craft to mountainous heights is impossible to explain. Rain alone simply could not raise global levels to such a height. In any case, the Great Flood story appears to have had as its basis a real event dimly remembered and passed on down through many cultures. So, if the flood was a global event, a tsunami flooding coastal regions would have more credibility and would explain why there are flood stories from every continent.
  • The Abraham stories
    There is no corroborating evidence from the contemporaneous written record of other cultures that the primal patriarch of Judaism, Abraham, existed. The name, yes; the person, no. Yet the Bible and the Koran accept his existence as historical fact.
  • Sodom
    The story of Abraham and his persistence with God in bargaining with Him about whether it was just of Yahweh to destroy Sodom if fifty innocent souls were found there (Gen. 18)… the story is annoying, in a sense to listen to or to read. God agrees with Abraham that He would not destroy the evil city if fifty innocents were found there. Abraham presses God, Who apparently takes the form of a fellow traveler … well, what about forty-five … forty … thirty … twenty…ten. A very patient Yahweh promises not destroy the city if only ten good people are found in “sin city.”
  • Sodom Cont’d
    The historical-critical scholar might ask: “Was there ever such a discussion, historically, or was this a technique used by the author to show the compassion of God?” To carry the story further, we learn about Lot’s wife who looked back as God finally carries out His threat of destruction. She was turned into a pillar of salt. The historical critical scholar might note that there is a region of salt formations in the area of ancient Sodom now buried under the Dead Sea. The evidence of these natural formations might suggest that this story’s conclusion is an etiology. Etiologies serve to explain geographic sites.
  • Etiologies
    Off the shore of Leelanau county in northwest Michigan are two islands. These islands are close to a huge sand dune. According to the legend, an enormous forest fire on the western shore of Lake Michigan (now Wisconsin) drove a mother bear and her two cubs into the lake for shelter, determined to reach the opposite shore. After many miles of swimming, the two cubs lagged behind. When the mother bear reached the shore, she waited on the top of a high bluff. The cubs, exhausted, drowned in the lake, but the mother bear stayed and waited in hopes that her cubs would finally appear. Impressed by the mother bear's determination and faith, the Great Spirit created two islands (North and South Manitou Islands) to commemorate the cubs, and the winds buried the sleeping bear under the sands of the dune where she waits to this day.
  • Etiologies – Cont’d
    Many such etiologies derive from ancient cultures. They are legends that are colorful, are memorable for retelling, and serve to explain what ancient cultures did not understand. In the case of the destruction of Sodom, the historical-critical scholar might conclude that the biblical writer had a moral to teach about obedience to God’s command, and so might conclude that the story never happened historically, but was passed down to explain the salt formations of pillar-like shapes with a serious lesson at its core.
  • The Moses Era: An Overview
    Scripture scholars, in the majority, come down on the side of the conclusion that Moses was a real person. For most of the two millennia of the Christian era, Moses was thought to have authored the Torah or Pentateuch.
    Then, questions arose about his authorship, then waffling, and, finally, acceptance of later authors as the real writers of the books. One thing is certain. Someone or some group or some combination thereof did write the Torah.
  • The J,E,D,P sources
    In an attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the biblical text, and refusing to accept forced explanations to harmonize them, 18th and 19th century biblical scholars eventually arrived at the theory that the Torah was composed of selections woven together from several, at times inconsistent, sources, each originally a complete and independent document. The hypothesis developed slowly over the course of the 19th century, by the end of which it was generally agreed that there were four main sources, combined into their final form by a series of redactors.
  • The J,E,D,P Writers (Cont’D)
    Wellhausen's formulation was:
    the Jahwist source ( J ) : written c. 950 BC in the southern Kingdom of Judah.
    the Elohist source ( E ) : written c. 850 BC in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
    the Deuteronomist ( D ) : written c. 600 BC in Jerusalem during a period of religious reform.
    the Priestly source ( P ) : written c. 500 BC by Aaronic priests in exile in Babylon.
    The Torah redactors: first JE, then JED, and finally JEDP, producing the final form of the Torah c.450 BCE.
    The hypothesis dominated biblical scholarship for much of the 20th century, and, although increasingly challenged by other models in the last part of the 20th century, its terminology and insights continue to provide the framework for modern theories on the origins of the Torah.
  • The Moses era
    Scholars have identified the J, E, D, and P passages quite nicely, approximating the centuries these writers or groups of writers composed and edited the first five books of the Bible.
    Yet, how much of Moses do we know, really? Certainly we can read of his role and exploits in the Torah. However, is Moses mentioned in any other culture’s contemporaneous written record? Is Moses found in the hieroglyphs of Egypt? No, not even one iota is found outside the Torah.
  • The Moses Era – Cont’d
    Moses is such a central figure in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim history that it would be hard to imagine that the man is a fictional superhero. The historical-critical scholar, however, if true to the method, must examine not only the historicity of Moses, but the stories associated with him … his birth, his conversations with Yahweh on a mountaintop, his learning of Yahweh’s name, his reception from God of the Ten Commandments, the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, his leading the people through the sea, the sojourn in the Sinai, his laws … everything is the domain of the historical-critical scholar.
  • The Moses Era – Cont’d
    There is the familiar biblical story of Moses being found by the Pharaoh’s daughter in a basket in a river’s reeds. However, there is an uncannily parallel story in the historical record of Agade’s King Sargon. The city of Agade, or known otherwise as Akkad, was an ancient city located in modern day Iraq. It was well known for its fertile location right between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Unfortunately this intriguing site is still undiscovered.
  • The Moses Era – Cont’d
    The birth story of Moses, probably recorded during the tenth century BC, and possibly edited by P (priestly) compiler during the Exile, reflects the pattern found in the birth account of King Sargon of Agade who lived near the end of the third millennium BC.
    My mother was a changeling, my father I knew not…She set me in a basket of rushes, with bitumen; she sealed my lid.She cast me into the river which rose not over me. The river bore me up and carried me to Akki,the drawer of water, who took me as his son and reared me.
  • The Moses era – Cont’d
    The similarity of the Moses and Sargon accounts is obvious. Actually both stories reflect literary patterns often associated with heroes. The life of the hero is threatened when he is still a child; he escapes; he is unrecognized until he achieves his full status as a leader of the people. Very often his life pattern reflects the way in which a people consider their early history, for they look back upon their humble and difficult beginnings and marvel at what they have become. The life of the hero embodies the struggle of a nation or a group to achieve greatness. Having detected the hero motif in the Moses literature, one must consider the question of how much of the Moses Era may be labeled “legend,” and how much “history.”
  • The Ten Plagues
    There are ten plagues. These include a pollution of the Nile, swarms of frogs, lice, insects, affliction of livestock, boils that afflict humans and animals, lightning and hail, locusts, total darkness, and all of this climaxes in the death of the firstborn males of Egypt in one night. According to the source critical analysis, no source contains ten plagues. J has eight and E has three, and P has five, and some of them are the same as one another, and some of them are different, and so on. Some of them are unique to one source, some are not, but ultimately, the claim is that these have all been merged, and have left us then with an overall total of ten. This may in fact be true.
  • The Slaughter of the First-born of Egypt
    The final and most devastating plague is the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn sons. The slaughter may be understood as measure for measure punishment for the Egyptians' earlier killing of Hebrew infants, but it's represented in the biblical text as retaliation for Egypt's treatment of Israel, and Israel is referred to as the firstborn son of Yahweh. So in Exodus 4:22, Yahweh tells Moses to say to Pharaoh, "Thus says the Lord, 'Israel is my firstborn son. I have said to you, "Let my son go, that he may worship Me," yet you refuse to let him go. Now I will slay your firstborn son.'" So it's seen as retaliation. In this last plague, God or his angel of death passes over Egypt at midnight, slaying every Egyptian firstborn male.
  • The Passover
    Moses orders each Israelite to perform a ritual action, and this action will protect them from the slaughter. The ritual consists of two parts. Each family is told to sacrifice a lamb. The lamb will then be eaten as a family meal, and its blood will be smeared on the doorposts to mark the house so the angel of death knows to pass over that house. In addition, each family is to eat unleavened bread. So according to Exodus, this Passover ritual was established on Israel's last night of slavery while the angel of death passed over the dwellings that were marked with blood.
  • Older Rituals combined?
    In other words, what we probably have here are two older, separate, springtime rituals. One would be characteristic of semi-nomadic pastoralists: the sacrifice of the first lamb born in the spring to the deity in order to procure favor and continued blessing on the flocks for the spring. The other would be characteristic of farmers: It would be an offering of the very first barley that would be harvested in the spring. It would be quickly ground into flour and used before it even has time to ferment, to quickly offer something to the deity, again, to procure favor for the rest of the crop. The rituals of these older groups were retained and then linked to the story of the enslavement and liberation of the Hebrews.
  • The Crossing of the Reed Sea
    Following the last plague, Pharaoh finally allows the Israelites to go into the desert to worship their God, but he quickly changes his mind, and he sends his infantry and his chariots in hot pursuit of the Israelites, and they soon find themselves trapped between the Egyptians and something referred to as Yam Suph, meaning Reed Sea. It isn't the Red Sea. That's a mistranslation that occurred very, very early on, so it's led to the notion that they were at the Gulf of Aqaba, or somewhere near the actual big ocean water. Some of the Israelites despair, and they want to surrender. 
  • The Symbolism of Water as a Destructive Force
    Historical-critical scholars see in the account of the parting of the Reed Sea, in Exodus 14 and 15, three different versions of the event that have been interwoven. There's some consensus, but a lot of disagreement. One thing that most people do in fact agree on is that the oldest account of the event is a poetic fragment that's found in Exodus 15, verses one to 12, in particular. This is often referred to as the Song of the Sea, and here the image is one of sinking and drowning in the Sea of Reeds. You have a wind that blasts from God's nostrils, the waters stand straight like a wall, and at a second blast, the sea then covers the Egyptians, and they sink like a stone in the majestic waters.
  • The God “El”
    What's interesting about the Song of the Sea, this poetic fragment in Exodus 15, is that here the Hebrews adopt the language of Canaanite myth and apply it to Yahweh.
    In one important legend that we have from the Canaanite texts, the Ugaritic texts, El defeats an adversary who's known as Prince Sea, or Judge River. After he vanquishes this watery foe, he is acclaimed the king of the gods, and the king of men, 
  • Yahweh is Israel’s “El”
    There are of course, important ways in which Israel's use of the storm god motif diverges from that of other Ancient Near Eastern stories. The most important is that Yahweh's battle is a historic battle, rather than a mythic battle. The sea is not Yahweh's opponent, nor is Yahweh's enemy another god. Yahweh is doing battle here with a human foe, the Egyptian pharaoh and his army. The sea is a weapon deployed. It's a weapon in the divine arsenal, and it's deployed on behalf of Israel, but, again, Yahweh is depicted by the biblical writer as transcending nature, using forces of nature for a historical purpose, acting in history to deliver his people, and create a new nation, Israel.
  • On to Mt. Sinai
    So the exodus is a paradigm for salvation, but it would be a mistake to view the Exodus as the climax of the preceding narrative. We've gotten to this point now: We had this big dramatic scene at the Reed Sea, but the physical redemption of the Israelites is not in fact the end of our story. It's a dramatic way-station in a story that's going to reach its climax in the covenant that will be concluded at Sinai, not to the other side of the Reed Sea, but on to Sinai. God's redemption of the Israelites is a redemption for a purpose, a purpose that doesn't become clear until we get to Sinai, for at Sinai the Israelites will become God's people, bound by a covenant.
  • Jonah and the Whale
    A good test of whether one is open to the historical-critical method is how one views the story of Jonah and the Whale.
  • The Jonah story
    If one holds to the literal interpretation of the story, this page and a half “book”actually happened as described and Jonah converts the entire city of Nineveh.
  • It never happened…
    The story is simply a parable, easily remembered which teaches an important moral lesson to the Israelites.
    Nineveh and the Assyrian kingdom was Israel’s worst enemy.
    This reluctant prophet is directed by God to go to the feared Assyrian king and preach repentance.
    The king and his city do Jonah’s bidding.
    Jonah is shocked.
  • The Miracle of the Story
    The miracle of the story is not that the city ever repented.
    It did not.
    Assyria was feared by Israel and one has to go to the story of King Hezekiah for the final onslaught of the Sennacherib against Jerusalem in 701 BC.
  • God Loves the enemies of the Jews.
    The real miracle of the Jonah story was that it made it into the Jewish canon.
    The Jews saw themselves as God’s favorites.
    That an enemy, such as the Assyrian warrior Sennecherib could be loved by Yahweh was unthinkable.
  • Where does secular history meet the Biblical Stories?
    Biblical scholars point to King David as the first person in the Bible that has a corroborative non-biblical resource backing up his existence.
  • Historical stories with spin
    Remember Sennecherib?
    In 701 BC, a rebellion backed by Egypt and Babylonia broke out in Judah, led by King Hezekiah. In response Sennacherib sacked a number of cities in Judah. He laid siege to Jerusalem, but soon returned to Nineveh, with Jerusalem not having been sacked, in order to put down an attempted coup. This event was recorded by Sennacherib himself.
  • Same events – Two Versions
    Sennecherib’s account:
    Because Hezekiah, king of Judah, would not submit to my yoke, I came up against him, and by force of arms and by the might of my power I took 46 of his strong fenced cities; and of the smaller towns which were scattered about, I took and plundered a countless number. From these places I took and carried off 200,156 persons, old and young, male and female, together with horses and mules, asses and camels, oxen and sheep, a countless multitude; and Hezekiah himself I shut up in Jerusalem, his capital city, like a bird in a cage, building towers round the city to hem him in, and raising banks of earth against the gates, so as to prevent escape... Then upon Hezekiah there fell the fear of the power of my arms, and he sent out to me the chiefs and the elders of Jerusalem with talents of gold and 800 talents of silver, and diverse treasures, a rich and immense booty... All these things were brought to me at Nineveh, the seat of my government.
    Hezekiah’s account:
    King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah, son of Amos, prayed and called out to heaven. 21 Then the LORD sent an angel, who destroyed every valiant warrior, leader and commander in the camp of the Assyrian king, so that he had to return shamefaced to his own country. And when he entered the temple of his god, some of his own offspring struck him down there with the sword. 22 Thus the LORD saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib, king of Assyria, as from every other power; he gave them rest on every side. 23 Many brought gifts for the LORD to Jerusalem and costly objects for King Hezekiah of Judah, who thereafter was exalted in the eyes of all the nations. (2 Chronicles 32: 20-23)
  • Conclusion – “Dei Verbum” Vatican II, 1965
    To search out the intention of the sacred writers, attention should be given, among other things, to "literary forms." For truth is set forth and expressed differently in texts which are variously historical, prophetic, poetic, or of other forms of discourse. The interpreter must investigate what meaning the sacred writer intended to express and actually expressed in particular circumstances by using contemporary literary forms in accordance with the situation of his own time and culture. For the correct understanding of what the sacred author wanted to assert, due attention must be paid to the customary and characteristic styles of feeling, speaking and narrating which prevailed at the time of the sacred writer, and to the patterns men normally employed at that period in their everyday dealings with one another.
  • Conclusion
    Thus, the floodgates of biblical research are opened, and no longer is the Bible considered by scholars a collection of writings to be inerrant in matters of history. The Bible contains history to be sure, but, most importantly, it is a collection of works that will continue to merit serious research as to what is moral teaching, history, parable, poetry, or whatever genre of writing used by its many authors.