Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Scriptures: Everything Need Not Be Literal

There is absolutely no way to tell which things recorded in the Old Testament literally happened and which ones didn't - and a reference to something in another scriptural record (or even a prophet's belief that it was literal) doesn't mean it has to be literal. Let me use the Tower of Babel as an example.

Who wrote the Books of Genesis and Ether, and how were they compiled? We don't know about the author of Genesis, but Ether wrote the Book of Ether - which then was abridged by Moroni. Ether was at least 25 identified generations removed from Jared and his brother, but there are two instances where "descendant" is used instead of "son" - so we don't know how many generations actually separated the first Jaredite and the last one who wrote the record. We have no idea what kind of detail Ether had at his disposal, if it was entirely a written record or partially an oral tradition, who selected the information to include and what interpretation to record, etc.

All we know is that it covered a very long period of time.

We have no details in the abridgment by Moroni about how Ether recorded his account or its length - or how radically Moroni himself edited Ether's account. All we know is that Moroni's account was even more selectively sketchy than the record Mormon compiled, since the Book of Ether is much shorter than even the Book of Alma - while covering a time period that was multiple times longer than the entire rest of the Book of Mormon.

We also have no idea whatsoever the details of what caused the scattering of the people and the confusion of languages mentioned in the Bible and the Book of Mormon; it could have been nothing more miraculous than a great natural disaster that scattered the people - and that scattering inevitably would lead to a divergence of languages among people who didn't take written records with them. No matter what happened, the belief that the Lord was behind it could have been the assumption of a people who believed in that type of divine activity - whether or not they were correct.

Finally, Joseph obviously used his own language and understanding in translating the Book of Mormon. There is no way to tell if the description in Ether 1:33 (where the tower and scattering is mentioned) came from Jared (or his brother), some later descendant, Ether, Moroni or Joseph's ready translation vocabulary. Given what we know of the general process of multi-generational record keeping and translation, the central theme could remain in tact even as many incidental errors and interpretations and allegories and myths crept into the record. Having later prophets reference the accounts codified into scripture says nothing about the literal or figurative nature of the stories - only the lesson that was intended when the stories were written and that can be taken from them.

What I am saying is that much of the Old Testament before King David and almost the entire Book of Ether could be figurative, inspired mythology without invalidating any of the Church's truth claims. It is not the responsibility of the believer to prove that point; it is the responsibility of the non-believer to give an example of something from the OT that MUST be literal to destroy truth claims. After all, if even Jesus could reference events that now are believed to be not historically accurate but figurative instead - and if he could teach in parables that weren't "historically accurate" - and if earlier prophets might have speaking in stories that functioned as extended parables that later generations might have taken as real accounts - why should Prophets now and in the past be held to an even higher standard than the Savior employed?

Personally, I have never seen something from those most ancient, canonized records that has to be literal for the Church's current claims to be valid.


Michelle said...

So I'd be interested in your thoughts about what is to be gained from not believing they are literal. It feels like an awful lot of work for no real fruits to try to go that route. I'm not saying that the least path of resistance is always the best way to go.

But sometimes it can be.

I also think if we get too literal about trying to 'figure out' the literalness of scripture, we might miss the reality that God can do whatever He wants. There's ample evidence of His direct involvement in the writing of scripture, particularly in the BoM. With God, all things are possible.

Even what may seem illogical to some.

the_mormonion said...

Great insight. Many in the Church don't realize the strength of their position; that is, we believe in the objective truth of the scriptures while at the same time allowing for symbolism and even error. This isn't a common view among other Christians, who almost always favor one side (too conservative, or literal) or the other (too liberal, or subjective).

Anthony E. Larson said...

A very interesting take, one that most church members would reject. I, on the other hand, am in agreement. You may find my take on Old Testament events enlightening, in that regard. I take issue with your statement that there is no way we can know which Old Testament events were literal or mythical. There is a clear methodology, based in comparative mythology, ancient cosmology and plasma physics. And the same perspective that answers those questions gives us the keys to temple symbolism and ritual, as well as the metaphors of prophecy ... all in a neat, easy to understand package. I urge you to take a look.

Papa D said...

Michelle, it's not that I try to "figure out" what it literal and what is not. It's just that I am open to the idea that not everything in our canonized scripture is literal. To me, there is GREAT benefit to be gained from that.

1) Our own Article of Faith includes the phrase "as far as it is translated correctly" - and the Book of Mormon has multiple statements that there might be "mistakes of man" in it. I see that as including the possibility of things like I mentioned in this post - oral histories and mythical stories (and I absolutely do NOT see "myth" as "false" or "bad" or any other negative connotation).

2) Taking this approach means I don't have to twist myself into mental pretzels when science discovers something that implies or even proves an ancient story isn't correct literally. I have seen WAY too many literalists (especially those who believe the Bible is inerrant) who deny things that have so much proof it's almost comical (or sad) to see their alternate explanations just to maintain scriptural literalness.

I am totally free to consider evolution as a real possibility for how God created everything of which we are aware; I am totally free to consider the possibility that Noah's flood was of all HIS world - or a combination narrative of all the horrible floods that have occurred throughout time and wiped out everyone in those areas; I am totally free to see Job as an epic about suffering and not a literal person - a grand parable, if you will; etc.

3) I started my career as a history teacher, and, frankly, this approach makes MUCH more sense to me than assuming everything is literal. That's just not the way histories were and are written. They ALL have biases built into them by the authors, but they ALL have things to teach us if we are willing to consider all the possibilities regarding them.

4) There are more reasons, but most of it boils down to my last thought in the post. There is NOTHING in the most ancient records, in my opinion, that MUST be literal in order for it to be important and faith-building. So, why insist that it all - every last bit - be literal?

Papa D said...

"the_mormonion" - That is exactly how I feel. Being able to accept that any given passage might be literal OR figurative / allegorical / mythological / etc. - and even being able to consider the benefit of interpreting any given story as BOTH (since we can't know for sure), opens up all kinds of possibilities for lessons that taking only one approach simply can't afford.

Anthony - I agree in theory with much of what you write as to the most likely interpretation of any given story. I think there absolutely are ways to analyze many events, so I spoke a little too sweepingly and generally in the statement you challenge. However, when it comes to the "details" - the non-epic aspects, if you will, and the stories of individuals (like Abraham's sacrifice, Job's trials, Moses' reason for leaving Egypt, etc.) - I really do believe there is no way to know at this point how much of the detail is literally accurate historically and how much is embellishment or outright literary license.

Matthew said...

"They ALL have biases built into them by the authors"

This perfectly says what I believe.

All scripture was written by people. Some of it is more inspired, some of it is less inspired. Racial, cultural, scientific blind spots abound, and all of that comes into play when a person writes scripture.

Add to that the transmission through multiple languages, multiple scribes, and multiple commentaries ...

I value the scriptures, but I recognize that they are also a product of humans, and as such, are subject to the same flaws that we are. Ether 12:23 and 1 Ne 19:6 appear to specifically state that the scriptures are not inerrant.

I do love the scriptures - they contain the most revolutionary, disruptive, and transformative ideas that I have ever encountered. I also find that the deeper reading one gets from analysis, rather than superficial acceptance, is tremendously beneficial.

For me, all of the above leads me to truly reach out to the Lord and rely upon the Holy Ghost to discern truth and lay hold of it, wherever it might be found.

Michelle said...

There is NOTHING in the most ancient records, in my opinion, that MUST be literal

Ray, I can buy having an open mind, but this to me takes it too far.

But then again, I'm coming from a discussion that addresses BoM as fiction (the whole book) and I think such a model is unsustainable in our doctrine.

I also think this model, while allowing for human foibles, often doesn't really allow for the foibles of those holding the point of view. ;)

But somehow I am not convinced you take on the extreme point of view that I disagree with. My question was less directed at you than throwing it out there in a more general sense. I do not see what there is to gain by the extreme view of dismissing scripture as nothing but a fable or all symbolic, even as I absolutely see that we bump up against symbolism constantly in our doctrine.

I just don't think we lose much by also leaving space for more literalness than I have seen some 'naclers want to do.

Papa D said...

Michelle, if you notice, I was very careful to say that I am focusing on the "most ancient" records - using the OT before David and the Book of Ether as my examples.

When you get back that far in history, there simply is no way to tell what is literal and what is not. At the core, that's all I'm saying.

Michelle said...

okey-dokey. As I said, I had other stuff on the brain as I commented, so sorry it that went beyond the scope of your post. (I still am not sure I agree with you 100%, but that's ok. ;) )

Papa D said...

Yeah, it's cool. We don't have to agree 100% about everything to be brothers and sisters on the same path. :-)