Thursday, August 18, 2016

Did Abraham Really Exist?

"Evangelicals are debating the historicity of Adam, but they are too timid. It is time to reject fundamentalist distortions of the Abrahamic narrative just as decisively as we have abandoned literalistic readings of Genesis 1–3. Clinging to discredited biblical accounts of Abraham as if these events actually happened makes us look like Neanderthals, undermines the plausibility of our witness, and ultimately overturns the Gospel. To defend the Gospel and uphold the authority of the Bible, we need to reckon with the myth of Abraham."

So starts a brilliant piece of satire by Dr. Peter Leithart, a minister of the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches.

Here are some further excerpts:
The historical evidence is overwhelming and need not be rehearsed here. It is sufficient to point the curious reader to Hans Georg Unglauber’s definitive study, popularly known as Die Suche nach dem historischen Abraham but originally published as Abraham: Historie oder Pferd-Geschichte? Unglauber shows that there is not a shred of independent evidence for the existence of Abraham, much less for any of the events recorded in Genesis. 
But our faith does not stand or fall on the uncertain deliverances of historical scholarship. Scripture is our rule. The biblical writers deployed the full arsenal of ancient literary conventions, and their texts are full of sly authorial signals that they are not supposed to be taken literally... 
The story of Abraham’s exodus (Gen. 12:10–20) is obviously modeled on Israel’s Egyptian sojourn and exodus (which most likely never happened either). By shaping this narrative to mimic later myths, the author indicates that the episode is not to be taken seriously as history. Genesis 12, like the exodus narrative, teaches that God delivers. It does not matter whether or not God has ever actually delivered anyone. The moral stands: God is our deliverer... 
After we dispose of Adam and Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Isaiah, and Jeremiah are next. And why stop there? Like Genesis, the Gospels are ancient literature. The Evangelists were no more concerned about facts than the authors of the Pentateuch, and for those enlightened enough to see, the Gospels are replete with hints that they are mythic symbolizations of profound, enduring truth. 
Only when it is stripped of the mythology of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus will the Bible be firmly established as our inerrant rule of faith. We must die to our modern demand to know “what happened” and recognize that Scripture is infallible only when it is thoroughly de-historicized. Then we will arrive finally at the fullness of Christian faith, the Church of Christ Without Jesus.
The full article, "The Abraham Myth", was published at First Things.

Addressing Faulty Hermeneutics
Dr. Leithart's parody is aimed at Biblical scholars, such as Dr. Peter Enns, who question much of the historicity of Gen.1-11. 

For example, Enns has argued:
Paul, as a first-century Jew, bore witness to God’s act in Christ in the only way that he could have been expected to do so, through ancient idioms and categories known to him and his religious tradition for century upon century.  One can believe that Paul is correct theologically and historically about the problem of sin and death and the solution that God provides in Christ without also needing to believe that his assumptions about human origins are accurate.  The need for a savior does not require a historical Adam.... 
Thesis 7: A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors—whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis.  Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment.  
[Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, p.143]
Enns has in fact responded to Leithart, defending his approach. Interestingly, Enns doesn't rule out Leithart's argument that Enns' demythologization of Adam might equally well apply to Abraham:
Even though the literary styles of Genesis 12 and chapters 1-11 are consistent with each other, thus suggesting one narrative, their content is quite different, which is why biblical scholars don’t call the Abraham story “myth” but something else–like legend or political propaganda. In other words, what holds for the Adam story may or may not hold for the Abraham story.
Leithart, in his reply to Enns, stresses his main point: that the same sort of arguments that Enns and others use to dismiss the historicity of Adam can equally well be applied elsewhere in Scripture. Also, he notes that Enns often accepts as fact that which is merely archaeological conjecture or scholarly fad. Moreover, Enns is mistaken to think that we can give up Paul's belief in a historical Adam while retaining Paul’s doctrine of Adam. The Bible is not a collection of stories illustrating doctrine and morals. It’s a record of God’s actions in history for the redemption of the world. We cannot peel off the historical husk of the Bible and retain its nourishing didactic kernel.

Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?
And why stop at Abraham? Richard Klaus has remarked on the close similarity between the argumentation used by Enns to argue against an historical Adam, and that of others to argue against the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ. Both maintain, for example, that 
the mythological worldview of ancient Israel has been invalidated by modern science, that we should not read the Bible in a naive literalist sense, that the Bible writers were just children of their time, that the Bible's theological truths don't demand historical veracity, etc.

Consider, for example, a recent interview of retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, author of Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (1994). Spong insists that Christianity doesn't need a supernatural miracle to be established:
I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation, I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence — not his body — was manifested to certain witnesses.
He thinks the Resurrection must be placed in its proper context to be correctly interpreted and understood:
I tried to help people get out of that literalism... When people hear it, they grab on to it. They could not believe the superstitious stuff and they were brainwashed to believe that if they could not believe it literally they could not be a Christian. 
A Christian is one who accepts the reality of God without the requirement of a literal belief in miracles...What the Resurrection says is that Jesus breaks every human limit, including the limit of death, and by walking in his path you can catch a glimpse of that. 
And I think that’s a pretty good message.
It's no message at all, according to Paul: "If Christ has not been raised then your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins" (1 Cor.15:17).

Here, with Spong's denial of the Gospel, we reach the logical conclusion of Enns' demythologizing trajectory.

Happily, Dr. Enns still affirms the physical resurrection of Christ. But on what basis? Not on the grounds of a simple, "because the Bible tells me so."
*****

8 comments:

  1. Dr. Byl:

    First it was whether the creation actually happened as the Bible relates it, then whether the flood really happened, then it was whether Adam ever existed, and now its about whether Abraham ever really lived. And all this hinges on some speculative "first readers" that Enns and his kind have made up out of thin air: how naïve they were about what we know about science today.

    Has anyone bothered to ask whether Enns' "first readers" actually existed? They could have been an entirely different king of people than the ones he presumes. At least we know this about them: they had a better definition of science than Enns does.

    And further, his website has a subheading: "rethinking Biblical Christianity". What exactly is he "rethinking"? The beliefs of those first readers? Or the 'orthodoxy' of today's literalists? I mean, these two groups believe the same thing: that these things were just as the Bible says. So is he inventing a new Christianity? That's wrong, and even he knows that. Is he trying to correct today's literalists, so that they're back in line with the mythological theology of the first readers? That's the same as denying his "Biblical Christianity" which he's claiming to be rethinking. What is he trying to put forward?

    It seems a confused gospel for a gullible generation, I would think.

    John

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  2. Dr. Byl:

    There's a lot of reading to do to comprehend all that you say here. I thank you for your efforts.

    I read Klaus' article. And a question came to mind:

    Does anyone except someone like Roy Hoover believe in the resurrection, as Hoover supposes that the early Christians did? I've never heard of it until someone like Hoover represented it that way, which he does in order to dismiss it.

    In other words, I rather tend to think that Hoover's early believers are myth, not the Bible's account of the resurrection.

    JohnV

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  3. Hello John

    As I read Hoover, he seems to be saying that the resurrection makes sense within the worldview of early Christians, but not within a modern worldview shaped by mainstream(naturalist)science. Since he accepts the latter, he dismisses the reality of the resurrection.

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  4. Dr. Byl:

    Hoover doesn't believe the eye witnesses attested by God Himself; eyewitnesses which after twenty centuries of attacks upon their witness and their characters, are still impeccable witnesses.

    His attack is against these witnesses. He says they believed based on their worldview at the time, and not based on what happened, which they saw and touched (1 John 1); not based on the Holy Spirit's witness to their hearts. He's trying to justify them in today's milieu, but it is actually an outright attack against them. And against God.

    I don't see how this conclusion can be avoided. He's saying they weren't witnesses of an actual event, when the Bible says they were. He's not justifying the early Christians; he's undermining them.

    JohnV

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  5. Hi John

    Hoover himself asserts "the literal statements about the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of Jesus have lost their literal meaning". So, yes, this entails that he does not accept the witness accounts at face value.

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  6. Dr. Byl:
    I just don't understand a statement like "the literal statements about the resurrection of the dead and the resurrection of Jesus have lost their literal meaning." What is he referring to?

    Is he saying that the "literal statements" from the churches' confessions are redundant anymore? Or is he referring right to the Bible's own statements about the resurrection being redundant? If the latter, then he's saying that the statements are to be taken literally, but also passe, past their due date. So should we regard him as a new prophet superior to the apostles?

    But if the former, then he's saying that the historic church was wrong to confess the resurrection of Jesus: it was not what the Bible taught. But then it didn't lose its meaning; it never had it in the first place.

    Either way, he's being contradictory. In other words: either way his own statement is redundant.

    So why make a statement like that in the first place? Even from his own point of view it is meaningless.

    Just some thoughts.
    JohnV

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    Replies
    1. Hi John

      As to further clarification as to what Roy Hoover meant to say, and why, the best I can suggest is that you read his statement (quoted by Richard Klaus) in its wider context in "Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann" edited by Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli (IVP, 2000):140-142. I don't have access to that book.

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  7. Dr. Byl:
    I also do not have access to that book. My thoughts are about the basic ideas represented in Klaus' quote of Hoover, who refers to Ludemann.

    I think that Klaus is correct in saying that Enns’ methology leads to Hoover’s conclusions, even if Enns does not think so. But I think it is much plainer than that.

    Put it this way: The upshot of the amendment to Belgic Confession art. xiv was to make it explicit that people such as RA were going against the Confessions. The answer of the churches was, mostly, that the Confessions were already clear enough. But the obvious question then is whether it is clear enough for the purpose of judging members, especially those holding office in the church, as being outside the Confessions when they hold and publicly advocate for questionable positions on Bible interpretation.

    That is, the Bible must be taken in its plain sense if a question of interpretation arises; RA raised questions of interpretation but RA did not revert to the rules of interpretation, of defaulting to the plain sense, but rather reverted to open interpretation, a free-for-all type of regulation. That is, if no one really knows what the Bible is saying, then it’s open to any and all interpretations: we do not default to the plain sense.

    They cite "overwhelming evidences" of an old earth, etc., as grounds for changing "plain sense" to "best sense of the time". That is what Hoover is saying: worldview is equal to "best sense of the time". And that's all we ever have concerning even something as plain as the resurrection.

    This, then, can be done with any part of Scripture, once this precedent is accepted into the norm. Thus, Enns’ reasoning is explicitly tied to that of Hoover’s methodology. Enns might not accept Hoover’s conclusion (i.e. that the resurrection is not literal) but that doesn’t matter; the methodology is what is at stake.

    The rules of Bible interpretation are what Sola Scriptura stands on. Without definite teachings, teachings which are not dependant on worldview, there is no Sola Scriptura; and without Sola Scriptura there is no Reformed confessional standard. Once one teaching stands on worldview, no matter how small, what keeps the rest of it from falling prey to the same methodology?

    These are the questions I have about this.
    JohnV

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