Monday, August 15, 2011

Why do we trust ourselves?

I've decided to take a class with the University of Dallas Online Catholic Biblical School this fall.  It doesn't start until September, but I'm getting a running start on some of the books and completing the summer reading assignment.

Two books I'm reading extensively from right now are Introduction to the Bible: A Catholic Guide to Studying Scripture by Stephen Binz and Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction by Lawrence Boadt.  Both are good, interesting books and I have found a lot of interesting material there.  The Boadt introduction is particularly useful now that I'm more familiar with the Bible than I was when I first looked at it a few years ago.  The cultures and stories and history make much more sense.

One of the first subjects tackled by these books and the workbook and other materials, is which bible to use.  Being a Catholic class, they obviously prefer a Catholic Bible which includes books in the Old Testament not found in Protestant Bibles (though they used to be in them at the back, although not considered divinely inspired).  All the materials advise to avoid paraphrases of the Bible, which are very easy to read but gloss over many difficult items.

The books also recommend against the Douay-Rheims Bible (DRB) and the King James Version (KJV).  The first reason is these are often much harder to read than modern translations, which is certainly true.  I don't think that's a particular problem if one wants to read it.  The second reason is that of course, more modern versions are more accurate.  We know more now than we did then.

While I am not the type to argue for the DRB or KJV as the sole version of God's word, I find the argument that we know more now than we did then to be more than a bit problematic.  Sure, science has made great advances.  We can put a man on the moon, computers can defeat humans at chess, and many previously incurable cancers have high survival rates.  On the other hand, they can't decide if salt is bad for you, if global warming is actually going on, or various other topics of debate .  They used to be sure heavier items fell faster, the atom is the smallest particle in existence, and that germs weren't important (check out this area from the Discovery Science webpage).

Boadt identifies one particular example of archaeology that was sure to be right, but wasn't (pg 53-54):
The field of biblical archaeology was given life in 1871 by the electrifying announcement of George Smith, a young curator at the British Museum, that he had been able to read a Babylonian tablet on which he had found a flood story like that of Noah, but hundreds, perhaps a thousand, years older!  The rush to explore hte lands of the Bible was on.  Every new object or tablet uncovered led to claims and counter-claims and often even wild new guesses  about the background of biblical stories.  The researchers into Babylonian culture were so sure they had mastered ancient history that Franz Delitzsch, a German scholar, could announce in his littel book Babel and Bibel (1904) that Near Eastern culture was no so well known that further study was unnecessary.  Babylonian thought could explain most of the religious thought in the Bible, and scholars should now turn their attention elsewhere.
So on one hand, we recognize that there are a lot of failed attempts to explain something previously.  We might even mock the ignorance of those scientists before.  And then we go on to be absolutely sure that our scientists are absolutely right.  See the problem?

There are a lot of good things about archaeology and what they can find out about the Bible.  Boadt identifies several clues in archaeology that have supported the Bible, which I find fascinating (pg 63):
Sennacherib's Prism:  1 Kings 18-19 tells the story of how king Sennacherib of Assyria attacked Jerusalem and suddenly the city was spared by divine help after an oracle by Isaiah the prophet.  Sennacherib himself left a detailed account of this battle which does not admit defeat but hints that he failed to take Jerusalem.
Just like with modern medicine, we should not throw the baby out with the bath water and ignore advances just because there are faults.  But we do need to admit that there are faults and be careful not to assign absolute authority to the science of men. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with either the KJV or the DRB, and I actually prefer either version for some tasks over more modern versions.  I usually read the Revised Standard Version (RSV), but have the RSV, KJV, and DRB on my Bible software.  I like the fact that they've been used and trusted for centuries.  

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. Be not wise in thine own eyes: fear the LORD, and depart from evil. (Pro 3:5-7)

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