The Sciences of Sacred Scriptures

The Sciences of Sacred Scriptures

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The vast majority of religious believers hold on to scriptures as sacred, as profound revelations, as precious guides to the mysteries of life and death. Believers believe that their stories are true—for instance, that Moses was a real person who led the Hebrews out of slavery and received the Torah directly from God on Mount Sinai or that there really was a Prince Siddhartha Gautama who searched for and found enlightenment in the sixth century B.C.E. Moreover, they believe that contained in these ancient stories is information vital to contemporary humans.

The truth is, we really don’t know much about the historical Moses or the historical Buddha. The evidence for these persons from the ancient past is quite sparse and filtered largely through centuries of oral history, mythological elaborations and sectarian biases, before they were even recorded in written form by religious partisans.

How, then, should we read these ancient narratives today? How do we understand the stories of religion, be it as outsiders looking in at foreign faiths or as thoughtful believers reconsidering our own tradition? As I discussed in my last posting, one of the implications of Big History—the unfolding scientific story of our existence over some 13.7 billion years—is that ancient religious cosmologies can no longer be understood to be literally true. Sacred scriptures are not to be understood as science. But scriptures are not actual history either.

Big History encompasses the history of religions, and it reexamines the interpretation of sacred stories, understood as “source material” by historians as they construct ever more accurate and complicated understandings of human history. Along with careful humanistic interpretations, this work is informed by archeology, anthropology, radioactive dating, medicine, genetics, philology and psychology.

Historical critical studies of sacred texts began in 18th- and 19th-century Europe and should be understood as an extension of the scientific method. The primary focus of these studies was the Bible, though attempts were made to apply these methods to other sacred texts as well. In this approach, the Bible is treated not as the inerrant work of God but as a text created by humans in particular historical and cultural contexts to advance different human purposes. Careful philological analysis of ancient languages is combined with archeological and historical research to decode the probable authorship and purposes of different material in the biblical anthology. Historical criticism understands the Bible, and by implication all other sacred scriptures, to be a compilation of texts constructed intentionally from previous layers of Judaism, borrowed from sources in other cultures in the region, and containing portions deliberately inserted by unknown priests and scribes for political and theological purposes over many generations.

What begins mostly in oral transmission is eventually written down in bits and pieces, though further transformations occur in the hands of generations of scribes who recopy and edit the text. These fragments are then selectively remembered and preserved based on the interests of those who follow. Eventually it is redacted into a single authoritative sacred text. The redaction of the Bible is, thus, a kind of whisper down the lane in which real persons and events are mixed with fantastic elaborations and imaginations.

Politics, personalities and power play a role at each stage of this evolution. The authors and editors may be inspired, but in no sense should the Bible be taken as an accurate historical chronology or an actual account of ancient Judaism, first-century Palestine and the history of the early church. The Bible is as much a political and ideological document as it is a spiritual and philosophical document. It is of enormous historical import but is itself not an actual history.

If you are interested in the details of what scholars have learned about the actual history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the time their scriptures were written and redacted, I highly recommend Robert Wright’s monumental survey of the literature in his 2009 book The Evolution of God.

For many believers, historical criticism of scripture is simply heretical. Yet many pious Christians, Jews and others have adopted and adapted the insights of the historical sciences within their confessional framework. For instance, the modern Catholic catechism states:

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.

Historical criticism does not necessarily lead to atheism, but it does make the hermeneutics of the sacred more complicated than the supposed transparency presumed by some fundamentalist readers. I hope to convince you in this series that sacred scriptures are profound, but not true. At least they are not true in the way that science and history are true.

I hope to further convince you that the whole of contemporary science, what we call here Big History, can be read as a kind of revelation. Today, we can encounter God anew from the bottom-up, working from science to the sacred.

Originally published on the Huffington Post Religion Section, 2012/2/13.