There was recently an episode of the television series House in which an ailing novitiate comes in to the hospital for a diagnosis. One of the doctors on House’s team came to medicine after dropping out of the seminary. He tries to test the faith of the aspiring nun by asking her questions about the Bible. He quizzes her on stories that are told differently in different books of the Bible. For example, “How many times did the cock crow before Peter denied Jesus?”
It seems unlikely that someone who attended seminary would have such a superficial understanding of faith that the whole thing could be unraveled by one extra crow.
It got me to thinking about this whole idea of “debunking” the Bible. The idea that the Bible is something that can be “debunked” by showing factual inconsistencies assumes that the book is a certain type of thing. You can debunk junk science. You can debunk false journalism. You can debunk bad history. But the Bible is not science or a history text book or journalism. It is art.
You can’t “debunk” Picasso by saying human noses don’t really go there.
Nor would you debunk Shakespeare, even though he wrote plays based on history. You might point out that the real Henry V did not give the marvelous St. Cispan’s speech before the battle of Agincourt, but that hardly “debunks” the play.
Shakespeare was capturing the essence of how the English people felt about this episode. He was illustrating (not reporting on) the drama of the nation’s cultural history.
That is the same type of story telling that occurs in the Bible. It illustrates and dramatizes the moments that shaped the culture of the Jewish people and their religion and later of the proto-Christian people and their culture. Much of what is written is based on history, but it is not told in the voice of the historical scholar.
Debunking the Bible because it is bad science or history and reading the Bible as though it were literal historical scholarship and science are two sides of the same coin.
The purpose of religion is to inspire, to invite wonder and contemplation, to give people a sense of common community and to teach us how to ethically relate to one another in the here and now.
If the Bible was a perfectly factual, scholarly report on historical events it would fail as scripture.
When you read the page on the Battle of Agincourt in your British history class (if you had one) did you want to cheer, or were you doodling on the back of a note pad and waiting for the class bell to ring?
Henry V may not have said “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” but he should have. It took a poet to capture the dramatic truth. That is the type of truth that one can find in the Bible.