You wrote to me, "Christians would say that some OT laws were concessions. Progressive revelation came as the people were ready to accept it." But I think that's a little too convenient. As though to say, "We read the Bible literally except when we read it allegorically or metaphorically or historically." That's my experience with Christians when challenged with all those Bible passages that makes us all squirm in embarrassment: (1) Was Jonah really swallowed by a whale (great fish, whatever), or is that an allegorical story with a deeper message? (2) Are we really to believe that God destroyed nearly all life on earth in what would be the 6th great extinction, because he was angry and jealous? Seriously, I've known people who have gotten over anger and jealousy. Surely the Almighty can. Maybe there's a deeper message in the Noahian flood story, you know, similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood story that pre-dates Noah's narrative by four centuries. (3) When Jesus tells his disciples to leave their families, sell their belongings and join him, isn't that what cult leaders do? (4) Why did Jesus shun his own mother, twice? Etc, etc. These examples all have explanations involving historical context, the culture of the age, etc., and that's my point. We all read messages into these stories, picking and choosing what fits for us at the time. Of course, when the Bible seems to get something right straight away, we glom onto it and say "see, the Bible really should be taken literally," except for when it shouldn't! -- Michael Shermer
I'm glad we continue to correspond, even if by email. Here are a few more thoughts for you:
* I prefer to say I take the Bible “at face value.” Yes, that is an ambiguous way to put it, but it gives room for literal and non-literal interpretation. Since perhaps 30% of the Bible is poetry, taking it “literally” is often not a smart thing…
* Progressive revelation has nothing to do with whether a passage is taken literally or not. “How literally” depends on the genre (narrative, law, prophecy, apocalyptic, poetry, etc), and whether figures of speech are being used. Progressive revelation is a heuristic method. As I mentioned at UF, I do not accuse a 2nd-grade math teacher of deceit for withholding the truth about algebra or calculus from a student. Little kids don’t know about (or believe in) negative numbers. Convenient? Well, yes, because it is a paradigm with considerable explanatory power, like any good hypothesis.
* Jonah – whether literal or not, the message is clear. (Something about loving all people, not just fellow Jews.) I think it could have been literally true, but doubt it matters.
* Universal deluge? Most of my Christian friends think not. But this is because of the geological evidence and the biblical evidence, plus the fact that the Flood story is recycled, as you know, from Sumerian and Babylonian culture. One is not necessarily based on the other; as in the biological world, common descent does not necessarily mean one species came from the other. Yes, I think there was a flood, but the evidence is in favor of its being a local event.
* Sell all possessions, etc (Luke 14:33, I believe – in the same gospel others are commended for giving part of what they own… there is no magical percentage). Sure, you bet that cult leaders enjoy abusing such passages. But hyperbole is a common feature of Semitic speech. (Rabbi Shmuley and I got into thisin our debate last night… He should know better, esp. as his Hebrew is much better than mine.) Leaving families? The Twelve seem to have done just that, at least now and again during Jesus’ 3-year (?) ministry. However differently we may interpret such passages, you have to admit that the wording gets our attention. I believe that was the point!
* Jesus rude to his mother? Again, Semitic idiom, in the Greek NT to emoi kai soi, sounding rather brusque to us, but appearing other places in scripture without any nuance of rudeness. Still, familial misunderstanding is a minor theme in the NT.
* No one is completely objective, and most are far more subjective (you and I too) than we realize. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible to understand an ancient document. In the case of the Bible, the endeavor seems well worth the effort.
* While I certainly do not claim perfect understanding, I believe I understand the basic principles of interpretation. Sadly, few Bible readers have ever learned them. Rather, they are handed the Book and told, “It interprets itself.” Well, the major teachings are kind of hard to miss, but unfortunately most of the teachings and facts are not so easy, esp. given our lack of geographical and historical familiarity, plus our cultural distance from biblical times. I don’t think we need to have perfect understanding. A large part of what I do in the ministry schools I run in Kiev, Stockholm, Lagos, Atlanta, and other cities is to teach the principles of interpretation. “Teach a man to fish…” This should reduce the instances of erroneous understandings. Does this make sense to you?
Say, maybe we will engage in more theological things in another debate… I know science & history of science is your forte, but you are widely read (in both senses of that phrase!), and maybe this would be an interesting event to stage.