He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Fair Questions: How Could the Old Testament be the Word of God?

Recently on one of the blogs I follow, the author asked a very serious question related to how Christians view the Old Testament (or the Tanakh for Jews) as part of the Word of God.  He points out that the consensus of historians and theologians is that they don't know who wrote the Old Testament.  This would seem to be a problem for the view that the Old Testament is the Word of God.  After all, if we have no evidence that it was written by a deity (how would one even go about demonstrating that proposition?) and don't have enough evidence to assign a human author or transcriber to it, how could we call it the Word of God?

It seems to me that part of the difficulty here is a gap between how people in contemporary post-industrial societies communicate accounts of events and how people in the ancient world communicated accounts of events.  Because people in the ancient world did not have easy access to writing utensils and often weren't taught to read or write, much of what was communicated was conveyed via oral tradition.  And while oral tradition is certainly not a perfect mode of communication, our ancestors were pretty good at it because it's what they had to use...and they used it a lot.  Far more than we do today.  We are much less skilled on average at remembering the content of conversations these days because we simply don't need to bother being very skilled at it given the ease of communication with contemporary methods.

The Old Testament (or the Tanakh in Judaism) is a collection of various kinds of oral traditions that were written down eventually.  So it can't be that God wrote it in the way that I might write my autobiography, because it wasn't really written and when it was recorded, it was recorded by those who received the oral traditions.  But it might be the word of God in the sense that it described the encounters of the Jewish people with God as they understood them, and in much the same way as my biographer might rightly call my biography the word of me. 

While I didn't write the biography, the content of the book came from me and specifically from my stories, from my behaviors, from my relationships with others.  That biography wouldn't be perfectly accurate, of course.  The biographer would not know everything and might not have time to tell everything.  The biographer might misunderstand some things.  The biographer might have to rely on the faulty memories of others.  But despite its imperfections, I would be willing to grant that the biography was an authentic picture of what I had communicated to the world, that it was the word of me because I had inspired it.  In the same way, I would be willing to grant that the recorded oral tradition of the Jews was inspired by God and is indeed the Word of God.

Ultimately, I don't think that we can claim that God put ink to scrolls and actually wrote the Old Testament.  I don't think that we can claim that the oral traditions that were the source material for the Old Testament were perfectly accurate as a reflection of who God is.  That said, those oral traditions are probably much more reliable than our modern telephone game would be.  And we would do well to remember that when we evaluate texts which are records of oral tradition.

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