Can we really believe the Old Testament?
Do you believe that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish? Do you believe that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were cast into a furnace and came out alive and unhurt? Was Daniel actually thrown into the lions’ den and saved by the angel of the Lord? Do you believe that Genesis 1-2 present a factual account of the creation? Are Adam and Eve real historical figures just as much as Robert Boyle (1627-1691) and Michael Faraday (1791-1867)?
For the best part of two centuries, liberal academic scholars have tried to undermine the historical reliability of these Old Testament narratives, and many others. The consequences of this on the well-being of churches are catastrophic. Old Testament scholar Dale Ralph Davis has written:
For nearly two hundred years a skeptical brand of Old Testament criticism has largely held sway in our universities and divinity halls; it ‘un-godded’ the Old Testament, implied the Old Testament documents were extremely complex and involved, and managed to make Old Testament studies mostly boring, lifeless, and dull … Old Testament criticism has had the effect of killing the Old Testament for the church.
Is this your own experience of reading much of the Old Testament, and of hearing sermons preached from it? Indeed, how often do you hear the Old Testament being preached?
One particular focus of Old Testament studies is the relationship between the texts of the Old Testament Scriptures and other ancient documents which have been discovered in the Near East. Two of the best-known of these documents are the Enuma Elish, usually described as a creation myth, and The Gilgamesh Epic, a Babylonian account of the Flood.
Peter Enns, whose 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament has provoked a considerable controversy in this field, is the latest in a line of scholars who has observed similarities between the text of Genesis and Exodus on the one hand, and these other documents on the other. He believes that these similarities are so close as to establish a relationship of influence and dependence. That is, the Old Testament has been shaped by the Ancient Near Eastern framework of ideas –and perhaps even its documents.
God has spoken
What are we to make of all this? Are we obliged to submit our opinions to the superior wisdom of the academy? Most readers of this magazine will not feel that they are in a position to argue with scholars like Peter Enns. The great comfort for the believer is the assurance that God has spoken historically and infallibly in the Scriptures, in such a way as to be clearly understood.
The Bible is fundamentally historical. This is not to say that everything in the Bible must be interpreted literally. The Psalms are not history as such, with certain exceptions such as Psalms 105 and 106. The Laws of the Old Testament are not history, though they were given in a historical context. There are parables, which are not history, yet teach truth. The point is, the Bible presents a continuous history, albeit a selective one, from the creation to the Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. And from there it points forward to the return of Christ.
The Bible presents us with a profoundly coherent history. It does not simply report, it traces a course from inauguration, through development of God’s covenant, to fulfilment. So when an Old Testament narrative is portrayed as historical, we need very strong reasons for reinterpreting it as a parable, tale, myth, legend or epic. In the cases of Jonah and Daniel, attempts to establish them as non-historical have failed.
The Bible is essentially supernatural, spiritual and miraculous. Strange as it may seem at first, the record of a miracle or supernatural event, instead of undermining the historicity of a narrative, actually supports it! Have you ever noticed that whereas the biblical history is full of miraculous events, parables deal in the ordinary, the mundane and the commonplace? On that basis, attempts to classify Jonah as a parable fail immediately.
Yes, Enoch was translated to heaven, the sun stood still, Balaam’s ass spoke, Christ walked on the sea and raised Lazarus from the dead. These are mere details consistent with the big picture of creation out of nothing, of incarnation and resurrection, of the miracle of the new birth. The Lord reigns! A king’s sleepless night, two female bears attacking forty-two youths, a maid taken captive by the Syrian commander, an arrow shot at random hitting its target, a coin in a fish’s mouth are all His work.
Believe God’s word
The Christian believes in God, the supernatural and miracles. He knows that the created universe consists of things visible and invisible, and that beyond the reach of the senses there is a transcendent realm. He believes that God reigns over all the affairs of men and that He is constantly involved in His world. The Bible declares it, the Holy Spirit has persuaded him of it, and general revelation agrees. The secularist, the atheist, says, ‘I do not believe it. Miracles are impossible.’
I am happy to bear the stigma of being naive! I am ready to be counted a fool for Christ. I will preach the inspiration of Scripture and I will study the form of the text rejoicing each time I see more of its nuances. I am happy to close my copy of Enuma Elish, never to read it again, whilst returning to Genesis year after year to be fed and to feed those who hear me. There is no comparison!
If I preach that Genesis is myth, that Jonah is parable, that Daniel is fiction, that the Bible is so similar to Babylonian myths, that we must be open to the idea of its being a truly human (and erroneous) document, then you can be sure that those who listen will begin to doubt the Old Testament. Did God create all things? Did Adam really sin and all mankind in him? They will not know what to believe. Did God part the Red Sea or was it a fluke combination of natural forces? If I say that only naive simpletons imagine that Jonah was actually inside a big fish for three days, or that there was really a den of lions for Daniel – if I turn history to fiction – I will undermine the faith of the hearers. Since the Bible is full of miraculous, supernatural events from cover to cover, once they start to doubt, they will not know where to end it.
This is exactly what has happened in liberal pulpits in this country for the past two centuries: ‘Perhaps, when our Lord received the five loaves and two fish, the generosity of the little boy so inspired or shamed the crowd that they all started to pass around their dinner! Not a miracle at all. Not God’s witness to his Son but a lesson in kindness.’
The assured results of liberal criticism have been empty pews, closed churches, loss of confidence, inability to stand against the tide of moral corruption that has been sweeping aside all the waymarks that once guarded the British people.
Peter Naylor is the minister of Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. This article was a paper given at the Affinity Theological Studies Conference and has been summarised and adapted by Paul Yeulett. The full paper can be read at http://www.affinity.org.uk/affinity-foundations-60-spring-2011.pdf