I’m one of those geeks who still enjoys reading books. Usually, my list has to do with books about the Bible. If you’re like me, and are curious about the Bible, maybe these short summaries will help. Everything that I post here, I recommend reading.
In this small (in length, not power) book, Peter J. Williams puts a case forward for the trustworthiness of the four Gospel witnesses. Can We Trust the Gospels? argues that the normal signs of trustworthiness are found within the Gospel narratives. The book begins by establishing that faith is a type of trust that can be based on evidence—so Williams asks, “do the Gospels provide evidence of being trustworthy?”
Williams draws from contemporary non-Christian historians (and other sources) to show how Christianity spread far and fast. Through the eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life and significance, the Gospel authors demonstrate intimate geographical knowledge of 1st century Israel/Palestine (as seen in culturally accurate naming of places and people). The fact that the four different Gospels agree on small details, yet present them differently, suggests that they were not composed together, yet are all reliable accounts of Jesus’ life.
Reading the Gospels requires time-traveling. Williams helps the reader remember that there was no modern harsh distinction between reporting direct speech and indirect speech. He states, “in an ancient culture, truthful quotation granted certain freedoms in quotation not available to us” (99). In Jewish culture, Rabbis’ work was treated as important—worth putting to memory. Thus, Jesus (called “Rabbi”) can be expected to receive similar value. Truth can still be conveyed if small details disagree (in fact, if they all unanimously agreed, a fishy scheme for uniformity might be expected).
The rate at which Christianity spread was inconceivable. Williams points out that the texts about Jesus spread too far, too fast to be altered by a plot to control the message of all texts and their copies. So, however one treats these texts about Jesus, the Gospels contain a message that is unified, and as Williams suggests, worthy of trust.
The book ends with a discussion of the miraculous material found within the pages of the Gospels. Williams highlights the irony behind the events in the Gospels, like the Roman’s administration of their power over Jesus by crucifixion and the embarrassment of the disciples’ failures. Surely not the expected movement-building propaganda. But if a starting point is atheistic, no amount of evidence will prove the existence of miracles. Instead of events that disrupt the normal pattern of the world, Williams argues that miracles are “events that actually form an orderly pattern pointing to God’s meaningful action in the world” (132). The miracles in the Gospels are fulfilling the paradigm of the God of creation who moves towards his people in love.
Here’s one of my favorite quotes:
“If the presentation of Jesus in the Gospels is wrong, one faces many intellectual hurdles to explain why so many historical details are right or plausible. One has to explain how the various layers of textual material arose in the Gospels, all of which display signs of abundant familiarity with the time of Jesus and show the features one would expect from the earliest Jewish layers of tradition. One needs to explain the origin of the parables, the original teaching, and the range of cases where one Gospel is most simply explained by assuming the truth of another. One also has to explain how the movement of Jesus’s followers took off numerically in a manner for which historians cannot agree on an explanation” (137).
If you’d like to hear more, check out my interview with Dr. Williams here.
I just finished C. John (“Jack”) Collins’ thought-provoking work, Reading Genesis Well: Navigating History, Poetry, Science, and Truth in Genesis 1-11, and really wanted to summarize it for my benefit and maybe yours.
When coming to the creation account in the start of Genesis, convictions and categorizations arise quicker than crabgrass in a summer lawn. I’d like to try to ask some questions without aggravating or worrying anyone—while always maintaining that I firmly believe in the authority and inspiration of all scripture. It’s perfect. We aren’t. Our journeys to understand sacred ancient texts are far from over. So please read this charitably.
Collins’ goal is to inspire good readership of Genesis 1-11 by (1) comparing biblical and scientific data and (2) establishing wise patterns of theological reading. Since debates rage about interpretation, Collins wants to justify his reading. He states “if I do not see what another person sees, that may mean I am blind (whether by lack of skill or by ideology); or it may mean I make different literary and linguistic judgments; or it may mean I am pursuing different questions” (29). So, Collins set about the task of tuning readers into coming to Genesis 1-11 with a methodology which is tuned to linguistic (the language of the original text), rhetorical (the intended meaning of the original text), and literary (the historical context of the original text) patterns and elements.
C.S. Lewis and Wise Reading
Collins helpfully brings C.S. Lewis’ questions for any work bearing literary craftsmanship: (1) what is it? (think genre), (2) what was it intended to do? (think the writer’s desire for writing), and (3) how is it meant to be used (think impact). When we come to Genesis, these questions should be addressed. One’s convictions surrounding these questions will produce certain answers. For example, if Genesis is a text intended to give a scientific description for how God created the world, then the reader will be looking for scientific answers. Conversely, if science is not the question being raised through reading Genesis (particularly 1:1-2:3), than other types of answers will be collected.
The Age-Old Question: What’s Genesis’ Genre?
Borrowing from other scholars, Collins pulls “speech act theory” into the discussion on Genesis. There are three elements of speech act theory: (1) locution – the form of the words written, (2) illocution – the intended effect of those words, and (3) perlocution– the actual effect of the words. Collins takes Genesis 1:1-2:3’s form, language-level, and relation of sense to the referent in order to claim that it is best read as poetry, which he defines as imanginisitc language which aims to “allow the reader to imagine what it was like to see what it describes—even if what it describes is not real or even if we have no experience of it” (63). Pushing the genre-discussion further, he terms Genesis 1:1-2:3 as “exalted prose narrative” since it:
(1) liturgically recounts God’s achievements, presents a patterned rhythm of each day;
(2) utilizes broad taxonomies (not all types of animals are named);
(3) poetically describes the heavens (raqia – see Psalm 19:1, 150:1; Daniel 12:3; and Ezekiel 1:22-26);
(4) describes the sun and moon allusively (“greater” and “lesser” lights);
(5) indicates God being tired (7th day rest);
(6) contains many unique and unrepeated events.
This genre seems to fit with the cosmology presented in the Bible. The Bible presents the reader with a picture of the world that is earth-centered, as a flat disk which rests on pillars with water beneath and a solid canopy above (see Psalm 104:2-3, 5-9; 148:4; Job 26:11; 37:18; 38:4-11; Proverbs 8:28-29; Amos 9:6; 1 Samuel 2:8). Now, a reader could say “the Bible doesn’t have a scientifically accurate picture of the world, and so it must be full of error!” But what Collins accomplishes with this terming of genre is that ancient readers didn’t expect to find scientific depictions of the world in Genesis 1-11. Rather, it accomplished successful communication through these non-literalistic descriptions, functioning to invite readers to picture the items as if they existed that way, in order to evoke certain responses.
So, we (if we’re to be wise readers) must dismantle our 21st-century mindset that scientific language is the “most accurate and therefore the most truthful kind of discourse” (261). Therefore, the biblical way of describing the world non-literalisticlly “retains its value as the proper way to envision the events and scenery because that imagery shapes the attitudes of the faithful” (264). This approach throws cold water on arguments which demand literalism in order for Genesis 1-11 to be truthful.
Collins suggests that a wise reader does all the work possible to enter into the mind of the original audience. Mesopotamian pagan myths about the beginning of the world surrounded Moses’ audience (123). The creation account in Genesis functions in part to use certain aspects of these myths (elements such as chaos, heavenly beings, and floods) in order to assert Yahweh’s superiority over all of them. Yahweh is the Elohim over all other elohim. Israel is his only chosen people. This world is made as an environment for God’s purposes to flourish. And this world is God’s world, therefore “God has the right to instruct human beings how to live and how to use his stuff” (126). Thus, Collins argues that the purposes of Genesis 1:1-2:3 are:
(1) to give God’s people a story about his work of creating the world as the “ideal place for human beings to live, to love God and one another, and to rule in wisdom and benevolence” (165);
(2) to lead God’s people into admiring his beautiful work in creation;
(3) to instruct Israel about the subordinate place of other deities (elohim) to Yahweh the highest elohim;
(4) to reveal God’s authoritative place in the universe as the owner, ruler, and sustainer (since almost all verbs in Genesis 1:1-2:3 have God as their grammatical subject).
I’ve left out quite a few other moves that Collins makes (discussions on linguistics, genealogies, textual cohesion, reception history, divine action, etc.) simply because there’s so much in this book—but I’ve focused on the main takeaways that I’ve gleaned. Wherever the reader falls convictionally, Collins’ conclusion should be easily affirmed: “the way Genesis 1-11 tells the story gives them the divinely approved way of picturing the events and that there are actual events that the pictures refer to” (296).
Here are some questions I’m still pondering:
– How confidently can it be claimed that Genesis’ original audience widely understood other Mesopotamian creation accounts?
– What exactly does a shift in genre after Genesis 2:3 indicate about 1:1-2:3?
– If the 6 “days” are not 24-hour periods, why did God choose to communicate that way? (Collins didn’t provide a satisfactory discussion on yom in this work, but he’s probably done more elsewhere.)
So, we’re left with another intriguing addition of thoughts and questions to the never-ending debate. Let us seek clarity with charity as we pursue God through knowledge of his word. Let’s be grateful that Genesis 1-11 gives all of God’s people the ability to remember the incredible deeds of Yahweh, who began this universe and human history, and will continue to sustain it until he remakes it.