Re: Something must change

Tom Pearson (
Thu, 20 Aug 1998 14:43:42 -0500 (CDT)

At 08:23 PM 8/19/98 -0500, Glenn R. Morton wrote:

>I would be willing to bet that you can't really find evidence for the above
>assertions. Can you cite an ancient Talmudic source that claims that the
>Flood didn't happen and was merely a parable? I would contend that they all
>thought the flood was a reality, not a parable. I actually think you are
>attributing to them a view of their history that they didn't have. And if
>you can't cite evidence, from ancient Talmudic writings, then your view
>above becomes an unsupported opinion.

Well, let's see.

I'm seems to me that dividing things up into "history" vs.
"parable" is something of a false alternative, especially for pre-modern
people -- or even for modern ones. When I say to my fourteen-year-old son,
"You were such a sweet and wonderful baby; what happened?" I'm not reporting
historical fact (he wasn't sweet and wonderful all the time). So is my
observation a parable? I think not. I've condensed a wide swath of my
son's history down to a summary, a simple formulation for the purpose of
making a point. I'm not falsifying his history, but I'm not reporting
verifiable facts either.

This appears to be what the Hebrews, among many others, have done.
Jacob Neusner, perhaps the world's leading Jewish historian, has this to say
about two Talmudic stories he analyzes in "Beyond Historicism, After
Structuralism: Story as History in Ancient Judaism" (*Method and Meaning
in Ancient Judaism,* third series; Brown Judaic Studies, 1981):

"By attending to the structural traits of these stories, I then
shall show that use of such stories for history misinterprets the obvious
purposes of the tellers of those stories. This I shall do by demonstrating
on the basis of the structural traits of those stories just what the
storytellers wished to accomplish. In this way we shall see why historicism
misreads the historical meaning of these materials. The reason is that
asking what really happened, or assuming that what the story says happened
really did happen, misses the point of the story. The original and
generative purpose in telling the story is on the surface, accessible to us
because it is revealed by the basic structure of the story, its emphases,
organization, points of conflict and the resolution of conflict. Stories
are not history in so simple a sense as is assumed by a narrowly historical
reading of the stories. The reason is that they do not contain evidence of
one-time events [such as, e.g., the Genesis Flood] but speak of enduring
social truths -- a different kind of history" (page 221).

Since you asked, here's an example from the Talmud.

This is from *The Living Talmud,* edited by Judah Goldin (Yale
University Press, 1955), p. 44.

"The Creator, exalted be He, revealed Himself on Mount Sinai rather
than on any of the other mountains which He created, because it is the
smallest mountain of all. For when He resolved to give the Torah to Israel,
all the mountains assembled and began boasting, one saying to the other, 'I
am taller than you, and it is on me that the Lord will give the Torah.'
When the Creator, exalted be He, saw how they were boasting. . .He said to
them 'Why look ye askance, ye mountains of peaks, at the mountain which God
hath desired for His abode' (Psalm 68:17) -- that is, He said to Mount
Tabor, Hermon and Carmel, 'Why are you provoking each other? I shall give
the Torah only from Mount Sinai, because it is the smallest of the mountains
and I love only him who is humble.' "

This has all the marks of a historical narrative -- a time, a place,
an action, even a recorded conversation. But modern, western folks like us
would not regard this as "history," because the content is so obviously
grotesque. It could not have "happened" that way; but what actually
"happened" is of scant concern to the authors of the Talmud, and to some of
the authors of the Old Testament, I believe. For them, these are "true"
accounts, even if they are not so for us.

Here's what Neusner says near the end of his article cited above:

"The analysis of the structure of the two stories indicates the
purpose of the storyteller. It is not to report things which really
happened (surely an anachronism for ancient times), but to make important
points of a theological-didactic character. Consequently, to adduce these
strories in evidence of things which really happened as these stories say
they happened is absurd. The reason is that the point of the story is
missed, the wrong question asked. To be sure, last-ditch defenders of the
historicist hermeneutic will invoke the distinction between the historical
kernel of truth and the ahistorical husk of fable. But that distinction,
imposed on stories such as these, produces capricious and subjective
results. Some people eat the kernel, while others . . .swallow the husk
too. Not only are we left without clear and consistent, systematic modes of
reading these fables and tales. As I have shown, we also, and especially,
focus on what is unimportant and miss what is important. Reading these
stories as narrative history is wildly irrelevant to the point of the
stories themselves" (pp. 235-236).

"(R)eport things which really happened (surely an anachronism for
ancient times). . ." I take it this does not necessarily imply that the
stories produced by pre-modern authors are false, simple fabrications
dreamed up on the spot. But it does imply that those people were not
concerned about the modern criteria for historical verisimilitude in telling
their stories.

By the way, I could not find any reference to Noah in the Talmud.
In fact, aside from many references to creation, the first Biblical event
that is discussed there appears to be the call of Abraham.

>Why shouldn't we fire away [at the Book of Mormon] anyhow? We fire at
scientific and >historical theories when they don't fit the facts.

As far as I'm concerned, Glenn, you've raised deep and troubling
questions, and I certainly don't mean to make light of them. When I have
the strength, I struggle with these issues of how to get at the truth of
things, and how to know it when I see it. It isn't easy.

But I have a suspicion that you're inclined to treat the Bible
(perhaps the Talmud, too) as a kind of natural object, one that can be
inspected and analyzed and situated with regard to the "facts" which it
generates, like any other natural object. Just as with a new astronomical
event, or a geological discovery, the assessment of the meaning and
relevance -- of the "truth" of the thing -- of a written text ought to
adhere to a firm scientific methodology that is based on such "facts." Is
this a fair presentation of your view? If so, I would dissent. The books
of the Bible are not natural objects, they are artifacts. What's more,
they are artifacts crafted out of the most fluid of substances -- language.
There are human minds, and human purposes, behind them. This is not to
suggest that natural objects do not have a Divine Mind behind their
creation. But a Divine Mind doesn't change (or so I believe), while human
ones do, often radically. Again, I would claim, based on all the evidence I
know, that the way pre-modern folks understood the world, and told their
stories, does not correlate with our own standards of historical, or
scientific, or even philosophical "truth."

So I want to issue an invitation. It seems to me that the burden of
proof has shifted to those who would insist that ancient cultures understood
"history" and "truth" in approximately the same way we do, and reported it
that way, a position I would regard as being against the evidence. Is there
other, contrary evidence that will support this position?

Tom Pearson

Thomas D. Pearson
Department of History & Philosophy
The University of Texas-Pan American
Edinburg, Texas