Re: St. Basil's 400AD view of the Days of proclamation

George Murphy (
Fri, 27 Aug 1999 08:42:00 -0400 wrote:

> I must politely protest the bait and switch here. My point was not about
> Jonah or the Good Samaritan. My point was about the flood, the exodus and
> Jesus. If there was no evidence of these things would it be theologically
> true? We aren't discussing the Good Samaritan and Jonah (or at least I am
> not).

You're quite right. I fast forwarded too quickly because I wanted to make the
point that seeing an unambiguous theological message in a text doesn't necessarily
require historical accuracy.
BUT - the central theme of Scripture is "the Word became flesh" and "Christ
crucified" - real flesh & a real cross & death in real history - as the culmination of
God's involvement with the real history of Israel. Thus it's essential _theologically_
that there be a real historical core. In particular Jesus of Nazareth who is identified
in the gospels really died on the cross under Pontius Pilate.
(& there are lots of reasons for keeping that front & center, but I think
especially involvement with Muslims & Mormons which you mention later. It's here that
the crucial (!) difference between such belief systems & Christianity shows up.)
I would say (& here I'm kind of musing & not setting out precise criteria) that
the closer one gets to the central story line of Scripture, the more important
historicity is. Jesus was really crucified in a place we know (probably the Church of
the Resurrection, NOT "Gordon's Calvary") at a time we can place within a few years
("under PP"). Details in the gospel accounts (e.g., precise wording of the inscription
on the cross) may not be historically accurate however.
The Exodus is the corresponding central event of the OT - God is identified as
the One who brought Israel out of Egypt. A bunch of Hebrew slaves really did escape
from Egypt - but here our historical knowledge is a lot vaguer than with the cross.
When the Exodus happened (estimates differ by centuries) what & where the Sea of Reeds
was & precisely what actually happened there are things we have to guess a good deal
I don't see the historical character of the Flood as nearly so central to the
biblical story. The Flood story is important, but as part of the material which
expresses a connection of the history of Israel (& thus Jesus) with universal history.
I think that there is an historical basis (Mesopotamian floods - which I know you
consider unsatisfactory but [see below] I'm not sure you can make a distinction between
"minor" & "major" adequate to justify your position).
Of course there's lots more in the Bible, ranging from historically precise
accounts (e.g., succession narrative) to essentially fictitious (e.g., Job). What I've
suggested is simply a criterion - & note that it's a _theological_ criterion - for the
importance of historicity.

> > I confess myself unsure just how much historicity you require & why that
> >particular standard is adopted. I think there was a real prophet Jonah, &
> a real
> >Nineveh which the Israelites hated a la Nahum, so there is some historical
> basis for the
> >book. But I know you're not satisfied with that - you want Jonah to have
> gone to
> >Nineveh, preached there, had lots of people converted &c. OK, I
> understand that
> >position though I don't agree with it. But in dealing with the flood,
> e.g., you say (on
> >a parallel thread this a.m.) that you don't care if Noah had 15 pairs of
> each animal, &
> >insist that your position is not one of simple literalism. OK, I
> understand that too &
> >am largely in agreement. But I don't see how your 2 arguments cohere?
> I am not concerned that minor details might be wrong in a story in the
> Bible. But I am concerned that major events might be wrong. Thus I don't
> have to deal with every single detail. WE know that there are
> transcription errors in the Bible, we know that there are numeralogical
> errors, we know lots of other things.

Sure. But I think you're not willing to admit that there are fictitious
elaborations of history, much less straight fiction, in Scripture.
AND - the question of how one distinguishes between "minor" & "major" is still
left open.

> But if there is no truth in the
> purported major events which are in principle verifiable like the flood and
> the Exodus then I see little difference between the Bible and the book of
> Mormon which also has events that are historically untrue but purported to
> be theologically true. There were no Jews in North America prior to
> Columbus. THere were no horses here then either, no stone walled cities in
> Northern North America, and no chariots. Yet the Book of Mormon talks about
> such things. They also can claim to be theologically true yet historically
> false if they want to.

But here I'd ask the Mormon, "What do you mean 'theologically true'?" - & would
try to turn the conversation to the cross & its implications, Trinity & justification.
There we'd be talking about issues in comparison with which the question of whether or
not any Indians spoke Hebrew is relatively trivial. The fundamental problem with
Mormons isn't what they think about American history but the fact that they believe in
polytheism and salvation by works.

> What exactly allows you to say that Mormonism is
> wrong if it isn't in the lack of historical support for their views. I
> would like to see you tell me why Mormonism is wrong without any reference
> to history or science.

I just did.

En passant - the Book of Mormon is, of course, historically spurious, but much
of it could be read by Christians simply as innocuous though tedious fiction. It's in
Doctrine and Covenants and The Pearl of Great Price that the theologically strange and
sometimes bizarre character of Mormon beliefs really show up.

> > The first thing we have to do with a text is try to discern what kind of
> >literature it is, & that includes trying to find to what degree it
> contains historical
> >material & what that material is. We shouldn't just jump right in & start
> mining the
> >text for doctrinal material. But the theological task has to be
> undertaken sooner or
> >later.
> Apply this to the Book of Mormon.

Sure. & my conclusion would be as above.

> >> I would go back to caution that if there are lots of theologies in the
> >> Bible, it is even more crucial that there be an objective basis to those
> >> events. If all we have is theology, then which theology is the correct
> >> theology? Some of them (like the passages that could be interpreted as
> >> indicating polytheism), are contradictory with others (like the passages
> >> that indicate monotheism). There is no middle ground in those cases.
> >
> > I still think you're making too strong a correlation between historical
> accuracy
> >("objective basis") & theology.
> I might be. But as I noted yesterday, I have to face the Mormons and
> Muslims in my extended family. If I can't use history to help me, what can
> I use? Telling them that my view is theologically correct but historically
> false doesn't do much for them. And frankly it doesn't do much for me
> either. Under those criteria, Mormonism or Islam might be fine and dandy
> being theologically true in place of Christianity. The claim that the early
> Genesis is theologicallly true but historically false places it
> (intentionally or not) in the same category as the Inuit Pea man story.

As I noted above, crunch time - especially with Muslims - really comes with the
cross. We can make a solid claim for historical accuracy here - though Muslims are
generally immunized against serious historical analysis here because of belief in the
absolute truth of the Quran. Moreover, this is our central theological claim. I think
the thing to do is simply to make that claim - as in the ASA paper which I sent you
earlier. Of course that may not succeed in converting a person, but that's ultimately
up to the Holy Spirit.

> No Christians have any disagreement about the claim
> >that Jesus died on the cross under Pontius Pilate, but there are quite
> different ways -
> >both in the New Testament & beyond - of speaking theologically about the
> significance of
> >his death.
> YEs, and if all we speak to are Christians then there are no real problems
> because we don't challenge our assumptions as others outside our religion do.

True, but this wasn't my point. Again, I was trying to show that historical
accuracy & theological ambiguity often don't go hand in hand. In fact, it's the very
messiness of real history which often makes theological interpretation more difficult.


George L. Murphy