Results tagged “ancient Near East” from Reformation21 Blog

Noel Weeks on Biblical Background

There is great confusion today about the role and possible influence of ancient Near Eastern texts on the Old Testament, particularly the opening chapters of Genesis. Last fall, Dr. Noel Weeks, expert historian and Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at the University of Sydney, did an outstanding two part article series for reformation21 on the subject of Biblical background.

Part One is here

Part Two is here

William Evans and the Days of Creation

Prof. William Evans of Erskine College has taken on Al Mohler on the days of creation, among other things. Steve Hays at Triablogue has offered a thorough response here

HT: The Aquila Report

Modern Debate Over Ancient Texts

[Editor's Note: This is the first post Rev. Wynne wrote in response to Dr. Evans, which was inadvertently removed last week. We repost it here in its entirety.]

Dr. Evans has recently graced this forum with some thought provoking comments on the Scriptural doctrine of perspicuity and the church's handling of her confessions, particularly as these areas might bear on readings of the Genesis creation account.  I appreciate many of his insights and have no desire at this point to send my dog into the fray of particular creation views. I do believe, however, that short of that larger issue, three (nearly identical) comments by Dr. Evans deserve comment. 
The first is the lament, cited from a previous Evans article, that some six-day creationists have "failed to take any stock of the enormous amount of data from comparative studies of ancient Near Eastern literature suggesting that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of a cosmology quite coherent to the ancients, but which we ourselves do not share." None of us, after all, he adds, "believes in a literal 'firmament,' or in 'pillars of heaven,' or in 'windows of heaven,' or in 'fountains of the deep,' at least as these biblical terms were apparently understood by the ancients."
The second and more recent comment was, again, that literal six-day advocates have given too little attention "to how this material [i.e., Genesis 1] would have been read in its original ancient Near Eastern context and to the implications of that ANE data for how we should read the text today."  Third, he adds afresh in the same article that the "ANE comparative data suggest[s] that the narrative in Genesis 1 is framed in terms of an ancient cosmology that we do not share" and that "the mass of scientific evidence suggest[s] that the cosmos is much older" than the Westminster Divines imagined.
By this drumbeat of assertion that Genesis 1 is "framed" by an ancient and now discredited cosmology, Dr. Evans clearly (to me at least) is assuming that the Old Testament writers espoused this invalid cosmology as a reliable description of the physical world--that their appropriation of ANE mythical features led them to believe in "a literal 'firmament,'" "pillars of heaven," and so on, cosmic elements we now know do not exist.
Unless I am missing something, the message conveyed in the three statements I quote is that Christians cannot rightly accept the biblical writers' cosmology in every detail since an "enormous amount" of relevant ancient Near Eastern data has revealed that they (unconsciously?) absorbed mythical cosmological elements from surrounding pagan cultures, erroneously believed them to be true, and then wrote their erroneous understanding into the pages of Scripture. 
At the point, I am compelled to ask: Is it really the case that the Bible presents "an ancient cosmology that we do not share", because it is erroneous? Doesn't the Reformed doctrine of inspiration hold that the omnicompetent Spirit, who searches the unfathomable depths of God's omniscience (1 Cor 2:10), is the determinative agent who has issued the written text of Scripture down to its very words? And as the "Spirit of truth" (John 16:13), did He not guide the biblical writers into all truth--indeed, could He do any other thing--barring any speck of error that might have otherwise intruded into the text of holy Scripture on account of the writers' biases, confusion, ignorance, weaknesses, and, yes, exposure to faulty cosmologies? As I see it, Christians are obligated to receive the cosmology of Genesis in every detail as the inviolable truth that trumps any competing scientific claim and rebukes every pagan worldview because, as the Divines put it, it is the Word of God.
So what are we to make of the parallels between Scripture's teaching and the ANE literature? Aside from the profound debate that still rages over the nature and extent of such parallels, Reformed and evangelical scholars have suggested that they reflect the Bible's (1) polemical treatments of false worldviews; (2) infallible interpretation of general revelation that was partially grasped by pagan writers; (3) infallible appropriations of an older tradition to which pagan writers fallibly bore witness; or (4) demythologized elements of ANE concepts incorporated into Scripture as poetic idiom (see G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism [Wheaton: Crossway, 2008], 28-29). All of these options maintain the integrity of the Bible's inerrancy in that none suggests that the biblical writer unwittingly imbibed faulty elements from his pagan surroundings. Likewise, all of them appeal to the absolute wisdom of the Spirit speaking in the Scriptures as the final authority on all matters, especially ANE myths. Readers may be surprised to know that even Meredith Kline, the functional patriarch of the controversial "framework hypothesis," called the pagan cosmogonic myth "a garbled, apostate version, a perversion, of pristine traditions of primordial historical realities" (Kingdom Prologue [Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006], 28). The Bible, therefore, he said, "rejects the mythical cosmogony and cosmology root and branch" (ibid., 29).
The need of the hour, it seems to me, whether we are discussing the relative merits of competing creation views, confessional subscription and interpretation, or any other related issue, is to state as clearly and as boldly as we can that the authoritative nexus of meaning--the divinely sanctioned access point for the meaning of a biblical text--lies within the canon of Scripture itself and not in apparent similarities with extra-biblical ANE literature. This is an indispensable corollary of Scripture's authority and sufficiency that we lose to our epistemological and hermeneutical peril. On a related note, however informative ANE literature may be for studying isolated texts, we cannot allow it to norm our readings of Scripture nor determine what Scripture, as a whole, is. The book of Hebrews alone, with the scant authorial and extra-biblical contextual evidence available to us today, ought to check our dependence on background studies for interpreting the Scriptures and exhort us to read it, and every other biblical text, ultimately in light of its canonical perspective and place in the unfolding organism of special revelation.
Again, my purpose here is not to challenge Dr. Evans' view of Genesis or to criticize his helpful comments on the role of confessions. It is simply to issue a call for us all to put on the spectacles of Scripture, as Calvin put it, whether we are reading Genesis or the Epic of Gilgamesh, studying the Westminster Confession or doing some digging in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. Doing so just might bring some needed clarity to debates over what God has said is an essentially clear Scripture.

ANE in an AC World

I want to thank Dr. Evans for his extended and thoughtful response to my recent post on Scripture and the ancient Near East. In that post, I expressed my concern that his appeals to ANE data for reading Genesis 1 imputed error to the writers of Scripture in their expressed understanding of the cosmos--error that we, the more scientifically enlightened, now recognize for what it is. I also suggested that this line of reasoning and conclusion are inconsistent with Scripture's inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority. I trust that the readers of this blog will indulge this clarifying response. By it, I mean to convey my abiding, and now, intensified concern regarding Dr. Evans' apparent position.

Dr. Evans perceives that my view of inspiration allows for "no hint of human limitation or error evident anywhere in the text of Scripture", nor even error (or limitations?) in the human writers' "underlying assumptions". Well, I certainly reject that Scripture contains errors. But nowhere in the quote Evans offers do I deny that the biblical writers were finite or occasionally ignorant (see, e.g., 1 Cor 1:16; Dan 12:8; Acts 1:6). As for faulty "underlying assumptions", how might any of us gauge this other than by examining what they wrote? (This question also echoes my original concern about Dr. Evans' use of ANE data, but more on that below). What I believe we must affirm, what I originally wrote, and what I believe Dr. Evans is on the verge of losing, if he has not already lost it, is that the Spirit who carried the original writers along (2 Pet 1:21) prevented any error from "intrud[ing] into the text of holy Scripture" on account of their finitude, biases, ignorance, pagan surroundings, and the like. The point then, as science intersects with Scripture, was not to pose an "antithesis" between the two, but to say that where they may diverge, science should not be allowed to find what it deems in Scripture to be erroneous.  Science should not be seen as the standard of whether what God has inspired is true. If anything, at those points, it is the other way around.
Later, Dr. Evans indicates that I said we must ascertain the meaning of a biblical text "without reference to 'anything extrabiblical.'" But what I wrote, what Dr. Evans himself quoted, what also relates to the heart of my concern over Dr. Evans views of ANE literature, and what I now fear he has functionally denied in his appeals to ANE literature for reading Genesis 1, is that we must find the "authoritative" guide for meaning and the "divinely sanctioned" locus of meaning within the canon of Scripture itself. This is just to say that the "infallible rule" for interpreting Scripture is...Scripture itself. It is to say that nothing extrabiblical--no matter how it may appear to "mesh well" with Scripture, and especially if what is being meshed is erroneous--may dictate the meaning of Scripture. For me to say that, is nothing but glorious, Westminsterian vanilla. Frankly, I struggle to see how Dr. Evans sees it any differently.

All of this brings me to my initial, very real, and now growing concern regarding Dr. Evans' view of the relationship between ANE literature and how we ought to read Genesis 1. In his most recent post, Evans reaffirms his belief that the biblical writers wrote like "primitive peoples" should be expected to write, using ANE terms to communicate ANE cosmological beliefs that we now, in our A.C. (After Copernicus) world, know were erroneous. In other words, what they wrote was wrong, and their error now lies forever exposed in the pages of Scripture, and we should try to read through, beyond, and despite its embedded errors. The key today, he says, is to realize the "limits on how literally we can interpret" the faulty details we now understand are recorded in Genesis.

As I see it, using a "non-literal" hermeneutic for the purpose of evading allegedly faulty cosmological descriptions in Genesis is like holding your nose as you cross the front yard of your residence because you believe the neighbor's dog has paid a visit. It may get you to the street without risk of olfactory offense, but it does nothing to solve the problem you perceive. I take Dr. Evans' point that Scripture does not read like a modern science textbook, and that reading it faithfully means taking its genre and other literary features into account. But that is far different from saying that Scripture speaks error. Interpreting Scripture and finding error in it are two dimensionally different things. And I fail to see how it "effaces common grace" to say that modern science is not qualified to find error in Scripture. To be sure, science informs our reading of Scripture, but it cannot countermand what Scripture teaches.

A Reformed doctrine of Scripture--a biblical doctrine of Scripture--does not "pit Scripture against human knowledge" or common grace. It certainly doesn't deny to Christian young women an opportunity to study biology (!), as Dr. Evans understands my view to do. Incidentally, it may surprise Dr. Evans to know that I was a pre-medical student in my undergraduate days and even considered majoring in chemistry for years before heading toward the ministry. I have a high regard for the scientific enterprise.

I include that autobiographical point as background to what I hope is a future encounter. Were I to meet the young woman Dr. Evans mentioned, I know what I would tell her, and would encourage her to shout from the rooftops: a Reformed doctrine of Scripture (more precisely, a Reformed doctrine of the God of Scripture) provides the only sufficient foundation for any scientific enterprise to proceed, including a proper evaluation of extrabiblical ANE texts. Go boldly, then, and put on a space helmet, an archaeologist's hat, or a snappy pair of Visorgogs, but be sure to put on the spectacles of Scripture first, not second.