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Gabriel's Vision, archaeology, and the authority of scripture

The interpretation of a recently discovered Jewish text by Israel Knohl, professor of Biblical Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been causing moderate fluctuations in the media and blogosphere. Opinions are divided over whether the text, written in ink on a stone tablet, is authentic, legible, or the sort of thing that could ‘shake our basic view of Christianity’. In case you’ve missed all the fun, have a look at an article from last year by Knohl at haaretz.com; the article in the New York Times that appears to have ignited the current debate; good commentary and discussion at the Catholic News Agency site, Cosmic Log, Scott’s Catholicism Blog; an English translation of the badly corrupted text; a useful Vision of Gabriel Watch at paleojudaica.com; and my own reflections on the possible historical implications of Knohl’s contention.

R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, quotes long sections of a Time article on the matter (‘Was Jesus’ Resurrection a Sequel?’) and then makes some general comments about the relationship between archaeology and scripture:

Archaeological findings are of great interest, of course. But the key issue is what kind of authority we invest in archaeology in terms of authenticating or disproving the text of the Bible. Christians err by accepting or investing too much evidentiary authority in archaeological "findings," whether considered to support or to question the biblical accounts.

Authentic Christianity is based upon the inscripturated revelation of God — the Bible — as our authority. In the end, archaeology cannot prove or disprove the biblical text. Nothing can be found, or not found, that should shake our faith in the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Word of God. Archaeology can expand our knowledge and understanding, but cannot establish the authority for our faith.

I find this sharp, indeed absolute, dichotomy between archaeology and scripture regrettable, not so much because I think archaeology ought to be allowed to ‘prove or disprove the biblical text’, but because Mohler’s epistemological anxiety has the effect of defending the truth or authority of the Bible at the expense of its essential historicality, its participation in history, its narrative and imaginative integrity.

Mohler insists ultimately on elevating the Bible above the uncertainties of historical research. It seems to me that the fundamental post-modern challenge is for us to allow scripture to sink back down into the flow of history, as it is variously and changeably constructed, and to find its power and authority and truthfulness in an unprotected, unprivileged engagement with other narratives.

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Re: archaeology and the authority of scripture

Somewhere between Mohler and Andrew is a place that I’m trying to situate my thoughts.

On one hand, I agree with Mohler that archaelogical findings "cannot establish the authority for our faith." 

Authority, I think, isn’t a matter of some raw empirical evidence.  It is prior to any evidence and is, indeed, a way of understanding that evidence.  A trusting faith in our Lord God is a living activity that one does daily.  Trying to live obediently under God’s authority is a way of seeing the world and engaging it, making sense of it, and narrating it.      

On the other hand, I agree with Andrew that "the fundamental post-modern challenge is for us to allow scrpture to sink back down into the flow of history."  But I have to qualify that agreement becuase I don’t think that there is a single "flow of history."  Whose history?  In a pluralistic world, there are many histories.  They sometimes intersect in fruitful ways and, at other times, they intersect in violent ways.  So my qualified agreement can be stated thus: "the fundamental post-modern challenge is for us to allow scripture to sink back down into the various histories and contexts in which they are presently lived."

We have to deal with both Mohler’s epistemological anxiety and with Andrew’s penchant for the big story. 

Re: archaeology and the authority of scripture

Jacob, my remark about the flow of history being ‘variously and changeably constructed’ was actually a conscious attempt to anticipate your consistently held view that in a pluralistic world ‘there are many histories’. I fully agree with you.

archaeology vs the bible?

The reactions to this stone tablet on which has been inked some interesting stuff does seem to illustrate the uncertain ground of much of our epistemology.

Leaving aside the ‘revelation’ itself, I am rather surprised that the issues raised have taken on a strong political colour, especially given the very many possible textual reconstuctions of the matter of the text itself. Conservatives are very defensive, while scholars in general have reacted with marked caution in the face of lacking provenance and the many critically significant deletions.

The issue has popularly become one of history vs the authority of the bible. One is reminded of the very harsh conservative responses to such theological giants as Bultmann and Barth that were a hallmark of conservative criticism-apologia from the fifties on in the last century.

Archaeology is of course supposed to be somewhat scientific in its approach and here we find a significant echo of the ‘bible vs science’ debates. One major issue that conservative scholars appear to be dodging is the whole question of the formation of the biblical texts and in these areas the ‘minimalist’ scholars like Van Seters, Lemche and Thompson do seem to have made huge strides.

I therefore have a feeling that the reaction to this particular tablet are more of a generic sort of response born of longstanding fears that the epistemological base of conservatism has been/is being all but completely eroded away.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: archaeology vs the bible?

Conservative scholars have not responded? Is it that or do you simply do not like their answers, because they have a different philosophy behind their historical method?

Truth is immortal.

Re: archaeology vs the bible?

Blake, I think that about sums it up doesn’t it?

That there is some philosophy ‘behind’ any method is true on all sides, but that this philosophy should then determine what facts on the ground can and cannot be accepted is to allow the philosophy to overule the very immortal truth that it in theory sets out to defend.

At one time humanity was convinced that the earth was flat and its philosophy assumed the same and disallowed any inconvenient ‘facts’ from indicating otherwise. Let’s not continue to commit the same mistake as that is to inadvertantly but actually deny the very truth of the very scriptures that we have taken it upon ourselves to ‘protect’.

Incidentally, while by no means a scholar, I daresay I am actually a conservative - though you may not choose to recognise me as such! You’re quite right though, I do find the ‘responses’ that I have seen so far to be very defensive and I do wonder why.

Live to serve : Serve to live

Re: archaeology vs the bible?

Let me say that I don’t think we need to be paranoid as to what archaeology may or may not say towards validating the scriptures. They may very well speak to the historical accuracy of the scriptures, but even if they did not, that does not take away from the purpose and place of the scriptures. They are not so much an account of history, but rather a narrative of what God is doing with his people. It demostrates God’s redemptive work throughout history and must be see with eyes of faith in order to be see in its proper light.

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