Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
And so we come to the evidence: objective evidence that the Bible is, um, unnatural, extraordinary, not like any other books. I’d suggest two lines of such evidence; we’ll look at the first one today, and a related topic later in the week. Next week, we’ll get to Door Number 2.
Door Number 1. Writing a book is hard. Just getting the facts right is hard enough (more about that next time); but doing it artfully, in a way that pleases the attentive reader, is really, really hard. Literary critics delight themselves in finding such artful devices in serious literature—for example, in noting how Willa Cather uses the imagery of wilting flowers to foreshadow the crumbling of the protagonist in the short story “Paul’s Case,” or how Dickens contrasts polar extremes in A Tale of Two Cities, or how an episode of Seinfeld weaves together a seemingly impossible number of storylines so they all come to resolution at the last moment: in one episode George, pretending to be a marine biologist to impress his girlfriend, pulls Kramer’s golf ball from the blowhole of a beached whale. (OK, that last one was ridiculous, and involves stretching the definition of literature almost to the breaking point. But give me some slack; I’m making a point here.)
The Bible does that: it tells a story—or rather, narrates and evaluates a history—in an artful way, bringing it to a resolution that leaves us amazed and deeply satisfied. (How is that evidence of the supernatural? If Dickens can do it, why do we have to bring God into the picture? Fair question. I’ll get to that in a minute.)
The Bible consists of two parts: the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament began its life as the Hebrew Scriptures. The Jews call it the “Tanakh,” which is not really a Hebrew word; it’s an acronym, like NASA or YOLO. The “T” stands for Torah, or “teaching,” which is the first 5 books of the OT. In the Torah we read about the origin of the earth, then that of the nation of Israel, then of the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai, including its stipulations. There’s a lot of talk (especially in Leviticus) of the priesthood, its clothing, its sacrifices, its calendar. Details.
The priests had to do everything a certain way. The amount of detail is overwhelming. Each sacrifice had its own purpose, timing, and procedure. And to the reader’s surprise—it doesn’t work. Oh, God forgives the sins of the sacrificer, and of the nation, but the sacrifices don’t really work. Every morning there’s a sacrifice, and by mid-afternoon the priests have to do it again. The next morning, the cycle starts anew. Every year there’s a Passover, and the next year they have to do another one. The sacrifices don’t last, and that means they don’t really work.
We finish the Torah with a nagging sense of disappointment. We want a priest who can make a sacrifice that works—one sacrifice that gets the job done. We want a priest who knows how to priest.
The “N” in Tanakh stands for nebi’im, or “prophets.” In the prophets we meet men who bring messages from God. But frankly, they’re disappointing too. Many of the messages are obscure. Nathan the prophet tells David that God will build him a house through his son, whom he names as Solomon (2Sam 7). But then he says the son will reign forever. How’s that going to work? And some of the messages are downright bizarre—what’s with Ezekiel’s vision of the wheel in wheel in a wheel (Ezk 1)?
Why are the prophecies so—hard?! Why can’t a prophet tell us—better yet, show us—clearly what God is like, what he wants, how we can know him? We want a prophet who knows how to prophet.
The “Kh” in Tanakh stands for khethubim, or “writings.” In the writings we meet the kings—their story in Chronicles, their writing in Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. We want them to succeed. Saul the Tall is (not surprisingly 😊) a failure, and God himself selects David, a man after his own heart, and we think he’ll succeed. But he fails suddenly and spectacularly, and his family disintegrates. His son Solomon begins well; God gives him practically infinite wisdom. But by the end he’s worshiping idols. Solomon’s son splits the kingdom, and after that the kings in David’s line are successful only rarely and incompletely.
We finish the Writings, and the Tanakh, disappointed in the kings, wishing for a king who knows how to king. It’s all disappointing, all unfulfilled potential, all promise and no really satisfying fulfillment.
And then we turn the page.
The New Testament
We meet “Jesus Christ, the son of David, the Son of Abraham” (Mat 1.1)—perfect prophet, priest, king, who reveals God to us perfectly (Jn 1.1-18), who offers—himself!—as the perfect and final offering (Heb 10.1-13), who reigns now and forever in perfect righteousness and justice (Lk 1.33; Rev 11:15). The Gospels tell us what he said and did; Acts tells us about his successors; the epistles tell us what it all means; and Revelation tells us how it all ends.
A perfect story. Plot, character, storyline. Rising action, climax, denouement. Coherence, bookended by a perfect world destroyed (Gen 1-11) and a better world restored (Rev 21-22).
So how does that evidence a divine source? If Homer and Shakespeare and Dickens and Faulkner could do it, why couldn’t an ancient writer?
Here’s the thing. There was no “ancient writer.” There were about 40 of them, living across about 1500 years. (Yes, critical scholars would say more like 1000 years, but even if they’re right—and they’re not—the point still stands.) None of the writers ever met most of the other writers.
So how did they do it? How did they write a coherent, cohesive, artful narrative? It wasn’t some talented editor who came along at the end and pieced it all together from earlier sources; the OT was in place and ordered before any of the NT was written. The OT writers couldn’t possibly have known the end, and the NT writers couldn’t possibly have influenced or edited the OT writers.
Only an editor could do that. An editor who oversaw the entire process, beginning to end.
PS To be fair, if a book contradicts itself, it’s not really coherent. There are lots of accusations of contradiction in the Bible. In the next post, we’ll talk about that.