Commentary Magazine


Can the Bible Be Trusted?

Two new books lie on my desk. Both are about the Bible and the ancient Near East. Each is written by a scholar whose views are considered extreme. One argues that almost everything in the Bible that is commonly thought to be history is myth. The other argues that almost everything in the Bible that is commonly thought to be myth is history. Logically speaking, both cannot be right, although it is possible for both to be wrong. Does it matter?

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Thomas Thompson, a professor of Bible at the University of Copenhagen and the author of The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel1 is one of a group of Bible scholars sometimes referred to as “biblical revisionists” or “biblical minimalists.” His position, when first staked out in the early 1970’s, appeared so radical that he was, so he writes in his introduction to The Mythic Past, “shut out of university teaching” and “forced to make a living as a handyman and house painter.” Even today it places him at the far end of a spectrum of thought that has since become respectable, even voguish.

What do the minimalists believe? Although they have their disputes among themselves, all agree that there is no historical basis to any of the narratives in the Pentateuch or in the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, and the first half of 1 Kings—that is, to the Bible’s entire account of Israelite origins from the age of the patriarchs through the “united monarchy” of David and Solomon, traditionally dated to the 10th century B.C.E. “Biblical history,” if there is such a thing at all, begins for them with the separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the 9th and 8th centuries, of the existence of which there is independent confirmation in Assyrian records. The text of the Bible, including its legal codes, prophetic books, and psalms, is a literary creation whose oldest parts are no older than the late-6th-century Babylonian exile.

Not all of these opinions are exclusive to the minimalists. More moderate Bible scholars nowadays share some of them, too. Their quarrel with men like Thompson, or his Copenhagen colleague Niels Peter Lemche, stems from their belief that, first, starting at least with David and Solomon, the Bible is talking about real historical figures; and second, parts of its text predate the Babylonian exile and are possibly contemporaneous with the events they describe. In 1997, the biblical archeologist William Dever remarked to the two Copenhageners in a round-table discussion sponsored by the Biblical Archaeology Review:

If you guys think I or the Israeli archeologists are looking for the Israelite conquest [of Canaan] archeologically, you’re wrong. We’ve given that up. We’ve given up the patriarchs. That’s a dead issue. But the rise of the Israelite state [of David and Solomon] is not. . . . I agree that there is no connected history in [the Book of] Joshua, but maybe we should look at the Book of Judges. That fits a lot better with the facts on the ground as we now know them.

By “the facts . . . as we now know them,” Dever was referring to a revolution that has taken place in biblical archeology in recent decades, one partly triggered by the Israeli occupation of the Jordanian West Bank in 1967. Until then, the dominant biblical archeologist of his times was William Foxwell Albright, an American who began digging in Palestine in the 1920’s. Although no fundamentalist, Albright was a Christian in his fashion, and, happily for his religious beliefs, his and others’ excavations in Palestine and the Near East, together with the wealth of written material unearthed by them from the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt, appeared to corroborate the biblical record.

To be sure, apart from a single obscure reference to inhabitants of Canaan called “Israel” in the “Marniptah Stela” (from the late 13th-century B.C.E.), none of this material alluded to specific biblical events or individuals earlier than the 9th century. (A second exception, an Aramaic inscription apparently bearing the words bet-david, “the house of David,” turned up at a dig in Tel Dan in northern Israel in 1993.) Nowhere was there so much as a hint of an Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph; of an enslavement in Egypt or liberation from it; of an Israelite conquest of Canaan. Yet, broadly speaking, the more knowledge accumulated about ancient Near Eastern geography, history, culture, and religion, the more consistent with the Bible’s descriptions it seemed to be. What especially impressed Albright and other archeologists were excavations interpreted as showing that numerous Canaanite towns and villages had been destroyed and abandoned, and then resettled, during the 13th and 12th centuries B.C.E. Since biblical chronology pointed to this period as the time of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, what better proof of the conquest could there be? And if the Bible was, as Albright put it, “remarkably reliable” about Joshua, why not about Moses and Abraham, too?

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This confidence in the biblical text was first shaken in the 1950’s when the British archeologist Kathleen Kenyon began reexcavating the already dug site of Jericho—which, she now demonstrated, had been abandoned well before the 13th century and was a ghost town at the time that Joshua and his Israelites were said to have brought down its walls. It was only in the 1970’s, however, as a new generation of Israeli archeologists using more sophisticated methods gained access to the Jordan Valley and the hills of Judea and Samaria—the areas of central Palestine in which Israelite settlement supposedly first occurred—that the whole structure of Albright’s “biblical maximalism” collapsed.

Many other Canaanite sites, it now turned out, had also been abandoned earlier; others had been resettled long after; many showed no signs of a violent end, their depopulation being apparently due to causes other than warfare. Albright and his school, a growing consensus now held, had misread the evidence. And if the Bible was remarkably unreliable about Joshua and his conquest, why trust it about what had happened before or after?

A bit simplistically stated, this is the background for Thompson’s new book, a sweeping survey synthesizing current biblical scholarship from a minimalist perspective. The Israelites, The Mythic Past proposes, were not invaders of Canaan but Canaanites themselves who gradually abandoned their towns and villages in the Late Bronze and Iron Transition age (roughly 1600 to 1200 B.C.E.) because of a prolonged period of drought that forced them to give up agriculture; shifted to a seminomadic life based on herding; and slowly resettled their old homes and founded new ones when an improved climate encouraged them to “resedentarize” in the Iron age. Even as late as the 10th century B.C.E., their society was too primitive and decentralized to support the imperial kingdom ascribed to David and Solomon, who must be considered purely legendary—as must Solomon’s temple and the early importance of Jerusalem, a city lacking all geopolitical significance prior to the 8th century. As for the Marniptah and Tel Dan stelae, the “Israel” of the first has nothing to do with the people of the Bible, while the bet-david of the second should probably be read bet-dod, “the house of the beloved,” and be considered a place name.

And the composition of the Bible itself? Thompson now dates this in its entirety to the Hellenistic age, the period between Alexander the Great’s conquest of Palestine in 333 B.C.E. and the beginnings of Roman rule in 63 B.C.E.. Much of it, he believes, took place coevally with the writing of the Dead Sea Scrolls and early pseudepigrapha like the Book of Jubilees, and the entire project reflects the concern of a freshly emergent Hellenistic Judaism to celebrate “not an ancient nation” but “a new Israel,” a surviving remnant of a largely fictional “old Israel” that the Bible’s authors invented in order to appoint themselves its religious heirs.

“The point to grasp,” Thompson sums up, “is that the Bible’s stories . . . aren’t about history at all, and that to treat them as if they were history is to misunderstand them.”

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Like Thompson, David Rohl has been over-looked by the academic world; the difference is that he still is. Currently president of the lowly Sussex Egyptology Society, he and his work are not even listed in the lengthy bibliographies appended by biblical scholars to their books. Nor is his new, slickly illustrated Legend: The Genesis of Civilization2 which claims among other things to have discovered the historical sites of the garden of Eden and the beaching of Noah’s ark, likely to improve his academic reputation.

Despite a penchant for overstatement and an adventure-story style, however, Rohl is no mere sensationalist. Legend, with its profusion of detail, charts, tables, and archeological photographs, is as mentally demanding a book as Thompson’s The Mythic Past. Nor is it primarily about the Bible, despite its intricately constructed claim that the early chapters of Genesis and their fabled heroes, genealogies, and eponyms that even an Albright never took seriously as history can be correlated with real people, places, and events in ancient Mesopotamia and Assyria. Its main thesis concerns proposed connections between these two lands and Egypt, whose Pharaonic civilization, Rohl believes, began with a daring Mesopotamian conquest of the Nile valley in the neighborhood of 3000 B.C.E.

More germane to the issue of the Bible’s historicity is a previous book by Rohl, Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest (1996). In it, he recalibrates the accepted chronology of ancient Egyptian history and contends, by means of a complex chain of historical argument, that the so-called “third intermediate period,” a Pharaonic era traditionally placed between 1070 and 715 B.C.E., began much later. Since the years eliminated by him create a time vacuum, earlier Egyptian history must move up to fill it. Thus, the reign of the nineteenth dynasty’s Rameses II, identified by some historians with the Pharaoh of the Exodus, is transferred by Rohl from the middle 13th to the late 10th century B.C.E.; that of Amenemhat III of the twelfth dynasty is transferred from the late 19th and early 18th centuries to the middle 17th; and so on.

What does this have to do with the historical accuracy of the Bible? Everything, says Rohl. His calculations lead him to identify Amenemhat with the Pharaoh of Joseph, and the Pharaoh of the Exodus not with Rameses but with the mid-15th-century B.C.E. Dudimose. This enables him to relocate the story of the Exodus itself from circa 1250 B.C.E., where it has commonly been put, to circa 1450—at which point all falls into place. Joshua now arrives at Jericho just in time for its walls to topple; other Canaanite cities, too, are destroyed when they should be; and David and Solomon are pushed back to the Late Bronze age, from which there is archeological evidence of impressive royal construction not only in Jerusalem but in Palestinian sites like Megiddo, Hatzor, and Gezer.

Before he is through with this historical tour de force, Rohl has found the palace and tomb of the patriarch Joseph in the eastern Nile delta; discovered evidence of the epidemic that killed Egypt’s firstborn in the last of the ten plagues; located references to Saul and David in the el-Amarna letters, an 11th-century B.C.E. cuneiform correspondence between Canaanite rulers and the Pharaonic court; and proposed still other parallels between persons and events in the Bible and ancient Egyptian sources. “Without initially starting out to discover the historical Bible,” he writes, “I have come to the conclusion that much of the Old Testament contains real history.”

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Even if Rohl’s new Egyptian chronology should prove correct (and this is not an issue that a lay reader can judge), his theories are strongly flavored by what Thompson calls the “circular reasoning” of biblical maximalism. A good example is the treatment in Pharaohs and Kings of an el-Amarna letter written by a Canaanite chieftain named Labayu in Palestine’s central hills.

Since labayu means “lion” in ancient Canaanite, a language similar or identical to ancient Hebrew, and since Psalm 57, ascribed by the Bible to David while hiding “when he fled from Saul,” speaks of being surrounded by “lions” (leva’im), the letter writer or “Lion Man,” Rohl concludes, must have been Saul himself. And yet, while this conjecture is intriguing if one assumes that Saul and David were real people; that they lived at the time of the el-Amarna letters; and that David wrote the psalm in question, it becomes little more than unruly speculation when deprived of such assumptions. The whole problem, as Thompson puts it, is that “We are looking for the origins of Israel as we know it from the Bible, yet we are unable to confirm any biblical narrative as historical until we first have a separate, independent history with which we might compare the Bible’s account.”

But there is circularity in the minimalists’ approach, too. They, too, beg the question by positing that, in the absence of a “separate, independent history,” the Bible is not historical. What makes this premise any more logical than its opposite? It is one thing, after all, to claim that archeology disproves the Bible’s version of the conquest of Canaan.3 It is quite another thing to deny all existence to an Israelite leader named Joshua simply because there is no extrabiblical confirmation of it. Why should the burden of proof rest with the Bible?

Because, say the biblical minimalists, the Bible, when read carefully, is an obviously inconsistent, unrealistic, and tendentious document. Considered as history, it does not deserve our trust.

That may be so. But to put the matter this way is essentially to return the argument over the Bible’s historicity to its starting point when the so-called higher criticism first arose in the 19th century: that is, from the arena of archeology to the biblical text itself. What, then, does this text tell us about its own history?

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The answer, of course, is many things—nearly all of which have been commented on ad infinitum since modern biblical scholarship began. That the books of the Bible have different strands and different authors, for example. And that different parts of them appear to have been redacted in different places and at different times. And that not all of those who wrote or edited them shared the same point of view. And that all had some point of view that they sought to impose on their material. And that some of this material is clearly fanciful or imaginary.

All this is perfectly consistent with biblical minimalism. Yet two aspects of the biblical text, I think, are not. Both are literary—and what they reveal, curiously, is that scholars like Thompson and Lemche, who make much of the literary nature of the Bible, have, when it comes to literature, a tin ear.

The first aspect concerns periodization. Let us imagine, by way of analogy, that, due to the loss of all pre-19th-century records, the controversy over “who wrote Shakespeare” has, by the 28th century, grown so confused that a group of scholars proposes that Shakespeare’s plays were not written in Elizabethan times at all but were composed in the late Victorian age in an archaic Elizabethan English deliberately seeded with anachronisms. Would such a claim be credible? I think not. What serious literary critic would believe for a moment that even the most brilliantly versatile talent could produce Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream (let alone Hamlet or King Lear) in the era of Major Barbara and The Importance of Being Earnest?

And yet it is the close equivalent of this that Thompson asks us to believe when he proposes that the biblical Book of Psalms is contemporary with the “Thanksgiving Psalms” of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or that the passage in Genesis narrating that

And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And He said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of,

“shares a common intellectual world” with the passage from Jubilees that relates:

And it came to pass . . . and [the evil angel] Prince Mastema came and he said before God, Behold, Abraham loves Isaac his son. . . . Tell him to offer him as a burnt offering upon the altar. And you will see whether he will do this thing. . . . And the Lord was aware that Abraham was faithful in all of his afflictions because he tested him with his land and with famine. And he tested him with the wealth of kings. And he tested him with his wife and with circumcision. And he tested him with Ishmael and with Hagar his maidservant. And in everything in which he tested him, he was found faithful. And his soul was not impatient.

And he was not slow to act because he was faithful and a lover of the Lord. And the Lord said to him, Abraham, Abraham. . . . Take your beloved son, whom you love, Isaac, and go into the high land and offer him up on one of the mountains that I will make known to you.

This comparison does not tell us when Genesis was written. But it does tell us that the second of these passages is not only a commentary on the first but reflects a later historical period with a different theology, mentality, and prose style. None of the dozens of Jewish literary works definitely produced, like Jubilees, in the Hellenistic age has the outlook, tone, or manner found in most of the books of the Bible. And perhaps not unrelatedly, none has the grandeur, either.

But there is an even more important point to make—which is that, while the minimalists have been much influenced by recent critical analyses of the Bible showing it to be a work of highly sophisticated literary sensibility, they consistently play down the fact (which was a central concern of higher criticism) that this sensibility repeatedly behaves in strikingly unliterary ways.

Let us look at one example by returning to the story of David’s pursuit by Saul. In chapter 24 of 1 Samuel, a book widely regarded as one of the Bible’s literary gems, we are told how David has taken refuge in a cave that Saul enters to rest in without being aware that his quarry is inside. Stealing quietly up to the sleeping king from behind, David cuts off “the skirt of his robe,” waits until Saul has left the cave and is at a safe distance, steps into the open, and calls out:

My lord, the king. . . . Behold, this day, thine eyes have seen that the Lord hath delivered thee today into mine hand in the cave; and some bade me kill thee; but mine eye spared thee . . . yea, see the skirt of thy robe in my hand. . . . And Saul said, Is this thy voice, my son David? And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. And he said, . . . the Lord reward thee good for what thou hast done unto me this day.

Now turn to chapter 26. This time, Saul is chasing David in the “wilderness of Ziph,” where, pitching camp at night, he falls asleep in the midst of his sleeping troops. Stealing quietly up to him, David takes the king’s spear and water bag, retreats to a nearby hill, and calls out to Saul’s general, Abner:

Art thou not a valiant man?. . . Wherefore then hast thou not guarded the lord thy king? . . . And now see where the king’s spear is, and the bag of water that was at his pillow. . . . And Saul knew David’s voice and said, Is this thy voice, my son David?. . . I have sinned; return, my son David, for I will no more do thee harm.

It does not take the tools of higher criticism to make us realize that these are two different versions of the same incident. Why, then, did the author of Samuel give us both of them, thus clumsily repeating himself in a way that no competent writer of fiction would dream of doing, when the two stories could easily have been combined and reduced to a single, more effective one?

The answer would seem as obvious as the question. It is that, while he wished to use his great narrative talents to their best advantage, he did not believe that he was writing fiction. He believed that he was writing fact handed down to him—and whether he thought that both variants had happened, or that he simply lacked the mandate to choose between them, he felt obliged to pass them on as he had received them.

Indeed, over and over again in the Bible we find the literary skills of its authors or redactors frustrated by such concerns. At times this takes the form of senseless redundancy; at times of internal contradictions that could have been ironed out by simple editing; at times of curiously irrelevant details; at times of obvious errata allowed to remain in the text; at times of tedious genealogies or legal codes that interrupt the narrative flow. And most of all, it takes the form of puzzling silence; for, considered as fiction, the truly remarkable thing about the Bible, often referred to as its “stark” or “minimal” prose, is that it constantly spurns opportunities for dramatic description and development that any skilled writer of fiction would seize eagerly.

Paradoxically, then, the very features of the Bible that have been invoked to call its historical reliability into question—its lack of unity, inner discrepancies, fragmentary nature, and arbitrary selection of material—most demonstrate its authors’ conviction that they had no right to expand or diminish the information they were entrusted with. They could shape it, craft it, even comment on it—up to a point. But that point was always before them.

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Although the Bible may not be telling the truth, then, neither is it making much up. It is using literary techniques to transmit a tradition—or, rather, a large number of traditions.

This is hardly a revolutionary proposition. It is what nearly all biblical scholarship prior to the minimalists has maintained. Nor does even Thompson deny the presence of traditional material in the biblical text. Neither he nor his fellow minimalists, however, quite face up to the implications of this, or of the fact that an oral tradition, unlike a text, is inherently undatable.

Let us reflect on this for a moment. Suppose I discover a manuscript written in Middle English and describing William the Conqueror’s use of artillery to defeat the Saxons at the battle of Hastings. Inasmuch as this battle took place in 1066 C.E., some three centuries before artillery was introduced into Europe, and Middle English ceased to be spoken in the last quarter of the 15th century, this text can be roughly dated to between 1350 and 1475.

But now suppose that I also come across a little old English lady who tells me that her grandfather, born in 1852, was told by his great-grandfather, born in 1764, that, besides using artillery at Hastings, William the Conqueror wore pink stockings on that day. What can I say about this? Well, one thing I cannot say is that the belief that William the Conqueror wore pink stockings dates to between the mid-14th and late-18th centuries. For, on the one hand, the old lady may be imagining or misremembering; while, on the other hand, the stockings could be a genuine detail passed down from generation to generation since 1066. The matter of the artillery is irrelevant to these stockings, since they could represent a tradition that is far older. Moreover, both artillery and stockings may be neither totally imaginary nor entirely true, but rather garblings of the truth. Perhaps the original story, born at Hastings but changed by centuries of retelling, was that William used archers and wore yellow gloves.

The same holds true of the Bible. Despite decades of scholarly efforts, there is no way that internal analysis—examining the Bible’s language, for example, or its cultural situation and background—can tell us when a biblical story originated or what its primal content may have been. Much has been made of such facts as that Genesis 24, which speaks of Isaac’s riding a camel to his uncle Laban’s home in Haran, is inauthentic, because Isaac would have lived in the 18th century B.C.E. and camels were domesticated later. But this is trivial. If Isaac, having ridden a donkey to Haran, told the story of his journey to his son Jacob, who told it to his twelve sons, who told it to their sons who told it to their sons until it reached the author of the book of Genesis, who wrote it down in the language of his day, camels might obviously have replaced donkeys at some point. So?

The fact is that we know a great deal about the transmission of oral traditions among peoples all over the globe—and what we know tells us, above all, two things: that such traditions can have extremely long histories, and that they constantly mutate in the course of them. Apart from such obvious fairy tales as Jonah’s being swallowed by a big fish, there is relatively little in the Bible that cannot conceivably be a distant echo of something that once happened. Unfortunately, distinguishing an echo from an echo of an echo is for all practical purposes impossible.

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Does it matter? Does it make any difference whether Abraham and Isaac existed or not?

To traditional Jews, Christians, and Muslims, obviously it does. But traditional believers are little influenced by historians. They have their convictions and do not let the disagreements between the Rohls and the Thompsons get in the way of them.

The same applies to present-day Israelis and Palestinian Arabs. Certainly it is no accident that, whereas a biblical maximalist like Albright was strongly supportive of Israel, the biblical minimalists tend to be far from that. If the Jewish people’s claim to a 4,000-year-old relationship with Palestine is largely imaginary, and the first real Jews were Hellenized Babylonian-Canaanite mischlings who projected a self-serving national legend onto the past, is not the better claim that of the “real” Canaanites—the Palestinians?4 But ultimately, few people are going to choose sides in the Middle East because of this. National myths and passions run deeper than the excavations of archeologists.

And ordinary readers of the Bible, those who turn to it for their own pleasure or edification? For them, one might think, the current debate over its historicity matters least of all.

Thompson, indeed, thinks that the very attempt to construe the Bible as historical is naively to miss its whole point:

The most disorienting difficulty with such readings of the Bible is that they attempt to transpose a perspective of reality underlying biblical traditions into peculiarly modern terms. They permit reflection on our reality, but not reflection on what was real for the writers of the Bible. . . . “Reality” for the Bible lies quite far from both this world and its events. “History,” like all of the events of human affairs, is, for the ancient traditionist, illusory. It is like the whole of this material, accidental, and refracted world in which we live. . . . True reality is unknowable, transcending experience.

Yet even if we construe the Bible as “mere” literature, is this an accurate literary judgment? It may be the way the Bible was read by Platonically-influenced Hellenistic intellectuals, or by medieval mystics, and it is obviously one way of reading it in a late-20th-century culture heavily affected by Buddhism and Eastern religion. But is this the biblical text as a discriminating literary taste experiences it? Its characters “illusory” actors in an “accidental and refracted” world? Saul and David? Abraham and Isaac? Would the mind still go numb each time it read of Abraham’s terrifying pilgrimage to Mount Moriah if we—if Abraham—had the comfort of knowing (as the prolix author of the Book of Jubilees thought he knew) that it was all an illusion? Is it because we are given to understand that Saul’s great love and great hatred for David are the insubstantial froth of an untrue reality that we weep with him?

I should think the opposite. The Bible, if read as literature, is unique in its ability to evoke in us the illusion that it is not an illusion. This is part of what accounts for its enormous hold upon men’s minds.

Who does not remember how he read when he was young? Greedily, gullibly, with that eager “suspension of disbelief,” as Keats called it, that, plunging into the midst of a story, forgot that it was in the midst of what was only a story? All fiction was history then. One may smile at childish innocence, but whoever has read great works of literature in this way, or even lesser works, knows that no book will ever again possess him in the same manner.

We mature. Our sophistication and discrimination develop—and with them the realization that all literature is artifice, and that the more gripping a story is, the more cunningly it is contrived. Eventually, if we become “good” enough readers, we actively look for the artifice, ferret it out, take pleasure in dragging it from its hiding place. But even if this does not happen, like the mother who whispers to her frightened child in the movies, we tell ourselves as Anna throws herself in front of the oncoming train or Jim leaps from the deck of the Patna: “Don’t worry. It isn’t real.”

Now—speaking from my own experience—long after we learn to react this way to Tolstoy or Conrad, we go on reading the Bible like children. It does not matter how many times I climb Mount Moriah with Abraham or look down at the sleeping Saul. Each time, I am convinced it really happened.

Conceivably this has to do with the religious education I received as a child. No one drilled it into me at the age of eight or nine that Anna Karenina and Lord Jim were true stories. But equally, it has to do with the biblical text. For its artifice is hidden with a cunning that surpasses cunning, with such a violation of all rules of artifice as to give every appearance of being artifice’s absence.

Surely this is the reason that contemporary literary criticism came to the Bible so late—in the same 1950’s and 60’s in which the seeds of biblical minimalism were first sown: not because literary criticism feared to tread on holy ground, but because it falsely thought that a ground so full of weeds was lightly cultivated. And surely this is one reason why millions of readers throughout the ages, although perfectly capable of recognizing a work of fiction when they saw one, have believed the Bible to be true.

This is not to say that the Bible, or any part of the Bible, is true. It is merely to say that it is precisely one’s sense of literature that tells one that it is not precisely literature.

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But does it matter? Especially, does it matter if one considers—as Thomas Thompson does—imaginative literature to be a high spiritual calling? Anna Karenina and Lord Jim are true, too, even if they happened only in the imagination. Why not be content with the same claim for the Bible?

The question is reasonable. I can think of two answers.

The first is that no one likes to be fooled. If the Bible belongs to the same truth-category as Anna Karenina, then I am fooled by it each time I read it. It is like watching a card trick repeatedly performed before one’s eyes without understanding how it is done. This is exasperating.

The second answer . . . but no: this would only be repeating the first in fancier language. One does not wish to be fooled. The Bible is not a book for children.

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About the Author

Hillel Halkin is a columnist for the New York Sun and a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY. Portions of the present essay were delivered at Northwestern University in March as the Klutznick Lecture in Jewish Civilization.




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