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Borrowing and Inspiration

I want to discuss inspiration just a bit, partly because it is relevant to my next post on Biblical interpretation (I hope to post it later today), and partly because there is someone on Twitter who is spouting a great deal of nonsense with regard to parallels and borrowing.

(For those interested, he is @BibleAlsoSays, he claims to be “Religion’s Nightmare,” and he has a rather routine web site by the same name. If you are a believer, don’t worry about going to the non-believers side. You’ve likely heard all these accusations before.)

But my purpose here is to take a quick look at the way in which we debate inspiration, particularly, but not exclusively, when we’re using the term “inerrancy.” I would note that the problem I’m discussing remains the same in any discussion in which some form of inspiration beyond an ordinary text is claimed of scripture.

I recall an e-mail discussion I had with a Muslim lady some years back. She seemed to believe I was a sincere Christian who might be willing to look at something better. We exchanged several e-mails, but her final attempt to persuade me can be summarized as: The Qur’an provides you with a clear and absolute answer for every question and aspect of life.

Now I don’t know enough about Islam or the Qur’an to say just how many Muslims would agree with that, though I have heard it from more than one Muslim, so I know it is not a unique argument. What ended our discussion was my response. I told her that I didn’t find that to be an attractive quality in a holy book. She was quite stunned.

You see, to her it was obvious that a book that answered all of her questions and gave her absolute ground on which to stand must be divine.

I hear the inverse of that argument quite frequently. There is some aspect or another of the Bible that someone thinks is inconsistent with divine revelation. They bring this to me, sometimes repeatedly, because it is so obvious to them that it is the nail in the coffin of my faith, and they are quite stunned when my faith doesn’t merely rise from the supposed coffin–it never got in it in the first place.

The problem, stated simply, is this: What are the proper characteristics of divine revelation, and how do you make that determination? In each of these cases, someone has determined what divine revelation must or must not be, and thus their argument is conclusive. Well, it’s conclusive if you accept their assumption.

Now some of you might be questioning me on another point, which is just how parallel the parallels are, and just how “copied” the copied scriptures are. This is a good question. While one may find strong parallels to the stories of creation and the flood, one also finds significant differences.

It is my contention, for example, that the Genesis account was not copied from the Babylonian or Sumerian accounts, but that the author was aware of other creation accounts and intentionally contradicted them. One need only compare the function of the wind in Enuma Elish to Genesis 1:2 to get my basic point.

But in addition, while one may demonstrate a parallel in certain places, it is much harder in others. Where in the ancient world do we find poetry comparable in style and theme to that of Isaiah 40-66? Where do we find struggles with God that are truly like those of Jeremiah?

But valid as those points are, I don’t think they get to the basic point, which is that we impose a set of assumptions of what a sacred text should be on various sacred texts, which would result in nothing more than selecting the sacred text that we find most helpful to the needs we feel. But is that a valid argument for truth?

I would suggest that a major part of the problem here is the attempt to select a religious text as standard prior to a “selection” of faith or a faith community. In my own experience, an acceptance of scripture was not logically prior to an acceptance of Christ, even though I knew scripture.

I might put it this way: The good news (gospel) is not that the Bible is true and you ought to obey it, but rather that Jesus Christ died for your sins and rose from the dead. I become part of the body of Christ first, and then accept the scriptures because they testify of Jesus.

Now I don’t want to make this a purely fideistic approach. I do believe there is a place to discuss reliability, but that place is within the context of the body of Christ and not as a sterile issue that simply attempts to demonstrate a body of facts. But at the bottom of my belief system, unsurprisingly, is an act of faith. Without that act of faith, the rest does not seem nearly so logical.

Apart from the conviction in my heart–you ask me how I know He lives / He lives within my heart–I would not be able to get past the impossibility of the resurrection. Let me add here that those who try to make the resurrection more “possible” do nothing for me. If the resurrection is “possible” in a natural sense, then it is also meaningless.

Thus, for me, learning about inspiration has been much more of a journey in which I look at how God works. I learn more about how God speaks by looking at how scripture works–borrowing and all–than I do by reading specific texts that discuss inspiration. By looking at scripture I understand how God works.

There is one other point regarding borrowing. People who make an issue of borrowing in the ancient world seem to me to be generally unaware of literature. What we call mythological themes are repeated in literature all over the place.

To call this copying plagiarism, besides being anachronistic, is to ignore the passage of time and the contemporary standards of referencing. But saying that the Genesis story of the flood was copied from Gilgamesh, or that the first chapter of Genesis was copied from Enuma Elish ignores even modern standards. The standard movie disclaimer “inspired by a true story” might be closer to the truth.

To be effective, communication must communicate, and that involves using relevant themes. Mythological themes come from the problems of real life, and it should not be surprising at all that they are repeated multiple times.

I would add one final note, though this blog post is getting too long. In establishing parallels, one must look at both similarities and dissimilarities. One can make almost any two stories seem parallel if one is permitted to list only similarities. On the other hand, one can prove that two stories are not at all parallel if one is permitted to list only dissimilarities. You can only establish some form of true relationship when you consider both, and in addition account for universal themes.

For me, the study of parallels is a completely relaxed process of looking at how scripture communicates–a wonderful blend of human and divine. Without the human, it could not be said to communicate; without the divine it would have nothing to communicate.

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  1. terri says:

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed this post.

  2. Lifewish says:

    Heya, sorry I’ve been out of the loop lately. My company’s been sending me off to places that don’t have no intarweb access.

    This is just one of my usual requests for confirmation that you’re saying what I think you’re saying. If I understand correctly, under your approach, people who try to use Biblical texts to demonstrate the truth of Christianity have got the cart firmly before the horse. Correct?

    The only comment I’d make is that, as I’ve probably mentioned before, this approach doesn’t give us any non-subjective way of choosing between e.g. Christianity and atheism. I respect the consistency of your approach, but I get very antsy when things cease to be subject to evidence-based analysis.

    1. I understand out of the loop. I’ve been blogging much less because of my business–and I’m self-employed. Nasty boss I have!

      You are precisely right as to what I am saying, and yes, there is a subjective element. Personally, I hold that there is always a subjective element to faith, and that it must be so.

      I do leave open the possibility that one might find an objective way to decide between faith communities, but I have never been able to figure out any plausible scheme.

      What I find in reality is that religious communities determine what constitutes an inspired text, and then reinforce that.

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