2 Peter 1:16, Cunningly Devised Fables

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.

//This verse carries a certain irony, since it was definitely not written by an “eyewitness.” An unknown author, writing perhaps 40 years after Peter died, wrote in Peter’s name and soundly criticized any interpretation of the Jesus story other than one of stark literalism. For nearly 18 centuries afterward, Christians accepted a literal interpretation of the Bible without question. Critical analysis was discouraged, and dissenters were cautious about expressing opposing views. Even in post-Enlightenment years, new strands of fundamentalist Christianity surfaced, and literalism dominated Bible scholarship. Then, in the 20th century, a plethora of critical scholars began to question the Bible’s historical authenticity, interpreting many of its stories allegorically rather than literally. Books such as Esther and Jonah were recognized as non-historical, the virgin birth stories understood as parables, and so on. What brought about this new trend, and was it bad thing?

I’d like to emphasize that this new scholarship is not the result of trendy skepticism. It is rooted in several new developments in the 19th and 20th centuries that forced us to read the Bible differently. Some examples:

1. In the early 19th century, we learned to decipher cuneiform. It took time to conquer the various vocabularies, but by the end of that century we could accurately read Egyptian, Babylonian, and Assyrian records. Suddenly, the Bible was no longer our only readable record of the past. For the first time, we knew whether a biblical writer was writing real history, or using historical details as a backdrop for fiction or parable.

2. In the early 20th century, the discovery of Ugarit tablets made a tremendous impact on biblical studies. Now, we could read Canaanite literature, including poetry that proved nearly identical to Hebrew writings. Many of the Psalms are nearly word for word copies of earlier Canaanite poetry, borrowed from songs that were probably sung to the Canaanite god Baal. We began to recognize more fully the impact of neighboring nations on the development of Judaism.

3. More recently, the Dead Sea Scrolls have given us Hebrew texts as much as 1,000 years earlier than any we had before. We’re no longer forced to read apocryphal books such as Jubilees and Enoch in Greek or Ethiopic translations, and can go directly back to the original Hebrew, as we learn about the period and beliefs from which  Christianity emerged. Likewise, the discovery of papyri fragments of New Testament books several hundreds of years earlier than our earliest codices, pointed us closer to the original New Testament wording and meaning.

These literary findings are supplemented by scientific developments and archaeological discoveries, as both of these fields also flourished. We have convincingly verified many Biblical claims, while disproving other Biblical passages just as convincingly. Only if we continue to bury our heads in the sand can we continue to read the Bible as we used to. The last century has irrevocably changed the way we understand Christianity.

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