bible_1.jpgThose of us who are engaged as students and scholars of religion and who are also engaged as cultural critics are familiar with the notion of “Idolatry of the Bible” or “Bibliolatry.” This is the perception that the Bible itself, as a physical book and especially as “information” is revered and respected to degrees that mirror idol-worship as described in the Bible itself. But there is another aspect here that isn’t talked about as much, but which is probably as prevalent. This is the recognition that the Bible does function as an idol and object of worship for “those guys” and, as such, worthy of iconoclastic attack.

What is mentioned even less, though, is that for the most part the same criteria is used to justify “Bibliolatry” and “Biblioclasm,” and I’d like to introduce this with another neologism: Historidolatry, or “Idolatry of History.” It’s an obsession with forcing the Bible to conform with our own criteria of historical veracity; the former put history to use in order to justify everything from literal, historical 6 day creation, suns standing still to prolong a battle, and Exodus and conquest stories to Noah’s Flood or the historical facticity of Job’s narrative. The Biblioclasts, on the other hand, put history to work precisely to argue that too much of the Bible’s contents are patently unhistorical. The assumption is the same; the Bible stands or falls on whether or not the Bible is “historically true.”

Now, obviously, a knowledge of the history, culture, and so on of both the events the Bible relates, as well as the historical and cultural events during the composition of the individual books, pericopes, and what-have-you, is critical. Not only that, but the Bible itself iners or even insists that certain things, in order for them to have value, had to have occured in historical time or they are worthless (as Paul insists about the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15). But this is completely different than saying that the whole thing stands on this assumption, and in fact, is complicated by the fact that the Bible often gives several different versions of the same events! What the Bible is great at is recognizing that an event happened and that the event is important for community identity, and it is particularly good at preserving how different people (in different historical time, as well) remembered and represented those events. It is not especially good at giving us the event itself. We reduce the Bible to our own terms, either in defense of it, or in criticism of it, when we apply the criteria of history as the biblical standard of truth. Instead, the Bible is the testimony of a variety of witnesses, all of whom testify to the reality of God in the lives of individuals and communities.

I suggest a different tack. Since the tasks of neither history nor of the study of religion is to “prove” or “disprove” the Bible or faith, we need to employ history and the study of religion (at least, for those of us involved in “biblical religions”) to better understand and especially appreciate what it actually is that Bible (and other scriptures) is testifying to and proclaiming. Here, the so-called Bibliolatrists are on the right track; let’s put history and the study of religion to work as an aid to understanding and appreciating biblical religion, rather than as a wrecking-ball. But on the other hand, the Biblioclasts have something to offer as well, which is it recognizes the various degrees of biblical testimony and can provide people of faith, and scholars as well, with better contextual accounting for these variations.

The bottom line is that the Bible isn’t a history textbook, and despite well-meaning apologetic education and more mean-spirited critical projects, treating it as a textbook, rather than a collection of testimonies to the reality of God in ancient communities, produces shallow faith on the one hand and critical fundamentalism on the other. Biblical revelation, and its representations in the Bible itself, is conditioned by historical context, and we do ourselves enormous favors by paying attention to these contexts, but revelation cannot, and should not, be reduced to modernist criteria that negates and replaces “faith in things unseen.”