Don’t panic!

You couldn’t make it up. Actually, you don’t have to – it’s there on BBC2. If Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou is to be believed, the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis have nothing to do with the early history of the human race. Instead they are actually about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586BC. The ‘fall’ is not the fall of the human race: it is the fall of the Temple. All that poetic language about a garden? The artwork in the Temple, described in familiar Middle Eastern terms as a paradise, a perfect garden. The ‘fall’ Genesis depicts may have been a traumatic experience for the Jews – it certainly was – but it says nothing about human nature, least of all that we are inherently ‘bad’.

Perhaps the claim made by Stavrakopoulou in the recent BBC series ‘The Bible’s Buried Secrets’ sounds shocking. They certainly should offend anyone who accepts the Bible as God-breathed Scripture. But they aren’t really all that surprising. In the academic world such ideas are far from rare: indeed in some respects they are ‘old hat’. The shaking of academics’ confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament, goes back a long way. It was in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, when confidence in the unaided power of the human reason to discover truth was growing rapidly, that any claim made by any book to be the result of action by any god began to be derided. From such poisoned roots grew all kinds of theories about the origin and nature of the Bible, none of which treated it as the product of the work of the Holy Spirit on its human authors. The roots bore fruit especially in the nineteenth century in Germany. In the 1880s, for example, Julius Wellhausen argued that the first five books of the Old Testament were a collection of documents from diverse, and even contradictory, sources, stitched together by editors who apparently couldn’t see the problems and contradictions in the material they were handling.

Such ideas became the reigning orthodoxy in academic biblical studies for many years. The theories have changed, but the underlying assumptions are much the same. In recent years scholarly confidence in the reliability of the New Testament has increased, but the Old Testament is still highly suspect. To suggest that Moses actually wrote (any of) the first five books would provoke hoots of derision. Dr Stavrakopoulou in a previous programme suggested that the record of David’s reign in the Old Testament is utterly unreliable, and pretty unhelpful in moderating Jewish political claims to possession of ‘the land’.

Depression or rage may be the responses that most readily arise when we are confronted by such fantasies. Wiser counsels should prevail, however. ‘Don’t panic’ may have come to be associated with burying heads in the sand in the face of situations when panic is in order, but we really shouldn’t panic. Of course it is a problem when such sceptical views are given wide currency on the media, and there will be people who listen and believe, (she’s a ‘biblical scholar’, after all), and who feel their unbelief has been confirmed and they have ammunition to use against Christians. Nevertheless, the Word of God, Old and New Testaments, has been under attack for centuries and it is still around, a best-seller that continues to transform the lives of men and women. It is good to know that there are able, well-qualified scholars who do hold to a high view of Scripture and who can answer sceptical critical views such as those of Dr Stavrakopoulou, even at a popular level. If we are troubled by such views, we should make it our business to search out the answers. And through it all we have the confidence that ‘the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword’ (Hebrews 4:12) and it will accomplish its God-given task.