Friday, February 27, 2015

The Myth of the Gullible Ancients

One belief that is ubiquitous among those who write off Christianity is the suspicion that the persons who lived in biblical times were highly gullible. When I was an atheist teenager I looked down on the Biblical authors because I thought they didn’t understand the physical world and thought that it was inhabited by fairies and trolls at every turn. I found comfort in writing them off in this way. Richard Carrier in a recent episode of ‘The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy,’ said that "The average person on the street would be like, 'Oh you saw God and he spoke to you? That must be for real!' That was the order of things.” It is common to hear the Israelite ancients referred to contemptuously as superstitious and gullible individuals. To anyone who knows the Bible this is, of course, a laughable generalization.

As I read the Bible each night with my kids one of the things I try to instill in them is that these are not stupid superstitious people, and this is easy to prove. It takes no manipulation of the text or reading in information that isn’t there; it rests on the surface and can be scooped up without any digging at all. Almost every time a miracle happens in the text I try to point out to them the amazement people have. Tonight in 2 Kings 4 we read about Elisha and the Shunnemite woman. We got to the part where he tells her she will get pregnant in spite of her husband’s advanced age and the woman says, "O man of God, do not lie to your servant." I asked them why she said this and my oldest daughter was very quick: "Because she knew that getting pregnant would have been a miracle, just like with Abraham's wife.”

My daughter was referring, of course, to Sarah’s unbelief (Gen. 18:12) — and Abraham’s unbelief (Gen. 17:17) — at God’s promise to give Abraham a child in his old age. He and his wife laughed at the thought that she would ever have a child. Why? Because old ladies don’t have babies, and Sarah knew this fact just like we do today. These were people who believed in the regularity and stability of the natural order. The sort of people who laughed when a miracle was promised. They didn’t believe that God’s existence meant that the universe was a place of pixies, fairies, confusion and flux.

Skepticism is a frequent response to the miraculous in Scripture. Think of Moses, who expects skepticism when he comes to the Israelites claiming to speak for God (Exodus 4:1). Or think of when Jesus healed the blind man and the text says “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight” (John 9:18). Or think of Thomas who famously said “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20:25). Dead men don’t come back! These ancient, unsophisticated people which no knowledge of Newtonian physics or string theory react to the miraculous with the sort of healthy skepticism that we normally associate with Sherlock Holmes or Gregory House. Skepticism. From such gullible people! Perhaps they weren’t as gullible as modern folks cartoonishly imagine them. Perhaps people need to be educated on what gullibility really looks like.

Being sophisticated enough to know that miracles are weird and rare and out of the ordinary shouldn't preclude miracles.

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