Ancient vs Modern Reading

How Has Reading Changed?

Posted Jul 03, 2012

 After reading the post about "The Other Eve," Publius, a reader, requested I address the two creation stories in Genesis. SInce the Bible is a history of the Jewish people and their religious beliefs, the Bible, like other histories, is a collection of stories. It is not surprising, therefore, to find discrepancies in the narration. It's impossible to write a history with multiple authors without finding differences depending on who is telling the story, when the story was written, who wrote it, his point-of-view, etc., etc. If there are multiple authors and no discrepancies, someone has carefully edited out the differences.
    Publius noted the discrepancies in the creation story in Genesis which provide different narratives—that humans were created after other animals (Gen.1:25-27), that they were created before other animals (Gen 2:18-19), that God created man and woman simultaneously in his own image (Gen.1:27), that God created Eve from Adam's rib (Gen. 2:18-22). There are many contradictory stories in the Bible, including the New Testament. Since the Bible is a history, you find discrepancies as you would in any history. The important question is not that there are discrepancies, but why we are they retained? Why aren't they edited out? The discrepancies are kept to make us think.

    Publius brings up a critical point about reading the Bible—we have forgotten how to read it. The ancients used parables and allegories to make us think. Jesus used parables frequently—the story of the Prodigal Son, the Mustard Seed, the Lost Coin, etc. Parables don't give answers—they require thought.

     The Protestant Reformation, which advocated a personal relationship with God, resulted in many different denominations that interpret the Bible in different ways. Despite this diversity, we no longer know how to read the Bible. We read parts of the Bible literally and parts symbolically with no rhyme or reason as to why we read certain parts literally and others symbolically. Why did we lose the ability to read symbolically? Because beginning in the 18th century, Reason and Science began to dominate human thinking with the quest for simple logical, empirical (provable) answers to problems.

In the fifth century ACE, St. Augustine of Hippo explained that the Bible should be read metaphorically (symbolically), rather than literally. If we read the Genesis creation story as a parable, we perceive that the universe, including man, was created by a divine force, that all of nature is part of this divine creation, that it was created in stages, that God loved His creation and made man to care for it, and that something about us mirrors the divine. If we read the creation story literally, we reduce it to a children's story of seven days (as opposed to seven periods of time, seven being symbolic of the number of known planets—i.e. of the known universe at that time.) The order of creation—was it man or the beasts that came first—is a discrepancy that makes no sense if we read the passages literally, but if we read the story as a parable, the discrepancy leads us to ask what our place in nature should be. Likewise, if we read the story of the creation of Adam and Eve as  an allegory, Genesis 1:27 describes a divine force that created man and woman, and something about us resembles that divine force. But what is it?  In the same way, the two versions of the creation of Adam and Eve lead us to ponder the relationship of man and woman. In one version they appear as physical equals, in the second man appears unfulfilled without a female counterpart. Each story invites us to contemplate a different aspect of human nature—its divine aspect and the relationship of man and woman.

    Let's consider another biblical story—the temptation of Adam and Eve. As interpreted by priests for centuries, Adam and Eve are thrown out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying God and eating the apple (which is usually interpreted as symbolic of having sex). For centuries, the Catholic church interpreted this allegory to mean that sex is sinful and can only be engaged in for reproduction. But let's look at what the Bible actually says. The apple comes from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What Eve desires is that knowledge. What is the knowledge of good and evil? A conscience? Is it the knowledge of good and evil that makes Adam and Eve godlike? Consider Genesis 3: 5—"For God doth know that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." This story is much more complicated than we have been led to believe. St. Augustine's interpretation of this passage is surprisingly contemporary: the tree represents the order of creation, which Adam and Eve fail to respect because of pride and self-centeredness brought on by concupiscence—excessive desire, not just sexual, but by greed in all its manifestations. St. Augustine blames man's fall on his narcissism.

      For a refreshing and fascinating interpretation of the creation story that unites Judeo-Christian thought with Near Eastern religions  go to Orthodox Catholic Church of the New Age. In the 19th century, Nicholas Notovitch launched speculation that has gained more and more adherents that Christ may have studied in India. If this theory is accurate, it would link all the world's major religions. You might also be interested in Religious Tolerance.

    For centuries, writers have used parables, symbols, and allegories to present spiritual knowledge in a form that invites thought and evolves as our understanding does. According to the Bahais, God will send new prophets as we are able to understand their messages—as we evolve in our understanding. Similarly, Christianity and Islam believe their prophets will return, perhaps when mankind incarnates their teaching of peace and love. Enlightenment is multifaceted. As we seek enlightenment, we should realize that the divine manifests to the diversity of mankind in diverse ways, that each religion has much to teach the other, that it is only through assimilation  that we can come to a greater understanding of one another and the divine.