Frei Betto, theologian - 'The Bible has a soul, a religious spirit, but it isn't always right'

Frei Betto, theologian: “The Bible has a soul, a religious spirit, but it isn’t always right”

(Source: Frei Betto, Brazilian liberation theologian and Dominican friar; translation: Novena)

Bible scholars are divided into three camps: maximalist, minimalist and centrist. The maximalists, who are fundamentalists, consider the biblical text to be literally true. Long live Adam and Eve and down with Darwin!

The minimalists deny the historical veracity of the Bible. The whole story of Moses, David and Solomon would have been a great construct of fiction written by Hebrew authors to justify the logic of power in Israel.

The centrists are balanced. In the Bible, historical and mythical facts are mixed. Scientific research, especially archaeology, is able to separate the true from the false, thanks, above all, to the advance of carbon-14 technology.

Maximalists like Wellhausen and Albright used archaeology to prove their religious theses, jeopardising the principle of scientific neutrality.

Minimalists or deconstructionists, such as Kaefer and Finkelstein, argue that the biblical text brings together a set of legendary narratives mixed with historical events that occurred between the 9th and 6th centuries BCE. It is an ideological creation of the Hebrew scribes of the Persian and Hellenic periods.

Centrists read the Bible in the opposite direction to books’ canonical order.

They use the method of historian Marc Bloch, known as regressive history. They start from the context in which the text was written. Thanks to resources such as carbon-14, it is now known, for example, that datings to the Solomonic period of the 10th century BCE are actually from the 9th century BCE, from the kingdom of Ahab.

Did Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses and David really exist or are they literary creations like Ulysses, Don Quixote and Hamlet?

Until the middle of the 19th century, most archaeologists were pastors, priests and theologians dedicated to research with a pickaxe in one hand and the Bible in the other.

Now new techniques are employed, such as carbon-14, aerial photography, georadar (which reveals data from underground), paleomagnetism (based on the inversion of the polarity of the Earth), potassium-argon dating methods, radiometric dating, the measurement of the age of organic matter, thermoluminescence (to calculate the age of ceramics) and the interpretation of ancient languages. These techniques make countless documents and fragments related to the Bible speak again.

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Today it is questioned whether the supposed migration of tribes from Mesopotamia to the west, bound for Canaan, really took place. Archeology has yet to find any indication of such a massive movement.

The stories of the Biblical Patriarchs (2000-1700 BC,) are full of camels (Genesis 24:10). But the dromedary was only domesticated at the end of the second millennium BCE, and was not used as a pack animal in the Middle East for another thousand years.

Is the exodus, the forty-year journey through the desert by the Hebrews freed from Egypt, a historical fact? From the 16th century BCE, Egypt built military forts on the banks of the Nile to Canaan. Nothing escaped those garrisons. And nearly two million Israelites on the run could not go unnoticed. No stele from the time records this migratory movement.

This crowd could not cross the desert without leaving traces. What we do have are the ruins of villages of 40 to 50 people, that’s all. Unless the horde of freed slaves, fed by the manna that fell from heaven, never stopped to sleep and eat…

Scholars assume that at the end of the 7th century BC, Hebrew court officials were commissioned to compose an epic saga from a collection of historical accounts, legends, poems and folk tales, to serve as a spiritual foundation for the descendants of the tribe of Judah. A literary work was thus created, partly an original production, partly a re-reading of previous versions.

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The content of the Pentateuch or Torah would have been elaborated 15 centuries later than it purports. The leaders of Jerusalem began an intense campaign of religious education and ordered the destruction of the polytheistic sanctuaries of Canaan. The Temple was built to be recognised as the only legitimate place of worship for the people of Israel. From this came modern monotheism.

In the Persian period (538-330 BCE) the Hebrew people, after their exile in Babylon, lived in the small province of Yehud. They were economically and politically weakened. Their God had been defeated by the Babylonian empire. How could such frustration be reconciled with the dream of being the only chosen people of Yahweh? Thanks to the Persian Cyrus, who set them free, the Hebrews regained their self-respect by creating a collection of stories about the exploits of the one, historical, supranational God and Lord of the Universe.

From Abraham to David, the biblical narrative is a founding myth, like the Aeneid, with which Virgil created the mythical foundation of Rome by Aeneas. The defeated rewrote history, rose in an epic story above all peoples and rescued their identity.

Therefore, the Bible did not fall from heaven. It is the work of a suffering people, whose religious sentiment led them to strive to discover a new face of God and to recreate their historical identity. That was truly a miracle.

Archaeologists found inscriptions on the Sinai Peninsula that show that the Hebrews worshipped Yahweh and his wife Asherah. And Kings 23:6 records that Asherah was among other deities in the Temple of Jerusalem until the time of Josiah, who had her burned. This shows that Israel was not always monotheistic.

According to Reimer (2009), in its early days Israel was polytheistic. At the site of Kuntillet Ajrud, excavated between 1975 and 1976 by the team of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, ceramic fragments were found from the late 9th and early 8th century BCE, with the following inscription in Paleo-Hebrew: “For Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah”.

The Bible has a soul, a religious spirit, but it is not always right with regard to historical facts. Such scientific discoveries do not undermine faith, except for those who base their historical convictions on the biblical accounts.

Faith, like love, is a spiritual experience, a divine gift. And when it matures, it does not rely on the crutches of science, just as mathematics and physics do not have an equation that can explain what binds two people who love each other.

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More stories on Novena on the interpretation of the Bible:

Justification for the George Floyd unrest? Look no further than the Bible

Scholar warns of dangers of “nonsensical” literalist interpretation of the Bible

More on Novena by Frei Betto:

Liberation theologian Frei Betto says pandemic new ‘1984’: “Our fragile democratic institutions are under threat”

Good Friday meditation by liberation theologian Frei Betto: “We have a wrong idea of ​​the presence of God among us”

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Cameron Doody

Director and editor at Novena
PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.