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Old 10-01-2013, 10:36 AM   #1
Barbarian
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Question Biblical literalism a recent phenomenon?

I keep encountering the claim that biblical literalism and especially YEC is a relatively recent phenomenon, couple of centuries old, reaction to the Enlightenment etc., and that the common knowledge to the contrary is false. But never ever have I encountered an explanation I could stomach as to why should the common knowledge be false, why should we think early and medieval Christians weren't literalists. I was provided with the following reasons:

1) nobody could be so stupid as to believe that six-days creation and a global Flood were literal pieces of history, therefore they didn't.
2) those ancient writers would occasionally write fiction, well, the Bible is one of those fictions and everyone knew this (presumably otherwise they would have believed it literally, but the general knowledge of these being myths prevented it).
3) medieval Christians weren't literalists and YECs because they did not define themselves so in the absence of noticeable opposition. So they might have believed the world to be a couple of thousands of years old, created in six days and flooded completely once, but they did not label themselves literalists, so they weren't.
4) we have sermons and tractates from those ages explaining e.g. the symbolic meaning of Noah's Flood, therefore they thought of it as exclusively symbolic.
5) it is well known that this is the case, it is a truth that has been long established in the scholarly community. (I wish I was joking here.)

I don't feel these arguments can hold any water, but on the other hand, I know of no other explanations. So what is the state of art thinking on the subject, why do mostly liberal Christians hold this opinion?
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Old 10-01-2013, 12:32 PM   #2
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It partly depends on what you mean by literalism and partly on exactly which Ancient Christians one is referring to.

Ancient Christians held some views that would nowadays be widely seen as literalist. However they sometimes held positions that modern literalists would find objectionable. See for example Alister McGrath on Augustine augustine-of-hippo-on-creation-and-evolution

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Old 10-01-2013, 12:57 PM   #3
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My impression is that the OP is totally mistaken, although there is little question that views change over time.

For example, we have discussed how the Jews probably started using Tefillin in the second temple era, as a result of interpreting the biblical verses literally (aside from the fact that it's not clear what they mean). The purity laws also seem to have been interpreted more stringently in Hasmonean and 1st century times than they were previously.

I've also mentioned here and there that the Midrash was probably interpreted literally for many hundreds of years, for example, the view that the Sea of Reeds split into a separate channel for each tribe during the Exodus was considered mandatory.

Regarding the Christian crap, I bow to Andrew's greater knowledge, but you have witch trials and the inquisition going on in the middle ages (not to mention Galileo) so without some documentation on what got more literal a few hundred years ago, the premise seems somewhat absurd.

On the other hand, one has to wonder about the creation account, where God creates domesticated animals. People knew how to breed animals, and it's peculiar that they wouldn't be able to figure out that sheep, goats, etc were once not domesticated.
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Old 10-01-2013, 04:39 PM   #4
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I looked into the view of the early church fathers on Noah's flood a while ago. I didn't find anyone who didn't think it was actual event.

The idea that literalism is a recent phenomenon is a liberal proganda.
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Old 10-01-2013, 09:42 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by Barbarian View Post
I keep encountering the claim that biblical literalism and especially YEC is a relatively recent phenomenon, couple of centuries old, reaction to the Enlightenment etc., and that the common knowledge to the contrary is false. But never ever have I encountered an explanation I could stomach as to why should the common knowledge be false, why should we think early and medieval Christians weren't literalists.
As a doctrine, Biblical literalism is a modern phenomenon. As Andrew notes, some early Christians have been more literal than others. But most early educated Christians weren't "literalists" in the modern sense. The reason for this I suspect is that most educated Jewish writers weren't literalists, and Christians inherited that intellectual view of Scripture.

This is from Origen's "Contra Celsus", writing around 1800 years ago:
It was not only, however, with the (Scriptures composed) before the advent (of Christ) that the Spirit thus dealt; but as being the same Spirit, and (proceeding) from the one God, He did the same thing both with the evangelists and the apostles, as even these do not contain throughout a pure history of events, which are interwoven indeed according to the letter, but which did not actually occur.

Nor even do the law and the commandments wholly convey what is agreeable to reason. For who that has understanding will suppose that the first, and second, and third day, and the evening and the morning, existed without a sun, and moon, and stars? and that the first day was, as it were, also without a sky?

And who is so foolish as to suppose that God, after the manner of a husbandman, planted a paradise in Eden, towards the east, and placed in it a tree of life, visible and palpable, so that one tasting of the fruit by the bodily teeth obtained life? and again, that one was a partaker of good and evil by masticating what was taken from the tree? And if God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally. Cain also, when going forth from the presence of God, certainly appears to thoughtful men as likely to lead the reader to inquire what is the presence of God, and what is the meaning of going out from Him.

And what need is there to say more, since those who are not altogether blind can collect countless instances of a similar kind recorded as having occurred, but which did not literally take place?

Nay, the Gospels themselves are filled with the same kind of narratives; e.g., the devil leading Jesus up into a high mountain, in order to show him from thence the kingdoms of the whole world, and the glory of them. For who is there among those who do not read such accounts carelessly, that would not condemn those who think that with the eye of the body--which requires a lofty height in order that the parts lying (immediately) under and adjacent may be seen--the kingdoms of the Persians, and Scythians, and Indians, and Parthians, were beheld, and the manner in which their princes are glorified among men?

And the attentive reader may notice in the Gospels innumerable other passages like these, so that he will be convinced that in the histories that are literally recorded, circumstances that did not occur are inserted.
Origen was commissioned by his patron Ambrose to compose a response to pagan philosopher Celsus' "True Discourse", which was an attack on Christianity. So Origen's point that "I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history having taken place in appearance, and not literally" suggests that his view was not an uncommon one.

Origen also writes here that:
Before we begin our reply, we have to remark that the endeavour to show, with regard to almost any history, however true, that it actually occurred, and to produce an intelligent conception regarding it, is one of the most difficult undertakings that can be attempted, and is in some instances an impossibility.

For suppose that some one were to assert that there never had been any Trojan war, chiefly on account of the impossible narrative interwoven therewith, about a certain Achilles being the son of a sea-goddess Thetis and of a man Peleus, or Sarpedon being the son of Zeus, or Ascalaphus and Ialmenus the sons of Ares, or AEneas that of Aphrodite, how should we prove that such was the case, especially under the weight of the fiction attached, I know not how, to the universally prevalent opinion that there was really a war in Ilium between Greeks and Trojans?

And suppose, also, that some one disbelieved the story of OEdipus and Jocasta, and of their two sons Eteocles and Polynices, because the sphinx, a kind of half-virgin, was introduced into the narrative, how should we demonstrate the reality of such a thing? And in like manner also with the history of the Epigoni, although there is no such marvellous event interwoven with it, or with the return of the Heracleidae, or countless other historical events.

But he who deals candidly with histories, and would wish to keep himself also from being imposed upon by them, will exercise his judgment as to what statements he will give his assent to, and what he will accept figuratively, seeking to discover the meaning of the authors of such inventions, and from what statements he will withhold his belief, as having been written for the gratification of certain individuals.

And we have said this by way of anticipation respecting the whole history related in the Gospels concerning Jesus, not as inviting men of acuteness to a simple and unreasoning faith, but wishing to show that there is need of candour in those who are to read, and of much investigation, and, so to speak, of insight into the meaning of the writers, that the object with which each event has been recorded may be discovered.
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Old 10-01-2013, 09:50 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by GakuseiDon View Post
As a doctrine, Biblical literalism is a modern phenomenon. As Andrew notes, some early Christians have been more literal than others. But most early educated Christians weren't "literalists" in the modern sense. The reason for this I suspect is that most educated Jewish writers weren't literalists, and Christians inherited that intellectual view of Scripture.
You may suspect this idea of christian inheritance, but there is no reason for you to do so, no evidence.

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Originally Posted by GakuseiDon View Post
This is from Origen's "Contra Celsus",...
Origen is the closest thing in the era to a scholar in the christian church father ranks. Not necessarily a good reflection of the rank and file reality, is he?
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Old 10-02-2013, 05:08 AM   #7
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I looked into the view of the early church fathers on Noah's flood a while ago. I didn't find anyone who didn't think it was actual event.
Yes, I haven't come across such a viewpoint either. I suspect that some kind of flood was thought to have occurred at least once by most ancient people, who found sea-shells at the tops of mountains; just as elephant skulls gave rise to the legend of Cyclops and ancient fossils gave rise to legends of other fabulous creatures.

For example, on the Flood, Theophilus of Antioch writes:
For Plato, as we said above, when he had demonstrated that a deluge had happened, said that it extended not over the whole earth, but only over the plains, and that those who fled to the highest hills saved themselves. But others say that there existed Deucalion and Pyrrha, and that they were preserved in a chest...

... there have neither been twenty thousand times ten thousand years from the flood to the present time, as Plato said, affirming that there had been so many years; nor yet 15 times 10,375 years, as we have already mentioned Apollonius the Egyptian gave out...
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Old 10-02-2013, 07:07 AM   #8
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Origen is the closest thing in the era to a scholar in the christian church father ranks. Not necessarily a good reflection of the rank and file reality, is he?
I doubt 'rank and file reality' ever entered into the NT literary compositions and the patristic texts. And it is clear that Origen's view was not an exceptional view in the church though he was considered a heretic later. Verses like 1 Ti 1:4, Titus 1:14, 2 Pe 1:16, and 1 John 4:2-3 show the figures of the scriptures were apprehended as mythological by some.

Best,
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Old 10-02-2013, 07:11 AM   #9
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I looked into the view of the early church fathers on Noah's flood a while ago. I didn't find anyone who didn't think it was actual event.

The idea that literalism is a recent phenomenon is a liberal proganda.
No, and it's nothing to do with being liberal either.

Once the Bible was the only source of "knowledge". It was taught as history and (after translation) was where children were taught to read because there was nothing else.

Literalism came in alongside fundamentalism as a reaction against Victorian modernity including advances in scientific understanding.
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Old 10-02-2013, 07:55 AM   #10
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You have to divide the world (ancient as well as modern) into believers who think about such matters and believers who are busy living their lives and don't have time to ponder the truth or untruth of the written word.

Right from the git go, some people with leisure time on their hands pondered the words of whatever scripture was floating around in C.E. 40+, and came up with all sorts of different answers...marcionites, gnostics, arians, semi-arians, etc. The polloi, as they saw the possibility of escaping into a better world come the great crossover, believed "literally" every jot and tittle of what the great thinkers were telling them. They either couldn't read, or didn't have time to do so. Much easier to just believe, and go on trying to feed themselves and their kids.

Not too different down through the ages.
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