Yesterday Justin Schieber tweeted some questions regarding Jesus, Noah, and Lot and his wife and he tagged me requesting a reply:
If you have a moment, I'd love a post addressing these two questions:
— Real Atheology Pod (@RealAtheology) May 22, 2017
Being the obliging chap that I am, I briefly tweeted a reply which I promised to expand tomorrow. And since that promise was made yesterday, it comes due today which was tomorrow relative to yesterday.
Regarding Justin’s first question on the historicity of the Noahic flood and Lot’s wife, it is worth noting that the question is vague. Which statements in the texts would need to have historical referents for the narratives to count as historical? (See Karl Barth’s use of the term “saga” to delineate a third term between “myth” and “history.”)
I avoided the problem of parsing Justin’s question by answering that there may be a historical correlate. The question of historical reference concerns hermeneutics: what kind of texts are we dealing with here? Is their purpose at least partially to relay correct information about past events? Exegetes disagree. For example, many view Genesis 1-11 especially as “prehistory” or “primeval history”. Raymond C. Van Leeuwen writes:
“Scholars use the term primeval or prehistory because the realities portrayed here predate writing. They are inaccessible to normal historical research, and the genres used are more ‘mythic’ than historical. (Mythic here does not mean ‘false,’ but a way of portraying reality.) These chapters describe pre-historical divine actions (the creation) that set the conditions for nature and history. The human actions depicted are also of a foundational, archetypal sort, condensing long historical and cultural developments into genealogies and parable or myth-like genres (compare Gen 11:1-9 with Isa. 14:4-20; Gen 3 with Ezek 28).
“Today these chapters cause confusion, even for preachers, largely because we bring modern expectations to texts whose issues and means of communication are different than ours. In particular, both ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ have brought scientific issues to the Prehistory. The former conclude that the texts are scientifically and historically deficient, while the latter strive to defend the Bible’s ‘literal truth’ in the face of scientific evidence for the processes of cosmic development, and the great antiquity of creation and humanity. Both approaches disrespect the text and fail to hear its message.” (“Prehistory,” 98.)
Of course, only one of our two narratival references (i.e. Noah) is located in this primeval history. Nonetheless, similar questions, qualifications, and challenges pertain to reading and interpreting Genesis 12-50 as history. Indeed, one could reasonably interpret these later chapters as extended prehistory qua the status of Israel as a people culminating in the creation of twelve tribes and exile in Egypt.
Just to be clear, neither the Christian doctrine of inspiration nor any of the major Christian creeds provide guidance as to whether these narratives should be interpreted as some form of myth/prehistory or whether they might have a historical referent. So we can set that question to one side and move on.
My second point was that Jesus’ reference to Noah and Lot’s wife (and Jonah too, by the way) underdetermines historical vs. narratival reference. In other words the fact that Jesus refers to Noah or Lot’s wife to make a point does not entail that Jesus accepted Noah or Lot’s wife as historical figures. He could simply be referring to them as well recognized literary figures.
Justin replied to this point as follows:
“I’m not sure about the underdetermine point. Each part is preceded by ‘Just as it was in the days of Noah’, ‘days of Lot.'”
The point, presumably, is that Jesus refers to the persons and events about them as being in the past, so the reference cannot be merely to these persons/events from within a narrative.
While Justin’s reasoning is understandable, it is nonetheless incorrect. Consider that the stock opening of the fairy tale — “Once upon a time…” — means at some past time. To be sure, I’m not claiming that the phrase “the days of …” was the Semitic equivalent of “Once upon a time.” Clearly it wasn’t. Rather, my point here is simply that referring to an event or person as past does not commit the speaker to the actual, past existence of the individual. And that was as true in Jesus’ day as it is in ours.
No doubt many in Jesus’ audience assumed the historical existence of Noah and Lot’s wife. Can that provide illumination as to Jesus’ own beliefs? Not really. At this point we need to say a word about accommodation. This refers to the good pedagogical practice of making adjustments in one’s presentation to meet an audience where they are at.
Consider the missionary Bruce Olson. When he went to live with the Motilone people in the 1960s he sought to bring good hygiene along with the Gospel. And that included promoting the use of a particular antibacterial agent within the tribe. Knowing that they attributed deaths in the tribe to demons, Olson invited his audience to look at the squiggling bacteria under a microscope. “Those are the demons that are killing your people!” he said. Then he applied the antibacterial agent and they watched the “demons” being killed.
Did Olson really believe the bacteria were demons? Clearly not. But he accommodated to his audience in order to make a more important point for the immediate context. That’s what good teachers do. So did Jesus believe Noah and Lot’s wife were historical persons? Perhaps. But it is also possible that he accommodated to his audience’s belief in their historicity in order to drive home the theological points he wanted to make.
My point is not that Jesus did accommodate in this instance. Rather, it is simply that the data presented to us underdetermines the answer: maybe he did and maybe he didn’t.
Now we can turn to the final point: the incarnation does not require that Jesus retained omniscience about all past historical events on earth. Thus, it is possible that the incarnate Jesus could have incorrectly believed that Noah and Lot’s wife were historical personages. This possibility is fully consistent with a full doctrine of incarnation. I won’t say more about that point here because I’ve already addressed it in the article “Why Jesus almost certainly had some errant theological beliefs.”