A Controversial Take on the Bible: How Unique is Scripture?

So we’re going through Peter Enns’s book, Inspiration and Incarnation. It’s got a nice alliterative ring to its title, but its contents have caused a lot of dissension. A lot of people really like what Enns is trying to do; more think it’s destructive of the Christian confession. As for us, we’re stepping through each chapter, looking at what he has to say, and hopefully at the end assessing the whole matter.

In chapter 2, Enns starts to deal with more of the evidence for the case he’s making. As a scholar of the Old Testament, he mostly employs examples from Akkadian literature (think ancient Mesopotamia and Babylon). Many of the texts he describes predate the Bible or come from a culture far older than that of the Israelites.

Enns divides his sources into three categories: myth stories, laws and customs, and the history of Israel. Since he’s writing a book and not a blog post, he goes into more depth on each of the texts he discusses; if you’re interested in more information, I’ve include Wikipedia links for further reading.

enuma elish

To start off, Enns introduces the ancient mythological story of Enuma Elish. In this Babylonian creation myth, the god Marduk leads a rebellion against the god of the sea Tiamat, eventually defeating her and ripping her in half to form the oceans and the sky. Later, by mixing together the earth with the blood of another god, Marduk fashions humans to serve him and the other gods.

While this ancient story is certainly strange, it bears some striking similarities to the creation story found in Genesis 1. When you examine the text of the Enuma Elish, you’ll find that the order of creation is similar as well as there being darkness in the beginning, the waters being divided below and above, and there being light before the sun is made. When this tale was originally unearthed in the mid 19th century, it naturally spawned heated debates called the “Bible and Babel” controversy. And while many overstated the similarities between it and the biblical account, there was certainly much to give pause.

After discussing the Enuma Elish, Enns moves on to other famous Babylonian myths: Atra-Hasis and The Epic of Gilgamesh. You’ve probably heard of the latter or maybe even read it in school. But all you need to know about them at this point is that they contain accounts of large (or possibly worldwide) floods in which there was a singular survivor.

Code of Hammurabi

Enns follows with a discussion of ancient laws, codes, and customs. Among the specific texts he mentions are the Nuzi tablets, the Code of Hammurabi, and Hittite suzerain treaties. All of these, Enns points out, in some way mirror customs and laws depicted in the Old Testament. They give the impression that the events of the Hebrew Bible—particularly the first five books—were right at home in the ancient world. We see in these texts other ancient people acting a lot like the patriarchs, and we see other ancient laws that look a lot like the divinely revealed Commandments.

(Fun fact: in discussing suzerain treaties, Enns points out that it is entirely likely that the two tablets the Ten Commandments were inscribed on were not for the first half and then the second half, but rather that they were copies—as it was customary for both groups to receive a copy when making a treaty.)

Enns also discusses in this section the Instruction of Amenemope, an ancient Egyptian work of wisdom literature. The Instruction of Amenemope, more than the other works mentioned, matches up with what we find in the Bible. In fact, an entire section of the Book of Proverbs (22:17-23:10) seems to be directly based on this preexisting work.

Mesha Inscription Stele

Enns’s last group of texts involve the history of Israel. He describes three important archeological finds for helping us understand the Israelite past: the Mesha Stele (which referenced the house of Omri among other things and parallels 2 Kings 3:4-8), the Siloam tunnel inscription (which is affirms 2 Kings 20:20), and the Tel Dan Stele (which has probably the oldest extra-biblical reference to a biblical character via the “house of David”).

These finds are important for discussions of historicity, but Enns focuses mostly on the Mesha Stele’s depiction of events from the perspective of the Moabites. Understanding how the Moabites (and all ancient peoples record history is crucial to understanding the Bible.

Section Break

Enns moves on to discuss how these different texts can worry people. The ancient myth stories can worry people—we fear it makes our stories too much like the stories we reject. The ancient laws and customs can worry people—we fear it makes the Bible not unique. The final section regarding Israel’s history can actually give people comfort because they seem to support the Bible’s claims—but when we notice the competing perspective of the Mesha Stela and of 2 Kings 3, we fear it suggests that the Bible contains biased history.

Enns deals with each of these three fears in turn:

Is Genesis myth or history? To answer this, Enns begins by pointing out that myth and history are a modern dichotomy. The ancients did not think in that way. For that reason, when scholars use the term myth, it’s important to realize that they’re not using it in a derogatory way or to say something is inherently fictional; a lot of the time, myth is merely assumed to be an ancient way of dealing with the question of origins and meaning; its an ancient genre in which modern science, history, and philosophy are all conflated.

With that said, Enns next addresses the common defense that these other ancient cultures based their creation myths off of Israel’s. He says this theory is unlikely based on the language and archeological evidence suggesting both the antiquity of the Akkadian myths and the youth of the Jewish accounts. Obviously, he admits you could argue otherwise, but there would be no evidence to support that position.

Enns also addresses the defense that the biblical authors knew better; they merely wrote in the mythic genre to accommodate to their culture. He views this idea as a cop-out—the biblical authors surely would have assumed the factual foundation of these myths.

What Enns wants to put forward is the idea that Israelite creation and flood stories are similar to other ancient myths not because they copied from one another but because they all lived and operate in the same context and with the same understanding of how the world works. This is most evident in how Israel, like other ancient Near Eastern civilizations, described the cosmos: as a flat world with the chaotic oceans beneath and the heavenly waters held at bay by a solid firmament above.

cosmic dome
Something kinda like this

Is the revelation of the Bible unique? As a Christian and not some sort of spiritual New-Agist, Enns says “yes.” But how he gets there is different than how most of us would reach the same conclusion.

Enns begins by affirming that the laws and customs of the Hebrew Bible are not usually unique (though some of them undoubtedly are). And there should be nothing surprising about that if we believe God has designed reality and morality to work in a certain way, a way discoverable by others.

Rather than expecting the Mosaic Law to be unique in its content, we should recognize that the Law is unique in its source. No other people boast a law given to them by the one, true God—a law based in the redemptive work of that God.

Is Israel’s historiography objective or biased? According to Enns: biased, very biased. But that’s all right. Enns delivers in this chapter an extended defense of the bias of all history and reporting of any kind. He would be supported by most thinkers of the last century. He makes the case that history is inherently interpretive, and for most of human history no one thought that was a problem. Everyone thought that history should look more like the movie Gandhi than the Encyclopedia.

This attitude of playing fast-and-loose with the facts of the story in order to communicate a larger theme can be seen fairly clearly in the Bible. Take the Gospels as an example. In John, Jesus begins his ministry by clearing the temple, while in the Synoptics, he ends his ministry clearing the temple just before he is arrested. It seems preposterous to think he did it twice. (They probably wouldn’t let him back in.) Every minor difference between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings is the same thing—it’s two versions of the same events.

In concluding, Enns states that the 19th and 20th-century discoveries that he has been describing caught the Church off-guard. People were unsure how to handle them. He reiterates that liberals went too far one direction regarding similarities, conservatives too far the other; they both made the assumption that biblical history need be accurate by modern standards. But for Enns, having faith is stating that the Bible is not irrefutably unique and other-worldly but is still God’s word. He delivers three challenges at the end of the chapter:

  1. We can’t just acknowledge the ancient context of the Bible, but rather we must read it as such
  2. We must let that realization affect our ethics and faith
  3. We must realize that incarnational inspiration makes the cultural context of the Bible relevant

Enns makes a powerful case here for the humanity of the biblical text, but it’s not yet clear how he thinks this should affect our reading of the Old or the New Testament—or how it should affect our ethics. We will come to some of those points as we engage the next few chapters.

2 Comments

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  1. I do not follow what is meant in the paragraph, specifically the 2nd sentence:
    “Enns also addresses the defense that the biblical authors knew better; they merely wrote in the mythic genre to accommodate to their culture. He views this idea as a cop-out—the biblical authors surely would have assumed the factual foundation of these myths.”
    Uniqueness does not seem to have any bearing on whether scripture is inspired. I would agree that it shows that mankind had a unique starting point and would then show that God inspired the writers he gave revelation. Enns’ push to show scripture as a work of humanity suppresses the ability for God to work and inspire. As a reader, my gut tells me Enns is heading to say that men gave us the scripture based on their own understanding and cannot be held to be factually true. I look forward to seeing how it plays out. I may have to skip ahead and read it myself. The suspense is too much

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    • Enns is a little ambiguous in the actual book, but I think what he’s getting at is that some people go half-way in their adoption of some of the points he is making. When talking about Genesis 1-11, they agree* that the accounts are not portraying historical events, but they also think that they’re not historical by design–the authors knew they were writing stories that were purely metaphorical. Enns would disagree with this because he thinks that the Genesis 1-11 accounts are written by ancient people who, while they bend history to make their point, still accept these mythological stories as in some way historical. I think that’s what he’s trying to say.
      (I starred* “agree” above because, as I recall, Enns never explicitly says he doesn’t think Gen 1-11 is historical [though I’m sure he thinks that], so I’m kinda confused about that point as well.)

      I think you’re right that uniqueness does not necessarily imply “revelation.” You’d agree with Enns, I think, in his critique of people who assume it does. I also think you’re right that though it’s not his ultimate point, he will say something along the lines of “[Scripture] cannot be held to be factually true.” But as far as “[supressing] the ability for God to work and inspire,” I think that is Enns’s main goal: to say (a) God is still very much active in Scripture, and (b) that we are making assumptions about how God /should/ be at work in the process of inspiration. Those points of his are much more apparent in the book so far, I’ve just had to cut some of it out for length.

      Let the suspense build.

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