Non-Biblical Literature and the Bible: Introduction Part II–Objections and Suggestions (Second Post)

Books, Christian Education, Christian Living, Church History, Culture, Discipleship, Scripture, Uncategorized

Objections

In the first post in this series, we introduced the topic of extra-biblical literature and focused in on what makes the Bible unique. But I realize people have objections to objectioneven reading this kind of material. In this post we will look at some objections and I will offer some suggestions that I hope you will find helpful for giving one or more of these areas of study a try.

Here are a couple of things I can imagine some people saying (actually, I don’t have to imagine it at all. I’ve said them myself and had others say them to me). “Some of the books you mentioned are written by Christians, while others are written by non-Christians. We shouldn’t read books by non-Christians.” Keep that thought in mind the next time you pick up a Tom Clancy thriller or Spider-man comic or a grocery store tabloid or the editorial section in the Wall Street Journal.

But some of those books are dangerous because they teach us about false gods. We shouldn’t open ourselves up to demonic worldviews or influences.” Remember that the next time you walk through a mall or watch the Oscars or talk to most college students at your local university. It isn’t reading books like these that we should be concerned about; it is having in our minds that somehow, because they are old, or because they are religious, that they are in competition with the Bible.

Suggestions

Do not be afraid of exposing yourself to old ideas, because Christianity is perfectly capable of holding its own against the best and worst, the most subtle, and the most diabolical ideas the world’s religions have ever offered. If you struggle with this during or after reading a particular work, then I would suggest perhaps reading some apologetic material to go along with it. We really can give good answers for any high or lofty idea that sets itself up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:4-5), especially if they are supernatural (as in fallen supernatural beings) in origin, as many of the religions of the world undoubtedly are.[1]

Also, consider this. Ancient books are the stories the biblical authors had access to (or those writing after the completion of the NT). These were their “Best Sellers.” They knew about them. They quoted them (see the table at the end of this post). And most of all, they used these stories to the advantage of the people of God. Paul cited Greek poets as an inroad to preaching the gospel (Acts 17:28). Jude used Jewish literature to warn about the last days. This, of course, means they had to have read this stuff.[2] Historical books and letters regularly cite non-canonical books that they used to compile their histories (see the table at the end of this post). The prophets often used the stories of Canaan to mock with their own language and images the gods of the nations, all while glorifying the God who alone created all things.[3]

The Christian Hollywood screen writer Brian Godawa calls this “subversion,” and Hollywood uses it all the time. Good examples are the recent remakes of Noah and Moses, remakes that tell the world what a bunch of monsters and lunatics the “heroes” of the Bible and their God really were. They use our own stories against us! It is a powerful way to indoctrinate someone, because it works on the psyche of a person without them even knowing it. They think they are merely being entertained! Once you are aware of the what the Bible is doing, it can only give a greater appreciation for its God and provide a more faithful original context into which you can understand redemptive history.[4] That’s why the prophets did it.

To conclude, allow me to summarize my suggestions for how to read these books:

1. PRESUPPOSE THAT WHAT YOU ARE READING IS NOT SCRIPTURE. Because it isn’t! In 98% of what you will read, this is not difficult, since no Jew or Christian has ever regarded them as such. Remember that they are writings of humans, not God. Understand that they all have their own context, their own genre, their own purpose for existence, as any other book does.

2. TREAT THESE BOOKS LIKE COMMENTARIES, be they commentaries on the Bible or commentaries on a particular culture. In some ways, that is what any book is. In particular, read books closely related to the Bible as you would read Calvin and Augustine (insert your own favorite author here). In other words, be fair. You will find many things in these books that you agree with as you would if reading a good author today. You will find other things that you do not agree with as you would if reading someone with whom you do not agree. The Jews of old were just like people today.  Their views are diverse rather than monolithic. You will be exposed to all sorts of ideas here.

3. DO NOT LET “CHAPTER AND VERSE” BOTHER YOU. For some people, this creates a kind of cognitive dissonance, confusing their minds because it reminds them of the Bible. For convenience, most ancient literature (including Greek poets, Babylon-ian cuneiform tablets, the Church Fathers, etc.) has been numerically itemized for the sake of easy notation and reference. The Bible wasn’t written with chapter and verse; this was added later. So reading a book with chapter and verse marked in it does not mean you are reading God’s word.

4. TAKE NOTE OF SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES with the Biblical texts. Keep in mind that biblical authors often allude and sometimes even quote these sources.  (The same is also true in reverse, if fact much more so). A citation does not make it “inspired” anymore than Paul citing Greek poets makes them “inspired.”  It does mean that you can learn from these books. When you discover a conflict between a particular book and the Scripture, do what all Christians have done since the beginning of time—let the Scripture have the final say.

5. DON’T FEEL LIKE YOU ARE BEING UNFAITHFUL TO GOD by reading them. You aren’t. Remember we have Biblical precedent for reading other ancient Jewish material outside of the Bible. For example, the Chronicler references nearly 20 such books from which he was drawing his sources and which he expected his original readers would be able to read themselves. The NT quotes, refers to, or allude to many of these books. I have compiled a Table below with the most well known direct quotations or citations of non-biblical works (I have not put any allusions or echoes in the Table).

In these next few posts I’ll try to take you on a whirlwind tour of the ancient literary world, a world that has tremendous impact on our understanding, appreciation, and faith in the Bible: God Holy Scripture.

Chart Compiled by Douglas Van Dorn

Chart Compiled by Douglas Van Dorn

(by: Doug Van Dorn)

[1] Over the past half dozen years or so, my own mind has been opened up to the supernatural world around us, the world that the Bible explicitly and consistently tells us to be on guard against. “If an angel from heaven should preach another gospel,” Paul tells the Galatians, implies (especially in the context of the rest of the letter) that they actually do! Mormonism and Islam do not get their power purely from the minds of human beings.

[2] There are tons of allusions in the Bible to Jewish texts not found in the canon of Holy Scripture. Two fairly extensive lists of these allusions and quotations can be found in Craig A. Evans, Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Pub, 1992), pp. 190-219, and Steve Delamarter, A Scripture Index to Charlesworth’s The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002).

[3] Dr. Michael Heiser has a great article introducing this idea using the writings of the Canaanites and their idea of the “cloud rider,” an idea which they applied to Baal, but which Scripture emphatically applies to Yahweh. See Michael S. Heiser, “What’s Ugaritic Got to Do with Anything?“, last accessed 3-10-2015.

[4]  Consider the London Baptist Confession’s words that “in a due use of ordinary means,” anyone “may attain to a sufficient understanding of [the Scripture]” (LBC 1.7). Part of these ordinary means would include knowing the literature of the day that was being thought about, borrowed, alluded to, polemicized, and quoted throughout the Scripture.

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