The area once known as Canaan is only the size of Rhode Island, yet it is the most fought-over region in the world. It has been claimed by a long list of empires including the Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Seleucids, Romans and Muslims. Why was there so much struggle over this patch of land of no exceptional inherent value? The reason is geography: there is Egypt below, Asia Minor above, Mesopotamia to the east, the Mediterranean Sea to the west. Major trade routes ran through there, and control of those highways was highly attractive to big and small powers alike. This was good in peace, but wealth attracts war, and armies passing through on their way to wars, and the region has not found stability to this day.
In this context the survival of the Israelite culture is exceptional. Even after successive devastations scattered them across the world, the Jews clung to their texts and customs, and their culture survived into the modern day. This feat of survival can partly be attributed to the Hebrew Bible. Just as remarkably, by laying the foundations of the three Abrahamic religions, the Israelites helped to define the modern world. That a compilation of contradictory texts written by a marginal culture of the ancient Near East to record their special relationship with a jealous storm god should wield so much influence in countries like the USA or Brazil, thousands of miles from the Levant and thousands of years later, is rather bizarre and astonishing.
Unlike most ancient myths, the Bible is presented in part as a historical record: an account of how a god has intervened in the affairs of one particular nation and, by extension, its neighbours. This special association with history invites archaeologists and historians to study the texts’ precise relationship with reality.
Many years of investigation tell us there were no Patriarchs, no period of slavery in Egypt, no Exodus, no Israelite conquest of Canaan, no empire of David and Solomon. They reveal how the Hebrew Bible was heavily influenced by other Ancient Near Eastern literatures. The creation story drew upon myths of ancient Babylon; the great flood upon Sumerian literature; the Mosaic covenant upon Hittite vassal treaties; the Psalms and Proverbs upon forerunners in the literature of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Ugarit; Yahweh himself upon pagan gods like Baal. They reveal how Jesus Christ was modelled upon the Greco-Roman concept of a demi-god; the Gospels upon Greco-Roman biographies with their miraculous births and recounting of deeds; Christian rituals upon familiar pagan practices co-opted for convenience.
Written over several centuries by multiple authors with a variety of viewpoints, the Bible is inevitably packed with contradictions, errors, and things that cannot ever have happened. This must have implications for faith. As the French scholar Roland de Vaux put it: “if the historical faith of Israel is not founded in history, such faith is erroneous, and therefore, our faith is also.” Insistence on the literal truth and inerrancy of the Bible is surprisingly recent – the movement is only about a hundred years old – but nonetheless Christians assumed the Bible was at least broadly accurate. The early ‘Biblical archaeologists’ of the Albright school set out with the assumption that the events described were real: they just needed to dig the evidence out of the ground. Instead, it turned out that the Israel portrayed in the Bible had mostly never existed. If the Bible is the word of God, the messy tale of spliced manuscripts, scribal errors,
edits, insertions and endless debates and confusions suggest Yahweh has treated his ‘word’ extremely carelessly.
Science has found no evidence for any instance of the supernatural. Many materialists feel that if the events described in the Bible did not actually happen, i.e. were not literally ‘true’, then everyone should abandon Judaism and Christianity. They argue that from a rational perspective, its contents are often impossible and silly. Who could possibly believe that Noah could fit every species on Earth into a wooden boat? Or that someone could walk on water? Even if you interpret those stories as mythical and allegorical rather than literally true, you must deal with the shortage of evidence for the parts that claim to be historical. If the texts are not reliable as historical documents, why should you trust them as spiritual documents? Without hard data to prove that your faith is more true than other faiths, why have faith at all? The vast majority of believers follow the religion of the culture they were born into. If you were born in Canaan in 1200 BCE, you might worship both Yahweh and Asherah; if you were born in the same place 800 years later, you might worship Yahweh alone as the one and only god; another 500 years later, you might worship Jesus; another few hundred years, and you might worship Allah; ten thousand years earlier, and you would have worshipped none of the above. In every case the beliefs and rituals would be different. It is hard to take religion seriously when it is an obviously human product rooted in history rather than eternity.
Despite the rote assertions of preachers, the Bible is not even valuable as a guide to morality. You don’t have to be religious to respect ideas like ‘don’t kill’, and there are plenty of things in there – slavery, sexism, revenge, racism, genocide – that modern civilised people find abhorrent. Even Christians don’t know what morality they are meant to adopt. Thanks to the Bible’s contradictory nature and the multitude of Churches and interpretations, they can pick and choose which bits of scripture they respect and which bits they ignore. This has condemned them to bitter disagreements even on basic moral questions, like slavery and homosexuality.
However, the Bible is not only a product of religion or history or morality: it is a rich work of literature. And the importance of a work of literature is not whether its events really happened but its emotional, philosophical, imaginative content. To take the Bible literally is absurd, and neither the Church Fathers nor its writers themselves would have seen religious writing that way. The Bible was not written as ‘history’ as modernity understands it, but as a document of myth and faith. Its writers were interested in the spiritual images, ideas and ‘truths’ communicated by the stories. That is a very different attitude to ours and it explains why its redactors felt little need to try and make all those diverse source texts consistent with one another.
The arguments against religious belief have all been made, and the world has not abandoned religion. Believers find ways to let their gods off the hook. Every failure of prophecy in the Hebrew Bible, such as the no-show project of Josiah, was ascribed, not to the non-existence of Yahweh and the impossibility of seeing into the future, but to the failure of the Israelites to obey Yahweh’s laws. Gods persist no matter how often they fail to show up. Religion can appeal to rational argument but does not depend upon it; it
can work intuitively and symbolically, as art does, and it has become
clear that reason cannot kill religion off any more than it can kill a
The materialist critique of religion does not require us to become ‘militant’ atheists like Richard Dawkins or the late Christopher Hitchens, because religion is not the most important determinant of humanity’s problems. The religious evils of the day are ideological expressions of a deeper set of underlying conditions. The vast majority of religious people do not beat up gay people, or bomb abortion clinics, or fly planes into skyscrapers. Many march for peace or environmentalism, or volunteer in homeless shelters, or endanger their lives in war zones to help the sick and injured. Marx observed, “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Better let us change those soulless conditions than waste resources warring against the notion of faith.
Whatever one’s beliefs, let us value the Bible without reducing it to religion. It is often very boring; it is obsessed with racial destiny; it is superstitious and garbled and offensive and inconsistent. But it is also full of complex characterisation, exciting stories, and incredible images, shared through a story told on an epic scale. For all its faults, it is first and foremost a monument of art.
 Roland de Vaux, The Hebrew Patriarchs and History (1964).