There is a fascinating interview in the current issue of Biblical Archeology Review. Editor Herschel Shanks interviewed four people who have done extensive work in archeology and/or biblical scholarship:
- Bart Ehrman, a popular BAS lecturer who lost his faith
- James Strange, archaeologist and Baptist minister
- Lawrence Shiffman, Dead Sea Scroll scholar, Orthodox Jew
- William Dever, archaeologist, former evangelical preacher, lost his faith, became a Reform Jew and is now an athiest
In the course of the interview, it emerges that Ehrman and Dever had very strict, literal interpretations of the Bible. As Ehrman put it:
I have a fundamentalist background. I had a very high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God, no mistakes of any kind—geographical or historical. No contradictions. Inviolate.
My scholarship early on as a graduate student showed me that in fact these views about the Bible were wrong. I started finding contradictions and finding other discrepancies and started finding problems with the Bible. What that ended up doing for me was showing me that the basis of my faith, which at that time was the Bible, was problematic. So I shifted from being an evangelical Christian to becoming a fairly mainline liberal Protestant Christian.
In the end, when he was confronted with questions of theodicy, he lost his faith entirely.
Dever had a similar literalist background. He states (bolding mine):
I was ordained a minister at 17, put myself through undergraduate school and on through divinity school, through Harvard, then a congregation. I have 13 years’ experience as a parish minister and two theological degrees. For me, it was this typical Protestant conundrum: It’s all true or none of it is true. My sainted mother once said to me, If I can’t believe that the whale swallowed Jonah, I can’t believe any of it.
After his graduation, he moved to Israel and worked there for many years. When confronted with contradictions and contrary evidence, his faith was destroyed.
On the other hand, Strange and Schiffman don't hold to literalist views. Schiffman goes on to state relate an even which underscores his non-literalism:
A guy came to interview me recently for some TV program about Adam and Eve. So I said that the story of Adam and Eve is like a microcosm of human relations between a man and a woman, about people and God, and about good and evil. After about five minutes, the guy turns off the recorder and says “I don’t understand. Everybody else I interviewed is talking about—Where is Eden? Was there really one human being in the beginning?” I said that is not what this is about. There are major challenges to the Bible if you take it literally, but that is not what matters. That isn’t what it means to be a believing Jew.
Strange, too, doesn't take everything the Bible says literally, and he, too, kept his faith while studying.
I find this quite interesting, especially when it is applied to the Orthodox Jewish community. To those who believe that lice don't come from eggs, or that the moon landings were faked or that the sun goes behind a barrier every night, they are going to face a rude awakening when they discover that things are not as they've been told. Having accepted the premise that everything that Chazal say is infallible, and that Chazal had perfect knowledge of science, they may not be able to accept the fact that they can be proven wrong. And even if they close their eyes and refuse to see the evidence, their children or their grandchildren will. On the other hand, by willing to be flexible in your interpretation of ancient texts*, one can easily accommodate new challanges, ideas and evidence that arise without having to suffer the major shock that can cause one to lose their faith, as happened to Dever and Ehrman.
It's the attitude that "it's all true or none of it is true," which is prevalent among many fundamentalist Orthodox Jews, that causes all the problems. In a discussion regarding the Rambam and science, it was put to me this way: "If the Rambam could be found to be in error regarding his astronomy, then who is to say that he is not in error everywhere else in the Mishneh Torah. How would we have any authoritative basis for halacha at all?"
Of course, this is all very specious. One does not have to take an "all-or-nothing" approach to any ancient text. Why should the fact that the Rambam is wrong about the diameter of the sun affect anything he says regarding Hilchos Yibum? Obviously, they shouldn't - one area is halacha and the other is science. Just as we don't expect our engineers to be legal experts, and yet we still rely on them to build safe bridges, so too we should not hold Chazal to perfect scientific knowledge in order to arrive at a valid halachic decision.
In the end, I found this interview quite enlightening and it reinforced my belief that literalism is, in the end, an obstacle to maintaining one's faith, not a safeguard to it.