I am very pleased to announce that a scholar of religion who is also a log-term blog member, Dan Kohanski, has just published an intriguing book of direct relevance to what we do here on the blog (A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World).  When I got the book I realized it would be great to have Dan do a couple of guest posts on the blog to share some of the views he develops in  it.  He agreed, and here is the first of three of his posts.  Feel free to comment and ask questions!


(This essay is adapted from my just-published book, A God of Our Invention: How Religion Shaped the Western World, Apocryphile Press, 2023; https://apocryphilepress.com/book/a-god-of-our-invention-how-religion-shaped-the-western-world/ . Support your local independent bookstore and order using the “Buy paperback from Bookshop” link on that webpage.)

There are several ways one can approach the Bible (including ignoring it), but I want to look here at two most of the most common ways: that of the theologian, and that of the historian. The Jewish or Christian theologian begins as someone who, for professional as well as personal reasons, takes the Bible as the literal word of God. Or who says the Bible was dictated by God to people who may or may not have heard him correctly. Or maybe it was written by people who were inspired by God but who may have let some of their own ideas get in the idea. In all events, to a theologian the word of the Bible is, more or less, the word of the Lord. A modern historian (except for a theologian trying to be a historian) will not start with any such claims.

Though it is something of an over-simplification, it may be useful to explain the different approaches taken by the theologian and the historian as using two different reasoning techniques: a priori and a posteriori. Theologians approach the Bible as true a priori—they assume it is true in advance of any examination. They will argue over the details; they will give priority to the most sacred parts—the Torah for the Jews, or the gospels for the Christians—if necessary to resolve conflicts. But they cannot permit themselves to question their fundamental assumption that the Bible somehow came from God, not if they want to maintain their status as theologians.

As an example, let us turn to the Talmud, the collection of rabbinic discussions about the law as found in the Hebrew Scripture. The rabbis invented a number of clever logical tools to help them extract every possible shade of meaning from the ancient texts and to resolve clashes between one text and another.[1] But occasionally, despite their best efforts, they were stumped. When that happened, they would throw up their hands and declare “teyku” (תיקו), meaning that the question would have to stand unresolved.[2] (See Chullin 60b for one of these instances.) In other words, they knew there was an answer that preserved the sanctity of the texts even if they just couldn’t see it for themselves.

Historians do the opposite. They do not have to take teyku for an answer, as it were. They approach the Bible a posteriori—they do not assume in advance that it is true. They will look to apply the classic rule for historians, as for the humanities and sciences in general, Occam’s Razor—the simplest explanation that covers all the known evidence, the explanation that makes the most sense, is the one most likely to be correct. Another rule, more specific to the history of religion, is Hume’s Maxim: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If one makes a claim of a supernatural event and there is a natural explanation, we must accept the natural one instead.

Consider the claim that Joshua made the sun and the moon stand still (Josh. 10:12-13). Although the sun and moon appear to move across the sky, really it’s the earth that does most of the moving. The earth spins on its axis at about a thousand miles an hour at the equator. If Joshua had indeed stopped the earth in its tracks, there would have been earthquakes and tsunamis of unimaginable proportions, and the whole planet would have been destroyed. The claim requires extraordinary evidence for us to accept it, and there is none. (The book of Joshua is not evidence; it’s the claim.) However, there is a natural explanation that makes sense. We have evidence that the book of Joshua was largely composed in the period when the kingdom of Judah was a vassal state in the Assyrian empire. Biblical scholar Thomas Römer explains that the sun and moon were major Assyrian deities, such that the story of Joshua’s stopping them in the sky was a way of saying that Yahweh was in control of the Assyrian gods.[3] The author of Joshua was therefore not claiming that Joshua literally stopped the sun and moon; he was reassuring the Israelites that their god was more powerful than the Assyrian gods, powerful enough to make them stand still.

A historian who is not wedded to the belief in the Bible as true will be willing to accept this argument (assuming it stands up to the usual scholarly scrutiny). A theologian will have more difficulty doing so—although not necessarily: the medieval Jewish theologian Maimonides acknowledged that “those passages in the Bible, which in their literal sense contain statements that can be refuted by proof, must and can be interpreted otherwise.”[4]

Maimonides remains controversial in Jewish circles even today, nor is his dictum likely to get a hearing from many of the current crop of Christian theologians. We can perhaps get an understanding of why this gap, this chasm, stands between the theologian and the historian by returning to the generalizations offered earlier in this essay: the theologian approaches the Bible a priori while the historian does so a posteriori. A priori uses deductive logic: start with some premises whose truth is assumed, and deduce from them the best (or only) possible conclusion. Premise: all cats are grey; premise: Dewey is a cat; conclusion: Dewey is grey. He’s not; he’s light brown (and also a pest), but by saying that, I have questioned the first premise, and that is anathema in a theological context. A posteriori reasoning is inductive: let’s examine the universe of cats and count how many of them are which colors, and determine (induce) whatever conclusions we can from that. (I still deduce that Dewey is a pest who thinks my desk is his sleeping space.)

Deductive reasoning produces definitive conclusions that must follow from the premises, while inductive reasoning leads to likely conclusions that are always open to doubt. Historians are able to live with doubt (or should be able to); theologians, not so much. “But ask in faith, never doubting, for one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” says the Letter of James in the New Testament. It goes on to warn that the “doubter . . . must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6, 8).

If there were a verse in the Bible that read “Truly I say unto you, all cats are grey,” and I doubted whether that was true (there is a non-grey cat on my desk, after all), a theologian might argue that Dewey isn’t really a cat. Or that someday he will be grey. Or that God made me see his color differently in order to test my faith.[5] Those are the sorts of arguments a theologian might offer. A historian, however, might suggest that whoever wrote that verse probably lived in a town where all the cats were the offspring of a pair of grey cats, and thus knew only grey cats. That is a simple explanation, and one that makes sense, but it’s a natural explanation that takes God out of the picture and leaves the Bible as a fallible document created by human beings. Yet it is exactly the sort of argument that a historian might offer.

So long as theologians look to the Bible for inspiration and hope, they can read it as they like. Once they claim the Bible is actual history, however, then it becomes subject to the way historians read it, with all the doubts and tests that are the historian’s stock in trade. You can approach the Bible as a theologian or as a historian, but trying to be both at the same time is like trying to stop the earth from spinning.

[1] Talmud study is excellent preparation for law school!

[2] An alternate reading is תיק״ו: “When Elijah comes to announce the messiah, he will answer all questions and difficulties.”

[3] Römer, Thomas C. The So-Called Deuteronomic History: A Sociological, Historical, and Literary Introduction. London: T & T Clark International, 2005; 83–90.

[4] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 2:25.

[5] This last one is a riff on the claim by some fundamentalists that God made dinosaur fossils appear to be millions of years old as a test of our faith.