Biblical Minimalism, Science Fiction and Myth

Much of this is so yesterday and I must ask that you please excuse the ramble, but for abnormal reasons, I’ve been thinking about myth or perhaps only about “myth.” Or, better, I’ve been thinking about myth and “myth.” Myth is something I know not exactly what and “myth” is the word for it. Specifically I’ve been thinking about how an understanding of myth/“myth” might inform our understanding of what are sometimes called minimalist/maxamalist interpretations of Biblical texts. For this post, I want to work as much as I can within a definition of “myth” that the classicist Elizabeth Vandiver of Whitman College suggested. I’ve mentioned her definition before. This definition takes myths to be “traditional stories a society tells itself that encode or represent the world-view, beliefs, principles, and often the fears of that society.” Like most such academic definitions, this one has both pluses and minuses but I adopt it here because of something else Vandiver claimed in the same lecture series where I learned her definition of “myth.”
She suggests that a modern genre of stores about some unreachable, unknowable, future fulfils, in part, the role of myth in our modern western culture. This genre of stories is science fiction. Note that science fiction violates Vandiver’s definition in at least one particular. It is not traditional in the way I think she uses “traditional” in her definition. She further speculates that science fiction plays the role of myth in modern society because various historical methodologies have rendered the past no longer completely unknowable and, therefore, no longer unreachable. Traditional myths, set in the past, are now subject to possible debunking and therefore subject to the loss of much of the force of their ability to “encode or represent the world-view, beliefs, principles, and often the fears of that society.” The unknowable future maintains that ability.
Recall that in The Republic (II:21, 382 d) Socrates says “And also in the mythologies (μυθολογίαις) of which we were just now speaking, owing to our ignorance of the truth about antiquity, we liken the false to the true, as far as we can, and so make it edifying (χρήσιμον).” For this, I will pretend that Plato’s Socrates would define myth in more or less the same way as Vandiver. But Plato’s Socrates introduces the ability to edify into the function if not the definition of “myth.” However, if we can know some part of the truth about antiquity, our ability to “liken the false to the true” is weakened and therefore the ability to make the mythologies “edifying” is also weakened. The “truth” that is edifying is potentially untied from the media in which it is cast and both, to some extent, fall together. The edifying truth in an account we can believe actually happened is just more forceful than whatever remains when we can no longer believe much or anything about the vehicle of that truth. Unless . . . well, I’ll get to this issue at the end of this ramble.
If one is committed to a particular collection of accounts set in the past, traditional accounts, that one considers the normative way to “encode or represent the world-view, beliefs, principles, and often the fears of [] society,” say the Bible, recasting their edifying truths into the future is not a viable way of protecting them from the possibility that some historian/archaeologist will challenge their validity. But one does have a spectrum of options. At one end of that spectrum is to accept the historical validly of anything written in those accounts as true unless one can’t. Yes, I am channeling Donald Kagan’s “higher naiveté” here. But this, maximalist, approach opens itself to the risk of erosion: little by little, less and less might become acceptable; little by little, the edifying truth becomes diluted along with its vehicle until it might even disappear completely.
At the other end of the spectrum, the minimalist end, is the rejection of the historical validly of anything in the accounts save for what one must accept. This approach tends to focus exclusively on the theological and anthropological elements of the text, divorced from their fictive, as is often thought by minimalists, historical settings. With this approach, some students appear to believe that when they look at the Bible they can maintain theological and anthropological maximalism and historical minimalism at the same time. While I find this an untenable, even incoherent, position, others seem quite okay with it.
Let me take a moment to say that I actually think there are very few minimalists or maximalists at the extremes of the approach spectrum. This is largely because of what, on the one hand, one can’t accept and what, on the other hand, one must accept are themselves somewhat a moving targets.
The problem with the spectrum of approaches between these two extremes is that none of them is methodologically stable. In this, they share a major problem with maximalism but in a somewhat different way. Scholars who work in this muddled middle must argue probabilistically for every position and the best possible outcome will always have a significant element of uncertainty. I think that it is exactly in this muddled middle that the most coherent explanations generally reside. But that’s another story for another day. The problem with the two extremes is that they both depend on positions that seek methodological certainly in interpretation rather than being satisfied with the methodological uncertainties of probability.
There are reasons for accepting the historical minimalist approach when it comes to the Bible. First, the text itself often appears far more interested in theology and anthropology than with the history in which it casts its theological and anthropological views. Second, the chronology, the backbone (but not the essence) of history, of the accounts themselves is very often nearly impossible to reconstruct. Just when was Judges 4 or 5, or both, composed and how much, if anything, did or could their authors and editors have known about Deborah if there was a Deborah? By the way, I think there was but, again, that’s another story. When did the author(s) and editors of I and II Samuel work and how much, if anything, did they, could they, know about David? While most scholars have answers to these questions, their answers are really very hard to defend at any level of detail. It is for reasons like these that many scholars, both secular and religious, have adopted some version of historical minimalism with regard to the Bible.
But there are other factors as well. Some secular and religious scholars who adopt minimalism as a methodological position also seem influenced by the contemporary politics of the Near East. Some aspects of the minimalist approach to the Bible, if adopted, would appear to deprive the modern State of Israel of some propagandizing opportunities. Or I think that is the hope. I’m not accusing minimalist scholars of being minimalist solely for this reason. Rather I think for some of them minimalism reinforces their political commitments and is reinforced by those commitments in turn.
I feel that others, particularly those minimalists with religions commitments, bring still another factor into their considerations. Because they see normative edifying elements in the Biblical accounts, they desire to inoculate these accounts’ theological and anthropological positions, against the encroachment of historians and archaeologists. One possible way to save a myth might be to attempt to disassociate its edifying elements from their real or imagined historical settings as completely as possible. Because, for these theologically motivated thinkers, recasting supposedly normative myths into an unknowable future or abandoning them altogether, is unacceptable, taking away their past is the next best choice.