5 February, 2008
In the nineteenth century a group of protestant literalists decided to have another look at the bible they read every Sunday. These people were rationalists, they didn’t believe that their God would create a world that worked by laws and then break those laws whenever he saw fit. No, their God was one who created the laws of nature and could carry out his divine plan within those very laws. When they turned to the bible they had a bit of a problem. There are many tales of supernatural events. People rose from the dead at an alarming rate in some parts of the New Testament. Walking on water, floating in the clouds, mass healings and so on. But rather than treat these tales as folklore these literalists instead set about to explain how these events had actually happened, but that the writers had not understood what was really going on.
So for instance, they adopted the ‘Swoon Theory’ of Jesus’ Crucifixion. Jesus really did get crucified. He was taken down, and sometime later his tomb was empty and he was seen chatting to his disciples. The explanation is obvious – Jesus didn’t really die, he just came so close that people thought he was dead. When Jesus was seen to be walking on water it was an optical illusion, similar to one that Jim Jones manufactured to help convince his followers that he was divine. For each biblical oddness they tried to come up with a rational explanation for what it could be. The one explanation they made sure to leave out was that the event didn’t happen and was just a story. These were pious people who wanted to be rational, and have their bible still tell true tales.
Others have taken up this goal of demythologising ancient stories. Instead of using prosaic explanations though, they turned to science fiction. Elijah seeing a fiery chariot is taken by some modern day rationalists to be a description of an alien spaceship. These same people see aliens as having created the pyramids, as having influenced the Olmecs and the Maya. After all, if aliens are abducting people today and doing weird anal probes, couldn’t they have been doing this throughout history? Was Gabriel visiting Mary just a garbled account of an alien abduction and X-files like breeding experiment? All sorts of stories are told about demi-gods with amazing powers, and the gods themselves live in the sky… In effect this line of thinking is similar to the protestant rationalists who wanted to keep the truth of the stories but see them through a different lens. In this case it is a lens where aliens visit us today and throughout history. It makes for a nice story (c.f. Stargate), but again suffers from the literal interpretation.
There were some other rationalists a long time ago. These were the writers of much of the early Hebrew bible. They worked slightly differently, for they kept in much that was miraculous or supernatural. Instead they changed many of the Gods that were worshipped into lesser beings, in some cases into Angels, in others into mortal men. Moses, Seth, Joshua, Adam, Samson. All of these mortal men were at one point or another seen as Gods or Angels, or, at least the stories that went with them were ones that were at some times associated with Gods. The redactors of the bible knew from their rationalist perspective that there was only one God, and so they explained the miraculous occurrences as being derived all from the one God Yahweh. The powers of Samson were not because he was a Sun God, but because he was favoured of Yahweh. The Greeks tried this too. Herodotus tried to calculate when Hercules lived, sorting through the conflicting information to place this mythological story into history.
Many have tried this, indeed sometimes it is a worthwhile goal. But as the alien-spaceship theory, and the ‘optical illusion’ theory show, these aren’t particularly robust explanations. Sometimes a story is just a story.