Joel Baden: belief, knowledge, and the “grand theological statement” of the Bible

By Ray Waddle

In a 21st century world of scientific verification, the subject of biblical miracles inspires belief, triggers ridicule and sows confusion. Enter Hebrew Bible scholar Joel Baden, who is keen to bring some clarity to deeply felt religious mysteries whether he is addressing a roomful of YDS students or a noisy global forum like Huffington Post.

BadenWe can’t know the facts about the Bible’s miracles, he says. We can only believe in them. The power of scripture is in the storytelling.  

“My perspective is that historical reality – what actually happened in the past, especially in the ancient world – is basically irretrievable,” says Baden, assistant professor of Old Testament at YDS.

“The Bible says to tell your children the story of the Exodus – it’s the storytelling that matters, the story of Israel, and what it conveys about us. That’s what interests me: the communication of a culture’s view of itself by means of storytelling.”

Since the rise of Enlightenment rationalism, modern generations have either dismissed biblical miracles as fictional tales or endeavored to rescue them as freak occurrences of nature that rest on a bedrock of historical fact. Baden thinks both sides misread what the Bible is saying. The stories of scripture are making statements of faith, not data.

“If you were there to see the Exodus, you still wouldn’t know what you were seeing – all the meaning of the event is invested in how the story is told,” he says.

“It’s the same with the Civil War. We know who won and how the battles turned out. But ask someone from Boston to tell the story of the war, and ask someone from Charleston, SC to tell it, and you’ll hear two very different stories. It wouldn’t be the same war.”

Baden argued his position in a piece last year for The Huffington Post, which has stirred more than 2,100 responses.

“Miracles cannot, by definition, be natural occurrences, no matter how rare or remarkable,” he wrote. “It is not that the Bible reflects the state of knowledge in an earlier, pre-scientific culture, and that we who are more enlightened have the capacity to understand the events in the Bible more accurately. The Bible is not a record of ancient observations; it is a grand theological statement about God’s interaction with humanity and the world. Rationalizing its stories does not ‘explain’ the Bible. Rationalizing, in fact, obscures it.”

The subject of miracles surfaces naturally in YDS courses such as Intro to Old Testament, which Baden teaches. He wants to convey a point to students.

“I’ll tell them things – the Exodus didn’t happen, King David was a terrible human being – that will sound challenging to the backgrounds some of them might bring,” he says. “But the object is not to say that their faith is wrong. The point is: Believing is different from knowing. I want to make them aware that what they think is in the category of knowledge is actually faith. I want them to realize that they believe.”

Belief is more powerful than verifiable fact. Indeed, Baden says the ancients wouldn’t be asking for “verification.” That’s a modern idea. In biblical times, they’d either believe or not.

“In the Bible we have four different stories about Moses and God meeting in the desert. What we can say is a group of people had a theophanous experience on the mountain. They understood it to be a theophany whether it was or not. Where they see God, others see a thunderstorm.”

Baden has been thinking about the nature and power of ancient stories a long time – since grade school, when he got interested in Greek and Egyptian literature and myths. It didn’t take long for the usual boyhood dream of becoming a fireman or farmer or dinosaur hunter to turn into a different goal: becoming a scholar. Raised with a Reform Jewish identity in the Boston area – his mother was a librarian, his father a Harvard administrator – Baden took his love of ancient civilizations, combined it with Judaism, and soon mapped a career path: the study of ancient Judaism.

He went to Yale College, graduating in 1999 with a major in Judaic Studies, doing a senior essay on the Tower of Babel under the supervision of YDS Old Testament professor Robert Wilson. Baden received an M.A. in Semitic languages from Chicago (2002), and then did a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard (2007).

“I liked the kind of problems the Bible raises – historical, textual, interpretative,” he says. “The problems are infinite, and you never finish solving them. So I can’t imagine ever being bored.”

Baden has spent some of his career so far engaging one of the biggest current controversies in biblical studies – the debate over the documentary hypothesis, the theory that the Pentateuch was formed from four different sources or narratives, J (the Yahwist source), E (Elohist source), D (the Deuteronomist) and P (Priestly source).

The hypothesis had a long golden age, enjoying wide acceptance after the 1890s, but by the 1970s new waves of scholars were targeting it for criticism.

“It needed to go through a hard time so that we could look at it again with fresh eyes,” Baden says. “Even if we arrive at the same answers as before, we now have a stronger foundation.” Baden’s book on the subject, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (Yale University Press, 2012), was published last year as part of the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library project.

Earlier this year Baden published The Promise to the Patriarchs (Oxford University Press, 2013) and his newest book, The Historical David: The Real Life of an Invented Hero (HarperOne, 2013) will be released by in September. In it Baden assesses the narratives of one of scripture’s central personalities.

“The stories about David are presented as the reportorial past, but it’s really spin, political propaganda,” he says. “Even when you have a straightforward report, the quicker you can identity the bias the closer you get to the truth. Then we can imagine a version that’s not propaganda but is the reality the authors are trying to tweak.”

So civilization’s grappling with the monumental witness of the Bible continues – the ceaseless confrontation with what it what it wants to say about itself and to us.

“I’m interested less in what actually happened than in what these authors wanted to say – the way they told the stories tells me about them,” Baden says. “That’s what we’re beholden to all these thousands of years – not what happened in the ancient past but the way these writers experienced their thoughts about God.”

June 2, 2013
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