Many problems, one solution
Here I argue that most Bible scholarship is poisoned by a reliance on what people believed. What people believe is often wrong, and is always ambiguous. So it is often misleading. I give major examples where I think reliance on reconstructing belief has caused scholars to miss the importance of archeological sites and texts. I then argue that a better alternative is good theology. By "good" theology I mean ideas that can be precisely defined and proven today, and apply today. That is, the logic of how the universe works (philosophy) and how to make a better society (economics). I finish by recommending that we ignore texts unless they can be explained in a non-miraculous way.
Mainstream Bible scholarship, for the purposes of this essay, means Bible scholarship that relies on what people believed. For example, scholars debate what Paul meant by this or that verse, and a new interpretation can be rejected on the basis that "that is not what the people back then believed." The alternative, "good theology" means using logic, not belief. The clue is in the name: theo-logy, or God-logic. Good theology deals with absolute proof (e.g through logical reasoning, or testing their ideas today, such as through economics). Bad theology (the kind that creates arguments based merely on beliefs) can be ignored.
Mainstream Bible scholarship judges a text on what people believed about it. For example, many people believe that God is supernatural, so we interpret the text that way. This is circular logic: we get the supernatural belief "from the text", but the text only says that due to our supernatural interpretation. It is more likely (I argue elsewhere) that the word "God" originally meant logic. But our reliance on what people believe prevents us from seeing that. In particular, we rest heavily on writers such as Paul, who themselves rely on the supernatural and are therefore not logical. Why do we rely on people who openly reject logic?
Judging another person's belief presupposes that we can have a full understanding of another person's mind. A simple glance at contemporary debates in religion and politics shows that each side really does not understand the other. This is worse in history, where the writers are long dead, most sources are lost, there are many competing interpretations as today, and the winners of any battle will, as a matter of routine, completely silence or re-frame previous interpretations in order to discredit them.
So studying ancient beliefs is like studying the shapes of clouds, when those clouds are long gone, you have just a couple of very bad sketches by unreliable artists. This leads to numerous mistakes, and I will give some examples. I will then suggest a better approach: focus instead on what can be tested. That is, look at all possible interpretations of a text, and see which has the best internal logic, and which fits known economic models, archeological discoveries, etc.
At first glance, some Bible scholarship has nothing to do with beliefs. It studies the words on physical documents, or the age of pottery. What could be more objective and innocent? But conclusions are often distorted by what we think people believed. Take Noah's flood for example. To keep this short I will focus on just two elements of the flood account, the gods involved and their motives. For more details please visit my 2015 notes, updated in the 2016 blog.
Arguments against the flood
It is routinely stated that Noah's flood did not happen. This is because many people believe it covered the whole planet, whereas all the provable evidence is against this. So the belief (that the flood covered the planet) makes scholars say "the Bible text is wrong". But others point out that a "limited flood" would still fit the text. Such as a massive flooding of the Euphrates such as happens every few centuries? It is difficult to place this in the correct time period (around 2350 BC in the Masoretic text), and besides, it requires us to have prophetic foreknowledge of natural disasters. So again, beliefs (that this is a huge flood, and that it was foretold) makes us say "the Bible is wrong".
Relying on beliefs blinds us to other possibilities. For example, most scholars agree that the Genesis flood story is influenced by the earlier Gilgamesh and Atrahasis accounts. However, they say the accounts have serious differences, and therefore what we have is a corrupted text and therefore not reliable. But let us look at those differences, shall we?
Different versions of the Noah story
In the Bible it is the one almighty god punishing us for sin, and in Gilgamesh it is numerous small gods becoming annoyed by the noise in the city of Shuruppak. So scholars, influenced by belief (that the genesis lord was monotheistic, all powerful, all knowing, good, etc) say the accounts have serious differences. However, if we ignore what is believed and just look at how the text could be interpreted, we see the common belief about Genesis is almost certainly wrong. As generations of atheists have noted, the lord in Genesis is not monotheistic, not all-knowing, and not particularly good. So we come closer to the idea of the "lord" in Genesis being just "the rulers", and their motivation, "mankind has sinned" is just their version of events: the official spin to justify their violence.
Once we discount what people believe, we can see that these flood stories are probably the same story told from different points of view, with no serious contradictions. The flood appears to be the rulers destroying the agricultural dams, creating flooding that swept Noah (Utnapishtim) down the river and into the Persian Gulf. The Genesis account is highly selective (e.g. not mentioning the fire), which makes the lord look as powerful and good as possible. But the earlier accounts fill in crucial gaps that change how we see the event.
Once we have this bigger picture we can start to narrow down exactly what happened and where, and find it in the archeological record. The flooding was simply the bursting of man-made dams, but this was combined with burning everything. The result can be seen in the remains of Noah's city, Shuruppak, which was burnt and abandoned circa 2350 BC, about the date the Bible gives for Noah's flood.
So mainstream Bible scholarship, by caring too much about what people believed, says the flood never happened. But by ignoring beliefs and focusing on the text, we can see that not only did it probably happen but we probably have the archeological remains.
Noah's flood is just one example of the problem with mainstream Bible scholarship. Perhaps a better example, as it illustrates a wider range of problems, is the documentary hypothesis. It illustrates the many errors that creep in when your field of study (long dead people and their beliefs) is not subject to rigorous proof.
What is it?
The early chapters of Genesis refer to both Elohim (God) and Yahweh (Lord). After God creates man in chapter 1, the Lord-God creates man in chapter 2. So in the 1800s, many scholars decided that this was the result of two separate creation stories being merged into one. This was called the documentary hypothesis. This is now so well accepted that modern scholars, when discussing Genesis, will routinely say "there are of course two creation accounts".
Problem 1: Occam's razor
This is a textbook example of rejecting Occam's razor: "Plurality must never be posited without necessity." They posited a plurality of sources when they only needed one. There is a much simpler explanation, as we shall see.
Problem 2: ignoring documents
Eventually some original source documents were found: Genesis 1-11 appears to be based on Gilgamesh, with the earlier chapters strongly influenced by the Enuma Elish, Adapa, etc. They all tell a single story with two stages in creation: first the higher gods create lower gods, then the lower gods create humans. The lower gods appear to be human rulers like Gilgamesh: lords of cities, but like gods. So that explains Genesis. God creates a human to "have dominion", that is, to be a lord. This lord is "in the image of God": that is, he is a lord-god. This lord-god then arranges for lower humans to serve him. So there was only one creation story and the documentary hypothesis was wrong.
Problem 3: ignoring Genesis
In hindsight this was not just an alternative explanation (thus satisfying Occam's Razor) but it should have been the obvious one, the only one to consider. Not spotting the overwhelming evidence casts doubt on the scholars' abilities. "Elohim" is a plural so we can easily have two gods. "Adam" is a generic term for mankind, and "create" just means to organise (e.g. when I create a chair I do not magic it out of nothing, I organise wood and nails). So the text should be plain: The gods organised some people to be lords, and makes them in the image of gods. These lord-gods then organised other people to serve them. And if the scholars missed that, just reading later should show there are two classes of God. This "lord-god" walks in the garden and does not know where Adam is. The name Yahweh is easily explained as a title: each city or tribe was dedicated to a particular junior god, so its ruler would act in that god's name. Each junior god was subservient to the higher god or the council, the elohim. This kind of polytheism is well known as the backdrop to the Old Testament. So any scholar should recognise the two levels of gods in the creation story.
In fact, even if we had never read Genesis we can guess this is how creation happened. In every society through history there has always been two levels of divine authority, not one: First, the high abstract level (logic, gods, constitution, or whatever principles a leader appeals to in order to justify his power). And second, the rulers (humans who claim authority to rule). How could creation be in any other way? It had to be in two stages.
Problem 4: ignoring early Christianity
Let's say that by some remarkable lapse the scholars missed all that. Don't they read early Christian texts? Marcion, the one who first put together a New Testament canon, was so appalled at the Old Testament God that he compiled a list of differences between him and the God of Jesus. The "learned" Christians (the Greek for learned was "gnostic") wouldn't go so far as to condemn this lesser god, but shared the conclusion there is obviously a higher and lower god here (the lower one being the "skilled worker", or in Greek "demiurge"). Other thinkers, including Plato, had the same conclusion: the highest God is logic, and there is a lower, worker god or demiurge. The gnostics were clear that these gods are essentially spirits that can inhabit men. Modern scholars should have known this. Don't they read what early Christians wrote? There has to be a two stage creation: God -> god-like lord man -> lowly man
Problem 5: mountains of evidence
When the source material was discovered we could perhaps still argue that the "real" document was missing. But that is no longer plausible. The documentary hypothesis was suggested about two hundred years ago, long before the flood of discoveries at Ebla, Mari, Ashurbanipal, Qumran, Nag Hammadi, etc. We now have whole libraries of ancient documents: thousands of tablets and scrolls. We can reconstruct practically every detail of Genesis 1-11 from its ancient sources. There are no longer any gaps. And it is no longer plausible that major collections of documents (the imaginary J and E sources) should have been available in 600 BC and later but not show up in any library anywhere. The documentary hypothesis has no support in the real world.
Problem 6: the house of cards
Finally, and most damning, they build other theories on the back of the documentary hypothesis. It is the poster child for the Bible record being unreliable. It becomes support for the documents being jumbled oral history (despite the actual source materials showing otherwise), leaving the "scholars" free to use random coincidences and the vaguest of parallels as the basis for anything they want to imagine: but don't get me started on that! So let's summarise:
Theo-logy, a logic-based study of divine topics, is far more useful than mainstream scholarship. Because it does not waste time on what people believed, only on "is an idea true?" We then study ancient beliefs only as a guide to what might be useful to study today. For example, Moses' law apparently had no tax on work. It does not matter whether Moses actually existed, or whether his law definitely had no tax on work. It is enough that the idea has been suggested, and now we can test it. If the idea turns out to be right then Moses deserves further study. If it turns out to be wrong then Moses deserves less of our time. In this way my study of the Bible has led me to prove the reality of life after death, the existence and nature of God, and how to make a perfect world. Meanwhile mainstream scholars are still debating what happened millennia ago. That is why I think theology is a much better use of our time.
Theo-logy lets us ignore writers who are not theo-logical, and focus on those that might be. E.g. e.g. read Thomas, not Paul. Being logical, these "good" writers will all tend to either agree, or else add useful new information. So we obtain the holy grail of Bible based religion: a consistent and provable text, dealing only with useful and true ideas. In this light we can see God is logic, spirit is real, Genesis is history, the story if Moses is neither unreasonable nor immoral, Mark is a reliable account of Jesus' life, and we can see where the world is headed in the future. All by rejecting the supernatural and focusing on logic.
The greatest advantage of theology is in helping us to create a perfect world. I argue that a perfect world is achievable through ground rent. I further argue that the message of the Bible, in both the Old Testament and the life of Jesus, is ground rent. Ground rent encapsulates the escape from Egypt, the foundation of Israel, the sovereignty of logic, the need to care for society, the parables of Jesus, and everything else. Economics is the only way to study the kingdom of God. The science of how kingdoms grow, how they use land and labour, is called macroeconomics. So we have to study the growth of the kingdom of God using macroeconomics. If we don't then we are not being logical about God: we are not being theo-logical. This theo-logical approach is testable: we can test economic claims today. It deals with proof, not endless debate.
For perfect clarity, here are the steps I recommend:
In short, life is too short, and real world needs are too pressing, to devote our minds to nonsense. This argument, the logical consistency matters, is based on the premise that real life matters. Our purpose as human beings should be to understand real life in order to make the present world better. So we should study history for its economic and social and philosophical lessons, and not merely to catalog mistakes of the past.
Mainstream Bible scholarship is fundamentally flawed because its focus is on belief, something that is fundamentally ambiguous. This can only ever produce weak conclusions. And the further we go back in time the weaker those conclusions must be. In contrast, a theo-logical approach rests on ideas that can be rigorously tested today and so is on much stronger ground. Sadly, what passes for theology today is usually anything but "-logy". Theology today is bad theology: not based on logic. It is based on the supernatural and so deserves to be rejected wholesale. But good theology, applying logic to belief, is always available. And it is our only hope of extracting reliable facts from the Bible.