That’s Not a Library

16 Aug

At HuffPo, Karl Giberson, in attempting to “answer” a question posed by, among others, Jerry Coyne at WEIT, suggests that the Bible ought not be considered a single book:

The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together.

Dozens of books bound together in a single volume is not a library–it’s an anthology. A library with only 66 books in it is a weak example of a library. Any one of the seven bookcases in my house has more books on only half its shelves, and my collection is a weak example of a library.

Giberson continues:

The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous.

But this assumption is not made by Coyne, and the attempt to attribute it to him is disingenuous at best. Giberson quotes Coyne as saying: “…if the Bible is not to be read as a literal account of the truth, then how do we know which parts really are true, and which parts are fiction or metaphor? Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.” Coyne’s problem is with the lack of a reliable means of determining which parts of the Bible are to be interpreted literally and which metaphorically.

Giberson’s answer to this is:

Acknowledging that the Bible is a library doesn’t do all the hard work for us, of course. But recognizing this at least lets us avoid the so-called slippery slope where a non-literal approach in one place somehow compromises a literal approach in another.

Treating the Bible as a “library” not only “doesn’t do all the hard work for us,” it does none of the work. Moreover, at no point did Coyne suggest that either the whole thing must be either literally true or it must all be metaphor (although he did say that he “almost prefer[s] the fundamentalist literalists,” but that preference does not imply agreement). So Giberson’s answer is an “answer” only in the sense that he wrote something after the quote from Coyne, but if words have meaning, then he’s answering a question that he only imagined someone asked and is hoping you won’t notice that he’s talking to himself.

The problem with his Harry Potter-Abraham Lincoln nonsense is that we have reliable, independent means of knowing that Potter is fiction and Lincoln is historical. There is nothing in any biography of Lincoln that I know of that even hints the 16th U.S. President studied at Hogwarts and served as Prefect of Ravenclaw. The cheap attempt to depict Coyne as evolutionary science’s version of Bill O’Reilly should be beneath anyone with a Ph.D. “You don’t have a reliable means of determining history from fiction in the Bible,” a statement with which Giberson essentiallyagrees, is a far cry from “The tide goes in, the tide goes out, you can’t explain that!” (Giberson: “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”)

Giberson also uses the old trick of accusing people whose interpretation of the Bible finds it lacking (coherence, logic, reason, morality) of not properly understanding it. The Bible is not to be read the way other books are read, because it has to be interpreted through a large number of filters. Because obviously, no one who disagrees with the Bible could possibly understand it.

The story of Adam and Eve originated as a Hebrew oral tradition, which is a long ways from an English prose translation. And there are more complex filters related to culture, author intent, literary form, historical setting, anticipated audience and so on.

And not one of those filters makes the Bible true, literally or metaphorically.

I’m beginning to think that I may have been generous in describing the Bible as an anthology, as though it has the same level of quality and coherence as an anthology of fantasy stories edited by Neil Gaiman or an anthology of mystery stories edited by P.D. James. Perhaps it’s really just a collection of ancient fan fiction.


Coyne responds to Giberson at WEIT, pointing out that while Giberson will acknowledge that Adam and Eve are not historical, he declines to discuss the implications of such an acknowledgment has for Christianity.

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog also answers Giberson, discussing, among other things, the unity of scripture.

Eric MacDonald explains that theologians (or the faithful) choose which parts of the Bible are important while “science forces them to make the distinction between what can (at a stretch, perhaps) be literally, and what must be figuratively, understood” and that nothing in theology or in science helps Giberson make his case.

No doubt Giberson or someone else will respond to Coyne, Rosenhouse, or MacDonald, also missing the point, and also trotting out tired arguments as though they’re fresh and new. I have no idea how they find the patience and the stamina to do this on a regular basis.

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Posted by on August 16, 2011 in atheism


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