Judging Judy

Posted on May 23, 2010


Martin Luther “What was said about the book of Judith may also be said about this book of Tobit. If the events really happened, then it is fine and holy history. But if they are all made up, then it is indeed a truly beautiful, wholesome, and useful fiction or drama by a gifted poet”
Martin Luther

Introduction to Tobit, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35

Can our human understanding of history be used to judge the Bible?
If an error is believed to be found, what should be done about it?

In my previous post, I mentioned some of the standards and methods used by different individuals and councils to determine which books belonged in the Canon of Scripture. Aside from the theological questions and issues of authenticity, we see Martin Luther applying a historical test to the books of Judith and Tobit – currently found in the Catholic and Orthodox Bibles, but placed in the apocrypha section of Protestant Bibles and often left out of printed editions.

Luther was clearly willing to reject the canonical status of Judith and Tobit if they are proven to be historically false. No theological issues are mentioned in the section I quoted from or the preface to Judith. He is not claiming to base his decision to accept or reject books the Church had used for over a millennia on a miraculous sign, a messenger angel, or other supernatural influence. He lists his appeal to human reason, other Biblical books such as Jeremiah and Ezra, historians such as Philo, and what was known about cities and places at the time. Since he was unable to reconcile the historical issue, he opted for elimination over harmonization. It’s kind of interesting to me since he interpreted Judith allegorically and believed it wasn’t meant to be historic according to the introduction in his German Bible.

Judith has been ruled as historical fiction and no one that I know of believes that it is historically accurate. At first glance, the book has every appearance of a straightforward, historical account. The book mentions many names and places, and does not contain anything strange, theologically troubling, or beyond the type of events and messages found elsewhere in the Bible (Tobit does, in my opinion.) Judith seems more devout than Esther, and the theme of the book is focused on obeying God and His power to deliver His people against a formidable adversary. In comparison, the Jewish/Protestant version of Esther does not mention God, and she was among the jews remaining in Persia instead of going to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. It gets a little edgy when Judith deceives the enemy in order to spy, uses her beauty to get into the general’s tent, and then chops his head off and takes it back home. Those who have read the Bible know that these kind of acts are not without precedent (child’s play compared to much of Judges, for example.) The reformers respected the Book of Judith and Luther said “the words spoken by the persons in it should be understood as though they were uttered in the Holy Spirit.” Nevertheless, the historical problems kept it out of Holy Scripture. These problems include the lack of evidence for a city called Bethulia and Nebuchadnezzar’s presence in a setting hundreds of years after his appearance in other sources. The reformers obviously believed that the canon was still up for debate, and gave it the apocryphal distinction. Judith and Tobit began to disappear from printed Protestant Bibles without much protest.

Luther believed that the Bible was without error, but was still open for editing. If he detected an error, he reasoned that he could and should remove the book from the canon. Today, less than 500 years later, many believe that the dirty work of removing books is done, and that what we have now is perfect and without error. The Protestant canon seems to have been unofficially closed sometime during the Reformation. Now, historical discoveries do not judge the Bible, the Bible judges our discovery of history.

Finding Darwin's GodBiologist Kenneth Miller shares a revealing anecdote about an exchange with young-earth creationist Henry Morris that demonstrates the idea of a closed, perfect canon without regard to human discoveries. When the biologist asked Morris if he really believed that all the scientists and geologists were dead wrong, Morris soberly explained that no matter hows things looked, no matter what is found and demonstrated, the truth is what the Bible says. No amount of earthly evidence could ever change his mind. The compilers chose the right books and that the literal interpretation is the only way to see it. Therefore, he would not throw out or reinterpret Genesis, but would instead throw out mainstream geology, biology, genetics, and other sciences. After all, Morris explained, scientists have been wrong before.

Some adherents of the inerrant/closed canon view may be more willing than others to reinterpret a story if a conflict is pointed out, but they will defend it beyond all human opposition if the conflicting understandings cannot be reconciled. Protestants with this view would have been forced to defend the historicity of Judith had it remained in their Bible. Most (but not all Christians) have let the scientific community make their case that the earth is indeed moving, spinning on its axis each day and revolving around the sun year after year. The solar system model is not derived sola scriptura, it was revealed by geometry against the interpretation of scripture by The Church and fathers of the reformation alike.

Even before Darwin, modern geology began to form in reaction to the unexpected discovery of layers that recorded a long history of radical changes. Biology aside, these findings challenged the historical pronouncements of a literal interpretation of the beginning of Genesis. Examining the evidence and dealing with the implications can be difficult, so I see the appeal of just trusting those who went before us. Seeing that they used human understanding to confirm or condemn writings at each point in the assembly of the various canons (see previous post,) we have to acknowledge that they didn’t have all the information we have today. Would it have impacted their decisions or interpretations? Is this another turbulent era of change such as the Reformation? Are the scientific revelations a big deal, or just another adjustment that future generations won’t lose sleep over like heliocentricity? Is the science compelling, or still open to interpretation?

My following post examines the history of Genesis and the revelations of science. There’s so much to say on these issues, and so much good material written on the subject. I sometimes wonder if there is any value in my effort to post and discuss these issues, but in the end it gets people talking and I feel that compiling the data in my own style based on my environment and context may make it more relevant to those like me.

Posted in: the Bible