Is the Bible an accurate and reliable account of history? Is it relevant to today’s society? Does it include metaphor, parody and other literary devices?
An atheist and a Christian argued these and other points Sunday night before a packed room of several hundred people at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Dan Barker, co-president of the Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, and Mark Chavalas, a UW-L history professor and expert in ancient languages, debated the historical accuracy of the Bible in an event that was sponsored by the La Crosse Area Freethought Society, the Campus Crusade for Christ and the Secular Student Alliance.
Barker, who for 19 years was what he referred to as a “fundamentalist preacher,” argued that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.
“The books of the Bible were written, translated and copied by human beings,” Barker said. “We all know that human beings make mistakes.”
For instance, the two creation stories in the book of Genesis do not agree with each other, Barker said. They have a different order of creation.
And he asked the audience whether it makes sense to have a snake that speaks in human language, even though snakes don’t even have vocal chords.
“Can you think of a single book that’s caused more confusion than the Bible?” Barker said. “People have fought wars over the Bible.”
Chavalas said scholars are still sorting out the literary methods used in the Bible. For example, he said, there often are contradictory accounts between verses in the Bible. And some accounts are poetic while others are narrative.
Often, he said, poetry was the oldest account — and the narrative came later, even if the narrative account may have come first in the Bible.
Chavalas said that, while the Hebrew language and other customs were not unique in terms of the other ancient cultures, the Hebrew idea of God was unique.
The other ancient civilizations “thought matter was the force that created all — even the Gods,” Chavalas said.
But the Hebrew God breathed life into everything, Chavalas said, and humans in Genesis were considered the image and likeness of God — unlike any other civilization’s perception of history.
During the debate and the audience question period, the audience cheered for both sides when they thought major points were made.
The ancient people who created the Bible “didn’t write history,” Chavalas said. “They wrote theological impressions about history.”