During the conversation on Sunday, my friend and mentor, Jann Aldredge-Clanton, raised an important point. She said that she enjoyed my sermon on the birth of Moses and the courageous actions of the women who made his existence possible, and she thought that it was a message that needed to be given to a wider audience. However, she was concerned that many people who might need to hear the message would tune out if I begin by saying that the Exodus didn’t happen. She’s probably right. Unfortunately, I said what I said and I can’t take it back. But I can offer some explanation in the hope that it might allow us to bridge that gap of understanding.
First, I would like to say that I’m not pulling this out of left field. My introductory texts on the Hebrew Bible in seminary began with the assumption that the Exodus did not really happen. I don’t think they even footnoted the claim, which means that it is so accepted as to be considered common knowledge. Honestly, I sometimes forget that anyone thinks otherwise. Yet I don’t make these claims or offer up the scholarly bona fides to mock the beliefs of others.
What I failed to mention in my sermon is that I’m not really interested in arguments about whether the Bible is literally-factually true or not. That is, I’m not interested in convincing anyone of my view and I’m not going to be convinced of anyone else’s point of view. Whether we believe it to be literally-factually true or not, the important thing is the broad truths it brings to light about ultimate reality and our place in it. I find it nearly impossible to have a productive dialog about the facts of the Bible, but very possible to have a productive dialog about the meaning.
That said, I find it more valuable and more significant to view the Bible, not as a history, but as a mythology. I don’t use that word to mean that it is false, but that its meaning is not dependent on its truth or falsity. It tells us something about who we are. The themes presented in Scripture, in what I regard as a mythology, are so significant in the experience of uncountable people that these stories have been worth retelling for thousands of years. To me, it is far less important whether Moses existed than to understand the architecture of oppression and resistance that has existed throughout human history. It makes me aware when those patterns repeat and it gives me hope that the pattern can be broken again. If the Bible is to be a roadmap and a guidebook, it can’t just be things that happened long ago. It must speak to who we are in this time and this place. It does that best if we regard it as the mythology of our faith.
Similarly, and at the risk of digging myself in deeper, I think there are serious questions about the historicity of the man we call Jesus. In the Aramaic, he would have been called Yeshua, which means “our savior.” As I mentioned in my sermon, this is the sort of thing that would happen in a folktale where the hero’s name is precisely the right name for a hero. Here, I am definitely out of step with the majority of scholars. Maybe. I suspect that there was a man who people called “our savior,” one man that lived with such courage and compassion that people were compelled to remember him in stories, perhaps even embellish or amplify the facts. I also suspect that there were other people who did things that saved people and their stories were told and added on to those told about the man called Yeshua. And I don’t think there is any way to know which stories are which or how many are truly about this one man and how many are about all the saviors that people met in 1st century Palestine.
Some might think that this uncertainty renders our mythology useless, but not for me. We discussed this a bit on Sunday that perhaps transformation doesn’t happen because we are too busy looking for the hero without realizing that they are all around us, that we might be it. My faith does not rest in there being one man that did all the right things to save the world. My faith is strong because I know that there are millions of saviors, million of Yeshuas out there in all times and all places that so incarnate the Word and the Way and the Name of God that we cannot help but recognize them. We know that they are enlivened by the same Spirit. Better still, we can be enlivened by that Spirit and become like Christ. We have the capacity and the responsibility to save others, to save the world. In small moments of moral clarity and courage that might make all the difference in the world to those who are perishing, we are called to be Yeshua. Our only response is to hear and believe.