are literary motifs true?

October 29, 2009 at 9:57 pm 13 comments

roadIn a podcast about Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Mark Goodacre (Professor of Religion, Duke University) asks the question: Was it really “on the Damascus Road?” He discusses how the author of Luke/Acts regularly uses the theme of travel on roads to bring up key events; the story of the good Samaritan who met his fellow man while on the road, the disciples being told of Jesus’ resurrection while they were on the road to Emmaus, and the Ethiopian eunuch meeting Phillip while travelling.

While hypothesizing about a literary motif, Goodacre notes that he is not saying that Luke was “making it all up out of whole cloth”, but rather that he seems to have crafted his stories around this motif of travelling. Perhaps Luke was a traveller himself and events often happened to him while on the road. Or maybe he saw the Christian walk as a journey and so describes events through that theme in his narratives, similar to the way he used the term “The Way” in describing Christianity.

Ultimately it shouldn’t matter where the event took place, and the story makes clear that an important event took place in Paul’s life wherever the locale. A progressive Christian who views the stories with the possibility of allegory can take home the message that Paul experienced a conversion just as can the literalist/inerrantist who believes the story is a verbatim, eyewitness account of the events. It doesn’t matter whether Paul being on a road at the time was a literary motif used by Luke, does it?

What can a literalist/inerrantist make of this literary motif? That since the disciples of Jesus were a travelling bunch it would be natural for key events to take place while on the road? That God supernaturally caused these key events to take place in a way that would ultimately form a literary motif? That there really is no literary motif, because Luke describes plenty of other events that do not take place on roads? That the Greek word for roads could really mean “place,” and therefore…

I don’t know if a classic conservative inerrantist could listen to this podcast and appreciate the inquiry Goodacre is making. Now no doubt Goodacre’s theory of literary motif is debatable even by a person who would allow for Luke to be creating a literary motif. It is just a theory which attempts to provide insight into the material. But isn’t a person better off if they can consider all the options available? Does the conservative approach really allow for intellectual freedom if one cannot consider certain options of a text? Is an appreciation for a certain richness in the texts lost? Is that what it means to be a slave to Christ, to shut off part of your mind and refrain from asking certain questions? That is how I felt when I started asking crazy questions about the bible.

At the end of the day, either a progressive or a conservative Christian should be able to take away the central tenet of the story, that Paul experienced a conversion. But wait, was it really a conversion? That is Goodacre’s second question. Listen to the podcast to find out! It is only about 12 minutes long. :^)


Entry filed under: apologetics, bible.

demanding conclusions an inerrant bible

13 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Temaskian  |  October 30, 2009 at 5:03 am

    12 minutes can be an eternity, depending on the content, so I wish you could reveal the plot to us. :-)

    Let me hazard a guess. He wasn’t really saved, because he was overwhelmed by a miracle, rather than taking an active step of faith?

    What’s there to have faith about, if you were really struck blind in the middle of the day, heard the voice of God speaking to you, telling you what to do, and was subsequently healed of your blindness by a Christian?! I would convert too.

  • 2. Sabio Lantz  |  October 30, 2009 at 7:18 am

    Thanx for the site ATTR ! Good writing.

    You’ve heard of “Taoism”. Well, “Tao” means path, road or way. “Road” themes are common in philosophy. This is the first time I have heard about Luke’s use. Very cool — being open to understanding the text as a literary tool is brand new to me. Ironically, I am enjoying the Bible in a new way since starting my atheist blog. I hated English and Literature classes in my school day, maybe I am growing up.

    Is Mark hinting at yet another interpretation of “resurrection”? Lots of liberal Christians even make “resurrection” into a thematic notion rather then a biological event. It is such a technique that allows them to embrace the values of identifying as a Christian. I find it interesting, my Christianity was conservative, I am learning of new ways of handling myth and the various uses of self-label.

    For readers, here is the other website of podcasts that the Mark mentions.

  • 3. Sabio Lantz  |  October 30, 2009 at 7:43 am

    ooops, sorry, a little more — you got me going !

    Podcasts 4 & 5 were fun: About the Divine Council

    I never heard of the “Divine Council” controversy — I googled and found the controversy amidst Christians. I am so ignorant of the Bible. Not to worry, I am ignorant of the Mahabharata, the Koran, the Classics of Confucius and many more. But I thought I pretty much understood the Bible. This is fun.

    Here is the link to Mike Heiser’s site on the Divine Council (mentioned on the podcast. So much to learn !

  • 4. atimetorend  |  October 30, 2009 at 8:37 am

    @Temaskian: the podcasts are scholarly in nature, so you won’t hear anything about “not really saved” or anything like that. It is more an attempt to discern what the authors intended with their writing from the evidence available through historical and literary criticism.

    @Sabio, glad you enjoyed them, Mark G. is a very good teacher/speaker. And thanks for the links. I haven’t listened to the divine council podcasts yet.

    Funny: Inerrantists make a case for a unity of the scriptures to prove God. Skeptics will say that unity exists only because the documents were redacted and the differences smoothed out. Then other skeptics will say the differences were *not* smoothed out and gaping discrepancies do exist. And then other Christian apologists will say that those very discrepancies and embarrassments *would have been removed* if the authors and scribes were dishonestly revising the texts.

    But I don’t think it is all that a confusing web as there are fairly reasonable explanations to be found for many of the quirks in the bible.

  • 5. Temaskian  |  October 30, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    After having heard the podcast, I have to agree that it’s not preachy and worth a listen.

  • 6. atimetorend  |  October 30, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Thanks for giving it a try Temaskian, and glad you found it worthwhile. The way I see it is that It is essentially scholarly inquiry into the bible without depending on faith for understanding. It would be compatible with certain kinds of Christian faith and not so much for others.

  • 7. Temaskian  |  October 30, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    I like this new (to me) approach towards the bible. It’s intelligent, and it seems to honestly attempt to make a coherent picture of what really happened based on all available evidence.

    I imagine that I would have enjoyed being a student under this kind of professor, now that I no longer believe; I no longer take it all that seriously, and there’s nothing at stake in arriving at the correct conclusion, even if it means revising the whole idea of Christianity. In fact, it would be revolutionary, and that’s always fun.

  • 8. atimetorend  |  October 30, 2009 at 1:47 pm

    That is very well said Temaskian and helps me out, especially, “…it seems to honestly attempt to make a coherent picture of what really happened based on all available evidence.” It is a refreshing approach, and I am really excited you found it so.

    It is as you said an honest approach. You are exactly right when you point out that you see things differently when there’s nothing at stake in arriving at the correct conclusion. I think that is how the bible should be studied by anyone, Christians, atheists, skeptics, or otherwise. That is where common ground is to be found because you can look for what is true rather than trying to prove what you already believe. There isn’t any reason for that kind of approach to be a threat to someone’s Christian faith, and it should be something a Christian or a skeptic can wield as a weapon against the other.

    I really do think it is incompatible with the fundamentalist way of looking at things that you and I both experienced. Fundamentalism starts with “fundamental” beliefs you have to hold to no matter what, and therefore any evidence one finds in the bible (or elsewhere) must conform to those fundamentals, rather than evidence naturally shaping the beliefs.

  • 9. Lorena  |  October 31, 2009 at 3:11 pm

    I haven’t heard the postcat, but reading your post, I realized that those exact stories were my favourites. I particularly loved the Emmaus story. It made my heart beat every time I read the disciples had been talking to Jesus himself and hadn’t noticed.

    There is a reason why the gospels have touched so many people. The writers were good story tellers. Maybe my view is a vote for the literary motif.

  • 10. Quixie  |  November 1, 2009 at 4:16 am

    Didn’t know Goodacre had a podcast,


  • 11. Kay  |  November 7, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I was going to to say pretty much what Sabio said – that the road is a literary motif for the journey of life. Perhaps the blinding light represents an enlightenment moment that overwhelms him (the blindness) and the voice he hears is that of his own subconscious.

    I’m pretty convinced that most of what we read in the entire Bible is literary in nature, and not historical.

  • 12. markfjohnston  |  November 10, 2009 at 7:58 pm

    Temaskian said: “What’s there to have faith about, if you were really struck blind in the middle of the day, heard the voice of God speaking to you, telling you what to do, and was subsequently healed of your blindness by a Christian?! I would convert too.”

    What’s there to have faith about? You’re being funny, right? Of course you, the stricken, would need more faith than anyone, especially the first morning you awakened and saw yourself in the mirror for the first time.

    Each subsequent day you would need increasing faith when you, in your heightened state of pride, would be compelled to believe you, and not God, willed your blindness to be healed.

    Furthermore, your point about converting after this single act reminds me of the man who, in a drunken stupor, promises God he shall never drink again if only he should “survive just this one time…”

  • 13. Janus Grayden  |  November 12, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    From my perspective, everything I read in the Bible after losing my biased approach to it make the most sense when viewed as people telling stories of folklore.

    Certainly this “on the road” approach serves as a potent literary device, especially in an age when that was the primary method of conveyance. It’s the equivalent to the “I was in my car the other day when it struck me…” lead-in.

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