Human trauma gave birth to the Bible, suggests religious scholar Dr. David M. Carr (@davidcarrbible). He says the Bible’s ability to speak to suffering is a major reason why the sacred texts of Judaism and Christianity have retained their relevance for thousands of years. He’s studied how the Jewish people and Christian community have adapted through the centuries to survive multiple catastrophes and how their holy scriptures both reflected and reinforced each religion’s resilient nature.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Carr about his book, Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins (Yale University Press, 2014).
Explain how your personal suffering of chest trauma from a bicycle accident led to the writing of Holy Resilience.
Dr. Carr: Five years ago, on a beautiful Columbus Day weekend in 2010 I nearly died in a bicycle accident in the Catskills while on a tenth-anniversary bicycle ride with my wife, Colleen. Up to that point I had spent decades studying, writing multiple books and teaching about how the Bible was formed over time. This accident, and the months of physical and psychological recovery afterwards, led me to immerse myself in studies of trauma and memory. I came to realize that the Bible reflects the trauma of ancient Israel and early Christianity.
You’ve said empires are temporary, but trauma continues, and that the Bible speaks to this reality. What do you mean?
Dr. Carr: The past millennia have seen the rise of huge empires—Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and many others—each one with illusions about its own immortality. But each of these empires fell. Meanwhile, the people that those empires traumatized—ancient Israelites and early Christians—came to find God amidst their suffering. The scriptures of Assyria, Babylonia, and even Rome were buried in dust or relegated to school books. In contrast, the Bible of Israel and the early church has survived and become the center of believers’ lives, guiding them even now, centuries later, as they deal with life’s traumas.
What role do you see sin having in contributing to humankind’s trauma?
Dr. Carr: Trauma studies have shown that trauma is deepest when it is human-caused. Of course people are traumatized by natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes, but even there the impact of the trauma is often worse because of human factors. Worst are cases of war trauma, sexual violence, and other events where people are devastated by acts of other people, which are rooted in their sin. These human-caused traumas shatter the fragile trust in others on which our lives are built. They haunt us.
Explain the subtitle of your book, “The Bible’s Traumatic Origins.”
Dr. Carr: For believers the Bible is special because it is God’s holy and inspired word. In addition, it is distinguished from other ancient scriptures by being formed in trauma, not just one trauma, but wave upon wave of trauma: the Assyrian destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and oppression of Judah for nearly a century (2 Kings 15-21), the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and exile of thousands of Judeans to Babylon (2 Kings 24-25), the near destruction of Judaism by the Hellenistic king Antiochus Epiphanes IV (told in the apocryphal books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees), and the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, its temple, and criminalization of Christianity. These traumas shaped the writings of the Bible and help explain why the Bible has spoken so powerfully to centuries of believers experiencing their own traumas.
Briefly recount your book’s exploration of Judaism and Christianity as “facing catastrophic disasters that shattered their identities” requiring them to shape new understandings of themselves.
Dr. Carr: Both Judaism and Christianity took shape amidst trauma inflicted by Rome on Palestine. Rabbinic Judaism was a reaction to Rome’s destruction of Jerusalem’s temple and brutal suppression of Jewish revolts in 66-70 CE and 132-135 CE (CE = AD). Christianity is founded on the trauma of Rome’s execution of Jesus, the traumas suffered by the apostle Paul, and the trauma of criminalization of Christianity by Rome as an illegal form of “atheism” (denial of the divinity of the emperor and other Roman gods).
What does the Bible teach us about trauma and surviving it?
Dr. Carr: Where the media often preaches happiness and success, the Bible reminds us that trauma is part of life. The Bible’s most central characters are not the rich nor are they mighty kings (even David has flaws and rules a relatively modest kingdom), but landless ancestors who experience their own traumas, figures such as Abraham and Moses. The Christian Bible climaxes with Jesus, who was crucified by Rome. We see in the Bible how God works through these traumatized figures, and the Bible teaches that traumatic suffering can be an opportunity for transformation.
Why do you use the Assyrian destruction of Israel as the impetus leading to victorious biblical ideals, instead of earlier events such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden or Abel’s murder or Israelite slavery in Egypt?
Dr. Carr: I am focused on when the Bible was actually written down, and many scholars agree that the vast bulk of the Bible was written down long after the Garden of Eden or the exodus from Egypt. The Assyrian onslaught in 722 BCE (BCE = BC) (described in the Bible in 2 Kings 15-19) was the first of several traumas that hit Israel and Judah when they had scribes who produced longer writings, and this Assyrian trauma, along with others that followed, shaped how those scribes framed biblical stories and prophecies.
How does the story of Moses anticipate the trauma and deliverance experienced by Israelites in the book of Exodus?
Dr. Carr: Moses’s life begins with his rescue as an infant from the water of the Nile (Exod. 2:1-10), an event that anticipates Israel’s deliverance from Egypt at the Red Sea (Exod. 14-15). In his early life he flees to the wilderness and meets God there at Mount Horeb (Exod. 2:11-4:18), and his people then follow the same way into the wilderness and to the mountain of God later in the book of Exodus (Exod. 16-24). There is even a parallel between the haunting story of God attacking Moses and Moses being saved by dabs of blood (Exod. 4:24-26) and the later sparing of Israel from the divine attacker (who kills the firstborn of Egypt) thanks to dabs of blood on their doorposts (Exod. 12:21-27). Moses embodies in his person the suffering and deliverance of his people.
Do you see the suffering of Job as a microcosm type of the group or communal trauma and survival described throughout the Bible?
Dr. Carr: Yes. Job is traumatized by the loss of his wealth, health, and children, a loss not explained by any act on his part (Job 1-2). His friends have lots of pat explanations for his suffering, suggesting that Job himself is to blame (Job 4-28, 32-37). But Job refuses their easy answers and eventually sees and hears God’s responses to his protests (Job 38-41). Job and the book about him express the kind of deep wisdom about suffering that only comes from direct experience of trauma.
Your book explores the trauma of Christ’s crucifixion and how early Christianity embraced the symbol of the cross—a tool of torture—as the decisive victory over the ultimate trauma of death. Didn’t that dramatic transformation result from Christ’s resurrection being seen as overpowering the trauma of sin?
Dr. Carr: If we only had the story of Christ’s crucifixion, there would be no further story of Christianity and most of us would be worshipping Mithras or some other deity now. But the Bible centers on the revelation that Jesus’s death was not the end of the story. And this is not just a message about Roman execution, but a message about how God works in life in general, helping God’s children triumph over sin and more specific traumas of tragedy and loss.
How does the Bible’s description of violence against Christians speak to your premise of trauma in Scripture?
Dr. Carr: The story of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection was powerful in its original context because trauma was a reality of life for so many people in the Roman Empire. Early followers of Jesus, like Paul, experienced an extra measure of such trauma as they suffered beatings, imprisonment and even death trying to spread their message. Paul tells the Corinthian church in his second letter to them:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters. (2 Cor. 11:24-26 NRSV)
Experiences like these led Paul to suggest to his fellow Christians, also experiencing trauma, that their suffering was a way that they revealed Jesus to the world. He says,
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor. 4:8-11 NRSV)
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Dr. Carr: I thank you for your interest and very much hope my book helps people link their lives with the Bible in a way they may not have considered before.
Bio: David M. Carr, PhD, is Professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Over his decades-long academic career, he has become an international authority on the formation of the Bible, ancient scribal culture, and issues of the Bible and sexuality. A father/stepfather of four, Dr. Carr lives, rides his bicycle, and plays funk-blues organ in New York City with his wife and fellow biblical scholar, Colleen Conway.