The Historicity of the Bible

I know I said I’d only write once a week, but I’ve had a backlog of thoughts and concepts I’ve been working through.  This one has been coming at me from many sources and different classes, so here it goes:

Does it matter if the events recorded in the Bible actually happened, or is the message the only important part?

Throughout the history of theology, opinions on this matter have varied.  There are some who have always claimed, and still do, that all of the events recorded in the Bible are fully true, and that all of its impact depends on the reality of the record.  There are others, on the other hand, who don’t believe Jesus even existed, but maintain that theology itself is still valid.  As with most things, I’m caught in the middle.

For example, we’re currently discussing the nature of ancient histories in my Old Testament Theology class.  The ancients didn’t care about the exact order of things, and they had no concept of an “objective account”: to the ancients, history was “a people writing a narrative account of their history for their benefit.”  Ancient Greek historians would blatantly make stuff up when they ran out of source material, filling in the holes of their narrative.  Ancient editors would rework the same story in very different ways, with each version speaking specifically to a different audience.  A prime example of this is the story of the Flood.Edward_Hicks_Noahs_Ark

Noah’s story isn’t the only version of the Flood.  I remember a time when this revelation shook my faith from its very foundations; if there’s more than one flood story, does that mean it isn’t true?  If it isn’t true, does that mean that the whole Bible is untrustworthy?  These questions were tough.  Now, the Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t bother me in the slightest, but I’m learning that there were flood stories in just about every culture in the region; each account features the specific gods of a specific people within their own cultural context.  The interesting thing is, at the end of one flood account, the narrative refers to another people’s god: the editor had forgotten to change the name of the god in the last reference, and since writing was literally “written in stone” in those days, he couldn’t fix his mistake.  Every one of the flood accounts has similar themes or details for a reason: it’s the same story, re-hashed for different audiences.  Doubtless, many of the people in the original audience knew this – but that’s not the point.  It didn’t matter to them if someone had completely re-written the historical account: the significance of the story was what mattered to them.

What about for us?  Does the story still carry significance for us if it’s a clever fiction?  Discuss, keeping in mind that there’s no such thing as an “objective” history; it’s the significance we give to real events (or find in them) that makes them noteworthy.

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6 thoughts on “The Historicity of the Bible

  1. Maybe I’m weird, but this never seriously bugged me. Like, I understand the difficulties people can have with it, but it has never bothered me. As long as the earth was created, a flood happened, the Jews fled Egypt and were then captured by the Babylonians and as long as Jesus was born, died and rose, I’m cool with the poetic license that the writers employ to show the meaning of these events.

  2. Yeah, it’s definitely a subtle distinction: is a story always more powerful if it actually happened, or can the message or theme of a story be just as powerful if it was made up to make a point?

    On a related note, a commentary I’m reading on Ruth talks about Ruth, Jonah and the story of Joseph as examples of a Hebrew novella; a few days after I read that, I read a news story about how coins have been found in Egypt with Joseph’s face on them, along with his Hebrew name, his Egyptian name, and a fat cow. Proves that Joseph was indeed treasurer in Egypt, that he was a Hebrew who was given an Egyptian name, and that he married an Egyptian 😉

  3. Oh, and I should qualify my first remark there: Jesus’ historicity, as Graeme mentioned above, is necessary. Jonah’s is quite less so. A prophet exists to speak the message of God; the message of God spoken through Jonah is spoken through the book about Jonah, whether Jonah actually existed or not. Jesus, on the other hand, does a lot more than just speak a message for God: he IS God, and acts in our world and on our behalf. Even if his historicity wasn’t easily proven, it would be absolutely necessary to believe that Jesus actually exists.

  4. It is refreshing to hear about Christian thinking that refuses to give power to fear. Like you Jeff, hearing about other flood accounts, other stories of (at the very least) “spiritual” resurrections, and other sons of other gods used to make me shake in my little Christian boots.

    However as I continue to grow and mature in my faith I am understanding more and more that fear is not an appropriate or healthy response. Not only was the original audience aware of these “poetic licenses”, but they understood that the subversion was precisely the point the authors were trying to make! What better way to make a statement then to dress it in familiar clothing.

    Anyways, thanks for your continual blogging Jeff, its certainly challenging me to stretch a bit further. Grace/peace.

  5. I always liked Lewis’ explanation of other mythical stories that have proto-Christian elements. People freak out because Egypt had a son-of-God-dying-for-the-salvation-of-the-world myth before Christianity. Surely Christianity STOLE this myth from Egypt and appropriated it for themselves! (This is what “The Pagan Christ” is about. Boo). But in reality, the mythical story of the son-of-God-dying-for-the-salvation-of-the-world is interwoven into the mythical fabric of creation that the Egyptians were just being perceptive about the truths of the story.

    Theirs was just a story for spiritual/wisdom contemplation; Christ was the myth-made-history. Once I got that straight…heck…I could appropriate all truths as subjects to the Truth.

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