If the Biblical authors wanted to describe historical events, would they do so with the precision of a modern physicist or police investigator?
What if they wanted to leave an impression? Were they just providing information or would they have wanted to illicit a response from their recipients?
The first rule of hermeneutics is to understand the original context of the text in question. What was the reason to write it? To whom was it written? What is its genre and how does that influence its meaning?
When flipping open the ancient pages in today’s skeptical climate, here are 3 reminders that might prove useful:
1.) The Bible is limited
2.) Unanswered questions are not proofs to the contrary
3.) Truth comes in various forms
Biblical Stories are Limited
What we have are snapshots, really, of what ancient authors deemed important. Good writers know what to leave out; editing and cutting are the key to keeping stories focused on the main point. The main point of the Bible, to put it in its most general terms, is “God relating to humanity.” The various genres and themes are all woven together into this unified purpose.
By its nature, the Bible will be limited because it’s a focused story. What’s important is to let the words speak in their original context.
Anyone with a Google search bar knows that determining the original context of the Bible is the question that millions of books, and trillions of hours of study try to answer. Unfortunately, an objective approach to Biblical studies is impossible for humans, and the results are prone to contamination due to human presuppositions. The best we can do is learn to weigh the angles of each issue and understand our biases before we make a conclusion. If we disbelieve in miracles and supernatural activity, then of course we’ll discredit the veracity of the Resurrection or the parting of the Red Sea. If we’re fundamentalists, we’ll find it hard to accept any view that isn’t a literal reading of the text.
Even so, the Bible should not be seen as internally erroneous. The only reason so much ink has been spent over its “problems” is because so much of it is already reliable, and the exegetical issues that remain are merely a result of our desire to polish it. The problem is when we disagree on how to polish it!
Unanswered Questions are not Proofs to the Contrary
SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is spending heaps of cash looking for aliens. Why? They’re not trying to prove something that’s been disproved; they’re trying to answer an unanswered question. We don’t know whether there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, but scientists are hoping to discover it.
Likewise, there’s inevitably unanswered questions when dealing with the Bible.
When the Jews left Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for forty years, surely they left artifacts or bones of their deceased behind. But nothing has been found, and no record of the Exodus (as recorded in the Bible) has been found in the Egyptian archives. Was the Exodus account a myth constructed by the Jews to help propagate their identity?
Is this proof that the Exodus never happened? Many would say so. Many call it a myth. But this is simply an unanswered question. We must not be too hasty to equate unanswered questions with proofs to the contrary. This is what’s called the “Appeal to Ignorance Fallacy.” Perhaps there’s other explanations for the “lack of evidence” but we simply don’t have the necessary pieces to solve the puzzle. Perhaps we’ll never have the answers, but does that mean it never happened?
Humanity once believed the world was flat, that the Hittites never existed, and that platypuses were a myth. Some today contend that the Holocaust never occurred. Others are convinced we never landed on the moon in 1969. These examples show that conclusions are often tentative. It’s reasonable to withhold dogmatic conclusions when the evidence is incomplete, but it’s unreasonable to belittle evidence when it supports a conclusion contrary to your worldview.
In the name of science, SETI is not abandoning the possibility of ET life. Should we, then, in the name of skepticism, discount the historicity of the Bible because we don’t always have the information we demand? If the conjoined puzzle pieces begin to picture a house, do we doubt the image when we can’t seem to find the pieces where the door should be?
It’s easy to disbelieve something when you demand 100% certainty from it.
Archaeology, pertaining to Biblical texts, is not as cut-and-dry as what’s implied by the History Channel shows that conveniently pop up around Christmas and Easter. It must be remembered that what’s found in the ground can’t explain itself; it must be interpreted by modern-day scientists. Scriptural texts, contrarily, come with self-identification. When a text says “______ happened,” we’re forced to decide whether it’s true or false–whether it’s history or myth.
Truth Comes in Various Forms
“Myth” is a strong word, and too often it’s used in only one way: to denote something that’s untrue. But what about “myths” that describe actual events? Nathan’s parable in 2 Samuel 12:1-7a is a perfect example of this; the story’s principles paralleled those in David’s life, but the explicit connections were concealed. The “myth” provided a lens through which David could see his own misdeeds from a more objective perspective.
The purpose of Nathan’s parable was to illicit a response from David. Telling the facts of David’s scandal with Bathsheba, as if Nathan were a modern psychoanalyst or journalist, would not have been effective for his purposes.
Similarly, many scholars see Job, Jonah and the account of Jericho’s fall as Jewish fiction. They suggest Job and Jonah were attempts to correct Jewish prejudices and assumptions, and that Jericho’s fall was a paradigm for how the Israelite conquest of Canaan should have been. The Biblical writers, they argue, wanted to speak truth in a way that was more potent than the bare facts.
Then there’s the example of Genesis 1. It wasn’t based on eyewitness accounts, but Jews and Christians see it as history. This is considered “nonliteral history” in that the details are construed in a way that doesn’t destroy the facts. To say “God said, ‘let there be animals,’” may not be what happened (i.e., did God’s voice thunder over the world?), but it’s the idea that matters. It’s meant to leave an impact.
Still, we must be careful. We can take this principle and apply “myth” and “nonliteral history” to the whole canon if we give it too much rope. Judaism and Christianity are based on historical events, and given the care Herodotus and Luke took to compile accurate data shows the ancient authors didn’t see everything through “mythical lenses.” Most of Biblical history is exactly what it presents itself to be; it’s important, though, to acknowledge the reality that there are different angles with which to view the biblical texts (hence the ocean of scholarship that attempts to figure out which interpretive method is best). Wise readers of the Bible will keep their eyes and ears open to as many angles as possible; this, with the help of sound reason, helps make a balanced conclusion about the texts in question.
When the Bible purports to describe actual historical events, even when these include supernatural activity, miracles and predictive prophecy, we cannot just shrug it off as mythical or an embellishment of the facts (because that’s what our presuppositions tell us to do). The authors can’t defend what they wrote; they saw what they saw and heard what they heard and wrote it down for posterity. If they truly witnessed the events described in the Bible, who are we to say they were liars or misinformed? If one disbelieves in God and his activity in the world, then of course the supernatural texts will be postulated as mythical.
Biblical studies requires careful analysis of the many angles of interpretation, including angles that make us uncomfortable. Fundamentalists, liberals and everyone in between require self-examination when approaching the Bible. Rather than staking a claim on uncertain ground, we must learn to live in the realm of “that might be possible” and “I might be wrong.” If the puzzle begins to form a house, who cares if we can’t describe the door with certainty? Does that mean it’s not a house? It’s best to trust the evidence we have, not ignore the image in favor of the evidence we demand.
One last thought: would the Biblical authors be pleased by how we treat their literature? In other words, is the Bible to be analyzed, or read? Is it a path to follow or a machine to understand? Are we to process the words or critique them as literature? Is analyzing the Biblical texts just another excuse to avoid the self-examination it wants to initiate in us?
Do we use our eyes when it’s telling us to listen?
In addition to writing at A Clear Lens, Alex Aili (B.A. in Biblical Studies) writes short stories and offers his musings about God’s hand in the world at Covert God: Redemption in Shadows. He is a novelist-in-progress who lives in northern MN with his wife and two sons. He thrives on coffee, good pipe tobacco and longs walks in the woods. See what he’s up to on Twitter.
Carson, D.A. “Matthew.” In Matthew, Mark, Luke The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, 3-600. Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation, 1984.
Duvall, J. Scott and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word (Second Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Howard Jr., David M. An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1993.
Kreeft, Peter and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Matthews, Victor H. and James C. Moyer. The Old Testament: Text and Context. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997.
Merrill, Eugene H. An Historical Survey of the Old Testament (2nd Edition). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991.