How Historical is the Bible?

Excavations of ancient Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee

The Bible is not all history, but all the Bible is history.

That first phrase is pretty much straightforward. The Bible is composed of much more than straight history—what happened, when, by whom, etc. It contains poetry, parables, prophetic proclamations (and almost all of these are written in Hebrew poetry), letters, apocalyptic literature, even a sermon or two, not to mention a genre of literature that seems to have been new to the ancient Near East, which we call “gospel”.

It’s important to recognize these different types or genres of writing because each carries its own rules for interpretation. You’ll get in trouble if you try to read a parable as straight history, or straight history as legend.

Each genre has its own lane you must stay in to understand it properly .

The second phrase needs more explanation.

All the Bible is history in the sense that it reflects the historical situation in which it was written. We can learn a lot about a culture by looking at all of its literature, not just its historical writings.

A person reading Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” for instance, can learn a lot about 19th century London: its customs, the dietary choices of its people, the poverty in the city, different views of the poor, the difference between the working and the business classes, etc.

The story is not history; I sure hope the dead don’t float around shackled to safes or that ghosts of Christmases past, present, and future don’t visit misers. But the novella is certainly historical.

So also the Bible. If all you do when reading the Bible is try to figure out what happened you leave unearthed a vast treasure of information.

And not just historical and cultural information. You miss a lot of theological information.

Just like moderns, ancient people were learning about God. It’s a mistake to read an ancient description of God’s actions or even character and conclude that is in fact what God is like and how he acts.

It is more accurate to say that that is how ancient people understood what God is like and how he acts.

Even that needs to be refined because it assumes that all ancient people, even all ancient Israelites, believed the same things about God and his actions, and that is most decidedly not true.

Better then to say that that is how one particular group of ancient Israelites understood God, which then raises the question: how did other groups of Israelites understand God? In one particular theological aspect there might have been widespread agreement while in another a great diversity of belief.

And that’s for one particular point in time. Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” less than two hundred years ago and look how things have changed in that relatively short period of time.

The earliest Old Testament writings date back at least to the seventh century B.C. and possible as far back as the late second millennium B.C.

That’s plenty of time for ideas about God and humans to grow, develop, evolve and even devolve.

Moreover, when a someone is writing about ancient history, they are actually opening up a window into two historical periods—the time they are writing about and their own time as well.

For instance, much of the Old Testament that covers the period when Israel was ruled by one king—Saul, David, and then Solomon—was actually written much later, perhaps as late as the time after the Babylonian Exile.

Reading these stories tells us much about what life was like in post-Exilic Israel, particularly how these writers understood God in light of the cataclysmic event of the exile.

And, not surprisingly, different writers viewed things differently. The writer of Jonah, for instance, certainly saw things differently than the writer of Ezra or Nehemiah.

To ignore that, or worse, to deny it and try to “reconcile” the two views is not only to miss a great deal of insight but also to violate the historical nature of biblical literature.

It’s ironic that this is what the most strident of defenders of the historicity of the Bible are actually doing.

Their intentions are good, but the effects are damaging.

The Bible deserves better.

Photo Credit: © Can Stock Photo / vblinov

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