How Do We Read the Bible, Historically?

Earlier this week at Jesus Creed, the topic was Biblical authority and the historical reliability of the Bible.  ( by the way, the Jesus Creed post-God, Science, and Evolution is worth a read as well). 

These sorts of discussion always cause me to wonder why some of us  Christians are so insistent that Scripture conform to society’s standards, in particular standards about historical and scientific reliability.  The problem is that usually when we’re talking about the historical and scientific reliability of the Bible, we’re using concepts that modern historians and scientists no longer affirm and use.

I’m no historian, but to the best of my knowledge, historians now understand that the worldview and culture of the person writing history affects how the history is written. So if we are reading a history of colonial India written by an English colonist, we’ll learn a different story than if we read about colonial India from the perspective of an Indian.The idea that there is one correct version is history is, well, history.  When people are discussing the historical accuracy of the Bible, we ought to ask, whose version of history are we talking about?

If Egyptian records do not mention the Exodus, does that mean it didn’t happen? Or does it mean that Egyptian historians decided the event was not worth recording? Or that it was too embarrassing to record? Or too politically dangerous to record?

In some regards we are back to the perennial question, “what is truth?” and can we ever really know  what truth is? But for today perhaps our question could be phrased, ” Is history the best and final authority on what is true?”

Now, please note, I’m not saying the Bible is fiction. There are historically accurate events recorded in Scripture. On the other hand, not everything presented in a historical fashion is historically correct in every detail.

But does historical accuracy really say anything about the trustworthiness of the Bible? Only if you reduce truth to facts.

It seems to me that Christians have unwittingly accepted a small definition of truth.  Truth has become what is historically or scientifically verifiable.  But don’t we find truth in other places?  Can truth be found in beauty?  In art? In music? Can truth be found in relationship? In community? Is there truth in love that cannot be described or quantified by history and science?

It is important to understand where the Bible is historically accurate and where it is not. It is important to think about why Biblical authors made the decision to tell the stories in the way they did. It is important to think about why certain stories have been handed down for centuries.

By the way, an insistence on the primacy of the historical and scientific accuracy of the Bible is a relatively modern phenomenon. The Church has never restricted itself to only a historical or literal reading of Scripture. Even the apostle Paul writes that the story of Hagar and Sarah is an allegory (Gal 4:22-27).

The “either or” argument – either the Bible is entirely true or it is all false- has never made much sense to me. If we can’t prove Baalam’s donkey really talked, the entire Bible is untrue? That just seems illogical to me. We know that there are a variety of writing genres in Scripture.  My hunch is, that ancient people realized, better than we, that Truth is too complex to be confined to historical facts.  If you have ever cried over the ending of a novel, you know that’s true.

I want to suggest we have let our understanding of  truth become too small. We have forced truth into the small boxes of history and science. Scripture is about more that history and science.  The stories in the Bible, the historical and all the rest, are about relationship. The relationship between God and people. This relationship is found in historical accounts. But the story of this relationship is also told truthfully in poetry and song, in parable and in prophecy.

I wonder if we lessened our desire for the truth of historical accuracy and strengthened our desire for  the truth of  a relationship with God -the relationship the Bible tells us about, how would our lives change?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

2 thoughts on “How Do We Read the Bible, Historically?

  1. History is absolutely a matter of perspective. Did we (America) defeat the British in the Revolutionary War or did the British quit and walk away? Did the Anglicans leave the Catholic church or did they get kicked out? To also make a point about perspective, consider reading an article from each city regarding a Sunday NFL game. One would tend to think there were 2 different games played!

    There’s also a strong overlap between science and history – especially since scientific process are used to study and verify/disprove recorded events.

    In terms of the Bible, when one decides it is all truth, they intentionally two-step around the contradictions – thus I (like you) don’t understand the “must make a choice” concept.

    More importantly, I enjoy reading your posts when I get a chance, as well as many of the comments. I’m no theologian by any imagination, but I am faithful and willing to learn – so thanks for helping.

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