Reading Job Literally but not Historically

Иов на гноище. Job. 1547-51. Роспись ю-в. стоп...
Иов на гноище. Job. 1547-51. Роспись ю-в. стопа Благовещенского собора Кремля (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some would argue that the story of Job actually happened. There was a person named Job to whom a series terrible tragedies occurred and the book of Job accurately tells us his story. Some would say that Job is a thought experiment. It was written to explore the idea of how God is at work in the world. Some would say Job is most like a play or a drama about spiritual transformation. +

At this point there is no way to know for certain which idea is correct. But thinking about what the original audience thought they were reading when they read Job is something worthwhile to consider.

Certainly ancient people had serious and complex philosophical and theological discussions. We still read Plato and Aristotle, for example. And certainly ancient people read and wrote in a variety of genres.

Is it a problem for us, if Job isn’t historically true?

It’s a problem if you buy into scientism’s premise that truth consists only of facts and data. If truth is nothing but what we can measure, tabulate and verify, then the historicity of Job is crucial.*

If truth is more than facts and data, we can let the historicity of Job be an interesting question, but not a problem.  If Job isn’t historically true – even if there was not someone named Job who had Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, and Elihu for friends and to whom terrible disaster struck- his story rings true in a larger sense. We all know someone or have experienced something of Job’s situation for ourselves. Unexpected and explainable tragedy affects many of us. Or affects someone we know and love. We all have said to someone, what Job’s friends said to him. And we have had friends say those things to us.

Whether Job existed as a real person or not, we recognize his story. His anguish and his questions are real and honest and true.

What is truth?

Can a novel speak the truth?

Can a symphony speak truth?

Can a painting?

Was Job a real guy? I don’t know. In the most important ways, it doesn’t matter. The Bible is full of all sorts of literature and to think that Job may not have existed doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t exist. The book of Acts and the Epistles are different sorts of literature than Job.  They each use different methods to tell us about God and how God is at work in the world.

Is God bound by the facts and data of our material world?

The Incarnation and the resurrection would suggest not.

We can find signs of God in facts and data, but God is not constrained by facts and data. The wonderful thing is that God is at work and present through all sorts of stories.

Surely God is present through history, but God is also known through poetry and epic tale. And through the wonders of nature and the universe.

Is Job real?  I don’t know.

Is Job true? Yes!


I’d like to know, what do you think?



+ See the ongoing series on Job by RJS at Jesus Creed on Job as thought experiment and see Thomas G. Long’s What Shall We Say? Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faithon Job as drama.

*We’ve tackled the issue of truth and what it is more than once on this blog. You may read the posts tagged “truth” if you are interested.

8 thoughts on “Reading Job Literally but not Historically

  1. I don’t think it matters if Job existed or not. In fact many characters in the Bible (i.e. Ester, Ruth, Daniel etc) are often treated more like literary fictional characters. As you allude in your post – I don’t think it matters if they existed. If the physical evidence isn’t there then it’s no big deal. But the important thing is what we can learn from the stories. Just as Jesus himself used fiction in the form of parables to illustrate a point or a teaching many stories in the Old testament do the same thing. It tends to always comes down to what we believe – but the funny thing about belief is that saying “I believe this” or “I don’t believe this” doesn’t make it any more real or unreal. Belief itself has been reduced to a statement of our opinions. Hasn’t it?

    1. I agree, our belief in or not in something doesn’t change its reality. I can believe the moon is made of green cheese, but that doesn’t change the physical properties of the moon. Is there a situation where belief is more than opinion? I’ll have to think about that for a bit. Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting.

  2. I agree with Mobius on this issue. The bible wasn’t written as an historical document as we know it today. It does contain history, and it does contain a lot of facts… but most important, it presents certain values that we either accept or don’t accept. Some of the stories are parables, or lessons in life. Those that try to verify the little details, have missed the point to begin with.

  3. I agree with the post and the comments above but it is helpful to remember that this whole idea can be a real stumbling block for people. When I was in seminary and we had this discussion about the book of Job, it was a real wrestling match for me with what I had believed about the Bible all my life. I think a lot of Christians hold the view that the whole Bible must be historically accurate or none of the Bible can be trusted. Jesus gets license to tell stories but not the other writers. Probably because we know Jesus is telling a story and it’s not as obvious in the other cases.

    Anyway, I appreciate this post because it tackles the issue in a way that is helpful to people on any side of the issue and does not make those still struggling with this idea feel stupid which is sometimes done when talking theology. Thanks.

    1. Thank you Collin for your comment. I try, as best I am able, to be helpful and encouraging when I write. I have no interest in being a stumbling block for someone. If someone believes that Job’s story is historically accurate, I don’t think is it my place to challenge their beliefs, especially on the internet. I do hope to show a way ahead for those who might be struggling or have questions about how to read and interpret Scripture that is not solely dependent on historically accuracy. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  4. While I agree with all your points for me it misses the fundamental of why we are clear this is a story to be treated in the same way as Christ’s story of the unmerciful servant.
    We have the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus. And in god there is no un-Christ-likeness. Can we imagine Christ permitting James and John to call down fire on a village and exterminate the occupants simply to “test” the Faith of the survivors?
    I find it very concerning that there is such a strong belief in some quarters that every word of the bible must be taken as literally true – even when doing so makes the God of Love out to be a monster who we would convict as a murderer.

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