I had a discussion with a friend one day that centered around our understanding of history and what it means for a historical account to be ‘true.’ Our discussion started because of a lecture in Old Testament class about biblical history. We both agreed that in some sense, you have room to deny that the Bible presents a literal and completely accurate depiction of events. Perhaps the Bible is making a theological interpretation of events and not intending to present an objective account. A possible example is the battle of Jericho. Archaeologists and most scholars agree that the city was likely uninhabited at the time the Bible states that the walls were brought down miraculously. It would be irresponsible to simply claim that everyone but the Bible is wrong and Joshua presents an unbiased and objective account of history. At the same time one cannot be too quick to dismiss any historical significance of the events described; one can still find an understanding of the Israelite views on the power of God and their call to inhabit the land near the Mediterranean. Even if it is not precisely in line with archaeological evidence, one will still find that a group of people known as the Israelites were recognized in the archaeological and historical record at about that time.
My friend pointed out to me, however, that there do seem to be some events that are not open for the same type of loose interpretation. It does seem like the shaping of the Israelite people at Sinai, the presentation of the law, and the real, objective action of God in the lives of the Hebrew people all require historical certainty because they have so greatly shaped the formation of the church in theology and practice. In the New Testament, the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ are two events that seem to require absolute historical certainty lest the very foundations of the faith be shaken. How then should we read the Bible? The following is a discussion of historical accuracy in general and its relevance to finding biblical truth. I hope to shed a little light on the nature of recorded history and the implications for discerning truth in the biblical narrative.
The main obstacle to establishing a common understanding of biblical truth is that everyone takes huge presuppositions into a debate about what history is and how it is, was, and ought to be recorded. It’s clear simply from the technological innovations that have occurred and prevalence of books in our society that the amount and style of information being recorded has changed significantly over the years. One might attempt to understand the meaning of biblical history by first looking at how history was recorded at the time of the Bible and then comparing that to the present. By making this comparison, one finds that the idea of ‘objective’ history was something not even considered much less valued in ancient documents. The histories of Herodotus were recorded in nearly the same time period as parts of the biblical narrative and will serve as an example of the historical genre of its time.
There are several famous stories in Herodotus that almost no one would claim are factual accounts. The presence of fanciful details does not mean that we should discard all that is in the histories, but it does present an example of how we might expect history to be presented differently in ancient documents. The key distinction between Herodotus and present historical documents is the unashamed way in which the author attempts to draw out key points through the use of narrative. The ‘objective’ details of the stories are subverted by the significance of the events depicted. It is difficult if not impossible to determine what exactly was meant to be taken as fact and what is added to drive home the point. We now have more accurate methods of capturing historical data (though the efficacy of such methods will be considered later) than those available in the ancient times and this has, at least in part, lead us to value the ideal of an objectively recorded account of the facts rather than a biased or partisan telling of the story. A history that matches archeological, geological, and parallel historical accounts is nearly always considered the most accurate and truthful. Thus, reading Herodotus as history in a modern context is always done with a blind eye to the exaggerations and fanciful details that seem impossible or contradict physical findings. The stories are still used in understanding the history of the time period, but many details are read only as creations of the author rather than facts.
Making the claim that biblical history ought to be read in an analogous fashion to Herodotus is fairly standard in biblical research but this approach has not done much to engender support from anyone seriously considering the meaning of biblical truth. The agnostic/atheist tends to make the assertion that since the details are inaccurate, the bible is flawed. The evangelical mind tends to say that the bible is perfect, therefore the details must be correct. People are rarely willing to accept the possibility that the bible might contain inaccurate details and still remain perfect. Peter Enns develops this predicament more in his book Inspiration and Incarnation.
I think a stronger statement about the nature of historical accuracy is needed as a foundation for the argument over biblical truth. To this point I have used the terms truth and accuracy interchangeably. In so doing I have attempted to draw out some of the ambiguities and difficulties in understanding the correlation between accuracy and truth. At least in modern times, the words tend to be used interchangeably. The truth of an account is treated as the extent to which it accurately corresponds with archaeological, geological, or other historical data. For a moment, I will set these words aside to consider whether or not there is an appropriate distinction to be made between truth and accuracy. To do so, it will be helpful to look at a particular misunderstanding of history that came about from the publishing of a picture.
Photo copied from http://www.slate.com/id/2149675/
In lecture (11/30/07), my O.T. professor Dr. Chapman discussed the reliability of recorded history by the analogy of a picture of 9/11. The picture (shown above) appears to have several people sitting calmly with the towers in the background emitting huge clouds of smoke. The photo was the subject of numerous news commentators who said that it was an outrage for people to be so calm in the midst of such a tragedy. Indeed, a classmate from New York spoke up immediately and said the photo had to be fake because of her experiences that day. One of the people photographed responded to the papers saying that they were actually in shock and awe of the situation and deeply deliberating its significance. What appeared in the picture as a calm day by the water was in fact a horrifying moment that those people will never forget.
This illustrates the problem with conflating truth and accuracy. Is truth really found in the word for word depiction of a third party observer who sees the entire event with their eyes, like the photographer? Or must it be the first person perspective of one who is actually involved, like one of the people in the photo? Is it more truthful to capture the facts of an event or the essence of an experience? Just because we have a scale representation of the exact way light would have reflected and refracted to form an image in our mind representing a moment in history does not mean that we have a truthful account of history. One cannot, then, assume that history is best recorded as a precise rendering of those movements. The truth of an historical account is the extent to which it is able to elicit a response from its audience that mirrors the original experience.
In the example of the picture, perhaps a more truthful representation of the historical event would have replaced each person’s face with that of the face in the infamous painting entitled The Scream. You would certainly lose the precise matching of the colors and lines that were experienced in the visual field, but one might gain a sense of the horror felt by the individuals in the picture. It would become far more obvious that what was occurring was not simply a group of callous and indifferent people sitting in the park during a national tragedy, but that these persons were dealing with immense internal anxiety and the situation was far more trying and difficult than any ‘objective’ account of the moment could represent. By allowing the details of the picture to be altered, the audience’s knowledge of the event is not diminished, but greatly increased.
Narrative history functions in an analogous way. Just because precise details of an event are recorded does not mean that one will receive an accurate portrayal of how that experience affected the people involved. I propose the following distinction between truth and accuracy. Accuracy refers to the one to one correspondence of an account to events in the past by means of empirically verifiable facts. This might take the form of a correlation with archeological or geological findings. Truth refers to the meaning of an event as its effect on one who experiences it. This is correlated with the psychological, spiritual, mental, or physical effect on an individual or group. Whereas one might think that books like Herodotus’ histories have clearly lost some of their truth by the inclusion of such fanciful details, it’s really a societal and modern bias about properly recorded history rather than an objective loss of information that has taken place in those writings. Accuracy is in fact lost, but far more truth is gained by shaping a story in such a way that one might experience the significance of history rather than read the precise facts. In fact, unless one could find some way to represent every detail of each event, there would still be some shaping present in the decision of what details to include and which to ignore. It is entirely impossible to accurately represent an historical event in a way that elicits objective meaning (a meaning that is the same for all who read the same text). Simply because we are unable to supply and comprehend the entirety of information involved in any event, the process of narrative shaping is involved in any and all recorded history.
To what extent then is it beneficial or even meaningful to find precisely accurate history? More specific to the question of biblical truth, to what extent must there have been a literal Sinai event in which the people of Israel were given the Law by God through Moses? I would argue that it is entirely unimportant that this particular event happened with any of the details presented in the narrative. The necessary truth in the story is that God interacted with humans in such a way that their lives were then ordered around worshipping God. It’s possible that the people could have actually experienced God in any number of other ways, but it might be impossible for someone in the Ancient Near East to recount the significance of the event in another way that would elicit a common response of awe and reverence at the power and holiness of the Lord.
One immediate response is that what I have just argued implies God might have no real power in the world. It seems to mean that we only ‘think’ we experience something when in reality it is a psychological exercise in justifying our desire to be in control. That is how we tend to think with the influence of modern psychology. Without hard and fast empirical evidence to the contrary, experiences are thought to be just a mirage created by the desire to believe. To take that stance is to miss the point of the narrative. The Israelite people had an experience of God so powerful, in whatever form it took, that they very truly and objectively did change the way they lived and the laws they followed and the way they worshipped. You can no more argue that it was just in their minds than you could that every religious experience you have had or witnessed was a psychotic break. The truth of these experiences is found not in the empirical alterations of the world but in objectively distinct changes in one’s behavior, thinking, and interaction. What, then, does it really mean to search for the precise historical event that took place in lieu of the way the people recorded it? Would we gain any particular meaning by figuring out a more objective account of history or would it cause people to make the same false judgments about the events as those made about the 9/11 photo? I would argue that the latter is the more probable outcome.
How then should we read the narrative history of the Bible? At least in my mind, the great travesty of source and historical criticism is that these fields have taken our eyes so far off the canonical shape of the Bible that most students (myself included) know more about the documentary hypothesis than about the content of the Bible. However, as Wenham stated in The Story as Torah, it is the final shape of the Bible that we believe to be divinely inspired and not the original source documents. It is easily accepted that the meaning of a word or phrase in the bible derives a deeper meaning from the surrounding sentences or paragraphs. It is far less recognized that the overall structure of the bible is intentionally shaped to infuse even greater meaning and theological significance to the particular books and stories. Two examples will help to elucidate this point.
The first is drawn from the controversial content in the narrative of Judges. The pages are filled with murder, deceit, and plenty of actions that seem abominable to a modern audience. I don’t intend to take a stance on the morality of any particular action, but to point out two structural clues to help interpret the book. The first is the repeated phrase “And the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” This phrase appears again and again signifying the chaos and anarchy of the time period. There was a very distinct ebb and flow to the righteousness and evil of the people and perhaps the author was intending to elucidate some of the confusion they experienced rather than represent a perfectly moral character. The second structural clue is the transition from Joshua’s leadership to kingship. Though the book does not explicitly pronounce a king over Israel, the author interjects that “In those days there was no king in Israel” as though it is clear that a king would bring order. In some sense, then, the chaos is structured as an argument for the establishment of a monarchy. The implication is that perhaps a king would bring stability and thus righteousness to the people of Israel. More could be said about the effect of the structure of Judges on meaning, but these two examples suffice to show how the narrative shaping of this book can help elucidate and add meaning to its content.
The second example involves the shaping of the entire Old Testament. The order of the books in the Jewish bible places the law books first, the prophets second, and ends with the writings. This has the effect of beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Jews on the brink of returning to the land of God after the exile. Most Christian bibles break the books up slightly differently and end with the prophets. This makes for a nice transition into the New Testament because Jesus is considered the fulfillment of those prophecies. Neither of the arrangements is explicitly chronological by date written or by content. The purpose of rearranging the books is to make a theological statement about the content of the bible rather than matching some preexisting sequence. Thus, neither arrangement is exactly ‘correct,’ but both emphasize the importance of a particular theological statement.
As seen in these two examples, the meaning and truth of the bible is explicitly shaped by the formation of the text as a whole. The shaping of the text both in form and detail is the method by which the bible elicits an experience of the Lord, God of Israel. It is the avenue by which the reader is able to move from putative facts to enriching and life changing participation in the community of God. Analogously, seeing the picture of 9/11 gives only a mental image of what the NY skyline looked like one day, but to relive the moment the towers fell, whether you were there or not, can change your life forever. The reason the Bible is considered an active and living book is precisely because it has been shaped to facilitate our experience of the kingdom of God through and within the written Word. Whether or not the people of Israel did in fact meet God at Mt. Sinai just after leaving Egypt, the presence of God in their lives was so powerful that they were forever changed. It is that reality, the presence of God, that we are able to find in the pages of the Bible not through a perfectly accurate account of objective details, but through the truth of God’s action in the world. We experience the action of God not as past history, but as present reality.
*Written in the Fall of 2007.