Historicity: Does it matter? Part 2

Editor’s note: Last fall the Outlook published a three-part series of op-ed essays by Erwin C. Barron that elevated the role of experience in Biblical interpretation.

This summer we present a three-part series of op-ed essays by Tom Hobson that offer a counterpoint to the earlier essays — elevating objective accuracy of Scripture. This is the second article in this series. Both sets of essays are outgrowths of each writer’s Ph.D. research.

Not all issues of history are of equal weight. That’s why a physicist such as John Polkinghorne in his book, The Faith of a Physicist, can dismiss some issues of Biblical historicity as legendary, while taking others (such as Jesus’ resurrection and His miracles) with the utmost seriousness. To Polkinghorne, if Jesus’ miracles are true, it doesn’t matter whether the others are legend. (The same is true for fictional elements in the movie “Chariots of Fire”.) And even if a movie like “Star Wars” claims to be nothing but pure fiction, we still can and do measure its value by the degree to which it tells us the truth about life as we experience it.

So what criteria can we use to distinguish accounts that are intended as history, and accounts that are intended as parable or fiction? The two criteria I propose: 1. To what extent is the teaching of a story undermined if it were proved to be fiction? Jesus’ parables lose nothing if they happened “once upon a time.” Esther and Jonah lose some value. Jesus’ miracles and the Exodus lose far more value. 2. If the story in question turns out to be pure fiction, what other beliefs would be impacted? A fictional Esther would have less impact on other topics in Scripture than a fictional Jonah or a fictional Exodus.

Consider a story like Lot’s wife. People speculate about why she looked back. But if there is no historical referent, if it’s just a story, then all that speculation becomes entirely irrelevant. It’s like trying to press the details in the Prodigal Son. The whole story opens up for grabs if there is no historical referent, if there’s no right answer as to “what really happened.” You can make it up ad infinitum. All that’s left is the question whether the story has come to us intact from its purported source. That is an issue of historical referent. Did Jesus really tell this story?

The issue of pseudepigraphy, I believe, is to some extent an issue of historicity. Did this person really write this book? The answer may or may not have an impact on the credibility of the book’s contents. Not much hangs on whether Qoheleth is Solomon. A lot more hangs on whether Peter wrote 2 Peter.  If not, the book becomes a sick joke, because the writer bases the whole thrust of his letter on the claim that he is not proclaiming “cleverly devised myths,” but that he was an eyewitness of the Transfiguration. If Peter did not write this letter, we might as well chuck it in the garbage. (The best defense of 2 Peter’s authenticity based on linguistic and historical evidence is E. M. B. Green’s 2 Peter Reconsidered.)

Did Jesus really speak the words attributed to Him? Compare our Gospels to the earliest writings of Buddhism, 300 years after Buddha. How does anyone get access to the historical Buddha at such an historical distance; that historical referent can’t help but get swept away entirely by legend? You bet, historical referent matters in the Gospels!

Does it matter whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or whether it was a late creation? On the one hand, one might say that the Pentateuch does not lose its value if Moses did not personally author these five books in their entirety. But the Pentateuch does lose credibility if the laws that it contains were merely created de novo by priests in the 8th or 7th centuries BCE, or if its stories are pure fiction. The further the distance from which one puts words into the mouth of Moses, the more the account loses authenticity, particularly if one asserts that Moses never spoke them. Even a Moses that is conceded to be authentic, but far removed in time from his biographers, runs the risk of admixture with unreliable legend.

Literary creations that are pure invention destroy both the faith and the ethics that are based thereon. Particularly in today’s post-modern context, the cries of the poor or the imperative to do justice are more easily ignored if they come in the form of fairy tales purporting to be fact.

What about Biblical accounts such as Noah’s flood, or the long lives of characters before the flood, or Joshua commanding the sun to stand still? One of the issues in such cases is whether the Bible requires us to believe, not in a miracle, but in a logical impossibility. UFOs are not logically impossible, they are simply hard to verify. Miracles are not impossible, they simply break normally observed laws of nature. A logical impossibility would be for our moon to be on both sides of the earth at the same time.

Jonah is a story that stretches the limits of natural explanation, but is not logically impossible. If Jonah were swallowed by a basking shark (the only logical candidate that exists in the Mediterranean), surviving with enough air to breathe would be miraculous, but conceivable. What is more of a miracle is the entire city of Nineveh repenting, which is made conceivable by a solar eclipse on June 15, 763 BCE. (See the 1979 article “Jonah’s Nineveh” in the Tyndale Bulletin by leading Assyriologist D. J. Wiseman.)  

The examples of Noah, Methuselah, and Joshua cited above, are cases where we wish to avoid logical impossibility. All sorts of physical consequences would be caused if the sun stopped, that is, if the earth stopped rotating. The Biblical text makes no claim that they happened, which warrants us to find a different referent for this Biblical account. For the flood to have covered the Himalayas would require multiple times as much water as we have on our planet at present. Either we must consider where all that water came from and where it went to, or we must consider a less-than-global flood. 

But even in cases like these, I do not believe it is proper to jump to a mythical explanation. To me, if the Flood account is to carry any compelling authority, there has to have been an ancient flood of “epic” proportions. We don’t have to look for the ark on Mt. Ararat, but we can keep our eyes open for evidence of floods at the end of the last Ice Age. I believe that early Genesis gives us persistent echoes of events that truly took place, even if those echoes have suffered distortion over long ages, like the light of stars that are really there, although they are too far away to see with perfect clarity. Bruce Waltke says that early Genesis gives us a painting rather than a photograph. If we press the details, if we get too close, the picture distorts, but if we back up, the picture comes into focus.

There is always the danger of faith in a construct that is not Scripture itself. God inspired Luke to reconstruct speeches and letters for which he probably did not have access to verbatim transcripts. We are called to place our faith in what God inspired Luke to write, not in a verbatim transcript. Likewise, we do not place our faith in our explanation of what happened at the Red Sea, whether it looks like the scene in the movie The Ten Commandments, or like the recent explanation of Israeli oceanographers. We do not place our faith in the comet or planetary conjunction or supernova behind the Star of Bethlehem, but in the Gospel account itself.

But I would argue that a reasonable facsimile must stand behind Scriptural passages that purport to narrate history. Our faith is not in the facsimile. Rather, we let God’s word interpret for us what happened. The Red Sea may have been parted by wind, but who sent the wind? As N. T. Wright pictures it, the job of the Christian historian is not to “prove” Christianity “true.” We are to be like the scientist who is driven by a hypothesis to the lab, “not simply in the search for legitimation, but in the search for the modifications and adaptations necessary if the hypothesis is to stand the test of reality.” (78)

Our best approach to the historicity of the Bible is to consider the Bible “innocent until proven guilty” of falsehood (the opposite of a “hermeneutic of suspicion”). In the case of events that contradict all normal observed experience, I would argue that if Jesus’ resurrection truly happened, then the rest of the Bible’s supernatural claims become more likely and may therefore be given the benefit of the doubt. The only limiting criterion I would propose is: does the claim in question appear to require, not a natural impossibility, but a logical impossibility? If so, then we must consider whether we have misunderstood what the Bible intends to say.

But can’t we say that the Bible contains “myth”? The word “myth” is increasingly being used to mean either “metanarrative” or any story that can’t be empirically verified. I would argue that it is unhelpful to use the term “myth” (when we mean metanarrative) unless we can come up with another term to mean “falsehood, fairy tale, or baloney.” Yes, the Bible occasionally plays on the memory of pagan myths such as Rahab or Yamm; often, it “demythologizes” such myths. But to use the term “myth” when referring to Biblical themes such as the Incarnation, the Resurrection, or God’s victory over Satan, even if we believe those “myths” to be true, leads to needless confusion.  Give us our pejorative back!


Tom Hobson is a Ph.D. student at Concordia Seminary in St Louis, Mo. A PC(USA) minister since 1983, he is currently stated supply at United Presbyterian Church, Granite City, Ill.