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Emails to a Student 2

Katherine,

You write:

1) Job, Esther, and Daniel are all supposed to be fictional characters right? Is there anything else in the Old Testament that isn’t historically accurate, or are all the Writing just stories and legends? And if so much of the Old Testament was oral tradition before it was written down or the final product came from many different sources and then was edited, how can we believe in any part of it as God-inspired and infallible?

“Historically accurate” and “fictional characters” really belong in separate universes. If something isn’t even trying to be “historically accurate,” can it ever be said to be “historically inaccurate.”

For example, Jesus tells the story about a Samaritan who helps a man who lay wounded by the side of the road after he was ignored by a priest and a Levite. What does it mean to ask if this story is “historically accurate”? I would suggest that it means we have missed the point! Jesus is teaching us a lesson with several important theological themes—not least of which is what it means to be a “neighbor” to those around us. These lessons stand whether these incidents ever happened in history or not, and it doesn’t take too much perception to understand that the parabolic genre of the story gives us a strong basis for assuming that, in fact, it is a story that Jesus made up. Does that mean Jesus being “historically inaccurate”? Of course not, and I doubt that anyone’s faith has ever been challenged by acknowledging this fact. History doesn’t even enter into the question; Jesus is teaching a deep spiritual truth by means of fictitious characters and events.

The issue isn’t so much “Is this biblical account accurate?” but “Have I understood the genre of the literature I’m reading?” And there is certainly room for reasonable people to disagree here. Note, however, that the issue we would be debating is not the inspiration or infallibility of Scripture but how best to interpret it.

Furthermore, some genres look a lot like history even though they’re not (novellas, court tales, legends and sagas, etc.). And some “non-history” genres can contain genuine historical details. I’m thinking for example of Homer’s Iliad, written in epic poetry, which was long written off as pure mythology until Heinrich Schliemann found the ruins of Troy and subsequent archeologists demonstrated it really was destroyed by foreign invaders around the end of the Bronze Age. Although some classicists would no doubt disagree, others (like Barry Strauss in The Trojan War) make a pretty convincing case that, in broad strokes, the story of the Trojan War was more or less as Homer described it, even though the Iliad was written centuries before the earliest history writing in the western world (Herodotus, c. 450 BC). That doesn’t mean that Homer couldn’t use that historical core as the basis for a story he intended to tell on the theme of human wrath and arrogance.

The Iliad example also raises the issue of oral tradition, because almost everybody believes that the epic poems that eventually became codified as the Iliad were passed down for many generations in oral form before they were set to parchment. (The Greek alphabet didn’t even exist at the time of the Trojan War!). In preliterate societies, people relied on their memory far more than we do today, and there were often even specialists whose job was to remember the national epics, from the rhapsodes of ancient Greece to the griots of West Africa to the bards of pagan Ireland. So “oral tradition” need not imply second-rate or necessarily erroneous.

Personally, I’m probably more conservative than most when it comes to the essential accuracy of the biblical narratives’ historical core. I really don’t have any qualms about admitting the historical reality of the Patriarchs, the Exodus, or the United Monarchy—things that many scholars find highly dubious. The God I believe in works in history and cannot be constrained to a collection of “timeless truths.” Even so, my sense is that other factors are at play in the Bible than mere historical reporting. Like Homer, the biblical writers had a theme, a message, and they were often quite accomplished at using the literary devices of their day to get that message across.

How can we believe that a story that has come down to us through many generations—perhaps many centuries—of oral tradition and previous literary sources can be “God-breathed”? Well, how can we believe that Jesus is the Son of God if he ever had poopy diapers? How can we believe that he was the promised Messiah if he ever fell and scraped his knees as a child, or spoke in baby-talk before he finally mastered the Aramaic language? In other words, how can we believe that Jesus is who the New Testament claims he is if he was to all outward appearances a perfectly human human being?

Now, you know the answer to this. You learned it in Sunday school or through your pastor’s sermons or on a youth retreat somewhere along the way: Jesus was indeed perfectly human, but he was also perfectly divine. Neither his divinity nor his humanity is diluted in the least. To say otherwise is heresy: we don’t believe in a Jesus who floated three inches off the ground and was surrounded by a golden glow. Rather, we believe in a Jesus who, despite his divinity, experienced everything that being human implies—hunger, thirst, frustration, fatigue, pain, and death—yet without sin. If he hadn’t been truly human, we could never have understood him or embraced him. Far from a liability, his humanity was the one thing that made it possible for him to reveal the divine to us. No humanity, no  (meaningful) communication.

I think what you’re coming to grips with is the fact that the Bible is also a perfectly human document.  Human writers put it together much as they did any other literature from the same time and place, using the human languages in which they ordinarily spoke, the range of literary options available to them in their cultures.

What I hope you will realize, and I expect you already do, is that the Bible’s perfect humanity does not necessarily detract from accepting it as a book that is also “God-breathed.”

Dr. P.

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1 Comment

  1. Kelley says:

    Thanks, Darrell. This is a thoughtful and genuine response. I hope Katherine finds it as helpful as I do.

    Like

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