July 10, 2021 - Historicity

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Today we want to talk about: Does it matter whether anything in the Bible really and truly happened? Does it matter whether the Bible is history, or hogwash? Or can fairy tales do just as good a job of inspiring faith? Did historicity even matter to readers in the ancient world? Should it matter to us?

In the movie Galaxy Quest, a team of former TV science-fiction superheroes gets beamed up onto an alien spaceship. The aliens have copied every detail of their ship precisely from the vessel used by the Galaxy Quest team on their old TV show. Now, they want help defending themselves against attack.

The Galaxy Quest team can’t believe their eyes. These aliens have built their entire vessel around a fabrication – a spaceship that doesn’t even exist! It was all just a story, and these aliens took it 100% seriously. They believed that it was real.

As I first watched this story unfold in the movie, I can remember thinking to myself, Have we invented a God and a scripture out of thin air, like these aliens invented their spacecraft, based on an original that doesn’t even exist? Is it all just a story, made up by us, with no reality behind it, a story never to be taken seriously? Does it matter?

Does the Easter story lose any value if Jesus is still in the ground, and the risen Jesus turns out to be no different than sightings of Elvis? Can a pious legend be just as faith-inspiring, regardless of whether it is literally true? Is the resurrection of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock just as good a symbol of new life as Jesus’ resurrection?

Does it matter whether Jesus walked on the water, or raised a man who had been brain-dead 4 days, or fed 5,000 men with only 5 loaves & 2 fish? Does it matter whether Jesus was conceived without the help of any human father? Does it make any difference whether the Exodus really happened, or whether David and Solomon (or their empire) really existed? Does it matter whether 2 Peter was a shameless forgery? Does it matter whether stories such as Jonah and Esther are fiction or fact?

Some stories lose their value if they are found to be fiction. In 1981, a journalist named Janet Cooke was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize for her feature story about an 8-year-old heroin addict after the story was found to have been fabricated. Likewise, a Christian comedian who claimed to have been a former Satanist high priest was exposed as a fraud. The inspirational value of his conversion story evaporated (along with his credibility). The same goes for so-called “urban legends” like the story of the homeless boy who carried his mother’s ashes in a paint can. Heads roll at the news department when news reports are found to be fiction.

But some stories do not need to be historical to be of great value. Can fiction be a legitimate vehicle for faith? Yes! I am convinced that Jesus made up his parables. The Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, and even books like The Chronicles of Narnia give us truth in the form of fiction. Thank God that Orwell’s novel 1984 is fiction, but it is still packed full of true, artistic warnings about the dangers of human depravity.

What’s the difference between the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the resurrection of Mr. Spock of the Starship Enterprise? Fiction lacks the compelling note of realism that meaningful faith requires. Who wants to stake both their life and their eternal future on some piece of fiction, no matter how well it was written? How many suicide bombers would we have today, if they believed that Paradise and the 72 virgins were just faith-promoting fiction?

Mundane fact trumps even the most exciting fiction. Star Wars is a wonderful story with truckloads of meaning, but it is pure fantasy. A real-life cure for HIV means more than even the most inspiring tale that never happened. A real-life Wall Street means more than a fabled El Dorado. Narnia is worthless unless there is a real Heaven to which it points. A fictional Esther has much less power to inspire us than a real Persian queen who really did take her life in her hands to save her nation from genocide.

The same is true for the notion of a mythical resurrection. The resurrection (or the Incarnation) can only be of value as symbols if there is a compelling reality to which they point. Symbols must be rooted in historical reality. A purely mythical resurrection has no more power to inspire us than the old Greek myth of the dying and rising Phoenix.

Does it always matter? Here, we can see that not all issues of history are of equal weight. While a movie may be well-crafted and thought-provoking, I would argue that unless the story points to events that really and truly happened, the movie loses the power it could have had, and some movies actually may become worse than a lie if they mix lies with historical fact (just as the movie Amadeus tells lies about the historical Salieri).

Sometimes minor details matter less than issues of the central characters and plot. That’s why a physicist such as Sir John Polkinghorne can ignore some issues of Biblical historicity, while taking other issues (such as Jesus’ resurrection and his miracles) with the utmost seriousness. To him, if Jesus’ miracles are true, it doesn’t matter whether the other issues are legend. (The same is true for 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 parts of the Bible that are intended as history, and parts that are intended as parable or fiction? First, I would ask: To what extent is the teaching of the story undermined if it were proved to be fiction? Jesus’ parables lose nothing if they happened “once upon a time.” Esther and Jonah would lose some value. Jesus’ miracles and the Exodus would lose far more value if they were fiction. Second, I would ask: 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 teachings 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 the event is not history, 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’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 reported source. That is an issue of fact: Did Jesus really tell this story?

The issue of fraudulent authorship, I believe, is 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. A lot hangs on whether Peter wrote 2 Peter. If he did 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 2 Peter, we might as well chuck it in the garbage.

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 so far away from the time when he lived, that facts can’t help but get swept away entirely by legend? You bet, facts matter in the Gospels! We have good reason to believe that Jesus really spoke the words attributed to him.

Does it matter whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch? Either way, I would say the Pentateuch loses credibility if the laws in it were just made up by priests 700 years later, or if its stories are pure fiction. The later we try to put words into the mouth of Moses, the more the book loses credibility. The cries of the poor or the imperative to do justice are more easily ignored if they come in the form of fairy tales claiming to be fact.

What about accounts such as Noah’s flood, or the long lives of characters before the flood, or Joshua commanding the sun to stand still? One question in such cases is whether the Bible requires us to believe, not in a miracle, but in a logical impossibility. UFO’s 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.

Cases like Noah’s flood or the sun standing still are cases where we need to avoid logical impossibility. For the sun to stand still, which would mean for the earth to stop rotating, would cause all sorts of physical consequences that the Bible makes no claim to have happened, which means we need to find a different answer for what happened. 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 ask where all that water came from and where it went to, or we must be open to a less-than-global flood.

But even in hard cases like these, I don’t believe we should jump to a mythical explanation. To me, if the Bible tells us what it tells us about the Flood, 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 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.

But I would argue that a real event must stand behind any Biblical passage that claims to give us history. We don’t place our faith in the historical explanation behind the account. Rather, we let God’s word explain for us what happened. The Red Sea may have been parted by wind, but the really important question is: who sent the wind?

Our best approach to the historicity of the Bible is to consider the Bible innocent of falsehood until proven guilty. 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, so we can give those supernatural claims the benefit of the doubt. The only limit I would propose is: does the claim in question appear to require, not the violation of natural laws, but a logical impossibility? If so, then we must consider whether we have misunderstood what the Bible intends to say.

We are told that the ancient world did not care about the distinction between truth and fiction. Wrong! Many ancient writers cared. They insisted on the same accuracy as modern historians do. Cicero writes, “For who does not know history’s first law to be that one must not dare to tell falsehoods?” Polybius declares that the historian’s duty is “to record totally according to the truth of what was done and said, no matter what kinds of events may have happened” (Histories 2.56.10). In his book City of God, Augustine constantly cites a pagan Roman historian who makes clear distinctions between “what is fable” and “what is mythical” versus “what is historical.” The stigma attached to the word “myth” was so bad that Plato insists that Atlantis is “not a made-up myth.”

But we need to avoid the false idea that anyone can just “record the facts.” There is no one who does not see the facts through their own point of view. That’s unavoidable. There are no such things as bare facts. Yes, we have data. We have ancient manuscripts and archaeological finds. But even in the very act of collecting, sorting, organizing, and translating data from the ancient world, we are making human judgments all the time.

That doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. When we look through a kaleidoscope, what we see may be distorted, but we are still looking at real objects in a real world. All we need to do is make allowances for the distortion, and look for ways to help correct what we see. That’s how we handle the issue of bias. We admit that a neutral scientist or historian is impossible, and then work around that problem to get a clearer picture of the truth.

Some events are extremely rare, unique, or unrepeatable, and some have no natural explanation. Is it objective or scientific to categorically rule them out in advance? Historical events like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon can’t be repeated in a test tube. (Neither can evolution be demonstrated in a test tube.) Science ties its own hands by confining “fact” to mean only what can be proved in a lab. By so doing, it automatically defines history as outside the realm of fact, not to mention the vast majority of verdicts that take place in our courtrooms. If a soldier performs an act of heroism on the battlefield, but no witness survives to tell the tale, did it really happen? Science can’t say!

Ripley’s Believe It Or Not has made its own quasi-science out of documenting events that are bizarre-but-true. Sometimes credibility boils down to how many disinterested witnesses we can find for an occurrence. UFO’s are a case in point. So was the existence of the platypus, which was doubted until enough Western observers were able to see it for themselves under credible conditions. Resurrection of the dead is a little harder to find reliable witnesses for. And yet, some Jewish historians were interviewed on TV who couldn’t say that Jesus rose from the dead, but could not accept any other explanation of what happened.

Psychiatrists reject the idea that demon possession is real because they’ve never seen a case that was not purely mental illness. But after being trained not to believe in such cases, psychiatrist and best-selling author Dr. Scott Peck claims to have witnessed 3 honest-to-goodness cases of demon possession out of the thousands of cases of mental illness he’d seen in his career. Does that mean that demon possession is real? How does one arrive at an authoritative answer to such a question of historical fact?

Christians should deal with issues of “what really happened?” neither with gullibility, nor with dogmatic, knee-jerk skepticism. We should be consistent, whether we are considering our own paranormal claims, the claims of Islam, the New Age movement, faith-healers on TV, or even the claims of science.

But without fact, with only pure fiction as our starting point, our faith loses much of the power it would otherwise have. Yes, we have compelling stories in the Bible, including a few that are pure artistic creation. But it is historical fact that gives our faith much of its power and credibility. Yes, it matters whether events in the Bible really and truly happened! Historical fact is our only safeguard against fairy tales pretending to be God’s truth.

But how much of the Bible’s message is timeless and universal, and what parts were only intended for people back then and there? Is it OK to wear mixed fabric? Or are the kosher food laws still for us today? Is it OK for us to eat a ham sandwich? We’ll talk about questions like these, next time on Biblical Words and World!