Shuck and Jive

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Is the Bible History or Fiction?

I posted this today on Bible and Jive.

As we read the stories of the Hebrew scriptures we may wonder if are reading historical reportage of events or if we are reading stories of creative imagination. We may decide that somewhere between these poles the truth is found. Most of us would see the story of Adam and Eve in the garden as a myth rather than an event of history. What about the stories of Abraham, Moses, and David?

There is much debate on this theory among biblical scholars today for both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian New Testament. The debate is called, somewhat inaccurately, the maximalist-minimalist debate. Maximalists generally affirm that the Bible is accurate historically and minimalists affirm that it is not and that it never intended to be read as such. Most scholars fall somewhere between these poles.

Archaeology and literary and rhetorical criticism have come of age in the past couple of decades to show that the Bible is a work of theology more than history. Archaeology has shown that there is very little evidence for the "events" recounted in the Bible. Literary and rhetorical criticism has helped us see these stories as works of art.

This may lead to the next question of realism. Is there something real and true about the theological claims in the Bible if we view them as imaginative creations? That is an important question. Do these stories in some way, tell us the truth about the human condition and about the nature of reality itself?

For example, is the character YHWH, more than a literary character, a projection of artistic imagination on one hand, and more than an actual being who acted this way in history on the other? Is their a reality to YHWH even if the stories about him are not real in the historical sense? This question will require of us who find the Bible as the normative text for the church to enter into these stories and let the Bible confront us even as we confront it.

Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, has spent a great deal of time thinking about these kinds of questions.

A helpful book is his
Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination. He goes through the Hebrew Scriptures, book by book, with a fresh look at these texts.

For more discussion on the maximalist/minimalist debate, you might find these Essays on Minimalism helpful from the on-line magazine, The Bible and Interpretation.


  1. John Shuck - you must know I loves me some Walter Brueggermann. Yes indeedy.

  2. Personally, I think it's much more than just either/or.

    What is often described as fiction, such as Job or Jonah, is so but not in a malicious way.
    These were early bible study stories, probably for younger people and children. The lessons of faith they teach are clear but these are probably not literal events.
    There usually is some semblance of fact at least at the base of such fables, but they are obviously stories with substantial moral value.

    Then of course, we have Jacob's betrayal of Esau and the generations of hatred that ensued, so I have no reason to doubt the history there.

    If one wishes, one can travel to Israel and actually touch Absalom's Pillar. Can't very well doubt that.
    The accounts of the life of Jesus are fairly consistent for such an old text and logical thinking is easily applied. Misinterpretations however abound.

    With all the dirty little Kings and other such vermin that have had the text manipulated to suit them over the centuries, we have to be very careful about what is taken literally and what is not.

    The only real problem there is with any religion is how the text is absorbed and by whom.

    When I consider the Fundi, I become conflicted. On one hand, I understand why we had to liberate the bible from the Universal Church the way we did. Where the Fundi is concerned, I understand exactly why the Church wanted to keep the scriptures hidden from the average person.
    I'm sure they foresaw the dangers of intellectually challenged and morally void entities having the power to make changes.

    Gets a little complicated from here.

  3. When I consider the Fundi, I become conflicted.

    How do you define a "Fundi", tn420? Are they Italian?

  4. Jim, they are the ones who take a strict, unchallengeable interpretation of a sacred text (that is the inerrant, directly-transmitted Word of God) with an attitude of "those who believe like us are holy, everyone else is damned and therefore evil." You know the type.