Bible and Authority Revisited (RJS)

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A couple of weeks ago I had a brief post asking why the scientific theory of evolution was a challenge for faith, but a scientific theory explaining weather was not a problem. (See here for the post: God, Science, and Evolution (RJS)).  One of the comments on that post leads me to a new question – this one on the Bible, authority, and the role of church tradition in our interpretation of scripture. The commenter said:

What I would find interesting would be a discussion of the kind of categories of biblical literature that we might question now, in terms of their wooden historicity, in light of the weather topic being discussed here.

This is an excellent topic for discussion.  And note – the question is not “What parts of the Bible can we discard” the question is “How do we interpret scripture.” The Bible is true – it is the “Word of God” and yet it is contains many kinds of literature, composed in very different historical contexts. We all use judgment in interpretation. There is no such thing as uninterpreted scripture.

What kinds of Biblical literature might not be strictly historical?  Can the Bible contain truth told through story? Does it matter?

Lets consider a few examples as I see them.

A place for story.

Genesis 1-11 is primeval history, not “real” history – and in this sense it tells truth in mythical form.  There are many clues within the text that point in this direction. More to the point – the intent of the author was not in historical fact, but in making a specific theological point of some sort. Walton’s book on Genesis One is an important contribution here.

Is Job history or story?  I think that Job is story – much like some of the parables of Jesus.  There are many clues within the book that point to such a genre. This does not make it false or a lie.  After all, if Jesus used story to convey important truths – certainly the OT can also contain truth in story form.

How about Song of Solomon?  Why is this considered not historical but Job is considered historical in much of our church?

Jonah? I have no strong position here, as I don’t find “three days in a fish”  as a one-off miracle sufficient reason to doubt a historical root in the book.  But there are other features that seem to point to a story rather than history.

Thoughts on Daniel?

The form of historical story telling

The historical books in the OT have roots in history – in my opinion very deep roots.  Nonetheless there are indications that the books are not straightforward historical reporting.

This is true in Genesis 12-50.  There is a general historical flow, but a number of stories repeat very similar themes and there appears to be fleshing out of detail.  But in many times and places this is the accepted form of telling history.

The role of composition, culture and contemporary expectations are also apparent in comparisons of 1,2 Samuel, 1,2 Kings, and 1,2, Chronicles.  This is not “straight” historical reporting. Stories are given a particular slant and told for a reason. Does this cause problems for our understanding of scripture – or does this inform our understanding of scripture?

Do such examples also influence how we look at the gospels – and even the book of Acts?

The influence of world view and cultural assumptions.

The books of the Bible present the world in the context of the culture of the day. This can be seen in the way that Genesis 1 is framed in ancient near east cosmology, in assumptions about the root causes of disease, in the assignment of mental illness to demon possession.  Even weather, including drought and famine fall into this category. Our culture has a very different view of many of these phenomena with solid empirical reasons for those views.  We don’t really find the study of meteorology, embryology, medicine, or earthquakes to be deep problems for faith – even though these lead us to views that differ from that assumed in scripture. How do we know when a statement is simply a reflection of the culture, incidental to the point, and when it is crucial, part of God’s truth?

So – back to the original question.

What kind of categories of biblical literature that we might question now, in terms of their wooden historicity?

What do you think and why?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail [at]

  • Diane

    I was fascinated to read in a book on Galileo that one of the main goals of science in the 16th century included studying the natural world to discern what parts of the Bible were factual and what parts metaphor. People then understood that the Bible was not strictly literally factual, and yet this did not diminish its authority. They saw nature as the other “text” of God–God made manifest in the world–and were concerned to align the two texts-Bible and nature–not pit them against one another in some sort of futile contest. For example, when they discovered the world was round, they were quite willing to add “the four corners of the Earth” to their list of Biblical metaphors without having to run into mass hysteria and become atheists. Galileo came up with a reconciliation of the earth revolving around the sun with Biblical metaphor early on–two hundred or more years later his explanation was adopted by the RC Church.
    He was ground up by the Inquisition not because people then were pitting science against religion per se but because he was a superstar and the pope was under pressure to show he was purifying the faith in light of embarrassing military failures on the Holy Roman Empire side in the 30 Years War. In any case, I wish we could back to the more fruitful project of reconciling the Bible and nature. So maybe this is a start. If we could see nature (science) as God’s handiwork and the Bible and nature working in concert to reveal God, the whole debate would get less fraught. Of course, this doesn’t answer the question … So on that front, how do we discern, I think–of course as a literature person–that understanding how to read literary cues can put us greatly ahead … for example, Samson reads to me as a classic Trickster story, so I don’t take it literally …more education in reading and rhetoric would probably help. Again I’m not sure about “categories” … perhaps that could be explained?

  • Travis Greene

    I think “categories” means “genres”.
    For instance, I think most of us would agree that when Proverbs says something like “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.” (Prov 10:4), that that is an absolutely true statement in every single circumstance. We know that sometimes diligent hands can be the victim of simple bad luck, and people born into privilege can sometimes be quite lazy, and so on. But it’s a wise general principle, found in a genre we call “wisdom literature”.
    The statements of wisdom literature are true, but are not of the same kind of truth as, say, John 3:16.

  • Travis Greene

    Correction to myself at 2: that that is NOT an absolutely true statement in every single circumstance

  • dopderbeck

    Absolutely fascinating and important topic — wish I had more time today (or in life — I could pursue a Ph.D. on this with delight).
    Anyway — I’m not sure what you mean by “wooden history”. There are people I’d consider pretty conservative inerrantists / infallibilists who think most of the OT narratives are in a genre of “history” but who understand that “history” is always an “art”: e.g., D. Phillips Long’s “The Art of Biblical History”; Long, Longman and Provan’s “Biblical History of Israel”; some of the essays in an older book published by Westminster called “Inerrancy and Hermeneutic.”
    Maybe a better set of questions is, what do we mean by “history” in the context of the various Biblical narratives? How have our modern perceptions of “history” perhaps distorted our expectations for the notion of “historicity” in Biblical narratives? And how can the findings of text, redaction, and historical criticism help us understand the nature and purpose of various Biblical narratives with respect to “history?”

  • Alan K

    Why not put the question the other way around: What categories of history might we question, in light of statements like “You have loved me before the foundations of the world” and “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever”?

  • EastCoastCommentator

    I am still ready to accept all of the Bible as God’s word to mankind. I grant you, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend, but let it all be true or none of it.
    Hebrews 4:12
    For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
    The true author is the infinite, Almighty, ever-present God. How can we know what to edit?
    Isaiah 55:9
    “For as the heavens are higher than the earth,So are My ways higher than your waysAnd My thoughts than your thoughts.
    If you start editing out what you don’t believe, where do you stop? Creation, the flood, the Exodus, the birth of Jesus, what happens to those who don’t accept Jesus?
    2 Timothy 3:16-17 (New American Standard Bible)
    16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;
    17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

  • ChrisB

    “straightforward historical reporting”
    Mark Roberts (among others) has suggested that phrase is an anachronism. History for history’s sake didn’t exist before the modern era; it has always been history with a purpose — there’s a reason someone’s going to the trouble to tell this story, there’s something to learn.
    That does not, however, mean the story told isn’t historically accurate, even if details are selected for the author’s purpose.
    I don’t particularly have a problem with Job being an extended parable, but I don’t see any reason for it to be so. But then I say the same about Adam.
    But let’s be careful that every OT (or NT) tale that includes the miraculous (Jonah) or God speaking (Job, Exodus) doesn’t get demoted to “story.”

  • RJS

    I like Mark Robert’s book on the reliability of the gospels. And I agree with your statement on the historical accuracy. But this means that some of the details don’t really matter (like how many were at the open tomb and when).
    The “modernist agenda” that discounts the miraculous at every turn is a real problem. The recoil response has been wooden literalness … inerrancy (occasionally nuanced).
    But we need a third way here perhaps more than anywhere else – in my opinion anyway. We need an approach that lets the Bible be the book God has given us and doesn’t press it into forms and uses for which it was never intended.

  • Travis Greene

    I agree with your last line, but why does “story” constitute a demotion?

  • ChrisB

    This is one place I’m not sure a “third way” is possible. I think inerrancy is a natural result of belief in inspiration. If we don’t believe in that, then anything in the Bible is questionable, and what we accept becomes what is “useful” or, more likely, culturally acceptable.
    There is room for nuance in inerrancy — for instance, we shouldn’t press the minor details in retelling stories where really don’t matter, where they were culturally irrelevant to the authors — but liberalism is an easy pit to fall into here.

  • Joey

    Maybe it is the artist in me, but I find truth in the tapestry of many genres: poetry, lament, wisdom, etc.
    Poetry, for instance, is authoritative not because of the specific claims it makes but because it weaves words together in a way that speaks to more than just my mind. Its truth is not just in the words but in the composition and arrangement of those words.
    How many of us have fallen in love with a song that’s content is commonplace and boring but has been arranged in a way that brings life to the truth of its content?
    “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” – that can almost bring tears to your eyes. What truth is it purveying? The intimate and God-image bearing connection between man and woman. Moses could have simply written “they were connected” but he chose profundity over convention and I’m thankful for it.

  • Larry

    I’m not sure you can categorize any of the Bible as “history” as that term is generally understood by post-Enlightenment moderns. As has been pointed out above, that category, or genre, didn’t really exist prior to the modern era. In modern terms if might be better to think of the “historical” parts of the Bible not as “straight” history, whatever that might be, but as theological commentaries on history. So Kings and Chronicles, for instance, are not history from an unbiased, objective source, but attempts by exiled Jews at explaining their situation; how did servants and worshipers of the Almighty get into their situation?

  • dopderbeck

    The issue with Jonah isn’t really the miraculous fish thing. It’s that there is no historical or archeological evidence that would corroborate the repentance of the city described in the book of Jonah, numerous linguistic anachronisms in the narrative, and details that don’t match the historical / archeological records (particularly that traveling across Nineveh required a 3-day journey — the archeological remains simply aren’t that large). Can these things be explained? Maybe — and very conservative scholars try to do so primarily because Jesus’ reference to the narrative supposedly demands literal historicity.
    Another good example is the book of Esther. A significant problem here is that (as I recall) there are detailed lists of the Queens of the Persian empire and none of these lists mention Esther. Again, if Esther were the important political figure portrayed in the Bible, we would reasonably expect that to show up in the extra-Biblical historical record. But does that mean “historicity” is disproven? I don’t think so, but it sure raises very reasonable questions.
    Here’s my concern: are things like this really things we need to fight tooth and nail over? Is our view of God and his Word big enough to permit the appropriation of culturally important non-literal narratives for spiritual edification? I think to ask that latter question is to answer it, because we acknowledge that Jesus’ parables are not to be read “literally.”

  • Travis Greene

    The other thing about Jonah, Job, and Daniel, among other stories, is that they simply feel like story as opposed to strict history. This is hard to describe if you aren’t a student of literature, but you can just tell that Job is a fable or story (with a big dose of theo-philosophical opera in the middle) in a way that the Samuel-Kings sequence or Nehemiah isn’t.

  • Dana Ames

    Elsewhere on Beliefnet this week, Ben Witherington put up the preface to his new book. In it he says this:
    “As Jaroslav Pelikan makes perfectly clear, there was never a time when the Christian community combined the Hebrew OT with the Greek NT to make a single book. Rather, once it had agreed upon the shape of its New Testament it adopted a version of the OT in Greek to serve as its OT. This is perfectly clear from an examination of the early codexes like Codex Siniaticus.”
    I think this is important to keep in mind. The whole of scripture is meant to lead us to the life of God. But we need to remember that the earliest thinkers of the church read it all through the lens of the gospel books- that is, the history and meaning of Jesus’ saving acts. Even John Wimber used to say that the whole NT needs to be interpreted through the Gospels. This helps us remember that Truth is ultimately Who, not what. Jesus said “*I* am the way, the truth and the life.” Trust in and union with him is the first step to making the simple wise. I believe so I may understand.
    In addition, the “human component” or “voice” of scripture is not addressed to us in the 21st century. We can’t begin to understand what it means for us, what God is saying to us now, until we understand what it meant to the ones to whom it was first addressed. This only makes sense to me. With all the resources we have today, I think it’s irresponsible to not consult the scholarly opinion of learned people of one’s particular tradition, whatever that is. Most of the time, even with serious differences of interpretive opinion, those folks bring a moderating influence to interpretive extremes.

  • dopderbeck

    Travis (#14) — I even recall somewhere seeing the argument that the Song of Songs and Job were originally written as performance dramas, sort of like stage plays.

  • BenB

    To start with Genres:
    Satire would not be something I would read Historically (Jonah is satire – not history. It’s fiction, that’s ok)
    I agree with Travis that Job is a fable. I think OT Scholars generally agree as well.
    I also think that “folklore” or “legend” might be more useful than story. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – it is story for sure, but it would seem as though these were stories which were told, morphed, changed some more, and might have been made up in the first place – but they served a purpose in shaping the identity of early Israel – so they continued to be told.
    I think the same can be said for the Exodus. Maybe a small band of slaves escaped Egypt and joined the already existent “Israelites” who were becoming a people in the land of Canaan.
    However, I don’t think any of this hurts the Bible’s authority, and I think there begins to be so much more usefulness and meaning to the stories.

  • dopderbeck

    BenB (#17) — ahh, but this is where it really gets sticky. The Exodus is such a fundamental event in the Biblical narrative that it’s hard for me to say it could have involved just the small band of slaves / assimilation idea, notwithstanding the enormous evidentiary problems. It’s repeatedly part of God’s own self-disclosed identity: “I am the God who brought you out of Egypt.” Job, Jonah and Esther are different because they don’t represent such pivotal events. The Noahic flood — that’s a tough one — but there’s something to be said for “protohistory” as a distinct and more historically loose category, I think.
    It seems to me that there are two related extremes to avoid: the literalist/historicist view in which all narrative must be literal history, and the scientistic view in which nothing in the narratives is considered “real” history unless proven by extra-Biblical sources. I very much like Long, Longman and Provan’s discussion of the Biblical narratives in terms of testimonial witness here.

  • Travis Greene

    dopderbeck, BenB, et al
    Yes, we should avoid the hermeneutics of suspicion along with the foundationalism of inerrancy. We should also be ready to say “I don’t know, but this is Scripture for us” anyway.

  • BenB

    Dopderbeck (#18),
    Yes, their slavery in Egypt is foundational for who they are as a people – likewise YHWH’s deliverance of them out of Egypt is foundational.
    However, can’t the small band/assimilation idea work with this?
    For instance:
    If we accept a late date for the final composition of Torah (post-exilic), then we have a people who are returning from exile. They are becoming a people again after 400 years of not being a single people. They begin to collect and write/re-write their stories of National foundation. These are shaped around who God is, who they are in relation to God, and who God has called them to be – especially as a people in the land being released from Exile.
    In this case – the testimony of that small group of people who had intermarried over centuries to the point that many families had some ancestor down the line who was a part of that small tribe, became widely known throughout Israel. In fact, it became the powerful history to highlight as the one which was foundational for the whole people, because it was a parallel to their current situation.
    We don’t need a Sinai revelation for God to be the God who delivers from Egypt. Nor do we need it for God to be a god who chose a certain people to be and fill a special role. However, they did need a history to found their role in – so they founded it in the testimony of a small people, and said that this has always been the call on us and who we are to be.
    The story of the Exodus gives meaning to a people coming out of Babylonian exile who are trying to express, give foundation for, and live out a believed call from the divine.
    This is just as powerful an interpretation of the Exodus, which we don’t lose anything from – and God is still a god who delivers from Exile – and yet it jives with archaeological discoveries.
    Likewise, it’s not that I want the Bible to be proven by archaeological finds… but when they directly contradict the Old Testament (or New) – I want to think about how we can re-read these things. It’s one thing for it not to be substantiated by archaeological discoveries; it is another for it to contradict the discoveries.

  • pds

    I am interested in your response regarding the history of the liturgy and the agape meal in the other thread. I am genuinely curious of your historical sources.
    This is an interesting topic too. Wish I had more time . . .

  • RJS

    ChrisB (#10)
    When you allow “nuance” you are already approaching “third way.” This is where I think that fundamentalism and evangelicalism fell into a real trap – by putting huge restrictions on this nuance. I tried to set up this question carefully. The point isn’t what parts of scripture to discard as “errant” but the appropriate interpretational approach to take to the different genres and forms present in scripture.
    I look at it this way: We have a book. The book is the “Word of God”, we accept this as so on the testimony of the church and we accept it on faith. But now we have to let scripture speak to us – in our world today. Insisting that the books conform to our modernist understanding of what “truth-telling” must entail is to impose an external constraint on the text.
    So – there is no reason that truth cannot be told in story form. In fact Jesus did so himself. The form of the text of Job points to this as a story rather than history. If Job is story and we force “history” on the text in our interpretation – then we will have an errant interpretation. The error may be serious or it may be minor.

  • angusj

    ChrisB (#10) wrote: “I think inerrancy is a natural result of belief in inspiration. If we don’t believe in that, then anything in the Bible is questionable, and what we accept becomes what is “useful” or, more likely, culturally acceptable.”
    The problem with that is what is inerrant? Do we ascribe inerrancy to the ‘original autographs’ which we no longer have, or are our current translations inerrant too? If so, how do we reconcile differences between translations? What about the numerous but admittedly minor internal inconsistencies within the canon? Also, what are the bounds of scripture? Do we include the Pericope Adulterae and the second half of Mark 16? Can we honestly reconcile inerrancy with this uncertainty and ambiguity? My concern is that by ascribing inerrancy to scripture we paint ourselves into intellectually indefensible corners. Also, i wonder if instead of viewing the Canon as fixed revelation, we consider it dynamic revelation where the whole body of Christ, under the Spirit’s leading, continues to be responsible for its interpretation within our own cultural context. This is not to deny that much of scripture is history, but that the whole of scripture needs to be interpreted and applied within a cultural context very different to the original historical contexts. I believe this is consistent with a view of scripture which is both inspired and authoritative without the need for it to be inerrant (something that scripture never claimed of itself).

  • John W Frye

    Well said (#23). I embrace the concept of inerrancy as a theological construct. That is, it makes sense. But once you grant inerrancy to the original autographs (which is the prevailing evangelical view), then what? No one owns or has seen one inerrant biblical text (except in theory the original writers). Scholars and pastors must work with “what is” as any apparatus in the Massoretic and Greek text makes evident. I keep wondering why evangelicals have posited such a theory of inerrancy. What were they trying to do…really? Once inerrancy is posited, then all kinds of shenanigans take place as scholars and pastors scramble to make the Bible fit into Enlightenment categories that it was never designed for.

  • Darren King

    I’ve just got my new computer up after the last one crashed, so I’ve missed this dialog over the last two days.
    When I originally posed the question that RJS quotes here, I was specifically thinking about how we seem to reconsider the historicity of certain parts of the Bible, only when we’re forced to – through discoveries in geology and evolution for instance.
    This seems to me a rather short-sighted and perhaps intellectually dishonest way to address the issue.
    I realize historicity is a broad-ranging term. That’s why I narrowed it to “wooden” historicity. I guess one way we could put it is that it would be anachronistic of us to think the Holy Spirit, or even a biblical writer inspired by the Holy Spirit, is fact-checking like an editor from the New York Times would. They just didn’t think along these lines in the Ancient Near East, for instance.
    Someone in here wrote something like “let it be all true or not at all.” That seems to me an incredibly childish (and unfair) way to frame the issue. It creates (perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not) an us versus them, you’re either fully with us, or not at all, kind of dichotomy. And it also makes the Bible into something that I firmly believe it never claims to be (even if you look at it from a macro-canonical point of view).
    Someone in here also suggested that by categories we mean “genres”. I think this is partly true, but not completely what I was getting at. In other words, I don’t necessarily think that genre specifics alone explain all the reasons why some texts might not be factually accurate to the satisfaction of a 20th century fact-checker.
    Let me throw this into the discussion: what if various parts of the Bible are true (in terms of theological points), but only factual to the degree that anything could be true while framed within a worldview perspective that has limitations. I’m a rather strong believer in the idea that God is very content to let us understand things, only in part, and that our worldviews frame realty in ways that only behold the totality of truth in part.
    I push back against this idea that some aspects of biblical framing are somehow *magically futuristic*, somehow spoken outside the confines of a particular writer’s worldview. I contend that this is largely impossible. Not because God CAN’T do it, but because that’s just now how God has made us – individually and as a collective. Progressive revelation exists not just because God rolls it out over time, but also because it has to wait on our worldviews to catch up, so to speak.

  • RJS

    Glad you’re back on-line. I was trying to get at most of your points here in the way I framed the post. Your point here – that we need a robust view of how to view scripture rather than a reactionary view (only reacting to new discoveries) is an excellent one.
    Next Thursday I will get to the second part of your question – on the role of tradition.

  • BarryH

    As BenB mentioned, the Exodus, as it is written, is in conflict with today’s body of archaeological discoveries and understanding. According to these discoveries, the city-states that the Israelis supposedly sacked were actually destroyed from within (inner revolts). As these city states imploded in on themselves, there was a population boom in the wilderness were the nation Israel eventually arose from.
    Do we dismiss all the archaeology as bogus because it interferes with our understanding of the bible? Or do we seek to understand the bible out of this new and better understanding of Jewish history?
    This is Old Testament though. We are safe withing the New Testament, right?
    Well, let’s look at John’s gospel. In the third chapter we have the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. Did this story really happen? Did Jesus really say the we must be born again?
    Jesus spoke Aramaic not Greek. The Greek word anōthen has the double meaning that makes this discourse make sense (it could mean either ‘again’ or ‘from above’). Throughout the rest of John, this word means ‘from above’, but here, in this exchange, Nicodemus misunderstands Jesus to mean born ‘a second time’ or ‘again’. This understanding can only occur in Greek. It is not possible in Aramaic. And this whole event depends on this misunderstanding happening.
    So how are we to understand this? Is it historical or story? This, as well as other data from John, makes this gospel contradict the synoptic gospels (for instance, the day of the Crucifixion – synoptic have it occurring on the Passover, John has it occurring on the day before the passover).
    So is John historical fact or a theological story?
    And if John is a theological interpretation of the life of Jesus and not fact, can the conservative evangelical faith that says, “all is fact or none is”, survive?

  • Cam R.

    This is a great post.
    I think I have tried to explain my struggles and/or views of inerrancy before. I agree with what ChrisB (#10) said about inerrancy being tied to inspiration–it is tied to God being a co-author with the human author.
    I still think inerrancy is an authorial intent issue. If the authors (Author) of Genesis or Job or Jonah didn’t intend those books to communicate in a literal/factual/historical way then forcing them to do so contradicts their level of inerrancy.
    Are you comfortable with this view of inerrancy?
    If ANE authors wrote history in a different way and from a different worldview than us–we can’t say it is inerrant and then make it speak to whatever we want. There is just too many opportunities for abuse cause we end up making it say what we want it to say.
    It seems to me that many proponents of the total inerrancy of scripture really mean “my interpretation of scripture is inerrant”. So any other interpretation is deemed an error and then the house of cards crumbles because total inerrancy requires it be all true or none.
    Job being a parable is fine. What I often wonder about is stories like the flood and Adam and Eve and the genelogies of Jesus? If they were just parables and there never was a Noah, what does that mean for Luke?