Does It Matter If the Bible Stories Really Happened?

Krista Dalton has a great reflection on what she’s learned from Jews about the historicity of our sacred text:

Krista Dalton

I remember early on in my academic career when I was startled by a revelatory statement. I was sitting in my advisor’s office, attempting to understand Jewish interpretations of the Exodus, naively wondering how the historicity of the event would alter participation in the Passover ritual.

Suddenly realizing my error, my advisor interjected, “You know, most Jews don’t believe the Exodus literally happened, in the very least, not the way the biblical text recounts.”

I’m not sure why I was so surprised by that statement. In my own academic work, I knew scholars doubted the historicity of the Exodus account. Yet, to think Jewish participants were conscious of this, when many of my own Christian peers rejected the notion, was shocking to me.

My advisor explained, “Jews know this didn’t happen, but they just don’t want to hear about it on Passover.”

This conversation led me on a journey in pursuit of the answer to the question: “If one is not remembering a literal fact, what is one remembering?” I thought of my own Christian tradition, particularly the memory-ritual of communion, and found myself mimicking my advisor’s words, “I know not everything happened as the gospels recount, but I just don’t want to hear about it when I partake of the bread and the wine.”

Read the rest: Lessons from the Seder: The Belief of Memory in the Communion Story « Krista Dalton @KristaNDalton.

  • http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com Rob Davis

    This is definitely an interesting contrast to many posts on this blog that have defended the literal historicity of many other events described in the Bible.

    What is the difference between the unimportance or irrelevance of the exodus and something like “the massacre of the innocents”, or even Jesus’ resurrection?

  • Jon Duns

    What makes myth stronger than history? Or at the very least why would you argue that something that is mythic has the same value as something that is historic? I know it did not have to happen to be true in the interpreters eyes – but what gives greater value in the end to the communal identity and individual interpreters?

  • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

    No. It does not matter if the Bible stories really happened. What we have in the Bible is, for the most part, not actual history but sacred narrative. It is a spiritual portal, if you will, into which we can enter and by which our faith-lives are nurtured and energized. Much like going to a play, or viewing a drama. We know it is not “real.” But we are moved by its telling, and changed by its message. The narrative is a vehicle, but it is not the destination.

    • http://www.lara-thinkingoutloud.blogspot.com lara

      This.

  • Phil Miller

    It doesn’t really matter if some events in the Biblical narrative really happened, but it certainly does matter if others happened. Paul claimed that if the resurrection didn’t really happen, than nothing else matters as it comes to the faith. If Jesus is not raised we’re simply worshiping a dead man.

    • http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com Rob Davis

      That seems like an interesting interpretive leap to make. I’ve read many interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15 that don’t require a literal resurrection. It just seems really arbitrary to me to pick certain things in the Bible and say that they are necessarily historical, but others aren’t. How is this determined?

      • Phil Miller

        I’ve read many interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15 that don’t require a literal resurrection.

        And those would be wrong…

        This is actually one issue that the church has been rather consistent on since the very beginning. The Gospels, the Apostle Paul, and the Fathers all went out of their way to insist that Jesus was a historic person, died an actual death on an actual cross, and possessed a real physical body when he was resurrected.

        I for one don’t have a lot of problem believing that some parts of the OT contain mythical material. I think the nature of the way the OT was collected and preserved would lend itself to that. The Gospels are another story, though. The authors wrote with the intention of preserving the biography of Christ. They were written to be read as historical, and they were written to a standard that met or surpassed other ancient historical works.

        • http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com Rob Davis

          Okay, well, there’s that.

        • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

          And President Bush and his administration — all of them no doubt sincere — “went out of their way to insist that” there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And they did so “with the intention of preserving” the security of the United States.

          Sincerity and insistence can go out of their way to insist that a belief is a truth. As such, sincerity and insistence do not make a thing true.

          And no, Phil, you are not worshiping a dead man. You are worshiping a complete fiction.

          • ME

            I may be getting you wrong, but, to me it seems completely illogical to bother with Christianity if you don’t think the resurrection was real. Instead of Christianity I’d follow people who weren’t half full of lies.

            • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

              Discarding Christianity just because I think the resurrection is fiction would be like getting rid of my BMW just because I refused to believe it was really made in Germany.

              A tradition’s popularly accepted label is not its substance.

              Christianity is like a vast bed of rich soil. Most of it is the dirt of myth and empty concepts (such as the resurrection), but within it are scattered diamonds of truth (such as the ethos of Love).

              I dig for the diamonds.

              • ME

                How do you explain the scattered diamonds of truth coming into christianity? did they come from Jesus? Paul? A revolutionary group of people in the 1st century?

                Just curious.

                • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                  Very generally speaking, the two tools I employ to separate diamonds from dirt are as follows:

                  1) where it is a notion or concept that attempts to describe reality in supernatural terms, I reject it as being a thing of imagination and therefore “dirt.” For example . . .

                  the sun stood still for a day (book of Joshua);

                  a snake tempted Eve with a fruit, which Adam then took a bite of, and as a result all human beings are born sinful;

                  there is a cosmic being called “God” who created the universe and destroys people in floods, fires, and earthquakes but then comes down to earth as Jesus to die for all humankind in order to save them from sin, but then says he’ll be coming back to kill masses of people whose sins he supposedly just died for;

                  Jesus came back to life after being dead for two days;

                  Jesus walked on water;

                  Jacob physically wrestled with an extraterrestrial (i.e., an angel);

                  Moses saw the “backside” of God;

                  I could go on and on.

                  2) where it is an ethic (or ethos) which, when applied, positively contributes to human goodness, unity, wellness, and Oneness, I accept it as truth and therefore “diamond.” For example . . .

                  Love. Grace. Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Self-discipline. Forgiveness. And any Bible story that promotes such things or whose theme facilitates their practice and achievement, I embrace as inspiration.

                  So that, in a nutshell, is my measure.

                  • http://itisalreadybroken.wordpress.com/ Tracie

                    R. Jay Pearson,

                    Thank you for putting that into words. It was very helpful to me.

                  • Pete

                    Love and appreciate your comments R. Jay.

        • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

          You could not be more wrong about that. The gospels are political. The fact that they canonized four of them that cannot be reconciled is the most obvious clue that they are historical.

          • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

            I meant NOT historical

            • Luke Allison

              But there are learned people who completely disagree with you on that point.

          • Phil Miller

            If the Gospels could be perfectly reconciled, that would make them more suspect. For every major historical event there are differing accounts, and before the age of audio and video recording this is even more true. The Gospel writers were dealing accounts of actual eyewitnesses, and when you’re dealing with eyewitness accounts there’s bound to be discrepancies when it comes to exact details.

            • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

              Phil, you wrote: “The Gospel writers were dealing accounts of actual eyewitnesses.

              How do you know this? What’s the source of your knowledge? Can you validate your source?

              • Phil Miller

                The best book I’ve read on the topic is probably Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony: http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Eyewitnesses-Gospels-Eyewitness-Testimony/dp/0802831621/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_4

                • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                  Well I’ve got a Crossan, a Borg, a Wilson, and a Vermes to match your Bauckham. All renowned Biblical scholars who came to very different conclusions as Bauckham regarding the factuality of the Gospels and the Jesus presented in them.

                  We could trade scholars all day and still get nowhere just as fast.

                  Accepting a scholar’s conclusions is not knowledge. It is information. Huge difference. Whether it’s the scholar you prefer, or the scholar I prefer.

                  My question was “how do you know.” How can you validate the claim that “the Gospel writers were dealing accounts of actual eyewitnesses?” What verifiable and incontrovertible proof do you have?

                  • ME

                    It’s funny you keep asking for verifiable and incontrovertible proof. Try and provide that for your beliefs and I’ll debunk them in a split second just like I can for any christian who claims verifiable and incontrovertible proof.

                    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                      ME . . . As I’ve stated many, many times here on Tony’s blog, I readily tell people that the ideology I embrace is my own view, my own feeling, my own insight, based on my own experience, and promoted as such. Others, on the other hand, present their beliefs as solid fact, as if the so-called truth of their beliefs is somehow a forgone conclusion. Such as Phil’s claim about the Gospels being “accounts of actual eyewitnesses.”

                      The other thing, I should add, is that the ideology I embrace isn’t so much a thing of belief as it is an ethos to be lived and practiced.

                      But let’s return to the focus here: Phil made a truth claim. If he’s going to promote it as fact, then it’s his burden to present evidence to it. Otherwise, it’s really just his opinion.

                      And that is the topic here, per the title of this blog post: “Does it matter if the Bible stories really happened?”

                    • ME

                      Agree with everything you wrote, but, you may not notice you make several truth claims yourself and don’t hold yourself to the same standard.

                      Here is a list of truth claims you’ve made to this post:

                      “What we have in the Bible is, for the most part, not actual history but sacred narrative.”

                      “And no, Phil, you are not worshiping a dead man. You are worshiping a complete fiction.”

                      “Most of [christianity] is the dirt of myth and empty concepts (such as the resurrection)”

                      “By separating the history of the cross from the theology of the cross you get this: a man who died. And stayed dead.”

                      Where is your proof for all of these truth claims?

                    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                      I don’t see a single “truth claim” in the quotes you provided.

                    • Phil Miller

                      I have to agree with ME regarding truth claims, R. Jay. I don’t see how you can say the statement “And no, Phil, you are not worshiping a dead man. You are worshiping a complete fiction.” isn’t a truth claim. You are claiming the that Jesus didn’t exist. That’s certainly a truth claim.

                      Just because you’re stating a negative doesn’t make it any less of a claim. There is plenty of evidence that Jesus did exist, and frankly, from what I’ve seen, not much out there that would convince me he didn’t.

                      It’s not my desire to fight with you, though. I’m OK respecting your belief, and generally, I find that you’re pretty respectful here, too.

                    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                      Actually, I’m not claiming Jesus didn’t exist. I actually accept that there was a wise and holy man named Jesus upon whom the Bible stories were based. I am simply saying he died and stayed dead. Because that’s what people do when they die and are put in a grave. They stay in the grave.

                      The “fiction” I was speaking of is the cosmic Christ, i.e., the resurrected Jesus who is said to have ascended into “heaven” and is the deity worshiped by many Christians (and no, not all Christians worship Jesus).

                      So when I say this particular Jesus is a fiction, I am not making an original truth claim. I am simply refuting an original claim that has never been substantiated as fact in two thousand years. And after two thousand years of zero proof, it’s quite reasonable to say, “Yep. It’s fiction.”

                    • ME

                      “So when I say this particular Jesus is a fiction, I am not making an original truth claim. I am simply refuting an original claim that has never been substantiated as fact in two thousand years. And after two thousand years of zero proof, it’s quite reasonable to say, “Yep. It’s fiction.””

                      That’s not a fact. You (nor I) do not KNOW what is and isn’t possible in this universe. We only know what we’ve observed and what we trust from a couple hundred years of science. Is your perspective narrow? All thru the bible and all thru Christian history people have claimed the creator of the universe has intruded into their lives in ways science cannot currently explain or replicate. Could all those people, myself included, be liars or mistaken? Sure, it’s possible. To say it’s impossible, that it’s a fact that millions of people have lied or been mistaken, (which you haven’t said but I presume you believe) – to say these things because they aren’t scientifically provable is a truth claim. Have you considered that God is intentionally obscured? In the gospel, Jesus doesn’t reveal his plan all at once, he keeps knowledge from disciples. Have you ruled out the possibility that’s how God works in all our lives? That he reveals as he chooses and doesn’t allow himself to be validated by our science? Again, you factually know what is and isn’t possible in this universe? I certainly do not and don’t claim to, but, your statements appear to claim you know as fact a thing or two about resurrection.

                    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                      A truth claim would be something like this: “The Roman Emperor Octavius Caesar Augustus is God — also “divi filius,” son of the divine — and is the savior of humanity who will cause wars to cease and bring peace to the world.

                      That claim was actually made. In fact, it was publicly made in 9 BCE, a decade before the birth of Jesus. After Augustus died bodily in 14 CE (when Jesus would have likely been around 10 years old), the Roman Senate officially proclaimed his divinity. (I should note that, during this period in the Mediterranean, it was not at all uncommon to declare political leaders to be gods.)

                      The proclamation was embraced by the Roman people (which numbered into the millions in the first century) and afterward he was worshiped (in fact he was worshiped even before his death). Documentary records of the pronouncement remain to this day, similarly as documentary records of the pronouncements of Jesus so-called divinity remain.

                      So let me then ask you this question: Would you agree that it is a fact that Emperor Octavius Caesar Augustus is God? Or is it fiction?

                    • ME

                      the Emperor being divine is about as likely to be true as Flying Spaghetti Monster being God. It is so improbable that I’m comfortable saying it’s a fact he was not God even though technically it’s really still a belief.

                      The difference with Jesus’ claim is the probability. Lets say there’s a .0000000001 chance Caeser was divine. What’s the chance Jesus was? There are a LOT more arguments that can be made in favor of Jesus, I’d say you could easily bump the probability up to .001. Maybe that’s enough for YOU to call it fact he was not Divine, but technically it’s really still a belief.

                      Like I said, what made you the expert on what is and is not possible in the universe? Did you time travel back in time to make sure Jesus didn’t really come back from the dead? There were a lot of witnesses. How do you disprove them? I’m not saying I can prove it was true, so there is no burden on me to prove it. You are the one saying Jesus resurrection was false. The burden is on you to prove this knowledge. If you say his resurrection was highly improbable, I would agree. But to call it a fact is another thing.

                    • ME

                      RJ,

                      Just realized I think your question to me entirely missed the point. Was Caesar being God a Fact or Fiction? That is not the right question. Can our position on Caesar be a position of knowledge or of belief. Both of us believe his divinity to be a Fiction. But can either of us say that belief is in actuality a fact? With Caesar no one is going to argue because it’s such an esoteric point.

                      When you start talking about Leprechaun’s you may get a hair more pushback as to whether it’s knowledge or belief that Leprechaun’s don’t exist. When you talk about bigfoot, is it a fact that bigfoot does not exist? Probably not. Is it a fact that people have not been abducted by aliens? Awfully hard to prove it, but most of us BELIEVE they have not.

                      What about Jesus? Is it a fact he did not rise from the dead. How on earth would you ever prove that is a fact?

                    • ME

                      I’m going to beat this horse entirely to death….

                      Below are a list of statements. The question is, are the statements facts or beliefs?

                      Statement: Light travels at 3E8 m/s in a vacuum.
                      Answer: fact.

                      Statement: Bill Clinton was born in the 20th century.
                      Answer:fact.

                      Statement: Bigfoot exists.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: Bigfoot does not exist.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: 20th century humans were abducted by aliens.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: 20th century humans were NOT abducted by aliens.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: Jesus rose from the dead.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: Jesus died and stayed dead.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: Jesus is Divine.
                      Answer: belief.

                      Statement: Jesus is NOT Divine.
                      Answer: belief.

                      When someone states as fact Jesus was the Son of God it is logical to call them out and say prove it. It can’t be proven. It’s a belief. When someone states as fact Jesus was NOT the son of God it is logical to call them out and say prove it. What is not logical is for one person to hold others accountable for stating beliefs as facts and then the same person to state beliefs as facts.

                  • Phil Miller

                    My question was “how do you know.” How can you validate the claim that “the Gospel writers were dealing accounts of actual eyewitnesses?” What verifiable and incontrovertible proof do you have?

                    I suppose I “know” in the same way you claim to know – by reading what I can and trying to make myself informed.

                    Are you claiming that you are doing empirical research in the field?

                    I don’t believe incontrovertible proof is something that’s available to anyone regarding these sorts of historical claims, anyway. I do accept the testimony handed down from the historic, orthodox church, though.

                    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                      You just gave me the answer I was looking for: “I don’t believe incontrovertible proof is something that’s available to anyone regarding these sorts of historical claims, anyway. I do accept the testimony handed down from the historic, orthodox church, though.

                      In the absence of incontrovertible proof, any claim to the Gospels being “accounts of actual eyewitnesses” is wholly unsupportable as fact or truth.

                      As to the testimony handed down by the “historic orthodox church” (Holy Tradition), one can “accept” it, as you do. But acceptance is opinion, not evidence of fact.

                      Please understand that I am not disparaging your belief. I am simply asking you to back up your truth claim. And I appreciate that you were intellectually honest in your response. Many people are extremely unwilling to do that, so I sincerely appreciate it.

                    • ME

                      RJ, see my comment above. Why don’t you back up your truth claims?

              • Phil Miller

                I would also add that even someone like Bart Ehrman, who is an agnostic, says that to say that Jesus simply didn’t exist, one has to ignore the evidence.

                http://www.csmonitor.com/Books/chapter-and-verse/2012/0703/Biblical-scholar-Bart-Ehrman-supports-the-historic-existence-of-Jesus

    • Dave

      You’re actually worshiping a man who never existed.

  • Craig

    Of course it matters. A better question: in what ways and to what extent is the faith still worth keeping if the Bible stories are fictitious?

  • Steve Pinkham

    The answer of course that raises the question: To what degree is community and historical tribal identity worth holding on to? What are the benefits and perils?

    I will once again pimp Richard Beck’s “The Authenticity of Faith” as a worthwhile discussion of the terror management theory from experimental psychology applied to Christians. (The award winning documentary Flight From Death is highly recommended as a into to the larger subject.)

    It turns out that group identity is much more dangerous than most would care to admit, and the default of group identity is hate and violence to the other, even among the great majority of Christians experimentally tested. Beck’s thesis is this can be overcome, but only at the cost of what amounts to greatly decreasing our commitment to the core of the group identity.

    Any discussion claiming that “facts don’t matter because the are orthogonal to group membership” really needs to consider the facts about the downsides of group membership to the world as well as the benefits to the group. Every group in the history of the world has thought they are the true people, the good guys who can overcome this problem. So far very few have been correct in the short term, and exactly zero in the long term.

    Group identity cannot help but become defensive and colonial or eventually cease existing.

  • Kien

    The Exodus might not have happened in the way described in the Bible; but there may well have been a historical event that inspired the Exodus story. I tend to read the Bible as a historian would. It is one piece of evidence to be weighed against other historical evidence to work out what might have happened. Personally, I have no difficulty believing that there was a group of refugees from Egypt travelling aimlessly in the Sinai and during that process began to form an identity based on a god known as Yahweh. There might at the same time have been another refugee from Mesopotamia who wandered around Canaan worshiping a similar god. The two stories somehow merged to form a larger story about Yahweh. I see no reason to assume that the Pentateuch is entirely fictitious.

  • http://mannsword.blogspot.com Daniel Mann

    While it is true that most Jews deny the historicity of the Bible – after all, most are agnostic or atheistic (and I can say this because I am Jewish) – this doesn’t mean that we can separate history from theology and still retain any rational faith. Just try separating the history of the Cross from the theology of the Cross! What are you left with? Nothing!

    • http://skepticallyemerging.tumblr.com Rob Davis

      Nothing? Really? I’m confused by an approach toward “faith” that entirely hinges upon something so dubitable as history. What’s that phrase? A house built on sand…?

    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

      By separating the history of the cross from the theology of the cross you get this: a man who died. And stayed dead.

      Myths can be interesting and even fun, but they make poor lenses through which to see the real world and appropriately live in it.

      • Luke Allison

        I do feel a little bit like both of you (Rob and R. Jay) are trying to soften the blow of having come to an agnostic position by repeating “It’s okay! It’s okay!” over and over again. Why not just accept that religious thought is all the product of Oedipal longings and guilt triggers inherent in the human species and forget about all this nonsense?

        It seems like it would be easier on both of you to just ditch Jesus. Why not do it? I’m genuinely wondering this, since I sense a certain level of anxiety or passion in regard to this particular topic. Why are you concerned about people thinking that the record of the resurrection be taken literally? It seems like a very odd hobby.

        Am I being judgmental? I’m really just wondering. Hard to get tone across in a blog post.

        • Luke Allison

          Also….I don’t think Krista Dalton is necessarily right. It all depends on what kind of Jew you talk to.

        • Luke Allison

          Well shit.

          Re-reading this, I sound like a dick.

          Not much to be done about that now.

        • Steve Pinkham

          > Why not just accept that religious thought is all the product of Oedipal longings and guilt triggers inherent in the human species and forget about all this nonsense?

          First of all, because that’s just not true and religions supervene on more systems than you claim. Also, religion in the broad is also responsible for the rise of society in a very real sense. The religions that have lasted have done so primarily because of their pro-social component, in that they have allowed increasingly large groups to work together.

          See this overview paper of the field of cognitive science of religion for a quick take on the current best theories about the rise of religion.

          • Luke Allison

            I’m aware that I was being reductionistic.

        • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

          Luke, I am absolutely not “concerned about people thinking that the record of the resurrection be taken literally.” I’m simply expressing my rejection of the concept.

          • Luke Allison

            But you do so with a great deal of passion nearly every time the topic comes up. So obviously this is something you’ve spent time contemplating. You don’t come off as a detached observer at all.

            • Luke Allison

              After reading your blog (never done that before) I’m getting where you’re coming from a little better.

            • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

              You’re right. I am deeply invested in the subject. However, you said I was concerned with “people’s thinking.” I am not concerned with the “thinking” of others, in terms of whether they wish to believe in x, y, or z. That’s their issue, not mine. Instead, I am happy to discuss the topic, and counter certain assertions.

              • Luke Allison

                I believe that you’re deeply invested in the subject. I also know you bring a unique perspective as a gay man, one that I’m both interested in and not particularly qualified to understand.

                I’m happy we had this talk!

                • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

                  Well, just to be clear, my perspective on the Bible, theology, the resurrection, etc., is entirely unrelated to the fact that I’m gay. And I suspect I would have the same views if I weren’t gay.

                  • Luke Allison

                    I’m not completely sure about that. Not because of your actual sexual experience or orientation, but because of your social experience with the world of religious observance.

                    Only you know ultimately what’s going on inside your heart and your head, but I think your experience as a historically degraded minority within the church would definitely have an affect on the plausibility structures you bring to the table.

                    Simply put, if high-ranking scholars and scientists can come to the conclusion that a man was raised from the dead at some point in history contra Vermes, Borg, Crossan, etc., then so could you, if your experience of life had led you to a place where that idea was remotely palatable.

                    Crossan refuses to believe Jesus rose from the dead due to the fact that it presupposes an oppressive truth claim. He can never and will never believe it, regardless of whatever compelling arguments have been made in favor of it. I disagree with him, and see the compelling arguments against the resurrection as carrying massive presuppositions and favoring a materialistic worldview (we’ve seen all there is to see).

                    But it’s my experience of a loving and grace-filled community coming alongside me and helping me through addictions and inner pain that has truly kept me believing in the resurrection. That’s all I’m saying….I wonder if your presuppositions would be formed differently if you had grown up in a nurturing and inclusive community….I’m of course making a huge leap assuming that you didn’t….or maybe you grew up with a community that would have stopped being nurturing and loving if you had come out to them….I don’t know.

                    I agree with you that love is the most important thing in the Scriptures. But, I’m not willing to embrace hermeneutical relativism any more than I’m willing to embrace a tradition of hermeneutics (ie Catholicism). I think most likely that my community and the “personal reality” I experience within a communal hermeneutic forms the basis for my understanding of the texts. When I move to a completely personalized hermeneutic, predicated on my own individual experience/knowledge base/emotional expression, I may be veering into a hermeneutic that strangely endorses everything I already hold true. That’s called a cult of one.

                    Anyway, I’m rambling on. Suffice it to say that I appreciate and love you while I disagree with you on some points.

    • Phil Miller

      I disagreed with you here before, Daniel, but on this I actually pretty much agree.

      Certainly people can debate about the facts surrounding certain historical events, and historians spend a lot of time doing that. But it seems to me to be completely silly to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well, probably nothing happened! It’s all made up!” We just don’t do that with other historic events. Every historian writes a certain perspective, and all bring biases to the events they’re writing about.

      “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

      • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

        “…if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

        Exactly.

  • Simon

    Nothing that we read ever happened. If I wrote you 2,000 words about my drive to work this morning that still wouldn’t give you access to what happened. Whatever I wrote would be a story and whatever you read would be a different story. Stories are good though and I’ll keep telling them and listening to them and sharing them. As I can only live life through stories this is no loss.

  • Steve

    Does it matter if the story of “the boy who cried wolf” literally happen? Of course not – it’s still “true” if not necessarily factual. Some stories in the Bible are like this, such as Job, where the truth value is maintained even if the historicity is doubtful. For other stories it does matter, such as the resurrection, since without them being actual events that took place they have little value.

    • NateW

      Steve- I’m with you regarding the boy who cried wolf, job, etc., I even can say that I believe that the resurection is true. BUT… I would not say that the factual historicity of the literal resurrection, nor any other fact, must be the basis of our faith. Faith based on facts is what the bible records Jesus as chastising Thomas for, right? To know a fact as 100% true seems to be the same idea as to “see”. Do you mean to say that if the resurrection happened spiritually, within Jesus’ disciples—that they were permanently transformed by a sudden communal epiphany as they contemplated what had just happened to their Lord—but that Jesus’ physical body still lay buried somewhere outside Jerusalem, you would you abandon your faith?

      I certainly am not denying the literal resurrection, but I’m not sure that its necessary to absolutely affirm that it happened to have faith that it is true. Does that make sense?

      • NateW

        Oops… Weird. See below for the full comment

    • NateW

      Steve- I’m with you regarding the boy who cried wolf, job, etc., I even can say that I believe that the resurection is true. BUT… I would not say that the factual historicity of the literal resurrection, nor any other fact, must be the basis of our faith. Faith based on facts is what the bible records Jesus as chastising Thomas for, right? To know a fact as 100% true seems to be the same idea as to “see”. Do you mean to say that if the resurrection happened spiritually, within Jesus’ disciples—that they were permanently transformed by a sudden communal epiphany as they contemplated what had just happened to their Lord—but that Jesus’ physical body still lay buried somewhere outside Jerusalem, you would you abandon your faith?

      I certainly am not denying the literal resurrection, but I’m not sure that its necessary to absolutely affirm that it happened to have faith that it is true. Does that make sense?

      When it comes down to it, it seems like one could believe in the historical resurrection but still not have an active faith in its eternal reality. While we can’t prove that it happened, we have the ability to live in faith that it happens.

  • http://www.winter60.blogspot.com Lausten North

    The important part of this post is “but we don’t want to hear about it during our ritual.” “during” being the key. I have shared some great stories from Denmark and Seneca native Americans, and we used the metaphors to explore the landscape of humanity, and when we were done, we said, okay, that was interesting, and it was not something that really happened, that canoe didn’t really fly. That in no way diminished the quality or value of our discussion nor did it reduce the feeling of community. People have been doing this for 1,000′s of years. History is what is new. That is, the science of history is new. (Obviously the past has always been there).

    When we study the history that someone wrote during the Roman Empire, we assume there are inaccuracies, we assume they were embellishing it to make their emperor look better or the other guy look bad, or something. Scholars of that time knew that the other scholars were doing it. Today, if you do that, it is not considered scholarship. If minsters stopped equating themselves with history scholars, I’d go back to church in a heartbeat.

  • http://www.nateweatherly.com Nate W.

    “Fact” is not the same as “Truth.” Our minds crave it, but like all idols facts never satisfy and only approximate what is True in superficial ways. That is not to say that there aren’t accurate facts out there, but, well, facts are just too specific to really be True in any larger sense. A story can be factual and far less true than another story that is “made up.”

    Bob Dylan’s biography “Chronicles Vol. 1″ is a perfect example. It’s chock full of extraneous details from 50 years ago that no one could possibly remember, Dylan attributes quotes to various people that they never said (and pulled many of them from literature, travel guides, poetry, and old folk/blues songs). He tells stories about himself that never factually happened. But, when you step back and look at the whole thing, and when you dive into the discrepancies and trace them to their original sources, you find that Dylan has revealed more truth about himself than a straight up autobiography ever could. He entirely skips over what most people thing would be some of the most interesting parts of his life, but smuggles those parts into the mundane such that the careful reader, the one who refuses to throw out the silly parts, ends up with a brilliant portrait of a man who has hidden from the public for most of his life.

    I see the bible in a similar light. We can’t know what is fact and what isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t all true.

    An excerpt from Chronicles Vol. 1 where Dylan is talking about one of his greatest song writing inspirations, Robert Johnson:

    “The compositions seemed to come right out of his mouth and not his memory, and I started meditating on the construction of the verses, seeing how different they were from Woody’s. Johnson’s words made my nerves quiver like piano wires. “They were so elemental in meaning and feeling and gave you so much of the inside picture. It’s not that you could sort out every moment carefully, because you can’t. There are too many missing terms and too much dual existence. Johnson bypasses tedious descriptions that other blues writers would have written whole songs about. There’s no guarantee that any of his lines either happened, were said, or even imagined. When he sings about icicles hanging on a tree it gives me the chills, or about milk turning blue…it made me nauseous and I wondered how he did that.

    “I copied Johnson’s words down on scraps of paper so I could more closely examine the lyrics and patterns, the construction of his old-style lines and the free association that he used, the sparkling allegories, big-ass truths wrapped in the hard shell of nonsensical abstraction—themes that flew through the air with the greatest of ease. I didn’t have any of these dreams or thoughts but I was going to acquire them”

  • http://itisalreadybroken.wordpress.com/ Tracie

    Tony, are you going to weigh in here or on another post? Is this a haunting question?

    I’d like to hear your thoughts.

  • http://www.wideopenground.com/ Lana

    ENJOYED THIS. You know, other religions, such as Buddhism, admit up front that they don’t know what’s historical and what not, but the emphasis on their religion is on participating in the rituals not on belief. And that, in my opinion, is where the evangelical church has gone most wrong.

    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

      Excellent insight, Lana!! In the Buddhism taught by the Dalai Lama, as well as by such notables as Thich Nhat Hanh, at the center of their “faith” is the practice of mindfulness and compassion, and meditation. This is especially the case in Mahayana Buddhism, one of the main branches of the tradition. Their focus is not “salvation” but enlightenment, or awakening (which is what “buddha” means, to become awake). And they do not worship Buddha (who was a man named Siddhartha Gautama, a wisdom teacher from the 5th century BCE) as a “god.” They revere him as the highest inspiration.

      And while Buddhism has its own theologies and beliefs about life, existence, and the universe, these beliefs are not placed at the top of their list of most important things. “You must believe” is not their standard.

      For many Christians (I would include myself among them), Jesus of Nazareth is not “god in human flesh” who died for our sins, but was an “awakened one” (buddha) who showed the Way to enlightenment, and Oneness.

  • Pingback: Tony Jones asks: Does It Matter If the Bible Stories Really Happened? « Wide Open Ground

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O.

    The idea of being given a million dollars warms my heart and allows me to ponder the mystery of much money and what I would do with it.

    Actually being given a million dollars has those things and also have radical impact in my experience of life.

    Does it matter which is true? Maybe not. But how it’s true certainly changes my experience and expectations. They’re two totally different experiences all together. Which is to say that if the stories aren’t true, then that’s all well and good. But, it’s hard to have hope in a God who promises to work, then works in a holistically transformative way.

    Which then makes belief in a God who brings the idea of such work a radically different sort of belief than in a God who actually has and does and will work. Really two different religions altogether, just with shared vocabulary.

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O.

    also #firstworldproblems

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O.

    Summary of much of what I’ve read in the comments:

    The problem with Christianity is that it’s Christianity and not another religion.

  • carla

    I’m trying to figure out why I’m annoyed that this conversation/dialogue in the comments didn’t take place on Krista’s blog, since she’s the one who posed the question and quite eloquently explored it in light of her own context and Tony just posted a part of the whole. The conversation feels a little like people listening to a woman share her experience and insight into a topic she knows something about, and then some of them (mostly men) going into another room to discuss their reaction to what she said. I know Krista can come over here and weigh in, but it seems like a missed opportunity to engage with the person who posed the question.

    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

      Carla, I don’t know why you’re annoyed either. The responses here are specifically to Tony’s question: “Does it matter if the Bible stories really happened?”

      Krista did not actually ask this question on her blog post. Instead, she actually draws a conclusion pertaining to historical fact versus belief when it comes to participation in the Christian Eucharist and Jewish Seder: “I partake of the Eucharist not because I am boldly declaring a literal fact, but because I am participating in the shared Christian story that countless before me have shared. The Seder and Communion meals are not declarations of the historicity of belief; belief is in the narrative power of the communal story.

      • carla

        Well now I’m annoyed that you felt the need to explain to me what you think Krista said.

        From my view she was examining the same question — just in a more sophisticated thoughtful way than Tony did by titling his blog with a (pretty provocative) question. That could be why Tony excerpted 5 paragraphs of Krista’s words and linked to the entire post.

        • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

          carla, I don’t understand your frustration. I posted this to point people toward Krista’s post. If they want to discuss it here as well, who cares?

          • carla

            Tony – They didn’t discuss it at Krista’s blog. They just talked about it on your blog.

            I guess I’m disappointed by the conclusion one could draw that your readers didn’t actually read Krista’s entire post or click through to her post. As you said, that’s why you posted it in the first part. But I understand that we all have limited time to read stuff on the Internet, and this means that there is lots of good stuff that we just can’t read. But if people did go to Krista’s post and return to your blog to have conversation about it, like I said initially, that frustrates me as well and feels to me like it’s less than honoring of Krista and her ideas. I would hope that if an excerpt of her writing is worth commenting about on your blog, it’s worth commenting about on her blog. I know this might not be a popular observation, but the fact that most of these comments were made by men about something that was said by a woman, without her participation, just feels wrong to me.

            Thanks for letting me offer my perspective. I’m not a normal commenter here but did feel like it might be safe to offer my feelings about this.

            • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

              carla, a comment and a question:

              comment: beware of assuming the gender of a commenter by the name entered with the comment.

              question: what should I have done differently? Not posted it?

  • Curtis

    My kids keep insisting that a movie is worth watching because it is based on a “true story”. I keep asking them to show me a movie based on a “false story”. So far, they have not come up with any.

  • Boz

    I chose not to be a christian because the bible stories didn’t happen.

    Yet many commenters here chose to be a christian despite agreeing with me that the bible stories didn’t happen.

    This is strange.

    Any ideas on why this might be?

    Are you able to be an atheist?

    Am I able to be a christian?

    • http://www.rjaypearson.com R. Jay Pearson

      Boz, I’m one of those who chose to be a Christian in spite of the fact that so many of the Bible’s stories are mythical.

      This is because my faith is not dependent on an old (though good) book.

      My faith does not require suspension of my intellect such that I would so blindly believe . . .

      that humankind is screwed up because of a talking snake and a piece of fruit; or

      that a cosmic deity came to earth as Jesus to fix humankind by means of a ridiculous formula whereby he would die violently for humankind’s sins, and two days later rise from the dead, and then promise to someday return and kill masses of people whose sins he supposedly just died for.

      I find nothing useful or virtuous in accepting such things as having really happened.

      But there is an ethos resident in the Bible that’s worth embracing. It’s the Love ethos. The Jesus Way. Its value is universal. As for many of the Bible stories, we can accept them as fiction and yet still be informed by the themes they contain and the lessons they teach.

      To answer your question about someone like me being able to be an atheist, I would say I already am. Inasmuch as I think the God of the Bible is a human-invented fiction. I do have a “God” perspective and have had my own “God-experience,” but it is not reflective of the Bible’s mythical deity.

      As to your question regarding whether you woukd be able to be a Christian, I would say sure. Why not? In my view, “belief” is a poor standard. Beliefs change. Love as a standard is far more solid and motivating.

      But you don’t need to be a Christian to love.

  • Pingback: Holiday At The Sea » Blog Archive » The Weekly Town Crier

  • http://gravatar.com/tmedlin91 Troy

    Brilliant.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X