The task of modern Christianity, as I see it, is moving forward with a healthier view of Scripture, one which seeks to both challenge the texts, but also to allow those same texts to challenge them. To do so, we must be willing to live comfortably with the fact that we don’t need to have all the answers to history in order to allow God to speak to us through those who lived it.
There is often nothing more central to and yet centrally destabilizing for Christianity than its beliefs about and practice in reading the Bible. Without it, we would seemingly be adrift without a paddle. With it, we are seemingly using our paddles to sink the boat before reaching anywhere with it. As a result, for many, the Bible has consequently become a curse as much as it has proven a blessing.
Part of the problem has been the fact that as Christianity has grown, so have the ways in which people are told to read it. While there is general agreement with regard to how one can read the Bible as someone from the outside of the faith (a purely academic approach), there is less agreement on how one can and should read the Bible as someone who is within the Christian faith.
MEDIEVAL STRATEGIES FOR READING THE BIBLE
In the Medieval Ages, there was wide agreement about four different ways in which to read and interpret the Bible.
- The Literal sense (what it seems to say straight forward: “Egypt enslaved Israel“)
- The Allegorical/Typological sense (what it represents symbolically: We are all enslaved by evil, desiring freedom)
- The Anagogical sense (what it seems to point to in the future: God will save us from the slavery of evil)
- The Moral sense (what it teaches us about how to live now: God desires and leads us to liberation)
What is important to note about those four understandings or senses of Scripture is that it was believed (and still is by those who actively teach these) that every scripture has these various levels of meaning in them. In other words, it is not the case that one text is allegorical but not moral, or that one is literal and another anagogic. Rather, the four senses are assumed to be all shared by every text.
HOW DO WE READ THE BIBLE HISTORICALLY?
While this approach to the Bible might prove helpful for some appreciation and application of scripture, it doesn’t help Christians to navigate the Bible in terms of its historical validity. When the four senses of scripture were proposed, there was a naive presumption that all the Bible’s accounts of history or events was not only intended as literal, but had literally happened.
With the modern influx of archaeological evidence and a recognition of the Bible’s own internal contradictions about certain historical events, Christians are more than ever aware that “history” is sometimes a loose word when discussing biblical stories. As such, many are left wondering how they should approach the issue.
Progressive Christians, aware of such challenges, have tended to assume that the Bible is largely unhistorical, a presumption that has led to many divergent and confusing positions on a range of positions, from the doctrine of the Creation to the Resurrection.
Conservative Christians on the other hand, aware of the same challenges, have merely refused to account for such things and have instead dug their heels in and declared their belief that the Bible is entirely historical, leading to some absurd and strange positions about events that have largely been disproven (or shown to have not have happened exactly as described).
And finally you have those I would call moderates, who tend to fluctuate somewhere in the middle, unwilling to state their position either way on almost any issue.
THE FOUR CATEGORIES OF THE BIBLE’S HISTORICITY
So what then can be done to help us read the Bible? When we look at the literal sense of scripture, can we propose something like the four senses of Scripture with regard to its historicity? I propose that we can and I offer the following tentative four propositions to guide us with regard to the biblical narratives.
As I see it, there are essentially four kinds of stories that one can find in the Bible:
- Those that never actually happened.
- Those that might or might not have happened.
- Those that we can confirm did happen.
- Those which are necessary to have happened.
To begin, let’s examine each of these categories.
The stories in Scripture that never happened are those texts which Scripture itself tells us or indicates to us clearly never occurred (for example, parables which are clearly given as fictitious) or larger stories which have features that imply heavily that the audience wouldn’t have taken them literally (for example, the story of Jonah where the animals repent of their sins).
These stories or details in stories can be understood much like fairy tales: they are intended to teach you something or are meant to underline a point. In the case of Jonah, the animals repenting may be a hint by the author of how unbelievable the repentance of Nineveh was. You, as the reader, are intended to laugh, much like you would if you heard someone propose that all the Nazi’s had repented in Berlin along with their cats, dogs and horses. To take the detail about the animals seriously
The stories that may or may not have happened are biblical tales which you have no proof or strong indication never occurred, that do appear possibly un-historical, but the Bible writers did believe happened (such as the story of Cain and Abel). Due to this type of story’s un-historical appearance and the Bible author’s intention to depict it historical, without evidence against it, the story must be allowed to be left alone in a state of limbo, neither a doctrinal requirement to be believed but likewise, not given the freedom to be ignored (and thus, to not learn from it).
For example, whether or not Cain and Abel is history, legend or parable does not change the message of the story or what it attempts to teach about early mankind and God’s relationship with us. Like an anecdote you hear about a historical figure, which can neither be confirmed or disproven (but may simply be legendary), the story’s intention is more important than its perceived historical instability. There is no need or reason to deny its possible historical background, but there’s no reason to push it on other people as a required confession.
The stories that we can confirm did happen are biblical narratives which we have some sort of way to verify to a certain extant and as such, can have confidence enough to not doubt the overall depiction. These stories are not necessarily devoid of fictional elements (or even simply divergent memories or traditions), but they follow an overall historical outline.
For example, the crucifixion of Jesus. Just about every scholar who studies the Historical Jesus agrees that it is historically a fact that there existed a Jewish peasant named Jesus who was killed by Rome on suspicion of claiming to call himself “King of the Jews” and whose disciples later claimed had risen from the dead. That basic outline of the end of the Gospel story is historically solid, whether or not all the details in the four gospels don’t always mesh together in every other respect.
The stories that are necessary to have happened are stories, which without, the entire foundation of the faith (Jewish or Christian) would seemingly fall (for example, God’s self-revelation in some form to the early Hebrews or Christ’s resurrection). These stories, regardless of a lack of proof, are necessary as underpinning the other two types of texts. Without this final category of biblical stories, the other two categories would lose their own coherence. Moreover, these stories are typically defined as an account of a miracle, an event that happens only once in that way and is not repeated.
The paradox of course is that just because they are necessary to be true for the faith to function, doesn’t necessarily also mean that they are indeed true.
The Bible claims that the Ancient Israelites came into contact with the God Yahweh and had their destiny forever changed by the encounter. History seems to indicate that this is largely true. Whether or not the Israelites truly encountered a living god named Yahweh or merely invented/adapted a fictional god from another lost religion is something that could of course never be proven. To believe this core fact’s biblical interpretation is an act of faith, to confess Yahweh as one’s own God and to see yourself as part of the Israelite story.
Similarly, one could never prove Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The Bible claims that’s what happened, historical inferences from the New Testament seem to vouch that there may have been an empty tomb and that many attested to seeing Jesus after his death, but whether that is due to a bodily resurrection or hallucination is not something that can ever be proven. It is an act of faith to choose to adopt the biblical interpretation rather than a skeptical disposition.
Thus, the fourth category of Scripture I propose is the most important as the other categories depend on your act of faith in believing some stories to be necessarily true. In so doing, you are reading the Bible as a person of faith.
THE SOLUTION TO OUR PROBLEM
The problem that I’ve seen with many in Christianity on the right and left is that these different types of biblical stories often become mixed up and confused for each other (except the third, which everyone seems to agree on). Evangelicals want inerrancy and thus group everything under the fourth category. In so doing, they create absurdities by assuming that the Bible is incapable of telling fiction (as if fiction was somehow inherently wrong).
On the other hand, Progressives can run the danger of grouping the fourth category in the first two, and in so doing, potentially destroying or weakening their own faith foundations.
And some moderates (those who refuse to take any position) at times can run the risk of mixing everything up into the second category, primarily out of exhaustion from the other two parties. In so doing, they run the risk of never building their foundations and divorcing their faith from the Bible.
The task of modern Christianity, as I see it, is moving forward with a healthier view of Scripture, one which accepts all four categories of the Bible and seeks to both challenge the texts, but also to allow those same texts to challenge them. To do so, we must be willing to live comfortably with the fact that we don’t need to have all the answers to history in order to allow God to speak to us through those who lived it.
Matthew J. Korpman is a minister-in-training and published researcher in Biblical Studies and Church History. Pursuing his Masters at Yale Divinity School, he did his undergraduate work at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School, where he completed four degrees in fields such as Religious Studies, Philosophy and Archaeology. He is an active member of the Seventh-day Adventist church whose research interests include everything from the Apocrypha to the Apocalypse.