Yes. Of course historicity matters. My own approach to scripture is founded in the historical critical method. This methodology gives considerable attention to the question of historicity. Historical criticism refers to the process of establishing the original, contextual meaning of scriptural sources and evaluating their historical accuracy.
Historical criticism is the term we use to describe the mainline scholarly approach to the Bible. It’s important to note, however, that the word “critical” in this phrase does not hold a pejorative nuance. It does not mean that we attack or disparage religious works—that we “criticize” them. Criticism refers to the analytical exercise of evaluating information generated by observation and reason.
This approach uses critical thinking to uncover the way in which an original author and an intended audience would have understood that writer’s message. Scholars, therefore, who adopt this interpretive line of inquiry avoid reading the Bible (or other scriptural texts) through a contemporary theological lens. But this does not mean that historical criticism is anti-religious. For those of us who take scripture seriously, once a historical reading has been critically performed, it allows us to make informed judgments regarding the meaning (or lack thereof) a scriptural text holds in our lives.
Yet even though this constitutes my preferred method for scriptural analysis, I recognize that the historical critical approach is not the only valid way to read sacred texts. Despite my own devotion to historical criticism, this is specifically a modern interpretive technique rather than an ancient one. Throughout most of human history (including the biblical era), readers frequently took incredible creative liberties when interpreting biblical material. From this angle, the original authorial message was not nearly as important as the fact that the message sparked new religious inspiration.
For these readers, it wasn’t “history” that mattered. Religious material served as a guide for interpreting one’s present situation or belief. Scripture was used creatively to link the past with the present. This process occurs both within the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament.
I’ll provide an illustration: both the authors of Matthew and Luke present narratives concerning Jesus’ birth to a virgin mother. According to these authors, Jesus was not the son of Joseph, the carpenter; Jesus was the son of God. The author of Matthew connects the virgin birth story with a prophecy from the book of Isaiah:
“All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us’” (1:22-23).
This is a beautiful theological statement. Historically, however, the original Isaianic passage had nothing to do with Jesus’ birth. The actual Hebrew text is addressed to the Judean king Ahaz telling him,
“Look, the young woman is with child and about to give birth to a son. Let her name him Immanuel. By the time he learns to reject the bad and chose the good, people will be feeding on curds and honey” (Isaiah 7:13-14).
Despite the way the verse appears quoted in the book of Matthew, all modern scholars agree that the Hebrew word ‘almah in Isaiah’s passage means a young woman of marriageable age, not a “virgin” (the “virgin” imagery stems from the later Greek Septaugint). Contextually, the child that would be born to this woman would serve as a sign to Ahaz. Clearly, Jesus’ miraculous birth some seven hundred years later would not have accomplished this purpose.
The child signifies that Yahweh was with the kingdom of Judah at this specific moment of national crisis. This child would grow to be a man, but before he reached the age of accountability, i.e. “learned to reject the bad and choose the good,” the kings who threatened Ahaz would fall. The entire point of the prophecy, therefore, was that there was no reason for Ahaz to accept a political alliance with these men. This is the original meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy.
Today, most biblical scholars believe that the child Isaiah referred to was king Hezekiah, who ascended to the Judean throne in 715 B.C.E. Rather than a prophecy concerning a future Messiah, Isaiah was giving a very specific oracle to a Judean king that pertained directly to political events in Isaiah’ own day.
Instead of providing a historical reading of this passage, the author of Matthew used Isaiah 7:13-14 as a creative springboard to understand Jesus. True, from a historical perspective, the author technically “misreads” the passage, but in so doing, he offers a profound theological reinterpretation. This reinterpretation makes the passage relevant for the author’s present religious views.
In the Hebrew Bible, authors used scripture in a similar way. We see this same process happening in the book of Isaiah itself. Scholars typically divide the book of Isaiah into three historical sections—First Isaiah written mainly in the eighth century B.C.E. (more or less the initial thirty-nine chapters), Deutero-Isaiah written during the mid-sixth century B.C.E. (chapters 40-55), and Third Isaiah written during the late sixth or early fifth century B.C.E. (chapters 56-66). The later contributors to the Isaiah corpus intentionally adapt the words and themes that appear in First Isaiah, thereby manifesting a similar approach to scripture as the author of Matthew. Thus, like Matthew, the book of Isaiah adopts and reconfigures earlier religious texts, often taking those sources out of historical context. The interpretive method that the author of Matthew used was simply part of a long, venerable tradition, witnessed in the book of Isaiah itself.
Like New Testament authors, Jewish theologians continued this biblical tradition through the production of later scriptural texts that adapted and added onto preexisting “biblical” sources. For example, the Dead Sea Scroll community at Qumran produced a type of biblical commentary known as Pesharim that interpreted earlier material in light of the community’s history. Their Pesharim illustrates that Jews living at the time of Jesus were not concerned with identifying the literal, historical meaning of scripture. Instead, they were more interested in producing creative reinterpretation that explained contemporary religious views. Developing out of this same religious environment, early Christian authors adopted and recontextualized scriptural material as messianic prophecies pointing to Jesus.
We can draw another parallel to this process through the writings of the first century Jewish historian Josephus. In his twenty volumes of history titled, Jewish Antiquities, Josephus created a new rewritten Bible of sorts by quoting portions of the Septuagint verbatim, and then adding both new material and his own commentary directly to the account. From this same time period, we find the Hellenized Jew, Philo of Alexandria, combining Jewish texts with Platonic philosophy, thus creating new religious material based upon the Bible.
This method of using scripture is similar, therefore, to the work Joseph Smith performed in creating new expanded literary works based upon the Bible—texts such as the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham. As theological expansions upon biblical material, Joseph Smith’s scriptural works parallel an ancient literary pattern for revelatory text. This same type of genre is seen in later Jewish pseudepigraha and Rabbinic midrash, as well as within the Bible itself.
The term “midrash” refers to a method of interpreting biblical material that fills in literary and legal gaps featured in the biblical sources. Joseph Smith’s work fits in well with the way biblical authors used scriptural sources as a springboard to create new religious literature, independent of original authorial intent and historical setting. For Latter-day Saints, a text such as the Book of Abraham, therefore, can be defined as inspired Prophetic Midrash.
Does historicity matter? Of course. But apparently it doesn’t for the creation of scripture.