The Old Testament as “fact-fiction” (more from Mark S. Smith)

The Old Testament as “fact-fiction” (more from Mark S. Smith) October 30, 2013

A few weeks back I posted some thoughts (here and here) on Mark S. Smith’s (Skirball Profesor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies at New York University) presidential address at the Catholic Biblical Association of America meeting in August 2011, which was published in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly the next year (issue 74, 2012).

Here is a third quote from that address.

The revelation of God for the biblical authors did not depend on knowing history fully, whether the history of earliest Israel or that of the earlier background of the motif as seen in Egyptian sources. At the same time, revelation is not claimed to be simply a textual phenomenon; rather, the text shows the view that revelation is a matter of God and people meeting in real time in the past, not only as imagined or fictional time. For the Bible, the story of revelation was located in the history to which the text refers. The representations of the past in the biblical text require a concept of historical truth that is wider than a simple either/or as to whether events actually happened in and only in the manner described. In order to describe what is going on in the Bible, we need a wider bandwidth of historical truth that encompasses both the ancient sense of truth in storytelling and the modern historian’s criteria for truth, perhaps what Laurel C. Schneider has called “a fact-fiction intercourse.” (25-26)


  1. Israel’s historians did not know the past fully–they were, in other words, from the point of view of modern historical study, wrong about things.
  2. What Israel’s historians produced was not simply a textual phenomenon but an account of God and Israel meeting in real time.
  3. The tension between these two observations is alleviated by a “wider bandwidth of historical truth” that allows for storytelling as a medium of expressing truth–a “fact-fiction intercourse.”

For those who have studied Israel’s past with any seriousness, #1 is self-evident.

#2 is a statement of faith. Many conservatives, including some evangelical scholars, want to affirm #2 without passing through #1. This is when biblical scholarship morphs into apologetics.

#3 bristles with wisdom and commonsense, and promises a compelling way forward for confessing #2 while also coming to terms with #1.


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  • James

    I like the quote better than the translation. The former doesn’t seem to have as much of an agenda. Also, revelation is not cut and dried; it is more than interplay between confession and criticism.

    • peteenns

      James, your comment is puzzling. Smith’s quote certainly has an agenda, though his is not with evangelical apologetics (which is itself an agenda). Also, an “interplay” between confession and criticism is very much the issue, though I would say “conversation.” Tell us what the “more” is you are referring to.

      • James

        Sorry to be unclear…evidence of my own inability to grasp the divine-human encounter, especially with regard to scripture. How to frame good questions in an emotionally charged environment is also a problem. We know the goose has laid a golden egg (scripture, incarnation, etc); we’re just not sure how to handle it. At least the barnyard is abuzz!
        We need a better vantage point for conversation than our own modernity. Prophetic writers like G.K. Chesterton help. “…the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and forever spoilt for all purposes of science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this mortal has put on immortality (1905, Science and the Savages in Heretics).” Hard to be objective!

        • ” We know the goose has laid a golden egg (scripture, incarnation, etc); we’re just not sure how to handle it.”

          And how do you KNOW it?

          • James

            Some things we take by faith–hopefully well motivated.

  • Rick

    Let me add a “3a”: including looking at this in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ and His Resurrection.

    • … and don’t forget to add “3b”: looking at this in light of the revelation of the prophet Muhammad.

      • Rick

        Since Jesus was God, I will stick with him. But thanks.

      • Paul D.

        Ahem, I think you mean the prophet Joseph Smith.

  • mark

    I’ll take a stab at translating:

    1. The writing that we encounter in the Israelite scriptures is not historical writing in the modern sense, in that it’s primary aim is not to establish “what really happened.” That is not, of course, to say that the writers show no concern at all for what really happened.

    2. The texts of the Israelite scriptures show that the aim of the writers was to communicate the truth about God/the divine in relation to Israel as a society organized for action in history. The writers saw this truth about God as emerging from or developing from insight into the historical events in which Israel was engaged.

    3. We need to be able to distinguish the aims of the ancient writers from modern concerns of historical writing to do justice to both.

    My own opinion? We need philosophical criteria for evaluating the relative success of such undertakings.

    • Well said!

      • mark

        Thanks. Smith’s work is very rewarding to study. One difficulty is that he seems leads us to a point beyond which he is unprepared to take us–but that point is clearly directing us toward further reflection. Perhaps that’s not really a “difficulty,” per se–just a wish that his work were a bit more of a one-stop-shopping site for people who are coming to grips with these issues. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I think he accomplishes what he sets out to do.

  • My concern regards #2: ‘What Israel’s historians produced was not simply a textual phenomenon but an account of God and Israel meeting in real time.’
    You rightly say that it is a statement of faith, but I do not see how #3 resolves it. It seems to me that what Israel’s historians produced was their understanding that God and Israel met in real time. I find much of what they wrote suspect. It might have been their genuine belief or it might have been fabricated to some degree.
    I believe in God because Jesus tells us of the Father; the OT stories are helpful background to understanding New Testament culture and thought, but I am not sure it provides much information about Israel and God meeting in real time.

    • Exacty Tim, once you accept the results of modern scholarship it becomes pretty hard to keep an evangelical faith.

      I would not, however, say that the people of the OT did not experience God but just that the books whithin the Biblical Canon are NOT more inspired than books outside of the Canon

      I think all Christians are faced with the problem of divine hiddeness: why did God let so many people in the dark? Why did he let the Israelites think that genocide can be right or the ancient Azteques believe that child sacrifice was mandatory?
      How do you personally deal with this atheistic argument?

      • Responding to this question requires more space than is appropriate for the comments section, but my view is that God does not interact with people’s ignorance and behavior as we expect.
        The consequences of superstition and human selfishness are terrible. Jesus came to tell us about another way, and even with that many people do not listen.

        • “Responding to this question requires more space than is appropriate for the comments section” probably, but maybe you could bless us with a future blog post on this topic 😉

          2013/11/1 Disqus

          • Lothar, of course you are asking the ultimate question: How can an omnipotent and loving God allow suffering?
            I do plan to address that someday, but a single blog post will not be sufficient.

  • dangjin

    Someone once said that if the Bible, or more specifically the OT, was inaccurate that would make the Israelites the only people incapable of writing their own history. The arrogance of outsiders is amazing in that they think they can tell a nation that their record of their existence is wrong.

    That arrogance is only diminished by the arrogance that says God is wrong. When you say God is wrong then you have no God and no faith.

    • Does this mean you accept that Romulus, the founder of Rome, and his brother Remus were abandoned to die, were suckled and raised by a wolf, and were fed by a woodpecker?

      • Paul D.

        I suppose Dangjin also accepts that the Kojiki is right when it states that the islands of Japan were the offspring of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, and that the first emperor, Jimmu, was a descendant of Ameterasu the sun goddess. Imagine the arrogance of modern scholars to say that the first nine emperors found in these ancient writings probably did not exist! Today’s godless historians clearly have no faith in Ameterasu.

    • Brian P.

      No God and no faith… OK. Sounds fine here.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Cue JWB’s comment. Other ancient histories are full of magic, mythical creatures, and exaggerations not backed up by archaeological evidence . .

  • I believe that one cannot know what the origin of monotheism truly was

    As I explained, I think that what truly undermines belief in the special
    inspiration of the Bible is the presence of atrocities attributed to God.

    Even though he remains an Evangelical, Randal Rauser does an excellent
    job exposing immoral stuff within the pages of Scriptures:

    Most of his arguments seem to be undefeatable.

    • JackMinole

      I’d have to disagree with you about Rauser.

      I used to read his articles quite a bit because a friend of mine was studying under him and we would use the articles as a starting point for a discussion.
      Rauser seems to miss the point more often than not and when not he simply resorts to constructing straw men.

      • Thanks for your late comment! Yeah Randal can be quite arrogant at times.

        He called me “utterly irrational” because I wrote that Calvinism (God predetermining babies to be eternally tortured) is logically incompatible with God’s goodness.

        If you decided to comment on my blog, I’d be very careful not to build up “straw men” 😉

        • JackMinole

          I appreciate the offer, but I’ve bounced around Christianity debates too much to see any value in them anymore.

          Barring some new revelation with respect to historical evidence and a darn good explanation for a all the inconsistencies which doesn’t rely on special-pleading, I think I’m stuck as an agnostic-atheist. Unless, that is, I gravitate towards some other religion.

  • Pertaining to #1, if a few of the things Israel’s historians were “wrong about” are

    1) a legitimate and eternal land-grant by God, first to Abraham, later to Moses
    2) a kept promise to “bless… and curse…” consistently through history, based on treatment of Israel
    3) the concept that Israel was both told to and DID slaughter and drive out all Canaanites and others completely, to preserve holiness (even the “history” doesn’t claim that last part, holiness and loyalty to Jehovah, happened anyway)…

    (if the above is part of the “wrong”, to restate), then IS THERE any meaningful mix of fact and fiction to depend on to come to theological truth? Maybe good human wisdom, but truth about the real nature of God and how to assess God, etc?