Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Is the Bible Fiction??

Here's what I want to know: Did the events described in the Bible (such as Jacob wrestling with a "man" all night in Genesis 32) actually take place? In other words, could they have been recorded with a video camera?

I've been engaged in some conversations recently that have had the effect of exhuming this troubling question. Is it possible that some narratives, such as the one in Gen. 32, might be "just so stories," or stories written to explain certain facts about Hebrew culture or tradition? The account about Jacob wrestling with God, for instance, explains why "to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip" (32:32).

There are so many questions we could ask here. I'm going to try and keep it from getting out of hand. I'm not going to deal with the literal--figurative distinction. That's really a question of literary style and doesn't get to the heart of the matter. I'm also going to avoid talking about whether a story is true or false, since only propositions can be true or false. Stories are either historical or fictional or a mix, at least as far as I can tell.

So, did the events in Gen. 32:24-30 actually take place as a matter of historical fact? That is difficult to know. I dare say that most evangelicals trust that they did. Why? Because we think that Genesis portrays them as historical. In other words, we believe that the author of Genesis intended to communicate that these were historical events.

Now this last step is crucial because it implies a certain approach to interpretation. My view, and I think this is the traditional evangelical view at least, is that our goal in interpretation should be discerning the author's intent. To be more specific, let me offer a definition of "textual meaning."

Textual meaning: that which the words and grammatical structures of that text disclose about the probable intention of its author/editor and the
probable understanding of that text by its intended readers.(1)

So here's the bottom line for me: if it is probable that the author intended the narrative to be taken as fiction (by his intended readers), then I'm ok with it being fiction. If it is probable that the author intended the narrative to be taken (by his intended readers) as historical, then I'm not ok with it being fiction. (Let me add this caveat: I recognize that many narratives are a blending of several literary genres, which means that they might contain historical and fictional elements.)

Another question that might be raised is the following: "But how can we possibly know what an author who lived 4,000 years ago intended? All we have is the text." Fair enough. But just because we can't have certainty about the author's intentions, it doesn't follow that we can't know or at the very least have a very good idea about his intentions.

But regardless of the author's intent, what is it that leads us to doubt the historicity of these accounts in the first place? In some camps I believe there is a flat-out anti-supernatural bias. Now, I could be accused of having a supernatural bias. That's probably true. But my view is that when reading the Bible as an evangelical Christian, there should be a presumption of historicity. The stories in the Bible should be considered historical until shown otherwise -- the burden of proof is on the skeptic. This seems like the right view for the traditional, faithful believer.

So, reagarding Genesis 32, if it can be shown that:
(1) The probable intention of the author was that the narrative should be taken primarily as fiction, OR
(2) There is compelling biblical or extra-biblical evidence against the historical view,
THEN I would be willing to adopt a fictional view.

(1) This is from my lecture notes from my Hermeneutics class with Walter Russell, PhD. at Talbot School of Theology.


Anonymous Kyle said...

Chris, I would like to throw something in the mix a bit. On top of the questions you are asking, I think it is important to ask the question: Does our interpretation end with "authors intent?" Building on that, what does it mean to approach the Word Christianly, as opposed to approaching it as if it were merely a historical document?

In other words, my personal worry is that evangelicals trust the Word as true, but not necessarily as holy. I think we need to flesh out a robust understanding of what it means to call a text "God's Word" that goes beyond interpreting that statement as: "It is true."

8:18 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

Interesting set of question that do not have very easy answers indeed. But let me toss out some thoughts.

I don't think that the authors or redactors of many more fantastical texts such as the ark which holds all creatures of our God and King, or Jonah being swallowed whole by a fish and then living to tell about it had as clear a distinction between the notion of "fact" as opposed to that of "fiction".

My own sense of hermeneutics tends to follow the lines of where historical criticism falls short, narrative analysis picks up a lot of the slack. So when we read these texts, can we not say that many of them follow characteristic parabolic format in order to get at the experience of certain people with God in historical situations? That does not seem to be a stretch although completely unsatisfying if you require proof of facticity for a story to be legitimate.

In some ways it's not unlike the "big fish story". That kind of story can be based in a fact (My dad indeed caught a fish). But the use of narrative devices that expand on the raw event itself can be used to get at deeper resources of experience in the event (the fish is a symbol of the relationship with my dad and how that fish changed us at that moment somehow).

So that is the function of myth. It's not to re-constitute a precise reproduction of historical events, but to create a structure of meaning to those events that goes beyond the physical event itself. This must split the difference between saying that someone or a group of people simply made up the myth and thus deceived people into a way of life, and the historical significance of a people that experienced God in many ways. I think this approach gives at least a little wiggle room to respect a myth even on agnostic terms.

11:55 AM  
Blogger chris said...

Kyle and Drew,
Thanks for your comments. I have a few quick thoughts:
Regarding the Bible as the "word of God," I think you're right, Kyle. I don't want to take the Spirit out of the equation. That being said, I guess my approach to the Scriptures is two-fold. To discern the meaning of the text, I take a literary-historical approach. I think God can speak to me through the text even as I pursue this method. On the other hand, I sometimes approach the text devotionally, asking God to speak to me through a small passage, as in Lectio Divina. During these times, I'm not so worried about my hermeneutics.

Drew, I would agree that the authors used hyperbole and other literary devices. In fact, detecting these can be crucial to interpretation. So there can be an appropriate mix of fact and fiction. However, I think we too often make the jump from "this isn't strictly literal" to "this is just a myth or fairy tale." Perhaps that isn't your view, but I'm concerned about this pendulum swing that occurs all too often. Perhaps the authors were skilled enough to stay true to historical facts, and yet craft the story in a beautiful and poetic way that can include fictional elements. So the characters, setting, events, and dialogue may be historical, even if the form and embellishments are not.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Drew said...


Thanks. I think that was basically my point. Even though something is classified as a myth does not mean that it is a "fairy tale". That is the problem I have with so much of the atheist dialogue as well as the fundamentalist dialogue - both want it to be literal history or Harry Potter and neither is a very accurate understanding of the function of the myths at all.

My point with the Big Fish story is that in the kind of example I was giving it does not have to be a lie, but it can use narrative devices in order to get at a deeper meaning than the event itself. So it can serve a didactic purpose in which the deeper truths of the story embellish historical events in order to teach future generations. So its both fact and fiction if you will, but I am not sure that dividing myth into those two categories is all that helpful. I think we see eye to eye here if I read you correctly.


8:34 PM  
Anonymous Curtis said...

I haven't posted here for a while, but I thougth I'd add my two cents into the discussion and wait for my change back.

I have to stand with Chris in pointing out that we do not want the pendulum to swing too far into the mythical view of the bible. If we are going to follow Christ, we must decide where we get our direction in living this Christian life. If we hold to the evangelical (among others) notion that the bible is our basis for measuring and guiding our Christian walk, what esteem we hold the bible in is of upmost importance. If we believe that the authors somehow embellished truths or wrote fables to make a point (without explicitly stating so) how are we to discern what are fables and what are truths? I understand the idea of using historical literature and context to make this determination, but it seems to me like a slipperly slope toward throwing it all out. If we can't accept that Jonah was in the belly of the fish for 3 days because it seems too outlandish to believe, on what grounds do we believe the account of Christ spending 3 days in the tomb to rise again? Is this not among the most outlandish statement of Christianity?

If you don't take scripture literal in its accounts, I ask to see a method to discern what is fact and what is fiction-- your method of explain away the things that seem outlandish but keep in the things that are central to the Christian faith. Then also show me how you can legitimize that method. I have yet to see this fleshed out.

The tenets of the Christian faith are not things that can be proven or known, but they are instead things that are to be believed. Just as it takes faith to believe that God has the capacity and the audacity to enter His creation and be one of us--God among us--Emmanuel, it takes faith to believe that God can author a true story so intricate and so laced with beauty and meaning and then convey this to men to take account for us to use as a source from which the Spirit speaks and to gain an understanding of God and His purposes.

The Christian faith is a faith and not a science. Faith isn't without reason, but it is not based on reason.

11:06 PM  

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