Academia

The Problem with Modern Conceptions of Historicity

The Problem with Modern Conceptions of Historicity

The modern debate over the textual formation and the authorship of the Hebrew Bible is at its heart, a response to historical criticism. Simply put, for many scholars (i.e., sometimes referred to as conservative), biblical faith is contingent upon the historicity of recorded events. Though I might add, this is also the case for those scholars (i.e., sometimes referred to as liberal) who insist that the bible must demonstrate an actual history verses a narrative history. Nevertheless, there exists a simultaneous fidelity to discern the bible’s theological message while also affirming or denying its factual integrity. In my opinion, this is a gratuitous endeavor; one that does not take into account just what the biblical writers were trying to accomplish.

It is noteworthy that a common literary convention in early Hebrew writing was the lack of concern for historical accuracy and historical meaning. Instead, what was important was, the meaning in which the author was able to procure from his or her sources for existing significance or relevance. As Greer and Kugal articulates:

“The past was not approached in the spirit of antiquarianism but for what message it might yield, and this is necessarily predicated on an interpretive stance, indeed, a willingness to deviate from the texts’ plain sense. The words of prophets, the accounts of ancient historians, were to be “translated” into present-day significance, referred to (and sometimes distorted) in order to support a particular view of the present, or a program for the future.”[1]

Another common literary convention in early Hebrew Bible writing was the practice of synthesizing an assortment of narrative elements from other Ancient Near Eastern cultures into the narrative that was in written progress. That is, many scholars have pointed out the presence of Ancient Near East tradition within the biblical narrative.[2] However, we now understand that this was effectively an “expression of originality” on the writer’s part through the “recasting” of older Ancient Near Eastern narratives. That is, these narratives are comprised of the author’s subjective choosing of both past historical events and myth[3] (vis-à-vis: sources, oral tradition, written tradition, etc…), and then, organized in such a manner as to provide a theological significance to contemporary readers and events. That is, the text reflects a specific point of view, told through a narrative. Thus, it is ultimately theological and not intended to pristinely represent an actual or chronological history.

Here, the story of Jonah could be used as an example. Was a man really swallowed by a fish? Simply asking this question shows a naiveté and lack of understanding about how early Jewish and biblical history works. Scholars have long recognized the Ancient Near East background to Jonah.[4] That is, the content of this narrative shares affinities with The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. Here, the Hebrew Bible writer is simply recasting an old story with new characters in order to elect a contemporary theological significance.

Thus, I posit that an attempt to affirm the Hebrew Bible’s historical-factual integrity does not take into account just what the biblical writers were trying to accomplish. It shows a naiveté and lack of understanding concerning this early writing and hermeneutics. Thus, in my opinion, biblical faith that is conditional upon historicity is shortsighted (on either side of the debate). Scholars from Rudolph Bultmann, to Karl Barth, to Hermann Ridderbos, and to Tom Wright have all pushed for an understanding of inspiration and inerrancy that is not contingent upon historicity, but instead, only manifest within the narrative framework of scripture.[5] To that, I say amen!

Footnotes:

[1] James L. Kugel, and Rowan A. Greer. Early Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986. 38.

[2] E.g., Babylonian creation epic, “Enûma Eliš,” as a background to Genesis. Beyond this, there are more. An old academic adage says, “we possess a flood of flood stories.”

[3] Here, I used the term “myth” to refer to a “truth that transcends time.” The ancient writers often re-casted old stories to convey a theologically significant message.

[4] See e.g., Jack M. Sasson. Jonah. The Anchor Bible. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

[5] For further discussion see, Herman N. Ridderbos and Richard B. Gaffin. Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures. 2nd rev. ed. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1988; Rudolf Bultmann and Schubert Miles Ogden. New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984; Nicholas Thomas Wright. Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today. Rev. and expanded ed. New York: HarperOne, 2011.

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bryan_bw_largeBryan E. Lewis holds a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical and Theological Studies from Southern Christian University and a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies from Amridge University, Turner School of Theology—where he is also currently working on his PhD in New Testament with a focus on Pauline Theology & Eschatology. Additionally, he has earned a significant amount of graduate credit from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN. Recently, Bryan has served as an Adjunct Instructor of Classical Hebrew in the Foreign Language & Literature Department at Middle Tennessee State University. He currently lives in Nashville, TN with his wife of 23 years, 3 children, and 1 grandchild.