Is the Bible “History”?

“I will remember the LORD’s works; yes, I will remember Your ancient wonders. I will reflect on all You have done and meditate on Your actions.”  — Psalm 77:11-12 (HCSB), one of the “historical psalms”

apologetics-study-bibleEarlier this year, I bought an HCSB Apologetics Study Bible. I haven’t delved into it much, since I’ve been focused on reading through my ESV (which I wrote about back in May). But, I do occasionally look something up in the HCSB, and I really like it. What I have started doing recently is reading the apologetics-oriented articles that are interspersed throughout the text. Great stuff! One of the earliest ones is titled, “Writing History — Then and Now”, in which Kirk Lowery — an expert in ancient near eastern languages who teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary — looks at whether or not the biblical authors wrote what we moderns would call “history”. I’d like to share a few excerpts….

“In order to evaluate the usefulness of the Bible for history and its trustworthiness as a source of both information and judgment on people and events, we must remember that there are two separate points of view — the ancient and the modern. Are we talking about modern ideas of history or ancient ones? Were the biblical writers attempting to write history as we understand it? If they were not attempting to write a modern history, just what were they trying to do? … The basic concern is that the Bible asserts certain facts or that certain events happened. Did they happen and in the way the Bible presents them? The Bible also makes judgments on people’s actions, attitudes and deeds. Can we trust its judgment on events we cannot access? …

How should we evaluate these ancient texts? We should allow the ancient writers to speak in the manner that they wish. We should try to understand the ancient writers before posing questions of them that is outside of both their intention and their worldview. We should “translate” the message of the ancients from the ancient context to the modern. Finally, we must embrace humility: We do not have all the data; we do not have complete or even certain understanding to answer all our questions. Let us make a virtue of necessity and take what the ancient writers give and be content with that.

So what were the biblical writers doing, what did they expect to accomplish, and how ought the modern reader attempt to understand their literary output? The books of Kings and Chronicles, along with the other “historical” books of the Hebrew Bible, are not books written by modern historians for modern readers. Their literary nature is much different. For one thing, their purpose is didactic or polemic; that is, the authors are attempting to convince their readers about moral and spiritual principles. Their stories are intended to support this purpose and their various propositions. Second, their commitment to truth does not aspire to modern standards of reporting. What they valued as important and unimportant does not translate easily to third millennium A.D. values. For example, the recording of genealogies strikes many modern readers as irrelevant to the story. But it was critical to how these ancient peoples conceived of their identity. Genealogies may have had the function of establishing chronology or the framework for the story being told. It establishes precedence, relationship, and identity.

The Numbering of the Israelites (Num. 1), engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884)

The Numbering of the Israelites (as in Numbers 1), engraving by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux (1815–1884)

Allowance must be made for paraphrase, abbreviation, explanation, omission, rearrangement, and other techniques used by the ancient author that might offend modern principles of historiography. This is not to say that the ancients did not write history. To the contrary, they often show sensitivity to the events and corroborating witnesses to those events. But they also did not make a distinction between the writer’s judgment or evaluation of events and the events themselves. They did not have precision — or, at least, modern notions of precision — in mind when they wrote. That does not mean the authors were not trying to tell a story that corresponds to real events! In order to understand the ancient texts, one must mentally and emotionally become an ancient and enter into their world. The process is very similar to watching a film where one must grant the filmmaker the premise of the film and even suspend belief in how the world should work before the message of the filmmaker can be perceived. The difference with the ancient writers is that we have much more work to do before we can enter into their world. Only then have we earned the right to form an opinion.

The ancient writer made choices: subject matter (events needing telling), point of view (theological purpose), and aesthetics (creative choices). These writers selected their material, glossed over less relevant events, simplified the story to meet space constraints and only included detail that illuminated the significance of the events as the writer understood them. This is true of modern professional historians as much as of ancient story tellers.

How, then, should we understand the intentions of the biblical writers? … [In contrast to the Sumerians and later Mesopotamian historiographers, the view of the] ancient Hebrew writers is that history has a planned goal. History is not the result of forces or great men, but moves forward to an end planned by God. Their purpose in writing history was didactic: to teach the reader about how God acts in human affairs, what are His purposes and the consequences of obedience and disobedience to that purpose.”

I actually touched on some of this stuff in a couple posts a few years ago, but Dr. Lowery is certainly more knowledgeable. As he explains, we “moderns” (and “postmoderns”) really shouldn’t expect or demand (however subconsciously) that the Bible be written in the style and to the degree of specificity that we are used to reading — especially when there are different authors, genres, and purposes for the various books within it. Our reading will be much more fruitful when we take Dr. Lowery’s advice and read the Bible within its cultural and temporal context, allowing the inspired writers to say what they have to say.

Can I get an ‘Amen’?

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