Historicity and Truth in the Bible:

My comments on Wednesday with respect to historical reality and “deception” in the Bible drove me back to some good friends: books on interpretation of the Bible. What I found disturbing in the original post on which I was commenting, and in many of the comments which followed, was this claim that for something to be true and real, it must be historical. A sharp dichotomy was explicitly drawn: if something or someone described or discussed in the Bible is not historically real, then the person describing this person or event, in this case Jesus, is engaged in deception or lies. Ergo, if Jesus discusses someone, Noah, Jonah, etc., that person must be (or have been) a real, historical personage or Jesus is engaged in a lie or some form of deception. This strikes me as too simplistic and, in fact, a particularly modern, Enlightenment notion of “reality” that you often only find amongst scientific fundamentalists when they criticize the Bible and its supposed “truth.”

But I do believe that what the Bible describes is true and real because I believe it is God’s word. Sometimes this means that events described in the Bible must be historically accurate for the claims made about them to be true. For instance, when Paul says in 1 Corinthians that Christ was literally raised from the dead, it is important that Christians affirm that he was historically raised from the dead:


if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. (15:12-20)

Is it equally as significant, though, to affirm the historicity of the following verses in Revelation?

Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred sixty days. (Revelation 12:3-6)

Must we affirm an historical Dragon, who swept a third of the stars from the sky, as described in Revelation 12? Is all the truth of the Bible based upon the historical reality of events and persons mentioned in the Bible?

I do not think the literal affirmation of the historicity of all persons or events in the Bible is necessary. It is essential for me to affirm the truth of the Bible, but this does not always indicate the historical reality of persons or events described in the Bible. Sean McEvenue, in his book Interpretation and Bible: Essays on Truth in Literature, maps out fascinating ground and I want to travel some of that territory with him. This will not be a systematic attempt to sketch a whole technique or scheme of reading Scripture, but just the setting of place-markers. McEvenue makes an essential point for those who read the Bible as Scripture, but which is often lost on both professional and casual readers:

“Biblical texts speak a truth which will only be fully known in the future” (44).

For Christians and Jews, the Bible is a text which points to a reality that is only partially known now. We must have the humility to acknowledge that our own understanding of texts is limited by our own imperfections and humanity, not those of the Divine Reason, however acute and perfect we find our own understanding. McEvenue develops this thought when he says,

“All texts of the Bible attempt to speak, from the horizon of their time, of a reality which will be completely revealed only at the end of time” (45).

Though we tend to think of limitations of knowledge and understanding in terms of the “past,” we are not at the apex of human understanding now. Apart from a fulfillment of divine knowledge which only occurs in the presence of God or at the Eschaton - as Paul says, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully” (1 Corinthians 13:12) - we continue to learn as human beings, from year to year and century to century. Just as someone in the 1st century could not imagine, literally, the world of today, so we cannot imagine, literally, the world as it might be a millennium from now. Yet, this sort of human knowledge pales in view of divine knowledge and interpreters of all stripes want to claim their own personal knowledge of the divine as complete, exact and unfailing. To paraphrase George Castanza's father, "Humility now!"

This humility has some necessary impact on reading ancient texts, even ancient Scripture:

“Today’s reader of Amos, for example, may have acquired conceptual information about God which goes far beyond that of Amos, through later revelation and through doctrinal development and catechesis. In that sense, today’s reader of Amos may understand Amos’ text better than its author” (43-44).

This seems remarkable, but on some matters of understanding, whether of factual or spiritual knowledge, I believe McEvenue is correct. He goes on to say that this does not mean our knowledge of God would surpass that of the prophet Amos when we think of “knowledge” of God in terms of holiness, conversion, or grace. As a prophet who reveals God, Amos “knows” God in a more profound way than I do as a reader who might have some “conceptual” knowledge beyond that of Amos simply by virtue of when I was born historically.

Finally, McEvenue notes that “biblical texts speak of truths which transcend objective categories. Biblical texts are literary in nature (i.e., written with artistic form and subtlety), but not with either scientific logic,  precision and limitation…Thus their subject matter, or truth,  will be the sort of truth which is appropriate to literature, and that is why the Second Vatican Council spoke of ‘salvific truth’” (45). As I read McEvenue, he justly points out that scientific logic and precision have limitations placed on them by the historical period in which they arise, and the limited nature of truth which they describe, while saving truth has no such limitation. This is why Scripture has the language of poetry and myth to express truth and not the language of medical textbooks or even philosophical discourses such as found in the genius of St. Thomas Aquinas.  Salvific truth is eternal, while scientific language and propositions pass away.

“Biblical texts affirm different ways of being open to, or experiencing, the unlimited Word of God, and point the reader to that precise knowledge. Commentary should never presume to carry that burden itself. It should enable the reader to hear, once again, the song which rose in the heart of the biblical writer. It should place the reader in the best location to hear and see. And it should stop there” (46).

Sometimes it is necessary to understand the history of a particular text to hear and see, sometimes it is necessary to hear the poetry of the text, but however the text calls to us, it calls us to an encounter and relationship with God. We need not, in advance, limit the value of the texts which call us to an encounter with God, here and now, to their historicity. The texts of the Bible speak truth. Truth is eternal.

 John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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Marie Rehbein
7 years 11 months ago
Basically, the message of the Bible is not dependent upon all events and persons described in it being 100% factually accurate.  Furthermore, the Bible does not claim to be a history book, so there is little justification either for insisting that everyone believe without doubt all references to historical events and persons or for rejecting the Bible because not everything described in it is historically accurate. 

However, it is possible to see that some people cannot just believe that there is a God and the Bible is God's word.  They believe that the Bible is meant to be evidence of God's existence. 
William Atkinson
7 years 11 months ago
Wow!  John, yu like to hit the "nail on the head" when you talk about historical factual truths vs human concieved messagical truths.  My head hurts from you nailing me on the head.  Anyway we know peole like to wrap their messages in surrounding events and sometime elaborate using metaphorical visions.  You know, like taking concieved ideas like good, bad, evil, messangers, strength, feelings, closeness, the unknown, and embody them into beings or events.   Shucks we have in our lifetime seen and felt events of Bibical portions, (New Orleans, floods, tsunamies, wars even philosophies, poilitical systems, theological discoveries, scientific amazements) way beyond the bibical experiences.   One has to wonder how the minor events of bibical ages even compare to massive floods, earthquakes, tsunamies, wars, fires that today make bibical events seem like school play.   If all these bibical events were direct actions of a God upon his peoples, who is responsible for the massive enourmous destructions of today and why if God's rath is upon mankind so massive today there is no bibical message.  In bibical history expanding some 1200 years the minor events that took place don't even come up or compare to modern wars (Hitler/Japan), destruction fires (San Diego, Oakland, Chicago, San Francisco) hugh destruction of countries and cities due to tsunamies, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods more and more that so outdo the fires of Sodom, floods of Noah, wars of Moses, david and Rome.  Maybe we should rewrite scripture to continue Gods involvement in the last 2000 historical years, and make the Bible a continuing historical running document of Good (angels) and evil (devils) and mankind sharing in Gods kingdom as companions of his made in His image and likeness.  Development, expansion and growth in and of knowledge (ref: tree of knowledge of Edens days) might be where we as created companions of God, His Son, and His Spirit are headed as the ages continue to come upon us.... 
John Swanson
7 years 11 months ago
I read your posts Historicity and Truth in the Bible: at about the same time as I read the article, “The hidden exodus: Catholics becoming Protestants in the NCR. I think they were related in that they both show that “The church needs a massive Bible education program.” Fr. Reese was correct in stating that. “That Catholics are leaving to join evangelical churches because of the church teaching on the Bible is a disgrace. Too few homilists explain the scriptures to their people.” We shouldn’t have any Catholics with the fundamentalist views in some of the posts.
I have read every book written by Fr. Raymond Brown. Some have been massive and difficult. Yet I believe one of his best is so easily digestible, “Responses to 101 Questions on the Bible.” In 1990 he wrote, about how the Church should “countereact” biblical fundamentalism: “then we should mobilize our forces in order to supply intelligent biblical leadership among Catholics. That will prevent them from becoming fundamentalists. I do not think we have done this as a church. . . . We do not sufficiently see the danger to the right.” (p.47) 
He also supports Fr. Reese’s comments with thoughts on the liturgy that fails to proclaim a vivid love of Jesus: “We may have lost some of that ethos in the laudable development of liturgical language that is less emotional.” (48)
Fr. Brown specifically discusses one of the examples that is referenced:
"but the theologians [he includes Joseph Ratzinger] who allow ignorance or do not posit special additions of divine knowledge would be harmonious with the overwhelming view of biblical exegetes that Jesus shared many of the religious presuppositions of his time—presuppositions reflecting detectible limitations of knowledge with which the modern reader would not have to concur. For instance, Jesus seems to take literally that Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a fish (Matt.12:40), which we would understand the Book of Jonah as parabolic. In Mark 12:36-37 Jesus states that David spoke the opening line of Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my lord,: with the assumption that David was thinking of the future Messiah. Few modern scholars would interpret the original meaning of the psalm in that fashion. In Jesus, God and Man I cite other examples which Jesus seemingly shares the limited views of his era in regard to issues that are broadly religious. Thus, one may argue that both biblically and theologically the position of limited knowledge seems defensible. It is worth emphasizing that to deny the full humanity of Jesus is just as serious as to deny the full divinity . . . .(104-105)"
Maybe the Church will make the changes that Fr. Brown urged in 1990 and Fr. Reese urges now. Are you optimistic?


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