The Bible is NOT a History Book! May 13, 2010Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
Repeat after me: One: The Bible is not history as you and I are accustomed to think about history. Two: That does NOT mean that the Bible is not true!
History and Culture
Roughly three-fourths of the Bible, the Hebrew Scriptures, was set into writing in the Bronze Age, between about 900 BCE and about 500 BCE. The Christian Testament was written between about 55 CE (Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians) and about 250 CE, with a few later tweaks and interpolations.
The Hebrew Scriptures were laboriously inscribed onto tanned animal skins, called parchment. The Christian Testament was laboriously inscribed onto mashed river reeds, called papyrus. It was difficult, painstaking, time-consuming work.
Parchment lasts pretty well. Papyrus does not. There are more fragments of the Christian Testament in existence than there are words IN the Christian Testament. (Some of these fragments contradict each other: “Jesus said X” versus “Jesus said not-X.” Which fragment is the holy word of God and which fragment is human error?)
ALL of the Bible was written when the highest level of technology was the war chariot. The Earth was shaped like a gigantic dinner plate (Job 26:10), suspended above the waters of chaos on four gigantic pillars (Job 9:6). It was covered by a hammered metal dome, called the firmament (Gen. 1:6), upon which God walked (Job 22:14). The sun revolved around the Earth (Josh. 10:12-13). The entire world could be seen from the top of a mountain in Galilee (Matt. 4:8). (Mt. Tabor is about 3,000 feet high. Mt. Everest is 29,000 feet high.)
What today we call mental illness, they knew as demonic possession. The invisible world of ghosts, demons, and spirits was as real to the people of Bible times as the invisible world of the Internet is to you reading these words. There was no electricity. There was no indoor plumbing, and unless you were fabulously wealthy and had access to an aqueduct, the only running water was in rivers and streams. Most people got up before dawn, worked hard all day (except the Jews on the Sabbath), and fell into exhausted slumber shortly after sunset.
Perhaps three percent of all men were literate, if that. Perhaps one-tenth as many women were literate. “Teaching a woman to read is like teaching pornography,” sniffed one first-century rabbi. There were no newspapers. There were no public libraries. There was no photography.
Many people who consider themselves religious and “Bible-believing” appear not to understand these facts. They don’t appear to understand that the Hebrew Scriptures were written in Hebrew, and the Christian Testament was written in an international version of Greek called koine. They don’t appear to understand that the Bible was written in a different era from our own, for different audiences from us, out of different cultures and world-views from ours, for purposes we no longer comprehend. Instead, these “Bible-believers” act as though they believe the Bible was written in 1611, in medieval English, out of a culture identical to their own, for an audience identical to themselves.
Worse, they believe and preach that the King James translation of the Bible is as perfect and “inerrant” as God is, or in other words, that a human artifact is as divine as God is. This is called bibliolatry.
The problems I’ve outlined above — the lack of understanding of the Bible’s context in real-world history — all spring from the pious zeal of early Protestants, starting with Martin Luther, to make the holy word of God available to everyone. Thousands of translations of the Bible have been made into hundreds of languages. (I myself own about 20 translations, and I’m not a collector!)
What all these translations mean, in practice, is that anyone who can read believes that he/she is capable of reading and understanding the Bible. They know nothing about the world the Bible was written in or the audiences the Bible was written for; they just assume that if they can read the words, the words must have been written in the same context the daily newspaper is written in. Here’s one example of what I mean: I don’t know how many passionate discussions I’ve heard in my life about Mary and Martha and working in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42), and in first-century Bethany, there were no kitchens!
Historie vs. Heilsgeschichte
Now here’s another, huge problem: The Bible is NOT a history book. Even back in those primitive times, there were historians. Very little of the “history” recorded in the Bible is reflected in the historical records of the Egyptians, Persians, Romans, etc.
But although they were primitive, people were just as intelligent then as we are today. The priests, prophets, and Jewish and proto-Christian scribes who laboriously inscribed the Bible onto tanned animal skins and mashed river reeds knew the difference between historical fact (“My father was named Samuel”) and historical interpretation (“My father loved my brothers best”). The events described in the Bible that seem to our modern eyes like history are actually a form of myth called Heilsgeschichte.
Thanks largely to today’s popular culture, virtually everyone alive who is not an expert in the Bible believes that myths, legends, fairy tales, and imaginative stories are all of them fiction, and that even the psalms are historically factual. Both ideas are untrue. Myths are NOT fiction.
Theology is the study of God: Who is God? How do we know? What has God done? What does God want, especially from us? What happens to us after we die? For thousands of years before the invention of writing, people wondered; remains have been found from around 50,000 BCE in which bodies have been prepared for entry into the afterlife.
Before writing, the only way to convey theological thinking was in stories told around the evening campfire. Why do women suffer during labor? Why are there so many different languages in the world? Why don’t those maniacs over the hill worship our God? Over many generations, stories evolved to answer these and other questions — stories told in terms that on the simplest level are understandable even to children or the mentally challenged, and yet that contained layers of meaning complex enough to engage even the most brilliant. A myth is not fiction, because it is told not to entertain but to inform: this is what God has done. This is what God wants. This is what makes God angry or pleased.
Almost everyone alive who is not an expert on the Bible thinks the canonical gospels are biographies, and much agonizing has been done attempting the impossible, to produce one story line that reconciles four points of view. This misses the point. History knows so little about the historical Jesus that valid arguments exist supporting the idea that no “historical” Jesus ever existed in the first place. It is indisputable that even if every word in the canonical gospels were history instead of theology, Jesus would STILL be a myth.
In the decades immediately after the crucifixion, the original members of the Jesus Movement remained good Jews, attending Sabbath services faithfully each Saturday. As they still do today, Jews hear a complete read-through of the first five books of the Bible every year. All four canonical gospels were written to synchronize stories about Jesus with the Jewish lectionary. For example, on a day when Jews hear about Moses parting the Red Sea (Ex. 14), members of the Mark community heard about Jesus walking on water and quieting the storm (Mark 6). When Jews hear about Pharaoh decreeing that all Jewish boys be killed (Ex. 1), members of the Matthew community heard about Herod decreeing that all Jewish boys be killed (Matt. 2).
Virtually nothing in the Bible is historically true, and yet everything in the Bible is True. Let me introduce you to a concept explained by German theologians during the 19th century: the difference between Historie and Heilsgeschichte. Historie is unadorned historical fact.
The German word Geschichte, on the other hand, refers to the significance of a historical event. For example, if a child says, “Look, the milk and cookies that we left for Santa Claus are gone,” that’s Historie — the glass is empty, all but a few drops, and the plate has nothing but a few crumbs on it. If the parent replies, “Santa Claus must have come, look at all the presents under the tree,” that’s Geschichte.
Historie: George Washington was born February 22, 1732. Geschicte: As a boy, George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and then honestly owned up to his misdeed. (This story, a myth, was invented in 1809.)
Here’s a third ten-dollar word: Heilsgeschichte, or holiness-history. (Christian theologians call it salvation-history.) Heilsgeschichte is a form of myth — that is, theology in the form of narrative — that may or may not be factual as well. For the ancients who wrote the narrative, the point was not whether the story was historically accurate; the point was what the story meant.
Take, for example, the related myths about the birth of Moses and the birth of Jesus. When the ancient scribes of the Bronze Age were tanning animal skins and grinding their own ink, people took for granted that the more important a person was, the more likely it was that the events around that person’s birth would be unusual, even miraculous. It was said by the Egyptians that the gods chose Queen Hatshepsut and nursed her with goddess-milk. It was said by the Persians that King Cyrus, when an infant, had been left exposed on a hillside to die, but he was rescued by the gods and lived to kill his would-be killer. The great or miraculous events around a birth were signals of the baby’s future greatness.
If the Egyptian king (possibly Ramesses II) had actually commanded that all the boy babies born to Jewish mothers be killed, wouldn’t some historian outside the Bible have recorded the fact? If, more than a thousand years later, king Herod had actually commanded that all the boy babies born to Jewish mothers be killed, wouldn’t more than one historian outside the Bible have screamed in outrage at the monstrous evil of such an act? If the sky had actually filled with angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest,” wouldn’t some historian outside the Bible have noticed?
Remarkably little of the Bible is Historie-history, and the parts that probably are, are the parts that most religious leaders don’t like to talk about — like the king who was murdered while his attendants thought he was having a bowel movement (Judges 3:20-25).
But all of the Bible is Heilsgeschichte — holiness-history. Every story in the Bible has a truth to teach us about the human relationship with God. The difficulty lies in most of the Bible being more than 3,000 years old, written in a different land, in a different language, with a different culture that had different values and different expectations. The theological points behind many of the stories in the Bible mystify us today. Take, for example, Exodus 17:10-16. In this passage, Moses wins an important battle against the Amalekites through the power of his prophetic body odor. Then, entertaining, YHWH says to Moses, “Put this into writing, AND tell it to Joshua: I will totally wipe out the memory of the Amalekites from under heaven.” Uh, YHWH? No one would know anything about the Amalekites today if you hadn’t told Moses to write it down. . . .
Fundamentalists insist that the Bible is 100 percent Historie-history; the Earth is flat, rabbits chew their cuds, insects have four legs, stars are little dots that can fall out of the sky like the lamp The Truman Show, and much similar nonsense. The people who inscribed the Bible onto papyrus or parchment never heard of the Enlightenment, never heard of Edward Gibbon, and didn’t think that Historie was anywhere near as important as Heilsgeschichte and, yes, I know they didn’t know those words either.
I say, if you’re going to study the Bible, don’t try to figure out what the stories meant in 1611 (the King James Version) or 1764 (around Gibbon’s era), or even in 2009. Try to figure out what the stories meant to their original hearers, anywhere up to 3,600 years ago. Go for the Heilsgeschichte. Most of the Bible is myth, and ALL of it is True.
And, if you’re currently doing it, stop practicing bibliolatry. In all the Universe, only God is perfect. The Bible is not a history book, and it was never intended to be a history book. The Bible is theology — stories that explain the relationship between God and the Universe in language simple enough that even children and simpletons can understand, while for the intelligent packed with so much complexity of thought that entire tomes can be written about a few verses.