Is the Bible a History Book? March 19, 2011Posted by Mary W. Matthews in Religion & Theology.
At a new (or newish) web site called Quora, someone asked, “Why do some religious folks rationalize the impossible claims in the Bible by saying things like, “We can’t understand the mind of God”?” My answer at Quora, which is an earlier version of what you’ll read below, can also be found here.
People who rationalize the impossible claims of the Bible don’t understand that the Bible is NOT a history book. It was never INTENDED to be a history book, and it was never intended to be a science textbook. The Bible is THEOLOGY.
German theologians invented a fancy word to describe the “history” in the Bible: Heilsgeschichte. An easier word to understand is “myth,” IF you understand that myths are NOT fiction. Myths are sacred stories that present a theological idea in the form of narrative. These sacred stories are simple enough for children, fools, uneducated people, and fundamentalists to understand, but sophisticated enough that there’s an endless amount that professionals can get out of it.
Recollect that in the Bronze Age, when most of the Bible was put into writing (some of its myths date from the Stone Age!), virtually everyone was illiterate. There was no electricity. (Heck, there were no toilets!) People got up at dawn, worked all day (except the Sabbath), sat around the fire for about an hour, and went to bed. When you’re bone-tired at the end of a long, hard day, which would you rather listen to — a dry, boring lecture full of words like “exegesis” and “hermeneutics,” or a rip-roaring good story like the Joseph novella in Genesis?
Neither the original authors of the Bible nor its original audience believed that the stories in the Bible were the same kind of history that today you’d find in, e.g., the Encyclopedia Britannica. That kind of history was invented during the Enlightenment, just a few hundred years ago, and many centuries after the Bible’s time. No one in 1200 BCE believed that human beings were capable of building a ziggurat that stretched from ground level all the way to “heaven,” for example (Gen. 11:4). Incidentally, in the Hebrew Scriptures, “Heaven” was a physical location on the outer side of the metal dome that separated the flat Earth from the chaos waters beyond the sky (Gen. 1:6-7), where Yahweh (God) lived with his heavenly courtiers. “Paradise,” the Persian word for “happy hunting ground,” encircled the dinner plate-shaped Earth like a belt; after about 550 BCE, that’s where good little boys and girls go when they die. NOT Heaven.
The Bible is a collection of ancient sacred stories that explain how things came to be (like why women have labor pains or where sin, evil, and death came from) or basic ideas about the relationship between God and humanity. Repeat after me: The Bible is NOT a history book!!