Writing Scripture: History to Story to Theology to New Story; Repeat
“Scripture” is the core of Western religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Few of us think much about how our Scriptures got written, edited and handed down to us. Herein lies a big problem! … a woeful ignorance about religion itself and the psychology and sociology of religion more specifically. I will speak, as I normally do, mainly about the non-religious and about Christians in this post. If you are American and not raised in one of our small-minority religions (Islam, Hinduism, etc.) you probably have at least some exposure to the Bible, perhaps mainly from hearing about it more than reading it directly…. or hearing short quotes without context.
It has been well documented by many scholars of religion and American culture that the Bible and how it is interpreted by traditional Christianity particularly, has had massive influence on our worldview and culture. I say this because we sometimes fail to realize how religion and the overall life of our nation intertwine so heavily. This raises the question:
How should we look at and treat our Jewish and Christian Scriptures?
Uses of the Bible range all over the map from common quotations to intense study of it, generally by book or section or by themes such as salvation, prophecy, gender roles and women in ministry, etc., etc. What interpretations and applications people make of scriptural statements depends a lot on how they think their scriptures were constructed and with what authority. Traditional Christians believe the Bible was revealed by God, in one manner or another, and comes with God’s authority. Most of them reject the idea of any substantial role of later editing after the original authors.
Now, either the books themselves or later traditions often assign authorship to a well-known or authoritative figure. There is a gigantic amount of scholarship that deals with precisely issues of authorship, dating and editing of biblical works. In the interest of brevity and readability I won’t cite from it here; but will note that one can pursue such issues in depth for individual books or sections of the Bible. Anyone serious about understanding the Bible, for whatever reasons, should indeed make this part of their reading and study.
Can we trust the history in the Bible?
One key issue of the authority and impact of the Bible is tied to how it is thought to present history and facts. Is it reliable historically? Does it report strictly facts about events, including possible miracles of various types, in both its “Testaments”? To probably a majority of Christians, its reliability as a revelation about God and salvation is directly dependent on its reliability in reporting facts. There is often a kind of backward logic in this, however. It goes like this: “Since I know what the Bible reveals about God is correct [statement of faith], what it reports of human history and events must be entirely correct also [resulting statement of faith without serious historical checking].”
So how do scholars of history, the Bible and related disciplines say the Bible handles history? I will make only a brief and very summarized few statements here. It’s a very controversial subject with widely varying views, so one should proceed with caution. There is no simple way of deciphering or explaining the situation. Perhaps most important to say is that most people probably have it wrong on one side or the other — that either the Bible is entirely historical or it is not at all.
I’ll just say this for now:
The Bible is a collection of widely varying types of literature, all religiously oriented to one degree or another but not all even of historical nature (the Psalms and Proverbs, e.g.). Other parts often read as factual, such as early parts of Genesis, are clearly of another genre, often called “mythological” (not meaning untrue, but not scientific either). They almost certainly were never intended to be taken as historical.
However, other large sections do report things in a more or less historical manner, interwoven with theological interpretations. Key sections of this nature are the bulk of the early books of the “Old Testament” (prior to the “Wisdom” and “Prophetic” sections) and particularly the Gospels and Acts in the “New Testament.” They present a lot of detail about the formation and history of Israel as a nation and as a religious and ethnic group. Can or should we merely take this as valid history, whether the Exodus story, or the powerful “United Kingdom” period under kings such as David and Solomon, or the grandeur (and associated symbolism) of the First Temple? Whether or not we do has lots of implications, including geopolitical ones that affect international issues like Israeli and Palestinian relationships and prospects for peace.
Why may the majority of scholars be right, that the Bible is not a reliable book of history, although much of its historical sections are indeed based on actual events and real places in the larger picture?
And with this, that the Bible should be treated as one source of historical information, when examined carefully, cross-checked when possible, and taken in the light of the authors’ stated or implied purposes and slants? It simply won’t do for any educated American to merely assume (or take it on light or one-sided evidence) that either the Bible is historically worthless or that it is completely reliable.
I’ll just introduce the basic answer for now: The Bible is the product of a centuries-long process of oral traditions of actual history becoming written stories with theological interpretations attached then or later. Then came subsequent editing by contemporaries or later editors, new theological slants sometimes added based on evolving views. (Even the most conservative of traditionalists recognize this has happened though they still attribute the process to God’s revelation — timing “his” accommodation to human response to earlier revelation — progressively.)
So it goes history (events) to story (oral, then written) to theology (religious interpretation of events/stories) which then results in a new story or embellishments, refinements and such on a prior story… all with relative continuity. This allows new theology to emerge and subsequent events become more stories with the new theological interpretation (the “repeat” aspect of my title).
Rarely do readers notice this going on in the Bible, partly because the Bible is not arranged chronologically, in either “Testament”. For example, the story from Paul about witnesses to the resurrection of Christ is our earliest written source, but seldom thought of as such, being placed well after the Gospels which give much greater detail of such events. These elaborated “events” it appears Paul is unaware of or else they happened very differently than described in the Gospels (whatever the case, they are confused and partially contradictory accounts). Paul’s report is clearly closer to the events in time, and probably in actuality as well…. They are seemingly visionary experiences only, not touching of a corporeal body of Jesus. It appears the stories developed over time, having been originally based on something “real” (post-crucifixion visions of Jesus by numerous disciples).
In this example (among many others that could be cited), we also can see the editing process in a significant way. Mark’s Gospel is almost certainly the first-written of those making it into our Bible. His original ending does not include any appearances of Jesus to any of his followers, only an empty tomb. There is virtually universal agreement (because of evidence from various ancient texts of the book) that the last section of his final chapter was added at some point probably decades or more after Mark concluded his work. Only in this section do we read of numerous appearances of Jesus.
Additionally, in these final few verses of Mark still in most editions of modern Bibles, we have powerful theological points such as Jesus’ “commission” to spread the Gospel, his ascension to the right hand of God, and a confirmation of “…his word by the signs that accompanied it.” (9:16, NIV) This is vivid illustration of the kind of process that went on at varying levels in many books of the Bible… for understandable religious reasons as beliefs evolved and needed to be reflected in authoritative sources.
Does the process invalidate either the history or the theology contained in the Bible? Not in the broader sense.
Yet it does clearly, to me and a growing number of progressive Christians, put limits on the kind of authority we ascribe to Scripture, however. We look for multiple attestations of truth and of wisdom as we seek out that which nourishes and guides a community or our personal spirituality, not the single witness of a single biblical author. And not just a supposedly “systematic” theology seeking to weave diverse teachings of the Bible together. Yet the Bible remains fascinating and often inspiring reading, an invaluable glimpse into how people have long dealt with the most challenging questions of life and reality.
What do you see in the Bible… how does it nourish you, dismay or disgust you, or whatever?