I spotted a book on reading the Bible by A.N. Wilson in the library, so I picked it up and decided to give it a go. As it turns out, it’s a good read – although there’s one particular point he makes that’s worth picking up on here today. Basically he’s discussing the relationship between the Biblical narratives and history, and quite rightly noting that there’s often a very, uh, loose relationship between the two. The precise nature of this relationship (and how we deal with it) is one of the big questions that theologians have been wrestling with throughout the 21st century.
Wilson’s pretty relaxed about the fact that the Biblical narrative isn’t necessarily history. He makes the point that the Bible is more about mythology – which he’s not using in a pejorative sense at all. Quick (crude) background: Wilson talks about people like Richard Dawkins, who say things like ‘the Bible is just a bunch of ancient fictions’. Other people, Christian people, set about trying to prove the historicity of the Bible in order to refute Dawkins. In that context (again, crudely), Wilson is basically saying ‘Does it matter whether it’s historically accurate? Can’t we use it to learn things about God regardless?’
Wilson’s point is largely fair. We don’t need Genesis to be literal in order for it to be useful as a source of revelation. If creation didn’t happen in seven twenty-four hour time slots, that doesn’t mean that the Creation story is useless, right, or that we need to discard it from the Bible. It just means that what we get out of it is something more metaphorical, more imaginative or poetic. It’s about what the story tells us, rather than what the historical event somehow proves. The same can be said of Moses. What Wilson refers to as ‘arid archaeology’ (basically studying the historical construction of the Bible) proves pretty comfortably that Moses didn’t write the Torah. We can be pretty confident about that claim. Does this mean that the Torah has no value as a source of revelation? Of course not. It means that the terms by which we find value have to change, because we can’t read it as a flawlessly historical document, but Wilson’s point is that that doesn’t really matter. When God smites people for profaning the Ark, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it actually happened. What matters is what it tells us about God.
So like I say, I agree with the general impulse of what Wilson is saying. There are heaps of different moments throughout the Bible where the historicity of an event is borderline irrelevant. However, there are also a bunch of moments where the historicity of an event has immense significance. If the historical Jesus wasn’t actually God, our entire faith is pointless. We’re literally just a heretical Jewish sect (that’s 2000 years old with global influence and a fuckload of adherents). If Jesus wasn’t actually God, then he wasn’t our redeemer or saviour, we’re not absolved of our sins, we’re probably not set for heaven, etc. We can afford to jettison the historicity of some elements of the Bible, but the whole ‘Jesus being God’ thing is pretty important. In that sense, no, Wilson is incorrect: the Bible as mythology is simply not good enough.
There’s still a degree of wiggle room in there, of course – maybe the historical Jesus was actually God, but he never historically said any of the things attributed to him in the Bible. If that was the case, we’d squeak in okay, because even though the quotations aren’t necessarily historical, as long as Jesus was still actually God and the bulk of the message got through in the attributions, we’d be pretty much set. If the feeding of the 5,000 never actually happened, for example, that doesn’t invalidate the faith. All that really matters is that the historical Jesus was actually legitimately God. If he’s not, then the faith falls over.
Beyond the large-scale stuff, there are other more picky nuances we have to touch on. The historicity (or otherwise) of a given event does affect how we understand God. If, for example, God actually historically ordered the Israelites to wipe out X group of people, that puts us in one particular situation. If it’s just a myth used to illustrate something about God’s nature, we’re in a very different situation. Basically, if it’s just a myth, we can quote-unquote ‘move on’ from the bloody murderous God of the Old Testament – because it’s just a story used to illustrate a point, and we can take the point and dispense with the outdated cultural baggage around God murdering a whole bunch of people. On the other hand, if it is a historical story, then God murdered a whole bunch of people and that’s just part of His nature and something we have to come to terms with.
In short, if a given passage is not historical, we have the option of trying to distinguish between ‘mere’ cultural context and true facts about God’s nature. Some people would describe this process as ‘discerning God’s will’, and others would call it ‘picking and choosing the bits that suit yourself’. The whole gay rights thing is an example of this tension, right – the Christians who support gay rights take the line that it’s just cultural context and not actually illustrative of God’s nature, while on the other side of the fence, they’re arguing that anti-gay attitudes are an integral part of who God really is.
So in that sense, yes, again, it does still matter whether something was or was not historical. If it was historical, there’s no questions: it’s just God’s nature. If it wasn’t historical, there’s room for interpretation (hooray!). It’s not always as fundamental an issue as the whole ‘is Jesus God’ thing, though I’m sure you can see that the two are related. Wilson’s general point also still stands: by and large, the historicity of certain Biblical events isn’t all that important. We don’t hang our faith on Young Earth creationism.
PS: The book was called The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible. It’s a good book. You should read it.