Historical narratives are historical narratives

In our last post, we began to explore the rules of the game for one particular biblical genre: historical narrative.  This is a vitally important genre to properly understand, as it is far and away the largest type of literature found in the bible (at least 50%!).  We discussed the fact that historical narratives are not myths, fables, or legends.  They are to be understood as relating events that truly happened.  You might not receive them as historical, but the genre presents these events as historical.

This is an important point as the validity of these narratives historically is constantly under attack.  I just saw an article in the Washington Post yesterday arguing that Jesus never lived (it is astonishing that such an idiotic thing can be published in a purportedly serious news publication – talk about “fake news”!).  Similar claims are made about Moses, David, Solomon, and, quite honestly, nearly every significant biblical person and event.  This reflects a truly astonishing ignorance of archaeology, history, biblical interpretation, and (for that matter) even of mythology.

The Bible presents the events described in historical narrative as history.  Real people really did these actual things.  If you had been present with a video camera, you could have captured them on film (or you could have, when video cameras still had film).  Here are three points that relate to the Bible’s self-presentation in historical narratives:

  1. Biblical Historical narratives present themselves as history.

One reason for treating the historical narratives of the Bible as history rather than as myths, legends, and so on, is the very issue under consideration: the biblical narratives take the form of “historical narrative.” The Bible talks about people and events as though these events and people are real and true.  This doesn’t happen in ‘myths.’ Go read some Greek mythology; go read some Norse mythology.  No one, not even the original Norse storytellers, took these stories too seriously.  They understood their genre.  They understood that the talk about the ‘world serpent’ might contain hints or elements of truth, but didn’t represent an actual description of the make-up of the earth.  How radically different such myths are from scriptures like this:

1 Kings 6:1-5  In the four hundred and eightieth year after the Israelites had come out of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the LORD.  2 The temple that King Solomon built for the LORD was sixty cubits long, twenty wide and thirty high.  3 The portico at the front of the main hall of the temple extended the width of the temple, that is twenty cubits, and projected ten cubits from the front of the temple.  4 He made narrow clerestory windows in the temple.  5 Against the walls of the main hall and inner sanctuary he built a structure around the building, in which there were side rooms.

This is set in time in space – in Jerusalem in the 10th century BC.  This is firm and tangible history – as hard as the rocks used to build the temple.  How different this is from stories of Thor and Asgard!  Who would want to make up a fantastic story and include details about the width of clerestory windows?  Maybe Solomon never lived (though the burden of proof clearly rests upon the shoulders of the sceptics!), but  the author of Kings doesn’t present this narrative with the least shred of doubt about the concrete historical nature of the wise and celebrated monarch.

Or consider this work from Luke the evangelist, recognized by many historians as a marvelous example of ancient historiography:

Luke 1:1-5  Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us,  2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.  3 Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.  5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

This is a remarkable statement.  Luke doesn’t present the good news of Jesus as a fanciful representation of his personal faith – true for him, but not true in any substantive sense historically.  Luke rather presents the gospel narrative in the same style as the great Greek historiographers Herodotus or Thucydides presented their master works.  These are events set firmly and squarely in a historical context – with Herod king, and the division of Abijah serving in the temple courts.  Indeed, Luke has “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” and sets out to write “an orderly account” – hardly the language of a loosey-goosey, fly-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants, slipshod myth writer.

This extends to other parts of the Bible as well, such as to the historical narratives in the prophetic books.  Consider Isaiah 36-37.  Some amazing things happen in these narratives.  An angel strikes down hundreds of thousands of men in a single night.  You might not believe in angels, or miracles, but Isaiah did, and he presents this as historical fact.

Miracles are all over the historical narratives of the Bible.  Blind people see; lame people walk; dead people are raised; waters are divided (or walked upon!).  But just because something is miraculous doesn’t mean it isn’t true and historical.  This only follows if miracles are ruled out of bound from the get-go – presuppositionally excluded.  Perhaps many modern readers have this problem, but it isn’t a necessary one and the biblical authors don’t share it.

It should also be mentioned that the Bible is also very aware of such things as ‘myth,’ but myths show up in other, non-historical contexts.  For example, the book of Job takes the ancient myths related to Leviathan and recasts them in a poetic context.  So myth is utilized, but it is obvious in this poetic context that a historical meaning isn’t intended (this is a different genre, a different game with different rules).

  1. Where Testable, these historical narratives show themselves to be true and trustworthy.

Many of the events described in the Bible can’t be tested.  How can we prove that Naaman the Aramean was really healed of his leprosy in the days of Elisha the prophet (2 Kings 5)?  We can’t; we weren’t there, don’t have video footage, etc.  Of course, by the same standard it is impossible for me to prove that I ever visited Brazil.  I have no pictures or video footage to show.  I don’t even have the passport stamp to prove it.  But visit there I did.  The vast majority of historical narratives are not testable in any way.  I believe Patrick Henry said “Give me liberty or give me death!,” but I can’t prove it in any modern scientific sense.  It is reported through credible and reliable historical sources and I trust the authority of these sources by faith.

But some historical events are testable.  We read in 1 Kings 12 about the division of the kingdom of Solomon’s son Rehoboam.  A rebel, Jeroboam, established an independent northern kingdom.  He also established temples to rival Jerusalem’s great temple of Solomon.  I remember visiting the cultic center of Dan, the site of Jeroboam’s northern temple.  It was a surreal experience to walk up the steps into what would have been the holy of holies of Jeroboam’s temple. This temple dated to nearly a millennium before the time of Christ.  The Bible tells the story, and…there it is.  Bricks and mortar.  Just where it should be, just as described.

There are countless examples of this kind of thing.  It was fashionable among critical scholars to deny the existence of King David for many years, despite the Bible’s narratives concerning him.  It became ridiculous to assert confidence in David’s existence….until a reference to David turned up on a stone in the same Dan where Jeroboam’s temple is found.  The (baseless) critical assumptions crumble, the reliability of the historical narrative of the scriptures stands.

We could multiply this with countless examples.  But these are enough to illustrate that the Bible demonstrates itself trustworthy on any occasion where the truth of historical narratives is testable. If true where testable, why would we doubt its veracity in those areas where we can’t test it?  If you find me to be generally reliable, wouldn’t you believe me when I tell you I had visited Brazil, even if I can’t prove it to you?

  1. Jesus views them as historical.

Christ received the Old Testament scriptures as the Word of God.  He refers to historical narratives from throughout the Old Testament, treating them not as fanciful or mythological accounts, but as literal history.  These include some of the texts that a modern reader would be most likely to dismiss as history, including the narratives of Noah, Sodom and Gomorrah, and Jonah.  This does not, of course, mean in and of itself that these events actually happened, but it does make it seem certain that Jesus himself believed and taught as if these events actually happened.

The full list as provided by John Wenham (Christ and the Bible, Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity, 1973, p. 6-7) is quite impressive for its scope and inclusiveness.  He writes,

He refers to Abel (Luke 11:51), Noah (Matt. 24:37-39), Luke 17:26, 27), Abraham (John 8:56), the institution of circumcision (John 7:22; cf. Gen. 17:10-12; Lev. 12:3), Soddom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15; 11:23, 24; Luke 10:12), Lot (Luke 17:28-32), Isaac and Jacob (Matt. 8:11; Luke 13:28), manna (John 6:31, 49, 58), the snake in the desert (John 3:14), David eating the consecrated bread (Matt. 12:3, 4; Mark 2:25, 26; Luke 6:3, 4), David as a psalm writer (Matt. 22:43; Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42), Solomon (Matt. 6:29; 12:42; Luke 11:31; 12:27), Elijah (Luke 4:25, 26), Elisha (Luke 4:27), Jonah (Matt. 12:39-41; Luke 11:29, 30, 32), and Zechariah (Luke 11:51)…He repeatedly refers to Moses as the giver of the Law (Matt. 8:4; 19:8; Mark 1:44; 7:10; 10:5; 12:26; Luke 5:14; 20:37; John 5:46; 7:19).  He frequently mentions the sufferings of the true prophets (Matt. 5:12; 13:57; 21:34-36; 23:29-37; Mark 6:4 [cf. Luke 4:24; John 4:44]; 12:2-5; Luke 6:23; 11:47-51; 13:34; 20:10-12) and comments on the popularity of the false prophets (Luke 6:26).  He sets the stamp of his approval on such significant passages as Genesis 1 and 2 (Matt 19:4, 5; Mark 10:6-8).”

For a Christian, this is the strongest argument of all.  If Jesus views these historical narratives as historical, then who am I not to?  Or, to say it another way, what’s good enough for Jesus is good enough for me.  Who am I to doubt what my Lord says is true?  The first thing we must do when interpreting the historical narratives is to recognize that they are historical narratives.