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So What Does the Bible Tell Me About History?

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Since God has revealed himself not simply in deed but also in word, providing authoritative commentary not only on his own actions but on the actions of human beings as they figure in the sweep of history, the Bible requires a measure of literary competence of those who would read its theological history appropriately.

Whenever discussions of the authority and reliability of the Bible arise, questions of history and historicity take center stage. There is nothing surprising in this, for Christianity is by its very nature a historical religion. As contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg stresses, "The Christian religion exists, in distinction from other belief systems, by virtue of its relationship to a historical figure and that figure's particular story." (1) The figure is, of course, Jesus. And his story is of a sinless life, a wonder-working ministry, death by crucifixion, and a miraculous resurrection from the grave. The point of the story is redemption for God's people. The recipients of redemption are, as John points out, real people "in the world," people whom God the Father has "given" to God the Son (Jn 17:11). Thus, for John -- as indeed for the other Gospel writers -- for Paul, and for most people through the ages who have professed the name of Christ, the Christian faith is dependent for its validity, vitality, and viability on its historical reality.

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1 [ Back ] "Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschichte," in Probleme Biblischer Theologie: Gerhard von Rad zum 70 Geburtstag, (ed. Hans Walter Wolff). M√ľnchen: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1971, 350. (My translation).
2 [ Back ] The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Duckworth, 1980, 215-16.
3 [ Back ] The sixth and final chapter of Ramsey's book, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Reconstructing Israel's Early History. London: SCM, 1982.
4 [ Back ] Ibid., 124.
5 [ Back ] So Alan Cooper, "On Reading the Bible Critically and Otherwise," in The Future of Biblical Studies (eds. Richard Elliot Friedman and H. G. M. Williamson). Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1987, 65-66.
6 [ Back ] "Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History," Princeton Theological Review 4 (1906): 299.
7 [ Back ] For brief but substantive critiques of the Jesus Seminar by R. W. Yarbrough and J. A. Gibbs, see the journal Presbyterion, Volume 20 (1994), 8-35. Book-length evaluations have also begun to appear. See, for example, Jesus Under Fire (M. J. Wilkens and J. P. Moreland, eds.). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. See also B. Witherington, The Jesus Quest. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1995).
8 [ Back ] New York: Basic Books, 1981.
9 [ Back ] Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. A briefer, useful introduction is Tremper Longman's Literary Approaches to Biblical Interpretation. FCI 3; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.
10 [ Back ] For fuller discussion of this and other issues, see Long, Art of Biblical History, 53-56.
11 [ Back ] The Book of Joshua. NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981, 29.

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Issue: "Scripture" May/June 1996 Vol. 5 No. 3 Page number(s): 10-15

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