So What Does the Bible Tell Me About History?

V. Philips Long
Wednesday, August 8th 2007
May/Jun 1996

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.

The late G. B. Caird, former Regius Professor of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford, put the matter plainly: "According to John there is no Christianity apart from the solid reality of the earthly life of Jesus recorded in the apostolic tradition…. Eternal life remains an unsubstantial dream unless in one man's life it has become earthly reality….Without the Jesus of history we know neither the Christ of faith nor the God he came to reveal." (2) The Apostle Paul put the matter more plainly still: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins….If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men" (1 Cor 15: 17, 19).

Does Biblical Historicity Really Matter?

Given what has just been said, the answer to this question would seem to be obvious. But there are many people today who would argue that historical questions are irrelevant to faith. George Ramsey, for example, in a chapter cleverly titled "If Jericho Was Not Razed, Is Our Faith in Vain?," (3) asserts:

If we can demonstrate, with our research tools, that parts of that tradition tell of events or persons that never were, or at least never were like the tradition describes them, this does not alter the fact that the tradition has spoken to believers for generation after generation with power and expressed things which they believed to be true. The tradition "rang true" in their own experience and enabled them to develop a self-understanding and a lifestyle. It was the tradition as received which accomplished this, not the past-as-it-actually-was. (4)

Ramsey's bold statement raises several questions. Is he suggesting that the credulity of previous generations somehow provides an adequate basis for a more enlightened faith today? And if it really doesn't matter what in the Bible is fact and what is fiction, does it matter whether God is a fiction or not? Perhaps J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings or even TV's Star Trek through its many generations could serve as "foundation documents" for faith, if faith has no need of historical grounding. Furthermore, what is the faith that Ramsey advocates? Is it nothing more than "a self-understanding and a lifestyle"?

If the essence of Christianity had only to do with "self-understanding" and "lifestyle," then maybe there would be something to be said for the view that concern about biblical historicity is at best irrelevant, at worst "the silliest manifestation of historical criticism." (5) But, as we have already seen, neither Scripture itself nor classic Christian tradition understands the essence of the faith in this way. Rather, as Princeton Seminary professor Geerhardus Vos observed back in 1906, true Christianity's "deep sense of sin, which is central in her faith, demands such a divine interposition in the course of natural development as shall work actual changes from guilt to righteousness, from sin to holiness, from life to death, in the sphere not merely of consciousness but of being." (6) In other words, for real people, with real problems, in need of reconciliation with a real (not fictional) God, whose wrath they really deserve — for these people (which is all people), real redemption is needed. Such redemption the Father accomplished through the Son, in space and time, by a real incarnation, a real death, and a real resurrection. History, therefore, is vital both to divine self-disclosure and to salvation.

Given what is at stake, Christians are quite right to express concern when, for example, the Society of Biblical Literature's "Jesus Seminar" pronounces negatively on a majority of the sayings of Jesus or on the historicity of the resurrection. This concern should not induce panic, however, but rather should incite evaluation of the philosophical/metaphysical belief system that underlies the method employed by the Seminar. Those who do not accept the philosophy should not adopt the method, at least not without significant modification. (7) Less dramatic perhaps, but alarming nonetheless, is the frequently heard claim that events like the exodus out of Egypt and the conquest of Canaan, which are of central importance to the biblical story line, have been shown by archeological study never to have happened. Again the response of those who find such claims unsettling should not be to panic but, rather, to pursue the deeper level questions that sometimes go unasked by actual purveyors of archeological information. What one often finds is that the methods employed — even sometimes by professing Christian believers — are built on an Enlightenment worldview whose naturalistic rationalism finds itself at loggerheads with the worldview that permeates the Bible and the Bible's own historical accounts.

Is the Bible History, Literature, or Theology?

So far I have stressed the importance of historical questions for the Christian faith and have alluded to the "historical accounts" found in the Bible. But this raises a question: Is the Bible a "history book" per se? The answer is yes and no. The Bible, as I have attempted to stress, is surely interested in history, but it is more than merely a book of history. It is, in fact, a library of quite diverse literary works. In addition to historical prose, there is law, prophecy, preaching, poetry, psalmody, parable, epistle, apocalyptic, genealogy, gospel, and so forth. Most of these literary types (or genres) exhibit some interest in historical questions, but the extent of interest and the way this interest is expressed varies considerably. Thus, it is important, when seeking to distill historical information from the Bible, to consider what kind of literary genre one is reading. One should not assume that a parable, for example, will necessarily contain historical information. But nor should one too quickly label a text "parable" or "myth" simply because it contains reference to miracles or to divine activity, which tend to be excluded from modern history books. The question, rather, is whether the text seems to recount something that its writers believed actually happened. Whether modern readers share that ancient belief will, of course, vary from person to person, but modern acceptance or rejection does not change the fact of the ancient belief, which must be acknowledged. The key, of course, is rightly to discern the "truth claims" of Scripture. And this is possible only through a careful and competent literary reading of the texts. Thus, we cannot adequately deal with the Bible historically until we have first done it justice literarily. But recognition of the literary character of Scripture raises another question.

Years ago I read Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Narrative, (8) and my eyes began to be opened to many striking literary features of the Old Testament's narratives that had previously eluded me. I well remember being somewhat troubled (as well as intrigued) by my growing literary awareness, because it raised a question. I thought, "I've always taken the biblical narratives in their apparently intended sense as historical accounts, am I now to understand that they are literature, not history?" Perplexed, at first, by this question, I soon came to understand that the opposition "literature versus history" sets up a false dichotomy. I was much helped by reading Meir Sternberg's monumental The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, (9) but it was my previous experience as a portrait painter that most dramatically alerted me to the wrong-headedness of setting literature and history in opposition. As I reflected on portraits that I had previously painted, I recognized that the overriding purpose of the portraits was a historical one — to preserve a memory of the subject through a depiction, or representation, that would not only capture the physical likeness of the individual but also something of that individual's character and interests. As a representation, some features were non-negotiable, the configuration and contours of the face in particular, while other features, such as the arrangement of "props" in the setting, could be left to the judgment of the artist. Indeed, many creative choices were left open to the artist — how to compose the picture, the angle from which to view the subject, the light in which to place the subject, the degree of detail to include in the depiction — but these creative choices had to be made under the overarching "historical" purpose of preserving a "true likeness" (though by no means the only true likeness) of the subject.

These kinds of reflections opened for me a satisfying way of recognizing that the Bible's narratives may at one and the same time be both accurately historical and masterfully literary. Indeed, in my recent book, The Art of Biblical History (intentionally playing on Alter's title), I argue that a good definition of historiography (history writing) might be "verbal representational art" analogous to the "visual representational art" of portraiture. The analogy of history writing to portraiture helps in several respects. For example, one may recognize differences between several portraits of, say, George Washington, without drawing the conclusion that at best only one portrait can be "accurate," while the others are necessarily flawed. By the same token, one may recognize differences between the Gospel portraits of Jesus, or between the histories of Israel found in Samuel-Kings, on the one hand, and Chronicles, on the other, or between the prose account of Deborah's battle in Judges 4 and its poetical counterpart in Judges 5, without assuming that "difference" implies "error" or even "inaccuracy."

Another way in which the portrait analogy is helpful is that it underscores the fact that each portraitist, while committed to preserving a "record" of the past, will do so in his or her own style and from a particular "slant" or point of view. The slant in biblical historiography is very clearly theological, as distinct from the political, economic, social, anthropological, or other slants that characterize much modern historiography. It has often been noted that the reign of Omri, for example, though no less notable from a political point of view than that of his son Ahab, receives far less treatment in the book of Kings. That Omri gets only eight verses (1 Kgs 16:21-28) while Ahab gets over six chapters (1 Kgs 17-22) would seem to constitute an error, or at least an imbalance, if the book of Kings were seeking to write a political history per se — but that is not its intent. Its interest, rather, is theological. Perhaps Ahab gets more coverage in part because of his link, through his wife Jezebel, to the Baal worship that threatened true religion in his day and also, in part, because his career was bound up with that of the prophet Elijah.

The above example illustrates yet another similarity between portraiture and all history writing. Both must be selective. While some portrait artists seek to achieve almost photographic accuracy, this is not the usual approach; even where such an attempt is made, close inspection of the canvas will reveal that at some level the artist's striving for photographic accuracy has to give way to tiny abstractions which, taken together, give the impression of an exact likeness. Most portraitists are far more selective in the details they choose to include, often limiting themselves to just those few details that are necessary to allow the mind of the viewer to fill in the rest. In the same way, the writers of the Bible's historical narratives are generally quite selective, masterfully choosing just those suggestive details that "paint the picture." Ehud was left-handed, Eli was growing blind and overweight, Saul was tall and physically impressive, David was small but spiritually impressive, Absalom prided himself in his hair, and so forth — not enough information to draw a picture on paper, but in context just the right information to get the picture of who these individuals were and why they are significant.

The heading to this section asks the question "Is the Bible history, literature, or theology?" The answer should by now be clear. It is all three. The relation between the three might be summed up as follows. The overarching purpose of the Bible is a theological one — namely, to reveal God to his human creatures. But since the true God has been active in human affairs, bringing deliverance to his chosen and visiting judgment on those who reject him, the Bible must also take a vital interest in history. Furthermore, since God has revealed himself not simply in deed but also in word, providing authoritative (because inspired) 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.

How Should We Read the Bible "Historically"?

Christian believers who take the Bible seriously are usually quick to defend the theological and historical veracity of the Scriptures. I hope that enough has been said above to underscore how important it is that these same believers also take seriously the literary character of Scripture. If the latter is overlooked, there is a great danger that believers committed to the "truth value" of the Bible (i.e., those who believe that whatever the Bible says or enjoins is to be believed and obeyed) may find themselves embracing and defending theological or historical "truth claims" that the Bible, rightly understood, does not in fact make. For example, those who overlook the distinction between the prose account of Sisera's death in Judges 4:21 ("while he lay fast asleep") and the poetic celebration of the event in Judges 5:27 ("he fell…he fell…he fell") may wrongly assume that these texts involve a historical contradiction. Was he prone or erect when Jael "nailed" him? But to ask this question is to exhibit a lack of literary sensitivity and competence. (10) Most people are quick to recognize the poetic idiom of, say, Isaiah 55:12, and so do not assume that hills actually "burst into song" or that "the trees of the field…clap their hands." The Judges 4, 5 issue may be different in degree, but not in kind.

The task, then, for those who would read the Bible well "historically" is first to read it well "literarily." This will require an unrelenting attentiveness to the text. Martin Woudstra has stated that "the task of the theologian-exegete is a humble yet a significant one. It begins with listening; it continues and ends with listening." (11) Preconceived notions of what the text can and must say will have to be held in check in order to hear clearly what the text actually says. Like a counselor listening to a patient, the exegete will want to explore why the text uses certain terms and tells its stories in certain ways. But unlike the counselor, the exegete listens carefully not so as to discover how the "patient" might be helped but, rather, how what the text has to say might help the exegete.

Good listening requires at least the following: first, a receptive attitude on the part of the exegete and, second, careful attention to the full context of the text's individual utterances. Listening ability can also be enhanced by good training — in the original languages of the Bible, in the specific literary conventions of the biblical genres, etc. — but those without opportunity for specialized training should not despair, as the first two characteristics of good listening will still enable the reader to make solid progress in understanding the Bible. On the other hand, those who approach the text with skepticism and suspicion may prove to be poor listeners; they may not "bear with" the text long enough to understand what it is driving at or just how it makes sense. And those who do not give attention to the larger context(s) in which the particular text under investigation is situated may easily misconstrue what the text is actually saying. For instance, the significance of the words of Job's friends and even of Job himself can hardly be understood apart from the entire message of the book, including in particular the heavenly assembly in the prologue and the divine encounters with Job at the end of the book. Or again, the significance of such notices as Solomon's marriage to Pharaoh's daughter in 1 Kings 3:1, his acquisition of chariots in 4:26, his appointment of district officers in 4:27, and so on may appear as inconsequential interruptions in the flow of the narrative until one views them in the context of the entire story of Solomon in 1 Kings 1-11, in which Solomon's ever-increasing accumulation of gold (chapters 9-11), of chariots (10:26-29), and of wives (11:1-3) leads ultimately to his apostasy. And even this reading may be further enriched by considering Moses' "law of the king" in Deuteronomy 17:14-20, which forbids the accumulation of all three.

Good listening by fair-minded, open readers should yield a generally adequate, if not perfect, grasp of the truth claims of a text. Once we feel fairly sure about the historical claims a text is making, we may attempt to test the truth value, or veracity, of these claims. To assess the historical veracity of a text, we will need to ask questions similar to those a law court would ask in assessing the reliability of a witness. First, is the character of the witness such as to inspire confidence? Here believers and nonbelievers will approach the biblical texts with different assumptions. Believers, however, must take care not to adopt a skeptical approach that may be wedded to a particular method (e.g., the standard, post-Enlightenment historical-critical method) but not warranted by the object under investigation. Second, does what the witness has to say hang together as a coherent whole? Are there internal contradictions in what the witness is saying? This might be called the test of internal coherence; biblical texts should be subjected to it, so long as the interpreter is careful to apply a standard of coherence appropriate to what the text is — namely, in the case of much biblical narrative, "verbal representational art." Finally, how does the witness's testimony square with the testimony of other reliable witnesses (biblical or extra-biblical) and with whatever material evidence is at hand (artifactual, architectural, etc.)? This might be called the test of external coherence.

Now, believers may object to the notion of "testing" the claims of Scripture. But I would argue that the attempt is warranted for at least two reasons. First, it serves an apologetic aim. It provides information that may be very necessary in building a case for the trustworthiness of Scripture. Second, such internal and external testing also provides the interpreter an opportunity for self-correction. Where the pieces do not seem readily to fall into place, the interpreter is challenged to check to see whether his or her understanding of the text is flawed in some way. The realization that one has misread a text, though perhaps painful, is nevertheless something that should be welcomed by all who prize the Bible and accord it ultimate authority, as distinct from the relative authority of their own opinions.


This brief essay began with the title question, "So what does the Bible tell me about history?". We are now in a position to answer it. The Bible tells us just what we need to know in order to understand who God is, who we are, and how God has worked "at many times and in various ways" in history to bring redemption to his people (to borrow a phrase from Hebrews 1:1). But God has not simply been at work in history, he has also been at work in literature. That is, the Bible tells us just what we need to know in just the way we need to hear it. If "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim 3:16), then God is not only the most important actor on the stage of history, he is also the master literary artist who has authorized the pictures of the past that we encounter in Scripture. Whatever else may be learned about the peoples, politics, cultures, and events of the biblical period through, for example, archaeological, anthropological, and sociological studies, and however much our full understanding may be enriched by the pictures painted by these disciplines, it is the biblical depictions, above all others, that command our trust and obedience, for it is they that bear the stamp of authority

1 [ Back ] "Weltgeschichte und Heilsgeschichte," in Probleme Biblischer Theologie: Gerhard von Rad zum 70 Geburtstag, (ed. Hans Walter Wolff). München: 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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