Is the Bible history?

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

The answer to the question ‘Is the Bible history?’ is yes and no. It is not history as we know it where you get all the details about an event or a person and you expect the details to be literally correct. For example if you read the history of Captain Cook you would learn where he was born, who his parents were, how he came to be a naval officer, the voyages he made, when he discovered Australia, how he died.

In the bible, there are many entries that seem to be history. There is the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, how the Israelites escaped from Egypt, how they conquered the Promised Land and so on.

The important point about history in the bible is that it tells us about God and describes the relationship between God and his people.

This cannot be stressed too much. Many Christians who take the bible literally don’t understand this.

Think of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In this story we read that Moses asked the pharaoh to let his enslaved people leave. When the pharaoh refused Moses put pressure on the pharaoh with ten plagues. He turned the Nile River into blood. The pharaoh said ‘That’s nothing; my magicians can do that.’ So the magicians also turned the river into blood. The story says ‘ . . . and the fish in the river died. The river stank so that the Egyptians could not drink its water.’ This would have been catastrophic for the people. Archaeologists have discovered a great deal about ancient Egypt but there is no record of this disastrous event ever happening.

The bible tells us that the pharaoh eventually gave in to Moses because of the plagues and allowed the Israelites to leave.

William J. Parker CSsR says we have another problem:

The logistics of moving approximately two million people out of Egypt and throughout the Sinai Peninsula for forty years is staggering. (Scripture 101, an Intro to Reading the Bible, 2009, p. 28)

In fact, it’s really unbelievable.

So if the story is not accurate as history, what is its purpose? Parker says:

. . . the biblical narrative was never intended to be a historical record of what happened, but rather a song of praise at how Israel’s God brought down the most powerful empire in the ancient word. (p. 29)

We see this in the bible itself. After the crossing of the Red Sea the story says:

 Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord, ‘I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God and I will praise him, my Father’s God and I will exalt him.’ (Exodus 15;1-2)

The stories were originally oral ‘camp fire‘ stories, passed on from generation to generation. The story tellers felt free to embellish their stories to emphasise certain details – a normal practice for story tellers. Michael Parker says he remembers his grandfather telling stories to him and his brother about life in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ and Great Depression as they sat entranced at his feet. Now and again his grandmother would say, ‘Dad, you know it didn’t happen that way.’ His grandfather would reply, ‘Be quiet, mother, I’m telling this story, not you.’ Story tellers have a licence to improvise.

Discussing how the Israelites would frequently lapse and then return to God, Victor Matthews says:

. . . there is little attempt at objectivity since the most important aspect of the story is to explain the triumphs and failures of the nation . . . (101 Questions and Answers on the Historical Books of the Bible, 2009, p.4)

Karen Armstrong is quite definite: ‘The scholarly consensus is that the story of the Exodus is not historical.’ (Karen Armstrong, On the Bible, 2007, p.15)

It cannot be stressed to much that the bible is a book of prayer. We read an event in the scriptures and then reflect on it in prayer. We ask ‘What does this mean in my spiritual life? What is the Holy Spirit saying to me through this passage?’ This is called lectio divina, divine reading, a spiritual exercise to draw one into a deeper relationship with God. This has been the way of reading the bible for centuries. We read the bible to stimulate our prayer life.

The Israelites were able to pass through the Red Sea because God held the waters back for them, but when the Egyptians tried to follow, God returned the waters and all the Egyptians were drowned. A friend of mine worries about this and says, ‘But God wouldn’t do that.’ And he’s right. God who loves all his people wouldn’t deliberately drown any of them, even those who were pursuing the Israelites. When we pray about this, we can ask, ‘What forces are chasing me? Pride? Jealousy? Avarice? Addictions?’  I need to call on God to conquer these forces and lead me to freedom.

Some people think that what I’ve been saying makes the bible stories as unbelievable as fairy stories. Well, there’s a lot of value in fairy stories. We tell our children fairy stories not because there was such a person as Little Red Riding Hood, but because fairy stories teach children there are good people and bad people, witches and good fairies.

And good always wins over evil.

Stories are a wonderful way to teach even if they are not historical. Practically every novel ever written has the theme of good versus evil at its core with good triumphing. Shakespeare wrote may plays such as The Merchant of Venice which are not historical but all his plays have a moral, something to teach us. He was a master at understanding human nature, so reading his plays gives us deeper insights into the human character. He also wrote some plays which are loosely based on history. Though there is some history in these plays we don’t read them as a study in history. If you were writing a thesis on Richard III, you wouldn’t base it on Shakespeare’s play, though you could quote from the play if it supported your argument. We call such literature historical novels.

Many stories in the bible are not based on history but they teach us about God and human nature. Some of the stories in the bible have some foundation in history but they are embellished to bring out the moral the author wanted to teach.

Events are interpreted to advance theological, cultural and political goals, and therefore these books are not considered to be particularly reliable sources for the history of the time. (Matthews, p. 6)

Much of our difficulty in this matter comes from the perception that arose in the time of Enlightenment and science when it was believed that the only matters we should believe are those that can be proved by science or rationality. This is false. There’s a lot of truth in poetry, symbolism and in good novels. Just because an event is described in a non-historical way doesn’t mean there’s no truth in it.

To answer the original question, the bible is not a book of history; it’s a book of prayer.

The bible is not history as we understand it. History for the bible is the relationship between God and his people. The authors frequently used stories to tell of this relationship. Jesus used the same technique for his parables. We are not obliged to believe that when Jesus told his parables of the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son that these people actually existed. However, we can be sure that this type of event did occur, and Jesus was building on this frequent occurrence.

The Birth of Jesus

With this in mind we can explore the stories of the birth of Jesus. Only Matthew and Luke include narratives of the birth of Jesus. Mark, John and Paul say nothing about it.

First, we have to acknowledge that the two stories are entirely different. The only thing they have in common is that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary in Bethlehem. It’s impossible to fuse the two stories together. For those who don’t believe this, I would say try it. It would be a useful exercise.

Matthew’s Story
Matthew’s story tells us about the wise men coming from the East (by the way it doesn’t say how many or that they used camels). They had seen a star rising. It was common in those days to believe that when a great person was born, a new star would appear. They followed the star to Jerusalem where Herod told them the king of the Jews would be born in Bethlehem.

The star reappeared and they followed it to Bethlehem. ‘On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother.’ (Matthew 2:11) Note ‘house’ not ‘stable’. There have been many futile attempts to explain this guiding star as a comet or conjunction of planets. Stars don’t appear and then reappear and move in such a way that someone could follow them. How do you follow a star anyway? Let’s be content to believe that Matthew was writing a story – a story with a purpose.

What was Matthew’s purpose? Matthew had a number of ends in mind. By focussing on Joseph to whom the angel appeared to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, Matthew was linking his story of the birth of Jesus to Joseph of the First Testament who was renowned for his ability to interpret dreams.

Joseph had another dream in which the angel told him to escape Herod by taking the mother and child to Egypt and return when told in another dream. Yet another dream told Joseph to take his family to Nazareth. Matthew sees this as fulfilling the prophecy ‘he will be called a Nazorean’.

Throughout his gospel, Matthew sees Jesus as the new Moses. Daniel Harrington SJ in The Gospel of Matthew, (Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 49) writes:

With the various stories in chapter 2 Matthew sought to express a continuity between Moses and Jesus. In both cases a wicked king (Pharaoh and Herod) tried to do away with them as infants; their escape was accompanied by a slaughter of innocent children and return became possible only after those who sought the child’s life had died.

Not only does Matthew look back to Moses but also forward to Jesus’ passion and death. The birth narrative is sprinkled with references to the passion and death (Matt 2:2, 3,4, 16, 20). Consider the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold was a symbol of kingship, frankincense a symbol of priesthood and myrrh a symbol of death as myrrh was used to embalm bodies. Thus, Matthew was predicting what the baby was destined for in adult life.

Luke’s Story
Let’s turn now to Luke’s narrative – a completely different story, but again a story packed with spirituality.

Briefly, the story centres on Mary to whom an angel appears to get her consent to be the mother of the Messiah. Joseph is troubled to find her pregnant but an angel reassures Joseph he can take Mary as his wife. A census requires the family to travel to Bethlehem, the city of David (Joseph belonged to the house of David), where Jesus is born, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger because there was no room in the inn. Our tradition has the birth in a stable. The word that Luke uses could mean a space in a house as in 22:11 but it could have been an area where travellers and animals gather in the open.

Angels appear to shepherds to announce the birth of a Saviour in Bethlehem. A multitude of angels praising God, the shepherds go to Bethlehem find the child with Mary and Joseph and they spread the good news to others.

Luke Timothy Johnson has some valuable comments in his book, The Gospel of Luke (The Liturgical Press, 1991). Luke’s dates don’t agree with the census of Quirinius that we know from history. Johnson says

An obsession with accuracy leads the reader astray. Luke needs the emperor and a census because he needs to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem . . . We are dealing, in other words, not with a scientifically determined chronology, but with purposeful storytelling. (pp. 51, 52)

Johnson points out that shepherds are ‘among the lowest- esteemed labourers. Mary and Joseph, in turn, are transients, equivalent to “the homeless” of cotemporary city streets, people who lack adequate shelter.’ (p .52) Luke is foreshadowing the life the adult Jesus will live – always attentive to the poorest and most neglected.

The angels tell the shepherds the manger is a sign. A sign of what? A manger is a feeding box for animals, so Luke is saying that Jesus is the bread of life for a spiritually hungry world. In chapter 22, Luke describes the institution of the Eucharist in which Jesus takes a loaf of bread and says, ‘This is my body which is given for you.’

Luke is the only evangelist to tell the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (chapter 24). He had a meal with them, took bread, broke it and gave it to them. They told the other disciples later ‘they recognised him in the breaking of bread.’ The baby in the manger was a sign of the bread that became spiritual food, food which we are privileged to share at the Eucharist.

The Crib
The Christmas crib has been a valuable feature of Catholic tradition for centuries. It’s been especially helpful for children. However, adults need to see the crib as more than just a pretty decoration. The crib combines the two stories of Matthew and Luke into one. It contains the stable, Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a manger, the shepherds and angels from Luke. It has the wise men with their gifts and the star from Matthew’s story. For a full appreciation of the birth narratives we need to understand the two stories separately.

I’ll let Mary have the final say. Mary ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). We should follow her example. The bible is a book of spirituality and is intended to be a source of meditation. By contemplating the stories we come closer to God.