Stories and History

I was watching an episode earlier of White Collar (one of my favorite shows!) and the main character, Neal, made an interesting comment that prompted this post. He said something to the effect of “Stories are worthless if there’s nothing to back them up.” In the context of the show’s story it made sense, but in literature, obviously it doesn’t quite work out as well. I’ve been thinking lately about various “stories” in scripture and how we as interpreters approach them. For many, the biblical accounts are essentially meaningless if they didn’t actually happen. For others, they are perfectly fine to read the stories as purely literary works without foisting upon them the burden of being historically true and/or accurate.

I must admit that at one time I would have fallen into the first camp. Accounts such as the exodus, Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal, or Jonah’s exploits in Nineveh I would have declared as actual historical events without batting an eye. For the record, I do believe these events in the Hebrew Bible took place as recorded; however, if the evidence were compelling to see them as purely literary-theological works and the events described therein didn’t literally happen, I would be ok with that. I have come to see the bible as both a book and a collection of books, understanding that each book possesses its own uniqueness while at the same time contributing to a larger narrative.

One thing that still nags at me is somewhat inherent in the statement quoted at the first: if the bible were merely a collection of literary works, however theologically oriented they may be, would I be compelled to think more highly of and worship God, of whom these stories speak so highly? I chose the stories above (the first two primarily) because they are accounts that tell of awesome displays of power and those displays are compelling to me, personally, as reasons to hold a higher view of God than perhaps others might. To know (insomuch as we can “know”) that God has acted in history motivates my worship. This is especially true when it comes to Christ.

I do believe there are plenty of accounts in the scripture that are not actual historical events and I can appreciate them for what they are and what they say/teach about God. But to read the bible without seeing God as having acted in history, however accurately you believe those acts are recorded, seems to miss much of what the biblical authors intended.

What are your thoughts on this matter?

Αυτω η δοξα

2 thoughts on “Stories and History

  1. I have been doing some writing and lecturing recently on this very topic. V. Philip Long has a helpful chapter (“The Art of Biblical History” pp.287-434) on discerning the historical claims of a given passage in “Foundations in Contemporary Interpretation” (6 in 1 volume; Gen.Ed. Moises Silva; Zondervan 1996). I describe it for my students as the “historical impulse” of a passage.

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