How do we know when an author intends their writing to be taken as literal historical fact? I think the best way to tell is to ask the author. But when we are reading the bible not only can we no longer ask the author – we may not even know who the author was and indeed there may be several. But that doesn’t mean there is not evidence which might strongly suggest what the author intended. We can get an idea based on context.
For example I have suggested that when the author of Genesis speaks of “the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” that is strong evidence that he is not talking about a literal fruits and trees that we might find in our neighborhood.
On the other hand when John says “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31But these are written that you may believe b that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” https://www.biblehub.com/niv/john/20.htm The author is explicitly telling us his purpose of writing about these signs/miracles. That is he wants to tell us of them so that we may believe Jesus is the son of God. Of course, that implies Jesus really did miracles. The author’s ability to make up miracle stories would not be a reason we should believe Jesus is the Son of God. Only Jesus’s actual ability to work miracles would be evidence that he is the Son of God. So that context is strong evidence that the author of John intends at least some of his miracle stories to be taken as literal and historical factual occurrences.
Luke also tells us about his purpose and so we can gleen his intent to give actual facts from the work itself as well. But of the books of the bible this clear statement of intent seems to be more the exception than the rule. So we are left to rely on less probative evidence.
In my last post I argued that we shouldn’t feel we must know what the author was trying to communicate and there is no reason to presume that the intent was to give literal history. Rauser is sympathetic to non-literalist readings however he has some issues with adopting a non-literalist reading. Here I want to address what I consider what Rauser considers the biggest obstacle to interpreting these old testament passages in other than as literal historical truth. He says:
“A particularly effective way to see the problem brought to life is with the great Hall of Faith chapter of Hebrews 11 which seeks to inspire the contemporary reader with illustrations of devotion from past saints. The story begins with Abel who provided a faithful offering to God (v. 4). The narrative then recounts the faith of a long list of saintly figures including Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Rahab and many, many others. The writer concludes, “These were all commended for their faith” (v. 39). Needless to say, the whole point of the writer to the Hebrews is that these are real people who did real things which are exemplary of faith and thus which provide inspiring guides to the disciple in our own day. Thus, if these stories are really just that, stories, mere historical fiction, then the entire chapter is evacuated of its motivational gravitas.
To illustrate, a baseball coach who wants to inspire his team may pump them up with the great achievements of Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Jackie Robinson. But he will not spend any time recounting the achievements of Roy Hobbs because Mr. Hobbs is a fictional character from the film The Natural (and the 1952 novel of the same name). You might invoke Hobbs to illustrate a point, but if you want to inspire an athlete you tell them the story of another real athlete: you don’t tell them a fiction. By the same token, if you want to inspire a real spiritual athlete, you tell them stories of other real spiritual athletes who accomplished great things: you don’t tell them a fiction. Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?”
Rauser, Randal. Jesus Loves Canaanites: Biblical Genocide in the Light of Moral Intuition (pp. 206-207). 2 Cup Press. Kindle Edition.
Ok first I would concede the point that at least to our modern mind telling a story about a real person seems to be more inspirational than telling the story of a fictional person. After all there was a time when it seemed every movie would say something like “based on a true story” and the purpose of that line was to no doubt try to make the movie somehow more compelling. So I am not saying his reason supplies no evidence. But I do want carefully consider each of the claims he makes and how much weight they should carry.
In my law school ethics class, we all had to watch the movie To Kill a Mockingbird. And in particular we focused on the lawyer Atticus Finch and how he dealt with ethical issues as a lawyer. There is no question the purpose was to inspire us to act ethically as future lawyers. I had read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school and Atticus Finch played an inspirational role in my desire to be a lawyer. As I was thinking of this example I actually started to wonder if Atticus Finch was a real lawyer or at least based on a real lawyer. But before I looked it up I asked myself if I would be any more or less inspired by him if I found out he was “based on a real person.” And I honestly decided it wouldn’t matter.
I think it is a mistake to underestimate the role fiction plays in motivating and forming who we are. If I set religion aside, I suspect that most of those that inspired me are first and foremost the actual people I have encountered in life, then second stories of fictional people, and then third historical people.
Now fictional heroes become especially important when we consider these are fictional heroes whose stories were chosen by God. Whether Abel actually existed is completely unimportant to the message God is trying to convey in the story of Cain and Able. In Hebrews the author seems not so concerned that the people are becoming atheists. Rather he seems to be addressing a community of religious Jews that would know these stories. They need inspiration to help them through difficult times. They are not looking for proof that God exists. They seem to know God exists and they also seem to assume that God gave them these stories in order to help them understand what he expected from them and how he would respond. That is what was important.
They want to know that God will see them through if they continue to be faithful. Faith is belief and trust in God. They seem to mostly be concerned about the trust part. Whether these characters actually existed is irrelevant. If God tells me I should act like Atticus Finch and I will be rewarded then it doesn’t matter one bit if Atticus Finch was a real person.
Notice the last line of my quote from Rauser where he says “Why does the writer of Hebrews refer to the actual collapse of the walls of Jericho (v. 30) and the actual faith of Rahab (v. 31) if not to inspire an equivalent faith response in the reader?” I have read these passages from Hebrews several times and I never remembered the author talking about the “actual” collapse of the walls of Jericho or the “actual” faith of Rahab. So I reread to see if the passage talks about or otherwise suggests these are actual historical events or if they just repeat the story. In fact the author never says the walls “actually” fell or that there was an “actual” faith of Rahab. The author just repeats the story.
“30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.
31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient”
If I say “Atticus Finch argued in his closing argument that Tom Robbins was innocent because the victim suffered wounds to the right side of her face and he was right handed and also had limited use of his left hand.” I am not saying Atticus Finch actually existed and there was an actual trial of Tom Robbins etc. No I am simply repeating the story. There is nothing in my quoted statement that should make you think I believe I am retelling “actual” historical events. Hebrews is no different.
Now to be fair Rauser gave the “gravitas” explanation for why he thought the author of Hebrews intended these stories to be taken literally. (I addressed that argument above by explaining fictional characters can be motivational) So he may not be thinking that just because the author of Hebrews is retelling the stories that means the author of Hebrews thought they were literal historical fact. But I often see that when some other author of scripture repeats a story from some other part of scripture some people will try to argue that proves the later author thought it was a literal historical event. For example, if Jesus refers to Adam and Eve some people will try to say that proves he thought they were real people. But really Jesus may just be recounting the story from scripture.
When that happens the person arguing for a literal reading is often just projecting his own interpretation on the other scripture writer. The person is assuming the question in dispute. They think we should interpret the story literally so they think anyone retelling the story must be intending to tell it in a literal sense. But that is the question we are trying to answer!
Why do modern readers tend to assume a literal interpretation? At least two reasons lead to this assumption, first the printing press and second, Sola Scriptura. The printing press and later technology allowed us to record and reproduce a huge number of actual historical events. This meant that we can learn a large quantity of actual literal history. This means our heroes can often be real people because we have a huge catalogue of people to draw on for whatever positive trait we want to highlight. I admit in some ways that is preferable to simply fictional heroes. (but it also has drawbacks) It also means that much of what we learn is intended to be taught as literal history. It is far from clear that assumption applied in the ancient past.
Like I said if you want to know the intent the best way is to ask the author. Certainly, whoever first told the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal history based on eyewitnesses. It is hard to believe people who heard the story for the first time would have thought it was some sort of historical story based on eyewitness accounts. If someone told you about conversations the very first humans had wouldn’t you wonder how they could know? Again the ancient people may not have understood science but they could look at all the people around them and realize that they were pretty far removed from the very first humans. They weren’t all born yesterday. And like I said of course the original person telling the story of Adam and Eve knew it was not literal facts from eyewitnesses.
The other reason I think modern readers tend to interpret scripture literally is because of Sola Scriptura. A theme of the reformation was the bible was sufficient and we really don’t need anyone to tell us what it means. Well it seems the answer is somewhere in the middle. People can learn a huge amount from reading the bible on their own. But also it turns out there are many different possible interpretations. And that is well evidenced by all the different churches that interpreted scripture so differently than other churches they found they had to break off from the others.
What to do? Well Martin Luther had already decided he would not change his position unless you could convince him based on scripture alone. This statement was so romanticized there was no turning back. So appealing to church fathers or Tradition was out of the question. Unfortunately, the disagreements were from interpretations of scripture itself. So certain rules of interpretation started to come into favor. One of those rules has to do with defaulting to a literal reading – which I believe martin Luther endorsed.
Was this rule based on information we learned about ancient peoples that were writing or telling these stories over a millennium and a half before these rules? I doubt it. I suspect these rules have more to do with us imposing our beliefs and desires on the ancients rather than bending our beliefs and desires to the intentions of the ancient authors of scripture. But despite precious little evidence that this is actually how the ancient authors intended their works to be read this default to literal history has gained popularity. Rauser notes that it is mainly after the reformation that literal readings of some of the old testament passages were used to justify wars. That is not surprising to me.
In future blogs I will address how Rauser deals with these issues as well as some problems with how certain Catholics view these issues.