In the New Testament Jesus tells many stories. For the most part there is no reason to think he is even attempting to give literal historical events. For example, he talks of people getting the same wages even though they start working later than others. He tells the story of a person allowing another to watch his property. He tells a story of someone selling everything for a pearl. He tells a story of a wedding and a prodigal son etc. etc.
If he told those stories today I feel like many people (including Christians) would interrupt and say “wait a second, whose wedding was this? Are you talking about the Jefferson’s wedding because that wasn’t what happened!” Or “wait a second are you talking about John? Yeah sure he did some bad things but he didn’t actually get his father’s inheritance early!” I mean he does not always start his story by making it clear to everyone this is not offering a literal history. (Keep in mind the subtitles are not part of the actual scriptural text) Could the story of the prodigal son be literally and historically true? It seems possible. If we found out it was true in a literal and historical sense what difference would it make? Absolutely nothing. The actual literal history is completely irrelevant to the point of the story.
When we read scripture we do not think God is telling us these stories because God is randomly picking various historical facts that he wants us to memorize. No the stories of the old testament, just like the stories Jesus told, are told because there are meanings that God is trying to convey. Whether the story is historically true or false is often completely irrelevant. Take the “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews. The author goes through scripture and offers stories that God gave us to understand how he will reward faith. Just like Jesus gives stories that help us understand other aspects of God. Whether the events actually happened or not does not change the point of the stories.
But then does that mean it is always irrelevant if a story is fictional? No. The point of the story helps us know whether it is important that the story is fictional or not. And sometimes in scripture the author is explicit. For example in Luke and John they explicitly offer their intentions. Luke starts out with this:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
John explains that that purpose of telling us about Jesus Miracles:
“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.”
So it would be odd to say John did not intend at least some of his stories of signs to be taken literally. I think there many questions that are addressed in the bible but modern readers tend to read the bible as though it is only addressing one. Here are just a few questions the authors seek to answer:
- Is there a God?
- Is Jesus a reliable mouthpiece of God?
- How should we understand our relationship to God and others?
- What does God want us to do?
Modern readers seem hung up on the first question but I think that is very rarely what the author is addressing. John makes it explicit that the second question is something he is addressing. I believe the other gospels and NT scriptures have that intent as well.
I think much of the Old Testament human authors are rarely dealing with questions 1 and 2. They already believe in God so they have moved on from the first question. They do not know much about Jesus yet so it would not be informative to establish he is a reliable source of God’s will. But three and four would be important. But as we have seen from Jesus’s parables it is irrelevant if the stories that convey answers to questions three and four are literally true. So the literal historical truth of the OT stories are in fact largely irrelevant.
But what about the New Testament? Well two seems to be a very important message of the New Testament writers. So how can they establish that Jesus is a reliable source of God’s will? Let’s just think this through for ourselves – without a bible. If I were to say I am a mouthpiece of God, how could I give evidence of that? One obvious way would be to perform a miracle. This would be a sign from God that yes I am not just like every other person but God is singling me out. But, of course, there is nothing miraculous about just making up fictional stories of miraculous events. So the only way to serve that purpose of proving I am singled out by God would be is if I actually performed miracles. That is why the New Testament is understood as intending to tell actual history.
This is not just me cherry picking what I will decide to read literally or what I won’t. I am just applying common sense to the text.