So the sun stood still and the moon halted until a nation had taken vengeance on its enemies. … for the LORD fought for
. Joshua 10 vv13-14 Israel
Christianity, like the other two Abrahamic religions, is deeply committed to history: they each believe that God shows himself in what he does in the course of history. Consequently, Christians cannot be indifferent as to whether something that they believe shows God at work in history actually happened or not. Now of course if God is the kind of god that the monotheistic Abrahamic religions describe, the whole of history – not to mention prehistory, natural history and science too – can help reveal him to us, since he is responsible for all that is. Not only are his fingerprints are all over his Creation, but we cannot suppose that he suddenly changed his way of working sometime in the first century CE. Yet for many Christians, making assumptions that seem to predate the development of monotheism in Jewish religion, it is the bible that gets used as the history that really counts, so the historical credibility of the bible is a key issue for them. The bible is full of widely varying stories – about Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah’s
, Moses and the Exodus, Job, the Kings and Prophets, Jonah, Jesus and Ark Paul, to mention only some major examples. To what extent are these myths, or legends, or fables, or novellas – or history? What do we need to bear in mind when deciding how we view these stories? Notice that the historical facts are meant to underlie the beliefs, not the other way round; while from your knowledge of what has happened in the past you can derive a growing understanding of ‘God’, your beliefs about God cannot tell you what happened in history. Because of this and because it is all of history, as well as prehistory and science, that must inform our faith, the same tests apply to our thinking about biblical history as apply to our thinking about anything else.
The first test is about overall coherence. People can’t help importing their worldview into what they write; if our world view is different from theirs we will have to try to make sense of what they write in terms of our own world view. You might say that we should allow what they say to alter our world view. And so we must – but then, we can’t prevent our experiences from affecting our world view, bit-by-bit over the years. But we must not allow ourselves to have different world views in different parts of our minds; we can’t honestly be evolutionists in the lab on weekdays and Creationists in church on Sunday. This means that we need to test what we read by reference to how it fits with the whole of our knowledge, understanding and experience. If all this tells us something is impossible, we can’t believe it is possible, not at any rate if we want to be integrated, unfractured personalities. On this basis, to take a trivial example, I can’t believe that the sun stood still to give the Joshua time to thrash the Amorites, despite what it says in Joshua 10 – which is not necessarily to say that I don’t believe that there was remarkably long and murderous battle with the Amorites that Joshua’s men won.
The second test is about how writers’ opinions and beliefs fit with what they record. It comes in positive and negative versions. When people record things that don’t fit comfortably with their known views, their account is probably basically true and therefore believable, because they wouldn’t alter or invent a story to contradict their own views; conversely, when people record things that endorse their known views, there’s a fair chance that their account will be exaggerated and therefore should at least be questioned. So for example when the gospel writers, as people who thought that it was important to believe that Jesus had the exalted status of being The Son of God, record Jesus saying that he wasn’t interested in whether people called him ‘Lord, Lord’, we can be pretty sure they are passing on an old and well-founded tradition. Conversely, when they have him referring to himself as The Son of God, we have to wonder whether this accurately records something he said or whether this is them either amplifying or altering something he really did say to make it fit better with their beliefs, or maybe simply inventing a saying to give authority to something they profoundly believed. This second, negative, version of the test is not nearly as reliable as the earlier, positive, version; people may after all have come to believe that Jesus was The Son of God precisely because he said he was.
The third test is about patterns. Real events have a background and consequences; if these are missing or incoherent, and in particular if something that we would reasonably have expected to have followed an alleged historic event did not happen, we need to be doubtful about the account we are being given. Similarly, if a story fits with material from independent sources, we are likely to think that it may well be authentic. Unfortunately, the three tests don’t always point unarguably in the same direction. For example, the emergence of the early church could be seen as something that could be a consequence only of something as impressive as the resurrection of Jesus; but our world view may tell us that it is impossible for truly dead people come back to life. Personally, I’m able to believe in the historicity only of accounts that are rejected by none of the three tests.
The three tests will certainly make us reject as history the story of Jonah, for example. But just because stories are not historical does not make them are worthless, any more than the unhistorical plays of Shakespeare or the unhistorical novels of Dickens are worthless. Such works help us understand the significance of history and draw out our responses to the human condition. Often indeed they tell us more about god-in-history than do the minutiae so beloved of antiquarians, because they indirectly draw our attention to important aspects of those bits of history that we are most familiar with: our own lives, the lives of our contemporaries and the history of our own times. The truth of our understanding of these things matters for the same reason that we want to know which bits of the bible are historically true: it is in and through history that we come to understand what ‘God’ means.