The Bible is Not History

Jason Micheli —  September 23, 2014 — 10 Comments

Untitled101111I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

II. Witness

6. Can the Bible be read as history?

I suppose so, but isn’t that boring?

And doesn’t it miss the point?

The Darwinian methods of the 19th century eventually exerted influence on biblical interpretation as well, creating an approach we can call historicism.

Historicism treats scripture purely as an historical document. Faith claims and the confessional intent of scripture are ignored for ‘what really happened.’

Historicism betrays a deeply modern prejudice against the supernatural and the miraculous. In doing so, it exhibits a cynical dismissal of the sophistication of ancient rhetoric- it’s not as if resurrection were any more common or believable in the first century than it is in the twenty-first.

Historicism attempts to rescue scripture from the fantastical elements of a premodern world and to discover the ‘facts’ behind the stories of scripture. For example, we all know the resurrection could not have really happened- so what’s a rational and an historically plausible hypothesis to the real Easter story?

While approaching scripture historically brings to the Church an appreciation for the context behind scripture…

the downside to approaching scripture solely in terms of history is that in trying to get at the story behind the story you miss the Story.

Scripture, after all, isn’t trying to narrate a strictly factual, historical story. It’s attempting to give witness to the saving love of God and convert you to that love.

The Virgin Birth is a helpful story by which to point out the deficiencies of both biblical literalism and historicism.

When it comes to the Virgin Birth, what’s important for biblical literalists is that it really happened. Indeed the Virgin Birth, with the inerrancy of scripture, is one of the Fundamentals. The Virgin Birth is important only to the extent that its necessary to safeguard the infallibility of scripture.

For historicism, what’s important when it comes to the Virgin Birth is the (unimaginative) assumption that it did not happen. A purely historical approach to scripture will then attribute the nativity narrative to an extra-Christian myth attached on to the Jesus story, or it will try to wipe away all the unbelievable, impossible parts of the story and arrive at the nugget of historical fact underneath.

What both approaches miss, it should be obvious, is what on earth Matthew and Luke could have wished to profess about God-in-Christ with the story of the Virgin Birth.

‘Why did Matthew and Luke include this story?’ is a more interesting question from the Church’s point of view because once you ask that question it becomes clear that for the Gospel writers the Virgin Birth is shorthand for Jesus as the start to a New Creation, for in Mary’s womb God once again creates ex nihilo, out of nothing.

“This is the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham…”

– Matthew 1.1

Jason Micheli

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10 responses to The Bible is Not History

  1. Good job, J.

    Didn’t you straight up come out and say Marcus Borg is a fundamentalist a while back for these sorts of reasons?

  2. What a refreshing thing, to see someone in the blog space talking sense about Scripture. I don’t know who you are or where you come from, but so rarely do I see someone with great theology posting online, not to mention relevant, interesting and meaningful, centered upon God and not humanity. Love it! Check out my blog if you’d like as well!

  3. Dude, I actually quoted you to my seminary mates at Fox essentially calling all my liberal, social justice evangelical friends fundamentalists. It was a serious moment of realization I was heading in a very different direction than my seminary-mates theologically.

    A leader in our intentional community recently posted a link urging people to go see Reza Aslan and I couldn’t help but face-palm in that moment.

    I’m gonna take my self-righteousness elsewhere. *tip toes out*

    • Well, thanks for telling me that Bobby. It actually makes the time and typing worth it. I totally agree about Borg and Aslan, both of whom just peddle what any NT 101 student would’ve learned in 1883. I totally judge people who like them the same way I judge people who like the Beatles and Coldplay.

  4. But anyway, I seriously have major problems giving Christian thinkers credibility when they use figures like Borg and Reza Aslan in more than an ad hoc way. I had a seminary prof use Borg in a Christian EarthKeeping class I took and I had to recover quickly from that shock so I could pay attention in class.

  5. Right. They want history without the theological anthropology. It’s such an arrogant, impotent thesis. I hate it worse than I hate biblicism. It should offend anyone who takes theology seriously.

  6. And don’t be discouraged if you feel people don’t read your writing like you would like them to. You’re experiencing, like the rest of us, the shift in ministerial philosophy from strict Christian education and discipline to a high value for abstract pragmatism and religious performance. People think theology is for pastors despite the fact being a confessing Christian means you get to be a theologian whether you like it or not. They want you to act like Borg and give an abstract account of everything without all that religious language so Christianity can be as ad hoc as they want it to be.

    It sucks.

  7. Btw (while I’m on the subject), J. Todd Billings recently gave an anthropological account of the religious pathos of America and called the cultural norm “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” He’s a Calvinist but I think some of what he has to say on the subject will interest you. It’s spot on. It’s large and part why people would rather read TMZ than Tamed Cynic. We’ve created the church culture where people don’t have to care.

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