The Historical Book

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Non-Christians assume that the Bible is a collection of myths. So do theological liberals, which is why they feel free to support abortion, homosexual marriage, the validity of all world religions — and they have constructed a whole vein of scholarship designed to “demythologize” the Bible, so as to salvage what they consider to be relevant to contemporary culture.

As a long-time student of literature, I get frustrated reading liberal biblical scholarship, not just because of its bad theology but because of its distortion of literature. A person might not believe the Bible is historical, but it is beyond doubt that the Bible is written in a historical style (which, in turn, is strong evidence for its historicity).

A greater literary scholar than I, C.S. Lewis, saw the same thing. “Whatever these men may be as biblical critics, I distrust them as critics,” Lewis wrote. “They seem to me to lack literary judgment, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading.” Lewis thought that part of the problem may be specialization, that these scholars have devoted so much time to the minute scrutiny of biblical texts that they have failed to attain “a wide and deep and genial experience of literature in general.… If he tells me something in a gospel is a legend or a romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read” (“Fern-seed and Elephants,” in Christian Reflections).

For most of the history of Western literature, beginning in the ancient world and continuing up until the invention of the novel in the eighteenth century, legends, romances, and myths were written in poetry. Historical records were written in prose.

The Bible has poetry, of course — the Psalms and the prophetic books — but these are lyric poems (that is, personal expressions, the kind of poetry that can be assumed to be true). The great narratives of Scripture — in Genesis, the saga of the Israelites, the Gospels — are in prose. That alone is good evidence that they are historical.

But more than that, the texture, details, and composition of these narratives marks them not as myths or imaginative fictions but history. Lewis makes fun of Bible scholars who call the gospel of John an “allegory,” pointing to the vividly lifelike dialogues and to the extraneous details — such as Jesus writing in the dust — whose inclusion can only be accounted for if they actually happened. “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this.”

Lewis sees only two possibilities. Either these accounts are reports of actual events, “or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole universe of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.”

Lewis says, “The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.” So let us read Eric Auerbach, whose book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1953) is recognized as one of the century’s greatest works of literary criticism. The first chapter, “Odyseuss’ Scar,” compares the style of Homer to that of the Bible.

Homer, Auerbach shows, puts everything in the foreground — giving us what the characters look like, describing their surroundings in detail, and even telling us what they are thinking. This approach, which has become the model for Western fiction, is “to represent phenomena in a fully externalized form, visible and palpable in all their parts, and completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations,” says Auerbach.

He contrasts this highly-imaginative approach to the way the Bible in Genesis describes the sacrifice of Isaac. We do not know what Abraham or Isaac look like; there is no description of the landscape; we are not told what Abraham thinks as he prepares to sacrifice his son; nor are we informed why God acts as He does. Such meaning is in the “background,” requiring interpretation and reflection and opening up untold depths.

This kind of narrative testifies to the real because it is messy, unpredictable, and compels, just like real life. Auerbach says that the story of David has to be historical. “In Absalom’s rebellion, for example, or in the scenes from David’s last days, the contradictions and crossing of motives both in individuals and in the general action have become so concrete that it is impossible to doubt the historicity of the information conveyed.”

Unlike Homer, the biblical narrator was not just making things up. “His freedom in creative or representative imagination was severely limited.” This is because he was constrained by the truth. The Bible conveys not just truth, but authoritative truth. “Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.”

Auerbach was not a Christian. He remained a Jewish rationalist. But he recognized the implications of the Bible’s historicity and truth. “The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us — they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels.”

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