How much of the Bible is fiction with meaning and how much actually happened? Does it matter? If the resurrection is a myth we're all in trouble but what about Jonah and the large fish, Noah and the ark, Adam, Eve and the snake? Surely you can only understand these stories if they didn't happen…
I was thinking. I hate it when that happens because it normally ends with upsetting someone. But I was thinking about stories. I spend some of my time writing stories, so that’s hardly thinking out of the box. But, here’s the thought – the Bible is full of stories. I know, I know, your world remains unshattered. Bear with me a bit.
The Bible contains stories that were originally meant to be heard as stories, not histories.
This first occurred to me during a sermon on Genesis 3. The preacher said that we shouldn’t worry about whether or not there was a real snake. I have never taken Genesis 3 as factual and this stopped me in my tracks. It suggested that up to that point the preacher thought the animal naming ceremonies, tricks with ribs and tree of life stuff was real. Really real. I don’t know if that’s what he meant but that was how I understood it.
I preach myself from time to time and have often approached the passages with dubious historicity by looking at the lessons they teach, rather than worrying about whether they actually happened or not. But I now realise that it does matter.
People find the Bible incredible. Running Alpha courses at various churches I find many of the questions are versions of ‘You don’t really believe that do you?’ Then I met Rachel (not her real name). She came to Alpha on the basis that none of the Bible was ‘true’ and that it was all metaphor or story. As she came to faith she began to encounter truth, and I believe has now met Jesus who is the truth.
Rachel likes stories and learns from them. As a devourer of fiction she learns lessons from characters in books. Discovering truths from people in the Bible was child’s play for her, but it did get a little complicated when she began to feel that there were certain things that had to have happened.
She also knew more about snakes than me. She told me she could just about believe in a talking snake but as snakes had no ears, she found it hard to believe in a snake that could listen. Hmmm.
You see it’s not only taking the Bible too seriously (joke, maybe ‘factually’ would be a better word here) that gets us into trouble. It discredits our thinking processes. Another friend at church told me she believed that the Garden of Eden really existed and was created after the dinosaurs had been wiped out. ‘You’ll accuse me of intellectual suicide,’ she said. Well I’m too polite to do that but I can’t think what else to do.
The historicity supporters have to answer questions that the story lovers don’t:
Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?
Where were the woodworm on the ark?
Why wasn’t Jonah digested?
The answer ‘God could sort that out if he wanted to’ doesn’t wash. It’s what leads people to disparage Christians.
But if the texts of Genesis 1-11, Job and Jonah are great stories (packed full of godly meaning), then I reckon we can start to learn lessons from them. They expound truths about relationships, especially our relationship with God. They tell us about what the world is like and how it works for the best.
I once produced Bible study notes on Jonah for 11-14s published by a Christian organisation. In eight Bible studies I included one question to help the young people think about whether the book was historical. The question was ‘Is it good to introduce young Christians to the idea that the Bible contains some truths that are not necessarily based on fact.’ The editor removed it. Don’t we trust our young people to think about such things for themselves?
This letter appeared in The Independent (18/2/04) from a Mr Burke of Manchester: ‘…In America, schools teach no religion and sixty-eight per cent of the people go to church. Here we teach RE and the figure for church attendance is only seven per cent. Only by exposing our kids to mumbo jumbo at an early age and allowing them to compare it to provable disciplines in other subjects will we continue to ensure the continued and welcome decline in religious beliefs.’
Mumbo-jumbo eh? He must mean talking donkeys, towers that reach the heavens, fish vomiting on command, and all that apocalyptic stuff. Anyone now got me marked down for the lake of burning sulphur? I’ll take my chance.
Jesus was the greatest storyteller that ever lived. We accept his parables but not that there may be other examples of such literature elsewhere in Scripture.
Don’t worry. I’m not going near the resurrection. It may be a matter that requires faith, or a verdict based on evidence, but the Bible makes claims for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:1-19), which it doesn’t make about other things – even his birth.
When Mrs Thatcher famously said that no one would have remembered the Good Samaritan if he hadn’t had money, she blurred the edges between history and story too. It’s a bit like saying no one would ever have remembered Toad of Toad Hall if he hadn’t bought a car.
So, I believe the first eleven chapters of Genesis are stories – full of truth but without a grain of fact. They are stories designed to answer questions about how it all began. For example, in answer to questions about misbehaviour a first sin was invented. In an area where floods often happened a story about a great flood was told. You get the picture.
I love the idea that once upon a time a storyteller sat down and invented an outrageous account of an event in the life of a real prophet, Jonah son of Amittai. He imagined the man running from God, causing a storm, being thrown overboard to calm the storm, being swallowed by a fish and not digested, being vomited up back on the beach (in the direction he should have gone in the first place), preaching repentance in seven words to a town the size of Nuneaton, having such success that the king commanded even the animals to wear sackcloth and then getting annoyed when God decided to cremate a shade-giving plant.
Stories rule. You think Jonah is factual? Sorry you’re walking hand in hand with the purveyors of mumbo jumbo and it’s dangerous. You think that the reference to a real prophet is enough to make it history? Then how about this:
‘The Carraways are something of a clan, and we have a tradition that we’re descended from the Duke of Buccleuch, but the actual founder of my line was my grandfather’s brother, who came here in fifty-one, sent a substitute to the Civil War, and started the wholesale hardware business that my father carries on today.’ Surely that sets the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby pretty firmly in history too?
At college, my Old Testament tutor (conservative and evangelical) made the suggestion that Job might be a play. His comment unlocked its secret for me. ‘Many years ago, a man named Job lived in the land of Uz’ (Job 1:1, CEV). How’s that for a ‘once upon a time…’ beginning?
Can you imagine any other circumstances in which God might say to Satan and the angels, ‘Hello, what you been up to?’ (Job 1:7) It sounds more like Joey asking Chandler, ‘How you doing?’ And Friends isn’t real either. Actors come and go with their big speeches: God, Satan, Job, four comforters, and God’s finale. There’s even a ‘…and it all ended happily ever after,’ conclusion (Job 42:10-17).
Jonah is a great story, designed to help those listening to the storyteller appreciate that even Ninevites could come to God and repent. Job is a drama about the meaning of suffering in three or four acts. Both have truth to teach us.
Those of us who believe in fiction aren’t bad people. People will believe more about God if we confess that our stories are stories. Every now and again we can tell them a true story. That empty tomb. You’ll never believe it, but…
Steve Tilley is a writer and vicar in Nailsea, where he intends to begin to annoy the various congregations by asking them to think for themselves. This material was first produced for publication in CY magazine in early 2004 but not used and the magazine is no longer published.