Wednesday, June 02, 2010

How Much History is there in that Bible?

One of the questions that faces modern Christians (we may be postmodern, but we're still modern) is how much history is found in the biblical accounts.  Some texts, like Jonah's encounter with the fish are clearly non-historical.  It's clearly parabolic.  Noah's ark and the Great Flood -- non-historical.  But what about the Jesus story?  Is it essentially historical fiction -- non-historical stories built around a personage that may or may not be historical?  I think the vast majority of biblical scholars would affirm the historicity of Jesus' existence, even his crucifixion.  Where we get into deeper water is when we come to the so-called miraculous.  Did Jesus, for instance, walk on water?  Or, turn water into wine?  On those 2, I'm fine with seeing them as metaphor.  But, what about the resurrection?  Well, there, I'm less eager to go the metaphorical route, in large part because I'm not sure how we explain the continuance of the community.  But I've argued that elsewhere.   

The 64,000 dollar question relates to the discernment of what is history and what is metaphor.  Since the posting that raised the question is Bruce Epperly's reflections on healing/curing, I think it's appropriate to note that Marcus Borg, while pushing the metaphorical a great deal, is willing to allow for healings -- but he would want to push toward a logical explanation.  

Consider:

For example, I think that Jesus really did perform paranormal healings and that they cannot simply be explained in psychosomatic terms.  I am even willing to consider that spectacular phenomena such as levitation perhaps happen.  But do virgin births, multiplying loaves and fish, and changing water into wine every happen anywhere?  If I became persuaded that they do, then I would entertain the possibility that the stories about Jesus reporting such events also contain history remembered.  But what I cannot do as a historian is to say that Jesus could do such things even though nobody else has ever been able to.  Thus I regard these as purely metaphorical narratives.  (Reading the Bible for the First Time, p. 47) 
As you can see, Borg, who is fairly liberal, allows for some history in the Jesus story, but is skeptical of events that have no parallels in human life.  In this, he follows David Hume, who raised significant questions about miracles -- what Borg calls the "spectacular." 

I have a degree of historical skepticism, but perhaps my tolerance for the spectacular is greater than is Marcus Borg's, and Borg's is broader than his friend Dom Crossan, but much less than his friend N.T. Wright.   Where do I fit?  Probably somewhere between Wright and Borg.

So, my question -- on what criteria do we determine something to be beyond the historical pale? 

10 comments:

Dan Bayer said...

One question which this discussion raises and with which I have been dealing with for several years is - how critical is it to the credibility of the Christian faith as a theological construct and as the authoritative source for Christian faith and practice that any given elements of the Bible may or may not be historical? - - another question would be who has the authority to define the criterion for determining the credibility of the Christian faith? - -

Gary said...

Thanks Cornwall. I couldn't have better illustrated your unbelief and hypocrisy than you just did.

Mike L. said...

Bob, thanks for raising those questions. I've enjoyed Bruce's post and the comments, even though I disagree with some elements. Unlike prior generations of protestants, I think our generation should handle disagreement within the Christian faith without taking it personally.

I think you did a great job of locating the best question to ask by focusing on the criteria for claims of historicity.

So, how do we answer that question with any other area of our lives. How do we rate any secular item to be historical or non-historical? Why shouldn't we use the same criteria for Jesus?

Aren't historical claims based on probability? Don't we examine the hard evidence and determine reasonable probability of each possibility? If a person tries to claim more weight (more certainty) for one possibility than the evidence really supports, we'd probably call foul, right? Why treat this case any different? Why not aim for a proper confidence, which tempers our certainty by the level of evidence? That doesn't mean we can't have personal opinions, but we should stop before calling it "history" or "fact". I think Borg and Crossan both do this. I think they differentiate their personal opinions rising from their biased faith tradition and their professional opinions based on the highest historical probability.

I think there is a good way past the arguments over this. If I'm not mistaken, I've heard Marcus Borg offer this solution. What if we read all our sacred stories as if they are mythical (parbolic, metaphorical). Then liberals and conservatives can both read them in a way that allows the "more that literal" meaning to come to the forefront. Never mind if the story happened, let's ask what it might mean that the author created it that way.

I think a whole other layer of meanings come to light through that reading, a layer that would be missed by focusing on the question of historicity.

Hyeon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hyeon said...

Greetings.

Regarding the topic, I have wondered how early churches (I mean, churches before Christian faith was authorized by the Roman Empire.) For instance, how did they accept narratives such as 'Christ has risen!' in the Gospels? If possible, I hope to understand Paul and other New Testment authors' mind at least ten percent. :) I'll appreciate book or article recommendations. Thank you.

Pstyle said...

What seems to be forgotten is the little quote from Borg that reads thus "what I cannot do as a historian"

This, if anything highlights why the academy is bound to the "skeptical" conclusions. For the "historian", their methodology requires them to conclude based on the repeatable, that makes good scientific sense.

Any non-natural event HAS to be discounted as not having happened purely on the basis of its non-repeatability. But non-repeatability just happens to be a key characteristic of a non-natural event. Thus "history" is forced to conculde that non-natural events have never happened.

To get "around" this, I prefer the historical approach that asks "did the authors, or the community repsonsible for these texts, believe that event x happened?", rather than asking "did event x happen?"

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Hyeon,

There are a wide variety of authors to read on these topics. My suggestion is to read books by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan on one side and N.T. Wright on the other. I find myself in between these authors. I'll be posting more later, so keep watching.

Brian said...

There is one possiblity that I find interesting, yet I'm unaware of any attention given to it. This is the possibility that Jesus was a talented magician, or illusionist. I know this would offend some. I assure that this is not my goal. He could preach God's Kingdom and do magic tricks. I see no dis-connect.

What do I have to back this up? Not much!
- Some of the ancient opponents of Jesus claimed he was a magician.
- Scriptures have most miracles take place in rural settings. (Uneducated masses.)

We see people packing houses to watch psychics and faith healers today. Certainly this was a popular past-time in Jesus' day as well.

Again, let me make it clear. I'm not saying this to dishonor Jesus. If he practiced stage magic, it does not make him a "fake" in my book. He's still Jesus. Frankly, I think it would be impressive if he were skilled in the art of stage magic.

(Not making claims that this is most probable. Just suggesting it is interesting and not given much discussion.)

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Brian,

This has been a charge regarding Jesus -- made most clearly by Morton Smith.

I've not read the book, but I don't think the thesis has gotten much support.

Obviously I'm not one to embrace it!

Brian said...

Morton Smith -- The man who "found" Secret Mark. This is getting fun. I have to read it. Thanks for the tip. Again, I'm not saying this is probable. I'm just saying it is reasonably possible. More importantly, it is interesting and fun.