On a Historical Old Testament

Yesterday I posted the following status on Facebook:

The problem with abandoning the historicity of the Old Testament is that every few years another aspect of it is vindicated.

To which I received this response:

Yet we would acknowledge the role that varying styles of literature in the ancient Near East has to play, right? The historical consensus, as far as I am aware (and I’m not necessarily taking a position), is that the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable. For example, we still have not found any evidence of a large population of Israelites having lived in Goshen around 1400 BC. It makes little difference to me, though, which side turns out to be right, but I’m interested to keep up with it!

I do have some empathy here, but there are several issues involved on which I would like to make a special point. Approaches along these lines are gaining traction in Evangelicalism, both with and without a doctrine of inerrancy. I do not see this as a good sign. The historicity of the Old Testament is more important than even most Christians who believe in it give it credit for. So here are some thoughts on the issues raised in this coment.

First, with respect to literary styles, it is simply not the case that there are any convincing reasons to believe that most, much, or even just a decent slice of the Old Testament is not intended as basically “historical” literature. While there are thematic differences between different parts, and the form of the narratives can vary based on the “zoom” factor, there are no clear shifts in the basic use of narrative from Able to Zechariah. The account of Ezra is literarily much like the account of David which is like the account of Abraham which is like the account of Noah which is like the account of Cain. The only passage which might plausibly seem an exception to this is Genesis 1, which is clearly very different from most narrative accounts. Yet it is clearly not poetry (since it lacks parallelism or most other features of Hebrew poetry), and a narrative account of something which happened before the cosmos was fully in place or humans existed is naturally and necessarily going to be different from other narratives.

This brings me to an extremely important point. It is true that Genesis 1 and basically all the narratives in the Bible have meaningful, carefully constructed literary features and forms. There are chiasms, parallels, recapitulations, non-chronological sequences, modified repetitions, typologies, and all sorts of good stuff. For some bizarre reason, though, people treat this as an indication of a narrative not referring to literal history. If Genesis 1 is clearly arranged into a theologically relevant pattern of forming and filling, with the significant number of seven days being associated with temple construction, then many scholars will be willing to stop with “We see a theological meaning to this text, so a literal, historical meaning is superfluous.” If the Bible presents Noah as a new Adam and Ham as a new Cain, peopel imagine this means that one or both of the stories never actually happened.

This is, of course, logically absurd. Literary richness does not prove, or even vaguely imply, that a story is unhistorical. Indeed, for Christians we must understand that the same Spirit who authored the Scriptures has authored history. We should expect patterns, structures, and typologies with theological significance in real, tangible history. And even if we didn’t have that theological link, it should be recalled that even a perfectly historical event can be written down truthfully but stylistically to produce an account with certain intended levels of meaning beyond the “bare facts.”

Moving on, then, to the point about historical consensus. My friend explained what he understood as the consesus this way: “the Old Testament starts out as more metaphorical and increases in historicity until the time of David, after which it becomes much more reliable.” This is problematic in three ways.

First, for the secular historical consensus, it’s not so much that the Old Testament starts off metaphorically as that it simply starts of as myth or legend with amibiguous relationships to events which may or may not have happened. Whether the events recorded are supposed to have any actual metaphorical significance would be a side debate, akin to the question of whether The Illiad is metaphorical.

Second, for the Christian historical consensus, there simply isn’t one. Even within the relatively small sphere of Evangelical Protestant scholarship, opinions range from quasi-fundamentalist hyper-literalism to the view that almost none of the Old Testament is historically reliable except where it is confirmed by secular accounts. As far as I can tell, there’s not even really a majority view on the historicity of any part of the Old Testament before around the time of the Exile. This is not to deny that there are trends, of course. And the trend seems pretty clear: a dehistoricization of Genesis 1-11 at the very least, but often including much more, especially the Exodus. But this brings me to the third problem with the question of historical consensus.

Third, the closest thing we get to a historical consensus is the stuff on which secular historians agree with a decent number of the moderate Christian scholars. The problem with this consensus is that it is bunk. There are three notable problems with it. First, its arguments against the historicity of biblical events are usually from silence, i.e. “we can’t find extra-biblical evidence for that.” These often, and I mean very often, get overturned by later discoveries. It’s the same story every time: historians said there was no King David, until they found archaeological evidence of King David. They said there were no Hittites, and lo! they found that there were Hittites. They doubted countless minor details of customs and names found in the Bible until more evidence confirmed that they existed in the time the Bible seems to claim. It seems that if we have functional pattern-recognition, we should expect this to be the norm: historians deny biblical claims for lack of evidence, only for evidence to show up later.

The second problem with the historical consensus is that it quite unjustly minimizes the Bible as a historical document. I don’t mean that they simply fail to believe every word as historically true. I mean that they don’t even give it the minimal benefits of the doubt which they extend to other ancient literature, and in proportion they give it much less historical weight where it stands alone than they do most similar works. Basically, in researching and hypothesizing about the Ancient Near East, they try to rely as little as possible on what can be justly called the largest, most internally diverse, and most well-preserved collection of texts from the Ancient Near East. This is bound to go wrong, and it is only natural that doing this for such a distant period of history would lead to tension with the biblical account even if it were mostly correct (or, you know, inerrant).

But the third problem with the historical consensus is a plain historical issue: the historical consesus account of the ancient world is largely constructed on a very weak and increasingly questionable foundation: a hypothetical chronology built from Manetho’s list of Egyptian kings and dynasties. This matter would be difficult to address in detail here, but I’ll give a summary. Almost all historical work on the ancient world around the Mediterranean relies on a specific chronology of Egyptian history. This chronology is based on adding up the lengths of the reigns of all of the Egyptian kings in what we have of Manetho’s work. Two major problems present themselves here, because (1) scholars have noted that some or many of Manetho’s dynasties may have ruled simultaneously in different parts of Egypt, and (2) the conventional chronology requires that Mantheo made few or no errors or intentional falsifications. This produces a host of issues which have the potential, if solved, to radically reshape the history of the Ancient Near East. This appears quite likely to change things in the Bible’s favor. Donovan Courville in his work The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications analyzes many of these issues, and his work has been followed up by others. Even if not perfect, it opens up many interesting possibilites. This, by the way, is not a mere desperate Christian apologetic. The book Centuries of Darkness argues the same basic point from the perspective exclusively of secular historical academia and has inspired plenty of further research.

All of these issues add up to make the point that the historicity of the Old Testament does not deserve to be dismissed the way it so often is, or really even be approached with half the skepticism usually aimed at it. It might take faith to expect the whole Old Testament history to be vindicated, but if anything it is a reasonable faith grounded in precedent and evidence.

None of this even begins to deal with the theological problems involved with dehistoricizing Old Testament narratives. That alone could be the subject of a book, but in the meantime I think this piece of Peter Leithart satire says the gist just as well.

On a Historical Old Testament

So what do you think?