Repeat after me: One: The Bible is not history as we are accustomed to think about history. Two: That does NOT mean that the Bible is not true.
You and I are accustomed to thinking of history in the sense that the Enlightenment, and Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), defined it — about 250 years ago, a blink of an eye considering that at least half to two-thirds of the Bible is ten times that age.
You and I think of history in the terms we learned in school: verified names, verified events, including exact dates and times, no stone left unturned in finding out whether an alleged event actually happened. In the last 150 years or so, we have become accustomed to photographs, even audio and video proofs. (I remember, when I first heard a recording of Teddy Roosevelt's voice, being surprised and disappointed at how high it was — not how I had imagined a Rough Rider to sound at all.)
And because this is the standard that our modern Western culture agrees upon, we tend to dismiss anything that is unhistorical as untrue and therefore unworthy of further consideration. George Washington never chopped down a cherry tree as a boy, so the pretty little myth has nothing to teach us about the value of honesty. Robin Hood probably never existed, and so the legends about him have nothing to teach us about the value of altruism. And so forth.
In what I believe is reactionary fear of the implications of scientific revelation, fundamentalists insist that
the Bible is absolutely, literally historically true, and twist themselves into metaphoric pretzels proving that the
Universe was created over the span of 518,400 strictly defined modern minutes, that hares do so too chew
their cud (Lev. 11:6, Deut. 14:7), that the sun orbits the earth, that the earth could stop revolving for a day
with no deleterious effects to life (Josh. 10:13), that Zechariah (11:12-13) and
German theologians have contributed a useful distinction here. There are two German words that are both translated into English as "history": historie and geschichte. Historie we may think of as our modern, Gibbonesque definition of history — names and dates and Social Security numbers, videotaped evidence that an event actually did happen.
Geschichte, on the other hand, refers to the significance of an event presented as history, or the meaning of an event.For example, if a child says, "Look, the milk and cookies that we left for Santa Claus are gone," that's historie — the glass is empty, all but a few drops, and the plate has nothing but a few crumbs on it. If the parent replies, "Santa Claus must have come, look at all the presents under the tree," that's geschichte.
Here's another example: Mark 6:48 says, "When Jesus saw that the disciples were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by." We today naturally focus on the miracle of Jesus walking on water, and we forget to wonder what this verse meant to its original audience.
Mark's first-century audience, accustomed to Mark's idea that Jesus was a more important prophet than even Moses, the prophet of all prophets, would have thought to themselves, Moses stretched out his hand, and Godde divided the sea. Jesus walked on water all by himself. They would have thought of Exodus 33:21-22, which says, "And YHWH continued, 'See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.'" Mark's first audiences thought, Godde passed by Moses so that Godde's glory wouldn't blind Godde's representative. Jesus intended to pass by his disciples so that his glory wouldn't blind his disciples.
Here's a third ten-dollar word: heilsgeschichte, literally holiness-history. We mentioned Moses a moment ago. More than 3,000 years ago, when people were just beginning to inscribe their stories about their relationship with Godde onto papyrus and animal skins (parchment), people took for granted that the more important a person was, the more likely it was that the events around that person's birth would be unusual, even miraculous. It was said by the Egyptians that the gods chose Queen Hatshepsut and nursed her with goddess milk. It was said by the Persians that King Cyrus, when an infant, had been left exposed on a hillside to die, but he was rescued by the gods and lived to kill his would-be killer. The great or miraculous events around a birth were signals of the baby's future greatness.
If the Egyptian Pharaoh (possibly Ramses II) had actually commanded that all the boy babies born to Jewish mothers be killed, wouldn't some historian outside the Bible have recorded the fact? If, more than a thousand years later, king Herod had actually commanded that all the boy babies born to Jewish mothers be killed, wouldn't more than one historian outside the Bible have screamed in outrage at the monstrous evil of such an act? If the sky had actually filled with angels singing, "Glory to Godde in the highest," wouldn't some historian outside the Bible have noticed?
Here's yet another example: Hippocrates was not the first person to think that men and women had the same "generative fluid" (i.e., sperm and gleet), the principal difference being that the men's version of the fluid is foamy, while the women's version is thinner and had a tinge of red in it. (The ancient Hebrew euphemism for these fluids, incidentally, was "milk and honey"!) Hippocrates taught that sperm was first refined out of the blood, then went to the brain, then made its way down the spine through the marrow and out of the body by way of the testicles. This explained how Athena could be born out of Zeus's head. The ancients thought that sperm was sort of milky and foamy looking because it was (a) water mixed with (b) an air-like substance, the Spirit that creates and sustains life.
We have a more detailed knowledge today of where babies come from. But doesn't this explain a lot about John 19:24, where Jesus's side is pierced with a lance and blood and "water" come out? Jesus had already bowed his head and given up his spirit, so there was no Spirit (b) to make the "water" (a) of the male generative fluid foamy-looking.
In historie terms, John is saying that blood and semen came out of Jesus's side, and today we can be pretty sure that that is not a historical account of a factual event. In geschichte terms, John is saying that Jesus on the cross "gave birth," through blood (the feminine element) and water/sperm (the masculine element), to a new way for people to live in relationship with Godde. I think that most Christians today would say that that is true.
Remarkably little of the Bible is historie-history, and the parts that probably are, are the parts that most religious leaders don't like to talk about — like the king who was murdered while his attendants thought he was having a bowel movement (Judges 3:20-25).
But all of the Bible is heilsgeschichte — holiness-history. Every story in the Bible has a truth to teach us about the human relationship with Godde. The difficulty lies in most of the Bible being more than 3,000 years old, written in a different land, in a different language, with a different culture that had different values and different expectations.
Fundamentalists insist that the Bible is 100 percent historie-history, and furthermore that it is historically true by the definition of approximately 1800 C.E. The men, and probably two or three women, who inscribed the Bible onto papyrus or parchment never heard of the Enlightenment, never heard of Edward Gibbon, and didn't think that historie was anywhere near as important as heilsgeschichte — and, yes, I know they didn't know those words either.
I say, if you're going to study the Bible, don't try to figure out what the stories meant in 1604 (the King James Version) or 1764 (around Gibbon's era), or even in 1964. Try to figure out what the stories meant to their original hearers, anywhere up to 3,600 years ago. Go for the heilsgeschichte.