Is The Bible Merely Artistic Storytelling? (1)

Philip Davies declared that “the reason why many things are told in the biblical literature, and the way they are told, has virtually everything to do with literary artistry and virtually nothing to do with anything that might have happened.” Is this a valid claim? Or is Davies merely using hyperbole to counter those who have effectively elevated the Bible into the Godhead?

 In considering his proposition, let us begin by enlarging on Davies’ view of literature and history. He apparently regards biblical literature as being artistic storytelling rather than being anything remotely close to factual history. Furthermore, he holds that an appreciation of the Bible as literature leads to a devaluation of its historical worth, as it is seen to portray a “story world” and not a real one.

At this point, it would be pertinent to ask why the Scriptures were actually written. For example, the book of Genesis does not stand up at all if it is to be regarded as a purely historical book. Likewise, it falls far short of the mark if it is to be viewed as poetry. Nevertheless, the Bible has much in common with a lot of poetry of its day and has similarites with the many other stories of creation and flood that were known in ancient days. But we must return to considering the historical worth of the Bible.

It is surely true that the appreciation of any literature similarly leads to a devaluation of its historical worth. Therefore, anyone reading a document of any kind will become (more or less) involved with what they are reading and receive the author’s point of view. For example, reading a book about a war will inevitably raise thoughts and emotions in the reader.

The moment that happens, the historical worth of the document is reduced because the reader then had a point of view in addition to their own, and was unable therefore to be objective about what they were reading. How, then, can a document remain truly historically worthy? Presumably only by remaining unread and by being locked away somewhere so that no-one can gain a personal point of view about it!

Since, according to Davies, all historical research involves subjectivity, then all modern historians, like ancient historians, tell a story, at least to some degree. Knowing the point of view of the historian, knowing his bias and involvement, will help the researcher to unravel the objective from the subjective. Whitelam was concerned about those scholar’s writings which “contain no extended or explicit reference to the assumptions which underlie their approaches to the study of history.”

In considering the Old Testament Scriptures, Davies makes his point that he does not allow divine activity in historical reconstruction. Yet the Bible claims to be a book which speaks of the acts of God on behalf of his people in human history. Davies is rejecting the very foundation that the Bible exists on. If he does that, how would he ever understand and appreciated the Bible for what it is?

In responding to Provan on the issue of the histiography of the Bible, Davies says that being an ordained minister (as Provan is) commits Provan to a particular view of the Bible. This may well be true; but, by choosing to disallow divine activity in history, Davies also commits himself to a particular view of the Bible.

According to Davies, religious commitment leads to a bias in favour of the biblical text as historical evidence; that is, to the point where one tends to accept it without the need for confirmation.  It is surely equally true to say that bias against the biblical text as historical evidence to the point where one will not accept it unless there is confirmation, is just as much a bias as any other view. If bias is wrong in one case, how can bias in another case be justified?

As Kevin Miller has observed, “Where once historians viewed the Bible as innocent until proved guilty, nowadays many see the accounts as fiction until proved fact, guilty until proved innocent.” None of this is lost on Provan, who says that the approach to histiography that Davies advocates with such passion is indeed no more free of unverifiable presuppositions than those other approaches he so vehemently attacks: “That which he represents so frequently as ‘real historical research’ is in fact a very particular sort of historical research founded squarely on a particular way of looking at the world.”

In his own response to Davies, Provan declared that there is no such thing as value-free academic endeavour. Science, just as much as religion, has its orthodoxies and its heretics; it has its free thinkers and its inquisitions. Science, just as much as religion, has its liberals and its fundamentalists; those who think, and those who simply act according to the conventional wisdom and rules.

Therefore, by all means treat the witness of the biblical text with great caution, but likewise treat all witnesses. Whitelam says that the historian has to “proceed with considerable circumspection to avoid perpetuating the justifications and propoganda [sic] of the past.” Perhaps this is true of every witness to the past, so it could be that the interpreter should tread carefully. But is it true of the artefact? Can it mislead us?

Davies maintains that artefacts can mislead, though never through their own fault; whereas texts can and do mislead through the intentions of their authors. For Provan, archaeological remains do not speak for themselves but must be interpreted creatively both by the archaeologist and by the historian. Artefacts are silent until they are interpreted, and then they witness to the interpreter’s own perception of reality. Therefore, even the author of an artifact can intend to mislead just as much as anyone else.

Yet, is an artefact in itself not just objective data? For Thomas Thompson, there is an immense difference between objective data and the subjective understanding of it as evidence. Whitelam says that it is clear that archaeological evidence has to be assessed independently of any textual evidence to avoid selective conflation and distortion. I would have to ask who can carry out that assessment without the selective conflation and distortion that exists because of who and what they are in themselves.

Since Davies does not believe in the acts of God in history, would he be the right person to independently examine the biblical text? Since I am a Christian, would I be the right person to independently examine the text of the Enuma Elish? As Miller has said, “Often, the interpretation ends at the very place the interpreter’s prejudices begin.”