Is The Bible Merely Artistic Storytelling?
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.”
As Provan has observed, all histiography involves selection. All histiography is ideological in nature. And the uninvolved, disinterested observer has never existed, whether as ideal Chronicler or as Ideal Historiographer. Davies appears to be in agreement with Provan here: “Stories are never an innocent representation of the outside world. Literature is a form of persuasive communication, and it cannot help conveying its author. All historians are inescapably bound to tell a story and not ‘the facts’”
But there is a difficulty here. If Davies does not allow the acts of God in history on behalf of his people Israel, he therefore refuses at a stroke the persuasive communication of the biblical literature, and effectively strikes the author dumb. What is left of the literature he then examines? And does Davies approach an artifact already determined that it cannot witness to the acts of God in history?
Scholars sometimes have a tendency to focus on evidence that supports their point of view, and to suppress or ignore evidence that does not. In this respect, they are no different from anyone else. But if they think they are different from anyone else, it is they who are deceived, not the rest. They cannot have it both ways. Everybody has their own point of view. This is emphasised by Provan on a number of occasions. The writers of the Old Testament were no different in that respect.
The problem is not that the biblical narratives are story, or that they are ideological. Rather, as Thompson points out, the problems arise only when we ignore that! Whitelam points out that the biblical text is a witness to a particular perception of reality. Yet, surely this is fundamentally true of any witness, not just the biblical text.
Whitelam has asked what kind of history it is that devotes its attention to the precise chronological sequence of Ezra and Nehemiah (and others), but is able to say little, if anything, about the wider social reality. The answer surely is that it is a theological history that does this – the history of the divine acts of God intervening on behalf of his people in the affairs of human beings. The theological historian, like every historian, focuses on the events of history that most concern him. If, with Davies, you do not accept the acts of God in history, then you are going to have a serious problem with the Old Testament!
Does what the Bible portrays as historical event, even as seen from a particular point of view, have any external witness to its reality? The fact is that not one shred of direct archaeological evidence has been found for Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob or the 400-plus years the children of Israel sojourned in Egypt. The same is true for their miraculous exodus from slavery, as Miller points out.
But this is not negative or critical evidence – merely a lack of positive evidence. The fall of Jerusalem in 586 and the siege of Jerusalem in 701 are witnessed to by sources outside the biblical texts, and they are in essential agreement with the biblical accounts. Miller cites many more such instances.
If biblical literature has everything to do with artistry and virtually nothing to do with history, how is this amazingly accurate biblical literary artistry to be explained? Whitelam tells of the incident involving Newton and the apple and quotes Postan: “Had (Newton) asked himself the obvious question, why did that particular apple choose that unrepeatable instant to fall on that unique head, he might have written the history of an apple. Instead of which he asked himself why apples fall and produced the theory of gravitation. The decision was not the apple’s but Newton’s.”
Perhaps Davies should take Postan a stage further, and ask who caused that particular apple to choose that unrepeatable instant to fall on that unique head! Serious research into that question may result in a historian who does allow the divine acts of God in history! As Davies himself put it: “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with speculation. The problem lies in doing it and denying its implications – namely, that in this we are departing from the knowledge we have and entering the realm of not yet acquired knowledge. In this field, distinguishing between what we know and what we don’t know is the beginning of wisdom.”
There is surely a danger that all of us will fail to see a reality because of our own ideologies and presuppositions. Perhaps this is one of the strengths of having so many scholars of different persuasions addressing the same issues.
I set out to consider whether the evidence of scholars supported Philip Davies’ proposition with which we started. I do believe that there is a nugget of truth in what Davies says, but he has turned it into a goldmine from which he wants us all to dig. A bridge too far, if I may change the analogy.
Provan sets out to discredit the views of Davies, but his paper sustains serious damage in Davies’ quite correct charge that it is poor scholarship. A bridge not far enough. If Provan is concerned for the veracity of the Bible and seeks to defend it against charges of being virtually storytelling, let him do it in a way that gives him, and his arguments, credibility.
I would have to say that the Bible has really survived very well up to this point, and, as the book of Proverbs says, even a fool is considered wise when he keeps silent. Davies’ proposition seems to me to have begun an argument which is really much ado about precious little. The God that I know acts in history, even if his god doesn’t. And the God that I know isn’t intimidated by human wisdom, or lack of it.
Philip R Davies, ‘Method and Madness: Some Remarks on Doing History with the Bible’, JBL 114 volume 4, (1995), pp 699-705
Iain W Provan, ‘Ideologies, Literary and Critical Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel’, JBL 114 volume 4, (1995) pp 585-606
Kevin D Miller, ‘Did the Exodus Never Happen?’, Christianity Today, September 7 1998, No. 10, pp 44ff
Thomas L Thompson, ‘A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?’, JBL 114 volume 4, (1995) pp 683-698
Keith Whitelam, ‘Recreating the History of Israel’, JSOT 35, (1986) pp 45-70