Is The Bible Merely Artistic Storytelling? (2)

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