6

As I read the gospels and the other NT books, both Jesus and the authors all seem to take the OT as entirely historically accurate, especially the events of Genesis and Exodus. Additionally, this assumption of the literal accuracy of the OT appears to not just be a side note, but form the core of many of their theological arguments. Is this a correct impression of Jesus and the NT authors?

I found one question that seems to support this interpretation of Jesus' perspective, at least to a degree.

5
  • In order for this question to work you’d need to ask for multiple perspectives on the topic or from the perspective of one specific denomination.
    – Luke Hill
    Feb 18 at 23:02
  • 3
    Since the question is, intrinsically, about scripture then I would see this as a biblical basis question in its own right, not requiring to be further scoped. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 18 at 23:12
  • 1
    What do you mean by "literal" history? Almost everyone would say that both they and we should read the historical narratives with a mind for metaphor, rather than reading everything truly literally. Do you really mean whether they read it as actual history rather than ahistory or mythology?
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 19 at 4:40
  • @curiousdannii - "Almost everyone..with a mind for metaphor". What do you mean? The vast majority of the OT is literal history which has a spiritual meaning, God can do both at the same time. V little is to be taken as allegory (fictional) though the Song of Songs might qualify, it is not important to the Song whether we see it as literal history provided we see it as descirbing the mutual love between God and his people/Christ and his bride the church and every individual member of his church as his bride also. Feb 20 at 17:19
  • @Andrew All historical narratives still have idioms and metaphors. All language does, to the extent that we frequently don't even notice metaphorical extension, it's so commonplace. Actually reading something purely literally would be nonsense. Allegory is a different matter entirely.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 20 at 21:39

3 Answers 3

4

First off

The prevalent view throughout history is that the OT histories, including Genesis 1-11, are genuine history (and, further, that Earth was Created circa 4,000 BC). Moreover, there is much historical and archaeological evidence for much of the OT. Simply on a probabilistic standpoint, it is likely that the NT authors agreed with the majority opinion of the day in accepting the OT as genuine history.

Note also that I don't use the word "literal" in the preceding paragraph, as that term is frequently subject to misuse and abuse. No one believes that there are literal barred gates restraining the ocean (Job 38), but that is a different claim than the historical claim that God caused "the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place", thus forming dry land (Genesis 1). When we hear that "the voice of [Abel]'s blood is crying to [God] from the ground", and that "the ground [...] has opened its mouth to receive [Abel]'s blood from [Cain's] hand" (Genesis 4:10-11), we recognize that figurative (rather than literal) language is being used, but that the event so described is nonetheless real history.

It's important to note that this is simply the way humans communicate. That dress in the window "screaming 'buy me!'" doesn't have a literal voice, but the temptation to purchase it is nevertheless real. The sun doesn't literally rise or set, but if you ask anyone what time sunrise was/is, they know what you mean. The use of figurative language does not imply that the events so described are necessarily not genuinely historic.

Scriptural Evidence

That said, what evidence can we find from Scripture itself that this view is correct?

For starters, we have the genealogies of Jesus, which go back to "Adam, the son of God". These acknowledge Adam as a special Creation, and no Scriptural genealogy contains any suggestion that the lineage from A to B is mythical while the lineage from B to C is historical. The implication, therefore, is that the entire lineage from A to C — that is, from Adam — is historical.

We have Peter's writing; "the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished" (2 Peter 3:5-6). There is no indication Peter is speaking of a mere myth; in fact, not only does he explicitly describe Noah's Flood as a "fact", but specifically predicts that scoffers will come who deny this fact. The combination of such an explicit description and a prediction of future denial of the same ought to give serious pause to anyone doing such denying.

Peter also mentions Noah and the Flood in a way that strongly implies historicity in 2 Peter 2:5, followed immediately (v6) by mention of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom (see below) is affirmed as factual by Christ Himself.

Paul repeatedly mentions Adam, Eve and the Fall with no indication he is speaking of myths. The most straight-forward reading of these citations would be that Paul believed them to be genuinely historical. The context is also important; Paul uses Genesis 1-3 as the basis for many theological teachings, which would be seriously undermined if he was referring to myths rather than true history. (Indeed, the entirety of Christian theology significantly relies on the historicity of Genesis 1-3.)

Moreover, Paul states that "[God's] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world" (Romans 1:20). What, exactly, is around at the beginning of Creation to do such perceiving, if not Adam and Eve? In the same passage he warns of "men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth".

We have Christ Himself; when he refers to Adam and Eve, he uses the formula "have you not heard/read?". As best we can tell, this formula is used in various places to affirm the truth of the Scripture being quoted. In the same context, Christ tells us that "at the beginning of creation God 'made them male and female'".

In Matthew 11:20-24, Jesus mentions judgment for Tye, Sidon and Sodom; how will their judgment be more bearable if these places never existed? How could Sodom "have remained until this day" if it never existed? The clear implication is that these were real places.

Again, in Luke 11:50–51, Jesus mentions Abel as a prophet alongside Zechariah. Certainly some of the prophets were real, which would make Abel's inclusion rather odd if Abel were not also real.

Again, in John 5:46-47, Jesus says "if you believed Moses, you would believe me", and offers this challenge: "if you do not believe [Moses'] writings, how will you believe my words?"

Lastly, we have the direct Word of God Himself, when he says "in six days [I] the Lord made the heavens and the earth".

What's missing, despite heroic efforts by some people to insert such, is any evidence that the authors of Scripture (OT or NT) believed the histories therein to be other than genuine.

Aside

Of course, whether or not the NT authors believed the OT to be historically accurate, we have substantial extra-Scriptural evidence that it is, indeed, historically accurate! (Yes, even Genesis 1-11!) Since that wasn't the question, I won't attempt to go into detail here (and there are plenty of relevant Questions already on this SE), but it stands to reason that if it is accurate, those living at the time would have taught such to their children, and so on, such that the tradition at the time of Christ would match the fact of the OT's accuracy. Also, it seems likely that Jesus — who, being the very Word of God, would know for a fact that the OT is genuine history — would have corrected His disciples if they believed otherwise.

Further Reading

1
  • 2
    Good overview. Yes, I've recently been reading the gospels where Jesus clearly talks about people in Genesis as if they are real people, Hebrews where the author talks about all the major people in the OT as if they are real people, 1&2 Peter where he talks about the global flood and creation of the earth as if they were real events. Paul makes controversial arguments about the role of men and women based on a literal reading of the Genesis account and the fall of man. The historicity of the OT seems to be pretty crucial to making sense of what the NT authors write.
    – yters
    Feb 19 at 19:26
0

Literary not Literally

The ESV literary study Bible by Leland Ryken describes that any piece of writing is communicated through a form, and this form is the primary and essential factor in analysing the writing or literature. The ancient people (like Jews or Greeks) did not see their theological writings as historical in the sense we understand historical facts, but they interpreted them in their right genre and context. Even today, when the scholars or theologians appeal to the stories or characters of Genesis, it does not mean they are treating them as historical. Given the fact that the anti-literary reading of ancient literature: history or mythology, is something which began among the vulgar and illiterate laymen who were outside the tradition and wisdom of the church, it seems safe to assume that the NT authors or prophets did not hold such low view of their scripture to confuse mythology with history. Ryken writes:

Reading and interpreting the Bible as literature. Any piece of writing needs to be assimilated and interpreted in terms of the kind of writing that it is. The Bible is a literary book in which theology and history are usually embodied in literary forms. Those forms include genres, the expression of human experience in concrete form, stylistic and rhetorical techniques, and artistry.

These literary features are not extraneous aspects of the text—not optional matters to consider if we have time or interest to do so after we have assimilated the message or content of a passage. Instead, they are the forms through which the content is mediated

It also describes the fallacies of modern readers who confuse literature with history in the fallacies about literary approach.

To speak of the Bible as literature is to claim that the Bible is fictional. While fictionality is common in literature, it is not an essential ingredient of literature. The properties that make a text literary are unaffected by the historicity or fictionality of the material. A text is literary based on a writer’s selectivity and molding of the material and the style of presentation, regardless of whether the details really happened or are made up.

To argue that the literary approach is a new one introduced to deny the traditional literal reading is wrong, since it has been observed that the literal or anti-literary approach to ancient writings is a modern phenomenon. The Catholic Church issued a decree about The Interpretation of Bible in the Church in 1993 which promotes critical thinking responding to the threat of the fundamentalist myopic and "profane" approach which was traced back to 1895 America. The modern dark age with respect to literature can be linked to the modernisation and technology such as the invention of printing press which lead to complete wipe out from man's understanding of literature, as he began to read everything from history by the lens of his newspaper and television reports. The era of smartphones can be apparently viewed as raising new heights to the level of man's illiteracy or lack of wisdom. However, the conflict against contextual wise interpretation of historical/theological literature can be traced back to the contemporaries of the authors of the Bible from the examples of how the anti-Church fundamentalists murdered the prophets and Christ based on their ideological unwise approach. This anti-church interpretation is famously noted by Augustine in the times of the early Roman Church, as he defended the scripture against those vulgar against their unscientific anti-literary reading:

We must be on our guard against giving interpretations which are hazardous or opposed to science, and so exposing the word of God to the ridicule of unbelievers (De Genesi ad litteram, I, 19, 21, especially n. 39).

The book How to Read the Bible: History, Prophecy, Literature--Why Modern Readers Need to Know the Difference and What It Means for Faith Today (2005) by Steven McKenzie is highly recommended. The author describes the pervasive "blind" faith among the laymen:

Biblical scholars encounter this kind of response all the time in the classroom. There are students who “just ‘shut down’ and refuse to engage biblical scholarship in a creative way at all.” They react this way because they believe critical study of the Bible to be a threat to their faith. Yet a faith that cannot stand up to challenges or cope with empirical evidence hardly seems worth having. This is another common reaction of students and other people who encounter biblical scholarship for the first time—they reject faith altogether and adopt a negative view of the Bible

He describes the etiological genre of history in ancient literature.

History as Etiology in the Bible Van Seters applied his observations from Huizinga’s definition and from Greek history writing to the Bible. He isolated the following five criteria for identifying history writing in ancient Israel: (Van Seters, In Search of History)

  1. History writing was a specific form of tradition in its own right rather than the accidental accumulation of traditional material.

  2. History writing considered the reason for recalling the past and the significance of past events and was not primarily the accurate reporting of the past.

  3. History writing examined the (primarily moral) causes in the past of present conditions and circumstances.

  4. History writing was national or corporate in nature.

  5. History writing was literary and an important part of a people’s corporate tradition.

These criteria are important for identifying the genre of “history writing” in the Bible and for understanding the nature of the genre of ancient history writing as opposed to other genres such as epic or legend. Of particular interest for our present purposes are items 2 and 3. The Greek word for “cause” is aitia, which lends itself to the word “etiology.” An etiology is a story that explains the cause or origin of a given phenomenon—a cultural practice or social custom, a biological circumstance, even a geological formation. An etiology of this nature is not a scientific explanation. It is not historical in the modern sense of an event that actually took place in the past. It is, rather, a story that “renders an account” by offering some explanation of present conditions and circumstances based on past causes. Ancient history writing, which sought to “render an account” of the past was, in effect, etiology. An excellent illustration of the nature of etiologies is found in a group of stories by Rudyard Kipling called the Just So Stories: For Little Children.

8
  • My understanding is the Catholic church has always held to a literal historical reading of the OT. There are four levels of interpretation, and the base is literal historical.
    – yters
    Feb 19 at 17:16
  • that is an oversimplification of the basic level "plain" interpretation, and you must be thinking about the PaRdes midrashic four levels. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pardes_(exegesis)
    – Michael16
    Feb 19 at 17:19
  • Similar, but there's a Christian version used by the medieval church: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/questions/76/…
    – yters
    Feb 19 at 19:20
  • 1
    @yters it's the same thing based on the Jewish Pardes methods. I see that your concern about bringing that is dealing with the diff between exegesis and hermeneutics. Where exegesis is what the explanation/interpretation is, whereas hermeneutics is about how. Or perhaps one may see no difference, but I hope the point is expressed as to various methods and variables taken into consideration for interpretation, including finding out the genre of literature. The 4 layers approach could be on micro level whereas genre specification is macro.
    – Michael16
    Feb 20 at 9:44
  • 1
    To rephrase, then, it seems the NT authors take Genesis, Exodus, and the rest of the OT books that appear to be history as if they are actual histories, not legends or make believe. For example, Jesus refers to Jonah getting swallowed by a fish as if it really occurred.
    – yters
    Feb 20 at 20:03
0

Without being time travelers and mind readers, this question can't be answered. What can be pointed out, though, is that ancient people had a different basis for regarding a piece of writing as authoritative than we do: we want it to be historically and scientifically accurate, and if it is then we consider it authoritative, but to the ancient mind authority came from the source -- and since scripture was regarded as coming from God, no further qualifications were necessary.

Jesus and the Apostles lived at a time when this was starting to change slightly, but pretty much only in Roman views; that practical people liked their facts lined up as nicely as their aqueducts and roads. So the first century Jews almost certainly considered the Torah and other scriptures to be authoritative regardless of anything else.

And really that's all that can be said from the evidence we see in the text: they cite Genesis and Exodus and Isaiah and the rest as having authority. Whether they thought the first two were actual history can't be known, but that's not an issue: since they plainly regarded the Hebrew scriptures as authoritative, we are obliged to follow that and do the same.

1
  • I would think the very extensive rabbinic writing about the Torah would give some indication whether they believed it to be literal history or not.
    – yters
    Feb 26 at 12:58

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .