Scripture, History, and Truth

Another installment in the continuing saga of my formation as a Catechist…

How would you answer a person who says:
“The Bible is not true because many of the events narrated in it did not actually happen.”

I would respond, first of all, by asking whether the inquirer is genuinely open to a conversation about biblical truth, or if they’re just expressing a frustration with or distaste for “religion” in general. In my experience, I have often found that a person making such a statement is, however “rational” they present themselves, speaking from a place of emotional and spiritual weakness. In those cases, presenting arguments and ideas that challenge them intellectually tends to elicit a defensive response, which leads to entrenchment and hostility, and ultimately turns the inquirer even further from light and life of which they are so desperately in need.

That said, I believe the prompt in this case means to presume an interested inquirer, one who is open to belief but finds him/herself perplexed by a more or less literal reading of Scripture. To this inquirer I would respond:

First of all, let’s adopt a little humility when it comes to the certainty of our knowledge of history; there are, for instance, many people who still argue over what did or did not happen in Dallas, TX on 22 November 1963—and there are living witnesses and film-footage of those events. How much less do we know about what took place 2000 or 3000 or 5000 years ago? Historical truth may be based on evidence but it also relies on testimony, perspective and interpretation. We shouldn’t discard it but let’s just bear in mind that it may not be as certain as we like to think.

But let’s say you’re right, many of the events described didn’t happen or else aren’t accurately reported. I don’t have a problem with that and, as a matter of fact, the Church would tend to agree with you [1]. The issue is that the writers of the Bible were, understandably, less concerned with archaeological and chronological precision than with making sure their audience understood the reality of our relation to God [2]. Did they want to give us informational truth? Sure, but much more important is the transformational truth of God’s salvific message [3].

You also need to realize that, when we look at the Bible, we’re not looking at one book written at one time but, rather, an entirely library of books compiled over hundreds of years [4]. These books, written in different contexts and with a wide array of audiences and life-experiences in mind, use a variety of literary forms to express their truth [5]. Shakespeare’s “Histories”, to use a secular example, often deviate wildly from the account a modern ‘Historian’ would give you but that doesn’t mean Shakespeare isn’t true to the emotional sense he was trying to convey. Poetry can be a true expression of the heart but it isn’t true that, for instance, a cloud can feel lonely [6]. When we read the Bible, then, we need to take all this (and more!) into consideration and recognize that the truth of God’s revelation requires us to make an effort of interpretation [7].

When I say, “I believe the Bible is true,” I’m not blindly submitting to the dead letters of an ancient book but, rather, professing faith in the incarnate and living Word of God [8].

[1] “…tandis qu’ils relatent en un langage simple et figuré, adapté aux intelligences d’une humanité moins développée, les vérités fondamentales présupposées à l’économie du salut…” (Des sources du Pentateuque et de l’historicité de Genèse 1-11).

[2] From the supplied reading: “We shouldn’t think of the authors of the Bible the same way we think of historians today who do a lot of research and check all the details. For example, when the evangelists tell an event from the life of Jesus, they might simplify or modify the details so we can understand better what the most important thing is. What they’re interested in, besides describing the development of events, is to show us that God never abandons us.”

[3] CCC136 God is the author of Sacred Scripture because he inspired its human authors; he acts in them and by means of them. He thus gives assurance that their writings teach without error his saving truth (cf. DV 11).

[4] From the supplied reading: “The Bible is a collection of many ancient books – stories of a people of faith – compiled by many authors over a long period of time in our salvation history.”

[5] From the supplied reading: “Those who search out the intention of the sacred writers must, among other things, have regard for “literary forms” for truth is proposed and expressed in a variety of ways, depending on whether a text is history of one kind or another, or whether its form is that of prophecy, poetry, or some other type of speech.” (Dei Verbum 12)

[6] “I wandered lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills,” (Wordsworth)

[7] From the supplied reading: “A Catholic reads the Bible using a combination of exegesis and spirituality.”

[8] CCC108 Still, the Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living”. If the Scriptures are not to remain a dead letter, Christ, the eternal Word of the living God, must, through the Holy Spirit, “open [our] minds to understand the Scriptures.”

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