About three weeks ago, David Bokovoy wrote an interesting blog post on historicity in the scripture in which he argued that questions of historicity are unhelpful anachronisms that tend to miss the point of scripture:
It’s important for modern readers of the Bible to recognize that biblical historians were not motivated to write their accounts out of antiquarian interest. The past was far too important a tool for these authors to simply recount what really happened. Instead, biblical authors used history as a tool to convey themes concerning the God of Israel and his relationship to his chosen people.
Bokovoy’s primary target in the article was an essay written by Paul Hoskisson. The main point of Hoskisson’s article was that Mormons are correct to “intuit the strong bond that exists between our faith and historical events,” and that “everything depends upon the historicity of what Elder Bruce R. McConkie called the three pillars of eternity—the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement.”
I agree strongly with Hoskisson’s general conclusion (that historicity does matter), and I find his critical analysis of those who believe historicity does not matter to be quite compelling. But when it came time to argue in favor of historicity his arguments seemed slightly circular. As an example, one of them presumed a particular view of what ordinances are and how they work. Since this is largely information that comes from scripture, the logic seemed to reduce to: we know we ought to interpret scriptures in a particular way because we already know what they say.
Bokovoy, on the other hand, relies on the intentions of the Biblical authors (as the quote above shows). I believe this is the right approach. It allows the scriptures, as N. T. Wright puts it in Surprised by Scripture, “to offer their own path; their alternative points of view.” I just cannot convince myself that this point of view is so universally ahistorical.
I may as well point out the obvious: this isn’t my area of expertise. I have no training in ancient languages, culture, or history. I think there are some relevant insights on the question of how to read the Bible that come from far outside traditional fields, however. As one important example, consider Michael Tomasello and Malinda Carpenter’s paper on shared intentionality from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
“Human cognition seems very different,” Tomasello and Carpenter write. “Unlike other animal species, human beings use language, make mathematical calculations, create social institutions, build skyscrapers, use maps, marry one another, form governments, play symphonies, use money, and on and on.” These differences are mysterious precisely because, on an individual genetic and physiological level, there is so little difference between us and close relatives like chimpanzees. What is it about humans, then, that allows us to form culture and all that goes with it (language, art, science, and religion) while chimpanzees and other individually clever animals are stuck at the level of rudimentary tool use?
Tomasello and Carpenter explain: “After a few false starts, we have zeroed in on a suite of social-cognitive and social-motivational skills that may be collectively termed shared intentionality. Shared intentionality, sometimes called ‘we’ intentionality, refers to collaborative interactions in which participants share psychological states with one another.”
To understand just how fundamentally this capacity for shared intentionality differentiates us from other animals, consider this simple observation from Tomasello (quoted by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind): “It is inconceivable that you would ever see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.” No matter how individually clever animals like chimps might be, they lack the social toolbox that allows humans to collaborate. It’s still hard for us to grasp how incredible this mind-sharing ability is precisely because it is so intrinsic element to our nature. Does a fish know it is wet? Neither do humans realize that they are masters of social integration. And yet, “Humans are the giraffes of altruism,” wrote Haidt. “We’re one-of-a-kind freaks of nature who occasionally—even if rarely—can be as selfless and team-spirited as bees.”
Who would have thought, for example, of studying intensely such a trivial act as the gesture of pointing. And yet, as a Slate article summarizes research of Tomasello, Carpenter, and others, pointing is “an astonishingly complex act.”
A group of psychologists there have documented that infants, beginning at around 1 year of age, point and react to other people pointing in remarkably sophisticated ways. Babies point to refer to events in the past and the future. They point to refer to things that are no longer there. They can figure out, when an adult points across the room toward a group of objects, what exactly the adult is gesturing toward (the toy they’ve previously played with, say). They can deduce that, by pointing, an adult is trying to communicate something specific (find that toy hidden in that bucket). And not least of all, babies point because they want to share their experience of the world—that puppy—with someone else.
As incredibly wide as the cultural and linguistic gulf between us and humans who lived thousands of years earlier may be, there is still a deep commonality. “The basis of language,” says Carpenter, “is all right there in the gestures.” And gestures are both innate and unique to human beings.
The Bible, as a text written by humans to be read by other humans, is a gesture. The authors who wrote the story have picked up their end of the log. It’s our job to pick up the other end and carry it with them. Language exists and communication is possible because we are capable of shared intentionality with other human beings, and it is on this abstract but universal basis that I agree with Bokovoy’s attempts to decipher what the Biblical authors were trying to convey to their audience. Since we are not that intended audience our job is harder, but what we’re doing when we read the Bible is not a fundamentally different activity from what we do when we look to see what a baby is pointing at. Sharing minds is the defining attribute of our humanity.
And this is why, although I certainly agree with Bokovoy that “Biblical authors were not historians, at least not in the modern sense of the term,” I find it hard to believe that they were either ignorant of or apathetic towards the question of whether or not an event in the past really occurred. There is no reason why a story cannot be crafted to fit a particular theme or make a particular point without effacing the central events the story depicts. The more a story appears to rely on or emphasize the factual nature of events it depicts, the more we ought to assume that the person conveying the story wants us to believe (or assumes we will believe) that those events really took place. Nothing about this requires any technical or modern theory of history.
I think the strongest example of this in practice is the collection of New Testament stories about the Resurrection. Here I will cite N. T. Wright again:
Christianity appeals to history and to history it must go. And the question of Jesus’s resurrection, though it may in some senses burst the boundaries of history, also remains within them. That is precisely why it is so important, so disturbing, so life-and-death. We could cope—the world could cope—with a Jesus who ultimately remains a wonderful idea inside his disciples’ minds and hearts. The world cannot cope with a Jesus who comes out of the tomb, who inaugurates God’s new creation right in the middle of the old one.
Wright’s point, here and elsewhere, is that writers of the Gospels and epistles thought that the reality of the Resurrection was of pre-eminent importance, and that this is evident from within the text itself. This is seen, for example, in the recounting of Jesus eating and being physically grasped and touched by His stunned disciples. The literal nature of the Resurrection (or at least, the fact that everyone was taking it very literally) is also evident from the historical actions of Jesus’ disciples and their antagonists. Moreover, the idea that the Resurrection was symbolic is very difficult to reconcile with the culture of the time since—as Wright points out—it wasn’t really on the theological or cultural map up to this point.
In contrast to the historicity of the Resurrection, Wright argues that the story of the Creation ought not to be taken literally based, once again, on the text itself:
The fact that the animals are created before the humans in Genesis 1 and the male human before the animals in Genesis 2 is a classic literary way, perhaps a classic Hebrew literary way, of saying that these two accounts are signposts pointing away from themselves to a third reality that remains unstated, perhaps unstateable.
Wright, by engaging with the authors of the Bible cooperatively, is fulfilling the uniquely human capacity to share their minds. He might not be getting it perfectly right, but no one ever does. This is true even when we’re talking about communication between spouses who have shared decades together, how could the attempt to communicate across cultures, languages, and millennia not be more error-prone? It is error-prone, but the fact that we’re reading the text at all shows that it is far from impossible. It is, as humans, what we do. The challenge is to do it the best way we can.
Wright’s central point, then, and the argument that I think bolsters Hoskisson’s insistence on the relevance of historicity, is that we ought to care about whether events really happened or not when it appears the writers of the Bible cared. This will not resolve all the issues, of course. Some examples—like poetry or parable—are unambiguously non-historical. Others seem pretty clear to me in the opposite direction, such as the Resurrection. But quite a lot remain stuck in the middle, not least because “the authors of the Bible” (a deliberately vague term) is a nebulous and complex group of people encompassing a sequence of oral transmitters, then initial writers, and then another sequence of copiers, editors, redactors, and translators. Our views of this middle-ground will vary from person to person based on our perspectives, the evidence we have at hand, and the changing landscape of history, archaeology, linguistics, and related fields.
I don’t naively believe that if we all do our best to take the Biblical text as intended we will easily come to the same answers about historicity. But I do hope that the common endeavor will provide a sense of unity even when individuals differ on the particulars. I also think that some historical events are more integral to our faith than others, with the Resurrection being vital for all Christians and the historicity of the basic events of the Book of Mormon and its translation being of particular importance to Mormons.
Lastly, I want to point out that there is a certain danger in attempting to render symbolic what the authors seem to have written in a literal way. If one believes that Jesus is depicted post-Resurrection as eating not to assure readers that His body was in fact physical, but just to give the Resurrection symbol a more potent punch, then one risks violating the contract of shared intentionality. It’s not that communication is never done with a wink and a nod, or sarcastically, or ironically. It’s just that the temptation to believe that one is in on a secret that is designed to manipulate or fool ordinary readers is dangerously, seductively elitist.
This is, for me, the fundamental problem with over-symbolizing the scriptures. As I’ve written previously, I think the tendency is understandable. The more we understand the mechanism of mythology and symbolism (and other religious tools), the more it may seem like a battle between modernistic understanding of mechanics and naïve, pre-modern acceptance of magic. What’s left is a historicity-of-the-gaps, as it were. But there reason to doubt that a God who intervenes in human history could bring about genuine, historical events on which His prophets could build their myths and stories. Why not have symbolism and historicity? To suppose, on the contrary, that symbolism is the opiate of the masses is prideful. Pride is what would would have us believe that Santa Claus myths are required to keep ordinary mortals on their best behavior while we—the enlightened masters of symbolism and textual analysis—have outgrown such childish crutches.
Quoting from my father’s Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism:
Benjamin Winchester, who acknowledged Pratt’s influence, repeated his views in his influentialGospel Reflector. From there, they were reprinted in the church newspaper, Times and Seasons, where they established a quasi-official doctrine of Mormon scriptural exegesis. “It is necessary to establish some definite rule for interpretation,” one article ran. “The idea of spiritualizing the writings of the prophets and apostles” so that “none but the learned can understand them, is certainly repugnant to the word of God.”
The same principle of solidarity that animates, for example, the Word of Wisdom seems to render elitist interpretations of the Bible anathema to the spirit of the Restoration which began with the promise that wisdom is available to all who search for it. I do not doubt the utility and benefit of linguistic, cultural, and historical expertise to the study of scripture. I not only welcome them in theory, but in practice I devour such perspectives eagerly.
I simply believe, along with Wright, that “tomorrow’s world urgently needs to find a way forward that is neither that of secularism nor that of fundamentalism,” that this requires “a fresh integration of different modes and methods of study,” and most of all that:
Jesus is Lord of the world, so all truth is His truth. Let’s go and explore it with reverence and delight. Whether you look through the telescope or the microscope, whether you study texts or traditions, whether oceanography or paleography, you are thinking Jesus’ thoughts after Him.
It’s all the same Truth. Let’s resist the urge to use historicity as a litmus test for faithfulness (especially of non-central events, like Jonah or Job). This is a divisive approach that walls us off from expertise that can enrich our understanding of the scriptures. Let’s also resist the urge to banish historicity from relevance entirely, especially as that temptation to see ourselves as sophisticates who have outgrown the need for scriptural fairy tales violates the Mormon ethos of solidarity and the injunction to approach God in a child-like, trusting way. We ought to all be playing by the same rules and trying, as best we can, to take the Biblical authors as they present themselves.
1. This does not in any way conflict with a divine origin for the Bible. God just speaks through human beings or, even when He speaks directly, in our languages.
2. The fact that communication is better envisioned as sharing rather than transmitting/receiving combined with the fact that communication with God is possible has profound implications for how we see ourselves in relationship to God that I will not delve into farther in this post.
3. Wright also has an extra-textual argument for the historicity of the Resurrection that is based on his philosophy that “love is the deepest mode of knowing” which I find beautiful, persuasive, and very Mormon, but also outside the scope of this post.
4. This is a point that Ben Spackman has also made again and again, by the way. In one example he writes: “[The h]istoricity of Jonah should be based upon its genre, not our opinion of the probability of surviving in a whale.” In other words: work with author’s own intentions (i.e. genre) rather than imposing an external framework of our own (i.e. the assessment of the likelihood of surviving in a whale or a fish for three days.)