The Bible: Mystery or History?
by Fr. Dwight Longenecker
After my talk at a parish mission, one of the women came up looking a bit flustered. “Father, can I ask you a question?”
“I was at Mass yesterday and the priest said in his homily that the story of Jonah and the whale is a fable.”
“I was shocked, Father. How could he say that? The story isn’t a fable, is it?”
I smiled. “It’s complicated.”
The question is a good one, and like most good questions it leads to even more questions. How do we understand the stories in the Old Testament? How do we handle the stupendous elements in the stories? Are all the stories in the Bible supposed to be taken literally? Are the stories historical or are they fables? What’s the difference between a fable, a parable, a legend, and a myth?
FABLES AND FAIRY TALES
One of the main problems we face in understanding the Scriptures is that most of us learned the stories in the Bible when we were children. At that stage we were also hearing many other stories of different genres, and as we matured we were not always skilled at determining which stories were meant to be understood as history and which ones were not. To make it more complicated, many of the stories which are taken as historical sound like the ones that we knew were fairy tales.
Here’s an example: As children we learned the story of Jack and the Beanstalk in which an enterprising boy climbs up to a land beyond the clouds and encounters a terrible giant. Through his cleverness, Jack defeats the ogre and wins the day. We also heard the story of David and Goliath (see 1 Samuel 17). In that story there is also a fearful giant and a clever, courageous boy who brings him down and wins the triumph.
The first story is clearly a fairy tale. What about the second story? We’re supposed to believe that the story of David and Goliath is historical, and so it is. However, it may not be quite so easy as that because we all know that stories of heroes are passed on from one generation to another, and as they are passed down, they are often exaggerated or embroidered. So history becomes a legend, teaching points are added, and the legend becomes a fable — a story with a point.
While the story of David and Goliath is presented as historical, it is also possible that it grew in the telling. Therefore, reading the Bible is not so simple. We have to be able to think carefully and clearly to understand how the Bible stories mix both meaning and historical facts.
Are the stories historical or are they fables? What’s the difference between a fable, a parable, a legend, and a myth?
HISTORY, MYTH, AND MYSTERY
When reading the Bible, we are confronted with a collection of ancient stories about mankind’s relationship with God. The stories in the Bible are religious stories with an overarching spiritual meaning, but they are unique amongst ancient religious texts because they are also rooted in real places and real historical people.
The religious stories from ancient cultures are myths. That is to say, they are fanciful tales about the relationships between the gods and goddesses and between the gods and mortals. The Bible is different. It deals with the relationships between the one true God and the Jews — a particular tribe of people at a particular time in history.
The stories of the Old Testament are presented as history. Even the oldest stories of the Garden of Eden and Noah and Abraham give genealogies of the characters and attempt to place the events at a particular location. In other words, the stories are not presented as myth and mystery. Although the details may be vague, the stories are told as if they really happened.
Nevertheless, the ancient stories have elements that feel like fantasy stories. In the Book of Numbers, a donkey talks to a prophet; in the Garden of Eden, a snake talks to Adam and Eve; and in the story of Jonah, the prophet is gulped down by a whale only to be vomited up again a few days later. The Old Testament is full of miraculous events: a burning bush that does not burn up, a staff that turns into a snake, 10 plagues, a sea that opens up so the Israelites can escape, bread from heaven, and water from a rock.
Are all these miracles historically true, or are they fables and fairy tales made up to help people believe? Some scholars think all the miraculous stories are pure fantasy, while others insist that all the stories must be taken literally and all the events really did happen just as miraculously as the stories portray.
NEITHER SUPERSTITIOUS NOR CYNICAL
When faced with these questions, we can be either superstitious or cynical. The superstitious person believes all the miracle stories without question. The cynical person doesn’t believe any of them. In fact, both positions are extreme and incorrect.
We must avoid superstition and being gullible, but we must also avoid the kind of rationalism and doubt that rules out miracles altogether. Therefore, the first foundation for a sensible approach is to accept the stories as being essentially historical. This is important because our faith is rooted in history. It is not mythical. The Old Testament stories are rooted in history because they look forward to the coming of Jesus Christ, who enters human history as God’s Son.
However, while we accept that the stories are rooted in history, we can also accept that stories change and develop over time, and that primitive people did not have the same scientific knowledge we have.
When we use modern techniques of historical and scientific research, many of the miracles can be understood as natural events. For example, an English scientist, professor Sir Colin Humphreys, has investigated the miracles of Moses and the Exodus story and explained how many of the events portrayed as miraculous can actually be understood to have natural causes.
My own book Mystery of the Magi: The Quest to Identify the Three Wise Men (Regnery History, 2017) explores the historical, economic, political, and cultural background of the time of Jesus’ birth to show who the Magi were, where they came from, and what the Star of Bethlehem might have been. With modern research methods, figures like the Wise Men — whom many considered characters from a fanciful legend — suddenly come to life and step out of the depths of history to become real.
The Catholic faith never contradicts common sense.
MIRACLES AND MAGIC
Because some of the miracles stories can be explained by natural events does not mean that miracles do not happen. We believe miracles are possible, but we do not have to accept that all the stories in the Bible that are presented as miracles are actually miracles. They may have been perceived as miracles by people with less scientific knowledge than we have, or they may have been related over the years as miracles although they had a natural explanation.
A good example of this is the miraculous provision of quail for the Israelites to eat in the desert (see Exodus 16). The story gives the impression of a miracle, but we now know that quail have a migration pattern that takes them westward from East Africa, and by the time they get to eastern Arabia (where the Israelites were camping), the exhausted quail land and rest on the ground, too tired to move.
The story is told as a miracle, but it has a natural explanation.
While we use our modern minds to think about these ancient stories, we do not dismiss the possibility of miracles. Many of the stories can only be explained by the direct intervention of God, and of course, our entire faith is based on the greatest miracle of all — the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
NORMAL AND PARANORMAL
The Catholic faith never contradicts common sense, but it often transcends common sense. When we are faced with miracles or paranormal events of any kind, the Church teaches us to look for the natural explanation first and then to accept the possibility of the supernatural.
The same applies to our understanding of Scripture. We read and study with a sense of wonder and delight, always seeing the mighty hand of God in human history. Yet we also see how he works in and through the natural world and the events of human history.
Seeing the natural explanation but also allowing for the supernatural intervention means that we are alive and alert to all of God’s work in the world, and reading the Scriptures with a prayerful, intelligent, and lively mind helps us participate fully in the mystery and the history of Jesus Christ, who is Emmanuel: “God with us.”