Chapter 5: History as His Story

Taking the Bible Seriously
by Leander E. Keck

Chapter 5: History as His Story

The Bible claims God discloses himself in history. Having seen how the situations of the recipients of the revelation affect the disclosure of God, we now turn the coin over and ask how history reveals God. Three matters will be considered. First, we need to sharpen our conception of what history is; then we shall compare the historian’s way of presenting history with the way the Bible deals with it, and finally we shall look at what the biblical mode of telling history implies.

How Does the Past Become History?

The historian wants to learn what happened. But "what happened" is not an adequate concept of history. To begin with, history is not the sum of everything that happened. Many things occur which are not really eligible for "history" because they have no significant relation to meaningful happenings. For example, during a football game, things may occur on the field which turn out to be irrelevant to the course of the game. The cameras record the entire action, but the history of the game is those actions, movements, and plays which contribute to the outcome. In fact, some frames of the film can be edited out with no loss because what they record is accurate but irrelevant. Moreover, some frames will become significant only in retrospect, after one sees how a certain play succeeded because of what happened earlier on one end of the line. Without such consequences this action would not really be part of the history of the game. In other words, history is more than happenings: history is happenings in meaningful relationships.

Another reason that we must distinguish between history and mere happenings is that the past does not present itself as history. The meaningful relationships are not built-in. History is the result of bringing order to the data, of relating it to general knowledge and to our tradition. The archeologist, for instance, unearths broken pots, a shred of fiber from a mat, a thick layer of charred matter, a rabbit bone. To these data he brings his total understanding of primitive cultures. When he relates these findings to those from similar excavations and to other knowledge, these remnants of the past become genuine history.

We also distinguish between the past and history because we must remind ourselves that there is no history in which the historian does not participate. History exists only where the past has meaning. "Pastness" exists as a stubborn datum; "history" exists only where the past is related to the present. It can be an unconscious relationship, such as the way most people are unaware that their notions of the soul are related to ancient Greek ideas; it can also be related by deliberate effort, as in the historian’s work of recovering and understanding Mycenaean civilization.

In this light, we can clarify the role of the historian. Basically he aims to understand the past as history, to view it as an intelligible past. This means he first finds out what happened: earthquakes, wars, marriages, works of art, waves of fear. But the historian does not want simply to catalogue the past; he wants to understand it, to interpret it so that it is intelligible for someone else. To do this, he must become involved in his work. Little participation is required if one is working on chronological problems, but much more is demanded if the historian is trying to make the period "come alive," trying to "get the feel of" the era, or "get inside" a figure like Peter the Great. On this level, the historian inevitably imports his own historicity into the material; as his own situation changes, he modifies his understanding of history. We see this clearly in the ways the Civil War has been interpreted. In fact, we can speak of the "history of the histories of the Civil War."

Everything we have said applies to biblical history as well. Our own modernity is revealed by the way we understand the Bible, just as the biblical writers’ own times are revealed in the ways they viewed their history. Thus, for example, the historical situation of the writer of John’s Gospel is revealed in the way he writes about Jesus, and our historical situation is disclosed in the way we write about John’s Gospel and Jesus. This is why no perfectly objective biblical interpretation is possible. The student of the Bible who is sensitive to the problem will discipline his judgments so that they are not unduly swayed by his own standpoint. This is the art of making a truly critical judgment.

What If the Historian Tells It Differently?

The critical historian has demonstrated that basically the Bible may be regarded as a reliable historical source when it is properly understood. Every book dealing with archeology and the Bible makes this point; in fact, the real danger may be that this point has been overstated. Be that as it may, our purpose here is to outline the consequences historical study has for the authority of the Bible.

In particular, we now return to our earlier observation that strictly historical study does not always validate the historical narratives in the Bible (such as the Israelite invasion of Palestine, commented upon later). In discovering this, many students find themselves in a dilemma: if, by granting that the historian’s work must stand or fall on its own merit, they follow the historian’s conclusions instead of the biblical account, they appear to repudiate the Bible. Biblical statements about astronomy or genetics need not be taken so seriously because these are not the Bible’s concern. But since the Bible hangs its case on history, so to speak, it appears that the authority of the Bible is jeopardized if the historian concludes that a particular event was not what the Bible says it was. This is a serious problem, and to it we address four considerations.

(a) We should conclude neither that the Bible is untrue nor that the historian is "destroying the Bible." These opposite conclusions flow from the same assumption — that the validity of the Bible hangs on the literal veracity of its statements. The liberal is just as much a literalist as the fundamentalist; but because he starts with different assumptions, he comes to different conclusions. Both assume that the Bible really intends to give an account which will pass the test of the modern historian’s critical judgment. Because the fundamentalist assumes that the Bible is flawless in every detail he concludes that if the historian’s work does not validate the Bible, it is destroyed or the historian must be wrong. Because the liberal assumes the Bible is a compend of religious literature of varying worth to begin with, he is often relieved when the historian’s conclusions suggest that he need not believe it anyway. But both assume that the decisive criterion for the Bible is whether or not it will pass the historian’s screen test; both are closed to the Bible’s own way of dealing with history.

(b) When the historian reconstructs what happened or what was actually said, he is not trying to correct the Bible. He is exercising his obligations as an honest student of the past. Regardless of his results, he is not attempting to substitute his critical reconstruction for the biblical narrative. For example, even if we grant that the reconstruction of the Israelite invasion of Palestine differs from what the Bible reports, no historian’s description is made "Scripture."

(c) The historian’s work does, however, throw into sharp relief the real character and intent of the biblical narrative. Just as we learn something important about Harold Ickes by comparing his diary with the historian’s account of the Roosevelt Era, so we learn something about the biblical way of telling about Israel’s invasion by comparing it with the historian’s reconstruction.

Concretely, we should never have seen the biblical writer’s concern to express and promote the fundamental unity of the tribes by portraying their past as one in which they all shared, had we not concluded that probably they were not all in Egypt together. Moreover, such a conclusion does not make the writer dishonest, for he was eminently right: in his day the tribes were one people and the heritage of one had become the heritage of all. This is what the unity of the tribes came to mean. One way of saying this was to tell the tradition of one as the story of all. Besides, the later unity was made possible by the exodus of some tribes from Egypt. Consequently, the unity of the tribes is seen as just as much the work of God as the deliverance from Egypt. Hence, the story of the early days of settlement in Palestine is told from the same perspective as the exodus. Both are told to say something else –that in this sequence of events God created his people and bound them to himself in the covenant.

The historian describes these events in precisely the same terms he would use to discuss the emergence of any nation in history. The historian and the Bible have two ways of talking about the same events. The historian has no tools by which he can make a critical judgment that Israel’s history is the work of God. At the same time, the authority of the Bible hangs on whether its way of telling the story is valid. We shall return to this point.

(d) If the biblical account differs from a strict report of what actually happened, we must ask why such a difference emerged. Usually it is pointed out that the writer stands within his community and its traditions. This seems to absolve the writer because now an amorphous community is the "culprit." Actually, this is the academic way of peeling onions because no one really knows where to stop. In any case, we should not hold a grudge against the community for "twisting the facts." Rather, we should ask why the "facts" were reported this way, or for that matter, why they were told at all.

It is convenient to deal with the question by restricting ourselves to the problem of Jesus. First, we ask why we have four different accounts of his life. These four accounts simply cannot be completely harmonized without an abundant supply of imagination. The Gospels present different interpretations of Jesus. This is why the critical historian of his life must disengage him from the reports. As a matter of fact, modern study of Jesus’ life is a series of variations on a fundamental theme announced in the eighteenth century: "We are justified in drawing an absolute distinction between the teachings of the Apostles in their writings [the Gospels] and what Jesus himself in his own lifetime proclaimed and taught." (H. S. Reimarus, quoted by Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, W. Montgomery, tr. (London: A. & C. Black, 1910 — reprinted l952), p. 16.) Even though today few scholars would go this far, all historians of his life assume a distinction may have to be made. But this possibility must not be made the absolute starting point, so that one assumes the Gospels are distortions to be corrected wherever possible; nor can it be ruled out simply because the Gospels are in the Bible. But the real question remains: Why did the Church modify the traditions about Jesus? Why didn’t it transmit "the facts" with complete accuracy?

Actually, we need to know why the Church remembered Jesus before we understand how it did so. The Church did not preserve the memory of Jesus for the sake of historians, not even for the sake of Christian historians. Rather, the Church remembered the words and deeds of Jesus because they were useful in its life. For example, Mark’s Gospel, probably written in Rome around A.D. 65-70, reports what Jesus said about Jewish food laws (Mark 7:1-23). Why should Roman Christians be interested in such matters thirty-five years later? Mark and the Roman believers valued this tradition because it helped them to face analogous problems of their own. The Church did not remember Jesus’ words as those spoken by a Galilean teacher before he was martyred. Rather, the community believed that Jesus was the Lord because God raised him from the dead. Hence, they treasured the tradition because in it they continued to hear the living Lord speak. In time, only those teachings and deeds of Jesus were remembered which were most important. The rest were forgotten.

Moreover, the teachings were modified as they were used. Phrases were omitted, sayings were condensed or elaborated in order to make the point clear in the new situation. Thus the tradition was tailored so that it could fit the ongoing life of the Church. Besides, translating from Aramaic to Greek brought its own kind of changes. To have passed on these traditions without any change would have meant that they were regarded as verbal talismans, as sacred objects with a built-in power of their own. The medieval Church may have had priests who recited the mass without understanding its Latin, but the early Church had no such attitudes about the words of Jesus.

The changes, then, are actually the footprints of relevance. When the historian shows how the words of Jesus have been modified as they were used, or how the stories about him were adapted by the Church, he is not writing an indictment against the Church’s integrity. He is really tracing the history of relevance. He is allowing us to look in on the early Church as it kept relating its life to the life of Jesus. In a way, every preacher who relates the words of Jesus to his own congregation continues this process.

In other words, the tradition was adapted as it was used because the Church believed Jesus’ history continued to be a means by which God’s will was known. Had the tradition been transmitted without any modification at all, the Church would have tacitly admitted that God did not continue to say anything through Jesus’ history. But by modifying what they remembered, they showed they believed God kept on addressing the Church when it recalled Jesus’ life and related it to their own. As a matter of fact, once this assumption is surrendered, there is little religious reason for saying that the Gospels are Scripture.

We can see how the Church used the stories of Jesus in the account of the calling of the disciples (Mark 1:16-20). Taken literally, it is an incredible historical narrative, for here four fishermen simply abandon their work to follow a man whom they had never seen before. In fact, two of them walked off and left their father sitting in the boat! The historian usually supplies the missing links: the men had met Jesus before and there probably was more conversation than Mark reports: "Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men." Such reconstruction is probably valid. Still, this is not what Mark wants the reader to see. He wants to make two things clear: that Jesus is the Son of God who summons men to follow, and that a disciple is one who is willing to abandon everything, including profession and father, to do so. In other words, the story is a highly stylized narrative which conveys the significance of Jesus and the appropriate response. The story is not told simply to report how Jesus got his first followers but to remind the Church who Jesus is and what they must do. The story is historical in the sense that it reports an actual event. It is not historical in the sense of describing accurately what happened. The event is used as a summons to faith. The report has been shaped into a sermon.(For a similar analysis see Günther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson, trs. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), pp. 144-148.) In one way or another, this is true for the whole Bible.

How Is Human History the Story of God?

When the Bible tells history, God is the "leading man." This is in keeping with the conviction that God is the divine Thou. Throughout the Bible, history is his story. Not only is this assumed, but the prophets, poets, narrators, and apostles assert it. A few random selections illustrate the point. The prophet Amos asks, "Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt . . . ?" (Amos 9:7f.). The entire 136th Psalm is a litany in which the congregation responds with "for his steadfast love endures forever" while the "cantor" recites the acts of God in history: he brought Israel from Egypt, led the people in the wilderness, slew famous kings, gave the land of Palestine. The narrator of the Book of Judges repeatedly shows how God responded to Israel’s faithlessness such as when he says, "And the Lord sold them into the hand of Jabin king of Caanum" (Judges 4:2). The apostles sound the theme of Christian preaching by announcing that God had done mighty works through Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22ff.).

This conviction also influences the way the stories are woven together. Thus the creation of the world and the story of man’s sin are told as a prelude to the story of Israel in order to show that the divine Thou operating in Israel’s history actually began his work when he created the heavens and the earth and that he concerned himself with human obedience as early as the Garden of Eden. Likewise, the Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus’ baptism and temptation (1:1-18) to show that Jesus is the Son of God on whom the Spirit came. The Spirit then drove him into the wilderness where Satan tested him. This sets the stage by telling the reader that the story of Jesus is really the story about God’s power launching an attack on Satan through Jesus.

At the same time, however, the Bible is convinced that the human actors in the drama have real responsibility. At no point are men seen as mere puppets on divine strings. The Bible never thinks it must choose between human and divine actors. Rather, it sees men’s lives, speeches, wars, as instruments of divine action.

For example, Judges 4 and 5 report an episode of the era before the Israelite monarchy. The whole period is interpreted as a cycle of Israelite disobedience, divinely sent oppression by enemies, Israelite pleas for divine help, God’s response by effecting successful campaigns against oppressors. In Judges 4, the current enemy is Jabin, whose general, Sisera, commands an "armored division" of 900 iron chariots. The subjected Israelites are still without this precious metal. The story begins with the prophetess Deborah’s inspiring Barak to lead a revolt. The decisive battle occurred on a plain not far from modern Haifa. A cloudburst turned the land into a sea of mud so that the heavy chariots were bogged down in the mire, and the swollen stream apparently cut off the escape route. So the Israelites won decisively. Thus runs a historian’s reconstruction. But note how the Book of Judges understands it: "And the Lord subdued Sisera and all his host", "So on that day God subdued Jabin . . . before the people of Israel." The writers do not suggest that the Israelites remained in their tents while God won the battle (by commandeering the weather). What they want to say is that the victory, in which the Israelite guerillas doubtless gave a good account of themselves, was really God’s victory for them. Judges 5 is a ballad-like poem which celebrates the victory in the same vein.

In this account, which is by no means unique in its outlook, the writers do not speak of divine action in history as one more factor among others. The Bible’s statements about God’s action in human affairs do not stem from an astute analysis of historical causes. When the modern historian talks about the causes of the Civil War he is not speaking in the same vein as the Bible when it says the war with Jabin was caused by God’s response to Israel’s sin. Similarly, in speaking of the great battle, the historian can only say that on that day "it rained"; the Israelite, on the other hand, believed "God rained," therefore it was his victory. In other words, the biblical way of talking about God as the chief actor in this history is not a way of locating decisive historical causes ascertainable by empirical study. Rather, it is a way of saying that the historical events have moral meaning.

One of the great passages in the Old Testament asserts that the militantly aggressive Assyria was actually God’s tool (Isaiah 10:5-19) even though the Assyrians worshipped other gods and would themselves be doomed for their arrogance and cruelty. No analysis of the contemporary eighth-century B.C. power politics in the Near East would require such a conclusion. No assessment of the causative factors in Assyrian foreign policy will include alongside others (or even at the head of the list) this one — that the God of Israel was at work, using the Assyrian armies for his own ends. We may catch something of the Bible’s way of talking about the acts of God by daring to say that the reason the Germans never invaded the British Isles in World War II was because God did not allow it. Such a statement by no means rules out all the specific policy decisions and their historical causes within the German High Command; but it does require the reader to decide whether this frustrated plan, which doubtless would have changed the course of all subsequent modern history, has any meaning in the ultimate scheme of things, or is just a fluke of history.

In other words, biblical statements about God’s acts in history express convictions about what history ultimately means; they do not select the divine cause among all the causes in the situation. If the latter were true, then God’s action in history would be available to good historical study. But one cannot determine which cause of Hitler’s failure to invade Britain, for example, was the divine element in history. Saying that God prevented it is rather a way of talking about the meaning of the whole event.

Moreover, seeing God’s acts in history is possible only to the eye of faith. This is not because such an interpretation is an obscure secret, but because it springs from a conviction about what history ultimately means. When faith in God faces the question of whether history has any ultimate meaning, it says that God is at work in the course of events. The biblical writers do not face our kind of question concerning causation, historical or natural. Therefore they do not hesitate to say directly that God did this or that. Our difficulty is that we assume these statements talk about our understanding of causes and effects. When we read the Bible, then, it is important that our kind of question should not stand in the way of seeing their questions and answers. Seeing the way the biblical writers deal with the question of whether historical experience is meaningful may offer us clues to the way we might face the enigmas of our own history.

The technical term for a story which tells about the actions of the divine on earth is "myth." In other words, the biblical way of talking about history is mythological.

We must shave some of the fuzziness off this concept. As a starter, we may say that we do not always have to choose between myth and history because the contrast is not simply between fiction and fact.(A basic danger in dealing with myths and mythic language is literalism. Stories of satyrs, demons, and demigods may not have been taken so literally in their original settings as we positivistically minded moderns often assume. Such stories were perhaps told not simply for their entertaining content but to express dimensions of understanding which eluded more prosaic forms of communication. Reinhold Niebuhr has formulated important insights regarding myth in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935) — reprinted in paperback in Living Age Books series (New York: Meridian Books, 1956), pp. 81ff. and especially Chapter 3 in which he deals with the concept of sin. Similarly, suggestive comments are made by Nicolai Berdyaev, Freedom and the Spirit, Oliver Fielding Clarke, tr. (London: Geoffrey Bles: The Centenary Press, 1958), pp. 69-74). We cannot accept the notion of myth as a story that is not true, for this is too limited a definition. It is more correct to say that myth and history can be two modes of talking about the same event. The historian’s description of Jabin’s defeat and the biblical account illustrate this distinction very well. In the same vein, the historian speaks of the Israelite invasion of Palestine, but the biblical writers talk about God’s giving them the land, or keeping his promise to Abraham. We apply the term "myth" to this latter way of talking about the event without in any way denying that the Hebrews entered Palestine as invaders.

A second misconception of myth must be corrected. It is commonly said that myth is simply the pre-scientific mode of expressing meaning, that myth is the language of early cultures before they developed adequate (analytical) categories of thought.(The myths of the ancient Near East are given a very helpful treatment in this vein by H. & H. A. Frankfort, John Wilson, and Thorkild Jacobsen in Before Philosophy — Pelican Book (Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1949). Clearly this conception is more accurate than one which simply sweeps myth aside as untrue fabrication, for obviously many ancient myths are vehicles of profound insight. Sometimes, however, this concept of myth becomes seriously handicapped, for occasionally people assume that science precludes myth and makes it altogether unnecessary. But this simply will not do. We cannot conclude that because mankind thought mythically before he thought scientifically, he no longer needs myth. Therefore it is better to speak of myth as nonscientific thought, and leave open the question whether or not a person can operate with both modes of interpreting reality. Certainly the Freudians have operated with myths, not merely with the Oedipus family but with the self-made myth of the Id and the Superego. Their domains have also been mapped, much as the realms of demons once were. The point is that working with these mythological constructs allows the Freudian psychotherapist to deal meaningfully with a body of material and to interpret it in universal terms. This is precisely what myth intends, whether it be the myth of Oedipus (in connection with guilt) or the myth of Adam (in connection with sin).

The language of myth, then, is not an unfortunate left-over from the dawn of history, like the human appendix. Nor is mythic speech an option which one may or may not use, for there is no way to talk about ultimate, transcendent meanings without using mythic speech. True, one can speak of important meanings, such as the genuinely decisive meaning Karl Marx’ Das Kapital has for modern history. But when we refer to ultimate meanings, we point to a dimension of reality which transcends history as a whole. We can avoid myth only by avoiding the problems of transcendent values and meanings. Besides, when these ultimate values and meanings center in the divine Thou, events which reflect these meanings may be spoken of as the deeds of God. To talk about God’s acts is to speak mythologically. The Bible is filled with such language and is unintelligible without it.

There has been much discussion over the fact that the Bible speaks of history in mythic language. One problem is that the particular form of mythic thought is grounded in the ancient world view in which the universe is a three-storied affair populated by invisible powers and beings. Our post-Copernican world has made this outlook impossible if taken literally. The question, however, is whether the biblical mode of reporting historical events went into the museum with the ancient world view.

Rudolf Bultmann, the German New Testament scholar, has answered with a loud "Yes." He has gone on to advocate interpreting the biblical mythology in nonmythological terms; what the Bible said in its (mythic) idiom he wants to say in our own (existential) terms. His word for this process of interpretation is "demythologizing." (Bultmann’s proposal is now available in Hans Werner Bartsch, ed., Kerygma and Myth, Reginald Fuller, tr. [Greenwich: Seabury Press, 1953] reprinted in paperback [ New York: Harper Torchbook, 1961]. This volume contains also the first of an avalanche of literature on the subject. Bultmann himself restated his position in Jesus Christ and Mythology [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958]). He admits that it is not a good term because it is negative. Still, it is appropriate because Bultmann really wants to avoid talking in mythological terms because he says this makes the acts of God one more historical cause, and a cause which interrupts the normal flow of events at that.

A full evaluation of this proposal is out of the question here. Only two comments can be made. First, it is not at all certain that the Bible intends to speak of God’s action as an interruption of history. This is certainly not the case in the story of Jabin’s defeat. Nor is it the way the crossing of the Red Sea is told. Exodus 14:21 reports ". . . the Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided." The writer does not think he must choose between the act of God and the blowing of the wind because he understands the wind as the act of God. How would the writer speak of this event in ultimate terms if he could not say "God drove the sea back"?

Even more important is the question whether Bultmann’s proposal ought not to be reversed. Perhaps the real aim is not to "demythologize the message of the Bible" but to mythologize the outlook of the reader. The Bible intends to present the history of Israel, Jesus, and the Church as the story of God’s work in the world, and to do so in a way that summons the reader to become part of the story. Instead of trying to interpret the Bible primarily in terms of the new possibilities which it presents to the individual man facing anxiety (a basic theme of existentialist interpretation), perhaps one ought to try to give man a framework within which he may understand his own history.

Part of our modern dilemma is that we have no overarching mythology. We try to find meaning in a mass of data which has been sterilized to remove the transcendent, the intangible, the mysterious. That is, we try to find adequate meaning in historical events as they are seen by the critical historian or the statistical student of society. The clue, however, to the meaning of our historical experience is not found in monographs but in myths. Besides, ours is not only the Atomic Age but the Atomistic Age as well. We have no real intellectual or spiritual universe: we have only specialties, private universes.(This point is well made by Fred Denbeaux in The Art of Christian Doubt (New York; Association Press, 1960), Chapter One.) We lack a transcendent framework in which to interpret the course of our history as a whole. Put theologically, we lack a mythology to understand the meaning of our history.

Consequently, we may ask whether Bultmann has not seen a real problem but suggested the wrong answer. That the biblical myth cannot be revived in its original form is clear. What is not so clear is that we must therefore give up myth altogether. Perhaps the more appropriate alternative is "transmythologizing" — that is, following the analogy of translation, perhaps we should work our way toward a modern mythology into which the biblical way of talking about God and history can be translated. The existentialist individualism has powerful appeal today because we have grown cynical about the ultimate meaning of history, or of anything for that matter. But it is doubtful if one’s personal existence, or personal history, can have any meaning if history as a whole is merely sequence in a void. In our situation, then, perhaps the very fact that the Bible speaks of history in mythological terms may be a Word to us.