On the “Truth” of the Bible (or, challenging the connection between “history” and “truth”)

One of the most fascinating yet rewarding experiences in teaching undergraduates about the Bible is to watch them develop and grow, realizing that questions need not be inimical to their faith but can rather inform it in rich and diverse ways.

Recently some in my class have been struggling with a ‘critical’ approach to the biblical text.  Discussing issues such as multiple and different creation accounts, the writing of the Pentateuch, the historicity of the exodus, problematic portrayals of God . . . . the list could go on . . . . has troubled some. 

Reflecting upon our class discussions, I have come to realize that what seems to undergird many of these reactions is the assumption that “truth” and “history” are synonyms.  I have cautioned them against swinging from one extreme (the Bible is entirely historical and should be taken literally in every instance) to the opposite extreme (nothing in the Bible is true).  The middle ground seems to be a helpful place to be.  The Bible contains history, yes, but that is not its primary (or even secondary?) concern.  That, in my view, is theology . . . . addressing their understanding of life and existence in relationship with God. 

I have addressed this issue of a presumed connection between “history” and “truth” from several trajectories in class.  One that seems to have resonated quite well with the students was the following quotation by Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel:

“Some stories are true that never happened.”

But how can something be “true” and not “historical”?  I have tried to impress upon my students that the biblical text is true in that it addresses the perennial questions of ‘who are we’ and ‘who is God.’  The truth of the Bible need not rest solely (indeed, should not!) in matters of historicity but rather in the Bible’s ability to communicate important aspects and meaning to how we understand life, the world around us, and God. 

As another example, take this Native American quotation:

“I don’t know if this happened or not, but this story is true.”

How beautiful and mysterious is that!  Another illustration I have used with some students will be helpful.  I could articulate how yesterday I went to the post office, only to realize upon arriving that I had forgotten a package at home.  I returned home, only to find I didn’t have an envelope large enough to contain the item I needed to send.  I called my wife at work and she said she didn’t have anything that would work either.  What’s more, I realized I forgot to buy stamps while I was at the post office.  Now, this story is historical.  But does that make it true?  Hardly.  At least not in the sense I am speaking of “true.”  This story, while historical, is hardly going to inspire anyone.  The biblical stories, though, have, can, and do inspire a great many.  They speak to realities that transcend history.  This is why, in my view, the Bible is both a ‘time-bound and ‘timeless’ text. 

The moral of the story?  History and truth should not be seen as synonymous when dealing with the Bible.  It is a false dichotomy, and one that is so ingrained in many of us.  My students have largely been responsive to this approach.  They are wrestling with the questions, which is important.  And the end result will be a wonderful thing: their ability to articulate not only what they believe but why they believe it . . . . in effect, they will have a faith that is truly their own.

What do you think?  For those who have taught and confronted this obvious hesitancy from students, how have you addressed it?  And what is your take on my discussion here, that “truth” and “historical” are not synonymous?


22 thoughts on “On the “Truth” of the Bible (or, challenging the connection between “history” and “truth”)

  1. Jason says:

    Thanks for this post. I have been mulling some of these issues over for a while now, and I am glad to read your thoughts. I may press you on some of the particular events you mention, only because I am interested in your perspective.

  2. Michael says:

    John: Interesting post. I have typically used to cognitive dissonance to help my students consider new ideas. This is particularly satisfying given that I have a background similar to most of the students. Fun times.

    I think that your distinction between “truth” and “historical” in relation to the Hebrew Bible and the NT is an interesting one. Off the cuff, I’d say that it fits better in some places than others, viz. places in the text.

    I think the real difficulty for some Christians (and Jews) is that it may create such dissonance that many may be tempted to reject it without giving pause for thought.

  3. John Anderson says:

    Jason: Thanks. It is but one perspective I have tried. I’m sure there are others.

    Michael: The distinction I cite between “truth” and “historical” is technically not mine in those original terms; it belongs to Eric Seibert in his new book Disturbing Divine Behavior. He has some helpful pages on the nature of OT narratives that I had the students read. It is from him I am getting the words “truth” and “historical,” yet I didn’t cite him any further because the book is in my office (on campus–how cool is that?!) and not here with me at home.

    But, I would argue his use of those words has only cast my original perspective, evident in the Wiesel quotation (which I have used for a long while) in another light.

    I’m curious as to where you see it not fitting in the text (and not because I disagree with you . . . . yet! But because I am curious). Basically I am not implying the two cannot be synonymous (i.e., that the Bible contains no history—indeed, it does!) but rather that the assumption a biblical event as narrated in the text must be “historical” in order to have value, in essence, to be “true,” is ultimately not helpful.

    I also don’t know that this model itself would result in a given person rejecting something unthinkingly. That, I suspect, would result from something far more idiosyncratic for that person, be it their own faith perspective or unwillingness to engage. I can only press so far; those who will come with me will.

    I also wonder how the nature of OT material as different than NT material contributes to this all. In the OT we don’t have a rigid concern for history proper as we understand it today. Arguably in the NT we don’t either, but if you take the Baylor NT department approach and see the gospels as following the genre of ancient biographies, then there is a different impetus for the writing. Just musing on that point, though.

    And lastly, on cognitive dissonance, I would argue that is quite close to what I am doing. I have responded to many questions in my class by noting the “tension” and the importance of recognizing it but not necessarily resolving it (how Brueggemann-esque of me!). It seems to me to be an honest reader of the text, cognitive dissonance is a must. But when it comes, for instance, to the exodus, I don’t know that I would argue they should accept the biblical portrayal as historical (I would argue, as does most scholarship now, for a much more modest exodus group, which ultimately contributes to the emerging Israelite collective memory the stories of their sojourn from Egypt and experiences with YHWH) but rather see what the text is trying to communicate theologically, both then and now. I can’t put it better than the Wiesel quotation offered in the main post. History need not be a prerequesite for truth.

  4. Sean LeRoy says:

    I guess I don’t get why “history” or “historical accounts” w/i the Bible seem to be on trial here…? Which events are you refering to, John, that did not happen w/i history? Or am I missing something? Probably…

  5. Rob Kashow says:

    I essentially agree, John. Though I’m constantly catching myself from saying that it doesn’t matter if the Bible was historical at all. The main problem of course is the cross.

    For some reason, many assume that the Bible must be reporting world history, which of course is not necessarily the case. Of course the exceptions in the OT, I think, though construed, would be sam-kings, and in the writings chronicles and ezra-nehemiah. But even these do not escape theological construal.

    Be interested to see what you think the implications are for the cross and if you would go so far to extend your post to the cross.

  6. John Anderson says:

    Sean: I am referring simply to the point that the biblical text should not be taken, a priori, literally. It is one among many sources. I, however, am unlike the minimalists (very much!) in thinking it has no historical value. I would also not call myself a maximalist. The point I am after, put most simply, is that in many places the Bible does not seem concerned to be writing history proper as we understand it today. Historiography, rather . . . .

    Rob A clarification: I would not say it doesn’t matter if the Bible is historical or not. I would say, however, that history does not seem to have been the primary impetus behind its writing. Thus, when students encounter me saying something like “we have two creation accounts in Genesis alone that are very different, and then creation in Proverbs 8, and Job 38-40, and in the Psalms, and in John’s gospel, etc. etc.” they are immediately challenged. Why is Gen 1 more ‘historical” than Gen 2? Or Prov 8? Or Job 38-40?

    I both agree and disagree with your bracketing off of Samuel-Kings. Surely we have the explicit mention of what sources were used in writing those books, but at the same time, as you rightly point out, they by no means escape intentional theological shaping. Does that mean they have no historical kernel? Absolutely not. I discuss the exodus above. That is a fine example of what I am saying – kernels of history (and sometimes history), yes, but ONLY history or even PRIMARILY history, no. But, that’s fine, because “history” and “true” need not be synonymous. I still think the Bible is very true, for the reasons I outline above. I do think it communicates vital meaning and understandings to our lives and how we understand our lives in relationship to one another, creation, and God. Indeed, the Bible is very true.

    The cross question is another animal for another time. But I will say this . . . . when I wrote this post originally, I had in mind the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament mainly, because that is what we have encountered thus far. And as I respond to Michael above, I wonder if the NT narratives are a bit different than the HB/OT.

  7. telos104 says:

    No, I get that…Let me come at it another way – in the historiography-ing did the Biblical authors accurately depict the underlying “event”? ‘Cause it seems to me your using ‘historiography’ as an “out” for the fact that they didn’t.

  8. telos104 says:

    Oh, and one more thing – good discussion here – but with all due respect to your students, I’ve never understood that one –> the “different” creation accounts? Who says the have to be exactly the same to be an accurate depiction of what transpired?
    And what do you mean “very” true?! Why add the “very”? LOL…

  9. telos104 says:

    No, they’re really not – the NT narratives different than the OT. Claiming that “history” is spiritualized to fit a theological agenda, is really a cut on God, who is the only God who accomplishes his agenda within history, ordains events in history, etc. That’s part of the way in which we know who He is. Take the Exodus – if those events are mere theological invention – then YHWH really only has the “potential” of doing something great. The actual, literal, historical account – which forms the foundation for commentary in the first place – is what gives our God “teeth”; He not only can “do it” He did/does do it.
    I believe the Cross (and resurrection and giving of the Spirit) is God’s answer to a lot of this sort of “historical” debate. God gave us an event in history that is impotent if it’s merely theological dreaming (as some say).

  10. Sean LeRoy says:

    John: No, I know and didn’t mean to imply that at all. Sorry…
    But, I’m still wondering which events in the Bible, if any, do you feel did not happen the way the Bible says they did?

    • Rob Kashow says:


      Do you really think it’s possible to objectively record history? Remember what history is, one’s written record of what happened. Maybe you’re referring to the actual oestensive reference as history, i don’t know, but nonetheless I find it impossible to do so. Moreover, you’re implying that the Bible is trying to record accurately its oestensive reference, which I think John is pretty clearly saying it’s not. So I can’t speak for John, but my answer is nothing in the Old Testament “actually happened.” Of course the NT is a different animal because I don’t think the epistlelary literary is theologically exaggerated in dealings with actual events.

  11. Richard says:

    John: When you have some time take a look at Covenant and Eschatology by Michael Horton. In short he advances an analogical hermeneutic contra both equivocal and univocal ones.

  12. John Anderson says:

    Thanks, Rob.

    Sean: I don’t know how much clearer I can be. I am not here challenging specific instances of the biblical text, claiming them to be unhistorical. I am, however, challenging the easy equation between “history” and “truth” that many of my students seem to be experiencing. Again I will point to the exodus example I offer above. Please don’t miss the forrest for the trees here.

    Richard What is it with you and eschatology, buddy!! (wink). Truth be told, if I look at that “when I have time” I won’t be looking at it any time soon. I would be interested, though, in a brief thumbnail sketch if you could outline the relevant premise for me. Thanks!

  13. Sean LeRoy says:

    Seriously, dudes…I don’t know why it’s so hard to answer the question –> Did the exodus (for instance) happen the way Moses said it did? (sorry John if you answered the question above, but I can’t seem to locate it…)

  14. John Anderson says:

    Sean: Read my response to Michael above.

    But, in regards to whether the exodus happened as the Bible says it did, I don’t know. I wasn’t there (wink).

    And I find your language curious: the way “Moses said it did.” Are you implying Mosaic AUTHORSHIP of the Pentateuch?

  15. Richard says:

    John: I will do. In short he takes on the liberal argument that argues there is absolutely no relation between the “history” and “reality” (equivocity) as well as those who argue that what we find within the biblical text is “What really happened to the letter” (univocity) and instead takes the analogical route of saying that the text is related to reality, what really happened, (contra-equivocity) but this is not 1:1 (contra-univocity). So take the exodus, we can affirm it happened, there was a real historical event, but we cannot know for certain what really happened. This then links into both the creator-creature distinction in terms of their epistemology and the method of biblical composition.

  16. John Anderson says:

    Thanks, Richard. This sounds potentially promising.

    It also sounds as though he is addressing, implicitly, the old “maximalist” vs “minimalist” debate. As I have said, I find myself in the middle, which is where it seems Horton places himself.

    The few ‘disadvantages’ I potentially see are:

    a) the ultimate answer becomes “I’m God, you’re not.” While this answer may indeed be the case, and I agree there is an epistemolical difference between God and creation, I don’t think such a response is always adequate. The book of Job is a fine example.

    b) By saying we don’t know what happened (which is true) may run the risk of an over-hesitancy in trying to reconstruct what did happen. Now, readers of this blog should be well aware that I am not a hardcore historical-critical scholar, though I can utilize those methods competently. Simply because we ‘can’t know’ doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wrestle with the material and feel free to proffer tentative conclusions . . . . and humbly revise when/if new material is discovered.

    The method of biblical composition (assuming I am understanding you properly) is that with which my students, it seems, are having the most difficulty . . .

    But I am pleased to see that they have begun to struggle with the tensions and images in the text. I have had multiple students tell me something to the effect of “now that I’m reading the Bible” or “now that I’m reading MORE of the Bible than before, I’m seeing things very differently.” It is not my job to destroy their faith. Quite the opposite . . . I think they are growing towards having an intellectually informed faith that is truly their own. I am trying to teach them that it is ok to love God with their minds, and not to be afraid of that part of who they are.

  17. Rick Wadholm Jr says:

    What leads one to actually conclude that the “historical” recordings of Scripture are “true” but not “historical”? By this, I mean what presuppositions must one begin with to even approach the text in this manner? Must one rule out certain events as impossible, contrary, etc? The approach you are proposing seems to make the reader the arbiter of “what actually happened” rather than the text being allowed to speak for itself. Might it be because the reader “knows better” than to accept such a straightforward reading?

    I say this recognizing that there are forms and manners of speaking that are figurative, metaphorical, etc., but also recognizing that the text more often than not makes this plain through certain specific cues. It seems utterly unhelpful to presuppose the text to be “true” but “not historical” if in fact the text has presented us with details suggestive of historical details. What is ultimately determinative as to what should be read as actual history (as opposed to simply “true” — the miraculous, the unexplainable, the non-normative, the un-verifiable, etc.)?

  18. John Anderson says:


    I think most would say the Bible is but one source (and yes, I do think it is a valuable source) among many for reconstructing history. But we also have archaeology. Archaeology seems to have called into question the feasibility of a full-blown military conquest as depicted in the book of Joshua, given that no destruction layers appear at Jericho and Ai (two key sites in Joshua). We also have other ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman literature that evidence common motifs or traditions prevalent in the ancient world.

    I would challenge you on the majority of your last paragraph, but I think I have addressed these issues already in the above.

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