Dispatches from the Forum: Facts and Truths in the Bible

| By and (guest author) on The Evolving Evangelical

Stained glass window in south-west transept of Canterbury Cathedral depicting Methuselah, who according to the Bible was Noah's grandfather, and lived to be 969 years old.

INTRO BY BRAD: This is the third entry in my occasional series highlighting the best conversations from The BioLogos Forum (our comment and discussion boards, of which I’m the admin and head moderator). As I’ve noted in previous posts, BioLogos is unique among origins-focused organizations in that we welcome and encourage online discussion between people of all perspectives, not just those who agree with us. Of course, gracious dialogue between people with strongly-held, opposing beliefs doesn’t happen automatically. Thus, when a particularly excellent, thoughtful, and gracious discussion of this sort develops on the Forum, I get really excited. Like all good discussions, the one below edified everyone involved, whether or not they changed their mind. And like many good discussions on the Forum, this one prominently features the wisdom and intelligence of my co-moderator (and BioLogos contributor) Christy Hemphill, a linguist and student of communication theory and one of the coolest people I’ve never met in person. Her primary interlocutor is Joseph1979, a new Forum user who has strong convictions about the importance of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis in historical/factual terms. He (I’m assuming that’s the correct pronoun) also believes that if the Bible doesn’t communicate facts, it can’t communicate truths either. The discussion unfolds in fascinating directions. Christy isn’t attempting to write a treatise on the subject here, but her thoughts on the meaning and shape of biblical authority are some of the best and clearest I’ve encountered.    

Joseph1979: I have a single question for members of BioLogos. Is it the consensus that the global flood as recorded in Genesis never took place? Is it the consensus also that other aspects of the Old Testament did not take place, such as the Exodus? I have many further questions depending on the answers to these questions. Thank you.

Christy: Hi Joseph, welcome to our forum and thanks for your questions.

I just wanted to point out that BioLogos as an organization promotes conversation around the intersection of science and faith among Christians from a variety of backgrounds and traditions. So beyond the very general "what we believe" statement, there isn't really one "BioLogos" definitive party-line response on the answers to a lot of questions. Everyone who writes for BioLogos is working out their faith in the context of their own relationship with God, working within the bounds of whatever faith community or theological tradition they associate with. People come down in different places when it comes to ideas about how to best interpret a given passage and there is always a spectrum of views about how open to negotiation and possible redefinition a given belief or traditional view may be.

All that to say, BioLogos is a gathering place for ideas that flow around the main concept that God's revelation in Scripture and God's revelation in nature can be harmonized, but it doesn't dictate specific beliefs about how that harmony must be achieved.

Given that God's revelation in nature doesn't reveal evidence of a global flood that destroyed all life on the planet except Noah and his family, we would look for an exegetically responsible way to understand the Genesis flood account as something other than the historical account of the literal destruction of the world. And given the archaeological and linguistic evidence that point to cultural dispersion patterns that don't fit with a literal interpretation of Babel being the only source of human language and cultural diversity, we would look for an exegetically responsible way to understand the meaning of that account as something other than the historical account of the literal beginning of all languages and cultures. That is not the same thing as saying that where it appears that science or natural history conflict with the biblical account, that "science trumps the Bible." It just means that where there appears to be conflict, we assume harmony can be found if we are reading both science and Scripture well.

Joseph1979: Thanks for the response. Do you believe that Noah actually lived?

Christy: Yes. I also believe Adam and Eve were real people. I think the accounts in Genesis are mythologized to a certain extent and need to be interpreted within a framework of ancient near east literature.

Joseph1979: What does it mean that they were mythologized? Rather, to what extent were they mythologized?

Christy: I don't think everything written about them is a "fact." I think the stories are meant to communicate truth, not "facts." (Among other things, that God desired to relate to humanity as special out of all creation, that he chose humans to reign over his creation on his behalf, that God created men and women as complementary and equal and for each other, that humanity's sinful rejection of God's divine authority over them and creation screwed things up, but God immediately responded with a promise to set things right through Christ) I think Noah's story teaches that God always provides a way of salvation for his faithful people. I think it is meant to prefigure the salvation Christ offers; those who accept the way of salvation God has provided in Jesus will be saved, and those who mock and dismiss the idea of a coming judgment, do so at their own peril, because they will not be able to save themselves.

I don't really lose much sleep over trying to figure out the what is "fact" and what is "fiction." 1) I don't think it is knowable, and 2) I don't think knowing would change how I live my life, or what my takeaways from the narratives are. If I found out they were 100% fictional, I would still interpret the spiritual instruction they provide about the same. Same thing if I found out they were 100% historical. I don't think the main points or the main truths of the revelation is in the "fact" or "non-fact" status of any element of the stories. It is in what God wanted to teach us by telling about these people.

Joseph1979: The basic problem is very simple. Why should I believe ANY of what's written in the Christian bible if the very foundations of it are false? This is a very serious point. Jesus Christ certainly believed the account in Genesis of Noah's flood. Was he lying?

Christy: The foundations of the Christian Bible is not Genesis. It is the person and work of Jesus Christ who entered the story of Israel, the people whom God chose to act out his story in redemption history. The Bible didn't found Christianity, Jesus did.

Joseph1979: Thanks for responding. If [the beginning chapters of Genesis are] not history, then why were genealogies included with the account?

And yes, a foundation of the Christian bible IS Genesis. Without the Old Testament, there is no need for Christ whatsoever. For instance, I'm well-aware of Isaiah 53 for instance and its significance. But wait, why should I accept that portion of the Old Testament as evidence for Christ's legitimacy when so much of the Old Testament is fiction as you believe? You earlier said that truth and fact are not synonymous, but this is demonstrably false. Facts ARE truths, and truths are facts.

Christy: Well, I suppose we could get into a big philosophical discussion about this, but to explain myself, in my usage, a "fact" is an indisputable logical or scientific proposition about reality. "Truth" is a broader category for the "really real" and includes things we come to know through experience, imagination, revelation and other sources of knowledge besides reason and observation. Many "truths" are disputable or nuanced and depend on your view of reality, whereas facts can be proven true or false.

When you say "history" it is obvious you mean objective recording of objective facts. That is not what "history" means in many cultures. Genealogies play a role in many cultures of marking a text as authoritative and legitimate. Yes, the genealogies in Genesis tie the narratives to the history of Israel. That is partially why I believe they talk about people who really lived. But it is an unwarranted leap to say that because the narratives include characters who lived in history, therefore we should read and interpret them as we read modern history, with an expectation that the composers were following our modern conventions for describing reality or that their reasons for composing the histories were simply to accurately inform posterity of what happened. Even in our own day, histories are told from a perspective and serve many cultural purposes other than (or in addition to) recording facts and informing. And the ANE motivations and conventions were obviously different than our own. The numerology of the recorded life spans is one example.

The idea that the main reason Isaiah 53 is in the Bible is to act as an apologetic tool to prove the legitimacy of Christ seems to me to be a weirdly exclusive way to approach the text. "Either the OT is fact or the OT is fiction" is another false choice that is pretty incomprehensible to me.

Joseph1979: What you say is mostly true, but you're making a distinction where one does not exist. It reminds me of those, mostly atheists, who try to make the distinction between belief, faith and giving credence to fact concluded by empirical science or rational thought. The motivation, of course, is to distinguish themselves from their opponents, but it's meaningless.

You seem to be doing the same, only here your opponent is the difficulty in reconciling what you believe are (fictional) mythologies with the truth of the Christian bible. You're giving fact the character of tangible existence while you believe that (broader) truths are more abstract. If you find the formal definitions of both words, you'll find that they're very nearly entirely synonymous. Facts are truths, and truths are facts.

Christy: Formal definitions aside then (I'm really most interested in how people use words and communicate), would you say there is a qualitative difference between the assertions "God is faithful," "Love is patient," "Human life has intrinsic value," and the assertions "Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865," or "Water boils at 100 Celsius"? If so what is the difference? If everything can be labelled fact or fiction, in what category do you put David's emotive Psalms asking why God has forsaken him in his distress, or the apocalyptic vision imagery of Daniel 7-12, or pretty much all of Song of Songs? How do you reduce that kind of material to facts and propositions without stripping it of the essentials of the truth it communicates?

When everything the Bible is (stories, histories, laments, prophesies, building instructions, dietary regulations, worship songs, parables, memos, genealogies, personal letters, travelogues, visions, etc.) gets reduced to a set of propositions to build systematic theology or a set of instructions for holy living, or a set of facts to be believed, you lose meaning and you lose truth.

(I'm asking a lot of questions below, but I don't intend to have an argumentative confrontational tone; I'm actually genuinely interested in how you arrive at your conclusions and categories.)

What is poetry, fact or fiction? Because Genesis 1 is clearly presented poetically. The binary categories of fact or fiction are not full enough to fit all of revelation in. Can you express history in poetry? Sure, but it's going to come out a little different. Are the feelings and imagery that get expressed in a poetic account of history fictional if they aren't factual?

Pretty much any record of ancient history has mythology (or fictional elements, or artistic embellishment, or selective memory, or whatever you want to call it) mixed in with the "historical facts." Do you think the accounts of the wars between the Greeks and the Trojans that Homer told were purely fictional? If something isn't pure fact, is it fiction? Most people these days don't believe any history is pure fact because the perspective and the goals of the historian inevitably shapes the reality that gets presented.

What made you decide that if something in the Bible intended to communicate history, it has to be either 100% objective fact or it is fiction? Is that just based on some other belief you have about the nature of revelation or inspiration? Because it doesn't obtain just from the notion of "history." Most early American history that we read to kids is mythologized to a certain extent. We have to make sure the Redcoats look like the bad guys and our good guys are truly heroic and nobody thinks too hard about any noble founding fathers sleeping with their slaves. We want to make sure we tell about the beautiful drama of "westward expansion" not the terrors of Native genocide. Does the fact that we design our accounts to privilege certain controlling narratives over others make the history fiction?

Dscottjorgenson: Just a side remark: when dealing with pre-modern cultures, I don't think the presence of genealogy can be taken as a sure-fire indicator of historical-factual intent, and my favorite example of this is with the Japanese Imperial House. Traditionally—and to this day even—the Imperial House of Japan traces the ancestry of the Emperor back to the mythical Jimmu, a descendant of the gods. Read about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_imperial_family_tree. Somewhere along the way the genealogy transitions from purely historical to quasi-historical to mostly, and then purely, fictional, and it is a matter of scholarly debate where those transitions lie - showing how unclear it is and paradoxically how little it matters. That's because the purpose of the Imperial genealogy has never been to record only factual history; above all else, the genealogy has been a way of saying that the Emperor's rule is cosmically legitimate. That it is still used for that purpose to this day, even when most Japanese do not take it literally, shows that genealogy is not necessarily an indicator of historicity, when used in a similar, deeply traditional context. This doesn't prove that ANE [ancient near-east] genealogy, from an entirely different culture of course, is doing something similar, but I think the parallels are rather striking.




Hemphill, Christy. "Dispatches from the Forum: Facts and Truths in the Bible"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 19 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 March 2018.


Hemphill, C. (2016, April 19). Dispatches from the Forum: Facts and Truths in the Bible
Retrieved March 23, 2018, from /blogs/brad-kramer-the-evolving-evangelical/dispatches-from-the-forum-facts-and-truths-in-the-bible

References & Credits

The original discussion, from which this post is adapted, can be found here

Image source: By Robert Scarth - Flickr: Methuselah, CC BY-SA 2.0 

About the Authors

Brad Kramer

Brad Kramer is the BioLogos managing editor. He completed his M.Div. at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and earned a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King’s College in New York City. His articles have appeared in The Daily BeastPatrol, and OnFaith.

More posts by Brad Kramer

Christy Hemphill

Christy Hemphill and her husband are linguists who work on a minority language preservation and Scripture translation project in southern Mexico. She has been reading BioLogos articles since she first heard of the website’s launch in 2009. As the primary educator of her three children, she is particularly interested in quality science/faith resources for parents who homeschool. Christy is also one of the moderators at the BioLogos Forum

More posts by Christy Hemphill