One of the big questions that comes up in any discussion of the Bible is how ‘literally’ should we take it. Going by what the word ‘literal’ actually means, this should be a question of whether we look for meaning in the literary text in front of us, or whether we should focus on deriving an abstract allegorical or symbolic meaning. However, what most people mean when they ask, ‘how literally’ we should take the Bible is: “should we take this as actual historical events?”
Is the Bible History?
This is a good question, but one that depends a lot on the book of the Bible we’re looking at. The Bible is really a library of books of many different genres. Books of poetry and wisdom, such as Psalms and Proverbs aren’t history (but may refer to historical events and people). Much of the New Testament is made up of letters to early Christian communities and individuals. These can be a resource for working out a history of the early Christian movement, but they weren’t written as history per se.
The question of history is best asked of the books that are primarily narrative, such as the Gospels and the Book of Acts in the New Testament, books like 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 & 2 Kings, Ruth and Jonah in the Old Testament. And Exodus, of course. But even here we need to decide whether a narrative is meant to describe historical events or is parable, that while full of meaning to be taken seriously, is ultimately a fictional story. You’ll find a lot of debate on what books are meant to be history and which are parables. I personally take books like Ruth and Jonah as being parables, though based on historical people and events. On the other hand I firmly believe the Gospels are written as history. Much, if not, most of the narrative material in the Bible is written as history – but (and this is essential) it is written in the style of ancient history.
The Ancient vs. Modern Approach to History
When we look at books that are intended to be read as history, we need to be aware that ancient people understood history quite differently from modern Western people. Since the European Enlightenment in the 18th Century, history has been understood as being about establishing the facts of what happened in the past. While historical writing might contain interpretation of those facts, and application to the present, there is an attempt to keep ‘the facts’ separate from ‘interpretation.’ In other words to goal is to be objective and scientific, as much as that goal is never fully achievable (even in the hard sciences).
Ancient and Medieval people didn’t make this hard distinction between ‘facts’ and ‘interpretation.’ For them the primary purpose of history was to provide meaning to the present, and teach important moral lessons to people living today. That’s not to say ‘the facts’ weren’t important, but they didn’t try to separate the them from the meaning they took from those factual events (this is similar to the post-modern view that questions the very notion of objectivity and our ability to separate facts from meaning and interpretation).
The result is that the narratives told in ancient histories seamlessly mix what we would call ‘the facts’ with ‘meaning and interpretation.’ The story of history is told in a way that highlights the meaning the author wants to convey to the reader. This means ‘the facts’ get edited and added to in a way that produces a meaningful story. For example: The Greek historian Herodotus tells how the Persian King Xerxes had the waters between Turkey and Greece whipped with chains after his first failed attempt to build a bridge over them to carry his massive invading army. This is likely an allegorical part of the account meant to highlight Xerxes’ hubris in thinking he was a divine being who could control nature (on the other hand many ancient rulers really did have delusions of divine grandeur, so it’s also possible that it could have happened this way).
Bottom Line: We should not expect ancient historical narratives to separate ‘the facts’ from interpretation and meaning the way modern histories try to do.
This does not mean that ancient histories are not factual. What it means is that they are a mixture of what modern people would call factual (what actually happened) and fictional (symbolic details added to give meaning).
In fact, archaeology and comparison of ancient histories written by different people of different nationalities and perspectives have shown many ancient histories are highly factual. It all depends on the author and what what their goals are. Another example: the Roman historian Tacitus has proven to be highly factual in his writing, his contemporary Suetonius on the other hand preferred to be more sensational (and must be read more carefully), yet both are essential to understanding the early period of the Roman Empire.
So, Did the Exodus Really Happen?
Short answer: Yes. Long answer: It’s complicated. I believe the basic outline of the story is based on actual events, but more than that is very hard to tell. For the full answer, check back next week.