Everything in the Bible is historical in the sense that it was written in historical times. The Bible is a small library of literature that was written over the course of about 1,000 years–a period that ended nearly 2,000 years ago. So the biblical books are historical documents in that sense.
But what about the content of the biblical books? If you open up the Bible to a random passage, does that mean what you are reading is automatically history?
An Obvious No
In one sense, the answer is an obvious no. Not all books in Scripture are trying to recount historical events.
The Gospels are. The Acts of the Apostles is. Many books of the Old Testament are. But relating history is not the purpose of other books.
For example: the epistles of St. Paul or the epistles of James, Peter, John, and Jude. These are concerned with building people’s faith, but they aren’t narratives. They don’t tell the story of what happened in a particular period in history the way that Matthew, Acts, or 1 Kings does.
We can learn certain historical facts from them, but these historical items are things mentioned in passing, not the principal purpose of the epistles.
Similarly, in the Old Testament we find books like Psalms, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. These also may make passing references that are of value to historians, but they aren’t intended to tell us the story of particular historical periods.
What About Prophecy?
What about the prophetical books? Don’t these tell us about history?
Yes, but they also are not straightforward historical texts.
The book of Revelation contains information about both the beginning and the end of Church history, and so it relates to history in a definite way.
The Old Testament prophetical books contain material that relates to the events of their own day, to times soon after, to the time of Christ, and to the end of the world, so they also relate to history.
But they convey this material in advance and through symbols. That makes them different than straightforward historical records.
The Example of the Gospels
Consider just the Gospels. These books are historical in the sense that they relate what Jesus did during his earthly ministry. But they also contain Jesus’ teachings. While these were given at a certain point in history, they aren’t about history. Jesus was not serving as a history professor. The content of his teachings deal with God and our relationship with him.
Consider in particular Jesus’ parables. These are lessons that communicate theological truths in an allegorical way.
When Jesus says, “A man left on a journey,” or “A sower went out to sow,” or “There was a man who had two sons,” he is not intending to tell us about about particular historical events. It would be a mistake, when told about the man with two sons, to ask, “What were their names?”
Instead, Jesus is using allegory told in the form of a story to reveal a spiritual truth. The parables thus show us something very significant . . .
A Story Is Not Enough
The fact we are reading a story in the Bible does not automatically mean that we are reading history.
Jesus’ parables contain stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, but Jesus is not intending to tell us about a specific historical event that really happened.
That means that when we read a story in the Bible, we must examine it to see whether it is meant to be a historical account or something else. We must look to the cues it gives the audience to signal what kind of account it is.
Taking Your Cues from the Text
It is notable that, in his parables, Jesus almost never names anyone involved in the story. (The only exception is Lazarus in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.) Instead, he leaves the principal figures anonymous: a king, a master, a son, a servant.
That is one of the conventions Jesus uses to tell us that what we are reading is a parable rather than a historical narrative. But this is not the only way that the Bible signals something other than history.
Another signal is obvious symbolism. If you open the Bible to certain prophetic passages, you will find passages in describing monsters–dragons, wild beasts that combine the features of different animals, things with many heads.
This kind of obvious symbolism can also serve as an indicator that what you are reading isn’t straightforward history but something else.
Jesus’ parables and the prophetic texts are obvious cases that contain cues which even people today, raised in a totally different culture, can pick up on. But there are texts in the Bible that use cues subtle enough that it is easy for people today to miss them.
Consider this: Suppose we took the parable of the Prodigal Son and gave names to the characters. Suppose we added the name of the village where they lived–a real village. Suppose we even said the year in which the events took place (according to the ancient way of reckoning years). What would we make of the story then?
We might well conclude that Jesus was telling us about an actual historical event.
There might be cues in the tales that would signal their allegorical nature, but in the absence of the familiar cues of nameless characters in a nameless place at a nameless time, we might mistake what we were reading for straightforward history.
So here’s something interesting to think about: If, within the Gospels, Jesus told short allegories that could be taken as historical accounts if a few details were supplied, could God inspire an entire book–not just part of a book–that is an allegory? Could he even supply names, dates, and places, trusting the ancient audience to recognize the allegorical nature of the text where we might miss it?
And not just could God do this, but has God done this?
John Paul II was of the opinion that he has.
John Paul II on Allegorical Books of the Bible
He didn’t give an exhaustive list of allegorical books (many would put the book of Job into that category), but in 1985 John Paul II gave a brief review of the books of the Old Testament in which he stated:
The Books of Tobit, Judith, and Esther, although dealing with the history of the Chosen People, have the character of allegorical and moral narrative rather than history properly so called [General Audience, May 8, 1985].
Why would he say this?
Tobit, Judith, and Esther all contain named figures–some of whom are known to history. They mention real places. And they refer to datable events. So why would he say they are allegorical rather than history proper? What cues in the text would reveal that?
In coming posts, we’ll take a look at that, and it will give us a chance to learn some interesting things about the Bible.
In the meantime, though, allow me to mention . . .
Pope Benedict’s Recommended Reading
Like many of us, Pope Benedict takes a vacation in the summer to rest, recuperate, and catch up on projects.
Like the rest of us, he finds himself looking for things he can profitably read during this time.
So does Pope Benedict have any thoughts about what people might profitably read during this time?
That’s why I’ve prepared a special “interview” with Pope Benedict on just this subject that I’ll be sending to members of the Secret Information Club on Saturday, August 18th.
To find out what Pope Benedict recommends for summer reading (and it’s not big heavy theological works but stuff anybody can read–sometimes in an hour or less), sign up at www.SecretInfoClub.com or use this handy form: