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Is the Torah historical?

Published: 28 May 2016 (GMT+10)

It is common to think that because ancient writers did not have modern historiography, we can’t interpret any of their works as historical in the way we think of historical. Is this correct?, Willy torah

Timothy M, United States, writes:

Is the modern concept of “historical” appropriately applied to the Torah, which was written for people who didn’t think the way we do?

The Torah existed before it was written and has all of the stylistic hallmarks of an oral history. Repetition, symbolism, poetic structure, etc. To become memorable, oral traditions evolved to focus primarily on cultural saliency and morality. If God had chosen to use an unfamiliar paradigm, the message would not have been understood.

MODERN distinctions like “history” and “myth” didn’t seem to exist 3500 years ago. So why make the distinction NOW? Details in the Bible are incidental to conveying God’s universal spiritual truth.

See 2 Corinthians 3:6. Also C.S.Lewis on “fact” vs. “truth”.

I suggest that perhaps a “literal” interpretation of the Torah is ignorant of its cultural roots, fraught with excessive attention to the letter while missing the spiritual message, and destructive because of the way it turns so many people away from God.

Lita Cosner, CMI-US, responds:

Of course ancient people did not define historiography the way we do today. That doesn’t mean, however, that they didn’t have categories for “things that happened” versus “things that didn’t really happen”.

The Torah consists of five books. Genesis is the only one which relates accounts which happened long before the time of Moses. So how did he get that information? One clue is the toledot structure in the book. Interestingly, this structure may point to Moses having access to written records about the patriarchs. The poetic structures in Genesis are very limited; it’s mainly limited to heightening the impact of a pronouncement, and to Jacob’s blessing of his sons.

I agree, the modern distinction of religion vs myth did not exist in the past the way it does today, perhaps partially because they didn’t have the distinction between religious vs secular. But Genesis is written in straightforward language using grammatical constructions like the waw-consecutive which indicate history.

Of course, we don’t have just Genesis; we have later interpretation of Genesis in the New Testament. And Jesus took Genesis as authoritatively historical, as did Paul and the rest of the NT authors. The Greeks had a historiography by then (ancient historians of that time weighed various historical claims and regarded some as true and others as not true), and while Jesus as an Israelite Jew may not have been expected to know Greek historiography, Paul and Luke certainly did.

What on earth does 2 Corinthians 3:6 have to do with anything we’re discussing? I mean, clearly you’ve ripped it out of its context in Paul’s larger argument because you think it helps your point, but I can’t even tell what you meant to prove by it.

In any case, God Himself inspired Scripture, and so Scripture shouldn’t be constrained by ancient notions of historiography. As Peter said, “Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20–21)

As much as I like some of C.S. Lewis’s writings, he was not (and never claimed to be) a Bible scholar; he was a scholar of English literature. And he was also not a conservative evangelical, as much as conservative evangelicals like to co-opt his writings when possible.

I suggest that a modernist materialistic outlook leads to an interpretation of the Torah that seeks to salvage a spiritual message while discounting both the historical claims of Genesis itself and the claims of those in the NT that interpreted it as history.

Helpful Resources

How Did We Get Our Bible?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $3.50
Soft Cover
Creation, Fall, Restoration
by Andrew S Kulikovsky
US $24.00
Soft Cover

Readers’ comments

David M.
When thinking about what may or may not seem historical in the Bible, for those looking at it from a modern and often sceptical western viewpoint, I find it helpful to realise that just because something in the scriptures has a spiritual application (as so much does) does not imply that it didn’t actually happen in its more natural sense. For an example, consider physical circumcision, which is something that happens today and most would readily accept that it has happened for a long time in the ancient world. So when the Lord says in Deu 30:6 that he will “circumcise your heart” we need not think that physical circumcision did not actually take place as well, the former being a type of the latter. We may rightly de-emphasise the importance of physical circumcision in our world today, and highlight the vital nature of being spiritually circumcised, Col 2:11, but none of this detracts from the obvious truthfulness of both.
Phil K.
I believe Timothy's purpose for referencing 2 Corinthians 3:6 was to justify not taking Genesis historically (for the letter kills) but to interpret it spiritually (the Spirit gives life) to allow for long ages and avoid the 6 day creation period "because of the way it turns so many people away from God".
Boak D.
When I look at Timothy M.'s letter, a deep sadness fills my heart. Why doesn't Tim understand the spiritual the way Jesus did/does
Jesus, (keeping in mind that He is The Word of God- Rev. 19, John 1, etc.), said "If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how shall your believe if I tell you heavenly things?" John 3. Jesus is clearly saying here the historical- the time , space, matter record of events-is of spiritual importance. It is believable history that verifies what He tells us of God's will and the future of every human being. He the Word of God, the Word made flesh and what He has communicated to mankind IS the spiritual. The Historical is the spiritual just as much as the moral is, as the prophetic is, as the fulfillment of the promise of the atonement is. By the way Jesus's death on the cross for our sins was clearly a historical event and it had to be or it had no spiritual meaning what so ever. This is also true of the accurate history of genesis 1-11. If the Torah's account is not accurate history then it has no spiritual meaning-period. That is why Jesus's statement in John 3 needs to be seen as the final say for all of scripture. Timothy, and others need to read and believe Jesus's (The Word's) own commentary about His words rather than man's if he truly wants the spiritual. The authority is found in Jesus, The Word made flesh, not in the theories and teachings of men.
James J.
A "literal" interpretation of the Torah does not turn people away from God. The love of sin turns people away from God.
Martin S.
I used to be bombarded by atheists making much the same claims. My answer always was, Moses had written texts. Abraham came out of a well-educated culture, therefore oral traditions would not have been needed. BTW, atheists are listening, which is why atheism is fading from most of the world and Christ abounds in atheist nations like China. God bless!
Dan M.
How in world does the old testament, (OT) drive people away? If anything it confirms the new testament, (NT) with prophesy concerning christ and other events, all fulfilled. Also in some ways it is an antithesis by which we can discern spiritual truths, (law vs. grace).
He may be referring to all the negative events such as wars, murders and punishments by God recorded in the OT but we must realize those events were caused by disobedience to Gods law before grace and it's recorded history. There is much punishment by God in the OT but as you and my pastor points out it is an if/then policy of God. If you do this then I will do that.
When I hear people complain about God allowing bad things to happen nowadays, I always point them to Proverbs chapter one, (we are the problem). If the world acknowledged Christ as Lord of all, I have no doubt he would heal the creation but he knows most of us won't do that. In the NT Gods wrath is withheld for the most part, (for now) but we are still called to obey his law by spirit,(Joh 14:15). Make no mistake, the unrighteous will be punished but we believers who love God, (Joh 14:15) have the righteous of Christ by grace imputed on us because NO ONE can keep the whole law and this is one major lesson from the OT that's needed.
God is not some big meany in the sky who punishes but is a loving God who has provided the way to salvation. If you don't take it, it's not his fault, (Rom 10:9).
Joseph M.
A modernist materialistic outlook should be interpreting the Torah from a materialistic worldview, because that's its presupposition. It's inconsistent even trying to salvage a spiritual message, because the spirit does not exist in a materialistic worldview. The interpretation of Genesis 2:7 (NKJV) "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground..." must, in a materialistic worldview, mean God literally formed man from the physical materials of earth, irrespective of whether the materialist believes it or not.

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