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?
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.