It brings a smile to some faces to hear the line: "Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened." Others find that line irreverent. How much of what is recorded in the Bible actually happened as it is written?
Some of us come from traditions where as children we sang, “The B-I-B-L-E, yes, that’s the book for me; I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” For us, certainly, the idea that the Bible is both true and that some things in it didn’t actually happen can be jarring and disturbing.
As a student and scholar of the New Testament, I of course conclude that many things did not happen as biblical texts record them. The questioner asks: “How much of what is recorded in the Bible actually happened as it is written?” It is the word “actually” that raises interesting questions. What do we modern folk, attached to ideas of historical verifiability, mean by saying that something “actually happened”?
While I know and teach that a man named Jesus lived in the first century and that we can know something of his first-century context in Judea and the Galilee, the gospels for example can’t tell us what “actually happened.” Neither can archaeology of the time, or contemporaneous writings, tell us what “actually happened.” The gospels are far less than that—that is, they are not historical reportage. And they are, more importantly, far more than that—that is, they present us with the imaginations of early Jesus followers and their resources for and theological responses to living in a world where the Roman Empire effected violence on Jesus and others. I know and I teach that Paul was an actual man, travelling the Mediterranean in the first century, but just because he characterizes the Corinthian community as schismatic does not mean that this “actually happened.” That the Corinthians were full of divisions was Paul’s opinion—one that was much debated and disputed, as we learn from his later correspondence in 2 Corinthians, where it’s clear that the Corinthians offered Paul a few choice words regarding his opinion of them!
“Everything in the Bible is true,” says the quotation that the questioner offers. For me, the great thing about that truth is that it is plural. The gospels as canonized are four, not reduced to one story that we might be tempted to analyze for historical verifiability. We get four stories, four viewpoints of early Jesus followers, and they don’t always match up. This gives Christians room to look within the canon (not to mention the Jesus sayings and traditions outside of the canon!) for the many truths of earliest Christianity. Paul said the Corinthians were schismatic and morally questionable, and the Corinthians talked back: both are part of the truths of earliest Christianity, which at its very beginning was filled with painful and productive struggles over how to understand God, how to respond to the world, and how to live and engage in religious practice together.
The fact that the Bible cradles gently within itself multiple truths, and multiple and even violently contradictory viewpoints, also means that those who find a truth in the Bible are responsible for explaining how they came to that truth rather than another. We choose to highlight certain verses and traditions over others, and it is incumbent upon us to reflect on and to own up to our ethics that lead to these choices.
The Judeo-Christian faith as recorded in the Scriptures stands out among the other religions in the Ancient Near East in the seriousness with which it takes the dimension of history. God is one who acts in history and who is revealed in history. The central events, the exodus from Egypt and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, are presented as occurring in history. Connected with them is the development and history of the people of God, Israel and then the church. This seriousness about history has positively affected the subsequent understanding of history, first in the western world.
We expect the historical record to be taken seriously. Does that mean that every historical reference is accurate? Those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture as I do, best understand that as applying to the intention of the particular passage; and that is understood within the broader purpose of history (e.g. 2 Tim. 3.16-17). The writings intend to show that events did happen and happened in the context of history, but how that applies to exact historical detail is hard to settle. One factor is that historical truth in the context of the time of the biblical writings did not have the precise demand and definition that modern history has.
Most events referred to in Scripture come in an historical context of which we have only partial understanding. Both defending the accuracy of a biblical account and criticizing it require a degree of projection and speculation. Some biblical events previously criticized as inaccurate have been confirmed by archaeology; other events seem inconsistent with archaeological findings. I myself give the benefit of doubt to the biblical claims while realizing that there are historical references than are inconsistent with what we otherwise know.
The Bible was neither written nor ever functioned as objective history. Rather it has the character of sacred literature telling the story of a people and their experience of God, and serving the purpose of religious formation within the faith community, first of Israel and then the Church. In the case of the Jews, the essence of truth is found in the gift of the Law. In the case of the Christians, the essence of truth is found in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. While both communities anchor their understanding of truth in their respective gifts, an individual is challenged to consider which of these gifts resonates in her or his heart as God’s word to be embraced and lived by faith in one of these communal contexts. All else, pertaining to the Bible, is secondary.
Neither the complete literal truth of the Bible nor the complete literal untruth (“inspired poetry” and all that) will solve the essential religious question—which is not how true the claims of any text are.
The essential religious question is: am I living as if I really believe what I say I believe about the Bible (Koran, sutras, Talmud, etc.)? If I spend all this time wondering about ‘truth’ I won’t have much time left over to focus on my own conduct, my own passionate commitment, and that will make my own religious development pretty much impossible.
That’s Kierkegaard’s answer, and I for one can’t think of a better one.