My professor John Goldingay, an excellent and well-known scholar on the Old Testament wrote something really profound which addressed some of the questions in my mind.
He writes about the historicity of the Old Testament, how a Christian should view it, and how we can reconcile some the questions we have about its accuracy and authority.
I thought it would be helpful for anyone who shares those questions:
Fact and Truth
by John Goldingay
The OT is wholly reliable as a guide to who God is. who we are, and how we may relate to God. See 2 Timothy 3:14-16. We know this because Jesus gave the OT to us. He would not have given it to us if it were at all unreliable.
But one of the things that many churches teach people is that the Bible must be factually true at every point if it is really the Word of God. That is a good example of a tradition of which we can be critical.
It is certainly true that the Bible story needs to be basically factual. The reason for this is that the gospel is about something that actually happened. If it didn’t happen, there is no gospel.
It is also true that God has inspired fictional stories such as Jesus’ parables. There are evidently some things that are best communicated through parables. Parables are true but they are not factual. It can therefore be in principle an open question whether different books in the Bible are more like history or more like parable—or are a mixture. Among the features of Jesus’ stories that put us on the track of their being parable rather than history are
- Apparent exaggeration
- “Stock” characters
- Schematic structure, use of numerical schemes
- Neatness and closure
On that kind of basis, I assume that stories such as Ruth, Esther, and Jonah are God-inspired, true parables, as are elements within other books such as the opening stories in Genesis and the stories in Daniel. They are true, but not factual.
Realizing that these stories are parables rather than history helps us to take them really seriously as the word of God, because we know that God specially inspired them to portray the way God deals with us. They aren’t mere history. (“History is bunk”—Henry Ford.)
There are also no grounds for saying that the OT always succeeds in being historical when it is trying to be. (In other words, there are no grounds for saying it is “inerrant”). God’s promise about it is that still reliable in the sense just described (it tells us the truth about God) even when it is not historical. (Again, there are limits to how unhistorical it could be, and I trust God to have made sure that it is within those limits.)
Students often get troubled about the idea that the OT contains parable as well as history. They also get troubled by the associated idea that (e.g.) Moses did not write the Pentateuch, David did not write the Psalms, and Solomon did not write Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs. I think one reason is that they have been given the impression that its authority depends on who wrote it and on its being history. I suggest that its authority comes from somewhere else.
There are three reasons why the OT has authority.
- Jesus gave it to us
- The church gave it to us
- It speaks with authority and power
There is no way to be sure when history ends and parables starts, but this shouldn’t matter too much to us. The basis of our assurance that the OT is the word of God is not that we can show it is history or that we know who wrote it but that Jesus gave it to us. We do not believe in Jesus because of the authority of scripture. We believe in the authority of scripture because we know that Jesus is the Son of God. I trust the OT because I trust Jesus, not the other way round.
I thought it was helpful in my own critical engagement with the Old Testament.