The Bible is history…a more important kind of history

Joel Watts has a really good post up today about the relative values of mythology and history.

I tried to get [my children] to understand that stories are shared by people, and sometimes, we take stories from others to explain something important to us. I didn’t get to the point of the new creation story in Noah’s narrative, as I didn’t think they could handle the massive amount of information already.

But, why is it that we can so easily suggest Gilgamesh is a myth but take Noah as literal fact? Why? Because we have a fuzzy understanding of how stories work, and we are wholly anti-Semitic when it comes to reading the Jewish Scriptures. We insist these authors are modern day white male historians trained at Harvard, and not Jews in Babylon building the Jewish identity.

My kids and I ran into this discussion just last week when reading from an American folklore book. We were reading about John Henry, the steel-drivin’ man who died with a hammer in his hand…and apparently managed to do so despite the inconvenient paucity of his own historicity.

Johnny Appleseed, Harper’s New Monthly Magazin...

To my delight, my children understood intuitively that even though stories like this, Johnny Appleseed, or the Paul Bunyan tall tales might not have happened per se, they remain with us because they so capably express the mindsets of the people of the time. They tell us much about values that their heroes held, especially (in the case of American folklore) the values of hard work, dedication, and ambition to excel.

I didn’t bring this over into the area of biblical folklore/mythology at the time; I expect it’ll sink in when the time comes. But now I can at least imagine that my seven-year-old son, who offered concerned pushback against the notion that the Bible could contain stories that didn’t actually happen when it was first pitched to him several months back, will be able to see the high benefit of stories that convey values and meaning. This time he was able to identify the way people behave, the things they believe in and try to live up to, as the “important stuff”. Bingo.

These ahistorical stories, based as they often are in historical settings, have two great virtues that are often (if not usually) overlooked when reading “straight history” written to conform to our modern historiographical ideals.

1) They focus on the most essential facts about what made the characters tick. Whether Johnny Appleseed planted just so many trees and could talk to animals, we at least know that people thought of him as a kind man dedicated to caring for nature, plying his life’s mission selflessly and without regard for convention. We’re left examining the ways that people who knew the historical figure John Chapman thought of him, written up in terms larger than life to accentuate the aspects of character and temperament that he especially seemed to embody.

2) They communicate information about the values of those who created and adopted the stories. This is even bigger, because even when there is a historical figure behind the stories, the impressions of those figures reflected in their associated stories are not at all dependent on the accuracy of those impressions. The historical John Chapman might have been a kitten-kicking jerkface who simply got famous off of fooling everyone; in the case of Paul Bunyan, there was never such a person to begin with. But there is something more important we can still know: these stories were passed on in no small part because those who did so thought that the aspects of those characters depicted in the stories were valuable and worth passing on.

So there is something invaluable in reading legend/folklore/mythology as a history lesson–not about the events in the stories, but about the people generating and receiving the stories. We are then left to engage with those ideals, confronting them in reference to our best, retrospectively informed understanding of what is truly right and good. Just because we see that the Israelites believed God needed to wipe out all flesh because of sin doesn’t mean we need draw the identical conclusions about what God is like, but we can certainly take serious their belief that sin is intolerable.

Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying as an assertion that we should just discard everything believed by the authors of biblical folklore, judging them against what we happen to believe in our exalted modern state. No, as a rule I think we should seek out continuity between their ideals and ours and be willing to allow their contextually expressed values into our own value systems–mutatis mutandis, of course. In actuality, I find the trajectory of basic values of goodness, love, and ethically based righteousness from early Judaism through Christianity to be a consistent slope that continues far upward into humanity’s future. I want my children to view our faith neither as blindly traditionalistic nor as fundamentally iconoclastic, but as painstakingly cumulative.

When reading Scripture this way, as a history lesson about its authors and audiences, we are finally learning useful truth rather than trivial data from our forebears in the faith. Adam and Eve? The massacre of the Canaanites? Incidental but contextually understandable misunderstandings. We can, as Jesus did, focus on doing the “important stuff”: acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

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