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Dr. Joel Hoffman Headshot

The Bible Isn't The History You Think It Is

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The Bible
The Bible

Some stories in the Bible were meant to be history, others fiction. But modernity has obscured the original distinction between the two kinds of biblical writing, depriving readers of the depth of the text.

Perhaps surprisingly, this confusion lies at the heart of the History Channel's miniseries "The Bible," which continues the pattern of blurring history and fiction, and thereby misrepresenting the nature of the Bible to its viewers.

One way to understand the difference between history and fiction in the Bible is through the Old Testament's natural division into three parts:

Sometimes 'believing the Bible' means believing that a story in it didn't happen.
  1. The world and its nature (Adam to Terah).
  2. The Israelites and their purpose (Abraham to Moses).
  3. The Kingdom of Israel and life in Jerusalem (roughly from King David onward).

Even a cursory look reveals a clear and significant pattern.

In the first section, characters live many hundreds of years, and in the second, well into their second century. Only in the third section do biblical figures tend to live biologically reasonable lives.

For example, Adam, in the first section, lives to the symbolic age of 930, and Noah lives even twenty years longer than that. Abraham, from the second section, lives to be 175, his son Issac to 180, and Jacob "dies young" at the age of 147. But the lifespans from King David onward, in the third section, are in line with generally accepted human biology.

Furthermore, historians mostly agree that only the third section represents actual history.

The reasonable ages in the third section of the Bible, and, in particular, the wildly exaggerated ages in the first, suggest that the authors of the Old Testament intended only the third part as history. Underscoring this crucial difference, some of the lifespans in the first two sections are so absurd as to defy literal interpretation. These hugely advanced ages are central clues about the point of the stories.

The Old Testament contains a wide range of texts in addition to stories: laws, prayers, moral codes, and more. But even the stories come in more than one variety. Noah and the Great Flood are not in the same category as Moses and the Ten Commandments, and both are different than King David and the First Temple.

History and fiction mingle throughout the Old Testament, so these divisions are just rough guides. Jeremiah's historical description of the siege on Jerusalem is not the same as Ezekiel's non-historical vision of the dry bones, just as there are historical elements (like the invention of fire-hardened bricks) even in the non-historical account of the Tower of Babel.

The interesting point here is not that some of these stories happened and some didn't (though that's almost certainly true). The point is that the Bible itself portrays them differently, only presenting some of them as having happened. In other words, sometimes "believing the Bible" means believing that a story in it didn't happen.

The situation not unlike a modern newspaper, which combines news with opinion, puzzles, comics, etc. The news can be accurate even if the comics are not. The same is true for the different parts of the Bible.

The New Testament similarly offers more than just stories, and, as with the Old Testament, only some of the stories in the New Testament were meant as history. Others were intended to convey things like theology and morality. The account of Jesus' life in the Gospels is not the same as the beast in Revelation or Adam's life in Genesis. (The issue of different categories for Jesus and Adam is a matter of fierce modern debate because of its potential theological significance and its interaction with the theory of evolution.)

All of this is important for people who want to believe, for instance, that a man named Jesus was crucified in ancient Jerusalem (as described in the Gospels) even if they don't believe that a donkey spoke aloud (Numbers); or that Jews lived in Jerusalem during the first millennium BC (Kings, for example) even if they didn't leave Egypt 600,000 strong (Exodus).

More generally, this recognition that Bible stories are not all the same is part of understanding the essence of the Bible, and is crucial for people who believe that the Bible remains relevant even if parts of it aren't true.

Like combining a newspaper's news with its comics, painting the Bible with a single brush obscures its original nature. Unfortunately, by using the same style to dramatize all the biblical stories, the History Channel's "The Bible" — regardless of its other qualities — distorts the Bible's original spirit, and does a disservice both to history and to the Bible.