Reading Biblical Texts: Truth, Fact, and Myth
The following essay is a condensation of the author's work: In the Beginning: Critical Concepts for the study of the Bible. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.
By James W. Aageson
Department of Religion
It is not uncommon to hear someone say, "Let's just read the Bible literally. Let's forget about all this interpretation stuff and just read the Bible for what it says." The impulse for this can be appreciated. Serious interpretation of the Bible takes a lot of effort and sustained study, and sometimes all of this effort in the end only seems to work against certain cherished and long held religious beliefs. Many people want the Bible to sustain them. They do not want to be confronted by strange and new interpretations of it. And still others are opposed to the critical study of the Bible because they think God and God's word are beyond human understanding. They can only be understood by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by human reason standing alone. Moreover, digging into the scriptures seems to make human beings the final arbiter of God's word instead of God. These concerns are real, and the forces that motivate them should be understood.
Even if a person is of two minds about the critical study of the Bible, however, the problem of a "literal reading" of biblical material is an issue that is more complicated than might first appear. What is meant by the term "literal reading?" What makes a reading "literal" as opposed to something else? And is "literality" the same for all types and varieties of texts in the Bible? If we are to think about this question of literal interpretation, we must address the issue of what is meant by the expression, "literal reading." The term in popular usage seems to refer to the surface reading of the text. In this sense, "literal" refers to the straightforward adherence to the surface level of the material and its wording, the face value of the text in other words.
But extreme versions of this sense of literality could have strange results. For example, in Mark 12:1-9, Jesus tells a parable about a man who planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for a wine press, built a watchtower, and then rented it to tenants before leaving for another country. When the harvest came, he sent a slave to collect the rent, but the tenants seized and beat him instead of giving him the owner's share of the harvest. Other slaves were sent, and they, too, were beaten or killed. Finally the owner sent his own son thinking that the tenants would honor him and give him his share of the rent. Instead they seized him, killed him, and threw his body out of the vineyard. If a reader of this story were simply to read the surface level of the text, the entire point would be missed because this is a parable that takes the form of an allegory. In other words, the characters in the story refer to other figures: God, prophets, Christ, etc. A meaningful, dare we say a correct reading of this text, requires more than a literal adherence to the surface level of the words. In that sense of "literal," a surface reading of the text would be anything but a sound reading of the text. An insightful reading would require other judgments about the text to be made, for example, the literary genre of the text, in this case an allegory.
This is a rather simple example, but it illustrates that other decisions about the biblical text are usually required if one is to achieve a sound interpretation of a text. A "literal reading" of the text cannot be reduced to a surface reading. Judgments about literary genre, for example, will need to be made. An allegorical story as in this case requires that the reader look beneath the surface of the text. Decisions about the genre of biblical material need to be made on a case-by-case basis, and the manner in which this is done will affect the way a "literal reading" is understood. Again, if a person were to read a novel as though it were a historical description, the interpretive result may be a surface reading of the text, but it would clearly be an unsound reading according to both the character of the text and the intent of the author. If one were to read the seven day account of creation in Genesis 1 as though it were a primitive scientific explanation of how the world came to be, the surface reading of the text would be very different than if it were read as a mythic account. Or if one were to read the New Testament gospels as narratives rather than biographies, the resultant surface reading of the text would likely take a very different form. Furthermore, all figurative forms of biblical language are by their very nature not literal. Drawing the line between figurative and nonfigurative language is not always easy and often requires that some interpretive judgments be made.
The upshot of this discussion is that even a "literal reading" of biblical material, understood as a surface reading, necessarily requires that certain prior interpretive decisions be made if an interpretation is to be sound and reliable. The claim that one is engaging in a literal interpretation of biblical texts is not devoid of interpretive judgments, and very often those interpretive judgments can be rendered differently by different people. A so-called "literal reading" of a biblical text is virtually always relative to some other claims about the text, whether that be matters of literary form, literary context, figurative use of language, or divine inspiration. In each case, the face value of the biblical text may not be what it appears to be at first glance. A sound reading of biblical texts, even if one wishes to achieve a literal interpretation, will invariably require interpretive judgments to be made about the nature and meaning of the text, judgments that will govern how the material is in the end understood.
If a "literal reading" of biblical material is not simply understood in terms of the face value of the text but is also understood to include the intent of the author in writing the text, another interpretive dimension is added. Some may say that an author's intention in writing a text is always made clear in the act of writing the text. Few who have thought seriously about this issue would agree, however. I, for one, would contend that there is always a gap between what an author intends and what an author actually produces. If that is true, the reader who seeks authorial intent will always be making judgments about how to close the gap between what the text appears to say and what was in the mind of the author. Needless to say, this is slippery business and is open to all sorts of legitimate differences of view. To the degree that authorial intent is included in a "literal reading" of biblical texts, interpretive certainty will be difficult to achieve. A "literal reading" in that sense will not stem the tide of multiple interpretations of biblical texts; and it, too, will require that numerous interpretive judgments be made.
Another element often implicit in calls for a "literal reading" of the Bible is the claim that the Bible is accurate. This is not really a matter of reading the Bible literally so much as it is a claim about the Bible's truth or accuracy. But it often goes hand in glove with pleas for the "literal reading" of biblical material. Very often this means that the surface meaning of a biblical text is asserted to be an accurate description of what actually took place. This is so because a prior religious claim is made that governs all other judgments about the Bible: by definition the Bible is God's true word and the truth of the Bible is understood in terms of descriptive accuracy. When it says Jonah was swallowed by a whale, Jonah was swallowed by a whale. If it says Jesus exorcised an unclean spirit, he exorcised an unclean spirit. It is that simple. But is it so simple in fact?
Once again, this approach to biblical material can lead to rather questionable readings of texts. If the book of Jonah was never intended to be read as a descriptive account of what took place, why should the reader of Jonah expect the truth of the text to depend on the text's descriptive accuracy? How can that be considered a "literal reading" of the material? As indicated above, readings of texts always involve some decision about literary form or genre, and those judgments affect how literary material is read. And certainly truth claims regarding figurative language cannot always be determined on the basis of their correspondence to some nonfigurative historical reality. That is simply not possible. Moreover, the truth value of a text cannot be reduced to a mere matter of historical accuracy, without severely limiting the concept of truth.
To illustrate this point, we can use the example of a novel once again. Most novels, according to older systems of classification, are designated as fiction writing. The reader knows that in most cases the characters never lived, and the events never took place. The elaborate plot of the story and the development of the characters are the literary creation of the author. In that sense, the words of the text do not correspond to historical characters and events. The text of the novel is not accurate, but that is also irrelevant. Does one want to say that the novel is not true or has no truth value? Of course not. In the case of a great novel, the truth value of the text may be found in the insight into human experience that is generated as the story line unfolds and the characters develop. In this case, descriptive accuracy is not a factor of truth. The text could still be true but true in quite a different way.
Similar distinctions also need to be made with other forms of biblical literature. The Psalms, for instance, are not examples of descriptive literature, and they may not be forms of literary material where the question of truth is very helpful. Is a poem true? Is a liturgy true? Or a lament? And how would one determine their truth value? In any case, descriptive accuracy certainly cannot be applied as the basis for deciding their truthfulness. The meaningfulness of these kinds of biblical texts must be decided on some other basis. The same is true for many other types of biblical material as well: epistles, prophecies, fables, and apocalypses to name but a few.
A historical correspondence notion of truth is often brought to the reading of biblical material, and it frequently frames questions of biblical truth. If the historical facts are correctly reported, then the text is true. Otherwise, it is false. But this is a very limited understanding of history writing and truth. History has to do with more than data and evidence. It involves the ordering and arrangement of data. It involves the interpretation of data and evidence, as well as judgments about the meaning and significance of the evidence. In other words, history is not a mere report of facts but an interpretive retelling of what happened, what the events mean, and how they are significant. History is how we remember the past, and those remembrances may not always be the same, from person to person or from time to time. It is too simplistic to claim that all notions of historical truth can be reduced to the mere reportage of facts. Being more dynamic than that, history requires that judgments be made about what is more important and what is less so. Does this mean that there is no way to judge historical truth? Probably not, but it certainly places the discussion in a different frame of reference.
To illustrate the way a historical fact can be invested with meaning and significance, let us think about a specifically Christian claim: Jesus died on a cross for the redemption of the world. This statement contains at least two factual kinds of claims: Jesus died, and he died on a cross. The first of these is hardly subject to debate, whereas the second is not self-evident and the truth of the statement could theoretically be tested according to evidence, assuming evidence is available. But both of these claims are rather mundane to say the least. Not much of significance is at stake in either one. To call the fact of Jesus' death on a cross historical is probably correct but not very unusual. But the claim that Jesus died for the redemption of the world is, on the contrary, a monumental claim. It has the potential to be of enormous significance. It is a religious way of investing a historical fact with meaning and significance. This death was not just any death. Others, too, died on crosses, but this death was special. This one had redemptive significance for the world. Can this claim about Christ's death being redemptive be tested according to factual evidence? Not obviously so. It is difficult to imagine any kind of factual historical evidence that could substantiate this claim. The truth of any assertion regarding Christ's redemptive death would need to be made on some basis other than sheer historical evidence. But the important point to notice is the way a historical claim is shaped in such a way that meaning and significance are attributed to certain historical events. It shows the way purported historical events are fused with theological claims and the way a historical model of truth is highly inadequate to judge the truthfulness of a theological assertion such as this one.
This example illustrates some of the problems associated with evaluating the truth of biblical material. It points to the fact that any truth claims that the biblical texts may offer or that we as modern readers of the Bible may desire to make need to be tested according to standards that are appropriate to and commensurate with the claims that are being evaluated. To do otherwise, even unwittingly, is to mix apples and oranges. It can lead to the validation or invalidation of biblical material by fallacious means. When making truth claims about biblical material, sensitivity to the models of truth being employed and the standards for evaluation being used is essential. To say that something in the Bible is true or false begs for a reply to the question: relative to what?
What are some other ways of judging the truth value and truth claims of biblical material? One way that many religious people implicitly arrive at religious truth claims is what we might call truth by definition. Certain assertions are claimed to be true by definition and then other truth claims can be deduced in turn from them. For example, Jesus is God's son, a statement claimed to be true by definition. If that is true by definition, then other truth claims can be derived from it by inference and extrapolation. To say that God created the world, or that God forgives sins, or that Christ will come again are all examples of assertions that have been declared to be true and have been used to draw further inferences about the truth of biblical material. This way of discerning truth will probably always have a role to play in religious communities, as people probe the depths of human experience. But claims declared to be true by definition should always be open to critique and evaluation, if critical thinking is to avoid becoming narrow, parochial, and merely self-interested.
A related way of understanding truth claims is to see truth relative to a culture's world view. This is close to the idea of truth by definition but moves the issue further into the realm of basic cultural assumptions, assumptions that may be accepted as true without much consideration or awareness on the part of the people in that culture. These basic assumptions govern the way the people look at the world and how they make judgments about truth. To use an example, Americans hold dearly to certain notions pertaining to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. American culture is shot through with ideas of individual liberty and free market economics. In the great mass of American society, notions related to these ideas are virtually given to be true. For Americans, they are part of the fabric of the world view. That is simply how reality is and how it works. Truth claims about many of life's issues are made relative to these kinds of assumptions, and the most fundamental of these assumptions may rarely be challenged. Different cultures will have different assumptions, but all cultures will have them. They are not optional.
We shall use the concept of myth to illustrate some of the implications of this. There are many definitions of the word myth, but the most common is that it refers to something that is false. It is commonly used as an antonym for the word true. But people who study and think about the concept of myth do not think of myth as something that is simply false. They have developed many quite sophisticated definitions of myth and studies of how myths function. Since we cannot engage in an extended discussion of these, let me simply suggest the idea that myths deal with peoples' fundamental views of life and struggles to understand their world as told in story form. Once again, myths express something of a culture's world view. In this sense of myth, both the biblical world and our own operate with certain mythic notions, and both are quite willing to make truth claims for their mythic conceptions.
If we think about the many ways Americans express their basic conviction that individual human beings have inalienable rights, I submit we are thinking about American mythology. This myth has been told in countless forms over the years and deals with a fundamental conception of how Americans understand the human person. Geneticists will never find a human gene that identifies a human right. Surgeons will never find an internal body part that contains a human right. That, of course, is ridiculous. Nevertheless, many Americans have been willing to fight and die to defend the idea of basic human rights and freedoms. It is an extremely powerful idea that has profound implications for all sorts of claims about human life and social organization. Americans are overwhelmingly committed to the truth of this idea.
Similarly there are many examples of biblical myths. The Israelite idea of covenant is one of the most conspicuous examples. Israelites and subsequently Jews believed they had a special relationship with Yahweh, God. This covenant entailed divine promises and human responsibilities. And part of this covenant relationship involved the conviction that a certain piece of real estate, the promised land of Israel, was given to them by God. This covenant idea clearly has mythic proportions, and it is not an idea that all people would agree with, especially the ancient Canaanites and the modern day Palestinians. But there are Jews to this day who will fight, die and go to great hardship to live out the implications of the covenant and occupy the land. It is part of their conviction about the world and their place in it. It is clearly mythic, and for many Israelites and Jews it is true.
Other examples of myth, according to this definition, are the accounts of Jesus' birth in Matthew and Luke. If one were to use a historical accuracy notion of truth to determine the truth of these stories, one would probably assert that they are true only if the events and biological facts of the story happened as reported. But if these stories are mythic, something else is going on in them other than the simple reportage of facts. What could this be? As myths these are not stories that primarily report events. They are stories that probe the deep mysteries of how the divine encounters the human, and the miraculous birth story is the form these myths take. The divine, God, impregnates a human, Mary, and the tangible result is Jesus Christ, true God and true man. He represents the linkage between the heavenly and the earthly, the mundane and the transcendent. Does this mean that the birth stories are untrue? No. But it does mean that truth claims about these stories need to be assessed according to some other standard than historical facticity. They are true relative to a basic assumption about the nature of reality: Jesus is the incarnate son of God. This is a truth claim of Christians but not a claim that all people would accept.
There are many biblical themes and stories that fit into these mythic categories. For illustrative purposes it will be helpful to list a few of these. The claim that God created the world and that human beings have dominion over the created order is mythic. This is a powerful idea but one that may not be subject to empirical verification. It may, however, have truth value. The idea that Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit, fell from divine favor, suffered the consequences of toil, pain, and enmity, and forever affected the destiny of human beings is another conspicuous biblical idea. This is a powerful concept that may very well be true but is not subject to empirical verification. Or consider the idea that there will be a final judgment. It cannot be said that this is a claim that can be objectively verified, but it is a claim that may, nonetheless, be true relative to certain assumptions about divine justice and activity. These few examples highlight the mythic character of many biblical claims, and they illustrate that the validity and truth of these biblical statements need to be assessed on some basis other than historical correspondence or accuracy.
One final observation about the discernment of biblical truth should be made. Many truth claims, many biblical truth claims included, should, in my judgment, be subjected to moral critique. When we look at the consequences of historic and religious truth claims, what have been the social and human consequences that have followed from them? Can we discern any consequences? If so, how have these claims played themselves out over time? Are the consequences morally laudable or morally reprehensible? At a minimum, we should ask ourselves if these claims can be true when we see what they have done. When Matthew in his gospel implies that the blood of Christ is not only on the hands of the Jews in Jesus' day but also on the hands of their descendants, can this statement have any claim to religious truth, given the way this has contributed to the horrible reality of anti-Semitism? When seen in light of the Christian gospel itself, the consequences of this rather direct Matthean implication seem to be suspect, if not altogether devoid of theological truth value, that is if the Christian gospel is in fact good news and not bad news. Moral considerations may not finally settle questions of biblical truth, but they ought to be considered.
Assessing biblical truth is complicated and cannot be reduced to a single notion of truth. Multiple levels of meaning and truth can be discovered in biblical material, and the critical reader of the Bible needs sophistication and flexibility in evaluating them. In some cases, the question of whether the biblical material is true or not is beside the point. It only leads one away from the significant features of the text. Yet truth claims that are made are always made within a social and communal context. Likewise, those of us who try to assess them do so in social and communal contexts. In historical and religious matters, truth is social in character, and the apprehension of it is similarly social. Understanding the social dimensions of truth is important for critical readers of the Bible, just as it is important to understand the historical and literary dimensions of biblical texts and their interpretation.