Is the Bible True?

"Daniel in the Lion's Den," Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907-1918

“Daniel in the Lion’s Den,” Henry Ossawa Tanner 1907-1918

Is the Bible True?

Two questions: Why should any educated person care? Whaddya mean by “true”?

Who could care? Of course, people whose identities (sense of who they are) are bound up with particular views about the Bible will care as a matter of self-care, much as they would care to keep their shoes in good repair and not leave the house with a shirt torn.

As for “true”: well, all but the most narrow are willing to concede that the Bible has truth – moral truth (sometimes), symbolic truth (selectively read) – and that it had demonstrable influence on literary, political and psychological motifs in the West.

And, btw, how much “Bible” are we talking about?

The Christian scripture, with Hebrew scripture folded in as prelude? Hebrew Scripture standing alone? Behind those sticky questions lies a long, tangled and bloody history.

And yet, and yet. A dying friend, a Lutheran whose regard for Hebrew Scripture may have been restricted by her theology, had the psalms of David read to her in her final hours by the man who loved her best, likely with consoling effect.

What did the Jews make of it? In the centuries after the Jews produced it, the rabbis held that one author, Moses, wrote the first five books, the Pentateuch or Torah, with his own hand. In the nineteenth century, the German scholar Julius Wellhausen found four different sources for the Pentateuch: J, E, P and D. Never mind what those letters stand for and what his reasoning was. The documentary hypothesis, as it is called, doesn’t settle the question, are these different editorial strands carrying true reports? Are any of them true? It would seem that they can’t all be entirely true, since they contain inconsistent accounts of the same events.

Usually, if a report contains inconsistencies, we question the reporter’s trustworthiness. Michael Walzer, a secular philosopher discussing the problem in his book, In God’s Shadow: Politics in the Hebrew Bible, explains the inconsistencies as a case rather of hyper-trust: the final editors were so sure that these materials were divinely revealed that they declined to rule on what words were and were not holy. So they included them all and let the chips fall where they fell.

In other words, they thought that, inconsistent or not, it was all true — or at least too true to mess with.

In our day, there are believing Jewish scholar/theologians who wrestle with the texts in a reverent spirit. Jon Levinson finds serious themes that run through the whole of the Hebrew Bible, themes like the struggle against chaos and evil. Michael Wyschogrod sees a loving, passionate intimacy between God and the people of the covenant, ongoing from the patriarchs to the present day.

Sorry to be so naïve, but

I still want to know,

are the stories true?

In Israel and Revelation, Eric Voegelin finds the Israelite contribution to world civilization in their discovery of something quite new in the ancient world: “history” defined as “the ways of God with man.”

That’s interesting, but I read partway into his book and got the impression that he thought the stories were part myth and symbolism and part shakeout of power struggles played out behind the scenes. I read it as a verdict against the truth of Biblical stories.

Metaphor schmetaphor. Symbol schmybol. So far as I am concerned, if the thoughts and the songs and the prophecies all refer to occurrences that didn’t happen, then they’re about rather big … uh … misunderstandings, to put it politely. If that’s naïve on my part, well tough. I’m naïve.

But why should this be a haunting question for me? If somebody wanted to say that I’m not that Jewish, I wouldn’t have much of a defense. I listen to hillbilly gospel when I exercise in the morning. I sink into a meditative state when I stand inside a Hindu temple. There was a Japanese tea room I used to frequent in Manhattan, partly for the sweet but mostly for the large center piece that displayed the ancient art of flower arrangement – for the Japanese, a spiritual art. And I love philosophy which, come to think of it, is the pagan world’s great contribution to world civilization.

What’s it to me if the Hebrew Bible is true or not? As to “Jewish identity,” whether or not you think the Bible tales (or anything like them) actually happened, you can get just as killed by the Jew-haters. They don’t ask you what you think.

The deepest question for us is why we should act or refuse to act. In case what we do includes reference to a Divine Actor – what He would have us do or not do – the Hebrew Bible offers a tower of evidence of what it is like to keep God in view as Co-Actor in the world of action.

Is it empirical evidence? In Numbers 11, God’s people complain that they’re sick and tired of the same old manna and would really like some meat. God responds with irritation [my paraphrase}: You want meat? I’ll give you meat till you’re up to here with it. And the Lord “swept up quail from the sea and left them all over the camp … .” In a footnote, translator Robert Alter informs us that “flocks of migratory quail from the sea do cross over the Sinai where, exhausted from their flight, they are easy to trap.”

At the present time, researchers have empirical evidence, not available to nineteenth-century higher critics like Wellhausen, that some of the stories certainly could have happened. The quail story is what I call a “Jewish miracle,” where the divine touch is in the significant timing, not in the suspension of any law of nature.

The Israel Defense Force, and the British army before them, conducted certain campaigns on the model of battle plans recorded in the Book of Judges. You can’t get more empirical than that.

The Bible stories are true in that they are true to life. Things happen that way. Even stories that sound fantastic may have significance for action. I don’t believe that there is a fish so big that it can swallow a man like Jonah whole, leaving him undigested for three days before spewing him out unimpaired and ready to prophecy.

But I don’t doubt that one could sense a divine imperative to care for one’s mortal enemies (in Jonah’s case, the Ninevites) enough to try to put them too into a rectified relation with the Divine Author in whose script

we are all still players.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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