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Let My People Know, Let My People Think: Why it Matters that the Bible is Fiction

Sunday, March 31, 2013 @ 12:03 PM
posted by Roger Price
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In recent years, in certain circles, it has become fashionable to assert that the Bible is fiction, or that at least key segments of it are fictional. The assertion emanates from two camps. In one of these camps are those who have been described as new or militant atheists. Looking to recent developments primarily in cosmology and archeology, folks like Richard Dawkins, Victor Stenger, Samuel Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens have created more than a cottage industry in their efforts to debunk the Bible.

But scientist and skeptics are not alone in their contention that the Bible is fiction. In another other camp are scholars of the Bible, including notable rabbis. For instance, during Passover week a dozen years ago, Conservative Rabbi and prolific author David Wolpe set off a firestorm when he spoke to his Los Angeles congregation about the lack of hard evidence for the Exodus story. According to a writer for the Los Angeles Times, after reviewing revolutionary discoveries in then current archeology, Rabbi Wolpe told them:  “The truth is that virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all.” (A subsequent summary of Wolpe’s thinking may readily be found on the Internet in a piece he authored called Did the Exodus Really Happen? (“Did It?”).)

As reported at the time in the Jewish Journal and , reactions to Rabbi Wolpe’s comments were strong and heated. Some attacked the substance of his comments, holding to the Biblical rendition as factually true, a pillar of the Jewish edifice, regardless of what some archeologists found (or did not find). Some attacked the setting of his comments, suggesting that Passover was not the proper season for that particular lesson.

More recently, the distinguished professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, also a prolific author, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman published a post on his blog, Life and a Little Liturgy, titled The Bible is Fiction.”  In that post, Rabbi Hoffman did not discuss directly either Wolpe or the Exodus, cosmology or archeology, but argued more broadly that the entire Hebrew Bible is fiction because its authors meant it not as science or history but “as presentation.”

In contrast to the reception Wolpe received, the comments to Hoffman’s piece were overwhelmingly favorable. Whether the difference in reception is due to Wolpe clearing the air or to Hoffman preaching to a different choir, or at least in a less visible manner, is unclear.

In any event, at this point, one might think that a great breakthrough has been achieved, that the scientists, skeptics and clergy were all on the same page, fictional though it may be. Not quite. While the conclusion that the Bible is fiction is proof determinative for Dawkins et al. that there is no God, for rabbis Wolpe and Hoffman, the fictional nature of the Bible literally does not matter.  Both retain their faith in God. Yet their conclusion that the historicity of the Bible does not matter seems at least counterintuitive, and overreaching as well.  Does not matter to whom? For what purpose?

To test the proposition that facts do not matter, let’s recall that Wolpe’s sermons were premised on two points: (1) the absence of any archeological evidence to support an exodus from Egypt or a military conquest in Canaan between 1500-1200 BCE and (2) the existence of hard evidence that indicates a native and emerging presence of Israelites in Canaan by the end of that period. Now consider what would happen if there were solid archeological evidence of a significant Biblical event. For instance, what if a container holding two stone tablets dated 3,300 years ago and inscribed with the Ten Commandments were found in an underground cavern near Jerusalem? What if the bones of a man from that period were found on Mt. Nebo, with his skull exuding an unusual, but certain, radiance and his DNA consistent with the Cohen Modal Haplotype?  Doubtless, these items would be seen not just as evidence of the existence of the Ark of the Covenant and the prophet Moses, but as tangible proof of the truth of the entire Hebrew Bible, including the God described in it. Why? Because facts matter.

Unless, however, the Wolpe/Hoffman proposition is asymmetrical, operating in one direction only, the argument rings less than persuasively. For some people, and not just Dawkins et al., the contention that the Bible is fiction, but it does not matter, must sound a bit like the old wizard of Oz imploring visitors not to look behind the curtain. Yet it mattered to Dorothy, and to Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion too, what was behind the curtain. It mattered, as it should have, whether there was a great wizard or just an old man caught in strange circumstances.

To be sure, it may not matter much if there was a real Abraham whose family traveled from Ur down the Fertile Crescent and into Canaan and Egypt. Nor may it matter that much if there were a real David who ruled over an expansive kingdom. But it should matter if there is a real Deity who made promises to a particular people about a particular land and who commanded these people to live their lives in a particular way or, conversely, that Deity and the words he reportedly spoke were pure fiction.

And, of course, for many people it does matter — a great deal. Some Jews base their lives on the premise that the God portrayed in the Hebrew Bible is real. They plan their week, their lives on that premise, eating certain foods and avoiding others, wearing certain clothes and avoiding others, engaging in certain behaviors, including some forms of intimate conduct,  and not others, desiring to reside in a certain locale and not another.  They are willing to live or die based on their belief in the truth of what they read in the Bible.

Similarly, for some non-Jews the truth of the Bible matters a great deal as well.  Just try to build the third Temple (or even a condo) on a certain rock in Jerusalem and you will see how much it matters.

In contrast to Wolpe, Hoffman’s viewpoint is not overtly dependent on what some archeologist may or may not find. His is a more text driven analysis. That is, aside from whether the characters portrayed in it actually lived (Hoffman says some did and some didn’t), the Bible’s characterization as fiction follows because, among other things, “of the reason it was compiled . . .  and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart.” Says Hoffman: “If you want to know such things as the point of existence, the meaning of life and the ways humankind has gone right and wrong, you cannot do a whole lot better than start with fiction: that fiction is the Bible.”

Rabbi Hoffman’s argument that the authors of the Bible only meant their stories as presentational may well be correct, although one can argue the point. The greater problem here is that we cannot know for sure the authors intentions in writing, compiling and editing the text because we do not know for sure who those authors were, nor do we have agreement on what their purpose was. For instance, University of California professor Richard Elliott Friedman has suggested that writers in the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel were both familiar with the Egyptian slavery motif, but that they wrote about an exodus from Egyptian slavery differently in order to suit their different needs and goals. (See Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Harper, 2d Ed. 1997) at 66.) But other contributors to the text may have had dissimilar or additional motives. So, was the story of the Exodus crafted by Northern Israelites before the destruction of their kingdom in order to encourage certain clan distinctiveness? Was the text redrafted after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom in order to unify a Judah swollen with northern immigrants?  Was it written during or immediately after the Exile by someone keenly aware of that trauma to urge a return to and rebuilding of the homeland? Was it written during the Persian Period as a lesson in survival outside of the homeland?

S. David Sperling, an HUC professor and rabbi, takes a different and rather novel tact. He agrees that the Exodus story, as written, is not historically accurate, but contends that there is an historical basis for an Exodus story. The focus, he argues, should not be on enslavement of pre-Israelites to Pharaoh in Egypt, but the slavery of the resident population to Egyptian control in Canaan. For Sperling, the Biblical Exodus is allegorical, but related to real events. (See Sperling, “Were the Jews Slaves in Egypt?”, see also, Sperling, The Original Torah (NYU Press 1998) at  41-60.)

Some scholars believe that the effort to try to determine the authorship, and therefore the intent, of Biblical texts is, if not a fool’s errand, at least doomed to failure. According to Israeli philosopher and political  theorist  Yoram Hazony, none of the current scholarly proposals “have . . . brought us much closer to really knowing what the original sources were . . ., who wrote them, when, or why.” (See Hazony, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge 2012), at 36.)

Rabbi Hoffman’s text based approach is, therefore, no more complete and helpful than Rabbi Wolpe’s fact based one. Moreover, Wolpe and Hoffman, like the lady in the play Hamlet created to catch the king, appear to protest too much. (See Shakespeare, Hamlet, at II, ii.) After all, if the historicity of characters does not matter, if the historicity of events does not matter, why do they take such pains to insist that they do not matter?

For one thing, both Wolpe and Hoffman are believers. They retain faith in a God of Israel. If certain facts do not support those beliefs, and those facts cannot be altered or erased, what does one do? If you are a person of intellectual integrity, as are both Wolpe and Hoffman, you do two things. First, you confront and acknowledge reality, i.e., the absence of a factual base for certain characters and events. Then you segregate that reality from a deemed higher core value.

Wolpe, therefore, would separate historical claims from faith claims. For him, the claim that “a certain number of people walked across a particular desert at a particular time in the past, after being enslaved and liberated, is a historical claim” subject to evaluation and refutation. (See “Did it?”, above.)  But, as he has recently summarized, “(i)t is not an historical claim that God created us and cares for us.” Consequently, the outcome of the historical evaluation does not “change our connection to each other or to God.” As he puts it, “Faith should not rest on splitting seas.”

Hoffman, too, believes that God is real (a reality that matters), but also that the demonstration of that reality is not like demonstrating other forms of reality. Consequently, he is comfortable, where others might not be, in using the term as “a label to express a reality that certain types of phenomenon seem to presuppose.” (See Hoffman, above, at 7/7.)

The assertions of Wolpe and Hoffman that the Bible is fiction are welcome, but lo dayenu –not sufficient. Rabbi Wolpe says that at his Seder, in his mind’s eye, he sees the “Israelites marching out of Egypt, the miracles at the sea, the pillar of fire leading them through the fearful night . . . .” And he feels “enormous gratitude toward to God” for saving the Jewish people. But if there were no Israelite slaves in Egypt, no march out of Egypt, no miracles at the sea and no pillar of fire, how can the rest of us, who lack Rabbi Wolpe’s imagination and empathy, respond? We can agree that slavery is bad and freedom to be cherished. And we can surely agree that the survival of the Jewish people is unprecedented, not easily explained and that they and their value and ethical systems are to be appreciated, preserved and perpetuated. But that still, for many, will not span the space from a false historical there to an inspirational, even just functional, theological here.

Twenty-six centuries ago, faced with the stark new reality of the destruction of Judah, the deportation of the royal family and the dispersion of the residents, Jeremiah recognized that the old covenants regarding a promised land, an eternal Davidic monarchy and a numerous people were breached. He proposed, therefore, a new covenant, one of the heart. (See Jer.  31:31-34.) So, too, Ezekiel, in response to the trauma of the Exile, revised the rules on the inter-generational duration of sin and Deutero-Isaiah proclaimed a new mission. (See Ezek. 18:20, Isa. 51:4.)

One century ago, as he watched a largely immigrant community break free from the bonds of the Old Country, Mordecai Kaplan recognized that it was not enough to shatter worn idols. He also made sure to create new structures, new organizations, new philosophies and new texts in their place. He understood that a new generation in transition needed new models with new language consistent with their journey in the New Country.

The challenge for Jewish leadership today comes not so much from physical migration away from familiar settings or old confinements and persecutions, but from mental migration in minds expanded by new discoveries in a variety of disciplines and conveyed through new modes and systems. It is in the Jewish mind, as well as in the Jewish heart, that the future of the Jewish People will be decided.

So, sure, it is important to let our people know of the historical flaws in our foundational texts. Two cheers for Wolpe and Hoffman leading the way. But we need more. Because facts matter, and not everyone reads with allegorical or metaphorical lights, we need texts and programs in our schools and in our services that recognize plainly and explicitly  and then incorporate certain Truths, truths about history, cosmology, biology and literature, for starters. That should not require that old stories and songs be abandoned, but it should at least mean that we take care not to perpetuate as accurate that which we know is not accurate, that we differentiate between what we say for purposes of quotation and what we say for purposes of affirmation.

We should not fear this task. I am told by an exceptionally reliable source that God loves stories. I assume even true ones.

Roger Price



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5 Responses to “Let My People Know, Let My People Think: Why it Matters that the Bible is Fiction”

  1. miriam raskin says:

    Yes. Yes! I too am waiting for our spiritual leaders to admit publicly what they certainly know privately, that the story we have been passing on so nobly and so respectfully from generation to generation does not deserve respect — except in a literary competition.

    If we have been brazen enough to accept credit for these millennia for having “invented” monotheism, we should now be honest and brave enough to admit that we were wrong; the number of true gods is zero.
    It is a good story we have been telling but it has served its purpose. We should let it go.

    Baruch haEmet

  2. David Teutsch says:

    The distinction I like to make is between truth and fact. We know that the Torah contains vital truths about the nature of the human condition and about the Jewish people. We do not know what in the Torah has a basis in fact. If we don’t teach our children or our students false doctrines about the importance of the accuracy of these facts, we are going to have a much easier time in our effort to engage them in wrestling with the truths we claim to be important. Moadim l’simha!

  3. Jerry Blaz says:

    The Hebrew Scriptures are not a scientific treatise and make no claim to being within the realm or methodology of science. Does that make it untrue?
    There are other truths other than the so-called scientific truths of science. Science does not present eternal truths but proofs to hypotheses that can be altered or changed according to new evidence.

    The Scriptures can be analyzed by comparing narratives in the Scriptures to other cultures’ writings that have been discovered, such as the
    Accadian, Ugarite and other contemporaneous civlizations of that time. There are archaeological findings that can be compared with the Biblical record. There are linguistic analyses. In short, modern methodology is brought to bear on the texts of the Bible, and their conclusions are more tentative than those of science.

    I would guess that at least 300 articles and 30 complete books on biblical subjects appear each month. It is a vast investigatory project, some supporting each other, others contending against other theses. But what about the Bible’s truth? For a person living in the 21st century, the truth that emanates from it is of a different quality than the truths we receive from Science.

    These truths deal with often very common human problems, and even over the time-distance of Biblical days, still are able to help people understand their place in the universe and in society. It is very different from scientific truth.

    While we now can do CAT-Scans of the brain, and MRIs of the brain’s activities, we still know that freedom exists, that righteousness exists, that love exists, and we get little more than the mechanics of it from science today in 2013. We learn more from this old and most examined document, our Scriptures.

    When we put all the good things that we cannot reach out and feel and touch like beauty, like honor, and other attributes of life that make it worth living, and put them altogether, we have a better understanding of what we mean by “God.”

  4. tomás says:

    The Torah is not a history book , or historical, or historical accuracies or historicity or anegdóticos but it is a book of literary narratives (no matter if his stories are based on real events and characters are historical or concerned of stories and characters are not real (for out of our feelings ) . ‘s a spiritual book where, where the spiritual , the material, the divinity and almost impossible intermingle in the same book . narratives is a thoughtful book , with a vast genre and literary language , mystical and metaphorical . Wherever possible the biblical authors have made use of earlier materials surrounding villages (eg Sumerian mythology concerning the story of the flood , Adam and Eve , among other stories ) .

      Where it is possible that stories based or not based on real events have been mixed with myths and legends. As was common to do in the books of that era . In short the Torah is a theological book , politician with a vast literature inexhaustible , is a living document , anachronistic , where the past, present and future, real or unreal unimportant. But not a book of history or never intended as such. That the Torah is not necessarily accurate historicities book characters and existential necessarily checked by outside of our feelings . It remains a special book , valuable, with a divine origin , which makes the Torah is sacred relationship, dialogue and constant encounter between God and humanity that does not stop in time, between the spiritual and the unspiritual . ( If their stories are real or not real , no matter nce, because the Torah is not about that, the Torah for me goes beyond these issues , a true person of strong faith is in my opinion is one that does not cry before current historiographical and archeological discovery but the faces and know how to take it ) is that many of the current archaeologists argue that isrealitas were Canaanites who were Canaanite system discover so they began to rebel and gain their own identity as isrealitas . It also speaks of a group of Canaanite slaves in Egypt , who joined them , forming one people ? Maybe ? Now is just a theory, but when discovered more evidence , we should do as Jews rational . rend shirts and deny what my eyes see? and handling of the realities of life itself on the outside of our feelings ?
     After all the Jewish faith is manifested in actions not hearsay or the 10 plagues , or the actual existence of Moshe or patriarchs or that we were strangers in Canaan or the Red Sea opening it? What is your opinion

  5. Eric K Strimling says:

    I was told that Nehama Leibowitz, one the great orthodox scholars of the modern age, was asked if she believed that the Torah was true. "It is all true, but that doesn't mean that it all happened." was her reply. 

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