Why “history” matters in the Scriptures

I’ve seen notice of a podcast with an LDS scholar, which will apparently discuss the issue of genre within the Bible, and which apparently makes the claim that:

Despite comfort with parables, some Christians become unsettled thinking about elements of the Bible as being non-historical. [The guest] points out that this hesitancy is inherited from Enlightenment thinking, which regarded revelation as truth and truth as scientific or historical fact.

I’ve seen this claim and ones like it multiple times; I briefly touch upon some of these claims here. Related claims tend to revolve around the idea that ancient peoples did not adhere to modern standards of historiography, that the “truth” or spiritual value of scriptural events does not depend upon them being “historical”, and that this is simply a matter of modern biblical scholars learning about different genres and their literary markers.

As a summary of the issues, however, this is incomplete and distinctly less than accurate. Indeed it seems to omit precisely what is of most importance to people and what is of most consequence to our understanding of the scriptures and God

It’s true that many people in the past didn’t adhere to modern standards of historiography. But that’s also irrelevant: when most moderns talk about “historicity”, they’re not talking about historical conventions, or even about accuracy in the details, they’re talking about whether particular events actually happened or not.

Now, on some topics, the reality of particular events may not have much consequence, and we may indeed be able to be inspired equally whether that thing happened, or whether it is simply like a parable. However, there are some subjects where the question as to whether something happened or not matters. If, for example, there were no historical person called Moroni, then who appeared to Joseph Smith? If the Nephites or Lamanites did not exist, how can their descendants be spiritually and physically restored? If Christ did not appear post-resurrection at Bountiful, than how can the Book of Mormon be an additional witness of his resurrection? And if Christ did not rise from the dead, then how can we be resurrected and what hope is their in the Christian gospel?

That last concern, of course, was famously discussed by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:14-19), who lived some time considerably before the Enlightenment. The eternal significance of some events depends a great deal on whether they happened or not, and people have indeed considered this issue long before the Enlightenment rolled around. Claiming people’s concerns are simply an artefact of the thinking of that era is a way of dismissing, rather than addressing, the issues involved, issues which can have significant consequences on our understanding of the gospel, or whether there is a gospel at all.

It is also less than accurate to depict academic biblical studies as simply following generic markers. There are varying views within the academy on a range of such issues. However, key individuals within biblical studies have sought to depict events like the resurrection as non-historical, and these arguments have not rested solely on the issue of genre. Indeed, in some cases, their ideas of biblical genre have been considerably influenced by their other ideas and beliefs. Rudolf Bultmann’s rejection of a literal resurrection and his project of “de-mythologising” the New Testament, for example, rested in significant part on his conviction that modern peoples (presumably including himself) could not believe in such events (or as he put it: “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament”).* It is as inaccurate to characterise this approach as emerging simply from genre of the New Testament writers, as it is to depict such issues as having no real spiritual consequence.

 


* Some of Bultmann’s successors (at least amongst some internet commentariat I’ve come across) seem to believe that ancient peoples could not possibly believe such things either. However, as far as I’m aware, biblical studies generally still accepts that many past peoples believed in supernatural events, and of course later ancient readers, including Jesus himself, certainly did.

 

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2 Nephi 9

Yea, I know that ye know that in the body he shall show himself unto those at Jerusalem, from whence we came; for it is expedient that it should be among them; for it behooveth the great Creator that he suffereth himself to become subject unto man in the flesh, and die for all men, that all men might become subject unto him.

(2 Nephi 9:5)

I am convinced the scriptures teach us far more about the atonement than we have yet realised. This passage is but an example of this: there is some sort of symmetry at work, by which the fact that the Saviour became subject unto men, and suffered and died at their hands, means that we are all subject to him. Yet while being subject unto him means we are liable to his judgement (2 Nephi 9:15-17), it also means we become subject to the power of his redemption, and that if we believe and repent we shall be freed from both death and hell and inherit the kingdom of God (vv. 18-19, 23).

Incidentally, for my few readers, I’m going to break from these daily posts on Sundays. Since my personal reading of the Book of Mormon will proceed apace, that means I’ll do a double post on Mondays.