I am about to travel for a few weeks. In mid February I should be back and begin to blog about Paula Fredriksen’s book, Paul, Apostle to the Pagans, which I should get read while traveling.
I leave you with a general reflection about history and invention in the Bible.
Recently, I watched the movie, The Death of Stalin. It is a dark comedy about the 1953 event and the power struggle that ended with the summary execution of Beria and the elevation of Nikita Khrushchev. The story is satirical and, sometimes, farcical. The writers were obviously very inventive. But they did not invent history. The major historical events recounted all happened.
I can imagine what a deconstructionist historian who had no other sources would do with this. Someone like that could easily argue that it was all invented. It was pro-Khrushchev. It made fun of Stalin and his family. It demonized Beria. It trivialized Molotov.
Yes, it did all that. But did not invent the actual events.
Something like this often happens in the Bible. Stories have both entertainment and propaganda value. Yet I can seldom catch a biblical writer just inventing historical events. Sometimes they don’t know exactly what happened. I don’t think Luke knew what happened with the census. He probably used it as a narrative device to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. But Matthew confirms the historical fact of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. There is no reason to think it did not happen.
So, on the one hand, I do not think biblical authors got accurate history channeled to them supernaturally. That is apparently what some evangelicals and apologists think.
The biblical writers depended on what they could know from sources and traditions of varying reliability. They sometimes filled in the gaps with suppositions and creative transitions. On the other hand, however, I don’t see that they invented some unhinged alternative history,
There are many examples of this. But I am thinking now of Mark Leuchter’s idea in his very stimulating The Levites and the Boundaries of Israelite Identity that the exodus from Egypt was invented in the court of King Jeroboam I. Jeroboam wanted to be a Moses figure. That is true. He wanted to place his liberation of the people from Solomon’s forced labor alongside Moses’ liberation of the people from Pharaoh’s forced labor. But does that mean his scribes just invented the sojourn, slavery, and exodus from Egypt?
Such an invention seems unlikely. Jeroboam, himself, took refuge in Egypt and probably was set up in power by a Pharaoh. So I think a fiction would have gone in a more convenient direction. But, since the exodus actually happened, Jeroboam’s scribes worked with it.
So the scribes used invention and creativity to connect the dots and produce a story. But the dots they were connecting were remembered events. It must have taken another mixture of memory and creativity for the authors of the anti-Jeroboam E source to turn the story around again. There is character development, drama, humor and entertaining action built into the stories. They are not dry history. But at least some of Israel was in Egypt. And they came out.