Is the Bible Historical?

Jesus-and-pharisees“The Bible as a collection of myths and historical facts” (Lotzer par. 22) – what does this mean? C. S. Lewis did not believe in “the proposition ‘Every statement in the Bible is completely true in the literal, historical sense’” because he thought that such a proposition “w[oul]d break down at once on the parables” and on books that don’t appear to have “a known history, geography, [and] genealogies” (‘To Janet” 652-53). He told one writer that “inconsistencies between the genealogies in Matt i and Luke iii: with the accounts of the death of Judas in Matt xxvii 5 and Acts i. 18-19 … rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth” (“To Clyde” 1045-46). Lewis thought the same of Jesus’ parables (“To Clyde” 1045; “To Janet” 653). He still insisted on the historicity of the Gospels, for the sole reason that they aren’t “artistic enough to be legends” (“What” 158). Lewis also considered their historical nature foundational to Christianity: “A theology which denies the historicity of nearly everything in the Gospels to which Christian life and affections and thought have been fastened for nearly two millennia … if offered to the uneducated man can produce only … a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity” (“Modern Theology” 153). According to Lewis, if a liberal critic “tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he has read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour; not how many years he has spent on that Gospel” (154). Lewis also ridiculed German Higher Criticism of the Bible, blaming “divines engaged in New Testament criticism” for “undermining … orthodoxy” (“To Francis” 1459; “Modern Theology” 153).

Lewis was not as confident about other parts of the Bible, which he considered a mix of myth, fiction, and history (“To Janet” 653). In Reflections on the Psalms, he says he doesn’t “belie[ve] that every sentence of the Old Testament has historical or scientific truth” (109). Lewis asserted that the Bible, especially the Old Testament, contained myth: “I have the deepest respect even for Pagan myths, still more for myths in Holy Scripture” (Problem 66). So, in the Bible, truth “first appears in mythical form and then … becomes incarnate as History”; in other words, only in the New Testament is truth “completely historical” (Miracles 161n). Lewis told one inquirer that if it’s necessary “to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer” (“To Mrs. Johnson” 246). Still, Lewis’s unorthodox views on the Old Testament didn’t include miracles, which he always considered historical (“To Janet” 653). When asked about a controversial footnote in Miracles, Lewis replied, “[W]here I doubt the historicity of an O.T. narrative I never do so on the ground that the miraculous as such is incredible” (“To Corbin” 318n114, 319). While discussing a rabbi, Lewis said that “If he doesn’t believe in the signs [and] wonders in Egypt, or the passage of the Red Sea, or the miracles of Elijah, then … he is not holding the real Jewish faith” (“To Rhona” 941).

book of jobSo which parts did Lewis consider history, and which myth and fiction? He said that “the Court history of King David is probably as reliable as” that “of Louis XIV,” as historical as Mark and Acts (“Answers” 58; Miracles 161n1). However, Lewis also believed that “the O.T. contains fabulous elements,” namely “Jonah and the Whale [and] Noah and his Ark” (“Answers” 57-58). He noted “the universally admitted unhistoricity … [of] Jonah and Job,” which he lumped with Esther as “sacred fiction” because they “deal with otherwise unknown characters living in unspecified periods” (“To Clyde” 1045; “To Janet” 653). Lewis called Jonah “a tale with as few even pretended historical attachments as Job, grotesque in incident” and with “the air of being a moral romance,” since it isn’t historically based like “the account of K[ing] David or the N.T. narratives” (“Modern Theology” 154; “To Corbin” 319). Lewis also called Job “unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even a legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say; because, in fact, the author quite obviously writes as a story-teller not as a chronicler” (Reflections 109-10). Following modern scholars, Lewis even questioned the dating of Psalms: “I am told there is one (No. 18) which might really have come down from the age of David himself; that is, from the tenth century B.C.  Most of them, however, are said to be ‘post exilic’” (“The Psalms” 114). Yet Lewis had no desire to “sort out all the fabulous elements” in the Old Testament “from the historical ones” in the New, since he thought that readers “might lose an essential part of the whole process” (“Answers” 58).

Sources
Hooper, Walter, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2007.
Lewis, C. S. “Answers to Questions on Christianity.” Hayes, UK: Electrical and Musical Industries Christian Fellowship, 1944. Rpt. in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.  Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 48-62.
—. Miracles: A Preliminary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1947.
—. “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism.” Christian Reflections. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967. 152-66.
—. The Problem of Pain. 1940. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996.
—. “The Psalms.” Christian Reflections. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967. 114-28.
—. Reflections on the Psalms. 1958. San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt, 1986.
—. “To Clyde S. Kilby.” 7 May 1959. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 1044-46.
—. “To Corbin Scott Carnell.” 5 Apr. 1953. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 318-19.
—. “To Francis Anderson.” 23 Sept. 1963. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 1458-60.
—. “To Janet Wise.” 5 Oct. 1955. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 652-53.
—. “To Mrs. Johnson.” 8 Nov. 1952. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy, 1950-1963. Ed. Walter Hooper. 245-48.
—. “To Rhona Bodle.”  28 May 1949. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 2: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Ed. Walter Hooper. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004. 941-42.
—. “What are We To Make of Jesus Christ?” Asking Them Questions, Third Series. Ed. Ronald Shelby Wright. Oxford, UK: Oxford UP, 1950. 47-53. Rpt. in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Ed. Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 156-60.
Lotzer, Robert A. “Calvin and Lewis on the Nature of Scripture.” 54 pars. 9 May 1997.