An Important Conversation – How Should We Think About the Bible as History?

charlton-heston-ten-commandmentsA recent conversation on the blog seemed worth a full article. The question centered around the problem of the historical character of the Biblical record. I’ll let the question speak for itself:

I have a question to ask about the historicity of the New Testament, one that’s been gnawing at me for quite some time. Paul was wiling to interpret Scripture allegorically, as his treatment of Galatians makes clear. How, then, do we treat 1 Corinthians 10:1-11? As far as I can see, Paul considers the events of the Exodus as literal history, especially in verse 11: “Now these things [the events of the Exodus] happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come” (NASV). Isn’t Paul implying there was a literal Israel, who literally left Egypt through a parted sea? And what if there was no Exodus, as some scholars maintain? Or even a period of bondage in Egypt? How would this affect the Christian faith?

This isn’t my field of expertise, but most scholars agree that Jewish writers constructed a ‘mythistory’ around the 6th century BC. Events were reconstructed or even invented to help the Jews understand their current plight. For instance, Shlomo Sand contends the united kingdom of David never existed, that it was a later invention by Jewish writers. Such a theory is is not a problem for me per se; Jewish writers in the 6th century were not doing Oxford history 101! However, Paul seems to believe they did. Do you see the bind I’m in?

Any advice would be appreciated.


St. Paul would have had no reason to question the historical character of an Old Testament story. Those who use such a fact to establish that he “thought” it was historical – and therefore it is historical – are making a primary mistake in logic. What counts as “historical” in the mind of the first century and what counts as “historical” in the mind of the 20th or 21st, are very different things. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the first century mind was not capable of conceiving what we think of as “historical.” And this is a extremely essential part of understanding the Scriptures, as well as acquiring an Orthodox mind.

I’ll expand on that.

We are secularists. We think things are just things and are nothing other than things. We conceive of the world as existing apart from God, even as self-existing. We thing that if things “mean” anything, it’s only because we “think” of them in a certain way, but that “truth” is only a flat, secular, historical thing. It’s “what happened” and nothing more. Protestant (and later modern) thought changes the nature of truth into this secularized notion. It is an objectification of reality, so that it would be independently and scientifically verifiable as true. Thus, when a modern says that something is “historical” he means what “objectively happened” in such a way that it could be proven were there enough evidence. It is true apart from God and is therefore just a “fact.” The truth is thus just a collection of facts. “History” is the collection of the “facts” of the past.

This notion of truth is no older than about the 17th century. It’s a modern version of truth. What this version of truth cannot understand is allegory. And allegory is essential to both the Scriptures (particularly the New Testament) as well as the Christian faith when it is rightly taught. St. Paul writes in Galatians:

But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are an allegory. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar– for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children–but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Gal 4:23-26)

Modern readers do not grasp what St. Paul is actually saying. All we can hear in the assertion of allegory is that one thing “mentally symbolizes” something else. Because it is a mental symbol (and nothing more), it only exists in the mind of the reader. However, St. Paul actually means quite the opposite. He means that the truth and reality of Hagar is Mt. Sinai, etc. And he means this in a way that staggers the modern mind.

St. Paul (and all of the New Testament writers) does not think of any “historical” event as “historical” (in our modern way of thinking). Rather, he thinks everything actually is allegorical. And he thinks that this is the real truth of things. There is a sense in which the truth is dwelling within, beneath, and in history and that events, when they are properly discerned, reveal this greater, deeper truth. Again, this is no mere mental exercise. We might say that the allegorical view of reality is a sacramental view of reality.

Modern secular thought (and therefore modern Christian thought) is anxious to know about the “historical” character of a Biblical event, but only in the modern meaning of “historical.” It wants to know this because it thinks that’s how truth is known. Any assertion of something less than this secular, objectivity “facticity” creates doubts about the “truth” of the thing. But this is not how truth is known and never has been. If someone knows the “facticity” of something, they still do not know its truth.

The gospels, for example, make it clear that the disciples do not understand the ministry of Jesus, nor His resurrection (even though they are seeing it with their eyes) until the eyes of their understanding were opened. St. Paul is clear about this:

But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1Co 2:14)

Secular versions of knowledge hold that “objective” things are where truth resides and that they are “objectively” known, meaning anybody who looks at something in a disinterested manner can see its truth. But this is not the Scriptural witness.

What we have in the Scriptures, is a “Scriptural” account, rather than a “historical” account. Sometimes “Scriptural” and “historical” coincide, but not always. Frequently, the story has a theological shape in order to reveal its inner meaning (its <em>allegory</em>). The Exodus, as it is written, reveals Pascha (or Christ’s Pascha reveals the true meaning of the Scriptural Exodus). In point of fact, we cannot get behind the Scriptural account of the Exodus to know “exactly” that the modern “historical” events might have been. What we have is an account given us that we might know the truth.

This kind of thinking makes many people nervous. And that is because they have a modern consciousness. I get attacked, occasionally, by some well-meaning Orthodox who are, in fact, modernists, but don’t know it. They have a modern theory of meaning that they read back into Scripture and into the Fathers, but in doing so they make the Fathers say things they did not mean, nor could not have meant. The Fathers were not modernists and did not hold to a modern theory of meaning.

The word “literal” is an interesting example. We think “literal” is the same thing as “historical.” But, properly, “literal” means “according to the letter,” that is, “What does the text actually say.” A text, that is fully allegorical, always has a “literal” meaning as well. If the text says a “lampstand,” it means “lampstand,” even though the truth of the lampstand might very well be the Mother of God (for example). The relationship between the “letter” of a text and what a modern means by “historical” is often very questionable. Often, the only answer (that is honest) is “we don’t know.”

A primary case of correlation between allegorical, literal, and historical (in every sense), is the resurrection of Christ. St. Paul, in 1Cor. 15, recites a very “historical” account of the resurrection to which the gospels bear some resemblance. It is clearly a very primitive, creed-like recitation of the historical facts of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The gospels, on the other hand, have a clear literary form with regard to these facts, and those literary forms have their given shape in order to reveal the truth of the resurrection. St. John says, “These things are written so that you might believe,” and he means something far greater than merely believing the “facts.”

God is a poet. The world is His poem. It often needs to be read poetically in order to be understood. Protestants and modernists want the world (and God) to be prose. It is not.

The life of an Orthodox believer includes struggling to acquire the mind of the fathers, which includes losing the mind of modernity. In that mind, I would generally say, the “historical” character of the Exodus (or other stories), in a precise, objective form just doesn’t matter, inasmuch as it’s the wrong question asked by a wrongly shaped mentality. That doesn’t mean nothing happened. The assertion that the Exodus is nothing more than pure fiction is both wrong and implausible.

We “believe” the account in Exodus as Scripture – it is the account as we need to know it, so that in the light of Pascha, we might know the truth. Everything(!) is about Christ’s Pascha. Everything is relative to Pascha. The whole universe, rightly understood, is “read” in the light of Christ’s Pascha. It is only in that manner that we know the truth of anything.





About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


106 responses to “An Important Conversation – How Should We Think About the Bible as History?”

  1. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    An Orthodox seminary would not make any pretense that it is doing Bible study as “science.” It’s certainly possible, no doubt, to study what academia calls the “science of biblical criticism.” Stanley Hauerwas, at Duke University, used to say that he was trying to “put the Bible boys out of business,” by making them see that they were actually doing theology (even under the pretense of “science”).

    The difference in Orthodoxy is the ability to be quite straightfoward about the fact that the Scriptures are theological documents and are to be read through the theological understanding of the Tradition.

    Of course, you can do the other stuff, but it cannot be presented as the Orthodox faith, per se.

  2. Byron Avatar

    Father, I did a quick search for Abp. Alexander Golitsin but found nothing. Do you have any recommendations? I would especially like to read some OT works.

  3. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    I am not sure if you were looking for the Marquette site, but if so here is the link:
    Some of the links are broken, but some could be found by doing a search for the article itself. Also I found some on Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Use Paula’s link to the Marquette stuff. Also, there are some good lectures on Youtube by Archbishop Alexander (by the way, I think it’s Golitzin with a “z”) my bad.

  5. Carla Avatar

    Fr Stephen, but certainly St Vladimir’s give academic degrees. Although perhaps not in Bible studies.

    The word exegesis has somehow changed meaning over the centuries, it seems.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes, of course it gives academic degrees. But academics doesn’t imply that everything must be a science.

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