The Bible is fiction

A thoughtful blog post by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman on the nature of the Bible:

Properly speaking, fiction is a judgment we make about literature, not about truth. “There are plenty of factually true statements in almost all works of fiction,” says Terry Eagleton (The Event of Literature), “but it is how they function strategically or rhetorically that counts.” If I start by saying “Once upon a time,” I invite you into an exercise in fictionalizing, even if what I say next is altogether fact. “Once upon a time, there was a president named Nixon, and he was almost impeached.” All true! But nonetheless, you wonder, “What’s your point? What moral are you pointing to by making it a ‘once upon a time’ statement?”
(The Bible is fiction because overall) its authors meant it as presentation, not as science, or even as history, which is a form of science with its own scientific rules of evidence. Sometimes they accepted the truth of the stories they used, but sometimes, they did not — Job and Esther describe personalities who never lived, and the authors knew it. Some of it reports historical fact, of course: there was a King David, as there was a Babylonian invasion. There was also a prophet named Isaiah, but his prophecies were included in the Bible to give us lessons of morality not of history. The same is true of Genesis through Deuteronomy, Kings, Judges and all the other books, some of whose characters really lived and some of whom didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Fiction can be chock-full of characters who really lived, with a story line of things they really did – and still be fiction.
“Fiction,” says Eagleton, “is a question of how texts behave and of how we treat them.” The question is what we are invited to do with the biblical text.
Until relatively recently (the invention of printing) The Bible was read and studied, usually out loud, for the moral lessons within it. But then came printing, along with reading as a personal pastime and fiction as what people liked best to read. Fiction was falsely viewed as private entertainment about nothing substantive, hardly the moral equivalent of history, philosophy and science, which were public truths.
The Bible now seemed fictitious because it wasn’t “true” in the way that history, philosophy and science are. Supporters of the Bible bristled at this claim because fiction was considered paltry, hardly what you would stake your life on. The Bible is history, these defenders insisted, fact not fiction.
But that judgment misses the point. Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because of the reason it was compiled, the reason we insist on reading it, and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart. 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: the fiction that is the Bible.
Comments (11)

Hmmm... While I agree with much of what is put here, I think that "the Bible is fiction" is a poor choice for a tag line (no criticism of the post title, of course, because it fairly represents the piece!)

Taken as a tag line it is intend to shock, polarize, and provide a sound-bite. What the article intends can be said much more accurately with the line " 'Bible' is not a genre." Indeed, when we use the terms fiction or history or fable or whatever, we're communicating about different genres available to both readers and writers. One of the greatest advances in Biblical Studies that also helps laypeople make thoughtful decisions about the Scriptures is underscoring that the various authors of the Scriptures were not working within one genre category (like "Bible" or "TRUTH"). The flip-side, of course, is that modern genres don't map neatly onto ancient genres either...

I agree with Derek about the rabbi's choice of tag line / title. "The Bible is fiction" is a phrase designed to do some sh*t-stirring, which "The Bible is literature" probably wouldn't accomplish.

While I understand that the post is essentially simply reporting on what another writer has to say, the choice of headline by the Cafe is rather disturbing.

The Episcopal Cafe is probably the loudest online voice representing the Episcopal Church and Episcopalianism generally.

We stand around and wonder about why Christianity generally, and liberal Christianity in particular, is on the decline. It's really no wonder that we aren't winning more converts when our loudest voices say things like "The Bible is Fiction."

And, if many of our most respected and well-educated leaders agree with such a statement (which seems true, as evidenced by some of the regular contributors to this blog), it's no wonder that we have essentially ceded the good name of "Christian" to the (God-fearing, however misguided) Religious Right.

In a society where fundamentalism is prevalent and mainstream (liberal/moderate) religionists get almost no airtime, calling it fiction may help people begin to think about God and faith in a new way, which this thoughtful post does.

It is not meant to be a once and all categorization of the multivalent Bible.

Perhaps "The Bible is Fiction . . . and Fiction RULES!" might have been better.

I actually like the thrust of the article (selection). Who DID decide for everyone, that non-fiction was more worthy than fiction?

JC Fisher
...who's trying to make a point of reading more fiction, cuz I've generally been formed in that unexamined assumption "Nonfiction Tells You About the Real World". Guess that means I should read (mark, learn, etc) the Bible more, too. ;-/

Just to be clear, the headline is not only the subject of the post, but is also the actual title of the blog post.

It is also worth noting the opening lines of the post:

---I once remarked that some of Freud’s work should be filed under F, for Fiction. “Oh,” replied my hearer, “One of my professors does that with the Bible.”

I was wrong and the Bible professor was right – but for an unobvious reason, a reason with deep consequences for the life of the spirit.---

While the rabbi certainly in part uses the title as "shock value", it is also worth noting the disparaging view he once had towards labeling something "fiction", and why he has not only changed his mind, but makes the point that it's a major reason why The Bible is so powerful:

"Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because of the reason it was compiled, the reason we insist on reading it, and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart. 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: the fiction that is the Bible."

Josh, the heyday of fundamentalism was some twenty years ago or more. And besides, the reason we have fundamentalism in the first place is because of the higher crit guys of a century or so past saying things like "the bible is fiction." Roman and Eastern theology may be more literal-minded about the morality, but they've never been literalists of the fundamentalist strain; conversely, modernist confidence in the fictionality of the narrative is, in my opinion, not especially justified. Episcopalians aren't fundamentalists, as a rule, (nor even Matt Kennedy or Jack Iker) so I don't see fighting that battle anyway.

The other problem is that saying "the bible is not history" is rather too close to saying "nothing in the bible actually happened," which is a position I see espoused, more or less, even here. And it does make a great deal of difference whether or not one accepts the later statement.

Part of the other problem here is the annoying modernist academic habit of redefining words and then using their original meaning to create some new "truth."

The Bible is not fiction, according to any normal understanding of that word.

But if I (ah ha!) change the meaning of the word "fiction," then I can say the Bible IS fiction. This is only interesting if we're exploring the meaning of the idea of fiction itself.

But then we jump back into discussing the meaning of Bible. And since I've already shown that the Bible is fiction (new definition), I can also apply attributes of fiction (old definition) to the Bible. And I've learned something in the process!


I think part of the problem here is that the generation that grew up being told that the Bible is literally true, and then were disabused of that notion in seminary or EFM and the like, are still trying to figure out how to deal with the "it's not true but it is true" problem.

Those of us who grew up both loving the Bible and also knowing that the world wasn't created in 7 days 5,000 years ago have any easier time of it.

Which is to say: If you were to hear someone under 30 say something like "The Bible is Fiction," you can be pretty sure that person is an atheist. I'm all for intellectual diversity, and a questioning approach to dialogue, but if any of us care about attracting my generation into Christianity or the Church, we should seriously consider what types of statements and opinions we give voice to.

The real irony in this topic is what Crossan calls "fact fundamentalism". He argues that biblical fundamentalists have actually been taken into captivity by 19th century scientific rationalism that links truth to factuality. In essence, if it is not a fact, it is not true. Thus all the contortionist nonsense of creationism and other efforts to eliminate "discrepancies" in the biblical narrative with quite elaborate glosses,

The more significant damage the fact fundamentalists do, however, is to transform scripture into a compendium of commandments. Anglicans rejected this approach in the 16th century and we would be wise to do it again. The Bible is a complex enough document that people looking for commandments to bolster their biases are never disappointed.

A perfect example is that group described in another Lead article which has elevated the story of Saul and the Amalekites intoa justification of genocide in our own time, should "God" somehow order it.

Crossan argues that facts are not the only way to convey truth, freeing Bible from its Fact Captivity and freeing us to discover truth through a wide variety of Biblical literary genres.

This is not about discovering individual truths, that "work for me" but discovering truths that up build all God's children.

As a Catholic professor friend put it: "Everything in the Bible is true, and some of it actually happened."

Dan Sloan

What we know is codified in language and structured by language. Language creates a sense of reality, as you've experienced when you get lost in reading an involving novel, or when a good storyteller enthralls listeners around a campfire. Language is inseparable from story, because language is story -- any noun, verb, and object make a short story.

We cling to story because it defines our tribe, or supports our sense of self. We recognize "fact" when it supports our notion of reality, and may disregard evidence that contradicts our established view.

Whenever I mention the need for story to be based on evidence, some respond that facts and evidence are cold, uninspiring things, far inferior to the world of spirit and meaning. But spirit and meaning are effects of language; they are glorious, because the stories told by our kind have defined us, given us a sense of ourselves. A recent blog entry has a useful analysis of how people think, and the role of story in their thinking. An excerpt:

Right up until the 16th century, all humans had been telling each other stories, often self-justifying, self-serving stories, for tens of thousands of years. Surely it comes as no surprise that the overwhelming majority of people still do that. Economists tell stories. Politicians tell stories. Your neighbors tell stories. Conspiracy theorists tell stories. That guy on the stool next to you at the bar tells stories. Investors tell stories on CNBC. Liberals tells stories. Conservatives tell stories. Oil industry executives tell stories. Environmentalists tell stories. The writers at Salon tell stories. That's what people do!

It doesn't matter that often times some small part of those stories are grounded in reality, that they are partially based in observation & analysis. Some small part of the narrative is true, and that's what makes the bullshit seem plausible. The rest is typical human spin. That's why humans are so frustrating to deal with. You could spend your whole life trying to separate the wheat from the chaff in typical human stories.

So, that's why I hardly ever use the word "story" to describe the things people say or the "analyses" they offer. What they say is either substantially based in what is known or it is not, and we can tell the difference if we are familiar with what is known. And thanks to science, data-based analyses in general and historical experience, we do indeed know things.

In cases of obvious bullshit, which is everywhere of course, I'll talk in terms of delusional fantasies, or obligatory hope or unwarranted optimism or just plain nonsense. As I said, people are built for Faith & Belief, not rational thought. As Chris Nelder's essay touches on [discussed in the original], the stories humans tell are almost invariably based in emotional responses and group dynamics.

This doesn't mean that faith and belief are worthless -- they enshrine values and inspire us -- but we still have to distinguish between what we know, what we don't know, and what we know that isn't so.
Add your comments

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Reminder: At Episcopal Café, we hope to establish an ethic of transparency by requiring all contributors and commentators to make submissions under their real names. For more details see our Feedback Policy.

Advertising Space