The Bible Is Fiction

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.

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?”

“Once upon a time” (like fiction in general) goes beyond concerns for the truth or falsity of what really happened. Fiction is like drama, where the historical accuracy behind, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III is not the issue. Richard wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare portrayed him, but so what? Shakespeare’s point is moral, not historical – moral in the sense of providing a lesson about the human condition. Both fiction and drama are presentational modes of communication. They are works of art. They have a presentational point to make.

By contrast, Freud’s Totem and Taboo is not presentational. It is written rather well, even artfully, in places, but its artistry is beside the point, whereas the artfulness of fiction is not. However well Freud wrote it, Totem and Taboo is an altogether specious account of the way ritual developed historically. Freud meant it as science, and its problem, therefore, is that it is bad science, not that it is fiction.

The Bible, however, 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.

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27 responses to “The Bible Is Fiction

  1. Pingback: Something to Ponder | Dr. Platypus

  2. Pingback: The Apostle Paul did not Believe in the Historical Adam « Joel M. Hoffman, PhD

  3. Yashar Koach! You say in one page what I’ve spent more than twelve years trying to get across!

  4. Nixon wasn’t impeached.

  5. PS – My friend reminded me that Nixon resigned to preempt impeachment.

  6. Rabbi Jaimee Shalhevet

    Wow! I’m sharing it with my Torah Study group! Some will love it and some will hate it but it will make for great conversation! Thank you!

  7. Diane Chain Cochran

    The Tanakh is a long, complicated poem using sacred symbols to convey meaning on very many levels. I do not think of it as fiction, but I do agree with the point that some “characters” function as “dramatis personnae”. For me there are Twenty-seven symbols which have been arranged in juxtapositions which convey sound, meaning, time, space, narure, history, psychology, philosophy, ethics….

  8. Brian L. Plescher

    This is a very good piece–it would seem that it is a rehearsal of the obvious, but the issue of the historicity of Scripture (understood in our Western sense of the term) seems to be a perennial occurrence. Having just read a portion of Heschel’s “Heavenly Torah” yesterday, the central part of whether or not the Torah is written in human language, this seems particularly relevant. Thanks!

  9. I LOVE this! Right on as usual.

  10. Rabbi Lawrence, beautifully presented.

    When I was in Judaism 101 back in the ‘70s, I was questioning my teacher, the Rabbi of our local synagogue, about some passages in Genesis. Having been brought up believing every word in the bible came out of God’s mouth. After a time, the Rabbi, sighed and asked, “What do you want to do Kay, quibble mythology?”

    And as Rabbi Blake stated, one page for what took me years to learn.

  11. Rabbi Lawrence, following your train of thought to its logical consequence, do you think that EVERY work of fiction is “a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart”? Does the Bible have no preeminence? Is it no more valid than, say, THE HUNGER GAMES? Also: If the Bible is fiction, what is the “presentational” purpose of the mitzvot?

    The tenor of these questions might lead you to believe that I am an Orthodox, or at least Conservative, Jew. Quite the contrary: I’m the author of an Exodus novelization that relegates Moses to a sort of Dumbledore-like figure and focuses on two non-Torah characters, the 12 year-old Israelite twins Jacob and Leah. I question your piece not to attack its point of view, but to try to understand the difference between the sacred and the profane because I am wrestling with that issue myself (as are Jacob and Leah). As I read and re-read the Bible in order to glean my own fictions from it, I have not yet been able to fathom the sanctity of this text to so many generations. Do you really mean to imply that this sanctity is a social construct and nothing more? That so many of us read and worship because our ancestors, in their ignorance, believed the fictions of their own forebears? I don’t know if I find that liberating or reductionist, to tell the truth.

    • Your major question is whether the Bible has preeminence, and if so, why. For my most recent book ,”One Hundred Gereat Jewish Books” (Bluebridge Press, 2012), I thought long and hard about the Bible’s worth and why it began the Jewish conversation of the millennia. Here is my conclusion.

      Start with the simple fact that so many people have found the Bible meaningful over the centuries. even if one does not believe in God at all the very fact that the Bible has persisted over time demonstrates that it has something beyond what, to use your example, The Hunger Games has. I think, for example, the Bible provides at least five major questions of human existence: from Genesis, the human condition itself, gifted as we humans are with self-consciousness; from Isaiah, that self consciousness projected outward toward relationship with others and the necessity for ethics; from songs, self-consciousness projected back upon oneself and the internal life of the spirit that results, giving us worship and a sense of spiritual being; from Ecclesiastes, the ultimate threat of meaningfulness, the entropy of the universe applied even to our own human schemes over time; and from Job, the great question of evil itself. In addition, the Bible begins with a tale of Adam and Eve being exiled from paradise, a story that I take to imply the ultimate condition of being a stranger in a strange land, our own sense of alienation and fear of not belonging. There is much more of course but this alone is sufficient to give the Bible its own uniqueness in terms of teaching lessons to all ages.

      All of this is arguable simply on the surface – – this is what the Bible is.

      But now we enter the religious domain. It is one explain the Bible? There are those who claim divine revelation directly from Sinai. Others invoke divine inspiration of some sort. Others still explain the Bible in purely humanistic terms, but point to it as a prime example of the human spirit unfolding through the ages. However you answer the religious question, you’re still left with a work of spiritual wisdom that has proven its worth over the centuries.

  12. Joseph Meszler

    I prefer to think of most of the accounts in the Bible as autobiography. I believe many of the storytellers did believe the historical truth of what they were saying, and they were talking about their own family. Autobiography falls inbetween fact and fiction. It is both moralizing to make an impression and memory-keeping. Thanks for your blog.

  13. Beautiful. I had the privilege this past year of working at a nursing home where a lovely woman named Molly would declare everything she found ethically or spiritually enriching and moving “True” and things she found ethically or spiritually repulsive as “not True.” And it had nothing to do with science or facts.
    Reminds me also of my favorite exchange from J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”: [Harry:] “Is this real? Or has all this been happening inside my head?” [Professor Dumbledore, his trusted mentor:] “Of course it is happening inside your head, but why on earth would that mean that it is not real.”

  14. It seems there exists a variety of beliefs, not only in the bible, but also about the bible. Belief being the key. I believe the bible was written by the prophetical leaders of the times, although sometimes long after the events, as not only a non- fictional, albeit sometimes exaggerated, account of events of history of the seven tribes of Israel. All written, always written, to teach a lesson to the people within their control, as means to keep them under some stable controls and used to create the laws needed for that purpose.

    • Do you mean that the Bible was composed with the express purpose of controlling a gullible population? That would be a Marxist or revisionist reading that, I think, simplifies matters too much. You might mean, however, that it provided tales, history, values, laws and aspirations that served to unify a people and direct its efforts in a socially constructive way. That would indeed be plausible. No ulterior motive need be assumed in such a case. Indeed, that conclusion would be perfectly compatible with religious faith in a God who gave Torah to Israel, whether on Sinai (as traditionally conceived) or through the process of history, within which the God of nature somehow works.

  15. Three issues:
    First, while I agree with you that much in the Bible is fiction, I do not do so for the reasons you have asserted. How can you infer anything from the “authors” and “compliers” of the text when we do not know precisely who those individuals were, nor is there any hard evidence as to their intention(s)?
    Second, how can you say that it makes no difference whether one or more of the characters in the Bible really existed? There is one character (albeit one you did not discuss in the post) who appears throughout the story. At various times, that character is described as Creator, Redeemer, and Revealer. There are many people who behave in a particular way, and are even willing to die, because of their belief in the reality and the reputed wisdom, power and graciousness of that character. For them, and others, the existence of that character, and its nature, matter a great deal. Where is the Covenant without a Party-of-the-First Part? What of the Promised Land without a Promisor? And there are many who do not believe in the reality of that character. If there were some Reality there, they might well behave differently. In either situation, reality matters.
    Third, if you keep posting this stuff, there’s probably going to be a rally in your home state to protest the Internet.

    • Well, Roger, I do enjoy such discussions with you.

      The first issue is easiest to deal with. We do not need to know who the authors were; all we need to know is that there were authors. The scientific study of the Bible is well enough established to demonstrate on its own grounds that the Bible is a human document, and as such, we, the readers, can deduce some things about what the authors believed. Literary theory questions the very notion of knowing an author’s intent;but insofar as we can know it, we can know it for the Bible as well as for any other work of fiction. Final determination of the question is always up for grabs, but we have the right to be among those who do the grabbing. At the very least, it seems self-evident that the authors were writing fiction, as I define it. They were not, that is, writing history in the modern sense of that word.

      The second question is harder because you are right about the major character, God. It does make a difference whether God is real or not. But the reality of God is not in the same category of question as the reality, say, of puppy dogs, love, and historical causality — all three of which are in different categories themselves. We have scientific tests for the reality of dogs (as opposed to cats. cows and dolphins); what counts as love is less certain, and there are different kinds of love, with varying signs of reality for each; historians lay down the rules for what would count as historical causality, which may or may not exist in and of itself but which is a useful construct in determining the course of the human race’s existence on earth. The difficult part of the second question is determining what will count as valid evidence for the reality of God. When the Bible discusses strange animals as part of the discussion of keeping kosher, we know enough to determine that they are not dogs but that they probably represent some real animal or other. When we hear of Jacob’s love for Rachel, we know what that is whether or not Jacob and Rachel really lived, and we may be able to learn something about human love as a result of the way that love is embedded in the Bible (as fiction). When the Bible tells us that God brought the Babylonians as a divine scourge upon Israel, historians are likely to balk — because history as we know it does not accept that kind of explanation. There too, of course, we may use our interpretive fancy the way one would in any other work of fiction, and it is fiction even if the Babylonians were a scourge and even if God brought them.

      The question is what counts as a demonstration of God’s reality given that God is nothing like the other things I mention here. As the scientist you are, you might object that I have eliminated God from the very possibility of meaningful demonstration altogether. But that judgment presupposes limits the definition of “demonstration” in ways that I might not accept. I use the term “God” the same way I use the term loyalty, creativity and certainty: as a label to express a reality that certain types of phenomena seem to presuppose. I use it also emotively to express a certain depth to human experience – – as when I say, “May God grant you strength.”

      So, yes, it does matter if God is real, and I think God is. But that does not mean that everything we say about God and the Bible is true in the scientific sense of truth or historically accurate in the scientific sense of history.

  16. I’ve been reading What is a Jew? So I wanted to know more about Rabbi Hoffman. I have not been to college, but I believe the Bible was written and inspired by men who saw, felt, and walked with God. Then wrote it down for us today, to know God is real, and the creator of all things. The Bible gives me hope and guidance. Without it, I would look to man for answers and guidance. I’m sure education and knowledge is a good thing, wisdom is great. I can not separate, God from the Bible, both are true. Thank you for you insights as to what is a Jew.

  17. Hi would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with?

    I’m going to start my own blog inn the near future but I’m having
    a touggh tie making a decision between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because ypur design aand style seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for
    something completely unique. P.S Sorry ffor getting off-topic but
    I had to ask!

  18. There is nothing in the bible that is fact. None of the ridiculous stories ever happened, and anyone who believes that crap is as stupid and the book is.

  19. Pingback: Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’era 5777–Alternative Facts (Not What You Think It Is–Or Is It?) | Migdalor Guy's Blog

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