Are the Stories in the Bible True?
Categories: New Testament, Old Testament, Old Testament / New Testament, The Bible
Can we take the stories in the Bible, such as Adam and Eve and the apple, Lot and his daughters, Abraham and Isaac, Job, and such stories as true or myths?
The answer is not a simple “yes, they’re true” or “no, they’re not.” Nor is each story created equal. Some are more historical than others. To do justice to each of the characters mentioned above exceeds the scope of this site. But some things can be said that might help readers decipher this for themselves.
Let’s take the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent to start. Going through the story with a literal magnifying glass leaves many unanswered questions about trees in the middle of the garden, about fruit that can’t be eaten, about the meaning of “helpers,” about talking snakes, about punishments that are severe but without due process. And we’re barely scratching the surface. Adam and Eve had three sons. When Cain killed Abel, God put “a mark on him, so people wouldn’t kill him” (see Gen 4:12, 15). What people? We didn’t know that there were other people in the world yet. So God created Adam and Eve and others, which the Bible doesn’t mention. Then Cain “went away from the presence of the Lord, and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden. Cain knew his wife, and she conceived.” Who bore his wife? The questions are endless.
Setting aside the literal issues, this story has many affinities with other ancient creation stories. Generally, most people think of these as being mythological. Four quickly come to mind: Adapa, Atrahasis, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Enuma Elish. Events in the last one, in particular, parallel many of the developments as stated in Genesis 1-11: the earth was in chaos, light is created, followed by the firmament, then dry land, then the sun and moon, then man and woman, and then God rests. The main argument is over which one was written first. Liberal scholars say the Enuma Elish was written centuries earlier; conservative scholars say the opposite.
Clearly there is a lot at stake in these arguments. But what does it mean to say a biblical story is a myth? The definition of myth is: “a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature” (see Dictionary.com). This is a nonstarter for those who believe the Bible is the infallible word of God, inerrant and dictated by Him to authors that faithfully wrote everything down.
Many others, however, see the Bible as an amazing literary work that is grounded in historical events. Those scholars believe the Bible was written over the course of centuries by authors who were having real life experiences and influenced their writings.
Still others see the Bible as the inspired work of God that reveals truths about mankind’s relationship with God. That message is rooted in narratives, myths, and historical facts. The question is always, “What are we supposed to be learning from this?” Then it becomes less important whether a snake could actually talk or whether apples were indigenous to the Garden of Eden.
In reality, the vast majority of people move among the groups. Even literalists have ways of explaining away blatant contradictions within the Biblical stories. And most people have an overall sense of what the Bible says. That can be either positive or negative. But the Bible itself steers us in a particular direction.
Consider this message from Deuteronomy: “So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being” (see Deut. 10:12-13). In case you missed it, the Deuteronomist repeats it in the next chapter: “You shall love the Lord your God, therefore, and keep his charge, his decrees, his ordinances, and his commandments always” (Deut. 11:1).
The writer of Leviticus takes it a step farther: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev 19:18). And Micah adds: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he responded: “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:36-40)
Paul was in agreement with this synopsis by stating: “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Romans 13:9). “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14).
And James said it succinctly: “You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8).
In that we would do well, indeed. Perhaps the issue isn’t who can make the better argument for or against the factual aspects of the Bible, but who can better implement the overall message. Most people don’t study the Bible because someone told them every word was true. Most people study the Bible because they have had some experience with the words they have read. It is this experience that has convinced them of the power in the stories. Maybe it’s an answer to prayer, maybe it’s a sudden healing or insight, maybe their hearts are flooded with a sense of being loved. This is how God is felt; these are the effects of God in our lives. The Bible is a living document that reveals God, provides comfort, and exhorts us to be in relationship with Him. As we open our hearts to this message, we will find the truths in the stories and be able to apply them in our dealings with God, other people, and ourselves.If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.