In 1 Corinthians 15:14, the apostle Paul wrote, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (ESV). His claim was that if the gospel of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and fulfillment of Old Testament scripture didn’t refer to real events within history, then there was no gospel at all. The Christian message, after all, was not about God taking our souls into heaven while His physical creation went to hell, but about the redemption of all creation, including our bodies, from death and corruption. As a result, Paul provides a clear witness against any form of Christianity which would seek to allegorize Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—such a view is emphatically not Christian. But what of the Old Testament revelation of God’s intervening acts in history? If, for instance, God did not deliver the Israelites from Egypt, is our faith in the God of both Testaments likewise in vain? Is the historicity of Old Testament events really all that important to their meaning?
To begin, we must wipe away the idea that in order to be a people who are reasonable we cannot seriously consider supernatural claims. In their discussion of the criteria that can be used to come to conclusions about the historical Jesus, Boyd and Eddy diagnosed the critical consensus against the miraculous as a metaphysical and not an empirical one. The critic begins where David Hume did—with a definition of the miraculous as that which violates a law of nature. According to Hume, “There must, therefore, be a uniform experience against every miraculous event, otherwise it would not merit this appellation. And as a uniform experience amounts to a proof, there is here a direct and full proof, from the nature of the fact, against the experience of any miracle.” In other words, since a miracle is a one-time event, the number of times when a miracle did not happen in a given circumstance is drastically higher, making the possibility that a miracle happened incredibly low. But this is not a meaningful standard. If a paleontologist comes across a cave with illustrations painted on the wall, he does not consider how many caves do not have illustrations and conclude that this one must not either. He notes the evidence for intervention on behalf of free agents and concludes to where this evidence leads.
The critic might respond, however, that a human causal agent is still a natural cause. A supernatural cause is outside of the unbroken continuum of natural cause and effect, which he presumes exists in unbroken perpetuity. Boyd and Eddy note that for “modern critical historians, the assumption that all things are governed by natural law is what makes a critical and scientific approach to history possible. This assumption… does not have to be proven: it is presupposed.” In opposition to this presupposition, Boyd and Eddy argue:
“the claim that nature tends to operate, and thus history tends to unfold, according to natural patterns of cause and effect is an empirical observation. The claim that the natural world and its history constitute a ‘closed continuum’ of natural causes and effects is a metaphysical claim. We experience the regularity of the world. We do not experience a closed continuum…’ The empirical claim does not rule out exceptions. The metaphysical claim does. The empirical claim is a factual report. The metaphysical claim is a statement of faith.”
Clear examples of critical bias based on metaphysical assumptions abound, even when this bias leads to unwarranted conclusions. Stephen Miller in his commentary on Daniel noted obvious double standards on behalf of critical scholars when dating the book of Daniel in such a way to avoid having to acknowledge its prophetic, and therefore supernatural, qualities. So, for instance, when various Psalms that had been proposed to have dated from the Maccabean period (160s B.C.) were found in manuscripts at Qum’ran dating to the late second century B.C.:
“W. H. Brownlee remarks that ‘it would seem that we should abandon the idea of any of the canonical psalms being of Maccabean date, for each song had to win its way in the esteem of the people before it could be included in the sacred compilation of the Psalter. Immediate entrée for any of them is highly improbable.’ Yet concerning Daniel, Brownlee states, ‘None of the Dead Sea Scroll copies of Daniel are so early as to dispute the usual critical view concerning the book’s authorship, although one Daniel manuscript from Cave Four is to be dated not more than fifty years later than its composition.’ If the discovery of the Psalter in the second century B.C. is sufficient evidence to push the date of that document back before 332 B.C., should not the same evidence indicate that Daniel was written before the second century?”
Such fuzzy reasoning and double standards on the part of critical scholars led Old Testament scholar Brevard S. Childs to remark:
“The often used cliche of ‘freedom from dogma’ seems now largely rhetorical. Nor can the categories of historical versus dogmatic be seen as intractable rivals. Rather, the issue turns on the quality of the dogmatic construal. It is undoubtedly true that in the history of the discipline traditional dogmatic rubrics have often stifled the close hearing of the biblical text, but it is equally true that exegesis done in conscious opposition to dogmatics can be equally stifling and superficial.”
Boyd and Eddy’s proposed alternative method is what they call the “open historical-critical method,” which is to say a method that treats natural causes as, generally speaking, the simplest, most likely, and therefore best explanation, but not to the extent that they are unwilling to give an open-minded hearing to supernatural explanations when they are indeed the best explanations. If we have adequately cleared away the brush by pointing out the circularity of the naturalism often appealed to in the historical-critical method, the question of whether the Old Testament is seeking to make historical claims, and how those claims relate to the normativity of its theology, still must be addressed.
John Oswalt, in comparing the Old Testament accounts to the myths of the Ancient Near East, helps us by distinguishing the God of the Bible from the pagan gods. Whereas these gods were viewed as, “a part of this world [that could] be manipulated through this world,” YHWH was transcendent and outside of the natural order. It was therefore not possible for the Hebrews to reason about God analogically, or based on analogy to the natural order. This God would have to break into history if He wanted to be known and understood. As a result, truth for the Jew was fundamentally one of a historical nature. As John D. Zizioulas noted:
“It is usually felt that the principal characteristic of Hebrew thinking as opposed to that of the Greeks resides in the Jews’ interest in history. The ‘signs’ which the Jews seek, says St Paul, are precisely the manifestations of God’s presence and his activity in history… The Greek mind, for its part, seeks truth in a way which transcends history.”
If truth for the Jew was historically situated, then this history is the ground of his/her theology. The Ten Commandments, often thought of as the centerpiece of Old Testament ethics, begin with a historical claim: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2, ESV). Likewise the centerpiece of the holiness code, which also serves as a claim to God’s nature as holy and compassionate, is a verse which grounds these ideas on God’s breaking into history: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:34, ESV). This historical reminder appears throughout the law (for instance, in Leviticus 22:33, 26:13, and Deuteronomy 5:6). That the nature of God and His commands was grounded upon His self-revelation in time and space placed the Jewish writer of scripture in a position that would have made them feel obligated to carefully record what God had done and communicated to them, since without God’s mighty acts in history, there would be no salvation. Oswalt writes:
“If God is not history and yet is revealed through history as divinely interpreted, it was of the greatest importance to record accurately what happened and to report as precisely as possible what God said about the meaning of what happened. To falsify the record or the interpretation was to be left with nothing that was of any value for knowing God or for making sense out of one’s life.”
We can therefore conclude that when the Old Testament writers are claiming to record history, it is foremost in their mind that what they are recording be an accurate reflection of that history. Since we have no good reason to hold to the metaphysical biases of modern critics we are free to read the Old Testament with an open mind to perceiving what it is the author sought to convey. When the message is a historical one, we would be wise to give the authors the benefit of the doubt instead of treating them with suspicion and seeking to recontextualize them in a way which satisfies our own cultural value assumptions. It is only by doing this that we might receive a theology which is revealed by God and not merely constructed by man.