Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Literary Conventions and Historicity in the Bible

The Bible is a book full of images and literary conventions.  Because of this there are some who question the historical nature of the Bible.  The argument seems to go, roughly stated, that if an author utilizes stylized literary conventions this is indicative of non-historicity or of a fictionalized account.

A helpful reference work in this regard is the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, general editors: Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1998).  In their introduction there is a basic discussion of the concepts of images, metaphors, similes, and archetypes.  Included is a significant section entitled: “Do Literary Conventions Mean That the Bible is Fictional?”  Here is a portion of their discussion that is particularly helpful.

“It is fair to ask at this point how all this talk about literary conventions relates to the question of the historicity or fictionality of the Bible.  The answer, in brief, is that the presence of conventions and literary artifice in the Bible does not by itself say anything at all about historicity or fictionality.

“It is true that scholars like Robert Alter tend to regard the presence of conventions and type scenes as a sign of fictionality.  But this assumption is unwarranted.  Underlying the assumption that the presence of literary artifice in the Bible signals fictionality is the unstated belief that events like this do not happen in real life.  But real life is full of ‘type scenes.’  Real life stories of meeting one’s future spouse at college would be as filled with repeated ingredients as Old Testament stories of meeting one’s spouse at a well.

“In real life, and not just in literature, we constantly impose patterns on the flow of events.  It is not a matter of making things up but of  ‘packaging’ them—in other words, of selectivity and arrangement.  Consider the conventions of the television sports report or interview.  The reporter is filmed with a sports arena in the background.  During the course of the report the reporter either interviews an athlete or is momentarily replaced by a film clip of sports action.  It is a rule of the sports interview that the conversation consist only of clichés and that it be devoid of anything approaching intellectual substance.  The syntax of the athlete being interviewed is expected to be rudimentary or even nonexistent in the usual sense.  It is a rule that at some point the athlete mumbles something to the effect of ‘just trying to go out there and do my job.’  A look of false modesty is expected to accompany this world-changing announcement.  At the end of the report, the reporter stares into the camera and utters a catchy, impressive one-liner.

“The artifice of such conventions is obvious.  Yet the artifice and high degree of conventionality do not make the interview anything other than a factual event that really happened.  What such conventions do signal is the degree to which communication, whether on television or in the Bible, is based on shared assumptions or expectations between writer and audience about how certain things are communicated or composed.” (p. xvi)