When I was growing up, I learned to read biblical narratives as historically reliable accounts of past events. Whether the issue was the death and resurrection of Jesus, the curious maritime journey of Jonah, the Exodus from Egypt, Samson’s killing a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass, or Adam and Eve talking to a serpent in the Garden of Eden, all these stories were accepted with equal conviction as accurate accounts of past events.
Then I went to university and that “historicity assumption” began to be eroded. The erosion began with the details. For example, Exodus 12:37-38 describes the Israelite Exodus as “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” Altogether, the total number would have been close to two million people. But there is no archaeological evidence in ancient Egypt for a demographic shift on this extraordinary scale.
Next, there was the matter of dating texts. For example, while I was raised to believe Moses wrote the Torah, I soon discovered that scholars believe the Torah reached final form around the time of the Exile, perhaps eight hundred years after the Exodus. To be sure, these texts would have been based on earlier writings and abundant oral tradition. Nonetheless, the question needs to be asked: how reliable should we consider an eight-hundred-year transmission process?
Third, there were the scientific considerations. This factor was most obvious when it came to the familiar bedrock narratives of Genesis beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden. How would one reconcile these narratives with the scientific account of earth history? And what about Noah and the global flood? On that point, I soon discovered scholars who insisted that the flood was local. And other scholars attempted to reconcile Adam and Eve with a dizzyingly old earth by suggesting they lived perhaps fifty thousand years ago. But were these narratives, now reread in such a way as to correspond to scientific data, still the same stories? Or had well-intentioned revisions turned them into something different altogether?
Finally, my historicity assumptions were challenged by literary considerations. The sharpest challenge came with isolated stories like Job and Jonah and Esther. Was there a Job at all? Or was this writing simply a profound poetic-literary exploration of the enduring problem of evil and suffering? Did it miss the point altogether to insist that Job must be a historical person for the book of Job to have authority as an inspired text?
With all that in mind, I recently posted a survey on the historicity question. Here are the results:
Do you think that Christians should believe in ancient Israelite miracles like the Exodus from Egypt and Elijah's miracles with the same degree of conviction as the resurrection of Jesus? Or should apportion our belief to the relative doctrinal importance and historical evidence?
— Randal Rauser (@RandalRauser) March 15, 2018
At this point, I count myself firmly with that 66%. I believe that there are excellent historical (and theological) reasons to accept the atoning death and historical resurrection of Jesus. But that same degree of historical evidence and theological importance does not apply to many other narratives in Scripture. To put it bluntly, who can seriously insist that Samson’s killing of a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass is as well attested historically and as theologically central as the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus? And if we agree that it isn’t, then why not apportion our belief in various narratives to their theological importance and supporting evidence?