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Books: In the beginning was the word, and the word was history

The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past

by Thomas L Thompson

Cape pounds 25

This is a very important book. It should be given to every person training for the ministry or priesthood of a Christian church. It should be compulsory reading for every member of the Knesset. For it sets out, without any rancour or desire to score cheap points, the fundamental truth: the Bible is not a work of history.

As late as the 1970s, academic books were being written and serious students of ancient history were being taught that, allowing for the accretions of legend and the natural exaggerations of piety, the Bible was based on an historical reality. There really was a United Kingdom of Israel and Judah in the 10th century BC, ruled over by someone called King David, followed by his son Solomon, a personage of tremendous wisdom and wealth who built a famous Temple. Before that, going back a few hundred years, you had the conquest of the land of Canaan by the Hebrews, who had lived in exile in Egypt. After the reigns of Solomon and his son, you go forward 400 years or so and have the equally celebrated Exile in which the Jews were led away captive to Babylon. The "city" of Jerusalem was laid waste and desolated.

"What came before (David)," writes Professor Thompson, "is often described as prehistory and folklore. From Saul on, however, we are thought to be so close to historical realities that even critical historians have been quite satisfied to offer a paraphrase of the Bible's tale."

The truth, as archaeologists and historians have been discovering ever since the 1970s, is very different. Go digging for any evidence of a 10th century "city" of Jerusalem, or a monarch called David, and you will find that this region of Palestine was just a few scattered villages and scrubland which could not possibly have supported the population of a "kingdom", however tiny. Nor is there any evidence that there was ever a Temple of Solomon. He is a person with about as much historical reality as King Arthur. Nor is there any evidence that in 597 BC the place known as Jerusalem was razed to the ground by the Babylonians, nor that the Jews were all taken into exile. To treat these stories as history is entirely to misread the kind of literature we find in the Bible.

Thompson shows that all the stories in the Bible, all - Moses in the bull-rushes, David and Goliath, By the Waters of Babylon we Sat Down and Wept - belong to "an imaginary world of long ago". They are all tales collected up after 164 BC when the Jews were beginning to define and reform their religion and worship. The polytheistic, ethnically disparate peoples of Palestine over the previous 2,000 years were made into the monotheistic "Jews" who were rewarded when they worshipped their One True God, Yahweh, and were punished and sent into exile when they disobeyed him.

Christian readers before the Enlightenment always half-knew that the Bible was the kind of book Thompson describes. This is the point of Herbert's poem "The Bunch of Grapes". Even Saint Paul read the story of Abraham and his wife and concubine as an allegory about two sorts of person, the one who is in bondage to the law, and the wife who lives by grace. This allegorical way of reading the Bible was popular throughout the Middle Ages. Lazarus being raised from the dead was a story "about" going to confession and being "raised up" by Christ.

The Enlightenment historians, sceptical of the Bible's spiritual truth, applied the standards of historical plausibility to its tales. Rather than smilingly replying that this was not the point, the Christians made the fatal error of responding on the Enlightenment's own terms and defending the "truth" of the Bible as if it were history - the birth in Bethlehem, the Fall of Man, all history. A Victorian Bishop, Colenso, was put on trial for heresy for questioning the historicity of Noah's Ark.

This would be funny if so many nowadays were not wearing Victorian blinkers. The Israelis base their claim to the city of Jerusalem not on the 1967 conquest but on the folk-lore in the Books of Samuel. Ambassadors from all over the world attended a so-called 3,000th anniversary of the founding of the City. It was as grotesque as a diplomatic gathering to commemorate the birthday of Mother Goose, but the destinies of whole peoples depend upon it.

Meanwhile in the Christian world, the same literalism applies. Thompson was sacked from Marquette University because his truthfulness was deemed "incompatible with the Catholic Mission of the University". Pius X Iives!

But the Bible is a religious book. It's about our inner lives, the spiritual lives of those who wrote it and those who read it; you only start to understand it when you realise that none of it happened. "The story of the chosen and rejected Israel that it presents is a philosophical metaphor of a mankind that has lost its way." (Thompson).

This is not a fancy modern way of reading the Bible. It is a recovery of what the Bible originally was, and what it still is. Those who scrub around in the dust looking for a real tomb of Jesus or an actual Temple of Solomon are completely missing the point.