The bible is not a history book?

Ive heard it said several times that the bible is not a history book and so not every thing can be taken as a factual account of what happened. I have a problem with that! I understand it is not a complete history of the world. But…if Adam and Eve didnt really eat the fruit and thus commit the original sin, if noah didnt really build a big boat, if moses didnt really part the sea then how can we believe any of it to be completely true? I understand too that the bible takes a certain level of interpreting. But…again how do we know that the teachings in the new testament are true fact if we dont believe the old is true fact??? If we dont believe it all how can we believe any of it???

The Bible is not a history book in that it’s purpose is not to record “Historical” data. It’s purpose it to present God’s Truth to people. It makes use of allegory to do so at times, but the message it’s conveying is still quite true.

For your examples from the OT:

Adam & Eve: The Church has not made a declarative statement about the literal historical truth of this account, so we are free to believe that it is allegory or fact. The purpose of the Genesis account is to relate a few things: #1: God created everything. Whether he did this it eh blink of an eye, or over the course of thirteen billion years is inconsequential. Everything that exists is through the will of God. #2: Through his will, he chose to create humanity, and give it sovereignty over his creation. Originally, humanity was clean, it knew no sin, and was in full communion with God. #3: The first humans (Adam and Eve) made a chose to reject God. We are not sure of the concrete form this choice took, it could have been eating the fruit, or it could have been something less tangible. The important thing is that a choice was made, and through that choice sin and spiritual death entered the world.

Noah: There is a great deal of debate as to whether this is a literal world-wide flood, or a localized flood which would have encompassed -the world- to the writer. Keep in mind that, while scripture is divinely inspired, it wouldn’t do the people of the time much good if it wasn’t written in a way they could understand. (this same logic could be used to explain a non-literal interpretation of the Genesis account. Ancient people wouldn’t have understood: "In the beginning there was a void, and within this void the Almighty created a singularity, encompassing all the matter that ever would be. From this singularity he brought forth the atoms which, after billions of years, coalesced into the elements. The first of these elements was Hydrogen, and from Hydrogen, fire was brought forth in the form of huge balls of burning plasma, and from this plasma was birthed the building blocks of the Earth, and all the life on it… etc… it’s much easier, and simpler, to say “And God said, let there be light” and it still conveys God’s power.) I don’t have much to say on Noah, it’s not something I’ve studied a lot, I’ll let someone else cover it.

Moses and the parting of the Red Sea: I see no issue with believing this one. While it doesn’t make complete scientific sense (the walls of eater on either side), God is not governed by science, science is governed by God. I don’t see why, accepting the reality of God’s existence and desire to guide humanity, you would have any trouble with this one :stuck_out_tongue:

You also wrote about how, if the OT isn’t literal, how are we supposed to accept the NT? There is a distinct difference between the two. The OT developed with the Jewish civilization. It was originally an oral tradition, which was later submitted to paper. The methods of history conveyance were different at the time than during the writing of the NT. The gospels were pretty much written right after Christ’s death, by those who had walked with the Apostles as they spread the word of God, as were all of the NT books. The writing style of the gospels is the style used for Biography at the time, and the other books of the NT are mostly letters from the Apostles written to the different people of the world.

I hope other people will post and add to this, as I fear my explanation is woefully incomplete. If you are interested in the origin of the Bible, especially the NT, this is a fairly cheap book that goes over it:
Where we got the Bible

To recap briefly though, basically, the purpose of the OT was not to recount historical fact, but rather spiritual truth. They used various means to achieve this, part fact, and part allegory. The Church has put in a great deal of time studying the Scriptures, and have written extensively on the subject. My advice to you is to remember, “fact” is not the most important thing, it is Truth that you should be seeking.

May I please begin by saying I am neither a historian, nor a bible expert? :slight_smile:

However, in my own study into the bible, I have considered this question. One thing that I was unaware of until I began my studies was exactly how great a span of time the books in the bible encompass. I’m not referring to the time span in which they document (Creation through present) but the time span in which they first came into being. My understanding is that the events of Genesis, for example, were passed down orally for hundreds of years before they ever were written down, and even then, those writings could have been/were destroyed then recreated during the various exiles that occurred to Israel.

This is a very different situation (to me) from the New Testament writings which are less than 2,000 years old, were written down at the time of their creation by their author, and written down at a point of history where written documents not only a) existed but b) were much more common - hence better materials, better copying, better preservation.

I am sure someone will have much better answers for you, but for me, coming to realize how great a journey through time and history each book of the bible has made, makes me better able to understand the need for me to take each divinely inspired book in it’s own context (though part of the whole) rather than insisting that it is really only one book that must be perceived only in one way (aka word for word, or absolute fact, or absolute allegory, etc.)

Thus, I have no problem believing the teachings and actions of Jesus as true fact, and at the same time, believing that the details of Adam and Eve may be symbolic while the meaning of the story (God’s creation of man and man’s subsequent sin) are true.

The Bible is not a history book, true, but there are history books in the Bible. Quite specifically, the books of Numbers, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and 1 Maccabees are undoubtedly historical in genre. For the New Testament, Luke and Acts are clearly written to be a historical account (singular) of the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles. The same can be said of Matthew and Mark, but Luke is extraordinarily precise with his historical placemarks.

The bible is not a history book. But some parts of it do include faithful recordings of hitorical events. So while it shouldn’t be used to study history (anymore than it should be used to study science) it DOES contain some records that are historically accurate.

-Just an amateur historian’s 2 cents

It also contains records that are not historically accurate such as *Tobit *and Judith. The Bible is not a book, it’s a library, and you must take into account the genera, original audience, etc. of any book in it. Saying the Bible as a whole is unreliable just because not all of its books are (or are even represented to be by the Church) historically accurate is like saying the local library is unreliable because they have both fiction and non-fiction sections, along with poetry and prose, prophecy and history, and epistle and synopsis. Sometimes history isn’t the point. Sometimes it’s the meaning of the story that counts. When do you do when something is historically accurate or not? We have tradition and scholarship to help us, with the Church being the ultimate guide.

First, we need to understand that God is a being who can do anything except evil. There are those who are greatly offended by this. They claim that science has the answers. That the Teaching Authority of the Church has nothing to say about what they call science.

Your point is correct, especially in the case of Genesis. From Catholic Answers:

"The Time Question

Much less has been defined as to when the universe, life, and man appeared. The Church has infallibly determined that the universe is of finite age—that it has not existed from all eternity—but it has not infallibly defined whether the world was created only a few thousand years ago or whether it was created several billion years ago."

Why was Jesus born? Why did He have to die as a sacrifice for all men so that sins may be forgiven?

"Real History

"The argument is that all of this is real history, it is simply ordered topically rather than chronologically, and the ancient audience of Genesis, it is argued, would have understood it as such.

"Even if Genesis 1 records God’s work in a topical fashion, it still records God’s work—things God really did.

"The Catechism explains that “Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” (CCC 337), but “nothing exists that does not owe its existence to God the Creator. The world began when God’s word drew it out of nothingness; all existent beings, all of nature, and all human history is rooted in this primordial event, the very genesis by which the world was constituted and time begun” (CCC 338).

"It is impossible to dismiss the events of Genesis 1 as a mere legend. They are accounts of real history, even if they are told in a style of historical writing that Westerners do not typically use.

"Adam and Eve: Real People

It is equally impermissible to dismiss the story of Adam and Eve and the fall (Gen. 2–3) as a fiction. A question often raised in this context is whether the human race descended from an original pair of two human beings (a teaching known as monogenism) or a pool of early human couples (a teaching known as polygenism)."

Science cannot study God. There are no scientific studies regarding the Bible.


You also have to remember that many parts of the OT (especially Genesis) were written long long after the events which they describe occurred. This is much different than the NT.

Genesis was not written at the beginning of creation or when the first people walked the earth, when Noah built the arc, during the time of Abraham, etc. This was all oral history.

The point was to tell the story of their God, the one true God, who unlike any other “god” of the world had interacted with this group of people and made them His people and the history of that. It never desires to be a book of science and Genesis especially never aspires to be 100% accurate history since none of the writers were ever around to even pass on that history beyond what they had been taught by word of mouth.

Plus, as was said in another post, if you were living 4000 years ago and someone wrote in a book that men descended from monkeys or of these other scientific theories of today, would you even understand this or follow it? The purpose isn’t to say how God created man, you have to look beyond the science.

I think this comes down to the issue of literary forms, as described in Church documents such as Divino Afflante Spiritu and Dei Verbum. It is important to always read the Bible in concordance with what the Church teaches, as you point out.

The Bible cannot lie, but it reveals the truth in different ways. For example, the first three chapters of Genesis cannot provide a step-by-step, scientific description of how the world was made, because that would require a book of prohibitive length. Instead, the fundamental truths are stressed:

  1. God created the world
  2. The Spirit of God moved over the waters
  3. Creation followed an orderly sequence
  4. Man is the pinnacle of Creation, made in God’s image
  5. Man is created male and female

and so on. Similarly, stories such as the Flood (Genesis 6-8) and the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) teach truth using popular literary forms. They read like “legends” (and here the word legend refers to writing style, not truth-value), but they teach truths; the Flood is about the time when most of the human race died out and only few survived (modern science does agree that something of this sort took place, though chronologies differ) and the Tower of Babel is about the origin of human language (most linguists would agree with this in principle, though they’d talk about “Proto-Indo-European” rather than in terms of divine causality.)

Even Tobit and Judith should not be rejected as purely fictional. The trouble with Tobit is that various “source texts” exist, and how much historical accuracy you find depends on the documents you start with. Judith begins with an apparent howler (“Nebuchadnezzar, king of Assyria”). However, as some commentators have pointed out, the latter book may be alluding to another conquest using pseudonyms or veiled terms, something that is not unknown in the Bible (Jeremiah uses “Sheshach” and “Leb-Qamai” as cryptographs for “Babylon” and “Chaldeans”, for example). The events in Judith may have something to do with Esarhaddon’s older brother, Shamash-Shum-Ukin (sometimes transliterated Saosduchin, see the Douay-Challoner), who did form quite a formidable coalition, but then fizzled out and died ingloriously. Even liberal scholars concede that there is a core historical tradition in these books, though it is hard to find in retrospect, since both Tobit and Judith are written as “inspirational true stories” rather than as sober history. (For a simple example, think of a movie such as A Beautiful Mind - the fact that Nash’s hallucinations in real life were auditory and not visual doesn’t change the fact that Nash really existed and had schizophrenia.)

Another example that has caused much hand-wringing is the prophetic book of Jonah, with some dismissing it as merely a parable or a satire; however, if you consult the timeline at the back of the New Jerusalem Bible, you will find the footnote “Assyria weak” for the period 783-745 BC (I think); this would correspond quite well with the “Jonah, son of Amittai” found in the historical Book of Kings.

There are many other examples one could discuss (Daniel, for example), but I think it’s important to remember that there is a lot more historical truth in the Bible than some modern commentaries claim. :slight_smile:

Genesis 1 through 11 has been called a creation hymn. :wink: :gopray:

I sincerely enjoy this particular discussion and have participated in it many times since I was much, much younger and discussed Pius XII’s encyclical “Humanae Generis,” “On Human Origen” in grade school. This I might add was just a couple of years after the first publication of “The Holy Bible.” :eek: That was a joke. I’m not THAT old. :shrug:

Seriously, in the 1950’s and early 60’s the concept of the origin of man was one of the major topics in school and actually resulted in a law suit, I believe in Kansas, over teaching evolution in schools. Scopes trial??? Can’t remember.

In ancient and early Western literature there are documents that “describe” history, but that are not, as someone has said in this thread, detailed chronological events. “The Illiad” from Greek literature and “Chanson de Roland” (The Song of Roland) from Middle Ages Western literature. But is the Bible with it’s allegory, chronological events, poetry, wisdom literature and prophecy history. Yes, it is.

It is Salvation History. The Bible is the history of God’s revealing Himself to humankind, what He wants and how to give it to Him. Just as one would not read the Bible to learn Quantum Mechanics, one would not read a physics book to learn about God.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then Msgr. Ratzinger, in “Introduction to Christianity” provides a wonderful analysis of how “scientific” history fails when it comes to faith and salvation. The result of this approach, which was big in my formative years, was to cast a fog around the Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith making each, although the same, almost unrecognizable. Interestingly, at least to me, Benedict used a “law of physics” to prove his point–Heisenberg’s Law of Complimentarity. According to it the results of an experiment are tainted because part of the experimenter is in the hypothesis. In other words, in trying to verify the actual history of the Bible, the answer reflects the predisposition of the questioner. That’s why it falls apart and makes Jesus shadowy.

Although it’s interesting math and physics, I really don’t care that there might be such a thing as “The Big Bang,” when it comes to the salvation of my soul. What I do care about is that God had so much love that he created a wonderful place for we humans to live. And that the only reason He created us was so that He could love us.

Grace, peace and love

There are historically accurate facts in the Bible but that is not the point of the Bible.

The purpose of scripture is not to recount history, but to save our souls. Scripture was given to us by God for one reason and one reason only - to save our souls.

That’s the point of scripture - so that we can be saved.


That flies in the face of numerous Church documents. Jesus Christ lived in real history and lives today. He said that Moses wrote of Him.


Fr. Barron explains it in one of his videos very well, the Bible is a library. Made up of books of historical nature, as well as poems, idioms, laws, parables, and such. Just like you wouldn’t pick up a book of poems and take it literally, the entire Bible as well was not written to be taken literally.

There are certainly serious errors in the so-called “historical books” such as Judith – as you will find in the notes to any recent annotated Catholic Bible (such as the Jerusalem Bible, the New Jerusalem Bible, the NABRE, etc.)

The staunchly-traditional 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia had a summary of some of the historical and geographical problems – look at the sub-section “Historicity” in the entry on Judith. Tobit is also a widely criticized “historical book.” But there are errors throughout the “historical books.”

Just as one would be incorrect to conclude that π = 3 on the basis of 1 Kings 7:23-26 and 2 Chronicles 4:2-5, one should not necessarily assume that historical statements in the Bible are necessarily correct.

You are arguing with something I did not say.

I never said that Jesus wasn’t real and that he didn’t actually do the things the Bible said he did.

In fact, I acknowledged in my post that there are historically accurate facts in the Bible.


How about the importance of OT prophecy?

Psalms as well as the major and minor prophets contain numerous prophetic references to Christ’s life, suffering and redemption of humanity.

The accuracy of the prophetic descriptions (e.g., Is. 53 and Ps. 22) should be a primary focus of study and evangelization. Very powerful to see the description of Christ’s passion in Ps. 22–written about 1000 years before the event–and hundreds of years before crucifixion was invented as a means of punishment.

Thank you Lord for saving us through your passion!

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