When the Bible Doesn't Give You History

“If you can’t trust the Bible on one thing, you can’t trust it on anything.” This sentiment is popular amidst Christians, and it is the measuring rod by which the Bible is often evaluated. There are very specific standards imposed on the Bible, demanding that the Bible behave in accordance with certain expectations. The Bible is either facts, or it is fairy tales. There allegedly cannot be any other categories. What if the Bible doesn’t line up with history? Was Abraham really a camel herder when camels were not domesticated until several centuries after he would have lived? Did a literal two million Israelites leave Egypt without leaving a trace of evidence? Did Jesus die on the day of Passover, as Mark’s Gospel says? Or did Jesus die on the Day of Preparation, as John’s Gospel says? I remember facing these questions years ago and having an onslaught of anxiety, feeling the need to force the Bible to fit into my assumptions of how it ought to be. However, I realized that if the Bible is hanging on how the previous questions were answered, I was not allowing the Bible to speak for itself and be what it is.

In the ancient near-eastern world, people had a very different view of history than we do today. Instead of compiling lists of facts, they would take history and reshape it for didactic (or teaching) functions. I believe there is an historical core behind the Abraham stories, but he was probably a herder of donkeys, and the stories of Abraham were probably written down after camels had been domesticated. I affirm an historical core behind the Exodus narrative, but in the time it was written, hyperbolic inflation of numbers was commonly in writing used to express the significance of an event, so in my opinion, the Hebrews who left Egypt did so, but in a smaller number. Mark likely presented Jesus’ death on Passover to illustrate that Jesus was starting a new Exodus, in which people would be led into a new way of life under God’s rule, as where John wrote Jesus’ death taking place on the Day of Preparation because this is the day that Passover lambs were killed, and John claimed that Jesus was “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

The way the Bible is written will not fit into the categories that we would like as post-Enlightenment people, but this does not mean that we should toss it out. Instead of asking “Did this literally happen the way it is described or not?” We should ask “Why did anyone feel the need to write this down in the first place?” What I believe to one of the best examples of this can be found in a popular passage that is often referred to on Good Friday. In Mark 15:6-15, it is written that it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner. Jesus is one prisoner that Pilate offers to release, and the other is a man named Barabbas, who was a murderer and insurrectionist. A popular way that this is often read is that, the guilty man goes free, while Jesus, who is innocent, is condemned to death. The way this is interpreted is that, we are Barabbas, and though we are guilty, because of Jesus we go free. I do not wish to deride this interpretation, as it is indeed very beautiful, quite powerful, and deeply meaningful for many people. However, this is almost certainly not why the author included this.

As it turns out, there is no evidence to indicate that there was an annual custom for Roman authorities to release a prisoner each year at Passover. So why did Mark include it? What I can tell you first, is that he was not just merely making things up to fill space. Mark was probably written between 66 CE and 70 CE. This is incredibly significant because during the year 66, a sect of Jews named the Zealots had launched an insurrection against the Roman Empire, hoping to overthrow them and become independent once more. They had a short run of success, but eventually, in year 70, Roman military forces came and completely destroyed Jerusalem, the temple, and claimed many lives. So Mark’s Gospel is written during this uprising, and as conflict escalated, those who followed Jesus knew that violence only begets violence. It seems that Mark included this episode of Barabbas and Jesus to say “You are choosing the way of violence, and you are rejecting the way of peacemaking that Jesus has shown you.” The writer of Mark goes to great lengths to even put Pilate on the side of Jesus, trying to release him, but the crowds insist that they would rather have a murderer than Jesus.

What I would tell you, is that Mark included this literary invention in his Gospel as a microcosm of what was happening at the time it was written, and also gives a timeless bit of wisdom for us. When we choose to fight fire with fire, and combat violence with more violence, we end up rejecting the way of Jesus. Did this instance literally happen? No, I do not believe so. But is this passage telling us something true? Yes, it absolutely is. Therefore, we ought to challenge our assumptions about how we think the Bible should behave, and loosen the grips of our “fact fundamentalism,” and let the Bible be what it is. When we do this, that is when we can hear the voices of our spiritual ancestors and meet God in the pages of our sacred book.