church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

When we are reading the literature of the ancient Hebrews (i.e. the Old Testament) it is important to be aware of the kind of glasses we are wearing—that is, we should be aware of the unspoken conceptual presuppositions that we bring to our reading.  If we are not aware of our ingrained conceptual presuppositions, we can make mistakes in understanding ancient literature.

       One of our modern conceptual presuppositions is the clear difference between story and history.  We moderns divide all literature into different literary genres, and are aware which literary genre we are reading.  For example, we have literary genres such as science, science-fiction, fiction, history, and historical fiction, and our awareness of which literary genre we are reading determines how we approach the material.

       Take science and science fiction:  a book on science tells us that there is no life on Mars and Venus, but a book of science fiction may tell us that there is.  Our awareness of the different literary genres is why we do not disdain books like C. S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet and his Perelandra, both of which tell stories of meeting creatures on Mars and Venus.  We don’t throw the books down in disgust, snorting, “Doesn’t he know there is no life on Mars and Venus?” because we know we are reading science fiction.

       Or take the genres of history and historical fiction.  History (as written by us moderns) must confine itself to what actually happened insofar as this can be ascertained through the study of historical documents.  People writing history are not allowed to exaggerate, distort facts, or make stuff up.  If they do, they and their books will be criticized and rejected.  But people writing historical fiction are expected to make stuff up. 

       Thus the three-volume Cambridge History Of The American Civil War (edited by Aaron Sheehan-Dean) may not exaggerate facts or focus upon imaginary characters or narrate imaginary plots, whereas the novel Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell may.

       This modern division of stories into various different and specific categories or literary genres was more or less foreign to the ancients.  In particular, the difference between a story and history was not much present to their minds as it is to ours—either the minds of their writers or the minds of their readers.

       In his book The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis wrote about this as regards medieval writers (his academic specialty), but it applies also to some degree to more ancient writers such as the writers of the Old Testament.  Lewis wrote:  “In more sophisticated ages we are familiar with the grave quasi-factual devices which some authors use to bestow verisimilitude on narratives which everyone knows for fiction…But I cannot believe that the medieval authors were playing that game.  The very words story and history had not yet been desynonymised…It follows that the distinction between history and fiction cannot, in its modern clarity, be applied to medieval books or to the spirit in which they were read…It must be remembered throughout that the texts we should now call historical differed in outlook and narrative texture from those we should call fictions far less than a modern ‘history’ differs from a modern novel.”   

This means that for the ancients what mattered most was the story and what it taught.  History (in our strict sense of the word) and historical fiction could both teach the same lesson, and it was the lesson that mattered supremely.   

That is also why Thucydides (d. ca. 400 B.C.) wrote in his History of the Peloponnesian War that although he cared about what actually happened when he was writing his history, he felt himself free to make up speeches and put them in the mouth of historical characters if he had no actual reportage to fall back upon.  The story was what mattered, and history was primarily story.

What does this all mean for us?—that some of the books of the Old Testament are what we would call not history, but historical fiction or historical romance, and that they are none the worse for that.  In modern terms, the ancient Hebrew literature included a number of literary genres—the differences between the genres (such as the difference between history and historical romance) we are more keenly aware of than the ancient readers.

Take the Book of Judith for example.  It opens with what Lewis described as “grave quasi-factual devices which the author used to bestow verisimilitude”.  Thus we read:  “It was the twelfth year of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, who ruled over the Assyrians in the great city of Nineveh.  At that time Arphaxad was ruling over the Medes in Ecbatana.  Around Ecbatana he built a wall of hewn stones, three cubits thick and six cubits long. He made the walls seventy cubits high and fifty cubits wide.  At its gates he raised towers one hundred cubits high with foundations sixty cubits wide.  He made its gates seventy cubits high and forty cubits wide to allow passage of his mighty forces, with his infantry in formation.  At that time King Nebuchadnezzar waged war against King Arphaxad in the vast plain that borders Ragau.  Rallying to him were all who lived in the hill country, all who lived along the Euphrates, the Tigris, as well as Arioch, king of the Elamites, in the plains. Thus many nations joined the ranks of the Chelodites.”

Though this certainly sounds like history, none of this is historical, as is plain by the fact that by the time Israel was back in Palestine after their exile, Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian empire were long gone; the Persians were then the ones ruling the roost.  But the author is telling a story—a story of courage in the face of hopeless odds, of the difference that a single person can make, a story of inspiration for a people needing such inspiration and courage.  That story is true, apart from considerations of historical accuracy.  Our modern equation of “true” with “historically accurate by our modern standards of writing history” is a false equation.  The Book of Judith, though historical romance, is still true.

I would suggest that the same is true of the Books of Tobit, Esther, and the narrative bits of Daniel.  One may debate the historicity of these Books, but their historicity is not assured simply because, like the Book of Judith, they have found a place in the Old Testament canon of Scripture.  A book’s historicity (or otherwise) must be debated and proven on the historical merits of the Book itself, not just by its inclusion in the canon. 

This does not mean that we can sit lightly upon all the stories of the Old Testament and deny any historical element in them at will because we don’t like something in the text (such as the presence of the miraculous).  Our modern distinction between history and historical fiction, though modern, is still a valid distinction.  Thus the story of Judith we rightly regard as fiction whereas the stories in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings we rightly regard as history—history written according to ancient methods of historiography, but history nonetheless.

But one thing we can say about all the Books included in the canon:  they are true in what they intend to teach, and the stories they tell are ones we must listen to if we would grow in wisdom.






Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.