Monday, 20 December 2010

The fictional stories in the Bible

The Bible is a book that is full of stories that ranges from actual historical accounts to narratives that expresses the author’s invention. So, when addressing the narratives in scripture, it is wise for one to consider what type of literature is being presented here and to treat it as such. Some scholars allege that the historical narratives in the bible are full of falsehoods and thus cannot be trusted as historically reliable and such is the opinion of many in our modern society.  Daniel Estes in his essay titled ‘Fiction and truth in the Old testament wisdom literature’, comments in light of the previous criticism of the historical narratives in the bible ‘that it is understandable that evangelicals who hold to the truthfulness of the bible could be prone to consider the idea of biblical fiction an oxymoron’. Perhaps you are one of those evangelicals but a little more consideration on the context of fictional text in the bible will prove that fictional narratives in the bible do not serve to falsify historical accounts but to heighten conviction in the hearer/reader like Nathan did with David in 2 Samuel 12:1-4.

Fiction to some refer to what is false but a more acute definition of fiction in terms of literary works according to Microsoft work dictionary is ‘novels and stories that describe imaginary people and events’. Fiction belongs to imaginative literature and has its own purpose in communicating the story of the author to a desired end. This mode of communication as been alive since the ancient times and thrives in our present day. The bible is not foreign to using fiction to communicate certain messages to its audience, e.g. Nathan to David in 2 Samuels 12, the parables of Jesus, the stories in proverbs 7:6-23 and etc.  Fictional narratives are thus present in the bible and should be acknowledged as such.

When addressing fictional text in the bible some ‘insist that texts composed in the genre of fiction (i.e., imaginative literature) must be read as records of literal fact is to literalize them’. This approach is wayward as it fails to recognize the distinctiveness of the bible literary genres.  If a text appears to be fictional then it should be treated as such but if historical it should ‘be read as reliable records of what actually happened in time and space, but biblical fictions must be read as the imaginative texts that they are’. An author in the bible may employ to use fiction instead of a factual records to structure and focus perceptions because the writer is not constrained by the historical events but is able with fiction ‘to structure perception in ways that communicate their messages with optimal force’. Fokkelman in his analyses of the scene between David and Nathan highlights why fiction is at times better employed than historical events, he comments:

As a message to David, the parable is true, fictional, and fictitious. The king has positively perceived the report’s fictional character, i.e. its literary and sometimes even poetic make-up, but has not been misled by this knowing that a prophet in action is a poet in action. its fictitious aspect, on the contrary, remains completely hidden to him, and this is how the truth can penetrate him deeply and engage him. while david imagines the story to have really occurred, the truth is already working on him. From Nathan’s point of view, fiction, made functional and attractive by literary devices, is the ideal vehicle for the truth and, as theologians say, for revelation.

So, as students approaching fictional stories in the bible we should be aware of its literary genre and approach it as such. If it is taught as a story, we should present it as a story and perhaps communicate it in a fresh way but yet remain at its central the message that the story was meant to communicate.


Quotations are taking from  Daniel J. Estes essay titled ‘Fiction and truth in the old testament wisdom Literature’.
Here is a link to his essay and what I’ve written are derived from his essay and he deals with it to a fuller extent and succinctly.

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