A large section of the Old Testament is often called the “Historical Books.” This includes Joshua, Ruth, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, 1-2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. In the New Testament, this typically only includes the book of Acts.
However, there is a problem with the term “historical” when we turn to the Bible. History is a word that we all know well in 21st century America. However, our concept of history would not have been familiar at all to the writers of either testament.
I want to find a better term for the historical books of the Bible. But this opens up even more issues. If I try to take the word “history” away from these books, there will no doubt be those that accuse me of turning the Bible into a book of fiction. This is especially true if I replace the word “history” with the word that I’d prefer to use in its place. A grossly misunderstood word that often strikes fear in the hearts of evangelicals: myth.
Now, a myth is not necessarily a made-up, fictional fairytale. And no, not all made-up, fictional fairy tales can be classified as a myth. By myth, I mean something very specific. A story with an ongoing transformative power. A myth is a story that creates.
For example, capitalism. What is it? Is it something that exists in nature? No. It’s a story. A story that we created. A story that we convinced ourselves was the best story. A story that, over time, has grown into something that now creates us.
The Bible is full of myths. Stories that tell of God’s miraculous wonders, grace, mercy, and love. Stories that point to his kingdom. Stories that help us to know him better. Stories with powerful creative properties. Through reading and meditating upon God’s word, we become transformed. Our minds are conformed not to the myths of our culture, but to these stories about God. We are shaped into citizens of God’s kingdom.
Let’s return to history for a moment. History, in our culture, is supposed to be objective. In practice, we all know it’s not. History textbooks are written by the winners and always have a slant to them. But ideally, when studying the history of the American Revolution or the Civil War, it’s always best to study objectively. We want to step away from the event in question and learn every side to the story.
This doesn’t work with historical books of the Bible, because in most cases, we don’t have every side to the story. We have one side: Israel’s story. And in all honesty, Israel’s historians were not very interested in objectivity. The historical books of the Old Testament are not complete, accurate historical treatises of the events in Israel’s history. The historical books of the Old Testament are mythic, in that the transformative story of Israel was written for the purpose of continuing that transformation for the reader. This was true for the original Israelite readers of the Old Testament, and as Christians, this is still true for us today. Thousands of years later, our lives are still shaped by these powerful myths.
These books of the Bible are historical in that they describe real events that happened in a real past. But they are mythic in that they do not merely describe the events objectively, but they embed theological value and life-altering truth within the event.
I am afraid to replace the word “historical” with “mythic.” While myth describes biblical stories better than history, it is a word loaded with negative connotations. Instead, I will call these books mythic history. The Bible is a book of myths that confront, challenge, overturn, and destroy the myths of humankind.
May we dedicate ourselves to this book, meditating upon its truths and allowing ourselves to be recreated by the powerfully creative Word of God.