I’m in Vero Beach, Florida leading a parish mission.
I love getting out to other parishes like this because I get a chance to meet real Catholics other than my own parishioners and hear their stories and listen to their lives.
After Mass this morning a woman cornered me and said, “Father! I was at Mass on Sunday and the priest said the Jonah story was a fable! Is it a fable?”
Well, it’s complicated, and it raises a very interesting question about how we read the Bible.
In my book Mystery of the Magi I confronted the issue of whether the story of the Magi is no more than a parable. This is the view of scholars like Borg and Crossan.
There are two extremes here: those who I call believers with blinders–who believe the Bible is historically true the way a modern history book or yesterday’s news presents itself as true. In other words they mean the story is factual.
Then there are those I call the skeptical scholars who think practically all of the Bible is a collection of myths, fables, parables and fairy tales. They draw this conclusion because they see the teaching points that can so easily be drawn from the stories and think the stories were nothing but made up illustrations of the preaching points.
The truth, as always, is not either-or, but both-and. The stories of the Bible are essentially true historically, but it is also true that they have been selected and told and re-told over the centuries so that the preaching points are highlighted.
Just because one can gain preaching points from a story does not mean that the story is unhistorical.
We mine real life stories all the time to find the meaning within.
Let me give you an example: Some folks will have heard it before.
My grandfather died when my mom was sixteen. He was walking to market on a winter day with his two sons–my uncles–who were ten and twelve years old. As they want across the river bridge a coal truck came around the corner, hit an icy patch and started to slide toward the boys. Grandpa jumped to push them to safety, but was crushed by the careening truck. Well meaning bystanders put him into the back of a car and rushed him to the hospital, but in doing so his splintered ribs punctured his inner organs and he was bleeding to death. A day or so later he woke into consciousness with my grandmother by his side. He opened his eyes, looked up to the corner of the room and said, “Can’t you see them Esther? They’re so beautiful!” Then he passed away.
Now, that is a beautiful story, and it is a true story. However, it is also a story from which we, as a family have drawn wonderful preaching points–the self sacrificial love of a father for his sons, the heroism of a strong and gentle man of God, the reality of heaven and angels and the life after death.
You see my point. This is what I call a faith story. It was a real event that had deeper meanings.
So it is with the Bible stories. They are real historical events that carry deeper faith meanings.
Were the stories sometimes exaggerated in the telling? Maybe. Were the supernatural elements highlighted? It could be. Were some details left out or others added because of human error? Could be. Were some details added for interest and verisimilitude? Possibly. All these ordinary factors of storytelling could come into play, but that doesn’t mean the story was not based in a real event.
So what about Jonah and the great fish who swallowed him? The story is set in the eighth century BC, but probably written down later. The big crunch for those who find it difficult to believe is the bit about the great fish swallowing Jonah. Did it happen? Well here is an article by a fellow who researched the supposed stories of whales swallowing a person who then survives.
Did it really happen thus? We have to allow for the possibility of tall tales and fables to make a point, and we have to allow for things like dreams the being taken for reality as the story is told. There are so many variables in ancient literature.
But I’d like to stand the skeptical scholars on the head and assert that one of the variables is also that this extraordinary thing really happened, and that is one of the reasons why the story has survived.
After all, one of the things you have to consider is, the more weird a story is, the more likely it is rooted in something that really happened, or that people (for whatever reason) really believed happened.
But the main point of this blog post is to remind readers that we should read the Bible with our thinking caps on, with our eyes open and with some further information. The Bible is a complex, collection of ancient religious literature. History is there, but also myth, fable, parable, prophecy, dreams and dramas are all part of it.
The more you read and think about it, the more you realize it is not an easy read.