The Bible Is Fiction
I once remarked that some of Freud’s work should be filed under F, for Fiction. “Oh,” replied my hearer, “One of my professors does that with the Bible.”
I was wrong and the Bible professor was right – but for an unobvious reason, a reason with deep consequences for the life of the spirit.
Properly speaking, fiction is a judgment we make about literature, not about truth. “There are plenty of factually true statements in almost all works of fiction,” says Terry Eagleton (The Event of Literature), “but it is how they function strategically or rhetorically that counts.” If I start by saying “Once upon a time,” I invite you into an exercise in fictionalizing, even if what I say next is altogether fact. “Once upon a time, there was a president named Nixon, and he was almost impeached.” All true! But nonetheless, you wonder, “What’s your point? What moral are you pointing to by making it a ‘once upon a time’ statement?”
“Once upon a time” (like fiction in general) goes beyond concerns for the truth or falsity of what really happened. Fiction is like drama, where the historical accuracy behind, say, Shakespeare’s Richard III is not the issue. Richard wasn’t as bad as Shakespeare portrayed him, but so what? Shakespeare’s point is moral, not historical – moral in the sense of providing a lesson about the human condition. Both fiction and drama are presentational modes of communication. They are works of art. They have a presentational point to make.
By contrast, Freud’s Totem and Taboo is not presentational. It is written rather well, even artfully, in places, but its artistry is beside the point, whereas the artfulness of fiction is not. However well Freud wrote it, Totem and Taboo is an altogether specious account of the way ritual developed historically. Freud meant it as science, and its problem, therefore, is that it is bad science, not that it is fiction.
The Bible, however, is fiction, because, overall, its authors meant it as presentation, not as science, or even as history, which is a form of science with its own scientific rules of evidence. Sometimes they accepted the truth of the stories they used, but sometimes, they did not — Job and Esther describe personalities who never lived, and the authors knew it. Some of it reports historical fact, of course: there was a King David, as there was a Babylonian invasion. There was also a prophet named Isaiah, but his prophecies were included in the Bible to give us lessons of morality not of history.
The same is true of Genesis through Deuteronomy, Kings, Judges and all the other books, some of whose characters really lived and some of whom didn’t. It doesn’t matter. Fiction can be chock-full of characters who really lived, with a story line of things they really did – and still be fiction.
“Fiction,” says Eagleton, “is a question of how texts behave and of how we treat them.” The question is what we are invited to do with the biblical text.
Until relatively recently (the invention of printing) The Bible was read and studied, usually out loud, for the moral lessons within it. But then came printing, along with reading as a personal pastime and fiction as what people liked best to read. Fiction was falsely viewed as private entertainment about nothing substantive, hardly the moral equivalent of history, philosophy and science, which were public truths.
The Bible now seemed fictitious because it wasn’t “true” in the way that history, philosophy and science are. Supporters of the Bible bristled at this claim because fiction was considered paltry, hardly what you would stake your life on. The Bible is history, these defenders insisted, fact not fiction.
But that judgment misses the point. Even if every bit of the Bible were literally true, it would still be fiction because of the reason it was compiled, the reason we insist on reading it, and its presentational nature as a world unto itself with its own unique lessons to impart. If you want to know such things as the point of existence, the meaning of life, and the ways humankind has gone right and wrong, you cannot do a whole lot better than start with fiction: the fiction that is the Bible.