What’s the Difference between History-History and Religious History?

whats-the-difference-between-history-history-and-religious-historyI was a history major in college. I really wanted to be a psychology major, but those students had lab classes in the afternoon, and I played soccer in the fall and lacrosse in the late winter and spring. As a psych major I would have to go to Columbus, Ohio, once a week and work with patients in a state mental hospital. I did it for a while, but after a semester, sports won out, so I became a history major.

I learned to like history, or at least some eras. Elizabethan history was a kick. Elizabeth’s dad, Henry VIII, made history sexy, exciting, and action packed. Also, even though he had six wives, he was considered religious. But he hated the Pope, who wouldn’t give him annulments, so he started his own church—the Anglican church—which granted him divorces and even forgave him for lopping off some of his wives’ heads.

As a history major, I learned facts, dates, and details about actual events that could be substantiated by data. I call this history-history. Even though all accounts of history are biased, they are substantiated by lots of hard facts.

But in religious history, facts are of little or no importance. One has to go into the story, push away the details, and find the real meaning inside of the story. Jewish people call this “Midrash,” or the art of interpretation. Let me give you an example.

The New Testament contains two stories about the birth of Jesus, one in the Gospel of Matthew and one in Luke, and they are very different. Matthew features the wise men following a star that stops (an impossibility) over the house where Mary and Jesus lived. There is no mention of Joseph. The wise men dropped off some gifts at this house and then hurried home. This infuriated Herod, who decided, for revenge, to kill all the baby boys under two years of age.   It’s an interesting story, but history-history doesn’t record this dastardly deed. Neither does Luke, whose tale also includes angels, choirs, and shepherds.

This is religious history. Not one fact is true, but within the stories of Matthew and Luke is great truth. In the eighty-five or more years since Jesus’s birth (when Matthew and Luke were written), this baby had become very special. Some said Jesus was the messiah, the son of God, or even God. Whatever you call him, he had definitely changed the course of civilization. So Matthew and Luke decided to develop their birth narratives to emphasis that wise men, the stars, heavenly hosts, angels, and even lowly shepherds recognized the greatness of Jesus even before he became great. The truth within the birth stories is simply that Jesus’s message and influence was so powerful that people developed tall tales about him long after he had died.

The only way we can understand the Bible is by reading it as religious history. The facts presented in the Bible’s stories are not historical facts, but the truths within those stories are great truths. Jewish people understand this much better than the gentiles who keep reading religious history as literal history-history. Unfortunately, when we read the Bible literally, we miss some of these great truths.

We gentiles need to learn to read the Bible through Jewish eyes. Which way do you read the Bible?


The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Logga Wiggler.