Saturday, August 14, 2010

Honorable Mentions: Historical or Literary?

Back in 2008, I wrote a post dealing with the issue of whether the New Testament references to Old Testament characters can be taken as evidence for their historicity. My conclusion was that, in general, the NT writers were referring to the characters known from Jewish literature and not trying to claim historicity. I don’t believe they were concerned with those types of questions. It may have been assumed, but it didn’t matter for their theological point whether Jonah or Job really lived. What mattered was the story and the example it provided.

Before I go any further, I need to clarify that I am not questioning the real historical existence of all biblical characters. I am also not reducing the Bible to the level of pure fiction. T.C. recently questioned that ambiguity in my previous post, so I want to be clear. I believe archaeology provides strong circumstantial evidence for the existence of certain biblical people, like David, for example. The best explanation of the Tel Dan inscription is that it refers to a real Davidic dynasty. Certain biblical characters like Abraham, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, David, and Solomon are central to the story of salvation history. I’m not questioning their existence, even though I can’t prove it definitively.

The issue is whether an “honorable mention” by another biblical writer is a reference to a historical person or a literary figure. The default position seems to be to take the reference historically. Earlier I dealt with NT references to OT characters, but what about OT references to other characters?

A few days ago Jeff posted “Was Job a Real Person?” His answer:  “Of course he was!” with appeal to Ezek 14:14 for confirmation.
I realize that Ezekiel is filled with dream-like imagery, but this message from the Lord (and the rest of the section) certainly confirms to me that they were real individuals. Not that I needed any more convincing.
I’m not criticizing Jeff’s conclusion. It is a valid answer to the question, but I don’t think it’s the only reasonable answer. A commenter on his post also drew in James 5:11 to support Job’s existence and commented how he believed Jonah historical as well for similar reasons. But why jump to conclusions? Why assume the biblical writer meant to allude to a historical personage? As a 21st century reader, do you follow the reference because it’s historical or because you know the literary text that it alludes to? That’s easy . . . you know the text. You know the story.

Let’s look closer at the references in Ezekiel 14:14 (repeated in v. 20).
even if these three men, Noah, Daniel[1], and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD.
Commentators often take this as a reference to 3 non-Israelite “saints.”[2] The non-Israelite identity is important for the larger theme of general or universal retribution in Ezekiel 14.  The connection of righteousness or virtue with these three is also key. Gen 6:9 reads “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Job 1:1 says “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Noah and Job are clearly held up as ideal paragons of virtue. (More to come on "Daniel.") Their righteousness is known not from history but from literature. Does the point of v. 14 require their stories to have actually happened or does it simply require one knows the story - much like a parable teaches a point?

The details given about Job’s status, wealth and family don’t prove the story is not a parable or folk tale. We don’t know where the land of Uz is. Job is identified by his character, not his patronymic (that is, no “son of SO & SO” to give a family identification). The circumstances of his suffering and restoration have all the ring of the classic West Semitic epics like Aqhat or Kirta. The fact that the reference to “Daniel” is almost certainly to a character from a non-biblical West Semitic epic further strengthens the conclusion that Job and Noah are evoked here for their literary significance, not their historical existence. (Was there a historical Noah and a worldwide flood? Still thinking that through, but I knew you’d ask.)

Acknowledging that some OT characters, like Jonah[3]  and Job, might simply be literary figures with no historical existence in no way undermines the accuracy or inerrancy of the biblical text. The issue is with the reader, not the text. The reader is demanding something of the text it never intended to give. Searching for a historical Job is, in my mind, about as likely to turn up solid results as a quest for the historical Prodigal Son (Luke 15).

Comments and discussion are welcome. My thoughts on this issue are continually in process.

[1] Daniel in this text presents a special problem that I’ll address in another post.
[2] See Leslie C. Allen, Ezekiel 1-19, WBC, and Moshe Greenberg, Ezekiel 1-20, AYB.
[3] Jonah, of course, was known from the historical books - 2 Kgs 14:25. But his literary fame comes from the book of Jonah and his fish story - a story, IMO, borrowing the character of an otherwise little known prophet.


  1. FWIW...Dan Block (in the NICOT on Ezekiel) spends several pages in his majesterial two-volume commentary dealing with the issue of just who "Danel/Daniel" is. And he comes to the conclusion (I believe through careful argumentation) that it is a reference to Ezekiel's contemporary in exile: Daniel. If you have access to his commentary...I would highly recommend checking it out. Not as if that settles the question of historicity versus literary points. I find the notion of the literary apart from the historicity to make salvation only a matter of existential experience instead of being a part of salvation history. I hold to the literary as key to the historical, but don't rule out the historical as at times possible, at others probable and at others (mostly) certain...or as certain as any of us can be given our limited knowledge and the effects of sin upon all aspects of our person.

  2. Rick, I don't have Block's commentary, but I am familiar with the arguments that "Daniel" is the biblical contemporary of Ezekiel. I used to subscribe to that conclusion with the explanation that Ezek 14:14 referred to an antediluvian worthy, a patriarchal worthy, and a contemporary worthy. Of course, that conclusion is odd given their order in Ezekiel - Noah, Daniel, then Job. I will try to look at Block's argument before I finish my follow up post, but ultimately, the connection of Danel with Daniel seems to be a case of harmonizing. On the other hand, a lone reference to a non-biblical character from a Canaanite epic is odd, too.

    I'm not ruling out the historical as possible. My point is merely that it is not always necessary and may not have been intended in all cases.

  3. Oh distraction! Thanks for your level headed view, Doug. After four intense months with Job, a book which delighted me at every turn, I had no necessary conclusion to the history question because I never considered it important. The allusions to Genesis and Deuteronomy and the delightful envelope of Leviathan and the eyelids of dawn, and the continuous play on 'Job continued his mashal' made me title my translation - Job, a parable of dust and ashes. I did not get cut off for thinking and delighting in word play and literature.

  4. Bob, I like the title! I've always felt Job had some kind of affinity or relationship to Deuteronomy but I've never taken the time to pick out the allusions.

  5. Job's problems are a direct quote of all the plagues of Deuteronomy 28 - here's how I put it a year ago when people were arguing again about resurrection and other stuff.

    ... and it might be summarized as a parable of restoration and recovery putting a simplified reading of Deuteronomy 28 on trial and reframing it into a whole new perspective. It is a promise and parable that teaches what Nicodemus didn't know about (being born again - John 3). Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15) is a promise also - but recovery and restoration (e.g. Romans 11) are aspects of our present reality (Romans 8) that we are invited into (e.g. the approach and enter theme in the letter to the Hebrews) whether through the Anointing of the Old or the New Covenant.

  6. Hey, I just came across this post. I didn't get a trackback for some reason. Thanks for the mention.

    I have to admit I never considered this:
    "in general, the NT writers were referring to the characters known from Jewish literature and not trying to claim historicity. I don’t believe they were concerned with those types of questions. It may have been assumed, but it didn’t matter for their theological point whether Jonah or Job really lived. What mattered was the story and the example it provided."

    And I can see where that may be the case even if I disagree with it. It's not of first importance although I do believe seeing Adam as an individual is very important but that's another subject.

    In this post though, it seems that you're saying that if there is archeological or historical evidence of a Biblical character, you're more likely to believe that they were real individuals.

    If some feel that the original audience didn't care whether the characters were real or not, I don't care about extra biblical evidence to base my reasons on whether they're real or not. The Biblical text is enough for me, although archeology can be very valuable in some cases in understanding the text, like Revelation 3:16. I feel like there is lack of belief if people need to hear it from someone they 'really trust' like a scientist. I may be way off on that but it's what I see a lot of.

  7. Bob, thanks for the info. I'll have to look at Job and Deut 28 more closely.

    Jeff, my 2008 post on this subject ended with the recognition that while I couldn't necessarily prove their existence, I believed it by faith. My concern with this post, though, is just to raise the possibility that evidence for a character's historical existence doesn't necessarily follow from a literary reference to that character. Notice, too, there's a difference between biblical characters that are central to the narrative of redemptive history (like David) and characters whose role is more ethical or didactic (like Job). Until Bob mentioned it, I'd forgotten how Job regularly refers to his discourse as a "mashal", the Hebrew word for "parable" or "proverb."

  8. Thanks. That's also a distinction I hadn't thought of. I don't think it makes much difference to me personally but it could to somebody somehow.

    I wish I could enjoy the poetry as Bob does.

  9. The sages discussed the possibility that Job was a symbolic and parabolic character in B. Bat. 15a. "Parables and Conflict in the Hebrew Bible" mentions both Job and Jonah in this context (p. 6).


  10. I look forward to your post on Ezek 14:14. To my mind the reference fits Dani'ilu from the tale of Aqhatu perfectly. This doesn't deny the existence of a biblical "Daniel," it's just now what Ezekiel is talking about.

    More generally, I like the intentional distinction you are making between your role as a scholar and your own private faith. I don't for a minute think that we can fracture ourselves so completely as to avoid different parts of our lives influencing each other, but it's important to be aware of where our opinions are coming from.

  11. Jim, you stole my thunder! That's all the next post was going to say - "the reference fits Dani'ilu from the tale of Aqhatu perfectly." Now everyone knows! Actually, it's a fairly complex identification either way, so I think I still have room to work.

    I think a lot of Christian scholarship (especially evangelical) suffers from a lack of acceptance on the marketplace of ideas precisely because the scholars are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the distinction between proof by evidence and belief by faith. That's all I ask - be aware of what assumptions are influencing your conclusions and limiting your options.