The Difference between Story and History in the Bible

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by Neil Godfrey

James Barr

James Barr

In 1980 the influential biblical scholar James Barr produced a “seminal essay” that classified “the narrative complex of the Hebrew Bible as story rather than history” and contributed to “[many retreating] into an historiographic scepticism”(Whitelam, 1987, 2010). The focus of Barr’s essay (and Keith Whitelam’s reference to it) is the Old Testament. It is important to understand, however, that “historical nihilism” is not the inevitable destination if we find our sources are more story than history.

Certainty is not a prerequisite to understanding. It is the will to understand rather than simply the will to know for certain that is the driving force for the inquiry to be undertaken here. (Whitelam, p. 20.)

I think that the same principles carry over to the New Testament’s Gospels and Acts, too. That’s too controversial for many today, however. The Gospel narratives must stand firm as grounded in historical memory of some kind. Whitelam in his 2010 edition of his 1987 book lamented the failure of the critical potential to blossom in the field of Old Testament studies:

The rise of the biblical history movement and ‘new biblical archaeology’ means that the project envisaged a quarter of a century ago is even further away from realization today than it was then. (p. xiii)

How much further away we must be from applying the same critical questions to the stories of Jesus!

Following is how Barr explained the differences between history and story. It comes from “Story and History in Biblical Theology: The Third Nuveen Lecture” in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Jan., 1976), pp. 1-17. Published in Explorations in Theology 7, 1980.

Old Testament narratives cannot be described as “history” but rather as containing “certain of the features that belong to history”. Examples:

  • The OT story is “a unitary story” as distinct from a series of separate anecdotes about people who might have lived at any time. The story of Job is not a historical narrative because from the text we can see it could have happened at any time and we are given no idea if the events had any impact on anyone or anything else that happened in the world. If all the narratives in the Bible were like those of Job we would have a very different kind of Bible indeed.
  • The story is a set in a chronological framework. We have a clear beginning (the creation of the world) and key events are set against other background happenings (e.g. rise of Assyrian and Babylonian empires) that help us grasp the time context.
  • Certain segments of the story constitute a fairly reliable source of historical evidence for the period in which the narrative is set. That is to say, these segments describe events in such a way that the description constitutes evidence from which (in combination with evidence from other sources) the modern historian can reconstruct a historical picture of the period. The degree of this reliability varies, however, from one segment to another.”
  • Some segments of the OT story come close to some attributes of history writing in the sense of the “writer himself [having] some of the attributes of the historian”.

I think what Barr is referring to in that last point is such moments as when the author says “more about such and such a king can be found in the annals of the kings of Judah”. (I have long planned to write a post or two on Katherine Stott’s Why Did They Write This Way? in which we see evidence that such turns of phrase were sometimes nothing more than creative fiction to make a fictional work seem more “history-like”.)

As for the third point above I can’t help especially noticing the parenthetical inclusion: “in combination with evidence from other sources”. That has been a key point I have been trying to make for some time now: it is one of the critical reasons historians have for assigning varying degrees of confidence in certain types of narratives being able to yield historical data. The OT does certainly include historical names (e.g. Omri, Hezekiah) that we can confirm from external sources just as the Gospels contain historical names like Pilate and Caiaphas. (Before jumping to conclusions about the significance of this, however, keep in mind that ancient fictional novellas of the day also included historical persons in their narratives. Background historical information alone can never guarantee a plot itself is historical.)

Those are four ways Barr likened Biblical narratives to history writing.

He follows with ways the OT narratives a clearly different from history.

  • “The story contains within itself large elements which no one seriously considers as history and which belong rather to the area of myth and legend.” Barr does not limit this to details that are so obviously myth or legend (e.g. Noah’s flood, angels marrying human women…) but extends it to a curious blend of mythical and apparently history-like tales from the patriarchal narratives right down to the Babylonian exile.
  • “The story moves back and forward, quite without embarrassment, between human causation and divine causation, between the statement and description of events in entirely human terms” and accounts of large-scale divine interventions. Barr describes the ability of the author to blend these two “different styles” as a mark of “the genius of the literature”. I suspect he means by “genius” here nothing more than the “spirit” or character of the literature.
  • “Within the narrative literature other forms of motivation than the historical can easily be detected.” The first of these is “aetiological”: the “just-so” story of how a certain thing originated; the second is the “paradigmatic”: stories that are “analogies in which experience, past or future, can be understood and expressed.” “Neither of these is really historical in original basis and motivation, but the narrative literature is full of both.”
  • “The telling of the story in the Old Testament is devoid of one element that seems essential for history as we understand the term, namely, some critical evaluation of sources and reports.

Yes, that fourth point is the one fundamental feature that Richard Burridge’s influential work on gospel genre overlooked entirely, if I recall correctly. Ancient historians understood the importance of providing their readers with grounds to trust their work. As a rule they identified themselves and explained something about the sources they used. (Contrary to widespread assumption not even the prologue to Luke-Acts tells us anything informative about sources.)

In summing up Barr sees the OT narratives flipping back and forth between story and history; sometimes coming closer to history but then pulling further away from it. And when the story does meet history that “contact is tangential and partial rather than systematic and complete.”


  • Bee
    2015-03-11 19:25:09 UTC - 19:25 | Permalink

    Brilliant. Do not forget to stress “myth and legend,” to identify Barr as a proto-mythicist at least.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-03-13 22:41:39 UTC - 22:41 | Permalink

      James Barr would surely be spinning in his grave and spitting out hot lava if he thought anyone today was calling him a “proto-mythicist”! 😉

      • Bee
        2015-03-16 07:30:25 UTC - 07:30 | Permalink

        Well, if we exorcise his blindly faithful side, the rational scholar that is his other half is pretty cogent.

        Most religious scholars on US faculties seem one half loyal to childhood faith, but also one half rational. Just note their difference , while using points of agreement, of course.

  • Blake
    2015-03-12 03:18:40 UTC - 03:18 | Permalink

    I believe the OT was plagiarised from older religions.

    • Bee
      2015-03-12 06:10:40 UTC - 06:10 | Permalink

      That seems mostly right according to comparative religious studies, anthropology , history, and comparative mythography

  • Bee
    2015-04-04 09:40:08 UTC - 09:40 | Permalink

    Let us not underestimate Barr: “Of the ‘quest for the historical Jesus, ‘ it is hard to know whether it counts as biblical criticism or as speculative theology.” As he notes in “Interpretation,” Ox. Comp. to the Bible, p. 322.

    To be sure, in 1993, he seemed to still think that Jesus was real. But….

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