Traveling in the Holy Land broadened my understanding of the world in many ways, walking the dusty paths of Abraham, David, and Jesus. I ran my hands over the stones of the Jewish Temple, huge remnants from 2,000 years ago. My eyes scanned the ancient, unrolled scroll of Isaiah only discovered in 1947. Near the Mediterranean was a dated stone chiseled in the time of Jesus. In Jericho, archaeological excavation had uncovered one of the oldest organized communities, perhaps 8,000 years before Jesus was born.
In this land of sweeping history, I noticed that the criteria for verifiable historicity varied a great deal. The body of water in front of us was undeniably the Sea of Galilee. But whether the grassy hill along the side was where Jesus preached the Beatitudes was a guess. Nevertheless, there was a church built there to mark the story. At the north side of the Sea was a rocky formation with several niches—small indentations in the stone embankments. Our guide told us this may have been the location where Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do people say I am?” The niches may once have held statues of local or Roman gods, a natural setting for the debate on the true God. But, unverifiable.
Leaving the Sea of Galilee we followed the course of the Jordan River south toward the latest location for the baptism of Jesus. “It’s not the place we used to show people because that spot is now off-limits for tourists. We had to move the site downstream.” For Americans who put a lot of stock in accuracy, moving the significant God-event of Jesus’ baptism willy-nilly to a different location was unthinkable! How could we stand on the banks of the Jordan River and imagine John the Baptist calling out, “Repent and be baptized!” when everyone knew it hadn’t really taken place there? As well-educated seminarians we shook our heads in disbelief.
But what our guide told us next has stayed in my memory for the almost twenty years since my visit. With a shrug of his shoulders he explained, “Well, we need a site. An important event—we need to have a site. Do we know exactly where it happened? No. But we must have a site so that we can remember.”
At the time I received the explanation as trite and indefensible—at least from my lofty perspective. Over time, I’ve come to understand and agree. I extend his wisdom to the Bible as well. We need a story. We need stories. They flesh out our identification as God’s people. Stories tell us that we are the people who knew Abraham, David, and Jesus, as well as Sarah, Miriam, and Susanna. Do we know that these stories are factually, historically true in every written detail? No. But we must have stories that ground us in a faith that is centuries old and still goes on.
I am a Bible lover, but not a Bible thumper nor a literalist or fundamentalist by a long stretch. I view the Bible as a human product expressing human values, experiences, and interpretations. I will say more about the scriptures and how we might read them through a different lens. I look forward to your reactions and responses to my writings.