Over and over again I read or hear Fundamentalists and many Evangelicals claim that if the Bible contains any errors then it cannot be trusted and is just another human book. They especially dislike the claims of mainstream Biblical scholars that the Bible contains fiction, folklore, and myth. There are two questions to consider: first, does the Bible, in fact, contain these genres, and second, if it does, do the presence of those items destroy the authority of the Bible?
There is overwhelming evidence that the Bible contains all three genres. First, consider myth. Genesis 1-11 is, for any objective reader, set in a realm of myth. Now myth can tell the truth, just not in a literal way. Genesis 1, for example, tells the truth when it affirms that one God, not many gods as the Gentile nations surrounding ancient Israel believed, created the universe. But the framework–the three story universe with flat earth, the dome of the sky above and Sheol below, is adapted from the common myths of the ancient Near East, especially Babylonia. This, of course, fits the location of the Priestly (P) writer(s) of Genesis 1–the 6th century B.C.E. when the Jews were in Babylonian exile. The narrative of man’s creation, the first murder, the Tower of Babel, and the Flood, are mythological, with the Flood story being modified from the Babylonian flood story. We are not talking about literal history here.
Now Genesis 12-the rest of the Pentateuch is most likely folklore. There may be some historical basis for Abraham and the other Patriarchs, but they may be legendary figures as well–we simply do not know. Moses may have existed, but the stories are so reworked that it is not possible to distinguish history from nonhistory. By the time we get to the David story, I believe (contrary to some Biblical scholars) that we are more in the realm of history than in the realm of folklore, but it would not bother me if David is a legendary figure. Later we are more in the realm of what we today would call “history,” but even then there is not the concern for exact accuracy found in modern history.
Some books of the Bible are fictional–Ruth, Esther, Daniel, and Jonah0 are fictional stories meant to teach larger lessons. Why should any Christian be disturbed by this? If the books were written as fiction, so be it–it should not be shocking that they are not historical if they were meant to be fictional.
None of this destroys the authority of the Bible. As C. S. Lewis noted, the early books of the Bible share more of the nature of myth–as we move closer to Christ, the historical focus becomes stronger. Although the Gospels are not histories in the modern sense, they offer a generally accurate account of the life of Christ.
Ultimately it is the Church that sets the limits of Biblical interpretation. The Nicene Creed affirms the Incarnation, that Christ is fully God, fully man. It affirms the Virgin Birth, the crucifixion and bodily resurrection of Christ and the general resurrection of all people at the end of time. These beliefs must be affirmed, and not merely as symbolic. Either Jesus’ cold, dead body was really raised from the dead or Christianity is nonsense. Within those limits we are free to speculate, and this includes historical-critical and literary study of the Bible.
Some Evangelicals claim that since Jesus was God, he had to be correct when he referred to the flood in Noah’s day or some other story mentioned in the Old Testament. But as philosopher Richard Swinburne points out, Jesus would express his message in terms that the Jewish people of his day would understand, and this might include a reference to Noah’s flood, a story that would be taken literally by the Jews of Jesus’ day. It would make no sense for Jesus to say, “And by the way, Noah never existed and there was no universal flood.” Thus myth, folklore, and fiction in the Bible do not take away from Jesus’ authority, much less from the authority of the Bible. The Bible is inerrant only in the sense that it cannot err in telling us what is required for our salvation. The Church summarizes the message of the early written traditions of the Bible in its Holy Tradition, thereby setting the boundaries of proper belief (orthodoxy).