Modern historiography has not been kind to the Exodus-Conquest narrative. Not only has this founding myth of Israel proved impossible to verify historically, various archaeological data suggest the story was greatly exaggerated, if not legendary to the core.
For some Christians this negative historical assessment of God’s word results in a loss of faith. If the Exodus story—ostensibly an historical account of Israel’s genesis—cannot be trusted, a growing shadow of suspicion looms over the rest of scripture.
For other Christians, oddly enough, the loss of the Hebrew Bible’s historical reliability engenders a renewed commitment to the Bible’s theological, ethical, and symbolic content. When unbound from the restraints of concrete historical experience, in fact, such content shines all the more purely. For such Christians the real and applicable truth of the Old Testament lies not in that the stories actually happened, but in the lessons about God, human nature, morality, etc. that they contain.
Still desiring to preserve the metaphysical and supra-historical realities of the divine-savior myth, however, such Christians usually affirm wholeheartedly the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.
This inconsistency—the rejection of the Exodus myth as history but the acceptance of the divine-savior myth as history—rests on two ideologically-motivated assumptions which prioritize that which is abstract and theological over that which is concrete and historical.
First, there is the assumption that the Exodus-Conquest narrative as history is not useful to the Christian. Whether God in history freed the children of Israel from slavery, trained and tested them in the wilderness for forty years, and slew their enemies in the promised land is immaterial. At best, rather, and somewhat amusingly, along these lines the Exodus story functions as a shadow of the true liberation found in the divine-savior myth, that is, liberation from sin and a mind darkened by worldly concerns.
Second, there is the assumption that the divine-savior myth as history is useful to the Christian. Whether the divine Son of God in history assumed mortal flesh, loved sinners boldly, died for the forgiveness of sins, and rose bodily in triumph over the forces of evil and decay is crucial. For, this narrative, being that it is historically true and not merely a happy metaphor, directs the Christian toward a life of concrete sacrifice and concrete hope—a hope that transcends death and history.
Ironically then, the historicity of the divine savior guarantees the real-world utility of the abstract philosophical system built up around him. That is, since Christ truly lived, died, and rose, a life like Christ’s truly brings spiritual enlightenment and heavenly reward.
History is theology
The first Christians, of course, like other persecuted apocalyptic movements, would not share this predilection for abstracted truth. Their concerns would rest squarely on the political realities of their world. They would long for an end to their torments at the hands of idolaters and for the birth of a new and just order, one determined by God and in favor of God’s people. Their entire theological and ethical way of life would sprout out of and depend upon these hoped-for historical outcomes.
For them, apart from the imminent, dramatic, and historical coming of Christ in his kingdom over the pagan world, there was no Christian way, no Christian mind, no Christian life. Any abstract conceptions the early Christians may have had (be they theological, moral, or otherwise) were, in fact, spawned out of their conviction that God was about to act in massive and concrete ways to overthrow the expected course of history. Simply put, these historical-political outcomes constituted the theological content of their gospel.²
The Exodus recapitulated
What this means is that the gospel story—the belief that Israel’s God had installed Jesus as judge, jury, and executioner of the pagan world—could only have emerged among a people who were convinced that their God could perform, and indeed had performed, awesome deeds in history; deeds which struck terror into the hearts of the nations (cf. Exodus 15:13-16, Joshua 2:8-11). This apocalyptic gospel was, for all intents and purposes, a recapitulation of the Exodus-Conquest story in historical terms, albeit on a larger scale. Soon, all the nations, the entire Roman world, would succumb to the authority of God, his Christ, and Christ’s church. As he once did through Moses, Joshua, and the children of Israel, God was about to exalt his people before the nations.
1—Some Christians reject the historicity of the Exodus-Conquest, I suspect, on completely moral grounds.
2—For instance, Biblically speaking, the forgiveness of sins is always accompanied by political renewal. Just as exiled Israel experienced divine forgiveness in and through the reconstitution of their nation, Jews and gentiles forgiven in Christ expected to soon “reign upon the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10).
6 thoughts on “Does the theology of the Gospel depend on the history of the Exodus?”
C.S Lewis said the Bible is a mixture of fact and fiction and we should be able to differentiate between the two, and I think many Christians would agree with that assessment. Furthermore, I suspect many Christians are happy to write off much of the Old Testament as fiction since the best Christian apologists struggle to reconcile some of the accounts with modern views of God and reality.
Christianity no longer needs the Old Testament miracles to bolster its faith. It just needs the miracles performed by Jesus to prove his divinity and the miracle of the resurrection to prove he was the promised Messiah and king.
Great insights Peter, especially your last paragraph.
The Christians who do accept the Old Testament miracles as historical are usually drawn to that conclusion because it justifies their belief in personalized (and discreet) miracles happening today: “miracles still happen!” There’s little sense in Christian circles that Old Testament miracles represent God’s ability, proclivity, and intention to direct international politics and history in awesome/shocking/terrifying ways.
As you say, the miracles of Jesus thus become a proof of his deity rather than a witness to the coming of the history-bending, politics-shaking kingdom of God. In this way Jesus’ divinity becomes an important theological distinguishing marker in a world of competing theological and philosophical claims. If Jesus is God, then he must be worshiped as such, not as a prophet or as a great teacher, etc.
I would say that within this framework the resurrection proves Jesus is the promised “king” only in as much as kingship has been emptied of its political and historical import. Jesus is “king” only in the sense that he dies for his subjects and guarantees a regal reward for them after death and after history. He is not and cannot be a “real” king in the ways David or Josiah were.
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