From John’s Gospel:
They sat down, about five thousand in all. Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 6:10b-13 (NRSV) – January 2, 2014.)
Let’s just be clear: this is biblical arithmetic. If this were a “word problem” on a school math quiz, we would reduce the story to a simple equation:
(5 + 2) ÷ 5000 = 12
Now, granted, this is the story of one of Christ’s miracles (or, as John prefers to call them, “signs”), but even so, reading a story like this I cannot help but wonder how anyone can take the Bible as “historically factual” and “totally inerrant.” It’s not! It’s just not!
The Bible is a human document, filled with all the potential for error and mistake as the human beings who produced it. That doesn’t mean, however, that we dismiss it, anymore than we would dismiss any work of humanity. The great writer, theologian, and faithful Episcopalian Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally.” The same quotation is often attributed to Karl Barth, but like many “facts” in the Bible that can’t be verified.
The Bible is a library filled with a variety of genres. I can think of at least two books of the Bible which are obviously fiction – Job and Esther. And though obvious fiction, they are clearly true. They may not be factual, but as William Faulkner is said to have remarked, “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” And Canadian novelist Keith Oatley, who is also a cognitive psychologist, has said that “a literary work can be truthful, not just generally but in relation to a specific reader and to that reader’s own understandings of self and others.”
In other words, the “truthfulness” of literature, especially biblical literature, is not dependent on its factual accuracy. Phyllis Tickle, in a talk I heard her give in Memphis, drew a distinction between recognizing the “actual truth” of scripture and insisting on its “factual truth,” which (she said) reduces it to the confines and strictures of human understanding. When we insist on the factual accuracy of biblical stories, we conform them to our beliefs instead of conforming our beliefs to the witness of scripture.
So I’m fine with biblical arithmetic! Even if it makes no mathematical sense, it’s full of truth!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.