A friend of mine taught a First-day school session using a children’s book about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt. I’ve been interested in biblical scholarship since college, so I knew that in general, scholars don’t believe this event ever happened.
This got me thinking. Lots of stories in the Bible didn’t actually happen. If we are teaching a Bible story in First-day school, and we know (or believe) it didn’t happen, what should we do? If we don’t mention this, we are misleading the people we’re teaching. If we just say, “Now we are going to talk about Jesus, Mary, and Joseph’s flight to Egypt,” we’re giving the impression that this actually happened. But as Quakers, we’re committed to integrity and honesty. So if we believe a Bible story didn’t happen, shouldn’t we say so? I should make clear that my friend believed that the story actually happened, so there wasn’t an issue of integrity. She honestly conveyed what she felt was true.
But after discussing this question with scores of Friends, I’ve come to believe that if we are teaching a story from the Bible and believe it didn’t happen, it’s important to say so. We don’t want to lead people away from what we know or believe to be true. Now I’m not suggesting that we stop teaching Bible stories in First-day school; I teach them. And I’m not suggesting that we only teach stories that are known to have actually happened. After all, a parable or a fable may not have actually happened, but the lessons the story teaches can still be important.
An example may make this more clear. Take the “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” story from the Gospel of John. In a 2009 interview with INDY reporter Fiona Morgan, the prominent New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman pointed out it isn’t true:
This entire story, a beautiful story that in some ways you could argue is the favorite story of people who read the Gospels, wasn’t in the Gospels. It’s only found in the Gospel of John, and it’s not found in the earliest and best manuscripts of John. So scholars for hundreds of years have known that it wasn’t part of John, it was a story that was added later by scribes because it’s found only in our later manuscripts.
A story about stoning a woman to death for committing adultery may not be a good one for young children but suppose you are teaching it to teens. If you fail to mention that it’s almost certain Jesus never said or did any of this, you mislead the people you are teaching. You also give the story a deceptive amount of spiritual authority. After all, if you taught that Jesus actually said and did these things, you’d give the lessons of the story much more weight.
It might be tempting to avoid stating the truth of a Bible story you are teaching, and instead say that nobody knows whether stories from the Bible are true or not. But that isn’t the case. Scholars have come up with historical, archaeological, and textual methods for judging the historical accuracy of biblical stories. Also, if you do know or believe that a story isn’t real, it would be dishonest to say that people don’t know if it is.
It also might be tempting to think that this isn’t an issue when we teach younger children, who may not understand or care about the truth of a story. But this doesn’t justify saying something we know is misleading. The integrity testimony doesn’t suggest that it’s okay to mislead someone if they don’t care if they’re misled or if they don’t understand the difference between fact and fiction.
Although I first noticed this issue in the intergenerational context of teaching First-day school, it’s also an issue in adult religious education, such as Bible study.
So what can we do if we want to teach a story that we know or believe didn’t happen? We can say it didn’t happen and also say why we’re teaching it. In the case of the “cast the first stone” story, we could say something like the following:
We’re going to read a story from the Bible about Jesus and a woman who was going to be stoned to death for committing adultery. Now this story didn’t actually happen, but we are reading it today because it conveys some important lessons about humility, compassion, and forgiveness.
Saying something like this allows us to be honest about the truth of the story and still convey the lessons it teaches. If we do this, our behavior preaches the integrity that we proclaim as Quakers. This way we can follow George Fox’s call to let our lives preach.