Alter vs. Sternberg on Fiction vs. History in the Bible

It may not be self-evident to some people, but biblical texts are literature and must be interpreted as literature.  But what kind of literature?  Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg are two prominent biblical scholars who disagree sharply as to whether it is fiction, fictional history, historical fiction, or history.  They both exemplify the best of biblical scholarship, while the disagreement between them on this score exemplifies how modern biblical scholarship so often “strains out a gnat and swallows a camel.”

For Robert Alter in The Art of Biblical Narrative, the Bible (to both “the Bible” means what Christians call the Old Testament) is a mix of fiction and history, with the earlier parts more like historicized fiction, and the later parts more like fictionalized history.

Under scrutiny, biblical narrative generally proves to be either fiction laying claim to a place in the chain of causation and the realm of moral consequentiality that belong to history, as in the primeval history, the tales of the Patriarchs, and much of the Exodus story, and the account of the early conquest, or history given the imaginative definition of fiction, as in most of the narratives from the period of the Judges onward.” (32-33)

How does one know it’s fiction?  The authors write as though they know things no historian could know.  The earliest parts begin with legends but embellish them:

What a close reading of the text does suggest … is that the writer could manipulate his inherited materials with sufficient freedom and sufficient firmness of authorial purpose to define motives, relations, and unfolding themes, even in a primeval history, with the kind of subtle cogency we associate with the conscious artistry of the narrative mode designated prose fiction. (32)

Later parts of the Bible do the same thing with a slightly more historical base.  King David did exist (Alter says), but no historian would know what the author of the David stories purports to know:

… these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer … He feels entirely free … to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention, or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. (35)Through the sudden specifications of narrative detail and the invention of dialogue that individualizes the characters and focuses their relations, the biblical writers give the events they report a fictional time and place. (42)

The biblical author is thus no more nor less a historian than Shakespeare:

The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.  Shakespeare was obviously not free to have Henry V lose the battle of Agincourt, or to allow someone else to lead the English forces there, but, working from the hints of historical tradition, he could invent a kind of Bildungsroman for the young prince Hal; surround him with invented characters that would serve as foils, mirrors, obstacles, aids in his development; create a language and a psychology for the king which are the writer’s own achievement, making out of the stuff of history a powerful projection of human possibility.  That is essentially what the author of the David cycle does for David, Saul, Abner, Joab, Jonathan, Absalom, Michal, Abigail, and a host of other characters. (35-36)

Meir Sternberg in The Poetics of Biblical Narrative has what he thinks is a radically different viewpoint.  He argues that no “history” is completely accurate, and no “fiction” is completely imaginary.  You label a literary work’s genre based on what the author’s intention is, not on its degree of accuracy. History is “a discourse that claims to be a record of fact.”  Fiction is “a discourse that claims freedom of invention.”

… what makes fictional and breaks historical writing is not the presence of invented material — inevitable in both — but the privilege and at will the flaunting of free invention. (29)

Thus, even if the account of David is shown to be false, that does not affect its genre; it may still be historiography.  Indeed, in the case of the Bible, the authors by no means intended it to be read as fiction:

Were the narrative written or read as fiction, then God would turn from the lord of history into a creature of the imagination, with the most disastrous results.  The shape of time, the rationale of monotheism, the foundations of conduct, the national sense of identity, the very right to the land of Israel and the hope of deliverance to come:  all hang in the generic balance. … [The Bible] claims not just the status of history but, as Erich Auerbach rightly maintains, of the history — the one and only truth that, like God himself, brooks no rival. (32)

Suppose, Sternberg wonders, someone were to tell the biblical narrator that the Babylonians have a different story that’s just as valid?  The answer is easy to guess:

Would the biblical narrator just shrug his shoulders, as any self-respecting novelist would do? … This way madness lies — and I mean interpretive, teleological, as well as theological madness. (32)

It is the claim of inspiration that explains the apparent omniscience of the biblical narrator.

… the narrator’s claim to omniscience dovetails rather than conflicts with his claim to historicity.  It is no accident that the narrative books from Joshua to Kings fall under the rubric of Former Prophets.

But if as seekers for the truth, professional or amateur, we can take or leave the truth claim of inspiration, then as readers we simply must take it — just like any other biblical premise or convention, from the existence of God to the sense borne by specific words — or else invent our own text.  And to take it means to read the Bible on its own historiographic terms, suspending all the ‘how do you know?’ questions one would automatically address to a historical narrative playing by documentary rules. (33-34)

Yes, of course there is made-up stuff in the Bible, but that does not mean it’s fiction or that the writers were deceivers.  The Bible comes from an ancient world where different conventions ruled.

But if it is convention that renders Jane Austen immune from all charges of fallacy and falsity, it is convention that likewise puts the Bible’s art of narrative beyond their reach.

Herein lies one of the Bible’s unique rules:  under the aegis of ideology, convention transmutes even invention into the stuff of history, or rather obliterates the line dividing fact from fancy in communication.  So every word is God’s word.  The product is neither fiction nor historicized fiction nor fictionalized history, but historiography pure and uncompromising. (34-35)

Therefore, Alter is simply wrong, dead wrong.

… it is doubly surprising to find him in the camp of fiction. This line having once been adopted, however, it is not at all surprising that he comes to grief.  the case has never been stated so well, and the parts abound in shrewd observation, but the whole suffers from the same fatal flaw as all the previous arguments for the Bible’s fictionality.


Both Alter and Sternberg are brilliant scholars, and neither suffers from the common tendency to religious bias that colors many if not most biblical scholars.  But one of them must be right and the other wrong … right?

Well, this is the sort of thing that gives the word “academic” the negative connotation of something akin to counting the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.  The differences between the two are more in the words they use than in the content of what they are saying.

Both agree that much of the content of the Bible is, pure and simple, made up, the product of the authors’ imagination.  Both agree that the authors’ intent, however, was to link their message to historical reality.  Essentially they differ in the language they use.

Alter uses the terms “fiction” and “historiography” with the meanings that they have today.  Sternberg uses the same terms with the meanings that he imagines they would have had at the time the Bible was written.  Of the two approaches, Sternberg’s is certainly more artificial since nobody used these terms or anything like them back then.  What he accomplishes by using them in this artificial manner is to assert what Alter never disputes:  the biblical writers intended to write an absolutely authoritative narrative, unlike modern fiction which one can take or leave as one likes.


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