In a new book titled Re-reading Job: Understanding the Ancient World’s Greatest Poem, the author Michael Austin devotes several pages to the issue of the historicity of Job. At first, I thought this was a silly issue. Of course, Job isn’t history, it’s a poem, it’s a parable.
But then I thought a little longer, and the issue has wider implications, particularly as it relates to much of the Old Testament, to characters like Adam and Eve, Jonah, Noah, Daniel, Lot and his wife, etc. According to Austin:
Did a man named Job ever live? A great many people–many Latter-day Saints–believe this to be an extremely important question. Often this comes from a reflexive biblical literalism that we inherited from our Protestant forbearers. . . . Latter-day Saints tend to be uncomfortable thinking of any part of the Bible as imaginative literature–under the assumption that this would decrease its moral value and call the legitimacy of the entire bible narrative into question.
Note that I think it would have been better if Austin had said “entire Old Testament narrative” instead of “entire bible narrative.”
Austin goes on to explain why he thinks OT literalism, particularly as it relates to Job, is not necessary or relevant. Before doing this, he reacts to a quote by BYU religion professor Keith H. Meservy:
Now, if Job were not real and his suffering, therefore, were merely the figment of some author’s imagination, and Joseph Smith on the other hand was very real, and his suffering and that of his people were not imaginary, then for the Lord to chide him because his circumstances were not as bad as Job’s were, would provide an intolerable comparison, since one cannot compare real with unreal things. On the other hand, since the Lord did make the comparison, it must be a real one. I would therefore conclude on this basis alone, that Job was a very real person.
Austin strongly disagrees with Meservy contention that “one cannot compare real things to unreal things.” Austin uses the example of Christ who frequently made such comparisons by answering real concerns with instructional parables:
Modern prophets and apostles frequently refer to the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son in conference talks, even though they know perfectly well these figures never existed.
Though the question of Job’s historicity has never been formally addressed by the Brethren, it was the subject of semi-official letter, as Thomas Alexander reports in Mormonism in Transition:
In October 1922, while Heber J. Grant was in Washington, the First Presidency received a letter from Joseph W. McMurrin asking about the position of the Church with regard to the literality of the Bible. Charles W. Penrose, with Anthony W. Ivins, writing for the First Presidency, answered that the position of the Church was that the Bible is the word of God as far as it was translated correctly. They pointed out that there were, however, some problems with the Old Testament. . . . While they thought Jonah was a real person, they said it was possible that the story as told in the Bible was a parable common at the time. The purpose was to teach a lesson, and it “is of little significance as to whether Jonah was a real individual or one chosen by the writer of the book” to illustrate “what is set forth therein.” They took a similar position on Job.
Austin concludes: “there is no reason that a work of imaginative literature cannot also be a work of divine revelation.”