It seems clear to me that the book of Job is written not in the style of a historical document, but a narrated play. Thus, I had agreed with exegetes like Martin Luther that the book of Job was not in essence a historical work. Moreover, Job’s wealth is described in such terms as might make one wonder why he was not more renown in the ancient world, even in the Biblical documents (for instance, one might wonder whether Solomon really was the richest in his day by Biblical reckoning – 1 Kings 3:13 – since Job’s wealth is described in terms which might make it seem as though he was actually richer than Solomon). Finally, I always wondered why Job doesn’t seem to appear anywhere in the Genealogies of the Jewish people (assuming that he was Jewish, which the narrative does not strictly tell us).
As I help run a Bible Study on Wednesdays, and as we’ve been diving into the book of Job, I thought it provident to explore how much of the book of Job is grounded in history, and how much the narrative and poetic creation of the author for the sake of communicating truth through didactic dialectic. So, in the interest of clarifying what is typically believed among Catholics, I did some quick research and found some interesting things out.
To begin with, Job is not merely a fictitious character belonging only to the world pictured by the author of the book which goes by his name. There are other Biblical passages, outside of that book, which indicate that Job was a historical person. For example, Ezekiel 14:14 which says:
Though these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord God.
Adam Clarke’s Biblical Commentary, to which I often refer, has the following note:
“From this account we may infer that Job was as real a person as Noah or Daniel; and of their identity no man has pretended to doubt.”
Ezekiel makes another mention of Job in verse 20 of the same chapter. Though the Theology is thick, as it often is in Ezekiel, it certainly does seem to indicate that Job was treated as, and understood to be, a historical figure. Moreover, another passage, in the Deuterocanon, may be worth visiting:
It was Ezekiel who was shown the vision of the divine glory over the chariot and the living creatures. He also referred to the prophet Job, who always did the right thing.
Here, Ecclesiasticus makes mention of how Ezekiel refers back to Job, and Sirach actually calls Job a prophet (a tradition continued in Islam). Upon reflection, although this may have only semi-canonical dogmatic authority, I think the Eastern Orthodox tradition(s) often treat Job as a saint (though not ‘infallibly’ called as such anymore than any saint before the canonization process was formalized beginning with St. Francis of Assisi, and only in the West). Indeed, even in the west “The Martyrology of the Latin Church mentions Job on 10 May” (New Advent, Job).
The Catholic Epistle of James also makes brief mention of him:
Indeed we call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.
We might add that the book of Tobit, at least as it appears in the standard Latin Vulgate (not the Greek), speaks about Job as well.
Now this trial the Lord therefore permitted to happen to him, that an example might be given to posterity of his patience, as also of holy Job. For whereas he had always feared God from his infancy, and kept his commandments, he repined not against God because the evil of blindness had befallen him, but continued immovable in the fear of God, giving thanks to God all the days of his life. For as the kings insulted over holy Job: so his relations and kinsmen mocked at his life, saying: Where is your hope, for which you gave alms, and buried the dead? But Tobias rebuked them, saying: Speak not so: For we are the children of saints, and look for that life which God will give to those that never change their faith from him.
With these evidences in mind, we can agree with the Catholic Encyclopedia when it says:
“The Book of Job, therefore, has a kernel of fact, with which have been united many imaginative additions that are not strictly historical. What is related by the poet in the prose prologue and epilogue is in the main historical: the persons of the hero and his friends; the region where he lived; his good fortune and virtues; the great misfortune that overwhelmed him and the patience with which lie bore it; the restoration of his prosperity. It is also to be accepted that Job and his friends discussed the origin of his sufferings, and that in so doing views were expressed similar to those the poet puts into the mouths of his characters. The details of the execution, the poetic form, and the art shown in the arrangement of the arguments in the dispute are, however, the free creation of the author.”
To turn to the Catholic Encyclopedia for additional information may be helpful as well. First, the article on Job mentions that “Catholic commentators, however, almost without exception, hold Job to have actually existed and his personality to have been preserved by popular tradition.” It also goes on to clarify that:
“The figures expressive of the wealth of Job both before and after his trial are imaginatively rounded. Also in the narrative of the misfortunes it is impossible not to recognize a poetic conception which need not be considered as strictly historical. The scene in heaven (i, 6; ii, 1) is plainly an allegory which shows that the Providence of God guides the destiny of man(cf. St. Thomas, “In Job”). The manifestation of God (xxxviii, 1) generally receives a literal interpretation from commentators. St. Thomas, however, remarks that it may also be taken metaphorically as an inner revelation accorded to Job.”
All these considerations add up, at least to my mind, in such a way that I think the appropriate attitude towards the historicity of Job as a character, and the historicity of his story ought to be taken as in the main historical. I remain unsure about how to take the death of Job’s children et al, but I don’t have any difficulty in principle with taking it as straightforward historical truth. That isn’t to say that the death of his family members wasn’t exaggerated in any way (certainly since the scenes in heaven are clearly not reflective of history the death of his family was not strictly what Satan and God had cordially agreed upon for the sole sake of testing Job), but it seems more reasonable to maintain that he suffered the loss of family members as well.