The Historical Nature of the Bible

A recent post over at Neil’s fine blog Eternity Matters reminded me of a post I started as the result of chancing upon a recent edition of National Geographic (Dec. ’10) in a local bookstore. The cover story was The Search for King David. The article chronicles the growing body of evidence that King David and King Solomon are historical figures, but it also reveals something else – that the evidence is subject to much controversy in large part because of the differing views of groups involved in finding and interpreting it. Essentially there are three groups involved in the exploration of Biblical antiquities – Jews and Christians who consider the Bible as describing history, Muslims who deny that Jews have a historical presence in Israel, and secularists who deny any historical veracity of the Bible.

The views of investigators are critical to understanding what is being said about the historical nature of the Bible because unlike ongoing natural phenomena which can be objectively observed and tested, history is largely the subject of interpretation by individuals and groups. When looking at a particular artifact or archeological site, a researcher brings with him his convictions and beliefs about history. From the article:

The once common practice of using the Bible as an archaeological guide has been widely contested as an unscientific case of circular reasoning—and with particular relish by Tel Aviv University’s contrarian-in-residence Israel Finkelstein, who has made a career out of merrily demolishing such assumptions. He and other proponents of “low chronology” say that the weight of archaeological evidence in and around Israel suggests that the dates posited by biblical scholars are a century off. The “Solomonic” buildings excavated by biblical archaeologists over the past several decades at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo were not constructed in David and Solomon’s time, he says, and so must have been built by kings of the ninth-century B.C.’s Omride dynasty, well after David and Solomon’s reign.

During David’s time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a “hill-country village,” David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like “500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.

“Of course we’re not looking at the palace of David!” Finkelstein roars at the very mention of Mazar’s discovery. “I mean, come on. I respect her efforts. I like her—very nice lady. But this interpretation is—how to say it?—a bit naive.”

Now it is Finkelstein’s theory that is under siege.

The article goes on to delineate evidence that David was much more than a ragtag rebel; however I think the fact that there is a controversy at all is telling. Unlike most other religions, Christianity (and Judaism from which it springs) is solidly mired in historical realities. There were no archeological controversies over ancient Greek or Roman religious beliefs because they were never understood to be historical in nature – they didn’t pretend to be. We don’t talk about Hindu archeology or Buddhist archeology because those religions are not reliant upon historical facts. None of these religions even pretends to be the product of a set of events that occurred in a particular time and place in history; only vague references to certain individuals whose actual existence is unimportant to the belief system.

Biblical belief however is definitively set in a particular places and times and concerns certain individuals. Take the opening to the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of Luke:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.

There is a very specific list there of historic individuals
and places. There is no doubt about when and where the events were understood to have taken place. Interestingly, the historical existence some of the individuals in the list (Pilate and Caiaphas) were questioned by secular historians until late in the 20th century; that is until archeological evidence of their existence came to light. It is apparent that the author of the book was himself familiar with these individuals and places. Now these facts don’t in and of themselves prove that the events chronicled in the gospel occurred, but it does differentiate it from other religious beliefs at the time and since.

Indeed there is countless archeological evidences from the Bible to support its historical claims. The lack of evidence for certain individuals, often trumpeted by secular skeptics, grows smaller over time. Some evidences I would be surprised to find – for example of Abraham, an isolated nomad wandering across an ancient wilderness. Others however been have been demonstrated to exist – in addition to the evidences for David and Solomon mentioned above, we have good archeological evidence for the existence of the Israelites in the age of Joshua and Judges, King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, the prophet Jeremiah, King Jehu, King Hezekiah, the Babylonian Prince Belshazzar, the existence of Pontius Pilate, as well as the High Priest Caiaphas who condemned Jesus to death. There are numerous other examples both of the existence of people mentioned in the Bible, as well as artifacts which denote the general familiarity of the writers with the times in which they were writing.

Now obviously these evidences don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, or that Jesus was who the gospels claim he was – but what they do is distinguish the Bible from other religious beliefs and texts. Skeptics constantly seek to find flaws with the Bible, and claim many exist (a tendency that obviously skews their interpretations of the evidence that supports the Bible) but they can’t deny the distinction of the Bible when compared to other religious beliefs,

The text of Jews and Christians is by no means a mere superstition.

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13 Responses to The Historical Nature of the Bible

  1. Mike D says:

    So, historically speaking, the Bible is a bit less wrong than other texts. How many other religious texts have you studied in detail?

    I find it perplexing that you seem positively encouraged by the fact that an ancient book occasionally references real people and places, but don’t seem to be the slightest bit bother by some of the bigger problems, like:

    * That there is no evidence at all for the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt or the Exodus

    * That modern science has proved the major stories of the Old Testament, like the Creation and the Flood, to be myths

    * That there is no contemporaneous evidence at all that Jesus, as described in the gospels, ever existed.

    * That the gospels themselves are filled with internal factual contradictions, historical errors, and were committed to text decades after the fact by Greek scholars when the purported events would have been witnessed by Aramaic-speaking peasants.

    * That the original manuscripts no longer exist, and the existing copies are filled with abundant errors, contradictions, omissions, and later additions.

    But yeah, some of the folks and places in the Bible were probably real. Golly!

  2. jackhudson says:

    So, historically speaking, the Bible is a bit less wrong than other texts. How many other religious texts have you studied in detail?

    Compared to what Mike – your own studies, or those of some other arbitrary person you would select in an effort to make a point? Tell you what, instead a spitting match over who knows what, why don’t you simply prove me wrong by providing an example that contradicts my claim – that is how logic and reason proceeds. Otherwise, subtle attempts to call people stupid are really uncalled for here.

    I find it perplexing that you seem positively encouraged by the fact that an ancient book occasionally references real people and places, but don’t seem to be the slightest bit bother by some of the bigger problems, like:

    It doesn’t ‘occasionally reference real people and places’, with the exception of the Wisdom books and the metaphorical nature of parts of the Prophetic books, almost every chapter of every book of the Bible references discernible people and places, a large number of which can be verified, and which are increasingly verified by archeology – the point of this post. And it is unique amongst religious texts in this respect.

    * That there is no evidence at all for the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt or the Exodus
    * That modern science has proved the major stories of the Old Testament, like the Creation and the Flood, to be myths

    Well, I think one of the points the article demonstrates is atheists often say this until there is evidence is found. And even then they fight tooth and nail to ignore the evidence. Previously there was no evidence for David, for Solomon, for Jeremiah, for Jezebel, for Pilate, for Caiaphas, etc…until there was. Given that certain secular historians and archeologists have argued against other figures and events in the Bible for which we now have some reasonable evidence, why should their current set of skepticisms be taken with any more seriousness when it is obvious they are simply inclined to be skeptical?

    * That there is no contemporaneous evidence at all that Jesus, as described in the gospels, ever existed.

    Well, other than the writings of Peter, Paul, John, James, Luke, etc. And the fact that it is known that a group of people calling themselves Christians sprung up exactly at the time the events of the Gospel took place, people who were willing to die for what they would have known was a lie. And the fact that there has has never been any set of evidences to demonstrate that the events of the gospel didn’t happen the way they are described – i.e., documents by the promulgators of the gospels being shown to be intentionally deceptive or having acted in a way that would show they had something to hide.

    * That the gospels themselves are filled with internal factual contradictions, historical errors, and were committed to text decades after the fact by Greek scholars when the purported events would have been witnessed by Aramaic-speaking peasants.

    I am always interested in examples. It certainly seems certain Paul spoke and wrote in Greek, as did Luke.

    * That the original manuscripts no longer exist, and the existing copies are filled with abundant errors, contradictions, omissions, and later additions.

    Well, nothing in my theology expects that every copy of Scripture be a perfect copy, but we have plenty of extra-Biblical evidence to indicate Christians believed what was written in Scripture from the origin of Christianity.

    But nothing you have said here seems to deny my primary thesis that the Bible is unique in it’s reference to and reliance on history, and that we have an increasing body of evidence supporting those references.

  3. Mike D says:

    Compared to what Mike – your own studies, or those of some other arbitrary person you would select in an effort to make a point? Tell you what, instead a spitting match over who knows what, why don’t you simply prove me wrong by providing an example that contradicts my claim – that is how logic and reason proceeds. Otherwise, subtle attempts to call people stupid are really uncalled for here.

    I’m not calling you stupid Jack, I’m just wondering what your basis for comparison is. You just shift the burden of evidence to me, but why should I do your homework for you? I don’t spend much time studying Hindu scriptures (or whatever), and I’m guessing you probably don’t either. Perhaps there’s more history in such works than you’re aware of, or perhaps not. The point is, you should know that sort of thing and be able to defend your position before making such sweeping statements.

    Even so, it’s a relatively mundane point. As you acknowledge in your post, the fact that real people and places are referenced doesn’t mean the events actually took place. It’s quite an absurd exaggeration to suggest that “almost every chapter of every book of the Bible references discernible people and places, a large number of which can be verified”. Genesis certainly doesn’t, Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy certainly don’t (much of their scripture is recitation of obscure laws), the Psalms, Proverbs, and Songs certainly don’t (they are mostly poetry).

    Given that certain secular historians and archeologists have argued against other figures and events in the Bible for which we now have some reasonable evidence, why should their current set of skepticisms be taken with any more seriousness when it is obvious they are simply inclined to be skeptical?

    The fact that there is no evidence for the enslavement of the Jews or the Exodus doesn’t fall under the category that you’re distinguishing: the mundane fact of certain people and places actually existing. Big whoop. What about evidence that the stories told really happened? In this case, many thousands were purportedly enslaved, and Egypt has been a hotspot of archeological studies for centuries. This is a classic case in which absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Yet not only is there no archeological evidence, but there are not even any contemporaneous writings anywhere else to corroborate the story. It’s hagiography.

    Well, other than the writings of Peter, Paul, John, James, Luke, etc. And the fact that it is known that a group of people calling themselves Christians sprung up exactly at the time the events of the Gospel took place, people who were willing to die for what they would have known was a lie.

    The writings of Paul, John, James, Luke, etc. were not contemporaneous (the gospels, written decades after the fact, were all authored anonymously anyway). Even Paul’s earliest writings were many years after the purported events – according to Wikipedia, the earliest epistle was written around 51 ad, nearly two decades after Christ purportedly died.

    Further, there is absolutely no evidence anywhere that Paul or any of the twelve disciples (assuming they actually existed) were executed for their beliefs. Zero. And even if there were, you exclude the perfectly sensible possibility that they could have been sincerely mistaken. Didn’t the 9/11 bombers die for their beliefs?

    And the fact that there has has never been any set of evidences to demonstrate that the events of the gospel didn’t happen the way they are described

    Since when is the absence of a negative proof a valid basis for making positive historical claims?

    I am always interested in examples. It certainly seems certain Paul spoke and wrote in Greek, as did Luke.

    Again, Paul and the anonymous author attributed as “Luke” were not contemporaneous. Paul’s writings were two decades later, Luke was at least twice that.

    I’ll give you ten examples of contradictions in the gospels:

    1. Was Jesus executed before or after the Passover? John says before, Mark says after. And did he die in the morning, as Mark says, or in the afternoon, as John says?

    2. Did Jesus carry his cross the whole way (John), or did Simon of Cyrene carry it part of the way (Matthew, Luke, Mark)? It depends on which gospel you read.

    3. Did both robbers mock Jesus (Mark and Matthew), or did one mock him and the other defend him (Luke)?

    4. Did the temple curtain rip in half before (Luke) or after (Mark, Matthew) Jesus died?

    5. Did Mary go to the tomb alone (John) or with other women (Matthew, Mark, Luke)? If the latter, who? Each gospel gives a conflicting account.

    6. Was the stone rolled away when they got to the tomb (Mark, Luke, John) or not (Matthew)?

    7. At the tomb, did they see one man (Mark), two men (Luke), or an angel (Matthew)?

    8. Did the women tell the disciples to stay in Jerusalem (Luke) or to go to Galilee (Matthew, Mark)

    9. Did the women keep what they saw a secret (John) or did they tell people (Luke, Matthew, Mark)?

    10. Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem (Luke), or did they go immediately to Galilee (Matthew)?

    Now, theologians will, despite arguing about how meticulous the copying and oral traditions were, generally acknowledge these discrepancies. But they will subsequently argue that a certain amount of disagreement is good, or we might they the authors colluded. But how do theologians decide what an acceptable amount of disagreement is? Why golly, it’s just about the amount that happens to be in the gospels, of course!

    None of this ever addresses the fundamental question any respectable critical thinker ought to ask: Why should I believe this books are divinely inspired, and not merely the works of men? There’s no good evidence these events happened, and for the one book given to humanity by the omnipotent lord of the universe, it sure looks like the work of plain old human beings.

  4. Justin says:

    That there is no evidence at all for the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt or the Exodus

    This was the same baseless complaint given by skeptics for other parts of the Bible (until, of course, there were discoveries that proved them wrong). Of course, someone who just sits back and denies everything is always in a comfortable position when a lack of evidence exists.

    On the other hand, using skeptics’ standards to other historical events would make many historical events “myths” as well. Past a certain point, being hyperskeptical is simply not terribly rational.

  5. Justin says:

    …when the purported events would have been witnessed by Aramaic-speaking peasants.

    This is an interesting statement, but it belies a bit of unfamiliarity with the Gospels, the lives of all of the disciples, and the area and period in which they lived.

    First, the area where Jesus started his ministry had been exposed to Greek culture enough that many people would speak both Aramaic and at least some Greek (which explains Paul’s use of scribes in some cases and perhaps not in others).

    Not all of the disciples were peasants. John was well enough acquainted with the high priests that he was allowed into the trial and had enough standing to request that Peter be let in.

    Mark 1:19-20

    He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him.”

    So John and James were from a family that had hired help (Mark 1:19-20), owned multiple fishing boats (Luke 5:9-12), had a mother who followed and “cared for their needs” (Mark 15:40-41), could afford to buy the spices used in Jesus’ burial (Mark 16:1), etc. They appear to be from a well-to-do family.

    Matthew was a tax collector. When Jesus called Matthew, Matthew threw a “great feast” attended by a great number of other tax collectors (Matthew 9:10 and Luke 5:29-32). Not particularly peasant-like, nor would I assume that the “Little Mokhes” were illiterate peasants, seeing as how they were hired to assess and collect taxes on imports and exports.

    It’s the subtle things, once you get beyond the superficial selectively hyper-skeptical lists of apparent contradictions, that tell us a lot about the early Christians and add much color and authenticity where the superficial readings leave us with claims that “ignorant peasants” or “illiterate, bronze-aged goat herders” wrote the Bible (don’t know how many times I’ve heard this charge leveled against authors of the New Testament by purportedly intelligent atheists, despite the fact that the bronze age ended well before the common era).

    Not to mention that there is textual evidence for the authorship of the Gospels that many scholars find sufficient for attribution.

  6. I would gladly believe the NT to be a historical document, rather than a historical fiction, if you could just kindly point out the page number which mentions Jesus visit to Sepphoris.

    It shouldn’t be too hard to find reference to the ‘Jewel of All Galilee’, since even the historian Josephus writes of it frequently. I mean, it is a historically reliable text after all, right?

    Or if finding any historical trace of the capital city is too difficult, we might look for a reference to Sepphoris or the second Jewish Temple in Egypt at Leontopolis–considering its important role for Jews after the the first temple was destroyed while Herod rebuilt the second temple at Jerusalem.

    I mean, all these historical facts would have to be contained in the Gospels if they were historical documents. Leaving them out would be like talking about the politics of Washington D.C. without ever mentioning Washington D.C. A little bit peculiar… unless… well, the Greek authors writing the historical fictions were unfamiliar with the basic geography of the region of the Levant the stories take place.

    That would, at least, explain the missing historical information which *should be there but isn’t.

    I don’t think anyone has ever denied there are historical elements and figures written about in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean the events in the Bible happened at all as contained, or that they are historical accounts.

    There is a lot of evidence to suggest the contrary–that we are dealing with historically real fictions.

    http://threeskeptics.blogspot.com/2011/05/literary-traditions-ten-reasons-gospels_02.html#more

  7. jackhudson says:

    It’s a rather odd claim that because the gospel didn’t mention something that existed at the time it is therefore ‘a-historical’ when it mentions so many people and places that did exist at the time, down to the details of ordinary life and activities.

    Obviously there were thousands of places that could have been mentioned, but their absence doesn’t indicate fiction on behalf of the gospel writers.

  8. If you insist Jack.

    But the fact that Sepphoris isn’t mentioned is evidence of historical fiction.

    I would hate to have to walk you through how ancient histories were actually written, but usually the historians were the personal secretaries of nobles and lords.

    In the case of Josephus, he was under the commission of King Herod the Great. Therefore, he wrote histories related to Herod, and so mentioned Herod’s many deeds–even as he was critical of Herod. Yet he mentions Sepphoris–as one would have to pass through it to get from Nazareth to Jerusalem.

    Now, you may be wondering, how come Jesus man trips between Nazareth and Jerusalem, or the Disciples, or Paul, or any New Testament figure, never once makes a pit stop in ‘the Jewel of all Galilee’?

    Considering Jesus’ mission–it’s rather peculiar that he doesn’t stop even just once to preach God’s coming Kingdom. Considering he went to places such as Jericho and elsewhere, and all the areas around Sepphoris. So why no mention–not even once?

    You’re right in assuming that such a fluke doesn’t necessarily disprove the accounts as entirely fallacious in any given case. It may very well be the case that one historian neglected to write about Sepphoris.

    But how likely is it that another historian forgot to mention it? And another? And another?

    Now we have to account for why NONE of the *supposed historical Gospels mention a town they should be more than preoccupied with since it was the crossroads intersecting the major towns in the Gospel narrative. If it was a fringe city–like Magdala, then it wouldn’t matter so much (but even Magdala is mentioned at least once! Matt. 15:39)

    Thus it becomes highly improbable that it is a coincidence that all the Gospel authors who wrote Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John deliberately neglected to mention Sepphoris (there is no reason known why they would). This leaves us with the inference, knowing that all three writers hailed from Greece and wrote in Greek, that it is more likely that they just weren’t familiar with the territory. At least not as well acquainted as say, and actual historian (Josephus) who lived in the region and did, in point of fact, mention Sepphoris.

    The implicit implication is that the Gospels are historical fictions–they have historical elements, yes. Nobody is denying this. But they aren’t historically accurate, because like Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, much of the story is just made up. Meanwhile, the explanation that they are historically real fictions explains why the foreign authors neglected to mention Sepphoris. All is accounted for.

    If, however, you insist the Gospels are true accounts, then you have to come up with a valid explanation for why a city Jesus must have past through a hundred times is never once mentioned. Not just this though, but would also have to account for why–if all the Gospels are historically trustworthy–do they omit vital historical details.

    That was my point. It still could just be a fluke–as you said. But it would be a rather large fluke–and it seems highly improbable that all the Gospel writers would suffer from the same fluke. The fact that the Gospels can be explained as historically real fictions explains with great economy, and in a way which makes better sense, the reason for the fluke–and therefore it gains a higher probability as the historical reason for the omission in the first place.

  9. jackhudson says:

    The problem with your claim Tristan is that many smaller cities and villages mentioned by the Gospel writers, like Nazareth, Galilee, Cana, Sychar, Nain, Magadan, etc. are known to exist. Why the Gospel writers would be aware of these relatively small places and unaware ‘the Jewel of all Galilee’ is uncertain.

    Unless of course Jesus simply didn’t go there in the time period chronicled in his life, which wasn’t centered around Nazareth at all.

    And one has to ask why the writer’s mentioned relatively minor places like Nain or Sychar, places known to have existed, since they would have done nothing to establish Jesus credentials as the promised Messiah? I mean if you are making up a story, why not have him marching around in familiar well known cities? ‘Greek writers’ and readers were much more likely to be familiar with Sipphoris than they would be with these other smaller villages. So the writers were obviously familiar with the territory. Even in minor details, like the fishing vessels of the sort found along Galilee at that time, there appears to be a great degree of accuracy.

    If, however, you insist the Gospels are true accounts, then you have to come up with a valid explanation for why a city Jesus must have past through a hundred times is never once mentioned. Not just this though, but would also have to account for why–if all the Gospels are historically trustworthy–do they omit vital historical details.

    Contrary to this claim the travels chronicled in Scripture took him to the East and South of Nazereth – opposite the direction he would have travelled to Sepphoris. That would not only be a valid explanation for why he didn’t pass through Sepphoris, but it would also confirm that the writers knew the area – if the writers had recorded that he had passed through Sepphoris on his way to any of the locations mentioned in the gospels, then we would have known they were unfamiliar with the landscape.

    And the ‘historical details’ the writers were interested in recording were the places Jesus travelled and the things he did there – their purpose wasn’t to create a visitor’s guide to the environs around Nazareth.

    So there is absolutely no reason to conclude based on the absence of the mention of Sepphoris that the writers were unfamiliar with its existence or that the Gospels are historically inaccurate

  10. Mike D says:

    Justin,

    This was the same baseless complaint given by skeptics for other parts of the Bible (until, of course, there were discoveries that proved them wrong). Of course, someone who just sits back and denies everything is always in a comfortable position when a lack of evidence exists.

    The difference is twofold: One, skeptics are not making positive historical claims without any evidence. And two, as I already said: Egypt has been a hotspot of archeology for centuries, and practically every inch of it has been covered. If thousands of Jews had been enslaved, we would have already found ample evidence of it. Enslaving thousands of people would have required massive amounts of food, housing, military resources (guards, etc.), and corpse disposal. It’s also quite likely that the Egyptians themselves would have mentioned it, or someone else who visited Egypt would have. There is no evidence of any of it.

    On the other hand, using skeptics’ standards to other historical events would make many historical events “myths” as well. Past a certain point, being hyperskeptical is simply not terribly rational.

    It’s well known that Socrates may not have actually existed. This does nothing to diminish the value of the Socratic method or the insights as articulated by what were presumably his students. But if Jesus was not the man described in the Bible, or if the events in the Bible did not actually happen, then the entire foundation for the Christian faith is a fraud.

    Moreover, no one insists that our understanding of ancient history be grounded in immovable truths. If we find out we were wrong, it’s not a big deal – we just amend our knowledge. If we realize we’re engaging in some speculation (as we are with Socrates), it’s not a big deal. Our ideologies are not dependent on absolutely true accounts of these events or these people existing as described. But in Christianity, that is precisely the issue.

  11. […] Historical Nature of the Bible Deux As I have elaborated on elsewhere, the Bible is fairly unique as a religious text for it’s reliance on testimonies that are […]

  12. […] studies that reinforce the historical reliability of the Bible. It has been a topic around here often enough that I decided to assign it its own category – The Reliable […]

  13. […] I have mentioned before, contrary to the regular atheist meme there is actually a large body of evidence supporting the […]

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