The Bible as reliable history

The ancient Near East

Relief on the Ishtar Gate, Pergamenmuseum 4.jpg

Regions and states

By Spencer D Gear PhD

Does the Bible pass the test of being a reliable historical document? Can it be trusted as an historical event to be trusted as accurate as history in the Bible?

What indices would ancient historians use to check the trustworthiness of any historical document – especially that from ancient history?

This is the type of analysis I encountered on a Christian forum by an atheist who challenged the historical accuracy of the Bible:

The Bible doesn’t pass the modern tests for historicity. Using those tests, the Bible is an unreliable witness at best. Faith is required to accept quite a few historical accounts in the Bible, for instance. The Bible’s focus is on the reason behind God’s actions far more than in the chronological accuracy of the raw narrative. It’s why God does certain things that lies in the message contained in the Bible. Biblical scholars know, for instance, that the synoptic gospels are not always chronologically accurate – that the order of certain events has been altered to more clearly express the message contained in that narrative. Little serious argument exists that such events didn’t happen at all, only that they don’t always occur in the order presented, and that is just one way the Bible fails to meet modern historicity standards. It’s much more about faith and God’s message, and how best to present that message with the greatest clarity and continuity. Absolute historical accuracy takes a back seat to that.[1]

When asked about the kinds of events to which he was referring, he clarified:

No, I wasn’t referring to miraculous events, only strictly historical nuts and bolt events like when the Israelites left Egypt, or the existence of Abraham and all the other characters in the Biblical narrative, as well as Jesus, being real individuals and not must (sic) myths, etc..

Things such as the walled city of David actually were built and were destroyed. In other words, the basic stuff of history that any good history book would cover. With regard to events such as the mass murder of the Canaanites by the forces under Joshua, those glorified stories are more embellished stories to make a point.  The chronology isn’t faithful to actual events, since recently unearthed archeological evidence in Israel tells a somewhat different story (the Israelites were originally Canaanites themselves, for instance).[2]

Assertions are not evidence

Bible open vector image(Bible, public domain vectors)

My response was:[3]

Those are your assertions and you do not provide sourced historical evidence to support your allegations.

Dr K A Kitchen, Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology, Classics, and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool, England, refutes your perspective BIG TIME in his carefully documented 662pp publication, On the Reliability of the Old Testament 2003. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

What was Kitchen’s assessment of the Bible’s dependability, based on his discipline as an Egyptologist and archaeologist? After examining the evidence from the Hebrew Bible in the light of historical information available from Near Eastern antiquity, he concluded his investigation with this summary:

It is time to return to the questions posed at the beginning of this book: whether or not the existing Old Testament writings were composed (and their contents originated) entirely within the brief and late period of circa 400-200 B.C., or whether or not their contents are pure fiction, unrelated to the world of the Near East in circa 2000-400 B.C.

To pursue such questions, the only practical method of inquiry was to go back to those ancient times and compare the data in the Hebrew Bible with what we have from its putative world. Merely theorizing in one’s head can achieve nothing. Looking back, we do have some definite results. On the independent evidence from antiquity itself, we may safely deliver a firm “No” to both questions posed above. Namely, the Old Testament books and their contents did not exclusively originate as late as 400-200 B.C.; and they are by no means pure fiction – in fact, there is very little proven fiction in them overall.

What can be said of historical reliability? Here our answer – on the evidence available – is more positive. The periods most in the glare of contemporary documents – the divided monarchy and the exile and return – show a very high level of direct correlation (where adequate data exist) and of reliability. That fact should be graciously accepted by all, regardless of personal starting point, and with the firm exclusion of alien, hence irrelevant, modern “agendas.” When we go back (before ca. 1000) to periods when inscriptional mentions of a then-obscure tribal community and its antecedent families (and founding family) simply cannot be expected a priori, then chronologically typological comparisons of the biblical and external phenomena show clearly that the Hebrew founders bear the marks of reality and of a definite period. The same applies to the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt and appearance in Canaan, with one clear mention, of course (Israel on the stela of Merenptah). The Sinai covenant (all three versions, Deuteronomy included) has to have originated within a close-set period (1400-1200) – likewise other features. The phenomena of the united monarchy fit well into what we know of the period and of ancient royal usages. The primeval protohistory embodies early popular tradition going very far back, and is set in an early format. Thus we have consistent level of good, fact-based correlations right through from circa 2000 B.C. (with earlier roots) down to 400 B.C. In terms of general reliability – and much more could have been instanced than there was room for here – the Old Testament comes out remarkably well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and evenhandedly, in line with independent data, open to all (Kitchen 2003:499-500).

Another Old Testament scholar, Dr Walter C. Kaiser Jr, has provided a lesser summary of the evidence to positively answer the title of his book: The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable and Relevant? Downers Grove, Illinois/Leicester, England: InterVarsity Press 2001.

The atheist seemed to be pushing an anti-biblical reliability agenda. Here I have provided samples of evidence, from the writings of Kitchen and Kaiser, that contradict the view the atheist promoted.

George, the atheist, did come back with more responses at #135, #136, #137 which I did not answer. Here his replies are. They deserve a comprehensive response, for which I did not have the time to respond when he made the posts.

>>Who said? Which historical scholars are promoting that perspective?<<

I would think, probably most do.   A few points here would be illustrative:

1.  The stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis, for example, are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship to its God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in the historicity, but their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced.” Thompson, Thomas (2002) [1974]. The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Valley Forge, Pa: Trinity Press International.

2.  The historicity of Genesis as the ultimate authority on primeval earth and prehistory, to mention another example, has been thoroughly “dethroned” by modern Geology. No single flood ever simultaneously covered the entire earth. If one did, there would be ample evidence of it in the buried strata, and the is exactly nothing in the geological record to support a world wide flood event.  One would have to dismiss science in it’s entirety to believe the Biblical account, and no responsible scientist accepts the diluvian theory today. Gillispie, Charles Coulston (1996) [1951]. Genesis and geology: a study in the relations of scientific thought, natural theology, and social opinion in Great Britain, 1790–1850. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

3.  The earth is billions of years old, not around 6,000.  Human beings have existed in our present form for over 25,000 years alone.

[That’s a straw man argument as I have never stated that is my position.]

4.  Modern archeology overturns the book of Joshua in its account of a rapid, destructive conquest of the Canaanite cities, since “by the 1960s it had become clear that the archaeological record did not, in fact, support the account of the conquest given in Joshua: the cities which the Bible records as having been destroyed by the Israelites were either uninhabited at the time, or, if destroyed, were destroyed at widely different times, not in one brief period.”

The most high profile example, in fact, would be the “fall of Jericho.”  Thomas A. Holland (1997). “Jericho”. In Eric M. Meyers. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Archaeology in the Near East. Oxford University Press. pp. 220–224.

[NOTE: This view about the conquest of Jericho not being factual is refuted in Geisler & Howe, When Critics Ask, pp 136-137]

5.  Finally, we can determine more about the accuracy of the Bible in terms of its historicity by examining other sources and analytical tools made available starting less than 2 centuries ago, including but not limited to:

  • Other Near Eastern texts, documents and inscriptions
  • The material remains recovered throughout the Near East by archaeological excavation, analysed by ever more sophisticated technical and statistical apparatus
  • Historical geography, demography, soil science, technology studies, and comparative linguistics

George wrote: In historical geography, the preeminent book in English is Anson F. Rainey and R. Steven Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Jerusalem: Carta, 2006).

  • Anthropological and sociological modelling
  • Non-canonical texts

Let me make things simple here.   I know you don’t believe the above, and I’d be wasting my breath trying to convince you of it, which is why I’m not making any effort to do that here.  All I did was try to answer your question as briefly as possible. The number of scholars “advancing” this kind of Biblical historicity analysis are too many to list here, I’m sure, but I really don’t want to get into an argument with you about this, that, or the above, OK?[4]

And again:

>>George, you do seem to be pushing an anti-biblical reliability agenda. Here I have provided samples of evidence, from the writings of Kitchen and Kaiser, that contradict the view you are promoting. <<

I’m not “pushing” anything, so I would appreciate it if you would quit trying to mischaracterize my intentions as some “anti-biblical agenda,” which you seem to have a rather presumptive way of doing.  I provided references for the sources of my most recent response to you, with considerable effort, so you can go ahead and dismiss them if you think you can, and politely quit trying to call them “my assertions.”  I accept them, of course, and I also know, as a Biblical literalist, that you do not.  Let’s leave it at that, OK?[5]

And finally, George makes another attempt to debunk Christianity, while giving it a nod of the hat, saying of the OT that ‘a great deal of it is true’; it was not ‘a work of pure fiction’, but it does not immediately pass ‘the modern test for historicity’.

>>Dr K A Kitchen, Professor  Emeritus of Egyptology and Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Archeology, Classics, and Oriental Studies, University of Liverpool, England, refutes your perspective BIG TIME<<

Not even close.  You might want to consider reading my responses more carefully, instead of scanning them dismissively as if they don’t “rate” your undivided attention.  That’s because the article you quoted from agrees completely with the line of reasoning I’m representing in my posts.  I never said the OT was a work of pure fiction.  That’s preposterous.  A great deal of it is true.  In fact, I’d say, as a single body of work, it bears a very high correlation with actual events that occurred over it’s (sic) historical time span (even if minor errors appear concerning exact chronology, of course). 

That doesn’t mean the Bible suddenly passes the modern test for historicity though. It contains, however few or relatively minor, errors – a few of them glaring., and here’s the thing:  There’s no real argument among scholars concerning Biblical inaccuracies about certain events and physical facts so easily checked against contemporary  archaeological evidence from that period we now have at our disposal which we didn’t have before. Furthermore, there are a determinate number of interpolations in certain scriptures which no modern technically accurate historical document should have.

Please refer to my recent post for a more detailed analysis.[6]

Note his generalities, without specific examples, of:

  • Biblical inaccuracies about certain events and physical facts;
  • A determinate number of interpolations in some Scriptures which no accurate historical document should have.

This is a pathetic attempt to debunk Scripture without being explicit.

The Bible passes the test of reliability, using the tests any ancient historian uses. Some historians call them indices while others call them criteria.

See my articles that investigate this topic:

clip_image002 Can you trust the Bible? Part 1

clip_image002[1] Can you trust the Bible? Part 2

clip_image002[2] Can you trust the Bible? Part 3

clip_image002[3] Can you trust the Bible? Part 4

clip_image002[4] Secular assaults on the Bible: The inerrant Bible battles

clip_image002[5] Bible bigotry from an arrogant skeptic

clip_image002[6] The Bible: fairy tale or history?

Conclusion

George pushed his non-reliability of the Bible while I provided links to evidence of its reliability. I discuss some of the indices for historical reliability in my article, Evidence for the afterlife.

For those with open minds to the evidence, the Bible can be put to the test of any historical document and found to be reliable in what it states in both Old and New Testaments. That reliability applies to all that is in the Bible, not just to historical narratives.

Notes:


[1] George#87, Christian Fellowship Forum, ‘The decline in the Gospel’, August 19 2015. Available at: http://christianfellowshipforum.com/ (Accessed 12 September 2015). When I checked this link on 5 August 2019 the forum had been closed.

[2] Ibid., George#89.

[3] Ibid., ozspen#131.

[4] Ibid., George#135, 12 September 2015.

[5] Ibid., George#136, 12 September 2015.

[6] Ibid., George#137,12 September 2015.

Works consulted:

Geisler, N & Howe, T 1992. When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books.

Kaiser Jr., W C 2001. The Old Testament Documents: Are They Reliable & Relevant? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

Kitchen, K A 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Copyright © 2021 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 07 September 2021.