Section 2: The Bible
Digging Deeper Topic 2: Is the Bible Historically Reliable?
Is The Old Testament Reliable? An Important Reminder
The question of the historical reliability of the Old Testament is a difficult topic to address. The Old Testament includes thirty-nine books. Not all of them contain historical details, but those that do span thousands of years. Because the Old Testament covers so much ground, it’s difficult to discuss all the evidence required to prove or disprove the accuracy of each and every detail. In fact, it’s impossible to do in the space we have here. That’s why our goal is much smaller. In this section, I simply want to reiterate an important fact about ancient civilizations that we ought to keep in mind when asking whether the Old Testament could possibly be historically reliable. Then, in the next section, we’ll take a brief look at the kind of evidence we can expect to uncover.
We Don’t Always Give Ancient Cultures Enough Credit
Whether we realize it or not, many of us are skeptical, not just of the Old Testament, but of ancient cultures in general when it comes to their ability to record reliable history. Have you ever asked a young child a question? If you ask them, “What was that noise?”, they’re liable to respond in their most serious voice: “That was a lion…But don’t worry. It’s a good lion and he’s here to protect us from…ummm…a big blue hairy monster that is …ummm…invisible. But don’t worry. The lion has …ummm….special glasses that help him see big blue hairy invisible monsters…” And off they go, creating a fantasy world to rival Middle Earth and Narnia combined.
For many of us, that’s our impression of ancient civilizations. We see them as childlike. As a result, when we picture them writing history, we picture them writing something more like mythology. We assume tales like the Iliad and the Odyssey were the best the ancients could do when it comes to writing history. That general skepticism then spills over into our attitude toward the Old Testament. We assume the Old Testament can’t be reliable because we assume the biblical authors never would have been interested in historically accurate details in the first place.
Ancient Civilizations Knew How to Record History
But our perception of ancient civilizations is skewed. They were much more interested in preserving historical details than we give them credit. The Babylonian Chronicle, for example, covers a period from 747 BC–224 BC and consists of a yearly description of important events in Babylonian history. The level of record-keeping actually goes even deeper than that because the Babylonian Chronicle itself used other more detailed reports as its source of information. The Egyptians likewise maintained yearly chronicles. Portions of these chronicles were periodically transferred onto stone. One such stone, the Palermo Stone, details the history of the first five Egyptian dynasties. We also have examples of the “daybooks” Phoenician kings used to record commercial transactions.[i]
In short, ancient civilizations kept records and used those records to put their history together. If the other nations around Israel kept records, it seems reasonable to assume Israel would have as well. That means the biblical authors likely would have had historical records they could rely upon as they wrote their accounts. Consistent with that fact, at times the biblical authors actually refer their readers to those sources for additional information. 2 Chron. 16:11-12, for example, refers to the Book of the Kings of Israel and Judah. 2 Chron. 24:27, even refers to annotations within the Book of Kings.[ii]
The ancients’ concern for preserving history extended even to family history. Ancient autobiographies and biographies have been found in Egypt and Mesopotamia as well as other places in the ancient near east.[iii] In Egypt, for example, a biography of Khnumhotep II was found on the walls of a tomb chapel dating to around 1875 BC. “Khnumhotep speaks not only of his own deeds, but takes us through three generations of his own family history under four successive kings…describing the relationships of his family with the ruling house, and their various appointments, besides dilating at length (as Egyptians did) on his own deeds and honors. They are all put in third person, and he speaks of himself in the first; he clearly knew his family history, all the way back through four reigns.”[iv]
In that light, the accounts of the biblical Patriarchs, for example, don’t seem so farfetched. Even though they lived around 2000–1600 BC, there’s no reason why the important events in their lives wouldn’t have been preserved by their families and eventually put in writing just like Khnumhotep II’s family history was.[v]
Once we recognize ancient civilizations were interested in history and, in fact, recorded important historical details, that ought to change our expectations concerning the Old Testament. There’s no reason to think the ancient Israelites would have been any less concerned about history than their neighbors. In all likelihood, the Israelites would have kept records just like everyone else. Those records would have provided the biblical authors with an ample source of historical information. Those records would have also restricted their ability to completely invent history as they saw fit. Given all that, it’s unlikely the Old Testament would be completely devoid of historically accurate details.
By itself, that doesn’t definitively prove the biblical accounts are reliable. But it ought to remove any initial skepticism we might have.
The Limits of Archeology
In the previous section, we noted ancient civilizations kept records and they used those records to put their history together. There’s no reason to think Israel was any different. That means the Old Testament authors likely would have had historical resources to guide them. Of course, the mere fact that they had resources at their disposal doesn’t mean they used them. So that still leaves us with the question whether the Old Testament is reliable or not. How can we tell? One option is to compare the biblical accounts with the archaeological evidence we have. But the truth is, we don’t always have as much archaeological evidence as we might like. What happens then? Are we forced to conclude the biblical accounts are unreliable if we don’t have specific archaeological evidence to confirm them? Or are there other ways to test reliability?
Inherent Limits of Archaeology
Many argue if the Old Testament were historically accurate, we’d have more archaeological evidence that confirms what it says. Some, for example, question the Old Testament’s description of Israel’s expansion under David. According to the Old Testament, David consolidated power within Israel when he became king around 1000 BC and then systematically started to exert control over the other kingdoms around Israel. Skeptics argue if Israel was as large and powerful under David as the Bible would have us believe, then we ought to have more evidence than we do. A kingdom that size would have left a mark.[vi] Scholar Hector Avalos wonders if we can even be sure David himself existed, much less that he turned Israel into a regional power.[vii]
The problem is our ability to uncover archaeological evidence for any event in ancient history is extremely limited because: “1. Only a fraction of the evidence survives in the ground. 2. Only a fraction of possible sites have been detected. 3. Only a fraction of the detected sites have been excavated. 4. Only a fraction of any site is excavated. 5. Only a fraction of what has been excavated has been thoroughly examined and published. 6. Only a fraction of what has been examined and published makes a contribution to biblical studies.”[viii]
Specific Obstacles to Biblical Archaeology
Those obstacles apply generally to all archaeological investigation. However, the obstacles are often even greater when it comes to unearthing evidence related to the Old Testament. Take Israel’s expansion under David. Admittedly, it would be nice if we had more archaeological evidence. It would be nice, for example, if we could find a direct reference to David’s military campaigns in the records of one of the other kingdoms around Israel. The problem is the Assyrian archives are typically our richest source for that kind of information because they frequently identified their adversaries by name. The Assyrian records, for example, specifically refer to a number of later Israelite kings. But the Assyrians didn’t have any significant contact with Israel or with the other kingdoms in Syro-Palestine at the time of David. So it’s no surprise that we don’t find any references to him in their archives. Egypt didn’t have much contact with the region at that time either. As a result, two potentially major sources of information are taken out of play by historical circumstances. That significantly reduces the odds of finding many direct references to David or his military campaigns.[ix]
But some would say even if we can’t find direct references to David in the archives of Israel’s neighbors, surely we ought to at least be able to find some evidence of him in Jerusalem. After all, that was supposed to be the capital and the center of David’s power. It’s hard to believe David wouldn’t have left some evidence there.
As Kitchen explains, “The question of survival is much more serious than people realize, especially as official inscriptions by kings tend to be found on, in, or at temples, palaces, and other official edifices—not just everywhere…But since the tenth century [BC] Jerusalem has suffered repeated changes, destructions and rebuildings, often on a grand scale…It would be a miracle if anything like individual slabs such as inscribed stelae were to survive such a history of devastation and reuse.” [x]
Given those obstacles, we shouldn’t be surprised that we haven’t uncovered a whole lot of evidence concerning David’s reign. There would have been much more evidence at one point. But most of it is lost to us now. And most of what is left will never be unearthed because of the inherent limitations we noted earlier.
Despite the Obstacles, Evidence Has Survived
Because of the archaeological obstacles, there’s only so much evidence we will ever uncover for or against any given biblical account. That’s important to keep in mind because it means the archaeological evidence we do have takes on even greater significance. Going back to David for a moment, it’s true we don’t have a ton of references. But we do have references. An Aramaic stele from around 840 BC, for example, was found at Tell Dan in the early 1990s. By 840 BC, Israel had divided into two separate kingdoms, Israel and Judah. In this particular stele, an Aramean king boasts of killing both the king of Israel and the king of “bytdwd,” or House of David.
“House of …” was a common way to refer to a particular kingdom by referring to the founder of a dynasty. The Assyrians, for example, would later refer to Israel as the House of Omri because Omri was the founder of the then-ruling dynasty. This Aramaic stele is significant because we “gain a clear mention of David as dynastic founder of the kingdom of Judah about 150 years after his death.”[xi] The Mesha Stele is about as old and has an inscription from Mesha, the king of Moab, also referring to the “House of David”. An inscription dating to around 925 B.C. from the Egyptian ruler Shoshenq I even mentions the “Hills of David” in a list of places within Palestine[xii]. Three references may not seem like a lot, but they are important when you consider the odds against finding any references at all. And based on those references, at a minimum, we know David was prominent enough that other kings felt obliged to identify the kingdom of Judah with him even after his death.
It’s important to recognize archaeology’s inherent limitations. When we recognize the challenges to finding any evidence concerning the biblical accounts whatsoever, we start to see the evidence we do have in a different light. It’s also important to remember direct archaeological evidence isn’t the only type of evidence we have. Indirect evidence is also essential, and we turn to that subject next.
As we saw in the previous section, archaeology is limited in the amount of evidence it can provide concerning any given Old Testament account. That means the evidence we do uncover takes on even greater significance. It also means we need to go beyond archaeology and consider additional evidence when assessing the reliability of the Old Testament. A particularly important piece of evidence is the extent to which a particular account is consistent with and conforms to the other relevant historical information we have on the subject.[xiii]
Consistency and Credibility
Imagine you went to college at an extremely small Midwestern school. Later in life, you’re on a trip to India, and one night—while you’re proudly wearing a T-shirt with your college’s name blazoned across it—a guy walks up, points to your shirt, and with a heavy accent says he just graduated from there. He explains the school has a great foreign exchange program and he took advantage of it. That surprises you because you don’t remember them having a strong foreign exchange program. But he proceeds to name all the academic buildings. He accurately describes what the lounge in Schroeder Hall looks like. He even knows about the special sauce on Giuliani’s pizza. You don’t have any direct evidence he went to school there. You haven’t seen a diploma. He doesn’t have any pictures with him that show him on campus. And his yearbook is at home in a box somewhere. Yet the fact that he is familiar with so many details about the school increases the likelihood his story is true. His account is credible even though he doesn’t have any direct evidence to show you at the moment.
The Old Testament is similar. Go back to Israel’s expansion under David, which we discussed in the previous article. The Old Testament reports that David significantly expanded Israel’s territory and power in the region. That expansion continued under the rule of his son, Solomon. Although it doesn’t amount to direct evidence in support of that expansion, it is interesting to note historically this would have been the only time when Israelite kings would have had much of an opportunity to significantly expand their power in the region.
“The limits are set by the demise of the great Egyptian and Hittite Late Bronze Age empires within 1200/1180, just before our period (introducing it) and by the rise and initial expansion of the Neo-Assyrian Empires within circa 870-850 and onward, just following our period.”[xiv] The Egyptians, Hittites, and Assyrians were the super powers of their time. When they were at the height of their power, their control extended into Syro-Palestine. That control would have limited the ability of the smaller kingdoms within Syro-Palestine to expand their power. But, in that window—when the Egyptians and Hittites were in decline and before the Assyrians had entered the picture—it would have been possible for Israel to expand its territory without threat of interference from these major powers. In fact, it is precisely within this window that other “mini-empires,” such as the Armaeans, appear in the region.[xv]
It seems unlikely that the Old Testament authors would have been fortunate enough to have managed to place their story squarely in that window of time if they were completely making it up. It seems more likely that they place Israel’s expansions in that window, precisely where it belongs historically, because that’s when Israel did, in fact, expand under David. We might wish we had more archeological evidence than we do, but it is significant that the Old Testament gets this sort of detail correct. Its consistency with the other historical knowledge we have enhances its credibility.
The same is true for any of the Old Testament accounts. It’s important that we look for more than just archaeological evidence. We also need to consider whether the details of the biblical account line up with other known historical facts. In general, the more consistent it is, the more credible the account. In the case of Israel’s expansion under David, when we combine the political realities of the time with the archaeological evidence we do have, the Old Testament’s account makes sense. The archeological evidence we looked at previously shows that David had at least gained some measure of prominence. When we consider the military circumstances at the time, it certainly seems reasonable to think he would have gained that prominence because he was able to take advantage of the power vacuum that existed and expand Israel’s power in the region.
To sum up our discussion on the Old Testament, when we recognize that ancient civilizations, including Israel, recorded historical details, we start to see there is good reason to expect the Old Testament to be largely rooted in history. That conclusion shouldn’t change simply because we don’t have as much direct archaeological evidence as we might like in certain cases. There are reasons for the limited amount of archaeological evidence that have nothing to do with the Old Testament accounts being unreliable. Furthermore, even when the archaeological evidence leaves something to be desired, we often have indirect support. The details in the Old Testament accounts, for example, often match the other things we know about the ancient world. That consistency enhances its credibility. As I said at the start, these considerations don’t prove the details of each and every account in the Old Testament. But the bottom line is: It’s not as easy to dismiss the Old Testament as some would believe.
The Origin of the Gospels
If you asked the average person whether the gospels are historically reliable, they’d probably say no. Although they may believe Jesus was a real person and his teaching had a real impact on people, they probably assume the gospels don’t give us a real picture of his life. As far as they’re concerned, the gospels may have something to teach us spiritually, but they don’t have much to say historically. In this article, we want to take a closer look and ask whether that’s a fair assessment.
The Telephone Game
Much of the skepticism is due to the fact that the gospels weren’t written immediately after Jesus’ death. Most scholars agree Jesus’ teachings and important stories from his life were being passed on by word of mouth from believer to believer for a period of time before the authors of the gospels decided to put it down in writing. That means there’s a layer of “oral tradition” separating the historical Jesus from the Jesus we see in the gospels[xvi].
Many assume this means the gospels can’t be accurate because the details of Jesus’ life would have been corrupted with each retelling of the story. The oral tradition is often compared to a game of telephone, where a phrase or sentence usually gets seriously distorted as it’s passed from one person to another. As the story of Jesus’ life was passed from one person to another, the details supposedly would have changed. One person added this, and another forgot that. Each change might have been small, but by the time we get to the gospels, those changes would have significantly altered the story. As a result, the Jesus in the gospels bears little relation to the historical Jesus.[xvii]
Safeguarding the Story
How big a gap?
But this view ignores several important facts. For one, the gap in time isn’t really as wide as many assume. Mark is generally considered to have been the first gospel written, and most scholars think it was written somewhere in the mid-60s AD.[xviii] Many scholars, however, argue Mark was written even earlier, somewhere in the 50s AD.[xix] Either way, given Jesus died around AD 33, only thirty years (or less) passed before Mark was written. That’s important, because thirty years is not a lot of time. Only so much distortion would have been possible in such a short span.
Are oral traditions inherently unreliable?
Still… thirty years is thirty years. Wouldn’t the story have been corrupted as it was passed on over that time? The problem is, passing on tradition doesn’t necessarily work like the telephone game. What if your dad tells you one night about the time his arm got crushed by a conveyor belt at work, and he had to use a knife to cut himself out because no one else was around. Or he tells you about the time he thought he was going to get mugged on a subway in New York and all he could think to do was start acting like a raving lunatic to make the guy think twice and leave him alone. Would you be able to remember that? Would you later be able to tell your kids those stories about their grandfather? Of course you would because it wouldn’t be just a game to you. You’d remember because your dad was important to you and the stories formed an important part of your family history. Passing information on from one person to another doesn’t necessarily have to be unreliable. It makes a difference how important the information is to those involved.
Studies have examined the way folklore is handed down in certain communities where literacy and technology have little influence, even today. According to those studies, the storytellers are permitted a certain amount of flexibility when retelling a given story. But there are limits. The members of the community expect the substantial details to remain the same.[xx] Anthropologists, for example, studied “Yugoslavian folk singers who had memorized epic stories of up to 100,000 words in length. The plot, the characters, all the main events and the majority of the details stayed the same every time the stories were retold or sung. Members of the community were sufficiently familiar with them to correct the singer if he erred in any significant way.”[xxi] In other words, these communities take care to ensure the integrity of the story is maintained each time the story is told because it’s important to them. As a result, the story doesn’t deteriorate over time even though it’s retold over and over and passed on from storyteller to storyteller.
Motivation to preserve the truth
The transmission of oral tradition in the early church would have looked much more like the stories handed down by the Yugoslavian folksingers than the messages passed along in a game of telephone. In part, that’s because Jesus’ initial disciples would have been motivated to accurately preserve his memory and message from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. “Almost all teachers in the Jewish and Graeco-Roman worlds gathered disciples around them in order to perpetuate their teachings and lifestyle. Thus, however different he was from the rabbis in other ways, Jesus probably resembled them in this respect. If he envisaged his disciples as in some sense continuing his ministry for any length of time…then he certainly would have been concerned that they preserve his message and mission intact.”[xxii]
Therefore, even before Jesus died, his disciples likely would have made an effort to accurately record significant events and teachings so they could be passed on. Those same disciples would have been the ones spreading the message about Jesus after his death. That means the oral tradition would have started off firmly rooted in the actual events because the people passing it on both knew and cared about the details of Jesus’ life.
That same concern would have continued right up to the time the gospels were written. For the early church, Jesus was not just some guy off the street. As far as they were concerned, he was the Messiah, and they thought people needed to know who he was and what he had done for them. Given that, it seems reasonable to assume they would have handled the details of his life with great care.[xxiii] We see that concern expressed by Paul, for example, when he refers to passing on the teaching he had received as a matter of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3).
In the end, the transmission of the oral tradition in the early church would have looked nothing like the telephone game because Jesus wasn’t a game to them. Their concern to preserve who he was and what he did would have ensured they took care to keep the historical details of his life intact.
Presence of eyewitnesses
There was another factor that would have protected the oral tradition against significant distortion. Eyewitnesses were the ones who started spreading the message about Jesus and they would have been present right up to the time the gospels were written. As we noted earlier, the Gospel of Mark was written just thirty years after Jesus’ death. Given such a short time, there would have been people still around who had seen and talked to Jesus. The continued presence of eyewitnesses is important because it means no one would have had complete freedom to say whatever they wanted. If anyone veered off track, eyewitnesses who knew what happened would have set the record straight.[xxiv]
There’s no reason why Mark and the other gospel authors themselves couldn’t have been eyewitnesses. If that were the case, when they sat down to write, they would have been able to supplement the oral tradition with their own experiences, augmenting or correcting it as necessary. At a minimum, they would have had access to eyewitness information. That access to eyewitness accounts, whether that of others or their own, would have given them a solid historical core regardless of how reliable or unreliable the oral tradition was.
As was the case with the Old Testament, the gospel accounts can’t be dismissed as easily as many might like. But someone could agree with everything that’s been said so far and still have trouble accepting the gospels are historically reliable. For many, the fact that gospels contain miracles is an obstacle they just can’t get around. So the question of miracles is an issue we need to tackle in the next section.
[i] K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 46-47.
[ii] Ibid., chap. 2.
[iii] Ibid., 362.
[iv] Ibid., 367.
[v] Ibid., chap. 7.
[vi]Paul Tobin, “The Bible and Modern Scholarship” in The Christian Delusion, Ed. John W. Loftus (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2010), 156.
[vii] Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2007), 127-130; 154-163.
[viii] Andrew Hill and John Walton, A Survey of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), 291.
[ix] Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 88-90.
[x] Ibid., 90.
[xi] Ibid., 92.
[xii] Ibid., 92-93.
[xiii] Ibid., 94.
[xiv] Ibid., 98.
[xv] Ibid., 98-101.
[xvi] Craig L. Blomberg, 2007. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2d ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 48-54.
[xvii] Ibid., 61.
[xviii] D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), 99.
[xix] Ibid., 97.
[xx] Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 58.
[xxi] Ibid., 58.
[xxiv] Ibid., 53.