Is the Bible reliable as a historical record?
Jack M., U.K. commented on the article Communicating truth with grace:
You make the observation that there is evidence that the Bible is historically accurate.
However, there are many, many historians, Christian and otherwise, who present evidence that the Bible is riddled with historical inaccuracy. And there are others who point out that if the Bible has a similar basis in fact to other ancient historical records such as, say, Homer’s Iliad, then it’s hardly a very good basis for determining the development of life on earth.
Is CMI prepared to seriously discuss the pro and cons of those conflicting sets of evidence?
Of course not-what would be the point? You’ve already taken the axiomatic view that the Bible is correct. Any debate you seem to have is mere window dressing, since you already know the conclusions based on your axiom.
Lita Cosner responds:
It is easy to make the blanket statement that the Bible is riddled with historical error. It is far more difficult to maintain a specific claim of historical error that is based on the actual evidence available, and not simply from an argument from authority. In fact, as Walter Kaiser puts it, “the disagreement among scholars is not so much over the “facts” in the field; rather, it is over how one should interpret those facts, and with what sorts of presuppositions one may legitimately approach the study of Old Testament history”.1 Anyone sufficiently familiar with the creation/evolution debate should recognize the language here.
The Bible is primarily concerned with the Person and nature of God, and His interactions with humanity in creation and redemption. But this description of the Bible’s purpose means that it has to have a lot of historical content; i.e., “the Bible purports to record a chronicle of real events from the ancient Near East, against which backdrop the revelation of God was communicated. The work of Yahweh in the OT is depicted as being a part of history itself.”2 And wherever the Bible has made a specific historical claim, it has been shown to be correct where external corroborating evidence exists.
Some people say that the Bible cannot be history because God has such a prominent place in ordering the events it records. But there are no disinterested secular documents in the ancient world; Babylonian documents would attribute a victory in battle to Marduk, and so on. So if including the supernatural excludes a document from being considered as historical, then that excludes the great majority of documents. The division between secular and religious is a modern one that most ancients would not accept or even understand.
So if the religious content of other ancient documents do not exclude them from being historical documents, the Bible’s historical content does not exclude it from being a possible source of history. We would need to look at two things: do the statements of Scripture regarding people, places, and events in ancient Israel line up with archaeological findings and records from other civilizations (in the cases where these sorts of data exist)? The answer is overwhelmingly yes. In fact, the Bible’s statements about the nations and cities of the ancient world have been supported by the archaeology of the Middle East. Any good Bible atlas will show the archaeological sites of cities that are mentioned in Scripture.3 In fact, some of these cities were discovered because the Bible said that a certain city should exist in a certain area.
Furthermore, when historians have made claims that the Bible is incorrect about a certain historical fact, further evidence has invariably proved them wrong. For instance, before 1906, there was no evidence outside the Bible for the Hittites, and many historians thought they were entirely fictional. But in 1906, archaeologists digging in Turkey discovered the ruins of Hattusas, the capital city of the Hittites.4 The Ebla tablets, dated to around 2300 BC, use the name ‘Canaan’, which many critics disputed was used that far back. And the list could go on and on. Of course there are claims of the Bible for which we have no external evidence, but that isn’t a problem once we consider how little from the ancient world would be expected to be recorded and survive until the present day.
Of course, as Christians, we at CMI believe the Bible is a lot more than a reliable historical record (in fact, we believe it is the inerrant, inspired Word of God), but our statements about the Bible’s historical reliability are supported by archaeological evidence, among other things.
References and notes
- Walter Kaiser, Jr. A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age Through the Jewish Wars, Broadman & Holman, Nashville, 1998, p. 1–2. Return to text.
- Kaiser p. 3. Return to text.
- For instance, Barry Beitzel’s The New Moody Atlas of the Bible, Moody Publishers, Chicago, 2009. Return to text.
- Paul Maier, Biblical Archaeology: Factual evidence to support the historicity of the Bible, Creation Research Journal 27(2), 2004, equip.org. Return to text.
There are two books that are outstanding as historical support for the OT. 'After the Flood' by Bill Cooper. This book researches the history of the Kings of Europe and using source documents that pre -date Christianity traces their genealogies to the sons of Noah, also good historical ref to recorded interaction with dinosaur/dragon creatures.
'God's Promise to the Chinese' by Ethel R Nelson recounting how the Chinese written language in pictorial form relates back to The Events in the Garden of Eden. These books are thoroughly researched.
Yes, and they are both available through CMI's webstore.
I have never been able to work out how those who claim that the Bible is full of historical inaccuracies get that idea from. One atheist (and Christian hater) I have had email discussions with even claimed that there was no evidence that Bethlehem even existed until a century after Jesus was supposed to have been born. It seems they are so desperate to discredit the bible that they resort to deliberately ignoring the facts in order to maintain their delusional existence without God.
Yea, yea, always the same:The Bible is false, the Bible has errors, the Bible is an old book and my favored...the Bible is written by men! Everything we read is written by men, even the trash magazines, and people believe what is written there.
When a secretary types / writes a contract is this contract void because it is written by her? She put the letters down, the content came from the director. So as with the Bible.
Critics like Jack never put their best evidence forward and state the exact authority of the interpretations. Their whole argument can be reduced to a begging the question fallacy, that is, the self-assumed ‘many’ is the proof. If we extrapolate the ‘many’ argument then the majority in the world believe in some form of the supernatural so why is the supernatural excluded from secular historical documents and science?
Romans 8:7 English Standard Version (ESV) “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot.”
The trouble with Jack's question is the nature and context of the question. Asking, 'many people believe the Bible is not accurate, how would you respond to that?' is a reasonable question.
However the question is a loaded one as Jack asks about the accuracy of the Bible and whether a discussion would be acceptable, but then slightly dismissively answers his own question with his own presuppositions e.g.. 'of course you wouldn't, you've decided what you believe.' But Jack, isn't this what you have done by the very nature of your question?
Have you (for example) submitted the question of the same nature to those who intentionally have decided they disbelieve the Bible and then find 'evidence' that it is not true? Have you asked atheists that question and then ended by saying, 'of course you don't want to discuss it, you've already decided you don't believe the Bible...' Have you asked them for the same level of evidence you want of creation.com? Have you asked whether they are seeking truth or simply to disprove the Bible?
The truth is that people are very prepared to discuss the accuracy of the Bible, but are you equally prepared to 'hear' what is being said, or have you already reached your own conclusion? Jesus said that he could show all kinds of evidence about himself being true but that people would still refuse to believe him? Doesn't your very question and slightly unreasonable tone suggest that Jesus was right? And therefore that Jesus is in fact the truth?!
If the standard of evidence people (who already disbelieve it) want to apply to the Bible were applicable in courts of law, no-one could ever prove a case. But the Bible's evidence and prophetic evidence alone is enough, let alone the millions of changed lives through history. Plus the CMI website!
Yeah if there's 1 thing CMI has taught me (actually it's taught me heaps), to find out where a person is @ & how they got there ask questions, first thing I ask for with supposed errors in the Bible is for examples, these seem to be few & far between. Lee Strobels Case For Christ was an eye opener showing how people over look the obvious & how so many of the "errors" have been answered. Most people that try to discredit the Bible do know they've been answered so that's why you now here general statements & no replies when asking for examples.
Given that I already responded to this article when you sent me a preview of it, I'm a little surprised that you choose to publish it without my response. However, I'm happy to reiterate.
It may be, as you put it, 'easy to make the blanket statement that the Bible is riddled with historical error'. I, however, did not make such a statement. I said there are many experts who present evidence that it is riddled with error.
Equally there are those, such as yourself, who dispute such evidence or interpret it differently. That is the nature of historical investigation.
People who are interested in these matters tend look at the evidence and the arguments and weigh them up, and may come to some sort of conclusion, or may decide that they require further investigation.
You at CMI, however, do not follow this approach. You work on the axiomatic assumption that the Bible is historically accurate. This is stated clearly on your site, as I referenced in my original email.
My point is merely that given you are already certain of your conclusions over the question of whether the Bible is historically accurate, why should anyone take seriously your attempts assess the evidence regarding that accuracy?
Correct; we assume the historical accuracy of the Bible. We have this a priori belief, but it is a justified belief. A lot of things people have thought were errors have turned out to be historical fact of the type that substantiates Scripture as a reliable historical record.
Everyone starts with assumptions. I start with the assumption the Bible is true. But I didn't stop with that blind belief. I went on to study Scripture, and I keep studying Scripture, and everything I've studied convinces me that the Bible is true. In fact, I'm more convinced now than I was when I was converted, because I've studied.
I haven't seen a case where someone has pointed out an unresolveable error in the Bible (and you didn't even try). How many cases for the historicity of the Bible would it take to convince you that it is true?
Thanks so much for the article and for engaging this issue. I believe that the historical accuracy of the text is essential for the Christian faith.
I have two comments after reading Jack's message and your response. First, I don't think Christians can escape the fact that we believe the Bible to be true, and that this then trumps all other facts. I believe that the Bible is historically accurate, but if evidence surfaced that seemed to contradict the Bible, I would simply say that they would eventually find that the interpretation of that evidence was incorrect. So, in many ways I agree with what Jack said. We, as Christians, don't engage with historical questions in the same manner as non-Christians. However, I also feel that this street goes both ways. I am currently getting by PhD in ANE history and language at a secular university, and current scholars who believe in the historical accuracy of the Bible are few and far between. In fact, I repeatedly hear in classes and at conferences, how ridiculous conservative Christians are for believing the Bible. However, they also refuse to deal directly with historical facts due to their own presuppositions; such as (just for example) the origin of the Phoenician script or the record of more than 40 foreign rulers in the Bible who are corroborated by other extra-biblical sources, more than any other single document from the ANE.
My last comment is just regarding the fact that in your article you don't engage with current scholarship. I believe that we can't simply quote Walter Kaiser, but we have to engage modern scholarship. I hear repeatedly of students who walk away from the faith because they can't find answers to modern criticism, because Christians have disengaged from the discussion.
You did exactly what you claim the questioner is doing. This is what you said:
"It is easy to make the blanket statement that the Bible is riddled with historical error. It is far more difficult to maintain a specific claim of historical error that is based on the actual evidence available, and not simply from an argument from authority. In fact, as Walter Kaiser puts it, “the disagreement among scholars is not so much over the “facts” in the field; rather, it is over how one should interpret those facts, and with what sorts of presuppositions one may legitimately approach the study of Old Testament history”.1 Anyone sufficiently familiar with the creation/evolution debate should recognize the language here. "
Now read what you just said closely. The questioner is NOT claiming the bible is "riddled" with errors. That is hyperbole on your part. The questioners is claiming that YOU are assuming that the bible is 100% inerrant. And you refuse to go there.
Your claim is that there are ZERO inerrancies in the bible, not that the "overwhelming" historical record supports the biblical narrative. The questioner claims you will NOT ACCEPT a (e.g 95% historically accurate bible because you dogmatically assume that no portion, no matter how small, is inerrant.
The bible say that all things are possible for God. I believe that. Do you? Do you want to talk about fun and games in translations like when David gave fermented WINE to his soldiers as a reward and that was subsequently "reinterpreted" later?
How about Jericho where competing scholarly rabbinical documents have the priests marching in front before the walls came down and other behind?
Rejecting A Priori anything less than 100% inerrancy of the Holy Scripture is Dogmatic and Legalistic. Read Gal 6:12-16
The questioner said that there are many who claim Scripture is "riddled with historical inaccuracy". That's his quote, and I was using his language. I noted that no single case of historical inaccuracy has been presented that has held up over time. The two cases you present don't pose a problem for me, mostly because I disregard rabbinical tradition almost entirely as unreliable.
"However, there are many, many historians, Christian and otherwise, who present evidence that the Bible is riddled with historical inaccuracy."
Like what? I can just as easily say 'However, there are many, many historians, Christian and otherwise, who present evidence that the magic from fairies is what causes snow to fall during the Summer in Antarctica.' You would have to be daft to be convinced of this absurdity by that sentence without actually seeing some of that evidence afterwards. One would have to be equally daft to be convinced "that Bible is riddled with historical errors" by reading that sentence when you haven't added in any evidence anywhere else in your whole email.
A Survey of Old Testament Introduction by Gleason Archer is a fairly comprehensive study on the historicity of the Bible, of how archeology progressively gave us more and more corroboration of the truthfulness of its historical depictions.
Thank you Lita for responding to Jack in the UK. These are the kinds of generalized attacks on scripture and creationists that seem prominent. CMI was attacked for being "afraid" of direct confrontation of the facts. (LOL)
"Is CMI prepared to seriously discuss the pro and cons of those conflicting sets of evidence? Of course not-what would be the point? You’ve already taken the axiomatic view that the Bible is correct."
The accusation is that Christians are uneducated knuckle walkers who just believe blindly. This is, of course, a false accusation.
Lita, your response shows that the attack by Jack was unjustified on both the scripture and CMI.
Being old fashioned, I call this "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor".
Keep up the good work
"And there are others who point out that if the Bible has a similar basis in fact to other ancient historical records such as, say, Homer’s Iliad, then it’s hardly a very good basis for determining the development of life on earth."
I think there is a pretty good case to agree with ancients that the merely historical content of the Iliad - as opposed to scenes set on Mount Olympus - is pretty good.
It is a little less good than Genesis would be if it had no divine authority on top of the human one.
If we were to assume that Adam left no written record but only an oral tradition, and we were approaching it as men approaching a humen record, we would still, seeing it is followed up by genealogies leading up to men known from a few more preserved sources, assume it was written by a man who thought he was the first man and was not contradicted by ensuing events.
And by a man whose fate explains certain miseries too.
Approaching Iliad as historical is less instructive for ultimate questions about life, but gives an apologietic push. Agamemnon thought he could repeat Joshua's Sun Miracle, and he could not.
Obviously it was after that that the odd behaviour of the sun was dissociated from near east and memory distorted to fit an attribution to Sun getting angry at what was done to Thyestes.
Adding to previous (if I may and if you publish it), Hittite Empire has been confirming Iliad too.
Wilusa=Ilios. Lukka=Lycia. Abasa=Ephesus.
Alaksandu=Alexander, a k a Paris
An ancestor of Agamemnon also mentioned in Hittite tablets. See Walter Leaf.
Jack M. said:
"My point is merely that given you are already certain of your conclusions over the question of whether the Bible is historically accurate, why should anyone take seriously your attempts assess the evidence regarding that accuracy?"
Jack, I don't think you are thinking that through. Everyone either believes the Bible is inerrant, or they don't. Anyone with enough knowledge to properly assess this is already going to have an opinion one way or the other. All of the scholars you refer to are certain that the Bible contains error, so why should you or CMI take seriously their attempts to asses the Bible's accuracy?
I was sorry to read the claim that rabbinic tradition is unreliable. It is actually a totally reliable tradition going back to the times of the Bible. It is not, however, easy to understand the meaning of the statements as they are often focused on a deeper level than their plain meaning. Many scholarly rabbinic works are written on the subject, and it should not be rejected just because it is not part of your religion.
While it may not be entirely unreliable (being entirely wrong would be about as hard as being inerrant), it contradicts itself and Scripture. Protestants have commentaries on Scripture we consult and they're helpful at times, but we wouldn't put them on par with Scripture, and we certainly would not put them over Scripture.
Of course, our view of the rabbinic tradition is predictable, because ever since Jesus Himself, Christians have been critical of the rabbinic additions to Law.
"being entirely wrong would be about as hard as being inerrant"
Harder. Being inerrant can be managed with God's help. Being entirely wrong canot be managed even with the devil's contribution.
A man can feel nourished by something containing poison, but not on poison alone.
A mind can feel instructed by something which contains errors, but not on a series of errors without truth.
As a Catholic I consider the Church Fathers inerrant *when agreeing* in their Bible comment, but not that each of them is singly so. Unlike the Bible which is inerrant in each part. Not only in parts confirmed by other parts.
Dear Lita, Just wanted to say your article is excellent! I'm so proud of you. You answered the questions in such a concise & informative way without resorting to contemptuous personal opinion time wasters. Now if only more could debate as professionally and non-aggressively as you do! Thank you, I'll be saving this one in my research data base. Tricia in Texas
Lita, Thank you for the intelligent discourse. Odd - that for such impassioned opposition, the comment writer (Jack) failed to cite any examples of the 'riddled with innaccuracy' allegation. Among other things I'd like to have Jack explain how the Prophet Isaiah - writing at least 300 years before Aristotle began to challenge the status quo - referred to the earth as a 'globe'. I might ask him to explain the words of our Lord which predicted the utter destruction of the city of Jerusalem 70 years before it took place. Another interesting challenge would be having Jack explain the chariot wheels discovered at the bottom of the red sea, which duplicate the style of those used during the Egyptian empire. But for people who want absolute evidence in the realm of the senses for the innerrancy of Biblical exposition, there is no better record than Genesis chapter 1. God said that every seed would be after its kind. And though the hunt for the missing link has gone on interminably and will continue inexorably for those who refuse to see, there is no 'link' in extant, between the 'seeds' of the creation. For to this day, a sparrow makes no entreaties to a crow for marriage, a cow begets calves, a wolverine - a wolverine, and a rose is a rose is a rose.
I must admit I feel sorry for Jack. He reminds me of sad characters like Dawkins & the recently departed Hitchens, who hitched their lives to an immovable stance re the creation / evolution discussion. They decided that because they didn't believe in or have a relationship with the almighty God that therefore it was impossible that He could have been the Creator. Their decision to a priori reject any role for God in creation was the unsound & unscientific basis for their support of evolution. It was not that they had scientific evidence that proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no God & therefore no creator. It was purely a philosophical/quasi religious fanaticism that utterly rejected the concept of God & all their other foolishness followed. This is a specious argument at the best of times because the fact is that the only way you can prove God doesn't exist is to know everything! In the end their philosophy is based upon the belief in "nothing". This is the same for Jack. Because he rejects everything his belief therefore is in nothing! The knowledge of the Bible is a growing & deepening knowledge & the more discoveries that come forth archaeologically the more is proven to be true of the historicity of Scripture. How sad for those like Jack who because of their own reasoning find themselves in a place where they, by definition, can't actually believe in anything that is written & placed before them.
"The Bible is full of inaccuracies". Which part of the Bible? His canonical side? The poetical one? The prophetical description of future events? or The historical side of it? Of course it would be enough to discredit the whole if just one section of it - namely the historical - would be found incorrect. But as far as I am learning, one by one those inaccuracies are redeemed by archaeology. Wouldn't it be just a matter of time and all the rest will become clear?
Right on. This person may question the existence of God. Is not the universe ample proof to any logical mind (Heb. 3:4). The Bible is likely the only non-revisionist history in existence. Every effect has a first cause (the only effect without cause). Surely all can see that unlimited intelligence and power were required in the creation of this universe and life. Yes, something from nothing and life from non-life.
Hi, I am a PhD medical research scientist who came to Christ in 1977 in a dramatic way. I knew that Jesus is the way truth and life in an instant. There were parts of the bible I couldn't get my mind around like us all coming from Adam and Eve, folks living to 900 years plus.I was an ardent theistic evolutionist. However over 30 plus years of much biblical study/research/probing I have become convinced that the bible contains absolute truth. I am now a creationist and am very much at peace. Briefly evolution cannot happen (the world's greatest lie) and scientific findings are very much in line with God's word.
What I find most interesting about all these discussions about the historicity of the Bible, is that we never really stop to consider that it is the Bible which provides us with an account of how the "Ordinances of TIME" have been established over the earth through the creation of heavenly bodies (Sun, Moon & Stars). And that these have been given as an inheritance to all nations (Gn 1:14-19; Dt 4:19)
Jr 10:1-16 and Is 47:10-13 highlight how the Gentiles are dismayed at the heavenly signs, because they do not know how to interpret them, nor what their purpose is. Whereas, the Prophets of The Scriptures and Revelation of God herald the heavenly ordinances as a significant Masterpiece in the Witness of the Sovereignty of God over the Universe (Ps 19:1-14; Ps 119:89-104; Jb 38:33; Jr 33:19-26) and over all the affairs of mankind and of the history of the world (Jb 34:19-33; Dn 4:17). For Yahweh God has written for us the deep things of His Law (Hs 8:12) and He has provided His Law for Wisdom, Understanding & Knowledge of the World - to be the Stability of our Times & the Strength of our Salvation - if we are willing to acknowledge and reverence Him as LORD. (Dt 4: 1-8 & Is 33:5,6)
In fact, The LORD has put out a very strong challenge in the Scriptures o those who oppose His Word - "Let them bring forth their strong reasoning to predict the future and make it happen, or let them provide an accurate assessment of former times (Is 41:21-24 & Is 46:8-11).
Ec 3:11-15 Solomon declares that The LORD has put Eternity in our hearts yet we cannot find out the work that GOD is doing from beginning to end. We cannot add to His work nor take away from it - yet He requires us to give an account of what He has done - Which is what History and the Fulfilment of His Prophecy are about.
Addendum to previous comments:
The fact that we have a stable universe that can be studied and understood is another testimony to the Sovereignty of GOD over His Creation. It is The Bible that informs us that He had made it this way. Something current scientific theories about our origins seem to ignore. Richard Gray, UK