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 But this description of the Bible’s purpose means that it has to have a lot of historical content; i.e., “the Bible purports to record a chronicle of real events from the ancient Near East, against which backdrop the revelation of God was communicated.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.