The Bible: Reliable History Or Religious Hoax?
"It's like a fairy tale," he said. My student was actually trying to be respectful. "It probably didn't actually happen," he continued. "But it's got some very good lessons about life."
I was teaching in a public high school. But I might as well have been in a German university 200 years ago. Over the last centuries, faith in the Bible as reliable history has evaporated. Prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins tell us that we Christians should be listening to our (liberal) theologians who have learned to not read the Bible so literally. For Dawkins, the average Christian is still in the Stone Age.
What do the ancient stones tell us? Does archaeology corroborate biblical events? Can we read the historical parts of the Bible the same way we read a history textbook?
These questions are raised close to home. A recent issue of The Banner, the church magazine of the Christian Reformed Church, contained an article questioning the historicity of Adam and Eve.1 And this clearly had a domino effect. The author himself noted that if Adam and Eve are not real historical people, "the entire doctrine of original sin falls by the wayside." He suggested that "theologians need to consider whether our understanding of Jesus also needs to be revised."
Can we trust the historical parts of Scripture? This is a critical question to ask and to answer.
Honest Defenders needed
First, a word of caution. Zeal to "prove" the truthfulness of Scripture has produced a number of Indiana Jones. I've spied DVDs, for instance, from a certain Ron Wyatt in church libraries. Do not give these to your Muslim neighbour. Mr. Wyatt was nothing but a shyster. There are a surprising number of forgeries, too, on the antiquities market. This is big business. In the last years, we've seen two big frauds. One is the James ossuary – a bone-box that has inscribed on it "the brother of Jesus." When the Israeli authorities busted Oded Golan's apartment, they found a sophisticated set up with some new forgeries in progress. (Note: Mr. Golan was acquitted of his role in the James ossuary and some still insist it is genuine.) Also, in 2012 a Harvard professor, Karen King, unveiled a little piece of papyrus that supposedly mentioned the Lord Jesus had a wife. But this too was revealed to be a fake.
Read the Bible Carefully
A second word of caution. We also need to be clear about what the Word of God actually states. For instance, it's fashionable among academics today to deny the historicity of the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. Archaeologically speaking, we don't see evidence of an influx of huge amount of people or widespread cultural change. But if you read the book of Joshua carefully, as Kenneth Kitchen points out, you'll see the assumptions are wrong.2 The Israelites don't rush into Canaan all at once, destroying everything and everyone in sight. Their numbers may not have been as high as once thought, either.
This begs the question, then, of just what you would actually expect to dig up on a dig.
The Garden of Eden
Or take the biblical description of the Garden of Eden. We are given the names of four rivers that originate (or converge) close to Eden. This has given more than a few people the thrill of the hunt. We still have two rivers called the Tigris and the Euphrates. But are these the same rivers of Eden? Names have a wonderful way of being recycled. Even if they are, who knows how the region has changed, especially if we factor in a world-wide flood? We need to be cautious in our interpretation of the biblical data.
But notice this about Scripture's description of the Garden of Eden: It reads much like a description you might find in a modern tour book of an actual place. We're told, for instance, that "the Pishon winds through the land of Havilah, where there is gold. The gold of that land is good. Aromatic resin and onyx are also there" (Gen 2:11-12). This was not written by Aesop or the Brothers Grimm. Eden was a part of this world, Eden is at the beginning history – your history and my history, too.
Archaeology gives us concurring evidence for many biblical accounts. But it has its challenges as well. Take Jericho, for instance.
Archaeology reveals that Jericho was certainly destroyed in the mid-second century B.C. The city was burned. Grain was still left in jars – so we know further that this was not a long protracted siege. In fact, there is evidence for an elaborate double wall around the city that violently crumbled. As Joshua 6 says, the walls of Jericho did come tumbling down. No one doubts this.
But there is considerable debate over whether this actually happened in Joshua's day. Early excavation in the 1930s under John Garstang dated this to around 1400 B.C. – which fits with traditional biblical chronology. The Exodus from Egypt happened around 1450 B.C. The Israelites then wandered in the wilderness for forty years – so Jericho's destruction around 1400 B.C. fits just right.
But a later excavation had different conclusions.
Kathleen Kenyon, who worked on Jericho's dig a few decades later, insisted that the city was destroyed in 1550 B.C. In fact, she believed it was unoccupied in 1400 B.C. The skeptics' theory would then go like this: Jericho actually fell in 1550 B.C. due to an earthquake. Later on the Israelites made up the story we have in Joshua – to give credit to their heroes (perhaps fictional) and to use this to promote their own agenda.
But how do archaeologists make such a firm conclusion about the date? Among other things, Kenyon could not find evidence in Jericho for a certain kind of Cypriot pottery which was made after 1500 B.C. This pottery was a favourite choice among the Canaanites. You need to know, as well, that in archaeology pottery trends are the chronological spine.
But Dr. Bryant Wood has a different conclusion. He has spent decades studying the indigenous pottery in Canaan. He has found evidence for local Late Bronze Age I pottery in Jericho – which fits the biblical date. He believes Kenyon excavated in a poor area of the city where you would not really expect to find the fancy Cypriot pottery. And he suggests that some shards from the first dig in the 1930s, which were not given due attention, are actually Kenyon's missing pieces.3
In short, Kenyon's date of 1550 B.C. for Jericho's destruction looks like it needs to come tumbling down.
The Old Testament has been corroborated numerous times. For the longest time, outside of Scripture, we had no evidence at all for the existence of the Hittites. This seemed surprising – as the Hittites go way back and play a large role in the ancient biblical world. Finally, in the early twentieth century, their capital city of Bogazkoy was discovered in Turkey, along with thousands of cuneiform tablets.
King David a King Arthur?
The biblical King David is often seen as little more than an Israelite King Arthur. Our excavations don't uncover monuments bearing his name or regaling his deeds. This begs the question, however, of just what we should expect. The Pharaohs of Egypt certainly scratch their names and victories everywhere (sometimes with exaggeration, as well.) But would David have done this? It's not unreasonable to say that King David was different kind of leader than an Egyptian pharaoh.
In 1993 archaeologists uncovered a stele (stone marker) at the ruins of the ancient town of Dan (Tel Dan). It mentions the "House of David." Those insisting on denying the existence of David have resorted to all sorts of theories. Some maintain this is just the name of a town Beth-David, like Bethlehem or Beth-shan ("beth" means "house"). But the inscription speaks about the King of Israel and the King of the House of David - clearly two people. The names of the kings are not preserved in their entirety - but we can make out they end in both "-ram" and "-yahu." Even your first-grader can see the affinity with 2 Kings 8:29. There we read that Hazael of Damascus went to war against Joram, King of Israel, and Ahaziah (Hebrew – Ahazyahu). And Hazael was the victor – just the thing to be proclaimed at the border town of Dan.
There is this pernicious theory amongst some that the Bible is a late composition, written to legitimize those then in power. "History is written by the victors," we say. This kind of approach has also gained traction in "biblical studies." Some assert the Bible was supposedly written centuries after the "events" it describes for political purposes.
But time and time again archaeology uncovers details that no one from later times would ever have known. The city of Gezer, for instance, was clearly fortified in the tenth century B.C. We find similar fortifications at other places, as well. Shortly after this fortification, on the basis of pottery again, the city was destroyed. This is exactly what Scripture tells us in 1 Kings 9:17: King Solomon fortified the city of Gezer (and other places). A few decades later, "the fortified cities of Judah" were also destroyed by Pharaoh Shishak under Rehoboam (2 Chron 12:4). So there is both evidence for Solomonic glory and also decline. To insist that an author 600 years later invented these "legends" with all their details takes a foolish leap of faith.4
Sometimes it is alleged that the Bible books show various anachronisms and contradictions, which apparently we, high up on our twenty-first century perch can see far more clearly than those in the past. This would be the tell-tale sign that these books are late compositions – just like finding a reference to a "pc" or "iPhone" in something supposedly from Shakespeare's time. Abraham had camels, but scholars like W. F. Albright, who admittedly did argue for the truthfulness of the broad outline of Scripture, insisted that camels weren't domesticated until much, much later. But how can we be sure of that – unless we've made some prior assumptions not to believe the biblical data? If our yardstick is merely our current "knowledge," we will only measure accordingly.
In fact, there is plenty of evidence that camels, though not common, were in domestic use from early times. We've found a rock painting near Aswan (Egypt) of a man pulling a camel on a rope. It's dated to 2330-2150 B.C., well before Abraham's time.
Finds Supporting OT figures
We could make quite a list of interesting finds related to the Old Testament. Seals impressions (called "bullae") from various figures – like King Hezekiah, Shebna (likely the Shebna of Isaiah 22:15), the stone of Mesha king of Moab (which mentions Omri, too), the stele Pharaoh Merneptah, the first mention of Israel outside of the Bible. There is pottery inscribed "belonging to the king" found in many places, but hardly ever in northern Israel. Just the sort of thing you would expect to find if there were two kingdoms in Israel, often at war.5There is no reason to be skeptical about the biblical data.
Dr. Luke: a Skilled Historian
When we look at New Testament times, we have a fuller picture of the surrounding world. Yet, the same skepticism often exists towards the biblical account.
Despite Luke telling us that he intended to "carefully investigate" and write an "orderly account" (Luke 1:3), some scholars insisted he is still unreliable.
In Acts 17, for instance, Luke calls the rulers of the city of Thessalonica "politarchs." At first, this term was seen by some merely to be Luke's invention. But in 1835 an arch in Thessalonica was discovered with this particular term. Luke writes in detail about hundreds of individuals and places – giving the skeptics plenty of opportunity to find him wrong. But that doesn't happen.
The reference in Luke 2:2 about the census under Quirinius is often given as example of Lucan error. Quirinius wasn't governor until later, A.D. 6-7 – this would be perhaps a decade too late. But, as Darrell L. Bock points out, Quirinius had a role in the Roman government well before A.D. 6 and this may be Luke's referent.6 Scholars specializing in the ancient world, like A.N. Sherwin-White, have concluded that Luke was an extremely accurate historian.
Christian apologists in the second century, defending their faith, can point to Roman records. The church father Tertullian writes to Roman officials confident that records of the census in Luke 1 still exists. Sure – we don't have those records anymore - but that Christians could refer to them shows they had no doubt about the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth and the witness about him.
In Romans 16, Paul mentions a certain Erastus, director of public works, who sends his greetings. Paul writes from Corinth. You might expect if you were the director of public works your name would be inscribed somewhere. In 1929 a piece of stone commemorating an Erastus was found in Corinth. It's quite likely the same man.
Here are some other finds: we have an inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate and the ossuary (bone box) of Caiaphus the high priest (even his existence was previously doubted). We've found numerous spells and charms from Ephesus (Google "Ephesia Grammata" and read Acts.19).7 The list could go on and on.
There's no reason to think Scripture is just a fairy tale, with only a moral to the story.
History from Heaven's Viewpoint
Let me conclude with a few remarks. It's fascinating that at times we see a kind of reverse situation. There may be considerable archaeological data for a particular historical figure or event – but very little written about it in the biblical text. For example, archaeologists tell us that Omri was one of the most powerful kings of Israel. Over a hundred years later the Assyrian king Tilglath Pileser III calls Israel the "land of Omri." Wikipedia would have given him several pages of press. But the Word of God only gives 9 verses to Omri (1 Kgs 16:21-28). That reminds us the Bible is not our kind of history, either. It certainly is history from a certain vantage point – a heavenly one.8
Second, we can illustrate the reliability of Scripture – and that it is this is not a leap of irrational faith to believe that "every Word of God is flawless" (Prov 30:5). Historical details, sometimes doubted by "experts" for years, continue to show themselves to be accurate. Nothing Scripture has recorded has ever proven to be false.
However, the Word of God gives us meaning to particular events in history that no scientific discipline can ever verify (or disprove). Jesus Christ not only dies – the Word tells us he dies for our sin, in our place, to rescue and redeem. No investigation into history can ever reveal that. The Word of God is more than mere history – it is "his story."
Third, we ought to remember Christ's own injunction in Luke 16:31, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead." Humble faith in the Word is both the starting and end point. It is foolish to proceed from or rest on anything else.
As one of my high school teachers liked to say, "Give your questioning friend Christ's words in John 7:17, 'Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.'"