The Bible and History

Back in the day, when I used to follow the Rational Response Squad, user Badbark asked the Squad how they viewed the historicity of the Bible. A few answers, starting with Rook Hawkins:

Nothing in the Bible can be accepted as historical.  We do not have evidence for very much, and what evidence we do have does not support the Biblical account.  I suggest you read the introduction to my book for some bibliographical information, and skim through my blog for additional articles on this subject.

Hambydammit adds:

In a nutshell, the bible should be read like one of Homer’s epics.  There are real names and places from time to time, but it is a work of fiction.

Even if some of the authors thought they were writing history, their accounts are not reliable unless they are backed up by corroborating evidence.

My favorite answer, from ronin-dog:

None of it. Even if a story is written in a historical setting, it is still fiction.

All this interests me. The Bible, contrary to what these atheists present, is at least attempting to present accurate history. It seems to stand up at least as well as other historical documents from the same eras, if not better. For example, the narratives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have many details confirmed by archeology. We find parallels to Jacob purchasing Esau’s birthright, for example, in other period literature. The blessing of Jacob rendered by Isaac also has historic precedence: such a blessing by a patriarch would have been irrevocable, which is why Isaac is so horrified that Jacob deceived him and received the blessing intended for Esau. Many, including me, have asked, “Why not just take it back?” He couldn’t. We now know that.

The names Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as well as the names of the patriarchs of the twelve tribes, were all found to be in use in that time period. There are also some mentions of a person named Abraham external to the Bible that seem to correspond to the Abraham in the Bible, but no one is for certain.

None of that proves the historicity of Genesis, but it does testify that the source of the Genesis stories was very ancient. Many skeptics try to claim a later date for the authorship of Genesis, usually during or after the Exile. But, if that is the case, then why do the customs line up so perfectly with what we know of the time period? A post-Exile writer would have no knowledge of the historic period of the patriarchs. This fact alone precludes a late composition date for Genesis.

Also testifying to the ancient origins of Genesis is the presence of extinct place names, such as the land of Cush, the land of Havilah, or the Pishon and Gihon Rivers. None of these landmarks exist today. Intermixed with these ancient place names are some modern (relatively speaking) references. Well-meaning copyists could have changed extinct place names to more recognizable ones; but the mere presence of any extinct place names requires an explanation better than JEDP theory offers.

Deuteronomy, thought to be written during the time of King Josiah, in fact follows an ancient literary form over 500 years younger than the boy king. No literary parallels to Deuteronomy exist from Josiah’s reign, and it is extremely unlikely that the hypothesized deuteronomic author (the “D” of JEDP theory) would have had access to the earlier literature necessary to produce such an exact copy.

Despite all that, I expect atheists and skeptics to give me answers like the ones that the Squad gave in response to the historicity of the Bible. The skeptic doesn’t want a reason to trust any of the Bible, for if the verifiable details of history are true, we then have excellent reason to conclude that the metaphysical contents are also true. The atheist seeks only to reject the metaphysical claims of the Bible. By finding reasons to reject its history, the atheist can reject the metaphysics with a clearer conscience.

It therefore saddened me to read this:

In fact, we invite disaster when we insist that the Bible be treated as a history book. If we require that a good Jew believe that all the stories in the Torah actually happened, we are likely to turn away a good number of our most faithful people. Teenagers, in particular, are often skeptical of the accuracy of Bible stories. They are quick to conclude that Judaism is bogus, since its central stories do not hold up under the lens of historical scrutiny. May we be blessed with the courage of Rabbi Wolpe, who stood before his congregation and affirmed his faith in the truth of Torah, even as he questioned the historicity of its most important narrative. Just like Rabbi Wolpe, we are able to say to our young people: The Torah is not a history book or a science text, but so much more. The Bible communicates the most important lessons known to humanity. (source)

This is from Rabbi Barry H. Block of Temple Beth-El in San Antonio, TX. Instead of treating the stories in the Bible as accurate history, Rabbi Block wants us to treat them as spiritual metaphors.

I agree that the timeless truth of the Bible is truth, regardless of how the biblical writers chose to communicate this truth. I don’t believe that the book of Job is a historical narrative, for example. It is styled as Hebrew wisdom literature, and therefore could reasonably be considered fiction written to expound on the theme of the righteous sufferer more vividly and more accessibly than a theological treatise. Job seeks to do for the ancients what The Shack does for moderns. Dening the historicity of the Exodus is a far different matter.

Job is clearly wisdom literature. We take Job in the same fashion as Proverbs–as communicating timeless truths that aren’t meant to be always true in every case. Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes all contain advice; take it for what it’s worth, and always with a grain of salt, as you would any bit of advice.

A proverb isn’t true in every single case, but proverbs are generally true.

Books like Exodus, however, are making truth claims about historic events, not just telling tall tales the way that Rabbi Block (and Rabbi David Wolpe before him) insists. Thinking of the Bible as we would a work of fiction creates some seriously nasty problems for us.

The truth of the metaphysical claims found in the Bible often rely on the historic claims of the Bible. Atheists seek to tear down the Bible’s historicity because they understand that fact better than theists: they know what should be rejected and why. Theists are trying to reject the historicity of certain stories to appear more rational to the skeptics they try to convert. Read Rabbi Block’s words very carefully and that fact becomes crystal clear: “If we require that a good Jew believe that all the stories in the Torah actually happened, we are likely to turn away a good number of our most faithful people.”

In other words, to win more converts, let’s act more like the world! The Jews were originally chosen by God to be a holy people, set apart for his purpose. When James exhorted Christians, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jms 1:27, emphasis added), he could have been talking to the Jews, too.

The apostle Paul understood the dilemma that we are facing. He proclaimed the historic truth of the Bible as ironclad evidence of the spiritual truth:

What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  “O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Cor 15:42-58, emphasis added)

Theists who deny the historic truth of the Bible have no ground to stand on when trying to convince people of the metaphysical truth. The apostles understood this, and they argued from the perspective that those stories we moderns so easily dismiss as myth were true. For the apostle Paul, Adam existed as real as the computer screen these words appear on. If you deny the first Adam, you remove all need for the last Adam. In that scheme, why should we esteem the Bible any higher than Aesop’s Fables?

About Cory Tucholski

I'm a born-again Christian, amateur apologist and philosopher, father of 3. Want to know more? Check the "About" page!

Posted on June 30, 2010, in Apologetics, Bible Thoughts, God, Religion, Sin, Theology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. “Books like Exodus, however, are making truth claims about historic events”

    Ones that unfortunately we’ve not found any evidence for. Or for Abraham existing. You mention names already being in circulation or similar stories existing but that’s a bit… weak.

    • Absence of proof is not proof of absence. This is the logical fallacy known as argument from silence.

      Archeology is spotty at best. The Hittites, for example, weren’t mentioned anywhere but the Bible, and archeology had never uncovered a shred of evidence that they existed. So people had assumed that the Bible was in error for decades. Until a Hittite temple was uncovered, and then it was shown that they had a massive empire and were one of the most important peoples of their day.

      Don’t suppose the Bible to be in error simply because archeology currently says it may be. New finds may reverse old opinions. The same pattern can be seen over and over again in every scientific discipline. The Bible, therefore, deserves the benefit of the doubt, not the critic of the Bible.

      As for Abraham’s historicity, you should note that both the Arabic and Semitic peoples are very genealogy-conscious. They kept meticulous records, both oral and written, of their ancestries. Both the Bible and the oral tradition of the Arabs confirm the same details about Abraham. Details found in both testimonies are quite embarrassing for both peoples, yet they agree (on even the embarrassing details) substantially. Christian CADRE has the fuller version of that argument here.

      Can I prove that Abraham is historical? My guess is, “not to your satisfaction.” If, however, Abraham was mentioned as a historical figure in a single non-canonical text with no other evidence from archeology to back that up, but his name was in use during that time period and oral tradition of a separate tribe confirmed his existence, I’m guessing you’d be pretty convinced he was a historical figure. But, since it’s the Bible we’re talking about, you think he’s fiction. Biased, anyone?

      • “Absence of proof is not proof of absence”

        No, but it is a good reason to be skeptical.

        “The Bible, therefore, deserves the benefit of the doubt, not the critic of the Bible.”

        Why does it get benefit of the doubt? We list the claims as unconfirmed until evidence shows up. But for example, as I undestand it there’s no evidence so far for the events in Exodus.

        It’s always possible they’re based on something that really happened, of course. Quite possibly some early tribal leader, or leaders, became the legend of a chap called Abraham.

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