Is the Bible historically reliable?

The Historical Errancy of the Bible

In 1868, a German businessman named Heinrich Schliemann published a book arguing for a historical Troy, located at a place called Hissarlik (in modern Turkey). As a boy, Schliemann was greatly fascinated by the epic tales of the ancient Greeks, particularly Homer’s classic writings, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and when he had made enough of a fortune to retire at the young age of 36, he devoted himself to finding the legendary city of Troy mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Despite having no training or formal education in archaeology, he began excavating the site of Hissarlik in 1871.

Although a number of suggestions were made about the location of Troy prior to Schliemann’s efforts, most people then believed the city was merely a myth. Even after four years of excavations and a publication of his case, Schliemann still met with many challenges from skeptics like Professor R.C. Jebb, who was one of the world’s foremost classicists at the time. It was not until 1890, near the end of Schliemann’s life, that the archaeological community began to warm up to his thesis, after additional discoveries were made at Hissarlik, supporting an identification with Troy. Modern excavators have even claimed evidence of war and destruction that is estimated to date back to around 1180 B.C.E.1

Today, it is widely accepted that the city of Troy did exist. Schliemann appears to have been vindicated. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that this means The Iliad is historically reliable. We may have a Troy, but it is not as certain that we have a Trojan War, it is doubtful there was a Trojan Horse, and it is very unlikely that Helen of Troy existed (at least as she is portrayed in Homer’s poems). To say that the Homeric works are historically reliable would be an abuse of the term, since it overlooks major elements of the stories that are either historically unverified or historically untrue. Furthermore, there is the unique problem of applying historical method to supernatural claims. Even if it were true that the goddess Aphrodite rescued Paris from Menelaus, there is no way to establish the historicity of such a report. At best, we might be able to demonstrate that a strange woman did save Paris, but it would remain in question whether or not she was Aphrodite.

Most of us would probably have little difficulty heeding these warnings against jumping to conclusions over Troy and The Iliad. Change the context to the Bible and any historical detail from its pages, and you often find that these concerns go right out the proverbial window. Some defenders of biblical inerrancy even go so far as to allege that such precautions are meant to unfairly discriminate against their specific beliefs. To a point, one can sympathize with the urge to historicize the Bible. While scientific accuracy may not seem that integral to the value of the ‘word of god,’ a good argument can be made about the need for historical accuracy. If Jesus never existed, if he never died on the cross or rose again, then, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, faith is in vain. The Old and New Testaments both feature a number of historical names, places, and events that call for some sense of historicity as well. But we must try to avoid drawing hasty conclusions about the overall picture.

The real reason that miracles are not accepted by most historians is that they are improbable by definition, and historical method is all about constructing probabilities. Historians do not work with testable hypotheses because the past has already passed and will not repeat itself. Alexander the Great only died once. The Second Temple only fell once. It is also not possible for historians to make predictions based on history, at least not with the same reliability of which scientists are capable. Historian Gilbert J. Garraghan puts it succinctly in A Guide to Historical Method:

Cumulative or converging evidence is virtually circumstantial. It is “a heaping up” (L. cumulus) of bits of evidence, individually never more than probable, and often only slightly so, until they form a mass of evidence, the net result of which is certainty. But, as already noted, the resulting certainty does not issue directly from the mass or cumulus of probabilities, since no number of mere probabilities added together can logically produce certainty. To produce such effect, one must invoke the “principle of sufficient reason,” by arguing that the only possible explanation why so many bits of evidence point to the same alleged fact, is that the fact is objectively true.2

Historical statements are only as certain as they are probable, and this probability is calculated by considering how well an explanation fits with various factors. The aim of the historian is to get as close to objective truth as possible. This is achieved through the accumulation of data and the use of inductive reasoning to make plausible connections and propose a persuasive theory of what probably happened. This understanding of historical method is nothing unusual or biased. Historians must limit themselves to practical explanations, or else the field of history would become mired in all sorts of absurd and implausible ideas to be investigated, many of which could not be properly examined to begin with.

Miracles cannot be historically established because, as C.S. Lewis notes, a miracle is “an interference with Nature by supernatural power.”3 Gary Habermas, who is another Christian apologist, defines it as “an event (1) brought about by the power of God that is (2) a temporary (3) exception (4) to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history.”4 Both of these definitions indicate that there is a sense in which miracles are irregularities. This is part of what makes them so special and meaningful to many believers: they are rare interventions of the divine that interrupt the regularity of life. All of this is an elaborate way of saying that miracles are understood as improbable events, and, as such, they serve no use to the historian trying to establish history in terms of probability.

Thus, we can appreciate why historians do not seriously consider the possibility that Aphrodite rescued Paris from Menelaus. In short, history is not constructed from sheer possibilities. It has less to do with a bias against the supernatural and more to do with the practicality involved in historical method. This practicality also demands that each statement be evaluated on its own merits, not extrapolated to cover more than it is able. It is important to take these things into account with a rational approach to historical claims, whether these claims involve the Bible, the works of Homer, or any other source. If we play favorites or engage in special pleading, we stack the deck of probability, so to speak, which is unfair and unrepresentative of the actual facts. The very first claim for the Bible’s accuracy that we will look at suffers from some of these problems.

I. Hittites and Skeptics

A common statement you will find in the works of Christian apologists like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell is that much to the dismay of skeptics, the claims of the Bible have been historically verified time and time again. The frequently cited example of this is the accusation directed against Bible critics for denying the existence of the Hittites until archaeologists discovered evidence for the fallen empire in the late 19th century.5 The Hittites were an ancient people who lived in Anatolia from around the 18th to 12th century B.C.E., and the Bible references their empire multiple times in the books of Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, and the Chronicles, to name a few.

Apologists use an example like the Hittites to imply that the skeptics should not be trusted, because they have been wrong before. There are a number of problems with this kind of smear campaign. Right off the bat, we may notice that the overwhelming majority of these claims about the Hittites and other historical details mentioned in the Bible are accompanied by stories of skeptics who never are identified. We are sometimes told that educated scholars, even experts, denied the historicity of certain Biblical claims, and yet examples are rarely given. In the case of the Hittites, it looks as if some of these Christian apologists have made much ado about nothing.

For some time, scholars debated whether the Hatti, or Kheta, found in Egyptian inscriptions might be identified with the Hittites. This is not the same thing as denying the Hittites ever existed, but is simply questioning the association of the Hittite identity with the identity of a name depicted on Egyptian inscriptions. To my knowledge, the earliest and only specific claim of Hittite denialism is from M.G. Kyle, one of the authors of The Fundamentals, a text which became the foundation of modern Biblical fundamentalism. Yet in his essay, Kyle does not name this mysterious skeptic, only noting he was one of the foremost European archaeologists at the time.6

I have seen speculation that the archaeologist described was E.A. Wallis Budge, but in his History of Egypt, Budge never does deny the existence of the Hittites. He simply argues that the “identification of the Kheta with the Hittites of the Bible is as yet unproved,” and states that the association is made on “insufficient grounds.”7 As previously explained, this is not the same thing as denying the Hittites ever existed at all, but is merely doubting the connection of the Hittite legacy with the Hatti or Kheta. Furthermore, after 1906, when additional discoveries proved the Kheta were the Hittites, Budge addressed the Hittites as historical in updates of his books, The Dwellers by the Nile and The Mummy. Thus, it seems that he was only waiting for that sufficient evidence to become available.

The only way to separate history from fiction is to investigate each individual claim, and there are many claims in the Bible that have not passed historical investigation.

In fact, this is what ought to be the norm. Christians may use the Hittites and other examples to imply that skeptics were wrong before and could be wrong again, but it is no justification for believing something on insufficient evidence. The time to accept a proposition is when reason and evidence support it, not before. Apologists give the impression that many scholars denied the existence of the Hittites, yet all we find behind this claim is an anecdote from a Christian fundamentalist about his talk with an anonymous figure. But whether anyone ever questioned the existence of the Hittites is ultimately irrelevant, because historical claims should only be believed when there is reason to believe them.

The problem is that many apologists are unwilling to play by the book and leave it at that. The existence of the Hittites is a non-controversial and believable possibility, even without evidence. If Christians were only asking that we give the Bible the benefit of a doubt about the Hittites, it would be understandable. However, their real reason for bringing up the subject is to imply the reliability of the Bible in general, which is entirely irresponsible. The website Bible.ca says that, “Skeptics once rejected the Bible’s claim that the Hittite Empire existed until they saw the evidence with their own eyes. Today, skeptics reject the Bible’s claim that God himself exists or that the Bible is a divinely written book.”8

The implication is that because the Hittites were real we should trust that god exists and the Bible is god’s word. This is precisely the kind of unjustified extrapolation I referred to above; one proven fact cannot be expanded to justify another unproven claim, especially when there is little relation between the two. It would be like assuming that Aphrodite really did rescue Paris because of the existence of a historical Troy. The reality of the Hittites cannot be used to establish other historical claims in the Bible, and it certainly cannot be used to justify belief in the Bible’s supernatural claims.

I do not know of any sane person in history who considers the Bible to be a completely mythological text with no historical value whatsoever. Even those who deny the historicity of Jesus, Nazareth, and other details will typically agree that some of the Bible does include historically accurate details. Pontius Pilate was real, as indicated by the Pilate Stone. The ancient Canaanites were real, as found on the Merneptah Stele. Much of the geography described in the Bible is accurate. Of course, none of these details are extraordinary, nor can they be used to assume that the rest of scripture is equally historical. The same is true for the Pool of Bethesda and the title of politarch, both of which are used in The Case for Christ to argue for the historical accuracy of the gospels. These quite minor details tell us nothing about the overall reliability of the Bible’s thousands of statements. A history book that contains one error still contains one error even if the rest of it is flawlessly accurate. No amount of truth will reverse a single mistake. The only way to separate history from fiction is to investigate each individual claim, and there are many claims in the Bible that have not passed historical investigation.

II. The Historical Problems

i. Herod and the Census

The massacre of the innocents by Herod the Great is considered mythical by the majority of modern biographers of Herod.9 The story, found in the first chapter of Matthew, tells us that upon learning the messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, Herod ordered the death of all infant boys in the city. While Herod did execute several of his family members and may have been mentally unstable, there is no evidence that he killed off all the baby boys in Bethlehem. The historian Josephus had no issue with citing Herod’s many flaws, so the contention that the incident would have gone unreported is largely baseless. In understanding the passage’s context, we find good reason to believe the story is an exaggerated myth. The author of Matthew uses Herod’s murderous rage in the narrative to drive Joseph and Mary into Egypt so that a prophecy in Jeremiah can be fulfilled.

Herod the Great died no later than 4 B.C.E., when his son Archelaus inherited the throne. Yet the Gospel of Luke puts the birth of Jesus during the census of Quirinius (2:1-2), in 6 or 7 C.E., according to Josephus. Perplexingly, though, the author of Luke seems to imply that Herod the Great still ruled as king of Judea at the time (1:5), nearly ten years after his death! To make matters worse, the census spoken of in Luke is said to be a census “of all the inhabited earth” (NAS). There is no evidence that the Romans ever took a worldwide census, nor is there evidence that they required citizens to return to their ancestral homelands, as the text of Luke suggests.10 Noting this glaring contradiction between Matthew and Luke and the historical record, apologists tend to respond in two ways: inventing an imaginary earlier term for Quirinius – conveniently right at the time of Herod – and manipulating the text to imply a local census.

The latter of these claims is quite easy to debunk. Oikoumenen is Greek for earth, or world, in Luke 2:1, and despite the NIV’s dishonest translation of it as “the entire Roman world”, the word carries no such connotation. The most damning evidence that the word means the whole inhabited earth comes from Acts 17:31, which has Paul preaching before a crowd, to which he proclaims, “he [god] has set a day when he will judge the world [oikoumenen] with justice.” No scholar, theologian, or apologist would defend the idea that Paul meant Jesus would only come to judge the Roman world. None of the other six occurrences of this word in the New Testament supports a local concept of “world” either. Only in the face of troubling historical conflict is this Greek word assumed to mean something other than what it normally means.

As for the possibility of an earlier census under Quirinius, there is simply no reliable evidence of it. In The Case for Christ, John McRay states that Jerry Vardaman discovered “micrographic letters” on Roman coins mentioning a census of Quirinius that supposedly took place from 11 B.C.E. until after the death of Herod.11 However, microscopic lettering has never been found on any Roman coinage and seems out of place for minting practices of the time, which should raise our suspicions about the veracity of Vardaman’s so-called discovery. Richard Carrier, a historian well versed in ancient studies, exposes the bizarre claims of Vardaman and disputes his micrographic letter theory in an article for The Skeptical Inquirer.12

An even bigger problem, though, is that Judea was not a Roman province during the time of Herod and did not become one until 6 C.E. Even if Quirinius had been governor of Syria in Herod’s lifetime, a Judean province would not have existed for him to have included in a census. Josephus also explains how the census of 6/7 C.E. stirred up violent opposition among some Judean inhabitants led by Judas the Galilean. This serves to underscore the fact that the census was seen as a new and unwelcome irritation by many Judeans. It is quite interesting that we find this kind of confused history in the Gospel of Luke, which is generally thought to have been written by someone with a high concern for accuracy. Nevertheless, the text is undoubtedly mistaken in its presentation of the census, and we find additional confusion about this period of history in the author’s ‘second volume,’ the Book of Acts.

ii. Acts and the Revolutionaries

Acts 5:33-37 portrays the Pharisee Gamaliel speaking before the Sanhedrin, asking that the apostles be spared from death. The Blue Letter Bible gives a chronology of the Book of Acts, and like most scholarly sources, it dates Gamaliel’s speech to ~35 C.E.13 This is reasonable given that Gamaliel would have had to convince the Sanhedrin of this some time before the martyrdom of Stephen, rather than after. The problem, however, is that Gamaliel’s speech contains two inconsistencies. Acts 5:36-37 mentions Theudas and Judas the Galilean, who were both first century Jewish revolutionaries.

Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

As Josephus reports in his Anquities, the revolt of Theudas occurred during the reign of Cuspius Fadus, which was 44 to 46 C.E. Obviously, if Gamaliel was speaking in 35 C.E., he could not have known of a revolt that would take place about 10 years later! Josephus also places both the census and Judas’ revolt at around 6 or 7 C.E., long before Theudas. Most scholars date Luke-Acts as early as 80 C.E., late enough to understand how the author could have been mistaken about events over seventy years in the past. However, the revolt of Theudas would have been more recent in time, and yet we still find the reference is inaccurate. The tense climate of first century Judea may well have been difficult to sort out at the time, as it is now in many ways. But these are not the only instances where we find that the Biblical claims do not match the historical record.

iii. Jericho

One of the most iconic moments in the Old Testament is Joshua’s battle with Jericho. According to the story, Joshua led his troops to surround the city and instructed them to blow trumpets and shout loudly, which caused the city walls to topple, allowing the Israelites to take Jericho. In the 1930s, archaeologist John Garstang led an expedition in Jericho, during which he examined a collapsed defensive wall and the remains of a city. Based on pottery shards in some of the rubble, Garstang dated the destruction to 1400 B.C.E., fitting right in with biblical chronology. Christian authors like Werner Keller were quick to tout the discovery as further proof of the Bible’s reliability,14 but then, in the 1950s, another archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon would overturn Garstang’s claims.

Using radiocarbon dating, Kenyon has determined that the collapsed wall is from a much earlier period, around 8000 B.C.E. Archaeologists have found evidence of construction and pottery at Jericho that dates to both the Stone Age and Bronze Age, but the final destruction of the city appears to have taken place in 1550 B.C.E., a date confirmed by stratigraphical and carbon dating.15 This means that by the time of Joshua, there was no Jericho to be conquered. So conclusive is the evidence that even Carl Watzinger, one of the original archaeologists to unearth Jericho, said that “in the time of Joshua, Jericho was a heap of ruins, on which stood perhaps a few isolated huts.”16

If Christians really want to play their game of arguing that archaeology has silenced critics of the Bible, there are examples like Jericho that show just how archaeology has rebuked the proponents of a historically flawless Bible.

iv. The Exodus

The exodus from Egypt is another iconic story of the Hebrew scriptures that finds no support from the historical record. You may have heard about chariot wheels at the bottom of the Red Sea and other bold claims, but none of these have been substantiated with actual evidence. You may have also heard that the Hebrews were the people referred to as the “Hyksos” in Egyptian sources.

The Hyksos were Semites who had come to rule Egypt after migrating into the region beginning in the 18th century B.C.E. Later, over the course of several military campaigns – as recounted in the second stelae of Kamose and inscriptions in the tomb of an Egyptian solider at El Kab – they were eventually expelled back into Canaan. Though this rings a bit familiar to the Biblical story of Hebrew slavery in Egypt, there does not seem to be any evidence that the Hyksos were ever enslaved in great numbers, if at all. The Bible claims that the exodus occurred 480 years before King Solomon began building the Jerusalem Temple (1 Kings 6:1), which took place not long after 970 B.C.E., according to the Biblical chronology. However, the expulsion of the Hyksos occurred sometime around 1550 B.C.E. under the reign of Ahmose I, roughly a hundred years before the date implied if we follow the statements of the Bible. In short, there is just no evidence of an exodus from Egypt, at least not like the story we are told in scripture.

Of course, absence of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of absence. We may not have proof of the exodus, but it could still have happened. After all, the Egyptians rarely recorded defeats, and how much would you expect a bunch of wandering slaves to have left behind that would survive for us to stumble upon thousands of years later? These are both valid points, yet we should remember that absence of evidence can mean evidence of absence when a claim entails effects that we would expect to find, but do not find. In Exodus 12:40, it is noted that the Israelites lived in Egypt 430 years from the time of Joseph to the time of the exodus. Apologists ask us to believe that in the 430 years they had to settle in and rule Egypt, the Hebrews left behind not a single fragment of pottery or any other artifact. The silence is too deafening to be so carelessly dismissed.

v. Anachronisms

In the last few decades, archaeologists have increasingly discovered problems in the Bible’s chronology. Anachronism is the word for an event that is ‘out of time’, or does not fit with historical context. We might think of Brutus in Julius Caesar, interrupted by the sound of a striking clock as he plans the assassination of Caesar. Since ancient Rome kept time by sundials, the mechanical clock in Shakespeare’s play is an anachronism. The Bible contains several anachronisms. Archaeologist Israel Finkelstein explains:

We now know through archaeological research that camels were not domesticated as beasts of burden earlier than the late second millennium and were not widely used in that capacity in the ancient Near East until well after 1000 BCE. And an even more telling detail – the camel caravan carrying ‘gum, balm, and myrrh,’ in the Joseph story – reveals an obvious familiarity with the main products of the lucrative Arabian trade that flourished under the supervision of the Assyrian empire in the eighth-seventh centuries BCE.17

As two additional examples, Professor Finkelstein notes that Edom, described in the Book of Genesis, was not developed enough as a nation to be any real threat to Israel until the time of the 8th century, and the city of Rameses, referenced in Genesis 47:11 and Exodus 1:11, did not exist until about two hundred years after the time in which Biblical chronology places it. Anachronisms would not be uncommon for a culture trying to understand itself by reflecting on its past. But, along with the other examples provided above, they certainly are evidence against the Bible being a perfectly reliable, straight forward report of historical events.

III. Drawing the Line

In debates and discussions on the Bible, the phrase “historical reliability” is very often thrown around. Doing a simple Google search with it, I discovered the New Testament and gospels are the subject in 9 out of the 10 links on the first page. However, as I have shown above, the Bible contains quite a number of historical inaccuracies. What, then, is the verdict about its historical reliability? Admittedly, this is not an easy question to answer, because we first need to figure out where to draw the line between a reliable and unreliable document.

In her book Historical Research, Elizabeth Ann Danto cautions that researchers “should not expect documents (or very few) to be completely reliable.”18 Indeed, when we read the works of such prominent ancient historians as Herodotus and Thucydides, we still find a fair amount of hearsay, rumor, and myth reported alongside fact. Not even eyewitness testimony is as reliable as we might think. Law professor Patricia J. Williams notes in an article for The Nation that eyewitness testimony is “the leading cause” of wrongful convictions in the United States.19 Historian Louis Gottschalk advised that the historian, when in the process of analysis, ought to “constantly keep in mind the relevant particulars within the document rather than the document as a whole.”20

The problem with classifying a document as historically reliable, or historically unreliable, is that it gives us no real idea of the specifics. Many people will presume a reliable document is error-free, while thinking an unreliable document can hardly be trusted even on the simplest, non-controversial claims. Giving room for exceptions does not reduce the problem much, either. If by historically reliable we mean a text is mostly historical, is it close to 90%, or closer to 75%? Exactly what claims are covered under these figures? Because of these difficulties, I hesitate to make a strong conclusion about the overall picture of the Bible’s historicity.

Nonetheless, I believe we can at least say that the Bible is not completely accurate in its historical claims. Herod probably did not slaughter all the infants of Bethlehem. The exodus, as portrayed in scripture, seems unlikely to have occurred. Jericho’s walls never came tumbling down from the blast of horns and the noise of shouting. Although all of these stories have some imaginable symbolic themes to them, they are presented in the Bible as part of a larger narrative, and it is quite arguable that they were understood as a kind of history in their time. Yet the evidence shows that even when we are talking about historical claims of little to no significance to the Judeo-Christian message, such as the regimes of some first century revolutionaries, or the use of domesticated camels, the Biblical authors certainly made mistakes. This should, at the very least, cause us to think twice about the reliability of the Bible’s more grandiose supernatural claims. Though we cannot judge the historicity of these unverifiable portions, the ones that we can judge do not show uniform accuracy. History testifies against the inerrancy of the Bible.

 

 

Sources:
1. Manfred Korfmann, “Was There a Trojan War?” Archaeology 57.3 (May/June 2004), 36-38.
2. Gilbert J. Garraghan, A Guide to Historical Method (1947, Fordham University Press), p. 305.
3. C.S. Lewis, Miracles (1947, Harper Collins), p. 5.
4. Gary Habermas, In Defense of Miracles (1997, InterVarsity Press), p. 72.
5. J. Stephen Lang, What the Good Book Didn’t Say, p. 104.; Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort, The School of Biblical Evangelism: 101 Lessons, p. 361.
6. M.G. Kyle, “Recent Testimony of Archaeology to the Scripture,” The Fundamentals.
7. E.A. Wallis Budge, History of Egypt, Vol. 6, p. 34 & Vol. 4, p. 136.
8. Archaeologists are digging up Bible stories!!!, Bible.ca.
9. P.L. Maier, “Herod and the Infants of Bethlehem.” Chronos, Kairos, Christos II. p.170.
10. Emil Schurer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (1974), Vol. I., p. 401.
11. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (1998, Zondervan), p. 101.
12. Richard Carrier, “Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman’s Magic Coins”, The Skeptical Inquirer (2002).
13. Chronology of Acts and the Epistles, Blue Letter Bible.
14. Werner Keller, The Bible as History.
15. Bruins and Plicht, “Tell Es-Sultan (Jericho): Radiocarbon Results of Short-Lived Cereal and Multiyear Charcoal Samples From the End of the Middle Bronze
Age,” Radiocarbon, 37:2, 1995.; Kathleen Kenyon, “Jericho,” in Ephraim Stern (ed.), The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy
Land
, p. 674-681.
16. Carl Watzinger, quoted in Miriam Davis, Dame Kathleen Kenyon: Digging up the Holy Land, p. 101.
17. Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (2001, Touchstone), p. 37.
18. Elizabeth Ann Danto, Historical Research (2008, Oxford University Press), p. 95.
19. Patricia J. Williams, Our Dangerous Devotion to Eyewitness Testimony, The Nation (Feb. 6, 2012).
20. Louis Gottschalk, Understanding History (1950, Alfred A. Knopf), p. 139.