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 Historical Reliability
of the Bible 


The Bible is a valuable collection of historical sources, which is much better than a history text book. First-hand accounts by prophets, compilations of court records, and ancient stories preversed on and collected. Differences and difficulties have not ironed out or harmonized, and this adds to the veracity of these accounts. Even in the Gospels, where later authors saw the earlier accounts, discrepancies are left as in the eyewitness accounts which the gospel writers want to preserve. These historical sources are far more believable than a tidied up history.   

There are many examples where archaeology and other sources verify Bible events, but most events will never be confirmed. Ancient history is poorly preserved, and most events in the Bible have no importance in the realm of political history. Also, leaders only recorded their successes publicly - so we shouldn't expect to find a monument to escape of Israelite slaves from Egypt! But we do find records of many other Bible events.


Let me tell you a little of my history:
My father was born and lived in 19th century Hong Kong where he owned a bank. I was educated at my father's old school in Brighton and then studied medicine in Cardiff. Becoming a Christian changed my perspective completely. I become a Baptist minister in Cardiff and later the denomination seconded me to the academic world in Cambridge. I listen to Ska music and bluegrass.

This account is like Bible history – it is factual, but confusing and contradictory.
- Surely I've got the century wrong – my father can't have lived in the 1800's!
 Explanation: he was born in Hong Kong right at the end of the 1800's
- My father's school can't be in the UK - he was born and lived in Hong Kong! Explanation: He was British, and sent back for his education
- This account implies my family was rich, but wasn't. I had free school meals.
  Explanation: My father's bank went bust
- This implies that I'm a Doctor of medicine, but my PhD is in ancient Judaism
  Explanation: I didn't finish medicine and I switched to theology
- This implies that I became a Christian just before switching to theology
  Actually I at was at age 12. This account is the logical, not chronological order

The Bible is full of the same kinds of apparent problems for similar reasons
- it uses approximations like "40 years" just as we use "scores" or "centuries"
  so sometimes things appear to be in the wrong century or last too long
- it lists things one after another which may be concurrent – like the Judges
  (the Judges ruled in different places in Israel, so probably overlapped)
- it often uses a logical order instead of chronological - so we're shown Jesus clearing the Temple just before his arrest, though John puts it two years earlier
- it says things which don't make sense because we lack background information,  like me attending my father's British school even though he lived in Hong Kong

Every now and then the archaeologists come up with another piece of the puzzle
- though there'll always be more pieces missing than found, esp for older times
- there were a flurry of these a century ago when people like Albright first discovered ancient Near Eastern history through archaeology
- before, people used to say things like: Hittites are an invention of the Bible
- now the British Museum has a huge Hittite collection 

Many times archaeology presents more questions than answers
- the walls of Jericho discovered by Garstang were redated by Kenyon as 1550BC
- this is far too early for the Israelite invasion, so suddenly the Bible was 'wrong'
- but Kitchen points out the Bible and the site shows it wasn't rebuilt till the 9th C
- so whatever existed in Joshua's day was eroded by 400 years of wind and sand
- it is only the layer underneath this one which would survive to be discovered.
And some things are told more like stories than history – eg the Tower of Babel
- no-one expected to find that, hidden in the sands. And yet this has happened
- Prof Andrew George of the University of London has been quietly publishing papers on a stele discovered in 1917 and now owned by the Schoyen Collection

- its discovery in Iraq sounds like something out of an India Jones movie:
- realising that the world war was bringing armies to the area, the three archaeologists decided to remove the three pieces of the monument to safety
- they went to Germany, London and the USA but the piece in the USA was lost
- and that missing piece contains a detailed map of Temple at the top! 

This backs up the reference to Babel in Nabopolassar's cylinder inscription
- it records his dedication for the colossal ziggurat at Babylon and how he built it
- he made millions of bricks and rivers of bitumen to waterproof the surface
- but he says he was rebuilding a much older and famous unfinished ziggurat
- the mud structure had bulged because it lacked a top, so occasional rain got in
- why was this former ziggurat unfinished without any temple to cap the top?
- it seems we've found the 3 millennium old mystery which Genesis referred to
(More at

Discoveries like these can't confirm all the historical details in the Bible
- they can merely show, now and then, a few details of corroboration
- and our piece-meal knowledge means that often we misinterpret them
- we may be misunderstanding the archaeology or the Bible text or both

The Bible is a very valuable and believable set of ancient historical documents
- they are, of course, copies of the original, like all other historical documents
- sometimes, like ancient Near Eastern documents, the language was modernized
- though the Bible has much less modernization than similar documents
- sometimes, like all copied texts, there are scribal errors
- though unlike other copied texts, subsequent scribes haven't corrected them
- we read in 1Sam.13.1 "Saul was one year when he became king and two years he reigned over Israel" – ie he died at the grand age of 3!
- something has gone seriously wrong here, and many translations try to fix it
- but Hebrew scribes never tried to fix it because they didn't know the original
- this is the best kind of historical document. One with errors which aren't fixed
- occasionally scribes did make changes, but they carefully listed them
- eg "The Lord stood before Abraham" became "Abraham stood before the Lord"
  (because "the Lord stood before" is idiomatic for "the Lord was a servant of")

The Bible's a remarkable collection because it covers so many years and cultures
- and often made much more fascinating by comparing with other old texts
- the Tabernacle became real when we discovered Egyptian tabernacles
- in Egyptian tombs we found the remains of similar wood & leather worship tents

- even strange stories like Balaam and his ass can't simply be dismissed any more
- references to this Balaam were found scratched in a wall in Deir 'Alla about 800BC
- this doesn't make the talking ass any less strange !
- other strange things were recognized as strange by the editors; eg Joshua's long day
- I have an explanation which takes this literally without stopping the earth
  but the ancient authors didn't, and you can see them struggling when they say: And this is also recorded in the Book of Jasher" – ie someone else corroborates it.
- the editor of Deuteronomy records King Og of Bashan as the last giant of Raphaim
- but feels this needs proof: "you can see his 12' bed in the capital of Ammon" (3.11)

The Bible is better than a history textbook. It is a collection of historical documents
- it isn't a tidied account where various sources are made to agree with each other
- we have something much more valuable: original documents, preserved unchanged
- first-hand accounts of prophets, reports culled from court documents, and stories
- stories were preserved better than written history by being told by each generation
- anthropologists find that such stories are preserved remarkably, word for word
- these collections were edited very early and then left alone – copied faithfully

Historical documents are much better than history, because the problems remain
- historians try to fix the problems, solve the contradictions, merge the accounts
- historical documents tell things from particular angles, with their own timelines
- they hardly ever agree with each other, and when they do, we are suspicious
- agreement suggests that someone copied another, or both copied the same source

Historical documents (like history books) are biased. We must always remember this
- ancient kings only ever recorded successes and never failures or defeat
- King Sennacherib's boasts in his Prism: "I shut up [King Hezekiah] like a bird in a cage’ – but he doesn't mention that the siege ultimately ended in failure.
- so don't bother looking for Pharoah's account of the Exodus slave revolt
- Moses' band may have been large, but it was unimportant; and Egypt lost

Actually, there are a few attempts at writing history in the New Testament
- in the 4th C BC Thucydides invented the modern historical method
- he collected various sources and tried to construct a reasonable account
- historians didn't just collect facts, but investigated motives and significance
- 1st C Dionysius of Halicarnassus said such history was "accurate" (Gk. akribos)
- and Luke says he set out to write a history which was akribos" (Luke 1.3)
- this is a history which tells more than facts: it includes how and why 

Mere facts can be misleading, like when I told you I listen to Ska and Bluegrass
- I only listen to Ska when my daughter's band is playing, and although I love the high-energy bluegrass instrumentals, I find most of the songs too sentimental.
- a good historian in the 1st century would explain that to his readers

Ancient historians put words in people's mouth, or explained their thoughts
- this tells the reader what their motives were and how they reasoned
- but modern readers don't get this. We quote people. We don't make up words
- but actually a quote can be more misleading than stating what they mean
- a reviewer says "It is amazing rubbish" and is quoted as "It is amazing"
- ancient readers expected their historians to explain what people meant, and do that by putting the explanations into their mouths
- for example, Josephus records a long speech by the zealot Eliezer at Masada,  about the motives and hopes of his movement before they all kill themselves.
- the reader doesn't say to himself: Josephus can't have known what Eliezer said, seeing that he and all his listeners committed suicide when he had finished
- the readers knew that Josephus made up the words, but they trusted that he knew the movement well enough to accurately use this to explain the movement
- it is, perhaps, a form of faction – a mix of fact and fiction – of the best kind
- it tells us history more accurately than just facts could convey it to us

Luke tries to mimic this kind of akrobos ('accurate' or 'full') history but fails
- he fails because, like other Gospel writers, he depends on eyewitness reports
- Richard Bauckham recently pulled together all the evidence for eyewitnesses
- it horrified some scholars but others were surprised at the amount of evidence
- it certainly explains why sometimes a person is named, like Simon of Cyrene
- they are named as the source of the story, whereas most people are anonymous
- and taking Peter seriously as a source for Mark means he can disparage Peter
- how else could Mark depict Peter (the great church leader) failing so often
- but a Gospel writer can say these thing if he is citing Peter's own stories

However eyewitnesses are fallible and have their own viewpoint
- judges warn juries that witnesses who disagree aren't necessarily lying
- in fact witnesses who agree too well have probably colluded to tell a story

- the Gospels don't bother to correct eyewitness reports, even for the resurrection
- John records only that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb
- Mark and Luke say that Mary mother of James was also there
- Matthew simply says that “the other Mary” accompanied her
- but Mark says Salome was also there, and Luke says Joanna was there

Of course the stories can be made to agree fairly easily:
- ie perhaps John and Matthew didn’t bother to list everyone who was there
  (in John Mary gives away that she wasn't alone by saying "we saw…")
- and perhaps Luke's "Joanna" was Mark's "Salome" (ie she had two names)

The point is that the Gospels don't try to agree with each other
- Matthew and Luke knew what Mark had said but they didn't change their story
- and John probably knew all the other three and still stuck with his version
- they weren't competing or trying to correct each other. It was their version
- the point of the story wasn't the absolute detail, but the wonder and reality of it

In other the Bible is made of historical sources – it isn't a tidied up history book
- it records events in order to teach us about God, not to teach us history
- it accurately records meaning and relevance rather than order and bald facts
- and mostly it concerns people who were irrelevant to recorded history 
- because it concerns God and his interactions with ordinary people, like us
I finish with a personal gripe. The battle over the name David
- about 30 years ago archaeologists and historians gave up on King David
- no-one ever found any reference to any "David" anywhere outside the Bible
- finally historians rewrote OT history so this wonderful king is merely an ideal
- David is now regarded as unhistorical as King Arthur and his knights

- in 1994 they found the Tel Dan inscription referring to the "House of David"
- and André Lemaire said he found another in the cracks of the Moabite Stone
- in 1997 Ken Kitchen found "the highlands of David" in Shishak's inscription in Egypt
- suddenly we had 3 references to King David, in 3 nations surrounding Israel:
- in the North by Damascus, in Moab in the East and in Egypt in the South
- there are still none found in Israel, but so little survives from 3000 years ago
The maddening thing is that most historians won't change their minds
- their initial argument was very weak – based on the absence of evidence
- they managed to make this into a coherent picture with various theories
- and spent their careers disputing the data in the Bible
- so when the evidence turned up they started dismissing the inscriptions
- as if they don't want to let the facts interfere with their conclusions
- and I can't help but take it personally!
- this is a wake-up call for anyone who bases a theory on the absence of evidence

Extra: Arguments from silence:

Marco Polo made no mention of China's Great Wall, paper, foot-binding or tea. He claimed to be in the service of Kublai Khan for two years but we have no Chinese records about this person.

The principal historians of ancient Greece, Herodotus and Thucydides, make no mention of Rome, even though Romans had been fighting their neighbours and growing in power for a century.

Pliny the Younger and Suetoneus tell us about the eruption of Vesuvius, but neither mention the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They aren't mentioned till 100 years later by Dio Cassius who can't have been an eyewitness (Roman History 66).


Extra: Differences in eyewitness details and historical accounts

The various accounts of the death of Julius Caesar are confused. We have various accounts by Suetonius, Seneca. Plutarch and Dio Cassius which differ considerably. They give different names for the leader of the group, give different reasons why they supposedly approached Caesar, describe different ways in which they grabbed hold of him, the person who stabbed first, where he stabbed him, and only agree that the group stabbed him 23 times – something which must have been ascertained after the event.




(C) Dr David Instone-Brewer 2011

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David Instone-Brewer