How much history do the Scriptures contain?

How much history do the Scriptures contain?

Frank Mobbs

You will have noticed that previous articles in this series rely heavily on the Bible (Scriptures). Is this reliance justified?

Very popular writers and broadcasters, such as Richard Dawkins, pour scorn on claims that the Bible is a source of truth. They follow the footsteps of many others, including scholars of renown, who have evinced the same scorn for over 200 years. Most ordinary people respect the Bible, even if they have never opened a copy.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) gave enthusiastic support to study of the Bible. Since then many courses have been offered on the Bible, hundreds of study programs have been developed, thousands of books and pamphlets have been published, and so on. Catholic agencies give glowing reports on completed studies of the Bible.

Research figures

Alas, research shows such efforts have touched very few. In Australia, recent research by the Christian Research Association on a small sample of 386 Catholics shows that 68% had never consulted the Bible in the previous 12 months, 19% occasionally, 9% once, 4% often. Anglicans were no better: 72% never, 16% occasionally, 7% often. As you would expect, Pentecostals are frequent Bible readers: 44% often, 39% occasionally, 11% once in the last 12 months. Research in other countries produces much the same dismal picture.

Of those who do read the Bible, do they understand it? A recent large- scale piece of research involving 13,000 interviews, conducted in eight European countries and the USA found: 'The United States has by far the highest level of its adult population that claims to have read at least one passage from the Bible in the last year (75%) and to have a Bible at home (93%), but it doesn't score better than anyone else on tests of basic Biblical literacy. For example, large numbers of Americans, just like people in the other eight countries surveyed, mistakenly thought that Jesus had authored a book of the Bible, and couldn't correctly distinguish between Paul and Moses in terms of which figure belongs to the Old Testament.'

I suppose that most people want to know whether the Bible is reliable as a source of God's revelation of himself and of any plans he may have for humans. Its pages do contain this claim in the form of messages from God, messages conveyed both by deeds of God and also by his words. The words are themselves contained in accounts of what happened (e.g., the Exodus, crucifixion of Christ). An account of what happened is history, so people commonly ask: does the Bible provide reliable history?

They ask, for example: when the Bible reports that God directed the Hebrews to leave Egypt, and God gave commandments to Moses, and Jesus Christ lived in Palestine and was executed by a Roman procurator, and Saul (Paul) was converted on the road to Damascus - did any of these things really happen?

Let us glance at the composition of the Bible. It is a library of 73 separate books in the list approved by the Catholic Church. However, there is no agreement amongst Christians as to the number. The original language of most of the Old Testament (OT) is Hebrew and, of the New Testament (NT), Greek. There is no agreed translation into a modern language. The earliest manuscripts which scholars translate vary in their texts, so we usually read what a committee decided was the most reliable original.

The contents vary greatly. There are poems, legends, praises, songs, large chunks of law, descriptions of visions, fictional stories (e.g., Job). These may contain references to historical events but they do not assert they took place. Seeing that much of the Bible makes no claim to be history, I shall exclude those parts from further consideration. That leaves a sizeable portion which appears to be history. Let us examine it.

Old Testament

Whilst the OT constitutes about three-quarters of the Bible and large parts give the appearance of being history (e.g., Exodus, Chronicles), scholars find difficulty in establishing that they contain history.

We need criteria for history. Here is an important criterion: the writers must be in a position to know that what they are asserting did happen. They must be eyewitnesses (earwitnesses) of the events they record or must have access to reliable evidence from those who did witness the events. The evidence can be archaeological (inscriptions, monuments, coins) or verbal (oral reports or writings).

There is relatively little archaeological evidence to support accounts in the OT, although it is useful for establishing that some towns mentioned did exist and that rulers reigned at certain times. But the most important parts of the OT are accounts of what people said - what God said, Abraham, Moses, the prophets said. Without these accounts we would not know what the events mean. Archaeology is of little use here.

As far as I know, scholars have not been able to determine who wrote any OT books. That renders difficult an estimate of whether their authors were in a position to know. How did they find out? Some OT books were written centuries after the events, many have parts written by different unknown authors and put together by an editor - and we do not know who he was.

One defence of the historicity of the OT lies in adopting a principle of rationality, namely, that one ought believe what someone asserts, unless one has good reason to doubt him. If a letter dated 20 May from a soldier at Anzac Cove says the Turks attacked on 14 May and one knows of no evidence to contradict this, then one ought believe the soldier. Likewise, if an ancient writer says the Hebrews went through the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea), we ought believe him. But the quality of the reports are not equivalent, for the soldier was in a position to know what happened, whereas we have no reason to believe the writer of Exodus derived his information from witnesses.

Let me make some comments on a library of writings. (1) They contain claims which are difficult to believe, such as that about one million Hebrews spent 40 years in the desert; (2) the major problem is not that some accounts are highly improbable but that we lack confirmation of nearly all of them. Apart from the accounts in the OT, there is only one inscription mentioning 'the house of David' in the 300 years after the supposed time of David; (3) nearly all the writers show they were not eyewitnesses of the events or that they had no contact with eye-witnesses. I add that this is true of much of the writings of the ancient world that appear to be history.

Does it matter to a Christian? There are very few articles of faith bearing on our salvation which depend on the historical value of the OT. Would it make any difference to your faith if the Song of Songs was deleted from the OT? The Nicene Creed contains not one item which depends for its truth on the OT, except for the statement that the Holy Spirit 'has spoken through the prophets.'

Cardinal Newman made this point in 1884 in his perceptive essay, On the Inspiration of Scripture, in which he wrote that the Scriptures are inspired and adds: 'The Councils of Trent and the Vatican ... tell us distinctly the object and the promise of Scripture inspiration. They specify 'faith and moral conduct' as the drift of that teaching which has the guarantee of inspiration.'

However, portions of the OT remain as a valuable source of prayer and reflection (e.g., Psalm 23). Portions only, for other parts presuppose falsities, such as that God commanded the Israelites to slaughter the inhabitants of towns which contained some idolaters (Exod. 13:16). The OT's main value lies in its providing background for the New Testament, background which is necessary to our understanding it.

New Testament

In the New Testament we have 27 books, composed, according to scholars, over about 80 years (c. 35AD-c.115AD). We lack any original copies but we have an abundance of early manuscripts. Scholars can identify the authors of some with confidence - about seven letters of St Paul, probably the authors of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, of Mark, and of John, and of the letters, First Peter and James.

There is a great deal more history in the New Testament than in the Old. Some reasons for this judgement are:

(a) the time span of the writing of the collection of books is only about 80 years, compared with 500 to 1200 years for the OT;

(b) the geographical area in which accounts are set is more restricted;

(c) we know far more about the geography of this period than we do of the OT period;

(d) we have lots of writings for this period because the population of Palestine was much more literate, largely a result of Palestine's having been conquered and occupied by Greeks and Romans. One interesting result is that we have the names of 3000 individual Palestinian Jews. We lack anything like this for the OT;

(e) the writings were composed in a fairly short time after the events. St Paul's earliest letter, I Thessalonians, was written about 20 years after Christ - about the same time gap as that between the First and Second World Wars. Remember there were soldiers who fought in both wars so they would be valuable witnesses to events of the first war;

(f) most importantly, a necessary condition for historical reliability which I have mentioned is fulfilled in the NT, namely, the accounts are the reports of eyewitnesses or of writers who got information from eyewitnesses.

Let me expand here. Take the letters of Paul. He gives little information on Christ but mentions the most important parts of his life (death on cross, resurrection, promise to come in judgement). His focus is on the significance of these for salvation. Paul commends the way of life prescribed by the Lord as recorded in the Gospels.

Where did he get this information? He says the main message was revealed to him directly. We cannot check this further. But after his conversion he spent periods with Peter and others called 'apostles', and James ('the brother of the Lord'), and much time with Barnabas, a close associate of the early disciples.

Again, Luke, the author of the Gospel in his name, was almost certainly a companion of Paul, so he had direct connections through Paul to eyewitnesses of Christ.

We know a lot about life in Palestine around the time of Christ. The accounts in the Gospel fit well with this background. Not perfectly, for errors of geography and dating lie in the Gospels. However, this occurs also in most of the documents on which historians rely for writing ancient history and few doubt that their histories are overall reliable.

Historical value

The historical value of the NT is frequently denied or overlooked. Consider the fact that we have 26 separate documents (I omit the Book of Revelation) written in the 60 years after Christ attesting to the existence of Christ and providing some information on his life and teachings, very little in some, much in the four Gospels. Four non-Christian writers attest to his existence in these years. For whom else in ancient times have we such abundance of documentary evidence? There is no equivalent for ancient figures, such as Socrates.

Often it is objected that these witnesses are not impartial because they are keen believers in Christ. How does this vitiate their credibility? After all, nearly all accounts of Winston Churchill are by writers who believe in him as a great statesman, yet we do not dismiss them as untrustworthy on that account.

If one wishes to argue that the NT accounts of Christ do not give us history because they were written too long after the events or because the oldest extant sources (manuscripts) date to a time at least 200 years later than Christ, then he needs to be aware that he will have adopted a standard ruling out almost all ancient history.

Regarding manuscripts, the earliest we have of Caesar's Gallic War is dated some 900 years later than Caesar. That applies to nearly all the great persons of Greek and Roman history, not to mention those of Asian history. We can be confident that the NT contains reliable history.

Dr Frank Mobbs is a former seminary and university lecturer in philosophy and theology with many publications to his name. (fmobbs_at_integritynet.com.au)

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