Historicity of the Bible

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The historicity of the Bible is the question of the Bible's "acceptability as a history," in the phrase of Thomas L. Thompson, a scholar who has written widely on this topic as it relates to the Old Testament.[1] This can be extended to the question of the Christian New Testament as an accurate record of the historical Jesus and the Apostolic Age.

Many fields of study span the Bible and history, such fields range from archeology and astronomy to linguistics and comparative literature. Scholars also examine the historical context of Bible passages, the importance ascribed to events by the authors, and the contrast between the descriptions of these events and historical evidence.

Archaeological discoveries in the 19th and 20th century have supported some of the Old Testament's historical narratives and refuted others.[a][3][4][b][c][d][8]

Background: historicity and faith[edit]

Historicity is central to theology for some, possibly many, Christians:[9] "In Biblical faith everything depends on whether the central events actually occurred." (G.E. Wright, quoted in Ansberry, 2013).[10] This is not the case for all believers, who can still find meaning in Genesis or Jonah as stories rather than histories; but for others, especially Evangelical Christians, the discovery that events described in the Bible were not facts would throw doubt on the existence of divine revelation itself; and even those who find meaning in narratives such as Genesis or Jonah by interpreting them as myth or allegory, must still decide which can be treated in this manner, and which must be regarded as history.[10]

Hebrew Bible/Old Testament[edit]

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: the Torah[edit]

The Garden of Eden: from history to mythology. By Lucas Cranach der Ältere(1472–1553)

By the end of the 19th century the advancement of geology and other sciences had ended serious scholarly consideration of the origin-stories of the Primeval history (Genesis 1-11).[11] For much of the 20th century it was assumed that the Patriarchal age (Genesis 12-50) represented the beginning of genuine biblical history, but by the late 1970s the failure to locate the stories of the Patriarchs in any particular period led most historians to abandon this position also, and today most, though not all, histories of Israel do not give substantial coverage to figures such as Abraham and Joseph.[12] The story of the exodus – of Israel's bondage in Egypt, their escape and meeting with God at Sinai, and their onward journey to the borders of the land of Canaan where they are given laws for their life in the land – told in the Book of Exodus, Leviticus, the Book of Numbers and the Book of Deuteronomy – continues to attract popular attention, but the evidence does not support the story and most archaeologists have abandoned its investigation as a fruitless pursuit.[13][14]

Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings: the history of ancient Israel and Judah[edit]

Scholars are virtually unanimous that the Book of Joshua, which tells of the conquest of Canaan by the Israelites, holds little of historical value.[15] The Book of Judges gives a more or less believable picture of an early stage in the formation of the Israelite state, but scholars do not regard its specific episodes and figures as historical.[16] For much of the 20th century Samuel and Kings were believed to contain reliable first-hand sources, but since the 1990s many scholars have come to the conclusion that their literary nature compromises their usefulness for history.[17]

The chronology of the monarchy can be checked against non-Biblical sources and seems to be correct in general terms,[18] but Kings contains numerous contradictions: to take just one example, since Rehoboam of Judah and Jeroboam of Israel began to rule at the same time (1 Kings 12), and since Ahaziah of Judah and Joram of Israel were killed at the same time (1 Kings 9:24, 27), the same amount of time should have elapsed in both kingdoms, but the count shows 95 years passing in Judah and 98 in Israel.[19] Possibly the best known attempt to reconcile the problems was that proposed by Edwin R. Thiele in his The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, but his work has been widely criticised and his following is largely among scholars "committed ... to a doctrine of scripture's absolute harmony." (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, quoted in Tetley, 2005, p.4).[20] Later scholars have proposed alternative chronologies, but, in the words of a recent commentary on Kings, there is "little consensus on acceptable methods of dealing with conflicting data."[21]

Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah[edit]

The Book of Ezra and the Book of Nehemiah were originally a single work, Ezra-Nehemiah; with the two Books of Chronicles they make up the third history collection of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the Chronicler's History. This was thought to be the work of a single author, but it is now recognised as being two separate works, Chronicles, from the 4th century BCE, and Ezra-Nehemiah, of uncertain date but later than Chronicles. Chronicles is essentially a re-working of the other two history collections, especially Kings, and the author has had no qualms about altering his source to suit his theological agenda.[17] Ezra-Nehemiah draws on numerous sources and is frequently somewhat confusing in its chronology, but scholars increasingly see it as a valuable source of information on Second Temple Judaism.

New Testament[edit]

Books of the New Testament[edit]

The epistles of Paul are the earliest of the New Testament works, written between c.51-57 CE. (A number of the letters bearing Paul's name are not actually from him, but a core group are regarded as genuine). Both they and the non-Pauline epistles provide valuable information about the beliefs of early Christians.

The Gospel of Mark is the earliest of the gospels, written probably c.AD 66–70.[22][23] The identity of the author is unknown – most scholars have rejected the tradition which ascribes it to Mark the Evangelist, the companion of Peter, and regard it as the work of an unknown author working with various sources including collections of miracle stories, controversy stories, parables, and a passion narrative.[24] Matthew and the Luke were probably composed between 80-100 CE.[25][26] As with Mark, their authors are unknown.[27][28] Mark is their source for the narrative Jesus' life, supplemented by a hypothetical collection of sayings, plus small amounts of material unique to each.[29][30]

The Acts of the Apostles are by the same author as the Gospel of Luke.[31] The author seems to have taken as his models Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote a well-known history of Rome, and the Jewish historian Josephus, author of a history of the Jews.[32] He transposed a few incidents from Mark's gospel to the time of the Apostles – for example, the material about "clean" and "unclean" foods in Mark 7 is used in Acts 10, and Mark's account of the accusation that Jesus has attacked the Temple (Mark 14:58) is used in a story about Stephen (Acts 6:14).)[33] There are also points of contact with 1 Peter, the Letter to the Hebrews, and 1 Clement.[34] Other sources can only be inferred from internal evidence—the traditional explanation of the three "we" passages, for example, is that they represent eye-witness accounts.[35] The search for such inferred sources was popular in the 19th century, but by the mid-20th it had largely been abandoned.[36]

The Gospel of John, written around 90-110 CE, identifies its author as "the Disciple whom Jesus loved".[37] Church tradition identified this disciple as John the Apostle, but this is rejected by the majority of modern biblical scholars.[38] In the second half of the 20th century there was a consensus that this gospel was independent of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the Synoptic gospels), but there are now many scholars who believe that John did know the synoptics, especially Mark.[39]

Debates on historicity of the New Testament works[edit]

Some scholars argue that these accounts were compiled by witnesses[40][41] although this view is disputed by other scholars.[42]

See also[edit]


  1. ^

    Biblical archaeology has helped us understand a lot about the world of the Bible and clarified a considerable amount of what we find in the Bible. But the archaeological record has not been friendly for one vital issue, Israel's origins: the period of slavery in Egypt, the mass departure of Israelite slaves from Egypt, and the violent conquest of the land of Canaan by the Israelites. The strong consensus is that there is at best sparse indirect evidence for these biblical episodes, and for the conquest there is considerable evidence against it.

    — Peter Enns.[2]
  2. ^

    The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape

    — Philip Davies.[5]
  3. ^

    He cites the fact—now accepted by most archaeologists—that many of the cities Joshua is supposed to have sacked in the late 13th century b.c. had ceased to exist by that time. Hazor was destroyed in the middle of that century, and Ai was abandoned before 2000 b.c. Even Jericho, where Joshua is said to have brought the walls tumbling down by circling the city seven times with blaring trumpets, was destroyed in 1500 b.c. Now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the Jericho site consists of crumbling pits and trenches that testify to a century of fruitless digging.

    — Jennifer Wallace.[6]
  4. ^

    So although much of the archaeological evidence demonstrates that the Hebrew Bible cannot in most cases be taken literally, many of the people, places and things probably did exist at some time or another.

    — Jonathan Michael.[7]



  1. ^ Thompson 2014, p. 164.
  2. ^ Enns 2013, p. unpaginated.
  3. ^ Davies, Philip (April 2010). "Beyond Labels: What Comes Next?". The Bible and Interpretation. Retrieved 2016-05-31. It has been accepted for decades that the Bible is not in principle either historically reliable or unreliable, but both: it contains both memories of real events and also fictions. 
  4. ^ Finkelstein & Silberman 2006, p. 103
  5. ^ Davies 2015, "Minimalism...".
  6. ^ Wallace 2006, p. unpaginated.
  7. ^ Michael 2009, p. 275.
  8. ^ Grabbe 2007.
  9. ^ Hoffmeier 2012, p. 99.
  10. ^ a b Ansberry 2013, p. unpaginated.
  11. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 43.
  12. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 44.
  13. ^ Dever 2001, p. 99.
  14. ^ Meyers 2005, p. 5-6.
  15. ^ Killebrew 2005, p. 152.
  16. ^ Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 107-108.
  17. ^ a b Moore & Kelle 2011, p. 159-161.
  18. ^ Lemche 2010, p. 95-96.
  19. ^ Galil 1996, p. 12.
  20. ^ Tetley 2005, p. 4 and fn.6.
  21. ^ Konkel 2010, p. 673.
  22. ^ Perkins 2009, p. 57,241.
  23. ^ Brown 1997, p. 164.
  24. ^ Burkett 2002, p. 156.
  25. ^ Duling 2010, p. 298-299.
  26. ^ Perkins 2009, p. 250-253.
  27. ^ Duling 2010, p. 302.
  28. ^ Ehrman 2005, p. 172,235.
  29. ^ Burkett 2002, p. 175.
  30. ^ Johnson 2010, p. 44.
  31. ^ Thompson 2010, p. 319.
  32. ^ Balch 2003, p. 1104.
  33. ^ Witherington 1998, p. 8.
  34. ^ Boring 2012, p. 578.
  35. ^ Bruce 1990, pp. 40–41.
  36. ^ Boring 2012, p. 579.
  37. ^ Lincoln 2005, p. 18.
  38. ^ Lindars, Edwards & Court 2000, p. 41–42.
  39. ^ Lincoln 2005, p. 29–30.
  40. ^ Bauckham, Richard "Jesus and the Eyewitnesses," Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006, ISBN 0802831621
  41. ^ Byrskog, Samuel "Story as History, History as Story," Mohr Siebeck, 2000, ISBN 3161473051
  42. ^ Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts, March 28, 2006


Further reading[edit]

  • Banks, Diane (2006). Writing The History Of Israel. Continuum International Publishing Group. 
  • Barenboim, Peter (2005). Biblical Roots of Separation of Powers. Moscow: Letny Sad. ISBN 5-94381-123-0. 
  • Biran, Avraham (1994). "'David' Found at Dan". Biblical Archaeology Review. 20 (2): 26–39. 
  • Brettler, Mark Zvi (2005). How to Read the Bible. Jewish Publication Society. 
  • Coogan, Michael D. (1993). "Canaanites: Who Were They and Where Did They Live?". Bible Review. 9 (3): 44, ff. 
  • Davies, Philip R. (1998). Scribes and Schools: The Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures. 
  • Davies, Philip R. (2008). Memories of Ancient Israel. Westminster John Knox Press. 
  • Dawood, N.J. (1978). Tales from the Arabian Nights. Doubleday.  — A children's version translated from the original Arabic
  • Dever, William G. (2001). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. 
  • Finkelstein, Israel (1988). The Archaeology of the Israelite Settlement. [full citation needed]
  • Halpern, Baruch (December 1995). "Erasing History: The Minimalist Assault on Ancient Israel". Bible Review: 26–35, 47. 
  • Harpur, Tom (2004). The Pagan Christ. Recovering the Lost Light. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers. 
  • Koehler, Dr. Ralph D. Christian Bible History. ISBN 1-4208-1242-4. 
  • Larsson,, G. (2007). The Chronological System of the Old Testament". Peter Lang GmbH. 
  • Lemche, Niels Peter (1985). Early Israel. [full citation needed]
  • Lemche, Niels Peter (1998). The Israelites in History and Tradition. Westminster John Knox Press. 
  • Miller, James Maxwell (1986). A History of Ancient Israel and Judah. Westminster John Knox Press. ISBN 978-0-664-21262-9. 
  • Mithraic Studies: Proceedings of the First International Congress of Mithraic Studies. Manchester University Press. 1975. 
  • Na'aman, Nadav (1996). "The Contribution of the Amarna Letters to the Debate on Jerusalem's Political Position in the Tenth Century B.C.E.". BASOR. 304: 17–27. 
  • Na'aman, Nadav (August 1997). "Cow Town or Royal Capital: Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem". Biblical Archaeology Review. 23 (4): 43–47, 67. 
  • Noth, Martin (1981) [1943]. Uberlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien (The Deuteronomistic History). Sheffield.  — also "The Chronicler's History", Sheffield, 1987.
  • Provan, Iain W. (1995). "Ideologies, Literary and Critical Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel". Journal of Biblical Literature. 114 (4): 585–606.  — a critique of the Copenhagen School of Thought - with responses in the same journal by Davies (above) and Thompson (1995 see below)
  • Seters, John Van (1975). Abraham in History and Tradition. [full citation needed]
  • Shanks, Hershel (1995). Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography. New York: Random House. 
  • Shanks, Hershel (August 1997). "Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers". Biblical Archaeology Review. 23 (4): 26–42, 66. 
  • Smith, Mark S. (2002) [1990]. The Early History of God. Eerdmans. 
  • Steiner, Margareet; Cahill, Jane (1998). "David's Jerusalem: Fiction or Reality?". Biblical Archaeology Review. 24 (4): 25–33, 62–63; 34–41, 63.  — This article presents a debate between a Biblical minimalist and a Biblical maximalist.
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1995). "A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?". Journal of Biblical Literature. 114 (4): 683–698.  — a response to the article by Iain W. Provan(1995– above)
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (1999). The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel. Basic Book. 
  • Thompson, Thomas L. (2015). A view from Copenhagen: Israel and the History of Palestine. The Bible and Interpretation. 
  • Whitelam, Keith W. (1996). The Invention of Ancient Israel. Routledge. 
  • Yamauchi, Edwin (1972). The Stones and the Scriptures. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company. 
  • ________. The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past. London. 
  • ________ (1992). The Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written and Archaeological Sources. Leiden and New York: Brill. 

External links[edit]