Contesting Christianity: Biblical Accuracy

Sign with line through Christian cross

(This post is part 2 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)

The Bible

One of the keystones of the Christian faith is the Bible. Without it, there is very little that can be said about Christianity. All the primary doctrines of faith are in it or derive from it, and the main figure (Jesus Christ) is only found with any detail inside its pages. So, clearly, a defense of the accuracy of the Bible is crucial for the Christian.

Christians vary widely in how literal they take the Bible. Most evangelicals take it to be inerrant and infallible, meaning that in every area it touches on, it is 100% accurate and true. Other Christians, like those in most of the mainline denominations and some Catholics, take the Bible more loosely. They believe it to be true, but in a more spiritual sense. They often will acknowledge that, as a work of human beings, it does reflect the errors and cultural assumptions of its time. However, they still use it as a significant source of spiritual truth. Some of the most liberal Christians go further than this to deny some of the tenets contained within the Bible—such as the idea that Jesus did not rise literally from the dead, to name one significant example. So there is far from any consensus on Christian believers as to how much of the Bible should be taken as accurate and true.

I am primarily going to deal with the historical accuracy of the Bible in this article. Scientific accuracy will be dealt with when I discuss Creationism, and spiritual accuracy may be dealt with somewhat when talking about other methods of justifying Christianity, such as through miracles or personal experience.1 In addition, I am going to devote an entire article to the  resurrection, which will involve the accuracy of the gospels. So, I will primarily be dealing with the Old Testament here.

Biblical Archaeology

The main method of establishing the accuracy of the Bible that Christians use is to point to archaeology and history. Often when I was growing up, I heard the claim, “Archaeology has never proved the Bible wrong! Time and time again, it has been verified by modern historical methods.” This was rarely backed up with actual facts, and was typically spoken by a pastor or other church leader (meaning that they likely had little to no expertise in archaeology). The argument is used to support Christianity over any other religion, since the Christian’s religious text has never been falsified, and other religious texts have been.

The problem with this statement is that it is flat-out false. Once upon a time, so-called biblical archaeologists went around with a Bible in one hand and a shovel in the other, and looked around for ways to confirm the Bible. When they dug up a city that was around the right spot as mentioned in the Bible, they said, “Aha! We’ve found that city!” This was done without independent fact-checking of whether the city unearthed was actually one and the same as the biblical city. Newer research has overturned many of these discoveries, showing them to be incorrect, but unfortunately the previous “victories” still get passed around in church circles with no one bothering to check whether they are true.

The fact is, affirmed by modern archaeologists and more moderate Christians alike, that while the Bible does get some history right, it also gets some history terribly wrong. Certainly there are cases where the Bible gets it right. Many of the cities found in the Bible have been verified, which makes sense considering that the writers were presumably aware of the geography around them. However, just because a writer is aware of his/her surroundings, it does not mean that he/she is accurate in describing events. This is compounded when writers were recounting events which took place long before they were even born. Let me give a few examples.

The Exodus from Egypt

Moses and the Red SeaThe majority of scholars in the area view Exodus as a legendary account, with little or no historical basis. Similar to the founding myths of virtually all civilizations, Exodus provides a unifying tale of delivery from bondage and establishes the great “heroes” of the Jewish people. Instead of the traditional view that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament, which includes Exodus) was written by Moses, most scholars date Exodus around the 5th or 6th century BCE. This places it somewhere during or after the Babylonian exile. This alone is a mark against its accuracy, since the events it recalls go back much further in time. While there are debates over just how this story came to be, it is not necessary to know where the story originated in order to determine that it is not factually correct.

To begin with, there is no solid evidence for any large number of slaves in Exodus. Some have argued that the “Hyksos” mentioned in Egyptian documents may refer to the Hebrews, but it is difficult to provide evidence for this conjecture other than that the word appears around the time when the Hebrews might have been there, if they were there at all. This is hardly solid proof. Moreover, there is no evidence that Egypt suffered a massive decrease in population, or that Canaan greatly swelled in number. Considering that the Bible (Exodus 12:37-38) reports about 600 thousand men, not including women or children, this points toward a huge migration. Nowhere has there been found any evidence of a mass of people this size wandering through the desert. Any group of people this size would leave remains: broken pots, fire pits, dead bodies,2 and so on. To have a population of at least a million, plus livestock, which left no trace for 40 years would be absolutely astonishing. But despite the investigation of archaeologists, and despite the ideal conditions for preservation of artifacts (hot and dry), no remains have ever been found of this large exodus from Egypt.

There are at least two ways that historians reconcile this. Some view the exodus as a founding myth, and instead claim that the Hebrews lived in Canaan all along, but then at some point took over the region. This is a theory with some plausibility. Another way to reconcile it is to simply throw out the bogus numbers in the Bible, and simply say that the exodus was much, much smaller than reported. This could give a reason for not finding evidence of a large group of people in either Egypt, the desert, or Canaan. Either way, though, it destroys the literal historical accuracy of the biblical account. The second method preserves more of it, but one is still required to admit that the human writers took liberties with the text.

The Strange History of Daniel

The book of Daniel is a prophetic book that claims to be written by a man named Daniel living during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE. However, once again modern scholarship believes the book to have been written much later, around the 2nd century BCE. Why might this be? It comes down primarily to a study of the history contained within the book.

Some of the history contained within the book is accurate. In addition, some of the “prophecies” recounted in the book are extremely accurate. But scholars have noted that the prophecies seem to become more and more accurate as they refer to 2nd-century events. What is most odd is that the prophecies concerning that time period are much more accurate than the reported history of the 6th century contained in the book. That seems strange if the writer were himself writing during the 6th century. Let me provide a couple examples of the historical errors, and then I will talk about the prophecies as well.

Belshazzar

Cylinder of NabonidusFor years, historians had no reference to a king named Belshazzar outside of Daniel, where he is mentioned as the son of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 5:9-11, 18). No other text mentioned such a name, and no independent evidence could be found of his existence. However, an astonishing artifact was then uncovered called the Cylinder of Nabonidus which mentioned Belshazzar. This cylinder, dating to the time of the Babylonian king Nabonidus, finally vindicated the book of Daniel and its mention of Belshazzar. The only problem, however, was that Belshazzar, as indicated from this cylinder, was not whom Daniel said he was. Daniel very clearly indicates that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, and that he had control of the kingdom when it was attacked. This cylinder, which we know to be from that time period, states that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, and was co-regent with his father when the kingdom fell. Other sources make it clear that Nabonidus himself was not even related to Nebuchadnezzar, so there seems to have been no blood relation between Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar. While one could certainly forgive this mistake coming from someone writing 400 years later, it seems highly improbable that someone writing during the time period (and with a position close to the king, no less!) would make such an egregious error.

Darius the Mede

Another anomaly of Daniel is the reference to Darius the Mede. No other source mentions a King Darius at this point in time (though there was a later Darius that was a rule of the Persian empire). On the other hand, many sources indicate that King Cyrus of the Persians (whom Daniel also mentions) was the one who attacked and destroyed the Babylonian empire. Furthermore, the Persians already had control over the Medes at this point in time. So while Daniel gets some of the names right, he mixes up their places in history. Again, forgiveable for someone living and writing in the 2nd century BCE, but not for someone who literally served under the king during the time period.

It seems clear that there are very strange errors in Daniel’s historical account. But let us now turn to the prophecies contained within the book to see if they fare better.

Prophecies of Daniel

By far the most well-known prophecy of Daniel is the prophecy of the giant statue and the four kingdoms. King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream about a statue made of gold, silver, bronze, and iron/clay (Daniel 2:31-45). These four sections symbolize four kingdoms that would come after the Babylonian empire. Typically they are taken to represent Babylon (gold), Media (silver), Persia (bronze), and Greece (iron/clay), though I have personally heard them represented as Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome instead. At any rate, if this is taken to be what he meant, then he is very accurate in this. Similarly, Daniel 8 describes a vision of a ram and a goat that is later interpreted in the text as referring to the Greek empire. The description of Alexander the Great’s rule and then the later division of the empire into four parts (4th century BCE) is extremely accurate.

Coin depicting Antiochus IV EpiphanesDaniel continues to describe the events after the division of the Greek empire in great (though allegorical) detail, and finally gets to Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the “contemptible” person mentioned in Daniel 11:21. Antiochus IV ruled from 175-163 BCE: the 2nd century, when Daniel is presumed to have written his book. Suddenly, after detailing with great accuracy a history of kings and empires, Daniel 11:40-45 falls flat. Verse 42 says that Antiochus IV would invade Egypt and conquer it—but this did not happen. He had previously withdrawn from Egypt, and never invaded it again. Verse 45 says that the king will “pitch his palatial tents between the sea and the beautiful holy mountain. Yet he shall come to his end, with no one to help him.” This refers to the Mediterranean Sea and Mount Zion in Jerusalem. But Antiochus IV died in Persia, far away from Israel. Somehow, a prophet who had foretold events with uncanny accuracy suddenly lost his ability when predicting events around 167-164 BCE. It seems strange that an ability so accurate would suddenly fail him.

Thus, it seems the most logical explanation is that of scholars, who believe Daniel to have been written around that time period. It was a common method of writing at that time to write a book of prophecy, but use a name from history to give it credibility. By “foretelling” events from the past, one then was able to make predictions about the immediate future. These books, called apocalyptic literature, used names like Adam, Enoch, Elijah, Ezekiel, and later Paul, Peter, Thomas, James, and Stephen. As a common genre of literature during the time period, it seems completely plausible that the book of Daniel is just one of these, rather than the prophetic writings of a 6th-century exile.

Conclusion

While I have only brought up a couple of examples of where the Bible has gone wrong with its history, there are many more that could be mentioned. It seems that the most reasonable position to take is that the Bible is a collection of books that were written by numerous people, and that weave together history, legend, prophecy, poetry, and myth to create a compelling narrative and to deliver important truths. While many parts are historically accurate and verified by other texts or artifacts, it does not seem that some “super-human” historical accuracy of the Bible can legitimately form the basis of an argument that would support Christianity. This still leaves open the case that significant truths can be found within the Bible, but it denies that it is the infallible, inerrant work of a divine source that a priori provides evidence for Christianity.

More Information

I don’t have time to cover everything about history and archaeology in this series. I’m long-winded enough as it is. But for those who want some more information about these issues, here are a few more links to whet the appetite:

  • The Bible’s Buried Secrets – An excellent documentary by PBS on the origins of the Bible, as revealed by modern scholarship.
  • Documentary Hypothesis – This is the mainstream view of the origins of the first five books of the Bible. Most scholars believe that these books were written in pieces and then patched together by editors later in time.
  • Good History in the Book of Daniel – An essay about the historical accuracies and inaccuracies of Daniel.

Notes:

  1. It is much more difficult to establish the spiritual accuracy of the Bible, since God tends not to show himself very often. []
  2. Remember that the entire generation of Hebrews living at the time had to die in the wilderness first before they entered the Promised Land—Numbers 14:20-23. []

14 responses to “Contesting Christianity: Biblical Accuracy”

Gandy

>It seems that the most reasonable position to take is that the Bible is a collection of books that were written by numerous people, and that weave together history, legend, prophecy, poetry, and myth to create a compelling narrative and to deliver important truths.that significant truths can be found within the BibleThis post is part 3 of the series < Jeff , or was it part 2 ?

Gandy

Ahhh i see .Learn somthing new every day.

Anyway basically i agree good explanation of sudden changes within Daniel.

And i has just said one of the significant truths within bible,was also the great importance of honesty.

And i just had wonderd how harsh we can be on priests and popes today, who sometimes try bending the truth a little to suit their causes.If maybe the holy book they followed, didnt even provide a role model so very different.

Just a thought Jeff

D R Hood

Excellent article, but too short! I was waiting to see you pull apart the supposed historicity of the gospels.

D R Hood

Jeff

Thanks for the comment, D.R.! I intentionally left out discussion about the gospels, since I thought it more fitting to talk about them when discussing the resurrection. But that article is up now! You can take a look at it here.

Thanks again!

Bryan Norford

Hi there Jeff:

As you suggest, there are a number of things we are going to disagree about. But if it helps us sharpen our thinking, then there is value to our discussions. Also, I think that some basic positions raised already will have a bearing on future discussion.

However, I plan to move on, but one item you may have misread. I thought I made it clear that I did not believe either position for or against the existence of God was provable. Check the end of my third paragraph.

Moving to your second article, it is clear that you have spent time with Christians and so you’ve had plenty of discussion to frame your arguments. Other than articles and books, I have not had the reverse opportunity, having moved in Christian circles all my life with little chance to talk to the other side. So I appreciate your time and effort put into these exchanges.

From some blog responses attached to your article, #2, I can see that you plan to extend biblical accuracy over several sessions, but concentrate on the Old Testament in this one. Let me say from the start that I have confidence in the Bible, but recognize figures of speech and the way they portray truth: poetry, metaphor, hyperbole, etc., and other forms of stylized speech.

Also, there are some inaccuracies in the Bible because of recognizable transmission errors, but not wholesale rewriting of history and deception of the order you suggest. Furthermore, when citing sources, it depends who you read or listen to, for both sides have genuine researchers who try to match facts to support their position. It is disingenuous to say that only one side is impartial and the other biased.

Of course, I agree with you that there are also zealots who sift evidence and present poorly attested material to bolster their positions—often because their faith (on either side) is weak and they fear losing it. The history of the Old Testament has proved substantially accurate, but with anomalies that may or may not yet be resolved.

Regarding the Hebrews in Egypt, even among evangelical scholars, their identity of has not been resolved. They certainly were not the Hyksos, and probably not the Habiru, although the Hebrews may have associated with or been part of either. Either way, it does not prove their non-existence.

Absence of remains of the exodus seems at first to be a greater problem. Yet on consideration and whatever their number, they spent only forty years in the desert and it was about 32-3400 years ago they were there. In comparison, the Hittites existed for several hundred years, but their existence was disputed until fairly recently.

No-one knows the exact route the Israelites took across the Sinai, it is a huge desert area and remains could be scattered over a wide area. Perhaps their bones and artefacts have been dug up unrecognized by wandering tribesmen. But the greatest drawback to your argument is the absence of evidence. Again, like the existence of God, absence of proof is not proof of absence.

Daniel is one of my favourite Old Testament authors. As you have noted, he is clear in his material; there is even little dispute about the meaning of some his allegories. He dates his material and even provides some explanations. He appears to be accurate, apart from some items you raise. Let’s look at those.

Belshazzar was not a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar. All scholars agree the history is clear. But the Aramaic word for father, used, six times of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 5, can also mean ancestor or predecessor, even originator or founder. We use father the same way—Graham Bell was the father of the telephone. The queen possibly alludes to father as predecessor in 5:11. The problem has a simple solution.

Darius the Mede was not a king Darius of history, but a ruler appointed over Babylon. He was referred to as king, and there is sufficient detailed information about him in Daniel 5, 6 and 9 to be historical, even if he is not known outside the Bible. Here the Bible should be used to supplement deficient history, or at least accepted provisionally, not trashed because it can’t be corroborated.

Finally, a comment about Daniel’s greater accuracy of later dates. The whole of Daniel 8 and 11 are building to the time of Antiochus Epiphanes. Both chapters devote much space to him and his exploits, precisely because he is reckoned as a type of an evil one to come—as you probably know, Jesus refers to Antiochus’ abomination. This increase in accuracy simply reflects greater detail.

And doesn’t is seem odd that 11:40–45 should appear so wildly inaccurate when, as you state, the foregoing is so accurate? Again, the answer is simple. You will note the markers in the text at verses 35 and 40, showing the prophecy moves to “the time of the end.” Verses 36–40 refer to a time yet to come, as does chapter 12. Of course, if you don’t believe in prophecy, then you are left wondering where on earth Daniel is going—or been!

As you mention, you could go to many other scriptures to make the point of the Bible’s inaccuracy. But I contend there is probably a reasonable answer for most of them. Look forward to receiving your comments.
Best to you,
Bryan

Jeff

Hi Bryan,

I must apologize for the delay in my response. Normally WordPress emails me when I get a new comment, but I didn’t seem to have received an email about this one or your next one. So I’ve just noticed your comments now. Sorry about that.

Also, there are some inaccuracies in the Bible because of recognizable transmission errors, but not wholesale rewriting of history and deception of the order you suggest.

I’m not arguing for “wholesale rewriting of history” and “deception”, really. Well, I suppose it depends what you mean by that. In most cases it’s rather a problem of people today misinterpreting passages written thousands of years ago by assuming they were intending to write accurate history. Even when reading the most thorough and dependable historians of antiquity, we must be careful to take what they say with a grain of salt. Sometimes they are in the middle of describing normal history, and then throw in some fantastical claim about Alexander the Great, for example, or oftentimes they completely made up speeches, perhaps based on very little detail about the actual content of the speech. And these were from people who were intending to write history. They were not intending to deceive, but they had different standards of evidence, different ideas about what history was, and different literary genres. When you go back to the writers of, say, Genesis, this becomes even more challenging because they likely weren’t intending to write a sober historical account. They were writing down stories that had been passed down orally for generations. The errors are not necessarily “deception” or “rewriting of history”, just very different established methods for passing on received knowledge. And when people today interpret it as literal, sober historical analysis, that’s where the errors occur.

Now, regarding the Hebrews in Egypt and the Exodus, you’re right that the absence of evidence is not a fatal flaw here. But that doesn’t give us reason to accept the Bible’s truth, either. Especially, once again, when you consider that Genesis/Exodus was likely oral tradition, and might very well be allegorical interpretation of Hebrew history, and perhaps even edited by later editors to become a more concrete account. These accounts read much better as “founding myths”, which virtually every ancient culture had. So in the absence of evidence, what is there to do? Over 600 thousand people that were ostensibly in Egypt are given no mention in Egyptian records to begin with, then disappear without a trace and suddenly start attacking the peoples of Canaan? Such a mass migration is an unusual story that needs some sort of physical evidence to support it.

Belshazzar was not a descendant of Nebuchadnezzar. All scholars agree the history is clear. But the Aramaic word for father, used, six times of Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 5, can also mean ancestor or predecessor, even originator or founder. We use father the same way—Graham Bell was the father of the telephone. The queen possibly alludes to father as predecessor in 5:11. The problem has a simple solution.

That’s a possibility, but as I mentioned, Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus, who from all evidence we have, was not even a blood relation of Nebuchadnezzar. So it even the “ancestor” translation would be incorrect here. “Predecessor” is, I suppose, a possibility, but I can’t really comment on the likelihood of that considering I am not an expert in Hebrew. The best thing I have to go on is to note that virtually all Bible translations present the word as “father”, with a couple noting that it could be “grandfather”. That suggests that father is likely the best translation for that word.

Darius the Mede was not a king Darius of history, but a ruler appointed over Babylon. He was referred to as king, and there is sufficient detailed information about him in Daniel 5, 6 and 9 to be historical, even if he is not known outside the Bible. Here the Bible should be used to supplement deficient history, or at least accepted provisionally, not trashed because it can’t be corroborated.

Again, this is a possibility (as most things in history are), but we have no external evidence for this. It only make sense to use these writings to supplement history if we can reasonably establish based on other evidence that the writer of Daniel actually lived close to that time period. Otherwise, it seems to make more sense to take it as an error, considering there was a later King Darius that might easily be confused when one is writing 400 years later.

And doesn’t is seem odd that 11:40–45 should appear so wildly inaccurate when, as you state, the foregoing is so accurate? Again, the answer is simple. You will note the markers in the text at verses 35 and 40, showing the prophecy moves to “the time of the end.” Verses 36–40 refer to a time yet to come, as does chapter 12.

This interpretation makes no sense. The whole of chapter 11 is clearly one continuous narrative. The whole passage refers numerous times to the “king of the north” and the “king of the south”—why on earth would Daniel refer to them early in the chapter, then use the same referents after verse 40, but intending to refer to people thousands of years in the future? Of course, the writer of Daniel mentions an “interval” in verse 35, but the very next verse continues to talk about the same king. Evidently, the interval cannot be too great if Antiochus is still intended to be alive. I understand that Christians have developed complex theologies about how references to “Babylon” are really references to something else and how “weeks” are really sets of 7 years, and so on, but there is no basis for this other than, “These prophecies never came true, so they must be referring to some future time still.” It’s clear that the writer of Daniel was referring to a time in the future, yes, but clearly not one in the distant future. This lines up with the numerous works of apocalyptic literature, both inside and outside the Bible, that all take notable figures from the Israelites’ past, write as if they wrote a book of prophecy, and then make predictions about the immediate future. It leaves a much more coherent narrative to assume this is the case, rather than slicing up what is most evidently a continuous story into chunks that are supposed to refer to the near future or distant future. “At the time of the end” only means that the writer believed the end to be close to these events, not that they were intended to be taken as an entirely separate story about something thousands of years from that point.

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