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