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The Bible and history

The article concerns the historicity of the Bible; i.e. in what ways is the Bible historically accurate; to what extent can it be used as a historic source and what qualifications should be applied. It mostly relates to views within the academic community.

This page is not a historical description of Biblical times. For that see History of ancient Israel and Judah.



Religious views

Some people, especially those within Fundamentalist Christianity hold that the Bible is the Word of God, and is therefore inerrant and infallible. The Bible is therefore held to be historically accurate, even down to smallest details. Believers uphold the literal biblical account against any and all scientific claims that conflict with it, as evidenced by the claims of creation science.

Most Christians and Jews however prefer to stress the importance of the moral and religious values inculcated in the Bible, while its accuracy as a historic reference is not necessarily a key part of their faith. Religious writers and academics often refer to the creation stories as symbolic or intentionally simplified. Judaism in particular rejects the notion of literal interpretation of the Bible, as exemplified in the views of Maimonides who taught that when scientific evidence contradicts an understanding of the Bible, we must re-interpret that verse in accord with science.

Scientific views

Within the academic community, the main discussion revolves around how much weight to give the text of the Bible against contradicting evidence or lack of evidence. Generally those giving more weight to the text of the Bible, assuming its correctness unless proven otherwise and tending to interpret it literally are called Biblical maximalists, while the opposing view is Biblical minimalism. The debate between both sides is inextricably tied with modern politics. See below.

As for any other written source, an educated weighting of the Biblical text requires knowledge of when was it written, by whom and for what purpose. For example, academics estimate that the Pentateuch was written somewhere between the 10th century BCE and the 6th century BCE. A popular hypothesis points at the rein of Josiah (7th century BCE). This topic is expanded upon in dating the Bible. This means that the events of, e.g. Exodus happened centuries before they were written down, so one should be prepared — indeed one should expect — that telling and retelling through the centuries accentuated the tale, perhaps merged originally unrelated stories, and so on. Analysis of the text suggests that it was written in the Kingdom of Judah and probably reflects the political ambitions of the kingdom or of the temple. Thus for example one should keep in mind that representing Judah and Israel as a unity throughout history, separated only "recently" fitted in with Josiah's political plans for the remnants of the Kingdom of Israel.

Finally, an important point to keep in mind is the documentary hypothesis, which claims that our current version was based on older written sources that were lost. Most scholars accept this hypothesis. See documentary hypothesis for details.

Old Testament


The Biblical creation tale, up to and including the deluge are not a subject of dispute in the scientific community. They are generally regarded as a myth. The arguments raised come cosmology, geology, evolution (in particular fossil evidence), and textual analysis of the Bible itself, showing similarity to other mythologies.

The Patriarchs

The Patriarchs are Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. The Biblical narratives about them are generally held to be myths, that is stories which may have a basis in fact but are not themselves historical. (The King Arthur myth is a good example — there is a kernel of historical truth there, though finding it is difficult and requires much archaeological detective work.) No archeological evidence supporting the Bible was found, nor was it likely to expect archeological proof for the existence of a single household in the 18th century BCE.


The historicity of the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is a matter of some speculation. Looking for hints in the extensive Egyptian records, some scholars identify the Israelites with the Hyksos, Asian tribes that inhabited Egypt in the 17-16 centuries BCE. Others suggested the Apir which are reminded occasionally between the 15th and 11th centuries BCE. The earliest known reference to "Israel" (c 1200BCE), is the "Victory Stele" (or "Israel Stele") of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah, in which among other victories it is recorded that "Israel is laid waste; his seed is not".

Some have attempted to relate various plagues to historic events, notably the volcanic eruption in Thera in the 17th century BCE. See Ten plagues for details.

The number of Israelites stated in the Bible, 600,000, cannot be taken at face value, as this number is thought to exceed the total Egyptian population at the time. A common suggestion is that the word "thousand" should be interpreted here as meaning "family", which gives a figure much more compatible with the historical record. (The record shows significant periodic movements by Asiatic populations in and out of Egypt, in particular retreating to the fertile Egyptian delta in times of drought.) Researchers however differ widely in their opinion on the true number, and indeed if the event ever took place.


The historicity of the book of Joshua is today strongly suspected, as archeological research found no evidence of a massive population increase in Canaan during this time period. At this time the land had a population of between 50,000 and 100,000. Kathleen Kenyon excavated in Jericho from 1952-1958, using improved methods of stratigraphy, and found many details which would seem to conform to the Biblical account of the conquest of Jericho, but she determined that the siege took place 150 years too early for it to have been the city Joshua's army destroyed. She dated the city by the absence of a type of imported pottery common to the era around 1400 B.C. She concluded, as had Sellin and Watzinger before her that the Biblical account of the conquest of Jericho was untenable.

United Monarchy

Since the discovery of a 9th century BCE inscription at Tel Dan probably referring to the house of David, it is more common to assume David was a real historical figure. However, a heated debate extends as to whether the united monarchy and the rebellion of Jeroboam ever existed, or whether they are a late fabrication.

Later kings

It is generally assumed that the Biblical account of the history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel is historic, even if not unbiased. Archeological evidence and chronologies of neighboring countries have corroborated the general picture presented in the Bible, even if not every details. For example, Ahab's participation in the Battle of Karkar is clearly documented in Assyrian chronology.

Despite widespread belief among the academic community that no Assyrian king named Sargon (as recorded in Isaiah 20:1) existed, Sargon's palace was eventually discovered in Khorsabad, Iraq. The event mentioned in Isaiah 20, his capture of Ashdod, was recorded on the palace walls. Fragments of a stela memorializing the victory were found at Ashdod itself.

Another king who was in doubt was Belshazzar, king of Babylon, named in Daniel 5. The last king of Babylon was Nabonidus according to recorded history. Tablets were found showing that Belshazzar was Nabonidus' son who served as coregent in Babylon. Thus, Belshazzar could offer to make Daniel "third highest ruler in the kingdom" (Dan. 5:16) for reading the handwriting on the wall, the highest available position.

New Testament

Main article: Historicity of Jesus

A number of scholars have argued that although there may well have been a real person named Jesus, the Jesus we know from the Bible today has many elements that come from myths and religions current at the time, for example Mithraism. It is suggested that this process of assimilation is similar to the way in which peoples in Latin America and Africa have often incorporated elements of their traditional faiths into their newly-adopted Christianity. And they point out that even in European traditions, such fundamentals as the traditional date of Jesus' birth (midnight 24th December) and death (Easter) are taken from pre-existng pagan practices (the winter solstice and the fertility rites of the goddess Eostre). ( although it should be pointed out that the bible nowhere claims that Jesus was born on christmas day, and jesus most certainaly did not die during easter, since easter is not exactly the date of the passover although the two do occur close together.)

At the extreme, some scholars, most notably Earl Doherty, have suggested that Jesus never existed at all, that the character is a gestalt of numerous individuals who lived and myths that were common currency during the late Hellenistic age. The early secular references (Tacitus on Jesus, Josephus on Jesus) can be disputed, and once these are discounted little extra-biblical support for Jesus' existence remains (see Jesus).

Marginal views

Popular writers such as Immanuel Velikovsky, Lisa Liel , Donovan Courville and others have suggested that the lack of archeological attestation of biblical figures is due to errors in the traditional chronology or the dating of archaelogical strata. Velikovsky's theories were rejected outright by the scientific community and refuted in detail, see Immanuel Velikovsky. More recent theories, notably those of Egyptologists David Rohl and Peter James are viewed with cautious interest by the scientific community but have not gained widespread acceptance. Indeed, a re-dating on the order of 300 years, as they proposed, is strongly rejected by leading Egyptologists, notably Prof. Kenneth Kitchen, although a redating by lesser amounts, such as 50 years, is more widely seen as potentially necessary.

Israel ancient and modern

Biblical archaeology is sometimes politically controversial, especially when it touches on the United Monarchy period, as some Israelis seek to use the existence of the Kingdom as support for a Greater Israel today. Arguments against the historicity of the Kingdom (or perhaps an existence in a smaller and less impressive form), or against the historicity of a recognisable Exodus, can lead to charges of anti-Semitism, for example from Hershel Shanks , editor of Biblical Archaeology Review. Nonetheless, since these periods are fundamental to Israelis' understanding of their history, it is understandable that it is an emotive subject for some.


Sources on Biblical maximalism versus Biblical minimalism:

  • Biran, Avraham. "'David' Found at Dan." Biblical Archaeology Review 20:2 (1994): 26-39.
  • Coogan, Michael D. "Canaanites: Who Were They and Where Did They Live?" Bible Review 9:3 (1993): 44ff.
  • Mazar, Amihai. 1992. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday.
  • 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. 1997 "Cow Town or Royal Capital: Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem." Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 4: 43-47, 67.
  • Shanks, Hershel. 1995. Jerusalem: An Archaeological Biography. New York: Random House.
  • Shanks, Hershel. 1997 "Face to Face: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers." Biblical Archaeology Review. 23, no. 4: 26-42, 66.
  • Steiner, Margareet and Jane Cahill. "David's Jerusalem: Fiction or Reality?" Biblical Archaeology Review 24:4 (1998): 25-33, 62-63; 34-41, 63. This article presents a debate between a Biblical minimalist and a Biblical maximalist.
  • Thomas L. Thompson, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, London 1999
  • William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2001

External links

  • The Debate over the Historicity and Chronology of the United Monarchy in Jerusalem by Ong Kar Khalsa
  • Minimalism, "Ancient Israel", and Anti-Semitism By Philip Davies.

Last updated: 02-18-2005 13:43:03
Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55