The Bible – historically accurate or big old fairytale?

It’s not hard to discover so many, many books and blogs on the subject of biblical accuracy, several of which I’ve read, others I’ve skimmed and no doubt there are many more I’m totally unaware of (or were a bit boring, so I skipped over them). I couldn’t hope to add anything new to the debates, or to do them all justice in one single post; someone could spend a lifetime just reading it all, let alone coming to any firm conclusions! I’ve simply tried to look at as much as I can  and reach an answer for the purposes of linking to my Easter reflections posts.

It would seem that if I’m going to rely on the opinions of others about the historical accuracy of the Bible, then I’ll get nowhere pretty darn fast – the question ‘Is the Bible historically accurate?’ on debate.org shows that 50% of people say ‘yes‘ and 50% say ‘no‘. Well, 100% of me says ‘thanks guys,  but that’s not exactly helpful’ 😉

So what do I think? I guess it’s up to me, as it is with anyone, to weigh the evidence and draw what could be a ‘reasonable’ conclusion. I appreciate someone may go through the same process and draw a different conclusion, and of course your starting perspective and interests may influence the outcome you reach. But after my extensive trawl of the world wide web and various books, here’s the four things that persuade me most:

  1. It’s not one book, but a collection of books, written over thousands of years by many authors from a range of geographies and cultural backgrounds, and yet it has a very high degree of internal consistency. How’s that? Even if you asked five people who all witnessed the same football match to recall it a month later you would have different perspectives and details brought to mind. To me, it carries a lot of weight that something like the collection of books in the Bible can be so consistent in and of itself.  But if you then compare it to the reliability of other ancient writings, it becomes even more striking – factors such as the short time gap between events and when they were recorded, the number of original copies, the accuracy of translations and scribing over time all point to the conclusion that the Bible is basically the most reliable historical document ever.
  2. There are numerous and increasing numbers of archaeological finds that confirm the events depicted in the Bible. So much so that it’s used by archaeologists at the Smithsonian Institution (and other significant non-religious organisations) as a reference book to support their studies of the ancient world. The reputation of the Institution would surely influence their choice of source material, wouldn’t it? This quote from the Department of Anthropology is pretty unequivocal: “Much of the Bible, in particular the historical books of the old testament, are as accurate historical documents as any that we have from antiquity and are in fact more accurate than many of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Greek histories. These Biblical records can be and are used as are other ancient documents in archaeological work. For the most part, historical events described took place and the people’s cited really existed.”  OK, so some people might come back at me on that one and say, “They didn’t say ‘all of the Bible‘ is accurate.” Correct – they said “most” – and the general understanding of that word is ‘the greater part’ of or ‘the majority of’.  Apparently, the Institution were asked the same question about another ‘religious book’ (which I won’t name, but a Google search will find it for you), and they gave a very different answer, saying there is ”no direct connection between the archaeology of the world and the subject matter of the book.'”  A very different conclusion, I think you’ll agree! Unless they had a bunch of work-shy temping archaeologists on a shift for their analysis of the second book, I’m assuming they applied the same rules of intellectual rigour to both? So, the same archaeologists that use the Bible as a historical reference book, have never located the cities, people, names, or places mentioned in this other book, but they have in the Bible. Interesting.
  3. Following on from the above point, there are also many finds that refute the criticisms levelled at the bible years ago – to quote ICR, “critics have long been silenced by the archaeologist’s spade, and few critics dare to question the geographical and ethnological reliability of the Bible. Nothing exists in ancient literature that has been even remotely as well-confirmed in accuracy as has the Bible.” In my meanderings online to research this post, I found lots of stories about academics who had started out to unravel the Bible’s credibility as a history book, and ended up concluding the opposite! Sir William Ramsay and Josh McDowell to name two better-known examples.  Josh McDowell makes a the point in his book ‘The New Evidence‘, that there is a “desire on the part of many to apply one standard or test to secular literature and another to the Bible. One must apply the same test, whether the literature under investigation is secular or religious. Having done this, I believe … the Bible is trustworthy and historically reliable”.
  4. The last point is more personal; being a detail-geek, the presence of fine detail in some of the Bible’s stories fascinates me. I don’t see how they would be necessary if the writers didn’t intend for it be a historical record.  I think, ‘why bother to add that snippet if it didn’t happen?’ You can find lots of examples of this – some here – but one of my favourites is in Luke’s account of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law.  Three of the gospels tell this story: Matthew. Mark and Luke. Here’s what they each say.

Mark – Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed, sick with a fever

Matthew – he (Jesus) saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever

Luke – Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever

Why did Luke say it was a ‘high’ fever? Maybe because he was a doctor he knew the difference between different types of fever; it was a subtlety that passed the other two medically untrained writers by. A little thing, I know, but it strikes me as pretty neat 🙂

There is of course, so much more that could be said on this subject, but for now, those are my reflections.  I hope I started with an open mind, or at least a willingness to be convinced either way, and I’d say what I’ve looked at strongly convinces me that the balance of favour lies significantly more on the side of the Bible being accurate than not.

If you fancy some further reading, I found quite a thorough review of this question at www.everystudent.com.

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