Is the Bible Historically Reliable?
As we weigh the evidence for the Bible, our next question is that of its historical reliability. Biblical critics have attempted to prove the Bible untrue by citing, what they believe, are historical errors.
Although several supposed errors have been alleged by skeptics, two of the most common arguments against the Bible’s historical reliability are:
- The Old Testament is unreliable since two of its most important characters, Moses and David, didn’t exist.
- The New Testament is unreliable because it was written at least a century after Christ by unknown authors, and archaeologists can’t verify some of its key people and places.
Skeptics believe the evidence supports their arguments. But are they right?
Did the Old Testament Characters Moses and David Exist?
If Moses and David didn’t exist, a significant portion of the Bible’s history and teaching would be baseless.
Let’s look first at Moses, regarded as the most important person in Jewish history.
- Moses led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage.
- Moses is called the greatest of all Hebrew prophets.
- Moses delivered the Law and Ten Commandments to Israel.
- Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible (Torah).
But did Moses really exist?
In the late 19th century, the German critic Julius Wellhausen argued that Moses couldn’t have written the Torah, since the art of writing hadn’t yet been developed. Wellhausen reasoned that, if Moses didn’t write the Torah, he must have been mythical. This, coupled with the scarcity of archaeological evidence for Moses, led many skeptical scholars to argue he was mythical.
However, in 1974, archaeologists discovered the Ebla tablets, proving that writing existed well before the time of Moses.(29) In fact, archaeologists found numerous written documents, such as the codified Laws of Hammurabi, dated centuries prior to Moses.(30) Although these discoveries don’t prove Moses existed, they totally undermine Wellhausen’s primary reason for calling him mythical.
Skeptics also doubt Moses’ existence since neither he nor the Jewish exodus from Egypt are specifically cited in ancient Egyptian writings. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence of his existence from several other sources that can’t be denied.
- Ancient Jewish rabbis and scribes never doubted Moses was real
- The ancient historian, Josephus regarded Moses and the exodus as real
- Until the 19th century, no credible historian questioned Moses’ existence
It would be extremely difficult to imagine the origin of the Jewish religion with it laws and traditions apart from Moses. In his classic work, A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson argues that Jewish history centers on Moses being a real person.
The world historian emphatically states,
The contention of Wellhausen and his school that Moses was a later fiction and the Mosaic code a fabrication —a view held by some historians today—is skepticism carried to the point of fanaticism, a vandalizing of the human record. Moses was beyond the power of the human mind to invent. (31)
Skeptics argued that David was mythical because no evidence had ever been discovered confirming his existence.
- David was the king through whom Messiah would come.
- David was author of most of the Psalms.
- David established Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
However, in 1993 archaeologists discovered a ninth-century b.c. stone slab with the inscriptions “King of Israel” and “King of the House of David.” Scholars believe this “Tel Dan inscription” provides solid evidence of David’s existence.(32) Furthermore, two archaeologists believe they have recently unearthed David’s palace and storehouse, dated to his time.(33)
Johnson notes that the biblical skepticism of 17th-19th century German critics is continually eroding under the spade of the archaeologist.
The process whereby the Hebrews first settled in ancient Palestine, sojourned in Egypt, and then conquered Canaan has been brought bit by bit over the past half century into the lighted circle which is now illuminated, if still only dimly, by archaeology. Some events of the books of Exodus and Joshua, once dismissed by biblical critics as entirely imaginary, have now been confirmed by the work of such scholars as G. E. Wright on ancient Schechem, Kathleen Kenyon at Jericho, J. L. Starkey at Lachish, Yigael Yadin at Hazor, James Pritchard at Gibeon, to mention only five outstanding cases.
…it is now possible to see much of the historical writing contained in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as constituting the finest and most dependable history in all the ancient world, on a level with the best work of the Greeks, such as Thucydides.(34)
These recent discoveries have built a much more compelling case for the Old Testament’s historical reliability. (For more on the reliability of the Old Testament, see http://bibleandarchaeology.blogspot.com/.)