The Bible as history-2: Why people think much of it is true

Until very recently, I had (like most people) the vague idea that the basic Biblical story of a people being in captivity in Egypt, then somehow escaping and settling in the land that is now known as Israel and Palestine was true. Of course, one had to allow for the fact that the stories may have been embellished over time, with all kinds for spectacular miracles and tales of heroism added in to make it more compelling drama. The stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Sun being made to stand still, and similar miracles all violate well-established scientific laws and cannot be taken seriously except by those who are determined to believe them because they want to.

But the credibility of the basic historical outline was enhanced by the fact that as we got to periods later that about 600 BCE and approached the time of Jesus, there were other non-Biblical contemporary records that corroborated some of the historical events written about in the Bible. These corroborations of some later events enabled people to believe that the earlier events must also be true. In addition, early archeologists in the Middle East began with the presumption that the Bible stories were entirely true and interpreted all their findings to corroborate them, thus adding to the credibility of the Biblical history.

The earliest challenges to the Bible’s historical accuracy came in the late nineteenth century from what is called the “higher criticism,” which applied the techniques of linguistic and textual analysis to written documents. The study of the language used in the Bible, and the allusions and references that were used therein, enabled scholars to deduce important information about the chronology of events and when the books were written.

Such careful scrutiny of Biblical texts led scholars to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses (as popularly supposed), but were created after the period of Babylonian exile and captivity (586-538 BCE) by Jewish scribes who tried to put a collection of older writings into some order.

It is important to remember that the precursor to the modern Hebrew language only became codified around 800 BCE and thus the first books of the Bible only were written about a century later. But if you take the calendars deduced from the genealogies of the Bible at face value, the early events involving Abraham must have happened about 1800 BCE. Thus, when they were being actually written, the books in the Old Testament were describing events that supposedly happened well over a thousand years earlier. Thus most of the Biblical ‘history’ of that earlier time had to be based on myths, legends, and oral histories, all of which are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to distortions introduced either unwittingly or deliberately by their creators in order to serve political and nationalist and religious goals. At best, these books must be viewed as representing nothing more than a codification of folklore, oral traditions, and propagandizing.

Of course, this does not prove that the events described in those books never happened but it does suggest that those stories should be treated on a par with Norse and Greek and Indian mythology in terms of their credibility.

The only reliable evidence of events of times earlier than the first millennium BCE are those that have been unearthed by scientific methods, such as archaeological studies. Oral and written histories can mislead, but the trail left by the ruins of past societies, the rubble of their homes, and the remnants of their pots and tools and bones and other debris, provide a much more unbiased record of how people lived and migrated. People write with a conscious purpose and future audience in mind, but they live for the present. In our daily activities, we do not deliberately set out to create evidence to guide future archeologists. If I am writing my autobiography, I do it with an eye to what future readers will think of me, but when I take out the trash, I am not wondering what the detritus of my life will say about my society and me a thousand years hence.

For a long while, the archeological records seemed to support the basic ideas of Biblical history. Daniel Lazare, in the article False Testament in the March 2002 issue of Harper’s magazine, sums up the situation that existed until about two decades ago. He says that “it seemed clear that the Israelites had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these few basic facts.”

This pretty much is the kind of hazy idea that most people have of that time and it seemed to be supported by evidence. The support that earlier archeologists who went to the Middle East in the 19th century provided for the basic Bible stories was not an accident, though. These early archeological studies were done by people who were themselves deeply religious and they were confident that their studies would uncover facts that would be fully consistent with the Bible. They took the basic Bible narratives as more-or-less factual and sought to find, or at least interpret, evidence that confirmed those accounts. Hence, as Lazare says, “The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them into a preconceived theoretical framework.” Because of this “Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored.”

As a result of this earlier work, the strong perception was created over time that there has been a consistent pattern of evidence being unearthed that buttressed the basic stories of the Bible so that we can regard at least that part of the document that occurs after Noah’s flood and begins with Abraham as historically true. This is the image that is widespread today. But that view has changed dramatically with the rise of a new generation of archeologists who did not feel constrained, as their predecessors had done, to interpret their discoveries to be consistent with the Bible.

Next: What modern archeology reveals.

POST SCRIPT: This amazing universe

This video clip of the Galaxy Song from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life never loses its appeal, because of its scientific accuracy, the cleverness of its lyrics, and the reminder it provides that, thanks to science, we are able to comprehend so much about this vast and amazing universe that we have been fortunate enough to be born into. The last words of the song are:

So remember, when you’re feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space,
‘Cause there’s bugger all down here on Earth.

The Bible as history-1: The basic early story

There are two views of history. Academic history is that which is painstakingly recreated by historians, trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible events from long ago using source materials as close to the original time as possible along with other kinds of evidence. But then there is the view of history as consisting of that which we remember long after our courses in history have ended. W. C. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman, and Frank Muir humorously recounted the latter kind of English history in their book 1066 and All That, while Dave Barry did it brilliantly for US history in Dave Barry Slept Here, one of the funniest books I have ever read.

The fact is that to the chagrin of historians, most people’s ideas about past events are quite vague and consist of bits of stories they remember from various sources stitched together to provide some sort of quasi-coherent narrative that may differ wildly from the actual sequence of events.

In researching and writing that many-part series about our common ancestors (which you can find by typing in the keyword ‘ancestor’ in the search box) something that surprised me was how few contemporary records exist of what happened earlier than (say) the first millennium BCE. I realized during the course of that research how little I knew for certain about the past and that most of what I knew I had acquired in the course of religious instruction using the Old Testament of the Bible. I began to wonder just how much of the Bible was actually true as history and decided to do a little digging.

Even during the most religious phases of my life, I had never taken the Bible literally as a source of cosmology and other origins. The Genesis stories of how the universe came to be, Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark and the like were to be understood as fiction. Of course, like other ‘modern’ religious people, I took these fictional accounts to be metaphors signifying deeper truths about the role of god in the world.

I also did not take the Bible as a source of science. The stories about seas being parted, the Sun made to stand still, and people rising from the dead were bizarre and unbelievable and inconsistent. The miracles were too contradictory of the laws of science to merit serious consideration.

But what about the Bible as history? Once we got past the early creation stories of Genesis, I pretty much accepted that the Bible was recording actual events, although clearly the authors of the texts had spiced up the narrative with miracles and whatnot to make it more compelling and readable.

Before I report on what I found as to the accuracy of the Biblical accounts, here is a brief overview of what most of us probably remember about history as told in the Bible. I will give here just the bare bones history, leaving out all the rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide that fill its pages. People who have not read the Bible themselves and have learned the Biblical stories only from religious teachers and priests may be surprised at all the interesting bits those people left out.

The Old Testament stories can be split up into two parts, before Noah’s Ark and the flood, and after. Almost everyone (other than Biblical literalists who believe that everything in the Bible is strictly true) accept that the Genesis accounts up to and including the flood and Noah’s Ark are mythological. The real claim to history begins with the story of Abraham when, after some serious begatting following the flood, the world had a fairly large population. Out of this population there came this person called Abraham (who possibly originated somewhere in Mesopotamia) who was taken by god to the area known as Canaan (which consisted of land that would be currently called Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza and parts of Lebanon and Syria) and was told by god that his descendants would occupy that land.

After spending some time in Egypt (because of a famine back in Canaan) he returned to Canaan and had sons Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac married Rebecca and had twins Jacob (who later came to be called Israel) and Esau. Jacob had 12 sons one of whom was Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers but prospered there, effectively becoming the pharaoh’s close advisor and a powerful figure. Eventually his whole family joined him in Egypt and lived there and also prospered.

As the Biblical history continues, Joseph eventually died as did the pharaoh who had been his protector, and a new pharaoh ascended the throne who did not look kindly at the Israelites in their midst and started treating them badly. Then Moses came along and took the Israelites back to Canaan, with the Bible describing the route they took. After Moses got the ten commandments from god on Mount Sinai, the Israelites were punished by god for complaining and general bad behavior and spent forty years in the wilderness.

Joshua, Moses’s aide, took over as leader from Moses upon the latter’s death and led the conquest of the land of Canaan. Later on David and Solomon were kings who ruled over major areas of the lands known as Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). This was followed by a whole lot more wars and bloodshed, not to mention rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide.

After that the story gets more complicated and confusing with lots of stuff going on, various kings and prophets coming and going (along with the rampant sex, incest, etc.) until finally the people of Israel go into exile and captivity in Babylon (then ruled by Nebuchadnezzar) in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, king of Persia, the new dominant power in the region, overcame the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament version of history stops around 450 BCE and there is then a gap until the New Testament.

That is pretty much early history as told by the Bible.

Next: Why people think the early Biblical history is largely true.

POST SCRIPT: Suspicions confirmed

On November 14, I wrote inThe October Surprise That Failed? that I suspected that the bombing of the madrassa in Pakistan that killed 82 people was done by the US because they thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri was there. The government of Pakistan has now confirmed that this is the case, despite its earlier insistence that they had carried out the attack. The Sunday Times Christina Lamb reports:

“We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US,” said a key aide to President Pervez Musharraf. “But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again.”

The Americans are believed to have attacked after a tip-off that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, was present.

The lying by the US and Pakistan governments about their actions in these wars has become so commonplace, and so uncaring about the deaths of civilians, that it is amazing that anyone gives them any credence.