We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
:
OR
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

Not Exactly as It Happened

The Misconception:

Biblical historians relate what happened in the past.

You wouldn't know it from attending a church or synagogue, or from reading the annual Christmastime articles in Time magazine, but for the past half-century scholars have steadily chipped away at the Old Testament's credibility as a historical document. The big story in Near Eastern archaeology has been how many biblical narratives have been moved from the category of accepted fact to the misty realm of fable.

First to go was the Creation story, in Genesis—what evidence could ever be found to support it? Then Noah and the Flood, a catastrophic event for which there should be clear geological marks. There are none. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who once fit into secular histories of the second millennium B.C., left behind no evidence of their existence. If they were historical figures, we have to take the word of the biblical scribes, who wrote centuries after the patriarchs died.

The story of the Israelites' conquest of Canaan, blaring trumpets and all, has given way to a rather mundane vision of peaceful infiltration and a social revolt among indigenous peasants. There was no walled city at Jericho when Joshua was supposed to have destroyed it.1 Christopher Shea, “Debunking Ancient Israel: Erasing History or Facing the Truth?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 21, 1997): A12–14.

This quotation comes from the leading publication on higher education in America. It shows how biblical scholars have been forced by new evidence to retrench or revise their positions about the point at which the Bible begins to relate actual historical events. People who hear about these deliberations in the field of biblical scholarship typically have one of two reactions. The first may be characterized as “blind faith.” It is illustrated by a conversation I had a few years ago with a man who was doing some work on my house. This man was college educated, a business owner, honest, reliable, and a good worker. He was also a devout Christian. When he found out that I was a professor of Bible and had visited the Middle East, he began asking me about the archaeological evidence for certain events narrated in the Bible. He was especially interested in the exodus from Egypt under Moses and the conquest of Canaan under Joshua. I told him that archaeological evidence, or the lack of it, had led most biblical scholars to question whether those events had actually taken place, at least in the way the Bible describes them. He replied that the archaeological evidence did not matter to him. “No matter what they find, I will always believe that it happened just the way the Bible says it did.”

As admirable as the strength of this man's convictions may be, his faith was “blind.” He refused to consider any factual evidence that might challenge or force him to revise his faith. Biblical scholars encounter this kind of response all the time in the classroom. There are students who “just ‘shut down’ and refuse to engage biblical scholarship in a creative way at all.”2 Michael Joseph Brown, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000), 39. They react this way because they believe critical study of the Bible to be a threat to their faith.3 Brown (What They Don't Tell You, p. 5) helpfully defines “critical” in this sense as careful and deliberate study of the Bible “that engages the text and assumes the freedom to derive from the Bible meanings that may differ from those that traditional religion has seen in it.” Yet a faith that cannot stand up to challenges or cope with empirical evidence hardly seems worth having. This is another common reaction of students and other people who encounter biblical scholarship for the first time—they reject faith altogether and adopt a negative view of the Bible.

The fact that so much of the Bible's early history appears, in the light of scientific analysis and historical investigation, not to have happened in the way that the Bible claims raises a question about the Bible's nature. But as with Jonah, the problem may lie not with the Bible but with the way readers have approached it.

The traditional assumption has been that the Bible relates or purports to relate what happened in the past. Recent biblical scholarship, however, has shown that this assumption is misleading, that the typical understanding of the genre of the Bible's historical literature is incorrect. This means that, as in the case of the book of Jonah, a new way of reading this literature is warranted. Moreover, this new way of reading may be especially beneficial for people of faith, and a clearer understanding of the genre of historiography in ancient Israel may help to resolve the tension between the Bible's account and the historical investigations of biblical scholars and archaeologists. It may permit a faith that is not forced to blind itself by ignoring modern scholarly analyses.

In the first part of the chapter, we look at the nature of ancient history writing as recent biblical scholars have defined it and illustrate the nature of ancient history writing with examples from the book of Genesis relating to the events raised in the quotation that began this chapter. In the second part of the chapter, I discuss how history in the Bible was written by exploring the work of various history writers preserved in the Bible.

Notes:

1. Christopher Shea, “Debunking Ancient Israel: Erasing History or Facing the Truth?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (Nov. 21, 1997): A12–14.

2. Michael Joseph Brown, What They Don't Tell You: A Survivor's Guide to Biblical Studies (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2000), 39.

3. Brown (What They Don't Tell You, p. 5) helpfully defines “critical” in this sense as careful and deliberate study of the Bible “that engages the text and assumes the freedom to derive from the Bible meanings that may differ from those that traditional religion has seen in it.”

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2019. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice