© 2021 Nick Goffin / Harvest City Church
IS THE BIBLE HISTORICALLY RELIABLE?
As Christians, we believe that when we read our Bibles, we are reading the inspired Word of God. But is it reliable?
- Is the Bible telling the truth, and are its descriptions of historical events accurate?
- Can I trust that the printed English book in my hands today is the same as the hand-written Hebrew/Greek scroll written millennia ago?
These are important questions. If the historical accuracy of the Bible is in doubt, then its status as God’s inspired Word is also in doubt. If the accuracy of its preservation is in question, then even if the original was correct, we can’t be confident the modern version is.
Finding points of agreement
It is estimated that in total, something like 100 billion humans have lived on Earth 1. Only the tiniest fraction of their remains have been preserved. The shard of a clay pot found in a desert cave might just be a random piece of junk, or it might be the single remaining artefact of an unknown ancient civilisation.
It is therefore very unlikely that direct evidence will show the existence of a specific biblical person or event (although this does happen). It is more useful to look for ‘agreement’ between the biblical narrative and third-party evidence; areas where the Bible’s account matches known facts about the period.
Let’s use Abraham as an example. No evidence of Abraham himself currently exists, but the biblical story of his life is consistent with what we know about the period in which he lived 2:
- Abraham’s hometown (Genesis 11): Ur of the Chaldees was a real place, first discovered in the 1920s and dated to around 2000 BC.
- Kings of Canaan (Genesis 14:1-4): The names of the kings mentioned are authentic Canaanite names from the period.
- Heir by surrogacy (Genesis 16): This practice was common and legally recognised at the time, and appears in multiple Assyrian records from the era.
None of these facts prove the biblical account to be true. However, the details are too authentic for the story to have been made up at a later date. This gives very reasonable grounds for believing it.
Another example is the story of Joshua and the fall of Jericho. Critics say things like: ‘The prevailing scholarly view … is that Joshua is not a factual account of historical events’ 3. Yet excavations of the site of the city of Jericho in the 1930s showed that it was near the Jordan River, was heavily fortified, that the walls suddenly collapsed and that the city showed evidence of burning 4. Despite supposedly not being factual, the Bible is correct in almost every detail. Even though there is no direct evidence for the existence of Joshua himself, the story is highly believable.
Evidence for specific events and characters in the Bible
While there is often a lack of evidence for specific events, there are many details in the Bible that have been specifically verified:
- Historians used to believe that King David was a fictional character. In 1868, the Mesha Stele was discovered. It was dated to about 840 BC and describes events in Moabite history that closely parallel 2 Kings 3. It mentions both the House of Omri and the House of David 5.
- Excavations in Nineveh between 1847–51 found a huge set of stone reliefs 6 detailing the Assyrian invasion of Judah (2 Kings 18; Isaiah 36). The cities of Lachish and Jerusalem, along with King Hezekiah of Judah and King Sennacherib of Assyria, are mentioned by name.
- Acts 15:6-7 tells of how Paul travelled to Paphos on the island of Cyprus and met the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. In 1877, an inscription was found near Paphos that bore both the name of Sergius Paulus and his title of proconsul 7.
- Acts 12 describes the persecution of the church by Herod Agrippa, his grand speech, acceptance of worship and sudden sickness and death. All of these details are supported by the Jewish historian Josephus 8.
Facts like these speak strongly to the credibility of the Bible as a historical document. If the verifiable details of the Bible have in fact been verified, then it is highly likely that the unverifiable ones are true as well.
Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
Christianity lives and dies on the truth of the resurrection. In order to justify this there are a number of facts, generally accepted by both Christians and sceptics, that need to be explained 9. Here are the three main ones:
- The death of Jesus by crucifixion: There are few deaths in history as well-attested as the death of Jesus. It is confirmed in all four gospels, as well as the writings of non-Christian historians Josephus and Tacitus, and the Jewish Talmud.
- The empty tomb: Everyone agrees that something happened to the body of Jesus. Jesus was publicly executed in Jerusalem, and his resurrection was first proclaimed there as well. It would have been easy to disprove had the body been available. The fact that women were named as the primary witnesses also makes it unlikely to be an invention. No-one making up a story in ancient Judea would select women as their pretend witnesses as, at the time, a woman’s word was not accepted as testimony in court.
- Post-resurrection appearances: 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 contains what is thought to be the earliest Christian creed, which mentions multiple witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Scholars place this creed to within three years of Jesus’ death 10, which makes it too early to be a myth. No-one doubts that Jesus’ disciples saw something which was so convincing that they were prepared to suffer and die horrible deaths rather than recant their belief.
If Jesus publicly died on Friday and was seen alive on Sunday, then there was a resurrection. While there are numerous theories that attempt to explain it away, they fail to account for all the data, and are sometimes provably false. The best explanation for the facts surrounding the account of Jesus’ resurrection is that He did in fact rise from the dead.
Is the Bible historically reliable?
Towards the end of World War II, Nazi propaganda kept announcing glorious victories against the Russians. However, German civilians could tell that they were actually losing because each ‘victory’ was closer to Germany than the previous one.
The field of anti-Bible criticism feels very similar. Critics keep claiming victory over the Bible, but every time they do, their ‘victory’ leaves the Bible more credible than before. The more evidence we unearth, the greater the support the Bible receives. Given this fact, we can be confident that the Bible is accurate in the history it describes, including in areas that remain unproven.
1. Sawe, B. How Many People Have Ever Lived On Earth? World Atlas https://www.worldatlas.com/feature/how-many-people-have-ever-lived-on-earth.html (2020).
2. Kitchen, K. A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).
3. McConville, G. & Williams, S. Joshua. (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010).
4. Windle, B. Biblical Sites: Three Discoveries at Jericho. https://biblearchaeologyreport.com/2019/05/25/biblical-sites-three-discoveries-at-jericho/ (2019).
5. Brown, W. Moabite Stone [Mesha Stele]. World History Encyclopedia https://www.worldhistory.org/Moabite_Stone_%5BMesha_Stele%5D/ (2019).
6. Lachish Battle Reliefs. http://lachish.org/lachish-battle-reliefs/ (2021).
7. Anderson, C. & Edwards, B. Evidence for the Bible. (Day One Publications, 2014).
8. Josephus, F. Antiquities of the Jews. in 343–361.
9. Brake, A. The Minimal Facts of the Resurrection. https://crossexamined.org/the-minimal-facts-of-the-resurrection/ (2018).
10. Ludemann, G. & Ozen, A. What Really Happened to Jesus: A Historical Approach to the Resurrection. (Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 1995).