The Bible is not a reliable historical source

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The Bible with annotations by the reader.

The Bible is not a reliable historical source because it does not meet the standard criteria of source reliability used by historians. The Bible is not, as many believers assume, eye witness testimony. Reliable sources are generally based on authors who were eye witnesses to an event (i.e. it is a primary source). Since any particular source my be fabricating their story, multiple independent sources are usually required for confidence. Establishing the lack of author biases, including religious motivations, is also necessary if a work is to be read at face value. The Bible satisfies none of these requirements.

Based on historical and archaeological research, there are known historical inaccuracies in the Bible. The Bible is considered mythological by most historians. Historians know the Gospels are largely or entirely myths because they share the same characteristics in that they are an apparently normal story except:

  • the text is structured to convey an underlying meaning, usually to convey some political or value system,[1]
  • using symbols that are familiar the intended audience,[1]
  • refers to or retells other myths and stories but often some aspects are changed to make a specific point,[1]
  • historical improbabilities, occurrence of miracles or people acting unrealistically,[2]
  • lack of corroborating evidence.[2]

Because of this, the Bible cannot itself be used as an argument from scripture that the events it describes actually occurred, including scriptural miracles. This contrasts with the view held by many apologists that the Bible is a reliable source:

"The Old Testament affords us the same historical evidence of the miracles of Moses and of the prophets, as of the common civil history of Moses and the kings of Israel; or, as of the affairs of the Jewish nation. And the Gospels and the Acts afford us the same historical evidence of the miracles of Christ and the apostles, as of the common matters related in them. [...] But the facts, both miraculous and natural, in Scripture, are related in plain unadorned narratives, and both of them appear, in all respects, to stand upon the same foot of historical evidence. [3]"

Authorship of the Bible[edit]

The authorship of the Old Testament has been studied by academics and is generally considered to be the work of multiple authors over many centuries, with many different stages of rewriting, censoring and editing. One popular theory is the documentary hypothesis which considers the Old Testament to be largely written by four anonymous authors, each with different agendas and priorities.

According to some historians, the New Testament was based on oral traditions and stories that were passed down in the early church and were written down several decades after Jesus's crucifixion. The gospels are not primary or even second hand accounts but more likely many times removed from the original events. [4] Other historians reject the idea that an oral tradition existed, since the earliest epistles do not make any reference to it.[2] The Gospels could be a mid to late 1st century fiction.

While many of the books of the Bible are named or attributed to Moses or the Apostles, they were probably not the actual authors. The books of the Bible are almost entirely by anonymous authors, which makes them poor historial sources. The exception is Paul the Apostle who actually did write many (but not all) of letters attributed to him. However, Paul was not an eye witness to the events described in the gospels but claimed he received his knowledge by revelation, which is not a way to preserve historical facts.

Also, as part of a religion, the authors of the Bible had an obvious religious motivation to invent or enlarge stories that suited their purposes. We cannot assume they were interested in recording historical information.

Influences[edit]

According to historians like Richard Carrier, the Gospels could be mostly or entirely fictional, certainly to the point that historical facts could not be distinguished from fictional ones. He notes that the text Eugnostos the Blessed was used as the basis for quotes allegedly said by Jesus in the Wisdom of Jesus Christ. This was a common practice as students were taught to weave a narrative around collections of proverbs while adding a symbolic meaning. Carrier argues that the canonical Gospels were produced by similar means from works like 1 Clement, the epistles, well known myths, the Old Testament and other lost scriptures.[2]

"Inventing historical narratives in which to place or adapt sayings was commonplace in ancient biography, even in general, but especially in faith literature [...] That was actually the norm.[2]"

Lack of corroborating evidence[edit]

Lack of evidence for an event does not automatically imply its non-occurence. However, in cases where evidence would be expected to be found and a search for evidence is conducted, lack of evidence does imply non-occurence. This is true for both the Old and New Testaments.

Old Testament[edit]

There is no reliable evidence of a global flood or an ark, apart from the Bible. There is no archaeological remains of the Tower of Babel and it fails to explain linguistic patterns. [5]

The story of the tribe of Joseph being held as slaves in Egypt and wandering in the Sinai for 40 years lead by Moses as told in Exodus [6] is false. There is also no evidence of the ten plagues. Archaeologists now consider the evidence to be overwhelming and further searches for evidence are "a fruitless pursuit". [7]

"My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids in order to store grain. [8]"

However, the ancient Egyptians made records about the purpose of the pyramids: they were tombs not grain stores. Also, the mummified bodies found in the pyramids seems to corroborate the written claims.

Some apologists have told the story of NASA discovering a "lost day" in astronomical observations, which would agree with Joshua 10:12-13 Bible-icon.png. However, this story is false. NASA released a statement saying these events never took place. This does not stop the tale being circulated among credulous believers. [9]

"The mainstream consensus in fact has decided almost nothing in the Pentateuch is reliably reported; that in fact most of it is myth. And even much after that is not wholly trustworthy either. The events of the Exodus did not happen. Jews never emigrated from Egypt to conquer Israel but in fact were a native tribe of Canaanites who had never left the place. The forged book of Daniel gets the sequence of foreign kings wrong. And so on.[...] All claims of “archaeological confirmation” of facts in the NT are of this type: merely mundane facts unrelated to Christianity, that anyone could learn from histories and reference books or other assorted non-Christian lore.[10]"

New Testament[edit]

Main Article: Lack of evidence for the events described in the New Testament

There is hardly any independent evidence for the biographical details of Jesus. [11] If the events described really occurred, we would expect first hand accounts. Despite through searching, non have been found and it is likely first hand accounts do not exist. Therefore, the events described in the gospels did not occur or occurred very differently than described.

There is no record of a Roman tradition of releasing a prisoner at the Passover feast. [12] John 18:39 Bible-icon.png

There is no evidence of Herod's slaughter of the innocent. Matthew 2:16–18 Bible-icon.png [13]

The Bible says that when Jesus died there was an earthquake Matthew 27:51 Bible-icon.png, a great darkness Matthew 27:45 Bible-icon.png, and the dead rose and wandered into Jerusalem Matthew 27:52-53 Bible-icon.png. We would expect first hand accounts of such extraordinary events. However, there is no evidence they occurred apart from the Bible.

Apologists argue that other historical figures are accepted on weaker evidence than Jesus, however:

"In fact, when we compare [the evidence of the resurrection to that of Caesar crossed the Rubicon], we see that in four of the five proofs of an event's historicity, the resurrection has no evidence at all, and in the one proof that it does have, it has not the best, but the very worst kind of evidence--a handful of biased, uncritical, unscholarly, unknown, second-hand witnesses.[14]"

Known inaccuracies[edit]

Apologists like to claim the Bible is no shortcomings:

"there isn't a single archaeological discovery that disproves the Bible in any way. [15]"

However, there are many historical inaccuracies in the Bible. The Bible mentions the reason that Joseph returned to Bethlehem was for the census of Quirinius, directly before the birth of Jesus, as described in Luke 2:1–7 Bible-icon.png. The Bible says Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great, i.e. before Herod the Great's death in 4 BC. The census was conducted in 6/7 CE when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Therefore the census could not have been the reason for Joseph to return to Bethlehem since it occurred 10 years after the birth of Jesus! A more probable explanation is that the authors of the Bible wanted to find a pretext for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem and the census was a convenient fictional device.

Also, the Bible contains many scientific inaccuracies.

Exodus from Egypt[edit]

There is no evidence that the Jews were slaves in Egypt or departed as described in Exodus. If they happened, we would expect the events described to leave a significant amount of evidence.

One theory is the Great Pyramids of Egypt were grain stores constructed at the time of Joseph to ensure enough food was available in a famine he predicted though dream interpretation Genesis 41 Bible-icon.png. Expert archaeologists totally reject this theory, saying the pyramids were pharaonic tombs and do not have large storage areas.[17]

Existence of Nazareth[edit]

It is quite likely that the early Christians were called the Nazorians. Most likely, the Gospel writers chose a suitable town name (Nazareth) to fit the title Nazorian, but Jesus (if he existed) probably had no connection to the place (if it existed).[2]

Contradictions[edit]

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For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Bible article:
Main Article: Biblical contradictions

The Bible contains many clear contradictions, which makes its truth an impossibility.

"It seems to me that [the death of Judas] and [inclusion of some unhistorical narratives] rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth."

C. S. Lewis [18]

Style[edit]

Because the texts do not discuss their sources or provide any critical analysis, they are more like ancient fiction rather than a history of their times:

"These texts instead read like ancient prose novels. In all but Luke, we do not hear anything about the written sources that the authors consulted (and even the author of Luke does not name them, explain their contents, or discuss how they are relevant as sources), the authors of the Gospels do not discuss how they learned their stories or what their personal relations are to these events, and even when John claims to have an eyewitness disciple “whom Jesus loved,” the gospel does not even bother to name or identify this mysterious figure (most likely an invention of the author). Instead, the Gospels provide story-like narratives, where the authors omnisciently narrate everything that occurs rather than engage in any form of critical analysis. [19]"
"At no point do the Gospels name their sources or discuss their relative merits or why they are relying on them; at no point do the Gospels exhibit any historiographical consciousness (such as discussing methods, or the possibility of information being incorrect, or the existence of non-polemical alternative accounts); they don't even express amazement at anything they report, no matter how incredible it is (unlike a more rational historian); and they never explain why they changed what their sources said, nor do they even acknowledge the fact that they did (as when, e.g. Luke or Matthew alters what they derive from Mark).[2]"

Counter arguments[edit]

There were many accurate copies of the Bible[edit]

Main Article: Many accurate copies of my holy book exist

Apologists claim the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, was accurately preserved when compared to other ancient sources. [15] This is a red herring because the primary issue is with the reliability of the first complete copy. If that was a work of fiction, no amount of accurate copying would make it true.

The Bible says the Bible is true[edit]

"What does Jesus say about God's Word? He says, "the Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, NIV), thus testifying to the authority of the Bible.[20]"

Claiming the Bible is true based on any verse or section of the Bible is a circular argument.

The gospels are independent sources[edit]

"He noted that the type of eyewitness accounts given in the four Gospels—accounts which agree, but with each writer choosing to omit or add details different from the others—is typical of reliable, independent sources that would be accepted in a court of law as strong evidence. [...] Thus, the independent nature of the four Gospel accounts, agreeing in their information but differing in perspective, amount of detail, and which events were recorded, indicate that the record that we have of Christ's life and ministry as presented in the Gospels is factual and reliable [21]"

None of the New Testament is eye witness testimony (and probably none of the Old Testament too). There are many obvious borrowings between the gospels, particularly the synoptic gospels, and they are therefore not independent sources. Differences in style and content are based on different editing decisions rather than on different recollection.

The Bible gets some details right[edit]

Apologists claim that many archaeological finds or present day locations confirm the Bible. Tablets discovered in Ebla, in Syria, allegedly contain references to cities mentioned in Genesis, including Sodom and Gomorrah.

"If you open to almost any page in the Bible you will find a name of a place and/or a person. Much of this can be verified from archaeology [15]"
"And, as common history, when called in question in any instance, may often be greatly confirmed by contemporary or subsequent events more known and acknowledged; and as the common Scripture history, like many others, is thus confirmed; so likewise is the miraculous history of it, not only in particular instances, but in general.[3]"
"Something else that helps solidify the truthfulness of eyewitness testimony is the use of archaeology or external evidence. In his book The Reliability of John’s Gospel, Craig Blomberg has identified 59 people, events, or places that have been confirmed by archaeology [22]"
"If the text shows itself to be reliable in matters of history including statements of fact as well as geography, etc., then we may conclude that it is a reliable source regarding other matters that it affirms[23]"
"Although the Bible is not a history book it does contain a great deal of historical data and whenever it has been possible to check this against contemporary evidence the Bible has been found to be accurate. [...] With its impeccable track record, it is unreasonable and illogical to charge it with making thousands of false and blasphemous statements about its own authorship [...][24]"

The argument goes:

  1. The Bible describes events and places.
  2. Some of these events are independently verified.
  3. Therefore, all the events are accurately described in the Bible.

Such discoveries are in agreement with parts of the Bible. However, we must be careful not to commit what might be called the "Spider-Man fallacy": just because some facts in a holy book are correct, such as "Jerusalem exists", it does not follow that the entire book is factually correct. That is a hasty generalization. Suppose that a few thousand years from now, an archaeologist discovers a cache of Spider-Man comic books. Judging by the backgrounds, the stories are clearly set in New York. New York is a real place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spider-Man exists. Similarly, the fact that Bible stories are set in real places does not mean that the stories themselves are real. The Red Sea is a real sea, but that does not mean that Moses parted it.

Most of the findings are of nobles or locations that featured in the Bible are fairly trivial. The tomb of a person may establish that person's existence. Ruins indicate a location may have existed. However, it does not validate the specific events that are described, which have no corroboration. No amount of correct trivia validates the overall narrative of the Bible. Independent sources of the events described would validate it.

Similarly, Homer's Odyssey describes the travels of Odysseus throughout the Greek Islands. The epic describes, in detail, many locations that existed in history. But should we take Odysseus, the Greek gods and goddesses, one-eyed giants and monsters as literal fact simply because the story depicts geographic locations accurately? Of course not. Since accepting myths as true if they reference real places leads to multiple contradictory conclusions and is therefore a broken compass argument. A similar fallacious argument could be made:

  • Homer's Iliad mentions Greece and Zeus.
  • Based on archaeological finds, the ancient Greek civilisation existed.
  • Therefore Zeus exists.

Apologists ignore the lack of evidence in several important areas and are cherry picking the evidence.

Objections to the Bible are an excuse to ignore it[edit]

Main Article: You just want to sin
"Faced with demand for an ethical commitment (and having a natural aversion to authority), some people feign intellectual objections, claiming alleged contradictions in the Bible, and generally questioning its reliability. [25]"

This is an ad hominem and therefore irrelevant. The reliability of the Bible must be established by evidence.

Innocent until proven guilty[edit]

"[...] Scripture history in general is to be admitted as an authentic genuine history, till something positive be alleged sufficient to invalidate it.[3]"
"Many evangelical Christians would try to sidestep this entire discussion by arguing that historical texts, like their authors, should be presumed 'innocent until proven guilty'; thus until someone can prove that the New Testament is unreliable, we should a priori accept its claims. [26]"

This is shifting the burden of proof without justification; a positive claim that the Bible is reliable requires evidence. It is also a broken compass argument since many wild hypotheses could be accepted as true on this basis.

Minimal facts approach[edit]

Main Article: Most scholars accepts the basic facts of the resurrection
"[...]I believe because I find the Bible to be authoritative and historically accurate. [...] I find it historically accurate because the life, crucifixion, empty tomb and eye witness testimonies to the resurrection of Jesus are all recognised as historical facts. These core beliefs are defended by historians.[27]"

The minimal facts approach recognises the difficulty in justifying all the claims in the New Testament as historical fact. Instead, it focuses on a few instances that are useful for converting non-believers, such as the resurrection of Jesus. [28]

Criterion of embarrassment[edit]

Main Article: Embarrassing testimony

Apologists argue that facts that were embarrassing were unlikely to be recorded by the Biblical authors unless they were factually true. This is the so called "criterion of embarrassment".

The problem is the argument is it is factually incorrect: myth and legends often include embarrassing testimony and that does not support their reliability.

The Bible is either entirely true or entirely false[edit]

This is a false dichotomy and contrary to historical evidence. Of course there is some truth in the Bible. For instance, Jerusalem is a real place. However, there are also some historical inaccuracies. The Bible is therefore not entirely true or entirely false.

Evidence of Jesus was suppressed[edit]

"In the early days of Christianity Christians were persecuted and many Christians were martyred so the Romans tried to destroy any record of Jesus [29]"

This seems to contradict other apologists that claim there is good evidence that Jesus existed.

Noah's Ark[edit]

Full scale replica of Noah's ark, based on the description in the Bible.

The final location and remains of Noah's ark has been of interest to pseudo-archaeologists of centuries. Apologists have argued that various sites have evidence of the ark, such as the Durupınar site [30], but no conclusive evidence has been found. These findings are probably explained by pareidolia. Even if a large ancient ship was discovered, it would be difficult to establish it was specifically Noah's ark.

Additional arguments[edit]

Other holy books have better support[edit]

If we accept that the Bible can be authenticated by historical sources, we face the problem that other holy books have better historical support. For instance, the Qur'an was actually written (or transmitted) by eyewitnesses.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Radcliffe G. Edmonds III, Myths of the Underworld Journey: Plato, Aristophanes, and the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets, 20 Sep 2004
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Richard Carrier, On the Historicity of Jesus, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, 1736
  4. Chris Hallquist, Why atheists don’t think the Bible is historically reliable, July 12, 2012
  5. [1]
  6. [2]
  7. William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It?, 2001
  8. [3]
  9. [4]
  10. Richard Carrier, Five Bogus Reasons to Trust the Bible
  11. [Scott Oser, Historicity Of Jesus FAQ, 1994]
  12. Charles B. Chavel, The Releasing of a Prisoner on the Eve of Passover in Ancient Jerusalem, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 60, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 273-278]
  13. [5]
  14. Richard Carrier, [6]
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Matt Slick, Can We Trust the New Testament as a Historical Document?
  16. [7]
  17. [8]
  18. Quoted in Michael J. Christensen, C. S. Lewis on Scripture, Abingdon, 1979, Appendix A.
  19. [9]
  20. Robert Velarde, How Do We Know the Bible Is True?, 2009
  21. [10]
  22. [11]
  23. [12]
  24. John Blanchard, Why believe the Bible?, 2004
  25. [13]
  26. Jeffery Jay Lowder, Independent Confirmation and the Historicity of Jesus, 2007
  27. [14]
  28. [15]
  29. [16]
  30. [17]

External links[edit]