Does the Bible Relate to History by Carol Meyers

Reading the Bible can seem like reading history, as many biblical narratives appear to recount past events. But is the Bible really a book that reports the past “as it actually happened”? Until relatively recently, the answer to that question would have been “yes.” After all, if the Bible is God’s word, wouldn’t it be accurate? But since the nineteenth century, and even earlier, biblical scholars have identified pervasive problems with this understanding of the relationship between the Bible and history.

The first problem is that the discoveries of modern science contradict biblical texts. Astronomy and biology show that the origins and development of the world and its inhabitants were part of a long, complex, and ongoing process that cannot be reconciled with Gen 1. Geological evidence rules out the possibility, suggested in Gen 6-9, that the entire earth was covered with water in the eons since human life began.

The second major problem was caused by the results of archaeological excavations that have challenged the historicity of many biblical narratives. For instance, excavations of Jericho and Ai show that neither city existed at the time of Israelite beginnings; the dramatic conquest stories of Josh 2-6 and Josh 7-8 cannot be taken at face value.

Other problems emerged with the study of the Bible itself. The growth of information about biblical languages and literary features led to the realization that biblical narratives about ancient Israel reached their final form many centuries after the events they describe. The narrators were not eyewitnesses to events they recount. Rather, they drew upon a variety of legends, traditions, folktales, and other materials that can no longer be identified; but few of these sources can be considered factual. Close study of biblical narratives revealed that they are replete with inconsistencies and even outright contradictions. For example, humans are created before vegetation in Gen 2:4-9 but afterward in Gen 1:11-27. Or in 1Sam 17:50, David kills Goliath, whereas in 2Sam 21:19, Elhanan does. On a larger scale, the book of Joshua proclaims that the Israelites conquered “the whole land” (e.g., Josh 10:40), but the book of Judges describes the survival of many Canaanites and other peoples.

One other issue is that many “events” recounted in the Bible are said to have been God’s acts. The exodus account, for example, proclaims that “the Lord drove the sea back … and the waters were divided” (Exod 14:21), enabling the Israelites to cross the Reed Sea. Statements of this kind can be neither verified nor disproved. They are interpretive statements, not historical reports.

Understanding biblical narratives thus means setting aside the notion that all of what the Bible says is factually “true.” The way people in biblical antiquity accounted for their past is not the same as it is in the modern world. Nowadays we expect “history” to provide an accurate narrative of real events, though we still realize that any two eyewitness observers of an event will recall it in different ways, depending on their individual interests and prior beliefs. But this is a relatively new approach, one that was not present when biblical narratives took shape.

Like other ancient storytellers, the shapers of biblical narratives were not concerned with getting it factually right; rather, their aim was to make an important point. Their narratives could serve many different purposes, all relevant to their own time periods and the audiences they were addressing. They might take a popular legend and embellish it further—the better the story, the more likely that people would listen and learn. They used a variety of sources plus their own creative imaginations to shape their stories. Think of all the quoted speech in the Bible. There were no mobile electronic devices to preserve the words of biblical figures. The speeches and utterances of biblical characters are what the narrator believes would have been said, given the circumstances depicted. Biblical narratives were all about learning from the past, even an “invented” past. David’s prominence is made known through tales of heroic deeds, just as George Washington’s honesty is presented by the cherry-tree incident. The facts were not the issue; what could be learned from the stories was paramount.

Does this understanding of the historicity of biblical texts mean that they are devoid of any validity? Absolutely not. Authentic experiences and events surely underlie many biblical narratives. Archaeology may call the historicity of some texts into question, but it can also indicate the general veracity of others. For example, Israelite beginnings in the land may not be the result of the military events described in Joshua, but the burgeoning of small settlements in the hill country at the beginning of the Iron Age likely reflects the emergence of the population eventually identified as Israelite. Archaeological discoveries can also authenticate specific events and people. The Mesha Stela, a ninth-century B.C.E. inscription found in Jordan, mentions the biblical king Omri and the Moabite ruler Mesha; it also reports that Omri had oppressed the Moabites. These features resonate with certain—although not all—aspects of the narrative in 2Kgs 3. The texts and monuments of other ancient Near Eastern peoples also contain information that correlates with some biblical texts.

Although most of Genesis belongs to the realm of myth and legend, historical events and characters may be reflected in many other biblical narratives. Each episode must be examined in relation to other sources, both archaeological and textual; and its literary features must also be taken into account. The larger strokes of Israelite history may thereby come into view, but it is likely that relatively few of the narratives can ever be considered history “as it actually happened.” Perhaps the best way to approach the Bible in relation to history is to stop asking whether or not it is true and rather to consider what truths its stories tell.

Carol Meyers, "Does the Bible Relate to History?", n.p. [cited 27 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/bible-basics/does-the-bible-relate-to-history-meyers

Contributors

Carol Meyers

Carol Meyers
Professor, Duke University

Carol Meyers is the Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University. An archaeologist as well as a biblical scholar with a special interest in gender in the biblical world, she has served as a consultant for many media productions dealing with the Bible. Her hundreds of publications include commentaries on Exodus and on several biblical prophets; a reference work, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Eerdmans, 2000); and Rediscovering Eve: Ancient Israelite Women in Context (Oxford University Press, 2012).

The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.

Genuine; historically accurate.

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

The stage of development during which humans used iron weapons; in the ancient Near East, approx. 1200 to 500 B.C.E.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

A stone inscribed in the Moabite language, commissioned by the Moabit king Mesha to celebrate his accomplishments, including a successful revolt against the kingdom of Israel (see 2 Kings 3).

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Those who write, speak, or otherwise transmit a story or account.

An upright stone slab usually inscribed or carved for commemorative purposes.

An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.

Gen 1

Six Days of Creation and the Sabbath
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face o ... View more

Gen 6-9

The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more

Josh 2-6

Spies Sent to Jericho
1Then Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and en ... View more

Josh 7-8

The Sin of Achan and Its Punishment
1But the Israelites broke faith in regard to the devoted things: Achan son of Carmi son of Zabdi son of Zerah, of the tribe ... View more

Gen 2:4-9

4These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
Another Account of the Creation
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and ... View more

Gen 1:11-27

11Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.” And it ... View more

1Sam 17:50

50So David prevailed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone, striking down the Philistine and killing him; there was no sword in David's hand.

2Sam 21:19

19Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose s ... View more

Josh 10:40

40So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly d ... View more

Exod 14:21

21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters ... View more

2Kgs 3

Jehoram Reigns over Israel
1In the eighteenth year of King Jehoshaphat of Judah, Jehoram son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria; he reigned twelve years ... View more

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