Bible Historical?
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IS THE BIBLE HISTORICALLY TRUE?

Is the Bible right after all? Is it historically accurate?  This is an important question.  For if the Bible is not true in the historical details it records, then one has to ask how true it might be in other things.  Since the faith of Jews and Christians depend on the historical circumstances narrated in the Bible, the question about the historicity of the Bible is ultimately a question about the validity of the faith.

This question is addressed in the book The Bible as History by Werner Keller.  In the postscript by Joachim Rehork, the importance of the question is first addressed:

For the majority of Bible readers . . . as well as for a large number of Biblical scholars, a great deal still depends on the question whether statements in the Bible can be proved.  The Dominican father, Roland de Vaux, for example, one of the most prominent figures in the history of Biblical antiquity, regarded the capacity to survive of the Jewish and Christian faiths as dependent upon the agreement between “religious” and “objective” history.  He stated his opinion thus: “. . . if Israel’s historical faith does not have its roots in history, then it is wrong and the same is true of our faith.”1

Now what about the answer to this question?  Is the Bible historically true?  Rehork writes:

It is full of problematical statements with the consequence that representatives of the most diverse disciplines, “schools” and opinions have racked their brains again and again over contradictions, repetitions and inconsistencies in the Biblical text–inconsistencies of which the following are a few examples.

Then Rehork lists some examples of which I number three here:

1. In the Bible there are two accounts of the Creation (Genesis 1: 1-2, 3; and Genesis 2:4ff).  In the first of these two accounts of the Creation, God created man last; in the second, however, God created him first, that is to say, before all other creatures.  In one case God created mankind from the beginning as “male and female”; then, however, only the man came into being from “the dust of the ground”, while woman was formed subsequently from a rib of the man.

2. The name of Moses’s father-in-law has been transmitted in three different forms, once as Jethro (Exodus 3:1; 4:18; 18:1-12), once as Reuel (Exodus 2:18) and finally as Hobab ((Judges 4:11).

3. How could Moses describe his own death (Deuteronomy 34)? Or to put the question another way: can the first five books of the Bible really have been written by Moses when they tell us of his death?

After listing such problems, Rehork continues: “These are only a few examples of inconsistencies in the Bible.”2

Rehork is careful to clarify that the question about the Bible being true can be answered on different levels.  He is not concerned in the book with those truths for which history cannot provide confirmation.  Belief, religious conviction, and the subjective feeling that something is right fall within a domain outside of historical confirmation.  History cannot prove or disprove a document of faith.  Where historical investigation ends, faith begins.  We can produce proofs for or against the Bible as a historical source, but the Bible has a different level of being right.

But is the Bible always right?  Rehork poses this question and then in his answer reveals something of the difficulty some scholars face in trying to make clear their findings.  He writes that as far as Biblical statements are confirmed by archeological discoveries and parallel sources we can answer in the affirmative.  For statements that are not so confirmed, we can look for another form of rightness.  The Bible is right in some passages in giving us some insight into the thought and behavior of the people who wrote the book.  And perhaps one day we will be able to affirm that the Bible is right after all, “as seen through the eyes of the people of its times!”3

Such ambivalence is an indication of the sort of difficulty Biblical scholars face when they cannot make their findings clear.  On the one hand he affirms that the Bible is inconsistent; on the other hand he affirms that the faith is fine.  On the one hand he was able to say about the Bible: “There is no end to the problems.”4  On the other hand, he finds a way to maintain that the faith is true.

I conclude by referring back to what Father Roland de Vaux said: “. . . if Israel’s historical faith does not have its roots in history, then it is wrong and the same is true of our faith.”5  We began by asking whether or not the Bible is historically accurate--whether it is true.  We have seen that it is “full of problematical statements,” that it contains “inconsistencies” and that there is “no end to the problems.”

NOTES:

1.    Werner Keller, The Bible as History, 2nd revised edition (US: Bantam, 1988) p. 434
2.    Ibid, p. 435
3.    Ibid, p. 438
4.    Ibid, p. 436
5.    Ibid, p. 435