How do we know that the biblical writers were not writing history?

Instead of posting today’s contradiction, I’d like to take the time and space to respond to a reader’s question, a question which perhaps many of my readers have pondered. This and similar questions are important because they are the gist of what we’re doing here. Maybe I will do more posts like this. I apologize for the length, but I wanted to do as thorough of a job with this task as is possible here. Indeed, this might even provide the foundation for a nice little book.

To answer our question directly, as it will be demonstrated below, because the Bible itself tells us so. Since I’ve been advocating and tooting the objective study of the Bible, one where conclusions are drawn, such as the one pronounced above, by collecting, examining, and explaining the textual data, let’s see if I can walk the talk.

First, let me start by stating what I’m not claiming. Just because the biblical writers were not writing history—if indeed this hypothesis holds up to the textual data—that does not mean that there are no historical facts or events in the Bible. Second the biblical writers were not writing mythology or allegory, other than at various places (e.g., Gen 1-11), rather it is what scholars call historiography— that is “history writing” from the perspective and conventions of the time period in which these writers were writing. This is not to be equated with modern ideas of history and history writing as we shall see.

A brief word about allegory. Allegorical interpretation came into vogue around the 1st century BC/AD and was primarily employed to “interpret away” offensive elements in a text. This interpretive method was fully implemented and endorsed by early church fathers and the Church from the 2nd c. AD to the Middle Ages! So for example, Yahweh’s anthropomorphism, i.e., presenting him regretting (which the 8th c. BC Yahwist author had no qualms about, see Conflicting portraits), was interpreted or explained away allegorically, especially since Greek philosophical ideas of a non-anthropomorphic and omniscient deity were entering into Christian debates at this time. We should note that this interpretive method neglects the circumstances of the author (e.g., the Yahwist) and the very fact that this author did present Yahweh in anthropomorphic terms, and rather imposes the readers’ own views and concerns onto the text, as do all interpretive agendas.

Yahweh’s killing of Uzzah, a commoner, who actually saves the ark of the covenant from crashing to the ground (2 Sam 6:7) is another offensive story that was “interpreted away” allegorically. Or, consider the 50,070 innocent non-Levites whom Yahweh smote just “because they gazed upon the ark of Yahweh” (1 Sam 6:19). These and similar stories were not written as allegory, but indeed were allegorically interpreted away to remove what had become offensive, and not understandable, to later readers. On the other hand, these are not historical either, and that should bring a sigh of relief.

In this case, these texts are none other than stories created by Levite priests to show that under no circumstance are non-Levites to touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s ark! Only the Levites can do this. These are powerful narratives that reinforce Levite ideology by presenting their deity as a spokesperson for their own agendas. The same priestly lesson is to be found in Yahweh’s slaughtering of Korah, his family, and all those associated with him who dared challenge the authority of Moses and the Aaronid priesthood in Numbers 16. There are numerous examples like this throughout the Bible. If we know a little bit about who penned these texts and ask if the story was used to legitimate these authors’ authority or belief system, then in many cases we can surmise that they were written for that purpose, and not as a record of historical fact.

One last preliminary. Many modern readers assume, suppose, assert that the Bible is history because they actually know little to nothing about ancient texts, ancient authors, and ancient cultures, but rather have been trained to view these ancient texts through centuries-later interpretive frameworks and theological postulates. In other words, it is often taken as a given that the biblical writers were writing history, and then one who does not believe this is often labeled as a skeptic. This is rhetorical nonsense. This so-called “given” rests on misconceptions, reader-presuppositions, and frankly ignorance of ancient texts, and what and how ancient authors wrote, etc. So to pick up the Bible and expect it to be history, is already founded on the reader’s misconceptions, presuppositions, and ignorance of what in fact he/she is reading and the historical and literary contexts that produced it. Sorry to be so stern about this. But it needs to be stressed.

What follows are different categories of textual and/or archaeological data, from both the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts. It is these data that will, I claim, support the claim of this post. Feel free to comment, critique, and question them.

Contradictions: the biblical data

Contradictions in the Bible’s stories and “histories” are one set of textual data that support our claim. Let’s briefly take a look at a few that we’ve already enumerated here and more so some forthcoming ones.

Many of the contradictions we’ve looked at thus far (#1, 7-10, 14-22), especially concerning Genesis 1-11, we can accredit to different mythological traditions. However # 11 represents two contrary claims about something that might be considered “historical”—when was the name Yahweh first revealed. If we press the historical issue, then we are forced to either select one as true and the other false or to “interpret away” the contradiction—that is, ignore and neglect the ideas and views of the biblical writers in lieu of the reader’s ideas and views. However when we learn a bit more about the two textual traditions that these claims come from, we readily see that each “historical rendition” conforms to and reaffirms that author’s theological views, etc. But let me briefly list some of the contradictions that I will be posting in the future and which serve our present purpose better.

When the author of the book of Deuteronomy sits down to write his text, he has Moses renarrate the story of Israel’s past, that is the events that the Israelites had experienced from the revelation at Sinai to the current narrative setting of the book of Deuteronomy on the plains of Moab. Renarrate because this “history” was already narrated in earlier textual traditions which served as the Deuteronomists’ sources. These earlier texts now make up parts of the books of Exodus and Numbers, and scholars have identified them as belonging to the Elohist and Yahwist sources. In other words, stories from the older Elohist and Yahwist traditions, now preserved in the books of Exodus and Numbers, were used as sources for the Deuteronomist’s composition where Moses renarrates these same stories. Yet, on every single renarration of these stories, of these past events, of this “history,” the author of the book of Deuteronomy has Moses radically alter them—indeed outright contradict them (50+ times)—claiming to say and do things he never said and did, and narrating things that never happened, or happened in a manner completely opposite of what he claims. What conclusion are we to draw from this textual data? Here are some of my favorites:

1) In the Exodus tradition Yahweh gives both the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) and the law code (Ex 21-23), but when Moses renarrates this in Deuteronomy he claims that Yahweh only gave the Ten Commandments!

2) Did Yahweh descend onto mount Sinai as in the Exodus traditions or did he merely speak from heaven as Deuteronomy claims?

3) Exodus 18 accredits the Midianite Jethro with the origins of the Israelite judiciary, but Deuteronomy’s Moses omits this from his retelling, and accredits it to Moses

4) In Numbers 20, the Edomites refuse to allow the Israelites to pass through their borders, but in Deuteronomy’s retelling, they do pass (Deut 2)

5) Transjordan, the territory east of the Jordan, is declared by Yahweh in the earlier sources not to be part of the promised land, which is west of the Jordan to the Mediterranean sea, but in Deuteronomy Yahweh declares it as part of the promised land!

6) Moses adds new scenes into the Golden Calf “history” when he retells it in Deut 9

7) There are many contradictions between Yahweh’s commandments in Ex 21-23, Deut 17-26, and Lev 1-19. In many cases Yahweh is presented as commanding one thing and in the narrative time-frame of the “history” commanding its opposite a week later!

This is just a small fraction of the contradictions we will look at. What conclusion would you draw from this data, that best explains this textual data? Another interesting question is: if the Deuteronomist had the Elohist and Yahwist stories/”history” in front of him yet he consciously changed them so that they agreed with his own theological purposes and agenda, then how did the Deuteronomist view these stories? As history?

Let’s move on to a few more examples.

8) The book of Joshua preserves two traditions, one claiming that all the Canaanites were exterminated, the other claiming that they were not

9) The book of Samuel gives two contradictory origins of the monarchy

10) 2 versions of Saul’s death are given, and one clearly seems to be written to exonerate David from any implied wrong-doing

11) The “history” in the book of Chronicles traces the kingdom of Judah to its fall, in other words it is the same “history” that is in Kings, but there are numerous differences and contradictions, and elements that the Chronicler either adds or omits!

12) The NT “histories” of Jesus are also fraught with contradictions.

The claim promulgated by the masses is that these differences and contradictions can be explained by “acknowledging” that each writer wrote history from a different perspective. But this claim rests on these readers’ presuppositions and misconceptions about ancient writers and ancient literature. When Plutarch, for example, writes the biography of Alexander the Great, he presents Aphrodite as Alexander’s virgin mother! What is Plutarch doing, and why were these conventions adopted in ancient “biography”? Suetonius, a Roman historian, records that the emperor Vespasian performed miracles in the open forum, one of which was the healing of a withered hand, as Jesus also does. Again, the gospel literature must be read in its proper historical and literary contexts. But let us move on to other types of data. Remember these are just examples. There are literally 100s and 100s more like these.

Historical events skewed by theological interpretive lenses: biblical and extra-biblical data

The Babylonian destruction of Judah in 587 BC occurred. It is historical, confirmed by extra-biblical and archaeological data, but the claims of, for example, the author of the book of Jeremiah that Yahweh “raised up” the Babylonians, gave them the authority to rule the world for a certain time period (see Daniel too), and that Judah, its land and its people were destroyed because Yahweh decreed it as punishment for their sins—all this is the theological lens or narrative through which the historical event is presented. Not only are there many other examples like this in the Bible, but archaeologists have uncovered the texts of other ancient Near Eastern peoples who have expressed the exact same historicized theology.

For example, when the Persians destroyed the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, a Babylonian scribe (known from the Babylonian cylinder seal) wrote that Marduk, the god of Babylon “raised up” Cyrus of the Persians to destroy Babylon and his people because they sinned against Marduk and forsook his temples. A 9th c. BC Moabite stela speaks of the historical event where Omri and his son Ahab conquered the land of Moab (confirmed by biblical records too), but the Moabite scribe also claimed that Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, allowed Omri to conquer his people because they sinned against Chemosh. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians he allowed the Jews in captivity to return home, but a Babylonian archive claims that Marduk (also the Persian god) allowed the Jews to return home; yet both Isaiah 45 and Ezra 1 claim that it was Yahweh’s doing. So we see that what the biblical scribes were doing in presenting historical events through a theological interpretive grid was actually part and parcel to a larger Near Eastern literary convention.

But here’s one of my favorites. The Assyrian king Sennacherib conquered and burnt the land of Judah and besieged Jerusalem in 703-701 BC. We have both extra-biblical, biblical, and archaeological data (a burnt archaeological layer) that affirms this. Yet Sennacherib did not conquer and burn down Jerusalem. Why? Here’s how the biblical scribe answered this:

“For he shall not come into this city says Yahweh. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” That very night the angel of Yahweh set out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. (2 Kgs 19:32-35)

But this did not happen. Assyrian records, as well as a contradictory biblical record (2 Kgs 18:15-16) asserts that Hezekiah paid a hefty tribute of gold, silver, ivory, even his daughters! to Sennacherib and re-established his vassal-ship to the Assyrian king. Why did the biblical scribe above say it happened as a miracle, even placing this event on Yahweh’s lips. Propaganda. Who did the scribe work for? The king. This was part of a larger political and literary program of presenting Hezekiah as loyal to Yahweh, and also presenting the benefits of that loyalty—Yahweh would save the city. See the next section for more.

Not only these examples, but we have at our disposal other ancient Near Eastern texts talking about the universe’s creation, a cataclysmic flood with Ark and Ark hero, gods giving law codes to kings or ancestral heroes, gods declaring land as possessions for their peoples, kings being presented as God’s son, etc. When viewing the Bible in conjunction with these texts, that is in its proper literary and historical contexts, what conclusions would you draw? (Notice, I am inviting you to think.)

Propaganda and exaggeration: biblical and extra-biblical texts

The Hezekiah example above is just one form of propaganda in the Bible, that is literature that advertised and endorsed royal policies. In Genesis, we learn that Judah’s older brothers, Reuben, Simeon and Levi are all disqualified as potential rulers of the southern kingdom for their sins, but Judah, the 4th eldest inherits the throne. This is literature written by a Judahite scribe who is legitimating Judah’s right to rule over the other tribes through archaized stories. But what about Solomon, who is David’s 10th son! How did he oust his older brothers from the throne and claim and legitimate the throne as his rightful inheritance? Propaganda. As biblical scholar Baruch Halpern writes of this literary device employed across the ancient Near East: “The most common technique for justifying the seizure of power is to admit to usurpation, but then explain that a god elected a new king because one’s predecessors were weak, sinful, or corrupt” (David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, 102).

When we get to the book of Leviticus, whose laws were written by Aaronid priests, it is no coincidence that the very laws coming from the mouth of Yahweh represent and legitimate the very theology and beliefs of the Aaronids themselves. This is seen more clearly when we see that in the law code of Deuteronomy, written by Levite scribes, Yahweh pronounces laws that confirm and legitimate theological beliefs and views held by these Levite scribes. This is even more glaring when these laws contradict one another as we will soon see.

The same literary technique is used in the Gospel portraits of Jesus. It is not a coincidence that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is presented as a Torah-obedient Jew who claims that all Torah stipulations are still valid, and in some cases have even been intensified. “Matthew” was a Jewish-Christian writing to Jewish-Christians and most likely against Gentile-Christianity. It is not surprising then that John’s Jesus is hostile to Judaism and stands outside of Judaism. John had an axe to grind with the Jews that he was writing against, and he used Jesus as a mouthpiece for his views. This is ancient literature. Josephus does the same thing with the “speeches” he composes in his histories, as does the author of Acts, as does Thucydides! These were all part of the literary conventions of “history” writing in the ancient world.

Exaggeration was also a prominent form of propaganda. So where a foreign ruler might have burnt the fields of his enemy, his scribe might have written how he utter destroyed them from the face of the earth, or even outright conquered them. There are many examples like this in the David stories, and other places in the Bible.

Archaeological data

In many cases, the Bible’s “history” is not only not confirmed by the archaeological record, but actually disproved! Here are a couple of examples. Anachronisms (see Stories for more), such as the mention of camels, trade routes, even kings and political states belie many of the Bible’s “histories.” They are rather from the author’s own time period and not the time period suggested in the narrative setting. The mention of Abraham’s meeting with the Philistine king of Gerar in Genesis 26 is an anachronism. There were no Philistines, thus no Philistine king, nor a Gerar in the 18th c. BC, the narrative’s setting. These elements were projected into the archaic past by an 8th c. BC author who was familiar with these historical things. Likewise, stories about Jacob and Israel, and Jacob and Laban are really stories describing the historical relationships between Israel and Edom, and Israel and Aram in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. We will look at these this month.

All of the place names mentioned in the exodus show no archaeological settlements in the time period implied by the narrative, and this is especially true of Kadesh-barnea where supposedly a troop of 600,000 male Israelites with their wives, daughters, livestock remained for 38 years! Yet there are archaeological records of settlements in the Sinai peninsula during the 7th century BC. We’re not claiming that the exodus happened in the 7th c., but rather it was put to pen then, and the authors used places and towns that they were familiar with to shape the story! The military conquest and extermination of the indigenous of the land of Canaan by Joshua, purported to happen in the 13th century BC according to biblical chronology, is also refuted by the archaeological record.

Numbers 20:14-20 relates how the Israelites asked the king of Edom to pass through their territory in order to access a route to the land of Canaan. Yet we know from extra-biblical sources, primarily Assyrian records, that Edom only achieved statehood in the 7th century BC. Archaeologist William Dever puts it this way: “there cannot have been a king of Edom to have denied the Israelites access, since Edom did not achieve any kind of statehood until the 7th century BC” (Who Were the Early Israelites?, 28)—ditto for the biblical narrative’s mention of the king of Arad (21:1), the king of the Amorites (21:21; Hesbon in the Deuteronomic tradition), the king of Moab (21:26), and the king of Bashan (21:33). They are all projections of the political realities of the 8th and 7th centuries BC!

The wilderness narratives also claim that Hesbon and its environs were destroyed by the Israelites, but the archaeological record indicates no destructive layer in the centuries around the date implied by the biblical narrative, and no indication that Hesbon and its environs were even settled. There are no remains whatsoever. The archaeological record at Arad and Hormah also tell the same story. To cite William Dever again: “there are no Late Bronze Canaanite cities to be found anywhere in the northern Negev. . . so the Israelites could hardly have battled the native inhabitants of the land there” (30). The conquest of the Negev is a complete fabrication! Again, the Israelites did battle or conquer these peoples or territories at a much later date, but that historical data was projected into the past as a means to legitimate the conquest.

In reference to the cities Hazor, Lachish, and Megiddo, which Joshua allegedly destroyed, archaeologist Finkelstein writes:

The kings of each of these four cities—Hazor, Aphek, Lachish, and Megiddo—are reported to have been defeated by the Israelites under Joshua. But the archaeological evidence shows that the destruction of those cities took place over a span of more than a century. The possible causes include invasion, social breakdown, and civil strife. No single military force did it, and certainly not in one military campaign. . . . Thus there is no reason to suppose that the burning of Hazor by hostile forces, for example, never took place. But what was in actuality a chaotic series of upheavals caused by many different factors and carried out by many different groups became—centuries later—a brilliantly crafted saga of territorial conquest under God’s blessing and direct command (The Bible Unearthed, 90-94).

These are merely some examples of the textual and archaeological data that have lead biblical scholars to conclude that the biblical writers were not writing history. There are literally 100s, maybe 1000s more examples. What do you think? Does the data support this post’s claim? How would you analyze these data? Obviously this same data could be used to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of (a) God. Certainly I’m interested in how, when, and why this tradition emerged and why it’s perpetuated. But the biblical texts themselves largely refute this.

You may also be interested in contradiction #81: Why the Exodus is fiction.

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29 Responses to How do we know that the biblical writers were not writing history?

  1. insearchoftruth4 says:

    Love the site, looking foward to more!

  2. raoul says:

    Well stated and a very thorough analysis of the dilemma. The one thing you wrote is, to me anyway, the key to historicity of specific bible events. And that is – extra biblical or non-canonical attestation of the event. By this I am not referring to what some alleged ‘church’ father may have written about it (Eusebius, Tertillian, et.al) but a non christian who is regarded as reliable.

  3. Joe says:

    Funny. Nowhere does this biblical “scholar” reason that the differing Gospel narratives point to the honesty of them, rather than to an agenda-driven desire to write falsehoods for the sake of some dubious intention.

    Something tells me this “scholar” has all the dubious intentions he attributes to biblical writings.

    Let me guess–

    Religion has hurt him in some manner?

    His personal lifestyle is at stake if religious dogma is a valid morality?

    His desire to promote his intellect is his main ambition?

    The bottom line is this:

    The Bible has always been said to be an INSPIRED work by many authors. And, there are ABSOLUTELY NO CONTRADICTIONS IN THE BIBLE’S OVERALL MESSAGE that God exists and we must be obedient to him.

    Finding slight contradictions here and there is a waste of time and energy.

    And, to claim, for example, that Jesus never existed because hermeneutics has revealed contradictions in the Gospels is to claim something with complete and utter stupidity as a foundation for this claim.

  4. Joe, I appreciate the passion in your response, but it’s apparent that you have not read the post, AND more so that you’ve totally mis-characterized me. “Honesty,” “falsehood,” “dubious intention” — I’ve nowhere mentioned any of these. Rather, I would argue that they are spurred on by your own presuppositions and beliefs about the text. At core, this is what this project is about, unveiling our, our culture’s presuppositions and why and how they were formed. If your, our culture’s, presupposition or “givens” are that the “Bible is inspired” and “has no contradictions” then you’re valuing your own beliefs and presuppositions before the texts themselves, the authors that wrote them, and their historical and literary contexts. The texts themselves, not I, will refute many of our culture’s presuppositions and “givens” about the text.

    Furthermore, the interpretive framework that you’re, our culture is, working from was imposed upon these texts centuries after they were written. So you have again chosen the views and presuppositions of a reading community that lived centuries after these texts were written, and in accord with their own purposes, agenda, and presuppositions labeled these texts as “the word of God.” But studying the text themselves AND their authors will bring these presuppositions and later interpretive claims into question. And that’s the discussion we should be having here. How else would you interpret the data above? was the question I posed to my readers.

    Lastly, don’t make this into a personal debate. I realize that beliefs, and the religious narratives that inform our reality and give them meaning are important and personal, perhaps even necessary, but here we’re trying to study and gauge the texts themselves and their authors, first, and then our, our culture’s, beliefs, thoughts, etc. about these texts. Our arguments, conclusions, hypothesis, must be drawn from the texts, not from what we believe or don’t believe, what society tells us to believe or not to believe. Obviously we are interested in these questions too. But first honesty must be granted to these ancient texts and to understanding what the biblical writers were doing and why.

  5. G.J. Dunn says:

    Since the bible is a collection of books combined, It would be that the bible has several authors. In my opinion the reason for all the contradictions is that each author has their own views. Especially Matthew, Mark and Luke who give different depictions of Jesus. Each one talks about Jesus but have variations that contradict each other.

    Me personally I think in the bible, people and events did happen, But the stories were embellished. The authors added drama to make the stories more appealing to it’s readers. And it worked because we are talking about the bible today whether we believe it’s contents or not. When you watch a Hollywood Movie and you see on the credits, Based On A True Story, It’s saying that there is truth to the movie but also some fiction combined like adding drama to boost the movie’s chances for being a blockbuster hit. If they made the movie on actually events without some fiction or drama added, then the movie would be boring.

  6. Chris says:

    Wow great read, very eye opening. I had always thought that there wasn’t really an abundant amount of archaeological evidence to support or deny any of the claims in the bible. Also I hadn’t thought that some books could be so blatantly propaganda. I’m definitely interested in learning more and curious to check out some of the sources you cited. There’s a lot to learn apparently and I’m just getting started on an objective understanding of the text.

  7. TEX says:

    Dr. DiMattei, excellent read, thank you for the time and energy put forward in your work, you have clarified
    and confirmed some of my own thoughts but the quest for knowledge goes on.

    Of all the thousands of gods that have been worshiped, by many different cultures over the centuries, which people have died for and been sacrificed to, many before Yahweh was even known, and not to mention the variety of different beliefs to this very day across the world, makes a rational mind wonder, is it gullibility, fear, naivety, the desire to escape reality or a combination of these and other metal attributes that might be responsible for the willful ignorance adopted by the faithful of any particular religion? It’s what makes these minds tick that I find most interesting for the answers will also say a lot about why and how the scriptures were written.

  8. bio says:

    This is very well written… and quite convincing. Looking forward to your presentation of the contradictions you mentioned in this post. And again thank you so much !!

  9. Lythl says:

    I did enjoy reading this, many of its points are covered well also in Evid3nce’s youtube series, but I feel like this was a more thorough investigation of the particular point of how history was manipulated to include God into the actions.

    The comment by Joe at the bottom is also quite interesting, and is probably representative of many ‘modernised’ Christians who no longer hold that the Bible is infallible and perfect, but simply ‘inspired’. The insults are probably unnecessary, but your statement that there is no contradictions in the overall message (i.e. that God demands our fealty) even though there may be contradictions in the actual historicity of its accounts, doesn’t properly dismiss the article

    I think at its core, these contradictions are not admissible for the sake of the Bible’s entire message, because these events form its entire message, in that God exists and has had a big impact on the planets history, and that we owe him our worship for these things. If we can look at the entire Old Testament and say that whenever God was invoked we have actual evidence proving events didn’t occur how the Bible said they did, where is God’s influence? What is the point of calling the Bible inspired if we can see that “God” throughout the Old Testament was a figure used to empower the texts author or the king at the time, rather than the Bible being written as a means of reaching out to and glorifying the celestial unknown as ‘inspiration’ would dictate. If the Bible glorifies the current interests of the strongest, using falsified events to benefit the interests of the strongest, then it really isn’t written for God’s glory and for that matter cant be said to be inspired by God.

    I guess I’m preaching to the choir here, but I really feel that these contradictions should be damaging to both fundamentalist and modern Christians, and that we shouldn’t let modern Christians off the hook for not holding the Bible as infallible but simply ‘inspired’. It should go without saying that if the Bible’s purpose is to benefit man rather than God it wasn’t inspired, but I’m no scholar and perhaps my logic is flawed. Either way, great article, and I noticed from your post history you really want to get this site more well known, so I’ll link anyone to your site for these matters.

  10. Kobus says:

    What you see as contradictions are merely, different points of view written by different authors. If you retell the same story 30 or 40 times, as was the oral tradition, you are bound to tell it different each and every time, sometimes embelishing, sometimes not.

  11. KW says:

    Kobus: Dr. DiMattei’s blog is essentially a response to people who, like myself when younger, give the Bible a literal reading as God’s word. I’m referring to the concept of Biblical inerrancy or infallibility. You’re correct that these aren’t contradictions when the original text is viewed as oral tradition, but that’s not how most fundamental Christians read the Bible! According to their way of looking at the Bible, each event must have been historical and have happened exactly as described in the account.

  12. Supernova Kasprzak says:

    I can’t believe you’re putting this level of effort into this. Is there a way to make money off this site or can you afford to give so much of your time? In any case, I’m glad for the resource. I’ll be sure to check out your new posts daily.

  13. AJ says:

    Dr. DiMattei,

    This is a fascinating project you are engaged in, and I eagerly look forward to having the time to properly digest what you’ve already written, as well as future posts.

    A quick question with respect to your section here and ‘Stories’ section on anachronisms: what sources did you consult to develop this argument? You already cited Dever and Finkelstein- any others? I find this topic to be incredibly intriguing, and am wondering if you might be able to point me in the direction of additional resources.

    Thanks!

  14. Micah Rowell says:

    Dr. DiMattei, again, thanks for the amazing amount of effort and detail you put into these posts! I am thoroughly enjoying read through these, even though it takes me a while lol. It gives me something to do when I’m bored at work :)

    I have another question. I was watching a video last night of a guy named Ravi Zacharias, a Christian apologist who claimed at one point that many reputable sources (TIME magazine is the only one I can remember he stated specifically) say that the Bible has an accuracy of 99%. After having read this post I can only assume that there is more to that claim than what he is saying.

    Have you heard of this claim before? If so, what do you make of it?

  15. Rj says:

    Speaking of history, i grew up as a JW. We were ALWAYS taught that jerusalem was destroyed in 607 bc and not 587bc, i believe they are sticking to this date due to their need to keep mathmatical continuity up to their pivotal date of 1914. My question to you is this, in all of your studies have you ever came across the suggestion that 607 was possibly the actual year of Jerusalem’s fall? I am sorry if this is a bit off topic, but i have never in my life had the chance to ask a biblical scholar this question. I have read a lot of articles and things online which seem to say that 587 is a pretty sure thing, but i just find it difficult to believe an organzation of almost 8 million people can believe such a blatently incorrect date.

  16. Yes, I’ve heard of such claims. They are utterly and completely inaccurate, and I would argue disingenuous to, and ignorant of, the biblical texts, their authors, their original audiences, etc. More so, such claims are motivated by apologetics, subject-oriented biases, and erroneous presuppositions about the text—presuppositions that I try to pierce through in What is the Bible?

    What is even more disheartening is that in today’s culture the expert is not the biblical scholar/historian who has devoted 20+ years of his life to studying the Bible’s 60+ texts and authors each in their own unique historical and literary contexts, which span over 1,000 years, but TIME magazine! How pathetically impoverished we are when in comes to disseminating knowledge! Image and Appearance are the new authority.

    Second, apologists are not biblical scholars nor historians; as their title suggests, they are theologians defending their faith or the beliefs of later interpretive traditions. This is a far cry from knowledge (and concern) about the biblical texts each in their own historical and literary contexts, and their unique textual histories, and how and why they came to be collected together, labeled, and marketed as the “Bible.” Lastly, anyone who is using terms such as “accuracy” “truth” etc., is already starting off from modern preconceived notions and misguided presuppositions about the Bible specifically and ancient literature in general. These terms already imply, falsely, that the aim of the writers of these ancient texts were to record history. Not at all as this post clearly demonstrates, i.e., as the biblical texts themselves demonstrate. In the end, such claims are promulgated in an attempt to support the reader’s misperceptions, presuppositions, and beliefs, and say nothing of, and are abusive towards, the actual texts, their authors, audiences, historical contexts, etc.

    My aim here is to move us past subjective-based claims about the Bible—what he believes it is, what she believes it is—towards looking at the textual data and drawing conclusions from that. And in this case, the biblical data largely and irrefutably discredits all these sorts of claims. In this country, however, one can get away with teaching false knowledge, pawning off personal belief as truth, presenting misconceptions and subjective presuppositions as truth, etc. I don’t think there is any other area, discipline, or field of study where we tolerate such malpractice. But I must stop here before I start ranting.

    Rj, no. This is the first time I’ve ever seen 607 as the date, and I’ve read a lot. I think 587 is substantiated by Babylonian and other ancient Near Eastern sources, but I’d have to double check here to be more precise.

    Aj, the Dever and Finkelstein books are the best for looking at the correlation between archaeological data and textual anachronisms. Thompson and Lemche do a bit of this too, and Halpern with the Samuel texts, his David’s Secret demons— excellent scholarship.

    Supernova: Yes, maybe I’ll have to lock the site down and start asking readers to subscribe for a mere $2. This is after all a 5-6 year venture, and a lot of knowledge, much of what I’m still learning about!, will be disseminated. Hopefully, however, a publisher or agent sees the value and importance in this material, which is, as you all know, very evident and obvious.

  17. Dan says:

    RJ: High control groups and cults often have a lot of power over their followers and can and do abuse their power, in like manner 607 lie has been promulgated by deception and out of context sources. When a reader has limited knowledge and limited opportunity to research freely external sources and has full faith in the controlling body that presents the material, he ends up believing anything and everything that is taught to him and that’s why 607 can be a “truth” to over 8million indoctrinated followers. It’s funny how this teaching and group is so ridiculous that majority of studied individuals haven’t even heard of 607 nonsense or WTS theology. ;)

  18. PaulR says:

    RJ, I was raised JW too. We were so proud of our “Bible knowledge”, weren’t we? When you look at other sources, though, you realise just how little we knew.

  19. Tyler says:

    This is a fantastic website. I found you through The Thinking Atheist Forums page and hope to learn much about the history and culture of the biblical writers ( and I wouldn’t mind the $2 fee).
    What I am curious on is what is known about whether Jesus is historical or not. I’ve heard it go back and forth so to speak with scholars like Bart Erhman arguing for and Robert Carrier arguing against. I’ve also read Earl Doherty’s arguments against a historical Jesus. It seems that a lot of our knowledge from outside of the bible for 1st century comes from Josephus and from my understanding the only references he makes to Jesus come from Antiquities 18 and 22 ( that’s from memory so I could be wrong).

    So my questions are,

    1. How reliable or unreliable is Josephus when it comes to his mention of Jesus.

    2. How certain or uncertain are scholars of Jesus’s existence and what evidence is there for either.

    Thanks

  20. Tyler, Welcome aboard. Believe it or not I was actually trained as a New Testament scholar, so my expertise lies there. However, as this site bears witness, I have expanded well beyond the New Testament now, and almost feel more qualified with Pentateuchal studies. Nonetheless, I can’t wait till we get to the New Testament contradictions when we will be able to discuss these issues more fully. I hope you’ll be around when we do, which I suspect will be in another couple years!

    To answer your two questions directly. The scholarly consensus on Josephus’ testimony is that, minus later Christian interpolations of faith statements into Josephus’ text, the bare essential is authentic. I, however, must disagree with this consensus. I view the whole thing as a later forgery, and was once working on an academic paper noting the evidence behind that claim, which I no longer have at my fingertips. That said, the “fear” among academics and more so theologians is that if Josephus’ testimony is not authentic—the only mention of Jesus in any 1st century text other than the early gospels—then that bolsters the claims of those who would deny his historicity. I don’t buy that either. In other words, I don’t think Josephus’ testimony is authentic, but that is not grounds upon which one can then argue Jesus did not exist. And this brings me to your second point. How certain are scholars, of all persuasions, of Jesus’ existence? Very! I know many fervent Christian New Testament scholars, liberal Christian New Testament scholars, agnostic New Testament scholars, and a good many Jewish New Testament scholar—none of them are arguing that Jesus did not exist. Interesting that those who are arguing such a position are not trained New Testament scholars, and that they actually argue in their favor.

    What evidence do we have that Jesus existed? Well none really. And that shouldn’t alarm. We have no historical record validating 98% of the population of antiquity, but that doesn’t mean they did not exist. It’d be like claiming today that if you’re not in Google, you don’t exist. This is unfortunately the state of the scholarship. That said, I, as well as a good number of other New Testament scholars, would hold in some form or another that the Christ figured so prominently in the gospels—even contradictorily—is a literary and theological creation of these writers. The Jesuses of the gospels tell us more about how later, mostly non-Jewish (Matthew being the exception) authors and audiences saw and understood Jesus as the Christ. In short, I would say nothing can be ascertained about the historical Jesus from these later theologized portraits, except perhaps the bare minimum: Jesus was a Galilean Jew, believed in those ideas exemplary of his own time period, as outlined in Josephus—Torah, one god, Yahweh, martyrdom for the Torah, anti-Roman imperialism, anti-social injustices brought about by consumerism, and perhaps also anti-temple in that there was a growing criticism among the Jewry that the priest had become corrupted through bribery, etc.

    I’d recommend this post I wrote sometime ago, The Case Against the Mythicist. It briefly outlines in more detail why the mythicists’ claim that Jesus was not historical falls apart on both methodological grounds and lack of evidence.

  21. Garfield says:

    aS a student of Egyptian History I find this enlightening. In Exodus we read about Hebrews being enslaved……In John 8 vs 33 the Jews admitted to not ever been in bondage to any man …..I think its a contradiction and also proves that the story never took place. I’m new to the site don’t know if you already pointed this one out.

  22. Brandon says:

    Dr. DiMattei,
    Interesting article! However, I found the section, Historical events skewed by theological interpretive lenses: biblical and extra-biblical data, unconvincing and wanted to hear your response.

    As far as Babylon capturing Judah and the other examples from nearby cultures, let’s assume it is Yahweh who raised up the Babylonians, just like He did with Pharoah, for His own purposes. Let’s also assume that Satan is an entity who said in his heart, “I will be like the most High” (Isaiah 14:14). And also assume that Satan is a liar and has Spiritual princes/kings over different regions like mentioned in Daniel 10. With this mind frame we’ll again consider the fact that Yahweh said he raised up the Babylonians and the Babylonians also said that their god raised up the Persians. Rather than this being a case of cultural contamination showing that both accounts are wrong/propaganda, it seems to me that this could be an indication of how things might actually function. Yahweh says He raises up an enemy against His people and then Satan (trying to be like the most High to himself and to those serving him indirectly) claims to be the one to win the victory for the people or the one to hand the people over to their enemies. Thus you have cultures with similar explanations for similar events.

    Now you might say well, how do we know the version with Yahweh is the truth and Marduk is false? Isn’t arrogant to assume that our belief’s true? And that’s another discussion, but my point is simply just because two different views say they are correct doesn’t disqualify them both from being true. You might think this is a stretch, but couldn’t the fact that multiple Near East cultures have similar creation stories or flood stories indicate, not that they borrowed them from each other, but that it actually happened that way?

    Last, the way I read the story in 2 Kings you mentioned is like it says in 2 Kings 18:13-16 Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah. King Hezekiah then pays them handsomely and Sennacherib withdraws from Judah. Then Sennacherib threatens Jerusalem, but is unsuccessful because as 2 Kings 19:35 says, an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 men in the camp. I was not sure where the contradiction in these scriptures were and wondering if you would clarify?

    Thanks for your time! I look forward to your response.

  23. Brandon, thanks for the contribution.

    First, Isaiah 14:14 and its immediate context does not refer to the satan figure in Hebrew. It rather speaks about the son of the morning star which is thrown down from its heights in heaven. It is used as a poetical and metaphorical expression for what is being referred to throughout the larger context—explicitly stated in verse 4: “this is a parable against the king of Babylon.” And this too is a historical event perceived and interpreted through a theological lens. The historical event alluded to is certainly the fall of Babylon and it is accredited to Yahweh.

    Rather than assume anything, as you start off, let’s look at some of the textual data and then draw a conclusion. I am away from my books, so I’ll do my best to work from memory. Here are some texts to look at.

    1) Ezra 1 and passages from 3rd-Isaiah depict Yahweh as defeating the Babylonians and as the agent behind Cyrus’ decree to let the Hebrews return to their land and rebuild.

    2) the Babylonian cylinder seal depicts the Babylonian god Marduk as the agent behind these events.

    3) a stela now labeled the Moabite stela depicts the god of the Moabites, Chemosh, as giving the land of Moab to the Mpabites, Chemosh’s people.

    4) Deuteronomy 2, and other places in the Bible, depict Yahweh as giving the land of the Moabites to the Israelites.

    If we collected more texts from other ancient Near Eastern cultures—and remember fragments only remain—we would be inclined to conclude, based on the textual data, that ALL ancient Near Eastern cultures understood the events that befell their nations through a theological interpretive lens that perceived these events as divinely-ordained, as punishments in many instances. The only thing that varied was which deity was depicted as being sovereign over these events. The literature from the ancient Israelites is by far the most voluminous of all the literary remains from the ancient Levant. So without having the other literature of the ancient Near East, we would be more inclined to buy into the biblical scribes’ conviction and interpretive lens. But archaeology started discovering more texts—the above Babylonian cylinder and the Moabite stela are late 19th century finds—which depict the same theology and theological understanding of historical events as portrayed in the Bible. And I would expect that we’d find the same in ancient Greece, China, etc.

    So this issue is not one of truth or falsehood. These are modern identifiers formed from faulty premises—thinking the scribes were writing history. Rather, we must see this as part of elaborate theological, cultural, and literary features and norms that the whole ancient Near East shared.

    Furthermore, remember that what we really have in these texts, even when they purport to narrate historical events, is only the perspectives of writers, cultures, elite guilds, etc. The biblical texts can never really tell us about the past; but rather how scribes perceived the past, perceived historical events, perceived their people, etc. And as we know, perceptions change. Here is a good example. In 2 Samuel 24:1, the author of this text portrays Yahweh as being angered against David on account of the census and sends a plague and destroys the people. However when the later author of the book of Chronicles, which is a retelling of the same historical period, renarrates this same event, he rewrites it and now has Satan be the agent of this event. Neither is true or false. Rather these are ways of seeing and explaining events employed by scribes of the ancient world. The later writer of Chronicles could not portray Yahweh in this more earlier convention; and since the idea of Satan had already emerged by his time—there is no Satan in the earliest parts of the Bible (see for example #90 and #94)—he felt obliged to rewrite the narrative. Again, it is the textual data, the texts themselves, that led us to this conclusion.

  24. Brandon says:

    Dr. DiMattei, thank you for your response.

    Sir, I understand that you are saying since so many civilizations at that time credit a higher power to be responsible the nation’s course, this practice [of crediting God/gods to victory/defeat] is cultural not historical. I’m saying, how do you know? Neither of us (that I know of) have had an experience in the supernatural realm during the defeat of the Babylonians in which we can accurately say which God (or gods) are responsible for it, if any. Again I don’t find the grounds here for completely dismissing the possibility that this could be an historical account of the natural with the additional historical account of what was taking place in the supernatural realm at the time of each event.

    I acknowledge that these different people had different perspectives, but did they not believe what they were writing down? If their perspectives are wrong how do we know? Base it off our own perspectives?

    Anyways, your last paragraph also reminded me of a case in Job, which you may have addressed elsewhere on your site, but I think it fits. Satan says to God in Job 1:11-12, “…But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face. The Lord said to Satan, ‘Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.’” In other words God agrees with Satan to stretch out His own hand and strike everything Job has, but by it means that He will actually allow Satan to do it. In these two verses the supposedly differing perspectives in Chronicles and 2 Samuel are combined. Physically I cannot say that I completely understand how God and Satan(the accuser) get credit for the same doings. But I also think that the author of Job was not completely insensible in writing Job as he did and there exists a possibility that outside of the limitations of our own realm cases like this may be simple in fact. If you are interested, and haven’t before, search youtube for videos about the fourth spatial dimension; the videos don’t mention this but I find it to be an interesting parallel, using science/math, to how contradictions to us and reality don’t truly contradict at times.

    And one more series of questions about Job. You said there is no Satan in the earliest parts of the Bible referring to Satan in Job 1:9, 12; 2:1-7… (Revelation 12:10 calls Satan the accuser) (If not, who is he referring to?)? And isn’t Job one of the oldest books in the Bible? What am I missing?

    Thanks again for your first response and for taking the time to read this one as well.

  25. The Healer says:

    Growing up Jewish, I spent most of my life confronted with negativity about Jews. Even in 2013 (possibly more today than before), as soon as Jews or Israel are mentioned in a news article, the comment section inevitably attracts people attempting to reinforce negative stereotypes about Jews or bashing Jews for mistreating Palestinians.

    Reading your articles that take the Torah apart, I am realizing that the Jews were actually a pretty neat civilization. Organized society, educational systems, philosophers, kings, epic battles, and highly stylized, creative literature (e.g. the Bible) that dates back thousands of years. For once, I am happy to be a Jew.

  26. JH says:

    Christians please, there are ppl here trying to learn. I came to this site to avoid having to read name calling and hate speeches. Any person who claims to be a christian but in turn has so much hate in his heart cannot be true to his religion. Furthermore, it makes it difficult for one to believe in any religion that cannot defend itself with factual historcal data but resorts to personal attacks. If u wish to convert others practice what u preach through and through. And from the christian point of view jesus taught love, understanding and acceptance, so ask wwjd. Finally, this guy is doing a service to ppl trying to learn. Many scientists, archeologists, and historians ect. Have been either ruined in their careers, had to bend data to the will of religion, or hide their works to avoid the wrath of religious persons who believe the bible is divine, it is perfect like god and the full truth. This guy has not said the bible isnt true hes simply explaining its context and agendas of the times it was written. Which if u closed ur mouth more and read u may be able to strenghthen ur own religious arguments with valid info. This guy was way too nice to say it, so ill say it for him, if u cant participate with legitimate arguments and data stay the heck away. The rest of us are trying to learn. By the way, a work cannot be divine inspired and contain mistakes or contradictions no matter how many authors. By saying its divine inspired, ur saying the author was guided by the holy spirit or god. And by this logic should contain no problems such as a little contradiction here or there… unless ur saying god makes mistakes. A better argument would be to defend god, not the bible. The bible contains stories to guide one in righteous behavior to become closer to god. Did u know the majority of ppl in the u.s. believe the story about george washington and the apple tree. It never happened, it was a story sunday school teachers concocted to teach children about lying using famous meaningful historical figures from their time and perspective. Think about that, and what it means. A moral teaching story accepted as factual.

  27. JH says:

    PS, born and raised in the southeàst us. So i know a little something about the christian culture and what the preacher says every sunday and wednesday. I think ppl wouldnt stray nor would they have such a hard time defending their stance if they worshipped god and not the bible. The bible even tells u not worship objects. Im not saying what I personally believe just trying to submit what might be a better view of the bible for christians. Its a moral guide only. Manmade. But that doesnt mean god doesnt exist. Ok. We cant say beyond a doubt he does or doesnt it must be taken on faith, I totally get both sides views on it because im logical. But the bible teaches love and acceptance even of the morally corrupt. Jesus ministered to the so called scum of the earth, not just the ppl who already believed and its god who will giv his wrath not ppl on his behalf,

  28. JH,

    Although quite distant from the conversation at hand—i.e., the biblical texts themselves—some of your comments are nevertheless interesting. Many of my Fundamentalist readers, too few really, often think I’m attacking their faith or their god, but in actually I’m “attacking” their mis-guided beliefs about the Bible, which as you note correctly is a totally different ball game. One doesn’t need an inerrant, “divinely-inspired,” book to believe in God. More Christians, while retaining their believe in God, however conceived, need to nonetheless be more honest about what these 2,000-3,000 year old texts are AND are not. So you make a relevant point here.

    However, I would disagree with some of your generalizations about the Bible, such as it serves as a modern moral guide, or teaches love and acceptance. Really? It’s true that one can cherry-pick verses from the 66+ different texts that now make up the Bible, as well as cherry-pick verses from the Qu’ran, Bhagavad Gita, or any Classic, to support a moral perspective or precept. But when you make generalizations like this, you’re actually refusing to listen to about 90% of these 66+ different texts, that often, for reasons endemic to their unique historical contexts and the perspectives that ancient writers had, teach contrary things. I largely believe that the word “Bible” has come to signify and invoke religious ideas of “morals,” “love,” etc., apart from what these texts and their differing authors actually claim. In other words, the term “Bible” has become a floating signifier whose meaning is actually supplied by its user and not the actual texts. This website is an attempt to rectify this a bit.

    Second, in regards to your claim that I have not stated that the Bible is not true, this is not exactly the case. First, I try to avoid such language because the question whether the Bible is true or not is a false one. It rests on a false, erroneous, understanding of the biblical texts and more so what its scribes were doing in writing its narratives. This whole post was an attempt to demonstrate via the texts themselves that biblical scribes were not writing history. Note I did not say not writing the truth because that assumes that the Bible is true or false. It is fiction, and we can certainly quibble over what that means. But in general these fictions did, and still do in some cases, define reality and thus become what we might call “truth.” But this is still a far distant from claiming that what the biblical writers wrote was truth. What its narratives are is a re-presentation of history through often thick theological lenses and premises.

    In general, let’s try to keep the conversation focused on the texts.

  29. JH says:

    This is a shortened response, my tablet failed to send the first, i think if not i aplogize for duplicate.No quibble at all over fiction might add the word historical to the front of it. Didnt use the word modern. Said, and probably shouldve been clearer, it is a moral guide, manmade. The intentions of the authors was to make rules and laws dictating ppls lives. Sorry didnt clarify but we r studying author/historical perspective and context so thought it was inherent what i meant. I will be clearer in the future.New to this arena of study but based on my other readings bible distorts the teachings of jesus. Never said the bible taught love and understanding, just that jesus did. U were right on, though in ur response to my train of thought i just didnt explain it as well. However though not on topic with the article, which i do apologize for, was in the realm of conversation with the person attacking u personally. But again i apologize.

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