Dealing with Inaccuracy of the Old Testament

Good morning!

In light of evidence that the stories of Daniel, Esther, and David are historically inaccurate, as in there is no historical or archeological evidence to support their existence and lives such as is portrayed in the Bible, how do we go about interpreting the Bible? What does this signify for Christians, especially when Jesus himself mentions Daniel in the gospel of Mark? Also, how do we respond to evidence that shows that Abraham and Isaac are nothing but Iron-Age literary figures?

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Welcome and excellent questions!

My thoughts: I personally have no problem with Jesus or others mentioning or utilizing common cultural stories in his own parables or teachings. Most Christians (or all) are perfectly fine with Jesus using made up characters to teach us some point (woman and the lost coins, prodigal son, etc.). So why is it bad now to refer to Abraham or David since they are characters (based on real people?) that have a backstory. This type of thing adds so much richness to the story that can otherwise be missed.

It’s like when I watched Star Wars episode seven with my wife. I was flipping out at all of the things they added in- like seeing them hop in Millennium Falcon brought back to my mind so many other stories and what that represents symbolically. Basically that added a richness to the story that would have been missed otherwise. You can still make sense of the stories without knowing the backstory, but the context of various figures is very important. And of course in my example, the symbol is not even anything real yet it conveys a deep meaning when used any particular cultural narrative.

All this to say is that we can hear the voice of Jesus utilizing these cultural narratives and let him speak fresh into us in an authoritative way. Paul did this in Romans 5 using Adam which isn’t even about Adam as a historical person but rather what Adam represents which based on the backstory, adds clarity and depth to the work of Christ.

This is my best answer at present and I’m sure others will chime in with other thoughts.

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Given Matthew’s point above (which I wholeheartedly agree with), I nonetheless think that there have been recent periods where it has been in vogue in the secular academy (regarding biblical events or people) to assume that any absence of evidence must be evidence of absence. So it used to be doubted (to put it charitably!) that King David even existed. It is my understanding that recently evidence did surface to show that he actually did. So don’t get too upset over scholars making broad declarations that probably are more revealing of their personal biases than historical realities. That is not to say they are always wrong and that every biblical character must historically exist. I think Matthew’s point applies. But you aren’t obliged to hold historicity at arm’s length quite so often as some may wish you to believe.

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I have a hard time viewing the Book of Daniel as being literally inspired. All the evidence I have seen would suggest it is a Maccabean era forgery, and that it’s author expected an immediate eschaton. At the same time, I think it is in the Bible for a reason, and that reason, I hold is to act as a mirror to us, to caution us ‘against’ making claims as to an imminent apocalypse. Perhaps the same can be said for the apocalyptic claims made by Jesus. Here we have a message (even if it was not it’s original intent) that has meaning to this very day.

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I feel that it would be more appropriate to say we don’t have the historical or archeological evidence to verify or corroborate these biblical accounts, instead of claiming that the biblical accounts are “inaccurate.”

With that said, I think we go about interpreting the bible by pulling out the points of theological significance. Whether or not certain accounts are historically accurate, like video footage, wasn’t the concern of the writers, and shouldn’t be our concern or barometer of value. In other words, I want to manage my expectations of the bible based on its intent.

I don’t know of any reasons that would cause me to doubt the existence of Daniel, Esther, or David. I believe the accounts are tied to real people and real events. But I can also be okay with acknowledging that God is letting his children tell the story, and that these children have taken some liberties, so that the important theological points and the story of our relationship with God get expressed.

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I disagree, for example, King Xeres (as portrayed in the Book of Esther) is a confirmed historical figure, and his the name of his wife a Persian princess, is also known and her life and origin extensively documented, if Esther was real, why isn’t she documented? If she was the Queen Consort of a King? I mean this with the utmost respect and a desire to know more and how to reconcile these.

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Absolutely, yes and amen to that! When I read the arguments from some historians and theologians, I end up getting the impression that they treat the Bible with much more scepticism than they do other historical documents. It seems that they assume that unless something in the Bible is corroborated by other documents signed in triplicate, lost, found again, buried in soft peat for six months and then recycled as firelighters, then it must be complete fiction.

In actual fact, there’s one thing about the Bible that sets it apart from other contemporary historical documents. It doesn’t whitewash anyone. It gives us a “warts and all” picture of its heroes. Just think about it: Samson and Delilah, David’s adultery with Bathsheba and his subsequent “make it look like an accident, 007” job on Uriah to cover it up, the numerous kings that it tears a strip off in Kings and Chronicles for doing evil in the eyes of the Lord, and so on. On the other hand, the other contemporary historical records are all royal court documents written by people in the service of despotic kings who would have their heads off in an instant if they wrote anything uncomplimentary about them. Personally, I think that difference alone has a lot to say in favour of the Bible’s status as a trustworthy historical source.

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In my opinion, if any claim of Jesus (including apocalyptic, if there are any that can legitimately be categorized as such) is not true, then we are the most miserable of people who are putting our faith in a false prophet.

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The person who said this was Jewish, so I don’t think this is really relevant to them.

Not anymore

As long as Jesus was resurrected, he is the messiah and the christ.

Also, Jesus was ‘fully man’ and fully God. So he can be expected to have human fallibility

Welcome to the forum! I very much appreciate that we can have these intelligent discussions through gracious dialogue.

I think we can accept the premise that a lack of evidence cannot be used to prove any conclusion. The existence of David is a great example, previously there had been no evidence for his existence and he was thought of a kind of King Arthur of Israel, but recently tablets were excavated referencing him.

I have a reference from Brittanica that discusses archeological support for Abraham’s story.

I feel that Jesus reference of the Old Testament demonstrates the value of the old testament. I would even go as far as saying the Old Testament may even be more reliable than the new as the conservation of the document was more consistent over a much longer period of time. The narrative of Jesus and the women taken in adultery and the resurrection in the Gospel of Mark are not in the earlier manuscripts and some feel they were added later.

In one version of the story of the woman taken in adultery, when Jesus says let he who is without sin cast the first stone, a rock goes flying by His head, hits the women and Jesus says “Mom, sometimes you can really embarrass me!” (I heard this joke from Bart Erhman, but I think it has an older Catholic source)

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No if you mean he sinned. If he sinned, he couldn’t even save himself.

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No but he was not omniscient

Yes, this.

I think the Bible is authoritative because it is the chosen revelation of God, who is a person who holds authority. Its truth comes from the Person it reveals. It is the wrong approach to God and his self-revelation to impose a bunch of historical and scientific fact-check tests on the Bible and then if it passes, decide that it is therefore authoritative and God is real.

Because a Jewish woman in a harem just wasn’t that important to the people who held power and recorded history, maybe. Queen Vashti seemed pretty disposable.

For years we have taught our children our own modern history with the contributions of women and minorities conveniently left out.

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Good morning Joy. I might post again after I have had time to review some sources but I would like to say first that the Bible is itself documentary evidence.

Regarding David there is corroborating archeological evidence. Several years ago an archeologist read the Bible and predicted that if the stories of David were accurate there should be the remains of a Phonecian style palace in a particular location. Excavations confirmed this. Right building, right style, right date, right place.

The Bible is the most critically examined book in the world but has consistently been shown to be accurate.

I see what you’re getting at, but Esther isn’t represented in the bible as “a woman in the harem”, she’s represented as the primary Queen Consort of the Persian Empire, and another woman is recorded, but not Esther.

I understand the need of many Christians to have the Bible be completely without error, but the truth is that many anecdotes and stories in the Bible have been proven to not have occurred, such as the Exodus. It is difficult to come to terms with, but I think it more productive than choosing to not evaluate evidence. I say all of this from a Christian background and from a place of genuine interest.

There are also a lot of Christians and skeptical unbelievers too it would seem that need the Bible to be either 100% or 0% while they handily ignore the wide world of reality in between those two.

It’s one thing to say the exodus didn’t happen according to the details and population numbers the narrative has come to associate with the event, and quite another to say that nothing like it ever happened at all. I realize that doesn’t make the black and white fundamentalist believers and atheists happy, but most of us are willing to just allow that our current understandings of scriptures and what all we are given to draw from them - those understandings of ours are not infallible - that being a peculiar fundamentalist conceit.

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The total word count of the Old Testament is about 580,000 in the KJV which is a little longer than War and Peace. Meaning there’s a lot of stuff in there either to attack or defend. I wish we had perfect and complete archaeological records of the era, but we never will. Still, it’s impressive how many details have been verified, as many here have pointed out.

Clearly the early chapters of Genesis require some interpretive license, but that tradition goes way back in church history.

This conversation is timely for me, as I just finished reading Andy Stanley’s “Irresistible “ and find him mostly convincing.

So far, I am impressed by the civility of this conversation!

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