Historicity as Benchmark for the Bible - a New Book

I have often wondered whether the Christian scribes that wrote the Gospels and Acts, ever thought that they were writing “scripture” that would be one day seen as “God’s word” rather than their composition to describe a personality that had become so honoured by them, that they considered him to be a prophet, spiritual leader, and even a messiah. The later deification of course went a step further. You find a lot of conflict in Christian history because of different readings of scripture, and a lack of unity in many circles.

The reason I ask this is because, as Jacob L. Wright suggests in a new book, when you look at the final generations of Old Testament writers, they made a surprising move and produced books and texts that encouraged their readers to challenge teachings that their predecessors had developed over centuries. They seemed to have been convinced that pushback and protest make a system more flexible and resilient. Only when their communities, as a “People of Protest,” felt empowered to evaluate and critique their teachings, would they fully appreciate both their merits and their limitations.

His book Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its Origins (Cambridge University Press) is thought provoking, because it suggests that the narrative that was put together was a unique attempt to make a nation out of failed kingdoms, and bring people together as one people, that until then had lacked this national cohesion. It obviously has been successful, and it seems to be successful because it doesn’t rely on people living all in one place to belong together and can accept diversity to a certain degree.

The historical evidence he offers is very plausible and would explain why the correspondence that has been discovered between Egypt and Canaan paints a different picture of OT times. Wright is quite enamoured by the task (and its success) that the unnamed scribes set themselves but points out that now that historical evidence is being found, a new evaluation and critique of OT teachings would show that the texts still have value but can no longer be treated as historical in the strict sense.

Does Christian belief depend upon the OT being strictly historical?

1 Like

Of course I can’t answer the final question but I very much think this is an important point:


If it does then Christian belief is in a lot of trouble. One might argue that it’s hard to dismiss the larger picture of salvation history in the Old Testament and still be a Biblical Christian but to accept things as written on the pages is a no go. I mean the ten plagues correspond to 10 different God’s in Egypt. There may have been some form of an Exodus about a group of people leaving Egypt but I’d wager on it not really looking like the stories in book of Exodus at all because it looks like polemic agains Egyptian gods and the details (e.g. numbers) are logistically troubling. The account as it stands probably represents many different stories that were circulating put together.

The interesting thing is we can ask the same thing about the Gospels and Acts. Neither is history. Both are creative interpretations that blend some history and fiction with theology to teach specific points. The good news is 700 years or several millennia do not separate the gospels from the events they purport to narrate. Jesus died ca. 30 AD and most of the gospels and Acts were problem written within 30-80 years of this. At least we have plausible lines of transmission for details about Jesus. Believing a story was retold accurately and consistently through oral means for 20 to 100 generations all over the ANE world and then that one and only correct version was codified into written text is a historical flight of fancy. The documentary hypothesis and doublets in the Pentateuch strongly refute this.

Jesus certainly said and did many of the things the Gospels relay about him. He certainly was seen as a miracle worker, spoke in parables, comes from Galilee, died on a Roman cross and was believed by some of his original followers to have risen from the dead. But the important part for Christians is the theology. We believe Jesus was God made flesh. That is not a historical question. We can scarcely evaluate the historicity of the “transfiguration” based on one independent account (Luke and Matthew copied Mark) written 40 years after the fact that clearly believes Jesus was some sort of divine -god-man who was resurrected from the dead. Not exactly the most impartial witness.

Same with Acts. The author wants to present a Gospel that goes from Jerusalem to Rome. The other. Gospels do not seem to agree with this perspective. Luke has idealized church history to retell.a story of the Gospel loving between these two magisterial centers. Pervo in his commentary on Acts wrote this:

Derek Kinder wrote there following in his commentary on Genesis [emphasis mine]:

At the end of the day I certainly accept the idea of salvation history but only in a very broad sense. What is historical and what is not is mostly lost to us in the Bible. There is little way to seriously investigate these ancient stories and verify and falsify them. Not to mention academic history used methodological naturalism as a tool and the Biblical worldview is very much interested in the miraculous. But to most critical scholars nowadays, they do not see much straightforward historical reporting anywhere in the Bible.

So to answer your question: Christian belief is in very bad intellectual shape if it depends on the Old or New Testament being strictly historical. They are no such thing. Though both testaments contain history garbled with story and theology. It’s rarely a heterogeneous mixture. it appears homogenous and it’s difficult to sift out which is which. I mean GJohn reframes a great deal of synoptic material. Most scholars find the Jesus who speaks in short, pithy statements and parables about the kingdom more historical than the Jesus who speaks of himself in long monologues.

Fortunately, Christian faith depends on the power and activity of God to change our hearts in the here and now, not on our human ability to reconstruct the past through academic history.

1 Like

I just finished Walton’s Wisdom for Faithful Reading, which makes much the same point. He states much more eloquently than I that it is the text that is inspired through the Holy Spirit acting through the author’s interpretation of events, not the events themselves.

As to the point of creating a nation of the people of Israel, we were studying Jonah the other day, and one commentary mentioned how Ezra wrote his book advocating racial separatism and such as well as the books of Chronicles to that end, with the book of Jonah written as a satire to balance that position.


I would say no. Of all the books in the OT, the Book of Job is the one that shows the greatest affinity with Jesus’ teachings, and the Book of Job is pure Wisdom literature (or anti-Wisdom, as some scholars such as Coogan have suggested). There’s not a drop of historical fact in Job, yet the ever-present story of humanity’s evolving relationship with God speaks as strongly to us today as it did when it was written – whenever the heck Job wrote it and whatever the heck he was really saying.

Having said that, I’m also inclined to believe that efforts by OT authors to record historical facts has had unexpected benefits of a neurophysiological sort.

Archaeological research has found credible, outside evidence for some places and some individuals mentioned in the Bible, though finding evidence for a named site or person isn’t the same thing as finding proof for the theological claims made by OT or NT authors. Rather, what OT authors of books such as 1 Kings and 2 Kings may have brought to the table was a way of being less grandiose and “fantastical” in describing humanity’s relationship with God and more, well, realistic and grounded.

There are claims for the miraculous and inexplicable in the historical books, to be sure, but many of the OT theological claims demand a healthy respect for life as it actually is (which includes acceptance of history and science as important vectors in the matter of how we use our free will.) It seems to me that Jesus built on this part of the Jewish tradition.

And I love to learn about the latest findings in biblical archaeology, so I’m a bit biased.

1 Like

I’m of the firm opinion that Jonah was written by the same person who wrote the Book of Job, and for the same reason: to counter the claims of exceptionalism made by Ezra.

What does that even mean? The authors incorrect interpretation of events is inspired or the authors interpretation of events that may have never happened is inspired? At what point do we just call it a human work that God wanted written and uses to teach us about himself? Or is that what Walton is doing?

I sometimes feel like the “liberal” evangelicals have to hold on to certain concepts because if they just let go of them then they know most of their entire audience will just dismiss them out of hand. But at the end of it all, we are looking at a very human looking work through and through. Have we just moved the “inspiration” goalposts so far they are no longer in the same stadium anymore?

  • In “A Rabbi Talks with Jesus” by Rabbi Jacob Neusner, Neusner opens a window into the way that Jews talk to each other about Ha Shem and the Torah. On page 21, starting with the words "…we have to understand the sense of the word “Torah”, he explains:
    Screenshot 2023-11-18 at 05-57-43 A Rabbi Talks with Jesus Revised Edition.pdf
  • Consequently, IMO, Jacob Wright’s 2023 assessment of Jewiish vitality is nothing new, and the observation that Christianity lacks the same “vitality” seems to boil down to the odd criticism that Judaism is more vital because Christianity is not Judaism and doesn’t allow for argument. On top of that, I see Christianity judged less valuable because it’s filled with a lot of conflict and not unified. Excuse me? :crazy_face:
  • American Christianity is, in my experience taught in each sect and denomination–as a rule–by people who are quick and ready to say: “Don’t argue with me, just do and repeat what I say.”
  • Perhaps the critics of Christianity want it to be more like Judaism and Islam, which is an even odder hope. Devout Islam, with it’s Quranic divine authority encourages even less argumentation and push back than Christianity.

It means that the writer is putting on parchment his impression of the historical events, seen through the lens of his culture and experience, which is not the same as an exact rendition of the events, as we tend to (falsely) view modern history. And it is that rendition that contains the inspired message God has for us.

Our view of history is not the same as ancient writers, and we are fooling ourselves even then to think that what we know as history is an exact rendition of the events. Look the arguments on the causes of the Civil War, or even the events of World War 2, when we still have living witnesses, photographs and recordings. The Old Testament was largely written or redacted hundreds of years and perhaps thousands after the events happened, and the authors are not apologetic about it, but know the original reader accepted it. Look at Genesis and see the “until this day” references. Only when distorted by modern presumptions do we get bogged down in those issues. In some respects, it is that modern distortion that is “liberal” as it forces a modern view on the original text that was not intended.


Well thank you for your answer. When asked in an interview about his thesis, what led up to writing the Bible, he answers in this way:

It sounds a little problematic, even for people who appreciate history if they are Christians, or perhaps not. I think that we have got a good discussion going.

1 Like

I get that. I’m asking what is inspired about it? I have always found such generic principles and “platitudes” troubling since my first time in an education course. As part of our training we all had to devise classroom rules and of course we were all idealists waxing poetically about being in it together blah blah blah. I remember our behavioral psychologist instructor telling me that platitudes don’t work. Set clear rules and guidelines. Set clear consequences. Enforce them firmly, fairly and consistently. So I get what Walton is saying. What scripture intends to teach through the mess. But how does that look in key case studies?

The author of the pastorals has an impression of the Garden story. He also has an impression of it seen through the misogynistic lens of his culture and experience. And the message is for women to be submissive to their husbands and be quiet in the church and saved through child bearing. What’s the inspired message?

What’s the inspired message about slavery in the Bible? We have a clear answer today but slave owners for 1800 years had quite a different one in regards to the clear message of the Bible.

The message of the Bible seems to be whatever lens and culture we want to see it through. no matter what it seems any and all interpretation is based on the fickle whims of our culture. It seems the whole concept of “inspiration” might just be superfluous which brings me back to my point. Why not just drop a term so heavily diluted?

Agreed 100%.

Of course it’s not. One would be extremely naive to confuse an academic reconstruction of what is most probable in the past with exactly what happened. History is probability based and people do odd things all the time. And if miracles do in fact occur, history is scarcely equipped to handle them.

Even then,we can hardly get into the mind of most figures in the past, I quite as to their inner thoughts or ask them clarifying questions or cross examine them. Historical reconstruction in biblical criticism is also more subjective than the harder sciences.

I agree with all this. I’m just trying to understand what is even inspired and why it even matters if we are just going to appropriate the Biblical message and make it say whatever we want our culture to tell it. Sounds to me like we have a very human work with very human interpreters that God uses to save souls.

And I am reading Walton’s Lost World now on scripture so maybe his views will be clearer when I am done. I only just finished proposition 2.



I think there is a lot of merit to that view. I led a Bible study a while back on Daniel which I date to ca 163BC as ex eventu prophecy and said “if you don’t understand the exile, you don’t understand the Old Testament.” I really believe Daniel is trying to give Jewish people hope to continue believing in the God of their ancestors despite Him apparently being absent so long. He recasts his understanding of history as God orchestrating this or that and frames it as prediction. It has stories about maintaining your beliefs and identity in the face of the fiery furnace or lions Den. It’s not predicting the future. It is apologizing for the past and telling people in the present (when it was written) to hold fast and maintain the faith of their ancestors. For me, anything else seems to miss the entire point of it as literature… it’s written at the beginning of the Maccabean rebellion and trying to resist influences on Jewish life. That is the point it is trying to teach in my humble opinion.

Also I believe Enns promotes the idea of Adam and Eve getting kicked form the Garden taking on specific meaning after the Exile. Adam And Eve are Israel (Exodus 4:22).

That sounds like a book I would enjoy.


Thanks for this quote, @Rob_Brewer. It helps me get a better sense of the author’s perspective in writing his book. I haven’t read the book, so I want to be cautious in my remarks, but right away I see some problems in trying to explain the writing of the Bible through the lens of defeat.

If we broaden our historical perspective to include the many regions on Earth that have undergone sustained defeat to “new and improved empires” over the millennia, we see that many peoples and communities and religions have struggled, in the face of defeat, to find a way to preserve their traditions around cosmology, cosmogony, God, the sacred and profane, the moral code to live by, and the nature of the soul. It’s true that within the pages of Jewish scripture, the Jewish people have found a sense of cohesion that eventually united them (in so far as any religion can be said to united in its beliefs, rituals, and traditions). But other cultures and other religions around the world had large bodies of religious texts that we know of through archaeology and the survival of ancient manuscripts. Many of these other religions died out or were subsumed within other religions despite the grit shown by their original adherents (as we can infer from the historical record they’ve left through their architecture, literature, and other cultural projects).

The real question for me, then, is not why the Bible, but why the Bible now after so many other religions failed to survive the defeats of their respective cultures?

Perhaps the answer lies in the way the OT and the NT answer the questions that wake some of us up in the middle of the night with endless ponderings about who we are in relation to the Divine.

It could be just me, though, because, as a Christian mystic, I can’t help but notice the light shining through the cracks of all that hardened pottery from the Levant.

The answer that Jacob L. Wright gives is that this narrative enabled Judah to form a nation without a state, to become a people, wherever you live. And it progressed, as I quoted in my first post:

This means that the texts can breathe without becoming conserved in a rigid way, and readers can struggle with them without thinking they have lost their faith. They can confront God with the paradoxes they suffer, without having to buckle under to rigid orthodoxy.

As mystics, we see the light shining through all the cracks, not just that of hardened pottery.

Be careful, you might be gullible.

…even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
2 Corinthians 11:14

  • IMO, because (a) nobody has told a better story about how everything came to be. (b) why snakes are reptiles that don’t walk on four legs, (c) and because Palestine was the only God-forsaken place that His chosen people would try to get back to.

Stop right there: the “deification” was not “later”, it came straight from Jesus. When one reads the Gospels in the original Greek and with a grasp of first-century Judaism, the amazing thing is how often Jesus claimed to be Yahweh and got away with it! Even such a simple statement as “I am the good shepherd” was hinting at it, and statements such as when He claimed to be greater than the Temple were bald and bold.

That claim isn’t new, and it doesn’t get any more true by repetition. Those “final generations” were the prophets, and they didn’t challenge prior teachings, they expounded on what the Law and other covenants were meant to teach in the first place.

To the contrary, the historical reliability of the Old Testament has been pushed back to Solomon, and perhaps to David.

On the other hand, the Old Testament writers never aimed at being “historical in the strict sense”; that they did is a fundamentalist literalist misunderstanding. The authority of the ancient texts was not founded on historical accuracy but on Whom the texts came from, namely YHWH-Elohim.


Ha ha! Good one!

1 Like

I think it’s a little too neat and tidy to suggest that Jewish prophets and writers (at least, the later ones) were okay with confronting God but that Christians haven’t been “People of Protest.”

On the contrary, some Christians have protested loudly and frequently.

Judaism has its own strains of rigid orthodoxy, just as various schools of Christianity do. It’s up to each of us, as individual children of God, to carefully study the texts of our respective traditions and learn to be honest about the passages that try to suppress our questions.

Jesus was nothing if not the teacher of paradoxes.

Right. The prophets were reformers, they weren’t writing new doctrine.