Historicity as Benchmark for the Bible - a New Book

I have not read the book, but Jacob Wright’s suggestion seems pretty consistent with the idea of progressive of revelation. God did not reveal everything all at once to Abram (later Abraham). There were some things about God and his plan for Israel and humanity that did not become clear until centuries later when it was revealed by prophet’s in response to historical context. In other words, God revealed more of himself when the time was right. As for the second question, I do not know that all of the Old Testament has to be strictly historical, but I think a lot of the Christian tradition only makes sense if the Old Testament is broadly historical even if there are some parts of it that are exaggerated or mytho-historical in nature. It is possible for example, that the Exodus could be a dramatic retelling of what was really more of a gradual migration and takeover of Palestine by the ancient Israelites over several centuries, and we do have archaeological evidence of that happening. In contrast to the single Exodus event, there could have been several and the one with Moses was just one of them. That would probably not be too problematic. On the other hand, I would say that the parts of the Old Testament that Jesus or the NT authors took as being literal historical events do need to have been historical since otherwise it becomes theologically problematic. We would need to explain why Jesus with his divine omniscience is describing legendary events as if they were historical. Although the contexts of the events may not have been exactly as described, I would say that the major figures of the Bible, like Adam, Noah, Abraham, David, etc., do need to have somehow been historical figures.

This is not at all true. Malachi is inadmissable as evidence to put it nicely. John Meier spends some time on Malachi 2:16 in volume 4 of his Marginal Jew series. He treats Jesus’s views on divorce in extensive detail.

Maybe @Christy can shed some light on Malachi 2:16…

Jesus was also not taking a side in the Hillel/Shammai debate. Another myth regurgitated as history by apologists and even some historians… The dominant view we see is that a husband could divorces his wife as Moses (God) permit (Joseph and Philo support this) and there is very little on divorce in the entire Old Testament. Malachi 2:16 can hardly serve as evidence for very much given its problematic nature.


Fascinating thesis. Outside David and Solomon, Israel and Judah were always vassal kingdoms living on the margins. Meredith Kline pointed out long ago that Deuteronomy takes the form of an Assyrian treaty with a vassal king.

My first thought, not having the benefit of reading the book, is that “Defeat!” and exile is absolutely the reason that Judah’s scribes felt the need to compile their various written and oral traditions into a coherent national corpus. My own opinion is that Gen. 1-11 was written at the outset of the exile as a sort of “inoculation” against the more ancient Babylonian mythology and culture. Like other ancient cultures, the Israelites had oral legends of their ancestors and national origins, and by the 6th century BCE, they also had a few hundred years of compiled writings in local alphabetic Hebrew. What they lacked was an ancient connection to compete with Gilgamesh, Atra-Hasis, the Sumerian King List, Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, etc. In short, every bit of Genesis 1-11 bears the marks of an exilic work that polemicizes against Babylonian culture and mythology, and it does so while connecting Israel’s origin story to the origin story of all humanity and asserting that YHWH God is the creator. In my humble opinion, whoever had his hands on that particular work was no less inspired than Shakespeare.

Edit: Enough for today. It’s hard for me to find the time or interest to digest walls of text, let alone every digression thrown my way. Oof.

1 Like

Dude, we weren’t talking about Jesus’ views on divorce. If you can’t stick to the subject, I’m out.

My whole response was centered on his views on the prophet saying God hates divorce. Meier treats that issue in detail in discussing Jesus’s views. I’m not sure the point of your ultimatum but I hope the door doesn’t hit you on the way there if you choose to go. Malachi 2:16 is not what you think it is. I offered one unrelated aside at the end because it so often accompanies any Biblical discussion on divorce.

I don’t have anything to add to the interesting stuff you cited. All I know is that from what I have read about the question posed to Jesus “Do you permit divorce for any reason?” is that many scholars have pointed out that in Jewish tradition, an “any reason divorce” was a thing, and that was what what they were asking about, not whether there was any reason for which a divorce was permitted, like we tend to ask and answer the question (with the only permissible reasons being abandonment or infidelity). Jesus was saying the fact that they thought they could divorce wives for any reason (essentially leaving them destitute) was bad and not what God intended.


If all invented miracles followed the historical pattern there would be no distinguishing pattern to begin with. This looks like low quality apologetical thinking, something I have not come to expect of your well reasoned posts. Not following historical conventions is not an argument for historicity. It means the account does not look like history.

I have heard of it a few times but I am hesitant to bother with it because it looks like a “baby dinosaurs on the ark” issue to me.

1 Like

Jesus is speaking of the accounts He refers to as having authority, not necessarily as historical. First-century Judaism was on the road to our view of historicity but still held the idea that the truth of an account/story rests not on the content’s correspondence to material reality but to its source and its correspondence to that source: the stories endorsed by God carried authority because they were endorsed by God.

The closest point in the scriptures to a modern view of historicity as authority is when Paul speaks of the Resurrection.

1 Like

Following the pattern is how you get a pattern – of it wasn’t followed, there wouldn’t be a pattern.

It’s certainly not an argument against it! Someone making something up that they want to look like history will follow the norm, not go against it. It’s the same principle behind treating a more difficult reading as authentic.

1 Like

There is no difficult reading here because Luke not writing history is only difficult for conservative Christians. The rest of us just say he wrote the way he wrote. Some people wrote historiography, some people wrote novels. Some may have hybrids mixing both.

I also don’t assume the author was trying to deceive people so I am not sure there is any need for him to do what you say. He is not trying to convince modern skeptics of anything via strict history. If he was all of Pervo’s other points would not stand. He is writing a persuasive story. We should not conflate our concerns with his. Narrative (mythos) is powerful.

Luke also makes use of many sources. Some things are made up, some are adapted, some are probably history remembered passed along.


1 Like

“Difficult reading” doesn’t mean difficult in the sense you use it in, namely something that bothers someone, it means a reading that is unexpected in the context. In this case the context is that the synoptic Gospels fall into the category know and bios, a Roman form of biography. Miracles are somewhat expected in bios, but not many and the few that are introduced fit a common pattern. Thus miracles that are both numerous and out of pattern constitute difficult readings.

1 Like

Oh, you’re that kind of mystic! I’m just a boring mystic who tries to gain religious or spiritual insight through prayer, meditation, contemplation, and deep thought, and is sceptical of his ability to transmit that insight to others.

I am limited in my mysticism to the natural realm, in which I experience the sacred Unity as the primal source of all material existence, and interwoven and interlaced with creation, and therefore is an experience between moments, as if just passed or missed, and in contemplation between the lines, and in the tranquillity of meditation.

Just to give an overview of the book, here is a list of chapters, which reads quite well, although he intended it for an informed readership, and has ample references.

Wright, Jacob L… Why the Bible Began: An Alternative History of Scripture and its Origins. Cambridge University Press.

Part I The Rise and Fall

1 Abraham and Sarah: From One to the Many

2 Miriam: Empire and Exodus

3 Deborah: A New Dawn

4 King David: Between North and South

5 Ahab and Jezebel: Putting Israel on the Map

6 Jehu and Elisha: Israel’s Downfall and Judah’s Jubilation

7 Hezekiah and Isaiah: Putting Judah on the Map

8 Josiah and Huldah: Judah’s Downfall and Deportation

Part II Admitting Defeat

9 Daughter Zion: Finding One’s Voice

10 The Creator: Comforting the Afflicted

11 Haggai the Prophet: Laying the Foundation

12 Nehemiah the Builder: Restoring Judean Pride

13 Ezra the Educator: Forming a People of the Book

14 Hoshayahu the Soldier: Peoplehood as a Pedagogical Project

Part III A New Narrative

15 Jeremiah and Baruch: A Monument to Defeat

16 Isaac and Rebekah: The Family Story

17 Moses and Joshua: The People’s History

18 Hannah and Samuel: The Palace History

19 Solomon and the Queen of Sheba: The National Narrative

20 Jonah and the Whale: The Prophets as Survival Literature

21 Yhwh and His People: Codes, Covenant, and Kinship

Part IV A People of Protest

22 The Matriarch: Women and the Biblical Agenda

23 The Hero: Redefining Gender Roles

24 The Other: Tales of War, Outsiders, and Allegiance

25 The Soldier: Sacrificial Death and Eternal Life

26 The Prophet and the Priest: Open Access, Public Transparency, and Separation of Powers

27 The Sage: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes

28 The Poet: The Song of Songs and Psalms

29 The Queen: Peoplehood without Piety

30 Conclusions: Nations, Nationalism, and New Bibles


Many scholars will tell you the gospels look like bios but also many will tell you they are unique in some ways. Defining them as bios and rigidly arguing from there doesn’t really work . An author can cross genres or loosely follow one or write a novel using historical tools. That’s what Acts looks like to me. A blend of history, good story (fiction) and theology. Maybe a “based on true events” disclaimer is in order.

But the bottom line is if you want to classify something as ancient historiography, it should look like ancient historiography. Pervo listed quite a few reasons questioning this comparison. Claiming it’s ancient historiography because we think “Luke would have made up stuff in a different manner” is highly speculative, presumes to know the author’s mind and uses what He did not write instead of just arguing from what he did write. One wonders if apologists would use that same argument to argue for the historicity of details in all the non-canonical Gospels as well or if it’s just a case of special pleading? Many different types of writings had prologues in antiquity.


1 Like

I hope not because God looks like a monster in the OT in many places.

I take some peace in assuming that many Old Testament stories are absorbed from other religions or hyperbole.

If God really got mad and drowned everyone how could I worship Him? That sounds more like Satan.


Then God kind of back peddles on His decision and says He won’t ever do it again. Well, if it was just and proper and the best thing to do, why won’t God do it again if humans act up and reach that same level of depravity? If it wasn’t the just and proper and the best thing to do, why did God do it to begin with? Kind of a catch 22. It was really hard getting where I am but not being forced to take these stories literally anymore is a huge blessing. A huge weight is lifted in not being forced to obscure the image of God seen through Jesus’s self-emptying and sacrificial death through the lens of inerrantly recorded OT violence.

I think I created a small “disturbance” (not intentionally) in one Bible study where we were going over the plagues because I was like you guys realize God is murdering a bunch of babies and children here right? And in order to do so he further hardens a hard heart (that it was already hard is irrelevant to me).


1 Like

Those questions are pretty much why I feel the original authors were not writing history, but rather making a theological point. It is still very easy to lapse back into a literal/historical reading.


That and there are two flood stories intermingled with different details woven into a wonderful chiastic structure. While history and events in the real world can occur this way (they get on the ark, they get off, flood waters come and then they go), the scope of the literary structure (maybe meant for oral hearers) goes well beyond what I am comfortable viewing as historical narrations.



This, I believe is a very poignant point, and the reason I am sceptical about how many people are led to believe in the narrative leading up to Jesus. For my tuppence worth, we have narratives that are pointing to a potentially huge moment in history, when an idea of personal salvation became prominent, but which is a matter of personal responsibility and authenticity. The texts of the Gospels reveal a diversity of understanding the OT prophets, but a degree of freedom that orthodox Jews baulk at.

We get a very strong hint at a teaching that is saying, “If God said/did this or that, what does it mean for what you are doing/saying?” That is to say that it isn’t relevant whether it is a historical record, the existential questions that are posed in the texts are relevant in any time in history, and the reader is expected to endure the struggle within themselves, so that the direction they take is in line with the ethical direction of the prophets and Jesus. This direction is very clearly towards unity and responsibility towards that unity, and most clear in Jesus’ teaching, and the cross is conceived as a door to this covenant of unity.

1 Like

I’m probably taking this differently from what you meant, but this reminded me of some fellow university students who regarded the Old Testament as mostly “dumb stories” with no meaning for them – but then in facing their own personal brokenness they recognized they needed a Savior, and having become Christians started seeing gems everywhere in the Old Testament.

Oddly those students I wrote of above started recognizing those existential questions while so many, many Christians in the popular campus ministries failed to do so because all they were seeing was history. This strikes me now as a predictable outcome for people raised in YEC because they’re looking for scientific and historical fact and not the message.