Historicity of the Old Testament

Hello everyone! I believe that the question of the historicity of the Old Testament is very important. I recently read in many sources (including in the Britannian’s encyclopedia) that the characters of the Old Testament are neitorin: Isaac, Abraham, Jacob, Moses. Is everything so unambiguous in this issue? In my opinion, these issues pose a greater threat than science. If these are really myths, how should Christians relate to this, how to substantiate their faith? After all, Jesus mentioned all these people in his sermon.

What has this got to do with Christianity? The predicate of which is God’s incarnation in to a classical age sub-culture. And how is science - including the deconstruction of Jewish myth - a threat to that?

I’m worried that Jesus mentions these people as those who lived before him

Why? How could He not as that was His unexaminable cultural baggage? You’re worried because you’re looking down the wrong end of the telescope, projecting your modern unexamined cultural baggage on to Him.

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A couple things to consider.

A figure can be historical, meaning they existed in history, but that doesn’t mean everything written about them is an objective fact. Most historical figures have been “mythologized” to some degree, because the telling of history serves cultural and sociological purposes for group identity formation and maintenance. The telling of history is never about merely documenting facts and events. It’s about making meaning out of facts and events. It is the attributed meaning of the facts and events that is often important to the people who tell history, and we need to keep that in mind when reading the Bible too, instead of getting caught-up in endless fact-checking debates. The Bible tells a story, a True story, but the arc of the story and what it communicates about who God is and how he relates to humanity is far more important than the “literal history” of any one facet of the story.

People, including Christ himself, can allude to literary figures to illustrate points. An allusion says absolutely nothing about A) whether the person is a historical person or B) what the person making the reference believes about whether the person is a historical person or C) what in the literary tradition about this person is objective fact and what has been mythologized.

For example, I can make an allusion to Robin Hood in an argument about the government overreaching on tax policy, or an allusion to King Arthur in an essay about leadership and you would not know whether or not they were for sure historical individuals, whether or not I think they were historical individuals, or what in fact is genuinely historical about these two individuals and what is just legend. Robin Hood and King Arthur exist in a literary world that people who share my cultural heritage are familiar with, so I can use them to illustrate my points and people will instantly tap into a whole domain of shared knowledge that helps me communicate. They are “real” people in that sense.

So I think the important thing to get at when we are talking about theology is why certain figures need to be historical or completely factually represented in the Bible to be “real” for the Jewish people and for Jesus’ and the apostles audience. Is it because your view of the Bible and what it is and does requires it? (For your view of inspiration and inerrancy there can be nothing in the Bible that could be evaluated as mythologized or shaped by cultural and literary traditions of the authors?) Is it because your view of Jesus’ divinity requires it? (Jesus was in some way omniscient even after the Incarnation and could not say anything that could be deemed “false” under any evaluation?) Why is the “historicity” very important, and what does “historicity” mean to you?

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If we were arguing about the historicty of the Prodigal Son as a real person we would probably be missing the intent of Jesus’ teachings.

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thanks for the answer! I cannot understand the meaning of the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor. The Gospel says that Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah. I cannot understand this point. If Moses is a myth, who is Jesus talking to?

I don’t think Moses is a myth. To say something is mythologized means that the historical facts have been embellished in some places to serve a larger story.

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You know me Christy, if Moses isn’t a myth, what is his rational story, shorn of the supernatural, the fantastical?

Would it be correct to say the story of George Washington chopping down a cherry tree is a myth, but that has no bearing on the fact that George Washington was an actual person?

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Yes, exactly. And it’s not just fictional things, it’s the framing of events to tell a story from a certain angle. Like the idea that Christopher Columbus discovered America. That’s not an objectively true fact.

This always makes me wonder whether the truths of a tradition can be translated across cultures. (I haven’t forgotten that that is basically your day job.). But still I wonder to what extent the insights into living a fulfilling life with meaning which mythologizing carry can be ‘cashed out’ in everyday plain language.

If we take the cherry tree out of the Exodus, what’s left?

Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived out their lives away from the mainstream of ancient civilization in their days. They were essentially shepherds, out in the wilderness. How much documentation would you expect to find about anyone like that after almost three millennia? These people were important to their descendants, so it is only reasonable to assume that the ONLY record we might have of them is that kept by their descendants. Just because we have no other record of them is not good grounds to doubt their existence.

If one is open to the assumption (as I am) that the story of the Hyksos people (who are historically documented) is relevant to the Joseph and Exodus stories, then it becomes reasonable to believe that there might actually have been someone like Joseph. A person in his position would have had access to scribes, and thus the means to commit to writing the oral history of his family, as remembered by both himself and Jacob. The original core of Genesis might thus actually have a much earlier date than many people assume.

This also opens up the possibility that the story in Exodus (and Numbers) that we have today might actually be a redaction that combines what were once two separate stories: 1) A mass exodus from Egypt to the Levant - the Hyksos peoples; and 2) a later escape from Egypt of a much smaller group of slaves or serfs under the leadership of a charismatic man named Moses. All the individual events and persons mentioned in these books might well be historical in essence, even though the way in which this edited version has been put together clearly lacks historicity.

So many Bible-Science problems (and I include archaeology as a science) come down to a refusal of fundamentalists (let’s call them what they really are) to even consider the possibility that the text of the OT that we have today is not exactly as it was when first written, but instead has been subject to at least one and probably several edits. Once one is freed from the obligation to defend every last detail of the present text just as it is, this opens up a lot of room for finding ways to harmonize scripture with science.

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Ah, if only we can get back to the truth once delivered. Why did the Holy Spirit do such a lousy job of preserving it? Not that She is much better AD. The text that we have is the C6th BCE final edit of stories of fantastical events that didn’t happen, at all, a thousand years and more before. Events as connected as King Arthur and Henry VII at best. That then get worse and worse for millennia. No Romans.

The Israelites are Canaanites with delusions of grandeur. There were marginal comings and goings with Egypt for centuries.

That’s what science says.

What does any of it have anything to do with the eponymous claim of Christianity?

On this general subject I would very highly recommend On the Reliability of the Old Testament by K. A. Kitchen. Kitchen is an Egyptologist by training, and does a thorough job of demonstrating that virtually all of the Old Testament is quite in accord with reality, when properly understood, and should be treated as having just as much veracity as any other ancient near-eastern source.

The book also frequently points out that the modern biblical criticism claims are spectacularly wrong: e.g. “The tabernacle is a late idea.” Then why are there very similar structures in Egypt c. 2600 BC, in Mari c. 1700 BC, in Ugarit c. 1250 BC, in Tutankhamun’s Tomb, set up by Ramesses II on the eve of the battle of Qadesh, and a nearly identical one in Midian in 1120 BC, and none from after 900 BC?

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You know me. Separating “fact from fiction” in the Bible is not a question that interests me.

So many cultures use stories to communicate truth. We forget that this idea of objective facts being associated with truth and stories with something lesser (untrue fiction) is somewhat unique to our own cultural context.

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Now that is the best possible answer!

What does neitorin mean?

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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