How historically accurate is the Bible?

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

So this was an interesting discussion between Pete Enns, and Kenton Sparks, who have both written for BioLogos in the past:

Some interesting things were said here, though I tend to favour a Canaannite origin of the Israelites, perhaps with an Arabian superstrate in later times, given how the Canaanite god ‘El’ was the original god of the Israelites, not the foreign god Yahweh. It is easy to establish that Yahweh may have a southern origin (see Deut 33:2 and Judges 5:4, also Habakkuk 3:3, though it is later and does not mention Yahweh).

I also don’t entirely buy the Exodus story, since there is absolutely no mention of the first-born of Egypt dting, or the Exodus of 2 million people (which would have drastic effects on Egypt’s economy). As Donald Redford says, “it’s an argument from silence, but the silence is absolutely watertight”. HOWEVER, as @Korvexius explains here, the writer of the Book of Exodus did have some knowledge of Egyptian customs from the age (and only that age), so maybe the story isn’t complete fiction:

Of course, this may just suggest that the story of the Exodus is much older than people suggest.

Finally I have heard contradictory information regarding the historicity of the patriarchal age.

Regarding the Tower of Babel, I think there is compelling evidence for mysterious language change in Mesopotamia around 3500 BCE, around the end of the Ubaid Period.

What do you think, and how do we reconcile this with divine inspiration?

(Matthew Pevarnik) #2

I’m mostly look at this at the moment:

There’s a lot on that webpage! Clearly an attempt to be very thorough and accurate in its claims. In the comments at the bottom he notes that:

The following must be removed:
-all discussion on the exodus dating to 1446 BC
-dating of Jericho
-the new stele at Berlin does not support the exodus
-dream stele does not support the exodus
-conversion of akhenaten
-abandonment of Avaris
-use of Amarna letters

What is still valid;
-Oasis of Hazeroth
-Brickmaking and foreign slaves convergence
-everything about customs, geography, etymology

The honesty is great to see, though I do have a few separate questions regarding how far we should take certain claims. An example could be regarding the ‘extensive geography’ that the Biblical writers knew about Egypt like that it was ‘well watered’ (Gen 13:10). That, and avoiding military encampments along certain paths… don’t really require well a Moses who was “trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” or a people group being enslaved for 400 years to know of a few cultural customs and geography from surrounding nations. Maybe the truth is not in a 400 year enslavement of 2 million people but a middle ground like Richard Friedman?

I get the papers that Christian scholars write (thankfully my papers are on biophysics!), though there is a problem that we can face in certain fields that Pete Enns notes: we can ask any question but must arrive at predetermined conclusions. Such predetermined conclusions is the opposite of scholarly inquiry where you go anywhere the evidence takes you. But therein lies the tension in that there is this book that makes many supernatural claims that cannot and will not be accessible to any sort of testing.

All in all, kudos to @Korvexius for wrestling a lot with various claims and being open to changing his mind!

I’m sure of it! I think many of us might have a built in bias one way or the other. Perhaps the truth lies not in a minimalist or maximalist approach but somewhere in the middle??

Maybe its distracting to the topic, but what are you referring to explicitly? Certain we have little evidence of any sort before this and so perhaps it may follow a similar mistake that 19th century Biologists did in that they had no fossils before a certain point and then boom, the Cambrian ‘explosion.’ While certainly still impressive, that turned out to be a misnomer in that we now have 25-30 million years worth of microfossils (that we didn’t find until well into the 1900s) and even earlier trace fossils that suggest while rapid, it was not an overnight explosion as we tend to imagine.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #3

That’s a fairly riveting article. Any idea how his views about the Levites, the Exodus, the names of God, and J/E/D/P are viewed by mainstream scholarship?


The 2 million number that we get from the Exodus story is probably made up. It seems to me that ancient texts commonly exaggerate their numbers beyond proportion. Richard Elliott Friedman mentions this in his recent book The Exodus published just last year (highly recmomended). I don’t remember it but some Egyptian campaign records document something like 100,000 slaves being captured in a single campaign, which is impossible. So, while I don’t think many of the war numbers from the Bible can be taken seriously, such as 2 Chronicles 14 which claims the Israelite’s killed an army of one million Ethiopians in one battle (what was Ethiopia’s population back then again?), it wouldn’t be problematic for me to say that the battles themselves, although on a much smaller scale, took place, but their numbers were later embellished.

When it comes to the Exodus story, I think we know the number of Israelite’s was much smaller, according to the Bible, then the Bible’s estimate. Deuteronomy 7:7 says that God did not choose the Israelite’s because of their numbers, since the Israelite’s were the fewest of all the peoples. Exodus 23:30 says that the Israelite’s were so little in number that God couldn’t give them the entire promised land right away after the Exodus because there were actually so little Israelite’s in number that they were unable to even occupy the entire region!

Exodus 23:30: Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.

So, while the Bible boasts big numbers, I think it’s clear that the numbers are just for show, the same authors seem to have well known the insignificance of the Israelite tribe.

Also, for @AMWolfe, his book was published just last year so it’s not like there is a clear scholarly response yet. But, from the back of my copy of the book, it contains endorsements from many important scholars: Bradley Artson, Thomas Levy, Avraham Faust, Jonathan Kirsch, Carol Meyers, and Peter Enns.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #5

I’m referring to the Sumerian Problem in linguistics, Sumerian has evidence of a substratum from a non-Sumerian language, yet there is no evidence of any neolithic people moving into the Euphrates before the Sumerians, so the substratum is a mystery, a mystery which the story of Babel could potentially explain.

(I don’t necessarily endorse everything on that website, but I think it offers what seems like a coherent enough argument here)


The honesty is great to see, though I do have a few separate questions regarding how far we should take certain claims. An example could be regarding the ‘extensive geography’ that the Biblical writers knew about Egypt like that it was ‘well watered’ (Gen 13:10). That, and avoiding military encampments along certain paths… don’t really require well a Moses who was “trained in all the wisdom of the Egyptians” or a people group being enslaved for 400 years to know of a few cultural customs and geography from surrounding nations.

The point is that the exodus narratives, which were written somewhere around in the middle of the first millennium BC, actually contain authentic information from the time period in which the Exodus was purported to take place. Which must mean that the origins of the story are much, much earlier and can’t be some “later” invention. The way I see it, that’s highly important to establish.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #7

Friedmann’s article was excellent, but I was wondering, how do we date the Songs of Deborah and Miriam? It is no doubt very interesting that the Levites were absent (I wonder why?).

(RiderOnTheClouds) #8

As a side note, has anyone here seen (or read) ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman? When I first watched it as an atheist I saw it as excellent confirmation of my worldview. Less so the second time I watched it, when I realised it was much less black and white. The documentary actually suggests that Hazor very well could have been destroyed by the Israelites.


Friedman talks about the two songs in pp. 34-41 of his book. He says the theory of their early origins was brought about by David Noel Freedman and Frank Moore Cross. I think he says they first outlined the theory that the earliest parts of the Bible are contained in poetry back in a text titled Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry. Hopefully this info will help.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #10

Eric H. Cline gives a positive review of Friedman’s book here:

He is a celebrated expert of the Bronze Age (my favourite era in history) and writer of 1177 BC, a book I’ve been telling myself to read for some time.

(Matthew Pevarnik) #11

Slightly off topic, but the bronze age also may have helped spread various modern viruses (some connection to Biblical disease or plagues?):

(RiderOnTheClouds) #12

I listened to this talk by Friedman:

I found this gem in the comment section:

Just the Fact that Richard Friedman went to an Ivy league school should give you a clue to his affiliation. More than likely he is a Luciferian. All you have to do is use common sense to realize Christ is who he says he is. If he wasn’t, then tell me why do followers of Lucifer hate him so much? Why have so many followers of Christ been murdered? True Christians Aren’t violent in any way. It is forbidden by Christ himself. He COMMANDS us to “Be Wise as serpents, yet GENTLE as doves.” He loves the world. ALL people. He truly is who he claims to be. Pray to him and I assure you he will show you the way!

Some butthurt atheist comments as well:

Exodus did not happen as described at all let alone it happened at all ! Ten commandments are from The Egyptian book of the dead not from ‘‘God’’ to ‘‘Moses’’ , the Ark covenant was an Egyptian ancient technology : Capacitor which is fact and proven to be so, Horeb is just a volcano mountain with black basalt and dangerous because of heat pockets on the mountain therefore the warnings in the story about that mountain ! Burning bush ( Acacia) is just fire shining through the branches ! Manna white powder is just monoatomic gold which is a white powder made from gold in immense heat ! Look up those facts !

(RiderOnTheClouds) #13

Does a historical exodus mean a historical Moses?

(Jay Johnson) #14

A “mysterious” language change? I’m dubious. 3500 B.C. is the approximate date of the invention of writing, specifically cuneiform. The Sumerian language certainly had to be in existence for a long period of time before a written form of it could have been developed.

All existing languages evolved from prior languages, so of course there is a substratum to Sumerian that could be described as “non-Sumerian.” People have lived in the region of the Euphrates since the dawn of mankind. We’re not talking about “virgin territory” for new groups of people to move in and exploit, so the most likely explanation is that the language(s) of the indigenous people simply evolved over the many millennia that their ancestors lived there. Farming was invented in the same area 6,500 years before Sumerian was set down in cuneiform. It isn’t hard to see how ancient agricultural terms might be preserved in the Sumerian language, even as the rest of the original language changed, fell into disuse, and was replaced.

This goes back to the hyperbole discussion in the Walton/Longman thread on the flood. It was routine for ancient historians to inflate figures. Even hundreds of years later (if not a thousand), Josephus would say 1 million Jews were killed in the Roman War, while Tacitus put the number of dead at 600,000. The true figure? Probably around 500,000, but who knows for sure?

The thing to remember is that the ancients wrote history much differently than we do. They were not interested in the bare, undiluted facts. For them, history had a purpose and a direction, so their histories highlighted the lessons to be learned. In Mesopotamia, the lesson was that “kingship descended from the gods,” and the gods created humanity as a labor force to serve their needs. The purpose of their myths was to support the theology of empire. Israel provided a counterpoint to that interpretation of history …

Here is a link to a good article on the Spell of Nudimmud. In a nutshell, the story is not about the shift from one language to many, like the tower of Babel story in Genesis. Rather, the spell of Nudimmud “means that mankind shall speak in one tongue, which is Sumerian, and that the Lord of Aratta has to submit to this. … Sumerian is to be spoken everywhere. Trade can and will be instituted through acceptance of Sumerian as an international language, and cuneiform as the technical carrier for this language. Needless to say, this puts Sumerian on a higher level than every other language, which notion is tersely reinforced by the statement that this is the language in which Enlil is to be praised.”

The author summarizes his conclusion thus: “The will to turn Sumer’s superiority into supremacy is the driving power of the story. This superiority is shown by pointing out Sumer’s superior ethics (cleverness instead of war; technologies for the good of all mankind), its superior knowledge (the technologies involved in solving the unsolvable; writing), its superior organization (setting up techniques and ways of international intercourse; writing again) – in short, its superiority per se (Sumerian).”

So, just as Gen. 1:26-28 reverses the Mesopotamian concept of the king as imago Dei and applies that concept to all men and women, Gen. 11 and the tower of Babel incident once again serve as counterpoint to the Mesopotamian culture of empire and exploitation.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #15

You violated the cardinal rule of (non-BioLogos) web surfing:
Never Read the Comments Section!

(RiderOnTheClouds) #16

On a side note, were the ‘Ethiopians’ (or ‘Cushites’), the twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt (or ‘Kushites’), that would explain why Ethiopians would be in the Levant to begin with.


No idea here.

(Phil) #18

Alas, I often fail to heed that advice. In fact, I often look only at the comments section on the AiG Facebook page, just to satisfy my martyrdom tendencies. And the Babylon Bee comments are entertainment gold.

(Juan Romero) #19

I always violate it. It is funny to read the comments of people who have no idea what they are talking about.

Oh boy, those are really cool!

(RiderOnTheClouds) #20

It is worth noting however, as Philip Davies (whom I don’t necessarily endorse), that many people have an agenda to prove the Bible to be true, to give the state of Israel more legitimacy.