Tract #36: Is the Bible Reliable?
Tract #36, Is the Bible Reliable?, is ready for you to download and review. Download it, see page #3 for printing instructions, and let me know your comments! Thanks!
Is the Bible Reliable?
The Bible is both a work of history and of religious philosophy. There are more manuscripts of the Bible than there are of most ancient texts. So, even if we don’t agree with the Bible’s religious message, can we rely on it as a historical document?
The Bible includes five kinds of historical information, and they need to be handled differently.
Biblical historical information which is corroborated by acceptable non-Biblical evidence should be treated as reliable.
Uncorroborated but mundane information in the Bible — lists of rulers, descriptions of traditions, names of cities — should be treated just as it would if it came from any other historical document.
Things start to get sticky when we get to Biblical information that is particularly notable but not corroborated by non-Biblical evidence. This would include incidents like King Herod’s massacre of the innocents or the flight of hundreds of thousands of Jewish slaves from Egypt. Such events are only mentioned in the Bible, even though it would be reasonable to expect other historians of the day to make note of them. They should probably be treated with some skepticism.
Biblical history that is contradicted by non-Biblical evidence would include things like the list of patriarchs, which would lead us to believe that humanity has existed for only a few thousand years. In this case, the Bible should be treated as unreliable (and, in fact, most Christians and Jews either treat these portions of the Bible as poetic or non-literal or reinterpret them so that they are in concert with other evidence).
The most unreliable parts of the Biblical history are those that are both uncorroborated and extraordinary. This includes accounts of miracles, extraordinary human feats, and prophecy.
Some religious people complain that atheists do not treat the miracles in the Bible as history even though they are as well documented as other ancient occurrences. The problem is that, as extraordinary events, miracles need more than standard evidence to back them up.
It’s not just the Bible that is treated this way. Homer’s Illiad includes both mundane historical information and accounts of divine intervention. Historians require more proof of divine intervention in Homer than they require of details of battle. Similarly, there are historical documents that trace the Emperor of Japan’s ancestry back to Amaterasu the sun goddess, leading historians to treat the list as partially reliable and partially unreliable.
So when the Bible comes under extra scrutiny for making extraordinary claims, this is not a sign of religious bias but rather of standard historical scholarship.
To make matters worse, parts of the Bible — the Gospels in particular — seem to have a strong agenda of proving that many Old Testament texts are actually prophecies of Jesus’ life. This agenda may have lead to some elements of Jesus’ life being misreported so that they more clearly matched prophecy, so historians need to be particularly careful.