By Richard G. Howe
The Bible is a book of history. Certainly it is more – poetry, theology, prophecy – but it is also history. This is so because Judaism and Christianity are religions grounded in history. While it is true that Judaism and Christianity contain a philosophy of life, they are not mere philosophies of life. They purport to tell the truth about God and His plan for His creation. These truths and plans are grounded in real historical events. They have been revealed to mankind through the intervention by God into the flow of historical events. For this reason, it is important that readers of the Bible are confident that the historical events recorded in the Bible comport with what else we know from other sources of antiquity.
In this article, I will look briefly at the question of dealing with Bible difficulties. Second I will examine several supposed historical errors in the Bible that critics like to point out. Last, I will comment on the issue of why all this matters.
Dealing With Biblical Difficulties
As we learn more about the ancient world, the integrity and accuracy of the Bible is further substantiated. No discovery in archeology or other study of antiquity has contradicted anything from the Bible. In their book, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties, Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe suggest a number of principles to bear in mind when confronted with a Bible difficulty. 1 Here are a couple of their seventeen suggestions that directly bear on the matter of the historical accuracy of the Bible. First, they point out that just because some difficulty in a biblical text is not yet explained, it does not follow that there can never be an explanation. It has happened on more than one occasion that critics attacked the biblical text for being historically inaccurate only to be silenced later by the archeologist’s spade.
Second, they argue that the text of the Bible should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This is not an unreasonable principle and it is one that is usually used by historians in their examinations of other texts. But this principle is commonly ignored by Bible critics.
For example, some Bible critics assume that if Josephus says something different than the Bible, then obviously the Bible is mistaken. They do this despite the fact that the writers of the Bible wee chronologically closer to the events about which they wrote than was Josephus. But why could it not be that the Bible corrects Josephus? At the very least, neither should be accused of error until all the available evidence is weighed.
In dealing with Bible difficulties, particularly regarding historical issues, one should remember that there is virtually no criticism of the Bible that has not been addressed extensively in the literature. The Christian should have within his reach the resources to consult to understand the details of a given Bible difficulty. In my experience, there are no difficulties that have not been adequately answered. Granted, some Bible critics will never be satisfied not matter how much evidence is marshaled. But the Christian has no need to be intimidated by the historical facts.
Attacks on the Bible’s integrity and historical accuracy stem from a variety of mindsets. For example, some criticisms were leveled against the biblical narrative only to be corrected as more historical and archeological information came to light. Other criticisms stem from a misreading of the available historical evidence. Once some evidence is misreported or misinterpreted, the misunderstanding of such evidence can become the standard reading of the history of the matter. Still other criticisms are leveled against the biblical narrative because the critic illicitly imposes his worldview of naturalism upon the text. Naturalism, in this context, is the worldview that says that every event must have had a natural cause. It says that there is no such thing as a supernatural agent who can interfere with the laws of nature. Naturalism denies the possibility of miracles. Let us look at examples from each of these-biblical accounts that are vindicated when more information comes to light, a biblical account that is vindicated upon closer examination of the evidence already avail able, and a biblical account that is vindicated when it is understood within the proper worldview.
Some Alleged Historical Errors in the Bible
There are too many alleged errors in the Bible to cover in this brief article. But the few that I have chosen to examine can serve to illustrate the different kinds of misunderstandings that critics have regarding the historical reliability of the biblical text.
Silenced By the Archeologist’s Spade
There are a few of what may appear to be trivial errors in the New Testament. Nevertheless, critics have pointed out the alleged errors as part of a larger argument that the Bible is not a trustworthy document of history. One such alleged error occurs in Acts 14:6. The text tells us (speaking of Paul and Barnabas) “they became aware of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding region.” 2 Archaeologists first regarded the book of Acts to be in error in saying that Lystra and Derbe were in Lycaonia. But later archeological finds by the esteemed archeologist Sir William Ramsey showed Acts to be correct. 3 Ramsey had found a monument that indicated that indeed the cities were exactly where the book of Acts said they were.
Another example of “error” is from Luke 3:1. Here, Luke makes a reference to Lysanias, the Tetrarch of Abilene at the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. The date of this Lysanias would be around A.D. 27. At one point the only Lysanias known to historians was killed in 36 B.C., some sixty-three years earlier. Later, archeologists found an inscription dated between A.D. 14 to 29 referencing another Lysanias the Tetrarch.4 Once again, the biblical text was shown to be accurate. The lesson to be learned from these and other examples is that with any remaining historical difficulties, the odds are that in time archeology will again vindicate what the Bible says.
An example of a more formidable difficulty is the census in Luke 2:1-5. Luke records that the census taken during the reign of Augustus while Quirinius was governing Syria. A number of biblical scholars and critics have noted several problems with this account. Harold W. Hoehner, in his Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, notes these five problems. 5 First, there is nothing otherwise known historically of a general census in the time of Augustus. Second, there is no reason to think that Joseph would have had to return to his town of residence since he was not a Roman citizen. Third, seemingly, no Roman census would have been made in Palestine during Herod’s reign. Fourth, Josephus says nothing of a Roman census during Herod’s reign. Rather he records the census that took place around A.D. 6-7. Last, a census by Quirinius could not have occurred during Herod’s reign since Quirinius was not governor until after Herod’s death.
Space will not allow a detailed response to each of the points. For an in-depth treatment, the reader is encouraged to consult Hoehner’s work and the other works cited in the endnotes. Let it suffice to summarize the conclusions to which Boehner and others have come as more archeological evidence has come forth. First, the evidence shows that there were periodic censuses taken in various parts of the Roman world. Some of the censuses were taken about every fourteen years. If the fourteen-year cycle is the one to which Luke is referring, then perhaps there was a census taken about fourteen years before the one recorded by Josephus, which would put it close to the time of Luke’s census.
Second, a papyrus was discovered dated A.D. 104 indicating that it would indeed be required of the Jews to “appear to be questioned so as to make a proper assessment of his property.” 6 Thus, it would not be unheard of for Joseph and Mary to have to return to Bethlehem.
Third, while it is true that Herod had autonomy in his district, it does not follow from this that Augustus would not have taken a census in Herod’s territory.
The Romans did indeed take censuses in vassal kingdoms. Boehner describes a gravestone discovered “of a Roman officer which states that he was ordered by P. Sulpicius Quirinius to conduct a census of Apamea … which was an autonomous city-state.” 7
Fourth, just because Josephus does not mention the census, it does not follow that the census did not hap pen. Unless one could show that the census in question should have been mentioned by Josephus, such an argument commits the fallacy of the argument from silence. It might have been that the A.D. 6 census Josephus records attracted his attention because of the revolt that erupted because of it. Perhaps the census Luke records was rather uneventful and thus was not particularly noticeable by Josephus.
Last, the matter of whether there could have been a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria has several responses. Some have suggested that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice. In support of this, a Latin inscription known as the Lapis Tibrutinus, found in 1764, mentions someone who was the legate or governor a second time in Syria. While it is not mentioned who this person was, some suggest that Quirinius could have been acting like the legate under a person named Varius, and thus would have, in some sense of the term, been governor of Syria.8 Others suggest that the Greek of Luke could be translated “this census was before that [census] when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The bottom line is that, while in one sense the issue of the census is the most complicated because it involves the most detail to discuss, in another sense it is the most easily answered precisely because there are several options, each of which would explain the text.
Correcting the Record Over and Over Again
Perhaps the most common objection leveled against the New Testament is that the entire story of Jesus is nothing more than a retelling of ancient Near Eastern myths.9 The ancient world is replete with stories of dying and rising gods all of whom were born of a virgin. Or is it? Ronald Nash’s book, The Gospels and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought?, is perhaps the best treatment of the subject. 10 I should like to summarize some important points out of Nash’s work by way of response to the most common allegations regarding this issue. First, some themes or symbols present in religions come from common human experience. For example, water is commonly used as a symbol of cleansing. Also, rituals regarding eating are common among religions.
Second, just because two religions use a common symbol or motif, this does not in itself prove a causal influence of one religion upon another. Third, even if one religion “borrows” a theme or symbol, this does not entail that the doctrine represented by that theme or symbol is false. Fourth, some of the themes in Christianity that are thought to have been borrowed from other religions actually predate those religions or were not present in those religions until after the beginning of Christianity. One example is the Taurobolium ritual. This was a ritual of the cult of Cybele. During the ritual, one stood in a pit underneath a slaughtered bull while the blood of the bull poured over him as the animal was dying. It has been alleged that this was the origin of Paul’s teaching about being cleansed by the blood of Christ. However, studies show that the Taurobolium ritual did not arise within the cult of Cybele until the second century (i.e., after the onset of Christianity).
Last, and more directly to the issue at hand, some of the elements that are often construed as similar between Christianity and other ancient religions are shown to be quite distinct upon closer examination. The supposed “dying and rising savior” theme of the mystery religions is said to be the origin of Christianity’s doctrine of the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, the differences far out-weigh any similarities. First, none of the so-called savior gods died for anyone else. The idea that a savior dies for his people is unique to Christianity. Second, it is never claimed that these figures died for sins. Only Jesus is said to have died for sins. Third, though Jesus died once for all, many of these pagan deities would die and be resuscitated repeatedly, depicting the annual vegetative cycles. Fourth, the death of Jesus Christ was an actual event of history whereas the deaths of the pagan deities were mythical stories not tied to any historical event. Last, Jesus gave up his life voluntarily whereas these other deities did not.
While it may be true that certain ancillary elements of the Judea-Christian tradition were borrowed from prior religions, nothing that defines Christianity in terms of its essential doctrine is the result of modifying or merely adopting another religious system other than the obvious grounding Christianity has in Judaism.
The Day the Sun Stood Still? The Problem with Having the Wrong World View
There is a classic science fiction movie titled “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in which virtually all electricity was neutralized, bringing commerce and industry to a halt. But such things can only be confined to fiction some may say. It is not possible that the laws of nature be suspended. Or is it? In Joshua 10:12-13 we have the account of the sun standing still as Israel battled the Amorites. The question that presents itself is whether such an event could actually be historical. Upon reading such an account, many may perhaps see this as clearly mythical. This episode provides an opportunity to make a very important distinction in such discussions. If reality can be thought of as falling into different categories, such as physics, biology, mathematics, history, and so on, then it follows that the methods of inquiry and tools of analysis to be used in investigating and understanding each category must be those tools and methods that are appropriate for the given category. For example, questions of biology cannot be adequately broached using the tools and methods of mathematics. One cannot mathematically “prove” a biological truth. To be sure, one might use mathematics in one’s understanding of biology, but the biological truth as a biological truth must be given a biological proof or demonstration. Much confusion ensues when one takes the tools of inquiry and methods of analysis of one category and illicitly uses them to demonstrate a truth from another category.
This mistake happens very often in biblical criticism. Critics judge that a particular account cannot be true because it involves a supernatural event. Since there is no such thing as the supernatural, they say, the account cannot be historically accurate. The problem with this line of reasoning is that whether or not there are or can be supernatural events is a philosophical judgment not a historical one. It is not the historian who can judge whether or not there is a God who can act in history. Rather, it is the philosopher.
Now I am not suggesting that the historian must come to his historical judgments completely free from any philosophical assumptions. This is impossible. Instead, what I am saying is that, in coming to a historical conclusion that a particular account cannot be historically accurate, the historian must acknowledge that his analysis includes not only historical tools and methods, but also philosophical ones. With that under stood, it is illicit for the historian, as a historian, to say that the account of the sun standing still is a historical error simply because this type of event is physically impossible. It may nevertheless be true that a miracle has occurred. But whether or not miracles are possible is a matter for the philosophers and theologians to dis cuss, not the historian.
What can we say then about this account in Joshua? It seems that the Bible cannot be charged with historical error here unless and until one has demonstrated that miracles are impossible. This would be the case for every miracle in the Bible. With that discussion, we have now moved from the discipline of history into the discipline of philosophy.
Why Does It Matter?
Some Christians say that it is unimportant to find occasional historical inaccuracies in the Bible. They argue that just because a given historical document has some historical inaccuracies in it, it does not follow that the document is completely untrustworthy.1 1 In this, I would agree. It is not unreasonable to trust the account of a document in one place while admitting its untrust worthiness in another. We certainly regard numerous sources of history to be valuable and reliable despite the fact that they may have occasional mistakes. But this misses the point of why these matters are important regarding the Bible.
The doctrine that says that the Bible is completely free from error in the original writings is called inerrancy.1 2 But what some may not understand is that this doctrine does not merely mean that the Bible is free from error. If I were to write a document that was completely free from error, while it may be true that my document was inerrant, its inerrancy would not be the same as the Bible’s inerrancy. The doctrine of inerrancy is saying something more about the Bible than that it is free from error.
The doctrine of inerrancy focuses on the nature of the Bible being inerrant precisely because it is the Word of God. The argument goes like this: (1) God cannot err. (2) The Bible is the Word of God. (3) Therefore, the Bible cannot err.13 Christians should maintain the inerrancy of the Bible, not because the admission of one error would render the entire text of the Bible unreliable. Rather, Christians should maintain the inerrancy of the Bible because the integrity of God and the nature of the biblical text as inspired are at stake. In other words, the highest importance of biblical inerrancy is theological rather than practical (though it would obviously have practical implications). If it is true that God cannot err and if it is true that the Bible is the Word of God, then it follows necessarily that the Bible cannot err. If there is an error in the Bible, then either God can err or the Bible is not His word in the proper sense of the term. 14 Whatever practical aspects are sacrificed by the admission of one error in the Bible, those practical aspects are a fortiori sacrificed by a com promise on either the nature of God or the nature of the inspiration of the biblical text.
We have seen that historical criticisms of the Bible can be answered. 15 With each new generation of archeological discovery, the Bible is repeatedly vindicated as historically reliable. There is no reason for the Christian to be shy about such challenges. With access to the research available, the Christian can face these challenges head on with the confidence that the integrity of the Bible will remain intact.
Richard G. Howe is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Luther Rice University in Lithonia, GA. Dr. Howe has contributed to the books To Everyone An Answer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), edited by Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland; Reasons for Faith: A Survey of Contemporary Christian Issues and Evidences. Essays in Honor of Bob and Gretchen Passantino, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2007); and The Popular Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Books, forthcoming), edited by Ed Hindson and Ergun Caner.
1 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1992), 15-26.
2 All translations are from the New King James Version unless otherwise indicated.
3 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 64. McDowell references Joseph P. Free, Archeology and Bible History (Wheaton: Scripture Press, 1969), 317.
4 F. F. Bruce, “Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament,” in Carl F. H. Henry, ed., Revelation and the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), 326-327.
5 Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1977), 13-23.
6 Hoehner, Chronological, p. 15.
7 Hoehner, Chronological, p. 16.
8 For a detailed discussion, see Glenn Miller, “On an Objection about Luke, Quirinius, and Herods,” Available from http:/ /www.christian-thinktank.com/quirinius.html, accessed Sep. 29, 2007.
9 This objection has recently been revived by the DVD offered by Brian Flemming of the “Blasphemy Challenge,” titled The God Who Wasn’t There.
10 Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and the Greeks: Did the New Testament Borrow from Pagan Thought? (Richardson, TX: Probe, 1992). Originally published as Christianity and the Hellenistic World (Dallas: Probe, 1984).
11 See, for example, Russell H. Dilday, Jr. The Doctrine of Biblical Authority (Nashville: Convention Press, 1982), 89-101. In discussing the weaknesses of the term “inerrant” to describe the Bible, Dilday says, “It implies that one admit ted insignificant error in the Bible would destroy one’s confidence in the whole biblical revelation” (p. 99).
12 A thorough discussion of the doctrine of inerrancy is beyond the scope of this article. Some of the most important theological, historical, and philosophical research on the doctrine was done by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy during the 1970s and 1980s. They were an ad hoc consortium of trans-denominational Christian scholars who convened several times to exchange ideas and present peer-reviewed papers on numerous dimensions of the issue of biblical inerrancy. Among the works produced by this group are: Geisler, Norman L., ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1979; Geisler, Norman L., ed. Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of Its Philosophical Roots. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981; Lewis, Gordon and Bruce Demarest, eds. Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response. Chicago: Moody, 1984; Hanna, John, ed. Inerrancy and the Church. Chicago: Moody Press, 1984; Radmacher, Earl D. and Robert D. Preus, eds. He1meneutics, Inerrancy & the Bible: Papers from ICBI Summit II. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, Academie, 1984.
13 Geisler and Howe, Critics, l 1.
14 The former would be the position of finite godism and process theology (to the extent that either would admit that the Bible was the Word of God). The latter would be the position of neo-orthodoxy.
15 Some other important resources for handling alleged his torical errors include: Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996); James Patrick Holding, “Common Census: A Comparison on the Census Issue, Plus Updates” (Available from http:/ /www.tektonics.org/af/ censuscheck.html, accessed Sep. 29, 2007); Eta Linnemann, Biblical Criticism on Trial: How Scientific is “Scientific Theology”? Trans. by Robert Yarborough (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2001); idem., Historical Criticism of the Bible: Methodology or Ideology? Reflections of a Bultmannian turned Evangelical Trans. by Robert W. Yarbrough (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990); and Donald J. Wiseman, “Archeological Confirmation of the Old Testament,” in Revelation and the Bible, 299-316.