by John Y. May

“It is still of absolute importance to believe in
what is indeed genuine factual knowledge. “1

— John W. Montgomery

This essay aims to explore the relationship of the Bible to historical knowledge. Specifically, what can the Scriptures legitimately contribute to our knowledge? To what extent can we depend on their assistance in our search for knowledge — of our world, ourselves, and even of God and his purposes?

Sustained debate among the knowledge-analysis experts continues over what best constitutes acceptable criteria for knowing. Most, however, would allow that substantial place in the epistemic scheme can be given to the role of empirical observation and reference to actual experience.2 We naturally ask, then, do our statements of alleged truth align with the best approximation of actuality?



We are familiar with examples of the empirical approach in the natural sciences. Less familiar to us perhaps are the empirical aspects appropriate to history-writing, while recognizing that history has more to do with non-repeatable events or occurrences and is highly dependent on testimony. Craig L. Blomberg comments that historical narrative attempts to “recount things that actually happened….”3 As one test for reliable, historical construction, V. Philips Long advocates that it “be compatible with whatever external evidence, rightly interpreted, might be available.”4

Just as the various natural sciences have techniques and testing mechanisms specifically appropriate to each discipline, so the historian has his epistemic obligations. His choices are manifold. What project to study and report? Which source materials to use? What facts will have predominant influence on his explanatory model of the historical data?

Historical inquiry, then, has its working principles. There are benchmarks for the selection of authentic sources, guidelines for analyzing the materials, and yardsticks for constructing a compelling narrative of people and events.5 Serious history-writing is not a matter of “anything goes.” History doesn’t take place in an empirical vacuum. Facts should be responsibly accounted for in the historical realm also. McCullagh contends: “Historians are well aware of the need to verify the particular facts they report….”6

One aim of our knowledge-seeking is to determine things as they really are, as best we are able. Whether the subject is science, history, finance, medicine or biblical studies, it is well to focus on the facts of the situation. This has the potential, at least, to provide an empirical edge.

As part of our immediate deliberations, then, we need to consider the difficulties and prospects for the Bible to provide us with information on actual situations. This has to do with its capability to describe and explain empirical data. Or, stated differently, do its assertions “fit the facts”?

To answer the question we have just raised above affirms that at least some of the Bible’s statements are subject to some sort of observation, verification or testing. For, at the outset, we realize that some of its subject matter does not seem to be a likely candidate for the usual checking-out or external corroboration that we might normally encounter elsewhere in our experience.



For our discussion here, we have chosen the arena of history as a possible juncture, a convergence point or testing-ground for the Bible’s treatment of matters of fact.

This selection is appropriate because the biblical disclosure takes place in historical settings of real time, real places, real people, and real documents. The major biblical themes — even the redemptive scheme and impact — are inescapably embedded in historical contexts.

Further, within the broader field of history, the discipline or specialty of archaeology is especially significant as a possible point of connection. So, let us look now at some matters of archaeological interest.

Can empirical findings from archaeological investigation assist us in assessing the historical integrity and reliability of the biblical records? Potentially, the answer is “yes,” but there are some conditions that must be recognized.

Archaeological excavation work is quite time-consuming and always very expensive. Accordingly, only a relative few targeted sites can be excavated. The excavation activity itself is time-intensive, sometimes requiring many years to uncover an adequate amount of material for significant study. The resulting materials (artifacts, manuscripts, monuments, etc.) so obtained must then be carefully deciphered, analyzed, and interpreted.

Correct identification of sites (for example, the actual correspondence of a particular site with the biblical reference) is sometimes difficult. Actual dating of findings — often involving various layers or strata – is subject to controversial and often-changing interpretations. Proper dating, in fact, may be the most tricky and precarious aspect of archaeological enterprise.

For many reasons, publication of results is often delayed or, in some instances, never completed at all. For example, tablets of the Lipit- Ishtar law code — unearthed at Nippur by the University of Pennsylvania near the end of the 19th century — lay on the basement shelves of the University Museum for some 50 years until their significance was recognized by Francis R. Steele who published them in 1947.7

So, only a small fraction of the total potential “discoveries” are ever realized. Meanwhile, many questions may go unanswered; some problems go unresolved — at least until additional data becomes available or future excavations can clarify matters.



Even with these recognized limitations, there have been a remarkable number of archaeological findings that have either (a) provided general illumination on the background or customs of the time which are helpful to us in understanding the biblical data,8 or (b) furnished direct, concrete confirmation of biblical persons, cities, manuscripts, or events. Here, we will briefly cite just two cases of the latter type from Old Testament times.

One example of specific corroboration is that concerning the biblical statements about Belshazzar in Daniel 5. For many years, there was no such person as Belshazzar known to secular history. Then, research in the British Museum among the numerous clay tablets, obtained from the site of ancient Babylon, confirmed the fact that Nabonidus had a son named Belshazzar. Further analysis showed that this son actually served as co­rnier of Babylon along with Nabonidus during the end of his reign while the latter spent some ten years in Tema in the Arabian Desert about five hundred miles from Babylon.9 Extensive investigation of various cuneiform inscriptions by Raymond P. Dougherty, professor of Assyriology at Yale University, proved that at the time Nabonidus had left the administration of the Babylonian government to his son Belshazzar.

“The writer of the fifth chapter of Daniel,” Dougherty maintained, “comports with cuneiform data in picturing the chief character of his narrative as having enjoyed kingly dignity.”10 He added, “That the account in Daniel takes cognizance of this [co-ruler arrangement], although not mentioning Nabonidus, may be regarded as indicating a true historical basis for the narrative.”11 The biblical writer’s straightforward assertion about Belshazzar turns out to be factual, long after the hyper-critics had written him off the stage of real history.

As another example of archaeological corroboration, we note King Hezekiah’s preparation against an expected attack from the Assyrian forces of Sennacherib. The Bible describes some of these activities (2 Chron. 32:3-5, 30; 2 Kings 20:20). First, they blocked off the water from other springs outside of the city so that water would not be readily available to the attacking army. They repaired broken sections of the city’s wall and built towers on top of it. They constructed another wall outside of and beyond the first one. Then, they dug a long tunnel which enabled them to redirect the water from Gihon Spring (outside the city walls) into a new Siloam Pool, built at the south end of Jerusalem but now safely inside the city’s newly constructed walls.

Not only has Hezekiah’s tunnel of biblical description [also called the Siloam Tunnel] been located, but an inscription was found some 20 feet in from the Siloam Pool end giving details of the work project and completion of the tunnel.12 The tunnel — 1,748 feet long and an average of over five feet in height — was rediscovered by Edward Robinson in the mid-­nineteenth century and again thoroughly reexamined by archaeologist Yigal Shiloh in 1978.

Questions about dating the construction of the tunnel itself are now resolved. Researchers stress that dating — by three independent methods – has been agreed to. They conclude that “the Biblical text presents an accurate historical record of the Siloam Turners construction….Our dating [about 700 B.C.] agrees well also with the date commonly assigned to Hezekiah [727-698] whom the biblical text describes as having constructed the Siloam Tunnel.”13 Indeed, the actual tunnel itself and the associated inscription provide empirical corroboration of the biblical description of some of Hezekiah’s actions in history.



How shall we assess these illustrative findings? What is the effect of this archaeological data on our view of the historical content of the Scriptures?

First, archaeological research has illustrated or illuminated some of the background of biblical settings. At least partial excavations have been made at or near numerous biblical towns — Ai, Beersheba, Bethel, Caesarea (Maritima), Dan, Gibeon, Hazor, Jerusalem, Meggido, Nineveh, Shecham, etc. — some of which have shed light on the biblical records. Such digs, said University of London Assyiologist Donald J. Wisemen, have given us illustration and explanations of many biblical narratives.14 Roland K. Harrison, of the University of Toronto, agreed that these discoveries have furnished an authentic social and cultural background against which many Old Testament narratives can be set with assurance.15

Secondly, archaeological findings have assisted in correcting various erroneous views and interpretations. Old Testament expert Allan A. MacRae said “Many a Biblical statement which had previously been considered to be erroneous or even impossible has thus been shown to be precisely in accord with historic fact.” 16 Francis R. Steele, publisher of the famous Lipit-Ishtar law code, noted that “the past century of archaeological research has demonstrated … scores of ‘errors’ which earlier critics ‘discovered’ have been swept into limbo by subsequent excavations.” 17

Thirdly, some archaeological discoveries, we have just observed, have provided specific corroboration of certain biblical details. The Bible does have its points of verification with history. We have already cited some of the limitations on expecting abundant occurrences of this kind of confirmation. MaeRae cautioned too that the biblical coverage of history is a selective, incomplete one; events of great political or cultural importance are sometimes completely passed over because they may not be related to the Bible’s main purpose.18 Yet, he added, “archaeology has repeatedly demonstrated the existence of cities, conquerors and nations mentioned in the OT.”19 And historian Edwin M. Yamauehi suggests “the archaeological confirmation of the Bible is not an isolated phenomenon….”20

William F. Albright, respected Johns Hopkins University archaeologist, had foreseen this situation. He correctly predicted “As critical study of the Bible is more and more influenced by the rich new material from the ancient Near East we shall see a steady rise in respect for the historical significance of now neglected or despised passages and details in the Old and New Testaments.”21 Millar Burrows of Yale also believed “archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record.”22 John A. Thompson, former director of the Australian Institute of Archaeology, states “It is evident that the biblical records have their roots firmly in general world history.”23

Edward M. Blaiklock, classics scholar, concluded:

“Striking vindications of biblical historiography have taught historians to respect the authority of both Old Testament and New, and to admire the accuracy, the deep concern for truth, and the inspired historical insight of the varied writers who gave the Bible its books of history. ”24

We observe, then, the remarkable reliability and trustworthiness with which biblical disclosure relates to factual matters within one important domain of reality, namely, history. “By showing the tangency of the Bible to material fact,” Bernard L. Ramm emphasized, “we show its factuality and revelancy to this actually existing world….”25 Philip E. Hughes indicated that the very essence of the biblical account “is its indissoluble connection with particular historical events proclaimed as the acts of God Himself sovereignly intervening in the midst of human history….”26

Where they can be tested at all, the Scriptures have an enviable track record of providing credible information about people, places, and events. Dallas Willard, formerly of the University of Southern California, argued that the Bible offers “answers or solutions whose truth can be known through fair inquiry and which will stand up in the face of the most serious critical examination…tested over time….”27

Herbert Butterfield, Cambridge historian, had explained:

“[T]he Bible itself…conveys a message to men by the narration and exposition of historical events in general…. Christianity…has rooted its most characteristic and daring assertions in that ordinary realm of history, “28

All this strongly suggests that the Bible provides a significant empirical edge in our search for knowledge, in this case, knowledge of historical matters of especially vital importance to us.


1John W. Montgomery. “Speculation Versus Factuality: An Analysis of Modem Unbelief,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168 (Jan.-Mar. 2011), no. 669:49. Also he says, “Facts determine interpretative constructs in Christianity no less than in secular science.” Faith Founded on Fact {Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc., 1978), xii. And, he maintains: “The New Testament writers seem to go out of their way to assert the full facticity of the gospel events.” Where is History Going? (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1972), 107.

2Richard Foley of New York University observes some analysts who suggest: “our theories and concepts are to be tested by how well they collectively meet the tests of observation….” Intellectual Trust in Oneself and Others (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 9. William T. Blackstone comments that “a knowledge claim is warranted, when…it accurately describes or explains facts about the world.” “The Problem of Knowledge,” in Meaning and Existence {New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971), 624. Ernest Sosa of Rutgers University adds that our knowledge of that world is dependent on our sensory perception. Epistemology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 49. Summed up most simply, then, the empirical approach involves sense perception, observation, and sometimes the formulation of explanatory models to make sense of the data observed.

3Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2007), 296. Siegfried Herrmann also maintained that historical research “is concerned with the investigation and evaluation of historical knowledge of that which has happened,” Time and History, trans. James L. Blevins (Nashville: Abington, 1987), 30. Grant R. Osborne observes: “While biblical history is presented in narrative form, this by no means obviates its status as history. There is no theoretical reason why literary and historical interests cannot coincide, and why the stories cannot be trustworthy representations of what really happened.” “Historical Narrative and Truth in the Bible,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48 (Dec. 2005), no. 4:683. I. Howard Marshall agrees: “The writing of history and the proclamation of a message are thus not two incompatible activities: on the contrary, the content of the message is a historical narrative about the action of God in a historical person.” “Jesus in the Gospels,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Vol. 1, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 519.

4V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 199.

5Martha Howell & Walter Prevenier indicate that “historians have paid attention to how sources are chosen and interpreted. They have developed sophisticated techniques for judging a source’s authenticity, its representativeness, and its relevance.” And they say, “the historian’s basic task is to choose reliable sources, to read them reliably, and to put them together in ways that provide reliable narratives about the past.” From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 1,2. David M. Howard Jr. agrees that in historical inquiry there “are established rules of evidence, research, and documentation.” “History as History: The Search for Meaning,” in Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, ed. D. M. Howard, Jr. & M. A. Grisanti (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2003), 37. Note, then, that history-writing has its own area of competence, and its end products can be evaluated by public criteria. Historian Carl R. Trueman explains that “the bottom line is that most historians do acknowledge in their procedures and methods that such public criteria do exist….” Histories and Fallacies (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 28.

6C. Behan McCullagh, The Truth of History (New York: Routledge, 1998), 6. Gilbert J. Garraghan said “Nothing tends more to diminish interest in a history …than the suspicion that they are not getting the facts….” A Guide to Historical Method (Westport CT: Greenwood, 1973), 55. In spite of overly critical trends, Ian W. Provan says that history “is still widely perceived…as comprising ’facts’ — facts that can be…woven together to produce ‘the past.’” “Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past,” in ‘Behind the Text’: History and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 229.

7Francis R. Steele, “The Lipit-Ishtar Code,” American Journal of Archaeology 51 (April-June 1947), no. 2:158-64.

8Alfred J. Hoerth contends that the “most important contributions of archaeology to biblical studies are the various ways its illuminates the cultural and historical setting of the Bible: adds to our knowledge of the people, places, things, and events in the Bible ….” Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 17.

9Raymond P. Doughtery, Nabonidus and Belshazzar (New’ Haven: Yale University Press, 1929), 101-03, 129. Also see Alan R. Millard, “Daniel and Belshazzar in History,” Biblical Archaeology Review 11 (1985), no. 3: 72-78; Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 379-381; and Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 74-75.

10Raymond P. Dougherty, Nabonidus and Belshazzar, 193.

11lbid., 197.

12Alfred J. Hoerth, Archaeology and the Old Testament, 344,346. Also see Clyde E. Fant 8t Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 144,147.

13Amos Frumkin, Aryeh Shimron & J. Rosenbaum, “Radiometric Dating of the Siloam Tunnel, Jerusalem,” Nature 425 (Sep. 2003), no, 6954: 169, 171. Also see: Hershel Shanks, “Sound Proof: How Hezekiah’s Tunnelers Met,” Biblical Archaeology Review 34 (Sep.-Oct. 2008), no. 5: 50-57; Avraham Faust, “A Note on Hezekiah’s Tunnel and the Siloam Inscription,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 90 (Sep. 2000): 3­11; and “Siloam Tunnel,” in Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land, ed. Avraham Negev & Shimon Gibson, rev. ed. (New York: Continuum, 2003), 471.

14Donald J. Wiseman, “Archaeology and the Old Testament,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 309.

15Roland K. Harrison, “Historical and Literary Criticism of the Old Testament,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary – Vol 1, 233.

16Allan A. MacRae, Biblical Archaeology, (Marshallton, DE: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1967), 2.

17Francis R. Steele, “Those Troublesome Hittites,” His Magazine, (March 1950), 22. And, he said: “Scores of historical events recorded in the Bible have been confirmed, often in minute detail. The names of kings and generals, peoples and nations, all lost to us for centuries — apart from the Biblical record — are now known from contemporaneous monuments and records which exhibit remarkable agreement with the Hebrew text.” “God in History,” Eternity (Nov. 1951): 45.

18Allan A. MacRae, Biblical Archaeology, 40.

19Ibid., 1.

20Edwin M. Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (New York: Lippincott, 1972), 162.

21William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957), 81.

22M. Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (New York: Meridan, 1956), 1.

23John A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, 3rd rev. ed. (Grand Rapids; Erdmanns, 1982), 438.

24Edward M. Blaiklock, The Archaeology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), vii. He adds that “it is important to note that Near Eastern archaeology has demonstrated the historical and geographical reliability of the Bible in many important areas.” The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology, eds. E. M. Blaiklock & R. K. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), vii. Edward J. Carnell observed that ”the Christian is in possession of a world-view which is making a sincere effort to come to grips with actual history.” An Introduction to Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950), 174.

25Bemard L. Ramm, Protestant Christian Evidences (Chicago: Moody Press, 1954), 17. Edward N. Martin reminds us that even the “process of God getting his propositional revelation to us is largely empirical (transmission of the text, the act of reading).” “Empiricism,” in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, ed. C. Campbell-Jack, G. McGrath, & C. Stephen Evans (London: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 233. Said in another way, access today to gospel content and Christian invitation is introduced through the avenue of the senses — hearing Christian testimony, listening to gospel proclamation, and seeing/reading the biblical text itself. George I. Mavrodes, formerly of the University of Michigan, observed: “To whatever extent God has chosen to funnel exactly that same revelation through the senses.” “Revelation and Epistemology,” in The Philosophy of Gordon H. Clark, ed. Ronald H. Nash (Philadelphia: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, 1968), 248. After all, J. Gresham Machen maintained, the “centre and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax.” “History and Faith,” in What Is Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 170. Herbert Butterfield pointed out that Christianity “comes to us as a thing with a geographical location, with a place in the historical scheme of things….” Christianity and History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 120.

26PhiIip E. Hughes, “The Truth of Scripture and the Problem of Historical Relativity” in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson & J. D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 178. James S. Stewart emphasized that these are “events not abstractions or theories…but concrete, actual events localized in time and space.” A Faith to Proclaim (New York: Scribners, 1953), 22. Textual expert Frederick F. Bruce maintained that a correct story of Jesus was attached to a historical context in these events in time and place. The Message of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 101-102.

27Ballas Willard, The Bible and the University, ed. David L. Jeffrey & C. Stephen Evans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 20. Historian Paul W. Barnett summarized that the message of the New Testament “is a message that is credible based on the breath of numbers of witnesses who testify to it, the historical reliability of its texts, their chronological closeness to Jesus and the security of their transmission throughout the intervening years.” Is the New Testament Reliable? 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 190.

28Herbert Butterfield, Christianity and History, 3. John W. Montgomery argues that “Christianity…declares that the truth of its…claims rests squarely on certain historical facts, open to ordinary investigation.” “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity” in Evidence for Faith (Dallas: Probe Books, 1991), 319. Bernard L. Ramm had recognized: “Historical revelation is real in the sense that it does take place according to the typical categories of history: it takes place in space and time, with reference to a person or persons, and carries a weight of importance.” Special Revelation and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 94.


Mr. May received his B.A. at Lehigh University, and earned his M.A. degree in philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. He did additional study at the University of Wisconsin and Drew University.

His published articles have appeared in periodicals such as the Foundations, Evangelical Journal Mid-America Journal of Theology, Founders Journal, Midwestern Journal of Theology, Emmaus Journal, Ashland Theological Journal, and the Worldviews Newsletter.