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The Bible as a Historical Document

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has been an adjunct professor of religion at Western Kentucky University for six years. They have a master's degree in religious studies from Western Kentucky University and a bachelor's degree in English literature and religious studies from Western Kentucky University.

People often assume the Bible is either a completely historical or ahistorical text, but it is actually somewhere in between. In this lesson, learn more about the historicity of the Bible and the motivations behind its writing and compilation.

Biblical Genre and Structure

The Bible is a vastly important religious text for people around the world, but what can we get out of the Bible as a historical text - or is it historically reliable at all? Many people read the Bible expecting everything in it to be historically accurate, but that was not actually the purpose of the authors.

In order to understand the Bible's historicity, we need to take its structure into account. Unlike most books you pick up and read, the Bible is actually an anthology composed of multiple books. There are two major sections: the Hebrew Bible (or Christian Old Testament), which recounts the story of the Israelites, and the New Testament, which tells the story of Jesus and the early Christians. Since they were written at different time periods and for different purposes, we will look at each separately when considering their historicity.

We can classify most of the Bible under the genre of interpreted history. This means that not everything in it is historically accurate; rather, the authors were more concerned with conveying information (historical or not) that is important to their religious beliefs. When we think about the historicity of the Bible's texts, we must also keep in mind that they have been translated and copied over time, with different motivations for each work.

For example, the King James Version, which many still read today, was commissioned by King James I of England as a way to unite the opposing Protestant and Catholic groups in his dominion. In order to achieve this, he made sure his translators' work met his theology rather than translating the text exactly how it appeared. Also, although the translations came from the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, the translators did not have the same understanding of their languages and cultures that we do today and they were influenced by the Latin Vulgate, meaning some of the translations were not historically accurate.

The title page of the first King James Version Bible
Image of the title page of the first King James Version Bible

The Hebrew Bible

Compilation

The Hebrew Bible is itself an anthology that covers the history of the earliest Israelite people through their establishment of a monarchy, the division of the kingdom, and the eventual destruction and rebuilding of their homeland. Since it covers so much material, it makes sense that this was not written all at once.

The first five books of the Bible, called the Torah, were actually compiled around the 6th century BCE after various manuscripts telling independent but parallel narratives were combined into one story. Some books of the Hebrew Bible were not even initially just one text, like the book of Isaiah, which is composed of three different sections

There are also many books similar to those in the Hebrew Bible that were not included in it because the compilers had two criteria for Hebrew Bible texts: they had to be originally written in Hebrew, and they had to be written by or attributed to someone who lived before the 4th century BCE.

Historicity

The historicity of the Hebrew Bible is debated by scholars and laypersons alike. Many of the stories of the Hebrew Bible, like that of the Tower of Babel, were probably fictional stories that act as etiologies, or explanations for various phenomenon, like the reason we have multiple languages in the world.

The narrative in the Torah that talks about the Israelites' beginnings, their escape from slavery in Egypt, and their travel to the ''Promised Land'' has very little evidence in historical records. In fact, the first direct correlation we get between the Hebrew Bible and non-biblical sources is the mention of Shishak, or the Egyptian pharaoh Shoshenq I, in 1 Kings.

Shoshenq I relief in the Karnak Temple in Egypt
Image of Shoshenq I relief in the Karnak Temple in Egypt

As the Israelites began interacting with other nations in the narrative - and getting conquered by them - we have more and more historical evidence of their activity. We know that some of the kings of Israel and Judah existed and were later conquered because we have mentions of this in texts outside of the Bible. However, some biblical places and groups of people that were once thought to have been fictional have been discovered in historical records over time, like the Hittites, who are an enemy throughout the Hebrew Bible.

The New Testament

Compilation

The New Testament is often considered the Christian ''sequel'' to the Hebrew Bible. Like the Hebrew Bible, it is an anthology composed of narratives of Jesus, his early followers, and a lot of letters from early Christians. The issue of canonization, or selection of an agreed upon set of texts, arises here as well. There are many more gospels, letters, and other related writings outside of the New Testament. The canonical New Testament books seem to have been chosen - and we use ''seem'' here because there was no meeting to determine what books made it in or did not - because they were among the earliest writings (before about 120 CE) and were the most influential to early Christians.

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