Home > Critical Thinking, Faith & Family, Theology > More than men’s writings…(Part 1): Historicity of the Old Testament

More than men’s writings…(Part 1): Historicity of the Old Testament

Having established the context of our discussion and pontifications in the two installments of our prologue (see “first installment” and “previous installment” at the end of this post), we will now turn to the meat of the evidence. As we start out, let it be noted explicitly that we are not going to engage in circular reasoning, asserting the Bible is the Word of God because it says it is the Word of God. The question is, what evidence is there that it is the Word of God? Or, as Sproul, et al. put it:

Just as going in a circle is no significant motion, so reasoning in a circle is no significant reasoning. Many Christians today are chasing their theological tails – reasoning in circles. This form of appeal clearly reduces to subjectivism, making the final court of appeal for attesting the Spirit a mere inner subjective feeling.1

The Strategy

So how are we going to argue linearly and objectively? First, we will examine the reliability of transmission of the biblical text and thus the reliability of its content using standard methodology and data from archaeology and textual criticism (note: textual criticism is an objective method to reconstruct the original text; it is not higher criticism which seeks to remove the supernatural from the content of the text based on a priori assumptions). If once we see that what can be tested shows the biblical documents to be historically reliable, we can examine the text to determine if there is anything in the content that would lead to a conclusion of supernatural origins of the text itself. In other words, if we can show that the text is verifiable in what we can test, we have no reason to doubt its record of what we can’t test as long as that is consistent with the overall gestalt of the work. We are not making any a priori assumptions beyond the minimal, necessitarian assumptions of methodology already described. And we will not allow opponents to make any either. You may not like the conclusions, but deal with the facts and data, not your subjective response to the final conclusion. If we are successful, then the actual message of the document needs to be seriously considered and incorporated into your worldview.

Please note that we will now be making extensive use of Josh McDowell’s work, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict 2 in most of the following presentations. However, he in turn provides extensive references to the work of others, and it is the primary references that I will provide here.

The Reliability of the Old Testament Manuscripts

We will treat the Old and New Testaments in separate posts as the evidence and the considerations are somewhat different between the two. The Old Testament has been shown to be reliable in at least three major ways: (1) textual transmission (the accuracy of the copying process down through history), (2) the confirmation of the Old Testament by hard evidence uncovered through archeology, and (3) documentary evidence also uncovered through archeology.

Textual Transmission

As with other literature of antiquity, we don’t have the original documents, therefore, the reliability of transmission is of critical importance. How do the Hebrew copyists fare against other such literature?

Gleason Archer tells us:

It should be clearly understood that in this respect [to transmission], the Old Testament differs from all other pre-Christian works of literature of which we have any knowledge. To be sure, we do not possess so many different manuscripts of pagan productions, coming from such widely separated eras, as we do in the case of the Old Testament. But where we do, for example, in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the variations are of a far more extensive and serious nature. Quite startling differences appear, for example, between chapter 15 contained in the Papyrus of Ani (written in the Eighteenth Dynasty) and the Turin Papyrus (from the Twenty-sixth Dynasty or later). Whole clauses are inserted or left out, and the sense in corresponding columns of text is in some cases altogether different. Apart from divine superintendence of the transmission of the Hebrew text, there is no particular reason why the same phenomenon of divergence and change would not appear between Hebrew manuscripts produced centuries apart. For example, even though the two copies of Isaiah discovered in Qumran Cave 1 near the Dead Sea in 1947 were a thousand years earlier than the oldest dated manuscript previously known (A.D. 980), they proved to be word for word identical with our standard Hebrew Bible in more than 95 percent of the text. The 5 percent of variation consisted chiefly of obvious slips of the pen and variations in spelling. They do not affect the message of revelation in the slightest.3

Robert Wilson’s extensive evaluation of the veracity of the Old Testament text includes the following observations:

The Hebrew Scriptures contain the names of 26 or more foreign kings whose names have been found on documents contemporary with the kings. The names of most of these kings are found to be spelled on their own monuments, or in documents from the time in which they reigned in the same manner that they are spelled in the documents of the Old Testament. The changes in spelling of others are in accordance with the laws of phonetic change as those laws were in operation at the time when the Hebrew documents claim to have been written.4

In 144 cases of transliteration from Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian and Moabite into Hebrew and in 40 cases of the opposite, or 184 in all, the evidence shows that for 2300 to 3900 years the text of the proper names in the Hebrew Bible has been transmitted with the most minute accuracy. That the original scribes should have written them with such close conformity to correct philological principles is a wonderful proof of their thorough care and scholarship; further, that the Hebrew text should have been transmitted by copyists through so many centuries is a phenomenon unequaled in the history of literature.5

Dr. Wilson is a man who should know. As Professor of Semitic Philology at pre-apostate Princeton Theological Seminary, he was conversant with 26 languages, had a reading knowledge of at least 45 languages & dialects, and had read most of the available manuscripts in their original languages. Why is the accuracy of the transmission of foreign names good evidence for the reliability of the text? Because it happens so infrequently. For example, Dr. Wilson continues with his observations by noting:

For neither the assailants nor the defenders of the Biblical text should assume for one moment that either this accurate rendition or this correct transmission of proper names is an easy or usual thing. And as some of my readers may not have experience in investigating such matters, attention may be called to the names of kings of Egypt as given in Manetho and on the Egyptian monuments. Manetho was a high priest of the idol-temples in Egypt in the time of Ptolemy Philadelphus, i.e., about 280 B.C. He wrote a work on the dynasties of Egyptian kings, of which fragments have been preserved in the works of Josephus, Eusebius, and others. Of the kings of the 31 dynasties, he gives 40 names from 22 dynasties. Of these, 49 appear on the monuments in a form in which every consonant of Manetho’s spelling may possibly be recognized, and 28 more may be recognized in part. The other 63 are unrecognizable in any single syllable. If it be true that Manetho himself copied these lists from the original records – and the fact that he is substantially correct in 49 cases corroborates the supposition that he did – the hundreds of variations and corruptions in the 50 or more unrecognizable names must be due either to his fault in copying or to the mistakes of the transmitters of his text.6

In a footnote, Wilson computes the probability that the Hebrew manuscripts successfully transmitted the list of 40 kings living from 2000 B.C. to 400 B.C., which are found in accurate chronological order, by chance: “Mathematically, it is one chance in 750,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 that this accuracy is mere circumstance.”7

The conclusion of this and a rather large body of evidence is well stated by William Green when he says, “it may safely be said that no other work of antiquity has been so accurately transmitted.”8

Old Testament Archaeology

Here we want to start by noting that archaeology cannot “prove the Bible” if by that you mean that it proves the Bible to be inspired and revealed by God. The nature of the discipline combined with the fragmentary nature of the evidence make this impossible. However, it does enhance our knowledge of the economic, cultural, social, and political background of the biblical text. In some cases, it can vindicate the biblical record by demonstrating the accuracy of the contents thereof. Sometimes this vindication is specific to exact people, places, and events, and other times it is in the confirmation of the general background of the text. Relative to the issue of how to interpret the archaeological findings, Joseph Free has makes some solid points in Archaeology and Higher Criticism:

According to this view, a given archaeological discovery means one thing to a supernaturalist, and something different to a nonsupernaturalist, and therefore archaeology has only an incidental bearing on the whole matter of apologetics.

Actually, this is not the whole picture. To illustrate: in the nineteenth century, the Biblical critic could hold with good reason that there never was a Sargon, that the Hittites either did not exist or were insignificant, that the patriarchal accounts had a late background, that the sevenfold lampstand of the tabernacle was a late concept, that the Davidic Empire was not as extensive as the Bible implied, that Belshazzar never existed, and that a host of other supposed errors and impossibilities existed in the Biblical record.

Archaeological discoveries showed, on the contrary, that Sargon existed and lived in a palatial dwelling some twelve miles north of Nineveh, that the Hittites not only existed but were a significant people, that the background of the patriarchs fits the time indicated in the Bible, that the concept of a sevenfold lamp existed in the Early Iron Age, that a significant city given in the record of David’s Empire lies far to the north, that Belshazzar existed and ruled over Babylon, and that a host of other supposed errors and contradictions are not errors at all.

It is of course true that in certain peripheral areas, one’s theology will have a bearing on his interpretation of a given fact or a particular archaeological discovery. But in the broad outline as well as in a host of small details, facts are facts whether discovered by a supernaturalist or nonsupernaturalist. The writer knows of no nonsupernaturalist who still argues that Sargon never existed, that there never were Hittites, or that Belshazzar is still a legend. There are many points on which all candid scholars can agree, regardless of their theology. There are certain areas, however where the liberal has not taken the evidence, archaeological or otherwise, sufficiently into account. This is true, we believe, in the realm of the documentary theory and in the question of authorship, date, and integrity of the books of the Bible.9

The above citation notes several specific archaeological findings that have provided corroboration for the historical accuracy and reliability of the Old Testament texts. Another of my favorite ones has to do with Jericho. Most are familiar with this story, and many, I believe, place it in the category of “nice children’s story but not really true.” The archaeologists who excavated the city of Jericho (1930-1936), however, have a different story to tell, one so out of the ordinary that Garstang and the two other members of his team prepared and signed a statement describing what was found (not standard archaeological procedure).

As to the main fact, then, there remains no doubt: the walls fell outwards so completely that the attackers would be able to clamber up and over their ruins into the city. Why so unusual? Because the walls of cities do not fall outwards, they fall inwards. And yet in Joshua 6:20 we read, ‘The wall fell down flat. Then the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.’ The walls were made to fall outward.10

An additional list of archaeological evidence that confirms the biblical narrative is provided by Bryant Wood writing for Biblical Archaeology Review:

1. The city was strongly fortified (Josh 2:5, 7, 15; 6:5, 20).

2. The attack occurred just after harvest time in the spring (Josh 2:1; 3:15; 5:16).

3. The inhabitants had no opportunity to flee with their foodsheds (Josh 6:1).

4. The siege was short (Josh 6:15).

5. The walls were leveled, possibly by an earthquake (Josh 6:20).

6. The city was not plundered (Josh 6:17, 18).

7. The city was burned (Josh 6:24).11

Let’s look at another favorite biblical children’s story, that of David and Goliath. Specifically, how did David manage to bring down the giant with just a sling? I mean, c’mon, a sling? Well, it turns out that not only was the sling a perfect weapon for David, it had and has had a very respectable history of use in ancient warfare, in some respects more effective than the bow and arrow (cf. slinging.org)!

Writing in Scientific American,12 German archaeologist Dr. Manfred Korfmann notes that the sling was used in Europe and the Near East from the Bronze Age until about the 17th century. It was a major part of the fighting force of the day, held in high regard by armies such as those of Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

In addition to the record of David’s conquest of Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:48-51, Judges 20:16 tells us of 700 chosen men of Benjamin who could all sling accurately “to the width of a hair.” 2 Kings 3:25 notes that Hebrew slingers played a decisive role in the war against the Moabites, and in 1 Chronicles 12:2 mentions King David’s special ambidextrous sling corps. Finally, 2 Chronicles 26:14 notes among the armament King Uzziah prepared for his army the presence of slings, presumably with their ammunition.

Is the sling really able to hit with the accuracy David would have needed, or was it a “lucky” shot? Well, according to Livy, the Roman historian, the Aegean slingers were the most accurate of slingers in their time, and they could not only hit an enemy in the face at will, they could choose (and hit) any particular part of the face! Balearic slingers were also renowned for their slinging abilities which were nurtured from an early age. Their mothers were wont to put their bread on the top of a pole and forbid them to eat anything until they knocked it off the pole with their sling (and you thought your Mom was strict!).

Lastly, Dr. Korfmann notes that a missile leaving a sling could easily attain a velocity of 100 km/hr (~62 mph), or about 28 m/sec (92 ft/sec), allowing penetration of an unprotected body easily up to a range of about 100 meters (328 feet).

The bottomline: Goliath never stood a chance! One almost feels sorry for him.

Lastly, we have recently [recent relative to the original posting of this entry] been treated with the announcement of another archaeological find that supports the biblical record, again dealing with a name.13 “This is a fantastic discovery, a world-class find,” Dr Finkel, a British Museum expert, said yesterday. “If Nebo-Sarsekim existed, which other lesser figures in the Old Testament existed? A throwaway detail in the Old Testament turns out to be accurate and true. I think that it means that the whole of the narrative [of Jeremiah] takes on a new kind of power.”

Documentary Evidence

Here it is best to quote two of the foremost authorities regarding their conclusions based on the data they have accumulated. William F. Albright, known as one of the great archaeologists, states bluntly: “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of Old Testament tradition.”14 Millar Burrows of Yale writes:

To see the situation clearly we must distinguish two kinds of confirmation, general and specific. General confirmation is a matter of compatibility without definite corroboration of particular points. Much of what has already been discussed as explanation and illustration may be regarded also as general confirmation. The picture fits the frame; the melody and the accompaniment are harmonious. The force of such evidence is cumulative. The more we find that items in the picture of the past presented by the Bible, even though not directly attested, are compatible with what we know from archaeology, the stronger is our impression of general authenticity. Mere legend or fiction would inevitably betray itself by anachronisms and incongruities.15


Based just on the citations in Josh McDowell’s book, I could continue on for a much longer post. Get the book(s), do the homework, and see how reliable the Old Testament manuscripts are without any presuppositions. Each individual case may not, in and of itself, prove compelling, but proper inductive technique requires that you consider them all in making any final conclusions. If you want to doubt the Old Testament’s historicity because it contains accounts of the miraculous, know that you do so based on your own personal philosophical bias, not because the data supports you. There is no reason to question the accuracy or reliability of the Old Testament content other than your own personal objection to the claims found in that content, to wit, that there is a Creator-God to whom you owe obedience.

Oh, and all those “contradictions” your Sunday School teacher once told you about? NOT! (Which is not to say that everything is transparently clear and easy….)

In our next post, we will turn to the New Testament to evaluate the data regarding these manuscripts.


Next installment

Previous installment

First installment

[1]. Sproul, R. C., John Gerstner, and Arthur Lindsley. Classical Apologetics – A Rational Defense of the Christian Faith and a Critique of Presuppositional Apologetics, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984, page 141.
[2]. McDowell, Josh, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
[3]. Archer, Gleason L., Jr. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago: Moody PRess, 1964, 1974, pages 23-25.
[4]. Wilson, Robert. A Scientific Investigation of the Old Testament. London: Marshall Brothers Limited, 1926, page 64.
[5]. Ibid., 71.
[6]. Ibid., 71-72.
[7]. Ibid., 74-75.
[8]. Green, William Henry. General Introduction to the Old Testament – The Text. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899, page 81.
[9]. Free, Joseph P. “Archaeology and Higher Criticism.” Bibliotheca Sacra 114. January 1957, pages 30-31.
[10]. Garstang, John. The Foundations of Bible History; Joshua, Judges. New York: R. R. Smith, Inc., 1931, page 146.
[11]. Wood, Bryant G. “Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho?” Biblical Archaeology Review. March/April 1990, pages 44-59.
[12]. Korfmann, Manfred. “The Sling as a weapon.” Scientific American 229(4). October 1973, pages 34-42.
[13]. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/07/11/ntablet111.xml, accessed 10/9/2007
[14]. Albright, W. F. Archeology and the Religion of Israel. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1942, page 176.
[15]. Burrows, Millar. What Mean These Stones? New York: Meridian Books, 1957, page 278.

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