A Deeper Look at If the Bible Is Reliable
By Craig Keener, Ph.D.
Millions of people use the Bible as a guide for their everyday lives. But is it reliable?
Scholars devote entire books to the question of the Bible’s historical reliability. For the sake of space and time, this essay will merely sample some work on three parts of the Bible: the time of the patriarchs; Israel’s history as recorded in 1 and 2 Kings; and Jesus’ time.
Comparing Biblical Accounts with Their World
The question of historical reliability is relevant only to particular kinds of writings in the Bible. For example, one does not ordinarily speak of letters or parables as historically reliable. Clearly, however, many books of the Bible recount historical information.
The practice of history-writing developed over time, and some periods exercised more flexibility than others. For example, audiences in the day of the gospel writer Luke had clearer expectations for what history-writing would involve than did audiences in King David’s era. Likewise, ancient writers did not use footnotes. Nevertheless, by definition, history-writing involved the arrangement of information.
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Modern historians depend in great measure on ancient historical reports in order to reconstruct ancient history. When modern historians evaluate the degree of an ancient work’s historical reliability, one approach is to compare the work in question with information available to us from other sources. This approach is easier for some periods than for others. For example, far more information exists about the United States in 1960 CE than about Assyria in 720 BCE.
Several variables factor in to the ability to corroborate biblical information with historical records. For instance, Assyrian annals confirm many details of the Bible during the Assyrian period, but the same approach is not possible for the later Persian period, because Persia’s annals were lost. We have considerable information about the time of the biblical figure Paul, who preached in urban areas, but comparatively little about the time of Abraham, who wandered about and settled in the ancient Near East nearly four thousand years ago.
Where less direct information is available, scholars compare the reports of biblical or other ancient authors with what can be known of the era about which they wrote. Traditional cultures often preserve and pass on core elements of stories over centuries. The stories about Abraham may have been passed on for centuries as oral sagas. Yet they reflect not merely the period in which they were written down—though some updating of language over time is to be expected—but also some clear elements of the period they claim to describe.
The evidence available for historical examination often increases as we move forward in time, and we will notice this pattern as we examine three eras of biblical history…