What if the Bible isn’t a fairy-tale?

The brief answer to the title above is that two hundred years of sometimes savage critical examination have proved that it isn’t, but old habits of hyper-scepticism die hard, and are reinforced by deliberate deception, as I’ll briefly outline towards the end of this piece.

I was reminded of this by looking at a summary of the recent excavations at biblical Shiloh, which you’ll easily find on YouTube. Shiloh, the Book of Joshua says, was the first central shrine of Israel after the conquest, where the wilderness tabernacle was permanently pitched. It appears sporadically in the Book of Judges, and features prominently in the first part of 1 Samuel, being the location for the Sunday-School-famous story of the boy Samuel hearing Yahweh’s voice and finally realising the voice was not that of his mentor, the High Priest Eli.

In that same book, the Ark of the Covenant is sent out to battle and lost to the Philistines, occasioning the death of Eli’s wicked sons, and of Eli himself when he falls backwards in the city’s gateway at the news. The destruction of Shiloh (mentioned in Psalms and Jeremiah) is hinted at by the non-return of the Ark there after its recovery, and by the transfer of the tabernacle to a place called Nob until David moves it to the newly-captured Jerusalem. This would make its destruction as the central shrine of Israel way back in the mid-eleventh century BC, a thousand years before writing came to Britain.

And yet the archaeology not only confirms the destruction of the site at the right time, and its reoccupation as a civil settlement only after a century or two of ruin, but it matches closely the account in Samuel. For a start, 1 Samuel refers to the shrine as a “temple,” something apparently more permanent than a tent also being implied by Samuel’s sleeping there, although the account in Joshua only mentions the tent. And indeed stone foundations of a prominent building matching the dimensions of the tabernacle, with a separated holy of holies, has now been excavated, confirming both the shrine and the transition from fabric to stone (a rabbinic tradition suggests that the tent was pitched on top of a more permanent base, which remains a possibility).

This monumental building has a door matching the description of the one at which Eli habitually sat, where he saw Hannah praying. Not far away, the city’s gate complex has been uncovered, containing a niche where Eli, as ruler of the settlement, and Judge of Israel, would have sat commanding a view of the road by which the bringer of bad news came.

Also excavated is a sacred bone deposit containing, as well as non-figurative votive offerings, predominantly right sided bones of only biblically clean animals (the priests’ portion was from the right side – I wonder if the minority of left-sided remains might correlate with the corrupt practices of Eli’s sons in 1 Samuel 2:12ff).

There is a lot to be learned from this one example. Faking historical verisimilitude was not a thing in the ANE, and in any case even a mere century later, with the establishment of a very different political and social order, memories of the old customs were likely to be lost to anachronism. Even more fragile is memory of a ruined city’s topographic details. In other words, the accounts from Joshua, Judges and 1 Samuel look like being near-contemporary accounts, and are broadly confirmed by the archaeology.

More than this, though, the archaeology tends to confirm conformity of the Shiloh worship to the ritual Law set down in the Torah. This shows Mosaic sacrificial practice at least half a millennium before the Babylonian Exile in, or after, which critical scholarship has tended to place the Priestly Codes and the “mythical origin” for a wilderness tabernacle.

The shrine was definitely there way back in the eleventh century, and only prejudice discounts how the Bible says it got to be there, that is through Joshua a few centuries earlier. And if there was a Joshua establishing Shiloh along Levitical lines, then there was probably also a conquest as Joshua describes, and all the more plausibly an exodus from Egypt under a dynamic predecessor of Joshua ,who set the religious parameters for a shrine operating completely differently to Canaanite temples.

Shiloh is far from the only relatively recent example of the discomfiture of scepticism over the Bible’s accurate historicity. The “mythical” King David has been found on the Tell Dan stela, and subsequently also found on re-examination of the Moabite stone. With the existence of his royal house thus established, more than one site matching his centrally-organised government has now emerged, most famously at the frontier post at Khirbet Qeuiyafa, which also has evidence that this was a literate bureaucracy, and not the domain of an arbitrary warlord. Simultaneously excavations in Jerusalem have found likely remains of the building work of David in the City of Zion after 1000BC , once more matching the scriptural accounts.

The later monarchies of both Israel and Judah have long been confirmed in line with the biblical chronicles, but once again, more extensive archaeology in Jerusalem has, from the destruction layer of the Babylonian siege in the 7th century BC, uncovered seal impressions not only of the kings, but of a dozen officials named in the biblical accounts, of Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe, and possibly even of the prophet Isaiah.

The historical verisimilitude of the New Testament, too, has been confirmed at every turn, from the topology of Jerusalem before the Roman destruction of 69-70AD to the officials and titles Luke names in Acts. Even studies of the frequency of personal names confirms that the names of people in the gospels match those of the time of Christ rather than even a few decades before and after. A similar project is being undertaken on Old Testament names by Tyndale House in Cambridge, and is already bearing fruit in confirming the Bible’s essential historicity.

I could go on about the archaeology, from the existence of rare Egyptian loan words only found in the books of Moses in the Bible, purportedly written in the wilderness, to the recent excavation of the cities of the plain confirming not only their existence in Abraham’s probable lifetime, but their destruction at the time suggested by Genesis in a manner matching the most “supernaturally suspect” event of the Patriarchal accounts.

Instead, let’s consider the texts themselves, and quickly remind ourselves how the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that the Massoretic scribes successfully preserved the Old Testament text essentially unchanged from Jesus’s time and before. The “major changes” sometimes said to contradict this, notably a variant version of the Book of Jeremiah, turn out to be of small importance: even the variant Jeremiah seems to have been simply an attempt to place his oracles in chronological order and delete repetitions.

As for the New Testament, it is notable that the most famous (because properly credentialed) sceptic of the New Testament text, Bart Ehrman, whilst claiming thousands of alterations in the text, admits in small print (or literally in a Q&A in an appendix) that none of them affects any significant Christian doctrine. And many of his popular claims about lack of supportive evidence for the gospel accounts simply ignore key pieces of scholarship. It is not without reason that text-critics like Daniel Wallace and historians like N. T. Wright consider him an outlier.

Yet for some reason Ehrman’s books are required texts in university theological courses, so that even the Catholic scholar Brant Pitre was unaware of any alternative narrative during his time as a student. Pitre also reminds us how every Easter and Christmas, the mainstream media trot out some theory about why Easter, Christmas or any other event of the Bible is unreliable, but seldom offer anything on evidence that confirms it.

The essential (and unique) textual integrity of the New Testament, and its early origins, were known to textual scholars a century ago, and yet the Joe Rogans of this world have still got the message from “the experts” that the Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, invented the divinity of Jesus, censored a legion of legitimate books from the New Testament, and drastically altered the texts he did keep for some political project. This is sheer tosh.

Part of the problem is that theology departments of universities were long-ago hijacked by unbelievers, and they set the rules by which even the believers learn to adhere: note how even Evangelicals must pay lip service to the long-discredited documentary hypothesis for the Pentateuch and the two-source theory (and implausibly late dating) of the Gospels.

Part of it is a similar secularisation of archaeology: contempt for Victorian biblical archaeologists “with a trowel in one hand and a Bible in the other” led to the hyper-scepticism that culminated in the “minimalist” school of scholars in Israel and beyond, operating a hermeneutic of denial rather than of scholarly rigour. Comtrast, for example, how in Saxon archaeology, the burials at Sutton Hoo led to consulting Bede’s history for likely names, whereas in Israel the discovery of the Tell Dan stela led many to prefer fraud, transcription error or even the gullible stone-mason’s acceptance of mythology, to admitting that the Biblical David actually existed.

Another aspect may be the mainstream’s strange subordination to Islam, which has a vested interest in denying that any Jews ever lived in Israel before 1947, and attributes every archaeological finding to Zionist propaganda. This is certainly an example of projection, as the long overdue critical examination of Islam is now demonstrating that the history of its holy sites, its holy book, and even its prophet, rest on shaky foundations.

Now, it’s true that demonstrating that the Bible’s statements on history are correct does not prove that God exists. But in fact, the majority of the Old Testament, in particular, never was “a fairy tale” by any stretch, because it is simply the recounting of Israel’s history from the viewpoint of faith that Yahweh is behind history. So Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians, without any doubt, and the prophets warned in advance that it would happen, and explained it in terms of the nation’s idolatry and immorality. But if they were, in fact, mistaken and laws of nature or chance brought the event about, that does not make it a fairy-story, any more than Daniel Defoe’s explanation of the Great Plague as a judgement from God stops us treating A Journal of the Plague Year as an essentially truthful account.

Miraculous events are, in fact, uncommon in most of the Bible, and in many cases could be interpreted by the sceptical as natural events mistakenly attributed to God – witness the destruction of Sodom (certainly the most dramatic divine event in the entire Patriarchal narratives) which now that the evidence points towards its historical truth is simply explained away as “a natural event” by unbelieving scientists.

Yet it is a true saying that those who are careful with truth in one area are usually truthful in every area. This has been applied to St Luke, whose accuracy where he can be checked points both to his care as a historian and biographer and to his personal experience of events. His historical accuracy makes his accounts of miracles, visions and conversions far more likely to be true. In the same way, confirmation of historical narratives in the Old Testament lends weight to the reliability of the authors in matters of the divine.

In fact once one is persuaded of the Bible’s historical reliability, the very events it recorded over nearly two millennia, on three continents, through multiple authors, in conjunction with the prophetic commentary on them, add up to a strong indication that we should take the God of the Bible seriously. There are, after all, no comparable literary examples in the world.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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