The Bible is not a reliable historical source

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The Bible with annotations by the reader.

The Bible is not a reliable historical source because it does not meet the standard criteria of source reliability used by historians. The Bible is not, as many believers assume, eye witness testimony. Reliable sources are generally based on authors who were eye witnesses to an event (i.e. it is a primary source). Since any particular source my be fabricating their story, multiple independent sources are usually required for confidence. Establishing the lack of author biases, including religious motivations, is also necessary if a work is to be read at face value. The Bible satisfies none of these requirements.

Based on historical and archaeological research, there are known historical inaccuracies in the Bible. The Bible is considered mythological by most historians. Because of this, the Bible cannot itself be used as an argument that the events it describes actually occurred.

This disagrees with the view held by many apologists that the Bible is a reliable source:

"The Old Testament affords us the same historical evidence of the miracles of Moses and of the prophets, as of the common civil history of Moses and the kings of Israel, or as of the affairs of the Jewish nation. [1]"

Contents

Authorship of the Bible

The authorship of the Old Testament has been studied by academics and is generally considered to be the work of multiple authors over many centuries, with many different stages of rewriting, censoring and editing. One popular theory is the documentary hypothesis which considers the Old Testament to be largely written by four anonymous authors, each with different agendas and priorities.

The New Testament was based on oral traditions and stories that were passed down in the early church and were written down several decades after Jesus's crucifixion. The gospels are not primary or even second hand accounts but more likely many times removed from the original events. [2]

While many of the books of the Bible are named or attributed to Moses or the Apostles, they were probably not the actual authors. The exception is Paul the Apostle who actually did write many (but not all) of letters attributed to him. However Paul was not an eye witness to the events described in the gospels. As part of a religion, the authors of the Bible had an obvious religious motivation to invent or enlarge stories that suited their purposes.

Lack of corroborating evidence

While lack of evidence does not automatically imply non-occurence. However, in cases where evidence would be expected to be found and a search for evidence is conducted, lack of evidence does imply non-occurence.

Old Testament

There is no reliable evidence of a global flood or an ark, apart from the Bible. There is no archaeological remains of the Tower of Babel and it fails to explain linguistic patterns. [3]

The story of the tribe of Joseph being held as slaves in Egypt and wandering in the Sinai for 40 years lead by Moses as told in Exodus [4] is false. There is also no evidence of the ten plagues. Archaeologists now consider the evidence to be overwhelming and further searches for evidence are "a fruitless pursuit". [5]

"My own personal theory is that Joseph built the pyramids in order to store grain. [6]"

However, the ancient Egyptians made records about the purpose of the pyramids: they were tombs not grain stores. Also, the mummified bodies found in the pyramids seems to corroborate the written claims.

Some apologists have told the story of NASA discovering a "lost day" in astronomical observations, which would agree with Joshua 10:12-13 Bible-icon.png. However, this story is false. NASA released a statement saying these events never took place. This does not stop the tale being circulated among credulous believers. [7]

New Testament

Main Article: Lack of evidence for the events described in the New Testament

There is hardly any independent evidence for the biographical details of Jesus. [8] If the events described really occurred, we would expect first hand accounts. Despite through searching, non have been found and it is likely first hand accounts do not exist. Therefore, the events described in the gospels did not occur or occurred very differently than described.

There is no record of a Roman tradition of releasing a prisoner at the Passover feast. [9] John 18:39 Bible-icon.png

There is no evidence of Herod's slaughter of the innocent. Matthew 2:16–18 Bible-icon.png [10]

The Bible says that when Jesus died there was an earthquake Matthew 27:51 Bible-icon.png, a great darkness Matthew 27:45 Bible-icon.png, and the dead rose and wandered into Jerusalem Matthew 27:52-53 Bible-icon.png. We would expect first hand accounts of such extraordinary events. However, there is no evidence they occurred apart from the Bible.

Known inaccuracies

Apologists like to claim the Bible is no shortcomings:

"there isn't a single archaeological discovery that disproves the Bible in any way. [11]"

However, there are many historical inaccuracies in the Bible. The Bible mentions the reason that Joseph returned to Bethlehem was for the census of Quirinius, directly before the birth of Jesus, as described in Luke 2:1–7 Bible-icon.png. The Bible says Jesus was born in the reign of Herod the Great, i.e. before Herod the Great's death in 4 BC. The census was conducted in 6/7 CE when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Therefore the census could not have been the reason for Joseph to return to Bethlehem since it occurred 10 years after the birth of Jesus! A more probable explanation is that the authors of the Bible wanted to find a pretext for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem and the census was a convenient fictional device.

Also, the Bible contains many scientific inaccuracies.

Contradictions

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For more information, see the Skeptic's Annotated Bible article:
Main Article: Biblical contradictions

The Bible contains many clear contradictions, which makes its truth an impossibility.

"It seems to me that [the death of Judas] and [inclusion of some unhistorical narratives] rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth."

C. S. Lewis [12]

Style

Because the texts do not discuss their sources or provide any critical analysis, they are more like ancient fiction rather than a history of their times:

"These texts instead read like ancient prose novels. In all but Luke, we do not hear anything about the written sources that the authors consulted (and even the author of Luke does not name them, explain their contents, or discuss how they are relevant as sources), the authors of the Gospels do not discuss how they learned their stories or what their personal relations are to these events, and even when John claims to have an eyewitness disciple “whom Jesus loved,” the gospel does not even bother to name or identify this mysterious figure (most likely an invention of the author). Instead, the Gospels provide story-like narratives, where the authors omnisciently narrate everything that occurs rather than engage in any form of critical analysis. [13]"

Counter arguments

There were many accurate copies of the Bible

Apologists claim the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, was accurately preserved when compared to other ancient sources. [11] This is a red herring because the primary issue is with the reliability of the first complete copy. If that was a work of fiction, no amount of accurate copying would make it true.

Evidence of Jesus was suppressed

"In the early days of Christianity Christians were persecuted and many Christians were martyred so the Romans tried to destroy any record of Jesus [14]"

The Bible says the Bible is true

Claiming the Bible is true based on any verse or section of the Bible is a circular argument.

The gospels are independent sources

"He noted that the type of eyewitness accounts given in the four Gospels—accounts which agree, but with each writer choosing to omit or add details different from the others—is typical of reliable, independent sources that would be accepted in a court of law as strong evidence. [...] Thus, the independent nature of the four Gospel accounts, agreeing in their information but differing in perspective, amount of detail, and which events were recorded, indicate that the record that we have of Christ's life and ministry as presented in the Gospels is factual and reliable [15]"

None of the New Testament is eye witness testimony (and probably none of the Old Testament too). There are many obvious borrowings between the gospels, particularly the synoptic gospels, and they are therefore not independent sources. Differences in style and content are based on different editing decisions rather than on different recollection.

The Bible is either entirely true or entirely false

This is a false dichotomy and contrary to historical evidence. Of course there is some truth in the Bible. For instance, Jerusalem is a real place. However, there are also some historical inaccuracies. The Bible is therefore not entirely true or entirely false.

The Bible gets some details right

Main Article: Argument from historical sources

Apologists claim that many archaeological finds or present day locations confirm the Bible.

"If you open to almost any page in the Bible you will find a name of a place and/or a person. Much of this can be verified from archaeology [11]"

However, most of the findings are of nobles or locations that featured in the Bible are fairly trivial. The tomb of a person may establish that person's existence. Ruins indicate a location may have existed. However, it does not validate the specific events that are described, which have no corroboration. A similar fallacious argument could be made:

  • Homer's Iliad mentions Greece and Zeus.
  • Based on archaeological finds, the ancient Greek civilisation existed.
  • Therefore Zeus exists.

No amount of correct trivia validates the narrative of the Bible. Independent sources of the events described would validate it. Apologists ignore the lack of evidence in several important areas and are cherry picking archaeology.

Objections to the Bible are an excuse to ignore it

Main Article: You just want to sin
"Faced with demand for an ethical commitment (and having a natural aversion to authority), some people feign intellectual objections, claiming alleged contradictions in the Bible, and generally questioning its reliability. [16]"

This is an ad hominem and therefore irrelevant. The reliability of the Bible must be established by evidence.

Innocent until proven guilty

"Many evangelical Christians would try to sidestep this entire discussion by arguing that historical texts, like their authors, should be presumed 'innocent until proven guilty'; thus until someone can prove that the New Testament is unreliable, we should a priori accept its claims. [17]"

This is shifting the burden of proof without justification; a positive claim that the Bible is reliable requires evidence. It is also a broken compass argument since many wild hypotheses could be accepted as true on this basis.

Minimal facts approach

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For more information, see the Wikipedia article:
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For more information, see the Atheist Debates video on Minimal facts apologetics approach.

The minimal facts approach recognises the difficulty in justifying all the claims in the New Testament as historical fact. Instead, it focuses on a few instances that are useful for converting non-believers, such as the resurrection of Jesus. [18]

"So I would favor taking a number of historical facts that are recognized and accepted by virtually all scholars, building up these data and showing how we can make our case, based on these few facts alone, rather than holding out for all of the New Testament."

Gary Habermas[19]

"Habermas has compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present. He has identified minimal facts that are strongly evidenced and which are regarded as historical by a large majority of scholars, including skeptics. We try to come up with the best historical explanation to account for these facts. This is called the Minimal Facts Approach."

— Michael R. Licona

"I want to emphasize that I am not talking about evangelical or conservative scholars only, but about the broad spectrum of New Testament critics who teach at secular universities and non-evangelical seminaries. Amazing as it may seem, most of them have come to regard as historical the basic facts which support the resurrection of Jesus. [...] Now the question is: what is the best explanation of these four facts? Most sholars [sic] probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is "God raised Jesus from the dead.""

William Lane Craig[20]

The minimal facts usually include: the crucifixion of Jesus, the apparent post-crucifixion sightings of Jesus, the conversion of Paul the Apostle and others, and the early church preaching about the resurrection. However, even this basic list is controversial, which undermines our confidence in the argument because it relies on an appeal to majority of Biblical scholars (appeal to authority). However, systemic biases in academia can mean that the majority can be wrong, including the significant number of Biblical scholars being Christians, or typically raised in a Christian influenced culture. The minority view, particularly when it is of significant size, cannot be dismissed by an appeal to majority. A significant minority of historians believe that Jesus didn't even exist or was a myth.[21] For this reason, even if we accept the rest of the argument, we cannot say the apologists' conclusion is certain.

The Bible reports that people believed Jesus was resurrected. We can seriously question the reliability of the authors. The whole basis for the "minimal facts" could be fictional or mythical. The minimal facts approach excludes any evidence that might support their reliability.[21]

We can also question if the belief of those people was justified or just based on rumors. Just because some Biblical figures were convinced, does not mean they were correct in their belief.[21]

The argument claims that the minimal facts are accepted by 75% of skeptical scholars, but this threshold is completely arbitrary.[21]

The argument simply cherry picks facts that are convenient for apologetics and ignores the hard to explain "facts" and contradictions in the rest of the Bible. Simply limiting our view to the most accepted facts is not a valid historical method when other evidence of moderate confidence also is relevant to understanding history. Facts that do not support Christianity are arbitrarily excluded from consideration. Cherry picking facts that fit a narrative is the main method used by conspiracy theorists. The fact selection is largely based on confirmation bias of the apologist. [21]

Another problem with the minimal facts is that they are weak evidence for supernatural causes. A reasonable historical explanation for these facts would not conclude supernatural causation without very good evidence. Approaching a historical problem with a preconceived narrative, such as religious dogma, is not a good historical approach because of confirmation bias. Apologists have not even demonstrated that a supernatural explanation is even possible, let along plausible. [21] Most historians do not accept a supernatural event took place, which rather undermines the apologists' appeal to majority. In fact, given the overall lack of reliable evidence, we can conclude that no explanation can be accepted which also has a reasonable level of confidence. Exactly what occurred may be lost forever.

The "facts" might require multiple historical explanations and not a single cause. For example, some fact, some myth and some fabrication.[21]

This argument is not particularly reliable because their historical methods depend on special pleading. For instance, they accept claims of miracles in Christian texts at face value but ignore the same claim in non-Christians contexts. They also accept religions texts by a small group as credible without any independent sources to corroborate them.

Various other objections are raised such as Jesus didn't really die, the disciples lied or stole the body, vision hypothesis, lost body hypothesis, etc. Apologists attempt to address these points too (such as "would someone die for what they knew was a lie?"). Even if they do rebut all known natural explanations, that does not itself justify a supernatural explanation. Appealing to the supernatural without direct evidence that it exists is an argument from ignorance.[21]

"[...] at the end of the day, [apologists] are not constructing a valid syllogism. They are constructing a conspiracy theory. Habermas, Licona and Craig have tried this approach; they are not stupid. And they are not merely beginning with a conclusion and fitting facts to it. They are beginning with a conclusion and fitting a method to it, such that it will support their forgone conclusion.[21]"
"our only sources of potential evidence, the New Testament Easter traditions, fall far short of providing the kind of information necessary for establishing the resurrection hypothesis."

See also

References

  1. Joseph Butler, The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, 1736
  2. Chris Hallquist, Why atheists don’t think the Bible is historically reliable, July 12, 2012
  3. [1]
  4. [2]
  5. William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It?, 2001
  6. [3]
  7. [4]
  8. [Scott Oser, Historicity Of Jesus FAQ, 1994]
  9. Charles B. Chavel, The Releasing of a Prisoner on the Eve of Passover in Ancient Jerusalem, Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 60, No. 3 (Sep., 1941), pp. 273-278]
  10. [5]
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Matt Slick, Can We Trust the New Testament as a Historical Document?
  12. Quoted in Michael J. Christensen, C. S. Lewis on Scripture, Abingdon, 1979, Appendix A.
  13. [6]
  14. [7]
  15. [8]
  16. [9]
  17. Jeffery Jay Lowder, Independent Confirmation and the Historicity of Jesus, 2007
  18. [10]
  19. [11]
  20. [12]
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 21.4 21.5 21.6 21.7 21.8 [13]

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