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Definition

The question of the reliability of the Old Testament focuses on the issues of how accurate it is about the historical people, facts, and events it recounts, and how well it gives account of the people and processes involved in its writing.

Summary

Many doubt the historical reliability of the Old Testament, but the New Testament supports it and there is a substantial body of external ancient Near Eastern historical and archaeological backing for it as well. Some of this is direct evidence for specific historical details, but even where this does not exist, there is good reason to believe the accounts are plausible. A related issue is the historical account that the Old Testament gives of its own composition: who wrote it, when they wrote it, and what were the processes involved in its writing.

New Testament passages affirm the divine inspiration and ongoing importance of the Old Testament for followers of Jesus Christ. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote,

. . . from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2Tim. 3:15b–17)

One can include both the Old Testament and New Testament in this summary, but the focus must be on the Old Testament in this passage, since the New Testament was not in existence when Timothy was a child. Nevertheless, since Paul wrote this near the end of his life and ministry, even though much of the New Testament existed by that time, the Old Testament never lost his importance to him and the church.

Similarly, Peter wrote, “ . . . no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet. 1:21), referring to the Old Testament (see 2Pet. 2:1). Clearly, according to these (and related) passages, the Old Testament scriptures are reliable for guiding the believer in his or her walk with the Lord. One can also compare passages from the Old Testament itself to see similar affirmations (e.g., Jos. 1:8 Psa. 1:1–2).

Historical Reliability in the Old Testament

What do we mean by the “reliability” of the Old Testament? How “reliable” is it, and for what? For instance, what about the historicity (i.e., historical reliability) of the Old Testament? Did the historical events to which the Hebrew Bible refers happen in real space-time history? If so, did they happen in the way the Old Testament describes them? Jesus and the apostolic writers of the New Testament consistently taught or assumed the historical reliability of the Old Testament. This includes everything from God’s creation of the world to the patriarchs, to Moses, to the conquest and occupation of the land, to the period of the kings and prophets, and to the Babylonian exile and restoration, and points along the way (see, e.g., Matt. 1:1–17; 19:3–9; John 8:39–47; Acts 7; Rom. 5:12–21; Heb. 11; 2Pet. 2:4–10). Jesus and the writers of the New Testament used all of it to teach the church about history as “His-story” and the theological significance of that story for the life of the believer.

Different Views of Old Testament Historical Reliability

For some readers of the Old Testament, the New Testament references cited above (and many others of a similar kind) settle the matter of the historical reliability of the Old Testament. Not so for others. For example, some of them argue that, in fact, historicity is not really the issue anyway, because the Old Testament’s historical claims are irrelevant to the issues of faith and practice.1 Others contend that in such passages, Jesus and the other writers of the New Testament simply accommodated the understanding of the people of that day in order to make certain theological claims.2 Still others require external historical confirmation to accept anything as historical in the Old Testament (see more on this below).

This, of course, is not the way the New Testament presents it, and many scholars, including the present writer, believe historical matters really do matter to faith.3 Of course, Old Testament history is theologically interpreted history, but it is history nevertheless. All ancient history writing had an agenda whether it be political, economic, theological, or whatever.4 In fact, the notion of “objective” history writing is an illusion even in our day. A bare list of historical events is not history writing at all, but only data for the writing of history. Just the selection to include or exclude certain pieces of historical data, and then decide how to articulate what is important in what way, shapes the writing of history.

External Support for Old Testament Historical Reliability

On the one hand, much of what the Old Testament presents as historical has no direct confirmation in external sources. This is not surprising. One should not expect, for example, that we would find the person of Abraham in the textual or archaeological record of the ancient Near East (ANE). We can only show that the biblical description of him and his way of life is plausible for the time and place in which the story is set. On the other hand, much of what we find in the Old Testament does enjoy some level of external archaeological and textual confirmation. We cannot deal with all the details in this short essay, of course, but, for example, ANE documents confirm the sequence and dating of many of the kings of Israel and Judah as the Old Testament presents them.5

The Old Testament tells us that God really did deliver ancient Israel out from slavery in Egypt, led them to Sinai, made a covenant with them there, and then led them on to conquer and occupy the land he had promised them. These and other such historical facts matter to our faith.6 As noted above, some have argued that what is important is the theological interpretation, not the historical reality of God’s actions themselves. This essentially yields a view of God as one who talks but does not take action, or at least the actions that he interprets are not important in and of themselves. Yes, the Old Testament interprets history theologically, but the fact that it is theologically oriented history does not make that history any less historically accurate. We do not have historical or archaeological data to prove each point, but, as the saying goes, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Misplaced Skepticism about Old Testament Historical Reliability

Sometimes the skepticism of scholars gets out of hand. Pharaoh Merneptah’s victory stele (ca. 1209 BC, perhaps around the time of the judge Deborah), for example, offers external verifiable evidence of the existence of a people called “Israel” in the hill country of Palestine in his day. This is the first appearance of “Israel” in extant ANE literature.7 In spite of the specific and significant implications of this small piece of historically verifiable evidence, there have been those scholars who deny it, ignore it, or somehow reinterpret it because it does not fit with their skepticism about the early existence of Israel.

One group of scholars of this sort rose to prominence in the 1990s. These historical “minimalists” as they came to be known, consider the Old Testament to be fictional literature written in the late Persian and early Hellenistic period to support the agenda of Israel’s leaders at that time with no real basis in historical fact (ca. 400 down to 250 BC). The scholarly rhetoric led to “exasperation” between such scholars and those committed to historical veracity of the Old Testament, sometimes leading to personal attacks.8 Others simply stayed the course with the actual historical data. Gabriel Barkai, a well-known Israeli archaeologist, cleverly remarked at a conference the present author participated in almost twenty years ago, “minimalism is less than that.” His point was that the minimalist brand of scholarship resists accepting even that which our extant data confirms as historical in the Old Testament.

The minimalist agenda is an extreme position that, in the opinion of the present writer, will play its way out and eventually defeat itself. It cannot stand up to the accumulating data against it. In the meantime, those of us who are serious about the historical reliability of the Old Testament need to concern ourselves with the ongoing search for relevant data, and the careful examination and evaluation of it. In these matters, it is important to distinguish what we believe to be true from what we can show to be true. We need to continue to do good, honest historical work. Some of it will show the historical reliability of the Old Testament, and some of it will not provide the perspective we might expect. We need not press the evidence. In some cases, we have previously misunderstood what the Old Testament intends to say about the event or the people involved because we have not understood the conventions of ancient Israelite history writing in its ANE context. The Bible is inspired, but our understanding of it is not.

Composition of the Old Testament

The Old Testament, like the Bible as a whole, has three main dimensions: literary, historical, and theological. It refers to events and claims they happened in historical time and space. Moreover, it recounts this history theologically and claims to do so in a historically and theologically reliable way (see the discussion above). Another whole set of controversies over the reliability of the Old Testament surrounds the question of its literary composition. Who were the human writers, how did they write the Old Testament, and when did they write it? How reliable is the information the Old Testament gives us about its own composition? Yes, there was a divine author too, but he revealed himself and inspired the writing of scripture through humans: “… men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet. 1:21).

Historical Critical Approaches to Old Testament Composition

The larger field of Old Testament scholarship is just as divided over this as it is over the historical reliability of the Old Testament. Among non-conservative scholars, methodological pluralism abounds in the forms of source, form, tradition, redaction, canonical, and modern literary criticisms, which sometimes compete, but some scholars use them in combination to give an account of how the Bible was composed. Some features of these methods are of significant value to biblical scholars. To one degree or another, however, conservative scholars have always pushed back against the accumulated effect of these historical critical schemes, which arose in force under the influence of Baruch Spinoza (ca. 1670 AD) and Richard Simon (ca. 1678). This outlook worked its way into the academy through the efforts of Johann David Michaelis (1717–1791) and others during the period of the so-called “Enlightenment” (ca. 1680–1799). They led eventually to a summation in the form of the “New Documentary Hypothesis” put forward by Julius Wellhausen in the 1870s in his Prolegomena to the History of Israel (the so-called JEDP theory). This theory continues to have significant influence in the discussion even today, especially in the form of the “Neo-Documentary Hypothesis.” Others today take a more redaction critical approach based in a combination of form, tradition, and redaction criticism since the time of Hermann Gunkel at the beginning of the 20th century.9

There is no room, of course, in this short essay give the details and a full conservative critique of these historical critical developments since Spinoza to the present day. As non-conservative scholars press forward with their various agendas, conservatives increasingly push back.10 The discussion naturally begins with the Pentateuch, where conservatives largely hold to some kind of Mosaic authorship. Non-conservatives take it to be “a mosaic” of literature authored by various writers and redactors over many centuries. Many doubt that Moses ever existed.

Internal Data for Old Testament Composition

The Pentateuch itself tells us that Moses himself wrote down at least some parts of it (see, e.g., Exod. 24:4; 34:27; Num. 33:2; Deut. 31:9). Other Old Testament passages also assign the origin of the Torah to Moses (see, e.g., Ezra 7:6, “the Law of Moses that the Lord, the God of Israel, had given”), and the New Testament supports this as well (e.g., Luke 24:44). Unfortunately, some push the issue too far. The Pentateuch also indicates that there are post-Mosaic elements within it. For example, Deuteronomy 34:1–8 recounts the death of Moses and verse 10 tells us “there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face,” obviously written from a later historical point of view. Genesis 14:14 refers to “Dan” before it was named Dan in the period of the Judges (Judg. 18:29; cf. also the perspective of later writing, e.g., in Gen. 31:31, Deut. 2:12, etc.).

Again, this is not surprising, if one remembers that each time the scribes made a new copy of one of the many scrolls that made up what we know as the Old Testament, they had to recopy the whole scroll by hand. They were careful copyists, but since the Old Testament grew over a 1000-year period (ca. 1400–400 BC) they might naturally update it to make it understandable to the people in their own day. In any case, the Old Testament does not assign many of its component scrolls (i.e., what we refer to as “books”) to any particular author (e.g., Joshua through Chronicles), although it often refers to sources used for the writing of the history (e.g., the Book of Jashar in Josh 10:13, and many more).

Conclusion

There is much more to say about the reliability of the Old Testament historically and compositionally.11 God did not just drop the Old Testament down out of heaven at one time in one piece. He revealed it to human authors in history who wrote it down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also using their own mind, language, and experience. It is evident from the Old Testament text itself that he revealed some of it directly to the writers, for other parts he guided them in using sources, whether oral or written. As with other ancient texts, we should also consider textual criticism, but there is no space to deal with it here.12 Yes, the Old Testament is reliable, but it only tells us so much about the history it recounts, the means by which the various authors composed it, and how it was passed down to us so that we have it today. The rest we leave in God’s hands, as we seek to live faithfully for him in our world (Deut. 29:29).

Footnotes

1See Helmuth Pehlke, “Observations on the Historical Reliability of the Old Testament,” SWJT 56 (2013): 69 referring to the view of Hartmut Gese, which he summarizes as “. . . wrong facts could still allow true interpretation.”
2See the helpful response to this form of accommodation in John D. Woodbridge, “Forward,” in Do Historical Matters Matter for Faith: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Post Modern Approaches to the Bible, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012).
3See the essays arguing for this in James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary, eds., Do Historical Matters Matter for Faith: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Post Modern Approaches to the Bible (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012).
4Richard E. Averbeck, “The Sumerian Historiographic Tradition and Its Implications for Genesis 1-11,” in Faith, Tradition, and History: Old Testament Historiography in its Near Eastern Context, ed. A. R. Millard, J. K. Hoffmeier, and D. W. Baker (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 79-102.
5For a comprehensive treatment of this material see esp. K. A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003). For kings as mentioned here, see the list in Pehlke, “Observations on the Historical Reliability of the Old Testament,” 84.
6See now the very helpful discussion of this matter in Craig G. Bartholomew, The God Who Acts in History: The Significance of Sinai (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2020).
7Further details appear in Pehlke, “The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament,” 77. See also the remarks on this point in Richard E. Averbeck, “The History and Pre-History of the Hebrew Language in the West Semitic Literary Tradition,” in Write That They May Read: Studies in Literacy and Textualization in the Ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Scriptures, Essays in Honor of Professor Alan R. Millard, Bulletin of Biblical Research, Supplements, ed. Daniel I. Block (Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming 2020).
8See the remarks by Kenneth Kitchen in Ronald Hendel, William W. Hallo, and Kenneth A. Kitchen, “The Kitchen Debate,” BAR 31:4 (July/August, 2005): 48-52, where he actually uses the word “exasperation.” His strong reaction against minimalism shows itself especially on pages 449-472 of his On the Reliability of the Old Testament, where he engages them directly by name and with strong invective.
9See the recent summary and critique of these approaches in Richard E. Averbeck, “Reading the Torah in a Better Way: Unity and Diversity in Text, Genre, and Compositional History,” in Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 22, ed. Matthias Armgardt, Benjamin Kilchör, and Markus Zehnder (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019) 21-27. See also Michael C. Legaspi, The Death of Scripture in the Rise of Biblical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
10See important discussions from the point of view of conservative scholars in e.g., Joshua A. Berman, Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2017). See also the essays in Matthias Armgardt, Benjamin Kilchör, and Markus Zehnder, eds., Paradigm Change in Pentateuchal Research, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für Altorientalische und Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 22 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019).
11With regard to the latter, see more in Richard E. Averbeck, “Pentateuchal Criticism and the Priestly Torah,” in Do Historical Matters Matter for Faith: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Post Modern Approaches to the Bible, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 156-58 and the other literature cited there.
12For a good start see Ellis R. Brotzman and Eric J. Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction, second edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

Further Reading


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