The Validity of Biblical History

The Validity of Biblical History

Biblical History Is Pretty Trustworthy—

and near misses in other religions are good, not bad


This topic was inspired by a question in a friend’s email. I address it only briefly, in part by comparing biblical with Zoroastrian narratives—because that’s what my friend asked about.


My friend’s question

One of the things I ran into in a book I’ve been reading was Zoroastrianism. I’d always taken it for granted that Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament, and that he started the tradition that eventually resulted in the Bible. But according to this book, the tradition of putting things in writing did not happen until I think the Babylonian invasion of Israel, which would have been hundreds of years after Moses, but also hundreds of years after the events in the beginning of the Bible. . .so basically the historicity of it all is kinda shot by all that. But also according to this book, Zoroastrianism is one of the religions that the Jews were exposed to during the Babylonian captivity, and it is a religion that has ideas about God, and a devil, and the battle between them which we are caught between, and basically ideas about how everyone will be resurrected and judged at the end of times, and the good will go to heaven, and the bad will go to hell. You see the issue: If the Jewish exposure to this religion coincides with the putting into print of the Old Testament, then what exactly is the OT based on?  Was it actually prophetic revelations from God?  Or was it an attempt by the Jewish people to salvage their culture by making up these stories that were influenced by contemporary cultures and religions?

I think that’s a big part of what has got me so down lately.  It feels like without being able to locate the OT in history, then there is no real basis upon which my belief in God can rest.


My response

It shouldn’t be a surprise that glimpses of genuine spiritual reality circulated around the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter), if we understand that at various times God has communicated—or at least attempted to communicate—with people other than those in the direct line of what later became his “chosen people” (i.e., Abraham and his offspring). Even the history of Abraham’s descendants explicitly describes individuals who were outside their group but who had some kind of knowledge of Yahweh. Check out Melchizedek and Balaam, as well as Moses’ father-in-law Jethro (a Midianite).

The creation and flood stories in Genesis, at least in the forms in which we received them, are much more recent than the Mesopotamian stories. The most obvious conclusions a person of faith might derive from those stories are either (1) that the pagan stories contain glimpses of truth, derived from collective memories of what actually happened thousands of years earlier—but the biblical stories, whose authors presumably had God’s Spirit cribbing for them, presented a more accurate picture; or (2) all the stories (I’m talking about Genesis 1-11 here) are essentially “myth” in the sense that they don’t describe (in a fashion satisfactory to western rational thinking) what literally, physically happened—but the Old Testament versions do point to spiritual realities in a profound way, and are to be taken extremely seriously. People of faith (vs. people, including many “liberal” Christians, who dismiss it all as nonsense) take various other positions, but I think these are the two most defensible positions. Note that both perspectives assume you’re going to see glimpses of the true story in places other than the Hebrew scriptures. Truth pops out all over the place, although it’s almost always distorted in some way.

The Jewish scriptures are incredibly precise in their historic descriptions. Scholars have debated for centuries (and still debate) when Zarathustra lived, the variations including a range of hundreds of years, centering most recently on perhaps the 10th-9th centuries B.C., I believe. Scholars also debate dates within the Hebrew tradition, but on a vastly different scale. In this case, we’re dealing with, for example, debates over whether the exodus occurred in the 1300s B.C. or as late as about 1240 B.C.  And the date when David began his reign is generally pinpointed pretty close to a single year (1000 B.C.), give or take a variance in the single digits. Compare the stories in Samuel and Kings with stories from any other ancient source, and the contrast is astounding. The biblical stories have the unmistakable flavor of detailed eyewitness accounts—vs. narratives in other cultures, that resemble superhero stories more than they carry the ring of truth.

Throughout Kings and Chronicles, there are allusions to long-missing written records—from which presumably the authors/editors of our Old Testament histories obtained some of their information. (Check out I Kings 14:19,29, nine other references in I Kings, as well as many references in II Kings, to a missing “annals of the Kings of Israel”; and II Kings 8:23, 12:19, and ten other references in II Kings to “annals of the kings of Judah.” I Chronicles 27:16 refers to “annals of King David.” And II Chronicles 20:34 alludes to “annals of Jehu son of Hanani.” Nehemiah 12:22 mentions simply the “Book of the Annals.”)

Even to the extent that written records were not kept, remember that in preliterate societies people develop astounding memories (that’s true even today), which means that oral traditions are not to be dismissed lightly. (N.B. At first the Iliad and Odyssey were passed down orally from memory!) So even if no one in Israel began keeping serious written records until, say, David’s time (which many scholars believe, and their arguments seem pretty convincing to me), that doesn’t mean the stories in Genesis through Judges are just someone’s fantasy. Beginning with Abraham (but, I agree with most scholars, probably not before), the stories have an incredible ring of authenticity missing in any other ancient writings. I think it’s therefore not overly naive, especially if one believes that God is in fact real and is in fact interacting in a purposeful way with human history, to assert that we can take the biblical records seriously.

It’s relatively clear that the final versions of the biblical histories (Genesis through Chronicles) were not put together until Babylonian times, when Jewish scholars took the various histories and threaded them together into individual narratives. But the traditions these 6th century B.C. scholars used, both written and oral, were astoundingly solid. (If nothing else, they record too many highly specific yet extremely realistic details to have been made up on the spot.)

If Zarathustra got a lot of things right in his teachings about the nature of spiritual reality, power to him. Perhaps he had a much clearer ability than most to see through the encrustations of demonic doctrines that had gradually blinded human eyes for centuries and centuries. That’s cool. There are elements within many if not most religious traditions that reflect some of God’s truths rather nicely. That’s a good thing. Better to get closer to the mark than further away.

Neither verities in other religions

nor apparent inaccuracies within the biblical traditions

should trouble a Christian’s mind.


None of this has any relationship to what Jesus was about.

Jesus didn’t come, and God’s historic dealings with Israel were not intended,

to make sure that humans understand the right truths and principles and doctrines or even histories.

Rather, in Jesus, God was engaging in a historical/cosmic transaction

that secured the salvation of the world.

The Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world, and God determined all along that he would have his way with this planet and with human beings; in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, that commitment—that eternal transaction—intersected human history in a tangible way.

It’s legitimate to argue that knowing or believing the most accurate history or the most correct doctrines isn’t particularly relevant. Consider: Between, say, the fourth and the sixteenth centuries A.D., what proportion of people who called themselves Christians had any clue to what the Bible said about almost anything? They may as well have been Zoroastrians or Confucians for all they understood about God. Even their view of Jesus in many cases was probably more pagan than valid. Are they therefore doomed because of their ignorance? I would argue No, just as I would argue that Zoroastrians and Muslims and Incas and everyone else aren’t doomed because of their ignorance—for the blood of the Lamb was shed before the foundation of the world, and “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (II Corinthians 5:19).