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Actual Historians Answer Questions About The Bible

June 15, 2021 5.9k votes 1.6k voters 128.4k views10 items

List RulesVote up the most enlightening answers to biblical questions.

What do historians think of the Bible, arguably one of the most influential texts in history? While it may not provide an accurate record of things that happened in the past, it does offer insights into the everyday life and worldviews of people from parts of the ancient world.

The book even has a history of its own, compiled over time by different people and reflecting particular agendas, beliefs, and uses. The New Testament includes texts that were written in the first century or so after Jesus of Nazareth's passing, while the Old Testament is made up of Hebrew texts that are much, much older.

With its ancient-world content, literary-religious allusions, and complicated history of construction, the Bible can raise a lot of questions. Read on to see some questions about the Bible and how historians from Reddit's "Ask Historians" community have answered them. Just as historians' explanations about historical royals or queens from the past have reframed our understanding of the monarchy, these "Ask Historians" questions and answers about the Bible will get you thinking about the religious text in new ways.

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  • 5

    What Evidence Do We Have That Jesus Was A Historical Person?

    A former Redditor asked:

    What's the best evidence that Jesus did or did not historically exist?

    Redditor u/talondearg answered:

    Pliny the Younger, writing in 112 CE, letter 10, discusses the issue of Christians gathering together, illegally. He knows a few facts about early Christian practice, and so by the early second century we know that Christians exist and believe in a Christ figure.

    Suetonius, 115 CE, in his Lives of the Caesars, discussing Claudius (41-54), mentions the deportations of Jews after riots “on the instigation of Chrestus.” There is a possibility that he means a Jew named Chrestus, a not uncommon name, but more likely this is a common misspelling for Christus. At best, Suetonius supports that Christians were living in Rome in the 50s CE.

    Tacitus, in his Annales (15.44) written in 115, covers history from 14-68 CE. He treats the fire in Rome under Nero in 64 CE, and discusses Nero’s blaming of the Christians. He mentions:

    The author of this name, Christ, was put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate, while Tiberius was emperor; but the dangerous superstition, though suppressed for the moment, broke out again not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in the city.

    Josephus [was] a Jewish aristocrat and military leader. He makes two references to Jesus. One in Antiquities book 20, referring to the death of James, the brother of Jesus (Antiquities 20.9.1). The other passage is known as the Testimonium Flavianum, in Antiquities 18.3.3. This passage refers to Jesus as a miracle worker, a leader of Jews and Greeks, the messiah, condemned by Pilate to the cross, appearing alive on the third day, and his followers continue until the present. 

    [And then there are the] Christian sources. So we have Mark, written around 70 CE, then we have Matthew and Luke, based in large degree upon Mark, written probably in the 80-85 period. Plus you have John written in the 90s CE, an independent source from the other canonical gospels.

    There are also non-canonical gospels written after John, some of which show independence from the canonical gospels. For example, Thomas, dated to 110-120 CE. Thomas is primarily a collection of sayings, not a narrative text. Similarly, the fragmentary Gospel of Peter. [Historian] Bart Ehrman also likes to highlight Papyrus Egerton 2 as a non-parallel independent account.

    So, to conclude, there is a considerable amount of documentary evidence to support the supposition that Jesus existed as a historical human being.

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  • 6

    Why Did So Many People In The Bible Live For 100+ Years?

    Redditor u/Nuclear_Cadillacs asked:

    Why are the lifespans of people mentioned in the [G]enesis accounts recorded as lasting so long?

    Redditor u/kookingpot answered:

    So, the first thing we know about this is that it was written well after the events it tells us about. It's not a firsthand account of what happens, but rather a record of ancestral tradition.

    Next, we look for parallels in the ancient world. Are there other similar occasions where lifespans are listed as being incredibly long? As it happens, the answer is actually yes. The most well-known example is the Sumerian King List, which is a list of all the kings of Sumer, and how long they reigned. It includes such passages as:

    In Eridug, Alulim became king; he ruled for 28,800 years. Alaljar ruled for 36,000 years. Two kings; they ruled for 64,800 years.

    So we have examples of lists of important people with extraordinary numbers listed as their ages in multiple examples from the Ancient Near East. So there is a precedent for the Old Testament to do this.

    Some scholars believe that the numbers are being used in a more symbolic way, rather than mathematically. The cultures of Mesopotamia were experts in numbers. They advanced a lot of key mathematical concepts that we still use today (including our division of time into units of 60). 

    The Sumerians and other Mesopotamian peoples (since at least 3100 BCE) used a sexagesimal numbering system, which means that it was base 60, instead of our base 10. Why? Because 60 is the lowest number divisible by all of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, making fractions much easier.

    There were a lot of ambiguous things included in this numbering system, such as blank spaces possibly meaning zero, and less value put on the importance of position of the numbers... Practically, this was not much of an issue for the scribes, because their numbers were always in a context that made them very interpretable (amounts of grain, weights of money, etc). Later scribes (such as Hebrews trying to interpret such numbers) would have a much more difficult time without the context.

    The biggest issue with Mesopotamian numbers, however, is the idea of sacred numbers. Some numbers had a symbolic meaning beyond their mathematical meaning, and therefore were numerological rather than numerical in some contexts, meaning that its symbolic value would be used rather than its mathematical value.

    Now, what connection does this have to the Biblical chronologies? The numbers are based on the Mesopotamian system of numbers. All the ages in the Genesis genealogies fall into two categories: numbers divisible by 5 (ending in 5 or 0), and multiples of 5 with the addition of 7 (or two 7s). Five years = 60 months. The final digits are always 0, 7, 5, 2, and 9. Two because 5+7 = 12, and 9 because 5+7+7 = 19. The odds are astronomical that there would not be a number in the list that did not match. Therefore, we have a lot of indications that these are symbolic numbers, based on a very different number system. We don't know what meaning these numbers may have had.

    Therefore, the numbers in Genesis are most likely symbolic of something we do not know, and are based on a numerical system established by the Sumerians, and eventually lost over time. Thus, the ancient traditions of the symbology were likely lost and the compilers of the Hebrew Bible themselves did not understand the symbology behind the ages.

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  • 7

    Do Historians Use The Bible As An Accurate Record Of Historical Events?

    Redditor u/Hat_glasses_beard asked:

    Is the Bible/religious texts considered a reliable source for historians?

    Redditor u/kookingpot answered:

    It's not a history textbook, and it should not be considered as such. All past history texts should be considered to be biased (and arguments can be made that all texts should be considered to be biased).

    Also, the Bible is a conglomeration of a number of different authors writing at different times, with different agendas.

    The overall purpose of the Bible is to show how to relate to God, not what happened in history.

    That said, the Bible was written by ancient people, and reflects a historical point of view. The tricky part with any ancient source is whether or not it can be corroborated with any other evidence. We have to consider the same issues when we deal with Herodotus, or Thucydides, or Caesar, or any of the other ancients who left texts describing their circumstances. We have to consider what the purpose is of this text.

    Many parts of the Bible were never written with history in mind. Some, however, were written with an eye to actual events. For example, there is archaeological evidence for King David's existence, as well as several other kings, including Ahab and Jehu. Similarly, many of the non-Israelite characters in the Bible have been historically corroborated, such as Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus, the pharaoh Shishak, king Mesha of Moab, Ben Hadad of Aram, and many others.

    Other parts of the Bible are understood to be more metaphorical, such as Noah's flood. There is no geological evidence for a worldwide flood, as one might understand it to be described in Genesis 7. However, there are numerous other accounts of a major flood from other Near Eastern texts, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian King List.

    There has been evidence of flooding recovered around the Jemdet Nasr period (3000-2900 BCE) and extending as far north as Kish. Also, there was evidence of major flooding uncovered by Robert Ballard in the Black Sea area through the Bosporus Strait in 5600 BCE. So there is evidence of regional flooding happening occasionally, but nothing on the global level.

    Therefore, we see aspects of mythology and metaphor in that story, and it is not considered to be a reliable "historical" account of something happening.

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  • 8

    Who Authored The Bible?

    Redditor u/ChoosingANameSucks asked:

    Who actually wrote the Bible?

    Redditor u/Integralds answered:

    The Bible is a collection of 66 separate books (depending on your tradition). Each of those books have their own writer or writers, and these books were written over a period of about a thousand years, from circa 900 BCE to 150 CE.

    The first four books of the Bible are amalgamations of at least three prior documents; these documents were written between 900 BCE and 550 BCE. (See, in particular, the Documentary Hypothesis; lecture notes on the subject abound.) The next seven books, Deuteronomy through II Kings, were likely written by a single school of scholars and completed by 450 BCE (the relevant term is the Deuteronomistic History and the citation is typically given to Martin Noth). The books from Genesis through Deuteronomy were perhaps finalized and circulated together in the 400s; later dates are also admissible.

    The various prophetic books are too numerous to be given quick summary. To take two examples, the book of Amos is an authentically old document, most of the book dating from the 700s BCE; the book of Daniel was written comparatively late, in the 160s BCE. Each book has its own history and can be placed in its own part of the social context of ancient Israel.

    The four New Testament Gospels were likely written between 50 CE and 90 CE. Seven of the letters attributed to Paul are authentic and date from the 50s CE; the rest were written in the second half of the first century. The rest of the letters were probably not written by their supposed authors. However, all of the documents in the New Testament with the possible exception of II Peter were likely written before 120 CE.

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