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Actual Historians Answer Questions About The Bible

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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    What Is The Earliest Known Version Of The Bible?

    Redditor u/hey_its_ralph asked:

    Does an original text of the Bible exist, or what's the oldest known religious text in existence?

    Redditor u/imayid_291 answered:

    The oldest physical copy of any of the Bible are two scrolls which are dated to about 650 BCE. They were found in a burial chamber in the Ketef Hinnom archeological site in the Jerusalem area. They contain the Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6:22-27.

    The next oldest physical texts of the Bible are the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest of which date to 200 BCE. The over 900 documents include fragments of every book in the Hebrew Bible except Esther. The texts include a scroll that contains the complete book of Isaiah (apart from some portions that are too damaged to read).

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    In What Language Were Biblical Texts Originally Written?

    Redditor u/Isatis_tinctoria asked:

    Was the historical text of the Bible really written in Aramaic originally or was it originally written in the Koine Greek?

    Redditor u/Philip_Schwartzerdt answered:

    Most of the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew, though parts were written in Aramaic, another Semitic language common across the Ancient Near East at the time. The most notable parts are portions of Daniel and Ezra, with suggestions of Aramaic influence in a few isolated verses elsewhere.

    The extant New Testament texts are Koine, and I would judge that the majority scholarly consensus is that this represents the form of original composition. Koine was well established as a common trade language in the eastern Roman Empire by the 1st century [CE], and the Old Testament Septuagint text was a century or two old already.

    In Palestine, Aramaic may have been the everyday language, but for the Jewish populations in other cities, Greek would easily be the daily language. There are minority views that some of the NT may have been written in Aramaic, and a few early Patristic suggestions that the gospel of Matthew in particular may have been written in Hebrew or Aramaic; there is certainly a Semitic linguistic feature in New Testament Koine, but in my opinion the manuscript evidence just isn't there to tenably support fully Hebrew/Aramaic originals.

    It's more plausible that there may have been early written sources in Aramaic like the hypothesized Q source, or a collection of Jesus's sayings without the kind of narrative structure of the four canonical books.

    So basically, some early sources might have been Aramaic, and many of the events narrated in the Gospels occurred in Aramaic, but I don't see much support for the actual NT texts being composed in anything but Koine.

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    How Did Certain Gospels End Up In The New Testament When Others Weren't Included?

    Redditor u/Vladith asked:

    When and why was the Gospel of Thomas excluded from the Biblical canon?

    Redditor u/grantimatter answered:

    The question appears to be based on a slightly mistaken assumption. The creation of the canon wasn't so much a "when" (it happened kind of gradually, and technically, there are a few different canons to this day) and wasn't exactly based on exclusion as much as inclusion.

    As in, a bunch of guys getting together and going, "OK, there's this one... can we all agree this book counts?"

    Rewind a little. The earliest Christian canon is the (slightly loopy) Marcionite Canon, which dates back to the second century [CE]. Marcion was later denounced as a heretic, and only accepted the Gospel of Luke as truly inspired, along with 10 epistles of Paul (in shorter forms than we know them today, and with slightly different words, or, in a couple cases, epistles that aren't in Bibles today).

    He was one of the (small-g) gnostic teachers who thought the God described in the Old Testament was some kind of Demiurge or not-quite-supreme-or-good-God.

    At the same time Marcion was around, and in the next couple of centuries, there were other writings that other groups accepted as useful, inspired, and accurate, and those (through a long and convoluted process) were eventually accepted as a Christian canon... for the most part.

    I believe [Iranaeus] nailed down four gospels as the proper number based on, essentially, Greek numerology - four elements, four cardinal directions, four winds, [so] it's only proper there be four gospels.

    During the reign of Constantine (around 300 CE), [Iranaeus] hammered out the Bible more or less as we know it today. Catholicism didn't really officially declare a canon until the Council of Trent 1,200 years later, and no, that's not a typo. Twelve centuries. 

    Anyway, the Gospel of Thomas appears to have not been widely useful to early churches. It's not a story the same way the other gospels are (even the ones that didn't make the 4th century cut, like the similarly named Infancy Gospel of Thomas) - only a bunch of stuff that Jesus actually said in his own words, ostensibly.

    It only seemed to really have legs among monastic and mystic communities: it was esteemed by the Manicheans (who were also small-g gnostics from Persia), and used in the Syriac Christian communities and in North Africa.

    Mani and his followers turned out not to be the route to international renown - though incredibly popular for a while, that faith eventually dwindled and was stamped out.

    For ages, the only copies of Thomas that survived came from a few fragments found in a heap of other writings from Oxyrhynchus, until in 1947 when a Coptic-language text was found in Nag Hammadi. Both of those are Egyptian locations.

    The format definitely reads more like a guide for meditation or contemplation than a story about a guy who did some amazing things. There are no miracles, no crucifixion, no resurrection, no nativity. Just ways of looking at the world and other people in it.

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    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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