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Actual Historians Answer Questions About The Bible

June 15, 2021 5.2k votes 1.4k voters 110.7k 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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  • 1

    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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  • 2

    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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  • 3

    What Would Biblical Wine Have Been Like?

    Redditor u/LateNightPhilosopher asked:

    In the Bible, Jesus's first miracle was famously to turn water into wine. What kind of wine could typically be found in Roman Judea and, assuming Jesus was a skilled amateur vintner for his era, would the wine be considered "good" by modern standards?

    Redditor u/chitoryu12 answered:

    Unfortunately it's extremely difficult for modern historians to really figure out what ancient wine was like. While the general process of making Roman wine is very similar to how it's made today (apart from the storage containers not including stuff like stainless steel and concrete tanks), the grape varieties themselves have mutated immensely over the millennia.

    Even if you made the wine exactly like the Romans did, it wouldn't necessarily taste the same. And just like today, a lot of writing on wine wasn't very detailed about the taste! Most people were fine with just judging it as "good" or "bad" or making generic descriptions of sweetness or bitterness instead of waxing poetic about the flavor of strawberries, fig jam, soil, walnuts, etc.

    What we do know is that the Romans had a lot of different varieties of wine, probably at least as many as there are in former Roman territory now. They differentiated by place rather than grapes, so wine would be labeled as coming from Pompeii or Rhodus and have a particular reputation. Wine was an everyday drink in the Mediterranean rather than a luxury, so it was produced everywhere that grapes could be grown and often consumed locally shortly after production was finished. Red, white, and rose wines were known and produced in much the same way as they are today, but they didn't have the same strict classifications, so we can only guess from descriptions of the color and flavor.

    All of these varieties of wine were written about. Gaul produced a sweet, brownish-red wine that was said to give a nasty hangover. Turricuar was described in a way that suggests a dry white wine. The most prized wine was Falernian, an expensive white wine from near modern Naples that could be aged and oxidized until it turned brown. It was a rich, sweet, intensely flavored dessert wine drunk by emperors and the wealthy. As you can probably guess, a lot of unscrupulous people made and sold fake Falernian for much cheaper.

    The Romans did a lot to adulterate their wine, both good and bad. At a minimum it was watered down; drinking undiluted wine was considered barbaric. Wine was commonly drunk throughout the day in a 3:1 ratio of water to wine, which creates a drink that looks very much like wine but tastes like water with a faint wine aftertaste.

    For the good, wine was often mixed with honey and spices. Conditum paradoxum was made by steeping honey, pepper, mastic, laurel, saffron, dates, and date seeds in wine to create a sweet and elaborately flavored drink. For the bad, wine was preserved or flavored with ingredients that ranged from the unusual (seawater and medicinal herbs like vervain) to the disgusting and potentially dangerous (marble dust, pig's blood, and lead).

    Because of the lack of modern preservation techniques like refrigeration and the warm Mediterranean climate, wine tended to go bad relatively quickly, and anything not carefully aged like Falernian would have to be drunk quickly to avoid it turning vinegary...

    When wine finally soured into something like vinegar, you could mix it with water to create a drink called posca. This was the extremely cheap beverage of the poor and Roman soldiers; the sour wine given to Jesus on the cross was actually a soldier giving his posca ration to a dying man.

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  • 4

    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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