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The Bible and history

The article concerns the historicity of the Bible; i.e. in what ways is the Bible historically accurate.

The absence of independent evidence confirming the biblical narrative causes many scholars to question the accuracy or even the veracity of the historical account. According to many historians, the Biblical patriarchs, Moses, King David, and King Solomon are little more than legendary figures, though possibly based on historical events and persons.

Today there are two loosely defined schools of thought with regard to the historicity of the Bible (biblical minimalism and biblical maximalism), in addition to the traditional religious reading of the Bible.

Table of contents
1 Fundamentalist readings of the Bible
2 Biblical minimalism
3 Biblical maximalism
4 Criticism of biblical minimalism
5 Marginal views
6 References
7 External links

Fundamentalist readings of the Bible

Some people, especially those with fundamentalist religious beliefs, hold that the Bible is the word of God, and is therefore inerrant and infallible. The Bible is therefore held to be historically accurate, even down to smallest details.

According to this view, historians should accept all the details given in the Bible regardless of any other evidence to the contrary. Similarly, in the field of science, the first two chapters of the Book of Genesis are held to disprove the theory of evolution regardless of any other evidence that may be produced, see creation science.

In particular, many Christians sincerely hold these views. Many other Christians however reject some or all of these views, while still claiming to uphold the authority of scripture and even comfortably using the traditional term "word of God" for the Bible.

Biblical minimalism

Biblical minimalists generally hold that the Bible is an imaginative fiction, and all stories within it are of a mythic character at best. None of the early stories are held to have any historical basis. In this view, all of the stories about the Biblical patriarchs are mythical, and the patriarchs never existed. Further, Biblical minimalists hold that the twelve tribes of Israel never existed, King David and King Saul never existed, and that the unified Biblical kingdoms of Israel never existed.

Some Biblical minimalists, most notably Earl Doherty, have suggested that Jesus Christ never existed, that the character is a gestalt of numerous individuals who lived and myths that were common currency during the late Hellenistic age, and that early secular references (Tacitus on Jesus, Josephus on Jesus) are not historical evidence (see Jesus Christ).

We must note that historical opinions fall on a spectrum, rather than in two tightly defined camps. Since there is a wide range of opinions regarding the historicity of the Bible, it should not be surprising that any given scholar may have views that fall anywhere between these two loosely defined camps. Therefore, many scholars have some views that might be considered minimalist, while having a few beliefs that might be considered maximalist (and vice-versa.)

Biblical maximalism

The term "maximalism" is something of a misnomer, and many people incorrectly relate this term to the fundamentalist world view. In contrast, all Biblical maximalists disagree with fundamentalists.

Biblical maximalists accept the findings of modern historical studies and archaeology; they agree that the Bible was never intended to be used as a history textbook, and that one needs to be cautious in teasing out fact from myth. However, maximalists hold that the core stories of the Bible indeed tell us about actual historical events, and that the later books of the Bible are more historically based than the earlier books.

Archaeology tells us about historical eras and kingdoms, ways of life and commerce, beliefs and societal structures; however only in extremely rare cases does archaeological research provide information on individual families. Thus, archaeology was not expected to, and indeed has not, provided any evidence to confirm or deny the existence of the Biblical patriarchs. As such, Biblical maximalists are divided on this issue. Some hold that many or all of these patriarchs were real historical figures, but that we should not take the Bible's stories about them as historically accurate, even in broad strokes. Others hold that it is likely that some or all of these patriarchs are better classified as purely mythical creations, with only the slightest relation to any real historical persons in the distant past, much like the British legends of King Arthur.

Biblical maximalists agree that the twelve tribes of Israel did indeed exist, even though they do not necessarilly believe the Biblical description of their origin. (Views of how the Israelite tribes came into being will soon be discussed here.) Biblical maximalists are in agreement that important biblical figures, such as King David and King Saul did exist, that the Biblical kingdoms of Israel also existed, and that Jesus Christ was a historical figure.

Note, however, there is a wide array of positions that one can hold within this school, and some in this school overlap with biblical minimalists.

As noted above, historical opinions fall on a spectrum, rather than in two tightly defined camps.

Criticism of biblical minimalism

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review is one of the leading critics of the new school of biblical minimalism. In a letter first printed in Ha'aretz Magazine (Nov. 5, 1999) and later on the Biblical Archaeology Society website, Shanks writes that most Biblical minimalists are motivated not by history but rather by politics. Some of the leading Biblical minimalists are openly anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian. Many people use Biblical minimalism to promote anti-Semitism, while other people use charges of anti-Semitism in an attempt to discredit Biblical minimalists.

The scholastic position of Biblical minimalism itself is not anti-Semitic. Many Jews themselves hold this view. Some criticism of this school of thought comes about because some rabbis and scholars are concerned about the way that this position is being used to justify pseudo-historical and anti-Semitic beliefs. Other criticism comes about because the position brings cherished beliefs into question.

Marginal views

Popular writers such as Immanuel Velikovsky, Peter James, David Rohl, Lisa Liel, Donovan Courville and others have suggested that the lack of archeological attestation of biblical figures is due to errors in the traditional chronology or the dating of archaelogical strata.

In Ages in Chaos (1952), Velikovsky claimed that the lack of archeological evidence for biblical events arises from errors in the traditional chronologies of the nations described. This view was formed in researching Worlds in Collision (1950) in which he claimed that major events in the formation of the solar system had occurred in historic times. Consistently rejected by the scientific community, many claim his views are refuted in all details, others continue to promote them. Less controversial chronological theories of other writers are viewed with cautious interest by the scientific community but have yet to gain wide acceptance.

See also: Bible, History of ancient Israel and Judah, Documentary hypothesis


Sources on Biblical maximalism versus Biblical minimalism:

External links