How Believable Is the “Old Testament”?
In the next few chapters, we will discuss some of the charges leveled against the Bible by modern critics. Some charge that the Bible contradicts itself and is “unscientific,” and these accusations will be taken up later. But first, consider the often-made charge that the Bible is no more than a collection of myths and legends. Do the Bible’s opponents have solid grounds for such a criticism? To begin with, let us look at the Hebrew Scriptures, the so-called Old Testament.
1, 2. What was the siege of Jericho like, and what questions are raised in connection with it?
AN ANCIENT city is under siege. Its attackers have swarmed across the Jordan River and are now encamped before the city’s high walls. But what strange battle tactics! Each day for six days, the invading army has marched around the city, silent except for an accompanying group of priests blowing on horns. Now, on the seventh day, the army silently marches around the city seven times. Suddenly, the priests blow their horns with all their might. The army breaks its silence with a mighty battle cry, and the towering city walls collapse in a cloud of dust, leaving the city defenseless.—Joshua 6:1-21.
2 This is how the book of Joshua, the sixth book of the Hebrew Scriptures, describes the fall of Jericho that occurred almost 3,500 years ago. But did it really happen? Many higher critics would confidently answer no.a They claim that the book of Joshua, along with the previous five books of the Bible, is made up of legends written up many centuries after the alleged events took place. Many archaeologists would also answer no. According to them, when the Israelites came into the land of Canaan, Jericho may not even have existed.
3. Why is it important to discuss whether the Bible contains true history or not?
3 These are serious charges. As you read through the Bible, you will notice that its teachings are solidly linked to history. God deals with real men, women, families, and nations, and his commands are given to a historical people. Modern scholars who cast doubt on the historicity of the Bible cast doubt also on the importance and reliability of its message. If the Bible really is God’s Word, then its history must be trustworthy and not contain mere legends and myths. Do these critics have grounds for challenging its historical truthfulness?
Higher Criticism—How Reliable?
4-6. What are some of Wellhausen’s theories of higher criticism?
4 Higher criticism of the Bible got started in earnest during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the latter half of the 19th century, the German Bible critic Julius Wellhausen popularized the theory that the first six books of the Bible, including Joshua, were written in the fifth century B.C.E.—about a thousand years after the events described. He did say, though, that they contained material that had been written down earlier.1 This theory was printed in the 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, published in 1911, which explained: “Genesis is a post-exilic work composed of a post-exilic priestly source (P) and non-priestly earlier sources which differ markedly from P in language, style and religious standpoint.”
5 Wellhausen and his followers viewed all the history recorded in the earlier part of the Hebrew Scriptures as “not literal history, but popular traditions of the past.”2 The earlier accounts were considered to be merely a reflection of the later history of Israel. For example, it was stated that the enmity between Jacob and Esau did not really happen, but it reflected the enmity between the nations of Israel and Edom in later times.
6 In harmony with this, these critics felt that Moses never received any commandment to make the ark of the covenant and that the tabernacle, center of Israelite worship in the wilderness, never existed. They also believed that the authority of the Aaronic priesthood was fully established only a few years before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, which the critics believed happened at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.E.3
7, 8. What “proofs” did Wellhausen have for his theories, and were they sound?
7 What “proof” did they have for these ideas? Higher critics claim to be able to divide the text of the early books of the Bible into a number of different documents. A basic principle they use is to assume that, generally speaking, any Bible verse using the Hebrew word for God (’Elo·himʹ) on its own was written by one writer, while any verse referring to God by his name, Jehovah, must have been written by another—as if one writer could not use both terms.4
8 Similarly, anytime an event is recorded more than once in a book, it is taken as proof of more than one writer at work, even though ancient Semitic literature has other similar examples of repetition. Additionally, it is assumed that any change of style means a change of writer. Yet, even modern-language writers often write in different styles at different stages in their careers, or when they are dealing with different subject matter.b
9-11. What are some outstanding weaknesses of modern higher criticism?
9 Is there any real proof for these theories? Not at all. One commentator noted: “Criticism, even at its best, is speculative and tentative, something always liable to be modified or proved wrong and having to be replaced by something else. It is an intellectual exercise, subject to all the doubts and guesses which are inseparable from such exercises.”5 Biblical higher criticism, especially, is “speculative and tentative” in the extreme.
10 Gleason L. Archer, Jr., shows another flaw in the reasoning of higher criticism. The problem, he says, is that “the Wellhausen school started with the pure assumption (which they have hardly bothered to demonstrate) that Israel’s religion was of merely human origin like any other, and that it was to be explained as a mere product of evolution.”6 In other words, Wellhausen and his followers started with the assumption that the Bible was merely the word of man, and then they reasoned from there.
11 Back in 1909, The Jewish Encyclopedia noted two more weaknesses in the Wellhausian theory: “The arguments by which Wellhausen has almost entirely captured the whole body of contemporary Biblical critics are based on two assumptions: first, that ritual becomes more elaborate in the development of religion; secondly, that older sources necessarily deal with the earlier stages of ritual development. The former assumption is against the evidence of primitive cultures, and the latter finds no support in the evidence of ritual codes like those of India.”
12. How does modern higher criticism stand up in the light of archaeology?
12 Is there any way of testing higher criticism to see whether its theories are correct or not? The Jewish Encyclopedia went on to say: “Wellhausen’s views are based almost exclusively on literal analysis, and will need to be supplemented by an examination from the point of view of institutional archeology.” As the years went by, did archaeology tend to confirm Wellhausen’s theories? The New Encyclopædia Britannica answers: “Archaeological criticism has tended to substantiate the reliability of the typical historical details of even the oldest periods [of Bible history] and to discount the theory that the Pentateuchal accounts [the historical records in the earliest books of the Bible] are merely the reflection of a much later period.”
13, 14. In spite of its shaky foundations, why is Wellhausen’s higher criticism still widely accepted?
13 In view of its weakness, why is higher criticism so popular among intellectuals today? Because it tells them things that they want to hear. One 19th-century scholar explained: “Personally, I welcomed this book of Wellhausen’s more than almost any other; for the pressing problem of the history of the Old Testament appeared to me to be at last solved in a manner consonant to the principle of human evolution which I am compelled to apply to the history of all religion.”7 Evidently, higher criticism agreed with his prejudices as an evolutionist. And, indeed, the two theories serve a similar end. Just as evolution would remove the need to believe in a Creator, so Wellhausen’s higher criticism would mean that one does not have to believe that the Bible was inspired by God.
14 In this rationalistic 20th century, the assumption that the Bible is not God’s word but man’s looks plausible to intellectuals.c It is much easier for them to believe that prophecies were written after their fulfillment than to accept them as genuine. They prefer to explain away the Bible accounts of miracles as myths, legends, or folk tales, rather than consider the possibility that they really happened. But such a viewpoint is prejudiced and gives no solid reason to reject the Bible as true. Higher criticism is seriously flawed, and its assault on the Bible has failed to demonstrate that the Bible is not the Word of God.
Does Archaeology Support the Bible?
15, 16. The existence of what ancient ruler mentioned in the Bible was confirmed by archaeology?
15 Archaeology is a much more solidly based field of study than higher criticism. Archaeologists, by digging among the remains of past civilizations, have in many ways increased our understanding of the way things were in ancient times. Hence, it is not surprising that the archaeological record repeatedly harmonizes with what we read in the Bible. Sometimes, archaeology has even vindicated the Bible against its critics.
16 For example, according to the book of Daniel, the last ruler in Babylon before it fell to the Persians was named Belshazzar. (Daniel 5:1-30) Since there appeared to be no mention of Belshazzar outside the Bible, the charge was made that the Bible was wrong and that this man never existed. But during the 19th century, several small cylinders inscribed in cuneiform were discovered in some ruins in southern Iraq. They were found to include a prayer for the health of the eldest son of Nabonidus, king of Babylon. The name of this son? Belshazzar.
17. How can we explain the fact that the Bible calls Belshazzar a king, while most inscriptions called him a prince?
17 So there was a Belshazzar! Was he a king, though, when Babylon fell? Most documents subsequently found referred to him as the son of the king, the crown prince. But a cuneiform document described as the “Verse Account of Nabonidus” shed more light on Belshazzar’s true position. It reported: “He [Nabonidus] entrusted the ‘Camp’ to his oldest (son), the firstborn, the troops everywhere in the country he ordered under his (command). He let (everything) go, he entrusted the kingship to him.”8 So Belshazzar was entrusted with the kingship. Surely, to all intents and purposes that made him a king!d This relationship between Belshazzar and his father, Nabonidus, explains why Belshazzar, during that final banquet in Babylon, offered to make Daniel the third ruler in the kingdom. (Daniel 5:16) Since Nabonidus was the first ruler, Belshazzar himself was only the second ruler of Babylon.
Other Supporting Evidence
18. What information does archaeology supply to confirm the peace and prosperity resulting from David’s reign?
18 Indeed, many archaeological discoveries have demonstrated the historical accuracy of the Bible. For example, the Bible reports that after King Solomon had taken over the kingship from his father, David, Israel enjoyed great prosperity. We read: “Judah and Israel were many, like the grains of sand that are by the sea for multitude, eating and drinking and rejoicing.” (1 Kings 4:20) In support of this statement, we read: “Archaeological evidence reveals that there was a population explosion in Judah during and after the tenth century B.C. when the peace and prosperity David brought made it possible to build many new towns.”10
19. What additional information does archaeology give concerning the warfare between Israel and Moab?
19 Later on, Israel and Judah became two nations, and Israel conquered the neighboring land of Moab. At one time Moab, under King Mesha, revolted, and Israel formed an alliance with Judah and the neighboring kingdom of Edom to war against Moab. (2 Kings 3:4-27) Remarkably, in 1868 in Jordan, a stela (a carved stone slab) was discovered that was inscribed in the Moabite language with Mesha’s own account of this conflict.
20. What does archaeology tell us about the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians?
20 Then, in the year 740 B.C.E., God allowed the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel to be destroyed by the Assyrians. (2 Kings 17:6-18) Speaking of the Bible account of this event, archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon comments: “One might have a suspicion that some of this is hyperbole.” But is it? She adds: “The archaeological evidence of the fall of the kingdom of Israel is almost more vivid than that of the Biblical record. . . . The complete obliteration of the Israelite towns of Samaria and Hazor and the accompanying destruction of Megiddo is the factual archaeological evidence that the [Bible] writer was not exaggerating.”11
21. What details about the subjugation of Judah by the Babylonians are supplied by archaeology?
21 Later still, the Bible tells us that Jerusalem under King Jehoiachin was besieged by the Babylonians and was defeated. This event is recorded on the Babylonian Chronicle, a cuneiform tablet discovered by archaeologists. On this, we read: “The king of Akkad [Babylon] . . . laid siege to the city of Judah (iahudu) and the king took the city on the second day of the month of Addaru.”12 Jehoiachin was taken to Babylon and imprisoned. But later, according to the Bible, he was released from prison and given an allowance of food. (2 Kings 24:8-15; 25:27-30) This is supported by administrative documents found in Babylon, which list the rations given to “Yaukîn, king of Judah.”13
22, 23. In general, what is the relationship between archaeology and the Bible’s historical accounts?
22 Regarding the relationship between archaeology and the Bible’s historical accounts, Professor David Noel Freedman commented: “In general, however, archaeology has tended to support the historical validity of the biblical narrative. The broad chronological outline from the patriarchs to N[ew] T[estament] times correlates with archaeological data. . . . Future discoveries are likely to sustain the present moderate position that the biblical tradition is historically rooted, and faithfully transmitted, though it is not history in the critical or scientific sense.”
23 Then, regarding the efforts of higher critics to discredit the Bible, he says: “Attempted reconstructions of biblical history by modern scholars—e.g., Wellhausen’s view that the patriarchal age was a reflex of the divided monarchy; or the rejection of the historicity of Moses and the exodus and consequent restructuring of Israelite history by Noth and his followers—have not survived the archaeological data as well as the biblical narrative.”14
The Fall of Jericho
24. What information does the Bible give us about the fall of Jericho?
24 Does this mean that archaeology agrees with the Bible in every case? No, there are a number of disagreements. One is the dramatic conquest of Jericho described in the beginning of this chapter. According to the Bible, Jericho was the first city conquered by Joshua as he led the Israelites into the land of Canaan. Bible chronology indicates that the city fell in the first half of the 15th century B.C.E. After the conquest, Jericho was completely burned with fire and was then left uninhabited for hundreds of years.—Joshua 6:1-26; 1 Kings 16:34.
25, 26. What two different conclusions have archaeologists reached as a result of excavating Jericho?
25 Before the second world war, the site believed to be Jericho was excavated by Professor John Garstang. He discovered that the city was very ancient and had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. Garstang found that during one of these destructions, the walls fell as if by earthquake, and the city was completely burned with fire. Garstang believed that this took place in about 1400 B.C.E., not too distant from the Biblically indicated date for the destruction of Jericho by Joshua.15
26 After the war, another archaeologist, Kathleen Kenyon, did further excavations at Jericho. She came to the conclusion that the collapsed walls Garstang had identified dated from hundreds of years earlier than he thought. She did identify a major destruction of Jericho in the 16th century B.C.E. but said that there was no city on the site of Jericho during the 15th century—when the Bible says Joshua was invading the land. She goes on to report possible indications of another destruction that might have taken place on the site in 1325 B.C.E. and suggests: “If the destruction of Jericho is to be associated with an invasion under Joshua, this [latter] is the date that archaeology suggests.”16
27. Why should discrepancies between archaeology and the Bible not unduly disturb us?
27 Does this mean that the Bible is wrong? Not at all. We have to remember that while archaeology gives us a window to the past, it is not always a clear window. Sometimes it is decidedly murky. As one commentator noted: “Archaeological evidence is, unfortunately, fragmentary, and therefore limited.”17 Especially is this true of the earlier periods of Israelite history, when archaeological evidence is not clear. Indeed, the evidence is even less clear at Jericho, since the site has been badly eroded.
The Limitations of Archaeology
28, 29. What are some limitations of archaeology that scholars have admitted?
28 Archaeologists themselves admit the limitations of their science. Yohanan Aharoni, for example, explains: “When it comes to historical or historio-geographical interpretation, the archaeologist steps out of the realm of the exact sciences, and he must rely upon value judgements and hypotheses to arrive at a comprehensive historical picture.”18 Regarding the dates assigned to various discoveries, he adds: “We must always remember, therefore, that not all dates are absolute and are in varying degrees suspect,” although he feels that today’s archaeologists can be more confident of their dating than was the case in the past.19
29 The World of the Old Testament asks the question: “How objective or truly scientific is the archaeological method?” It answers: “Archaeologists are more objective when unearthing the facts than when interpreting them. But their human preoccupations will affect the methods they use in making the ‘dig,’ too. They cannot help destroying their evidence as they dig down through the layers of earth, so they can never test their ‘experiment’ by repeating it. This makes archaeology unique among the sciences. Moreover, it makes archaeological reporting a most demanding and pitfall-ridden task.”20
30. How do Bible students view archaeology?
30 So archaeology can be very helpful, but like any human endeavor, it is fallible. While we consider archaeological theories with interest, we should never view them as incontrovertible truth. If archaeologists interpret their findings in a way that contradicts the Bible, it should not automatically be assumed that the Bible is wrong and the archaeologists are right. Their interpretations have been known to change.
31. What new suggestion has recently been put forward regarding the fall of Jericho?
31 It is interesting to note that in 1981 Professor John J. Bimson looked again at the destruction of Jericho. He studied closely the fiery destruction of Jericho that took place—according to Kathleen Kenyon—in the middle of the 16th century B.C.E. According to him, not only did that destruction fit the Bible’s account of Joshua’s destruction of the city but the archaeological picture of Canaan as a whole fit perfectly with the Bible’s description of Canaan when the Israelites invaded. Hence, he suggests that the archaeological dating is wrong and proposes that this destruction really took place in the middle of the 15th century B.C.E., during Joshua’s lifetime.21
The Bible Is Genuine History
32. What tendency has been observed among some scholars?
32 This illustrates the fact that archaeologists often differ among themselves. It is not, then, surprising that some disagree with the Bible while others agree with it. Nevertheless, some scholars are coming to respect the historicity of the Bible in general, if not in every detail. William Foxwell Albright represented one school of thought when he wrote: “There has been a general return to appreciation of the accuracy, both in general sweep and in factual detail, of the religious history of Israel. . . . To sum up, we can now again treat the Bible from beginning to end as an authentic document of religious history.”22
33, 34. How do the Hebrew Scriptures themselves give evidence of being historically accurate?
33 In fact, the Bible in itself bears the stamp of accurate history. Events are linked to specific times and dates, unlike those of most ancient myths and legends. Many events recorded in the Bible are supported by inscriptions dating from those times. Where there is a difference between the Bible and some ancient inscription, the discrepancy can often be attributed to the ancient rulers’ distaste for recording their own defeats and their desire to magnify their successes.
34 Indeed, many of those ancient inscriptions are not history as much as they are official propaganda. In contrast, the Bible writers display a rare frankness. Major ancestral figures such as Moses and Aaron are revealed with all their weaknesses and strengths. Even the failings of the great king David are honestly revealed. The shortcomings of the nation as a whole are repeatedly exposed. This candor recommends the Hebrew Scriptures as truthful and reliable and lends weight to the words of Jesus, who, when praying to God, said: “Your word is truth.”—John 17:17.
35. What have rationalistic thinkers failed to do, and what do Bible students look to in order to prove the inspiration of the Bible?
35 Albright went on to say: “In any case the Bible towers in content above all earlier religious literature; and it towers just as impressively over all subsequent literature in the direct simplicity of its message and the catholicity [comprehensive range] of its appeal to men of all lands and times.”23 It is this ‘towering message,’ rather than the testimony of scholars, that proves the inspiration of the Bible, as we will see in later chapters. But let us note here that modern rationalistic thinkers have failed to prove that the Hebrew Scriptures are not true history, while these writings themselves give every evidence of being accurate. Can the same be said for the Christian Greek Scriptures, the “New Testament”? We will consider this in the next chapter.
a “Higher criticism” (or “the historical-critical method”) is a term used to describe the study of the Bible with a view to finding out details such as the authorship, source material, and time of composition of each book.
b For example, the English poet John Milton wrote his lofty epic poem “Paradise Lost” in quite a different style from his poem “L’Allegro.” And his political tracts were written in still another style.
c Most intellectuals today tend to be rationalistic. According to the dictionary, rationalism means “reliance on reason as the basis for establishment of religious truth.” Rationalists try to explain everything in human terms rather than take into account the possibility of divine action.
d Interestingly, a statue of an ancient ruler found in northern Syria in the 1970’s showed that it was not unknown for a ruler to be called king when, strictly speaking, he had a lesser title. The statue was of a ruler of Gozan and was inscribed in Assyrian and Aramaic. The Assyrian inscription called the man governor of Gozan, but the parallel Aramaic inscription called him king.9 So it would not be unprecedented for Belshazzar to be called crown prince in the official Babylonian inscriptions while in the Aramaic writing of Daniel he is called king.
[Blurb on page 53]
Unlike ancient secular histories, the Bible frankly records the human failings of respected figures such as Moses and David
[Box on page 44]
The Value of Archaeology
“Archaeology provides a sampling of ancient tools and vessels, walls and buildings, weapons and adornments. Most of these can be chronologically arranged and securely identified with appropriate terms and contexts contained in the Bible. In this sense the Bible accurately preserves in written form its ancient cultural milieu. The details of biblical stories are not the fanciful products of an author’s imagination but rather are authentic reflections of the world in which the recorded events, from the mundane to the miraculous, took place.”—The Archaeological Encyclopedia of the Holy Land.
[Box on page 50]
What Archaeology Can and Cannot Do
“Archaeology neither proves nor disproves the Bible in conclusive terms, but it has other functions, of considerable importance. It recovers in some degree the material world presupposed by the Bible. To know, say, the material of which a house was built, or what a ‘high place’ looked like, much enhances our understanding of the text. Secondly, it fills out the historical record. The Moabite Stone, for example, gives the other side of the story treated in 2 Kings 3:4ff. . . . Thirdly, it reveals the life and thought of the neighbours of ancient Israel—which is of interest in itself, and which illuminates the world of ideas within which the thought of ancient Israel developed.”—Ebla—A Revelation in Archaeology.
[Picture on page 41]
Milton wrote in different styles, not just one. Do higher critics believe his work to be the product of a number of different writers?
[Picture on page 45]
The “Verse Account of Nabonidus” reports that Nabonidus entrusted the kingship to his firstborn
[Picture on page 46]
The Moabite Stone gives King Mesha’s version of the conflict between Moab and Israel
[Picture on page 47]
Official Babylonian records support the Bible account of the fall of Jerusalem