HISTORICAL RELIABILITY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE
Historical vs. Doctrinal Reliability
This webpage deals with the historical reliability of the Holy Scripture, that is, its reliability as a historical document. This matter should be distinguished from the doctrinal reliability of Holy Scripture. The books of the Bible are historically reliable if they are a true record of historical facts. They are doctrinally reliable if they are true sources of religious teaching or doctrine.
There are two criteria for the doctrinal reliability of the Bible. First, the books must be of divine origin, and secondly, they must be free of errors and contradictions. However, these two issues (divine origin and inerrancy) will be discussed in other pages of this website. The aim in this webpage is merely to show that the Bible, as it is known today, is reliable as a historical document.
Tests of Historicity
The “Bible” is actually not one book, but a collection of several books written by different authors, at different places, and at different times in the world’s history. Also, the books were originally written in different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek), and have undergone several translations through the years. One important translation is St. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, which the Catholic Church universally used since the fourth century.
The historicity of the Bible can be established by three tests:
Is the Bible an authentic or genuine historical document? Are there internal and external evidences available to show that the Bible is not just a recent fabrication, but is truly a product of its own time?
Is the Bible intact and its contents substantially the same today as when they were first written? Or have the books of the Bible undergone manipulation and extensive alteration through the ages?
Is the Bible a trustworthy and truthful record of facts, messages and events? Are there evidences pointing to the credibility of the things, places, persons and events described in the Bible? Were the authors honest and truthful?
These three tests will be applied in evaluating the historical reliability of both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
Historical Reliability of the Old Testament (O.T.)
The Books of the Old Testament are Authentic.
There are internal and external evidences attesting the fact that the books of the Old Testament belonged to the Israelites and were regarded as their sacred writings:
The internal evidences (which are derived from the document itself, in this case the Old Testament books) are passages from the Old Testament indicating who the authors of the scriptures were, and what the Jews did with them. For example, the Old Testament books themselves say that Moses wrote the Law of the Lord (Deut 31:9) and that Joshua made additions to it (Jos. 24:26). Samuel wrote the law of the kingdom and laid it up before the Lord (1 Sam 10:25). Isaiah made prophecies and bound his disciples to remember them (Isa 8:16). King Hezekiah commanded the Jews to praise the Lord with the words of David (2 Chr 29:30). So, for the Jews the O.T. books are not just records of historical events, but a testament to their relationship with God.
The external evidences (which are extrinsic to the Old Testament itself) consist of the testimony of Christ regarding the Old Testament books. If our Lord knew that any of the texts of the Old Testament were not genuine, He would have pointed that out and rejected it. But He did not. Instead, He endorsed the O.T. texts by quoting them and declaring that the O.T. prophecies need to be fulfilled. For example, when confronted by Satan, Christ rebuked him by saying, “It is written, Not in bread alone does man live, but in every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4), which is a quotation from Deut 8:3. Also, Christ affirmed the correctness of the O.T. prophecies when He said, “For amen I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, not one jot, nor one tittle shall pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” (Matt 5:18).
Christ quoted the Old Testament books when answering the devil. This indicates His endorsement that the Old Testament books were genuine.
The Temptation of Christ by the Devil
A painting by Felix Joseph Barrias (1822-1907)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
The Books of the Old Testament are Intact.
We have a good indication of this from the following:
The Old Testament books were regarded by the Jews as sacred writings. Therefore, the Jews safeguarded them jealously as their most precious heritage. The reverence that the Jews had for their scriptures was noted by the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus:
“---and how firmly we have given credit to those books of our own nation is evident by what we do; for during so many ages as have already passed, no one has been so bold as either to add anything to them or take anything from them, or to make any change in them; but it becomes natural to all Jews, immediately and from their very birth, to esteem those books to contain divine doctrines, and to persist in them, and, if occasion be, willingly to die for them.” – Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, Book I, #8.
The Jews read their Scriptures reverently because Moses ordered the Law, which he had written, to be placed in the side of the Ark of the Covenant, to be read and be preserved there for posterity (See Deut 31:9-13 and 24-26). And, when the priest Ezra read the Mosaic Law to the people (Neh 8:1-3) at about 450 B.C., the tradition continued. The Jews read the writings of the prophets and expounded on them in their synagogues. They committed many of the O.T. passages to memory as they taught them to their children. They also used the Psalms of King David in their public worship. Surely, any alteration, omission or corruption of the sacred texts would not have remained undetected.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, accidentally discovered in 1947, add new evidence to the integrity of the Old Testament texts. The scrolls were made by a group of monk-like Jews who lived in Qumran from 150 B.C. to A.D. 70, and who spent their lives tilling the fields, and studying and copying the Scriptures. This group belonged to a separate sect known as the Essenes, who differed notably from the Pharisees and Sadducees. Now, when news of the Roman invasion reached them, they placed the scrolls in jars and hid them in caves along the northwest corner of the Dead Sea. There the scrolls remained hidden for centuries until they were discovered by a Bedouin shepherd in 1947. The scrolls have now been recovered. Included in the find were the earliest manuscript copy of the book of Isaiah (dating to 125 B.C.), Habakkuk, the books of Samuel, and many complete and partially complete copies of Old Testament books, ̶ including Hebrew copies of the deuterocanonical books! When these manuscripts (from about 100 B.C.) were diligently compared with the Massoretic texts (from A.D. 900), the similarity is found to be extremely close, with nothing but very trivial differences. The striking similarity of the texts produced in a time period spanning almost a thousand years indicates that the Old Testament texts had been copied faithfully by generations of copyists from their original sources, and had remained intact.
The Books of the Old Testament are Trustworthy.
Not all books of the Old Testament are historical. Some are doctrinal (such as the Book of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) And still others are prophetic (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, etc.). However, even doctrinal and prophetic books often contain accounts of past events. Archaeological evidence shows that the things, places, persons and events described in Holy Scripture are factual and not legendary. This is important because, if this is the case, then the books of the Old Testament can serve as reliable and trustworthy sources of divine revelation. Although the doctrinal books are not strictly historical, the sublime and elevated character of their teachings are also enough to convince any sincere person of the trustworthiness of their source. On the other hand, the trustworthiness of the prophetical books is automatically established when the prophecies, uttered long before the coming of Christ, were fulfilled in Christ Himself.
The account of Creation, given in the first chapters of Genesis, actually belongs to “pre-history” rather than history. It is not fair (nor reasonable) to expect the tools of archaeological research to prove or refute its historicity in the same manner as one proves, for example, the historicity of the Exodus. The story of Creation, as well as that of Adam and Eve, is revealed truth in literary form. It is accurate in its religious message, but not in its literary details. So, are the events in the beginning chapters of Genesis historical in any true sense at all? Yes, in the sense that they actually happened, although not in the literary way that they were described. Fundamentally, Genesis reveals that (a) the world was created in time, (b) all humans descended from one pair of parents who were directly created by God, and (c) our first parents were tempted by the devil, and sinned. All these are historically correct, and must be regarded as facts. The other details, such as the imagery of the tree with a forbidden fruit, are just convenient literary tools used by the writer to convey a religious message.
Therefore, the historical books of the Old Testament are historical in the true sense of the word. (See Pius XII, Humani Generis, #38.) The persons and places cited actually existed, and the events actually happened. Today the various sciences of archaeology, paleontology, geology, etc., provide plenty of evidences that, although not completely demonstrative, still point to the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the biblical accounts. The following are a few examples:
The biblical story of Noah and the Ark speaks of a Great Flood that covered “all the high mountains under the whole heaven” (Gen 7:19). The story might seem mythological at first. But, in addition to the fact that many countries all over the world have tales of a cataclysmic flood that once devastated humankind, the hypothesis of a global flood actually fit many pieces of geological data, such as fossils of marine animals being found at higher elevations on the earth’s surface, etc. See What are Some of the Best Flood Evidences? Taken singly, these facts do NOT prove the biblical Deluge; but collectively they serve as verifications of the Flood hypothesis. Regarding the Ark of Noah itself, it is possible that it was dismantled shortly after the flood, because it was never mentioned again elsewhere in the Scriptures. However, claims of finding the Ark, or portions of the Ark, continue to be made, and the evidences are still being studied. See Has Anyone Discovered Noah’s Ark?
The story of the Tower of Babel, which was recorded in Gen 11:1-9, is significant because it tells us how the different languages of the world originated. The story might appear legendary, but recent archaeological discoveries and philological studies indicate that the world’s languages might indeed have a common origin. Tales from Mesopotamia and other parts of the world made reference to a single language at the beginning of human civilization. See Confusion of Languages. On the other hand, the foundations of massive structures, known as the ziggurat, were also found in Babylon (now called Iraq) and were thought to be a model for the Tower of Babel described in the Bible. This at least indicates that the technology for undertaking a huge building project, like the one described in the Bible, was not unknown in the ancient world. See Is there Archaeological Evidence of the Tower of Babel?
Tower of Babel
An artist's illustration by Samuel Laing, 1892
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Ziggurat of Ur (Iraq)
Photo by Kaufingdude
CC BY-SA 3.0 license: commons.wikimedia.org
On November 18, 2008, a PBS documentary entitled The Bible’s Buried Secrets, was broadcast on National TV that seemed to cast doubt on the historicity of Abraham, Jacob and the other patriarchs. Unfortunately, the documentary never mentioned that in 1936, thousands of cuneiform tablets were unearthed from the ancient city of Mari, in Northern Syria, which not only mentioned the names of many of the people and places during the patriarchal period, but even confirmed in detail the ancient laws and common practices at that time and place. See Great Discoveries in Biblical Archaeology: The Mari Archive.
The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, cited in Gen 14:8, were once considered purely legendary, because efforts to locate them were initially unsuccessful. Even their names could not be found anywhere outside the Bible. Yet these cities were important, for they were used by our Lord and by the Apostles in their teachings as illustrations of God’s just punishments (Matt 10:15, 2 Pet 2:6 and Jude 1:7). Recent archaeological investigations prove the historicity of these cities. Excavations made in 1964-1975 at Tell Mardikh, the site of the old city of Ebla in northern Syria, unearthed about 17000 clay tablets dating back to 2300 B.C. Some of these tablets contain inscriptions that have recently been translated. In one of them the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were mentioned. See The EBLA Tablets. Not only were the names of these cities found etched in stone, but there is also evidence that the actual locations of these cities have been identified. Excavations at suspected sites east of the Dead Sea made in 1965, 1967 and 1973 disclosed that these sites were at one time populous cities that were destroyed by a catastrophic fire, thus matching the biblical record of these two cities (Gen 19:24-25). See The Discovery of the Sin Cities of Sodom and Gomorrah
Up until recently archaeologists found no physical evidence of Israelites being at one time in Egypt as the Bible says. This led many bible critics to declare that the story of Joseph, the Pharaoh’s famous Hebrew dream interpreter who later became the Pharaoh’s Chief Steward and Vizier of all Egypt, was only a legend. The critics also claimed that because Egyptologists could find only a handful of Israelites in Egypt in 1300 BC, the so-called mass Exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt was just a myth. However, the problem here is one of chronology. In 1 Kgs 6:1, it is stated that the Exodus happened 480 years before the fourth year of King Solomon (c. 966 B.C.). This puts the year of the Exodus at 1446 BC, not 1300 B.C. The Egyptologists did not find very many Israelites in Egypt in 1300 B.C. because the Israelites had already left! Had the Egyptologists used the Bible’s chronology and searched for Israelite settlements in Egypt in an earlier period, then they would have discovered the large population of Hebrew slaves prior to, and during the time of, Moses. They also would have situated Joseph properly as belonging to the 19th, rather than the 15th century B.C. In fact, extensive excavations made in 1966 by Prof. Manfred Bietak at Tell el-Daba (east of the Nile Delta) disclosed for the first time new archaeological evidences of Hebrew settlement in Goshen (later called the City of Ramesses). The physical evidences include not only peasant-type cities with houses of typical Hebrew construction, but also mass graves with numerous skeletons and Palestinian weapons. A palace, a large tomb and a broken statue have also been identified as possibly belonging to Joseph before his body was removed and transferred to Shechem in Canaan (Jos 24:32). See Israelites in Egypt. Interesting Youtube Video: Strong Evidence for Joseph’s Tomb and Palace. There is also evidence that, based on Barbara Bell’s studies (1975) on the Egyptian water level records of the Nile River during the 12th dynasty, the famine that struck Egypt during the time of Joseph might be due to the erratic behavior of the Nile River that often caused flooding and destruction of crops. See Is the Story of Joseph in the Bible a True Story?
For a long time the Church believed that Moses (c. 1700–1400 B.C.) wrote the first five books of the Bible, otherwise known as the Pentateuch, because God commanded him to write them down, and he did (Ex 17:14; 24:4; 34:27; Deut 31:9; 31:24-26). But some Bible critics claimed that Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch because they assumed that the art of writing had not yet been invented during the time of Moses (documentary hypothesis). However, the so-called “black stele,” excavated in 1901 by Jacques de Morgan from a site in Susa, Iran, disclosed the famous Code of Hammurabi, containing 4000 lines of text chiseled in the stele, and encoding the ancient laws of Babylon! This discovery was an embarrassment to the proponents of the documentary hypothesis, because the artifact antedated Moses by at least three hundred years. See Code of Hammurabi: Ancient Babylonian Laws. Also, the inscriptions in the EBLA Tablets date at least a thousand years before Moses, indubitably proving again that written language was no longer a new invention at the time of Moses. Incidentally, to speak of Moses as the author of the Pentateuch does not mean that he was the sole author, but that he was the principal human author. It also does not exclude the possibility that future editors added some detail in the Scriptures either by his instruction or from a tradition that he had started, and of which he was the primary source. In fact, Joshua made additions to the law (Jos 24:26).
The Bible says that God sent Ten Plagues to Egypt before the Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave. Is there any evidence of such calamities hitting Egypt during the time of Moses? A papyrus manuscript, found in Memphis, Egypt, and now kept in the National Archaeological Museum in Leiden, Netherlands, contains a poem written by an Egyptian named Ipuwer, which speaks of the chaotic conditions in Egypt at about the time of the Exodus. Many Egyptologists try to downplay the importance of the evidence because (1) the Ipuwer account is presented in the form of poetry rather than historical prose, and (2) the events described (if true) could be memories of past disasters that happened in Egypt way before Moses, or even way before Joseph. However, the fact that the story is stated in poetic language does not prove that it is purely imaginary. And to say that the Ipuwer papyrus was recounting events that happened in Egypt way before Moses is pure speculation. The papyrus is the only extant copy of the poem, so it would be difficult to determine the exact date of its original composition. However, the papyrus itself dates pretty close to the time of the Exodus. So, it at least deserves further study rather than outright rejection. Also, it is not just the similarities between the Ipuwer poem and the biblical narrative that need to be explained. There is also one detail that does not allow the evidence to be lightly dismissed. If the Ipuwer manuscript merely said that a disaster hit Egypt in the form of a pestilence, drought, famine, lightning, etc., then its similarity with the Holy Scripture narrative would not cause one to wonder, for those are natural calamities. But when one reads that “the river [Nile] is blood” (Ipuwer, Chapter 2), and compares it with the Biblical text that says the water of the river “was turned into blood” (Ex 7:20), then the similarity of the two events, ̶ if indeed they were two different events, ̶ is totally unexpected. Instead of indicating two different events, such language betrays rather a common experience of a unique event that happened once in one place. For the full text of the Ipuwer papyrus, see “The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage.” For a comparison of the Ipuwer text with the biblical narrative, see Is there extra-biblical evidence of the ten plagues of Egypt?
"Indeed, the river is blood, yet men drink of it. Men shrink from human beings and thirst after water."
- The Admonitions of an Egyptian Sage, Ch.2
"Thus therefore saith the Lord: In this thou shalt know that I am the Lord: behold I will strike with the rods that is in my hand, the water of the river, and it shall be turned into blood."
- Exodus 7:17
Water of the River Changed into Blood
Watercolor painting by James Jacques Tissot (1836-1902)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Finding physical evidences for the Exodus is a big challenge for bible scholars. Indeed, many scholars complained that they could not find any evidence of the Exodus in Egypt. There are two reasons for this.
1. The first reason is the antiquity of the event itself. Some might think that, with over two million Hebrew slaves leaving Egypt and travelling for forty years on foot toward Canaan, that they would at least leave some trace of their journey. But, after 200 years of archaeological research none have been found. Of course, it must be admitted that very few objects could really stand the ravages of time. This is true, not only of the evidences for the Exodus, but also those of any ancient event. For example, if the Battle of Kadesh had not been documented also in stone tablets or temple walls (Karnak temple), we would not know that a major war between Egypt (under Ramesses II) and the Hittite Empire happened in the 13th century B.C. There were 50,000 soldiers with about 5000 chariots and horses who fought in the Battle of Kadesh (near the Orontes River), but they left no direct tangible evidences that could disclose the fact to us today – no broken bones, armors or weapons. Often, the evidences, if there are any, are buried tens of feet below the ground. This shows that large groups of people could be very active in one area of the Ancient Near East and leave us no trace of their presence there.
2. Another reason why evidences for the Exodus are difficult to find, is the human tendency to record only our victories, our accomplishments and our friends, and to be silent about our defeats, our failures, and our enemies. One can see, for instance, how Pharaoh Thutmose III tried to erase any memory of his predecessor, Queen Hatshepsut, from Egypt ̶ even chiseling out her image from the walls of her mortuary temple – because he hated her. So, it is likely that the real players and the characters in the Exodus story, as well as the events prior to and during the Exodus, were deliberately not recorded by the Egyptians, or the evidences were intentionally destroyed by later leaders, to cover up an embarrassing moment in Egypt’s history – the year when the mighty Egyptian Army failed to stop the escape of runaway slaves. See Ancient Egypt’s Silence About the Exodus.
Notwithstanding the lack of direct physical evidences, the Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus believed in its historicity. See The History, Vol. II, Book 5, paragraph 5.3–5.5. In addition, Christ confirmed that the Exodus was factual. He even used the events that happened in the wilderness to elucidate His teachings on the Eucharist (See John 6:49-51). But, archaeological research continues to this day. While the question of evidences for the Exodus is not finally settled, no one can justly say that archaeology has discredited the historicity of the Exodus either. And those who pronounce the Exodus to be just a legend have some serious explaining to do, too. If the Plagues of Egypt, the Exodus, the Crossing of the Red Sea, and the miracles that happened in the desert, were purely mythical stories that had been passed on orally from generation to generation until they were put down in writing, then how did such a big myth come to be accepted as true by the entire nation of Israel? Doubtless, myths can be passed on as myths. But a story cannot be passed on as true or as sacred unless the first generation of story tellers and listeners actually lived the story, witnessed its authenticity, and passed the truth to their children. The argument is very well stated in this reference: Historical Verification of the Torah.
Although the Hittites were mentioned several times in the Old Testament (e.g., Ex 3:8; Num 13:30, Jos 24:11, etc.), many historians denied the existence of the Hittites and declared the Bible untrustworthy. Why? Because for centuries they were unable to find any evidence that the Hittites existed. Yet the Hittites were a very powerful people and their civilization flourished from 1600 to 1200 B.C. They were descendants of Canaan (Gen 10:15), who was a grandson of Noah. They were counted among the people whom the Israelites had to conquer in going to Canaan (Deut 7:1). Unlike the Israelites, the Hittites were polytheistic, nature worshipers and idolaters, which is why God did not want the Israelites to mingle with them (Ex 23:28-33). Today there are numerous archaeological data that show not only that the Hittites existed, but that they also had a vast empire and an advanced civilization that rivaled those of Assyria and Egypt in the ancient world. (See Map of the Hittite Empire.) The discovery of the Hittites started when in 1876 the British scholar A. H. Sayce found rock inscriptions in Turkey referring to the Hittites. Further excavations in the city of Boghaz-Koy (in northern Turkey) disclosed various Hittite artifacts, sculptures, five temples, a castle, and a big library filled with more than 10,000 clay tablets containing cuneiform records of Hittite customs, laws and political affairs. Further evidence was found with the discovery of a silver tablet containing a peace treaty – the first peace treaty in history! - between Pharaoh Ramesses II and the Hittite Empire. A large copy of this treaty is even inscribed on a wall of the great Temple of Karnak in Thebes (now Luxor), Egypt. See The Battle of Kadesh and the First Peace Treaty.
A Tablet of the Treaty of Kadesh
Photo by Gabbhh
CC BY-SA 3.0 license: commons.wikimedia.org
The conquest of Jericho is a favorite chapter in Old Testament literature. Not only is it a tale of faith and courage, but it is also a testament to God’s truthful promises. According to the Bible, Jericho was a heavily fortified city with tall and massive walls around it. The poorly equipped army of Hebrew slaves had no means of entering the small city. So, God ordered Josue and his fighting men to march around the city once a day for six days, then seven times on the seventh day; then at the last time all the people, who previously should have remained quiet, should shout together really loud when they hear their priests blow the trumpets. This they did, and the defense walls of Jericho came tumbling down. The Hebrew slaves were then able to enter the city and burn it down (Jos 6:24). Of course, the noise was not what caused the walls to collapse. Bible scholars speculate that an earthquake probably took place when the Israelites shouted, and it caused the walls to fall. Tell es-Sultan, the archaeological site of the ancient city, is about 6 miles from the Jordan River and northwest of the Dead Sea. Excavations that were started in the 19th century, and continued in the 1950s and 1990s, disclosed what remains of the ancient city. Early studies at first led to the conclusion that the city was destroyed in 1550 B.C., which seemed to invalidate Biblical chronology. However, later studies of potteries found at the site proved that the destruction actually happened in 1400 B.C., which was exactly the time when the Bible said Josue entered Canaan. Of course, no one can prove that an earthquake occurred when the Israelites shouted, but at least archaeologists were able to verify, not only that the walls of Jericho did fall down, but that there was also massive destruction by fire in the city. See The Walls of Jericho
The story of Samson and Delilah is one that does not fail to fascinate people of all ages. The faith and strength of Samson were God-given gifts, and how he used them to defend Israel against its enemies – the Philistines – is one that will always be remembered. But did this story really happen? Archaeology cannot prove history, but it provides evidences that could enhance the trustworthiness of historical data.
1. In the story of Samson and Delilah it was said that Samson single-handedly caused the entire temple of Dagon (the Philistine grain god) to collapse, thus killing many Philistines and their leaders. This story might seem incredible at first until one learns how a Philistine temple was typically built. In 1972 a Philistine temple had been uncovered by archaeologists in the western part of central Israel. The temple is in Tel Qasile, which is north of Tel Aviv. This temple is small, measuring only 26’ x 47’ in plan, but it has a unique architecture. Its roof is basically supported by two middle pillars, about seven feet apart. A beam probably rests on top of these pillars, and together they support the rest of the roof structure. The pillars are made of wood, although they rest on stone foundations. Excavations made in 1981-1996 at Tel Miqne, another archaeological site 21 miles south of Tel Aviv, uncovered other Philistine temples that also show the same centrally-located two-pillar constructions. Now, we know that the temple of Dagon that Samson destroyed was a much bigger building, because it held so many people (Jgs 16:27). But this temple is presently under the city of Gaza, so it cannot be unearthed. However, if the old temple of Dagon was similar in construction to the temples at Tel Qasile and Tel Miqne, then it probably had the same centrally located two pillar construction. It is conceivable that a big man with the super-human strength of Samson could dislodge these posts from their foundation just by bracing himself against them – with the left hand on one pillar and the right hand on the other – just the way the Bible said it happened (Jgs 16:29-30). Sure, archaeology will never be able to prove that Samson was that strong, but at least it confirmed the two-pillar construction of the Philistine temple described by the Bible. The argument is simply this: If the Bible is correct in describing this particular detail (the architecture), then it is probably correct also in the other details (Samson’s strength). See The Story of Samson and Archaeology.
Samson and Delilah
An oil painting by Jose Echenagusia Errazkin (1844-1912)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
2. Also, in July, 2012, a news article was published in the Daily Mail website stating that a coin, which dates to 11th century B.C., was found in Tell Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem, Israel. For a picture of the coin, see Samson Coin Found! The news said that the coin depicted Samson struggling with a lion, which the Bible said he killed with his bare hands (Jgs 14:6). Now, although the coin was obviously made to commemorate Samson, this discovery of itself does not prove Samson’s strength, nor does it prove that Samson existed. However, it is significant that an artifact outside the Bible itself, confirms the tale of Samson at exactly the right time when he was supposed to have lived ̶ the time of the Philistines! This discovery, like any discovery in archaeology, does not prove the Bible. But it adds a little more weight to the credibility and trustworthiness of the Biblical narratives.
The historicity of King David was also at one time disputed, because for years archaeologists failed to find any record of him outside the Bible. In 1993, however, a basalt inscription from a broken fragment, known as the Tel Dan Stele, was found in Israel, which dates back to the eighth century B.C. The inscription commemorates the victory of a Syrian king over two other neighboring kings ̶ the king of Israel and the king of the “house of David,” which is the kingdom of Judah. The evidence is significant because it mentions not merely the name of David, but also the “house of David,” suggesting a kingdom. Although not explicitly named in the stele, the Syrian king was probably King Hazael (2 Kgs 8:24-28), who won over Jehoram, the king of Israel, and Ahaziah, son and successor of Jehoram, king of Judah. (Note that there were two kings here by the name Jehoram). The inscription is the first physical evidence we have of the existence of King David. See the Tel-Dan Inscription.
Tel Dan Inscription
First physical evidence of the real existence of King David.
Photographed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem by yoav dothan.
GNU Free Documentation License: commons.wikimedia.org
1. What about the story of David and Goliath? Could the young David really have killed Goliath with a slingshot? The truthful answer is Yes! First of all, David was no longer a mere lad when he engaged Goliath in combat. The Bible described him as “a skillful player, and one of great strength, and a man fit for war” (1 Sam 16:18). Secondly, David was skillful with the sling, although that was not unusual during that period (because the sling was regarded as a military weapon). The Bible said that in the tribe of Benjamin alone there were seven hundred fighters, “every one of them able to sling a stone at a hair without missing” (Jgs 20:16). As a confirmation of the use of slings and stones during the time of David, it is worthwhile to mention that in one excavation site, Khirbet el-Maqatir, 10 miles north of Jerusalem, archaeologists were able to dig out nearly three dozen sling stones, indicating the popularity of the weapon. See Slings and Stones.
2. Was Goliath really a giant, and did giants really exist at that time? The Bible described Goliath as having a height of “six cubits and a span” (1 Sam 17:4) Since each cubit is about 18 inches, and a span is half a cubit, then Goliath must have been 9’ 9” tall – a giant compared to most of the Philistine soldiers. Could this be real? Actually, there are giants even today, but these are often “diseased” people, or people suffering from an abnormal condition known as gigantism (the opposite disease is dwarfism). Robert Pershing Wadlow was a recent example, having reached a height of nearly 9 feet before he died in 1940. But from ancient times to more recent times giant people, ranging in height from 7 ft to 14 ft, have been reported all over the world ̶ in Australia, China, Ireland, Greece, Africa, Israel, Egypt, and in North and South America. See Top Giant Discoveries in North America. In his travels Marco Polo saw giants in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of central east Africa. See Marco Polo, De mirabilibus mundi (The Wonders of the World), Ch. XXXIV. In his expeditions Ferdinand Magellan also saw giants in South America, from the account made by Antonio Pigafetta, Ferdinand Magellan's Voyage around the World, pp. 49-55. Giants were also found even in the U.S, although the Smithsonian Institution tried to hide this fact from the public. See Smithsonian admits destroying giant human skeletons. Goliath just happened to be one well-known giant in Old Testament literature, but he was not the only one. The bible had spoken of a race of giants in ancient times (Gen 6:4; Num 13:31-34; Deut 2:10-11). These were real giants. They were not diseased individuals, but normal for their kind. The fact that giants were mentioned in the Bible does not make the Bible a tall tale. See Giants in the Old Testament and Around the World.
The reputation of King Solomon as the wisest and richest king of Israel had been viewed with skepticism by Bible critics for many years. The Bible said that Solomon built not only a lavishly ornamented temple (1 Kgs 6:1-38) and an opulent palace (1 Kgs 7:1-51), but also the fortified cities of Jerusalem, Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer (1 Kgs 9:15). It also said that he had a navy docked on the shore of the Red Sea in the land of Edom (1 Kgs 9:26), and a staggering number of chariots and horses (1 Kgs 10:26). His gold inventory was astounding, and his wealth was unsurpassed by that of any other king (1 Kgs 10:24). He wasn’t merely rich in material possessions, but he was also rich in women, for he had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kgs 11:3). Critics of the Bible felt that the descriptions of King Solomon given in the Bible were grossly exaggerated, and that there was no evidence that King Solomon or his wealth ever existed outside the Bible itself. However, many scholars and archaeologists today disagree.
1. There is little direct evidence attesting the historicity of King Solomon and his wealth. Much of the data available only serve as indirect evidences of his reign. Archaeological data disclosed that King Solomon (c. 970-931 B.C.) lived at a time when the neighboring kingdoms around Israel were in decline. This means that he did not have many powerful rivals in the region during his reign. His reign was characterized by peace and stability. Unlike other kings, he did not waste his resources building armies and making war. Instead, he directed his power toward building cities and promoting industries. In addition, King Solomon was a wise ruler. He did not antagonize foreign leaders, but made friends with them. He even married the princesses of other lands and received precious gifts from their kings. His fame reached far beyond his own empire. One of Solomon’s admirers was the rich Queen of Sheba, who brought many precious gifts when she paid him a visit. The affluence and wealth of ancient Sheba was noted by both ancient and modern historians. King Solomon was also friends with King Hiram of Tyre, who supported him not merely by giving him treasures and gifts, but also by providing him the skilled personnel he needed for his projects. His treaty with King Hiram (1 Kgs 5:12), although no longer available today, was still extant during the time of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, for he testified about it in his book Antiquities of the Jews, Book VIII, Chapter II, paragraph 8. Josephus’ testimony, written a thousand years after the fact, only affords an indirect evidence for King Solomon. But this evidence together with all other available archaeological data provide us with insights on how King Solomon became as wealthy as the Bible described him to be, and reasons for trusting the biblical accounts. Solomon’s resourcefulness and wisdom, his desire for peace and tranquility, and his popularity even with other foreign rulers (2 Chr 9:23), were the credible foundations of his phenomenal success. See The Golden Age of Israel.
2. The site of King Solomon’s Temple cannot be excavated at present because it stands close to the Muslim holy place, the Dome of the Rock. Unfortunately, this means that no direct evidence for King Solomon’s Temple would be available anytime soon. However, excavations at other contemporary temple sites in Syria and Palestine had given indirect, extra-biblical support to the trustworthiness of the biblical narratives. For example, the Ain Dara temple in Syria, which was in use from 1300 to 740 B.C., shows a remarkable similarity with the biblical description of King Solomon’s Temple. This indicates that the design or architecture of Solomon’s Temple as described in the Bible was not the invention of later biblical writers, but was the “state of the art” in temple construction during that time. This means that the biblical description of Solomon’s Temple was worthy of belief. See Searching for the Temple of King Solomon. The same can be said about the embellishments and use of gold in King Solomon’s Temple. Many critics find it hard to believe that a Temple in tenth century Jerusalem could be so richly ornamented as described in Holy Scripture (3 Kgs 6:14-38). But archaeological studies show that this was exactly how temples were decorated in antiquity, not just in Palestine, but even in Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Inscriptions and other physical evidences from 1550 B.C. in Egypt to 540 B.C. in Babylon show the propensity of ancient peoples to embellish their temples, palaces and important monuments with extensive coverings of art and gold. See King Solomon in His Ancient Context.
3. Excavations had been made at the site of the old cities that King Solomon built; namely, Hazor, Megiddo and Gezer. The gates to these walled cities had been found, and were all of excellent quality construction. In Megiddo archaeologists also found a very large, paved stable, with single stalls for 450 horses and sheds for 150 chariots. This is probably one of those “cities of the chariots” where King Solomon kept his horses, because the Bible said that he actually had 40,000 horses and 12,000 chariots (1 Kgs 4:26; 2 Chr 9:25). This discovery gives yet another valuable confirmation of the truthfulness of the biblical accounts. See The Stables of Solomon
The Southern Stables at Tel Meggido, Israel
Posted by Carole Raddato
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4. The Bible said that King Solomon also had a navy at the Red Sea. Once every three years his fleet would go with the servants of King Hiram to Tarshish and bring home shipments of gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks (2 Chr 9:21). Now, Tharsis is an ancient place whose exact location is unknown to present-day historians. Some say that it is near Spain. Others say that it is an island close to India or South Africa. Still others identify it with the land of Ophir (2 Chr 8:18), where King Solomon got much of the gold that he used for his temple. The exact geographical location of Ophir is also unknown. But lest one thinks that this is just another mythical place mentioned in the Bible, a word must be said about an inscription in an ancient pottery that was unearthed in Tell Qasile (modern day Tel Aviv) in 1946. The inscription mentions the “gold of Ophir,” and is dated to 8th century B.C. This confirms that Ophir was not a mythical island, but a real place in antiquity. See The Gold of Ophir Inscription.
5. The Bible clearly said that King Solomon obtained his gold (a) from friends who gave them to him as gifts, (b) from trading, or (c) from conquests. The idea that Solomon had his own gold mine was proposed, and the speculation was augmented by Sir Rider Haggard’s novel, King Solomon’s Mines, which was published in 1885. Some say that the copper mine recently discovered in the land of Edom (now part of Jordan), although operated by the Edomites, could have been controlled by King Solomon. However, this hypothesis is still unsubstantiated. There is no hard evidence yet that King Solomon, rich as he was in gold and other metals, ever engaged in the mining industry ̶ gold, silver or copper.
6. Solomon had many wives, one of whom was the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh. This practice of having more than one wife and intermarrying with people of other faiths, was against God’s law, but King Solomon did it anyway to satisfy his worldly ambitions and to gain the favor of other kings and rulers. But 700 wives! Was that possible? It indeed is incredible, but when one sees this, not as a purely animal goal, but as a political strategy to promote good will with neighboring territories, Solomon’s many wives become easier to believe. The Bible said that his many pagan wives eventually led him to idolatry, for which God punished him by allowing his enemies to divide his kingdom. But for the sake of his father, King David, the division of the kingdom was permitted by God to happen only after his death (3 Kgs 11:11-13). See If bigamy is sinful, why did King Solomon have so many wives?
7. Much more can be said of King Solomon. Here is an informative article from the Wikipedia: Solomon.
While the Tel Dan inscription provided evidence of the historicity of King David, many inscriptions had also been found that confirm the historicity of other kings and personalities in the Old Testament, particularly in 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc. For example:
1. The Egyptian king, known as King Sheshonq I in Egyptian records but who is mentioned in the Bible as King Shishak (or Sesac in the Douay Bible), was the one who plundered Jerusalem in 925 BC during the reign of King Roboam. He took away not merely the golden shields of Solomon, but also the treasures of King Solomon’s temple (1 Kgs 14:25-26). For many years he was known only to readers of the Bible, and was unknown to many secular historians. However, recent excavations in Thebes, Egypt, revealed inscriptions at the south exterior walls of the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, which narrate King Shishak’s military campaigns and successes. Due to this inscription historians have learned more about King Shishak and nobody denies his historicity anymore. Biblical scholars believe that the gold and silver he donated to the temples of Egypt, when his son (Osorkon I) took the throne, came from the treasures of Solomon. See What Evidence has been found of the Egyptian king, Shishak?
2. The prophet Isaiah (Isa 20:1) spoke of an Assyrian King by the name of Sargon, known today as Sargon II. At one time many modern critics thought that no such king actually existed because no historian of the ancient world knew him. However, archaeological excavations made in 1843 at Khorsabad (the site of the old city of Nineveh, Iraq) disclosed not only several inscriptions referring to him, but even a stone relief of his image! This discovery is yet another example illustrating an important principle in archaeology: The absence of evidence is not necessarily an evidence of absence. See Sargon II
Assyrian Art from the city of Dur-Sharrukin (modern-day Khorsabad, Iraq): A stone relief of King Sargon II of Assyria, located at the Eastern Antiquities in the Louvre Museum, Room 4.
Meeting of King Sargon II and a Dignitary
Photographed by Sailko
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3. The archaeological evidences that confirm the historicity of other kings and personalities in the Old Testament are too numerous to mention, but some of the more important ones are summarized in this reference: 53 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically.
Many historians of antiquity used to think that the Book of Daniel contain many amazing accounts that belong more to folklore than to history. Examples of these accounts are the story of the three Hebrew boys who were thrown into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship the Babylonian god of gold (Dan 3:1-100), and the famous story of Daniel in the Lion’s den (Dan 6:1-28). In addition, many historians did not find the book of Daniel historically exact because it cited Belshazzar as the last king of Babylon before the kingdom was overcome by Darius the Mede, yet his name was nowhere found in the Babylonian records. In fact, the king on record before the downfall of the kingdom was King Nabonidus. See List of Babylonian Kings. However, recent archaeological findings indicate that the Bible is actually correct at every one of these points.
1. The fiery furnace. Many critics at first did not believe that the Babylonians would engage in the practice of burning people alive until archaeologists excavated a cone-shaped structure in Babylon that looked like a firing kiln, along with a cuneiform inscription stating that the furnace was for burning people who blasphemed the gods of Chaldea. See Highlights of Archaeology in Bible Lands, p. 9
2. The lion’s den. This is another item in the book of Daniel that had been viewed with much skepticism. Of course, archaeology cannot prove the miracle of lions being tamed in the presence of Daniel, but it is a known fact that Assyrians (including Babylonians and Persians) hunted lions and, if so, then they must have made some place to keep them. The so-called “lion’s den” did not have to be a special structure, for it could have been just an open pit on the ground (Nah 2:11-12). That animals were used to execute the enemies of the king was not incredible either, as the Romans did the same to the early Christians in New Testament times. In fact, there are published archaeological articles reporting that this type of punishment was also practiced, at least to a limited extent, in ancient Babylon. See Highlights of Archaeology in Bible Lands, pp.10-11
3. The historicity of Belshazzar. Although the name “Belshazzar” was not on the list of Babylonian kings, an inscription found in an artifact, known as the "Nabonidus Cylinder," identified Belshazzar as King Nabonidus’ firstborn son. This means that Belshazzar was a real person, a crowned prince of Babylon, not a fictitious character in Daniel’s account. The reason that Daniel spoke of him as “Belshazzar the king” (Dan 5:1) was because the eccentric King Nabonidus, without resigning his position as King, entrusted the office of kingship to his son when he moved to Teima (northern Arabia). So, during his absence and until the fall of the kingdom, the king was officially Nabonidus, but effectively or in practice it was his son Belshazzar. See The Big Three: Nabonidus, Belshazzar and Daniel.
Describes Belshazzar as Nabonidus' firstborn son.
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Historical Reliability of the New Testament (N.T.)
The New Testament (books written after the birth of Christ) contains 27 books, which both Catholics and Protestants follow. The New Testament contains four gospels, twenty-one epistles, and the book of Revelation. All books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek, except the gospel of St. Matthew, which was in Aramaic.
Like the books of the Old Testament, all the books of the New Testament are no longer extant. We owe copies of them from the painstaking labor of many dedicated Catholic monks who carefully and faithfully hand-copied the texts of both the Old and New Testament in their monasteries. However, it is possible to show by internal and external evidences that the New Testament literature as we know it today is also reliable.
The Books of the New Testament are Authentic.
There are internal evidences that can be presented to show that the New Testament books are not fake but genuine, and that they are not merely recent documents pretending to be ancient.
1. The books themselves reflect the people, institutions, laws and practices of the time and locality where they were allegedly written.
2. The style of writing and the language in which the books were written show that the literature belongs to the age when the books were supposed to have originated.
There are also external evidences that prove that the New Testament texts are not counterfeit but authentic; that means, they originated from the Apostles or from their disciples.
1. Just as Christ’s act of quoting and using the Old Testament serves as an external evidence pointing to the authenticity of Old Testament books, so the testimony of the early Christians and the frequent quotations they made of the New Testament books serve as external evidences pointing to the authenticity and apostolic origin of the New Testament texts. If any of the New Testament books had a doubtful authenticity, the early Christians would not have used them. For example, The Didache (Teaching of the Twelve Apostles), written between the years A.D. 70 to 100, quotes or paraphrases St. Matthew thirty times, St. Mark once, and St. Luke four times. (Note that at the time of its composition the gospel of St. John had not yet been written.) Likewise, St. Clement of Rome, the third Pope after St. Peter, wrote an Epistle to the Church of Corinth in A.D. 96, which contained ten quotations from the gospels of St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. Luke. Similarly, St. Ignatius of Antioch (in Syria), a pupil of the Apostles, and who was martyred in Rome in A.D. 107, wrote several epistles containing citations from the four Evangelists, as well as from St. Paul.
2. The writings of the early Christians were valuable, not only in providing evidence for the genuineness of the gospels, but also in identifying the authors of the four gospels. Without them we would never have known who the authors of the four gospels were. For the gospels themselves did not identify their authors. We had to rely on Sacred Tradition and the records left by the early Christians to find out who the real authors of the four canonical gospels were. We also need to rely on Sacred Tradition and the testimony of early Christians to know which gospels were truly inspired. For there were also apocryphal gospels that claimed to have been written by the Apostles. However, it is from the writings of the early Christians that we learn their authenticity. For example, St. Irenaeus of Lyons (A.D. 140-202), a disciple of St. John the Apostle, identified only four authentic gospels and their authors:
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.” St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 1, par. 1.
Likewise, Eusebius (A.D. 265-340) in his book, Church History, Book III, recorded the following facts about the four evangelists:
Chapter 4, par. 7: “But Luke, who was of Antiochian parentage and a physician by profession, and who was especially intimate with Paul and well acquainted with the rest of the apostles, has left us, in two inspired books, proofs of that spiritual healing art which he learned from them. One of these books is the Gospel, which he testifies that he wrote as those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered unto him, all of whom, as he says, he followed accurately from the first. Luke 1:2-3 The other book is the Acts of the Apostles which he composed not from the accounts of others, but from what he had seen himself. "
Chapter 24, par. 5: “Nevertheless, of all the disciples of the Lord, only Matthew and John have left us written memorials, and they, tradition says, were led to write only under the pressure of necessity."
Chapter 24, par. 17: “But of the writings of John, not only his Gospel, but also the former of his epistles, has been accepted without dispute both now and in ancient times. But the other two are disputed.”
Then toward the end of the same book, Eusebius added the testimony given by Papias (A.D. 70 – 165), a disciple of St. John the Apostle, regarding St. Mark:
Chapter 39, par. 15: “Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, he followed Peter, who adapted his teaching to the needs of his hearers, but with no intention of giving a connected account of the Lord's discourses, so that Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them. For he was careful of one thing, not to omit any of the things which he had heard, and not to state any of them falsely.”
3. The early Christian writers, as well as the saints and Fathers of the Church, manifested their confidence in the authenticity of the New Testament literature not only by quoting them, but also by using them in the liturgies that they used for public worship. The earliest extant written form of the mass ̶ or the liturgy of the Eucharist ̶ may be seen in the Epistle of St. Paul (1 Cor 11:23-29), and is substantially the same as those described in the gospels (Mark 14:22-25; Matt 26:26-29; Luke 22:14-20). In his gospel St. John did not fully describe the celebration of the Eucharist at the last supper, but earlier even he wrote elegantly of this sacrament (John 6:54-59).
4. It was not just the early Christians, but also the heretics themselves who, by using the four gospels, inadvertently give testimony to the authenticity of these documents. St. Irenaeus tells us that the heretics Marcion, Valentinus and others, used one or more of the four gospels, and twisted them, to promote their erroneous doctrines, but they never doubted their authenticity. See Against Heresies, Book III, Chapter 11, paragraph 7.
The Books of the New Testament are Intact.
We know that the New Testament has not suffered any significant alteration, but has remained substantially the same through the ages. The reasons are as follows:
The books of the New Testament were regarded by the early Christians as “inspired writings,” which means that they were regarded as the word of God. Therefore, they were jealously safeguarded and reverently used in homilies, chants and prayers of the faithful. St. Justin, Martyr, in his First Apology, Chapter 67, described how the first Christians would assemble on Sundays to profit from the reading of Holy Scripture, which was done “as long as time permits.” Any significant change to the original text would easily have been detected.
It is easy for anyone to say that Holy Scripture had been altered over time. But anyone who claims that the Bible had been altered should be challenged to explain how the alteration, if it was done, was accepted by the faithful. He or she would soon see that it wasn’t that easy for an altered Bible to be accepted as original. For, many copies of the gospels were made before A.D. 150, and used in many different places. Any alteration would have to be done simultaneously in all these places for the change not to be noticed by anyone. This would have been impossible to do, especially on account of the vigilance of the Bishops, priests and the faithful, in safeguarding the sacred documents and traditions that date back to Apostolic times.
Although we do not have anymore the original books of the New Testament, we have early and nearly complete copies of the New Testament books with which future editions can be compared. For example, we have the Sinaitic Manuscript (A.D. 325) and the Vatican Manuscript (A.D. 350), which date only 250+/- years from their original composition. Now, a time span of 250 years, between the date of the extant copy of the New Testament and that of its original Autograph, may seem long. However, it is not nearly as long as the earliest copies we have of other historical documents. For example, the earliest copy we have of the Annals of Tacitus dates 1000 years after it was first written. The earliest copies we have of the History by Herodotus and the History by Thucydides both date 1300 years after they were written. Yet historians do not doubt the integrity of these copies. Now, the date of our copies of the New Testament are actually far closer to the time of their original composition than many other ancient records that most historians recognize as integral or intact. Therefore, if we apply the same standard and employ less prejudice to these copies, we should have less reason to doubt their integrity.
But, is it possible that any alteration of the New Testament had occurred during the 250 years from the time of its original writing to the time when the earliest copies of the New Testament were produced? Yes that is possible, and it cannot be denied that copying mistakes had been committed especially during the Roman persecutions when these copies were made probably hurriedly and without extensive proof reading. However, there is very strong evidence that the New Testament texts had remained intact. For, although the Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts are our earliest complete (or nearly complete) copies of the Bible books, there are also many earlier copies of parts or fragments of New Testament books, with which the later copies could be compared to verify the integrity of the texts. To date there are now 5800 Greek fragments that had been collected. The earliest of these fragments (the John Rylands Fragments) dates to A.D. 125, which is only 29 years distant from its original writing. When these fragments are compared with the Sinaitic and Vatican Manuscripts, the texts match so closely that any suspicion about the later copies being substantially altered is effectively dispelled. In many cases the discrepancy is insignificant, resulting mostly from incorrect punctuation, spelling, etc.
Manuscript fragment containing a portion of the Gospel of St. John.
John Rylands Library Papyrus P52.
Manuscript fragment showing portions of Deuteronomy. P. Chester Beatty VI
It was said above that there were 5800 Greek manuscripts that had been collected, which support the integrity of the New Testament texts. However, if fragments written in Latin and other languages (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Arabic, etc.) are included, then there are in this collection actually a total of 25,000 ancient manuscripts or fragments dating from the 2nd to the 16th centuries that provide additional verification to the integrity of the original Greek and Hebrew texts. In addition, there are many scriptural texts, passages, quotations and citations embedded in the writings and commentaries of the Church Fathers and the early Christians, which match and, therefore, also support the integrity of the New Testament texts. As far as the integrity of the text is concerned, hardly any other ancient document can boast of the support of numerous corroborative evidences such as those that we find in the New Testament books.
The Books of the New Testament are Trustworthy.
As stated in the beginning of this Chapter, the aim here is not yet to prove that the Bible is the word of God, but that it is reliable simply as a historical document. One of the tests for the reliability of a historical document is its trustworthiness. The New Testament is trustworthy if it is historically truthful. It is truthful if the writers knew the facts and told the truth.
Certainly Matthew and John knew the facts because they were both eyewitnesses. They were members of the first Twelve Apostles that Christ selected (Matt 10:2-4). They saw what our Lord did, and personally listened to His teachings. John, in particular, stayed with Christ up till the crucifixion, for he stood there at the foot of the cross with His mother. Mark, although not one of the Twelve, was a disciple and constant companion of the Apostle Peter (1 Pet 5:13), so his gospel was practically from St. Peter himself, who was also an eyewitness.
Luke, a physician by profession, was not an eyewitness, but he was a disciple of St. Paul (Col 4:14) whom he accompanied on his journeys (Acts 20:6 and 2 Tim 4:11). Yet, among the four Evangelists St. Luke was the best historian, for he diligently questioned those “who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2). He alone, among the four evangelists, gave us details of Christ’s infancy and Mary’s role as Mother of the Redeemer. (St. Luke probably got the details of Mary’s Annunciation directly from Mary herself, as no one would know about them but Mary.) Also, by writing not only the third Gospel, but also the Acts of the Apostles, he alone gave us a history of the infant Church.
There had been scholars who claimed that the New Testament books were not written by real eyewitnesses but by later Christian writers, because the books of the New Testament (from the Sinaitic and Vatican manuscripts) do not date back earlier than the 4th century A.D. However, this objection is based on the error of confusing the date of our earliest copy of complete manuscripts with the date of their original composition. The New Testament books were actually written on the first century A.D., although the earliest extant copies in our possesion date back only to the fourth century A.D. The original Autographs and early copies of these Autographs were written on papyrus, which was not a durable material. So, many of them had not survived or had been destroyed. In the fourth century, however, manuscripts – including the Sinaitic and Vatican manuscripts – were already copied on vellum, which was a more durable material. Many of these later copies have survived and are still extant.
Now, is it possible that any of the writers, either deliberately or by mistake, did not tell us the truth? That is most unlikely, for they were writing for people who were also eyewitnesses to the events that had happened in Palestine. See, for example, how Peter in his speech appealed to his listeners to confirm his words according to what they themselves saw and witnessed (Acts 10:34-43). Note, too, that many of the Jews who were in their thirties when Christ preached in Palestine were only in their sixties or seventies when the first three Gospels were written. If there was any mistake in the writings of the Evangelists or the Apostles, it would have been immediately detected and exposed.
Finally, what better proof is there that the Evangelists and the authors of the Epistles told the truth than the fact that these authors sealed their word with their blood? On account of his teachings St. Peter was crucified with his head downward by Emperor Nero. St. Paul likewise was beheaded by Emperor Nero. St. James the Less was stoned to death; St. Mark was burned, while St. Luke was crucified on an olive tree. See the Death of the Apostles chart in this website.
In addition to the reasons given above, there are archaeological evidences that confirm the truth and historicity of peoples, places, things and events described in the New Testament. However, archaeology can only provide external evidences regarding the historicity of people, places, things and events. To establish the honesty of the authors, one must have recourse to internal evidences.
Internal Evidences for the Trustworthiness of the New Testament
Internal evidences are those that are derived from the N.T. text itself. An examination of the biblical records discloses the following:
The Gospels, the Acts and the Epistles found in the New Testament were written by authors who knew the facts, for they were either actual eyewitnesses to the events, or they learned them from those who were eyewitnesses. We know that the authors were trustworthy, not just because they claimed to be eyewitnesses (as in Luke 1:1-3; Acts 10:39-42; 2 Pet 1:16; 1 John 1:1-5;1 Cor 15:6-8), but also because there are internal evidences and details in their narratives that reveal their actual presence at the site when the events took place. Consider the following two examples from St. John’s gospel:
1. In John 8:1-11 St. John narrates the incident when the scribes and the Pharisees came to Christ with a woman who was caught in adultery. They wanted to find out what His opinion was, because Moses commanded to stone an adulterous woman. According to St. John, Christ bowed down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But the scribes persisted in their questioning, so Christ stood up and said, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to cast a stone at her.” Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground. But upon hearing this, the scribes and Pharisees left one by one. The question now is this, why did Christ bow down and start doodling on the ground when the Pharisees came to test Him? No reason. Then why did St. John include it in his narrative, seeing that it had no bearing on the question or in His answer? Again, no reason other than the fact that this was what he saw. To many who read this story, Christ’s doodling on the ground may not have meant anything. Yet, this seemingly insignificant detail is important because it serves to show that the observant Evangelist was actually present to notice such small details.
Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery
Image source link: marysrosaries.com
2. In John 12:1-8 St. John relates the incident when Mary, the sister of Martha, anointed Christ with a pound of precious perfume. Judas complained that Mary’s act of anointing Christ with expensive perfume was a waste of money, but Christ disagreed. Now, both Matthew and Mark also related this incident in their gospels (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9). But only St. John made this peculiar comment: “And the house was filled with the odor of the ointment” (John 12:3). Why? This remark really had nothing to do with the story, whose focus was on Judas’ false sense of value. In fact, both Matthew and Mark told the same story without saying anything about the odor of the ointment filling up the house. This seemingly insignificant detail is important because it betrays the fact that St. John was actually in the house. The strong aroma must have affected him, which is why he mentioned it – rather thoughtlessly, of course, or as a “slip of the tongue,” – in his narrative. Small details like this are important, because they indicate that the gospel writer was writing from firsthand experience.
The brevity of the accounts, and the straightforward manner in which persons, places and events were described, also show the honesty and simplicity of the authors, who showed no sign of religious propaganda, self-aggrandizement, or profit-seeking. The truth of this becomes clear when one examines the nature of the testimony that the Evangelists wrote. The gospel writers did not just highlight Christ’s glorious resurrection, but also His humiliating death on the cross. They did not portray themselves or the Apostles as righteous people, but as weak and miserable sinners. We know from their writings that Judas betrayed Christ, St. Peter denied Him, and St. Paul persecuted Him. The Apostles abandoned Christ during His trial (Matt 26:56; Mark 14:50), and St. Thomas doubted His resurrection (John 20:24-29). Actually the other Apostles also doubted the resurrection. For, when Mary and the other women told the Apostles that Christ had risen, St. Luke said that the news “seemed to them to be nonsense; and they did not believe the women” (Luke 24:11). If the Evangelists were not truthful and were determined only to paint a glorified image of Christ and the Apostles, then they certainly would not have written about their sins and weaknesses so frankly.
The existence of omissions and discrepancies in the Gospel accounts proves the trustworthiness of the Evangelists. For example, consider the Resurrection account in the four Gospels. St. Matthew spoke of two Marys that went to the sepulcher; St. Mark spoke of three, while St. John only mentioned one. Both St. Matthew and St. Mark said that there was one angel at the tomb; but St. Luke and St. John said there were two angels. St. Matthew, St. Mark and St. John said that the angel, or angels, sat; St. Luke, however, said that the angels stood. Some critics contend that these discrepancies in the Gospel accounts make the trustworthiness of the Gospels suspect. On the contrary, the existence of these discrepancies proves the trustworthiness of the Gospel narratives, for it betrays the fact that there had been no attempt by the Evangelists at fraud. If the Evangelists merely conspired to fabricate tales about Christ, would they not at least compare notes and make their accounts as uniform as possible? Clearly, the Evangelists merely wanted to record important events in the life of our Lord from their knowledge and recollection, not to sell a marvelous story to a critical and unbelieving world.
External Evidences for the Trustworthiness of the New Testament
The external evidences are evidences outside the Bible itself that help to establish the historicity of people, places, things and events mentioned in Holy Scripture. Unlike the evidences supporting Old Testament facts, which are usually obtained by digging ancient sites, the evidences for the historicity of the New Testament are gathered mostly from testimony and documents written by authors other than the Bible writers themselves. Of course, objects other than inscriptions and written documents (such as coins, potteries and others) had also been found, and they helped not only to identify people and ancient places, but also to situate them in their proper time and setting. To illustrate the trustworthiness of the New Testament as historical documents, extra-biblical evidences will be given firstly for the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), and secondly for The Acts of the Apostles.
A. EVIDENCES FOR CHRIST
Here we shall briefly summarize the extra-biblical evidences for Christ, the most important figure in New Testament literature. The historicity of our Lord has recently been challenged by many skeptics, but it was never doubted by any ancient historian. This skepticism, which started only at the end of the 18th century, appears to be a modern aberration.
FLAVIUS JOSEPHUS (A.D. 37-100) was a well-known Jewish historian. In The Antiquities of the Jews, he wrote:
“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ: and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him: and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter III, paragraph 3.
Some critics say that the above paragraph might not really be from Josephus, but might have been interpolated by some Christian copyist or editor. The reason is because they could not believe that a Jewish historian, such as Josephus, would say that Jesus was “the Christ” and admit that Jesus rose from the dead. The objection is understandable. However, this seems to be an objection against Josephus’ testimony of Jesus being the Messiah and of his resurrection, but it is not an objection against Josephus’ testimony of Christ being a historical person. It is easy to see how the highlighted texts (in yellow) could have been added illegitimately. But even if the highlighted texts were removed (assuming that they were not authentically from Josephus), the remaining testimony regarding Christ’s historicity still stands very well.
Besides, it is not certain that the quotation was manipulated. For, the text does not necessarily represent Josephus’ personal belief. As a historian, he was merely reporting Jesus’ reputation as “the Christ,” and that he [allegedly] appeared to them alive again the third day. So, the above quotation could very well be authentic also, in spite of the fact that the author was Jewish. Unfortunately, the earliest extant copy that we have of The Antiquities of the Jews dates no earlier than the 10th century, so there is no way of definitively resolving this issue. However, the earliest extant manuscript copy contains the above paragraph. And the Greek and Arabic translations of the same paragraph contain qualifying texts, such as “Jesus who was believed to be the Christ” and “for it has been reported that he appeared to them alive again the third day.” If these translations are accurate, then they reinforce the previous assessment that Josephus was not necessarily expressing his personal belief in Christ, but was merely reporting what others believe about Him.
At any rate the disputed paragraph still serves as a strong evidence for the historicity of Christ, for it was written by one who was not a Christian. Also, Josephus’ testimony does not merely speak of Christ, but also of Pilate who condemned Him to be crucified, thus confirming the correctness of the biblical account
Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37-100)
First century Jewish historian and hagiographer
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
In another place of the same work, The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus made another remark that also testifies the historicity of Christ, but without the controversial expressions that marked the previous quotation:
“so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]” Antiquities of the Jews, Book XX, Chapter 9.1
In one stroke Josephus testified the historicity of Christ as well as that of James the Less (Mark 15:40). According to Mark 3:18, this James is the son of Cleophas (or Alpheus in Greek) and of another Mary, the sister of Christ’s mother (John 19:25). This is why both Josephus and St. Paul referred to him as the “brother” of Christ (Gal 1:19).
THE BABYLONIAN TALMUD, which is a vast collection of rabbinical writings composed between the end of our Lord’s life and A.D. 500, also provides external evidence for Christ’s historicity. The Talmud, which is an ancient record of Jewish history, laws, customs and beliefs, is made up of two parts; namely, the Mishna (or “Repetition” of Mosaic Law) and the Gemara, which is an exposition of the Mishna. It is in the Gemara, particularly in the treatise on the Sabbath and the Sanhedrin, that Christ is mentioned:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu [Jesus] was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, 'He is going forth to be stoned because he has practised sorcery and enticed Israel to apostacy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.' But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!” The Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 43a.
From this short quotation one can see how the Talmud vilified Christ, ̶ saying that He practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy, ̶ but it never doubted His real existence. Yeshu (or Yeshua) is how Christ’s name is pronounced in Hebrew. This quotation is not making reference to any other Jesus, but to the one who was “hanged on the eve of the Passover,” which was Christ (John 19:31) Here the word “hanged” is synonymous to “crucified,” as in Luke 23:39 and Gal 3:13.
PUBLIUS CORNELIUS TACITUS (A.D. 52 ̶ 120), a Roman historian who had written extensively about ancient Rome, wrote in his Annals that Emperor Nero, who ordered the fire in Rome in A.D. 64, wished to stop the rumor that he started the fire.
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” The Annals, Book 15, paragraph 44.
This quotation from Tacitus is one of the best external evidences for the historicity of Christ, since it was penned by a careful pagan historian. Although there are naysayers who would like to say that this paragraph is another Christian interpolation, there is no evidence that the paragraph was altered. Every surviving copy of Tacitus’ Annals contains this paragraph. Also, Christianity was here referred to as a “mischievous superstition,” which is highly unexpected if the text was a Christian interpolation.
GAIUS SEUTONIUS TRANQUILLUS (A.D. 69 –130), another Roman historian and court official working under Emperor Hadrian, made a brief and somewhat vague reference to Christ in the “Life of Claudius,” which is a chapter in his voluminous Lives of the Twelve Caesars:
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” Life of Claudius, 25.4
Paulus Orosius (A.D. 375-418), a Christian priest and student of St. Augustine, clarified Suetonius’ vague remark in his A History Against the Pagans:
"In the ninth year of his reign, Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Both Josephus and Suetonius record this event, but I prefer, however, the account of the latter, who speaks as follows: "Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because in their resentment against Christ they were continually creating disturbances." As a matter of fact, however, no one can say whether the emperor ordered the Jews to be restrained and repressed because they were creating disturbances against Christ or whether he wished the Christians to be expelled at the same time on the ground that they were members of an allied religion.” A History Against the Pagans, Book 7, Chapter 6 (third paragraph from the end.)
GAIUS PLINIUS CAECILIUS SECUNDUS (A.D. 63 – 113), better known to the English-speaking world as PLINY THE YOUNGER, was a lawyer and magistrate of Ancient Rome. In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan he reported that some Christian converts had admitted that their only crime was that they would assemble at dawn and pray to Christ whom they worshiped as God:
“They affirmed the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.” Letters of Pliny, Correspondence with the Emperor Trajan, XCVII.
LUCIAN OF SAMOSATA (A.D. 120-180), a second century Greek satirist and rhetorician, spoke scornfully of the early Christians and their Founder, but he did not doubt the real existence of Christ. In a work entitled The Death of Peregrine he acknowledged Christ as the founder of Christianity and confirmed that He died by crucifixion.
MARA BAR-SERAPION (c. A.D. 70+) was a Syrian philosopher who, while in prison, wrote a letter to his son, Serapion, encouraging him to study philosophy. In his letter he compared Christ with the philosophers Socrates and Pythagoras, who remained immortal on account of their wisdom:
“For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the. whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them. For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into Every land. Nay, Socrates did "not" die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the Wise King, because of the new laws which he enacted.” Mara Bar-Serapion, in the 17th paragraph after the salutation.
Although the name of Christ was not explicitly mentioned, the “Wise King” in the above quotation clearly refers to Christ, whom the Romans mocked as “King” (Matt 27:37). It couldn’t refer to any other Jewish king because Mara said that after His death “their kingdom was taken away from them.” This description applies only to Christ, because the Romans came to destroy Jerusalem just 37 years after His crucifixion.
A painting by Simon Vouet (1590-1649)
The title INRI = "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum"
which means "Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews"
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Extra-biblical evidences for the historicity of Christ are available, not only from the writings of non-Christians, but also from the writings of early Christians. For example, JUSTIN MARTYR (A.D. 100-165), in his First Apology addressed to Antoninus Pius, his sons and the Roman Senate, wrote the following text:
“Now there is a village in the land of the Jews, thirty-five stadia from Jerusalem, in which Jesus Christ was born, as you can ascertain also from the registers of the taxing made under Cyrenius, your first procurator in Judæa.” Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 34
The quoted text is significant because Justin was here giving his audience an evidence of Christ’s historicity by telling them where they might look to verify his birth, which was right from the tax registers of Judea. Of course, the text today only serves as an indirect evidence because the tax registers cited are no longer available for our viewing. However, it is clear that they were still extant in the second century when Justin Martyr wrote his Apology.
One of the most important extra-biblical evidences for the historicity of Christ is the testimony of those who shed their blood for Him: the martyrs of the cruel Roman persecutions. See Documents on the Persecution of the Early Church. Sure, people can give their lives for something they thought to be true, even if it was actually false. But they never give their lives for something they know to be a lie. The Christian martyrs died for their faith in Christ because they had no doubt that Christ was real. Tertullian, an early Christian apologist, noted that the more the Christians were persecuted, the more their numbers grew, so that the blood of the martyrs became the seed of Christianity. See Tertullian, The Apology, Chapter 50 near the end.
The historicity of Christ is evidenced, not only by writings from Christian and non-Christian authors, but also by important relics, such as the Shroud of Turin. This is the cloth that was used to wrap the dead body of Christ prior to his burial (Matt 27:59). After the resurrection an imprint of Christ’s body was left on the cloth, which is now in the possession of the Vatican. The Shroud has since been venerated as the only full body image of our tortured Savior. Is this relic authentic? There has been plenty of studies conducted indicating that the Holy Shroud is authentic, and that the image on the Shroud was that of Christ. Three reasons will be given:
The Wrapping of the Body of Jesus
An oil painting by Giovanni Battista della Rovere (1560-1627)
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
1. First, the image on the Shroud was a negative image. This type of representing an image was unknown to the entire world until the invention of photography late in the 19th century. Any artist, who would reproduce an image of Christ on the Shroud, would probably have attempted to make a positive rather than a negative image, as it could be more easily deciphered. The fact that the image on the Shroud came out as negative rather than positive - a matter that seems counter to all human wisdom - indicates powerfully that the Holy Shroud was probably not a forgery.
The Shroud of Turin
The bottom half shows the front; the top half shows the back
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
The picture on the left side shows the image as it appears to the human eye. The image is hard to see because it is actually a negative image. The picture on the right side is the negative of the one on the left. It is the negative of a negative, and is therefore a positive image where the image could be seen more distinctly.
2. Second, the image on the Shroud was probably that of Christ. The details shown on the image perfectly fit the descriptions of the passion given in the Gospels. And, although crucifixion was a common form of punishment during the time of Christ, He was the only one on record who was crowned with thorns. The image on the shroud showed wounds on the head, not just on the hands and feet. Also, most criminals were given the death blow by breaking their legs rather than thrusting a lance on their side. Most of them were tied with a rope rather than nailed on the hands and feet. The wounds on the head, the shoulder (from carrying the cross), the knees (when He fell three times), the side (from the spear), the hands and feet (from the nails), the body, arms and legs (due to the scourging) all point to the kind of torture imposed to only one man known in history ̶ that was our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, the image on the Shroud was most probably that of our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. Third, although the Carbon (C-14) dating techniques performed on the Shroud in 1988 seemed to indicate that the Shroud of Turin was medieval, dating tests made in 2013 based on infra-red light and other more advanced technology, indicated that the Shroud indeed dates to the first century and, therefore, invalidated the 1988 findings. See The Turin Shroud: The Latest Evidence or Dating the Shroud of Turin.
B. EVIDENCES FOR OTHER PEOPLE IN THE GOSPELS
The trustworthiness of the New Testament is further manifested by external evidences that confirm particular details about various people cited in the New Testament narratives. Only a few of these people will be given so as not to make this chapter excessively long.
The second chapter of St. Luke’s gospel opened with the following lines: “And it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled” (Luke 2:1). For some time Rationalists focused on this text as the target of their criticism, saying that no census of the whole world (that means, of the Roman Empire) was known to have been made during the time of Caesar Augustus. However, we now know from the testimony of the Roman historian Suetonius, that a census was indeed likely ordered by Caesar Augustus for purposes of taxation, for at his death a memorandum in his own handwriting was opened and read in the senate containing “a summary of the condition of the whole empire; how many soldiers there were in active service in all parts of it, how much money there was in the public treasury and in the privy-purse, and what revenues were in arrears.” See Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 101.
In addition to their denial of a census ordered by Caesar Augustus, the same critics thought that St. Luke was also totally mistaken regarding the person who allegedly conducted the census. According to St. Luke, the census was first made by Cyrinus (or Quirinius), the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2). Now, recent studies indicate that Christ was born at around 1 B.C. (See Footnote 5 in the Bible History Timeline.) But according to the historian Josephus, Cyrinus became governor of Syria and made a census "in the thirty-seventh year of Cæsar's victory over Antony at Actium" (Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Ch. 1.1 and 2.2.) Since Caesar won the Battle of Actium against Antony and Cleopatra in September, 31 B.C., the year of the census described by Josephus must be A.D. 6, which was way too late when compared to the time of Christ’s birth. Biblical critics therefore quickly used this apparent inconsistency to criticize St. Luke’s gospel as historically inaccurate. HOWEVER, St. Luke said that the census during the time of Christ’s birth was “first made” by Cyrinus because there were two censuses made. In the gospel St. Luke was talking of the first census made by Cyrinus, not the one made in A.D. 6 reported by Josephus. How was this possible? Was Cyrinus already in Syria before 1 B.C. to do a first census? The Roman inscription discovered near Tivoli (in 1764) disclosed that Cyrinus was indeed in Syria at the time of our Savior’s birth! However, his duties then were military rather than political. Tacitus recounts (in the Annals, Book 3, paragraph 48) that at about this time Cyrinus successfully suppressed the Homonadensian uprising in Cilicia, which was a part of Syria. So, what likely happened was that, since censuses were taken for purposes of taxation and were often an occasion for uprising and unrest, then the military commander Cyrinus was given the special task of handling the census during the time of Christ’s birth. (In fact, the taxing was done under Cyrinus, as confirmed by St. Justin Martyr, in the work cited above – his First Apology, Chapter 34). So, it must have been in his capacity as “military governor” that Cyrinus was called “governor” by St. Luke. Note that the word “governor” may be applied to anyone who is in charge of some event or activity. And the same title could be applied to two persons at the same time. In fact, Flavius Josephus (in the Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI, Chapter 10.8) also called Saturninus and the procurator Volumnius both “presidents” (or “governors”) of Syria.
Both Josephus and Tacitus called Pontius Pilate the Procurator of Judea. The title suggests that Pontius Pilate was in charge of the finances of Judea, which he was. In the Gospels, however, both St. Matthew (in Matt 27:2) and St. Luke (in Luke 3:1) called Pontius Pilate the “Governor” of Judea, which implied that Pilate had a wider range of duties, which included financial, judicial, executive and military duties. So, who was correct? Was Pontius Pilate merely a Procurator as Josephus and Tacitus said, or was he really a Governor as St. Matthew and St. Luke said? In June, 1961, Italian archaeologists excavating the Roman amphitheatre near Caesarea unearthed an 82 x 68 x 20 cm stone block that contained a Latin inscription that says: “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” It was part of a larger inscription in honor of Tiberius Caesar. This find is significant because it is the first hard evidence of the actual existence of Pontius Pilate, the man identified by Holy Scripture as the governor who authorized Christ’s death on the cross. St. Matthew and St. Luke did not write their Gospels in Latin, so they did not use the word “prefectus.” However, the title “governor” that they gave to Pilate was much closer in meaning to the Latin word “prefectus” than the word “procurator.” So, in addition to confirming the historicity of Pontius Pilate, the Caesarean inscription actually confirms also the accuracy of both St. Matthew and St. Luke. Note also that at that time only the governor (or prefect) had the authority to send a man to the cross. In calling Pontius Pilate the Prefect of Judea, the Caesarean inscription also gave evidence to the trustworthiness of the Biblical account and, indirectly, to the reality of the crucifixion.
The Pontius Pilate Inscription
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Caiaphas is known to many as one of the high-priests involved in the arrest and trial of Christ prior to the crucifixion (Matt 26:3-4, 57). In December, 1990, in the Peace Forest section of Jerusalem, an ossuary or “bone box” was by chance discovered by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Outside the box was an inscription in Aramaic that read, “Yehosef bar Kayafa,” which means Joseph, son of Caiaphas. Now, do not think that Joseph and Caiaphas were two different persons, so that the bones in the box belonged to Joseph, but not to Caiaphas. The historian Josephus clarified this for us, because he referred to Caiaphas as “Joseph Caiaphas” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 2.2), as if Joseph was the first name and Caiaphas, the last name. In another place, Josephus also spoke of him as “Joseph, who was also called Caiaphas” (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 4.3). This discovery, like the discovery of the Pontius Pilate inscription, is significant because Caiaphas was a major player in the story of Christ’s passion, and finding a hard evidence for his actual existence certainly manifests the trustworthiness of the New Testament.
The Ossuary ("bone box") of Caiaphas
Source/License link: commons.wikimedia.org
C. EVIDENCES FOR PLACES CITED IN THE GOSPELS
The trustworthiness of the New Testament is further manifested by external evidences that confirm particular details about certain places and landmarks cited in the New Testament narratives. Only a few of these places will be given so as not to make this chapter excessively long.
The obscure village of Nazareth was for a long time believed to be the historic hometown of our Lord (John 1:45, Mark 1:24; and Luke 2:51). But In 2008 Rene Salm challenged this long-standing biblical belief in a book entitled The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (American Atheist Press, 2008). He gave the reasons for this doubt. The Book of Josue 19:10-15 listed the towns of the tribe of Zabulon, but Nazareth was not in the list. Also, we know that Nazareth was in Galilee, but when the Jewish historian Josephus gave the names of 45 towns and villages in Galilee, he did not mention Nazareth. Likewise, the Talmud did not mention it, although it cited 63 Galilean towns. These are true, but the argument is clearly one of those arguments from silence that we must be cautious of. Professional archaeologists have warned us that the absence of evidence does not constitute an evidence of absence. Recent archaeological researches and excavations that were conducted at the probable site of Nazareth have now produced plenty of corroborative evidence pointing to the existence of a small agricultural village in the area before the coming of the Romans. See Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm Final Report. In 2009 the Israel Antiquities Authority also reported that they even exposed a residential dwelling there. See A Home in Nazareth. The common consensus of many archaeologists and researches today favor the opinion that the hometown of Christ actually existed, although it was really a small and backward village. But wasn’t that the reason for Nathanael’s question: “Can anything of good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Although the backward village of Nazareth during the boyhood of our Lord had a small population, the present-day Nazareth is quite different. It is now the largest Arab city in Israel, with Moslems outnumbering the Christians in the ratio of three to one. For a critique of Rene Salm’s ideas, see Joseph Holden, Responding to the Skeptic's Attack Against Nazareth.
The ancient city of Capernaum was an important village in the life of our Lord because it was the site of many incidents in His life. It was the place where He lived when He left Nazareth (Matt 4:13). It was also the place where He performed many healing miracles, including the curing of the mother of St. Peter’s wife (Matt 8:5-15). It was the place where He first met the Apostles Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mark 1:29), the place where He healed those who were possessed by devils (Mark 1:32), and the place where He frequently taught ̶ in the synagogue of Capernaum (John 6:60). Unfortunately, it was also the city that He cursed because of the people’s lack of response to His teachings (Matt 11:23). Although the synagogue was destroyed with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, another synagogue was built over it at around A.D. 250 – 300. The city remained occupied until it was abandoned in the 11th century A.D. Since then the city had been ignored for about a thousand years until it was rediscovered in the 1800’s by the British scholar, Edward Robinson, who first correctly identified the special building near the lake as a synagogue. This discovery led to further investigation and research. The excavation at the site continued for many years (although with some interruptions), which led to the discovery of the original synagogue where Christ taught, and the ruins of what was now believed to be the stone house of St. Peter. All these discoveries are important because they authenticate the fact that the Biblical narratives are not fictitious tales, but real stories. For a good article on Capernaum, see Capernaum. For the story of its archaeological discovery, see Identification of the Ancient Capernaum.
In addition to identifying Biblical places, archaeologists have also been able to identify a few Biblical landmarks. One of these is the Pool of Bethesda, the site where Christ miraculously cured a man who had been a paralytic for 38 years (John 5:2-9). According to the gospel, an angel of the Lord would come down every now and then to stir the water in the pool, and whoever got into the pool first when the water was in motion would be healed of his or her infirmity. The paralytic explained that he had been waiting for his chance to get into the pool whenever the opportunity comes, but because he had no one to help him, somebody always got ahead of him. In His mercy, Christ cured him. What was interesting about the Pool of Bethesda, besides the fact that it was the site of one of Christ’s healing miracles, was that it was described by St. John as having five porches (John 5:2) where the sick would lay waiting for their turn. This particular feature of the Pool had actually been problematic. For, the usual rectangular pool only had four sides, and a five sided pool (the shape of a pentagon) with a porch on each side had never been found. So, some Bible critics suspected that St. John only made up the “five porches” to represent the five books of Moses. However, the archaeological excavations made in the 1900’s near the so-called Sheep Gate (north of the Temple Mount) proved fruitful. In one such excavation the archaeologist, Herr Conrad Schick, unearthed two large reservoirs separated by a rock partition wall. Further study and analyses of adjoining remains identified the basins unquestionably as the elusive Biblical Pool of Bethesda. The five porches of a rectangular pool, that puzzled scholars for many years, now have a clear explanation. The twin reservoir could indeed have five porches, which includes the one on the dividing wall between the two basins. The archaeological discovery of the Pool of Bethesda has given one more verification of the trustworthiness of the Biblical narratives. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, because, although archaeology could never prove that Christ performed a miracle at this location, it does indicate that if St. John’s account can be trusted in natural details such as the Pool’s having five porches, then it can also be trusted in other supernatural details such as Christ’s act of healing the paralytic. Secondly, the discovery of the Pool adds more weight to the historicity of Bethesda which, according to an ancient tradition, was also the birthplace of the Blessed Virgin Mary. See The Pool of Bethesda.
The Pool of Bethesda
The four sides of the big rectangle have a porch. The middle wall also has a porch, the "fifth porch" of the Pool of Bethesda.
The photo shows a model of the Pool at the Israel Museum taken by deror avi, 2006.
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D. EVIDENCES FOR PHYSICAL OBJECTS MENTIONED IN THE GOSPELS
The trustworthiness of the New Testament is further manifested by external evidences that confirm particular details of physical objects or things cited in the New Testament narratives. Here are a couple of examples of objects that have been unearthed that increase our confidence in the historical accuracy of the New Testament accounts.
Christ often used familiar objects in teaching divine truths. In one occasion, while teaching his disciples the evil of giving scandal, He made this remark: “It is impossible that scandals should not come: but woe to him through whom they come. It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones.” (Luke 17:1-2). Perhaps modern readers today do not know what a millstone is. But many of these millstones were unearthed in Capharnaum because women used them to grind wheat. Most of these millstones are small, but there are also large ones. However, even the small millstone hanged about ones neck is enough to drag one to the depths of the sea. For a picture, see this short article: Millstones at Capernaum. The discovery of these millstones in Capharnaum not merely help us understand the imagery that Christ used to explain His teachings, but it also gives us a confirmation of the authenticity of His words.
Another object cited in the gospel of St. Matthew is the Chair of Moses. Christ made reference to this when He said: “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice” (NABRE Matt 23:2-3). For a long time scholars were divided on their opinion whether the Chair of Moses was to be taken literally or figuratively. Some say that it was just a metaphor, indicating the fact that the Scribes and Pharisees had authority to teach. In 1926, however, archaeologists found a real stone seat among the ruins of the ancient town of Chorazin, and carved on a basalt block are the words “Chair of Moses” (in Aramaic). The chair dates to the 4th century A.D. and was found in a synagogue. Because it was not dated to the first century A.D., this was evidently not the Chair that was in the synagogue during our Lord’s lifetime, but it is now equally evident that the so-called “Chair of Moses” was also a real physical chair, and not just a symbol. It was a physical object that was also a symbol of authority, for it was where the leaders of the Jewish congregation sat when they expounded the Torah. For a picture, see the article, Three Woes!
E. EVIDENCES FOR CERTAIN EVENTS IN THE GOSPEL NARRATIVES
The trustworthiness of the New Testament is also manifested by external evidences that confirm particular details of events described, not only in the gospels, but also in other books of the New Testament. Here are a few details of events for which evidences had been found.
Some of the occurrences mentioned in the gospel narratives are the healing miracles performed by Christ. In one of these miracles Christ is said to have cured a man afflicted with leprosy (Matt 8:1-4; Mark 1:40-45; Luke 5:12-19). In fact, there was another occasion when He healed ten lepers at the same time, but only one of them came back to thank Him (Luke 17:11-19). However, scholars tried to discredit the gospel narrative by saying that there were no incidences of leprosy reported in medical literature during the time of Christ. That is not true anymore. A report was published in December, 2009, saying that a molecular analysis of human remains found in the “Tomb of the Shroud” (not to be confused with the Shroud of Turin), which was discovered in Jerusalem in 2000, showed evidence of leprosy and tuberculosis. See Oldest Case of Leprosy Found in 1st Century Tomb. So, the Bible was correct again! Of course, it is possible that the word “leprosy” might be used in antiquity as a generic term to include other kinds of skin diseases besides leprosy.
Christ Healing a Leper
A painting by Jean-Marie Melchior Doze, 1864
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For many years secular historians believed that in the Roman practice of crucifixion criminals were merely bound by ropes, rather than nailed to the cross. In the gospels the evangelists said that Christ was “crucified” (Matt 27:35; Mark 15:25; Luke 23:33; John 19:17-18), but they did not describe the manner of His crucifixion. The Christian traditional belief is that Christ was nailed to the cross, based on what St. Thomas the Apostle (Thomas the doubter) said: “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). But, not having any evidence of the use of nails to fix the criminal to the cross, some scholars doubted the historical accuracy of the gospel writer, particularly John. But John stood at the foot of the cross! Of all people he knew better than the scholars how Christ was hanged on the cross. In June 1968 archaeologists from the Israeli Department of Antiquities discovered four cave tombs in north Jerusalem. In one of them they found the bones of a man who was executed by crucifixion, and the nail was still lodged in his heel bone! See Skeletal Evidence for Crucifixion. This provides the extra-biblical evidence that nails were also used, possibly in combination with ropes. Some doctors believe that the nails probably would have been driven through the wrist rather than the hand, because the hand would not be strong enough to support the whole body. However, if ropes were also used around the arms, then there is no reason why the nails could not also have been used through the hands. And, based on the image on the shroud, it looks like Christ was nailed to the cross by the hand near the wrist, and that blood merely flowed from there toward the wrist. Also, there are anatomical and biblical reasons for believing that Christ was nailed to the cross by His hands. See Was Jesus nailed to the cross by the hands or by the wrists?
Another detail mentioned in the Gospels was the three-hour darkness that enveloped the region when Christ suffered on the cross. An earthquake was also noted right after His death, which rent the veil of the temple from the top to the bottom (Matt 27:45-51; Mark 15:33-38; Luke 23:44-45). Did these incidents really happen? Did the area around Golgotha really turn dark around mid-day (“from the sixth hour … until the ninth hour”), and was there really an earthquake that happened right after Christ’s death? These occurrences were not mentioned by St. John, but the other three Evangelists recorded them. However, what is significant is that report of these occurrences were not unknown to other non-Christian historians, particularly to Thallus and the Roman historian Phlegon of Tralles, and they did not dispute them! In Book 3 of his History, Thallus tried to give a natural explanation to the mid-day darkness by saying that it was due to a solar eclipse, but he did not deny that there had been a mid-day darkness. Phlegon said the same thing in his Olympiads, Book 13. Unfortunately, the books of Thallus and Phlegon are no longer extant, and the little that we know about their writings could be learned only from citations and quotations made by other authors. For example, the Christian historian, Sextus Julius Africanus, cited both Thallus and Phlegon to refute their hypothesis about a “solar eclipse.” He maintained that a solar eclipse could not possibly happen on a full moon because the moon would be on the other side of the earth (rather than between the earth and the sun) and would not be able to block the light from the sun. Now, the Jewish Passover that marked the date of Christ’s death was on a full moon, which Phlegon himself clearly stated. So, from an astronomical standpoint Julius Africanus was quite correct. The darkness was not due to a solar eclipse. Besides, a true solar eclipse would have lasted only a few minutes, not three hours. In addition, a mid-day darkness could hardly cause an earthquake to occur. Therefore, the prolonged mid-day darkness and subsequent earthquake did not have a natural explanation and must be regarded as miraculous phenomena. See Julius Africanus, Extant Writings, Chronography - Fragment 18.1
F. EVIDENCES FOR THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES
The next book in the New Testament after the four gospels is The Acts of the Apostles. It was written by St. Luke, the author of the third gospel, around A.D. 63. The evidences that indicate the reliability and trustworthiness of The Acts of the Apostles are numerous and convincing. However, only a sampling of the many evidences will be given. The intent is not to make a rigorous demonstration, but merely to build the reader’s confidence in the trustworthiness of the book as a historical document.
In Acts 8:27, St. Luke writes: “And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a minister of queen Candace of Ethiopia, who was in charge of all her treasures, had come to Jerusalem to worship.” Now, is this historically accurate? Did Ethiopia really have a queen by the name of “Candace”? There were two ancient historians that mentioned this name. However, Pliny said that “Candace,” was also used as a title by other Ethiopian queens (in much the same way that the Romans adopted the name of “Caesar” whenever they became the emperor).
Pliny the Elder:
“The buildings in the city, they said, were but few in number, and they stated that a female, whose name was Candace, ruled over the district, that name having passed from queen to queen for many years.” See Natural History, Book VI, Chapter 35, in the fifth paragraph.
“About this time the Ethiopians, who dwell beyond Egypt, advanced as far as the city called Elephantine, with Candace as their leader, ravaging everything they encountered.” Roman History, Book 54, Chapter 5.4
In Acts 11:27-28, St. Luke writes: “Now in those days some prophets from Jerusalem came down to Antioch, and one of them named Agabus got up and revealed through the Spirit that there would be a great famine all over the world. The famine occurred in the reign of Claudius.” Now, was there really a famine during the reign of Emperor Claudius? Suetonius gave us the answer:
“When there was a scarcity of grain because of long-continued droughts, he was once stopped in the middle of the Forum by a mob and so pelted with abuse and at the same time with pieces of bread, that he was barely able to make his escape to the Palace by a back door; and after this experience he resorted to every possible means to bring grain to Rome, even in the winter season.” See Life of Claudius, Chapter 18.2
When Paul and Silas were in Philippi, a city in Macedonia, they were unfairly accused of disturbing the peace and were cast in prison. When the magistrates later sent the lictors to release them, Paul complained that they were beaten publicly and without trial although they were Romans. Then St. Luke wrote: “The police reported these words to the magistrates, and they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens” (RSVCE Acts 16:38). Now, why were the magistrates frightened when they found out that Paul and Silas were Romans? Was this just a literary device employed by St. Luke to add drama to his narrative? The Roman historian Titus Livius Patavinus, otherwise known as Livy, recorded a Roman Law that explains and confirms the trustworthiness of St. Luke’s report. As a Roman colony, Philippi was under a strict law that prohibited the unfair treatment of Roman citizens:
Livy (or Titus Livius Patavinus):
“The Porcian law, however, seems to have been passed solely for the protection of the citizens in life and limb, for it imposed the severest penalties on any one who killed or scourged a Roman citizen.” See The History of Rome, Book 10, paragraph 9.
Paul and Silas in Prison, Acts 16:19-40
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In the Acts 18:2 St. Luke said that the Roman emperor Claudius had commanded all Jews to leave Rome. Was there any confirmation of this expulsion of the Jews from Rome in recorded history? Again this was confirmed by Suetonius:
“Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome.” Life of Claudius, Chapter 25.4
In the Acts St Luke records a conversation between St. Paul and a Roman tribune: "So the tribune came and said to him, 'Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?' And he said, 'Yes.' The tribune answered, 'I bought this citizenship for a large sum.' Paul said, 'But I was born a citizen.'” (RSVCE Acts 22:27-28) Now, was that historically accurate? The tribune claimed that he paid a handsome price for his Roman citizenship. Could citizenship in Rome be purchased? The historian Dio Cassius explained that it was possible to purchase Roman citizenship:
“A great many other persons unworthy of citizenship were also deprived of it, whereas he granted citizenship to others quite indiscriminately, sometimes to individuals and sometimes to whole groups. For inasmuch as Romans had the advantage over foreigners in practically all respects, many sought the franchise by personal application to the emperor, and many bought it from Messalina and the imperial freedmen. For this reason, though the privilege was at first sold only for large sums, it later became so cheapened by the facility with which it could be obtained that it came to be a common saying, that a man could become a citizen by giving the right person some bits of broken glass.” Roman History, Book 60, Chapter 17.5
In addition to written documents confirming the historical accuracy of the Acts many inscriptions had also been discovered confirming St. Luke’s accurate description of first century society, political structure, customs and laws. Of course, there are also passages in the Acts that are being questioned by some scholars. However, none of the disputed passages have been shown to be inaccurate. It is just that their final resolution is still awaiting further confirmation or discovery. See Is the Book of Acts Reliable?