There are quite a few problems with using the Christian bible as a source of history. I’m going to outline some of them here and link to a few sources, but I’m not trying to write a complete educational article on the subject. As I said when I started this series, my goal is to explain some of the reasons I can’t take the bible as 100% true or inspired by a god. There are plenty of sources that go into great detail about these things if you want to take a deeper look.
The first problem is that the final version of the Torah wasn’t compiled until after the Babylonian exile, more than a thousand years after the time of Moses. In fact, most bible scholars believe it was written and edited by four different people around 900-400 BC, drawing from oral tradition and perhaps a few pre-existing written sources; I was even taught this at a Christian university. What I wasn’t taught is that various references to places and people are inconsistent with established evidence from other sources. Sometimes multiple cities are mentioned as existing at the same time, when in reality they did not. Sometimes references to population numbers are impossibly inflated, while the archaeological evidence shows much smaller populations.
The bible claims that a huge number of Israelites (probably close to two million…it gives the number of adult men as 600,000) were involved in the exodus from Egypt, but the event is not supported by any evidence. There may be some truth to the basic concept of Israelite slaves fleeing Egypt, but since the entire population of Egypt at the time was only around 2-5 million, losing such a large portion of the population would’ve been a major blow to the economy and would almost certainly be found in Egyptian records. The entire dramatic exit of the Israelites is highly suspect. There is no evidence for the plagues, or for two million Hebrews wandering around the Middle East for decades before invading Canaan and killing everyone.
Considering the lack of historical accuracy in the early Old Testament (and the total lack of scientific understanding), it is most reasonable to take it as another mythology, just like thousands of similar origin stories from cultures around the world. Christians would never consider the supernatural mythologies of the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Cherokee, or any other people group to be perfectly true history. Yet the historicity of their own bible cannot be distinguished from most of the others in any meaningful way.
What about the New Testament? It has some of the same problems. Any honest Christian scholar would admit there is no evidence the gospels were written by the traditionally attributed authors. In fact, what little evidence we do have indicates they were likely written around the end of the first century AD or later, having been maintained as oral tradition until then and possibly also based on previous written sources. Matthew and Luke are believed to have been derived from Mark due to similarities in the wording that are too extensive to be coincidence.
Furthermore, there are many other gospels and stories of Jesus and his followers that were excluded when the church decided on the official canon of the New Testament a few centuries later. Even in the earliest Christian communities there were varying sects of Christianity that disagreed on which scriptures were true, and accused each other of modifying them to fit their personal opinions. I don’t see any reason to assume that the gospels in the bible are any more accurate than the ones that aren’t.
The extra-biblical evidence of Jesus himself amounts to a couple possibly forged references to the mere existence of a religious teacher named Yeshua. For any claims about him beyond his existence, the only evidence is the gospels themselves, which means they have as much credibility as any other story of supernatural abilities ascribed to a person who may have been real. If that means I must accept the gospels as perfectly accurate historical documents, I could apply the same reasoning to the scriptures of many other religions and come to the same conclusion about them. Some even have better supporting evidence.
There is much more that could be said, but these issues were enough for me to decide that it would be dishonest to claim the bible is a reliable source of history, or that it’s any more likely to be true than other religious scriptures.
To wrap up this series by tying into the foundation I laid in the beginning, the next and final article will dig into the many ways the bible fails when held up against science.
There are five articles in this series: