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Below is an introductory article on history itself for this section, which is a must-read. These categories have articles that relate to that particular time period. They are always being added to, so please check back.
- CATEGORY: PART 1 CREATION TO THE FLOOD
- CATEGORY: PART 2 THE FLOOD TO THE DELIVERANCE FROM EGYPT
- CATEGORY: PART 3 DELIVERANCE FROM EGYPT TO ISRAEL’S FIRST KING
- CATEGORY: PART 4 ISRAEL’S FIRST KING TO CAPTIVITY IN BABYLON
- CATEGORY: PART 5 CAPTIVITY IN BABYLON TO THE COMPLETION OF THE BOOK OF MALACHI
- CATEGORY: PART 6 FROM MALACHI TO THE BIRTH OF JESUS
- CATEGORY: PART 7 BIRTH OF JESUS TO HIS DEATH
- CATEGORY: PART 8 JESUS’ RESURRECTION TO DEATH OF THE APOSTLE JOHN
History, Can It Be Trusted?
History-writing now has a different ethos and culture from historiography in antiquity. Today we operate under a universal time regime established by Greenwich meantime and a world calendar. Time then was local, established by the sundial or water clock. There were many calendars, for example, Roman, Macedonian, Syrian, mainstream Jewish, and sectarian Jewish. Our world has been minutely mapped; theirs had only rough sketches. We keep careful demographic records about every conceivable aspect of existence. We know about levels of literacy in Canada, the longevity of Australian aborigines, and the ocular health of children in the Cote d’Ivoire. But we can only guess about literacy in Corinth in Paul’s day or the stable population of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.’
It is true that a surviving papyrus text or epitaph may cast some light on the daily life of ordinary people. Yet such light tends to be narrowly focused. Today it is possible to write histories of minor movements or “unimportant” individuals in the modern world, but this is rarely possible for the period under review. The extensive data that allows the writing of social and economic histories is not available for comparable works for antiquity. Social histories about village life in Galilee, for example, are necessarily limited to generalizations.
History-writing in antiquity tended to deal with “significant” people who “made it to the top” and left their imprint in official documents, chronicles, and inscriptions. From the historian Tacitus and the biographer Suetonius we know about Roman emperors with occasional passing references to lower-order officials. This information is supplemented by inscriptions (e.g., Augustus’s Res Gestae) or papyri (e.g., Claudius’s Letter to the Alexandrians). That so much is known about Pontius Pilate, a prefect of a small province on the margins of the Empire, is a fluke. His predecessors in that office are known to us only by name. (Barnett 2005)
How We Benefit From History
The general definition of history is a record of the past events of a period in time or in the life or development of a people, an institution, or a place. History is viewed differently, with some believing that the historian’s work can be completely trusted, feeling that the old adage is true, ‘those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it,’ while others see history as dead and irretrievable, and not trustworthy. Others fall somewhere between these two positions. What about you?
If we are going, to be honest with ourselves here, a measure of truth can be found in both positions. If a person or country can discover the pitfalls of the past, make adjustments, history will then have been beneficial. On the other hand, history can be abused, manipulated, twisted, or simply just be unclear, bringing little benefit to anyone who chooses to depend on it. Almost seventy years ago, Adolf Hitler used a corrupt version of history to attempt to strengthen his lore about a Germanic “superrace.” This led to unspeakable tragedy and death for millions. If we are to truly benefit from history, we have to have a balanced view about it. How is this accomplished?
Sources of History
Of great significance, is the source of the information that we are covering. The modern-day historian may be covering a historical event or person from a mere hundred years ago, or all the way back to four thousand years ago. Few would argue against the general principle that the further removed the historian is, the more difficult the recovery. Regardless of the amount of time that has passed, he has to rely on information that has been passed down to us in one way or another from the past. Certainly, the fields of archaeology and geology can add much insight, but the best source of information is generally a written record, and, if possible, one assembled by an eyewitness to the events he is covering.
For example, a historian may pen a book on Titus, who was Roman Emperor from 79 to 81 C.E., and we may wonder where he got such information. It may have come from the second-century Roman biographer Suetonius (c. 69 – c. 122 C.E.). Suetonius himself lived at the time of the Caesars and also seems to have had easy entrance into the Imperial and Senatorial archives, in addition to other contemporary documents. By reading the history book, you are getting to see the events and times of Titus through the eyes of Suetonius as well as the history. If you want the closest source to the information, it would be best to read Suetonius oneself.
The historian Barnett is correct that ancient history tends to favor those that are wealthy, powerful, and important, with the records of those under them being very distant and only just enough. Therefore, the historian must work to fill in the gaps, if he is to connect the many different accounts that are available, tying the material together. Where can the modern-day writer get such information, to fill in these gaps?
Many, who have become experts in their field of study, are able to make a critical reconstruction of the places and or persons of a time period that has less material than would be desirable. Is this wrong? No. This would be far from just an educated guess, as some would suggest because it takes an experienced and skilled historian with a broad knowledge of the events, period, language and historical setting of that time. A critical reconstruction requires a close study any texts, archaeological, or geographical evidence in its cultural and historical context and must be thoroughly analyzed. When you are reading the history book, you will notice these critical reconstruction sections, because the historian will move from absolute certainty, to language of an event that “most likely” to “likely” or even “may have” or “possibly” or “probably” took place in such and such a manner.
However, we need to be cautious about the history books that we read, because some historians do not check the original source information themselves, and will only investigate what the other experts have said on the matter, accepting it as fact. Misunderstandings and even distortions and half-truths about the past are then passed on from one historian to the next. Inaccurate information can be out there for decades, even centuries. This generally happens because one historian failed to examine the authenticity of the statements made by another historian.
We can see an example of this by looking at the ancient Babylonians of about one thousand years before Jesus’s birth. The Babylonians have been embellished by 20th-century authors, at times, as having been great astronomers. They were presented as very educated people, who possessed in-depth knowledge of planetary movements as a result of their meticulous observations of the heavens. Because of this viewpoint, the entire Babylonian culture was set up to be these highly advanced and sophisticated people. On the other hand, the surrounding peoples were viewed as being slower, lagging far behind the progress and development of the Babylonians, and only made progress in their cultural setting when they came into contact with the Babylonians. The question that begs to be asked is, ‘Is this what the original sources demonstrate?
True enough; the ancient Babylonians had some fundamental knowledge of astronomy. This can be seen in the astrological aspect of the Babylonian region itself. However, the actual evidence that we have of Babylonian astronomy is found on clay tablets. O. Neugebauer, who is not speaking from what other men have asserted about the ancient clay documents but with the actual documents themselves, has written: “There is scarcely another chapter in the history of science where an equally deep gap exists between the generally accepted description of a period and the results which have slowly emerged from a detailed investigation of the source material. . . . Early Mesopotamian astronomy appeared to be crude.” Even though this was written forty-three years ago, it is as true today as it was then. In fact, the evidence shows that Babylonian astronomy was not carefully established as a science until 400 B.C.E.
When we get the clear picture of the ancient Babylonians, they lose much of their luster as a highly advanced people, which has been made popular by modern-day writers. There is little doubt that the ancient Babylonians were a civilized people, having some advanced cultural and social development, are not the highly advanced and sophisticated people that 20th-century readers have come to see them as. Just as was true with Babylonian astronomy, so it is with the embellishment and distortion of ancient events and biographies. It is only by getting back to the earliest sources are we able to ascertain a sureness of the best available facts about the past. Then again more is essential to finding the truth from the past than simply finding ancient records.
Is the Source Truthful and Accurate?
Even when it is possible for the modern-day writer to have access to the ancient sources themselves, and she or he has properly translated them, the view that he has of that history may still end up being somewhat too completely distorted. Why you may ask? For the reason that the ancient sources themselves may be inaccurate, or the ancient writer may not have written truthfully because he had an agenda.
One reason for our inaccuracy is that those ancient writers may have lived at a much later period of time than the events that they describe took place. Another shortcoming on their part may be that they lived in another part of the world from where the events took place. Thus, if today’s writers only had this information to guide them, it would mean that they were simply unknowingly passing on inaccurate information.
Or, another obstacle to truthful and accurate information may be that the original source had nationalistic partialities, allegiances and religious feelings, which are common to all of us to some extent. Therefore, this will have some impact on the original writer. As an example, let us look at Tacitus (56 – 117 C.E.), who was the senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. He is believed to be among the more accurate of the ancient men of letters. However, his cultivated Roman assessment shows distinctly strong predispositions. Consequently, some of the evidence Tacitus presents is misleading. Hence, he writes about the Jews in The Histories (Book V),
Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete, who settled on the nearest coast of Africa about the time when Saturn was driven from his throne by the power of Jupiter. Evidence of this is sought in the name. There is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighbouring tribe, the Idaei, came to be called Judaei by a barbarous lengthening of the national name. Others assert that in the reign of Isis the overflowing population of Egypt, led by Hierosolymus and Judas, discharged itself into the neighboring countries. Many, again, say that they were a race of Ethiopian origin, who in the time of King Cephus were driven by fear and hatred of their neighbours to seek a new dwelling-place. Others describe them as an Assyrian horde who, not having sufficient territory, took possession of part of Egypt, and founded cities of their own in what is called the Hebrew country, lying on the borders of Syria. Others, again, assign a very distinguished origin to the Jews, alleging that they were the Solymi, a nation celebrated in the poems of Homer, who called the city which they founded Hierosolyma after their own name. Most writers, however, agree in stating that once a disease, which horribly disfigured the body, brok out over Egypt; that King Bocchoris, seeking a remedy, consulted the oracle of Hammon, and was bidden to cleanse his realm, and to convey into some foreign land this race detested by the gods. […] (Tacitus 1931, 5.2-3)
If we were to list other statements from Tacitus, we would discover a pattern where he is seeking to discredit the Jewish people. True enough he mentions a variety of views concerning the Jewish people, but the overall impression that he leaves is an attempt to paint them as a worthless, contemptible, shameful ethnic group of deserters who had to leave their homeland. In addition, this Roman historian wrote in the first century C.E., so there were Jewish writings available to Taciticus that reveal otherwise to the above comments. However, he fails to mention or acknowledge their views.
How the biases of the ancient writers came into their writings may be demonstrated, too, by the dispute over an account by Josephus, the first century Jewish historian (37 – c. 100 C.E.). He says that Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem after his overthrow of the cities of Tyre and Gaza. Josephus writes.
For Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head having the golden plate on which the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest. (332) The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about: whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind. (333) However, Parmenio alone went up to him, and asked him how it came to pass, that when all others adored him, he should adore the high priest of the Jews? To whom he replied, “I did not adore him, but that God who hath honored him with that high priesthood; (334) for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios, in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea thither, for that he would conduct my army, and would give me the dominion over the Persians; (335) whence it is, that having seen no other in that habit, and now seeing this person in it, and remembering that vision and the exhortation which I had in my dream, I believe that I bring this army under the divine conduct, and shall therewith conquer Darius, and destroy the power of the Persians, and that all things will succeed according to what is in my own mind.” (336) And when he had said this to Parmenio, and had given the high priest his right hand, the priests ran along by him, and he came into the city; and when he went up into the temple, he offered sacrifice to God, according to the high priest’s direction, and magnificently treated both the high priest and the priests. (337) And when the book of Daniel was showed him, wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended; and as he was then glad, he dismissed the multitude for the present, but the next day he called them to him, and bade them ask what favors they pleased of him: (338) whereupon the high priest desired that they might enjoy the laws of their forefathers, and might pay no tribute on the seventh year. He granted all they desired: and when they entreated him that he would permit the Jews in Babylon and Media to enjoy their own laws also, he willingly promised to do hereafter what they desired: (339) and when he said to the multitude, that if any of them would enlist themselves in his army on this condition, that they should continue under the law of their forefathers, and live according to them, he was willing to take them with him, many were ready to accompany him in his wars. (Whiston 1987, Antiquities 11.331–339)
You can see from the above that Josephus declares that Alexander was met with great splendor and shown the prophecies where “Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, [Alexander] supposed that himself was the person intended.” Because Alexander was allegedly informed that his conquering campaign was “God” ordained, Josephus shows that they were spared the normal ravages of the Greek armies. However, the somewhat suspiciousness of this favorable story is brought to light by the fact that Arrian, Alexander’s most noted biographer, does not mention anything about this event. Why such a difference between these two writers?
There is the possibility that Arrian simply had strong anti-Jewish feelings, as some have argued. However, the failure of Arrian to mention Alexander’s entry into Jerusalem (if that was the case), does not in and of itself mean that Arrian was inaccurate because to leave something out is not actually a mistake. Then again, Josephus is noted at times, for exaggerating the truth in order to make Jewish history more magnificent than it actually was. Since we know that there is some evidence of occasional biases on the part of both Arrian and Josephus, we are unable to add any level of certainty to Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem.
Because of the reservations concerning some of the material that gives us access to the ancient writers, individuals today have gone to the extreme and have pronounced them all inaccurate and completely untrustworthy; thus, completely unusable, of no benefit to modern historians or students. However, that would not be completely appropriate in the final analysis.
Most people who wrote in ancient times were (1) writing to be understood and (2) had good motives for penning what they did. Mostly, they wrote factually about the events that they covered, not seeking to manipulate the reports. While there is no room to go into the advancements that have been made in historical research, as well as archaeology and specifically biblical archaeology, it has been substantial, and we can have much confidence in the work of modern-day writers. While it is true that modern writers can be very biased as well, we just need to subject authors or writers to a careful examination or scrutiny, especially when this involves determining the trustworthiness of their work. We should not give up on history, setting it aside as valueless, we just need to develop our ability to discern who we can trust and who we cannot.
It should be mentioned that some critics of Bible history as well as the history of the Bible itself, like to biasedly choose when historical information is trustworthy, and when it is not. In other words, they seldom lack trust in secular authors like Tacitus but question the authenticity of the New Testament writers, especially the Gospels. A good example of this sort of bias can be found in Dr. Bart D. Ehrman. In his biasedly written book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, Ehrman has some favorite layman ways of expressing the problems that he uses without qualification, in every interview I have seen of him before a lay audience (which includes seminary students), he presents one or more of his favorites, without qualifying them:
- Scholars differ significantly in their estimates—some say there are 200,000 variants known, some say 300,000, some say 400,000 or more!
- There are more variations among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.
- We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways.
- We don’t even have copies of the copies of the originals, or copies of the copies of the copies of the originals.
- In the early Christian centuries, scribes were amateurs and as such were more inclined to alter the texts they copied.
- We could go on nearly forever talking about specific places in which the texts of the New Testament came to be changed, either accidentally or intentionally.
- The Bible began to appear to me as a very human book.
Discerning Truthful and Accurate History
Inevitably, by far most modern readers are dependent on what others have written about historical sources, because they do not have access to ancient clay tablets, written in say Akkadian cuneiform, or manuscripts that are written in ancient languages like Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, Old Syriac, or Old Latin. Not to mention the time one would have to devote to digging through many, many old sources, comparing them to one another, to determine the truth of a matter. However, the modern reader wants to benefit from history. Therefore, the discerning person will keep in view some important concerns such as those found below when they are reading historical works:
Consider the facts under consideration (which may very well be accurate), to see how the writer is using them. Does he have a selfish reason for writing what he has, or does he have a strong opinion about something that influences his writing? Is the writer asking you to accept something as true that you have known to be untrue, or the other way around? Are you asked to agree to something as true that you know from your own experience or other studies that run counter to human nature? Does the historian attempt to glorify one nation or race endlessly while denigrating another? Let us take another look at Dr. Bart D. Ehrman, the atheist Bible scholar.
My questions were complicated even more as I began to think increasingly about the manuscripts that conveyed the words. The more I studied Greek, the more I became interested in the manuscripts that preserve the New Testament for us, and in the science of textual criticism, which can supposedly help us reconstruct what the original words of the New Testament were. I kept reverting to my basic question: how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if in fact we don’t have the words copied by the scribes―sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the original! We have only error ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways. Bold mine. (Ehrman, 2005, p. 7)
Please notice the mental disposition, “supposedly,” “many times!” “don’t have the originals!” “error-ridden copies,” “the vast majority of,” “centuries removed,” “different from,” and “thousands of.” Well, this sounds quite ominous does it not? We might all just throw up our hands and go home, and give up Christianity, because we could never possess the Word of God in the New Testament. Do not my latter words sound a bit sarcastic toward Bart D. Ehrman? Yes, they are meant to be, because I had the agenda to be sarcastic. You see, one can tell the intent of what is being expressed by the wording. Now, what would you think Bart D. Ehrman’s objective is by the way he is writing in the above?
For example sake alone: if we find numerous overdone statements and exaggerated explanations, with missing information and many exclamation points to emphasize the negative, but seldom mentioning the positive; we can eventually see a pattern. If this proves to be the case, the writer is certainly doing a disservice to the reader. If we find 200 texts that are supposed to be full of historical, geographical, or scientific errors, and they are highlighted, yet this person fails to explain to the reader that each of the 200 errors has reasonable and logical explanations; then, this is a pattern of misleading the reader by failing to disclose all of the facts. Many who have read Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus are simply churchgoers that occasionally study the Bibles, who are not aware of the apologetic answers to the claims. Scholars are hardly moved by them, as they are well aware of the alternative explanations. If we find repeated behavior that reflects an agenda of highlighting minute issues, while ignoring a massive amount of positives, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that we have an agnostic scholar, now atheist, who wishes others to join his ranks.
Are We Able to Trust History?
How do historians check the accuracy of older writings? They compare these with such things as old tax records, law codes, advertisements for slave auctions, business, and private letters and records, inscriptions on pottery shards, ships’ logs, and items found in tombs and graves. This miscellaneous collection will often shine a further or different light on official writings. Where there is a complete or partial absence of data or reservations continue, good historians will generally say so, although they might propose their own ideas to fill the gaps. Regardless, the prudent reader will refer to more than one reference if they are looking for a balanced and correct understanding.
Regardless of the challenges that lie before the historian, his work has more to offer than one may ever imagine. “If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.” (Michael Crichton) Aside from the window into humanities past, it can also expand our understanding of the present human condition. We can learn from history that ancient people were no different than their modern-day counterpart, as far as a human trait. We live in an imperfect world where we are told that all of humankind is mentally bent (Gen 6:5; 8:21, AT), who have a treacherous heart that they cannot even be known (Jer. 17:9), and our thinking and desires are leaning toward evil ends. (Romans 5:12) All of this has impacted human history, which echoes the idea that history repeats itself. U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said: “Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed.” He added: “History is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized. . . . So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy.”
The Bible as History
The Christian overwhelming accepts the Bible’s historical narrative as authentic and true, while the Bible critic sees it as being full of errors, contradiction, myths, and legends. We need not set aside the fact that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God, just because the critic desires such, as we are not in the people-pleasing business. Even so, we can look at the Bible under the same microscope that we would other secular authors. If the honest-hearted critic would venture to look more intently as he studies history, he will begin to be more appreciative of the value of the Bible’s historical narratives.
Yes, most of Scripture seems to focus on the nation of Israel, as a special people. However, if it is read with open eyes, one will clearly see that their historical narrative is an honest one. All forty plus writers were Jewish, and over a 1,600 year period of writing sixty-six books, they truthfully covered a history so atrocious, for their disobedience to God, ending with the fact that he abandoned them as his chosen people. We find far more exposure of terrible characteristics among the leadership of Kings, priests, and judges, as opposed to and good qualities. While the Jewish writers were busy exposing the true history of the times, with all their faults, most secular historians were busy sharing only the good of their people, or even blatantly rewriting history, to cover over their atrocities.
Moses, for instance, candidly tells of his and his brother Aaron’s sin and God’s judgment, which kept them from entering the Promised Land. (Num. 20:7-13; Deut. 3:23-27) You have King David not only committing adultery with Bathsheba but his efforts to cover it up once she is pregnant, by having the husband Uriah, one of the great warriors purposely killed in battle. You have the apostasy of King Solomon, as well as the other family debauchery of the family of David. (2 Sam., chaps. 11, 12, 24; 1 Ki. 11:1-13) Jonah, the prophet and writer of the book that bears his name, actually spends the entire book exposing his own failures in the greatest of detail. The twenty-seven books of the New Testament were written very similarly, as far as being candid is concerned. The twelve apostles, Jesus most intimate followers, are not given a very good light in the four Gospels that were penned by two apostles (Matthew and John), at the direction of one apostle (Mark by way of Peter), and a trusted friend of the apostles (Luke). Peter especially, is severely brought to task numerous times in the Gospels, even more so in the one, he likely was used as the source. Even the Apostle Paul publicly exposed the Apostle Peter for showing preferential treatment of the Jews in the presence of the Jerusalem leaders, at Antioch. There was not one single person that was exempt from the candid, frank, truthful pens of the forty-plus Jewish writers, not even the writers themselves. Matt. 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-62; John 18:15-27; Gal. 2:11-14; John 17:17.
 O. Neugebauer, The Exact Science in Antiquity, (New York, 1969), 97.
 The place showed Alexander might be Dan. 7:6; 8:3–8, 20–22; 11:3: some or all of them very plain predictions of Alexander’s conquests and successes.