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Is Scripture a “Faithful Record” of Historical Events?—A Reply to “Who Killed Jesus?,” in Newsweek Magazine

by  Eric Lyons, M.Min.
Bert Thompson, Ph.D.

Opponents of Christianity frequently have boasted of their ability to remove the Christian’s foundation of faith by hacking away at the Bible. They believe that by chopping incessantly in the forest of inspiration with the cynical axe of criticism, they will be able to expunge the Bible from the masses, and push God from the Universe. Over 2,500 years ago, King Jehoiakim took his penknife, slashed the Old Testament Scriptures to pieces, and tossed them into a fire (Jeremiah 36:22-23). During the Middle Ages, attempts were made to keep the Bible from the man on the street. In fact, those caught translating or distributing the Scriptures often were subjected to imprisonment, torture, and even death. Centuries later, the French philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) boastfully declared that there would not be a copy of the Bible on Earth within 100 years of his death. And in 1795, Thomas Paine arrogantly concluded in The Age of Reason:

I have now gone through the Bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder, and fell trees. Here they lie; and the priests, if they can, may replant them. They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground, but they will never make them grow (p. 151).

The axe used by Paine, Voltaire, and others like them frequently has been the allegation that the Bible is not historically trustworthy. This criticism has become much more concentrated in recent times, and resurfaced in February 2004 with the release of the much-anticipated movie, The Passion of the Christ, produced by Mel Gibson.

In a cover-story article that appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of Newsweek magazine titled “Who Killed Jesus?,” author Jon Meacham flippantly attacked the Bible’s historical reliability with these words:

[T]he Bible can be a problematic source. Though countless believers take it as the immutable word of God, Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events; the Bible is the product of human authors who were writing in particular times and places with particular points to make and visions to advance (143[7]:46, emp. added).

Rather than providing proof for his allegation that “Scripture is not always a faithful record of historical events,” Meacham simply jabbed at the biblical text a few more times throughout the article, alleging that the Bible writers sometimes disagreed with each other (p. 49), and that they wrote things from a biased perspective (pp. 48,50). Like so many skeptics through the centuries who have criticized the Bible’s reliability, Meacham’s attacks upon Scripture are unfounded. The existing evidence (conveniently omitted by Meacham) shows unequivocally that the Bible is factually accurate.

Repeatedly, history has shown itself to be an ally, rather than an enemy, to the sixty-six books that make up the English Bible. As a person reads through these books, he will find names of kings and queens, governors and priests. He will read of cities and villages, and sometimes even learn of the roads and passageways that connected them. The Bible was born among real historical people, places, and events, which allows twenty-first-century readers opportunities to inquire about its trustworthiness—inquiries that Meacham and others would rather you not take the time to consider, yet ones that, as you will see in the remainder of this article, should open your eyes to the truth of the matter: the Bible is factually accurate in all that it proclaims. The Bible’s facts have withstood tests of reliability time and again. Examples abound.

Numerous passages indicate that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (2 Chronicles 34:14; Ezra 6:18; Nehemiah 13:1; Exodus 17:14; John 5:46; Mark 12:26). Having been adopted by the royal family of Egypt, he would have had access to the finest schools, best tutors, and greatest libraries which that country had to offer, thus securing for himself an impressive education (see Acts 7:22). Yet Bible critics once suggested that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch because the art of writing was not developed until well after his death (see Wellhausen, 1885, p. 393; see also Schultz, 1898, pp. 25-26). This criticism, however, has been blunted by a veritable plethora of archaeological discoveries. In 1933, J.L. Starkey, who had studied under famed archaeologist W.M.F. Petrie, excavated the city of Lachish, which had figured prominently in Joshua’s conquest of Canaan (Joshua 10). Among other things, he unearthed a pottery water pitcher “inscribed with a dedication in eleven archaic letters, the earliest ‘Hebrew’ inscription known” (Wiseman, 1974, p. 705). Pfeiffer has noted: “The Old, or palaeo-Hebrew script is the form of writing which is similar to that used by the Phoenicians. A royal inscription of King Shaphatball of Gebal (Byblos) in this alphabet dates from about 1600 B.C.” (1966, p. 33). In 1949, C.F.A. Schaeffer “found a tablet at Ras Shamra containing the thirty letters of the Ugaritic alphabet in their proper order. It was discovered that the sequence of the Ugaritic alphabet was the same as modern Hebrew, revealing that the Hebrew alphabet goes back at least 3,500 years” (Jackson, 1982, p. 32).

The Code of Hammurabi (c. 2000-1700 B.C.) was discovered by a French archaeological expedition under the direction of Jacques de Morgan in 1901-1902 at the ancient site of Susa in what is now Iran. It was written on a piece of black diorite nearly eight feet high, and contained 282 sections. Free and Vos have stated:

The Code of Hammurabi was written several hundred years before the time of Moses (c. 1500-1400 B.C.).... This code, from the period 2000-1700 B.C., contains advanced laws similar to those in the Mosaic laws.... In view of this archaeological evidence, the destructive critic can no longer insist that the laws of Moses are too advanced for his time (1992, pp. 103,55).

The Code of Hammurabi established beyond doubt that writing was known hundreds of years before Moses. In fact, the renowned Jewish historian, Josephus, confirmed that Moses authored the Pentateuch (Against Apion, 1,8), and various non-Christian writers (Hecataeus, Manetha, Lysimachus, Eupolemus, Tacitus, Juvenal, and Longinus, to name only a few), credited Moses with having authored the first five books of the English Bible (see Rawlinson, 1877, pp. 254ff.).

In days of yore, detractors accused Isaiah of having made a historical mistake when he wrote of Sargon as king of Assyria (Isaiah 20:1). For years, this remained the sole historical reference—secular or biblical—to Sargon having been linked with the Assyrian nation. Thus, critics assumed Isaiah had erred. But in 1843, Paul Emile Botta, the French consular agent at Mosul, working with Austen Layard, unearthed historical evidence that established Sargon as having been exactly what Isaiah said he was—king of the Assyrians. At Khorsabad, Botta discovered Sargon’s palace. Pictures of the find may be found in Halley’s Bible Handbook (1962, p. 289). Apparently, from what scholars have been able to piece together from archaeological and historical records, Sargon made his capital successively at Ashur, Calah, Nineveh, and finally at Khorsabad, where his palace was constructed in the closing years of his reign (c. 706 B.C.). The walls of the palace were adorned quite intricately with ornate text that described the events of his reign. Today, an artifact from the palace—a forty-ton stone bull (slab)—is on display at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute (“weighty” evidence of Sargon’s existence). Isaiah had been correct all along. And the critics had been wrong—all along.

One of the most famous archaeologists of the last century was Sir William Ramsay, who disputed the accuracy of events recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. Ramsay believed those events to be little more than second-century, fictitious accounts. Yet after years of literally digging through the evidence in Asia Minor, Ramsay concluded that Luke was an exemplary historian. In the decades since Ramsay, other scholars have suggested that Luke’s historical background of the New Testament is among the best ever produced. As Wayne Jackson has noted:

In Acts, Luke mentions thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine Mediterranean islands. He also mentions ninety-five persons, sixty-two of which are not named elsewhere in the New Testament. And his references, where checkable, are always correct. This is truly remarkable, in view of the fact that the political/territorial situation of his day was in a state of almost constant change. Only inspiration can account for Luke’s precision (1991b, 27[1]:2).

Other Bible critics have suggested that Luke misspoke when he designated Sergius Paulus as proconsul of Cyprus (Acts 13:7). Their claim was that Cyprus was governed by a propraetor (also known as a consular legate), not a proconsul. Upon further examination, such a charge can be seen to be completely vacuous, as Thomas Eaves has documented.

As we turn to the writers of history for that period, Dia Cassius (Roman History) and Strabo (The Geography of Strabo), we learn that there were two periods of Cyprus’ history: first, it was an imperial province governed by a propraetor, and later in 22 B.C., it was made a senatorial province governed by a proconsul. Therefore, the historians support Luke in his statement that Cyprus was ruled by a proconsul, for it was between 40-50 A.D. when Paul made his first missionary journey. If we accept secular history as being true we must also accept Biblical history for they are in agreement (1980, p. 234).

As a person reads through the New Testament book of Acts, and comes to the account where Herod addressed a group of people from Tyre and Sidon (Acts 12:21-23), he reads:

So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, “The voice of a god and not of a man!” Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died.

Perhaps the person reading this account begins struggling with whether or not “this whole Christian thing is for me,” and whether there is any evidence that corroborates the information found in the New Testament. How much more open to the truth of God’s Word might this skeptical gentlemen be if he could come in contact with the vast amount of historical data that supports the facts found therein? In this particular case, he might find it very helpful to learn that a well-educated, first-century Jewish historian by the name of Josephus gave a detailed account of Herod’s death in his work, The Antiquities of the Jews (18:8:2). Notice how the two accounts stand side by side.

  1. Where Luke wrote that Herod was “arrayed in royal apparel,” Josephus wrote that “he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful.”
  2. Where Luke wrote that “the people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man!,’ ” Josephus mentioned that “his flatterers cried out...that he was a god; and they added, ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’ Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery.”
  3. And finally, where Luke recorded: “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died,” Josephus wrote: “A severe pain also arose in his belly, and began in a most violent manner. He therefore looked upon his friends, and said, ‘I whom you call a god, am commanded presently to depart this life....’ [H]is pain was become violent.... And when he had been quite worn out by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life.”

Although the accounts of Luke and Josephus were written independently, regarding the death of Herod they agree in all of the essentials. Acts 12:20-23 represents only one of many examples in Scripture where secular history upholds its reliability. Over the past 1,900 years, the Bible has been examined more critically than any other book in the world, and yet it repeatedly is found to be historically accurate. Such accuracy surely gives the skeptic something important to consider in his examination of Scripture.

Luke’s use of praetor to refer to the magistrates of Philippi (Acts 16:20) was pinpointed as inaccurate since such town officials would normally be referred to as strateegoi (magistrates) or exousiais (authorities). However archaeological inscriptions have confirmed that Luke’s term was a courtesy title for the supreme magistrates of a Roman colony and completely accurate.

The science of archaeology seems to have outdone itself in verifying the Scriptures. Famed archaeologist William F. Albright wrote: “There can be no doubt that archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the Old Testament tradition” (1953, p. 176). Nelson Glueck, himself a pillar within the archaeological community, said: “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever controverted a Biblical reference. Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible” (1959, p. 31). Such statements, offered 30+ years ago, are as true today as the day they were made. Jerry Moffitt has observed:

Over thirty names (emperors, high priests, Roman governors, princes, etc.) are mentioned in the New Testament, and all but a handful have been verified. In every way the Bible accounts have been found accurate (though vigorously challenged). In no single case does the Bible let us down in geographical accuracy. Without one mistake, the Bible lists around forty-five countries. Each is accurately placed and named. About the same number of cities are named and no one mistake can be listed. Further, about thirty-six towns are mentioned, and most have been identified. Wherever accuracy can be checked, minute detail has been found correct—every time! (1993, p. 129).

The Hittites are mentioned over forty times in Scripture (Exodus 23:28; Joshua 1:4; et al.), and were so feared that on one occasion they caused the Syrians to flee from Israel (2 Kings 7:6). Yet critics suggested that Hittites were a figment of the Bible writers’ imaginations, since no evidence of their existence had been located. But in the late 1800s, A.H. Sayce discovered inscriptions in Syria that he designated as Hittite. Then, in 1906, Hugh Winckler excavated Boghazkoy, Turkey and discovered that the Hittite capital had been located on that very site. His find was all the more powerful because of the more than 10,000 clay tablets that were found in the ancient city’s library and that contained the society’s law system—which eventually came to be known as the Hittite Code. Thus, Ira Price wrote of the Hittites:

The lack of extra-biblical testimony to their existence led some scholars about a half-century ago to deny their historicity. They scoffed at the idea of Israel allying herself with such an unhistorical people as the Hittites, as narrated in 2 Kings vii.6. But those utterances have vanished into thin air (1907, pp. 75-76).

In his classic text, Lands of the Bible, J.W. McGarvey documented numerous instances in which the facts of the Bible can be checked, and in which it always passes the test. Are compass references accurate? Is Antioch of Syria “down” from Jerusalem, even though it lies to the north of the holy city (Acts 15:1)? Is the way from Jerusalem to Gaza “south” of Samaria (Acts 8:26)? Is Egypt “down” from Canaan (Genesis 12:10)? McGarvey noted that “in not a single instance of this kind has any of the Bible writers been found at fault” (p. 378). Further, as Wayne Jackson has commented:

In 1790, William Paley, the celebrated Anglican scholar, authored his famous volume, Horae Paulinae (Hours with Paul). In this remarkable book, Paley demonstrated an amazing array of “undesigned coincidences” between the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul, which argue for the credibility of the Christian revelation. “These coincidences,” said Paley, “which are often incorporated or intertwined in references and allusions, in which no art can be discovered, and no contrivance traced, furnish numerous proofs of the truth of both these works, and consequently that of Christianity” (1839 edition, p. xvi). In 1847, J.J. Blunt of Cambridge University released a companion volume titled, Undesigned Coincidences in the Writings of Both the Old Testament and New Testament. Professor Blunt argued that both Testaments contain numerous examples of “consistency without contrivance” which support the Scriptures’ claim of a unified origin from a supernatural source, namely God (1884, p. vii) [1991a, 11:2-3].

CONCLUSION

In their book, A General Introduction to the Bible, Geisler and Nix wrote: “Confirmation of the Bible’s accuracy in factual matters lends credibility to its claims when speaking on other subjects” (1986, p. 195). Indeed it does! After previewing most of the above facts, and others of a similar nature, Wayne Jackson concluded:

The Bible critic is likely to trivialize these examples as they are isolated from one another. When, however, literally hundreds and hundreds of these incidental details are observed to perfectly mesh, one begins to suspect that what have been called “undesigned coincidences” (from the human vantage point) become very obvious cases of divinely designed harmony—tiny footprints that lead only to the conclusion that God was the guiding Force behind the composition of the Sacred Scriptures (1991a, 11:3).

Human history books have always required correcting and updating. Not so with the Bible. Truly, the Bible’s facts have withstood the tests of time. And, the more time elapses, the more the evidence accumulates in the fact file of Scripture’s reliability.

This article only scratches the surface of the voluminous evidence that exists to substantiate and verify the authenticity of the Bible as the inspired Word of God. The supernatural origin of the Bible is so overwhelmingly established (see Thompson, 1999), we cannot but help to devote our lives to getting others to accept its truth and commit their lives to Jesus Christ as the Sovereign Lord of the Universe.

[AUTHORS’ NOTE: In the March 2004 issue of Reason & Revelation, Kyle Butt, a member of the Bible department at Apologetics Press, authored an article on Archaeology and the Old Testament, which provides additional evidence for the Bible’s historical trustworthiness. We highly recommend it to those who would like to examine this subject further. A companion article on Archaeology and the New Testament will follow later in 2004.]

REFERENCES

Albright, William F. (1953), Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press).

Eaves, Thomas F. (1980), “The Inspired Word,” Great Doctrines of the Bible, ed. M.H. Tucker (Knoxville, TN: East Tennessee School of Preaching).

Free, Joseph P. and Howard F. Vos (1992), Archaeology and Bible History (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix (1986), A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago, IL: Moody), revised edition.

Glueck, Nelson (1959), Rivers in the Desert: A History of the Negev (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Cudahy).

Halley, H.H. (1962), Halley’s Bible Handbook (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).

Jackson, Wayne (1982), Biblical Studies in the Light of Archaeology (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).

Jackson, Wayne (1991a), “Bible Unity—An Argument for Inspiration,” Reason & Revelation, 11:1, January.

Jackson, Wayne (1991b), “The Holy Bible—Inspired of God,” Christian Courier, 27[1]:1-3, May.

Josephus, Flavius (1987 edition), Antiquities of the Jews, in The Life and Works of Flavius Josephus, transl. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).

McGarvey, J.W. (1881), Lands of the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott).

Meacham, Jon (2004), “Who Killed Jesus?” Newsweek, 143[7]:45-53, February 16.

Moffitt, Jerry (1993), “Arguments Used to Establish an Inerrant, Infallible Bible,” Biblical Inerrancy, ed. Jerry Moffitt (Portland, TX: Portland Church of Christ).

Paine, Thomas (1795), Age of Reason (New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1924 reprint).

Pfeiffer, Charles F. (1966), The Biblical World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Price, Ira (1907), The Monuments and the Old Testament (Philadelphia, PA: American Baptist Publication Society).

Rawlinson, George (1877), Historical Evidences of the Truth of the Scripture Records (New York: Sheldon & Company).

Schultz, Hermann (1898), Old Testament Theology, trans. H.A. Patterson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), fourth edition.

Thompson, Bert (1999), In Defense of the Bible’s Inspiration (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).

Wellhausen, Julius (1885), Prolegomena to the History of Israel (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black), translated by Black and Menzies.

Wiseman, D.J. (1974), The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).




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