Is the Bible a reliable historical document? This is a huge topic—too ambitious for a blog post—but here’s an attempt to whet your curiosity to dig a little deeper.
Sometimes it takes quite a bit of investigation, discovery, and thinking to connect the dots. (For example, Rick Larson’s work on the Star of Bethlehem.) But there are examples that are right in our faces. Consider the Arch of Titus in Rome. Titus was the Roman commander in charge of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., which destroyed Herod’s Temple. The Roman army carried off the Temple treasures, including the Menorah, Table of the Showbread, and Temple Trumpets. Recent research into the bas relief on the Arch of Titus has discovered that the Menorah in this frieze was originally painted gold.
Here is an extra-biblical source showing the Menorah from the Hebrew Temple, carried off in the spoils of war, and sculpted into a Roman monument by the Roman people. And it is identical to the lampstand prescribed by God to Moses in Exodus 25. And it was described in detail by (non-Christian) first-century historian Flavius Josephus, and later rabbinical sources. If you put that all together, we have extra-biblical evidence for the elements in the Holy of Holies, confirmation of a match between Scripture and what was found in the Temple, confirmation of the elements used in service by Hebrew priests, and a very big problem for those who deny that the Temple was ever on Mount Moriah. It’s as close as we can get to an ancient photograph. This particular sculpture was used to create an official seal for the modern State of Israel featuring the Menorah. So there’s one small example of the historicity of the Bible.
Lon Solomon has a great message on the Historicity of the Patriarchs that gives tangible examples of how “the more they dig out of the ground, the more the more the Bible proves to be right.” Click the play button below to hear this message, and click here for Lon’s sermon notes.
OK, how about the historicity of Jesus? Taking into consideration that Wikipedia is an open-source encyclopedia that anyone in the world can edit, we find remarkable agreement on the historicity of Jesus in this article. Not everyone accepts his message and purpose, but there isn’t much argument for his existence as a historical figure or that he was crucified.
So what do historians think? The late Chuck Colson cited a speech by historian Paul Johnson as “one of the most compelling arguments I’ve ever read for the historical accuracy of the Scriptures.” The speech entitled A Historian Looks at Jesus is available in its entirety on this website, and is worth a careful reading for those interested in this topic. But after making many points to support the historicity of Jesus and his ministry, Paul Johnson has a lot to say about what it all means. Here are some choice quotes that get to the So What?
“But a historian looking at Christianity and the phenomenon of Jesus is entitled to say something more about the content and significance of Christianity, and this is my final point. He is entitled, I think, to warn against a worldly interpretation of Jesus Christ’s message. When Jesus said that His kingdom was not of this world, He meant exactly that, and He was warning his followers not to place any political construction on His mission. Anyone who studies the history of the Jewish people in the century or so before Christ, during His lifetime and in the decades which followed His death, will understand why He found it necessary to give such a warning.
“The victory of Christianity lay in the fact that, in time, the tiny handful swelled into a mighty multitude, and that this steady and eventually overwhelming growth was secured not by the power of the sword or by the efficiency of a political organization, but by virtue of example and by the appeal of words. That wholly unmilitary and unpolitical conquest fills the historian with wonder and awe, for it is unique in antiquity; unique, I think, at any age.
“But all these roads which Christ indicated are routes to the next world, not this. What Christianity is not about, what it never has been about, what it never can be about, is politics. That was the mistake made by the Jewish elites and the Jewish mob in Jesus’ own lifetime. It is a mistake many have made since, in all ages, not least in our own. It is, I think, the commonest mistake made by Christian elites today.
“’My kingdom is not of this world.’ Those seven words go to the heart of the Christian faith. The truth of Christ is not a truth about worldly utopias. It is not a mandate for socialism or capitalism or democracy or kingship or social welfare. When Satan took Jesus to the high mountain and showed him the kingdoms of the world, and Jesus rejected them and told Satan to be gone, He was rejecting the worldliness not only of wealth and privilege, but the worldliness of systems and ideology, the worldliness of political programs and politicized theology, and of morals preached to attain political ends, however speciously high-minded they may be.
“When a historian looks at Jesus Christ and Christianity, his final conclusion must be, I think, that Jesus was not concerned with this world at all, except insofar as it forms a threshold to the next; and that Christianity is quite literally like nothing on earth.”
Paul Johnson, 1986—A Historian Looks at Jesus