This page outlines, very briefly, what secular historians have concluded about the Old Testament. Because so much is, from their perspective, uncertain, their conclusions will not necessarily be the final word on what a Christian might believe about the Old Testament. Christians may choose to believe the Bible despite the scholars’ findings, but we need to understand what the scholars have concluded.
The scholars’ conclusions may be challenging or even distressing for some christians. Please don’t stop halfway through, but read through to the end to get a more complete picture.
The Old Testament as literature
The Old Testament is the Christian form of the Jewish scriptures, known by them as the Mikra ( = “that which is read”) or the Tanakh, which is an acronym made from the three major divisions: Torah ( = “teachings”, the five books of Moses), Nevi’im ( = “Prophets”) and Ketuvim ( = “Writings”).
The Christian Old Testament is a collection of 39 separate “books”, some of which were written together, but most of which have different authors. Many different genres of writings are included, sometimes more than one in the same book:
- Narrative (Genesis to Esther) – may be history, or myth/legend or a mixture of both – mostly aimed at not just telling descriptive history, but making a theological, moral or cultural point.
- Law codes (parts of Exodus to Deuteronomy).
- Poetry (Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs)
- “Wisdom” literature – includes poetry, but also Job and Ecclesiastes. Job should be seen as a fictional story used to present different views on suffering, rather than history.
- Prophecy (Isaiah to Malachi) – some of the prophetic books also contain narrative and poetry.
- Apocalypse – Daniel contains elements of narrative, prophecy and apocalypse.
It is a mistake to treat all forms as being literal history or prophecy – each must be interpreted appropriately.
Who wrote the Old Testament?
According to tradition, the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) were written by Moses. Traditionally, later historical books were written by other major figures such as Joshua, Samuel, Jeremiah and Ezra. However scholars nowadays question all these traditions, and the idea that any of these books were written by a single author.
The internal evidence suggests that most of the narratives (and probably other writings as well) were initially passed on orally, and modified and added to in the process, with the purpose of better understanding and explaining Israelite history, its beliefs about God, and its current situation.
- Right from the first chapters of Genesis different names for God (Elohim and Yahweh), the use of some other phrases and some different emphases, seem to indicate that Genesis and other early books were compiled from different sources written by different authors.
- Scholars believe that Hebrew, the language in which the Old Testament is written, only came into use about 1000 BCE, making it likely that older stories were passed down orally. (However there is some evidence that some portions of the text, often relating to Moses, appear to be in an older form of Hebrew, suggesting that some parts of the text were written down in the second millennium BCE.)
- There are many places in the Old Testament historical books where there are different accounts of the same events, sometimes from quite different perspectives.
- Books supposedly written by Moses, Joshua and Samuel contain accounts of their deaths, indicating that at least some parts of those books were written by someone else.
- Many of the books describe some feature of very early Israel geography or culture, and then point out that they have remained “to this day”, indicating that the final form of the book was much later than the events it describes.
- There are more than 30 other books mentioned in the Old Testament and some of these are mentioned as sources of the information we have. This is a strong indication that the historical books were compiled from various sources.
- Some of the customs, laws and proverbs found in the Old Testament are similar to writings in other ancient near east cultures, suggesting some were “borrowed”.
So it seems clear that the traditional authors may have been sources for the books they are supposed to have written, but the historical books, at least, are compilations of a number of oral and written sources, put together a long time after the events they portray, and written to explain Israel’s place in the world rather than just record descriptive history.
It is likely that the books of the prophets were compiled by followers of each prophet. The prophets are often seen as telling the future, but scholars say it is more accurate to see them as showing the outworking of God’s will in human affairs. As such, they sometimes predict the future, often as a warning to be heeded (in which case the prophecy may not be fulfilled). More often, the warning is contemporary, based on criticisms of social injustice, inequality and oppression.
Some of the prophets’ predictions came to pass, others didn’t (see The fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy), but the writers and compilers of the prophetic books, and of the Tanakh as a whole, seemed to have no problems in preserving both. This may indicate they had a different view of prophecy and fulfilment that we do today.
The Old Testament as history
The Old Testament text and corroboration
Historical study is a matter of assessing evidence. Where there is only one source of information about an event, scholars may accept or doubt the reliability of that source, depending on their sometimes subjective assessment of the genre of the text and its believability, but their conclusions can only be tentative. Where there is corroborating evidence (other texts or archaeology), we can have greater confidence in the historicity of events.
The world of the Old Testament is millennia away from us. Archaeological and written sources, apart from the Old Testament itself, are sparse for the early Old Testament period, so while they can tell us something about the culture, they provide little corroborating information about the people and stories. There is more corroboration for the second half of the Old Testament.
Minimalists and maximalists
There is a wide range of opinion, and much disagreement, on the historical value of the Old Testament. Minimalists see little value in the Old Testament as history before about 800 BCE, whereas maximalists tend to accept the Bible as history except where it is contradicted by archaeology. In the middle are those who see historical value in both archaeology and the Biblical text without making assumptions about the Bible’s accuracy.
I will try to fairly represent the range of scholarly opinion while giving greatest weight to the less “extreme” views.
Genesis 1-11: aetiological myth?
There are good reasons to believe the early chapters of Genesis are not literal history. The creation and flood stories have sufficient similarities to older Akkadian stories (Enuma Elish, and the Atrahasis and Gilgamesh epics) that it seems likely that they share a common source.
All these stories read like aetiological myths – stories developed through repeated telling that explain how a people see themselves and their origins. The repeated re-telling makes it impossible to know what, if any, was the historical basis of the stories. We can be reasonably confident that the stories have been passed down for many generations because (i) a nomadic people almost certainly wouldn’t carry with them the materials to write them down, and (ii) they are written in Hebrew, a language that probably didn’t exist before about 1000 BCE, more than a millennium after the events were said to have taken place.
If this is so, it is probable that Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel and Noah were not historical characters. Christian scholar Denis Lamoureux (I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution) has made a particular study of how this shouldn’t surprise us or worry us.
Summary: Myth (but we probably already knew that).
The Patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
The stories of the patriarchs are set in the first half of the second millennium BCE (i.e. 2000-1500 BCE), perhaps 700 years before they were written down. These stories would have been passed down for generations, probably slowly modified in the telling to teach truths important to the people of Israel. For example, several times the text describes a situation that remained “to this day”, which is apparently much later than the original events.
There is no known historical evidence outside the book of Genesis for any of the patriarchs (nor would we expect it for these nomadic herdsmen), so it is difficult for historians to draw conclusions about the historicity of the stories. There are many archeological finds from this period which generally confirm the world depicted in this part of Genesis.
There are a number of apparent anachronisms in the stories.
- Camels are said to be used by the patriarchs, but it is believed that camels were not domesticated until much later.
- Likewise the Philistines are mentioned when they didn’t exist as a people at the time.
Some of these are only anachronisms if Moses is thought to have authored Genesis, as tradition says. But if the stories were developed in the telling, these are not anachronisms at all but were part of the later re-telling.
We cannot know what basis in history the stories of the patriarchs have, and it is possible that new evidence will arise to show they are historical. Gary Rendsburg suggests “these stories work better if the characters are real people known to later Israelites, and not fictional literary creations.”
But it seems most likely that they are not objective history, but stories told for a different reason – perhaps to strengthen support for the monarchy and the centralised priesthood in Jerusalem.
Summary: Not enough external evidence to either verify or falsify these stories. Christians (and Jews) are free to accept them in faith if we choose.
Moses and the Exodus
These events present the greatest problems of all for christians. The exodus from Egypt was foundational for the Jews and is a very important theme for the New Testament writers. The giving of the law is also foundational, and Moses is a key person in the Bible story. Yet there are significant problems with these stories as history.
- The archaeological and historical evidence for the exodus is meagre. Nomadic people leave no writings or monuments and few artefacts behind them, and none have been found that support these stories. Moses is a name of Egyptian origin, and there are a couple of historical references that may link the Israelites to Egypt and later to Canaan, and that is about it, apart from the Old Testament stories. We wouldn’t expect there to be much evidence external to the Old Testament, but what we have is very little.
- According to Exodus 12:37, “there were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children”, making the total number something over 1.5 million, with some estimates as high as 3 million. It is difficult to believe this is true.
- It would have required a high birth rate, though certainly not impossibly high, to reach this number.
- Scholars estimate the total population of Egypt at this time to be only about 3 million (some say only about 1 million).
- If the Israelites marched in ranks of 100 wide and 1 metre apart, the column would have been 15-30 km long. If the ranks were smaller and the people further apart (e.g. if they were carrying possessions), the column could easily have been 50-100 km long. Would this have been logistically possible? It seems certain that the numbers at least are exaggerated.
- The stories contain some anachronistic place names and details, and it has proved difficult to place the exodus within known Egyptian history.
Nevertheless, Old Testament scholar Richard Friedman has found evidence that the Levites (the priests of Jews) came from Egypt to Canaan, bringing some new religious practices and ethics with them, an idea supported by DNA evidence. So perhaps this is the historical basis behind the Exodus stories?
Therefore the majority of scholars are doubtful the stories we have are totally historical. Minimalists conclude the exodus and Moses himself are either inventions or vague historical memories. Other scholars accept the stories but say the numbers are not literal, but symbolic. In the middle are scholars who see parts of the Biblical text, often those apparently written in an older form of the Hebrew language, as indicating earlier and possibly historical accounts, while other parts less likely to be historical. But the lack of external evidence makes it impossible to be very definite.
Old Testament scholar Peter Enns represents a reasonable middle ground: “Many – I would say most – biblical scholars and historians would say that the biblical narrative echoes real, though distant, historical events.” On this view, the stories are not intended to recount literal history but to explain Israel’s origins and destiny, and this involved both history and legend. If we are going to believe more than this, it will be based more on faith than historical study.
The Ten Commandments and the Law
It turns out that the laws given to the Israelites are similar to the law code of the Babylonian king, Hammurabi, from the 18th century BCE, several centuries before the law was given to Moses. There are similarities in the laws, and even sometimes in the wording. And the wording of the Ten Commandments and some of the laws in Deuteronomy is very similar to Hittite treaties between a king and his vassals.
I don’t see any problem with God issuing laws in a form with which the Israelites would have been familiar, but it seems that it might have been more than this – that the Israelites “borrowed” parts of their Law from surrounding nations. This doesn’t necessarily prevent the laws from being God-given, but it may be that the process God used was more “organic” and gradual than the stories indicate.
Summary: Some details (primarily the numbers) seem unhistorical, and there is little external evidence either way for most of these stories. But there may indeed be a historical core behind the stories.
Joshua, Jericho and the conquest of Canaan
We would expect to have a little more information from other sources for this period when the Israelites were recorded as invading and destroying cities and cultures. But the evidence we have is not very supportive of the Biblical text. There is some evidence from archaeology to show that the Israelite people were living in Canaan around the thirteenth century BCE and some evidence of a disturbance to Canaanite culture. However there is little evidence of a large group conquering Canaanite tribes and cities as described in the book of Joshua.
It appears that some cities (e.g. Hazor and Bethel) were indeed destroyed as the Bible says, but not at the time it is supposed the events depicted in the Bible occurred. Other cities mentioned in Joshua appear not to have existed, or not to have been walled cities at the time, or not to have been destroyed.
The evidence at Jericho is much argued over, with many conflicting claims made. The archaeology shows destruction and burning that apparently accords with the account in Joshua, but most agree it was not at the time necessary to support the Old Testament account. However, the chronology of this period is uncertain, so if the accepted dates were found to be wrong, the evidence at Jericho could then be seen as supportive of the Bible.
Even within the text of Joshua, there are inconsistencies – basically two quite different stories. The first half of Joshua describes the land of Canaan being totally conquered, whereas the second half describes a much slower assimilation with some battles. Towns, kings and tribes which are said to have been destroyed in the first half of Joshua are later mentioned as still being alive and well, indicating that even the authors/compilers recognised that the “conquest” was overstated. Their purpose was obviously more than historical.
Overall, the Bible accounts can probably be seen as propaganda based on some genuine history, but much embroidered. We shouldn’t be too disturbed by this conclusion. The stories of the Israelite invasion and occupation of Canaan include some barbaric commands from the mouth of God, and we should be pleased to find these were probably not historical.
Summary: There is external evidence that the Israelites were in Canaan, but many of the stories of an invasion appear not to be historical.
David, Solomon and the monarchy
It is here that we begin to find corroboration for the broad historicity of the Bible accounts, which themselves read more like descriptive history than the earlier books. Few doubt that David and Solomon were historical figures, but the maximalists and minimalists argue over how large the kingdom was at this time.
The minimalists say these “kings” were little more than tribal chiefs, and their cities and palaces less imposing than we might think from the text. Other scholars argue the evidence supports the picture painted by the Bible. Recent archaeological evidence (e.g. the Tel Dan inscription, which mentions the “house of David”) seems to be swinging the pendulum a little away from the minimalists.
The period of the later monarchy is quite well supported by corroborative evidence, with several archaelogical discoveries (e.g. Hezekiah’s water supply tunnel) and some events recorded elsewhere (e.g. Sennacherib’s unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem, recorded by the Assyrians).
Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that these historical chronicles aimed at making theological and cultural points rather than simply recording descriptive history.
Summary: Reasonable external evidence for these events, though some aspects may be “talked up” a little.
Exile and return
Nebuchadnezzar’s capture of Jerusalem in 597 BCE, recorded in 2 Kings, is confirmed by the Babylonian Chronicles, but archaeological evidence suggests only about a quarter of Judah went into exile. There is excellent evidence of the Jewish exile in Babylon. The re-building of Jerusalem by Nehemiah is also well supported by archaeology, though there are disagreements about exactly how much was re-built at that time.
The historical parts of Daniel are problematic. There are various views about the date Daniel was written (some say it wasn’t written until centuries after the events, while others say the historical sections were written earlier) and some questions about whether some of the kings named were historical. Most of the questions concern the prophetic sections, and the broad historical outline may be historical.
Summary: This part of Biblical history is generally corroborated by external evidence.
The Old Testament as theology
There is considerable theological diversity in the Old Testament. Some scholars say it is more like a conversation between different understandings (the Jewish way) than a definitive set of statements about God and life (the Christian way). Some examples of differing views:
- Many of the Proverbs give conflicting advice on the same topic (e.g. Proverbs 26:4-5 gives two different approaches to responding to a foolish person in two adjacent proverbs). This suggests they were intended to provoke thought rather than prescribe behaviour.
- There is diversity in the ideas and advice given within Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Proverbs teaches us that wisdom leads to a positive life while Ecclesiastes argues that all attempts at wisdom and a good life are futile. Proverbs teaches us that doing good will bring reward while Job presents the view that the righteous can suffer.
- The second of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:5-6, Deuteronomy 5:9-10) says that God will punish children and grandchildren for the sins of the fathers, but Ezekiel 18:19-20 says this isn’t so – we all stand or fall by our own behaviour.
- Exodus 21 gives different rules for slaves than are given in Deuteronomy 15.
- In giving the rules for the Passover, Exodus 12:8-9 says the meat must be roasted and not boiled, but Deuteronomy 16:5-7 says it should be boiled. There are similar variations in some of the sacrificial commands.
- Scholars say that some of the early references to God speak of him as being one among many tribal gods, with the loftier full monotheism coming later (e.g. in prophets like Isaiah).
- God is depicted in some places (several times in Genesis) as changing his mind, sometimes after Abraham or Moses talk him out of some action. This is a different concept of God than we might expect. Other strange things attributed to God in the earlier parts of the Old Testament include sending Moses on a mission then trying to kill him (Exodus 4:24) and sending an evil spirit to Saul (1 Samuel 18:10).
Yet in the Old Testament we can also find very “lofty” views of God, way ahead of virtually anyone else in history – e.g. in the prophet Isaiah. How can we explain all this?
All these diversities and apparent anomalies suggest that the Old Testament isn’t one consistent revelation, but a record of God dealing with people over time and revealing himself gradually. At first, Yahweh seems to the Israelites to be a somewhat capricious tribal god like many others around them, but by the time of the prophets, they are beginning to see he is the king of the universe who demands ethical behaviour from them. CS Lewis wrote (my emphasis):
“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels (those aren’t necessarily the ones that come first in the Book as now arranged) was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”
This is a very brief outline of some of the things scholars have concluded about the Old Testament. It is a very different picture from what we might have learnt in Sunday School or in church.
Assessing the evidence
It seems to me that the “conquest” of Canaan is a key to understanding the historicity of the Old Testament. Before that, there is generally insufficient evidence to draw definite conclusions about the accuracy of the stories. After that, the evidence gives reasonable support for the Old Testament history. But the entry into Canaan is an event where there is archaeological evidence and it tends not to support the accuracy of the Bible story, though some of the information seems true.
It therefore seems likely that the earlier narratives are similarly a mix of history, exaggeration and legend or myth, told more for the messages they carried than for the events themselves. We may each assess how much of each element is present in any book, and it probably makes little practical difference where we draw the line.
How should a faithful christian respond? I suggest there are three possible ways.
1. Ignore the scholars and trust the Bible
This may seem like the “safe” and faithful response. The scholars might be wrong, or they might be biased. There is very little corroborating evidence for much of the Old Testament, so very little that can prove it wrong. It isn’t unreasonable to think the scriptures are historically correct, and Jesus and the New Testament writers seem to think this.
But I suggest this is an inadequate response, because it isn’t based on the evidence even within the Bible itself. I think there is a better response that is more faithful to the God revealed in the Old Testament.
2. Conclude the Bible can’t possibly be from God
Many ex-christians have trodden this path. They were taught the Bible was inerrant, but they found the Old Testament and its view of God quite inconsistent.
I think they too were not responding correctly to the evidence, but assuming the Bible was something different to what it is.
3. Learn to know the God who dismantles our expectations
The key to this response, which I believe is correct, is the CS Lewis quote above, and the highlighted sentence: “That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature.”
I suggest we should read the Old Testament as it is, accept the conclusions of the scholars (though not the more extreme views) and learn from this what God is like and how he has actually chosen to reveal himself (not how we want or expect him to reveal himself).
If we do this, we see that God didn’t impose himself on the Jews nearly as forcefully as might first appear, but it seems he gradually revealed himself as a quasi tribal god, then slowly taught them how much more than that he is – just as CS Lewis described. Many of the stories in the early parts of the Old Testament are apparently a mixture of history and legend, told to show what people were learning about God, and modified in the telling as they learnt more.
It is interesting that we see some similarities to this pattern in the New Testament. Jesus didn’t come with pomp and power, but humbly as a baby who grew up unnoticed in a small Galilean village. He ministered mostly away from the centres of power and culture. It took a while for his followers to realise just how exalted he really was.
God seems to have chosen to work slowly and sensitively. We might ponder why he did it that way.
But didn’t Jesus and the apostles believe their scriptures were accurate?
I believe the argument that Jesus and Paul assumed the historicity of the Old Testament is invalid. The New Testament quotes Jewish legendary stories as well as the Old Testament, and Jesus and the apostles were quite free in how they used the Old Testament. You can read more about this in How Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament.
I hope you have found this brief survey helpful, and not threatening. I find this new view quite exciting – it doesn’t change anything I believe about Jesus, and it removes some of the problems we find with the Old Testament picture of God, especially his commands to annihilate whole tribes.
I invite you to pray, as I have done many times, for the Spirit’s guidance on whether this approach to the Old Testament is true. God bless you as you ponder these things.
More to come
In further pages on the theme of the Bible, I will examine how we should view and use the Bible in the light of what the scholars have told us.
There are too many references to list them all here, but here are some that you might like to follow up:
- Books: Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation,
Hays & Ansberry, Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism,
Dennis Lamoureux, I Love Jesus and I Accept Evolution.
- General background: Peter Enns on evangelicals and Biblical criticism,
Craig Keener, A Deeper Look at If the Bible Is Reliable,
reviews of William Dever’s books, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? and Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from?,
Eric Meyers, Israel and Its Neighbors Then and Now: Revisionist History and the Quest for History in the Middle East Today,
Claude Mariottini, The Debate Between Maximalists and Minimalists,
Steven Collins, Has Archaeology Gone Overboard in Throwing Out the Bible?,
Salon, King David was a nebbish (a review of Finkelstein and others views),
Paul Maier (christian apologetics), Biblical Archaeology: Factual Evidence to Support the Historicity of the Bible.
- Early Old Testament: John Goldingay, The Patriarchs in Scripture and History,
Gary A. Rendsburg, The Genesis of the Bible,
Peter Enns, everybody…put the camel bones down and step away before someone gets hurt
- Exodus: Jewish view, The Exodus Is Not Fiction,
Peter Enns, Exodus, Historiography, and Some Theological Reflections, and Did the Exodus Happen? How “Historical Evidence” Might or Might Not Help
Richard Friedman, The Exodus.
- Conquest of Canaan: William Dever, Beyond the Texts
Bryant Wood (maximalist view), Did the Israelites Conquer Jericho? A New Look at the Archaeological Evidence,
Bart Ehrman (sceptical view), Historical Problems with the Hebrew Bible: The Conquest of Canaan,
Wikipedia on Jericho
- David and Solomon: National Geographic on David and Solomon,
Science Daily Discovery of official clay seals support existence of biblical kings David and Solomon, archaeologists say,
Eric Cline: Did David and Solomon Exist?
Phys.org, King David’s palace found, says Israeli team
- Later Old Testament: Wikipedia on the Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem,
Yigal Bloch, New Sources and Insights on Judeans in the Babylonian Exile,
David Ussishkin, On Nehemiah’s City Wall and the Size of Jerusalem during the Persian Period: An Archaeologist’s View, in New Perspectives on Ezra-Nehemiah, Ed Isaac Kalimi,
Adam Pivec, Nehemiah’s Wall Discovered,
Gerhard Hasel, The Book Of Daniel: Evidences Relating To Persons And Chronology.
- Some examples of the disagreements between scholars:
reviews of Israel Finkelstein’s books The Forgotten Kingdom and The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts,
Yosef Garfinkel, The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism, and
Phillip Davies defends his minimalist views.
Photo: Flickr Creative Commons
Thought provoking, well researched article. Thanks.
[…] What the scholars tell us about the Old Testament? This is a well researched article by Eric Hatfield a.k.a. UncleE. […]
Eric said, “God seems to have chosen to work slowly and sensitively”. That is a conclusion I came to several years ago. I really enjoyed the article as a reflection of much of my own understanding. Unlike Eric I’m no scholar. I left school at 17 and have never had any formal theological training. I was treasurer of an Anglican church for 8 years in the 1960’s. I was a member of a Sabbath-keeping Christian ‘cult’ for some 20 years. When the leadership of that church (The Worldwide Church of God) announced that much of its theology was misguided the leaders were welcomed with open arms by the National Association of Evangelicals in America. This for me rang warning bells because I had been convinced for perhaps 20 years that the traditional teachings of hell were completely misguided. As a result I was ‘forced’ to reconsider just about everything I had ever been taught about ‘religion’, and by this time I was retired and already had my own PC and created my first web site in 2000.
It was in 1998 that I found ‘Fifteen Theses towards a Re-Incarnation of Church’ by Wolfgang Simson. This created an interest in the ‘House Church’ movement. I wonder if Felicity remembers an incredibly cold day in London in 2002 immediately after she had flown in from Texas? I never did find a House Church to attend but I did become very involved with the Emerging Church scene and that was 12 years ago.
We all have stories to tell and as I’ve said on my blog, “There really do seem to be as many stories as there are people. Could it be that we are all on unique journeys, each seeing through our own eyes just a small part of the overall picture?
Hi Felicity, thanks for reading and responding positively. I think some of these things may be ideas whose time has come, similar to the things you have been writing about women in the church.
Hi Peter, nice to hear from you again. I’m sure God deals with us all individually, but I also think God works in culture and so I think we are at a time when a new understanding of the Bible, especially the Old Testament is needed.
When I read (on wiki) that Moses probably is a figure of legend, I was disturbed for one reason: Jesus talks about him (and the manna in the desert) in John. And there is the transfiguration where Moses is there.
I could easily accept the somewhat non-historical narrative of the old testament. But Jesus seems to anchor some of his words and experience on Moses being quite litterally historical. (Why would he else appear!?).
What do you think?
Hi Thomas, these are interesting questions that I have been considering for some time now. Here is where I have come to.
1. We should start with what historians say, and it turns out that there is an enormously wide range of conclusions on Moses. Some scholars (minimalists) say the whole story is a legend, others (maximalists) say most of the story is true (maybe the numbers are exaggerated), and in between are those who say there is historical truth behind the story but it also includes legendary elements. Peter Enns, an OT scholar I respect, says the majority are probably in the middle, and I accept that.
So it is reasonable to believe there was a Moses, but we can’t easily know how much of the stories are history vs legend, and virtually impossible to prove either the minimalist or the maximalist positions.
2. The first century Jews were fairly free with their use of the OT, often adding “Midrash” to the official stories, which already probably include midrash. Midrash is commentary on the text, and was often quite fanciful by our modern standards. While recognised Midrash was contained in rabbinical writings, and probably forms part of the OT text as it was handed down orally, it also reveals how first century Jews freely interpreted the OT. An example is John 10:34-36, where Jesus completely changes the meaning of a Psalm to suit a point he wanted to make.
So granted all that (and there is much more we could say – I recommend reading Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation), I don’t find it at all difficult that Jesus might refer to a character like Moses as historical even if he wasn’t. Though since I think he was historical, just has had legends added to his story, this is even easier to accept.
3. Did Jesus know everything? The classical christian belief about Jesus is that he was “fully God and fully man”. Now I don’t even understand what that statement means, so I accept it as an indication of truth, but not a full statement of the truth, which I doubt we could possibly comprehend. But if Jesus was fully human, then he had a brain that had a certain finite number of neurones, and could not contain every piece of information about the universe. Philippians 2:7 says he emptied himself of some of his divinity.
So I can believe it is possible that Jesus didn’t know everything. He possibly ought the world was flat (if he ever thought about it at all), I don’t know. Or maybe he followed the culture of his day even if he knew better. Again, I don’t know.
So for all those reasons, I don’t find a problem with Jesus mentioning Moses and seeing a vision of him at the transfiguration, even if I don’t have a fixed view on the whole matter.
Does that offer any helpful ideas? I’m interested to discuss further.
Thank you! I have looked into Pete Enns. He talks about the bible’s messiness and the different genres of the bible. I find him very informative.
But when I listen to Wright, exodus seems to be so central to his theology. But if it didn’t happen!? It confuses me that so much in the new testament – it’s like an old testament flower now opening up – seems to depend on the stories in the old testament. Stories that supposedly never happened. Stories about Moses and David for instance.
So I hear Enns (I think) talking about Israel’s self-understanding. That perhaps the stories are not true, but they reflect Israel’s self-understanding.
How far removed can Israel’s image of itself and of God be from the real historical circumstances and events before breaking into something completely subjective?
For instance: Jesus did to Israel and the world what Israel could not do for herself and the world. That’s what I have learned from Wright. I find this a beautiful and meaningful development of the bible. But then I read that what Israel really was was something else than what the writing in the OT says. There was no exodus, no lawgiving Moses, no great David as King – and even the ten commandments are found in earlier cultures. They were not given to Moses from God making Israel something unique … they were simply taken from other cultures. And so on.
Doesn’t all this building up of stories fall to the ground when they are not build on something concrete?
What keeps me “on track” (I hope) is that the LOVE STORY of the bible is so compelling that I just can’t ignore it. So I’m trying to understand better.
And you have been very helpful. I’m grateful that you will help me 🙂
Hi Thomas, I’m really not sure I can answer your questions. I think we can say the following:
1. No-one knows for sure how much or how little of the Exodus story is historical. Scholars’ opinions range from virtually nothing to almost everything. The most we can say is that it is likely part history and part legend, but we don’t know how much of each. Historical truth isn’t, unfortunately, the only factor in play here, for there are political reasons why Israelis want to establish their early claim to the land, and why Palestinians want to challenge that claim.
2. Likewise we don’t know if Moses was a historical figure or not. Again, scholarly opinion varies, and again we can say that most likely much of what is said about him is all or party legendary.
3. It seems much more likely that David is a historical figure. He may have been a minor character in reality, but I don’t see much in the Bible that requires him to be a more powerful person with a larger kingdom.
4. The stories of the first half of the OT were likely handed down orally for generations, for centuries, and added to and changed during that process. They were probably written down in the period 900-300 BCE. However much they do or don’t reflect history, the form we have today is an interpretation, a foundational story to make sense of the Jews’ place in the world.
5. Later (first century) Jews commonly allowed methods of interpretation that we regard as fanciful or inaccurate today, and so legends could be used as if historical and historical events re-interpreted. So the fact that Paul talks about Adam and Jesus talks about Moses is not necessarily saying they were historical figures.
6. My faith in Jesus is unaffected by all this. I believe the NT historical evidence is good, and allows me to conclude that Jesus was the son of God. Whether the OT is historical or not doesn’t change that – it doesn’t really matter if God prepared the world for the coming of Jesus through accurate history or legend, or something in between. All it tells me is more about how God has revealed himself to us.
So I don’t think it all falls to the ground if Moses didn’t exist, because my belief in Jesus never rested on Moses in the first place, and I can allow God the freedom to do it all however he chooses.
Finally, I have been unable to find out how NT Wright sees the historicity of Moses. he seems to avoid making a definitive statement on that, though when asked about Paul’s mention of Adam, he seemed to say it wasn’t the right question.
I think that is the best I can do. I hope that helps.
Thank you 🙂
You are helpful. Having an opportunity to talk about these things makes me very glad.
I really want to believe. And I want to strengthen my faith. After reading more about it I have gotten af more rich view of christianity. But with that questions arise.
Yesterday I found an article about The Exodus. It claimed that The Exodus matters. But also that it can be defended somewhat. You can read it here:
I get your point about God revealing Himself through history and legend. But how much legend can the faith bear? I’m thinking about the following:
* The Exodus showed God’s mercy for his people and that Israel is a special people.
– But if it never happened- if it’s only legend – how can we claim anything about that mercy and uniqueness of Israel? Is a people speciel in the eyes of God just because they themselves think so?
* Moses and the ten commandments shows us something about Israel’s uniqueness and the covenant.
– But if Moses did not exist and if the ten commandments are found in many other cultures as well – even in the same wordings – how can we claim anything about Israel’s uniqueness and the covenant? On the other hand it seems that Israel would NOT be unique.
Is Israel unique just because it thinks so itself and makes legends?
When all this is said I still want to believe. And somehow I manage to believe to such a degree that I still prays for help to understand – praying to God our Father and to Jesus His Son.
You are helpful. I really want you to know that.
I’m hoping that it is ok, I ask question and am confused. It’s all very new to me.
I respect you statement that perhaps you can’t answer my questions. Dialogue in itself comforts me.
Hi Thomas, I appreciate your honesty and your determination to understand as best you can. Here’s how I see the matters you are raising here.
In life, we are used to gradual growth.
(1) We teach our children rudimentary safety and ethics when they are quite young using simple statements like “Don’t touch – burning!” or “Naughty”. There is a reality behind those simplistic statements (a hot stove or hitting a sister), and later they will come to understand those realities. It is a learning and maturing process.
(2) It is similar in science. Newton’s laws of motion get modified to Einstein’s equations. Primitive medicine gradually gets updated, and we are deciding on new treatments of old conditions all the time.
I think God has dealt with human beings in a similar way. Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God’s character and purposes. For whatever reason, God chose to get to that point through a gradual process that started where the human race was at (and what they were capable of understanding) and worked slowly. He started with myth and primitive law codes and sacrificial rituals and gradually refined them until he sent Jesus.
It may surprise us, but I see no reason why it couldn’t have occurred. So I think the idea of the Exodus matters, but I don’t think faith in Jesus depends on that idea being literal history – it can just as easy be myth. It is possible that the exodus happened quite like the OT story, but there are good reasons to be doubtful.
Here is an example. Australia’s aboriginal peoples have inhabited our continent for something like 60,000 years, probably the oldest living culture in the world. Part of their culture are “The Dreaming” stories, which tell of how the world got the way it is, explain tribal lore and law, and give practical details for where to find water in a dry continent, when certain food plants will come to fruition, etc. Now we white people would undoubtedly call these stories “myths”, but they very practically provide guidance for daily living. And recently it was found that some of the stories reflect geographic realities that have been gone for millennia, since the water level rose after the last ice age – see Indigenous Australians, climate change and the New Testament gospels.
I suspect it is similar with the early OT. The stories reflect some real events, some mythical explanations and some early morality. The OT was NOT unique to start with, but it had a very different slant (e.g. it was monotheistic, unlike all the other similar myths) and it became unique over time. I have never heard of anything like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel or Jesus!
Does that help at all?
Yes, it really helped 🙂
In fact: I think you did such a good response that perhaps it should be modified into a blog-post. Just an idea based on how much it did for me 🙂
According to the uniqueness of christianity. I’m watching “The Bible Project” on youtube. Very helpful with short animated movies. And they too explain the uniqueness of Israel’s people as they got guidance that set them apart from other nations. Here I’m thinking about your words: “The OT was NOT unique to start with, but it had a very different slant (e.g. it was monotheistic, unlike all the other similar myths) and it became unique over time.”
– So, my question: What about buddhism? In buddhism I see a very high ethical code too. In metta-meditation you are to love EVERYONE – even your enemies. Yes, even animals (and go vegetarian).
Does buddhism equal christianity in high ethical standars?
(And buddhism was earlier than christianity).
What do you think?
Thanks again. I really enjoy our conversation and your help!!
I have never studied Buddhism except superficially, so I can’t say much. My impression is that it does indeed present some high moral principles, but I think it falls short of christianity in at least two ways.
1. Jesus said the two greatest commandments were to love God and to love our neighbour. As I understand it, Buddhism doesn’t teach about God at all, and many Buddhists are agnostics if not atheists. So while most people don’t see belief in and love of God to be an ethical issue, I can’t see how Buddhism can be seen as “good” if it leaves God out.
2. Buddhist ethics are (as far as I understand them) about self denial to reduce the craving that leads to pain and the cycle of rebirth. Enlightenment includes the understanding of “the reality of non-self”. These concepts are quite opposed to the christian view that physical reality and self are good, just sometimes misused.
So while I have a lot of respect for Buddhism and for the Buddha, I think it falls short in those ways.
Yes, I think you’re right on both. And the christian perspective on #2 gives a lot of depth to love, I think, compared to the buddhist perspecitve on #2. For christians love has “solid ground” here on Earth compared to love being a “technique” to escape the very world we live our life in.
You have given me a lot of positive energy to keep exploring my new born faith. I would be glad to talk to you again soon. Hope we can stay in touch 🙂
Yes, please keep in touch. Feel free to email, I would enjoy getting to know you more.
I enjoyed reading your post. I am one who believes that faith must have a factual basis or it is just wishful thinking. Jesus was a Jew and knew nothing of Christianity. The scriptures he knew were the Jewish ones – what Christians call the Old Testament. I trust the authentic words of Jesus as can be known with a reasonable confidence through the scholarly practice of biblical criticism. Jesus quoted the Old Testament and what he preached can be found in the Old Testament. So I trust that because I trust in the real Jesus, the historical Jesus. My educated opinion is that Jesus would be horrified at Christianity. Being Jewish, he never would have thought he was God and never claimed to be God in spite of what the writer of the Gospel of John says. He had no knowledge of the Trinity and would not have accepted that concept. There is more, but here is not the place for me to expound on it all. And people who disagree with my opinions have every right to do so and to be treated with respect and dignity.
Hi David, thanks for your positive comments. I agree with you about a factual basis for belief and faith, and I generally agree with you about following scholarship. But of course there is a range of scholarly conclusions, and I think we need to be careful to get our facts from the consensus.
I think I agree with you that “Jesus would be horrified at Christianity”, at least at what it often is today, but I’m thinking I may have different things in mind here.
I think we may differ over this statement: “he never would have thought he was God and never claimed to be God”. I think it is quite possibly true that Jesus didn’t explicitly claim to be divine, but I think he did implicitly. And I think it is clear from reading the NT that the early christians grappled for a few decades to put into words how they felt about Jesus’ divinity, and we can see that the early statements (such as Acts 2) show an adoptionist view, while later ones show belief in Jesus as eternally divine. I am surprised more christians don’t see this progression, which I regard as easily understood – it would take good Jews a while to get used to the idea of God having a son. Larry Hurtado has made a good academic study of all this. The question then is whether God was behind this development in Christology, and I think the story of Cornelius in Acts 10 & 11 shows God was enlarging understandings and growing the early christians to become the kingdom of God in the age of the Messiah.
Thanks again for your thoughts.
Thomas Joseph White’s recent commentary on Exodus has some helpful thoughts on this, both on how to view historical criticism and how the text can be used theologically. He comes from a Catholic perspective but Protestants can learn from it too.
Thanks. Would you like to summarise what you learned from it?