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How Does the New Testament Relate to History?

The Bible includes some forms of historical writing that each have their own way of being accurate or true, even if they are not objectively accurate.

Babylonian administrative documents (cuneiform tablets) confirm that Jehoiachin
Babylonian administrative documents (cuneiform tablets) confirm that Jehoiachin

Among ancient writings, the Bible is unique in that many modern readers claim that it relates true and accurate accounts of historical events. Other ancient works—for example, Homer’s Iliad—we subject to different standards. Although the Iliad is based on true events, most people readily acknowledge that many of its elements are fictitious. We’re comfortable with seeing the Iliad as fiction, because it is a foundational text but not sacred scripture. At the same time, seeing the Bible as scripture has meant, particularly nowadays, that many tend to see it as something that must automatically be true and accurate. Many also tend to see it as primarily a sort of book of history.

There are indeed many different kinds of historical writing in the Bible. We find straight historical narrative, but also things like lists of kings and high priests, chronicles, and genealogies. Each of these kinds of historical writings has a different way of being  accurate, or true. There are also good reasons for why these writings might not be objectively accurate, which is not necessarily a reason to reject the Bible’s authority outright. And there are other ways of looking at the Bible beyond it as a history book; it also contains poems, prayers, and hymns, and these types of writing are no less important to the way that we think of the Bible as a sacred book.

So what’s involved with writing true or accurate history? Most people (starting with Herodotus in the fifth century, B.C.E.) would say that writing history “as it happened” involves writing down facts. Facts are tricky things, though. Some historical data presented as “facts” in the Bible can’t be verified, because we have no independent verification—no ancient fact-checkers. Similarly, we can’t verify that Jesus performed miracles, or that he is the Son of God—these are theological ideas, not historical statements. We need to make our own judgments about whether or not we are convinced by a text’s historical veracity. Every now and then, however, we’re lucky enough to find some piece of nonbiblical text or artifact that backs up or substantiates biblical information. For instance, we know that biblical figures such as King Hezekiah, Nebuchadnezzar II, and King Herod (to name only three) existed because other nonbiblical sources confirm it. In fact, the field of biblical archaeology was originally developed as a way to confirm the veracity of the Bible by searching for independent archaeological evidence of biblical figures and events. But these archaeologists had little success in confirming the historicity of major events such as the great flood described in Genesis, and more and more biblical archaeology concerns itself with uncovering details about the social and cultural history of biblical peoples rather than with proving that the Bible is historically accurate.

Despite the new directions of biblical archaeology, some fundamentalist Christians insist that the Bible is historically accurate, even if its events cannot be proven. They argue that the Bible’s many minor but accurate historical details should build up our confidence that major but unverifiable events must also be accurate. According to this view, the flood account must be true because the Bible is infallible, which these interpreters assume because it correctly gives countless little details that are historically accurate. For example, in John 4:11 Jesus stops by Jacob’s Well in Samaria, where he speaks with a local woman. She tells him that the well is very deep and, in fact, biblical archaeologists have confirmed that that well is indeed very deep. You can still visit it today to see this for yourself. Literalists think that accuracy in a minor historical detail must mean, therefore, that all biblical events are accurate.

Others have argued, however, that it should not surprise us that the Bible gets these sort of historical details correct—after all, it was written by people familiar with the geographical regions featured in biblical story, people who also remembered well the reign of the Herodian rulers, or of Nebuchadnezzar, and people who probably also visited Jacob’s Well. This, however, does not prove that the Bible is historically accurate as a general rule, any more than Homer’s Iliad is objectively factual in saying that Achilles was son of a god just because it correctly details the geography of Troy. Or, to be more provocative, it should not surprise us that the Harry Potter book series get certain details of British life (a fondness for tea, for instance) right—after all, it was written by a British author. We would be mistaken to call it generally historically accurate just because of what details it gets factually correct.

In truth, the Bible sometimes gets things historically correct and other times not. For instance, the author of the Gospel of Luke tells us that although he was not around during Jesus’s lifetime, he’s sourced his information from eyewitnesses, and that he has worked to write it down accurately (Luke 1:1-4). Nevertheless, there are historical inaccuracies in his account of Jesus’s birth. He tells us that at the time, Herod the Great was still alive (Luke 1:5) and that Caesar Augustus ordered a census while Quirinius was legate in Syria (Luke 2:1-2). Herod the Great was around at the time of Caesar Augustus, and there was once a real legate in Syria named Quirinius. But here we run into problems: Herod died around 5 B.C.E., while Quirinius was not legate of Syria until around 5 C.E.—some 10 years later. If Jesus was born when Herod was still alive as Luke says, then this was a decade before the census under Quirinius. If, however, Luke is right that Joseph and Mary returned to their ancestral homeland because of the census, Mary could not have been pregnant with Jesus. In either case, we can’t say that Luke was writing accurate history. He might well have thought that he was, and that he had the dates right. Or, the point might have been that Luke intentionally wrote something that resembled accurate history, but that accuracy was not as important as the message that he was trying to convey—that Jesus’s birth was historically significant, just as it was theologically significant.

Did ancient writers like Luke seek to write history as it happened? Probably not. The point of many of the writings in the Bible—probably most of them—was to strengthen people’s faith. This is not the same enterprise as writing a factual account. Any writing has a particular point of view—an angle that a particular author wants to assert for her or his audience. In the case of the New Testament, the Gospel writers did not want to write factual history but to offer proof that Jesus was the Son of God. This is why the four Gospels each produce a unique portrait of Jesus, slightly different in its historical details. The Bible can be meaningful even without needing it to be historically truthful and accurate. The various stories of the Bible were assembled to reflect and build the faith of a community—something it does so well that it is still a powerful document for millions of people today.

  • Nicola Denzey Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. An award-winning teacher and researcher, she is a frequent contributor to Bible Odyssey. She is also featured in documentaries on the Bible and Early Christianity on the History Channel, the BBC, and CNN’s new six-part series, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery.