Is Old Testament History Reliable?

According to modern critical scholars (in the academic sense) of a more liberal bent, the history of Israel as presented in the Old Testament is basically a fiction.

Liberal Scholarship

Now, these scholars do not mean that there are literally zero assertions in the Old Testament that reflect historical fact. Several of Israel’s kings are known historical figures, for example, and everyone acknowledges that Nebuchadnezzar was ruler of Babylon at the time the Old Testament says he was. What they mean is that the history of Israel given in the Bible is a very partial and agenda driven story, containing much fantasy and fabrication, constructed to serve the interests of the elites who constructed it. It is not a factual and neutral account of “what actually happened.” According to these scholars, the biblical history of Israel is useful mainly for what it tells us about the agenda of its authors, not for reliable information about what actually happened in the times and places described.

This may seem very abstract, so let’s make it concrete with an example.

King David is now widely recognized as a real historical figure.[1] But the story of King David in 1-2 Samuel is often understood by liberal scholars to represent royal propaganda, meant to legitimize David’s rise to power by those whose power depended upon it—Solomon and his administration, and the later Judean monarchy. So while David might have been real, the biblical account of his life is thought to be an intentional whitewashing of his image, particularly with regard to the means by which his house supplanted the house of Saul. These scholars note, for example, how David never seemed to have any qualms about killing those who got in his way, except when it came to Saul and his family. How likely is it, they ask, that a real warrior of the ancient world like David would have such impeccable morals about not laying a finger on “the Lord’s anointed,” while acting like a ruthless scoundrel otherwise? What the biblical author (and believing Jews and Christians) want to see as a remarkable series of divine providences to get righteous David to the throne, these authors see as cynical spin or propaganda by the beneficiaries of David’s rebellious takeover. 1-2 Samuel is thus a cynical revision of the real, darker history, which was most likely power-politics as usual. More fantastical sounding stories, like David’s killing of Goliath, might even be outright mythology, or at best legendary embellishment of a less remarkable duel.

Welcome to the world of modern liberal biblical scholarship. This scholarship operates by reading accounts like the David story and asking “what is being covered up?” or “whose perspective is being silenced?” or “what crime is this story trying to excuse?” They will often defend their interpretations by noting apparent textual discrepancies or oddities.

Now, awareness of such matters can be helpful. Questions like the above can open up insights into the text that may prove illuminating, and liberal scholars are just as good (and sometimes better) at noticing small textual details and larger structures that can give real insight for interpretation. Moreover, liberal scholars are correct to point out that the biblical history of Israel is in fact partial and agenda driven. But how could it be otherwise? Every record of the past has to be selective in what it reports and describe it in some way. After all, any history that was truly exhaustive would be almost infinitely long and hopelessly unreadable. Even skimming the Old Testament makes it rather obvious that there is a clear agenda: Documenting the faithfulness of God and the unfaithfulness of God’s people to His covenant with them.

But now to our question, is the Old Testament record actually valuable and trustworthy for genuine historical information?

A Biblical History of Israel

The book A Biblical History of Israel (hereafter BHI) by Provan, Long, and Longman opens with a nearly 100-page introduction that goes into this topic in detail.[2] The purpose is not to address and verify every claim in the Old Testament (the destruction of Jericho, the exodus from Egypt, etc.). Rather, the purpose is to think through the assumptions and expectations that we bring to the text, and how these assumptions might unfairly prejudice our readiness to accept them as historically trustworthy. The discussion is technical and long and one that many casual readers may have difficulty plowing through even if they had the time and inclination. But the material is a goldmine, and I have found it very helpful in thinking through these issues and in understanding and dealing with more liberal biblical scholarship on a philosophical level. So I thought it would be worthwhile to attempt to popularize and summarize BHI’s introduction for the interested reader, and I hope this proves a helpful orientation.

I will start with the overall point: BHI argues that all knowledge of the past ultimately depends on testimony, either directly or indirectly. This is unavoidable, and there is no logical reason to subordinate the testimony of Old Testament narrative to any other way of knowing about Israel’s past. In fact, what we call “knowledge of the past,” besides our own memory, unavoidably reduces to faith in the testimony of others.

BHI first clears the ground by arguing that in the past couple of centuries, the historical discipline has come to be seen as a science, relying on “hard facts” like artifacts from the past, with subjective material like written testimony needing, supposedly, to take a back seat. What this often ends up producing in practice though is a kind of arbitrariness in which testimony is accepted and which is rejected. For example, Alberto Soggin, a scholar of ancient Israel, takes the liberal approach described above, but still chooses the Davidic period as a basically safe point for historical reconstruction.[3] But the reasons Soggin provides for rejecting earlier biblical material (Genesis-Judges) as historically trustworthy apply equally (BHI argues) to the Davidic material. It seems that Soggin is picking a starting point simply because he needs one, not for any consistent methodological reason. Other scholars come in for similar scrutiny. So, BHI asserts the need to think through our historical methods from the ground up, and to question critical scholarship’s own assumptions.

Critical scholarship often sidelines historical biblical narrative on the following grounds:

  1. Much historical narrative in the Bible has no extra-biblical verification.

  2. Much historical narrative in the Bible was written long after the events described.

  3. Much historical narrative in the Bible is ideologically loaded and has a clear religious agenda.

  4. Much historical narrative in the Bible jars with what we would expect as “normal” (e.g. David’s innocence with regard to Saul’s house) or even “possible” (e.g. the miraculous).

  5. The very form of Old Testament narrative, so story-like, is inherently distorting of historical reality.

Let’s consider these in order. A primary thread in response to all these criticisms will be that “We ‘know’ what we claim to know about the history of Israel . . . by listening to testimony, to interpretation, and by making choices about whom to believe.”

(1) Does Biblical Testimony Need External Verification?

Mentioned above, many “scientific” historians want “hard facts” when it comes to knowing the past. That is, they want archaeological verification of historic claims, because many historians have assumed that archaeology offers independent and objective access to the past. But is this true? In reality, even when it comes to archaeological data we cannot escape dependence on testimony. As BHI says (emphasis mine):

Archaeological remains (when this phrase is taken to exclude written testimony from the past) are of themselves mute. They do not speak for themselves, they have no story to tell and no truth to communicate. It is archaeologists who speak about them, testifying to what they have found and placing the finds within an interpretive framework that bestows upon them meaning and significance. This interpretive framework is certainly not entirely, or even mainly, derived from the finds themselves, which are mere fragments of the past that must somehow be organized into a coherent whole. The framework is, in fact, derived largely from testimony.

Artifacts after all must be found and must be interpreted, and the interpretations are often contested. Finding them in the first place is a somewhat haphazard activity and finds do not by any means necessarily constitute truly representative samplings.

So, many scholars are hesitant to accept the testimony of biblical history because of a lack of independent (archaeological) verification. But this dogmatic skepticism of “unverified” biblical records is a result of not being critical enough. We ought to question the verification principle itself. Why shouldn’t the biblical record rather be assumed true unless there is good reason to think otherwise? Why should we place the burden of proof on those who accept the basic reliability of the texts rather than those who reject it? Of course, it is possible that the text is false, but that possibility in any individual case does not lead logically to a principled stance of skepticism across the board.

There is also often a lack of clarity about how this “external verification” principal would even work. After all, it is not as though a biblical text is proved true simply because an archaeological find may be consistent with it. The artifact is still itself only a testimony (written or not). Furthermore, not everyone agrees on how much “verification” is necessary, or just how verifying any proposed confirmation actually is. All of this suggests that one’s primary attitude to the texts in the first place is fundamental for how “verifying” evidence will finally be assessed.

The truth is, if the verification principle were consistently applied in all ancient history, very little of ancient history that we think we know could be considered certain, including Caesar’s invasion of Britain, for example. The verification principle is not how we operate in everyday life either. Generally, we exercise charity in believing what people tell us about themselves, about their day, etc., unless there is positive reason to think they are lying.

(2) Does The “Lateness” of the Biblical Record Count Against It?

There is often an assumption that eyewitness or contemporary accounts are more reliable than later or second-hand accounts. But what logical defense can be given in support of this claim? Eyewitnesses also must interpret events, and there is no reason on principle to think they are more trustworthy than non-eyewitnesses. Distortion (intentional or not) is equally possible for witnesses as for later analysts. In fact, any testimony about events must be evaluated on its own merits. This assumption about the quality of early testimony over later testimony is just that, an assumption that does not really stand up to scrutiny. Eyewitnesses can even be at a disadvantage in describing events, in that they do not have hindsight and their perspective may be far more restricted than that of later historians. BHI also points out that modern historians of Israel who try to make a case against biblical narrative on the grounds that it is later than the events described ironically undermine themselves because their own historical account of Israel is the latest of all!

Related to this point, the idea that transmission of stories (even orally) over time inevitably leads to distortion is not validated by research. Transmission chains can indeed prove reliable even in oral cultures. However, the world of the Genesis patriarchs (2,000-1,500 B.C.) was already literate anyway, and the Old Testament history shows many indications of using and preserving old material. Much biblical material does not really give the appearance of being late fabrication either (BHI provides many specific examples of why and how).

So there is no reason in principle to assume that later testimony is less secure or trustworthy than early testimony, and much of the biblical material is actually quite early in any case.

(3) Does the Selectivity, Ideology, and Religious Agenda of Old Testament Narrative Count Against Its Reliability?

What about testimony that has an agenda? Is it the case that telling a story that is meant to persuade or is ideologically loaded is automatically less reliable? Many historians of ancient Israel seem to assume so. If the biblical author has an agenda against idolatry, for example, it is assumed that the author has slanted the narrative against any king of Israel who worshiped idols, distorting or covering up what might in fact have been a very enlightened and beneficial reign. If the biblical authors mean to persuade or to cast Israel’s past in a certain light or bolster a particular sect of Jewish life (perhaps the Jerusalem priesthood), their witness is considered to be historically suspect.

Of course, a reader should be aware of an author’s agenda or bias, but there is no logical reason to assume that an ideological testimony of the past is on principle unreliable for that reason.

First, all testimony has a viewpoint, and the mere fact that one is trying to be persuasive does not make their testimony automatically suspect on that account. No historical account can be exhaustive, and so all accounts have to be selective. All have to be told in some way. All have to decide on certain points to emphasize or to sideline or to pass over. Of course, there may be falsehoods or distortions present, but these are not an inevitable result of an author having an opinion or trying to persuade. Critical thinking is necessary whenever we hear and evaluate the testimony of anyone about anything, and we do not assume in everyday life that just because someone may have an agenda or a particular viewpoint that their facts are on that account wrong or worthless. The Old Testament should be treated no differently.

In fact, many ancient historians of Israel are quite inconsistent on this point. This is because Egyptian, Assyrian, or Babylonian texts are often used to provide the more “objective” framework for ancient Near Eastern history, and the basic narrative against which the biblical history of Israel must be measured. But as it regards selectivity and ideology, these records are no less loaded than the biblical texts. The Assyrian records, for example, mainly derive from royal annals and focus mostly on military campaigns. These records are just as selective (perhaps more so) as the biblical material, and there is even reason to think the Assyrian records may be embellished in places (BHI gives examples). The Assyrian records also have obvious bias, serving as propaganda for the royal house, and the royal scribes were definitely concerned more with the king’s image than with “scientific” objectivity.

Now, this does not mean the records are outright falsehoods or even necessarily inaccurate or misleading. What it does mean is that ideological agendas or selectivity in reporting are not determining factors when it comes to assessing the truthfulness of testimony. Other ancient Near Eastern texts are also just as shot through with religious and theological slanting and divine intervention as anything in the Bible. So why these texts should be accepted as the historical stick against which to measure the Old Testament is far from clear. This bias against biblical history is all the odder when one realizes that Israel, more so than any other nation, defined itself in terms of its past and believed itself commanded to keep the memory of that past alive. And whatever one thinks about the value of Israel’s narrative, it is interesting to note that the Israelites were the only people in the ancient world as far as we are aware who have such a clear and continuous record of themselves from their claimed origins onward.

Overall, the reality is that our picture of the ancient world is simply not complete. The agenda-driven Assyrian (and other) records give only a very partial picture of the overall history, even of Assyria itself, much less of its neighbors like Israel. Moreover, as virtually all ancient historians admit, the very chronology of the ancient Near East is shaky prior to about the 10th century B.C.

The truth is, as BHI says,

Ancient history is vast and complex, and all of our meager testimony about it is only capable of providing us with glimpses into this vastness and complexity. To absolutize some of this testimony as the standard against which everything else should be measured makes no sense at all.

The point here is that all history writing is selective and has some ideology or agenda, and so no set of texts can be a priori privileged on account of these factors. But liberal biblical scholars often display a remarkable willingness to subordinate or outright reject, inconsistently, the biblical testimony for just these reasons.[4]

(4) Should We Treat Biblical Narrative as Automatically Suspect Because Much of What it Records Seems Unusual or Even Impossible (e.g., miraculous)?

Another “rule” that has often been invoked when assessing the reliability of biblical testimony about Israel’s past is the principle of analogy. This is the idea that a record is more likely to be true if it conforms with our normal, everyday experience. It seems reasonable to assume that the past was basically like the present, and it seems reasonable on this assumption to discount things like miraculous intervention. But is it rational to absolutize this principle?

What is “normal” human experience? Lots of people have in fact reported experiences of the miraculous or of unusual or unexpected things happening. Trying to use anything like “common human experience” actually becomes impossibly subjective if used as some kind of yardstick against which to measure biblical testimony. If we discount everything that appears unlikely or outside our own expectations of normal, we ultimately will be unable to learn anything new, and we will shut out of consideration the possibility that unusual or miraculous events ever occurred.

The analogy principle may be a helpful tool, but it can be pressed too far. Actually, the wholesale embrace of the analogy principle to create an “objective and scientific” history is a philosophical rather than a scientific or historical move. It begins by ruling out the miraculous in principle and assuming a closed universe that conforms to modern, Western, and secular expectations. These expectations would not be considered obvious or reasonable even in much of today’s world (the “Third World” for example), much less in the ancient world.

5) Does the Story Form of Biblical Narrative Mean that It Is Fiction or Historically Worthless?

Some have suggested that narrative is an art form, and since Old Testament narrative has clear literary artistry and shaping it obscures more objective and “scientific” history. BHI goes into the philosophical debate over this issue, which historians (in all fields, not just ancient Israel) have been having for some time. Since this article is long already, I will be brief on this point. Suffice it to say, first of all, that most historians have recognized that narrative form and some measure of literary artistry is unavoidable if one wants to avoid writing history as a dusty and boring list of events, and it is clear enough that biblical narrative purports to be describing events that took place in real space and time. That it does this in an admittedly artistic and often stylized way does not change the fact. It just means we need to be sensitive to things like genre and literary conventions so that we can interpret what the text is intending to say accurately. Only at that point can we ask about how it might illuminate or testify to historical events.

Literary studies of the Bible have been proliferating in recent years, and many of these have proven fruitful. But when the text has been read and understood, when its inevitable selectivity, purpose, and agenda have been recognized, when its artistic features have been noted, there is no fundamental or logical reason to a priori reject any particular story as historically untrustworthy for any of the reasons that critical scholars typically urge.


These five points we have considered (archaeology, early/late testimony, ideology and selectivity, analogy, the narrative form) may provide a general accumulated wisdom when it comes to evaluating historical testimony (although that is questionable). However, none can be made into absolute principles, and there is no defensible way around simply weighing up all testimonies together on their own merits and letting the informed reader of the testimonies make judgments.

History is really at the end of the day the telling of stories that may or may not have external “verification,” and that verification is often itself only more stories. Reliance on testimony is a fundamental way of knowing about reality, just as much as perception or inference. This is true on the informal, every day level, as well as in scientific research. Absolutizing any “method” or principle when it comes to evaluating the complexities of history and the real world is foolish, and the Christian is warranted in trusting implicitly that what the Old Testament tells us about the story of Israel is true.

[1] This consensus is based on two clear archaeological discoveries (and a third, less clear) which mention David within close historical proximity to his lifespan.

[2] A Biblical History of Israel. This links to the second edition of the book, while my summary is based mostly on the introduction to the first edition. The second edition makes no substantial changes to the main argument.

[3] An Introduction to the History of Israel and Judah by J. Alberto Soggin.

[4] As one specific example, Steven McKenzie says with regard to David evading Saul’s pursuit of him in 1 Samuel 21-23, “The predominance of these literary and theological themes [God’s providential protection and favoring of David] raises doubts about the historicity” of them. But these kinds of theological themes saturate ancient records. Discounting a reported event as having happened at all just because that event is ascribed to divine intervention is quite dubious.