By: Joel Furches
While far from universally accepted, even the most strident critic must admit that the Christian New Testament has a great deal of historical relevance. It is correlated in numerous areas by contemporary first century writings and archeology such that even those who regard it as basically a religious text will still lean on it as a historic reference in some areas.
Not so with the Old Testament. A large portion of the contemporary world - academic and non - considers the Christian Old Testament/Hebrew Tanakh to be purely a work of fiction, borrowing heavily from Egyptian and Babylonian myths.
The earliest existing copies of the documents comprising the Old Testament are hundreds of years removed from the originals, and they refer to events in a time for which very little archaeological evidence has survived. Moreover, there is a scarcity of contemporary literature and writings from surrounding cultures against which these documents can be referenced.
That said, there is far more manuscript evidence surviving for the Old Testament than any other writings of the same time period, and what little archaeological evidence exists from that time period either aligns with Old Testament writings or is subject to interpretation.
Arguing for the accuracy of the Old Testament is a tall task given the overall scarcity of material available for the time it claims to record, however arguing from a lack of evidence amounts to an argument from silence, which is logically unsound. Critics primarily see the Old Testament as mythology because of the numerous miraculous events it records and the ongoing dialogue between God and humans, however there are several reasons why it cannot be categorized as mythology. These are some of those reasons.
Every reader of the Bible is familiar with this experience: you are cruising along through an interesting series of stories in scripture when suddenly you run into a chapter which is nothing but a list of difficult-to-pronounce names. Most readers roll their eyes and skim or entirely skip the list. Many have wondered what spiritual relevance such lists might have.
There is very likely no spiritual relevance for such detailed lists of generations, except for possibly tracing the Messianic line. But this is exactly the point. Such long lists of genealogies do not belong in the category of religious writing. Nor do they belong in the category of mythology. Genealogies are quite clearly an artifact of an historic text. The large majority of characters that appear in the Old Testament can be given at least a partial family tree stretching back over hundreds of generations.
No other mythology in existence spends so much time on tracing fictitious family lines, but this appears to be a passion of the Old Testament writers present in the majority of Old Testament writings. Moreover, despite the quantity of writers responsible for authoring the Old Testament books, the genealogies remain basically consistent between authors.
However, family trees are not the only thing that the Old Testament records in excruciating detail. These writings go to great lengths to record numbers and kinds of domestic animals that particular characters own, exact dimensions of buildings, items, and construction, weights and measurements of money, produce, spices, cloth, and other items of trade used in various circumstances.
Granted, most of these are round numbers, but rounding measurements is a common practice even today.
All such details smack not of mythology, but rather of history. If the intent of the Old Testament was to create a fictitious tradition, or to tell a good story, this kind of detail would likely be left out.
Cross references and consistency
The Old Testament was written over a span of hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yet for all the time covered by these texts, the narrative is remarkably consistent. Critics are quick to jump on any detail that appears to be contradictory in the Bible. Many have offered answers for these criticisms, but even if these supposed contradictions are allowed, the text is still far more harmonious than not. There a total of sixteen books in the Old Testament which are purely historical narratives, all of which form a more or less seamless account of the Jewish history spanning from what the Bible records as the beginning of time up until the era of the Medo-Persian Empire (550-330 BCE). Some of these accounts, such as Esther and Ruth, record an intimate story centered around a particular person, while others, such as the book of Genesis, record events spanning generations.
These historic narratives liberally cross reference one another. Frequently in books such as the Kings and the Chronicles, when wrapping up the narration of the reign of a particular king, this line is seen:
“Now the rest of the acts of [this king], from first to last, are they not written in [another book of the Old Testament]?”
This is especially true of the book of the Kings which frequently references the book of the Chronicles, both texts recording essentially the same time periods from different perspectives with remarkably harmony. Some of the books referenced have been lost to history, but most of the cross references are to other Biblical texts.
Even prophetic books, such as Daniel and Isaiah, slip easily between prophetic oracles and historic narratives. The prophetic book of Isaiah records several historic events which are consistent with the books of the Kings from a far more personal perspective.
The latter historic and prophetic books record events which are consistent with recognized near eastern history, including the events leading up to the rise of the Babylonian Empire resulting in the dissolving of the Jewish nation, the events during the prominence of Babylon, and the successive rise of the Medo-Persian Empire which resulted in a partial restoration of the Jewish Nation.
The earliest portions of the historic narratives, especially the books of Moses and the books of Samuel, are largely regarded by academia as entirely imaginative fiction, yet these texts form a practically seamless narrative from book to book leading up to these recognized historic events.
The scholarly approach to the Old Testament has remained a policy of “guilty until proven innocent.” One such example was the prominence of an ancient people that the Bible calls the Hittites. Since no historic evidence existed for the Hittite nation outside the Bible, scholars naturally assumed they were a fictitious invention of the Biblical authors.
Yet beginning in 1876 a series of dramatic discoveries challenged this notion. It started with the discovery of an inscription carved on rocks in Turkey and culminated in the unearthing of five temples, a fortified citadel and several massive sculptures. Ten thousand clay tablets were uncovered recording broad events in the history of the Hittite nation.
The record of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a watershed moment in Old Testament history. It becomes the penultimate example of the wrath of God against total corruption referenced on numerous occasions throughout the rest of scripture. Yet the record of this event is so fraught with the supernatural that no scholar would deign to consider it an actual historic event. That is until the late 1960’s when a series of archaeological digs discovered cities exactly where Sodom and Gomorrah were said to have been, which evidenced signs of a massive fire, including thick layers of ash and bricks turned red with heat. These cities dated back to the early bronze age, which would be consistent with when Abraham would have lived.
The book of Joshua records a military campaign against the nations of Canaan beginning with the destruction of Jericho. The story of Jericho is , again, a tale that is heavily supernatural in nature and subject to scholarly criticism. Yet archaeological digs in the area, which continue to this day, found not only the remains of a city consistent with the description of Jericho, but also evidence of a sudden collapse of the fortified walls of the city, consistent with the Biblical description.
King David is arguably the most significant ruler in the entire Old Testament. His story became the prototype for the Jewish Messiah, and all the kings of Judah that proceed him are said to be direct descendants of David. The city of Bethlehem is revered as the birthplace of David, and Jesus himself is supposed to be in the bloodline of David.
Yet because no evidence outside the biblical narrative suggests that this David actually existed, scholars assumed that he was a tall tale of Jewish invention.
In 1993 an impressive structure was unearthed in the region of Northern Galilee which contained several inscriptions in Aramaic including “The King of Israel” and “House of David.”
These, of course, are just some of the examples where archaeology has complimented rather than contradicted the Biblical narrative. No archaeological evidence could ever prove the Old Testament documents, however , the fact that so much of what was considered legendary has been correlated by archaeological finds, at the very least suggests that biblical narratives cannot be dismissed as total mythology.
Much of the prophecy of the Old Testament involves the punishment of rulers and nations for various transgressions committed. So, of course, most of those prophecies are fulfilled within the time period covered by the Old Testament. It is, however, important to note that the books of the Old Testament are written across a broad expanse of time. So when the majority of prophetic books written prior to the Babylonian captivity of Israel prophecy the Babylonian captivity, for instance, it still offers evidence of the miraculous nature of these writings. Or when the prophet Jeremiah says that the Babylonian captivity will last for 70 years, and then decades after his death, the prophecy is fulfilled, the prophecy is proven.
The typical stance critics will take is that these prophetic books were either written or heavily edited after the events they claim to prophecy, so that the prophecies would appear to come true. If the prophecies they make are not correlated by archaeology or other historical sources they are assumed to be unfulfilled.
The motivation for writing prophecies back into the text is suspect, but even assuming this is true, there are two fairly compelling prophecies that are not so easy to simply explain away.
The first is Isaiah 53. The description it gives of the New Testament Jesus is stunningly accurate, describing his life and ministry, his brutal crucifixion and the events surrounding it, his burial and resurrection, and his ascension and glorification.
More than this, however, it elucidates a succinct and accurate description of the New Testament doctrine of the substitutionary sacrifice Christ made for human sin:
English Standard Version (ESV)
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
One cannot excuse this as a later revision of the text for two reasons. The first is that this was and is a religious text for the Jews who would be strongly motivated not to have the Christian Jesus even hinted at in their texts. It would be easy enough to check the Jewish transmission of the Tanakh against the Christian transmission of the Old Testament and identify the divergence. No such divergence exists.
Perhaps more compelling is the fact that there exists at least one text of Isaiah from the Dead Sea Scrolls that predates Jesus, and this passage is present and unaltered.
The second prophecy that is difficult to explain away is the prophecy of Daniel.
The book of Daniel contains two separate visions illustrating the course of history over a period of several centuries. In these visions, four powerful empires are seen, each superseding the last in domination of the known world. In the first vision, the kingdoms are part of a statue with a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, torso of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of clay.
Daniel then interprets that the head of gold represents the kingdom of Babylon in all its beauty. The chest and arms of silver a second kingdom, the torso a third, and the legs a fourth. Daniel goes on to describe how the fourth kingdom of iron will become brittle (hence the feet of clay) and eventually break into factions. A great stone is seen crushing the statue, which represents the coming of the Messiah.
The second vision is essentially the same story illustrated in a different way. Daniel has a dream in which he sees a succession of four beasts rising out of the ocean, each replacing the other in turn. The first is a lion with wings, an obvious allusion to Babylon. The second is a bear with four ribs in its mouth. The third is a leopard with four wings and four heads. Finally a great beast, unlike any other animal, rises from the sea with teeth of iron and crushes everything in its path. After all of these, the Messiah comes.
Those Christians who believe in the inspiration of the Bible traditionally interpret these visions to represent the four great kingdoms of the Near East starting with Babylon’s dominance in Iran from about 620 BCE to 539 BCE then the Medo-Persian Empire from about 550 to 330 BCE then the Alexandrian Empire from about 336 to 286 BCE and finally the Roman Empire during which time Jesus came (ergo, the Messiah). Since both visions have the coming of the Messiah indicate the dissolving of the final empire, it is telling that the rise of Christianity was largely responsible for the eventual decline of the Roman Empire.
The prophecies are uncomfortably close to the truth, all things considered, especially since the manuscript evidence suggests that these prophecies were written well prior to Alexander the Great.
A more liberal interpretation is that the first empire was the Babylonians, the second and third empires are the Medes and the Persians (thus breaking what was essentially a single empire into two, despite the fact that these empires co-existed, and in both visions the empires succeeded one another) and that the last empire of iron – the great beast – is Alexander the great.
Even if this is true, it is still difficult to explain how Daniel could have predicted these four empires at all, especially when one takes into account how easily the apocalyptic symbolism could be matched with the actual nature of the empires mentioned. Alexander the Great is a Leopard with four wings, symbolizing how quickly he conquered the surrounding empires. The four heads of the leopard could easily refer to the dividing of his empire into four parts. What conservative scholars take to be Rome was described thusly:
English Standard Version (ESV)
40 And there shall be a fourth kingdom, strong as iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things. And like iron that crushes, it shall break and crush all these. 41 And as you saw the feet and toes, partly of potter's clay and partly of iron, it shall be a divided kingdom, but some of the firmness of iron shall be in it, just as you saw iron mixed with the soft clay.42 And as the toes of the feet were partly iron and partly clay, so the kingdom shall be partly strong and partly brittle. 43 As you saw the iron mixed with soft clay, so they will mix with one another in marriage,[a] but they will not hold together, just as iron does not mix with clay.
This is a fairly accurate overview of Roman history, beginning with an iron rule crushing and then dominating the surrounding empires with their military might, and then gradually becoming brittle until it dissolved.
One could dismiss it as guesswork and coincidence – as many do - but it is thought provoking none-the-less.
The transcendence of God
Most mythologies the world over were conceived as a series of “just so” stories; that is to say, they establish a working theory of how the universe works based on imaginative tales. In these tales, gods and spirits and monsters and mythic heroes are responsible for things not yet understood such as the seasons, the rising and setting sun, wind, rain, drought, and disease.
The same argument has been made for the Jewish scriptures. Parallels have been drawn between the Hebrew creation story and Egyptian creation mythology and between Noah’s flood and other world-wide flood stories from cultures around the world. Compared to other mythologies, however, the Hebrew Scriptures place a relatively minor emphasis on explaining how the world works.
More telling, however, is one key difference between the Old Testament stories and every other myth. In all mythologies around the world, the gods are part of the same world in which humans dwell. The sun is the eye of Ra or the chariot of Apollo. The sea is formed from the blood of a frost giant, the earth was held on the back of Atlas, lightning was the ringing of Thor’s hammer, and volcanoes erupted from the forge of Vulcan.
In Hebrew writings, however, God remains separate from his creation. He is transcendent above the universe he created. God is said to order the world, speaking to universal design, complexity, and intelligibility, but the Bible does not deign to explain the method in which God does so. In fact, strangely, the God of the Bible appears to play his cards close to his chest (so to speak). He makes it clear in multiple places throughout the Old Testament – most notably the book of Job – that his power, ordering, and directing of creation are his business, and that the human inability to grasp these is further revelation of his awesome nature.
This being the case, it is safe to say that it is definitely not the purpose of scripture to explain how the physical universe operates. Whereas all other ancient cultures worshiped their gods in order to gain some earthly benefit, the faithful of the Old Testament worship their God in spite of earthly troubles. Abraham complies with God’s request to sacrifice his own son. When his wealth and family are taken from him, Job falls to the ground and cries “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord,” and “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” The three Hebrew boys in the book of Daniel, when threatened with death for not worshiping the pagan idol proclaim that their God is able to save them from death, but if he doesn't they still will not defy him by worshiping the pagan idol.
The prophet Habakkuk declares: “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”
The Bible is clearly unique from all other mythological texts. The God of the Bible is self-existent and is worshiped because of who he is, not because of what happens in life. The Bible has its eyes firmly fixed on the eternal rather than the temporal. The characters of the Bible are not mythical heroes, but rather flawed humans who struggle in their relationship with a single, eternal Creator God.
If they Bible is mythology, it is mythology the like of which cannot be found anywhere in history. It is, indeed, the king of mythologies, mimicking history with stunning accuracy; penning prophecy with extraordinary guesswork; and showcasing a God that is truly superior to any other fictional God.