In previous posts in this series I have danced around the historicity question. In this post I will tackle this head on. The best advice I can give believers who are beginning to judge what is historical in scripture and what is not is the following (and yes I mean to yell this). YOU ARE TOO BIASED TO BE A GOOD JUDGE OF WHAT IS HISTORICAL AND WHAT IS NOT. You would do much better to focus on finding the best historical context in which to place the events and stories found in the scriptures. When you start to become uncomfortable about some of the answers you find, congratulations, you are now unbiased enough to start answering the historicity question. In fact, by that point, you will implicitly understand how to answer the historicity question and I won’t have to explain it to you.
I say the preceding for two reasons, one theoretical and one historical.
First, the theoretical reason. Everyone is biased in some way. As a believer your biases are embarassingly transparent to unbelievers. You can’t see them and that’s just fine. Unbelievers have their own set of biases, which are embarassingly transparent to believers. They can’t see them and that’s just fine. However, in answering the historicity question unbelievers are in a much better position to tackle the issue head on. They simply do not have as many preconceived notions as you do. They are going to approach the historicity of the Bible in much the same way as you approach the historicity of Homer’s Odyssey or Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. You don’t have any metaphysical commitments to the truth or falsity of those two works and you will most likely be pretty clear headed about what methodology to follow to determine what is historical in those works and what is not. It’s also going to be pretty obvious to you up front that the former will be less historical than the latter, which is probably a sound judgement. This is the position of the unbeliever with respect to the Bible.
Now, just because you as a believer are biased it doesn’t mean that you should just give up. The smart thing to do is to make your biases into strengths, which is why I suggested the alternate strategy of looking for the best historical context in which to situate the stories and events of scripture. Things are better understood in their proper historical context. As a believer you want to understand scripture. Logically, you want to find the proper historical context for the scripture you believe in. Thus, turn your weakness into strength, ignore the historicity question and look for the context. However, this means you can’t be lazy. Don’t look for any old context which might work, because then you haven’t really understood your scriptures. Be absolutely sure you have found the best historical context based on reliable, objective data. In many instances these exist and will make your scriptures come alive like they never could otherwise. If you don’t find a single context that fits best, or you find no context which fits at all, congratulations, you are now successfully addressing the historicity question.
Second, the historical reason. History bears out my theoretical reason, believers are very biased when dealing with the historicity question. The history I am referring to is the history of archaeology in Israel. Put simply, archaeologists got their conclusions wrong, badly so, for about three generations before they realized their interpretations were hopelessly wrong. The reason was because ALL archaeologists working in Israel wanted to find data that fit their preconceived notions, and they found it. It is only in the past 20 years that archaeologists have begun to unravel and reinterpret the mess that earlier archaeologists made. A couple examples might help.
One of the easiest things to identify in an archaeological dig is a destruction layer. When you are digging down through the earth, if you find a layer of black, you have found a destruction layer (you are seeing the remains of widescale fire). Since these layers are easy to find, a logical story to try and “prove” through archaeology is the book of Joshua; it’s just one destruction after another. So, archaeologists of dug around a lot of places, found lots of destruction layers, and declared the book of Joshua historically sound. They saw what they wanted to see. Recent analysis and better digging techniques have shown that these destructions layers do not fit the criteria for proving the book of Joshua. They are not from the correct time periods, and in many instances the archaeological digs show that the cities were uninhabited at the time Joshua would have been marching through ancient Israel.
Here’s another less obvious case. One of the ways archaeologists date things is through pottery styles. There is a particular style of pottery that has been traditionally dated to the 10th century BC. This type of pottery is very distinctive and when it is found in archaeological layers anywhere in Israel one can assume that it is from the same time period as the others, 10th century BC. Well, how were these pottery styles dated to the 10th century BCE? The pottery style was first discovered in a layer linked to a “monumental gate” which was assumed to have been built by Solomon, not because the gate said, “Solomon was here” but because 1 Kings 9:15 suggests that Solomon built this kind of gate. And, traditional chronologies put Solomon in the 10th century BC. QED, the pottery is from the 10th century BC and can be used to date archaeological layers. This is circular reasoning at its finest. Now that the circular reasoning has been identified, it calls into question dating of archaeological layers all over Israel. The reason this happened is because too many believing archaeologists went digging with a shovel in one hand and a Bible in the other. They didn’t mean to mislead people, it was not malicious, it was simply human bias showing through.