Question:

I came across this forum on Reddit about the Old Testament. It says that it is mostly oral histories rather than detailed written histories. See the comment by BigBennP.  https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/8k455b/there_are_two_places_that_i_know_of_in_the_bible/ He referenced Schinderman’s book that I’m quite familiar with.  I’m not sure if this is correct.  But if it is true, then I have to ask to what extent is the Old Testament oral histories? The author at Reddit implied that oral histories aren’t as accurate as written histories. Is this premise even correct? Of course, since Jesus referred to Genesis a few times, implying that Adam, Moses, Abraham, etc are real historical figures, I can take by faith that this is true. Yet, how can I convince non believers of this?  On a separate but related topic, in your book Reasons for Belief, you mention manuscript dates and how they’re closer to the biblical events compared to any other ancient documents.  Also, you mention the hundreds of different biblical manuscripts compared to only a few for all other famous ancient writings. Here is my question.  How can I be sure that any written history is a truly reliable account of a real event?

One more question.  You mention in your book Reasons for Belief that it is common to only find Jesus’miraculous work in Christian documents rather than contemporary ones, and even if we have some contemporaries ones, they will picture it in a negative connotation such as Jesus’ miracles being devil works for instance. Yet, again, how can I be sure that what a historian writes is true regardless of their views? Is there any other evidence to cross check it with? This is especially hard to be sure of the reliability of the Gospels where it records Jesus’ personal prayers to the Father, for instance, since this is a private moment. How can I be sure that Matthew or Mark, or Luke knew exactly what Jesus said especially since the Gospel was written decades after Jesus death?

Answer:

First of all, it is almost certainly true that most of the Book of Genesis was originally in the form of an oral tradition.  This was the normal way such things were carried down in ancient times.  Besides, the book itself has the feel of something which was at one time an oral tradition.  Most likely, the only book in the Bible which is substantially oral tradition is the Book of Genesis.  Exodus – Deuteronomy were almost certainly written down by contemporaries.  Probably large parts were actually written by Moses.  It is difficult to prove such things, but the consensus of scholars is that large parts of Genesis were originally in the form of an oral tradition.  The only other book in the Bible which has a style and history consistent with it having originally been an oral history is Job.  It is not certain, but the book bears the marks of something which was originally an oral history.

The relative reliability of oral histories has been the subject of many studies.  Recent detailed and careful research has revealed that oral histories have an incredible degree of stability over time.  The reason is that there is usually a school of ones who have memorized the oral record and the ones who have memorized the stories correct one another.  Substantial research confirms that, although some of the minors details in an oral history can be unstable, the basic outline and themes of the story are stable over great periods of time.  This is very likely the case with Genesis.  I believe the writer of the article on Redit is accurate in his statement that Genesis was, for a period of time, in the form of an oral history, but I believe that he has not kept up with the current research into such oral histories.  He is substantially underestimating the reliability of such histories.  As with you, I take on some level of faith the veracity of the Old Testament histories, but it just so happens that evidence supports this conclusion as well.

You ask how we can be sure of any descriptions in ancient history.  The honest truth is that we cannot be absolutely certain of very much at all.  We generally cannot prove the accuracy of personal accounts, since the eye-witnesses are long dead.  However, I believe that we can apply a common sense approach to what ancient accounts are reliable and which are not.  Of course, in some cases, historical records can be supported with archaeological findings, which is certainly the case with many of the basic historical records of the Old Testament. I suggest you consider reading and listening to some of my material on archaeology and the Bible.  If you go to the power points section of the web site you will find more than one presentation on the topic.  I especially recommend a lesson I gave at one of our Christian Evidences conferences at York College in 2016.  http://evidenceforchristianity.org/audio-from-2016-icec-history-archaeology-and-christianity/

evidenceforchristianity.org
This ARS Christian Evidence conference was held at York College in York, Nebraska. Below is the audio from the conference as well as the schedule of the conference. Archaeology Mark Ziesse Archaeology and the Book of John Acts and Church History Oakes First Second and Third Quest for …

Let me give some examples of what we can conclude, from the evidence, is almost certainly true.  For example, from the tel Dan inscription, we can conclude almost without doubt that there was a king of Israel named David who was the first of an extended dynasty over Israel and then Judah.  However, we cannot say conclusively that David fought a one-on-one battle with Goliath.  The only source for this is 1 Samuel (oh, and 2 Chronicles).  I believe that this encounter happened, both because I believe the Bible is inspired by God, and because I believe that the evidence supports the conclusion that the books of Samuel and Kings are very accurate and reliable history.  But, this one is not particularly well proved in my opinion.

As for the miracles of Jesus, this is a more complex question, I suppose.  We have multiple attestations to the miraculous ministry of Jesus, including the four gospels, Paul, Peter’s letters, the accounts of the very early Christians and more.  Of course, unbelievers do not report the miracles of Jesus, as those who believe he was resurrected generally became Christians.  However, as you allude to, there is evidence from Tacitus and Josephus–not Christian historians–that many in the first century certainly did believe that Jesus worked great signs, wonders and miracles.  One can make a strong argument that you literally cannot explain the explosive growth of the early church if you do not account for the fact that the early church–including hundreds who met Jesus personally–believed that Jesus was a worker of many miracles.  Peter could say to thousands in Jerusalem, just seven weeks after the death of Jesus that he worked many signs, wonders and miracles “as you yourselves know”, as recorded in Acts 2.  I conclude that almost beyond doubt Jesus did in fact work miracles.  It is the most reasonable means to explain the available information.  Is this “proved.”  The simple answer is no, it is not.  However, it is the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence, and with ancient events (with a few exceptions because of archaeological evidence), this is almost always the best one one can hope to do.
As for such detailed things as an account of a personal prayer of Jesus, how could one even begin to thing that one can prove that this particular prayer happened exactly as stated.  Personally, I believe that many accounts in the New Testament are not exact transcripts of what happened.  Generally, they are the best recollection of an eye witness or someone who interviewed an eye witness.  These are faithful but not absolutely 100 percent precise recollections of events which actually happened.   Are the accounts in Luke and Matthew of the Sermon on the Mount identical?  No, they are not.  They are the inspired best recollection of two different witnesses.  I believe that they are faithful records, but we will obviously never be able to prove that these are the exact words uttered in the exact same situation in the Bible.  This is too much to ask, and it is not even required that we have exact transcripts.  What is required is that the accounts are inspired, which they surely are, and that they are faithful renditions of what actually happened.  Do we have exact transcripts of conversations between Abraham and Abimelech?  Surely not.  These are accounts faithful to what happened, but it is not likely, nor was it the intent of the writers, that these are exact ver batim transcripts of actual conversations.
John Oakes

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