How do we know that the biblical writers were not writing history?

To answer our question directly, as it will be demonstrated below, because the Bible itself tells us so. Since I’ve been advocating and tooting the objective study of the Bible, one where conclusions are drawn, such as the one pronounced above, by collecting, examining, and explaining the textual data, let’s see if I can walk the talk.

First, let me start by stating what I’m not claiming. Just because the biblical writers were not writing history—if indeed this hypothesis holds up to the textual data—that does not mean that there are no historical facts or events in the Bible. Second the biblical writers were not writing mythology or allegory, other than at various places (e.g., Gen 1-11), rather it is what scholars call historiography— that is “history writing” from the perspective and conventions of the time period in which these writers were writing. This is not to be equated with modern ideas of history and history writing as we shall see.

A brief word about allegory. Allegorical interpretation came into vogue around the 1st century BC/AD and was primarily employed to “interpret away” offensive elements in a text. This interpretive method was fully implemented and endorsed by early church fathers and the Church from the 2nd c. AD to the Middle Ages! So for example, Yahweh’s anthropomorphism, i.e., presenting him regretting (which the 8th c. BC Yahwist author had no qualms about, see Conflicting portraits), was interpreted or explained away allegorically, especially since Greek philosophical ideas of a non-anthropomorphic and omniscient deity were entering into Christian debates at this time. We should note that this interpretive method neglects the circumstances of the author (e.g., the Yahwist) and the very fact that this author did present Yahweh in anthropomorphic terms, and rather imposes the readers’ own views and concerns onto the text, as do all interpretive agendas.

Yahweh’s killing of Uzzah, a commoner, who actually saves the ark of the covenant from crashing to the ground (2 Sam 6:7) is another offensive story that was “interpreted away” allegorically. Or, consider the 50,070 innocent non-Levites whom Yahweh smote just “because they gazed upon the ark of Yahweh” (1 Sam 6:19). These and similar stories were not written as allegory, but indeed were allegorically interpreted away to remove what had become offensive, and not understandable, to later readers. On the other hand, these are not historical either, and that should bring a sigh of relief.

In this case, these texts are none other than stories created by Levite priests to show that under no circumstance are non-Levites to touch, even gaze upon, Yahweh’s ark! Only the Levites can do this. These are powerful narratives that reinforce Levite ideology by presenting their deity as a spokesperson for their own agendas. The same priestly lesson is to be found in Yahweh’s slaughtering of Korah, his family, and all those associated with him who dared challenge the authority of Moses and the Aaronid priesthood in Numbers 16. There are numerous examples like this throughout the Bible. If we know a little bit about who penned these texts and ask if the story was used to legitimate these authors’ authority or belief system, then in many cases we can surmise that they were written for that purpose, and not as a record of historical fact.

One last preliminary. Many modern readers assume, suppose, assert that the Bible is history because they actually know little to nothing about ancient texts, ancient authors, and ancient cultures, but rather have been trained to view these ancient texts through centuries-later interpretive frameworks and theological postulates. In other words, it is often taken as a given that the biblical writers were writing history, and then one who does not believe this is often labeled as a skeptic. This is rhetorical nonsense. This so-called “given” rests on misconceptions, reader-presuppositions, and frankly ignorance of ancient texts, and what and how ancient authors wrote, etc. So to pick up the Bible and expect it to be history, is already founded on the reader’s misconceptions, presuppositions, and ignorance of what in fact he/she is reading and the historical and literary contexts that produced it. Sorry to be so stern about this. But it needs to be stressed.

What follows are different categories of textual and/or archaeological data, from both the Bible and other ancient Near Eastern texts. It is these data that will, I claim, support the claim of this post. Feel free to comment, critique, and question them.

Contradictions: the biblical data

Contradictions in the Bible’s stories and “histories” are one set of textual data that support our claim. Let’s briefly take a look at a few that we’ve already enumerated here and more so some forthcoming ones.

Many of the contradictions we’ve looked at thus far (#1, 7-10, 14-22), especially concerning Genesis 1-11, we can accredit to different mythological traditions. However # 11 represents two contrary claims about something that might be considered “historical”—when was the name Yahweh first revealed. If we press the historical issue, then we are forced to either select one as true and the other false or to “interpret away” the contradiction—that is, ignore and neglect the ideas and views of the biblical writers in lieu of the reader’s ideas and views. However when we learn a bit more about the two textual traditions that these claims come from, we readily see that each “historical rendition” conforms to and reaffirms that author’s theological views, etc. But let me briefly list some of the contradictions that I will be posting in the future and which serve our present purpose better.

When the author of the book of Deuteronomy sits down to write his text, he has Moses renarrate the story of Israel’s past, that is the events that the Israelites had experienced from the revelation at Sinai to the current narrative setting of the book of Deuteronomy on the plains of Moab. Renarrate because this “history” was already narrated in earlier textual traditions which served as the Deuteronomists’ sources. These earlier texts now make up parts of the books of Exodus and Numbers, and scholars have identified them as belonging to the Elohist and Yahwist sources. In other words, stories from the older Elohist and Yahwist traditions, now preserved in the books of Exodus and Numbers, were used as sources for the Deuteronomist’s composition where Moses renarrates these same stories. Yet, on every single renarration of these stories, of these past events, of this “history,” the author of the book of Deuteronomy has Moses radically alter them—indeed outright contradict them (50+ times)—claiming to say and do things he never said and did, and narrating things that never happened, or happened in a manner completely opposite of what he claims. What conclusion are we to draw from this textual data? Here are some of my favorites:

1) In the Exodus tradition Yahweh gives both the Ten Commandments (Ex 20) and the law code (Ex 21-23), but when Moses renarrates this in Deuteronomy he claims that Yahweh only gave the Ten Commandments!

2) Did Yahweh descend onto mount Sinai as in the Exodus traditions or did he merely speak from heaven as Deuteronomy claims?

3) Exodus 18 accredits the Midianite Jethro with the origins of the Israelite judiciary, but Deuteronomy’s Moses omits this from his retelling, and accredits it to Moses

4) In Numbers 20, the Edomites refuse to allow the Israelites to pass through their borders, but in Deuteronomy’s retelling, they do pass (Deut 2)

5) Transjordan, the territory east of the Jordan, is declared by Yahweh in the earlier sources not to be part of the promised land, which is west of the Jordan to the Mediterranean sea, but in Deuteronomy Yahweh declares it as part of the promised land!

6) Moses adds new scenes into the Golden Calf “history” when he retells it in Deut 9

7) There are many contradictions between Yahweh’s commandments in Ex 21-23, Deut 17-26, and Lev 1-19. In many cases Yahweh is presented as commanding one thing and in the narrative time-frame of the “history” commanding its opposite a week later!

This is just a small fraction of the contradictions we will look at. What conclusion would you draw from this data, that best explains this textual data? Another interesting question is: if the Deuteronomist had the Elohist and Yahwist stories/”history” in front of him yet he consciously changed them so that they agreed with his own theological purposes and agenda, then how did the Deuteronomist view these stories? As history?

Let’s move on to a few more examples.

8) The book of Joshua preserves two traditions, one claiming that all the Canaanites were exterminated, the other claiming that they were not

9) The book of Samuel gives two contradictory origins of the monarchy

10) 2 versions of Saul’s death are given, and one clearly seems to be written to exonerate David from any implied wrong-doing

11) The “history” in the book of Chronicles traces the kingdom of Judah to its fall, in other words it is the same “history” that is in Kings, but there are numerous differences and contradictions, and elements that the Chronicler either adds or omits!

12) The NT “histories” of Jesus are also fraught with contradictions.

The claim promulgated by the masses is that these differences and contradictions can be explained by “acknowledging” that each writer wrote history from a different perspective. But this claim rests on these readers’ presuppositions and misconceptions about ancient writers and ancient literature. When Plutarch, for example, writes the biography of Alexander the Great, he presents Aphrodite as Alexander’s virgin mother! What is Plutarch doing, and why were these conventions adopted in ancient “biography”? Suetonius, a Roman historian, records that the emperor Vespasian performed miracles in the open forum, one of which was the healing of a withered hand, as Jesus also does. Again, the gospel literature must be read in its proper historical and literary contexts. But let us move on to other types of data. Remember these are just examples. There are literally 100s and 100s more like these.

Historical events skewed by theological interpretive lenses: biblical and extra-biblical data

The Babylonian destruction of Judah in 587 BC occurred. It is historical, confirmed by extra-biblical and archaeological data, but the claims of, for example, the author of the book of Jeremiah that Yahweh “raised up” the Babylonians, gave them the authority to rule the world for a certain time period (see Daniel too), and that Judah, its land and its people were destroyed because Yahweh decreed it as punishment for their sins—all this is the theological lens or narrative through which the historical event is presented. Not only are there many other examples like this in the Bible, but archaeologists have uncovered the texts of other ancient Near Eastern peoples who have expressed the exact same historicized theology.

For example, when the Persians destroyed the Babylonian empire in 539 BC, a Babylonian scribe (known from the Babylonian cylinder seal) wrote that Marduk, the god of Babylon “raised up” Cyrus of the Persians to destroy Babylon and his people because they sinned against Marduk and forsook his temples. A 9th c. BC Moabite stela speaks of the historical event where Omri and his son Ahab conquered the land of Moab (confirmed by biblical records too), but the Moabite scribe also claimed that Chemosh, the god of the Moabites, allowed Omri to conquer his people because they sinned against Chemosh. When Cyrus conquered the Babylonians he allowed the Jews in captivity to return home, but a Babylonian archive claims that Marduk (also the Persian god) allowed the Jews to return home; yet both Isaiah 45 and Ezra 1 claim that it was Yahweh’s doing. So we see that what the biblical scribes were doing in presenting historical events through a theological interpretive grid was actually part and parcel to a larger Near Eastern literary convention.

But here’s one of my favorites. The Assyrian king Sennacherib conquered and burnt the land of Judah and besieged Jerusalem in 703-701 BC. We have both extra-biblical, biblical, and archaeological data (a burnt archaeological layer) that affirms this. Yet Sennacherib did not conquer and burn down Jerusalem. Why? Here’s how the biblical scribe answered this:

“For he shall not come into this city says Yahweh. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David.” That very night the angel of Yahweh set out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; when morning dawned, they were all dead bodies. (2 Kgs 19:32-35)

But this did not happen. Assyrian records, as well as a contradictory biblical record (2 Kgs 18:15-16) asserts that Hezekiah paid a hefty tribute of gold, silver, ivory, even his daughters! to Sennacherib and re-established his vassal-ship to the Assyrian king. Why did the biblical scribe above say it happened as a miracle, even placing this event on Yahweh’s lips. Propaganda. Who did the scribe work for? The king. This was part of a larger political and literary program of presenting Hezekiah as loyal to Yahweh, and also presenting the benefits of that loyalty—Yahweh would save the city. See the next section for more.

Not only these examples, but we have at our disposal other ancient Near Eastern texts talking about the universe’s creation, a cataclysmic flood with Ark and Ark hero, gods giving law codes to kings or ancestral heroes, gods declaring land as possessions for their peoples, kings being presented as God’s son, etc. When viewing the Bible in conjunction with these texts, that is in its proper literary and historical contexts, what conclusions would you draw? (Notice, I am inviting you to think.)

Propaganda and exaggeration: biblical and extra-biblical texts

The Hezekiah example above is just one form of propaganda in the Bible, that is literature that advertised and endorsed royal policies. In Genesis, we learn that Judah’s older brothers, Reuben, Simeon and Levi are all disqualified as potential rulers of the southern kingdom for their sins, but Judah, the 4th eldest inherits the throne. This is literature written by a Judahite scribe who is legitimating Judah’s right to rule over the other tribes through archaized stories. But what about Solomon, who is David’s 10th son! How did he oust his older brothers from the throne and claim and legitimate the throne as his rightful inheritance? Propaganda. As biblical scholar Baruch Halpern writes of this literary device employed across the ancient Near East: “The most common technique for justifying the seizure of power is to admit to usurpation, but then explain that a god elected a new king because one’s predecessors were weak, sinful, or corrupt” (David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King, 102).

When we get to the book of Leviticus, whose laws were written by Aaronid priests, it is no coincidence that the very laws coming from the mouth of Yahweh represent and legitimate the very theology and beliefs of the Aaronids themselves. This is seen more clearly when we see that in the law code of Deuteronomy, written by Levite scribes, Yahweh pronounces laws that confirm and legitimate theological beliefs and views held by these Levite scribes. This is even more glaring when these laws contradict one another as we will soon see.

The same literary technique is used in the Gospel portraits of Jesus. It is not a coincidence that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is presented as a Torah-obedient Jew who claims that all Torah stipulations are still valid, and in some cases have even been intensified. “Matthew” was a Jewish-Christian writing to Jewish-Christians and most likely against Gentile-Christianity. It is not surprising then that John’s Jesus is hostile to Judaism and stands outside of Judaism. John had an axe to grind with the Jews that he was writing against, and he used Jesus as a mouthpiece for his views. This is ancient literature. Josephus does the same thing with the “speeches” he composes in his histories, as does the author of Acts, as does Thucydides! These were all part of the literary conventions of “history” writing in the ancient world.

Exaggeration was also a prominent form of propaganda. So where a foreign ruler might have burnt the fields of his enemy, his scribe might have written how he utter destroyed them from the face of the earth, or even outright conquered them. There are many examples like this in the David stories, and other places in the Bible.

Archaeological data

In many cases, the Bible’s “history” is not only not confirmed by the archaeological record, but actually disproved! Here are a couple of examples. Anachronisms (see Stories for more), such as the mention of camels, trade routes, even kings and political states belie many of the Bible’s “histories.” They are rather from the author’s own time period and not the time period suggested in the narrative setting. The mention of Abraham’s meeting with the Philistine king of Gerar in Genesis 26 is an anachronism. There were no Philistines, thus no Philistine king, nor a Gerar in the 18th c. BC, the narrative’s setting. These elements were projected into the archaic past by an 8th c. BC author who was familiar with these historical things. Likewise, stories about Jacob and Israel, and Jacob and Laban are really stories describing the historical relationships between Israel and Edom, and Israel and Aram in the 9th and 8th centuries BC. We will look at these this month.

All of the place names mentioned in the exodus show no archaeological settlements in the time period implied by the narrative, and this is especially true of Kadesh-barnea where supposedly a troop of 600,000 male Israelites with their wives, daughters, livestock remained for 38 years! Yet there are archaeological records of settlements in the Sinai peninsula during the 7th century BC. We’re not claiming that the exodus happened in the 7th c., but rather it was put to pen then, and the authors used places and towns that they were familiar with to shape the story! The military conquest and extermination of the indigenous of the land of Canaan by Joshua, purported to happen in the 13th century BC according to biblical chronology, is also refuted by the archaeological record.

Numbers 20:14-20 relates how the Israelites asked the king of Edom to pass through their territory in order to access a route to the land of Canaan. Yet we know from extra-biblical sources, primarily Assyrian records, that Edom only achieved statehood in the 7th century BC. Archaeologist William Dever puts it this way: “there cannot have been a king of Edom to have denied the Israelites access, since Edom did not achieve any kind of statehood until the 7th century BC” (Who Were the Early Israelites?, 28)—ditto for the biblical narrative’s mention of the king of Arad (21:1), the king of the Amorites (21:21; Hesbon in the Deuteronomic tradition), the king of Moab (21:26), and the king of Bashan (21:33). They are all projections of the political realities of the 8th and 7th centuries BC!

The wilderness narratives also claim that Hesbon and its environs were destroyed by the Israelites, but the archaeological record indicates no destructive layer in the centuries around the date implied by the biblical narrative, and no indication that Hesbon and its environs were even settled. There are no remains whatsoever. The archaeological record at Arad and Hormah also tell the same story. To cite William Dever again: “there are no Late Bronze Canaanite cities to be found anywhere in the northern Negev. . . so the Israelites could hardly have battled the native inhabitants of the land there” (30). The conquest of the Negev is a complete fabrication! Again, the Israelites did battle or conquer these peoples or territories at a much later date, but that historical data was projected into the past as a means to legitimate the conquest.

In reference to the cities Hazor, Lachish, and Megiddo, which Joshua allegedly destroyed, archaeologist Finkelstein writes:

The kings of each of these four cities—Hazor, Aphek, Lachish, and Megiddo—are reported to have been defeated by the Israelites under Joshua. But the archaeological evidence shows that the destruction of those cities took place over a span of more than a century. The possible causes include invasion, social breakdown, and civil strife. No single military force did it, and certainly not in one military campaign. . . . Thus there is no reason to suppose that the burning of Hazor by hostile forces, for example, never took place. But what was in actuality a chaotic series of upheavals caused by many different factors and carried out by many different groups became—centuries later—a brilliantly crafted saga of territorial conquest under God’s blessing and direct command (The Bible Unearthed, 90-94).

These are merely some examples of the textual and archaeological data that have lead biblical scholars to conclude that the biblical writers were not writing history. There are literally 100s, maybe 1000s more examples. What do you think? Does the data support this post’s claim? How would you analyze these data? Obviously this same data could be used to demonstrate that the Bible is not the word of (a) God. Certainly I’m interested in how, when, and why this tradition emerged and why its perpetuated. But the biblical texts themselves largely refute this.

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2 Responses to How do we know that the biblical writers were not writing history?

  1. michael del rio says:

    interesting viewpoint-where does that leave you from a religious standpoint

  2. I’m more interested in how, when, and why religious beliefs come into existence and how and why they are transformed through later interpretive traditions. I don’t really have a subjective say on the matter. Well, maybe I do. See

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