Thursday, September 23, 2010


Arethusa writes in response to my complete lack of interest in scientifically proving that the Red Sea could've parted:
If Heinrich Schliemann had had your attitude, directed in his case towards Homer, classical archaeology would never have developed and Troy and Mycenae would never have been unveiled as soon as they were.

I don't think it's a question of faith. It's a question of how much the Bible is an historical record as well as a religious one. And an answer to that question would be really useful.

I've been thinking about this. I was almost convinced. However, if one would like to determine if the Bible was an accurate historical record, then confirming other more historically relevant facts would probably be more useful. So, try to confirm that Jews were in Egypt and then left from archeological digs or whatever. Does it matter, from a historical perspective, whether they left on rafts, boats, or through a parted Red Sea? Finding Troy is different than finding a scientific explanation for a miracle.


Withywindle said...

If you're trying to confirm (or disprove) sacred history, then, yes, everything matters, down to the possibility of finding that God caused a miracle through natural means. A guy I knew in grad school was doing his dissertation on Heinrich Reimarus, a German Enlightenment figure who did a great deal of historical analysis of the Old Testament, precisely to see what was naturally plausible and what was not.

Your question presupposes the idea that a small error in the Biblical record is no big deal. If you take it as accurate history -- inerrant history -- it really, really matters, down to the smallest detail.

FLG said...

Does Herodotus become meaningless if there's an error or discrepancy?

If the answer is that, unlike Herodotus, the Bible is sacred, and must be 100% true, then this is trying to use science to buttress faith, which is always tempting, but also a fool's errand.

arethusa said...

But finding Troy was at the time essentially finding a scientific (as in fact-based) explanation for what was taken to be mythology. Not quite the same as a miracle, but still viewed as something fantastic.

As with Troy, the question of seeing if the Bible is historical isn't complete accuracy. Is the Troy Schliemann found completely the same as the Troy Homer describes? Absolutely not. But they have an overwhelming number of points in common. In the case of the Israelites in Egypt, since we have no archaeological evidence or Egyptian textual evidence of their presence there, only the Biblical narrative, one way to try to determine whether we can accept the Biblical narrative as at least generally historically true is to try to confirm events in that narrative. And pretty much the only events to confirm are the miracles. It's been done with the plagues of Egypyt, too. And if that narrative can be demonstrated to be scientifically feasible, well, maybe we can say it's got a good chance of being historical.

I didn't mean to say, though, that this is proving "sacred history." I'm not interested in anyone proving the religious narrative in the Bible. I'm interested in whether the Pentateuch can be taken seriously as an historical narrative. If there were Jews in Egypt as early as Exodus suggests, it has ramifications for both Jewish and Egyptian history.

Withywindle said...

FLG: You may call it a fool's errand, but it concerned people for centuries, and still concerns many. To assume a radical disjunction between science and faith is a position only fairly recently arrived at.

The Ancient said...

1) I agree with arethusa -- though I also think that the continuing excavations at Troy, combined with what's been deciphered from Hittite tablets, make something remotely like the Trojan War more possible than anyone might have thought twenty years ago. (Remember, fifty years ago there were still many people who denied that Hisarlik was Troy.)

2) Back when he was merely Joseph Ratzinger, the current pope made a point of referring to the OT as "myth, legend, and primitive reportage." That leaves open the chance that some of it is based on real history, however that history may have been distorted over time. It does not, however, diminish the "sacredness" of the OT -- at least from a Catholic perspective.

3) Off-hand, I only remember two or three claims of evidence that the Jews were in Egypt at the necessary time. One was a dig in the northeastern marshlands that had "suggestive" architectural details, and the other was an argument that the Jews were among the three or four invading forces beaten back by Rameses III.* But neither of those were really widely accepted or considered "proof" of anything.
*I can't find the reference right now, but there's a story that after he defeated the various "sea peoples," Rameses III counted the dead in one of two ways: the circumcised had their hands cut off, and the uncircumcised lost something nearer and dearer. (Imagine the stink if Woodward had reported that the CIA's secret Afghan army was treating Taliban and Al-Qaeda dead that way. Of course, had they done that, the war might also be over by now.)

George Pal said...


The sacredness of the Old Testament for Catholics is not to be found in its myths, legends, and primitive reportage.

The Old Testament is sacred for its precursors, prophecies and prefigurations of the Redemption by the Redeemer.

The Ancient said...

George Pal --

Yes, that's true, but what we were discussing was the literal historical accuracy of the OT. Precursors, prophecies and prefigurations are -- for lack of a better word -- more "squishy" than, say, material evidence on the ground of David's Kingdom.

(I acknowledge that some Catholics take a much more literal approach to the OT than I do. The spiritual advisor who oversaw my conversion had a decidedly non-mystical turn of mind, and I may have picked that up.)

Best, etc.
P.S. Background for others:

From the Catechism:

The Old Testament

121 The Old Testament is an indispensable part of Sacred Scripture. Its books are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value,92 for the Old Covenant has never been revoked.

122 Indeed, "the economy of the Old Testament was deliberately SO oriented that it should prepare for and declare in prophecy the coming of Christ, redeemer of all men."93 "Even though they contain matters imperfect and provisional,94 The books of the Old Testament bear witness to the whole divine pedagogy of God's saving love: these writings "are a storehouse of sublime teaching on God and of sound wisdom on human life, as well as a wonderful treasury of prayers; in them, too, the mystery of our salvation is present in a hidden way."95

123 Christians venerate the Old Testament as true Word of God. the Church has always vigorously opposed the idea of rejecting the Old Testament under the pretext that the New has rendered it void (Marcionism).

George Pal said...


My last word, promise.

The literal historical accuracy of the Bible would seem of not much value as the Bible does not make astonishing claims to literalness nor do Church Fathers understand it as such.

Augustine, and many Patristic writers assumed the scriptures had meanings deeper than any plain reading of the text. There are many texts in the New Testament where the Old Testament is read and interpreted by non-literal methods.

Now squishy is in the eye of the beholder. But looking for Jews on the ground in Egypt? Or uncovering David’s Kingdom? Or Noah’s Ark on Ararat? By themselves they prove themselves only – they do nothing for the narrative to which the Old Testament figuratively devotes itself.

arethusa said...

The literal historical accuracy of the Bible would seem of not much value as the Bible does not make astonishing claims to literalness nor do Church Fathers understand it as such.

I think it does matter. The Bible doesn't make claims to literalness and the Church Fathers don't interpret it that way, sure, but there are lots of documents that do not make claims to literalness and are not taken as such that can still be used as historical sources. Extreme example: The novels of Trollope tell us a lot about the English middle-classes of his day, etc.

I don't think either the Ancient or I are interested in proving the literal truth of the Bible. That accuracy, as you say, does nothing for the narrative of the Bible itself, but it has the potential to do quite a bit for a much larger historical narrative that is not concerned with God, the Old Testament, or religion, but is concerned with attempting to learn as much as possible about ancient Egyptian and Jewish history. Like or not, the Bible is a series of very old documents/sources, and like any very old document/source, is going to be considered in light of its historical value as well as any other religious or cultural value.

George Pal said...


By all means, have the historians glean all they can of history from the Bible – I only contend it’s a poor source.

Victorian novels were dense with detail; characters, relationships, places, and times. Drawing large historical panoramas was the their objective.

The Bible is dense only in characters – individuals and the corporate chosen people, and their relationship to God - its primary objective. Places were only alluded to and time was, if not seemingly nonexistent, unimportant. From this I think all that could be gathered of history would only offer a glimpse, at best.

PS: Apologies for my comment on the previous post dealing with this subject. Obviously I thought you were responding to my comment – David’s Psalm.

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