Historical Reliability and the Bible: Reexamining the Terms

By David P. Diaz, Ed.D.

Within its vast array of pages, the Bible consists of poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, biography, parables, and other genres set in specific cultural and historical environments. No matter how you interpret the content of the 66 canonical1 books, it is difficult to mistake the explicit references to people, places, dates, times, seasons, and events. In short, at least some of the Bible books represent historical narrative. Though not all books were written as history, they were all written in history, which begs the question: What, if anything, does the Bible tell us about history? This query brings us to the subject of historical reliability.2

What does ‘Reliability’ mean?

The scholarly community displays a great deal of variance in conveying the meaning of the term ‘reliable’ to the public. Indeed, many expressions are used interchangeably, including: ‘factual,’ ‘accurate,’ ‘true,’ ‘credible,’ ‘trustworthy,’ ‘genuine,’ ‘authentic,’ and others. Nevertheless, when used in scholarly works on historical reliability, these terms don’t always appear with clear demarcation or definition.

It is hard to find many precise definitions of the term ‘reliability,’ let alone a single definition accepted by all. During a debate on the Gospels’ reliability (Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? 2018), Bart Ehrman posed what he considered to be a fundamental question: “Do the Gospels describe what actually happened?” In other words, does the New Testament accurately relate the things that Jesus said and did, or are there mistakes that render the narrative unreliable? Ehrman suggests that whatever else it may mean, to say that the Gospels are ‘historically reliable’ implies that the authors of the text reported accurate historical information. He acknowledges that there are accurate historical data to be found in the New Testament but cautions that this material “needs to be teased out by careful, critical analysis” (Ehrman 2013, p. 71). Thus, in Ehrman’s view, the Bible must get the facts right to be considered reliable.

In a study of Old Testament reliability, Ancient Near Eastern historian Kenneth Kitchen (2006, p. 3) described reliability this way: “So, ‘reliability’ here is a quest into finding out what may be authentic (or otherwise) in the content and formats of the books of the Hebrew Bible.” In this sense, Kitchen suggests that discerning reliability is about distinguishing genuine (i.e., authentic) claims from those that are not. Kitchen concludes, “[T]he Old Testament books and their contents… are by no means pure fiction—in fact, there is very little proven fiction in them overall” (p. 499, italics mine). So, in Kitchen’s view, the Bible includes both historical fact and fiction. Accordingly, assessing historical reliability means distinguishing between the two.

Craig Blomberg (2007) didn’t exactly define the term ‘reliability’ in his book, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Still, he did imply that the words and deeds of Jesus as found in the Gospels must be accurate representations of what he said and did. Indeed, in his discussion of historical narrative, he affirms that “historical narrative recounts that which actually happened; it is the opposite of fiction; it does not contain numerous errors” (see p. 19, footnote 12, italics added for emphasis). Thus, in this view, a historical narrative will contain some errors, which must be parsed and separated from factual statements.

According to Michael Licona, historical reliability means that the [biblical] narrative provides an “accurate gist; an essentially faithful representation of what occurred” (Are the Gospels Historically Reliable? 2018). Licona suggests that we must assess ancient historical literature in view of the literary conventions in play at the time of writing. He proposes that it was typical for biographers (like Plutarch, or the Gospel writers) “to sacrifice precise historical truth in order to provide greater illumination of [the] main character’s moral qualities” (Licona 2017, p. 16). The New Testament should not be seen as a “transcript” of exactly what was said and done (Ibid.). Thus, Licona suggests that discerning reliability is about seeking the truth but does not require precision in every case. According to literary conventions of the time, the authors were justified in taking some liberties with the facts.

Thus, it seems clear that many top scholars use the terms ‘reliable,’ ‘factual,’ and ‘accurate’ somewhat synonymously. Or, at least, this is the way it comes across in many of their lectures and writings. But, is this a fair and meaningful use of the term in biblical studies?

In the remainder of this brief article, I hope to defend the following general statements: (1) There are inherent features of the study of history that make it all but impossible to know any ancient historical facts with absolute certainty. (2) The term ‘reliability’ should not be used synonymously with ‘truth’ or ‘accuracy.’ (3) A more precise definition for ‘reliability’ should be developed and deployed.

Limitations of Historical Method

History is unlike the physical sciences. Historians face unique limitations when assessing historical claims that are not encountered in, say, biology, chemistry, medicine, and experimental physics, among others. In the first place, historical methods are limited by a lack of proximity to actual events:

Unlike other scientific disciplines, historians cannot observe and repeatedly test historical events. Within the ebb and flow of history, these bygone incidents have taken place only once, which places them outside our ability to observe and repeat the observations. Ancient historians and archaeologists study singularities of the past, not repeatable events of the present. 

Diaz 2020, p. 3

Second, some historical accounts lack first-hand testimony or were unwitnessed. For example, it is apparent that, according to the Bible, there were no human witnesses of God’s creation of the sun, moon, stars, earth, plants, and animals (Gen. 1). From a historical perspective, the writers of such narratives represent second- or third-hand sources or are perhaps even further removed. First-hand, personal, eyewitness testimony has always been prized as a credible historical source, at least insofar as the testimony can be independently verified (Bauckham 2017, p. 5). Indeed, this is why the dating and authorship of the Gospels have continually been much-debated topics. If the biblical writers were not themselves eyewitnesses or lacked testimony from eyewitnesses, historians are left to sort out the quality of second- or third-hand testimony. To corroborate historical claims in such cases, the historian must look to other biblical testimony, non-biblical textual sources, or non-textual historical sources (e.g., archaeological artifacts). On the other hand, I agree with Stein (1980, p. 226) that: “It does not of necessity follow that eyewitness accounts of historical events are a priori accurate historical accounts!” In other words, the criterion of eyewitness testimony is not the sine qua non of historical truth. Indeed, all types of testimony—whether first-hand, second–hand, or other—can represent accurate information. Thus, all ancient testimony requires multiple lines of evidence to corroborate the claims.

Third, some historical claims represent personal experience. Any historical claim that rests solely on an individual’s subjective experience will be hard to corroborate. For example, Paul claimed that the risen Jesus spoke to him while he was on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:3–8, cf. Acts 22:9). It is difficult, if at all possible, to determine the truth of such claims based solely on the subjective experience of a single person.

Fourth, claims that are exclusively metaphysical or theological are impervious to historical verification. For example, Jesus’ statement (Jn. 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me,” is a claim about His metaphysical nature and represents a theological doctrine of faith. Such claims are resistant to purely historical analysis.

Fifth, the primary and secondary criteria of historical authenticity are often ambiguous as indicators of historical truth. Anyone familiar with historical methodology will probably realize that there are several criteria used to determine historical authenticity. These may include the criteria of multiple attestation, dissimilarity, coherence, embarrassment, Semitisms, and others.3 However, historians have come to realize that these criteria are often equivocal and inconclusive in helping to determine the accuracy of biblical claims. For example, the criterion of multiple attestation is intended to show consistency across sources. When two or more authors say the same thing, it is more likely to be true. However, assuming a causal relationship between reliability and the accuracy of a particular claim doesn’t always pan out. Just because two or more authors agree on a specific factual claim doesn’t mean that the claim is true. It could easily be the case that both, or all, claims are wrong! Let’s say one writer copies from another and a third writer copies from the second; if the first account was inaccurate, so too would be the second, third, and so on. It may also be the case that the statements were developed in collaboration, with the specific purpose of misleading the reader with false information. Thus, a historical account can be consistently attested but may not be accurate.

Ehrman, among others, has suggested that we can improve the criterion of multiple attestation by making sure that each declaration is separate or independent from any other. If two or more authors have collaborated, then what they have written may not serve to corroborate each other’s stories. Ehrman points out that historians who want to know if a past event happened or that a past person lived “look for multiple sources that corroborate one another’s stories without having collaborated” (2012, p. 75, italics added for emphasis). The idea is that stories produced through collaboration can’t serve as independent support to a historical claim. However, this presents us with three problems: (1) How do we know for sure that two or more sources have collaborated? (2) Do similar accounts, or even duplicate accounts, always suggest collaboration? (3) Does collaboration always mean that the affirmations are false?

In the first place, it is not always the case that similarities in any two accounts reflect literary dependence. For example, much has been written about similarities between the biblical account of the flood and certain Babylonian and Sumerian flood accounts. Many have suggested that the similarities point to literary dependence (i.e., collaboration or copying). But, a case can be made that the similarities may stem from independent descriptions of the same event (e.g., Diaz 2020, pp. 121–130).

Second, early writers may have simply repeated some stories from memory. So, the fact that two or more sources are similar, or even identical, does not necessarily signify proof of collaboration. Oral tradition4 might partially explain similar or verbatim material. For example, Craig Evans (2015, p. 69) reminds us that, though Jesus and his disciples were not likely formally educated, the Jewish faith and culture was centered on Scripture, and parents most likely educated their children in the Scriptures from an early age. Michael Kruger confirms that most early Christians were well-practiced in the art of oral instruction. They were used to listening to (as opposed to reading) the sayings of Scripture and most likely learned, taught, and passed on the words and deeds of Jesus through a well-developed practice of oral tradition:

Congregations did not listen to the reading of Scripture merely to learn new things, but rather to be reminded of what they already knew and had heard read many, many times…. While the idea of oral transmission seems unusual to our modern ears, it would not have been a new experience for Christians in the second century. 

Kruger 2018, pp. 169–172

Third, there is no guarantee that stories that result from collaboration are false. Indeed, a writer may use other sources precisely because he has reason to believe they are accurate.

What I am suggesting is that multiple attestation may sometimes indicate historical accuracy but at other times may also represent inaccuracies. Further, while similarities or duplication of text may indicate collaboration, there is no guarantee that such cooperation means that statements are false. I am merely pointing out that one of the key criteria that historians use to determine historical authenticity may not be directly related to what actually transpired in history. Therefore, relying on the criteria for determining historical authenticity is often tenuous.

Finally, Blomberg (2007) has noted that the task of assessing historical validity is often skewed by the presuppositions that historians bring with them into the process.5 He states first of all, “Once one accepts that the Gospels reflect attempts to write reliable history or biography… then one must immediately recognize an important presupposition that guides most historians in their work.” By ‘important presupposition,’ Blomberg is referring to the placement of the burden of proof. For example, some will approach the biblical text with the belief that the details should be given the benefit of the doubt. These people will likely be more flexible on whether the textual data favorably meet the criteria of authenticity. On this account, the burden of proof would rest “squarely on the person who would doubt the reliability of the text” (p. 304).

On the other hand, if the historian approaches the biblical text with an initial suspicion, then the burden will always rest on the text, and “every detail must satisfy the criteria of authenticity” (Ibid., p. 320). Blomberg suggests: “Whatever perspective one adopts at the outset, then, the verdict that presses itself upon us remains the same” (Ibid.; cf., pp. 310–321). Either way, this makes assessing historical claims a notoriously subjective affair.

In summary, I will suggest that there will be no perfect evidence that unequivocally substantiates or refutes historical truth claims found in the Bible. There will often be no true/false, or yes/no, answers when it comes to determining historical truth because:

  1. Our presuppositions cloud attempts at determining valid solutions.
  2. The lack of proximity to, and the inability to observe and test, historical events mark an inherent weakness of relying solely on historical methods for determining the accuracy of historical claims.
  3. Unwitnessed, subjective, or theological claims are not verifiable using solely historical methods.

Validity versus Reliability

In the interest of having clearly-defined terms to guide our undertaking, it is essential to distinguish between the terms: “validity” and “reliability.” Validity, within the confines of scientific research, typically means that a result is an accurate assessment of whatever is being measured or claimed. Thus, validity and accuracy, are synonymous terms. Reliability, on the other hand, is synonymous with consistency and repeatability. A reliable measure is one that demonstrates agreement between or across multiple measures or claims. Therefore, a valid result tells me that my measurement of the distance between point A and point B is precise and accurate, while a reliable result tells me that I am getting a consistent outcome each time I measure the same distance.

Let’s say that I want to measure the distance between two points. It is undoubtedly possible to accurately measure the distance between points A and B in any number of ways. For example, one can measure distance either by pacing out the distance on foot or by using a laser rangefinder. Between the two, a laser rangefinder will likely provide more consistent or reliable results (i.e., test/retest consistency). And, it may lead to more accurate results, especially at greater and greater distances and over repeated measures. So, how does this relate to the reliability of the Bible? Historical reliability is not a matter of using the same tool repeatedly to measure certain aspects of an event. Instead, the historian uses many tools or sources to weigh the reliability of particular propositions about history.

In my opinion, when historians talk about reliability, they most often mean that the narrative in question portrays factual information. In other words, historians use the term reliability when they are referring to some semblance of accuracy. Unfortunately, this places the historical definition of the term at odds with the scientific definition. Understandably, many historians want to know if the biblical claims are true or accurate. But they cannot know the answers with scientific accuracy because they cannot personally observe, test, and retest historical facts. When used to assess ancient history, historical methods cannot provide the same precision as can be attained in many scientific research fields. Therefore, I want to suggest that ‘reliability’ has been, and continues to be, a confusing and, ultimately, unhelpful term when used within the context of biblical studies. I’m suggesting that, in many cases, the term ‘reliability’ is simply the wrong one to use.

Definitions

For the reasons considered above, I believe it is necessary to make a sharp distinction between the terms, ‘reliability’ and ‘validity.’ Thus, I will propose distinct definitions for using these terms in a historical context.

Reliability: Biblical claims are historically reliable if multiple sources consistently confirm the claims. In other words, a claim is reliable in proportion to the quality and quantity of multiple sources that confirm it. Notice my use of the word “proportion.” An assessment of reliability requires some scale that will help historians judge the metric’s relative strength. Reliability is not in itself a measure of truth or falsity, but rather is a single data point in helping to establish truth or falsity. It is but one metric in a more extensive measurement system that hopes to determine the probability of historical fact.

However, even when a reliability measure is robust, it still may not be accurate. Let’s say you fill out a learning style inventory and the test results reveal that you are an “independent learner,” when, in fact, you know that you don’t learn well on your own and that you much prefer collaborative learning environments. In this case, the learning style scale may be reliable (if you get the same results each time you complete the questionnaire), but the outcome may be invalid in the sense that it wrongly assesses your preferred style of learning. Similarly, let’s say someone changed the setting on your bathroom scale so that it registers 5 pounds lighter than your real weight. You may be delighted that the scale reads 5 pounds less than the week before; your diet must be working! Alas, though the reading on your scale may reliable when measured repeatedly, the measurement isn’t valid.  

In the same way, when two or more ancient authors confirm the same claim, it doesn’t necessarily mean the claim is true. Nevertheless, the more often a biblical claim can be consistently or repeatedly confirmed (either by biblical sources or non-biblical historical sources that corroborate the biblical references), the more confidence we can have that the claim is historically reliable (though not necessarily valid). On the other hand, contradictions and discrepancies (i.e., inconsistencies) between sources imply that the accounts are unreliable because there is no consistent agreement across multiple sources.

ValidityBiblical claims can be considered valid if the statements represent historical facts. Validity is about the truth or accuracy of reporting. As such, it is a product of propositions. That is, assessing validity represents an attempt to answer declarative statements about the Bible. For example: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem” and “Jesus claimed to be equal with God” are both examples of historical claims that are either true or false and are legitimate subjects for historical verification. Unfortunately, not all biblical statements are subject to verification through historical methods. As stated above, there are many reasons to doubt whether one can establish any given historical fact with certainty. The further back in history one travels, the more difficult it becomes to assess the accuracy of any given historical claim.

Conclusion

The way theologians and historians use the term ‘reliability” may often suggest to the general public that we can know historical truths with certainty when, in fact, that is not the case. I suspect that most historians fully understand that it is nearly impossible to speak of historical certainty, especially the further we go back in history. Scientific precision is not an option when attempting to discern the truth of ancient history because historical methodologies cannot include personal observation, experimentation, and repeated testing. The historical disciplines lack the controlled settings that are hallmarks of the experimental sciences. Therefore, the historian looks for criteria that might be related to historical accuracy. However, such criteria are limited and cannot establish the truth of history with certainty. Undoubtedly, the criteria are useful, but if historians want to posit certain levels of confidence or probability for their historical hypotheses, there is a need to find more objective methods to assess biblical historical claims.

Some biblical propositions are uncontroversial and elicit little debate. For example, historians often agree that Jesus was a historical figure who spent most of his life in and around the region of Galilee. They will also agree that Jesus carried out his ministry in the first century AD and that he was widely attested as a miracle-worker and exorcist. There is general agreement that he was crucified under the rule of Pontius Pilate, governor of the Roman province of Judea. It is also widely accepted that many of Jesus’ followers believed that he rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion. However, other claims are rigorously contested. Therefore, historians must establish an objective, quantitative method of verification to determine the likelihood or probability of historical truth. Nevertheless, historians cannot validate historical claims in isolation. Therefore, historians should band together to develop and test methodologies that might yield consistent, inter-researcher results.

The term “reliability,” within the context of ancient history, needs to be given a more precise definition and should be distinguished from designations that imply “historical certainty.” For the sake of public understanding, scholars should not imbue the label ‘reliability’ with greater authority than it’s due. Using the term ‘reliability’ in one way in science and a different way in history is inconsistent. Therefore, reliability should ultimately be seen as a measure of ‘repeatability’ and ‘consistency,’ not ‘certainty’ or ‘truth.’

References

“Are the Gospels Historically Reliable?” YouTube. Mike Licona, 2018. https://youtu.be/qP7RrCfDkO4.

Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007.

Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels As Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Company, William B., 2017.

Diaz, David P. Genesis Labyrinth: Investigating Alternatives in the First Eleven Chapters of Genesis. Maitland, FL: Xulon Press Elite, 2020.

Ehrman, Bart D. The New Testament: a Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: the Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2013.

Evans, Craig A. Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2015.

Kitchen, K. A. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.

Kruger, Michael J. Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, an imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Licona, Mike. Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Stein, Robert H. “The ‘Criteria’ for Authenticity,” in R.T. France & David Wenham, eds., Gospel Perspectives, Vol. 1, Studies of History and Tradition in the Four Gospels. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1980. pp.225-263. Footnotes

————————————————

About the Author

David P. Diaz, Ed.D. is the publisher of Things I Believe Project, an online journal devoted to the defense of one’s beliefs. A retired college professor, Dr. Diaz is the author of The Genesis Labyrinth: Examining alternatives in the first eleven chapters of Genesis (2020, 2nd edition). Dr. Diaz holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees (B.S., M.S.) from California Polytechnic State University and a doctorate in Education from Nova Southeastern University. [back to top]


Footnotes

  1. In this context, canon can be defined as “a collection or list of sacred books accepted as genuine.” Lexico dictionary: https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/canon. In the evangelical Protestant faith, there are typically 66 books that are accepted as canonical, while the accepted lists of other traditions may vary.
  2. First, the meaning of the term, “historical,” can be considered separately from the meaning of “reliability.” Having said that, I will not specifically address the former term in this paper. Suffice it to say that ‘history’ and ‘historical’ can have a variety of definitions. Second, in using the term ‘reliability,’ I will not be referring to the reliability of the text itself. This is the domain of textual critics, who attempt to reconstruct the original words of the author through the process of comparing and contrasting the thousands of manuscripts of the Bible. Finally, I will not attempt to explain, argue for, or assume the doctrines of inerrancy, infallibility, or inspiration of the Scriptures.
  3. Historians disagree on the names, number, and importance of criteria of historical authenticity. See the following examples of Criteria of Authenticity: https://www.westmont.edu/~fisk/articles/CriteriaOfAuthenticity.htm, http://homes.chass.utoronto.ca/~kloppen/criteria.htm, and https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/gp/gp1_authenticity_stein.pdf. See also Ehrman 2020, pp. 247–253.
  4. Oral tradition is the practice of one generation repeating material by the spoken word, which would then be memorized by the next generation and so on throughout history.
  5. The assumptions that historians bring to the table are often shaped by the preliminary criteria of “source,” “redaction,” and “tradition” criticism. I will not speak of these types of historical criticism in this paper. I need only mention here that these and other factors often influence opinions on whether historical data meet the criteria for historical authenticity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.