This was just published at Aeon Ideas. I paste a copy below.
Not really. And not really.
The truth is that there isn’t much, if any, historical accuracy in the early accounts in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. There are many reasons to doubt these early stories. Internal to the Bible itself, the stories are peppered with supernatural interventions that strain belief and are full of contradictions. Externally, and more importantly, almost none of these stories can find more than a potential shred of supporting evidence, and evidence external to the Hebrew Bible more often than not contradicts the biblical account. There is no real evidence for an Exodus by the Israelites from Egypt, for example, or for even the very existence of the extraordinarily wise, wealthy, and well-traveled King Solomon. Archaeological evidence directly contradicts the biblical account of the conquest of Jericho specifically and, more generally, of the account of the Israelite conquest of Canaan. Instead of seeing the Hebrew Bible as containing an accurate historical record, we are better off seeing it as a collection of ancient Israelite myths. These myths, just like those of the Greeks, might have small kernels of historical truths buried somewhere within them, but even these are largely unrecoverable, insignificant, or both. The Hebrew Bible’s account of events after the purported reign of King Solomon toward the end of the tenth century BCE gets somewhat better. Despite its tendentiousness and continuing self-contradictions, it at least seems to accurately record the names of the kings of Israel and Judah.
The New Testament is hardly better. While it is likely that a man named Jesus existed, the events of his actual life are, despite the Gospels’ accounts, unrecoverable. The Gospel accounts routinely contradict each other. Mention of Jesus in sources outside of the Bible is so uncommon as to suggest that he did not make much of an impact for a good century. The book of Acts, which is patterned after a history, is more novel then history; nearly all of its claims must be taken with more than a grain of salt. Most of the other books of the New Testament do not even try to tell a history.
So the Bible isn’t historically true. We’ve known this since the time of Spinoza. Who cares?
Many people, it turns out. The claim that the Bible gets its history wrong has caused some with secular commitments to exalt triumphantly. See, they argue, its lack of veracity shows that it is all a load of malarkey, just another ancient document used to support modern (usually nefarious) special interests. On the other side are those whose faith is so threatened by this claim that they react to it strongly and often aggressively. In the middle are the many Jews and Christians who have faith commitments but who also trust in the power of their own rational powers and who don’t know how reconcile the two. Is it possible, they wonder, to hold on to their faith even if the Bible isn’t true?
This problem is hardly new. In fact, a form of it predated Spinoza and found expression among scores of medieval Jewish and Christian thinkers who sought to reconcile the Bible’s claims with what they knew about the world. Maimonides, for example, wrote a whole tract, The Guide for the Perplexed, precisely on this issue. This issue was, however, exacerbated by the Reformation and its emphasis on Scripture. The birth of the idea of sola scriptura, that faith is located in one’s direct encounter with the holy word, made the unmediated text of the holy word even more important than it already was. This approach engenders the kind of “all or nothing” approach to Scripture that characterizes the approach of both secularists and fundamentalists. It has, in fact, become so pervasive that it has become extraordinarily difficult for almost anyone in our society to think of the Bible in terms outside of this dichotomy.
Yet there is a third way. The greatest legacy of Scripture is much less the text itself than the ideas, interpretations, and most importantly, social communities that have formed around it over millennia. This was implicitly the position of most Catholics and Jews prior to the Reformation; the historical veracity of the Bible was largely irrelevant. Today, it is the impetus behind the shift by theologians to focus on the history of reception of the Bible rather than on its formation. When a militant secularist decries the Bible as false, or a religious fundamentalist clings against all reason to the Bible’s “literal” meaning (even while ignoring some of the parts of the text that fit less with her beliefs), they are largely missing the point. Many very serious, talented, and smart people over the course of history have used the Bible as a point of departure to consider some of our most important questions, as individuals and as a society. To ignore that is to miss the text that spawned much of Western “high culture,” and fundamental ideas of justice, love, sexuality, and meaning in the face of our own mortality. The Bible stands like the piece of grit around which a pearl grows; the original grit becomes largely insignificant. The Bible began a massive, long-running conversation, and whether the text is historically true or not, the conversation is one that we avoid only at our own peril.