Historicity of Old Testament figures


So a little background…when I was young my mother was required to take summer religion classes from the Archdiocese where she taught at. When she took a course on the Old Testament I remember her telling us about the creation stories and Adam and Eve and Noah and allegory. She explained the difference between historic truth and religious truth. It did not impact my faith at all.

In college (a Jesuit university) I took classes in theology and a couple on the Gospels. The discussions in class about the literal historicity of some of the Gospel accounts was a big part of it, and my faith wasn’t impacted. For me, Christ is a historic figure and the Son of God/Savior and nothing made me question His death and resurrection.

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast I enjoy and during the podcast the panelist most familiar with Biblical scholarship mentioned that the first Old Testament figure we have a record of is King David.

So this raised the question, how historic is the story of Abraham, Moses, and the early Jewish leaders? It seems to me that a literal Abraham and Moses are important to the faith given the covenant God made with Abraham and the importance of Moses in Judaism and Christianity.

Does anyone have thoughts on this to help me navigate this?


Surely Abraham and Moses were real people, although we don’t have historical record of them outside of the Bible. For Christians and Jews, the Bible is enough.


Realize history is not theology nor is it Biblical study. When a historian researches someone in the Bible, they look at historical evidence of how people lived at the time, the tribe the person was in, what life was like for that tribe and what archaeological and written historical evidence is present for that person. They deliberately ignore faith except in an historical sense (what people believed, in general, and when.)

Theologians deal with how people believe and so faith is a prime component in theology.

Biblical scholars deal with what biblical books can be traced back to which period of time. What codexes, scrolls, fragments, etc. are in existence, written on what and in what language, etc.

The three fields tend to be very different. For example, you don’t need faith to be a historian, but it really helps for theologians.

Stories are, in the historical sense, well, stories. If there are concrete accounts backed up with archaeological evidence and objective sources, then the stories are, historically, more likely to be true than not. Note that just because a story can’t be historically proven as likely to be true, doesn’t mean it isn’t true; just that we don’t know if it is true or not… yet.

The further back you go, the harder it is to historically account for individual people. We tend to know very little about anyone before the time of Christ. We know more about nobles and kings than peasants and workers because the aristocracy was more likely to have someone write about them. How accurate those writings are, are up to conjecture (people who liked the person, or who the person paid were more likely to make things up that made the person look good. The opposite is true if they did not like the aristocrat.) We also know more about kings of cities, than chiefs of nomadic tribes.

Realize there are still mysteries and stories surrounding Lincoln that we don’t know are true or not and he lived 150 years ago and is one of the most written about persons in history.

We know that there may have been a king David of Jerusalem and surrounding towns around the appropriate time. And those towns grew. But there is not a lot of historical facts to point to that reflect the Biblical accounts of what he was said to have done.

That is not surprising, we know very, very little about any individual in the 10th century BC.

Now for Abraham your talking about going back to about the 18th century BC and trying to find historical evidence for a nomadic chief.


If Abraham lived in the 18th century BC, then we know that some of the historical details in Genesis are not true since they are anachronistic. For example, Genesis mentions camels being used as pack animals in caravans, but we know from archaeology that camels were not domesticated until about the year 1000 BC and were not widely used as pack animals until centuries later. Excavations at important stopping points on the caravan trade do not reveal many camel bones until the 7th century BC.

Genesis also mentions Isaac’s encounter with the Philistines. But we know that the Philistines had not established their settlements along the coasts of Canaan until sometimes after 1200 BC.


We know that Genesis as we know it was written down sometime just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BC, so it would not be a leap to say that the camels were placed in by the scribe because caravans during in those days had camels as pack animals. That is easier to imagine and much more likely than these anomalies are proof of Abraham not existing at all.


If Abraham and Moses did not exist, the Jewish people would not exist. The historacy of the Passover is justified, for example, on the simple fact that it is still experienced today.

Christi pax,


St. Peter and St. Paul, pray for us!


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