Historicity of the Old Testament


Hi everyone,

So I was reading some of the older threads regarding the historicity of Abraham and the patriarchs, Moses and the Exodus and the like, and some Catholics have stated that it’s not necessary to read them as historical events. I wanted to clarify some things based on what the Church teaches and reason assists with, since I’ve been studying this a bit more. I’m not the Magisterium, but I do want to show some things which might be able to help you in your studies of the Sacred Books.

This is going to be quite long, so I apologize for it going over into several blocks.

Primeval History

The primeval history given in the first eleven chapters of Exodus must be said to be true history, even if not written in the modern way. The Pontifical Biblical Commission, in a decree dated June 30, 1909 decreed:

I: Do the various exegetical systems excogitated and defended under the guise of science to exclude the literal historical sense of the first three chapters of Genesis rest on a solid foundation?

Answer: In the negative.

II: Notwithstanding the historical character and form of Genesis, the special connection of the first three chapters with one another and with the following chapters, the manifold testimonies of the Scriptures both of the Old and of the New Testaments, the almost unanimous opinion of the holy Fathers and the traditional view which the people of Israel also has handed on and the Church has always held, may it be taught that: the aforesaid three chapters of Genesis Contain not accounts of actual events, accounts, that is, which correspond to objective reality and historical truth, but, either fables derived from the mythologies and cosmogonies of ancient peoples and accommodated by the sacred writer to monotheistic doctrine after the expurgation of any polytheistic error; or allegories and symbols without any foundation in objective reality proposed under the form of history to inculcate religious and philosophical truths; or finally legends in part historical and in part fictitious freely composed with a view to instruction and edification?

Answer: In the negative to both parts

III: In particular may the literal historical sense be called in doubt in the case of facts narrated in the same chapters which touch the foundations of the Christian religion: as are, among others, the creation of all things by God in the beginning of time; the special creation of man; the formation of the first woman from the first man; the unity of the human race; the original felicity of our first parents in the state of justice, integrity, and immortality; the command given by God to man to test his obedience; the transgression of the divine command at the instigation of the devil under the form of a serpent; the degradation of our first parents from that primeval state of innocence; and the promise of a future Redeemer?

Answer: In the negative.

VIII : In the designation and distinction of the six days mentioned in the first chapter of Genesis may the word Yom (day) be taken either in the literal sense for the natural day or in an applied sense for a certain space of time, and may this question be the subject of free discussion among exegetes?

Answer: In the affirmative.

As can be seen, it must be held that these chapters really contain history, even if written in a popular way. From this, it follows that the rest of the primeval history must be seen as historical in the same way, as Pius XII declared in his encyclical Humani Generis where in it is stated:

  1. Just as in the biological and anthropological sciences, so also in the historical sciences there are those who boldly transgress the limits and safeguards established by the Church. In a particular way must be deplored a certain too free interpretation of the historical books of the Old Testament. Those who favor this system, in order to defend their cause, wrongly refer to the Letter which was sent not long ago to the Archbishop of Paris by the Pontifical Commission on Biblical Studies.[13] This letter, in fact, clearly points out that the first eleven chapters of Genesis, although properly speaking not conforming to the historical method used by the best Greek and Latin writers or by competent authors of our time, do nevertheless pertain to history in a true sense, which however must be further studied and determined by exegetes; the same chapters, (the Letter points out), in simple and metaphorical language adapted to the mentality of a people but little cultured, both state the principal truths which are fundamental for our salvation, and also give a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people. If, however, the ancient sacred writers have taken anything from popular narrations (and this may be conceded), it must never be forgotten that they did so with the help of divine inspiration, through which they were rendered immune from any error in selecting and evaluating those documents.

Hence, as can be seen by all of this, the historical sense of these books must be admitted, and indeed there does not exist any sound reason to dismiss it, considered rightly, soberly, and without preconceived skepticism towards the authority of faith.

To be continued…


Patriarchal History

The Catholic Encyclopedia rightly points out, that to deny the historicity of Abraham would render the rest of Jewish history unintelligible, and would render meaningless the words of Our Lord Himself: “Before Abraham was, I AM” (Jn. 8:58). The rest of the patriarchal history must be admitted in the same manner. The Jewish and Christian tradition is unanimous in this aspect, and it would be a serious breach of tradition to go against this.

Also, archaeology and history must not rule out Divine intervention a priori, especially when dealing with the history of the Chosen People. Such a method reveals an underlying rationalism (no pun intended), which is, ironically, irrational.

Moses and the Exodus

Surprisingly, it is of the faith (de fide, as the dogmaticians would say), that Moses was a real person who received the word of God. The profession of faith of the Fourth Lateran Council declared:

We firmly believe and simply confess that there is only one true God, eternal and immeasurable, almighty, unchangeable, incomprehensible and ineffable, Father, Son and holy Spirit, three persons but one absolutely simple essence, substance or nature {1} . The Father is from none, the Son from the Father alone, and the holy Spirit from both equally, eternally without beginning or end; the Father generating, the Son being born, and the holy Spirit proceeding; consubstantial and coequal, co-omnipotent and coeternal; one principle of all things, creator of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and corporeal; who by his almighty power at the beginning of time created from nothing both spiritual and corporeal creatures, that is to say angelic and earthly, and then created human beings composed as it were of both spirit and body in common. The devil and other demons were created by God naturally good, but they became evil by their own doing. Man, however, sinned at the prompting of the devil.

This holy Trinity, which is undivided according to its common essence but distinct according to the properties of its persons, gave the teaching of salvation to the human race through Moses and the holy prophets and his other servants, according to the most appropriate disposition of the times.

Further, in response to the question about the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the PBC under Pius X declared:

I: Are the arguments gathered by critics to impugn the Mosaic authorship of the sacred hooks designated by the name of the Pentateuch of such weight in spite of the cumulative evidence of many passages of both Testaments, the unbroken unanimity of the Jewish people, and furthermore of the constant tradition of the Church besides the internal indications furnished by the text itself, as to justify the statement that these books are not of Mosaic authorship but were put together from sources mostly of post-Mosaic date?

Answer: In the negative.

This also necessitates the historical existence of Moses.

So, to deny the historical existence of Moses would be heretical, and also, again, contrary to the unanimous Christian and Jewish tradition, as well as sound, unprejudiced archeology and historical studies.

Now, as regards the Exodus, to deny its historicity be to destroy the revealed character of the Old Law and the Jewish faith. The Exodus is to the Old Law what the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is to the New Law. Hence, to deny it cannot be done. Again, sound scholarship on the matter, which does not rule out Divine intervention a priori, has no difficulty understanding this.

Hence the historical character of the inspired accounts of Moses and the Exodus cannot be denied.

The Conquest of the Promised Land and the Judges

From the preceding it follows, that there is no reason to deny their historicity, as the unanimous Judeo-Christian tradition affirms.

To be continued…


The United Monarchy

It cannot be denied that Saul, David and Solomon existed, as to do so would again render the covenant with David meaningless. Further, historical evidence does show they exist.

Further, there exist some books of the Bible, namely the Psalms and the Sapiential books, which are ascribed to these Royal Prophets. The Pontifical Biblical Commission ruled:

IV: In view of the not infrequent testimonies of sacred Scripture to the natural talent, helped by a special gift of the Holy Ghost, which David had for the composition of religious songs, of his arrangements for the liturgical chant of the psalms, of the attribution of psalms to him both in the Old Testament and in the New as well as in the superscriptions prefixed of old to the psalms; in view, moreover, of the agreement of the Jews, of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, can it be prudently denied that David was the principal author of the songs of the Psalter, or on the contrary, affirmed that only a few songs are to be assigned to the royal psalmist?

Answer: In the negative to both parts.

V: In particular is it right to deny the Davidic origin of those psalms which are explicitly cited under David’s name in the Old or New Testament, among which are to be mentioned more especially Psalm 2 Quare fremuerunt gentes; Psalm 15 Conserva me, Domine; Psalm 17 Diligam te, Domine, fortitudo mea; Psalm 31 Beati quorum remissae sunt iniquitates, Psalm 68 Salvum me fac, Deus; Psalm 509 Dixit Dominus Domino meo?

Answer: In the negative.

Hence David’s existence must be held firmly. Similarly with Solomon and the other history written in the books and chronicles of the Kings (1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles).

It would again be contrary to the faith to hold that Elijah and Elisha were not true prophets, and did not exist.

Major and Minor Prophets

Apart from questions regarding their authorship, there is little debate on the historical character of these books, so it isn’t necessary to write about them. Nevertheless, they ought be held to teach true history.

In what ways may the literal historical sense be departed from

All this having been said, it is not necessary to say that the authors wrote books that would be published in an archaeological journal. That which is clearly symbolic, or which reason demands by study and empirical evidence may be held to be symbolic, although of course, symbolism doesn’t exclude literal history, since God is the author of history as well.

So, for example, regarding the Exodus, a century of archaeology has produced little to no evidence of it. As stated above, to deny its historicity would be wrong, and contrary to thousands of years of tradition. But it can be admitted that the numbers, for example, have meanings other than the literal meaning, without detriment to the faith or the inerrancy of Scripture.

One also should not shy away from admitting difficulties without having an immediate resolution. This is a sign of humility and intellectual maturity.

Anyway, I hope all of this helps you in your study of Scripture.

Benedicat Deus,


A huge amount of difficulties - which are exactly that, and not total annihilations - have had a degree of - no more and no less than a degree of - resolution after many centuries, due to discoveries in many sciences.

Wonderful thread Latinitas, I’m a huge Terah-Mamre-Aner-Eshcol enthusiast myself!


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