The Historicity of the Old Testament

Hello everyone, what do we make of the history written about the primary figures of the Old Testament? A lot of dissent comes from Finklestein and Silberman’s Bible Unearthed, which seems to have a minimalist approach to historicity. It seems to cast doubt on the existence of David, Solomon, the United Monarchy, the Exodus, the Battle of Jericho, etc.

My question is how accurate can we regard the history of the Old Testament and what do we make of an archeological lack of evidence for the first several books of the Bible?

Old Testament history is somewhat out of my area of knowledge, but you could try Kenneth Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament which serves as somewhat of a counterweight to the book you cited; in fact, he addresses it directly.

While I know a little about the Old Testament, I am not an expert on it. Keep that in mind, while I try to answer your questions.

It varies a lot. For example, quite a number of scholars believe that there is a historical event that lies behind the Exodus account, but it has been obfuscated by centuries of redaction.

On the other hand, no serious scholar I can think of off the top of my head doubts the existence of David and Solomon.

Much of the Old Testament, like parts of the New Testament, were intended to be allegorical and have no historical foundation. Other parts were clearly inspired by historical events - even if the written versions differ significantly from the reality (i.e. the Kingdom of Israel was much smaller and far less significant in the region than the Bible might lead you to believe).

In the end, the Old Testament, like the New Testament, was not written to be a historical source. Rather it uses historical events to teach lessons about God and his relationship to the Jewish people. While there are people looking for Noah’s Arc, I think we’re better off believing the story is allegorical. I don’t know any Jews who think the story is literal history.


I heard with the Exodus we can accept is as a “sacred myth” with some historical basis. I’m just not sure what the Catholic Church would say about the historicity of the events in the Old Testament.

Is this acceptable from a Catholic perspective? I realize we accept all the varying degrees of genre in the Bible, but I’m not sure how historical can we expect these early stories to be.

That is how every Jew I know interprets it. There are many variations within Judaism however, so that cannot be accepted as universal.

It’s my (possibly flawed) understanding that the Church interprets the OT the same way as the NT: they are inspired scripture that is inerrant in faith and morals only. They may be incorrect when it comes to history, biology, or anything else. Again, I’m not a theologian, nor an OT expert.

I believe so. In fact there are a number of Catholic historians who have examined the historicity of scripture (OT & NT), and have concluded at times that scripture lacks historicity. Fr. Raymond Brown and Msg. John Meier are probably the two best known.

You’ll have to look into some specialist historians or archeologists to get those answers. My (non-expert) suspicion is that the earliest stories are based on historical events, but heavily allegorical.

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The total debunkers don’t really have a major academic following. For example, in answer to the suggestion that Solomon was a fictitious character Dean Eric Heaton wrote a pioneering book called “Solomon’s New Men” in which he argued that Solomon’s great achievement was to establish a civil service modelled on the Egyptian scribal system.

There’s lots of archaeological finds that support the Bible. From the Ipuwer Papyrus to the Tell Dan Stele. Seek and you shall find.

I don’t think very many scholars claim that there’s no history in the OT. It’s more likely that certain historical events developed stories and tales that incorporated their theology and shaped the stories to reflect that. There very well might have been some type of event that lead to a group of early Hebrews to leave Egypt and settle in Israel. It wasn’t in the numbers claimed n the Bible though…numbers tend to grow in the telling and much of what actually happened is lost to time. How they interpret the event and the meaning of it is what matters.

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What do we make of the exact numbers given in the census of Numbers 20-46? Are we supposed to believe there was 603,550 men, perhaps totaling up to 2 million people in the Exodus?

No. We are supposed to believe that it was a lot of people. The exact details of the Exodus aren’t the point, the redemption of the Jewish people from bondage is the point. Some scholars believe that it might have been a purely allegorical bondage (that is slavery to false gods), but most believe there is an actual historical event that lies behind the account. That event though, would have to have been on a vastly smaller scale.

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JSRG, “On the Reliability of the Old Testament” is the gold standard for orthodox arguments about the OT.

I have a copy in my own library, and would be glad to look up any information anyone wants.

I was fine with what you said up until this point, partially because a global flood myth is a universal, partially because Jesus said this:
Luke 17:20-37 Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE)
Jesus certainly didn’t seem to think Noah was allegorical, and neither do I. Be careful, there are so many people out there undermining the text of the Good Book, don’t be one of them. Now, I am not saying everything in the Bible is 100% literal (I don’t believe the earth was created in six, literal, 24 hour days, remember, God rested on the seventh), but neither do I find Noah that hard to believe. Also, it may be helpful to learn some of the other possible translations of the Hebrews words used in Genesis.

Sadly, many Catholic scholars allowed themselves to be overwhelmed by trendy liberal/anti Christian scholars. Take Brown. A good priest, and a fine scholar in many ways, but he conformed to fads in scholarship, much of which is now rejected. If he had only had courage enough to believe exactly what the Catholic church has always taught, people might still be reading him.

For example, Brown argued, along with every atheist, that the birth stories were all myth. He followed Bultmann’s fad arguments that the Gospels were written for separate communities (wow, has that one been demolished). And, of course, just as the fever pitch about the GNostics was at its most hysterical, he, also, saw Gnostic’s here, there, and everywhere.

This happens a lot - both on this site and in the broader world - and I address it a lot. I’ll do it again.

I will start off by saying that the Church fully recognizes the value of historical methodology to understanding the life of Jesus and all else contained within the Bible. Doing this is often, wrongly, seen as an attack on theology. It isn’t. Theology and history are different. They try to answer different questions, and use different methods. They can never “disprove” the other. Fr. Brown was a giant in his field, and still is.

Pope Benedict XVI once said of him that he “would be very happy if we had many exegetes like Father Brown.” High praise indeed.

You ought to read “The Birth of the Messiah.” Brown’s argument is vastly more nuanced than that.

Do you have examples? Because I’m not aware of any fads he followed, or what parts of his scholarship are now rejected. He continues to be cited by every major scholar across the globe.

Not a fad. Can you cite any modern historians who have demolished this? Every one I can think of still argues that the Gospels (including many of the non-canonical ones) were indeed written to serve different purposes in different places. It’s kind of hard to understand them in any other way.

Can you provide examples? I’m not sure I follow you here. His closest book to me right now - “The Death of the Messiah” - doesn’t even have Gnosticism in the index.

I don’t see anything in Luke 17 that tells me Jesus’ position on the historical literalism of Genesis. I agree we should be careful when interpreting Scripture, but also applies to being careful about reading meaning that was unintended.

LOL. Father Brown was appointed to Pontifical Biblical Commission by two different Popes. AFAIK, he is the only person to have that honor. You seem to think his scholarship was outside (or at least on the edge) of Catholic thought. He was both a leader of Catholic thought and square in the middle of it.

Father Brwon was a good priest and a good scholar.

Alas, he also followed fads. And was usually, therefore, wrong. Here is what those who are traditional Catholics have said about Brown on the infancy narratives: "Not least, though, was Fr. Brown’s exegesis concerning the infancy narratives of Saints Matthew and Luke that calls into question the virginal conception of Jesus and the accounts of our Lord’s birth and childhood.

In addition to Cardinal Shehan, such eminent peers of Fr. Brown as Msgr. George A. Kelly, Fr. William Most, Fr. Richard Gilsdorf, Fr. Rene Laurentin, and John J. Mulloy were highly critical of the Brown revisionism of the Catholic Church’s age-old theology of inspiration and inerrancy. "

This quote is from this article: The Historicity of the Old Testament

Of course I have read the book. Which is why can assure you he was wrong

Come on. You mean twenty years ago he was cited frequently. Now, hardly at all. Gee, look up the evidence.

I don’t know enough to question the historical accuracy of the Bible, so I just accept it as written and keep praying.

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