Episode 7: The Bible and History
The connection between the Bible and history is complicated. Should the Bible be treated as objective, literal history or should we see it as all myths? Is it possible to find the truth somewhere between those two extremes? Dan and Paul explore these questions by using one of the ancient kings of Judah, Hezekiah, as a case study.
They first discuss the terms ‘myth’ and ‘history’ and define how they are using them, and this leads into explaining why this is a worthwhile topic to consider. Too often people approach the Bible with expectations of modern standards of historical accuracy. Is it sensible to treat the Bible in this way? Does it have any basis in historical reality?
Dan and Paul use the evidence we have about King Hezekiah as a test case, recognising that we won’t be able to necessarily apply everything we discover to any part of the Bible. We can however learn a lot about the different types of evidence.
Different types of evidence
Firstly, there are physical, historical finds: cold hard facts from archaeological discoveries. In the case of Hezekiah this includes things like the Siloam tunnel, the Broad wall and a seal impression bearing his name, no less.
Secondly, there are written sources within the Bible itself. Among these are the records in 2 Chronicles 29-32, 2 Kings 18-19 and numerous chapters in the prophecy of Isaiah – for example chapters 22 and 36.
Thirdly, there are the writings from outside the Bible. In this case we have the annals of Sennacherib, the king of Assyria that are written on the clay prism known as Sennacherib’s Prism.
Dan and Paul discover that there is quite striking agreement between all three sources. They depict a king hurriedly fortifying the city of Jerusalem against an approaching invader. The Siloam tunnel shows the king making sensible precautions to divert the watercourse so it no longer flows outside the city – cutting off a supply of water for the approaching army.
A purpose for writing
There’s something different about the written sources though. The Bible describes Hezekiah’s engineering achievements but it has specific take on it, choosing to discuss how that impacts on the people’s relationship with their God. Are they going to trust in their God, Yahweh, or not?
Sennacherib’s prism recounts Hezekiah as a “caged bird” in Jerusalem under siege. But the purpose of this is to magnify and boast in his achievements. There is no mention of him defeating Hezekiah but no mention that his army was defeated. The Bible describes the same thing; Jerusalem is surrounded by the Assyrian armies, but they return back after many of them perish overnight. The Bible attributes this to Yahweh, the God of Israel.
There are other differences. Sennacherib triumphed at the nearby Israelite town of Lachish, and celebrated lavishly with huge stone carvings in his royal palace back home. The Bible hardly mentions the fall of Lachish – it is passed over.