The Bible as History
The Bible is constituted in history. Biblical history moves in a linear direction from an absolute beginning, when God created all things, to an ultimate goal, when He will restore the earth at His second coming.
The historical nature of Scripture is one characteristic that distinguishes it from the sacred books of other religions. The Bible assumes the existence of a God who personally acts in history; it does not try to prove that existence. In the beginning, God speaks, and life on earth is created (Gen. 1:1–31). He calls Abram out of the Chaldees. He delivers His people from the bondage of Egypt. He writes the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone with His own finger (Exod. 31:18). He sends prophets. He sends judgments. He calls people to live and share His divine law and the plan of salvation with other nations. Ultimately, He sends His Son Jesus Christ into the world, thus dividing history forever.
This week, we’ll look at some of the key issues in history as portrayed in the Bible and at some of the archaeological evidence that helps substantiate history as expressed in the Bible.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, June 6.
The monarchy of David and Solomon represents the golden age in Israel’s history. But what if David and Solomon did not exist, as some have claimed? What if their kingdom was not as extensive as the Bible describes, as some also have claimed? Without David there would be no Jerusalem, the capital of the nation (2 Sam. 5:6–10). Without David there would be no temple built by his son, Solomon (1 Kings 8:17–20). Finally, without David there would be no future Messiah, for it is through the line of David that a Messiah is promised (Jer. 23:5, 6; Rev. 22:16). Israelite history would need to be completely rewritten. Yet, that history, as it reads in Scripture, is precisely what gives Israel and the church its unique role and mission.
Notice the precise geographical description of the battle lines in 1 Samuel 17:1–3. The site of Khirbet Qeiyafa is located on the hills exactly in the area of the Israelite camp described in this chapter. Recent excavations there revealed a massively fortified, garrison city from the time of Saul and David overlooking the valley. Two contemporaneous gates were excavated. Since most cities in ancient Israel had only one gate, this characteristic may help identify the site as Shaaraim (1 Sam. 17:52), which in Hebrew means “two gates.”
If this is the case, then we have identified for the first time this ancient biblical city. In 2008 and 2013, two inscriptions were found that many believe represent the oldest Hebrew writing ever discovered. The second inscription mentions the name Eshbaal, the same name as one of Saul’s sons (1 Chron. 9:39).
In 1993, excavations at the northern city of Tel Dan uncovered a monumental inscription written by King Hazael of Damascus, who records his victory over the “king of Israel” and the king of the “house of David.” This is the same way the dynasty of David is described in the Bible, adding more powerful archaeological evidence that David existed in history, just as the Bible says.
In 701 b.c., Sennacherib campaigns against Judah. The account is recorded in Scripture. It also is recorded by Sennacherib himself in several ways. In his historical annals, discovered in the capital city of Nineveh, he boasts, “Forty-six of his [Hezekiah’s] strong walled towns and innumerable smaller villages in their neighborhood I besieged and conquered.” In Sennacherib’s palace at Nineveh he celebrates his defeat of the Judean city of Lachish by covering the walls of a central room of the palace with relief depictions of his siege and battle against the city. Recent excavations at Lachish have uncovered the massive destruction debris of the city after it was burned by Sennacherib. But Jerusalem is miraculously spared. Sennacherib is able to boast only this: “As for Hezekiah the Judean, I shut him in his city like a bird in a cage.” There is no description of destroying Jerusalem, and no account of captives being taken into slavery.
It is true that Jerusalem was besieged, but the Bible records that the siege lasted for one day only, as the Angel of the Lord delivers Jerusalem. As Isaiah had predicted, “ ‘Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, or shoot an arrow there, or come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege mound against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return, and he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David’ ” (Isa. 37:33–35, RSV).
Interestingly, only Lachish is prominently depicted in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital. Jerusalem is not found on the palace walls. Sennacherib could boast only of his defeat of Lachish. The showdown between the God of heaven and the gods of the Assyrians is demonstrated in the deliverance of His people. He sees the acts of aggression by Assyria. He hears the words of Hezekiah’s prayer. God acts in history.
In July 2007, a scholar from the University of Vienna was working on a project in the British Museum when he found a tablet from the time of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. On the tablet, he found the name “Nebusarsekim,” the name of a Babylonian official mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3. Nebusarsekim is one of many individuals, both kings and officials, who (thanks to archaeology) have been rediscovered from the time of Daniel and Nebuchadnezzar.
Daniel “purposed in his heart” (Dan. 1:8) to remain faithful to God in regard to what he both ate and prayed. These good habits, formed early in his experience, became the pattern that would give him strength for his long life. The result was clear thinking, wisdom, and understanding that came from on high. This was recognized by Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, so that he was elevated to the highest positions in the kingdom. But, perhaps more important, it resulted in the conversion of King Nebuchadnezzar himself (Dan. 4:34–37).
Nebuchadnezzar was the son of Nabopolassar. Together they built up a glorious city, unsurpassed in the ancient world (Dan. 4:30). The city of Babylon was enormous, with more than 300 temples, an exquisite palace, and surrounded by huge double walls 12 and 22 feet thick. The walls were punctuated by eight major gates, all named after the major Babylonian deities. The most famous is the Ishtar gate, excavated by the Germans and reconstructed in the Pergamom Museum in Berlin.
In Daniel 7:4, Babylon is described as a lion with eagle wings. The processional way leading up to the Ishtar gate is lined with images of 120 lions. An image of a huge lion pouncing on a man also was found during excavations and still stands today outside the city. These all testify to the lion as an appropriate symbol for Babylon the Great. Biblical history and its prophetic message are confirmed.
Caiaphas was high priest and instigated the plot to seek the death of Jesus. His existence also is recorded by Josephus, the Jewish historian writing in behalf of the Romans. “Besides which he also deprived Joseph, who was also called Caiphas [sic], of the high priesthood, and appointed Jonathan, the son of Ananus, the former high priest, to succeed him.”—Josephus Complete Works (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1969), book 18, chapter 4, p. 381.
In 1990, a family tomb was discovered south of Jerusalem containing 12 ossuaries, or bone boxes. The coins and pottery from the tomb date it to around the middle of the first century a.d. The most ornate of the ossuaries, with multiple sets of bones in it, contains the name “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Many scholars believe this to have been the tomb and bone box of Caiaphas, the high priest so directly involved in the death of Jesus.
In 1961, an inscription bearing the name of Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Judea under Emperor Tiberius, was found on a stone in the theater at Caesarea Maritima.
Thus, in both of these cases, some of the principal figures surrounding the death of Christ have been corroborated by history.
Secular historians of the first two centuries also speak of Jesus of Nazareth. Tacitus, the Roman historian, writes of Christ, His execution by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberias, and early Christians in Rome. Pliny the Younger, a Roman governor, writes in a.d. 112–113 to the emperor Trajan, asking how he should treat the Christians. He describes them as meeting on a certain day before light where they gather and sing hymns as to a god.
These archaeological discoveries and historical sources provide an extra, nonbiblical framework for the existence of Jesus, who was worshiped within the first 50 years after His death. The Gospels themselves are the primary sources about Jesus, and we should study them carefully to learn more about Jesus and His life.
We don’t live in vacuums. Our choices influence not just ourselves, but others, as well. In the same way, the lives of many of God’s ancient people have had a great impact on the future of others besides themselves. In Hebrews 11, that well-known “faith” chapter, we see in summary the influence of many of these ancient heroes of faith.
Faith is not simply a belief in something or someone; it is acting in response to that belief. It is a faith that works; this is what is reckoned as righteousness. It is those faith actions that change history. Each of these actions depends on a reliance on God’s Word.
Noah acted in faith when he built the ark, trusting in the Word of God over experience and reason. Because it had never rained, experience and reason suggested that a flood made absolutely no sense. But Noah obeyed God, and the human race survived. Abraham, then called Abram, left Ur in southern Mesopotamia, the most sophisticated city in the world at that time, and went out, not knowing where God would lead him. But he chose to act on God’s Word. Moses chose to become a shepherd leading God’s people to the Promised Land rather than to become the king over Egypt, the greatest empire of its day. He trusted in the Almighty’s voice, calling out from the burning bush. Rahab decided to trust the reports of God’s deliverance, protected the two spies, and became part of the lineage of Jesus. How little we know about how our decisions will affect the lives of countless people in this generation and those to come!
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “David and Goliath,” pp. 643– 648, in Patriarchs and Prophets; “Hezekiah,” pp. 331–339; “Deliverance From Assyria,” pp. 349–366, in Prophets and Kings; section 4.k., in “Methods of Bible Study,” which can be found at http://www.adventistbiblicalresearch .org/materials/bible-interpretation-hermeneutics/methods-bible-study.
“The Bible is the most ancient and the most comprehensive history that men possess. It came fresh from the fountain of eternal truth, and throughout the ages a divine hand has preserved its purity. It lights up the far-distant past, where human research in vain seeks to penetrate. In God’s word only do we behold the power that laid the foundations of the earth and that stretched out the heavens. Here only do we find an authentic account of the origin of nations. Here only is given a history of our race unsullied by human pride or prejudice.”—Ellen G. White, Education, p. 173.
“He who has a knowledge of God and His Word has a settled faith in the divinity of the Holy Scriptures. He does not test the Bible by man’s ideas of science. He brings these ideas to the test of the unerring standard. He knows that God’s word is truth, and truth can never contradict itself; whatever in the teaching of so-called science contradicts the truth of God’s revelation is mere human guesswork.
“To the really wise, scientific research opens vast fields of thought and information.”—Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, p. 325.