Fact-Checking the Bible
Gutenberg Bible of the New York Public Library. NYC Wanderer (Kevin Eng)/Wikimedia Commons
Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? The question has been debated for centuries by archaeologists, religious scholars and historians. So far, no definitive answer has been given. Science and archaeological discoveries have supported the Bible in some instances while refuting many of its most popular tales.
Read on to discover some of the more contentious issues in the Bible that may or may not stand up to historic and scientific scrutiny.
Abraham's Journey from Ur to Canaan, József Molnár, 1850.Wikimedia Commons
Camels play a central role in Genesis and are mentioned as pack animals in the biblical stories of Abraham, Joseph and Jacob. But according to newly published research by Tel Aviv University based on radiocarbon dating and evidence unearthed in excavations, camels were not domesticated in the Land of Israel until the 10th century BC -- several centuries after the time they appear in the Bible.
"In addition to challenging the Bible's historicity, this anachronism is direct proof that the text was compiled well after the events it describes," the university said in a statement.
However, several scholars believe the study, by archaeologists Erez Ben-Yosef and Lidar Sapir-Hen, adds little to our knowledge.
"We have known about this camel anachronism for over a century now from site analysis. The Hebrews were donkey people hugging the coastlines and water routes, not camel people," Robert Eisenman, professor of Middle East religions, archaeology, and Islamic law and director of the Institute for the Study of Judaeo-Christian Origins at California State University Long Beach, told Discovery News.
Eisenman contends that many of these materials are based on oral tradition.
"So, though they might have been put into writing later, that doesn't mean they were not originally created much earlier,” he said.
Adam and Eve, Domenichino, 1623-1625.Wikimedia Commons
A number of studies have questioned the historicity of the Bible's first couple.
The fossil record indicates that humans did not appear suddenly, but evolved gradually over the course of six million years.
However, “Y-chromosome Adam” and “mitochondrial Eve,” the two individuals who passed down a portion of their genomes to the vast expanse of humanity, may have lived around the same time.
According to a recent, extensive genetic study by Stanford University School of Medicine, the man lived between 120,000 and 156,000 years ago, and the woman lived between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago.
The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo.Wikimedia Commons
However, attempts to reconcile genetics with Genesis are unlikely to succeed.
“Despite the Adam and Eve monikers, which evoke a single couple whose children peopled the world, it is extremely unlikely that the male and female most recent common ancestors were exact contemporaries,” Stanford University stated.
Indeed, they weren’t the only man and woman alive at the time, or the only people to have present-day offspring.
“These two individuals simply had the good fortune of successfully passing on specific portions of their DNA -- from the man, the Y chromosome; from the woman, the mitochondrial genome -- through the millennia to most of us, while the corresponding sequences of others have largely died out,” the university said.
The great flood, Doré, 1866.Wikimedia Commons
Hundreds of archaeological excavations have attempted to find evidence of an apocalyptic flood such as is described in both the Bible and the Epic of Gilgamesh, but none succeeded. There is no trace anywhere on the archaeological record of a devastating global flood.
Likewise, expeditions to find the ark Noah built to save himself, his family and pairs of animals from the great deluge left archaeologists at a dead end.
According to Genesis, after the flood killed nearly everything on Earth, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat in Eastern Turkey.
The cuneiform script on this 3,700-year-old clay tablet reveals that the ark was round.Douglas Simmonds
Biblical creationists imagined Noah's Ark like a large, box-like vessel similar to the version shown in Aronofksy's epic movie. Other designs added a sloping roof and matched the ships of the day, from square-rigged caravels to long vessels with pointy bows.
Further representation set the standard for children's story books, depicting the vessel as a large house on a boat, with a pair of giraffes sticking out of the roof.
But according to a recently decoded cuneiform script on a 3,700-year-old clay tablet, the original ark was a giant round vessel.
"The Babylonians of around 1750 believed the ark in the flood story was a giant version of the type of coracle that they actually used on the rivers," Irving Finkel, a British Museum curator who translated the script and the author of "The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood," told Discovery News.
Indeed, a huge waterproof coracle would never sink. According to Elizabeth Stone, an anthropology professor at New York's Stony Brook University, such a boat makes perfect sense in Mesopotamia, where round boats are likely to have been used on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Crossing of the Red Sea, Poussin.Wikimedia Commons
There is no proof that the Exodus and the related miracles -- the devastating plagues, the burning bush, the parted sea, the manna in the wilderness -- really occurred.
While turning up artifacts from as far back as the late Stone Age, excavations in the Sinai did not produce a single piece of evidence for the Israelites' 40-year wandering in the desert.
Biblical scholars today widely agree that there was never any mass migration of the proportions described in the Bible. It is estimated the diaspora would have numbered some 2 million people out of an entire Egyptian population in 1250 BC of around 3 to 3.5 million.
Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law, Rembrandt, 1659.Wikimedia Commons
Revered by the world's three main monotheistic religions -- Judaism, Islam and Christianity -- Moses dominates as much as 15 percent of the entire Christian Bible, is a towering figure in the Hebrew Torah, and appears, by name, 136 times in the Koran -- more than any other prophet.
He is the baby who escaped death in a purge of newborns by floating in a little basket of reeds on the Nile, the young man who, raised in the midst of Egypt's royalty, took side with the Hebrew slaves. The leader who brought 2 million Hebrews out of bondage on the road to redemption and emancipation. The lawgiver who brought down, to a world filled with idols, the Ten Commandments and declared that God is one. The witness of extraordinary events: the devastating plagues, the burning bush, the parted sea, manna and dry rocks flowing with water. The intercessor between God and man, who died at the age of 120 never having entered the Promised Land.
Although Moses remains a universal symbol of liberation, leadership and law, immortalized by Michelangelo, archaeologists and biblical critics argue that there is no direct evidence for his existence.
Some details of his life, such as him as a baby floating on a basket in the Nile, appear to originate from earlier legends.
Herod built palaces for himself on the mountain and fortified Masada between 37 and 31 BC.Wikimedia Commons
The ruler of the kingdom of Judea, consisting mostly of Jerusalem and present-day southern Israel from 37 BC to 4 BC, King Herod is the Bible's bloodiest tyrant.
Known for extensive building throughout the Holy Land -- he rebuilt and expanded the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the desert fortress of Masada, as well as the port city of Caesarea and the Herodium, where he is believed to have been buried -- Herod is described as a bloodthirsty megalomaniac who killed three of his sons, executed one of his 10 wives and ordered the killing of every single male child under two in his kingdom in the attempt to destroy the infant Jesus.
Indeed, the Jewish first-century historian Josephus Flavius gave a glimpse of Herod’s methods as he described how the sick king ordered several members of the local Jewish aristocracy to be executed on his death, so that his passing would be widely and genuinely mourned.
However, there is no record, apart from Matthew's Gospel, that his most brutal act, the Massacre of the Innocents, really occurred.
“The notion persists that he was a ‘Jewish King’, persecuting ‘Jesus’ -- even Jews themselves have come to believe it so powerful is the literature and, just as Christians, so thin their real historical knowledge,” Robert Eisenman, Professor of Middle East Religions, Archaeology, and Islamic Law and Director of the Institute for the Study of Judaeo-Christian Origins at California State University Long Beach, told Discovery News.
Indeed, Herod wasn’t a "Jewish" King as is commonly thought. He came from an Idumaean (Edomite) family on his father's side and his mother was an Arab woman from Petra.
“Being ‘King of the Jews’ did not mean being ‘a Jewish King.’ It was a Roman Title and Herod himself was a poly-religionist, building different shrines for different religious groups he wish to endear himself to all over the Roman Mediterranean. The Jews paid dearly for his ambitions, as they are still paying for his reputation today,” Eisenman said.
The Adoration of the Shepherds, Gerard van Honthorst, 1622.Wikimedia Commons
The story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, starting from Mary's virginal conception to the arrival of the wise men visiting the infant in the Bethlehem stable, continues to be the subject of scholarly debate over its historical accuracy.
The Bible itself is filled with contradictions.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea. But history records Herod's death in 4 BC -- full four years before Jesus was actually born. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was born when Quirinius was governor of Syria. But historical accounts state that he didn't become governor until 6 or 7 BC -- again raising anachronistic objections.
While Luke reports that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth and moved to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born in a stable, Matthew accounts they lived in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth after Jesus’ birth.
Detail of the front image of the Turin shroudWikimedia Commons.
Described in the four canonical gospels, referred to in writings by Paul the Apostle, Jesus’ death by crucifixion at the direction of Pontius Pilate has also been questioned. The main argument is that there is no first-hand witness for it.
As for physical evidence, a heated ongoing debate surrounds the Shroud of Turin, the piece of linen that that some believe to have been wrapped around Jesus' body after the crucifixion and others debunk as a medieval fake following radiocarbon tests. The Vatican itself remains neutral on the issue.
Ossuary of Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest who handed Jesus over the Romans for crucifixion.Deror Avi/Wikimedia Commons
Until now, the most significant finds related to New Testament figures have been the ossuary of Caiaphas, the high priest who handed Jesus over to the Romans for crucifixion, and an inscription on a carved limestone block known as the Pilate Stone.
Discovered in 1990 in a burial cave in Jerusalem, the ossuary is twice inscribed "Joseph, son of Caiaphas." It contained the bones of a 60-year-old male, suggesting it belonged to the High Priest Caiaphas mentioned in the New Testament as the major antagonist of Jesus.
The inscribed Pilate Stone.BRBurton/Wikimedia Commons
Unearthed in the archaeological site of Caesarea Maritima in 1961, the inscribed Pilate Stone mentions “Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea.” It is the only contemporary evidence for the historical existence of the Roman governor of Judea, who passed the death sentence against Jesus.
A detail of the Gospel of Judas’s first pageWolfgang Rieger/Wikidepia Commons
Was Judas really a betrayer who sold Jesus to the Romans for 30 pieces of silver? The “Gospel of Judas," an ancient Egyptian fragmented manuscript unearthed sometime in the 1970s near El Minya in upper Egypt, tells a different story.
Pieced together and translated in 2006, the document dates to the 2nd century and portrays Judas as Jesus' best friend.
In contrast with the four canonical gospels, it reveals that Judas was only acting under Jesus' orders when he turned him over to the authorities, fulfilling a divine mission.
The text contains no account of Jesus' resurrection.