Bias & the Bible

Bias & The Bible

 Christian apologists often claim that the Bible is subjected to an unfair bias when it comes to tests of historicity.  As the claim goes, historians typically assume that historical claims by other ancient texts (i.e. letters, trade records, historical treatises, etc.) are accurate until proven otherwise, whereas they assume the Bible is unhistorical until proven otherwise.  The reasons for this assumption-of-inaccuracy, if it exists, are complex and beyond the scope of this little note (see sessions in The Bible on Campus track at the upcoming Word Conference for a more in-depth analysis of this trend).  However, if this assumption-of-inaccuracy exists, it is strong evidence of the skepticism that has come to dominate our culture’s thinking about the Bible. But does it really exist or is this simply the petulant whining of Christian scholars who want to be treated with kid gloves when it comes to their research?

 It really exists.  The Bible is frequently treated with an unsupportable, negative bias when it comes to its historical claims, such that many people assume the Bible is wrong without ever looking at the evidence.  Acceptance of the historical reliability of the biblical claims is grudging and only acknowledged when the body of evidence is larger than that required in the case of other historical texts.  Case in point is Ronny Reich’s recent book Excavating the City of David.  In the words of Hershel Shanks, founder of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ronny treats

…dismissively the excavation of …Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University… one of Eilat’s crimes, according to Ronny, is using the Bible as a guide to where to excavate. Let me unpack this: As Eilat read the Bible, it seemed to indicate just where King David’s palace might be buried in the City of David—at least, it did to her. On this basis, she decided to dig there.

This was highly improper and unscientific, according to Ronny. When he heard that Eilat was using reasoning like this to find King David’s palace, he knew immediately that, proceeding in this way, “she would certainly find that building” (emphasis in original).

According to Ronny, that is the wrong way to proceed…Ronny refers to “minimalists,” who do it properly, “correlat[ing] their teachings first and foremost to the archaeological findings” and only then looking at the Bible. Ronny counts himself as one of these “minimalists,” who permit the use of the Biblical text “only if it is supported by another historical source (for example, Assyrian documents) or clearly supported by appropriate, unambiguously dated archaeological data (for example, an inscription found on a site).”[1]

 So according to Ronny, the biblical text can only be used if it is supported by another historical source like an Assyrian document.  This is precisely the kind of assumption-of-inaccuracy that Biblical scholars often find themselves confronting, necessitating the demonstration of an unreasonably large body of evidence in order to substantiate a historical claim found in the Bible. 

So what do we do about it?  Simply saying “unfair” doesn’t really get us very far, does it?  No, it doesn’t.  The only really viable response, in my opinion, is to keep pointing out two things:  first, the Bible itself hangs its hopes on the historical accuracy of its claims.  Don’t forget that the Apostle Paul himself said:  And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. (1Co 15:14).  In other words, Paul recognized that Christianity depends almost entirely on the historical accuracy of its central claims.  That being the case, at the very least, we should treat the Bible on the terms it invites itself to be treated:  as a book making historical claims that either did or did not happen as described.  Dismissing the Bible as a religious work or an invitation to faith simply ignore the fact that the Bible itself begs to be subjected to the tests of historical reliability.  Second, once we agree to give the Bible the treatment it requests, we should insist that the Bible be subjected to the same tests applied to other supposedly historical documents.  The idea that the Bible cannot be trusted unless substantiated by an Assyrian text, for example, simply constructs an unsupportable requirement that, if adopted uniformly, would likely cause the collapse of the entire disciple of historical inquiry. 

In other words, the solution is to simply insist that the historical claims of the Bible be given no special treatment at all.  Of course, this insistence will often fall on ears that are deafened by negative presuppositions about the Bible, but it just may be that others are listening and your logical – and imminently reasonable – request for parity will cause them to reconsider God’s Word in a way they haven’t before. 

For more practical ideas about speaking up for the Bible in an age of skepticism, register for the 2011 Word Conference coming to the Colorado Convention Center Oct. 7-8.

[1] Hershel Shanks, First Person:  The Bible as a Source of Testable Hypotheses, BAR 37:04 (