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Louis Untermeyer

Is the Bible True? How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of the Scriptures

By Jeffery L. Sheler
HarperCollins, 278 pp, 1999

As the title suggests, Is The Bible True? sets forth what used to be a generally held truth: That the Bible is a dependable, reliable historical guide to ancient history. This past century has seen several important archaeological discoveries backing up Biblical accounts and stories, showing that, at the very least, there is a basic element of truth in Scripture.

Jeffery Sheler, religion writer for U.S. News and World Report, begins by tracing the debate over the Bible’s historical accuracy, from the 2nd century to modern times. He shows how, despite some rare attacks, the Bible’s authority stood up well until the Enlightenment, when Reason and Logic supposedly proved superior to blind faith and superstition. It was during this time that the Bible came under heavy criticism, from which it has yet to fully recover. However, in the past half-century or so, a new field, biblical archaeology, has sprung up, led by experienced archaeologists who have made some fascinating discoveries, reclaiming some of the Bible’s lost credibility.

In 1993, a team of Israeli archaeologists led by Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College, uncovered an Aramaic inscription celebrating a military victory by the king of Damascus over “the king of Israel” and “the house of David.” Up to this point, many skeptics had claimed that King David was mere legend, made up by Hebrew scribes to create a glorified Israeli history, since he had appeared nowhere outside the pages of the Bible. So much for that theory. In fact, a year later, another inscriptions was found, dating back to the same time period as the other, containing the names of the two defeated Israeli kings: Jehoram, king of Israel and Ahaziah, king of Judah.

A line of hieroglyphics known as the Merneptah Stele lists enemies defeated by Pharaoh Merneptah during his campaign through Canaan around 1207 BC. One line reads: Israel is laid waste, his seed is not. This is a clear reference that a nation of Israel, or at least a group of people known as Israel, existed in Canaan at the same time the Bible says they did.

The Philistines, that ancient enemy of Saul and David, play a prominent role in the Old Testament, and many skeptics believe that the wars between the Philistines and Israelites were made up by Hebrew scribes. However, archaeological evidence has since backed up several Biblical about the Philistines, claims, to wit:

  • The Bible links the Philistines with Caphtor, prominently thought of as Crete. Several ancient sources indicate that the Philistines originated in the Aegean Sea on the island of Crete.
  • The Philistines “established a confederation of five powerful city-states on Canaan’s coastal plains and foothills.” Indeed, these same cities are mentioned in the Bible in connection with the Philistines.
  • The Bible describes the Philistines as expert metal metallurgists. Evidence from ancient Philistine cities has turned up evidence that the Philistines were, you guessed it, expert metallurgists.
But what about the New Testament?

Sheler tells us of several important discoveries. In 1968, the remains of a crucified man were found in a burial cave outside Jerusalem. The wounds found on the skeleton matched the crucifixion of Jesus described in the Gospels. Furthermore, several skeptics have claimed that the Romans normally tossed crucified criminals into common graves or left them on the cross; it was unlikely, then, that the Romans would have permitted Jesus to be buried in a cave. Yet this crucified man was buried in a cave, so it evidently wasn’t an uncommon practice.

In 1990, two miles from the Temple Mount, archaeologists found the remains of a sixty-year-old man. The box the skeleton was in bore the inscription “Joseph, son of Caiaphas,” almost certainly the same Caiaphas who was the high priest of Jerusalem and handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate.

Speaking of Pilate, his name turned up in 1961, on an inscribed stone slab found in Caesarea Maritima, the ancient seat of Roman government in Judea. The inscription, translated from the broken Latin, reads “Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.” The Bible describes Pilate as Judea’s Roman governor.

There are also extrabiblical sources for Christ’s crucifixion. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in 110 AD: “Christ whom the procurator Pontius Pilate had executed in the reign of Tiberius.” The Babylonian Talmud notes Jesus’ execution “on the eve of Passover … because he has practiced sorcery and led Israel astray.”

Sheler discusses more than archaeology, though. He delves into the Dead Sea Scrolls, how they were found by Bedouin shepherds in 1947 in some caves ten miles east of Jerusalem, how they ended up the property of a select group of scholars that permitted no outsiders to see them, and how they finally were opened up to independent scrutiny. They do shed some light on the Bible. Perhaps the most interesting item has to do with the Gospel of John. The writer, traditionally the John the apostle, uses dualistic imagery and refers to light and darkness. This literary device, claimed the skeptics, was unknown in Jesus’ time, meaning that the gospel was written much later and certainly not by an apostle.

However, at least two Scroll documents, each probably written two hundred years before Christ, contain similar imagery, i.e., light and darkness, so the device obviously existed for an apostle to use as he wrote his eyewitness account.

Sheler also describes many of the scholars involved with the Jesus Seminar, a controversial group that tries to find the “real” Jesus. Some of their findings reject Christ’s divinity, the virgin birth, the crucifixion and resurrection, and pretty much anything else that makes Jesus anything more than a good teacher or philosopher. It’s amusing that this theory has any merit, since Jesus himself claimed to be God on many occasions, so if he wasn’t, then he was either a wacko or a charlatan. How could such a person be moral and good?

As good as the book is, it’s not perfect. Sheler briefly covers the evolution/creation controversy, in the context of determining if Genesis should be taken literally or figuratively. He fairly presents both sides of the debate, including this passage:


Under their theory of “recent special creation,” believers in creation science hold that God created the universe ex nihilo (“out of nothing”) in six days as described in the first two chapters of Genesis. By tracing the Biblical genealogies, they estimate that the earth came into being just ten thousand years ago. The vast fossil and geological evidence of an earth millions if not billions of years old, they explain, is the result of Noah’s flood, or, alternatively, is simply part of an “appearance of age” that God intentionally built into the universe. That presumably also would explain how stars millions of light-years away could be visible on earth if the universe had been created so recently. Not the least of the problems with this view is the theological dilemma it poses: that of a God who engages in deception.
Now this is a fair point, if debatable, but Sheler ignores it a bit later when he examines theories that attempt to reconcile creation and evolution. Such theories include the “day-age theory,” which claims that each day represents eons of time. Another is called the “multiple-gap theory,” which suggests that creation was indeed a series of acts over six days, but each day was separated by eons of time. Yet another holds that God created the world, but did so using evolution. The problem with all these, though, which Sheler neglects to mention, is the same that supposedly plagues the creation science theory. Isn’t God “engaging in deception” if he says he created the earth in six days and instead took six hundred million years? The Bible says that death came into the world when Adam and Eve sinned, yet if God used evolution, then death would have been rampant and widespread, even among entire species (the dinosaurs), before Adam and Eve sinned. This isn’t deception?

But that’s really the only flaw of the book, which I would recommend to Christians and non-Christians alike. One conclusion is obvious: it’s getting more difficult to be an atheist. The evidence of the Bible’s validity is enormous and increasing every day. It amuses me when skeptics accuse Christians of “close-mindedness,” as if that is possible when faith requires the ability to open one’s mind and believe in something unseen. It is atheism that is close minded, since it refuses to accept anything outside its own experience.

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