the Bible True? How Modern Debates and Discoveries Affirm the Essence of
By Jeffery L. Sheler
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.
HarperCollins, 278 pp, 1999
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:
But what about the New Testament?
- 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,
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
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
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
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
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.