Is the Old Testament Historically Reliable?

So far, the crowing achievement of my semester was turning the last page of K.A. Kitchen’s 500-page tome, On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Kitchen, a “first-class Egyptologist” (in the words of Dr. Petter)–neither a Old Testament critic nor a popular-level “Christian writer,” but a bonafide archaeologist–looks at each section of the Old Testament and asks whether it is a reliable text. He wants to know whether it matches the time-period that it is about, in which is claims to be written, and whether what it tells us about the Ancient Near East world (its people, events, society, etc.) can be trusted.

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Many of us (ahem, Dr. Petter, us, your students!) don’t have the time to learn archaeologist-speak and slog through 500 pages of technical data and charts, but now that the book sits beside me, closed, conquered, and slightly dog-eared, I see why it was assigned. Many of us–not as seminarians, but as Christians!–have wondered: Are the historical claims of the Bible reliable? It’s an important question for those of us who rely on its theological claims. 

Photo: Laim Quinn. License.

I’m unable to fully comprehend Kitchen’s work, let alone summarize what he considered worthy of 500 pages in a single-page blog post. However, I do want to share a brief synopsis, to spread his well-attested conclusions. The groundbreaking nature of his work is not the confidence of his claims, but the thoroughness of his evidence, so I encourage the even-slightly-skeptical to get a hold of the book itself.

Here’s the reading I half wish we would have been assigned, the four quotes that epitomize Kitchen’s case for the reliability of the Old Testament (aka ‘Kitchen for the Rest of Us”):

Section 1: The Positive Evidence

The first part of Kitchen’s book is dedicated to the period of history for which we have the most external data, the divided monarchy and exile.

…without prejudice as to what may yet be seen elsewhere, the basic presentation of almost 350 years of the story of the Hebrew twin kingdoms comes out under factual examination as a highly reliable one, with mention of own and foreign rulers who were real, in the right order, at the right date, and sharing a common history that usually dovetails together well, when both Hebrew and external sources are available. Therefore we have no valid reason to cast gratuitous doubt on other episodes where comparable external data are currently lacking, either because the records are long since destroyed or are still buried in the ground. (64)

Section 2: Rejecting the Negative Argument From Silence

Kitchen’s middle section explores to the united monarchy (9th c. BCE) and earlier. Here, he shows why we shouldn’t expect more positive extra-biblical evidence than we have. Two particularly pointed critiques of the arguments from silence (among many) should suffice:

[On the lack of Israelite mention before the divided monarchy:] The main reason things are so ‘bright’ from 853 onward is that the kings of Assyria commonly named their adversaries in their reports, and from 853 they came in contact with Israel. This was not the case earlier. (88)

[On the lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus:] The Delta is an alluvial fan of mud deposited through many millennia by the annual flooding of the Nile; it has no source of stone within it. Mud, mud and wattle, and mud-brick structures were of limited duration and use, and were repeatedly leveled and replaced, and very largely merged once more with the mud of the fields. So those who squawk intermittently, ‘No trace of the Hebrews has ever been found’ (so, of course, no exodus!), are wasting their breath. The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again. Even stone structures (such as temples) hardly survive, in striking contrast to sites in the cliff-enclosed valley of Upper Egypt to the south. All stone was anciently shipped in from the south, and repeatedly recycled from one period to another. (246)

Throughout this section, he shows how the often-unverifiable events are told in the context of verifiable–and verified–literary and cultural markers of their proper eras. These arguments are too varied and comprehensive to summarize–you’ll have to check out the book for yourself!

Final Conclusions:

What does Kitchen conclude in the end of his 500 pages?

What can be said of historical reliability? Here our answer—on the evidence available—is more positive. The periods most in the glare of contemporary documents—the divided monarchy and the exile and return—show a very high level of direct correlation (where adequate data exist) and of reliability. That fact should be graciously accepted by all, regardless of personal starting point, with the firm exclusion of alien, hence irrelevant, modern ‘agendas.’ When we go back (before ca. 1000) to periods when inscriptional mentions of a then-obscure tribal community and its antecedent families (and founding family) simply cannot be expected a priori, then chronologically typological comparisons of the biblical and external phenomena show clearly that the Hebrew founders bear the marks of reality and of a definite period…In terms of general reliability…the Old Testament comes out remarkably well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and evenhandedly, in line with independent data, open to all. (500)

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