Synopses & Reviews
The Bible and History
Centuries of Conflict
--The Battle for the BibleIn the beginning was the Word.John 1:1
Late in the second century ce, during a relative lull in Rome's violent persecution of the early church, a Platonist philosopher named Celsus fanned the smoldering embers of anti-Christian sentiment by writing a long and derisive critique of the Scriptures of Christianity and Judaism. He entitled his work True Doctrine. From the story of creation to the accounts of the resurrection, Celsus wrote, the teachings of the Scriptures were "altogether absurd."1 The gospel accounts of the life of Jesus were a deception. Those who believed the writings of Moses to be authentic were "deluded by vulgar deceits, and so supposed that there was one God."2 Christianity, Celsus concluded, was a pernicious cult that appealed mainly to the simpleminded and the superstitious--and to top it off, it encouraged disloyalty to Rome.
Celsus's searing attack on the Bible did not go unanswered. The Alexandrian church father Origen, a renowned biblical scholar and prolific theologian of the third century, responded with an eight-volume treatise that he aptly entitled Against Celsus. Origen's point-by-point rebuttal of the pagan philosopher and his carefully crafted defense of the Scriptures would be remembered as one of the most cogent Christian apologies ever written.3But the battle for the Bible would hardly end there. Within a few decades, in 403, the Roman emperor Diocletian would launch a more direct offensive. Hoping to eradicate Christianity from the imperial capital once and for all, he ordered the burning of all the Bibles in the city, along with any churches orhouses in which they were found. Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods were to be jailed. Rome's prisons filled quickly, but the faith did not die, nor did the Bible disappear. Within three years Diocletian would be gone and the new emperor, Constantine, would welcome both Christianity and its Scriptures to the very apex of the Roman Empire.
These had not been the first assaults on the Bible, nor certainly would they be the last. Through the ensuing centuries, the Bible and its claims would continue to stir debate and controversy, not only between the church and its antagonists but within and among communities of faith, as believers wrestled to understand and apply the essence of the Scriptures in their own times.Yet from the days of Constantine to the cusp of the modern era, the Bible would enjoy a unique and reverential status that previously had existed only within the confines of the nascent church and the synagogue. Its colorful stories and symbols would be woven into the rich tapestry of the emerging Western culture, influencing its art, music, and literature and informing its politics, philosophy, and economics. In the popular mind the Bible would become synonymous with "Holy Scripture," and broad assent would be granted its claim to divine inspiration. As they do today, countless millions over the centuries would encounter in its pages the Creator of the universe disclosed in the history of the people of Israel.
But in the broader culture of the modern world, two centuries of post-Enlightenment skepticism have exacted a toll. While the Bible maintains its ubiquitous presence and continues to be the best-selling book of all time, the cultural consensusfor the Bible has weakened. Many long-held assumptions regarding its content and authority seem no longer to pertain. In the pews and on Main Street, an overwhelming majority of Americans still say they believe the Bible to be God's inspired word. But many harbor varying degrees of doubt about the veracity of a book whose accounts of miracles, theophanies, and divine interventions they find somehow out of sync with a modern scientific worldview.
Fueling that skepticism has been a steady stream of scholarly writings and pronouncements over the years that have assailed the Bible's historical reliability and integrity. But in contrast to the days of Celsus, these modern assaults in most instances have come not from professed enemies of the church but from learned professors of the Bible whose approach to the Scriptures reflects the largely secular mindset that has come to characterize much of the biblical academy in the twentieth century.
In earlier times, when biblical scholarship was largely the domain of the clergy, the primary concern was to relate the Scriptures to questions of faith and practice. Exegetical study was geared mainly at elucidating the literary and historical context of the sacred texts. Today it is a field dominated by professional academicians who tend to regard biblical studies more as an empirical and academic pursuit than as a devotional discipline. They approach the Bible much as they would any other ancient text, or so they claim. The questions they pose often are those of the historian or the literary critic: Did this really happen? Did it happen in just this way? What is the evidence? What is the author's purpose in telling this story? What are the sources?Little weight is given to a text's internal or traditional claims to authority. Instead, scholars apply what now are widely accepted historical-critical techniques of textual analysis as they attempt to snoop out whatever "real history" may be buried within the layers of religious myth and theological propaganda that many in the academy assume permeate the Scriptures. We will examine some of those techniques and their philosophical premises in later chapters.
That is not to say that modern "secular" scholars were the first (or only) ones to ask tough questions of the Bible. As early as the second century, church leaders struggled to sort out what they recognized were difficult passages of Scripture, not the least of which were apparent discrepancies in the four gospel accounts of Jesus' life. Late in that century, a Syrian Christian named Tatian offered a solution by blending the gospels into a single harmonized narrative that he called the Diatessaron (a label derived from the Greek and meaning "through four").
An award-winning religion reporters examination of the current debates and discoveries about the authenticity and authority of the Bible. Now in softcover.
Separating Bible History From Bible Hysteria
In this lucid, insightful work, U.S. News &World Report religion writer Jeffery L. Sheler draws upon years of investigation and in-depth interviews to tackle such controversial subjects as modern biblical archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the mysterious Bible codes, and the recent Jesus Seminar.This solid exploration into some of the thorniest aspects of current debates about the Bible and religion concludes with a message of reassurance about the historical accuracy, validity, and integrity of the Scriptures.
In this lucid, insightful work, U.S. News and World Report religion writer Jeffrey L. Sheler draws upon years of investigation and in-depth interviews to tackle such controversial subjects as the recent Jesus Seminar, modern biblical archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the mysterious Bible codes. This solid exploration into some of the thorniest aspects of current debates about the Bible and religion concludes with a message of reassurance about historical accuracy, validity, and integrity of the Scriptures. Sheler's bold but balanced investigation discloses a Bible still worthy of belief in a modern age. In this authoritative book, renowned U.S. News and World Report religion writer Jeffrey L. Sheler sifts through the claims and counterclaims of contemporary biblical studies. After carefully investigating the full spectrum of cutting-edge research and conflicting reports, he challenges the popular perception that the credibility of the Bible has been seriously undermined by critical scholarship. Rather, he concludes that the weight of the historical evidence upholds the essential truth of Exodus, the Gospel accounts of Jesus, and other vital elements of the Bible. The author draws extensively from his own interviews with leading Bible experts and on-site reports from Israel and Egypt in his examination of scholarship's hot-button issues, including: Dramatic archaeological discoveries that both affirm and challenge the history in the Bible. The controversial quest for the historical Jesus and its sometimes flawed arguments and skeptical assumptions regarding the reliability of the Gospels. The amazing revelations of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts that profoundly influence our understanding of the Bible. The mysterious phenomenon of The Bible Code and why there may be far less to its doomsday prophesies than meets the eye. Sheler's considerable experience as a leading religion journalist enables him to get to the heart of the issues without the jargon. Written in clear, compelling prose, Is the Bible True? Presents a sophisticated analysis informed by important scholarly work in lucid, accessible terms.
Includes bibliographical references (p. -278).
About the Author
Jeffery L. Sheler is an award-winning journalist and has been a religion writer at U.S. News & World Report for nine years. He is a correspondent for PBS's Religion & Ethics Newsweekly and lives in Washington, D.C.