One of the issues most apologists of the faith, eventually and frequently encounter, is the reliability of the Scriptures as an historical reference. Does the Bible record history? It surely does. However, the Scriptures do not necessary recount history in the very technical and chronological sense we usually do (or like to think we do) today. And some sophistication is required of those who have recourse to the Scriptures and other ancient documents.
While we want (as apologists) to exercise care in insisting on too much from a text, neither should critics be simply dismissive of the historical veracity of Scripture because it recounts actual historical events in ways not always in conformity with modern and Western notions.
Regarding the historicity of the Biblical accounts, Dei Verbum, (The Dogmatic Constitution on Sacred Scripture) from the Second Vatican Council insists on the historicity of the Gospel texts while also making some importatant observations about the nature of the History involved:
Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done. This they did with that clearer understanding which they enjoyed after they had been instructed by the glorious events of Christ’s life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four Gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explaining some things in view of the situation of their churches and preserving the form of proclamation but always in such fashion that they told us the honest truth about Jesus. For their intention in writing was that either from their own memory and recollections, or from the witness of those who “themselves from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the Word” we might know “the truth” concerning those matters about which we have been instructed (see Luke 1:2-4). (Dei Verbum, 19).
Thus the Scriptures, in this case the Gospels, recount actual history, an actual history vouched for by eyewitnesses. But it is a history that is inspired, one that is written in such a way that earlier events are seen and depicted in the light of later events. It is a history that involves selected events and wherein many things are synthesized and applied to the listeners and audiences to whom the apostles spoke and wrote at a later time.
As such the Sacred Authors, (beginning with the Holy Spirit), were less concerned with details such as exactly where and when a certain event took place. Was it the Sermon on the Mount, as in Matthew or the Sermon on the Plain, as in Luke? Does it really matter? Perhaps it was in both places, perhaps the sermon was actually a collection of things Jesus said in many places and synthesized later by him, or his apostles. Did two or three women go to the tomb on Easter Morning? How many angels, one or two appeared? Why are there two very accounts of Creation in Genesis 1 and 2? What exactly happened to Paul when he arrived in Rome and why does Acts suddenly end without telling us? These sorts of details interest us moderns intensely, but the ancients were less concerned about such things.
Our modern, Western notion of history likes to carefully pinpoint dates, times and rather exact accountings of what was said and done. We are, of course, helped in this by our modern capacity to record events in voice and picture.
Indeed, our modern, Western approach to things in general is to control by measuring, whether it is borders, or time, or science or history. Statistics, dates, demographics, etc. not only impress us, but they also act to reassure us that what we say is true, because we have measured it.
To some degree, measuring accurately is related to truth, e.g. a debate between doctor and patient as to whether the patient has actually gained weight or not, is pretty well resolved by recourse to a scale.
But other things, especially those related to history, are less measurable. For example, what is the meaning of a certain historical event? How important is a certain utterance, or the unfolding of a certain chain of events? When one recounts the history of a people or an era, what relative weight should certain things, people, events, movements, statistics, etc., receive?
So, when it comes to the recounting of history, while recourse to scientific measures of date, time, and high specificity to what is said or do, is helpful, it may not always be possible to render such details, and, even when it is, such specificity may or may not help us in history’s other task of connecting the dots and rendering coherent the meaning and significance of history. There will always be, and must be, some degree of interpretation, of selectivity and yes, even of bias.
Some who like to be dismissive of Scripture as history, because it is told from the point of view of faith, are often less willing to accept that all history is told from some point of view.
As a sacred history, Scripture IS history, speaking of things that actually happened and were said. But it is a sacred history, since God prophetically interprets for us the reality that history records. It is history from a point of view inspired by God.
We moderns have liked to think that our way of telling history is largely free of strong or biased interpretation. We like to think that history can be recounted with a “just the facts,” approach. But this is naive. For any time something moves from event to word, there is interpretation.
If, for example, I see a car accident and say, “Jones hit Smith,” I have already interpreted the event and given it from a viewpoint. In this case, I more than suggest that Jones is to blame. Even if I just say, “Two cars collided,” I am placing a passive interpretation on the event that suggests somehow that the cars were the moral agents. Of course cars are not moral agents and do not cause accidents. Thus my interpretive description suggests either that I do not know what really happened, or that I, for many possible reasons, do not want to speculate as to the cause. Thus, my lack of description is an interpretation no matter how I phrase it.
The ancients were more sophisticated in recognizing and accepting that any telling of history would involve interpretation. Recognizing this, they gave greater latitude to authors and were less concerned that every little detail add up with other accounts they may have read.
In terms of Scripture, therefore, we have a more ancient understanding and telling of history that includes a lot of built-in interpretation.
But it is history. And we, who are apologists can certainly point the Sacred text as historical proof. Yet, at the same time, we ought to be careful to understand that the text does diverge to some degree from modern notions of exactitude in details. We can do violence to the Sacred text and lack sophistication to the degree that we try to make it conform to modern notions by “resolving” details the ancient authors were unconcerned about in the first place.
Trying to resolve, for example, which Gospel account of a certain event or saying is the earliest thus presumably the more “pure” account, may not be possible, and might send an ancient Christian into puzzled laughter. That both accounts are fundamentally the same is usually more than enough to compensate for the variance in details.
To non believers, who like to highlight historical discrepancies as proof of a lack of veracity, two things can also be said. First, very few non-believers doubt the existence or fundamental facts about other ancient people based on discrepancies in other ancient texts. Indeed, a lack of discrepancy might more than suggest the presence of a single author who wrote a “controlled” message to deceive, rather than to many eyewitnesses, who, though in some variance as to exacting details, nevertheless saw, remembered and recounted actual events.
Secondly, our own modern telling of history is far less precise, and free of bias than we would like to think. Even the evening news is riddled with bias and perspective, as well as disagreements as to the details. If that be the case with news less than a day old, even more so our recounting of events decades and centuries later.
In the end, sophistication is needed by all when speaking of things as “history” and “historical.” Accuracy is to be desired, but once something moved from event to word, there is always going to be some interpretation and viewpoint at work. This is the human condition, and both believer and nonbeliever alike do well to recognize and accept that words, as analogy, never perfectly render what they describe. Assessing all history, not just Biblical History, requires this sobriety and sophistication.
Yet, as those of the household of faith, regarding Scripture, we can at least be sure, by faith, that the Holy Spirit guided the authors and the magisterial interpreters of the Sacred Page. Thus Scripture is more than a humanly limited description of events and words, it is the divinely inspired interpretation of those events, it is prophetic interpretation of reality.
In this brief video, Fr. Francis Martin ponders the fact that the incident of the cleansing of the Temple is presented ny John at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and by the synoptic Gospels at the end.