Method 2 of 4: Interpreting the
Bible as an historical document.
Interpreting the Bible as a historical document:
Christians who use this approach to biblical interpretation view the Bible as having been written by
very human, fallible authors. The writers were motivated by a desire to
promote their own religious, spiritual, and political beliefs and/or those
of their faith group. The Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. the Old Testament) and the
Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) thus reflect the evolution
of religious and cultural thought over about a ten century time span.
Some beliefs which are
common to those using this interpretive technique include:
||The authors of the Bible were very human and often made mistakes in
||Biblical writers attempted to explain their beliefs about God and his
will for humanity. Being fallible, they sometimes wrote material that
was contrary to the will of God.
||Parts of the Hebrew Scriptures represent the beliefs of Hebrews during
the Bronze Age (circa 2000 to 1200 BCE). This was a pre-scientific age
whose rules of behavior are from a pre-scientific age and not particularly
applicable to 21st century culture.
Some parts of the Bible should be ignored and are not suitable as a guide to modern
living. Typical examples are: laws regulating slavery,
restricting the roles of women,
torturing prisoners, allowing the rape of female prisoners of war,
requiring the murder of religious and sexual minorities,
requiring the burning of some prostitutes alive, and many other
activities considered profoundly immoral by today's
||The authors were limited by the tribal nature
of their culture, their theocratic or dictatorial political
structure, their lack of scientific knowledge, etc. Human rights were not
highly valued in biblical times. With few exceptions, women experienced a very low status in the
culture, and were often treated as property.
Many passages from the Hebrew Scriptures
treated women as property and inferior to men
||Some forged passages have been added by unknown authors since the original texts were written.
||Numerous accidental and intentional errors have occurred in copying
||Entire books in the Bible have been written many decades or even
centuries after the apparent author died. This particularly true of some of
the epistles. Four of them -- 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy,
and Titus -- all state that they were written by Paul. However, they
were actually composed 35 to 85 years after Paul's death.
Other books were attributed to mythical characters. The hero Daniel, who was
supposed to have been born circa 620 BCE, is probably a
mythical character. The book of
Daniel was actually written circa 164 BCE by an anonymous author, almost half a millennium after Daniel
was supposed to have lived.
The Pentateuch, the first five books of the
Bible were not written by Moses circa 1450
It was written by four anonymous authors or groups of authors generally referred to as
J, E, P and D. over about a three century interval
starting in the late 10th century BCE. The writings were later redacted by
a group of unknown persons called "R."
||The Bible contains much material copied from neighboring Pagan cultures and
beliefs. Three examples are the pair of creation stories, the flood of Noah, and
the tower of Babel.
Some biblical passages are religious propaganda, and not historically
reliable. The gospels' text which blamed all of "the Jews" for the execution of Jesus is one
example. Those passages in the Bible are much more closely linked to
conflicts between Jews and Christians some 40 to 70 years after Jesus' death,
than to real historical events at the time of Jesus' ministry.
||Jesus actually said only a very few of the words attributed to him in
the Gospels. That is because Jesus spoke in Aramaic, while the Christian Scriptures (New
Testament) were written in Greek. The KJV and NIV versions of the Bible are thus
translations from Greek into English of words which were earlier translated from
Aramaic into Greek.
||Very few of the words or acts by Jesus in the Gospel of John refer
to real events.
||The early Christian church was divided into many differing traditions: (e.g. Jewish, Pauline,
and Gnostic Christianity). The books of the Bible were
chosen in the fourth century CE from among about 50 gospels, hundreds of
epistles, many infancy
stories, many books of revelation etc. They were mainly selected on the basis of their conformity with orthodox
Christian beliefs as they existed at the time. Another consideration was whether the book was
written by an Apostle or by someone closely associated with an
Apostle. The church leaders who selected books for the official canon
were often mistaken in their understanding of the actual authorship. Non-conforming books were suppressed,
and sometimes lost forever. Yet they contained much valuable material
about the primitive Christian movement and were widely accepted by the early
Christians. Some of the books purportedly written by
Paul were written by unknown authors many decades after Paul's death.
It is helpful to study the books of the Christian Scriptures in
chronological order. One can detect how particular beliefs -- e.g. the
virgin birth -- apparently
developed through time. Paul and the author of Mark apparently had no knowledge
of the virgin birth. The author of Luke and Matthew wrote about the virgin
birth as it was believed at the time. The author(s) of John were apparently
aware of the belief but rejected it.
||Modern versions of the Bible are reasonably accurate translations of the original
Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, but still reflect the prejudices of the translators, and the
belief systems of the religious institutions which sponsored them. Older translations,
like the KJV, are less reliable because their translators had less complete knowledge of
Hebrew, and had access to fewer ancient manuscripts.
Recent findings of the physical, social and medical sciences have shown that some parts
of the Bible cannot be considered accurate. (e.g. the
creation stories, mental and physical illness
caused by demon possession, concepts of the structure of the universe,
creation of rainbows, origin of various languages, etc).
Richard Muller, "Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms:
Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology," Baker, (1985). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com
online book store
From the "Decrees of Council of Trent," Session IV, and "Dens
Theo.," Tom. 2., N. 80 and 81.
J.S. Spong, "Resurrection: Myth or Reality?", Harper Collins (1994), Page 8-9.
Read reviews or order this book
- Ibid., Page 11.
Alan Dundes, "Holy writ as oral lit. The Bible as folklore," Rowman & Littlefield, (1999).
Read reviews or order this book.
- Ibid, Page 2.
Hermeneutics Quiz: Your biblical blind spots and
what you tend not to see," Leadership Journal, at:
Copyright © 1996 to 2009 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update 2009-JAN-27
Author: B.A. Robinson