It’s a common argument by certain Christians that the bible is an accurate historical record. Some even go so far as to claim that the bible is infallible. Is there any merit to these claims? Did Jesus exist, or is he simply a mythical character? These are some of the claims I will be investigating in this fourth post of my series The Bible: An Exposé. I will continue by covering the bible in two sections; the first on the Old Testament, or as biblical scholars know it, the Hebrew bible. The second section will cover the New Testament.
The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
The Hebrew bible, or Old Testament, was originally Jewish in origin but was later co-opted by Christians. Based upon historical and archeological research the Old Testament has been found to be a series of books that are a mixture of accurate history along with religiously and politically motivated exaggerations and story telling.
As one example the well known Exodus out of Egypt has been proven to be largely unhistorical. While is it true that groups of “pastoralists and farmers” would often migrate from Cannon to Egypt due to famines and droughts in Cannon, large parts of this story are embellished or do not appear to be true.  After many years and numerous excavations it’s been revealed that the famous “wandering in the desert” does not appear to have ever taken place.
Repeated archeological surveys […] have yielded only negative evidence: not even a single sherd [archeological term; refers to fragments of stone and glass vessels], not a single house, no trace of an ancient encampment. One may argue that a relatively small band of wandering Israelites cannot be expected to leave material remains behind. But modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world. 
Another example are the stories about the patriarchs, Abraham, Sarah, and their kin, Issac, etc. do not appear to be historical figures. In fact, these stories appear to be fictional narratives designed to illustrate the “rivalries of late monarchic times.”
The biblical stories of the two brothers Jacob and Esau provide [a] case of seventh century perceptions presented in ancient costume. Genesis 25 and 27 tell us about the twins – Esau and Jacob – who are about to be born to Isaac and Rebecca. God says to the pregnant Rebecca: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples, born of you, shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (25:23). As events unfold, we learn that Esau is the elder of Jacob the younger. Hence the description of the two brothers, the fathers of Edom and Israel, serves as a divine legitimization for the political relationship between the two nations in later monarchic times. Jacob-Israel is sensitive and cultured, while Esau-Edom is a more primitive hunter and man of the outdoors. But Edom did not exist as a distinct political entity until a relatively late period. 
Another example is the famous story of the walls being torn down at Jerico where Joshua was said to have destroyed a fortification. However, archaeological evidence shows that there was no sign of any fortifications, or any sign of destruction. The same at several other locations that were said to have been conquered by Joshua. 
These few examples are just the tip of the iceberg regarding the historical inaccuracies within the bible. To quote Hector Avalos:
Biblical archaeology has helped to bury the Bible, and archeologists know it. Ronald Hendel was exactly right when he said, “Archaeological research has – against the intentions of most of its practitioners – secured the non-historicity of much of the Bible before the era of kings.” We can now expand Hendel’s observations and affirm that there is not much history to be found in the era of kings either. 
The New Testament
The New Testament is said to be about the man who inspired Christianity: Jesus Christ, and about the “new covenant” between god and man that Jesus is said to have brought. Since the New Testament is supposed to be about this man-god named Jesus (At least this is what the consensus has determined, but this is far from being a fact. As I explained in the third post in this series there were numerous contradictory beliefs about Jesus that had scriptural support.) I will discuss the field of research about this person who many argue was a historical figure as well as the claim that the bible tells us the true events of his life.
At the outset I will state that I am agnostic about Jesus’ existence. I do not believe we can determine with any certainty if he actually existed or not. In Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted he explains the historical criteria that scholars use to determine which teachings of, and stories about, Jesus are likely accurate. He argues that the earliest manuscripts are better to go by since the earliest sources will likely be more accurate than older ones. He continues to argue that having multiple independent sources which contain the same information about Jesus makes something more likely to be based on accurate information. Finally, he argues that due to the many different stories about Jesus that were created by Christian writers over the centuries to conform to the writer’s own religious views the stories that “would not have been made up by the Christian storytellers” are likely the most “historically accurate.”  By using these methods, he argues, “we probably can know some things about the historical Jesus.”
While Ehrman is optimistic about being able to find out at least some bare basics about what Jesus taught the information is very sparse (assuming he existed).  Ehrman argues that, while there is not a single Greek or Roman source that speaks of Jesus, we can use some of the earliest gospels and a few pagan sources that mention Jesus. Ehrman lists the following sources (not including the gospels and Paul’s letters):
1. The earliest source that mentions Jesus is a letter by Pliny the Younger from the year 112 to his emperor, Tranjan. The only reference to Jesus is a single line mentioning how people who call themselves Christians and “worship Christ as a God.”
2. Next we have a Roman (pagan) historian, Tacitus, who in the year 115 mentions how these Christians get their name from “Christus…who was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius.”
3. Finally, we have the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, who mentions Jesus twice in his twenty-volume history of the Jewish people Antiquities of the Jews. In the first instance he refers to a man named James as “the brother of Jesus, who is called the messiah.” (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9.1).
In the second instance he writes,
At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man [if indeed one should call him a man, for] he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. [He was the Messiah.] And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously dud not cease to do so. [For he appeared to them on the third day, living again, just as the divine prophets had spoken of these and countless other wondrous things about him.] And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, was not died out. (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3) [Bracketed sections likely insertions by a Christian scribe] 
There are a few issues with using these sources as evidence of Jesus, however. Despite what Ehrman argues, I am skeptical about how useful his criteria is given the fact that we know that within the first few centuries after Jesus’ (alleged) death there were multiple gospels all claiming to be the true teachings of Jesus, even though many of them were radically opposed to one another. Some sources even claimed that Jesus never died. How can we be sure a particular gospel is even accurate? We can’t. We also know that Christians were responsible for numerous forgeries, such as inserting information about their beliefs about Jesus in copies of books by the Jewish historian Josephus, which Erhman mentions, so how do we even know the non-bracketed sections about Jesus are not also forgeries? To quote David Ramsay Steele,
There are two references to Jesus in surviving copies of Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews. Josephus was a Romanized (and very pro Roman) Jewish scholar. These two mentions both look like interpolations by later Christian scribes. One of them is clearly such: it could only have been written by an enthusiastic Christian, which we know that Josephus was not. This passage is missing from an early table of contents of the Antiquities, and does not begin to be cited by Christian writers until the fourth century. At any rate, Josephus’s Antiquities was most likely written in the 90’s C.E. So it’s too late to be an independent source: if Josephus had included references to Jesus, he could have gotten these from what Christians were saying. Josephus provides no independent testimony to the existence of Jesus, much less to any particulars about Jesus. 
Regarding Pliny the Younger, this reference is eighty years after the alleged date of the crucifixion, therefore we cannot know with certainty if Pliny was simply repeating things he had heard from Christians. 
Finally we have Tacitus who, like Pliny the Younger, very well could have simply been repeating what he had heard from Christians long after the alleged date of the crucifixion. 
The earliest non-Christian sources we have about Jesus come nearly a century after his alleged death so it’s impossible to know whether or not these very few sources are either interpolations by Christian scribes or are simply writers repeating what they have heard from Christians about their beliefs. It is for these reasons that I remain agnostic towards the existence of Jesus, let alone anything that is said about him in the surviving documents that have been uncovered. 
I’ve discussed a handful of issues with the historical reliability of the bible in this piece, but there are many more examples. I refer the reader to my sources for more information on this topic. Through archeology and historical methods scholars have uncovered numerous facts about the bible that cast much doubt about its historical reliability. Given the mountains of evidence I agree with Hector Avalos that “Biblical archaeology has helped to bury the Bible.”
1. The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein & Neil Asher Silberman, The Free Press, 2001; 52
2. Ibid.; 62-63
3. Ibid.; 40
4. Ibid.; 81-83
5. The End of Biblical Studies, by Hector Avalos, Prometheus Books, 2007; 163
6. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them), by Bart D. Ehrman, HarperOne, 2009; 152-155
7. Ibid.; 156-179
8. Ibid.; 148-151
9. Atheism Explained: From Folly to Philosophy, by David Ramsay Steele, Open Court, 2008; 135
10. Ibid.; 134
11. Ibid.; 134-135
12. A good, scholarly treatment on these sources and other sources for Jesus can be found in Jeffery Jay Lowder’s critique of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. (accessed 1-5-12)