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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible

Don Stewart :: Why Should the Historical Background of the Bible Be Studied?

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Why Should the Historical Background of the Bible Be Studied?

The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible – Question 1

In what ways, if any, does the study of history help with our understanding of the Bible? Can it be helpful for us? Should we take the time to find out the results of the historical investigation of the Scripture? The answer is, “Yes.” The study of the history and background of the biblical world is helpful in a number of ways.

The Importance of Studying the Background of the Bible

There are at least five ways in which the study of the historical background of the biblical world is necessary for the Bible student. They are as follows:

1. There Are Many References in Scripture to Historical Events

First, the entire biblical revelation centers on what God has done in history. There are countless references in both testaments to people, events and geographical locations. For example, one chapter in the Old Testament, Genesis ten, has five times more specific geographical references of importance than the entire Koran, the holy book of Islam!

In addition, we find the same sort of attention to historical detail in the New Testament. In the Gospels there are some events that have no specific historical setting listed. On the other hand, there are many other episodes in the life of Christ that give historical detail as to where and when the event took place. These events occurred at real places and with real people.

Furthermore, as we look at the Book of Acts, we find that there are over three hundred references to names, places, things and events. This includes thirty-two references to countries, fifty-four references to cities and nine references to islands. With so much attention to detail, the historical reliability of the Scripture is of vital importance. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must be able to withstand the most thorough historical investigation.

2. It Is Important to See If the Bible Is Factual

The Biblical faith is not a “blind faith”—it claims to record the works of God in history. Therefore the study of history, and its related fields, gives us a means to check and see if the Bible is factual. Since the Bible itself makes the claim to record events that have happened in history, we should see how it matches up with the secular evidence. This can be done by comparing what the Scripture says to the known facts of history.

It is popular in many circles to believe that the Bible is no longer authoritative, and that the God of the Bible does not exist. Modern historical study has supposedly refuted the historical accuracy and uniqueness of the Bible. It is argued that when one learns what the facts really are, it is not possible to intelligently believe the Bible is God’s Word, or that the God of the Bible exists.

Although this is a popular idea, it is not the case at all. While there are people with some religious training coming forward and announcing to the world that modern humankind cannot trust the Bible, or believe in the existence of the God of the Bible, it is not based upon any newly discovered historical facts. To the contrary, the more we learn about the ancient world, the more we find that the Bible gives a precise picture of people, places and events.

Unfortunately, there continues to be accusations that the Bible is not historically reliable. Often these criticisms are based upon lack of evidence from sources outside the Bible to confirm the Biblical record. Many people take the position that since the Bible is a religious book, it cannot be trusted unless we have evidence from a non-Biblical source that backs up what is stated in Scripture. Until outside evidence is found, the Bible is assumed to be in error. Therefore, the Bible can only be trusted in those areas where there is confirmation from another source.

The idea that the Bible is guilty until proven innocent in historical matters is not the proper way to go about investigating its claims. In fact, the opposite approach should be taken. Since the Bible has proven itself over and over again to be historically reliable, it should be given the benefit of the doubt in problem areas. Furthermore, it is impossible to expect archaeology or ancient testimony to verify every incident found in Scripture.

There is also the matter of a double standard. Other ancient documents, even those that have some type of religious content are assumed to be accurate unless there is other evidence brought forward to demonstrate they are in error. Why is the Bible the one ancient document that many assume to be in error unless there is evidence from another source to confirm what it says? Obviously, what we are dealing with is more than merely an historical problem. This bias against the Scripture has to do with a basic problem that all human beings have—we have a sinful nature and are running away from God and His truth. Paul wrote to the Romans:

The Scriptures tell us, “No one is acceptable to God! Not one of them understands or even searches for God. They have all turned away and are worthless. There isn’t one person who does right.” (Romans 3:10-12 CEV)

It is important to understand this bias that unbelievers have; especially when evaluating some of the statements that are made with respect to the historical accuracy of the Scripture. Consequently, while it is important to see whether or not the Bible is factual, we must make our conclusions based upon the facts and not unsupportable theories. If we stay with the facts and let them speak for themselves, then the reliability of the Bible will be clearly seen.

3. Knowing the Historical Background Places the Events in Sharper Focus

There is another important reason to study biblical history. It can place the events in the Bible in sharper focus. By understanding the history and background of Scripture, we can better appreciate the meaning of stories contained in its pages.

Because of the work of archaeologists, we now have a more complete understanding of the nature of the cities and buildings of New Testament times. We will give a few examples:

Thanks to the work of the archaeologists, we now know where the pool of Bethesda and the pool of Siloam were located in the city of ancient Jerusalem. This helps us with our understanding of the passages which mention those places.

We also know what a synagogue looked like at the time of Christ. Remains of second-century synagogues in Capernaum and Chorazin have been found.

We know what a first century rock-hewn tomb was like as well as the stone that rolled over its door. Therefore, we can have a good idea of what the tomb looked like in which Jesus was buried.

In Ephesus, one can now walk in the theater where the silversmiths carried on their riotous meeting. Across the street is the marketplace where evidence of the silversmiths’ shops have been found.

We also know more about first century boats since one of them was discovered buried beneath the Sea of Galilee. The list goes on and on.

Discoveries such as these help us place the accounts of Scripture in historical context. Oftentimes knowing the exact location of an event, or the exact layout of a building or an object, can help us better understand what the Bible says actually occurred. It can be compared to watching a play with the scenery in the background. Without an understanding of the historical background we are listening to the words of the story without the scenery. Fortunately, the scenery is becoming more and more clear.

4. It Can Help Solve Problems in Interpretation

Studying the biblical background can help solve problems that occur in Scripture. An understanding of the customs, language, geography and politics of the day can help understand certain difficult sayings and events. Many difficulties have been solved when further knowledge of biblical times came to light. There are difficulties that remain, but the constant flow of new information from that part of the world continues to remove Bible difficulties.

It May Explain the Phrase, “Baptize for the Dead”

For example, background information from the time of Christ may also be the key in understanding Paul’s statement to the Corinthians about the practice of baptizing for the dead. He wrote:

Otherwise, what will they do who are baptized for the dead, if the dead do not rise at all? Why then are they baptized for the dead? (1 Corinthians 15:29 NKJV)

The phrase, “baptized for the dead” has puzzled Bible commentators. Indeed, one recent study found over two hundred different interpretations of what Paul may have meant!

Do the Practices of the Pharisees Provide the Answer?

It has been contended that some knowledge of first century Jewish practices with respect to ceremonial cleansing may provide the key to answering this puzzle. We know that one religious group, the Pharisees, observed a number of rules and regulations in addition to those which were revealed in Scripture. Many of these rules had to do with ritual defilement. To deal with the problem of defilement, they would ceremonially wash themselves in a ritual bath. They would practice these sorts of washings on a daily basis.

The Pharisees also believed in the resurrection of the dead. Therefore, to ritually prepare the body for burial they would perform one last washing on it. This act would rid the person of all ceremonial defilement in preparation for the next life. This ceremonial washing may have been what Paul is referring to in First Corinthians 15:29.

Paul’s question would thus mean, “If the dead do not rise, then why are you washing them?” In other words, “Why are you preparing people for the next life if there is no bodily resurrection?”

In this case, the Greek word baptizo, transliterated as “baptize” in our English versions, would have the idea of ceremonially washing or cleansing the dead. It would not be a reference to water baptism.

Thus, it would not refer to proxy baptism; a living person being baptized in water in the place of one who had died. Consequently, Paul’s phrase would be better translated, “baptism of the dead” not “baptism for the dead.”

While this is not the only possible way to understand Paul’s phrase, it may indeed be what he had in mind.

5. It Can Fill in the Gaps in Our Knowledge

There is a final reason to study the biblical history; it can help fill in gaps in our knowledge. Gaps in the biblical records can be filled in by a study of the historical background.

It is important to realize that the Scriptures are only selective in what they record. In fact, John made a point of this when he wrote his gospel. He said:

Jesus performed many other miracles that his disciples saw. Those miracles are not written in this book. But these miracles have been written so that you will believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so that you will have life by believing in him. (John 20:30-31 God’s Word)

John emphasizes that Jesus did many more miracles than the ones recorded in his gospel. John’s account is therefore selective of the signs which Jesus performed. This selectivity is something which we find in the entire Bible.

Scripture was written for the purpose of explaining who God is, what He has done in history, and how we human beings fit into His overall plan. When historical events are recorded it is always with reference to the main purpose of Scripture. In other words, history is never given just to satisfy our curiosity.

Therefore, many nations, cities, places and individuals are mentioned in Scripture with no further explanation. They are mentioned because they play some part in the biblical story. Since only the minimum is said about them, we have to rely on information from other sources to help fill in the gaps.

This is where the science of archaeology comes in. Time and time again we find that the biblical accounts are clarified by secular evidence from the ancient world.

Therefore, we find that numerous reasons exist as to why a study of the historical background of the Bible is of the utmost importance. It is an essential field of study for those of us who want to know more about Bible and the times in which it was written.

Summary – Question 1
Why Should the Historical Background of the Bible Be Studied?

The study of the historical background of the Scripture is essential in confirming the truth of the Biblical record, along with clearing up certain difficulties that arise in the text. Background studies also help with our interpretation of Scripture—giving us a better understanding of the times and customs when these events transpired.

For these reasons, the study of the historical background of Scripture is important for our learning more about the Bible.

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