THEOLOGY AND HISTORY ARE implicated in all of God’s covenants. Scripture presents the story of Christianity in a comprehensive manner, including God’s plan for the redemption of fallen man. It also addresses Christian doctrine, theology, mission, and destiny. But the Bible is also a history book containing horizontal (chronological) history and redemptive (“non linear” or vertical) history. Traditional history seeks to establish a chronology or horizontal outlay of all known events throughout the existence of mankind. R.C. Sproul describes redemptive history as the context in which God has worked out His plan for salvation. Therefore, it is appropriate to call the Bible a history book, a treatise on biblical theology, and the story of man’s redemption from sin.
Ancient history is remarkably plentiful, and it continues to grow every year as new excavations are conducted throughout what what once known as Mesopotamia (“between two rivers”). Because it is the first place where complex urban centers grew and where God placed man at the time of creation, Mesopotamia is rightfully referred to as “the cradle of civilization.” Being a fertile region, rich in food sources and water, Mesopotamia has also been called the Fertile Crescent. Ancient cities began to pop up along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as the two were used for irrigation and as “water” highways. This region is among my most favorite areas of research.
Lewis Mumford’s The City in History is quite helpful for comparing secular and biblical history regarding civilization and urbanization from the origin of man’s first “permanent” settlement in ancient Mesopotamia (circa 4000 B.C.E.) through the Indus Valley, Egypt, the Mayans, China, the Greeks, Persia, and Roman civilization. Mumford outlines the forms of civilization, such as development of the sanctuary, village, stronghold, polis, and megalopolis.
Specific to Jerusalem and the three major religions who lay claim to her (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) it is helpful to read such books as The Archaeology of Jerusalem: From the Origins to the Ottomans by Katharina Galor, The Sumerians by C. Leonard Woolley, Babylon: A History from Beginning to End compiled by Hourly History, Ancient Mesopotamia compiled by Enthralling History, The Temple Revealed by Christian Widener, PhD, The Assyrian Prophecy by Ron Susek, and Come, Tell Me How You Live: An Archaeological Memoir by Agatha Christie.
The Bible as History
The Bible is clearly the primary means by which God communicates His will and His plan for the redemption of mankind. Yet, there is so much rich history in Scripture that we cannot ignore its value in this regard as well. Remember, the Bible is not just one book. Rather, it is comprised of 66 individual books written over a period of approximately 1,600 years. Arguably, different books of the Bible were written for different reasons—edification, education, inspiration, revelation, and, yes, valuable history. Jesus used stories from the Old Testament in His teaching methods, including allegory, parable, extended metaphor—and it’s pretty obvious when He does so. But He often refers to actual events, such as the Great Flood, Moses delivering the Israelites from bondage to Pharaoh, the Jews, the Roman Empire, famines, kings, prophets, wars, famines, and more.
“History is the context in which God works out His plan for redemption.” — R.C. Sproul
Russ Whitten writes, “Modern archaeology has helped us realize that the Bible is historically accurate even in the smallest of details. There have been thousands of archaeological discoveries in the past century that support every book of the Bible.”(1) For example, archaeology has confirmed that David was truly a king; in 1994, archaeologists discovered an ancient stone slab in northern Galilee that was inscribed with the references to King David and the “House of David.” The City of David, just south of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, has been excavated, leading to the discovery of substantial artifacts. Chronological biblical history tells of verifiable events regarding ancient civilization, genealogies, peoples, art, warfare, cultural development, the establishment of independent nations—quite an accumulation of information. The Bible presents in exquisite detail the planning and building of the temple under the Old Covenant. The plight of Israel is laid out in a verifiable chronology.
It is not my intention to move the focus of Scripture away from redemption and restoration. The Bible primarily contains the will of the Father. It presents also the unimaginable sacrifice of Christ on the cross and the power and guidance available through the Holy Spirit. It establishes a complete history of God’s plan for the redemption of mankind, from “covering” of the sin and shame of Adam and Eve in the garden, through sacrifice of animals as an atonement for sin, to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Through faith in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, we are “covered” by the righteousness of God. The history of of man’s atonement is frequently referred to as the “thread of redemption.” Redemptive history is not linear or chronological in nature. This is because salvation is available without regard to era or dispensation. Old Testament believers in Christ were grounded in “forward-looking” faith in the prophesy concerning Christ as Messiah, and New Testament believers have a “backward-looking” faith in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
Salvation and time are inexorably bound—depicted in actual historical events.
History laid out in the Bible is more than timelines and genealogies. Timelines and such are considered chronologies, which comes from the Greek word chronos (χρόνος), referring to the step-by-step, minute-by-minute, accumulation of time (events). Kairos (καιρός) refers to something being “of season,” at “a fitting time,” or the “quality”of the time period in question. R.C. Sproul believes kairos suggests a significant moment in history that is “pregnant with meaning,” after which event everything changes; everything that happens before the event has been leading up to it—there is a “causative” effect. This is how redemptive history operates.(2) It is “above actual history” and vertical in orientation. Man’s orientation to God changed from vertical (heavenward) to horizontal (side-to-side within cultural parameters) at the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the forbidden fruit. Man decided to be his own arbiter of good and evil; to come up with his own answers to the four great questions of life: origin, purpose, morality, and destiny.
Don Steward writes, “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. 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… there are many other episodes in the life of Christ that give historical detail as to where and when the event took place. As we look at the Book of Acts, we find that there are over three hundred references to names, places, things and events.”(3)
The more we learn about the ancient world, the more we find that the Bible gives a precise picture of people, places and events. Stewart writes, “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.”(4) Josh and Sean McDowell write, “Christianity is a historical faith, meaning that it rests finally on the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If these events are not true, then the Christian faith is false, and its teachings are groundless (1 Cor. 15_14, 17). Yet if these claims can be established through normal historical methods, then we have a compelling reason to believe that Christianity is true.”(5)
Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theological Studies
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture references contained herein are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
(1) Russ Whitten, “Have You Ever Wondered: Is the Bible Historically Accurate?” The Destin Log (June 15, 2017), accessed June 24, 2022. URL: https://www.thedestinlog.com/story/lifestyle/faith/2017/06/15/have-you-wondered-is-bible-historically-accurate/985681007/
(2) R.C. Sproul, “The Meaning of Covenant,” Renewing Your Mind Lecture Series (May 10, 2022), accessed June 20, 2022. URL: https://www.ligonier.org/learn/series/promise-keeper/the-meaning-of-covenant-feb-2015
(3) Don Stewart, “Why Should the Historical Background of the Bible be Studied?” Blue Letter Bible, (n.d.), accessed Sept. 29, 2022, https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/stewart_don/faq/historical-accuracy-of-the-bible/question1-historical-background-bible.cfm
(5) Josh McDowell, Sean McDowell, PhD, Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2017), 688.