Seven decades ago, in his classic 1948 essay “God in the Dock,” the great British literary scholar and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis reflected on his experience while lecturing to a group in the Royal Air Force.
“It seemed to me,” he reflected, “that they did not really believe that we have any reliable knowledge of historic Man. But this was often curiously combined with a conviction that we knew a great deal about Pre-Historic Man: doubtless because Pre-Historic Man is labelled 'Science' (which is reliable) whereas Napoleon or Julius Caesar is labelled as 'History' (which is not). Thus a pseudo-scientific picture of the 'Caveman' and a picture of 'the Present' filled almost the whole of their imaginations; between these, there lay only a shadowy and unimportant region in which the phantasmal shapes of Roman soldiers, stage-coaches, pirates, knights in armour, highwaymen, etc., moved in a mist. I had supposed that if my hearers disbelieved the Gospels, they would do so because the Gospels recorded miracles. But my impression is that they disbelieved them simply because they dealt with events that happened a long time ago: that they would be almost as incredulous of the Battle of Actium as of the Resurrection — and for the same reason.”
If anything, Americans, born and nurtured in a nation that was itself born less than 250 years ago and where many of our cities are considerably younger still, are probably even less historically minded than were those British airmen of several generations ago.
Living in a society for which innovation and novelty are positive compliments rather than mere descriptions — not everything new, after all, is good — we’re unlikely to be more deeply rooted in the past than military pilots raised in “Olde England” where, still today, many people live in 19th-century houses among medieval churches and castles. History can, for us, have an air of unreality about it, a vague sense of merely being “long ago in a far-away place.”
Unfortunately, a general lack of interest in the past, an unreflective feeling that it’s irrelevant to us today, has implications for Christian faith, which rests to a significant degree on events that occurred in antiquity.
Two recent articles by Purdue University’s Lawrence Mykytiuk are useful in illustrating the solid historical roots of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible (see “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible” and “Archaeology Confirms 3 More Bible People” in the Biblical Archaeology Review for, respectively, March/April 2014 and May/June 2017). (He has also devoted serious scholarly attention to extrabiblical references to Jesus. See “The evidence for Jesus is early and powerful,” published Jan. 8, 2015, on deseretnews.com).
Most people who have ever lived have vanished without leaving a single trace of archaeological evidence proving that they even existed. And the further they recede into the past, the more difficult they are to find at all.
Mykytiuk, however, has now identified 53 individuals in the Old Testament — people whose reality seems to be confirmed in inscriptions written during the biblical period and, in most cases, during or quite close to the lifetime of the person in question. These individuals include five pharaohs of Egypt; one king of Moab; five Syrian kings; eight kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel; six kings, two high priests, one scribe, and five other officials of the southern Kingdom of Judah; five kings and one royal prince of Assyria; three kings, three officials, and one royal prince of Babylonia; five kings of Persia; and two Persian governors.
One significant example of these figures is Omri, a king of Israel who founded an important northern dynasty. So large did he loom in later memory that even subsequent northern kings who were unrelated to him appear in the inscriptional evidence as “sons of Omri.” And the “house of David” is mentioned in inscriptions at Tel Dan, far to the north of Israel; in the famed “Mesha Stela” or “Moabite Stone” found in 1868 in what is now Jordan; and, it seems, in an Egyptian inscription referring to a region of the Negev desert called “The Heights of David.”
None of this proves the Bible’s supernatural claims true, of course, any more than evidence for the historicity of Augustus Caesar proves that Jupiter is king of the gods. It does, however, seem to demonstrate that the Bible is considerably more than, as some have dismissed it, a collection of tall tales told around the campfire by Iron Age goat-herders.