Of course, for centuries, the Western world just assumed the Bible to be true and felt no need to test its claims against archaeology. However, by the late 19th Century, European skepticism had come to dominate Christian education. In fact, at this time the center of Christian scholarship was Germany, with Tübingen University being the center of New Testament Higher Criticism.
As stated in the Oxford Biblical Studies Online —
A group of scholars round F. C. Baur (1792–1860) at Tübingen University who took a radical view of the NT: only Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians were accepted as authentically Pauline, and these epistles revealed a deep opposition between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. At a later date the [supposedly] historically unreliable Acts represented a Gentile attempt to present a harmonious picture of the early Church, and the gospel of John was the crown of a theological development rather than an account of the Jesus of history. Baur’s view that much of the NT was to be dated in the 2nd cent. depended on the so-called epistles of Ignatius being even later, but the painstaking work of J. B. Lightfoot of Cambridge demonstrated that the seven epistles attributed to Ignatius (107 CE) were authentic. This partly undermined the Tübingen thesis.
The reason there is an urban legend circulating that most of the New Testament was written long after the First Century is that this was taught at the highest levels of Christian scholarship over 100 years ago. This teaching has been refuted for a very long time, but skeptics have managed to preserve the obsolete claims in popular culture — again, such as the historically ignorant Da Vinci Code.
As to the Old Testament, German scholar Julius Wellhausen argued in Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels (Introduction to the History of Israel), published in 1878, that the Torah was compiled from four documents, referred to as J, E, D and P, and placed in its present form by Ezekiel and Ezra. As the Wikipedia summarizes his conclusions,
There was no written Law in ancient Israel, the Torah being held as an oral tradition by priests and prophets; Deuteronomy was the first Law, and gained currency only during the Babylonian exile, when the prophetic tradition ceased; Ezekiel and his successors were responsible for the codification and systematisation of worship, and Ezra for the introduction of the Priestly code (i.e., the laws contained in Leviticus); and it was this creation of a written Torah which marked the break between the ancient history of Israel and the later history of Judaism.
Later scholars found Wellhausen’s conclusions far too conservative —
Wellhausen’s hypothesis remained the dominant model for Pentateuchal studies until the last quarter of the 20th century, when it began to be challenged by scholars who saw more and more hands at work in the Torah, ascribing them to periods even later than Wellhausen had proposed.
Meanwhile, Rudolf Bultmann, yet another German Bible scholar, argued that a modern, scientific church should not accept the obviously unscientific claims of the Bible regarding the virgin birth, resurrection, and miracles.
Bultmann’s approach relied on his concept of demythology, and interpreted the mythological elements in the New Testament existentially. Bultmann contended that only faith in the kerygma, or proclamation, of the New Testament was necessary for Christian faith, not any particular facts regarding the historical Jesus.
Hence, by the 1920s, European Christianity had come to deny the authenticity of the scriptures and their miraculous claims. Rather, the argument made was that Christianity should adopt existentialism rather than belief in the historical claims of the Bible. (See Paul Tillich, yet another German theologian who was the premier advocate for this point of view.)
Existentialism argues for, essentially, faith in faith. It’s the philosophy that we should just believe despite the facts. Indeed, that it’s not “faith” unless it’s contrary to reason — which is obviously not what the Bible teaches. We’ve discussed the meaning of “faith” in the Greek and New Testament many times here, and “faith” does not mean “believe contrary to the facts.”
Nonetheless, this notion has crept into popular culture and so will be found among church members attending most Sunday school classes. Indeed, many Christians take considerable comfort in their belief that “faith” has nothing to do with what really happened.
“Faith” is faith in Jesus, which include faithfulness to and trust in Jesus. Faith accepts that the resurrection happened as a real, historical event — and so we, too, will enjoy resurrection at the end of time.
As we’ve previously considered, that’s not the same as arguing that Jesus and the Bible can be proven to a mathematical certainty — which is also not so. Rather, the Biblical position is that faith is based on testimony — which may be believed or rejected — and which makes good sense, indeed, explains the human condition better than any other philosophy.
(Joh 20:29 NET) 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed.”
(Joh 21:24 ESV) 24 This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.
(1Jo 5:7-11 ESV) 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. 9 If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.
After World War II, the center of Christian theology shifted from Germany to the United States, in part because so many European scholars came to the U.S. fleeing Nazism. But a new generation of scholars were less impacted by German anti-Semitism. And make no mistake: in Europe, anti-Semitism drove much (not all, but much) of the church’s rejection of the Old Testament. New Testament studies sought to minimize the importance of the Old Testament in New Testament thought. Old Testament scholars tried to treat the Old Testament as sheer mythology.
However, since the early 2oth Century, archaeological discoveries have more and more demonstrated the veracity of scriptures and contradicted the claims of the scholars. There remain unresolved issues, and the Documentary Hypothesis remains popular in Old Testament scholarship despite a constant stream of contradictory evidence.
Today, archaeology has confirmed the substantial historicity of the scriptures back at least to David, around 1000 BC. Moreover, archaeology substantially confirms that the world of Abraham would have been just as described in Genesis.
Obviously, archaeology will rarely confirm particular events. There is no evidence in direct support of most historical figures, but the world was clearly very much as described in the texts, and there is direct evidence of some kings of Israel and Judah, including David and Omri.
There do remain some serious archaeological problems. For example, it’s proven difficult to find evidence of the Exodus. Jericho was in fact destroyed suddenly, but there’s nothing in the Sinai Peninsula that gives direct evidence of the 40 years of wandering, and it’s hard to fit the Exodus into Egyptian history.
On the other hand, Pharaohs don’t build monuments to defeat at the hands of a foreign God! And the Israelites would not have left much behind in their travels, since they were traveling and taking their material goods with them.
And as we covered earlier, archaeology does not support a global flood or humanity beginning in 4004 BC. But there’s no need to go over those materials again.
We’ll get to the particulars of the evidence shortly.
New Testament examples where archaeology has confirmed historical accuracy of scripture.
Luke is the author of Luke and Acts. Thus, critics of the Bible have, in the past, attempted to discredit Luke by accusing him of errors in historical details. Relying on the presence of these supposed errors, critics claimed that Luke and Acts could not have been written until the mid-2nd century.
However, later discoveries have demonstrated that Luke was a historian of great accuracy. In fact, he is so precise in details that it would be incredible to suggest that he did not live and write in the early and mid-First Century.
Each of the following confirmations is an example where Luke has been proven correct and his critics proven wrong.
There was a census ordered by Quirinius, governor of Syria, about 8-9 BC, as proven by an Egyptian papyrus. Quirinius was indeed governor of Syria at this time. This is proven by an inscription found in Antioch. It would hardly contradict the evidence if Quirinius ordered another census as the time of Jesus’ birth. (A census was a means of enforcing taxes. Hence, every time the government needed more money, there’d be incentive to impose a new census.)
Luke correctly ascribes Lystra and Derbe to Lycaonia and Iconium. This is proven by a monument found in 1910.
Luke correctly refers to Lysanias as the “tetrarch” of Abilene and correctly places Lysanias at the time of Paul, as proven by an inscription found near Damascus.
Discoveries in Corinth locate the synagogue at which Paul preached and the meat market that figures prominently in 1 Corinthians.
The assembly in Ephesus which rioted in Acts 19:23ff met in a theater that has been excavated and, just as in Acts, is called the ecclesia in inscriptions found on the site.
The same inscriptions refer to silver statues of the goddess Diana (or Artemis).
A riot broke out when Paul took a Gentile into the temple. An inscription has been found stating in Greek and Latin, “No foreigner may enter within the barrier which surrounds the temple and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will be personally responsible for his ensuing death.”
Luke correctly refers to Philippi as a part (meris) of Macedonia, which is the correct usage of the term as shown by excavations.
Luke correctly refers to the rulers of Philippi as praetors, which has been shown to be the correct term for a Roman colony, such as Philippi.
Luke correctly refers to Gallio as proconsul of Achaia, as shown by an inscription. This inscription helps date Paul’s ministry in Corinth, because Gallio was only in office about 18 months.
Luke calls the ruler of Malta “first man,” which has been proven to be a correct title by inscriptions.
Luke refers to the authorities of Thessalonica as politarchs. 19 inscriptions have been found using this title, 5 in reference to Thessalonica.
Numerous other New Testament references have been verified by archaeology.
The questions regarding the historicity on the New Testament arose before much archaeological work was done, and much of the basis for disputing the New Testament has been destroyed by the most reliable evidence.
And this fairly raises the question of why the scholars made claims that ultimately were disproved — and that answer has to be bias. I mean, why assume the scriptures are unreliable and then call this “scholarship”?
Indeed, even today, there is a school of archaeology, called “Biblical minimalists,” that assume the Bible to be in error except where shown to be true by irrefutable evidence. What justifies such an assumption?