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What Do We Know About the Bible?

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, Iím Ben Wattenberg. Recently an Israeli antiquities collector revealed the existence of a stone artifact inscribed with the words 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.' The discovery set off a storm of controversy among archeologists, historians, and biblical scholars. What is science-once the scourge of religion-now telling us about the people and culture of Biblical times? Can the bible serve as both a book of religious faith as well as historical facts?


To find out, Think Tank is joined by

Eric Meyers, professor of archeology at Duke University, editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Arcaheology in the Near East, and co-author of the Cambridge Companion to the Bible.

And Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, and author of The Mystery and Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The topic before the house: What do we know about the Bible? This week on Think Tank.


Ben Wattenberg: Many archeologists have long regarded Biblical scripture as a collection of myths and legends. But beginning around 1960, archeologists began turning up artifacts bearing direct references to important figures in the Bible--King David, Herod, Pontius Pilate, and others. If authenticated, the inscription on the recently discovered ossuary would be the oldest direct evidence of the existence of Jesus.

Piecing together ancient history from stone tablets and pottery shards is no easy task. At many known sites, like Jericho, only a fraction of the ancient ruins have been explored. In Jerusalem, religious restrictions and political violence hamper archeological work. But new technologies are making it easier to pinpoint potential sites. Growing interest among scientists could lead to a golden age of biblical archeology.

Ben Wattenberg: Hershel Shanks, Eric Meyers, thank you for joining us on 'Think Tank.' Hershel, letís begin with the story that made front pages, the ossuary? Is that how itís pronounced?

Hershel Shanks: Thatís how itís pronounced. Itís a bone box. In the First Century, Jews in Jerusalem would bury their dead or put them in a niche in a cave. And after a year when the flesh had desiccated and fallen away, they would take the bones and put them in a bone box called an ossuary, a limestone box, long enough to accommodate the longest bone. And this one is inscribed in Aramaic 'James the Son of Joseph, the Brother of Jesus.'


Ben Wattenberg: Now is that the first reference to Jesus in a historical artifact?


Eric Meyers: If the artifact is legitimate then beyond doubt it would be the first extra-biblical reference to Jesus.


Ben Wattenberg: Do you think itís authentic?


Eric Meyers: I think thereís a high probability that it is, but given the fact that we donít know its context and that it comes from a looted environment and sold on the open market, I think we have to have a question mark ultimately.


Ben Wattenberg: You have a question mark, Hershel?


Hershel Shanks: Yes, certainty is rare in archaeology.


Ben Wattenberg: Your magazine published it, is that right?


Hershel Shanks: Thatís right. Biblical Archeology Review, and the author of the story is one of the worldís leading experts in scripts, a man by the name of Andre Lamaire from the Sorbonne. And weíve tested the authenticity from everywhere to Sunday. And Iím convinced that thereís almost no question as to its authenticity. The bigger question is whether the three people that are mentioned - James, Joseph, and Jesus - are the three people by those names in the New Testament.


Ben Wattenberg: Is your guess that as archeologists continue the work there would be further historical references, non-biblical references to Jesus?


Eric Meyers: The problem with that is Jesus is a very common name in the First Century. And itís a shortened form of Joshua-- Jeshu or Jeshua. And so there are numerous mentions of Jesus in Jewish epigraphy and inscriptions from the First Century, but not with the configuration as Hershel has said with these three particular names. Each name is very common in and of itself. Tom, Dick, and Harry as it were. But this configuration is virtually unique.


Ben Wattenberg: What else have you all come up with recently that tends to confirm or deny things in the Bible?


Hershel Shanks: We have a few other artifacts that refer to people that are mentioned in the New Testament. Pontius Pilate is one, Herod the Great. And then going back further, we have a very recent, the last decade, the discovery excavated by professional archeologists of a reference to the House of David or the Dynasty of David within a hundred, a hundred and fifty years after Davidís reign.


Ben Wattenberg: What would that be? About a 1000 BC or something?


Eric Meyers: Nine, Nine Twenty-five (BC), something like that. Tenth Century (BC).


Ben Wattenberg: Wow.


Hershel Shanks: That is the inscription. The reign was probably a Thousand to Nine Sixty (BC), something like that.


Ben Wattenberg: How do you go about trying to authenticate these inscriptions? I mean that theyíre real? How does that work?


Eric Meyers: Well paleography is not a new science, that is, a study of the shape of the letters, for example in the ossuary. This is a discipline thatís sixty, seventy years old, and is quite advanced. And we have tables and charts that scholars have established as being guidelines to the dating of these letters. Now when you get such inscriptions in stone we have similar paleographical guidelines to understand the dating. And unfortunately the David inscription is also found in a dump at the Tel Dan excavation and itís out of its context. But it is certainly...


Ben Wattenberg: Do you do carbon dating?


Eric Meyers: You canít do it for inanimate objects.

Ben Wattenberg: What are the main schools of thought about how accurate the Bible is in-as reality of that time?


Eric Meyers: Itís a pretty heated debate. In general, European scholars have opted for a low chronology, that is saying that the biblical text was produced in late first temple times, at the time of Deuteronomy letís say the Sixth or Seventh Century, but most of it was created in the postexilic era, the Persian period, Fifth Century BC, Fourth Century BC. Some even want to say it was written, fictionally, in the Hellenistic Period, Third or Second Century BCE. And many scholars, therefore, doubt the veracity, the truth of the reports of the pre-exilic period. That is the first temple period, the united monarchy, the origins of Israel, the exodus of...


Ben Wattenberg: King David, King Solomon, that kind of stuff.


Hershel Shanks: Yes, yes, yes.

Ben Wattenberg: But people are always saying, you know, you can use the Bible almost as a guidebook to the Middle East. All the cities that are mentioned...


Hershel Shanks: No. No. That has to be qualified. The search today is for the core truths of the Bible. Thereís no question that the Bible went through stages of composition, was edited by people who used old sources. And to try to separate all this is very difficult. Itís very uncertain. If you want certainty, go into mathematics. Donít go into ancient history. The effort has to be to look to see the core of the story, or whether thereís a core truth to it. And I think that, while thereís obviously going to be some uncertainty, uh, the basic structure of the story is sound. And itís very hard for me to imagine that it was simply created fictionally. That someone sat down and said I want to make a story. What they did was to take a story that was there, that was developed over the centuries and gave it a little twist for their own purposes.


Ben Wattenberg: Right.


Hershel Shanks: But still the core is there. And there are exaggerations, too. So our task is to try to find that core. And some of the scholars that Eric was talking about, I think, sort of glory in their own cynicism, in their own knocking of the Bible.


Ben Wattenberg: Are these the so-called minimalists who are sort of fighting this?


Eric Meyers: Itís more widespread than the phenomenon of biblical minimalism. And when I said Europe, I intentionally meant to indict the European scholars in general. They have more or less dismissed the early period of Israelite beginnings and origins years ago. This was something they started doing in the Nineteenth Century. And so this is just coming around a hundred and fifty years later in a more extreme form.


Ben Wattenberg: This was sort of the burgeoning of rationality throughout the Western World. As they said everythingís got to be proved and these are all folk tales and what not.


Eric Meyers: Yes, Iíve taught in Europe two semesters, one in Frankfurt, one in Berlin, and lectured widely there. And people when they hear my sort of conservative, maximalist view, I mean, you know we wind up in the beer hall until early wee hours debating how so many Americans could buy into this.


Ben Wattenberg: But the not so hidden agenda of the minimalists is to attack religion and elevate rationality. I mean it came about in that general area.


Eric Meyers: Itís not attacking a religion. Itís attacking the veracity of the narrative, the truthfulness of what is reported in those books.


Ben Wattenberg: Well, if you take it one step further, you then say well you know itís all a myth, itís all a story.


Hershel Shanks : Yeah. They would...they would...

Ben Wattenberg: We are the great Nineteenth Century rationalists and we finally are starting to look at things scientifically. And now my understanding is that thereís a somewhat of a reversal going back. That many scholars now, as you all do, believe that much of the Bible has been authenticated? I mean there was that sort of swing.


Eric Meyers: In its larger framework, yes. Not in every detail, of course.


Ben Wattenberg: No, of course not.


Hershel Shanks: Yes, you have to really talk about specifics. So that when youíre talking about the patriarchs, thatís one thing. When youíre talking about the conquest, for example, there archeology can play a role.

Ben Wattenberg: The conquest...


Hershel Shanks: ...the conquest of Canaan.


Ben Wattenberg: Right.


Hershel Shanks: When the Israelites came out of Egypt, they passed through the desert forty years and then they conquered Canaan according to the book of Joshua.


Ben Wattenberg: And not according to the Marquis of Queensbury rules either. Pretty tough stuff.


Eric Meyers: Not according to the book of Judges either, which I think is what the point Hershelís going to make, where it wasnít a conquest. There was a peaceful settlement. There were some battles here and there but it was not the way previous generations understood it. And without archeology we would be in no position to understand it with the kind of refinement and nuance that we do today.


Ben Wattenberg: Now how much do we know about the period in which Jesus lived and immediately thereafter compared to this earlier period.


Hershel Shanks: Enormously more.


Eric Meyers: Well itís quite different and itís easier because weíre in a period where written textual material was transmitted in a much better way and more preserved text. We have ancient coinage, which has only invented it in Sixth Century, Seventh Centuries, before that and not in the earlier periods. So we have coins and you have to remember that the New Testament is about one fifth the size of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. And so all of the New Testament scholarship that is focused on the historical Jesus and the context of Jesus has produced enormous results over the last two generations.


Ben Wattenberg: And the Dead Sea Scrolls are part of that new scholarship?


Hershel Shanks: Theyíre part of that. They really provide the Jewish background. This historical Jesus research thatís been going on over the last couple of decades is really quite extraordinary. And the public I think is very unaware of it. For example, there was a big discussion about whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem. He probably wasnít. He was supposed to have come down with Joseph and Mary because of a census. But the census was at a different time. It doesnít fit. And itís very unlikely that people would travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Also, thereís a good reason for him to be born in Bethlehem, to get him down in Bethlehem. And that is that heís supposed to be a scion, a descendant of King David who was the original Messiah.


Ben Wattenberg: Right.


Hershel Shanks: And his genealogy is given as coming from David. And where was David born?


Eric Meyers: Bethlehem.


Hershel Shanks: In Bethlehem, of course.


Ben Wattenberg: So the Davidic line would be...


Hershel Shanks: Thatís right. Heís always called in the New Testament Jesus of Nazareth. So I donít mean to say that Iím on one side or the other of that debate. But thatís the kind of discussion thatís going on in historical Jesus research. And mainstream, this isnít some extreme kookiness.


Ben Wattenberg: After both of you, your many decades of study of these texts, are these divine documents?


Eric Meyers: I would put it slightly differently. The Bible is certainly a document prepared and written down by human hands. But without the belief in a supreme being, which underlies it, you would not have the level of high literature that you have in those documents. So it is the record of a discussion between human beings and whom they believe to be God.

Ben Wattenberg: I mean itís a very important question in American life today generally and people are talking that weíre at the edge of a third Great Awakening, where there will be another surge of religious belief in American life, so itís not just an argument among scholars.

Eric Meyers: I think weíre seeing that religious awakening in America and certainly I see it on campus every day. But it takes a...


Ben Wattenberg: How do you see it? I mean, what do you see?


Eric Meyers: Well, I meant that evangelical life has never been richer and...


Ben Wattenberg: This is at Duke University?


Eric Meyers: At Duke University and other campuses. You have religious life flourishing, at least on our campus and other campuses that I visit. And I think this is a real genuine searching. But itís taking two forms. As I said thereís the evangelical thrust and those who are looking for more literal understanding in Godís word as reflected in the Bible, Old and New Testament. And thereís people who follow teachers like me and the rest of our faculties in places like Duke, where we go for the nuance and higher criticism. We try to put it in a way that is compatible with the modern scientific rationalistic spirit.



Ben Wattenberg: Tell me about the Dead Sea Scrolls. How important are the Dead Sea Scrolls?


Eric Meyers: Well, to me, the Dead Sea Scrolls is certainly the most important archeological discovery of the modern era, even beyond the Twentieth Century, because it embraces archeology, the physical ruin of the site, plus eight hundred different manuscripts, canonical, non-canonicals and has shed light on the end of the second temple era, period in Judaism as never before.


Ben Wattenberg: What would the timeframe then be?


Eric Meyers: Well about Two Hundred BC to Seventy AD, roughly those three centuries.


Ben Wattenberg: And this was what? Apparently a library or something, that it would have that much material?


Eric Meyers: This is an ancient archive that was stored by the site, some of it produced by the sectarians who lived there, some of it brought with them when they left the mainstream at the beginning of their tenure in the Second Century (BC). And so you have canonical, that is, material that ultimately appears in the Bible as we know it, and materials that are unique to this sectarian group known as the Essenes.

Hershel Shanks: Thereís a commonality between the Dead Sea Scrolls and this really fantastic ossuary that weíve just brought to light. And that is, as Eric said, the ossuary was looted. We donít know where it came from.

Ben Wattenberg: It was looted.

Hershel Shanks: It may have been found when they were digging a trench to lay a pipe or add a room to a building or whatever.


Ben Wattenberg: Not stolen but just...


Eric Meyers: Well modern tomb robbers of some kind.


Ben: Right.


Hershel Shanks: And the Dead Sea Scrolls were also looted. We bought most of them from the Bedouin who looted them. And that was certainly the wise thing to do in retrospect. They bought them. And thatís what happened here. So we would know much more if we knew the context. If they were professionally excavated, we always like that. But I guess my position is if we canít have that, itís better to have what we do have than to pretend that it didnít exist. And itís the same thing with the ossuary as with the Dead Sea Scrolls.


Ben Wattenberg: Are the Dead Sea Scrolls considered authentic? I mean, is there any argument about that?


Eric Meyers: I donít think anyone would question their authenticity today. When they were first found in the Nineteen Forties, Late Forties and Early Fifties, there was some debate whether they were Early Medieval or Post Seventy (AD), but I think that has all but disappeared. They have been tested for carbon fourteen, and all the dates have been reestablished and resecured through scientific carbon fourteen testing.


Ben Wattenberg: What did your magazine do with the Dead Sea Scrolls? I mean, you played a real role in publishing them.


Hershel Shanks: Well, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Cave Four, comprising over five hundred different manuscripts were assigned to eight scholars to publish. And they kept...


Ben Wattenberg: Assigned by whom? Are they owned by the government of Israel? Or?


Hershel Shanks: No, no. At that time it was by Jordan. There were no Jews on this Judenrein committee. And they kept it to themselves for years and years. Initially theyíd published a little then in 1960 they stopped. Decades passed and other scholars couldnít get access to them. Some of them died and passed them on to their students, who then considered them theirs and they wouldnít let other scholars see them. And we complained. We complained about them in writing in the magazine and ultimately we published transcripts and pictures of the unpublished scrolls. They werenít the best copies, but that really forced those few scholars who had access to them to recognize the claims of the public and they opened them up and now theyíre free to all scholars to study.


Ben Wattenberg: The photographs that you published of the Dead Sea Scrolls are of the Bible as it existed what a thousand years ago?


Hershel Shanks: No, it didnít exist two thousand years ago as the Bible. Itís anachronistic to talk about the Bible then. The books of the Bible that were accepted into the canon were accepted later. And also the texts, the Biblical texts, were standardized later so that there is quite a tolerance of different editions of the various books that we know of as in the Bible today.


Eric Meyers: The documents that we have from the Dead Sea Scrolls date from roughly Two Hundred BC to Seventy AD. And among those documents are hundreds of fragments and full complete copies of what we call canonical Biblical texts, such as the Book of Isaiah, we have in multiple copies. The most common copies we have are the Book of Deuteronomy. And it is remarkable that so many of these editions, without vowels by the way, turn out to be the same text virtually, with some modification, as that text adopted, letís say, Three Hundred AD by the Rabbis and ultimately regularized by the Masserites in Nine Hundred AD. So it shows us that the Bible was stabilized textually at a very early period. On the other hand, it shows us, for example, in the Book of Samuel, that you have variations that are very significant. It shows us a Book of Jeremiah in the Greek that has a underlying much shorter version, thatís attested at Qumran. So itís full of significant information that sheds light on the textual transmission history of the Old Testament.


Hershel Shanks: I agree with Eric, in general, the text closely follows today what we have from two thousand years ago. And the Dead Sea Scrolls brought us back an additional thousand years. The oldest Hebrew Bible that we had was about a thousand (AD). Now we have those texts going back another thousand years. While that is all true, some of the most interesting things are the differences that we find. And in the Hebrew Bible, for example, in Deuteronomy Thirty-two it talks about the land being distributed according to the sons of Israel. That doesnít make any sense because, at the time theyíre talking about, Israel hasnít been established. And in the Qumran text that we now have, it says that it was distributed again, according to the sons of God--in Hebrew. And there was a version of it that said according to the sons of God. And you have that in the Hebrew Bible, so the suspicion is that it had a polytheistic stain to it, so that it was changed to the sons of Israel in the Hebrew text.



Ben Wattenberg: As students of the Bible, if you look back at the cultures of that time, or of those times, were the people then people that we would recognize. I mean, I know they were physically, but I mean have all the vast cultural array of modernism just changed us as a species? Or would we know how the world works?


Eric Meyers: I think intellectually and spiritually we could identify with them. But given the nature of what you had to do to survive in a single day, I think weíd all have enormous problems: No electricity, no flush toilets, all of these things would put a hamper on all our life. Just the amount of energy invested into food production per day I think would stymie most families, whether itís America or Europe. Not in Africa. I recently visited Africa and there you can see pre-industrial life pretty much...


Ben Wattenberg: Well, I mean a hundred years ago, a hundred and fifty years ago, in America you could also. I mean you didnít have any of that stuff. So.


Eric Meyers: Right. But the people, basically, I think weíd have to say were the same in their intellect and in their spirits and in their hearts.


Ben Wattenberg: Which is what makes the Bible such a universal document.


Eric Meyers: And thatís why it carries well, through time, with an eternal message.


Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Hershel Shanks, Eric Meyers, thank you very much for joining us on 'Think Tank.' And thank you. Please remember to send your comments via e-mail. For 'Think Tank,' Iím Ben Wattenberg.



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