How would you tell a devout student that the Bible is not a valid citation for historical claims?

In the comments to this Gawker article on the State of Kentucky now removing Clerk’s names from marriage licenses one person commenting made the following note quoted below.

In this context assume you are a public high school history teacher and a devout student brings you a paper referencing some occurrence noted in the Bible and cites the Bible as a historical source. Further assume you are employed in a conservative Bible Belt state. How do *you *, specifically, tell him the Bible is not going to work as a historical source?

Secondary source material must have citations to primary source material. The Bible doesn’t.

I’m not sure that argument quite works, since the Bible is primary source material, and would be a perfectly legitimate source for certain types of historical arguments. For example, if a student were writing about a topic along the lines of “What roles did women play in early Christianity?” it would probably be a very useful source, if read in the right way.

So I’d probably tell the student that if they are going to use primary source material, they have to treat it as a text whose claims need to be analyzed and examined critically, with an eye to who wrote it, when it was written, through what channels the author would have known about the events described, and what the author’s purpose for writing and biases might have been, rather than accepting everything the author says at face value. If they’re not prepared to do that for any given source, they shouldn’t use that source. I would also point out that academic writing needs to be persuasive to any educated reader, including people who do not share the author’s religious beliefs.

Disclaimer: I’m neither a historian nor a high school teacher, and I have no idea how ready high school students are to take in this set of ideas, but this is pretty much what I tell my freshman comp students. (They don’t always get it, either.)

Well, ok–whether a source counts as primary or secondary depends somewhat on the context and the specific event we’re talking about. But I would say that for the majority of specific historical events in it–Jesus’ birth, let’s say–it’s secondary.

If you’re instead analyzing things at a more meta level, considering (say) why so-and-so might believe a specific thing, then I agree it could be used as primary material with your caveats. I don’t think that’s what the OP was getting at, though.

‘This is a history course, not a theology course. The Bible is no more a historical document than the Eddas or the Lotus Sutra.’

Figure there’s no way politeness would actually get through to them, might as well make it clear I’ll brook no arguments.

This is part of why I would make a terrible teacher, I think…

“This ain’t Sunday school, kid”

The Bible does contain lots of history. Lots of history which is accepted generally.

Next you’ll be telling us that you don’t accept Ceaser’s Gallic Wars because its biased?

I would say, “The Bible is not a valid citation for historical claims.”

I think that it would be helpful to reinforce to the student that ANY source from roughly 1500 years ago needs to be questioned. Also, remind him/her that the Bible is not actually the monolithic item we see today, but was composed of multiple documents by multiple authors, and is really more like an anthology than a single text. Also, there are disputes regarding which exact canon is appropriate.

How would a history essay, on any subject post 100 AD, be able to cite the bible?

The Bible also contains lots of “history” this is NOT generally accepted. The whole story of the Exodus, for example, is wholly unsupported by the archaeological record and no longer considered accurate, nor is it generally believed that the Book of Exodus was composed until many centuries after whatever event formed the basis of the original story. Therefore, no individual event described within the Bible can be accepted as historical fact merely because it’s in the Bible.

By contrast, Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War is contemporary to the events described, although most scholars would agree that it is biased. Anybody citing Caesar uncritically, without at least taking into consideration what his biases were and what his purposes were in writing the commentaries, is also mistaken.

The guy says that he’s already told devout students this, apparently without consequences.

Perhaps he could produce an academically admissible source for his fear that Bevin will impose a different outcome. Whatever one thinks of taking clerk’s names off of the marriage licenses as an accommodation to Davis’ extremism, it has nothing to do with the role of religion in education.

And ancient History scholars have one hell of a job piecing it together, even when working with generally accepted materials. Some of it you can find enough documentation for that agrees with each other, and that you have high confidence in the validity of. Other material is harder to judge.

I’m not a Historian (I know we have a few here), but from what I remember (I got a minor).

  1. Do you have other independent sources that talk about the same events?
  2. How close was the author to the events - contemporary and local. Or writing 100 years later from 1000 miles away?
  3. Is the original material authentic - and how close to authentic. Early documents have been copied over and over again, with errors getting into the text. Sometimes passages are added later
  4. Does the document make sense within the context of the other information we know about.

Parts of the Bible can be used as Historical text when they are supported by other documents or evidence. Places in the Bible are real. There was really a Roman occupation of Judea. We can gain a lot of knowledge about the culture of the area. But there is no evidence outside the Bible that Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. No other textual support. It doesn’t align with what we know about Science.

I believe the Bible can be a source. Here is an example. The Bible mentions Belshazzar as being a king of Babylon. Historians and some Biblical critics countered this by saying all the kings of Babylon are known and Belshazzar is not one of them, therefore the Bible must be incorrect. It was in the 1950’s when ancient tablets were discovered which told of Nabonidus, the last king of Babylon who left Babylon to fight a war. When he left he appointed his son…Belshazzar…to be king. This was unknown until the discovery of the tablets in the 1950’s. So, in this case the Bible was indeed an accurate historical reference.

No…that means the accurate historical references were the tablets. You have no way of knowing whether that book in the Bible got it right because the person that wrote that passage did some good research work…or just because the folklore of the time turned out to be right in this instance.

Jesus’s crucifixion? The basis of the Babylonian exile? Shoshenq I campaigns in Judah?

I would also disagree that the Bible is not a source of history; if anything for many times and places it is the only source surviving.

Yes caveats should apply; they should with all history. But stating outright that the Bible is not a source of history is also not accurate.

No, it means that the historical reference was both the text and the tablets. That the trasncripter at least had accurate knowledge.

Tacitus mentions Jesus. Perhaps he was just repeating hearsay. OTH, he was a member of the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis, whose job it was to regulate foreign cults in Rome, so he would likely have had at least more than passing knowledge.

You need to look at the whole picture before deciding.

It can’t be a primary source, which is the point. Unless the event is corroborated by other sources, you can’t know if it actually happened or not.

Depending in part upon what you mean by “the Bible,” your comment is simply inaccurate.

Good post.

(ETA: In response to #18) Plus, good luck getting a high school student to understand your reference to the Eddas or the Lotus Sutra.