Literally millions or even billions of people have asked the provocative question that forms the title of this article. Countless books and articles address the topic from all possible perspectives, arguing for everything from a fundamentalist belief in complete inerrancy to utter skepticism and outright disbelief. In the academic world, the question of the Bible's veracity plays out as a competition between the approaches known as “maximalism” and “minimalism.”
Put simply, minimalists believe that historical accounts in the Bible should be treated with extreme skepticism unless verified by other archaeological or documentary evidence. By contrast, maximalists argue that the Bible has a very good track record – even after being tested rigorously by modern scholarship – and therefore its stories should be seen as credible unless seriously contradicted by other evidence.
A good example of a maximalist approach on the part of leading academic scholars comes from Cyrus Gordon and Gary Rendsburg, who write in The Bible and the Ancient Near East, “While we must always consider the possibility that the text is in error, we must do so with the knowledge that the trend of archaeological discovery is to confirm even points [of the Biblical stories] that opinion had [previously] rejected as false.” Indeed, a great number of names, events, and other elements mentioned in the Hebrew Bible have been corroborated by the discoveries of modern archaeology.
Just last week, news media reported that a team working on the Tall el-Hammam excavation project near the Dead Sea had concluded that a huge meteor explosion was responsible for destroying the ancient Bronze Age civilization in that area. The scientific description of the theorized event bears a remarkable similarity to the Biblical account in Genesis 19:24-25: “Then YHWH [the Creator God] rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire... and destroyed these cities and all the plain and all the inhabitants.” Maximalists are likely to see this “match” as yet more reason to credit the biblical accounts, even when they seem to include incredible details; but some minimalists argue that Sodom and Gomorrah were not even located in that area. Similar issues and arguments arise all the time as new discoveries are made, illustrating how much our preconceived notions and assumptions influence our interpretations of texts and evidence.
I recently had the great privilege of interviewing Dr. Gary Rendsburg (one of the authors mentioned above) on questions including minimalism vs. maximalism, other evidence for the reliability of biblical narratives, and how the Bible is written from a literary point of view. I recommend that everyone who is interested in learning more about the academic study of the Bible – and how to think about the question of biblical reliability today in the light of modern scholarship – should check out the interview here. Whichever answer you settle on, let it be an informed one!