In a recent discussion of biblical reliability and historicity I was struck by a rather obvious fact about the Bible that I’m surprised I hadn’t thought of before: Its language is too confident to be regarded as historical.
When one reads historical accounts, one sees the following sorts of phrases: “The evidence suggests that”, “It is likely that”, “It is possible that”, “Only one source reports that”, etc. In other words, historians are aware that the strength of their conclusions rests on the evidence, and that evidence varies in quality and quantity. They are careful to share uncertainties with their readers.
It should be obvious to anyone who flips through the pages of the Bible that no such careful language is seen there. Everything is presented as if it were certain. Indeed, events are often described as if they had been observed firsthand by the author, even though we know that this was mostly not the case.
I realize that few Christians would care to defend the idea that the Bible was written by trained historians. Indeed, many Christians are still under the impression that the gospels, in particular, were written by Jesus’ disciples. The truth probably lies somewhere in between: The New Testament was essentially written by preachers. These were literate men who, although they had not witnessed the events they were recording, were not interested in writing in the careful, provisional manner of historians, but in the confident manner of evangelists. Their interest lay in promoting their message as unassailable truth. After all, what sort of faith would they be seen as having if they hedged every claim with phrases like “The oral tradition is not in complete agreement on this point, but…” or “I am not certain of the translation of this phrase”?
The authors’ manner of speech, then, is itself an indicator that the claims made by the Bible should be taken with a pinch of salt.