For some scholars the Old Testament narratives are remote from the events they purport to describe, and are of historical value only with respect to the authors and the times in which they lived. Any lasting value is with regard to their religious ideas, rather than their witness to historical events.
But the OT presents us neither with ‘mere’ history, nor with ‘mere’ religious ideas. It presents us with theological history; with a record of historical events and a theological interpretation of those events.
V.P. Long remarks that Christian faith cannot divorce itself from the findings of historical study. Although faith does not require that the factuality of the biblical events be proven (even if that were possible), faith would certainly be undermined if it could be shown that the core events did not happen.
Apparent lack of literary coherence is sometimes taken as grounds for doubting the historicity of a narrative (e.g. the account of Saul’s rise to power in 1 Samuel 8-12). But detailed exegesis can often demonstrate coherence.
Different biblical writers can seem to offer divergent accounts of the same story. But different writers had different purposes in writing. Samuel-Kings addresses the exiles and interprets for them the reasons for the exile. Chronicles, however, addresses those who have returned from exile and assures them of God’s covenant faithfulness. The Chronicler assumed a knowledge of Samuel-Kings on the part of his readers and this freed him to present his didactic history in creative ways.
Apparent discrepancies can occur between the biblical text and external sources. But these external sources (such as the annals of the Assyrian kings) were not without their own ideologies and propagandist purposes. There is no reason for privileging them as historical sources.
Similar caution must be taken with respect to archaeological material. Such material is itself mute, and dependent on the interpretation put on it by the archaeologist. It must also be remembered that archaeology illuminates life conditions in general and not specific events. It should not be assumed that ‘absence of evidence is evidence of absence’.
In the middle years of the last century, archaeologists such as G.E. Wright, W.F. Albright and J. Bright held a generally positive view of the historical reliability of the OT narratives. More recent scholarship has taken a more sceptical view, regarding the biblical accounts as mostly fictional. Israel’s account of its own history attests only to the personal interests or political agenda of the writers, not to the true ‘facts’ of the matter. There is a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’.
Other scholars, on the other hand, have argued against the prejudicial dismissal of the historicity of the OT. Others have agreed that the OT has tended to be treated with more suspicion that other ancient literature. Much supporting evidence has been collected by K.A. Kitchen, J.K. Hoffmeier and others.
The sceptical approach is rooted in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, which dismisses any biblical text that refers to divine, miraculous intervention.
Of course, historical problems and difficulties remain, but these need not cause us to doubt the reliability of the OT’s witness, but rather spur us on to further study, from the standpoint of ‘faith seeking understanding’.
Based on an article by E. Rowlands in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics