Friday, October 21, 2011

What Happened 2,000 Years Ago?

After a recent presentation on religious history at an area church, I was asked by an irate parishioner how I could possibly know the truth of what happened thousands of years ago.

That’s a great question, one I am asked after almost every presentation.  It’s understandable, too.  After all, thousands of years are a long time.  We are still debating who really assassinated President John Kennedy in 1963.  How can we possibly say what happened 2,000, or 12,000 years ago?

Actually, the question has two parts: how do we know what happened; and, how do we know what happened is being reported accurately?

The first part is easier.  A variety of existing tools, which are improving regularly, help researchers divine what took place and when it happened.

·         Carbon 14.  This is a naturally occurring version of carbon, but has two extra protons.  All living creatures breathe both carbon 12 and carbon 14.  When something dies, it stops inhaling carbon.  However, carbon 12 is stable and remains in the bones. In contrast, carbon 14 starts to break down.  As a result, by testing the gas resulting from the deterioration of carbon 14, researchers can determine how much carbon 14 remains.  Since the breakdown occurs at a known rate, it’s fairly easy to determine how many years were necessary to accumulate the resulting gas.

Using this method on anything with carbon, which includes ash residue on burned rocks,  scholars have been able to date a wide array of events in ancient history within a plus or minus of 50 years.  However, it is accurate to only 3,500 or so years.
Fortunately, other chemicals take far longer to break down, allowing scholars to date rocks dating back billions of years.

Nevertheless, no scholars rely solely on carbon-14 to determine the age of anything due to minute fluctuations in the chemistry.

·         Events.  Universal calendars are a modern invention, but certain events – such as eclipses – help scholars locate people and events in time.  They can place eclipses, which occur on a set schedule.  So, if an eclipse affected a particular battle, then we know the exact date of that battle.  That leads to identifying reigns of kings and the timing of more events.  One known eclipse in the 8th century B.C.E. has helped create an entire calendar covering thousands of years.

Equally, correspondence between rulers or mentions of a known individual help historians place people and events in juxtaposition.

·         Archaeology.  Much of the past is buried beneath us.  Since the 1800s, archaeologists have been digging it up.  Finds are datable both through carbon 14 as well as through designs.  All cultures developed their own styles of ceramics, weaving, living areas and so on.  They are instantly identifiable, and help show migration patterns and areas of domination.

·         Texts.  Ancient monarchs were happy to leave detailed accounts of the exploits on stone monuments, called stele.  They also created monuments, treaties and other documents , often on stone.  Once deciphered, they help historians place people and events in context with archaeological findings. 

Beginning in the 6th century B.C.E., historians also left us detailed accounts of events. Many of those reports have endured either in pieces or completely.    They often create multiple sources to help us understand what happened, why and when.

Unfortunately, they are not typically unbiased or completely accurate.  Monarchs often hired these people to record their “great” deeds, guaranteeing a slanted account.  Others are influenced by religious beliefs or simply created to match current ideas.

That is why the second aspect of the research is so important: how can anyone know a report is accurate?  We can trust empirical findings, such as Carbon 14.  Someone can blame the lab or say the sample was contaminated, but multiple tests with the same result reduce chances of a mistake.

On the other hand, all sources created by humans have to be examined carefully and compared to known facts to help garner an understanding of what happened.

For example, historians know that there was no invasion of Israel as described in the biblical book of Joshua.  In that text, Joshua led the Jewish descendants of Egyptian slaves on a rampage through the ancient land of Canaan.  However, cultural markers throughout the region remain unchanged for centuries, meaning that new people did not conquer existing residents and impose their way of life.  Carbon 14 shows the cities supposedly destroyed by Joshua and his army actually were overcome across hundreds of years, and that some were already in ruins during the time period or flourished before and after the time when Joshua must have lived.

At that point, historians begin to speculate what might have happened.  Those guesses are based on known facts, but suggest new ways of considering the evidence.  Later discoveries may back one of the guesses and make it the accepted paradigm.

For example, scholars are still debating who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient documents found in 1947 in caves near the ruins of Qumran.  Some researchers insist that an ancient sect wrote them; others think they might be the Temple library moved there for safety, among other suggestions.   We may never know.
Nevertheless, the research to date has given us a surprisingly clear window on what really happened almost any time in the past.  

People listening to me may want to silence the messenger.  However, they can’t muffle the facts, which are amazingly complete given the passage of time.

Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  Many of his essays are posted at


  1. What an interesting piece! An someone who took an introduction to archives class in library school, I think it's fascinating how we can both detect and preserve these materials.

  2. i still dont really understand the events

  3. But, how do we know that the people who wrote the manuscripts, scrolls, etc. were telling the absolute factual truth and were of sound mind 2000 years ago?