Thursday, March 28, 2013

History Collides With Religious Beliefs

Charlton Heston as Moses
When invited to speak about religious history to civic organizations, I happily accept, but with some trepidation.  I speak about religious history, but invariably someone in the audience confuses that subject with belief.  That's particularly true during certain times of the year, like during the Passover and Easter holidays this week that supposedly are  based on historic events.

The result is invariably anger, frustration, annoyance and disappointment.  Sometimes, all of them show up at the same time.

Listeners often have a hard time understanding that belief and history are two different things.
Bible: the source of Western religious belief

Belief is the acceptance of some idea without facts.  Some people believe that Moses led the Jews from Egyptian slavery and stood on Mt. Sinai to receive the 10 Commandments.  They are 100 percent correct.  Belief is always correct, because it’s what a person thinks is true.

An historian doesn’t limit himself to belief.  An historian looks at the same Moses and asks: were there slaves in Egypt?  Could Jews have been slaves there?  Where is Mt. Sinai? What do the 10 Commandments say?  From the writing, can we tell when they were written?

The questions are different than those asked by believers.  They have to be.

The idea of examining belief is relatively new.  It only started in the 1700s.  Before that, no one (at least,  openly) questioned beliefs or challenged the basic claims behind a belief.  Some theologians may argue over a nuance or how to interpret a particular belief.  They might label each other heretics and, at worse, kill opponents, or, at best, toss each other out of a religion.  The belief itself was never questioned.

However, in the mid-1700s, the first real investigation into religious beliefs began with a critical analysis of the New Testament.  That led to more studies until, by the end of the 1800s, a German theological school could argue Jesus never existed.

An archaeological dig in Israel
Naturally, believers felt challenged by such findings.  They began to search for information, principally in the Holy Land where Jesus once lived, but also in ancient texts.  In essence, they abandoned belief to find history.

Bad idea.

To date, no research, no historical find, no fact has supported any historical claims about Moses or Jesus.  In fact, no scholars have ever found anything that backs biblical stories in the Old Testament before around 1000 BCE.  Accuracy does improve a little in the Jewish Bible as research draws closer to 7th century BCE, the time when the first  texts were written.   However, belief always colored the writing, not history.

St. Catherine's Monastery below Mt. Sinai
That means belief alone sustains the stories of Moses, Joshua, Judges and the biblical patriarchs.  For  example, no mountain in the world matches the biblical description of Mt. Sinai.  The one in the desert today called Sinai  (right) was named for the biblical story.  There are three versions of the 10 Commandments in the Bible.    They do not agree.  The oldest is limited to religious requirements.  Later ones branch out to include laws for daily life.

That’s all right.  There was no famine in Egypt to help Joseph rise to power; no Exodus ; no invasion of Canaan.  Archaeology has convincingly proven that.

This week, millions of Jews worldwide are retelling the story of an event that never happened.

As for Jesus, even the Roman Catholic Church, the world's largest religion and one founded on the back of Jesus, has conceded that its sacred texts are not historically accurate.  They represent, Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Encyclopedia admit, only the "belief" of the authors. 

Dr. James Charlesworth, one of the world’s foremost religious historians, was asked about the conflict between belief and history.  A Methodist minister, he was well aware of the disparity.  He made a cogent observation, however, to the people (like me) who attended his program: if you base your faith on history, he said, you will be disappointed, but if you base your faith on philosophy, such as peace on earth and good will toward men, then you will have no problems.

He is, of course, correct. That’s why I advise students in my religious history classes or listeners to a presentation to leave their beliefs outside the door.  Inside, we’ll discuss history, an ever-changing, ever-expanding amorphous blob.  In contrast, beliefs are the rock-solid illusions that sustain us.

True or false, they are far too entrenched for history to have any real effect on them.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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