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THREAD: The surprising amount of historical content contained in the Bible.

Christians and Jews are famously ‘people of the Book’, namely the Bible. Of course, many nations and religions possess their own epic texts, which are often quite lengthy in their own right.
It can be an interesting exercise to compare these in terms of absolute length.

According to an Accordance Bible Software search, the Hebrew Bible (BHS) contains 425,185 words in total. For the New Testament, the @Tyndale_House Greek New Testament contains 138,213 words.
How do these 563,398 words compare to other ancient literature?

• The Epic of Gilgamesh (Babylonian; 2nd millennium B.C.): approx. 13 thousand words (English translation)
• The Iliad (ancient Greek; 8th century B.C.): 128,687 words
• The Mahābhārata (Sanskrit; 5th century B.C.): approx. 1.8 million words (!)
• The Qur’an (Arabic; 7th century, A.D.): 77,449 words

This approach, however, is not the most interesting by far.
For although the Bible is a deeply religious and theological collection of writings, it is evidently historical according to literary genre (and overwhelmingly so). The most direct form of comparison is therefore the various historical texts of the Ancient Near East.
The Old Testament can be divided in several different ways, but a simple method is to follow the Jewish TaNaKh acronym (Torah = ‘Pentateuch’; Nevi’im = ‘Prophets’; Ketuvim = ‘Writings’).
The first division, the Torah, is evidently historical in content and mainly records events in the early history of Israel.
The second division, the former and latter prophets, not only includes what we might view as prophetic books (such as Isaiah), but also purely historical books like Samuel and Kings.
The third group, the Writings, is the only category that contains some books which contain little historical content, in particular the major poetic books (Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes).
The rest, however, including Chronicles, contain a wealth of historical information. If we exclude mostly poetic works, we end with with approximately 50 thousand fewer words in total.
All things considered (including the fact that many of the prophets contain oracles which are not as immediately historical in content), we have well over 350 thousand words of historical information about a relatively minor political power, Israel, and her long, ancient history.
Turning to the New Testament, we may note divisions between the four gospels, Acts, the epistles (Pauline and Catholic), Hebrews, and Revelation.
Although each is clearly historical to one degree or another, if we focus on the gospels and Acts (excluding the rest of the New Testament as more heavily theological in content), we still possess over 83 thousand words of rich historical information about Jesus and the church.
A surprising amount of information is recorded from the life of Christ to the Roman imprisonment of Paul (roughly a 60-year span in the first century, A.D.).
As @DrPJWilliams has noted in his excellent book (‘Can We Trust the Gospels?’): ‘[E]ven though Jesus was on the periphery of the Roman Empire, we have as many early sources about his life and teaching as we have about activities and conversations of Tiberius [the] emperor.'
Turning again to the Old Testament: How does it compare to the broader Ancient Near East? In the case of the various ancient languages, the amount of attested texts differs widely.
For example, 2nd millennium B.C. texts in West Semitic languages are quite paltry in comparison to those of East Semitic (namely, the Akkadian of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires).
Estimates vary widely, but it is safe to say that there are well over a million tablets written in one form of cuneiform or another (such as Sumerian, Eblaite, Akkadian, and Hittite).
Alongside letters, annals, and other such directly historical content are omens, medical texts, administrative lists of various kinds, etc. In short, an impressive amount of historical information can be assembled from this rich treasure trove.
Even here, however, the quality and amount of historical information to be gleaned from these texts is mixed, and it is safe to say that most deal with matters more mundane (such as lists of various sorts), from which we must make historical inferences.
Turning again to the West Semitic context, which is the context of Biblical Hebrew and the events of the Bible, we see that the first significant texts of note are to be found in ancient Ugaritic.
Dennis Pardee, dean of Ugaritic scholarship today, notes: ‘[These] provide the first evidence for the everyday use of a West Semitic language for the purpose of recording, storing, and sending of information as well as the first literary productions in a West Semitic language.’
Among these are epics (such as the Baal cycle), various other sorts of religious texts, letters, treaties, and many administrative documents. Unfortunately, only about 100 letters are attested, while legal texts (less immediately historical in content) are even fewer (about 35).
In this light, the high amount of historical content found in the Hebrew Bible is nothing short of astonishing. In fact, ‘the Hebrew Bible contains the only corpus of literary texts in a West Semitic language between those from Ugarit and those from the caves of the Dead Sea…
...for the long, more explicitly historiographic works, the only real parallels are to be found with the Greeks, where Herodotus is the prime example.’ (Pardee)
Herodotus, immortalised as ‘The Father of History’ is famous for his Histories, a 5th century B.C. work that has been praised for its careful historiographical approach. This work totals 188,809 words in the Greek original.
CONCLUSION: Having considered some figures and made various comparisons, we can see that the Bible is indeed unique in terms of its rich historical content that is quite unparalleled in its antiquity and scope.

Yet, it is is a divine text.


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