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Putting the Bible and Other Ancient Books in Perspective

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsI came across a question on Quora this week, Why do atheists not believe a book that was written 2000 years ago but believe in what scientists say happened 2.5 million years ago?. Now, I think it's safe to say that the questioner had one particular book in mind, but I decided to interpret and answer the question in good faith.

I have two related entries that might be of interest, Confidence in Scientific Knowledge and Confidence in Historical Knowledge. As their titles suggest, they focus on where my confidence in science in particular comes from. But for this Quora answer, I focused on the reliability of ancient books and putting them into perspective. Below is my answer in full, slightly edited, with a few footnotes not included on Quora.


I've read several books or excerpts of books that are on the order of hundreds to thousands of years old - the entire Bible, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Tao Te Ching, portions of the Popol Vuh, The Conquest of Gaul, The Travels of Marco Polo, and probably a few more I'm forgetting (I also just started on the Buddhavacana). They can be very interesting and offer fascinating links to the actual words and communications from ancient peoples*. But you have to take them for what they are. The standards of scholarship were different, more limited travel and communication made it harder to substantiate stories, and the aims of many of these books were different from the modern day goal (not always achieved) of an unbiased presentation of facts. Moreover, many of these books incorporate their culture's mythologies to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes mingling mythology with history with little distinction.

So, for example, when I read Marco Polo's Travels, I take it as a reasonably accurate description of what portions of Asia were like 700 years ago, but when he describes a bird "so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces", I think he's given in to exaggeration or believing travelers tales. Or when I read the Conquest of Gaul, I have to keep in mind that it wasn't an unbiased historian documenting the war, but a piece of propaganda written by Caesar himself to try to increase his popularity back in Rome. And when it comes to things like human origins, whether it's the Mayans writing that the gods tried making humans out of clay then wood before getting it right on the third try with corn, the Greeks writing that Prometheus and Athena teamed up to make man out of mud before Zeus created the first woman, Pandora, as a punishment for man, or the Hebrews writing about the first man being molded from clay in the Garden of Eden and a woman being made from his rib, I chalk them all up to those cultures' mythologies because they just didn't know any better**.

I like Jerry Coyne's definition of science broadly construed, "the use of reason, empirical observation, doubt, and testing as a way of acquiring knowledge." (source) It's not just running experiments in labs, but any field of inquiry where you use evidence and reason to try to figure out what's most likely to be true, including history. All lines of evidence are open to scientific inquiry, but those lines of evidence have to be weighed against other forms of evidence and evaluated as to how reliable they are. So, 2000 year old books do count as a form of evidence to be incorporated into scientific study. But, they have all those issues I identified above, meaning that they can't just be accepted unquestioningly as ultimate authorities. Each book or manuscript is one piece of evidence to be included among all the other ancient writings, archaeological digs, artifacts, and other forms of evidence about the past.

When it comes to understanding what was happening 2.5 million years ago, it's really not even a question of which is more reliable between ancient books and modern scientific knowledge, and it seems silly to even pose the question. All those thousands of year old books were written in a pre-scientific age when people just didn't have the same understanding as we do now. It's not that we're any smarter in the modern age. We've just built on the knowledge of all those generations before us, getting more and more knowledge and learning the best ways to do things. I mean, as a species, we had to start from scratch, not knowing anything about the geologically ancient history of the planet (or universe), and build to where we are now. We wouldn't have the knowledge or framework we do now if it wasn't for all those ancient philosophers laying the groundwork and building a philosophical tradition. And we certainly don't know everything now - future generations will build on our current knowledge (hopefully) for even greater insights in the future.


*It's this connection to the past that's one of my main motivations for wanting to read ancient writings. I've been to ancient ruins in various locations - Chichén Itzá, Stonehenge, various castles, the Colosseum, and more. And while ruins like that are always fascinating, and sometimes even give me goosebumps, they're silent. The ancient people who lived there no longer have a voice... EXCEPT for the few writings from their eras that have survived to the present. So writings like the Bible, Book of the Dead, Tao Te Ching, Popol Vuh, and Buddhavacana may be biased or full of mythology, but they're direct connections to those ancient peoples. We can reach out across the millennia and still hear some of their words. (Not that it will stop me from snickering at the sillier portions of those books.)

**Granted, you could argue for a figurative or allegorical interpretation of these creation myths, and that's fine if that's what you want to do. Just don't pretend that they're literal accounts of the history of the planet, or that pre-scientific writing from hundreds or thousands of years ago can somehow overturn the vast mountains of evidence in support of things like the Big Bang or universal common descent.

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