When dealing with the evidence presented by the Bible, it is important to properly classify the various works included in this composite text. Even the books of the Bible can themselves be composite, but all the individual components can be classified under these general headings:
- Eye-witness reports and first hand testimony.
- Letters, written from one party to another, dealing with particular issues relevant at the time they were written.
- Personal reflections.
- Prophetic writings, generally reflecting the political conditions of the time, but oftentimes open to further interpretation and, from a Christian perspective, fulfillment.
- Encapsulated oral traditions, based on events that happened hundreds of years earlier.
- Psalms and songs, written in praise of God.
- Parable-like stories designed to make a point.
- Wisdom literature.
- Historical summaries, drawn from other (earlier) written accounts, often reflecting the political priorities of the time in which they were written.
From an historian’s point of view, eyewitness testimony has the greatest weight. Indeed, in a modern court trial, if eyewitness evidence is available, it is privileged above all other testimony. If eyewitnesses are not available, the evidence that is provided is given a weight that is directly and inversely proportional to the distance between the report and the events being reported. Just as in a court, where the evidence of eyewitnesses is both critical and fundamental, so also in assessing the historical claims made in the Bible, that which can be realistically attributed to eyewitnesses is of greatest value, whether sourced directly, or indirectly. That means that greatest weight is given to those sources that can supply information that is closest in both time and proximity to the matters upon which report is being made.
However, historians should not, and sometimes do not, ignore the evidence supplied by encapsulated oral traditions. Nor should the evidence of writings like psalms, songs, stories, prophecies, and all the other pieces of evidence cited about, be ignored, or disparaged. Each has it own place in an attempt to understand past events and times, about which our knowledge is often most inadequate.
Adopting appropriate skepticism, historians will tend to be most skeptical about the work done by other historians, on the grounds that analysis done of earlier times brings in its train the natural bias of the commentator, who can be seen to select the material that most easily proves the point that he or she wants to make.
Therefore, evidence and analysis must be the twin pillars of historical research, When we come to analysis, the available evidence is weighed and tested. Such analysis has to begin with an open minded attitude, so that the implications and relevance of the evidence can be explored in an unbiased manner. The next step is to search and probe the evidence for weaknesses, subjecting it to scrutiny, looking for inconsistencies between the sources and conflicts with what is known about the social and political conditions of the time in which any particular report is set. The historian will do this by measuring each piece of evidence against the reports of contemporary historians of that time (if any), and from whatever historical artifacts are relevant to the matter being considered. In this way the veracity of the evidence and the truthfulness of the witnesses are tested. This process is then continued from the other side, with any negative assessments also being closely examined to determine whether the supposed inconsistencies are truly problematic, or can be explained using a more empathetic approach.
Finally, the historian is required to make all necessary effort to understand the mindset of those who provided the evidence, and to recognize the context and genre of the source being examined.