The Bible as History

Erasmus Froelich, Annales compendiarii regum et rerum Syriae: numis veteris illustrat.

Printed at Kaliwoda in Vienna in 1744

“The Bible as History”, that’s how a book published in 1955 was called. Its author wanted to demonstrate that archaeology could provide the ultimate proof for the historical validity of the events described in the Bible. Even if one might disagree with the arguments put forward in it, the book was a success. It was translated into 20 languages and several million copies were published. All in all, a huge success for author and publishing house!

A reason for the world-wide popularity of the book might be that people have been wondering since the Enlightenment whether there is a way of combining modern research and faith. One of those who tried this already in the 18th century was Jesuit Erasmus Froelich.

The Jesuit Church in Vienna is also called University Church today due to the close connection between the order and academic education. Photo: Georges Jansoone. CC-BY 3.0.

Why so Many Talented Boys Joined the Jesuit Order

Erasmus Froelich was born in Graz in 1700. We don’t know anything about his parents, except that they apparently were not opposed to their 16-year-old son joining the Jesuits. At that time, this wasn’t an unusual decision for a young man, who didn’t have any money but more brains than he could use in his father’s business. In order to obtain academic education – at least that’s how things were until the beginning of the 18th century – one either had to have the money to pay for it, find a rich patron or join an order and serve it for the rest of one’s life.

And that’s what Erasmus Froelich did. He decided to join the Jesuits, who were known for the fact that they actually appreciated education – of whatever kind. He studied mathematics, theology and Hebrew in order to work as a teacher.

In 1746 Maria Theresa appointed him to work at the Theresianum, a school which she had just founded and which was supposed to enable destitute boys to obtain higher education without having to consecrate their lives to a Catholic order.

Emperor Francis I with his mineral collection. In the background you can see Valentin Jamerai Duval, who brings him a selection of medals for examination. Duval was a colleague of Froelich, together with whom he wrote the first catalogue of the emperor’s coin collection. Photo: KW.

At that time, Maria Theresa already knew Froelich personally. He had the same hobby as her husband Francis. The monarch had certainly often seen the Jesuit priest talking to her husband, when the latter was restoring his work-life-balance after fulfilling his strenuous duties of government with a relaxing chat about the intricacies of numismatics. Following the emperor’s orders, Froelich took care of the reorganisation and rearrangement of the emperor’s coin cabinet, which was moved to the Treasury at the Schweizerhof in 1750. He identified the coins together with two colleagues and they jointly published the first printed list of the entire coin collection including 150 plates.

The Books of the Maccabees – Authentic or Not?

In view of his extensive duties, one actually wonders how Froelich managed to find the time for working on his opus magnus, the annals of the Syrian kings, from the death of Alexander the Great to the arrival of Gnaeus Pompeius in Syria.

The work is far more than a catalogue of coins or a collection inventory, which were produced in large quantities in the 18th century. Froelich asked a concrete question, which he wanted to answer with the help of coins. He wanted to know if the Books of the Maccabees, which were considered apocryphal, were authentic or not.

The four books describe what happened during the Maccabean Revolt, when strictly religious Jews rebelled against the Syrian king Antiochus IV. The works are central to the history of Judaism, as the second book established one of the most important festival of the Jewish community, Hanukkah. It commemorates the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem that took place when Judas Maccabeus’ troops had regained control of Jerusalem. But that wasn’t the end of the armed conflict. 3 and 4 Maccabee describe what happened afterwards.

The Books of the Maccabees are among the many documents regarding which scholars are unable to agree on whether they are holy scriptures or not. While the version of the Bible compiled in Alexandria, the Septuagint, included all four Books of the Maccabees, book 3 and 4 weren’t part of the Vulgate. The Catholics followed the tradition of the Vulgate and declared book 1 and 2 canonical. And the Protestants eliminated all the books from their version of the Bible.

Actually, that’s a pity – at least from the point of view of a historian because even though the books only were written when the events described by them had been over for a long time (which is also true, by the way, for all books of the bible), the Hebrew original source referred to some very reliable texts.

Those familiar with Seleucid history couldn’t help but notice how historically reliable the Books of the Maccabees were. And Erasmus Froelich knew a lot about this topic. He had studied theology and, of course, read texts written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew without any problems. In addition, he had the testimony of the coins, and that’s where he saw a chance to prove to his readers that the Books of the Maccabees were authentic, and thus that they had to be part of the Bible.

Coins as Historical Testimonies

For this purpose, Froelich wrote the annals of the kings of Syria as main part of his work. He listed, ordered by years, the events of their reign known from literature. On one page you can find the events, ordered according to the Christian era, the Julian calendar and enriched with dating according to the Seleucid era and the Olympiad system. On the other page you find depictions of coins, which, thanks to them being dated according to the Seleucid calendar, can all be assigned to a certain point in time.

Froelich used the facts that were confirmed by this comparison in order to argue that the first and second Book of the Maccabees, which were part of the Catholic Bible, must be historically correct, authentic and thus divinely inspired.

A Work That Will Only End Along With the World

Obviously, the Catholic world was thrilled! Educated faithful men were quite used to having to defend themselves against their Enlightened peers! Only less than 10 years after the publication of this book, the persecution of the Jesuits was to lead to the (provisional) ban of this order. And now there was this brilliant scholar who was able to prove by means of the latest methods that the books of the Bible weren’t pious gossip but historically correct information!

Even in 1830 the “Neue theologische Zeitschrift” still quoted extensively from a review written after the work had been published. It describes the books as a work “that will only end along with the world”.

It will probably not surprise you that the Protestant world came to a different conclusion – even though nobody could deny that the work was a great scholarly achievement. After all, the Books of the Maccabees weren’t part of their Bible. And thus, they obviously couldn’t be divinely inspired. At least that’s what (Protestant) Ernst Friedrich Wernsdorf said, who was professor for Christian archaeology in Leipzig. Back then, this office didn’t have to do with excavations, but with studying Christian antiquities.

Every Age Writes Its Own History

Despite being scholarly brilliant, numismatist and historian Erasmus Froelich had overlooked the fact that coins and facts can reconstruct historical events but cannot prove faith. The fact that an event actually happened does not say anything about how people should interpret it.

In other words: even if archaeologists and numerous sources irrefutably prove that there was a great flood, one thing will always remain a question of faith, why it came and why some survived while others died.

Issues of faith cannot be discussed on the basis of facts. Otherwise it wouldn’t be a matter of faith but of knowledge.


Continue Reading

If you would like to browse through the book by yourself, click here to see Froelich’s annals.

Even if this biography of Froelich was written in 1830, it’s absolutely worth reading (in German).

If you’d like to know more about the Books of the Maccabees, we recommend this article.

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