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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Six--The Bible and Modern Scholarship

Today I continue my trek through The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (ed. John W. Loftus). Chapter six is by Paul Tobin, the author of The Rejection of Pascal's Wager: A Skeptic's Guide to the Bible and the Historical Jesus (2009). Tobin is a former Christian who decided to investigate the claims of the Bible for himself and his investigation led him to reject his former beliefs. He holds degrees in engineering and business administration and maintains a website, The Rejection of Pascal's Wager, where much of the information in the book was originally published.

His chapter in The Christian Delusion is entitled, "The Bible and Modern Scholarship." He maintains that modern scholarship has shown that the Bible 1) is inconsistent with itself, 2) is not supported by archaeology, 3) contains fairy tales, 4) contains failed prophecies, and 5) contains many forgeries (p. 148).

Tobin gives a few samples of contradictions in the Bible, such as the two diverse creation reports in Genesis 1 and 2, the two accounts of how many animals Noah brought into the ark, one saying that Noah brought one pair of each kind of animal into the ark and another account in which he brings in seven pairs of clean animals, Paul saying that salvation is by faith alone and James saying it's not by faith alone, and so on. Massive books have been written by Christians in an attempt to deal with the discrepancies in the Bible, for example Gleason Archer's New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (480 pages) and Norman Geisler's Big Book of Bible Difficulties (624 pages), thereby demonstrating how many contradictions there really are in the Christian Scriptures.

Archaeology used to be cited by apologists as "proving" the accuracy of the Bible, but that argument has pretty much disappeared in the last 20 years. The reason is that recent archeological studies have shown that the Hebrew Scriptures have little or no basis in historical fact. Tobin writes: Since the last decade of the twentieth century there is a growing consensus in modern scholarship that the major elements of the Exodus tale (the Israelites living in Egypt for 430 years, the exodus of this large group out of Egypt into Canaan, and the intervening forty years of wandering in the Sinai Peninsula) are also myths, not history (p. 154). This is the conclusion of such leading archaeological scholars as William Dever (Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From?, 2003), Eric H. Cline (From Eden to exile: unraveling mysteries of the Bible, 2007), and Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman (The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, 2002). In addition, there is little archaeological evidence for any of the events recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures until after the time of Solomon. Finkelstein and Silberman write:
If analyzed from a purely archaeological standpoint, Jerusalem, through those intervening centuries--including the time of David and Solomon--was probably never more than a small, relatively poor unfortified hill country town, no larger than three or four acres in size (David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible's Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition, 2006, p. 274).
Obviously, if the stories of the Patriarchs, Moses, the Exodus, the Conquest, and everything else up to the time of Solomon has no basis in history, then it must be mythology or legend. Fables are also a part of the Hebrew Scriptures including a talking serpent (Gen. 3) and a talking donkey (Num. 22). Tobin argues that the NT too contains myths or legends including the virgin birth, Herod's slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem, Mary's and Joseph's trip into Egypt, the Roman census, the wisemen, the star of Bethlehem, and so on (pp. 157-63).

"Fulfilled" prophecies have also been cited often by Christian apologists as proof that the Bible is of divine origin. Tobin (pp. 164-65) maintains that the NT writers used their fertile imaginations to draw parallels between the life of Jesus and the OT prophecies (e.g., compare Matt. 2:14-15 with Hosea 11:1-2). The fact that the details of the prophecy could not be understood until after its fulfillment speaks volumes. What good is a prophecy if it is not understood before its fulfillment? Apologists have also frequently cited the prophecies in the book of Daniel as proof of divine inspiration. The fact is, though, as Tobin shows, many of the prophecies in Daniel were written after the event they pretended to predict. They were really "postdictions" instead of "predictions." Most scholars believe that Daniel was written sometime around 165 BCE. The events it "predicts" prior to this time are remarkably accurate but the ones it predicts for later are off the mark. Evidence of this is found in the book of Daniel itself where God allegedly told Daniel "to seal up the book until the end time" (12:4).

Lastly, Tobin discusses the forgeries in the Bible. Modern scholarship agrees that the book of Daniel, the later part of Isaiah (chs. 40-66) and portions of the Psalms are forged. There is also consensus in rejecting Paul as the author of the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, Titus) and Peter as the author of the second epistle of Peter. In addition, much doubt exists that Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Peter, James and Jude are authentic. Conservatives, aware that the existence of forged documents in the Bible would be damaging to their insistence that it is from God, have attempted to mitigate this damage in three ways.
The first is to avoid using the word "forgery" at all cost and use abstruse words like "pseudepigraphy" and "pseudynomity" instead. The second step is to claim that the disciples of Paul (or Peter or James or Jude) wrote under their master's name because the letter "was intended as an extension of his thought--an assumption of the great apostle's mantle to continue his work." The final step is to then say that the ancients accepted pseudepigraphy as something normal and would not consider it negatively as we would today (p. 167).
Tobin shows this last point to be false. Greek and Roman authors warned their audience about forgeries written in their names. The famous Greek doctor Galen actually wrote a whole book telling his audience how to distinguish his work from forgeries (p. 168). Paul himself, if he is the real author of 2 Thessalonians, warns that there could be a letter circulating that falsely purports to be from him (2 Thess. 2:2). In addition, Tertullian records that in his day (2nd century CE), a presbyter had been tried and convicted for forging a document (The Acts of Paul) pretending to be from Paul (see Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities, pp. 31-32).

Though Tobin does not mention it, one of the principles used by those who selected the books to be included in the canon was authenticity. If modern scholarship is right in its conclusions, much of the NT and some of the OT should have never been included. Furthermore, two of the major "proof texts" for the divine inspiration of the Bible, 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21, would not have been included in the canon thus nullifying their impact on the doctrine of inspiration.

Tobin conclusively shows through the five points made in this chapter that modern scholarship has dealt a death-blow to the idea that the Bible is the Word of God.


  1. The final step is to then say that the ancients accepted pseudepigraphy as something normal and would not consider it negatively as we would today (p. 167).

    That's a terrible argument. The ancients also accepted bringing condemned criminals on to the stage to be killed during the climax of a play and fights to the death between men and beasts. Saying, "They used to accept such things," doesn't make them right.

    Besides, aren't us horrible non-Christians the ones who should be condemned for our moral relativism?

    Secular historians have this terrible habit of throwing out historical works when they find the authors aren't on the up and up. Or, at least they view the corrupt works with extreme skepticism. Learning how to do that is an important part of learning to become a good historian. How, exactly, does turning a blind eye to forgeries then become acceptable if you're looking at the Bible? And how does that contribute to the idea that the Bible is infallible or even useful?

  2. Along with Gerd Luedemann I heartily recommend Tobin's book. It's massive and he does a great job throughout it.

  3. Tobin's notable for very thorough coverage of these issues. I've been reading his website essays for years now and keep meaning to order his big heavy comprehensive book. I'll be getting what appears to be a summary of it in the chapter of "Christian Delusion", at least.

    I appreciate the mentioned of the issue of prophecy above. I don't know whether it is cited anywhere as being a good read on the subject, but another well read non-scholar researcher, Tim Callahan, has one of the better books on the subject, "Bible Prophecy: Failure or Fulfillment?". Another book specifically on Daniel that I recommend is "Beasts, Horns and the AntiChrist" by Brodrick Shepherd. Finally, a scholarly work on Daniel, "Daniel: With an Introduction to Apocalyptic Literature" by John Collins, is worth a read.

    Tobin also seems to have relied heavily for his coverage of archaeology on Dever's works and on Finkelstein. I tend to concur with him on this. For my tastes, Finkelstein, while not a minimalist, skirts toward that a bit more than I'd like, but nonetheless is a well respected archaeologist who has done a great deal of valuable work and brings a lot of solid work to the table. Dever agrees with him on more than they disagree, though where they do disagree, I mostly favor Dever. That's the direction I've been persuaded, but I'm not infallible.

    On the authenticity of various biblical writings (i.e., who wrote them) some Christian commentators don't seem to fully grasp exactly how serious the implications could be that such a sizeable chunk of the NT is probably pseudonymous (everything but the 7 authentic Pauline epistles) or IS anonymous (all four gospels). The fundamentalists do appear to grasp this reality, which is why they've essentially made themselves impervious to any sort of objective literary/textual analysis that in some cases leaves little or no room for argument in favor of authenticity.

    Another good write-up on a section of this book, and I'll be honest. At first I was thinking, "ho hum... another compilation", but this chapter by chapter review process has left me feeling eager to go ahead and order a copy. Looks like there is a lot of great content inside.

  4. Chris,

    Thanks for the comments. You bring up some good points. I have to admit that I am little weak on archaeology as I haven't studied it in much detail since the early 80's. It appears though that archaeology will no longer be used by Christian apologists. I am not sure what there approach to it is now. I guess the same as their approach to science--"they are all a bunch of unbelieving scholars with a bias against the supernatural."