Grotesqueness and Absurdity of Christianity
The Grotesqueness and Absurdity of Christianity
Topic II: The Reliability of the Bible
Part I: The Nature of Testimony
A Christian could grant that while the moral injunctions of the Bible are apparently at odds with reason, which is admittedly fallible, they are still valid, since they have been proclaimed by god, who is infallible. This opponent will go on to say that the Bible is a means of valid knowledge by being god's testimony and that it informs us of his nature and his commandments. This is, I concede, a possibility.
In order to determine whether the testimony of the Bible might be a more trustworthy means of knowledge than is reason, that it can provide us with cognitions (e.g., cognitions about god's existence and what is morally right) that sublate the cognitions produced by reasoning (to which the former cognitions are opposed), we should see if this testimony meets those criteria that would establish its reliability.
To do this, to ascertain how reliable a source of knowledge the Bible is, we must treat it as we would any other testimony and look at both the testifier and the subject of his testimony. As for the former, we must first ask if the testifier is honest. Clearly, a person can be trusted to the degree that experience has demonstrated that his testimony has repeatedly been shown to be true. Next, we must ask if, in a particular situation, there is a reason why the testifier might make untrue statements, whether these are deceitful or not. After all, even an ordinarily honest person can provide false testimony, whether intentionally or unintentionally, as a result of fear, delusion, hope of personal gain, mental illness, intoxication, various physical conditions, or some other factor. Third, we must ask if the person has, through repeated experience, demonstrated himself to be knowledgeable about the subject about which he is testifying, since a person, though knowledgeable about one field, might not be knowledgeable about another. Even an honest person can, it must be conceded, believe himself to be knowledgable about a subject and provide testimony about it (testimony that he believes to be true), while, in fact, he might actually be woefully ignorant about that subject. Though, for instance, a given carpenter might be a thoroughly reliable source of information about carpentry, this does not mean that he is a reliable source of information about physics, even though it is possible that he regards himself to be such. A person's reliability must be established for each subject about which he testifies. Fortunately, I can know whether an individual is a reliable source of information about a given subject through experience. Specifically, when this person provides testimony about various purported facts, I can corroborate or disprove his claims. Through such means I can determine that he is a reliable source of information about a given subject, such as carpentry, but is an unreliable source of information about another, such as physics. Repeated corroboration of testimony is thus required for every subject about which a person makes claims until such a time as a person has established himself as an authority with regard to that subject.
Taking all of these factors into consideration, we can apply them to particular cases of testimony. While doing so, however, we must also ask ourselves how important the subject of the testimony is. If it is trivial, if there are few consequences to being deceived, we might accept even testimony from an unreliable source. In asking where the exit to a building is, I might ask and believe a complete stranger or a man I know to be a liar. If I am led astray, I will still likely find my way out and will only have been briefly delayed. If, however, the subject is one of importance, if the consequences of being deceived are substantial (if, for instance, the testimony relates to something like making a large purchase or deciding how I am to live my life), then I will be highly skeptical of the testifier and examine his testimony closely. I do not believe that anyone, Christian or unbeliever, would deny that the teachings of the Bible constitute an important subject. Since this is the case, then, obviously, we must scrutinize the Bible closely.
So, is the testimony of the Bible dependable? Let us see if the assertions made in that book reveal an honest author, one who is not motivated to lie or overcome by some state that prevents him from speaking accurately and who is knowledgeable about the subjects about which he testifies.
Unfortunately, it might be impossible to determine whether the author or authors of the Bible are generally honest. If the book was composed by human authors, then we have nothing but the testimony presented within it to determine whether or not they were honest men (since we cannot know these individuals ourselves and they left no other works for us to examine). When determining if they were honest, we must also be aware that any inaccurate statements that are made in the Bible might have resulted from ignorance rather than from deliberate lying, and we do not, in many cases, have enough information to make such determinations. We can, however, see whether the statements such individuals make in the Bible are corroborated. If they are, then we can say that the testifiers are honest. If they are not, while we cannot, perhaps, say that the testifiers are dishonest, we can, at the least, say that they are not reliable sources of information. Of course, if these men were divinely inspired, or were merely instruments used by god for the composition of the Bible, so that the author is really god himself, then we can discuss the honesty of the author. Since this being is, according to Christian claims, omniscient, he cannot be mistaken about particular facts and so cannot make errors. When he makes a false statement, it cannot simply be due to ignorance or a faulty memory. In other words, the false statement has to be a lie. It follows, then, that, if a person insists that the Bible was composed by god, and the Bible is found to contain false statements, then he will be forced to conclude that his god is a liar.
All of this said, we still can (and must) infer how liable the author or authors of the Bible were to make false statements, whether deliberately or not, on particular occasions. Most importantly, we must try to find out if there are times when such a person or persons were motivated to lie. If we find statements about some subject that are not true or cannot be verified, and we can perceive a condition or ulterior reason that would prompt the author to make these statements, then we have discovered a subject about which the author might have intentionally or unintentionally made untrue statements. We can also, conversely, when looking at some subject and failing to find either inaccurate statements about it or reasons for the author to make such inaccurate statements, decide that the author had no motive to lie or cause to make inaccurate claims about that subject (or, at the least, even if he had an undetected reason to lie or to lead him to make false assertions, that he did not do so, if the statements have been verified, or possibly did not, if the statements are unverified). In other words, we can take as veridical, at least tentatively (that is to say, before taking into account the final criterion), both those statements that are corroborated and those that, though not corroborated, are not likely to have been made for ulterior motives or as a result of some condition capable of misleading the testifier.
Of course, we absolutely must determine whether the statements made in the Bible with regard to a particular subject reveal a testifier who is knowledgable about that subject.
To do this, we need to see if any such referential statements can be corroborated and if any made with regard to that same subject are contradicted. The proportion of such corroborated to contradicted statements will then allow us to make determinations about the knowledgableness of author of the Bible about that subject. If all such statements which can be corroborated are corroborated, we can tentatively take the Bible's author to be knowledgable about the subject in question and place a degree of faith in those unverified comments made in the Bible about that subject. If most such statements (those that can be corroborated) are corroborated, we can still regard the author of the Bible as probably being generally knowledgable about the subjects in question. If, however, a substantial number of the verifiable statements made in the Bible are found to be incorrect, then we will be forced to admit that the Bible's author is not knowledgable about the subject of these. While making such investigations, we must also make certain that the statements made in the Bible are consistent with one another. Even if a given statement cannot be verified or discredited from another source, it might still be contradicted by another statement in the Bible, which contradiction will entail one or both of the statements in question being untrue.Clearly, while we cannot determine the general honesty of the author of any portion of the Bible, we can, nevertheless, potentially determine how knowledgeable this testifier was about a given subject and, perhaps, whether he had reason to lie or make untrue statements on a given occasion. When statements made in the Bible about a given subject are consistently contradicted, or when there is evidence that these are false, either as lies or otherwise, then we must regard the author to be an unreliable source of information. However, when statements made in the Bible about a given subject are consistently corroborated, and when there is no evidence of dishonesty or some impediment to speaking truly with regard to those that cannot be corroborated, we can take the author of those statements to be a reliable source of information.
As was stated above, however, establishing that a given source of testimony is reliable with regard to one subject does not necessitate that it is reliable with regard to another subject.
Regrettably for that person who accepts the testimony of the authors of the Bible, even if the claims made by these authors about certain purported facts are corroborated, this corroboration will not entail that claims made about other subjects should be given credence. In other words, even if claims made in the Bible about the nature of the universe and historical events are supported by scientific and historical sources, this does not mean that other claims made in the Bible are true. Similarly, though my plumber might prove himself to be generally, or even invariably, correct when diagnosing my plumbing problems, this does not mean that he will invariably be correct in his understanding of biochemistry. His knowledge of biochemistry must be tested apart from the testing of his knowledge of plumbing.
This has some severe consequences for the Christian. While it is possible that I could corroborate historical or scientific claims made in the Bible, and so accept that text as a reliable source of knowledge about such subjects, such corroboration will not allow me to accept the Bible's metaphysical claims. If I am to accept these, I will need corroboration of them. Only when I have received such corroboration will I be able to accept the claims of the Bible by acknowledging the authoritativeness of that text. Unfortunately, every other religion makes contrary claims in its scriptures about those very subjects, providing me not with corroboration, but with contradiction.
The Christian could reply to this by noting that Christian mystics have provided corroboration of statements made in the Bible. There are such individuals who claim to have had experiences of heaven, hell, god, angels, and the like. However, if these experiences are true, that is, if they are of entities that exist outside of the experiencer's mind, then they should be amendable to experience by persons of other religions. Just as a Buddhist perceives the same flower, stone, chair, or cloud that a Christian does, so a Buddhist mystic should perceive the same transcendent entities that a Christian mystic does. If he does not, then any experiences that are not being corroborated, that are, in fact, being contradicted, have to be questioned. After all, if a thing is amendable to some type of perception, then it should be perceptible to all capable of perceiving it.
Obviously, non-Christian mystics do not experience the transcendent entities of Christianity, but have contrary experiences, meaning that the experiences of Christian mystics are not being corroborated. This, of course, means that we ought not to place credence in accounts of such experiences. Instead of taking them to be reflections of external realities which would be perceptible to any person capable of perceiving them, we must acknowledge them to be internal occurrences. They must, in other words, be the products of the mystic's mind. It is quite probable that visions of god or angelic hosts, heaven or hell, are merely hallucinations the specific forms of which are determined by the perceiver's education, his cultural environment, his consequent expectations, his hopes, and his fears.
I might add to this that while many such experiences undoubtedly reflect cultural biases and psychological expectations, many persons might claim to have had these experiences when they had not. As I mentioned above, if a person has reason to lie, his testimony cannot be accepted without doubt. Although many Christians may be loathe to admit this, it is possible that the works of any given mystic (whether Christian or not) include deliberately false testimony that was given in the hope of bolstering the mystic's reputation, of helping him to advance himself within his community, or of achieving some other end. When such particular reasons are provided which indicate that a person might have a cause to lie, it is only by means of corroborative testimony that we can know that this individual is telling the truth. Regrettably, we are lacking in testimony coming from outside the Christian community that would verify the claims of Christian mystics, while we have a plethora of testimony from non-Christian mystics that contradicts the claims made by these Christian mystics.
Such corroboration is, moreover, absolutely necessary if the more extraordinary claims of the Bible are to be countenanced, such as those relating to the existence of god and the means to enter his heaven. After all, the more unusual, the more outside of our ordinary experience, a claim is, the greater the corroboration that will be required for it to be accepted, even when the testimony is provided by a person who has met all the conditions of reliability that have been discussed above.
A few examples should help to illustrate this. In all of these, I should add, let us assume that the person giving the testimony has been established as being reliable. If this person informs me that should I walk down a particular road I will come to an intersection, I will believe him without any corroboration, since I have repeatedly experienced that virtually all roads intersect with some other road. If he reveals to me that his brother lives in the same town where my sister lives, which is a thousand miles from where we live, I would again believe him. Though it is relatively unlikely that two persons will have siblings who live in the same distant town, I have previously encountered similar coincidences, and I know that, even if I had not, such coincidences are completely in accord with the accidents of human life. If he told me that he had just seen a polar bear walking down the street outside of his house, I would, however, probably suspend making a judgment about his veracity, simply because such an event is, according to my experience, extremely unlikely. That said, were I to receive independent corroboration of such an event, say, for example, from a local news broadcast, I would believe the testimony, since the event being claimed, while unusual, is by no means impossible. It simply includes entities, a polar bear and a location in the town in which I live, that have not been previously connected and that, for whatever reason, are unlikely to be connected.
Should my reliable witness now claim that he saw a gigantic, fire-breathing dragon walking down his street, I would require considerably more verification of his statement. Since I have never encountered a dragon and know of no one who has, I am disinclined to believe in the existence of dragons. In fact, I am so disinclined to believe in their existence because of this lack of evidence, and because of my awareness that the perception of a dragon could be explained by hallucination, mistake, fraud, or the like, that I would demand to be provided with some sort of physical evidence from which I could infer the existence of this creature before I accepted the claims even of numerous independent witnesses. At best, I would suspend judgment about the accuracy of their testimony, and it would require substantial amounts of independent testimony to get me to do even that.
Of course, were a sufficient number of people to claim to have encountered some sort of mythical being, whether dragons, fairies, space monsters, the gods of the Norse pantheon, or something else, I would not automatically disbelieve them (even though I would be very strongly inclined not to believe them). I cannot, after all, deny that I have previously heard of entities with capacities, appearances, and other characteristics which are different from those of entities I have encountered and then, at some later time, actually encountered such entities or, at the least, encountered evidence of their existence that was strong enough to convince me of their reality. There was once a time, for instance, when I had heard of an animal called an echidna, but had never seen one. Later, I saw an echidna. I had a sensory experience that such a creature existed. Based on such experiences, I will even accept the existence of creatures I have not personally seen. I have not, for example, ever encountered a giant squid, yet I believe in the existence of such creatures because of my own experiences and because I have seen a substantial amount of evidence of their existence. I do not, however, believe in the existence of fairies because, though I am aware of the testimony of persons who claim to have seen them, this testimony is often suspect and it has never been corroborated by physical evidence. That said, were someone to present a sufficiently substantial amount of physical evidence that fairies exist, I would concede that they do. Since I have heard of beings I have not personally seen and then been presented with evidence of their existence, I cannot rule out that any given class of beings, fairies, dragons, space monsters, the gods of the Norse pantheon, or something else, exist, even though I do think, in the absence of such evidence, that their existence is so highly improbable that I effectively reject that existence. In other words, I am ready to believe in the existence of what I consider to be outlandish and wildly unlikely, but yet not wholly unlike things I have encountered, if I am presented with sufficient evidence, though this evidence must be so overwhelming as to quash my considerable doubts.
Returning now to my reliable witness, let us imagine him claiming that he has encountered some non-physical but omnipresent entity who rules over a kingdom that exists beyond the universe we know. Unlike the situation just discussed, I have no experience of first hearing of such an entity and then encountering one, nor have I ever been presented with physical evidence from which I could reliably infer that this entity existed. My witness's claim is, thus, so extraordinary that the totality of my experiences tells me to disbelieve it. Even to consider that his assertion is true, I would require an overwhelming amount of corroboratory testimony and no contradictory testimony of equal reliability. Unfortunately, as was discussed above, claims about the existence of such a being are repeatedly contradicted by other claims, which have been made by persons who are just as reliable as are the individuals making the former claims.
Should my reliable witness now assert that he has drawn a square circle, I will be forced to call him a liar, or, at the least, console him for being deluded. Since such a thing is quite impossible, I simply cannot accept that he is telling the truth. Even if he were to show me the circle, I would have to doubt the veridicality of my sensory experience. Similarly, were this witness to say that he had encountered an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing being, I would have to reject that testimony. Since these three traits are opposed to one another, I cannot accept their presence in one entity. Because their co-presence is impossible (as will be discussed below), I cannot accept as veridical any apparent means of knowledge indicating that there is an entity in which all three exist. All testimony is outweighed by this impossibility, as is any inference and even any direct perception. Whatever means of knowledge seems to reveal such an entity I would be required to regard as erroneous.
Having said all this, it might still be worthwhile to look at how reliable the Bible is as a source of information about subjects that can be known by other means, means which can corroborate or contradict statements made in the Bible. Happily, we can look at the scientific and historical claims made in that book and determine whether they are corroborated by research conducted by scientists and historians. This will not establish that the author or authors of the Bible are knowledgeable about other subjects, but it can potentially reveal that such an individual or such individuals are not invariably reliable. If, I might add, the author or authors can be established as being dishonest on occasion, then we must always be ready to doubt the book's veracity. If he or they can be shown to be wrong at times, then we must reject any claim that the Bible is universally correct. Regrettably for the Christian, the author or authors of the Bible seem habitually to provide false information. He or they are often grossly ignorant while being certain about being knowledgeable, and he or they do sometimes appear to be lying.
Part II: Inaccurate and Inconsistent Statements about the Physical World
The Bible does not, whatever its adherents might claim, provide an accurate description of the physical universe.
To begin with, the very structure of the universe presented in the Bible is at odds with that described by modern science. According to the Bible, the universe is a small, closed system, at the bottom of which is the Earth, which is flat (Isaiah 11:12, 40:22, 44:24). This flat little cosmos is topped with heaven, which is located above the sky and separated from the atmosphere by the firmament, which spreads across the sky (Genesis 1.20). In this firmament are set the sun, the moon, and, apparently, the stars (Genesis 1:16-17). Thus, it is not the Earth that circles the sun, but rather the sun that moves across the sky above the Earth (Joshua 10:12-13). The crystalline (Ezekiel 1:22 ) firmament does not serve only as a support for this moving sun, and all the little moving stars. It also divides the waters, half of these, our lakes, seas, etc., being below it and the other half being above it, in heaven (Genesis 1:6-8). Although it seems somewhat silly to do so, I will mention that we now have an overwhelming amount of evidence indicating that the world is spherical and circles the sun, that the atmosphere merely thins to nothing above the Earth's surface, instead of being topped by a solid roof, and that beyond this atmosphere is the impossibly vast void of space, in which are to be found innumerable other suns, many with other planets, but no heavenly abode with its own oceans.
It this nonexistent celestial water, that which god has supposedly stored in his great heavenly reservoir, which, so the Bible says, he dumps on us through convenient slats cut in the firmament (Genesis 7:11). Of course, this means that clouds have nothing to do with rain, but, then, according to the Bible, they aren't even composed of water. Clouds are just the smudges god's dirty feet leave on the sky (Nahum 1:3). Again, these claims are wildly at odds both with the structure we currently know the Earth to have and with the whole of our meteorological knowledge.
Nearly all Christians now try to ignore these passages, though their co-religionists in former times were more than willing to persecute those heretics who dared doubt the accuracy of such statements (such as Galileo, who dared listen to the evidence marshalled by Copernicus and wonder about how accurate the Bible's geocentric claims were). There are, nonetheless, still innumerable Christians today who are not willing to abandon the Bible's accounts of the creation and the age of the world. Unfortunately, though these persons take statements made in that text regarding these matters to be reliable testimony, such testimony is never corroborated. Instead, it is consistently contradicted by other sources of knowledge. On these subjects, the Bible is, in all ways, as silly as it is when it makes pronouncements on the form of the universe, since, in all these matters, it expresses the worldview of an ancient, superstitious age during which people had severely limited knowledge about such realities.
I see no point in going into this debate in any great detail as so many others with far more specialized knowledge have done so before. A brief account should be more than sufficient to make my point here.
Although there have been a number of different calculations of the age of the Earth based on information given in the Bible, which calculations do not agree with one another, they are all reasonably close and their differences are based on biblical ambiguities and differences in the specific texts used. Some authorities claim that the Earth is roughly five thousand seven hundred years old (as does the Jewish calendar, according to which the world was created in 3760 BC), roughly six thousand years old (as does Ussher, according to whom the world was created in 4004 BC), roughly seven thousand five hundred years old (as does the Coptic calendar, according to which the world was created in 5493 BC), or roughly seven thousand five hundred years old (as does the Byzantine calendar, according to which the world was created in 5509 BC). All of these calculations are all clearly wildly off from the four and a half billion years established and repeatedly corroborated by science to be the age of the Earth. They are even more off from the nearly fourteen billion years similarly established to be the age of the universe. Whatever the precise age this world and the universe might be according the Bible, the testimony of that book is grossly wrong. The claims of various scientists who have researched these subjects have been repeatedly corroborated by the work of others, and even those claims such individuals have made which have been shown to be wrong have allowed their successors to hone their own views so that, through trial and error, these persons have refined their views and eliminated one mistake after another, making their claims ever more accurate. In contrast to this, the testimony of the Bible has received absolutely no support, but has, instead, been endlessly contradicted.
The Bible's claims about how this Earth and the creatures living upon it came to be are no more reliable than are its claims about how long ago it was brought into existence. For one thing, the tales of creation given in Genesis are are wholly at odds with scientific theories about the Big Bang, planet formation, and geology. What is more, these stories are thoroughly contradicted by the overwhelming amounts of evidence that scientists have uncovered relating to the evolution of all living things. Instead of these persons corroborating the Bible's assertions that whole classes of entities were instantly brought into existence by divine edict on a succession of days in a single week, they have shown that all living things slowly developed over billions of years from the simplest of forms to the most complex as a result of innumerable minor or major mutations, each of which rendered an entity more or less likely to survive, and so more or less likely to perpetuate its genes.
The scientific mistakes made in the Bible are not always on such a grand scale as are those just noted, but those that are not can be both wildly incorrect and truly funny. For example, in Leviticus 11:6, the Bible states that rabbits chew their cud, which they do not. It goes on to say that bats are birds (Leviticus 11:13-19) and that insects and some birds have four legs (Leviticus 11 20-23). As humorous as these mistakes are, they are, perhaps, not quite as funny as is god's ignorance of the the value of pi. According to the Bible, Solomon had a great brass vessel made, which was round and ten cubits from brim to brim. Using elementary mathematics, this vessel must have had a circumference of 31.4 cubits, but, somehow, "a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about" (1 Kings, 7:23). Clearly, not only is the celestial engineer an inept mathematician, but he is also a bit forgetful about his creation.
Even before scientific research came to demonstrate the falsity of biblical claims, the Bible itself revealed its own falsity by including two contradictory creation stories, one in the first chapter of Genesis and one in the second chapter. Do what he might to explain away the outright contradictions of these narratives, the Christian cannot succeed in this endeavor. The simple fact is that the two stories are not reconcilable. In other words, the Bible, by providing contradictory evidence, demonstrates itself to be unreliable.
The entire order of creation is, after all, completely different in the two accounts, as can clearly be seen when these are compared. (The table below is reproduced from: S.H. Hooke, Middle Eastern Mythology (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963, reprinted 1983), pp. 105-106).
Obviously, the Bible reflects an ancient society's view of the world, with all the limitations inherent in such a view (though with the poetic imaginativeness these so often have). It is hardly surprising, therefore, that it includes innumerable claims about the physical world that are either refuted by other sources of knowledge, such as those employed in modern science, or are contradicted by other statements in the Bible itself. The book, quite simply, shows itself to be a thoroughly unreliable source of information about the physical world. Although this does not prove that the Bible cannot be a reliable source of information about another subject, it does demonstrate that the composer of the Bible was liable to error or, if he was omniscient, to deception. The book cannot, therefore, be considered to be absolutely veridical. The truth of its statements will simply have to be tested.
Part III: Inaccurate and Inconsistent Statements about History
I have no doubt that a Christian, upon hearing that I am challenging the accuracy of the Bible as an historical document, will point out that numerous events recorded in the Bible have been corroborated by other textual sources and by archeology. I will freely admit that this is the case. The Bible contains an enormous amount of historical information. In fact, it is our primary source of information about the history of the ancient Jews. That said, the Bible also contains innumerable false statements. It is filled with legends, with accounts so biased that the truth has been distorted, with a variety of mistakes, and, frankly, with a number of accounts that appear to be deliberately deceptive. In other words, though the Bible is useful as a source of information, its testimony is highly dubious and so requires a critical examination before it is used.
First of all, the stories of the early Jewish patriarchs demonstrate considerable evidence of having been composed in the eighth and seventh centuries BC. The tale of Abraham mentions the use of domesticated camels, the export of balm, gum, and myrrh from the Arabian peninsula, the presence of the Philistines in Canaan, and the city of Gerar as an important, well-known location. Archaeological evidence, however, associates all of these things with a much later time period than that during which Abraham could have lived, given biblical chronologies (which vary from one tradition to another, but which would generally place him at c. 2000-1600 BC). Camels were not widely used as mounts until after 1000 BC. The trade in balm, gum, and myrrh became significant only during the period of the Assyrian Empire, in the eighth through seventh centuries BC. The Philistines did not arrive in Canaan until after 1200 BC, and Gerar was merely a village until the eighth century BC (See: Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed (Touchstone: New York, 2002), pp. 36-38). Instead of being an historical person, Abraham appears to be a character from legend, the mythic progenitor of the closely related tribes that collectively constituted the ancient Israelites.
What is more, the genealogies given in Genesis reveal the political interests of the Jewish states of the eighth and seventh centuries BC and even provide mythic justifications for the interests of these states. The Moabites, who were frequent rivals of the Jews, are, for example, slandered as being the progeny of the incestuous union of Lot and his daughters (Finkelstein and Silberman, pp. 39-40). The Arameans are recognized as relations of the Israelites, though ones with whom they are often at odds, and Jacob establishes a border with them that matches with the border between these peoples that existed in the ninth through eighth centuries BC (Finkelstein and Silberman, p. 39). The Edomites, though also recognized as relatives of the Israelites, being the descendents of Jacob's older brother Esau, are told that they will ever be subject to Jacob's heirs, so providing "divine legitimation for the political relationship between the two nations in late monarchic times" (Finkelstein and Silberman, p. 40). Lastly, various peoples of the Arabian deserts are said to have descended from the children of the wild, animal-like Ishmael, though none of these people appear in historical records prior to the eighth century BC (Finkelstein and Silberman, pp. 41-43). In every one of these cases, the Bible places peoples with whom the ancient Jews had relations in an anachronistically early time and thereby betrays its own unreliableness as an historic record. The narratives relating the origins of these peoples do not, however, simply contain errors, mere innocent mistakes. They expose the willingness of the authors of the Bible to manipulate facts for the sake of propaganda. In other words, since the ulterior motives of the authors of the Bible are, in places, clearly visible, along with historical claims that are just as clearly false, the reader of that text is necessarily compelled by reason to be wary of other claims since these too might have been made for self-serving reasons rather than simply to record events.
There is, moreover, no evidence that the Jewish people were held in captivity in Egypt, or that they even dwelled there. Admittedly, Semitic peoples did migrate to Egypt, and one of these, the Hyksos, who happened to be from Canaan, ruled over Egypt prior to being expelled and returning to their homeland. The Hyksos were, unfortunately, rulers, not slaves. They were also driven from Egypt around 1570 BC, which rules them about as the Hebrews of the Bible since that text says the Hebrews labored on a city named Raamses, and the first pharaoh named Ramesses, for whom such a city could be named, came to the throne in 1320 BC. It is, however, Ramesses II who built what is most likely the Raamses of the Bible, the city Pi-Ramesses (for the construction of which he probably did employ Semitic peoples), but he did not become pharaoh until 1279 BC. What is more, Canaan was then controlled by Egypt. It was not a place to which persons fleeing Egypt would escape. Of course, the political realities reflected in the story are not those of such earlier times, but those of the seventh century BC, when the text was likely set down in writing (though the narrative, undoubtedly, existed in varying forms prior to this). The story of the Jewish captivity in Egypt is, thus, set in a world based upon memories of Canaanite migrations to Egypt, of the employment of these people there, and of the expulsion of the Hyksos, mingled with the historical realities of the world in which the authors lived (Finkelstein and Silberman, p. 48ff).
Not surprisingly, evidence supporting the Bible's assertions that six-hundred thousand Hebrews lived in the Sinai Peninsula and the borders of Canaan for forty years after their escape from the pharaoh are just as unsupported as are its claims that these people were ever in Egypt. Archeologists, even when trying to prove the accuracy of the Bible, have been unable to find a single shred of physical proof of the Jew's long wanderings through the wastelands between Egypt and Palestine. For most of this time, thirty-eight years, according to the Bible, they even dwelt in a single place, Kadesh, which has been identified, but excavations there have failed to reveal any evidence of its having been inhabited. (Finkelstein and Silberman, pp. 61-64). Though lack of evidence does not necessarily constitute proof, it does constitute proof in certain cases. Specifically, when the conditions of a thing's being known are fulfilled but that thing is not known, then we know that it is absent. I know, for instance, that there is not a turtle on my desk because, upon looking at the desk under conditions that allow me to see what is on it, I fail to perceive a turtle. Similarly, since groups of people leave evidence of their occupation of a particular location, when we fail to find such evidence, we can infer that this location was not occupied. Regrettably for those who take the Bible to provide reliable historical accounts, the absence of evidence that the Hebrews wandered through the deserts south of Canaan indicates that these Hebrews were themselves absent from those wastes, that, in other words, the Bible's accounts are not true.
In fact, the Jewish people appear not to have come to Canaan from elsewhere and conquered the the local peoples in a bloody, destructive campaign. For one thing, Canaan was, at the time of this supposed conquest, tributary to Egypt, an imperial power that probably would not have been amendable to a group of escaped slaves taking part of their empire from them, and, for another, the cities the Bible says the Israelites put to the torch were, in some case, long gone and, in others, insignificant, unwalled villages. Most importantly, only a few of the cities that did exist suffered any devastation during the appropriate period. Most show no evidence of conflict, let alone destruction. Yet again, the archeological evidence, and the testimony of records composed at the time these conquests would have occurred (as opposed to six hundred years afterwards, as is the case with the relevant books of the Bible), contradict biblical accounts of some group, the Israelites, arriving in and conquering Canaan. Instead, it would seem that they emerged from amongst Canaanite pastoralists who, following the collapse of Canaanite society (rather than causing it), were no long able to procure grain by trade and so took to agriculture in order to supply themselves, and who, eventually, came to regard themselves as a distinctive ethnic group (Finkelstein and Silberman, pp. 72-122).
Biblical narratives of a captivity in and escape from Egypt and a subsequent arrival in and conquest of Canaan combine myths about the Israelites' origins and uniqueness, old legends, and a peculiar theology that emphasizes how a monotheistic god made a covenant with that people, who prospered when they obeyed his commands and suffered when they did not. While details of the political situation of the Orient at the time that these tales were being set down in writing and often vague recollections of past events are interwoven with such elements, the tales certainly do not record historic events. They are, quite simply, nearly if not entirely fictional.
The Bible's narratives relating to the united monarchy do, however, seem to have some basis in fact, though these stories are filled with extreme exaggerations. While it is probable that David and Solomon did actually live, unlike Moses and Abraham, it is unlikely that they ruled any sort of empire. Instead, they seem to have controlled a minor, sparsely populated kingdom that was surrounded by wealthier neighbors. They both did, however, become the focus of numerous legends, which made David into a great hero and Solomon into the richest and wisest of kings. Such tales magnified the bygone reigns of these men into a golden age, but the splendor ascribed to this, once again, has no historic basis (Finkelstein and Silberman, pp. 123-148).
Fortunately, the tales of the kings of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel (especially those ruling in later periods) are considerably better, and some do seem to be reasonably accurate historic accounts. Nonetheless, though they might relate a number of events that actually happened to people who really lived, they still include numerous distortions, a fair number of clearly fanciful events, and are presented in wildly biased and propagandistic ways. They are, in other words, still not consistently reliable.
Even accounts of the Babylonian Captivity are filled with errors. For example, the author of the book of Daniel is habitually confused about the kings of Babylon, stating that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 5:2), when he was actually the son of Nabonidus, who was himself Nebuchadnezzar's son, but who is completely forgotten about in the Bible. Moreover, the book's author even gets the city's conqueror and his entire people wrong. He says that Babylon was conquered by Darius the Median instead of Cyrus the Great of Persia (Daniel 5:31). These are not trivial mistakes.
I will grant that, generally speaking, the later in time some event of which the Bible gives an account is, the more accurate that account is likely to be. Thus, the latest books of the Old Testament, such as the first and second books of the Maccabees, contain substantial historical information. They cannot be taken as completely accurate, as they are still obviously works of propaganda and were not composed using critical methods, but they are probably as accurate as are many other ancient histories. Such an endorsement does not, however, mean that they should be taken as more accurate than such histories, and certainly not that they are infallible. Even these books need to be read critically, with an awareness that they are biased, can distort events, and even include events that never occurred.
The New Testament, while generally more reliable than the Old, also contains a fair number of errors.
In many cases, one statement will be contradicted by another. The genealogy of Jesus through the male line given in Matthew (1:1-16), for instance, is different from that given in Luke (3:23-38). These lists include different numbers of generations and very few names in common. They cannot both be correct. This is not the only error made in the Gospels, however. In fact, another glaring contradiction relates to the birth of this messiah whose ancestry is so dubious. Jesus' birth is said by Luke to have occurred during the census that was carried out in 6-7 AD by Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, who was then governor of Syria (Luke 1:1-2). This was conducted when Coponius was governor of the new province of Iudaea, which had been created after the exile of Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great. Elsewhere, however, the Bible claims that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the king (Matthew 2:1), who is clearly Herod the Great, since he is the father of Herod Archelaus (Matthew 2:22), even though Herod the Great had died in 4 BC, ten years prior to the census. Either the one date, the other, or both are wrong, which means that the Bible contains errors.
There are, additionally, in the New Testament, a number of events that are highly unlikely to have happened, but the occurrence of which cannot be disproved. For example, the darkness that supposedly covered the Earth at the time of the crucifixion (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44-45) is not, as Gibbon points out (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 15, final paragraph), mentioned by either Seneca or Pliny, despite their interest in such prodigies, and Herod's massacre of the male infants of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16-18) is not noted by Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XV), despite his interest in mentioning that king's atrocities. While such lack of corroborating testimony does not establish that these events did not occur, the fact that they are the sorts of events that would have been recorded by these men had they occurred does seem to indicate that they probably did not.
While the Bible does provide valuable information about the history of the people of ancient Israel, it is frequently wrong. It is not, in other words, a reliable source of information. One cannot, as a result, infer the general honesty of the Bible's author or authors from its historical statements.
Part IV: Bible Stories as Metaphors
Perhaps a Christian will claim that all these apparently erroneous statements made in the Bible are, in fact, metaphorical, that they ought not to be taken literally. I would then ask him how it is that we should determine which statements are to be understood as being metaphorical and which are to be understood as being literal.
Before attempting to answer this question myself, I will note that I do grant that there are statements in the Bible that clearly are not meant literally. The parables of Jesus come to mind as narratives not intended to refer to external events. References in the New Testament to a flat earth (such as that in Revelation 7:1) appear to poetically conjure up Old Testament cosmography, and several of the verses of praise in the Song of Solomon include descriptions not intended to refer to real external attributes (these, after all, include ascribing to a person the eyes of a dove (1:15), having honey and milk beneath the tongue (4:11), and so on). Obviously, these statements should not be taken as referring to actual events or entities. The reasons why they should not be taken literally can, however, be applied to texts other than the Bible.
Jesus' parables are overtly presented as fictive narratives that illustrate that man's teachings. The other two instances both rely upon clear metaphorical usages. Statements made in a later book of the Bible that allude to some earlier book can associate a given entity, event, etc. mentioned in the later book with characteristics associated with the earlier book, in the same way that allusions in other texts, which refer to some artistic work, historic event, or the like, conjure up the characteristics of the thing being referred to. Though the statement that so elicits a memory of whatever work, event, etc. to which reference is being made might, but need not be, taken literally, depending upon the demands of context, the statement is important primarily as the means to arouse in the reader an awareness of the characteristics of what is being alluded to. Finally, such metaphors as those employed in the Song of Solomon ascribe to one entity identity with or possession of a second entity, which the first entity neither is nor possesses, in order to emphasize the presence in the first entity of a characteristic perceived to be present in both entities. There is, in other words, a property possessed by both entities which is emphasized by associating the first entity with the second. Of course, this is not the only type of metaphor there is, but whatever the precise meaning conveyed by a metaphor, this will be clear if the metaphor is successful. I would, of course, assume that god is a competent enough writer to create a successful metaphor.
Figurative usage, after all, occurs only under particular circumstances, and these are neither arbitrary nor that difficult to discern, even for simple, limited beings such as we are. First, such usage can occur (in order to emphasizes a particular characteristic in the way just discussed) as a result of the primary meaning of the word metaphorically employed being blocked, which blockage occurs because of the inherent absurdity of the connection of the two objects mentioned. Clearly, when one says of an overweight woman, "The girl is a cow," one cannot actually be saying that this female member of the species Homo sapiens is actually a female member of the species Bos primigenius. Such inherent absurdity, I should add, does not include connections that are simply incorrect. The statement "The girl is French" will only be a metaphor if it has already and obviously been established that the girl is not French. If her not being French has not been clearly established, then the statement is one of fact and must be determined to be either correct or incorrect. Second, a metaphor can be based on a relationship that exists between two objects, such as those of proximity or of possessor and possessed, which relations are established by other means of cognition, such as sense perception. A thing can, thus, be referred to indirectly by overtly mentioning something near it, something it possesses, or the like. For example, were someone to yell out, "The redcoats are coming!" he would be understood as meaning that persons wearing red coats were coming, not simply the coats, the connection between the two, the soldier and the coat, being known by means of sense perception or testimony from history books. Finally, a metaphor can be employed (again, like the first type, to emphasize a given characteristic) when there is some obvious reason for moving from one meaning of a word to another, such as an inability otherwise to express valor, holiness, or beauty. In such a usage, there is neither a blockage of the meaning of one word nor a perception of it and the other word being associated. Thus, for example, when we say that "the man is a god," we find neither an inherent absurdity nor a perceived connection. Nonetheless, the person making this statement clearly does not intend to claim that the man is actually a deity. Instead, he is praising the man for his greatness, beauty, or for some other trait, which praise he could not otherwise express. (Ingalls, Daniel H.H., Masson, Jeffrey Moussaieff, and Patwardhan, M.V., The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhana with the Locana of Abhinavagupta (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 85ff.)
Unfortunately, in explaining away the cosmography of the Bible, the apologist often, even most of the time, claims that the Bible is referring to things which are obviously not metaphorical in such ways. Take such a statement as "And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven" (Genesis 1:20). The sentence is not inherently absurd, though it might be wrong. It does not evoke one entity by referring to a second that is known to be associated with it, and, being simply a statement of fact, it is obviously not intended to emphasize some quality in a given entity, whether god or the living creatures that he is said to create. It is, in other words, not a metaphorical statement.
The Christian, instead of determining what are metaphors by employing rules and conventions that can be applied to other texts, simply claims that particular statements made in the Bible are metaphorical because they are clearly wrong and the Bible cannot be wrong. This, however, is like some man, upon being caught lying or making a mistake, claiming that he did not really mean what he said. He only means what he says when he is not so caught. The only method to such a use of metaphor is that it covers up patently false statements. What is more, to apply such a system of interpretation only to the Bible is wholly arbitrary, and to apply it universally would mean that every source of testimony, every single person, every single book, and so on, would be infallible, in that only their true statements would be taken literally and all their false statements would, after the fact, be taken metaphorically. Nobody would ever be wrong or dishonest again. We could trust absolutely everything we hear. If, by chance, some statement turned out to be incorrect or deceitful, it was only because we failed to grasp that it was merely a metaphor. I need hardly refute such an absurd position in greater detail.
It is not impossible that a Christian might grant that the Bible does contain a number of erroneous statements, but then assert that these relate only to pesky facts, not to salvation, the book's most important and conveniently unverifiable topic. This person might then point out that even the most skeptical of historians makes use of ancient histories, of the accounts of Herodotus, Suetonius, and the like, even though he is well aware that they are riddled with errors.
With regard to the second of these issues, historians do undoubtedly make use of the writings of ancient authors as useful tools with an awareness that they are not always reliable. When a statement by one of these writers can be corroborated, it is accepted as true, when such a statement is contradicted by stronger evidence, it is rejected as false, and when it cannot be contradicted, it is taken as being potentially either true or untrue. I have absolutely no problem with reading the Bible in such a way. If we accept as true those statements made in the Bible which have been corroborated, while rejecting as false those that are contradicted, and granting, at most, possible accuracy to those that have not yet been corroborated or contradicted, then we have come to that very method of reading the Bible that I myself endorse.
If, however, the Christian says that such rules of interpretation do not affect those statements made in the Bible that are relevant to salvation, then he is again venturing into the realm of error. He cannot, with such an understanding, claim that the Bible's general reliability reveals a reliable author whose statements can be trusted. Quite the opposite, the Bible's unreliability reveals an author whose statements cannot be trusted. In fact, he will be claiming that while the Bible's author, when he makes claims that can be tested, frequently exposes himself to be wrong or, if the author is god, whether directly or indirectly, actually dishonest (since god, being omniscient, cannot make mistakes), this same author can, nonetheless, be trusted when he makes completely untestable claims. This Christian will then be following a path of reasoning that is the exact opposite of that required to establish that a person is a reliable source of information.
By Keith Allen
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