A Review of Chapter 6 of The Christian Delusion

Chapter 6 of The Christian Delusion is entitled “The Bible and Modern Scholarship” and is written by Paul Tobin.  Tobin, for the most part, does not provide detailed arguments for why scholars reach the conclusions he writes about.  Likewise, I will not be writing detailed arguments for why I disagree with him (when I disagree with him).  Rather I will make general replies and try to point the reader to sources with more detail.  Like the previous chapter, an individual Christian’s response to this chapter will depend largely on his views of inspiration and inerrancy.  There are numerous Christians who are modern scholars and have felt no need to leave Christianity because of their findings.

The first section points out alleged contradictions in the Bible.  Tobin starts with the Book of Genesis.  Luckily for me, I have addressed many of the alleged contradictions in Genesis in my commentaries.  Was vegetation formed before (1:12) or after (2:5) Adam was created?  This is not a contradiction because 2:5 speaks of a plot of land and not the whole earth.  The earth in general could have vegetation even though a specific plot of land was barren.  Were animals created before (1:20-25) or after (2:18-19) Adam?  As I noted on 2:19, this is not necessarily a contradiction even if we follow Tobin’s advice and translate the passage to say that the LORD God “formed” instead of “had formed” the animals.  Did Noah take two of each kind of animal (6:19-20) or seven pairs of clean animals (7:2-3)?  I covered this alleged contradiction in my notes on 7:2-3 by showing the first passage was a general statement and the second passage was a more specific statement.

Scholars who subscribe to the Documentary Hypothesis often point to these “contradictions” to argue that the Pentateuch was written by multiple authors in different places and in different times.  While I think the Pentateuch contains different sources I am not confident that we can recover those sources with much accuracy, certainly not the accuracy assumed by many proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis.  Umberto Cassuto provides a critique of the hypothesis in his The Documentary Hypothesis.  I found Kenneth Matthews’ two-volume commentary on Genesis to provide superb criticism of how adherents of the Documentary Hypothesis approach each passage in Genesis.

Deuteronomy 23:3 prohibits Moabites from entering into the assembly of the LORD.  Ezra 10:14-44 and Nehemiah 13:1-3 prohibit intermarriage between the Israelites and the Moabites.  Yet Ruth, who was a Moabite (Ruth 1:22), married Boaz, an Israelite, and became the great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:13-17).  It is possible that a commandment was broken but even that is not clear.  A broken commandment need not be a contradiction.  Also, Tobin is wrong to state that this issue is a matter of race.  It is a matter of religion.

The author goes on to compare the different outlooks in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.  I agree that there are different outlooks.  However, I don’t think every passage in these books should be taken as containing absolute prescriptions that apply to all circumstances.  Consider Proverbs 26:4-5:  “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”  If you interpret both verses as absolute prescriptions for all circumstances they contradict each other.  But the author of Proverbs surely put these two verses together deliberately and saw no contradiction between them.  This is because the reader is to wisely discern when a verse applies to a situation and when it does not.

The final contradiction of this section concerns the view of the Law in Paul’s writings and the Epistle of James.  Tobin cites a number of passages from Paul that cast the Law in a negative light to contrast them with James’ more positive view of the Law.  Anyone familiar with the field knows that Paul’s view towards the Law is not so simple.  There are many books written on the subject.  I will merely point out that Paul is not always so negative (Rom 3:31; 7:7, 12, 16, 22; Gal 3:21).

The second section of the chapter is a quick overview of the problems that archaeology creates for Christians.  According to Tobin, archaeology has shown the following biblical narratives to be non-historical (at least on some level):  the global flood, the patriarchs, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, and the united monarchy of David and Solomon.  The most extensive conservative response to such archaeological claims can be found in K.A. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament.

The third section of the chapter points out alleged myths, legends, and fairy tales in the Bible.  The definition of these literary genres is disputed among literary critics, yet Tobin does not provide us with a definition of these terms so that we can see how he is using them.  The bulk of the section is spent attacking the historicity of the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke.  Raymond Brown’s The Birth of the Messiah is a scholarly treatment of the infancy narratives.  He does not attempt to defend every historical detail of the narratives.  I must also note that if a passage in the Bible is of a genre of literature that is not concerned with history then it is pointless to criticize that passage for not being history.

The next section concerns failed and faked prophecies.  Tobin begins by stating that the fulfilled messianic prophecies used by the Gospel of Matthew are not true messianic prophecies.  He is correct in the sense that Jesus is not fulfilling, say, Isaiah 7:14, in a purely literal fashion.  However, the Dead Sea Scrolls employ a similar use of prophecy.  We should not be quick to accuse these authors of trying to fool their readers.  It is quite possible to view the citations as indications of how Jesus’ birth mirrored past events in salvation history.  God is acting in Jesus how He acted in the past.  Many Christians also need to respect a typological use of prophecy on the part of Matthew and stop taking them so literally.

Tobin then goes on to state that there are false prophecies made by Isaiah (17:1-2; 19:5-7), Jeremiah (36:30), and Ezekiel (26:7-14; 29:8-12, 19-20).  Tobin takes Isa 17:1-2 to mean that Damascus would be destroyed and never rebuilt.  I’m not sure why he thinks the passage implies an everlasting destruction.  The Anchor Bible Dictionary entry on the Syro-Ephraimite War (vol. 6, p. 284) states that Tiglath-Pileser III destroyed Damascus in 732 BC.  Isaiah 19 has not been fulfilled but some think it refers to the end times since it speaks of Judah ruling over Egypt (vv 16-18).  Jer 36:30 was not fulfilled for Jehoiachin, Jehoiakim’s son, sat on the throne for three months.  I agree with Tobin that the prophecies he mentions from Ezekiel were not fulfilled.  Tobin concludes the section by claiming the prophecies in Daniel are prophecies after the fact.  Read my commentary on Daniel (starting here) for my take on things.

The next section deals with pseudonymity in the Bible.  Tobin notes that many scholars believe Daniel, portions of Psalms, Isaiah 40-66, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, Colossians, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, James, Jude, and 1 and 2 Peter are pseudonymous.  The authorship of each book must be studied individually.  I recommend the reader read the different viewpoints on each book and make up his own mind.

The final section deals with how liberal Christians, such as myself, approach the Bible and the problems it creates.  The first problem, according to Tobin, is that liberal Christians sound smug and pretentious in claiming that most of the Christians of the past failed to understand God’s true message.  I do not claim that Christians of the past failed to understand God’s message that we are to love God and love each other.  Too much emphasis can be placed on smaller doctrinal matters.  I think some Christians are wrong about some matters but I’m sure I’m wrong about some matters too.  Additional problems involve which passages to take literally and which to take non-literally and how to interpret non-literal passages.  I would say that each passage’s genre must be determined on a case by case basis.  This will indicate how we are to interpret the passage.  We should seek out the intent of the author in determining the meaning of the text.

On p. 172 the author asks:  “if some parts of the Bible are false or unacceptable what guarantee do we have that other parts are true, or are of any special value?”  If he is asking for an absolute guarantee then there is none (just like there is none for most topics).  However, even if you don’t believe there are any false or unacceptable parts of the Bible you would still lack a guarantee.  Whether you are trying to prove a part of the Bible or the whole Bible, would you not approach the issue in the same way?  For example, if archaeology can disprove parts of the Bible then couldn’t it prove other parts of the Bible actually happened (yes, I realize archaeology alone would not prove the Bible is the word of God)?


3 thoughts on “A Review of Chapter 6 of The Christian Delusion

  1. Pingback: Review of Chapter 5 of The End of Christianity | Biblical Scholarship

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