Re: A point that bears repeating: there is nothing in the Bible that couldn’t have been written by ordinary people

This post is a response to a post by the A-Unicornist, Mike D, entitled: A point that bears repeating: there is nothing in the Bible that couldn’t have been written by ordinary people. Unless otherwise specified the quotes are from his post.

As far as the title itself goes, I agree with him. There was nothing special about the authors of the Bible in terms of literary ability. Unlike many Muslim apologists, Christians do not claim that the literary quality of the Bible is a marker of its divine inspiration. Rather, the issue is whether the Bible accurately describes God’s actions in the world.

In terms of atheist/Christian dialogue, I am of the opinion that the Christian does not need to prove that the entire Bible is divinely inspired. We merely need to show that the Bible is accurate enough that it is reasonable to believe the major claims of Christianity are true and that atheism is false. Suppose, for example, that I am convinced the four Gospels are very accurate historical documents but contain a few errors. I would be warranted in believing Jesus rose from the dead and that his message was from God. I would also be warranted in believing atheism is false. It would be absurd for the atheist to turn around and declare any kind of victory if such a state of affairs is true. So my goal in this post is not to prove that the entire Bible is divinely inspired but to show some of the reasons to believe it is accurate enough to warrant Christian belief.

Near the beginning of his post Mike makes a revealing comment:

After all, I for one don’t really have a problem with deists. I don’t agree with them, but the reality is that a deistic god is, at best, a sort of nebulously defined metaphysical placeholder for grand existential mysteries. You don’t pray to a deistic god, and such a god does not care whom you marry or whether you’re naughty or nice. So, outside of coffee-shop philosophical discussions, I consider deists to be squarely in the camp with atheists and agnostics — namely, those of us who live out our lives under the assumption that we are not being watched or judged, or that our lives are unfolding according to a careful divine destiny.

His problem with the Bible is only partly about what we should believe. His other problem is that if the Bible is divinely inspired then God makes demands on our behavior that might conflict with his desires.

And when it comes to the supposed divine inspiration of the Bible, the burden of proof for such a remarkable claim falls squarely on the believer. After all, no one can disprove that much of anything is ‘divinely inspired’. . . . But with an infinite number of claims that cannot be disproved, the idea that something cannot be demonstrated to be false is not, in itself, a valid reason to accept it as true.

I agree with Mike on two counts: (1) that the burden of proof rests with the person claiming the Bible is divinely inspired and (2) that just because an atheist can’t demonstrate an error exists in the Bible does not, by itself, mean the Bible is divinely inspired. But I part ways with him on believing it is particularly difficult to show that a writing is not divinely inspired. On the assumption that God is omniscient, any factual error in a writing would disqualify the writing from being divinely inspired. In fact, I think Mike realizes this because later in his post he mentions alleged factual errors in the Bible.

The question is simple: why should any rational skeptic be compelled to believe that the only reasonable view of the Bible is that it is indeed the product of divine inspiration?

This is an entirely fair question and I don’t think Christians, in general, have done a good job at answering it (if you think I’m ignorant of a good answer feel free to drop a link in the comments). I think we have good reason to believe the Bible is historically reliable (e.g., 50 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically) and that certain prophets were inspired by God (e.g., Daniel). But how do you jump from those facts to the conclusion that each and every word of the Bible is divinely inspired? I don’t have a good answer to that question. Then again, it doesn’t keep me up at night for the reasons mentioned above nor do I think an atheist could be happy with a generally-reliable-but-errant Bible.

We know that most of the old testament is comprised of mythology and legend.

This sentence is overblown rhetoric. Outside of the supernatural, OT history from the time of the monarchy going forward isn’t hard to swallow from a secular perspective. That’s presumably why Mike’s examples stop with the reign of David. The history from the monarchy onward makes up the bulk of the OT.

There is not a shred of evidence Adam and Eve existed or that “The Fall” occurred, and such a narrative conflicts with what we know about humanity’s evolutionary past.

As a theistic evolutionist, I agree that a woodenly literal reading of Genesis 1-11 is incompatible with natural history. This may (or may not) create tension with other parts of the Bible that allude to Gen. 1-11 (going through such passages is outside the scope of this post). But even if such tensions exist the Christian can live with this tension.

Moses, if he existed, did not lead Jewish slaves out of Egypt — because there’s no evidence Jews were enslaved in Egypt in the first place, and the evidence we do have places the origin of Jewish tribes out of Canaan.

Note the argument from silence in regards to the exodus. Egyptologist K. A. Kitchen notes why this argument fails:

The setting presented in Exod. 1-14 is indubitably that of Egypt’s East Delta, whence the Hebrews are shown going directly into the Sinai Peninsula first of all. Background data may well be drawn from Egypt overall, but for locating the biblical Hebrews and their movements “on the ground” in Egypt we are restricted to the East Delta zone geographically.

This fact imposes further severe limitations upon all inquiry into the subject. The Delta is an alluvial fan of mud deposited through many millenia by the annual flooding of the Nile; it has no source of stone within it. Mud, mud and wattle, and mud-brick structures were of limited duration and use, and were repeatedly leveled and replaced, and very largely merged once more with the mud of the fields. So those who squawk intermittently, “No trace of the Hebrews has ever been found” (so, of course, no exodus!), are wasting their breath. The mud hovels of brickfield slaves and humble cultivators have long since gone back to their mud origins, never to be seen again. Even stone structures (such as temples) hardly survive, in striking contrast to sites in the cliff-enclosed valley of Upper Egypt to the south. All stone was anciently shipped in from the south, and repeatedly recycled from one period to another. Thus Eighteenth Dynasty blocks were reused in Ramesside temples; Ramesside temples were replaced under later dynasties largely by reuse of existing stones again; and periods through Saite, Ptolemaic, Romano-Byzantine, and Islamic times repeated the process. In more recent centuries, limestone has been largely burned for lime, and harder stones often reused for millstones or whatever. Scarce wonder that practically no written records of any extent have been retrieved from Delta sites reduced to brick mounds (whose very bricks are despoiled for fertilizer, sebakh), with even great temples reduced to heaps of tumbled stones. And in the mud, 99 percent of discarded papyri have perished forever; a tiny fraction (of late date) have been found carbonized (burned) — like some at Pompeii — but can only be opened or read with immense difficulty. A tiny fraction of reports from the East Delta occur in papyri recovered from the desert near Memphis. Otherwise, the entirety of Egypt’s administrative records at all periods in the Delta is lost (fig. 32B); and monumental texts are also nearly nil. And, as pharaohs never monumentalize defeats on temple walls, no record of the successful exit of a large bunch of foreign slaves (with loss of a full chariot squadron) would ever have been memorialized by any king, in temples in the Delta or anywhere else. On these matters, once and for all, biblicists must shed their naive attitudes and cease demanding “evidence” that cannot exist. Only radically different approaches can yield anything whatsoever. “Archaeology” that limits its blinkered evidence solely to what comes out of modest holes dug in the ground can have no final say in the matter.1

I’m not sure what Mike is referring to when he says “the evidence we do have places the origin of Jewish tribes out of Canaan.”

And, as Steven Pinker noted in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “If there was a Davidic Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else seems to have noticed it.”

Steven Pinker is a psychologist so carries no authority on this matter.2 This is once again an argument from silence that ignores basic facts of ancient history. K. A. Kitchen notes that the Assyrians and Babylonians did not spend much, if any, time in Israel prior to 853 B.C. and thus would have no reason to mention David’s empire (ca. 1000-960 B.C.) in their records.3 The Egyptian Shoshenq I left a record of his expedition to Palestine but, like all his New Kingdom predecessors, he did not mention adversaries and states so we would not expect David or his kingdom to be mentioned.4 It is worth noting that skeptics doubted the very existence of David with an argument from silence until the Tell Dan inscription was found in the 1990s. Inexplicably, they keep using arguments from silence. Apparently, you can’t teach a new atheist a new trick.

The Gospels fare even worse.

How could anyone think the Gospels fare worse than the examples Mike gave? The Gospels are supported by other written documents and far more archaeological evidence.

There is no evidence that they are eyewitness accounts (they don’t claim to be), nor any evidence that the stories were passed down by any sort of rigorous oral tradition as is popularly claimed by Christian apologists.

When an atheist says there is “no evidence” there is often evidence. John 21:24 explicitly claims to have been written by an eyewitness. Luke 1:1-4 speaks of accounts being passed on and states that its author is following in their footsteps. The traditional authorship of the Gospels is strongly supported by external sources (see the citations on Matthew, Mark, and Luke for example).

Quite simply, there is no reason whatsoever to think that the Gospels are reliable historical accounts of a real person, and many good reasons to think they’re the product of creative, credulous and superstitious human minds.

If Mike thinks there is no reason whatsoever to think the Gospels are reliable historical accounts you would think he has not looked into the matter at all. Unfortunately, I bet he has looked into the matter but went for rhetorical effect. Let us take the Pool of Bethesda as a counter-example. Since this pool was only mentioned in the Gospel of John some scholars used to think it didn’t exist. As you may know, this pool was discovered in the 19th century. Admittedly this is only one piece of evidence but it is a reason to trust John’s account. The historical reliability of the NT is based on many discoveries of a similar nature.

  1. On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp. 245-246; cf. ch. 6 as a whole and Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticiy of the Exodus Tradition by James K. Hoffmeier 
  2. The historians at Quodlibeta criticize portions of The Better Angels of Our Nature here, here, here, and here if you’re interested 
  3. On the Reliability of the Old Testament, pp. 88-89 
  4. On the Reliability of the Old Testament, p. 89 

2 thoughts on “Re: A point that bears repeating: there is nothing in the Bible that couldn’t have been written by ordinary people

  1. Well I think that for the bible to dare to make historical evidence a basis as supernatural evidence, no stories in it are allowed to be untrue. How about all that evidence for Jews in Egypt? And the flood evidence? Adam and Eve really gave me some genes that would be rampant with terrible immune system after all these years of incest. Beside these points, the book seems to describe God as someone who really really wants your attention… or else HELL!!!!! How childish. Why would we need exorcisms if this God is so powerful? Why do inherently evil beings (satan, demons) have so much power at all? It all sounds really superstitious and untrue. Oh! And who could forget the horribleness that happened to Lot’s wife for looking back? God turned the woman he loved into salt or something. Like what the actual hell?? I’d be upset.

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