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I’ve been involved in a conversation with some friends of mine on Facebook who are essentially Christians. They have taken variously interesting positions countering both my previous two books (The Nativity: A Critical Examination [UK] and is The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK]) without having read them and taking a pop at the reasoning for my forthcoming book in this trilogy, The Exodus: A Critical Examination of the Moses Story.

I am going to talk about this in a brace of pieces because this is both interesting and important or pertinent to the work and writing I am doing.

Let me take the position of the first person, an interlocutor I have posted about variously before, here. Let’s call him J.

J’s initial position is that, in attacking the historical foundations of the Pentateuch, I am attacking “low-hanging fruit only”. The idea is this is easy and obvious prey that is somehow unbecoming of a serious critic of religion.

Here are a few quotes (I will ignore the condescension) between which I will comment interlinearly:

Seriously though, I’d love it if you started writing for intelligent, literate people. Taking potshots at people who believe the Talmud is a document of events is reaching for the lowest hanging fruit, Johno. It’s akin to strapping on your intellectual armour to go and fight people who believe that God is a man in the sky. Sure, you’re going to win every time, but so will you if you stand outside your kids’ school and punch the first years as they come out. It’s not a challenge. Start by accepting that most intelligent people don’t believe that Genesis is a historical record (although as a historical document it is far superior to anything that was created at the time), and they don’t believe that God is a sky fairy. Honestly, you’ll have a lot more fun out of the paddling pool and in the deep end….

This is an incredibly naive position considering the vast slew of people in the Abrahamic faiths worldwide who still believe (and always have believed) in the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible. That he claims I should be writing for intelligent, literate people whilst also confusing the Talmud for the Torah is…interesting.

Of course, he baits and switches, or doesn’t even understand what my book project is about. It’s not about Genesis. It’s about the Exodus, a distinctly more historical account in nature than the Genesis creation or flood myths. The point for me is to label the Exodus equally a myth. But, back in 2003 (if anyone has any later data, please let me know), the following was found as a proportion of all Americans:

BIBLE STORIES – Overall, 64 percent believe the story of Moses parting the Red Sea is “literally true, meaning it happened that way word-for-word.” About as many say the same about creation (61 percent) and Noah and the flood (60 percent). About three in 10 say, instead, that each of these is “meant as a lesson, but not to be taken literally.”

There is wide variation in the numbers of literal readers across groups, but much of it is driven by two factors – religious belief and frequency of practice.

Literal belief peaks among evangelical Protestants, and especially among evangelical Protestants who attend church at least once a week. In that group, 96 percent take the Red Sea story literally. It’s a still-high 85 percent among evangelical Protestants who attend church less often.

So this is not a small undertaking, disabusing such a huge number of (millions of apparently unintelligent, illiterate) people of such stories purported to be historical fact. Back to J:

The texts are literary, not historical. One cannot read them in the same way that, for all its faults, you can read Thucydides. To even try is a fool’s errand. You can read them as historical texts, but not as history in our sense of the word. However, as literary texts they are dynamite. Understood as literature, they seem nothing short of divinely inspired. Certainly nothing of such complexity and skill survives from that period.

You approach it all in a bit of a snooty, sophisticated way. You might as well call out the Terracotta Army as being a useless defence system against mobile cavalry with fairly decent eyesight, and thus prove the medieval Chinese as being backwards and stupid.

I mean, it’s no skin of my nose, but I just think you should raise your game. That’s all….

This is the problem, and one that I set out in my Nativity book and continued to discuss in my Resurrection one. When you have a row of coat pegs to hang your favourite theological robe on, and someone knocks the historical wall and pegs down, what do you have left to hang your robe on? What is theology devoid of its historical foundations? This was the issue I had with the conclusions of the great exegete Raymond Brown, who found so much of the biblical claims were a-historical, but we are left wondering from whence he derives his theological verisimilitude…

It looks rather like “making shit up”, which is to say arbitrarily picking creating your theology out of thin air.

If a Christian approaches me and claims they are Christian, that means to some degree they believe that Jesus is Christ. Where did they get this from? What evidence do they have that Jesus is Christ? They can have only internal and external evidence, obviously, and when it comes to external evidence this is data from the actual world. The main source of external data is the Bible. We have the Gospels, and then we have the Old Testament. So the question then becomes, how do we know the Gospel claims are true of Jesus, and then if he is a fulfilment in any meaningful sense of the Old Testament, the original Covenant between God and the Jew, his chosen people in the promised land, then how do we know that these claims of the Old Testament are true?

This is where I think my two interlocutors (one unmentioned as of yet) are distancing themselves from any kind of mainstream Christian or Jewish reality.

What I am then doing is looking at these claims to find out if they hold water. For example, the claims concerning Jesus fall into three temporal categories: the miraculous Nativity, his miraculous ministry, and his miraculous death and Resurrection. My first two volumes look at the bookends of his life that actually intersect with history to show that neither the Nativity nor the Resurrection could have happened from a historical point of view, as well as being problematic from a theological one. This then leaves the ministry as the main chunk of his life. From an inductive point of view, when the two areas that managed to intersect with history fall apart from within a historical paradigm, what does say about all the other claims of his life? Did they happen? What epistemic right or warrant do we have in believing that they happened, especially given the problems with his birth and death?

Then, building on this, we can look at the foundation of the Gospels, the first Covenant, the Testament that the Gospels and other New Testament writings are replacing. If there is no historical foundation to these claims, then where does this leave us with regard to being an actual Christian? Someone who believes that Jesus is the Christ, as another aspect of Yahweh, and who is there to fulfil the Mosaic Law as set out in the Old Testament (OT)?

It understands that different people have codified information in different ways throughout history. It doesn’t make it not true. Genesis 1-3 is entirely true, but the events were not historical events. The descent of man in no way disproves the truth of Adam and Eve. That truth is the foundation for Judaism and Christianity, not whether Eve are the apple at 11.50 on a Wednesday morning, which seems to be the detail that you are pursuing….

I will ignore the huge assumptions and problematic claims he is making here to a large degree, but even if we did take this notion on, then…

  1. Genesis is arguably not the only or best way of arriving at this truth.
  2. They are having to ignore all the rest of the biblical moral claims that are perhaps thoroughly problematic, so that the whole process just looks like an arbitrary procedure of taking all the bits that you want from the Bible, and discarding the less than attractive bits.
  3. What is the point of all the so-called histories in the Bible, then?

This whole exegetical approach would be getting rid of huge tranches of OT, since, absent of the Deuteronomic histories, and most of the Priestly documentary source, until there is very little of use in there (comparatively speaking), and what there IS of use, you are picking out by using your moral reasoning. In other words, it is merely an exemplification or a post hoc rationalisation of what he already believes.

This is why I analogise this to Divine Command Theory issues, since this is one of the main criticisms thereof. How do you know God couldn’t command rape (since he does in the OT) without already knowing rape is bad, using intuitive or secular morality? How do you pick and choose the good parts – the moral lessons from the Bible – that are apparently so apt, without already knowing that which is good and apt? Unless you are taking everything from the Bible, which people like this clearly are not. I presume he eats shellfish and doesn’t countenance slavery.

As a student of theology, I have to say, the dusty stuff leaves me cold. Was there this man, did he stand here, was his body placed here, did this man know that man, did they write a book together, was that book pulished before this book…? I mean, I understand it’s vital scholarship, but none of it makes the slightest difference to the living word: no difference at all.

Here, J is conflating irrelevant details and claims with the huge historical claims of kings (thus creating a straw man) and people finding whole reams of actual moral laws supposedly from God (such as with that found in the Temple walls during the reign of Josiah, or even with Moses himself). I, too, am not bothered about whether someone leant over to the left on a Tuesday, but I am somewhat more bothered as to whether the Hebrews, as a population of people, were enslaved by the Egyptians for 430 years, and whether the incredible accounts of the Exodus are true, culminating in God, as YHWH, revealing himself directly to Moses up Mount Sinai and giving him a range of moral commandments, arguably for all humanity (although the Documentary Hypothesis clearly shows three different sets of rules for the Ten Commandments, go figure – though this is low hanging fruit for unintelligent, illiterate people).

Johno’s gotcha book will fail on that point. There is no gotcha, because most people don’t take the Bible to be a recording of events.

This book is essentially a history book (with some theology and philosophy thrown in) about biblical claims. I wonder whether he would call any other such book a “gotcha” book, or is it only because this is undermining the belief system that he adheres (in some tenuous way) to?

Even if it was, and he could prove that it has all been a scam perpetrated by Abraham, and handed down to other tricksters to embellish, the problem remains that we’re still left with an artifact of unique brilliance. What makes the Bible different from stories of Zeus is the wisdom and truth that are in the pages, the archetypal stories that speak across generations.

I think he needs to read the Bible. This is a classic case of someone thinking they know the Bible without really knowing the Bible. Has he read it all? The Qu’ran, too (that “great” book is very dull)? I would be interested if he thinks the Deuteronomic histories fall into this category of brilliance? The “P” (Priestly source) writing of, say, Leviticus and Numbers known for its long, boring detailing of ritualistic procedure – are these brilliant? This is classic rose-tinted glasses stuff that actually shows, arguably, a poor biblical literacy.

Ancient Greek myths are lesser, but they point to the truth. For instance, Apollo and Dionysus are real insofar as they survey a true dynamic intrinsic to creativity. Greek mythology points in the same direction: the word of God. The Bible, of all religious texts, as a human collection of writings, hits the target more surely and more often. Nietzsche hits his target and uncovers the structure of Judaism and Christianity as slave morality, but in his posturing, he overlooked that we are, indeed, all slaves, and wishful thinking won’t get us out of that. A kingly morality won’t just emerge on its own. We are bound to enter another Age of Heroes, which is hell. The Bible presents a morality for who we are, whether the characters were there where the book says they are or not. The wisdom endures.

There are undoubted bits of wisdom enshrined within all of these texts, but the real wisdom is being wise enough to know already what those wisdoms are, thereby invalidating these as sources of the wisdoms rather than at times being exemplifications thereof.

Finally, there is a real issue here with cherry-picking morality again in terms of taking moral “teachings” and lessons from broader narratives but ignoring the explicit moral laws (in Deuteronomic and Mosaic form) from the Torah. The “beauty of these stories” that my interlocutor kept referring to is blatantly in contrast to the very explicit moralising in the rest of the texts.

All 613 mitzvot.

As a commenter (BensNewLogin) on another thread stated:

For centuries, they maintained that this collection of ancient writings is the word of God. Thanks to people like Jonathan, the Internet, and a few other factors, it’s starting to look like it’s not the word of God, but simply the word of men.

So they move the goalpost a bunch, and called it the word of men but inspired by the word of God. When it was pointed out that they couldn’t argue which was the inspired part, which was the word of men part…

They moved the goalpost yet again. Now it’s just a rippingly good book with a lot of moral lessons, containing the whole of humanity, as Luke [Breuer, another commenter here] claims. Leaving out the literary and humane criticisms that could easily be leveled at it, because it’s not even a ripoingly good book with a lot of moral lessons…

If it’s just another book by mankind, then why should we grant it any authority at all.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...