It ain't necessarily so / It ain't necessarily so / The things that you're liable to read in the Bible / It ain't necessarily so.
Ira Gershwin, in a song from Porgy and Bess
Is the Bible believable? Everyone makes an individual decision on that question. All I want to do here is support my own conclusion, and leave anyone reading this to draw their own.
A huge number of Christians assert that they believe every word of the Bible, above and beyond the content of any other text, saying that the Bible is an infallible and unique guide to faith which cannot be questioned. Of course the Bible has to be believed, they say. God wrote it. But that opens up the question of whether God really did write it, or whether it is simply a written-down collection of myths and legends, from oral tradition or taken from earlier writings. If God did write it, then you do indeed have to believe it. So what about that question: Did God write it?
Well, not physically, of course. Few Christians or Jews claim that. But it is widely, almost universally believed by the Judeo-Christian faithful that God "guided the hand" of those who did the writing, so that the Bible contains exactly all of the communications God wants to make with the people of the world -- that the Bible is the "divinely inspired word of God."
According to Theopedia, "Inspiration establishes that the Bible is a divine product. In other words, Scripture is divinely inspired in that God actively worked through the process and had his hand in the outcome of what Scripture would say. Inspired Scripture is simply written revelation. 'Scripture is not only man's word, but also, and equally God's word, spoken through man's lips or written with man's pen' (J.I. Packer, The Origin of the Bible, p. 31)."
So if I'm to address the believability of the Bible, I need to deal with the question of whether it was Divinely Inspired.
The idea of the Bible having been written by the Hand of God didn't come out of nowhere. Indeed, the Bible makes this claim itself, most clearly stated in the New Testament in 2 Timothy 3:16 (what is it about 3:16 somehow always being a significant verse?): "All Scripture is inspired [another translation: breathed out] by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."
In that one sentence, there are actually two important claims made by the Bible about itself: not just that God is the author, but also that He had a goal in mind: that the Bible should be a resource we can turn to for proper, upright behavior, a textbook on morality (see chapter 5). So now I have three issues I want to examine here:
I will try to determine the answers to these questions by asking more. As I examine these issues, they will all become intertwined.
IS GOD OMNISCIENT OR NOT?
Bear with me on this. My point here may be different from what you think it is going to be.
There are many references, in both the Old and New Testaments, to the fact of God knowing everything. Hebrews 4:13 echoes the claims made in a number of other Biblical verses in saying, "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." Even our innermost thoughts are within God's view: as the Sons of Korah point out in Psalm 44:20-21, "If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God have discovered it, since he knows the secrets of the heart?"
So why does God say to Abraham, in Genesis 18, when He drops by Abraham's house on the way to Sodom and Gomorrah, "The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know."?
(There will be many mentions of Abraham and his descendants here. Abraham, in a sense, is the star of the Old Testament -- though his grandson Jacob or descendant Moses might also be nominated for that -- just as Jesus is the star of the New. Throughout Abraham's life he has constant personal interactions, conversations, with God, and when God speaks to other people later, He often introduces himself as "the God of Abraham.")
As the story continues, Abraham, worried that God might kill a lot of good people with the bad in Sodom and Gomorrah, asks if He will spare the towns if fifty righteous people can be found within, to which God responds he will indeed spare them in that case. Abraham goes on to ask, what if there are forty-five... forty... thirty... twenty... ten... in each case, God promises to let the towns go if just a minimal number of good people can be found.
Now, there is an obvious answer to the question of why the story displays God not knowing something. I thought of it myself, and then discovered that one David J. Stewart, on jesus-is-savior.com, had arrived at the same explanation: that by eliciting Abraham's pleadings, God was just making sure that Abraham would understand, in the aftermath of the destruction, that there really hadn't been any significant number of good people in the doomed area -- that God knew Abraham wouldn't be happy if he thought the innocent had been condemned with the guilty. I'm sure Stewart is not alone in using that as a justification of the apparent lapse in God's omniscience. (Why God would feel He needed to make Abraham happy is another question.)
But the explanation has one fatal flaw: if that was the purpose of God's bargaining with Abraham, then pretending ignorance is entirely irrelevant to it. God could just have well have said, "I'm on my way to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, because they are so evil," and the entire ensuing conversation could still have taken place. For God to tell Abraham that his mission was destruction, rather than fact-finding, would still leave an opening for Abraham to say, "Wait, what if there are good people living there? Fifty of them?" Nothing in Dr. Stewart's scenario of God trying to convince Abraham of how really bad those towns were requires that God pretend He doesn't know if the stories are true.
I am not saying that believers in the Bible need to discard the concept of God being omniscient (which is just as well, because they are not going to). But I do have an alternative explanation for this particular scene.
The traditional Jewish belief about the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, or Pentateuch, is that they were written by Moses (including the part at the end of Deuteronomy describing his death and what happened after). But more recent scholarship holds that the Torah was stitched together from several sources. According to biblica.com's article on Genesis, "For much of the 20th century most scholars agreed that the five books of the Pentateuch -- Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy -- came from four sources, the Yahwist, the Elohist, the Deuteronomist and the Priestly source, each telling the same basic story, and joined together by various editors. Since the 1970s there has been a revolution in scholarship: the Elohist source is now widely regarded as no more than a variation on the Yahwist, while the Priestly source is increasingly seen not as a document but as a body of revisions and expansions to the Yahwist (or 'non-Priestly') material."
The idea that the Torah had multiple sources, various authors, and various editors (whether or not some adapted their work from others) does fit in with the repetitive nature of the narrative. And of course, it is impossible to be certain even that any one of those four theorized sources was originally written by a single person, and (given the length of these books) it is entirely possible that each of them in turn is the work of several different scribes. So probably a lot of different men had a hand in writing this material.
Multiple authorship also fits with the presence of occasional inconsistencies. One of those inconsistencies is here, in this story of God meeting with Abraham to discuss the smite-worthiness of Sodom and Gomorrah. The scribe writing this story pictures God as a very human traveler, spending a bit of time with His friend Abraham (God even accepts Abraham's invitation to rest, wash up, and stay for dinner) before continuing on to see whether the towns are as evil as He has heard. The fact that this view of God, lacking omniscience to the point of not even being sure of the truth of what people have told him, is entirely different from numerous descriptions of Him elsewhere in the Bible, simply suggests that those other descriptions were written by other people who saw God differently, and also suggests an editing process that lacked an eye for detail. It is the inconsistencies, and the casual editing that allowed for them, that make me wonder about the claim that God "guided the hands" of all these men who put this book together.
It won't be the last time I wonder about that.
CAN GOD GET ALL HIS FACTS STRAIGHT?
There are three nearly identical stories in close proximity in the Book of Genesis, with varying details.
These stories raise some profound questions -- primarily, the question of what God is trying to say by telling nearly the same story over and over. In the stories, there is no real adverse consequence of lying -- certainly not in comparison to the fatal consequence the lie was meant to avoid -- so it can't be that God is trying to teach a lesson about always telling the truth. Aside from an important patriarch lying, what is there in the stories that would make God want to tell not just one of them, but all three of them?
Biblical authorities have argued for thousands of years on that question, without coming to any consensus.
From my point of view, the only conclusion that makes any sense is that, among the various different scribes whose writing became the Book of Genesis, three of them wrote down the exact same story as they were told and/or remembered it, and no two of them remembered it the same way, not even agreeing on who the main characters were.
What strikes me, in the context of thinking of the Bible as the Divinely Inspired Word of God, is that these three scribes came up with details that were not only wildly variant but, in some cases, contradictory. In the first two stories, the outcome is exactly opposite: in one, Abram is driven out of the country by the king; in the second, Abraham (same guy) is invited to settle permanently on any of the king's land he desires. Isaac gets both treatments: first he is invited to stay, then later driven off.
The fact of Abraham lying seems to have bothered the Genesis 20-21 scribe, so he fixed it so that Abraham wasn't lying: in this version of the story, Abraham defends his earlier statement to Abimelek by saying Sarah really is his sister as well as his wife -- half-sister, that is, having the same father -- a relationship between them not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible, and which in fact seems to be contradicted (by omission) in Genesis 11:31: "Terah took his son Abram [yes, the same Abram/Abraham under discussion in the first two she's-my-sister stories], his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and together they set out from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to Canaan." If Sarai was, in fact, Terah's daughter, not just "the wife of his son," why on Earth wouldn't it say so here? Of course I am not the first person to notice the discrepancy. One modern analysis of the apparent contradiction quotes writings from around that time that imply Sarah was actually Abraham's niece, so that "wife of [Terah's] son" would be accurate and "Terah's daughter" wouldn't be a more straightforward replacement, being untrue. But the source of that information is not in the Bible (hence not held to be the "divinely inspired word of God"), and I find it hard to reconcile it with the clear quote of Abraham in the Bible that Sarah was the "daughter of my father." (More on writings that are and aren't in the Bible later.)
And if Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, is incest really a lesser sin than lying? The same God makes it clear later that such an instance of incest is prohibited (Leviticus 18:9), and saying that the prohibition didn't come until later in the Torah misses the point: the Leviticus verse shows that the Lord doesn't like incest, so He can't happier with Abraham about having sex with his half-sister than He was about Abraham lying. If the Genesis 20-21 scribe didn't know that, then he wasn't being guided by God in his writing.
The strangest incongruity of the entire set of versions of the story is in the Gen. 20-21 version, involving Abraham and Sarah. The narrative leading up to it makes it clear that this one occurs after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (the Genesis 12 story had it before) -- and after the Lord had changed Abram's and Sarai's names to Abraham and Sarah, the latter being the names used in the story. This raises a really puzzling question: why in the world, in this version of the story, did Abraham have any reason to cover up the fact Sarah was his wife, considering that Abraham was 99 years old, and Sarah 90, when the name changes occurred (Genesis 17)? Now, years and ages are extremely unreliable in the early parts of Genesis: numerous men live 900 years or more, and father children at ages well past 100 (the record holder seems to be Noah, who fathered his sons at age 500). But gradually the lifetimes attributed to Biblical characters grow shorter and shorter, and the narrative seems to have straightened out the age problem by the time Abraham arrives. When the Lord tells Abraham, at age 99, that he will father a child with Sarah (Abram had earlier impregnated Sarai's servant girl Hagar, who gave birth to Abram's son Ishmael), Abraham laughs at the very idea of a man and woman so old having a baby. Sarah, who is described as "well past the age of child-bearing," also laughs when she finds out about the promise, and says, "After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?" It's being made clear here that ninety years old really does essentially mean ninety years old, as we would understand it. So how does one account for Abimelek having sexual interest in Sarah, and Abraham's worry that someone would feel that way, which is his only reason for not telling people he was married to her? Again, I am not the first person to notice this. One analysis I found says that Sarah was "apparently still attractive" at her age, but the reasoning was simply that she evidently must have been because the Bible says this all happened. From my point of view, that's circular reasoning: If I'm questioning the believability of stories in the Bible, I'm not about to buy the argument that "you have to believe them because they're in the Bible." And I certainly don't accept that "Since the story must be true because it's in the Bible, we can assume extra unmentioned and unlikely facts to explain it." (Note that this was the one version of the story that doesn't actually say the woman in question, Sarah or Rebekah, was "beautiful.")
With the Sarah-is-both-my-sister-and-my-wife twist and the king having the hots for a "worn out" ninety-year-old woman, the Genesis 20-21 version of the story really is a terrible fit with the rest of the Genesis narrative. The scribe appears to have followed the traditional storyteller's prerogative of embellishing what he'd heard, arbitrarily making Sarah Abraham's half-sister to present Abraham in a better, non-lying light, and ignoring (or unaware of) facts of age given earlier that render the story nonsense. And the scribe seems unbothered by Abraham marrying his own father's daughter, and Abimelek is also somehow okay here with the idea that Abraham might have married his sister, despite the fact that, in the third version of the story, Abimelek takes Isaac's sexual play with Rebekah as proof that they can't possibly be brother and sister.
Students of the Bible have discussed this series of pretending-the-wife-is-a-sister stories quite a lot. The point I want to make about the series is two-fold:
(a) If "God actively worked through the process and had his hand in the outcome of what Scripture would say," then why is He unable to help the writers get the details of this story straight?
But the larger point is:
(b) When God is serving as a character in the Bible, He states things very clearly. For just a couple of examples: [God to Isaac, Gen. 26:2] "Do not go down to Egypt. Live in the land where I tell you to live." [God to Abraham, Gen. 17:10] "This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised." And on and on, endless examples of God stating His intentions/promises/commands to various people very clearly so that they can't be misinterpreted. So why can't God as the author of the text do that same thing? If He is guiding the writers of the Bible, then why can't He say things as clearly to them as He does when He is playing a role in the stories? Why have readers of the Bible spent literally thousands of years disagreeing on why the Bible contains various things and what lesson we are supposed to take from them? In the case of these three stories, the Jewish Encyclopedia says "The purpose of the story is to extol the heroines as most beautiful and show that the Patriarchs were under the special protection of the Deity." But needless to say, other sources disagree. Why does God leave the contents of the Bible open to disagreement when He is capable of saying exactly what He means so that anyone can figure it out?
I suspect the one thing all authorities agree on is that the intent of the sister/wife stories was not to tell us "lying is okay," but that is certainly one possible interpretation, since in the Gen. 20-21 version, lying did end up leading Abraham to great fortune. Surely that wouldn't be what God wants to be our takeaway from all this, so why would God let the story be written so that it could be interpreted that way? In general, how does the content of the Bible fit with the idea of God exercising complete control over His message, when it so often ends up so unclear what the message is?
DOES GOD LIKE "BAD BOYS"?
Look at 2 Timothy 3:16 again: "All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."
The prevailing view of the Bible, among Jews and Christians, is that one should turn to the Bible as a guide for good, correct, upright, and commendable behavior. Let's see whether the Bible is really an appropriate resource for that sort of thing.
Early in the Bible, God picks out a family to be especially nice to, for no obvious reason: Abraham and his descendants. He sticks with them no matter what bad things they do, and never suggests to them that they've done anything wrong.
In Abraham, God has a confidant, using Abraham as a sounding board when He gets an urge to destroy a city or two; He visits great harm on anyone who threatens Abraham; He saves Abraham's nephew Lot from the fall of Sodom. It's really not easy to account for God's attachment to Abraham. The man is a liar who betrays his beloved wife to save his own skin, not trusting God to protect him -- the last of those faults being the type of thing that always seriously annoys God, except when it doesn't. The lie eventually led to great riches for Abraham, on the land Abimelek gave him to calm down Abraham's God, who, while not being mad at all at Abraham for lying, threatens Abimelek for buying into the lie. (Abraham laughing in God's face when God tells him he will father a son at 99 could also hardly be expected to endear him to God, yet God didn't smite him for that either.)
Isaac, Abraham's son, was a liar like his father, and, like his father, was rewarded in consequence of the lie. (After his success on land Abimelek had apologetically let him settle on, Isaac was chased off temporarily, but then Abimelek apologized for that and let him off the hook again.)
Jacob, Isaac's son... You really shouldn't get me started on Jacob. But I'm trying to make my point here, so I will proceed.
Jacob can be held up as an example of the advantages, and the blessings from God, that result from cheating your way to success. Jacob impersonated his not-at-all-identical twin brother Esau, so that his aged, blind father Isaac would give Jacob his dying blessing, under the impression he was Esau. Isaac's blessing came with considerable wealth. When Esau showed up later, and requested the blessing Isaac had intended to give him, Isaac explained "I have made [Jacob] lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?" (Gen. 27:37) That is one pretty valuable blessing: it used up all Isaac had to give. (I should note that Jacob had also, years earlier, bought Esau's birthright from him by a sales technique that today is called "gouging.")
It should also be mentioned that Jacob's deception was not a matter of greed alone (though it certainly was that), nor was he the only family member involved in it. His mother Rebekah helped him with the impersonation -- in fact, it was her idea to begin with -- and her own reason for choosing one son over another was that she was angry that Esau had married two Hittite women. Not because there were two of them -- men taking multiple wives is pretty commonplace in the Bible -- but because they were Hittite.
Given that God not only knows everything, but that he also had that special (never explained) affinity for this family and kept an even closer eye on its doings, God couldn't have missed what had happened. Did He punish Jacob for taking advantage of his father's blindness to cheat Esau out of his inheritance and taking the riches that were rightfully Esau's? Did God take exception to Rebekah's cultural bigotry (Rebekah: "I'm disgusted with living because of these Hittite women"), or her attempt to wreck her own son's life because she didn't approve of the tribe of people from whom he had chosen wives, enlisting Jacob as her willing weapon against him? Not at all. (And if you think God was in favor of cultural bigotry, and that any objection we might have to it is just modern-day sensibilities, look at Leviticus 19:33-34: "When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." God does not like bigotry in His followers -- unless the bigot is Abraham's daughter-in-law Rebekah.) After Jacob had fled, because Rebekah told him Esau had (understandably) threatened to kill him, God appeared to Jacob in a vivid dream and told him (Gen. 28), "I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and God of Isaac. I will give you and your descendants the land on which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the Earth [that is, unimaginably numerous], and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on Earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. [Jacob had only been passing through.] I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised." And some time later (Gen. 32, in a scene in which God shows a curious lack of omnipotence), God changed Jacob's name to... Israel. Jacob's twelve sons (by multiple wives, I should add) became the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel.
Jacob's crimes -- taking advantage of his father's old-age infirmities to do a con job on him, cheating his brother out of his rightful inheritance, and accepting the blind hate of cultural prejudice by which his mother had justified it all -- are rewarded by God with promises of riches beyond measure, right in the middle of Jacob's retreat from his brother's wholly justified wrath, without even so much as a light "You really shouldn't do those kinds of things, Jacob" from God.
And if we accept the premise that the Bible is the word of God, then the presence of this story in the Bible is evidence that God wanted it told, a story of the vast rewards of cheating. "Training in righteousness," indeed.
THE EXODUS -- DID IT HAPPEN?
There are any number of stories in the Bible sufficiently farfetched that only someone thoroughly determined to believe every word of the Bible could give them any credence -- stories of the faithful being thrown into a fire or the den of hungry lions without ill effect, or being swallowed whole by a fish and surviving by the power of prayer. Stories such as these are easy targets for skepticism, to the point that many firm believers in the Bible have defensively taken to regarding the stories as being more in the nature of fables meant to illustrate the power of God and the value of faith, rather than being intended to be taken literally as events that really happened.
It's hard to accept applying that description to some of the stories: when the stories become too long, too detailed and bear all the hallmarks of historical/biographical accounts, it's not fair to defend them as "fables not intended to be taken as true." As histories, they are either true or they aren't, and in these cases the details sometimes go far enough to allow for the truth to be judged. The story of Noah and his Ark, in which Noah saves breeding pairs of every living thing from a monster flood, is such an account. It has been thoroughly researched by scientists (which I take as a sign that the subject of its truth or falsity is fair game), who have pointed to the complete absence of evidence that such a worldwide flood could ever have occurred, but Bible supporters tend to dismiss the scientific approach because it's usually based on principles they don't understand. So my choice is to debunk it in the most understandable way possible.
Consider the number of different species of living things existing in the present day: Number of Species Identified On Earth. Note that this isn't a list of the number of species believed to exist today. It's a count of the numbers of species of various types that have been seen, catalogued, and given names. Any believer in the literal word-for-word truth of the Bible discounts the theory of evolution (since it contradicts the Bible), and such a person is then forced to admit that, if these species exist now, then they must have existed in Noah's time, and must have been saved by Noah -- otherwise how are they here today? Believing that Noah saved more than 25,000 species of mammals, reptiles, and birds, more than 100,000 different species of spiders and scorpions, and over a million different kinds of insects, many of which could not have lived in the hot arid climate of the Middle East so Noah would have had to travel to all the places those species live (Northern Canada? The Brazilian rain forest? Antarctica?), is exactly equivalent to believing Santa Claus visits the homes of all of the hundreds of millions of children on Earth in the space of a single night.
But I want to devote most of my Old-Testament-believability attention to the Exodus. Can the Exodus be classified as "only intended as a fable"? This Biblical account is even harder than the Noah's Ark story to defend that way. There are too many characters, many of whom are given detailed biographies and ancestries, and too elaborate a series of events, to claim that the story was just invented as some sort of teaching tool. The Exodus story presents, to readers of the Bible, a very significant turning point in the history of an entire people, the Hebrews -- that is, Jacob's (Israel's) twelve sons and their descendants. It has been the subject of a considerable amount of time and effort spent trying to decide whether it happened as stated in the Bible, by scholars who clearly took it to be intended as a true story. So let me examine the Exodus to see whether it can pass a test of historical accuracy.
The Hebrews having settled in Egypt, the stage is set. After a new Pharaoh came to power, causing the growing population of descendants of Israel to lose their inside man at the Pharaoh's court (Jacob's son Joseph), things went downhill for the Hebrews. The Egyptians despised the Hebrews and treated them as slaves.
Moses, of the tribe of Levi (one of the twelve sons) finds himself chosen by The Lord, who introduces Himself as the same God of whom Genesis spoke: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God wants Moses to lead the entire population of Hebrews out of the oppression of Egypt to a better place, which would turn out to be Canaan.
Why would God choose Moses, of all people, given that Moses, by his own admission, tended to stumble over his words and had absolutely no leadership skills? Well, Moses was, at least, very committed to promoting a group identity among the Hebrews and standing up to outsiders, to the point where he killed an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew... Okay, there we go: Moses was a murderer. I knew there had to be something that attracted God to him. (One wonders how personally Moses took it when God handed him the tablet reading "Thou shalt not kill" among the other Commandments.)
So Moses, along with his less tongue-tied brother Aaron, organized the mass movement of the Hebrew tribes out of Egypt, across the Sinai, seeking out the land of milk and honey promised to them (which none of them ever reached in their lifetimes). Moses, channeling the power of the God of Abraham, visited plagues on the Egyptians, and led the escape, facilitated by his parting the waters of the Red Sea, which then closed behind him and destroyed the pursuing Egyptians.
There are obviously some important details in the story that are hard to swallow whole. Before I started looking into some of the relevant history, I did know that some time went by (centuries? I wasn't completely sure) between the time of the Hebrews leaving Egypt and the time when all of this was written down in its more-or-less current, definitive form. Enough time for the story, passed along down the years by word of mouth, to undergo a considerable number of... improvements.
My facts here are from the Wikipedia article on The Exodus.
I was right about the length of time. The Bible itself gives a date (in 1 Kings 6:1) that implies that the Exodus occurred around the 15th century BCE [Before Christian Era]: that verse "says that the Exodus occurred 480 years before the construction of Solomon's Temple; this would imply an Exodus c. 1446 BCE, during Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty." In support of a date that far back, there is archaeological evidence that there were a people called "Israel" in Canaan by 1200 BCE, and they could only have been there, by that name, after the Exodus, so that 1200 BCE seems the latest possible date for the great movement from Egypt to Canaan. As for the writing of the book of Exodus, Bible scholars have settled on an authorship of the Torah (which includes Exodus) somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 to 600 years BCE, though there are writings with some of the details of the story dating about 200 years earlier. So there is a gap between the Bible's dating of the events and the writing of the current official "book" about them of at least 600 years, more than sufficient time for details to wander a bit.
But it turns out that it is not the specific details that are a problem in the story: there is considerable doubt, among Bible scholars, that the Exodus ever happened at all, and the entire story seems likely to be purely a "creation myth" for the beginnings of Israel. From the Wikipedia article: "A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness, and most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as 'a fruitless pursuit'."
And the problems go beyond a mere absence of evidence that it happened: there is a lot of evidence against it happening. For example, a number of the places the Hebrews are said to have passed through during their escape from Egypt existed when the story was written down -- but not when the Bible says the escape took place, six to eight centuries earlier. Also, again from Wikipedia: "Pharaoh's fear [as described in the book of Exodus] that the Israelites might ally themselves with foreign invaders seems unlikely in the context of the late 2nd millennium [BCE], when Canaan was part of an Egyptian empire [that is, going to Canaan was not an escape from Egypt] and Egypt faced no enemies in that direction, but does make sense in a 1st millennium [BCE] context, when Egypt was considerably weaker and faced invasion first from the Persians and later from Seleucid Syria." (Keep in mind: the mid-second millennium BCE is the Biblically-validated date -- if we are to believe the Bible, then that is when this all happened.) The narrative in the Bible says the Hebrew masses participating in the Exodus numbered "about 600,000 men on foot, besides women and children" (Exo. 12:37-38), which suggests a huge movement of around two million people (plus livestock), while the entire population of Egypt at that time has been estimated at 3.5 million, and "No evidence has been found that indicates Egypt ever suffered such a demographic and economic catastrophe or that the Sinai desert ever hosted (or could have hosted) these millions of people and their herds." Some authorities have said that "600,000 men" could well be a mistranslation of "600 families", but then it becomes hard to fathom why Pharaoh and his millions of citizens would have felt threatened by a few hundred essentially unarmed men, and why the Egyptians would have gone to such great lengths to stop them from leaving and to get them back.
No one, in fact, has ever uncovered historically reliable evidence that the Hebrew people, as a whole, ever actually lived in Egypt proper. All historical evidence suggests origins in Canaan, the land that the Bible has them eventually arriving in after escaping Egypt. The article summarizes the findings of historians and Bible scholars by saying: "It is therefore best to treat the Exodus story not as the record of a single historical event but as a 'powerful collective memory of the Egyptian occupation of Canaan and the enslavement of its population' [quoting historian Ann Killebrew] during the 13th and 12th centuries [BCE]." That is, it does seem likely that the Hebrew people were oppressed by Egyptians, and passed down stories of it, but the oppression was in Canaan, the original home of the Hebrews, and the Hebrews, without going anywhere, were saved by the slow, centuries-long dissolution of the Egyptian empire, without themselves having done anything to bring that about.
My own original suspicion, before going into this research, had been that stories of a lot of heroic (human) action during the flight from Egypt had evolved, over the years, into stories of divine miracles from a God who was looking out for Israel. As it turns out, that doesn't seem to have been quite correct. According to all evidence collected, the entire account of the Exodus records a mythical "escape" that, in truth, never occurred.
It's not easy to downplay the significance of a consensus forming around the idea that a major event in the history of the Jewish people, recorded in the Bible, the official source of the Word of God, never happened -- a consensus among people who have spent their entire careers studying the Bible and all other writings ever found to be associated with it. If any part of the Bible is pure myth, what does that imply about the rest of it?
DID JESUS RISE FROM THE DEAD? AND WHY?
Shifting attention to the New Testament, it is natural to wonder about a collection of writings from thousands of years ago that focus on the life, death, and return to life, of a single man. If we take the New Testament to be true, then we'd have to accept that Jesus came back to life after being, according to witnesses, indisputably dead.
Why did that dance with death occur? The Gospel of John (chapter 3, verse 16) makes the most clear statement of it: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." The words about God "giving his Son" are widely interpreted to mean that the Son had to die, which does seem a reasonable way to read it. And Christian doctrine holds that the ensuing resurrection was necessary, as a sign of Death itself being conquered, so that afterward we could all hold onto Jesus' shirttails, as it were, and follow him into the Heaven to which he ascended after his resurrection.
Christianity is the only major religion on the planet that offers this means of attaining immortality: simply having a particular belief. See How To Get To Heaven, on gotquestions.org, for a summary of what various religions believe relative to getting into Paradise, and note the comment in the second paragraph: "Only Christianity teaches that salvation is a free gift of God through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8–9), and no amount of work or effort is necessary or possible to get to heaven." That's the Christian belief about everlasting life, very well summarized: that we can't possibly be good enough to earn entry into Heaven, so instead we must just trust in Jesus to get us there. I can understand the premise that eternal life in Paradise is such a huge gift that none of us is capable of deserving it, but my point is that Christianity is the only religion to posit that some sort of roadblock prevented an omnipotent God from simply saving us directly, and that He had to come up with this workaround to make it possible to give us eternal life.
I will spend more time addressing the question of "Why would God need to have a son die and then resurrect him to make salvation happen?" in a later chapter. For now I want to move beyond why it happened to the question of whether it happened.
There are many accounts of Jesus' activities during the forty days he remained on Earth after rising from the dead, which tell of him appearing before large (and growing) crowds of followers. Most of those records were written by people who had an interest in making the importance and divinity of Jesus very clear to any potential new convert, so their accounts can hardly be termed "objective." It would be nice to have a written document by a neutral observer. Rick Marshall, in an essay "What Did Jesus Do Those 40 Days?" points out that the "contemporary Jewish historian Josephus referred to [resurrected Jesus being seen by multitudes]". Ah, I thought, contemporary Jewish historian. Will he be the objective observer, the dispassionate eyewitness, I was looking for? It turns out that Marshall was seriously stretching the meaning of the word "contemporary," since at the time of Jesus' forty-day post-resurrection ministry, Flavius Josephus hadn't even been born yet. The references to Jesus in Josephus' writings come in his books "Antiquities of the Jews," written in the years 94-95 CE [Christian Era, called "A.D." by some], an estimated 60 years after the events in question -- and of the account by Josephus of Jesus' ministry and crucifixion, called the Testimonium Flavianum, "The general scholarly view is that while the Testimonium Flavianum is most likely not authentic in its entirety, it is broadly agreed upon that it originally consisted of an authentic nucleus, which was then subject to Christian expansion/alteration." (See Josephus On Jesus in Wikipedia.) That is, scholars have generally arrived at a consensus that what Josephus had written about Jesus changed a lot after early Christians got hold of it and edited it more to their liking. So much for Marshall's citation of a reliable objective witness.
Jesus' disciples really, really wanted him alive. It would be perfectly natural for them to "wish" him into existence, to the point where they sincerely believed they had seen him walking and talking. That is, the disciples didn't necessarily consciously concoct a lie about having seen him after he died, but instead it may have been more a case of wanting so much to have seen him return from the dead that they gradually went from "I saw him in a dream last night" to "We all were with him when he spoke and performed miracles before hundreds of people," building on each other's versions of the story until it became firmly fixed in their minds as something that had really happened.
It should be noted that none of the accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection ministry (or the rest of his life and deeds) are believed to have been written by eyewitnesses. The four Gospel accounts, attributed in authorship to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, are all believed, by New Testament scholars, to have been assembled in their more-or-less current form between about the years 70 and 100 CE, with Mark probably written first, Matthew and Luke likely copied from Mark and another (unknown) source, and John composed by a "Johannine community" consisting of followers of John the Apostle (one of Jesus' disciples), but written decades after the events described in it, and not by John himself. (Wikipedia: Gospel of John.) (There are many references in the Gospel of John to a particular disciple as "the disciple whom Jesus loved," which would certainly fit with authorship by a group of devoted followers of that disciple, presumed to be John, and that is surely more likely than that one of the disciples would describe himself, or a colleague, that way.) The four to seven decades that passed by after Jesus' death before any of these accounts was assembled, in all cases by people who didn't actually witness them, gives the story plenty of time for truth-stretching.
While the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John all give basically similar accounts of what we now call Easter Sunday morning, describing the initial discovery by Mary Magdalene and other women that the stone sealing the tomb of Jesus had been rolled away and the body was missing, as one or two men in white tell them Jesus has risen from the dead and left the tomb -- in one case it's Jesus himself -- Matthew offers a curious variation from the others: rather than simply finding, after the fact, that the stone had been rolled away, Matthew says Mary Magdalene and her companions experienced an earthquake during which an angel of the Lord appeared and rolled away the stone as they watched, and the guards of the tomb were "so afraid of [the angel] that they shook and became as dead men." And after that, Matthew (28:11-15) records another detail not mentioned by the other gospels: "While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, 'You are to say, "His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep." If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day."
You have to wonder about an account of the events of that morning so divergent from any of the others. Surely if Mary Magdalene, or any of the women with her, had claimed to have had such a literally earth-shaking experience and seen the guards struck down in their fright, that would have made such an impression on all who were told about it that it's hard to believe the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John would have left that part out. But more significantly, Matthew gives us this account of a conspiracy among the Jewish priests, elders, and the guards to concoct a phony story about what had happened, so that we have, within the Gospel of Matthew, two competing versions of what occurred on Easter: (1) An angel came with the fanfare of an earthquake, rolled the stone away, frightened the guards to unconsciousness, and told the women Jesus had risen from the dead and left, or (2) the guards fell asleep and someone stole the body. Given that version (2) had, according to Matthew, been circulating for years at the time of the writing of the Gospel of Matthew, it is not surprising that the author of the Gospel felt it necessary to address the issue and say that something else had happened, and to explain that the story of the guards simply falling asleep and missing the theft was the result of a high-level conspiracy. It is obvious that someone came up with an account of Easter morning that diverges from the truth. The question is, was it the high priests, or was it Matthew? Which one of those stories, (1) or (2), sounds more believable? Before answering that, ask yourself: When, in all of history, have the members of a troop of military guards been persuaded to say, "We just fell asleep on duty" -- historically a capital offense in many armies -- and expected their commander to be satisfied with that, when the truth was far more complicated and interesting? That's what Matthew wants you to believe.
In my own case, I believe that the guards did fall asleep and the body was stolen, by a small group (or all) of the disciples or by someone else (and those who stole the body did know Jesus hadn't come back to life, but possibly took it with the intention of spreading such a story), and that all of Jesus' followers not involved in the theft came to believe, as I said earlier, that they had really seen Jesus alive, because they wanted so badly to believe that. As for Matthew's assertion that the general knowledge of the guards' dereliction and the theft of the body was the result of a misinformation conspiracy, I don't see any possibility that the description of that "conspiracy" is anything but a fabrication by Matthew -- no matter what you think about whether the author of the Gospel of Matthew might have been an eyewitness to other events, he couldn't possibly have been present to hear the Jewish elders and priests conferring secretly or paying off the guards. And if there is any fabrication anywhere in the Gospels, what does that say about the reliability of the rest of their contents?
I anticipate an objection to my interpretation of this passage in Matthew. Matthew didn't need to be an eyewitness to know about the conspiracy, someone will tell me. God told him it happened.
I might grant that point, except for one thing. I had a reason for citing that other discrepancy in Matthew's reporting of the Easter Morning story. If God told Matthew about the conspiracy, did He also tell Matthew that Mary Magdalene, on arriving at the tomb of Jesus, experienced a big earthquake, and that an angel rolled away the stone while she was watching? That version of events would apparently be news to Mary. As I said, the other three gospels offer descriptions of what Mary Magdalene saw that are very different from that, are far more boring, and are identical to each other except for minor details. How did everybody but Matthew miss hearing about the earthquake and the angel's visible feat of superhuman strength?
What I believe we are seeing is that Matthew was not at all above punching up his stories to make them more gripping, but the embellishment here very likely serves another purpose: Matthew was trying to reset the timeline of when the guards fell asleep. He invented the priests/elders/guards conspiracy to combat the (probably true) story of the body being stolen while the guards were slumbering, and his earthquake/feat-of-angelic-strength version of Mary's discovery of the empty tomb was a further attempt along those lines: it seems that here Matthew is trying to convince us that the guards, rather than being asleep before the body was stolen (facilitating the theft), were instead struck unconscious in fright after the body was already gone. (It sounds like too many people saw the guards lying there in dreamland for Matthew to be able to get away with saying they were never asleep at all.)
I have found discussions, by Bible supporters and by skeptics, of the discrepancies in the various Gospel accounts of Easter morning. Among the supporters, all that I have found examine only the small nitpicky details (How many angels? How many women, and which ones? What exactly did the angel say?), which I have already dismissed above as being too minor to bother exploring, and they ignore the larger question of whether (as in Matthew) there was an earthquake and a dramatic unveiling of the tomb, which, as I said, doesn't seem like something the other writers could have missed. One of the skeptical discussions I found did mention that curious inconsistency.
Matthew's account contradicts Mark, Luke, and John in much more serious ways than Bible supporters seem to want to admit. Are we nevertheless supposed to believe him anyway?
HOW CAN DIFFERENT CHRISTIAN GROUPS HAVE SIGNIFICANTLY DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE BIBLE?
The Bible is considered to have been written by humans under the direction of God. It is His word; it is what He wants us to know.
And yet, there are arguments over the accuracy of translations, with experts often looking at a Bible passage in one language and saying, "No, that's incorrectly translated from the earlier language this edition is based on." See, for example, the website for And God Said, an entire book about mistranslations in the Bible. If God is "guiding the hands" of the people who are producing Bibles, how could any mistranslation possibly occur?
One example of iffy translation (I don't know whether this one is in the book cited above) has to do with Paul's conversion to Christianity, which, as I mentioned in chapter 5, occurred when the late Jesus spoke to him from within a blinding light as Paul was traveling to Damascus to persecute Christians. Paul wasn't traveling alone. What did his traveling companions hear? The Book of Acts (authorship attributed to Luke) answers that -- in different ways. In the King James Version of the Bible, Acts 9:7 says, "And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man." Meanwhile, later in the same book, in that same King James Version, Acts 22:9, now quoting Paul himself, says, "And they that were with me saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me." The contradiction has been rectified in more recent translations of the Bible, and has been explained as a mistranslation of a Greek word whose meaning in English is ambiguous. If that is the case, I'll repeat my question above: If God was guiding the translators producing the King James Version, how did a mistranslation, resulting in a contradiction, slip past Him?
But there is a much bigger problem than mistranslations: Why isn't The Bible one particular book? There are different Bibles, with different content, for different Christian denominations. How could that possibly happen? Did God somehow let the editing process get away from Him altogether?
Jews, of course, don't recognize any of the New Testament as holy, inspired, or indeed accurate in describing the role of Jesus Christ in human history. Christians, of course, do: the common view is that Christians accept both the Old Testament and New as the word of God. But among different Christian denominations, there are major disagreements on just what those Testaments consist of.
Consider the article, Wikipedia: Books of the Bible. One sees that "Different religious groups include different books in their Biblical canons, in varying orders, and sometimes divide or combine books, or incorporate additional material into canonical books. Christian Bibles range from the sixty-six books of the Protestant canon to the eighty-one books of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church canon."
As an important example of the differences, consider the Intertestamental books (the following quote is from the article cited above): "The intertestamental books, largely written during the intertestamental period, are called the Biblical apocrypha ('hidden things') by Protestants, the deuterocanon ('second canon') by Catholics, and the deuterocanon or anagignoskomena ('worthy of reading') by Orthodox. These are works recognized by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches as being part of scripture (and thus deuterocanonical rather than apocryphal), but Protestants do not recognize them as divinely inspired." Think about those last eight words. Protestants don't include these books in their Bible because they are convinced God didn't write them and doesn't want them there. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians think God did write them. The question of whether God inspired these parts of the Bible is a matter of belief, opinion, and dispute. How does that fit with the idea that God can, and did, use His power to direct the writing of the Bible? How can He have that power, yet not have the ability to make it clear to His followers what He wrote and what He didn't? And if there is disagreement, not settled by God, over whether certain parts of the Bible were inspired by God, how is it possible to be sure any of it was?
IS GOD'S WORD SUBJECT TO POLITICAL BIAS?
Andrew Schlafly, creator of the ultra-conservative website "Conservapedia," has included on the site a "Conservative Bible Project," aimed at rewriting the English Bible to strip it of liberal bias, a task that even includes deleting several Gospel quotes of things Jesus Christ said on the grounds that Schlafly, who wasn't there two thousand years ago, doesn't think Jesus would have said them. (They make Jesus seem suspiciously liberal.) See the Wikipedia article on Conservapedia.
Schlafly, in committing his efforts to the project, doesn't seem to realize he has given the entire game away: If humans can arbitrarily edit the Bible so that it conforms with their pre-existing political beliefs, as Schlafly is doing because he believes other people already did so, without being struck dead or visited with plagues and pestilence for doing it, if there can be human political bias in the Bible, either put there by Schlafly or removed by him, then how can any version of the Bible be reliably identified as being composed by God rather than simply written by men acting on their own personal agendas without any direction or correction from God?
To believe in the Bible as the Word of God, it is necessary for you to accept that the God of Abraham has the power to guide the hand of the people who wrote it. Yet surely that God would then have the power to make sure different parts didn't contradict each other; to make clear what lessons He wanted his followers to take from it; and to clarify which writings He wants included so that His followers are all, so to say, on the same page. If God guided the construction of the Bible, His followers would not disagree on what belongs in the Bible and what doesn't, argue about whether events chronicled in great detail in the Bible ever happened at all, and split into different churches that differ in their beliefs about what God's rules and desires are -- in particular, disagreeing on what He promised in the way of salvation for the people who have remained true to Him and on whether those promises have been carried out already (leaving us with Christianity vs. Judaism).
If you want an extreme example of the disagreement: the God of Abraham, the god whose dealings with Abraham is one of the main subjects of the book of Genesis, is the god worshipped in Islam under the name Allah. Yes, I am talking about the Abraham who had sons named Isaac and Ishmael, and a nephew named Lot -- that Abraham. That's why Abraham -- pronounced as Ibrahim in the Arabic language -- is a common name in the Muslim world. Mohammad himself named his own son Ibrahim! And yes, it was for that Ibrahim, or Abraham. But Muslims believe that the God of Abraham inspired an entirely different book, the Quran, which includes many of the same characters, and many of the same stories about them, that the Bible does (sometimes with different details), but in other ways has a completely different message for God's followers.
More than half of the world's population are either Christians or Muslims, and these two religions have nearly the same number of adherents. Yet although followers of both of these faiths worship the God of Abraham, they have absolutely contradictory beliefs about how eternal life with that God is to be attained (see link above to article on how to get to Heaven, and the Wikipedia article on "Jesus in Islam"):
There is no safe road to follow between these two beliefs, no possible compromise allowing you somehow to be saved in both religions.
The God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, the God who, according to the Book of John, sent His only son into the world to be sacrificed on behalf of His people because He loved them so much, wouldn't play cruel practical jokes on those same people, leaving billions of them to live their entire lives and die with incorrect information on how they could have been saved.
The followers of the God of Abraham -- the so-called "Abrahamic Religions," including Jews, Christians, Muslims, and some smaller religions, have been left in disagreement and confusion, not to mention murderous mutual hatred, which adherents to all those religions believe God obviously must have the power to straighten out, yet He never has.
Some people reading what I am writing are going to say "God is testing His people, wanting to make sure they come to a true understanding of Him and of His plans for them." That's always been a cop out, something you can always say to shrug off things God is doing when you don't understand them. But there is no merit to the argument. Yes, there are stories in the Bible of God testing various people, such as Job and, in fact, Abraham himself, to make sure of their faith. But none of those tests involved God leaving those being tested in the dark as to what He wanted them to do; what He wants done is clear, and the tests involved seeing whether the people being tested would do those things. The massive confusion among followers of the God of Abraham is not some sort of "test" -- if it were a test, then when you consider its fifty percent (at least) failure rate, since either every Christian or every Muslim fails it, at a minimum, despite all of them sincerely believing they were doing the right thing in God's eyes, you know this is something no loving god would allow to happen.
So if the God of Abraham is not straightening out the confusion about His Word, it's because He isn't capable of it (perhaps because He isn't there), which leaves no foundation for believing He could guide men to write His Word down to begin with.
What about taking The Bible as a book that tells you how to be good? "...for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness"? On being confronted with the many problems in taking the Bible literally as a book of history (the thousand year lifespans, the evidence that the most important event in the history of the Jewish people never happened, and so on), many Christians respond that to be a historical document was never the Bible's purpose, and that it was really intended as a resource for moral instruction, exactly as it proclaims itself to be. So let's consider that. Is the Bible a moral resource?
How do parents teach good, moral behavior to their children? By establishing rules and setting examples.
Does the Bible establish rules? Absolutely. There are rules all over the place in the Bible. Rules such as the ones I cited in the chapter 5, on Morality: rules to follow in buying and owning slaves (don't use your own people as slaves, feel free to pass ownership to your kids when you die, and so on), rules for the behavior of women (keep them quiet, don't let them lead or teach), rules about rapists and their victims (they have to marry and never divorce), and these are just a few of my favorites among the many Biblically-established laws that have long been discarded by present-day society -- laws that I have never heard any of our most prominent self-appointed Guardians of Morality, in their megachurches and television shows, propose returning to.
Does the Bible set examples? Indeed, there are plenty of examples, provided by the First Family of the Old Testament, including Abraham (preemptively lying to save his own skin), Isaac (same lie as Dad), Jacob (cheating his brother out of a fortune by conning his father), Rebekah (instigating the robbery of her own son Esau out of cultural hatred of his wives), Moses (murdering a man for doing something Moses didn't like -- no self-defense involved), with none of these people punished or even criticized by God for doing any of these things, but instead richly rewarded. What a fine job of showing us how God wants us to behave.
It would take the world's biggest broom and most spacious carpet to sweep all of the Bible's lapses in moral instruction under the rug, yet that is exactly what proponents of the Good Book all manage to do. I wish they'd come over and clean my house.
To capture, in more abbreviated form, my answers to the three main questions I posed at the start of this chapter:
1. Was the writing of the Bible inspired and guided by God? No. A God who controlled the content of the Bible would not have
2. Is the Bible believable? No. Just to list a few of the reasons:
3. Is the Bible useful as a tool for teaching goodness? No. The Bible is woefully unreliable as a guide to upright behavior:
That's my belief. What's yours?