The Bible makes many extraordinary, even magical, claims about the nature of human history and about the nature of reality in general. Of course, so do many other fairytale books and well-loved moral fables. What, if anything, makes the miraculous claims of the Bible any different? Why should anyone believe in the historical existence of talking donkeys and snakes, a truly virgin birth of an incarnate God-man, people raised from the dead, someone walking on water, splitting the Red Sea to walk through on dry ground, the creation of all life on this planet in just six literal days, a worldwide flood that destroyed every land-dwelling animal except for those on Noah’s ark, and on and on and on?
Some people choose to accept as historical facts certain specific miraculous stories within the Bible, such as the virgin birth of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead, while they reject other stories as just too far fetched, such as a literal six-day creation week. But, upon what basis does one accept the magical claims of the Bible on the one hand, but reject those on the other? If one is going to give the Bible any kind of authority to present truly fantastic or miraculous events of any kind, how then is one going to pick and choose which miraculous stories are more or less likely true within the same book? – stories which are all equally presented as historical facts, intended to be taken as such by the biblical authors themselves, within the pages of the Bible?
It seems to me that there is very little reason to accept certain fantastic Biblical stories as historical facts while rejecting others that are presented in essentially the same manner as fable or allegorical. If one is to be rationally consistent, one must either accept or reject all of the historical (and futuristic) claims of the Bible as the biblical authors intended them to be understood, or reject all of the fantastic, miraculous or magical claims of the Bible all together. I really don’t see how one can rationally have it both ways?
This was essentially the point of James Barr, a well-known secular scholar of Hebrew at Oxford University. For example, Barr argued that it is quite clear that the author(s) of the Genesis narrative intended to convey to their readers, to us, a literal historical account of God’s creative act in the formation of life on this planet. I don’t think even liberal secular scholars of Hebrew would deny this, as Barr explains:
Probably, so far as I know, there is no professor of Hebrew or Old Testament at any world-class university who does not believe that the writer(s) of Genesis 1–11 intended to convey to their readers the ideas that: (a) creation took place in a series of six days which were the same as the days of 24 hours we now experience. (b) the figures contained in the Genesis genealogies provided by simple addition a chronology from the beginning of the world up to later stages in the biblical story (c) Noah’s flood was understood to be world-wide and extinguish all human and animal life except for those in the ark. Or, to put it negatively, the apologetic arguments which suppose the “days” of creation to be long eras of time, the figures of years not to be chronological, and the flood to be a merely local Mesopotamian flood, are not taken seriously by any such professors, as far as I know.
Letter from Professor James Barr to David C.C. Watson of the UK, dated 23 April 1984.
Now, Barr never did believe that the Biblical account of Creation or the Noachian Flood actually happened as described (He has since passed away). Barr was just pointing out the fact that the writer/compiler of these stories did in fact believe that the stories he wrote about happened as described and he wished to convey this to his readers. This concept has important implications for Biblical credibility, in my mind, with regard to other equally fantastic claims about historical and future realities.
Of course, there are those who accept the fantastic claims of the Bible “by faith alone” without any need to appeal to anything other than the Bible to support the credibility of the Bible’s claims. The same can be said for those who make the very same claims for the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon. For these people, there is no argument beyond, “My Holy Book said it. I believe it. That settles it. No discussion or further investigation is necessary.”
But is there any means by which one might rationally discern which Holy Book, if any, is most likely credible in its fantastic claims? After all, they can’t all be true since they make conflicting claims as to the true miraculous nature of reality. What then is there upon which one can be a Christian and believe the claims of the Bible as being most credible? without turning off one’s brain?
Of course, the so-called “higher biblical critics” argue that there is no such rational option – that the stories of the Bible are simply ancient legends or fabrications produced for various social and political purposes. As one contributor to this forum, Abe Yonder, put it, “Of course any reasonable person knows the creation story is not literal, but fundamentalists are not reasonable, they believe everything the Bible says no matter how absurd… The book of Genesis began with Chapter two verse three. [T]he seven-day creation story was added by the Deuteronomist at Babylon during the fifth century BC (See Harper’s Bible commentary).”
If this is the true version of history, and the Biblical version is nothing more than legends and fable, what does this say about Biblical credibility regarding its fantastic metaphysical claims that cannot be tested or evaluated in a potentially falsifiable manner? – such as the resurrection of Jesus? the future resurrection of the dead in like manner? or eternal life in our future heavenly home?
For me such claims, if true, effectively undermine biblical credibility with regard to anything other than what can be explained by human imagination in the production of moral fables. There is no more really solid hope for the future, for a better life after this one or a superhuman power to free me from my attraction to sin and self-destruction.
However, if the “higher critics” are wrong, if the Bible can somehow be shown to be reliable in those empirical claims that can be tested and investigated, then that changes everything – at least for me.
So, as just one example, let’s look at the claims of the higher critics regarding the origin of the Books of Moses, or the Torah, in particular. The view of most modern critics is still based on the well-known, still popular, and yet fundamentally flawed “Documentary Hypothesis”. “The documentary hypothesis (sometimes called the Wellhausen hypothesis), holds that the Pentateuch (the Torah, or the Five Books of Moses) was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives [labeled J, D, E, and P], which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors (editors).” These editors supposedly compiled these independent accounts into one work some 500 years BC during the time of the Babylonian captivity.
Now, consider that the documentary hypothesis has been challenged, since it was first proposed in the late 1800s, quite effectively I might add, by numerous Biblical scholars. Consider, for example, the arguments of Rendsburg (1986) where he demonstrates the linguistic unity and artistry of the composer of all of Genesis. For example, the “J” and “E” sections share a large number of theme-words and linking words, puns, etc.
It becomes simply incredulous that J wrote 12.1-4a, 12:6-9 about the start of Abraham’s spiritual odyssey and that E wrote 22:1-19 about the climax of his spiritual odyssey, and that these two authors living approximately 100 years apart and in different parts of ancient Israel time and again chose the same lexical terms. Surely this is too improbable, especially when such examples can be and have been multiplied over and over. Admittedly, a corresponding word here or there could be coincidental, but the cumulative nature of the evidence tips the scales heavily against the usual division of Genesis into JEP…
The evidence presented here points to the following conclusion: there is much more uniformity and much less fragmentation in the book of Genesis than generally assumed. The standard division of Genesis into J, E, and P strands should be discarded. This method of source criticism is a method of an earlier age, predominantly of the 19th century. If new approaches to the text, such as literary criticism of the type advanced here, deem the Documentary Hypothesis unreasonable and invalid, then source critics will have to rethink earlier conclusions and start anew.
– Rendsberg, p. 104-105
It seems then like “the Documentary Hypothesis and the arguments that support it have been effectively demolished by scholars from many different theological perspectives and areas of expertise. Even so, the ghost of Wellhausen hovers over Old Testament studies and symposiums like a thick fog, adding nothing of substance but effectively obscuring vision. Although actually incompatible with form-critical and archaeology-based studies, the Documentary Hypothesis has managed to remain the mainstay of critical orthodoxy.”
For a further review of the fundamental problems with the Documentary Hypothesis here is an interesting introduction: Link
As an interesting aside, note that ‘the documentary hypothesis was originally based on the supposition that the events in the Torah preceded the invention of writing, or at least its use among the Hebrews. This is because Julius Wellhausen lived in the nineteenth-century, but nineteenth-century notions about ancient literacy have been completely refuted by archaeological evidence. The documentarians have not updated the documentary hypothesis to take this into account, so we still find them assigning very late dates to their hypothetical sources of the Torah…. Archaeology has shown that writing was common during the time in which the events of the Torah were to have taken place.’
– Kenneth Collins, The Torah in Modern Scholarship
As evidence of this, consider that the Ebla Tablets, written some 2200 years BC, prove that writing, even alphabetic-type writing, was in existence well before Moses. Some of the statements about creation found on these tablets also seem to parallel the Biblical creation narrative, suggesting that the Genesis creation story, or something very similar to it, was known well before the “Deuteronomists” or even Moses came on the scene. These tablets also speak of a flood story like that of the flood story in the Bible. The Ebla Tablets also mention the names Abraham and Isaac, suggesting that such names were known and common during this time. They also tell of two sinful cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, and mention all five of the cities of the valley in the same order mentioned in the Bible. This is in the face of “higher critics” who had claimed that Sodom, Gomorrah, Ur and other Canaan cities of the Bible never did exist. However, the Ebla Tablets showed the Bible was correct and that the critics were wrong (yet again). And the list goes on and on.
This is just one of many many examples of the credibility of the Bible being proved superior to those of its “intellectual” critics. The scholarly critics have been shown to be consistently wrong, over and over again, in their claims regarding ancient history while the Bible has proved true. How then can one but conclude that the Bible is by far the most accurate history book known to modern man?
So, if you’re going to go with one’s track record, who has demonstrated the most credibility over time? the Bible or its critics?