The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 18: The fall of the Israelite Kingdoms


Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 19: Revelation, Genesis and Jesus
Last modified on Sun May 1 18:32:44 2022


Introduction

This is the nineteenth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this chapter I discuss the remaining parts of his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation. I have already discussed (in detail) his comments on Biblical archaeology. I intend to discuss the rest of the chapter more briefly in this post.

The purpose of this chapter is to argue that, while much of the content of religious texts are not empirically testable, some of it is. That ought to be judged against what we observe and know by other means. I have no objection to this overall goal, but would add a few caveats. Firstly, religious texts need to be interpreted correctly. Religious texts are obviously written in human language. Language is not always precise. Some words have an ambiguous meaning. We have to figure out which of the various possible meanings was intended by the author. The situation is even worse when discussing an ancient language, where the underlying meanings of the words might be unclear or have changed over time. We can guess -- but are those guesses always right? There might be an issue in translation, with nuances in the original language not carried over to the translation. Sometimes there is metaphorical language, which is not intended to be interpreted literally, but the precise details of the meaning behind the picture might be unclear. Details can be exaggerated, or there can be hyperbole. We can again guess, but could get the guess wrong. Equally some texts are deliberately misleading, for example speech put into the mouth of some flawed character. To what extent should we believe him? For ancient texts there are problems of textual variations. And so on. In short, there is always imprecision in all but the most carefully crafted texts.

I don't want to give the impression that the text is a complete free-for-all. It isn't. Some passages are unambiguous. For others, the single sentence might be unclear, but its meaning obvious from the immediate or wider context. We can ask the literary type of the text. Ask if there are any parallel passages or references which give light to the intended meaning. Read the text in the original language. Resolve textual variations through careful comparison of the different manuscript sources. All of these methods are well known, and well used. They don't remove the ambiguity entirely, but one can reduce it quite a lot through sensible reading. For the remaining ambiguity, the best thing to do is to leave it as an open question, and accept that the text could be any one of a range of possible meanings. These methods can and should be applied to any text, not just religious texts, but they require work. Work which not everyone is willing to or capable of putting in. Generally speaking, scholars of theology (both professional and amateur) are more aware of all this and do it better than those, such as scientists, with no interest in literary criticism beyond just reading texts such as novels. That is not to disparage scientists (both professional and amateur), who have their own methods of dealing with uncertainty applicable to their own areas of study about which theologians without that training are ignorant. All I am saying is that it is wrong to jump from one area of scholarship to another without putting in the effort to learn the fundamental skills needed to understand that second field. (Of course, I am not entirely blameless in this regard myself. I am entirely an amateur in this field, and while I am at least aware of the general principles and complexities, I am entirely reliant on the work of others for the details.)

Of course, one thing we must not do is read our own meaning into the text, by interpreting it through assumptions, or trying to twist it into supporting a conclusion, that the author might not have shared. This is easy for a modern reader to do, who has a very different world-view and set of assumptions compared to the author of the text.

The second part of the comparison can also contains ambiguity. For example, if we are comparing a religious text against "established" history, how securely do we know that history? What sources is it based on, and how reliable are they? If we are comparing it against a scientific theory, then is it the raw experimental data that we are challenging (which is, of course, imprecise in itself, but otherwise reasonably secure), or is it the (less certain) interpretation of that data, or (even less certain) the non-empirical presuppositions that inform that interpretation? Of course, there are methods can be used to parametrise and reduce such uncertainty, but there will always be some uncertainty in the external sources.

So, comparing a religious text with a historical or scientific one is not as straight-forward as we might hope. It is still a noble goal, but we have to be aware of imprecision and not just jump onto a bandwagon that assumes that the interpretations which apparently contradict are the only possible interpretations.

In this chapter, Professor Stenger covers the following topics (excluding Old Testament archaeology which I have already covered):

  1. Religious experiences.
  2. Scripture and science, particularly with regards to the origin of the universe.
  3. Prophecy.
  4. Reliability of the New Testament.

Religious experiences

Firstly, I should summarise Professor Stenger's argument in this section.

Throughout history, people have claimed deep, life altering mystical experiences. Many are sincere in the belief that they have been in touch with something beyond the natural world. But is that really true, or is it all in their heads?

Many of these experiences are about trivialities, but surely some would lead to radical new insight about how the world operates. Insight that can be tested empirically.

But no such insight has stood up to scientific scrutiny. How many times has the end of the world been predicted to happen on a specific date?

Of course, some might say that God simply does not choose to reveal such things as can be tested, or that they are too ambiguous or at too low a level to be checked. But, for example, God is supposed to reveal moral principles, and moral principles can be objectively tested, as will be discussed in chapter 7. Indeed, these revealed moral principles can immediately be discounted because many religious believers don't actually follow them.

So where to start in responding to this? Professor Stenger here seems to be discussing contemporary or historical religious experience not contained within the main religious texts. He discusses the religious texts themselves in later sections of this chapter (or, at least, that is how I will split this post up).

This is where being a Protestant in particular is helpful. Because I don't affirm the inerrancy of anything outside the Old and New Testaments. I agree that a religious experience could just be in somebody's head, and it makes little difference to me if it is or not. Indeed, we are specifically warned to watch out for fake visions:

Deuteronomy 18:20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.

1 John 4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

You might argue that these tests are somewhat circular, and to an extent I would agree with that, but the underlying message is clear. Jews and Christians are not to believe everything that people say claiming to speak in God's name and are to maintain a sceptical attitude. That doesn't mean that every supposed revelation is indeed a fake. But if they are inconsistent with more established revelation, or prove false, then they are either of the person's own imagination or of the devil, and should be rejected immediately. If they are otherwise backed up by miracles, or the person involved has a good track record of getting things right, then that is a good reason for tentatively accepting them. Otherwise it is best to leave the question open. And as such, we should not place too much reliance on such visions, nor base our actions on them.

Of course, just because a vision is "all in the head" doesn't mean that it is not also from God. To dispute this is to place a false dichotomy between the workings of science and natural processes, and the acts of God. To the theist, science is a description of God's activity, and God certainly has the power to create visions and personal revelation. Some of it could well be true.

Secondly, I note that Professor Stenger just asserts that there is no claimed revelation that has stood up to scientific scrutiny. He offers no evidence for this, or no in-depth examination. To be honest, I have not really studied this topic at all myself. For that reason, I can't produce any positive examples. But then, I don't use such revelation insight in any apologetics, so I don't really have a burden to study it or provide examples. Professor Stenger is presumably responding to people who do make this claim, and if so he could have cited them or examined their examples. He ought to provide some evidence if he will claim that no experience has passed scrutiny.

Of course, I am aware of people who have had, or claimed to have had, religious experiences (including myself). These are personally important, but are subjective. I would not want anyone else to be converted on the basis of my own experiences. Partly because such experiences are found in many contradictory religious traditions. But this sort of experience is not the sort of thing which gives specific empirically testable insight. Rather, it is the empirical test. We are led to expect such experiences through the Holy Spirit. So while my belief is based on reason and historical investigation, it is confirmed by experience. But that confirmation is personal. I would think less of Professor Stenger if he were converted through my own personal religious experiences.

Professor Stenger's answer to this is that religious experience provides moral insight. I agree that this moral insight should be tested against philosophical ethics. Or should it be that philosophical ethics should be tested against revealed moral insight? After all, an ethical theory is only as good as its premises, and these are, in most cases, even more open to question than revealed insight. From what I have seen and read, there are only three reasonable moral positions: moral nihilism, in which there is no moral right or wrong or standards of goodness are entirely arbitrary, divine command theory and natural law theory. Everything else reduces to either incoherence or one of these three. Biblical moral views are consistent with divine command theory (although saying that is pretty much a tautology) and natural law theory (which is entirely independent of revelation). So, I would disagree with Professor Stenger: I would say that revelation passes this test.

Professor Stenger is right to say that Christians haven't always followed Biblical morality; nor any other religious people perfectly followed their own moral codes. I would also add that no atheist or agnostic has lived the perfectly moral life. But this too is an argument in favour of Christianity, because it is precisely what orthodox Christian theology demands. Christianity is not for morally perfect people. It is for people who desire to be morally perfect, but who have come to accept the truth that no human power can help them achieve that goal. We only need to observe humanity, and ourselves, to recognise that moral failure is part of what it means to be human in this present age, and that the potential for and invariably also the practice of moral failure continues until death. If human beings were naturally good, or if it were possible to live the perfect life, you would have expected someone (aside from Jesus, who cheated by being God) to have done it by now.

But I will have to defer my discussion of ethics until my review of the next chapter.

Scripture and science

Professor Stenger's next point is that the Bible contradicts scientific knowledge. This is different from the claim that theism in general is in contradicted by scientific knowledge. I have argued for the consistency between theism and contemporary science in numerous places. But is the Biblical text itself irreconcilable with the findings of modern science?

Professor Stenger opens up by dismissing the claim that big bang cosmology confirms the opening chapter of the book of Genesis. He notes that almost every culture has a creation myth, particularly focusing on a Chinese myth, where the universe was a black egg, stuck by a god, and expanded out of that egg. Fleas and lice on the god's body evolve into mankind. He also mentions creation myths from the Apache and Tahiti. The Biblical account he describes is that a presumably preexisting God creates the universe in six days, with the earth created on the first day, and moon and stars on the fourth day (not four days later as Professor Stenger reported it).

The scientific picture he describes is the standard one: the big bang some 13.7 billion years ago, followed by a period of rapid inflationary expansion, and then the slower expansion that continues to this day. The nascent protons, neutrons and electrons formed a hydrogen gas, which collapsed under gravity into stars, with the pressure sufficient to spark nuclear fusion. This lead to the creation of the heavier elements. Those stars became supernovas, scattering the materials that formed within them. These coalesced into new solar systems; new stars were born. Our earth actually belongs to the third generation of stars, some nine billion years after the original big bang. This apparently contradicts the order of creation in the Biblical account, and the Bible implies a fairly recent creation. Kinds were created at the first, and remained constant, contradicting evolution. The universe is described as a firmament sitting above a flat, immovable earth. Even the Chinese account, according to Stenger, is more accurate than the Biblical one.

It is irrelevant that the originator of the Big Bang theory was a Roman Catholic priest, since he was also an eminent astronomer.

There are also many other dubious scientific statements made, however Professor Stenger doesn't say what they are except a claim that the Bible states that π is equal to 3. However, he conceded that ancient people cannot be expected to understand the language of modern science or the exact value of π (except, apparently, for pyramid builders -- quite why builders of an approximately four sided pyramid needed to know a precise value of π is unclear).

His argument is that the Bible and Qu'ran contain no new knowledge of the natural world, and just relate what was understood at the time, even if that understanding is wrong. In other words, they are what you would expect if there was no God revealing Himself through them.

Professor Stenger's concluding argument is obviously very weak. There is no indication that the Bible or Qu'ran are intended as a scientific textbook. The primary purpose of the Bible is to restore the relationship between man and God which was broken by mankind's rebellion and sin, and that is far more important than explaining the subtleties of general relativity or quantum field theory. There is no reason why we should expect the Biblical text to teach us about the workings of the natural world, so if it doesn't that isn't an argument against it.

It is interesting that Professor Stenger mentions to Qu'ran here. One common apologetic used by Muslims is that the Qu'ran does precisely what Professor Stenger here claims that it doesn't do -- reveal scientific information that wasn't confirmed until much later. I'm not convinced by this defence. The Muslim apologists rely very much on nineteenth century enlightenment propagandists, who sought to cast their medieval and ancient predecessors as ignorant; and in their zeal went too far in many cases. Every example I have seen quoted by the Islamic apologists was known, and in some cases known better, to the ancient Greeks and thus also to the early Islamic community. But I say that as an aside; I am not here to defend the Qu'ran.

But obviously if there was a clear and unambiguous contradiction between contemporary science and the Biblical text, then that would be a problem for Judaism and Christianity. The issue comes in the terms "clear and unambiguous." As stated, the Biblical text can be interpreted in different ways.

I think that example that Professor Stenger quoted concerning pi is most likely a reference to 2 Chronicles 4:2:

Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.

You can see where he got the value of π=3 from; 30 cubits in circumference divided by ten cubits in diameter. However, there are a few problems with this interpretation. Firstly, the text says round not circular. This is probably a quibble, but given the limitations of ancient metalworking, there were likely to be some deviations from a pure circle. Secondly, there is the issue of the thickness of the pot, and the fact that it might not have been perfectly cylindrical but rather tapered. If the circumference measurement was on the inside and the diameter measurement on the outside, then that would adjust the ratio. But thirdly, and most significantly in my view, is the issue of measurement error. There would have been some imprecision in these measurements, even if it wasn't recorded. For example, the numbers in the direct context of this verse only give measurements to an exact number of cubits. The obvious conclusion to draw is that they were rounded to the nearest cubit. So we should read the text as saying that the pot was between 29.5 and 30.5 cubits in circumference and 9.5 and 10.5 cubits in diameter. That gives a value of π that lies between roughly 2.810 and 3.211, which includes the true value. The problem is simply that Solomon's officials didn't state their measurement uncertainty. But, as they weren't modern scientists, there is no reason why we should expect them to.

The issues that Professor Stenger raises with regards to Genesis 1 are perhaps a little more significant. Obviously, I could follow the young earth creationists, and reinterpret the science. There are people who do that, but I have never felt that their arguments are strong enough to merit taking that path. Obviously every Christian is a creationist, in the sense that they believe that God and ultimately God alone created the universe and everything in it (although perhaps acting through instruments -- e.g. Genesis 1:12 where the earth brings forth vegetation at God's command). Young earth creationists, however, adopt a particular theory of creation based on a particular reading of Genesis 1. Not every Christian has agreed that that interpretation is the only possible reading of the text. Professor Stenger does, however, share one thing in common with the young earth creationists, in that he adopts the same interpretation of the Biblical text. The question we should be asking is whether this is the only interpretation available.

One of the most important early Christian commentaries on Genesis 1 (at least to me) was Augustine's Literal Meaning of Genesis. Here we find Augustine, in an unfinished work, wrestling with the meaning of the text. Particularly pertinent to the young earth creationists is a warning made in book 1, chapter 19:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars, and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our scripture are criticised and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christina mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matter concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope for eternal life, and the Kingdom of heaven, when they think that their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books.

These words, written well before the scientific revolution, are very prescient. They convey precisely how Christians are thought of by those who accept the mainstream scientific views.

I will return to Augustine later, but first a few introductory comments.

The Biblical text was regarded by the Church Fathers as conveying different senses. One of these is the allegorical sense. In this sense, the text is telling a story that hints at a deeper truth, in which every element represents something else. Think of Jesus' parables, in particular the parable of the sower (which has the advantage of being explained). This was seen by many schools of Christian, and Jewish, thought as the most important sense. There is also the literal sense. The word literal here does not mean the same thing as we understand the word today, as in opposite to figurative. It means according to the literary sense, i.e. the author's original intent. It might still include metaphors and similes, or poetical structure. We should never forget that ancient literature had very different conventions and formats to our own. Thus a modern reader might approach the text, and come off with the wrong impression.

Genesis chapter 1 should be understood within its ancient context, and should be compared to other creation myths, particular those from Mesopotamia, which show distinct similarities to the Biblical account. There are numerous versions of the Mesopotamian creation myth, but they all contain a certain family resemblance, and Genesis 1 is clearly part of that family, rather than the families that arose in other cultures. Some say that that we should look to the Babylonian exile as the time when the Jews were influenced by these Mesopotamian stories, but, given the evidence that Genesis was a pre-exile work (for example, due to the clear Egyptian linguistic influences on the later portions of the Torah, which, as they reference Genesis 1, must have come after it, implying that the text was written when the Israelites were strongly influenced by Egyptian culture, during Egypt's New Kingdom or earlier), I would prefer to say that the ancient Hebrews took the story, or a version of the story, with them when they originally emigrated from Sumeria. The work also emphasises the original goodness of creation; again, in contrast to various ancient creation stories.

The ancient Mesopotamian texts, in contrast to the Biblical story, portray creation as the result of an unruly battle between different gods. Humanity is formed so that the lazy gods can be spared their toil in maintaining the earth. In contrast to this, the Genesis text focuses on the unity and order of creation. It attributes creation to the God of the Hebrews alone, without aid. It thus places God as higher than any of His rivals in other religions or other peoples. Humankind is the crowning glory of creation; the representation of God on earth.

The text is structured in an ordered way, reflecting its purpose in showing how God brought order out of an original chaos. It is in two separate sections, each of three stanzas, with the sections correlated with each other. The first section is concerned with various acts of preparation to create the environment needed for the second section, and the second section is concerned with population. In the first stanza, God creates light in the first section, dividing light from darkness (first day), and the beings created to convey that light in the second section (fourth day). So here God is concerned with things outside the earth's atmosphere (as we would today describe it). In the second stanza God separates the seas, and sky in the first section (second day), and then populates them with birds and fish in the second section (fifth day). The concern here is with the waters and air. In the third stanza, the earth brings forth vegetation in the first section (third day), and land based animals, including mankind, in the second section (sixth day). The focus here is on the earth and the land. There is a succession in this ordering, starting with wider general features of the universe, and culminating in mankind as the being that reflects God's image and likeness.

Thus the two sections of three between them indicate the completion and harmony of the work of creation. There are numerous different ways in which literary works such as this might be ordered. One is chronologically. Another is topically. In the topical ordering, the phrase evening and morning would be used to distinguish the separation between different parts of creation. Different beings would then be placed in the appropriate section, even when it was outside of chronological order. Ancient writers adopted many literary forms, with the structure of the text constructed to further emphasise the message of the text. Precise chronological ordering was often seen as less important than preserving the literary structure. Ancient readers knew this, and took it into account when evaluating the text. But today we have different literary conventions. As such, the causal reader can easily misunderstand the author's intention when interpreting it as though it were a text written today rather than one written according to the conventions of the time. In the case of Genesis 1, it is more intended as a symbolic account indicating a deeper theological truth. It is a figurative structure, rather than the pure prose historical text, as seen later in Genesis, indicating, perhaps, that the author was more concerned with conveying a theological meaning more than a precise chronology of creation.

We should also be wary of features of Hebrew that do not translate precisely into English. The word translated create carries a broader meaning than in English, and could mean reshaping or organising. The word for day can mean a specific twenty-four hour period, or can mean a indeterminate time period. See, for example, Micah 7:11, which uses the same word for an indeterminate period when something happens:

Then my enemy will see, and shame will cover her who said to me, Where is the Lord your God? My eyes will look upon her; now she will be trampled down like the mire of the streets. A day for the building of your walls! In that day the boundary shall be far extended. In that day they will come to you, from Assyria and the cities of Egypt, and from Egypt to the River, from sea to sea and from mountain to mountain.

Clearly the events described in this passage didn't all occur in one day; the Assyrian assault of Judah took years.

So while the period of six twenty-four hour days might be the most natural interpretation of Genesis 1, it is not the only interpretation, and we should also consider that the author intended a more figurative picture demonstrating God's sovereignty. One of the principles of interpretation is that we shouldn't just jump to the most probable interpretation of the text, but leave which interpretation is correct as an open question until further information comes in.

An allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1-3 clearly does not pose any conflict with science; because in this interpretation the text is clearly figurative, with the passing of days and various acts of creation representing various theological truths. What of the literal interpretation? Augustine's work which I mentioned above doesn't seek to give a clear answer, but instead points to ambiguity in the text. The point is well taken: even Augustine was too far from the original historical and literary context to hope to have a perfectly clear understanding of the author's intent; and the situation is even worse for us today as we are even further distanced from the author. I can only give a few examples.

Now when God said, Let there be light, and light was made, did He say this on a certain day or before the beginning of days? If He said it by the Word, who is co-eternal with Himself, He certainly did not speak in time. On the other hand, if He spoke in time, He did not speak by His eternal word but by a creature subject to time; and so light could not be the first creature, because there already existed a creature by which He said in time, Let there be light. Thus, we must suppose that before the beginning of days, He wrought the work referred to in the words, In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And then by the expression "heaven" we must understand a spiritual created work already formed and perfected, which is, as it were, the heaven of this heaven which is the loftiest in the material world. On the second day, God made the firmament, which He called heaven again.

&hellips;

The commentator referred to above (Literal interpretation of Genesis, 2.4), having proved that the atmosphere near us is called heaven, wished it also to be designated by the term "firmament," for the simple reason that it divides its space between water in a vaporous state and water in a denser state that flows to earth. The clouds, according to the testimony of those who have walked through them in the mountains, have this vaporous appearance, formed, as they are, of the most minute drops which are gathered and rolled together. And if further condensation takes place, so that one large drop is formed out of many small ones, the air, unable to support it, yields to its weight as it travels down, and this is the explanation of rain. Hence, from the existence of air between the vapours that form the clouds above and the seas that stretch out below, our commentator proposed to show that there is a heaven between water and water. This painstaking enquiry is, in my opinion, quite praiseworthy; for the theory advanced is not contrary to the faith, and it makes it possible to accept the evidence at hand.

&hellips;

In the words of Scripture, Let them serve as signs for the fixing of times, of days, and of years, there is obviously a great deal of obscurity if we take this to mean that time began on the fourth day, as if the preceding three days could have passed without a lapse of time. For no one could conceive how the three days passed by before the beginning of the time that is reported as commencing on the fourth day. Or who can say whether those three days passed by at all?

Different explanations might be proposed. One might say that "day" refers to the form of the created being and "night" to the privation of its form; and so formless matter, whence the other things were to be formed, was called night.

Another might suggest rather that the mutability or possibility of perishing in the creature made and formed was called night because there is in creatures, even though they may not change, the possibility of change. Evening and morning in this case would imply not the going and coming of time, but the existence of a fixed boundary by which the mind sees how far the limits proper to a nature extend and thereby where the limits of another nature begin.

&hellips;

Did those days, therefore pass by in time? Or, as these days of ours, reckoned by the same names and number, daily run their course in the passage of time, do these days remain with us in fact in their reality? In other words, are we to understand the word "day," not only in the three days before the creation of the heavenly bodies, but also in the remaining three, as reference to the form of a thing created and "night" as referring to the privation or disappearance of this form, or whatever term you prefer to describe the loss of form when a change turns and draws a thing from form to formlessness? Such change is in every creature either as a possibility, without actually taking effect, as in the creatures of the higher heavens, or as a reality, bringing about the beauty of the temporal order in creatures of the lowest rank, produced by the decay and production that goes on in an orderly cycle in mutable nature, as we observe in all things earthly and mortal. Evening then, in this sense would be a kind of limit of each creature's perfection, and morning would be the original state from which it would start, for every created nature is confined within its fixed boundary and limit.

Another of Augustine's ideas (which I shall describe rather than cite, since no brief excerpt can do his description justice) is that light is to be understood spiritually rather than materially, i.e. in terms of knowledge. In particular, he focused on the knowledge of angelic beings, and described the creation of the six days in terms of the order in which these things were known. The six days do not mean six literal days, but merely individual chunks of information that follow one after the other in an order of understanding.

Augustine also states why the vegetation is created on the third day, since it is quite literally rooted in the earth, and therefore topically belongs to the creation of the earth. He also discusses the meaning of the phrase according to their kinds, distinguishing it from the phrase according to their likeness. He also notes that mankind was not created according to his kind. He ties the notions of kinds with reproduction. The main interpretation he gives to the word is to note that there is a great deal of diversity in vegetation, fish, birds, and land animals, but only a single mankind. So the phrase according to their kinds is intended to indicate the great diversity of life.

Remember, this is intended as the literal interpretation, i.e. according to the author's intent, rather than the allegorical interpretation which implies a symbolism which goes beyond the author's intent.

Augustine wrote in the fifth century. He wasn't responding to the demands of our own contemporary science. His was obviously limited by the science of his time, and that does show in places, for example in his explanation of rain and cloud formation cited above: a decent stab, but missing a lot of details. From this date, we can take one of two conclusions. Firstly, one could cynically say that even in the classical period and with Greek science people were dismissing the opening chapter of Genesis. But this is a little unfair; while this might explain some of Augustine's approach to the text, it would not explain all of it. Secondly, Augustine's more figurative interpretation of Genesis was not motivated by a desperate desire to answer our own contemporary science. It was a thousand years too early for that. It came from a careful study of the text and questioning what the author might have meant according to the literary forms Augustine was familiar with.

Genesis 1 was written by Bronze age people for Bronze age people in a language they would understand using literary conventions of the time. It was intended to show, among other things, the sovereignty of Israel's God; that Israel's God alone created everything; the harmony, systematic nature, and original goodness of that creation before the fall; the importance of mankind as the pinnacle of creation; and that mankind is the image of God rather than God being an image of something made by man after the form of various animals. There is more to the passage than that. To read it as a science textbook is to misread the text; the theology rather than the science is the main message of the text. The theology is far more important than the science.

Professor Stenger makes a number of complaints. Firstly that the chronology of Genesis is wrong, both in terms of the date of creation being relatively recent, and the six day time-frame. However, we ought not interpret the days of Genesis 1 as 24 hour periods (which is clear from the text, since the first three days passed before there was any ordering of times), but rather ordered according to the development of knowledge.

Secondly, he argues that the ordering of creation is incorrect, in particular with the sun and stars created on the fourth day rather than the first, and birds created before land animals. However, the ordering in Genesis is intended to fit a literary construct rather than a strict chronology.

Thirdly, he suggests that the Biblical picture of the universe is incorrect, with the universe as a "firmament" sitting above a flat motionless earth. I am not sure that he phrased it quite correctly, but the picture is well-known. This might be what the Biblical authors believed -- the picture is consistent with the cosmologies of other nearby ancient cultures. However, it is not something demanded by the Bible. The verses he cited are poetical. For example, 1 Chronicles 16:30 is taken from David's song of praise:

Ascribe to the Lord, O clans of the peoples,ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth; yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,and let them say among the nations, The Lord reigns! Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth.

Yes, it states the earth shall never be moved. It also states that the seas roars, the trees sing, the earth rejoices, and the fields exults. And indeed that the earth trembles. The passage is obviously filled with metaphor and imagery. The earth never being moved is an example of the goodness of God's creation: we have a stable and hospitable environment to live in; not one that will suddenly be drowned, for example. Motion did not necessarily mean movement from one place to another before the enlightenment; it could refer to any sort of change.

Also complaining about this makes little sense. Due to the relativity of motion, a coordinate system where the earth is stationary is just as valid as one where it orbits the sun.

The firmament in Genesis 1 is linked to the separation of waters; as Augustine noted a reference to the separation between the clouds and the rivers and oceans. Again, the language is figurative, but it is not wholly inaccurate as long as one does not rigidly read an idea into it as though that were the only interpretation. The word "Heaven" in the Bible conveys a number of meanings from various parts of the atmosphere, to the universe beyond the atmosphere; to the place where God dwells immaterially. The later Jews spoke of seven distinct heavens. These different senses of the word should not be confused.

Fourthly, Professor Stenger states that the Biblical picture was that all the kinds of the animals were created on the days of creation, and since then have remained immutable. But the Biblical text, at least in Genesis 1, does not imply this immutability of the animals. The word "Kind" is just used to indicate the diversity of life and the different species. It does not imply that those species are unchangeable.

Finally, Professor Stenger states that the Biblical text does not tell us anything beyond which the people of its time would have known. This is not an argument against the text; it is an attempted refutation of an argument in support of the text -- an argument which I don't think that anyone actually makes. When Professor Stenger implies that the Biblical text contains nothing new, he is, of course, referring to scientific knowledge. But science is not the whole of knowledge. It is not even the most important knowledge. People can live perfectly well without detailed knowledge of the natural sciences, beyond what is obvious from everyday observation. Sure, science has given us technology which makes our lives far more convenient and comfortable, and it ought to be studied for its own sake. But, in terms of human understanding, science is just the cherry on the top of the cake: a great bonus, but not the main thing. The Bible is there to provide us with the cake. The ideas that there is one God responsible for creation; that God cannot be represented by any physical form; that mankind was created for personally fellowship with God; that the world was originally good until mankind rebelled -- all of these were powerful ideas rejected by most of the people at the time when the texts were written. They are far more important than general relativity or quantum electrodynamics.

The Old Testament as a whole, with the opening chapters of Genesis a key part of that, gives us the background we need to understand our place in the universe and concerning our relationship with God. If true, then what it tells us is far more important than what it omits. So why digress with details which would have been of no importance to the people of the time? Professor Stenger will retort that there is no independent confirmation that it is true -- he is looking for something we can test today. But not every true statement is scientific or can be tested scientifically. The evidence for the Biblical text is historical and philosophical -- and it is using the methods of those fields (subtracting any atheistic presuppositions that have entered their methodology) that it should be judged.

Prophecy

The next topic that Professor Stenger takes aim at is prophecy. Today we tend to think of "prophecy" as foretelling the future, usually through some sort of divine revelation. In practice, however, the remit of the Biblical prophets was far broader than this. Their main goal was to call the people of Israel and Judah back to true worship of God, following the Torah, and to call them to account for their failures. Obviously nobody, especially people in power, likes being called to account in this way, and as such many -- not all but many -- of the Old Testament prophets faced persecution and opposition. Prophets appear in the historical books, but the main source are the prophetic writings, which make up a large portion of the Old Testament. What we possess is what was written down and preserved in the canon, which is probably only a small fraction of the original oral prophetic output.

As part of their ministry, the Old Testament prophets did make some pronouncements about the future. Some of these were about a future covenant, which would either replace or expand upon the covenant of Moses, and they also discuss an anointed figure, who will come to restore both Israel and all other nations to true worship of God. The Christians took these writings, and interpreted them as applying to Jesus, either in his first coming in the first century, or a promised second coming when human society had degenerated to a level when God would be compelled to intervene and put an end to it, establishing a new heaven and earth for the elect, and an alternative place for the unrighteous. This interpretation was encouraged by Jesus Himself. Other prophetic writings described the fate of the nations around them. Both types of foretelling have been used by Christian apologists from the days of the apostles until today to defend and justify Christianity. Also a lot of Christian theology has its origins in the Old Testament, including the Messianic prophecies. Although, obviously, the way Christians approach these passages is very different from how a contemporary Jewish reader will interpret them. Many of the passages claimed as Messianic prophecies are taken out of their original context, and given a secondary meaning that is applied to Jesus or the Church. Others are plain and clear in their meanings and interpretation.

Of course, when reading the prophets, one has to be careful. They wrote of their time and for their time, using symbolism, metaphor and imagery. As such, the literal interpretation might not be the straight-forward one. Equally, some prophecies are conditional, i.e. "Unless you repent, I shall hurl fire and brimstone upon you." The prediction of fire and sulphur would not necessarily come true if the people the prophecy was directed towards repented.

It should be noted that prophets, divinely appointed spokesmen raised up to challenge authority, were not just an Israelite phenomenon, but common in many cultures of the ancient near East. The Israelite prophets are nonetheless unique in the quality and quantity of their surviving writings.

It is this foretelling, and its use in Christian apologetics, that Professor Stenger targets. He seems to have picked up a book, Josh McDowell's Evidence that demands a verdict, and a web article by Hugh Ross, and used those as the basis of his criticism. His claim is that if there were highly unlikely and easily verifiable events recorded in the Bible that proved true, then that would indeed be good evidence for Christianity. However, he finds that all the cases usually mentioned are either vague, their fulfilment insufficiently verified, or just turned out to be plain wrong.

I can't go over every Old Testament prophecy here. Firstly I don't have the space, and secondly I would need to put in considerably more research than I am prepared to do for this blog post. So I will just discuss those texts mentioned by Professor Stenger.

I should say first of all that many of Professor Stenger's criticisms do hit the mark. Christian apologists have been sloppy in far too many cases. That doesn't mean that they are necessarily wrong about the text in question or its fulfilment, but just that there are other possibilities to explain it. For example, towards the end of Deuteronomy, we see a sequence of curses outlining what God would do to the Israelites if they broke the covenant. These curses, culminating in exile, proved very prescient; they occur at one point or another in the later books of the Old Testament. As outlined in earlier posts, I reject the Documentary Hypothesis, and think that there are good linguistic and cultural anachronisms which place the Torah in a Late Bronze Age context (baring some minor editing as the book was copied down the centuries) -- well before the books of Kings and Chronicles were written. But such a view is not widely accepted in Old Testament scholarship. The simple truth is that the only hard evidence we have for the date of Deuteronomy's authorship is that the text must have been fixed in its current form sometime before the split between the Jewish and Samaritan versions of the Pentateuch. This occurred around the time of the exile -- we don't know the precise date. So before one can claim this as a genuine prophecy, and not a prediction-after-the-fact, one has to first of all establish that the text was written at an early date and not (say) at the time of Josiah after the Northern Kingdom of Israel had been taken into exile. The popular apologists I have seen don't tend to do this, but just cite the example. That just makes it too easy for the sceptics. This doesn't apply to every claim of Biblical prophecy, but Professor Stenger is right to criticise Christian apologists who take shortcuts and do more damage than help to Christian apologetics.

The first example Professor Stenger cites, from Josh McDowell's book references a well known passage in Genesis 3. He first of all cites the example, then gives his comment.

PROPHECY

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed: he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. (Gen 3:15, Revised Standard Version).

FULFILMENT

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4, Revised Standard Version).

I am not sure what the prediction is here; that Jesus was to be born of a woman?

Allow me to enlighten Professor Stenger. The opening chapters of the book of Genesis contain a great deal of allegory. The serpent in the book of Genesis references the devil, or perhaps the power of sin. The verse references a singular offspring of the woman (out of the many billions of her descendants). There is thus enmity between this offspring and the power of sin. God is thus promising that there will a descendant of the woman who will come to crush the power of sin over mankind that was initiated by the serpent (or what the serpent represents) back in the original paradise. In Christianity this is the main purpose for which Jesus was sent into the world.

This passage, with this interpretation, is of very great importance in Christian theology. It shows that Jesus was planned as the solution for sin from the beginning, and confirms in imagery what is stated clearly in the New Testament. Accept Christianity, and it is clearly a fulfilled prophecy. The text was undoubtedly written before the time of Jesus; nor is its fulfilment something accidental to the Christian message that could have been made up by a later Christian to post-justify Christianity.

But is the passage useful in apologetics? I can see both sides of this argument. Firstly, one can say that it is too vague and needs the rest of the context to be able to interpret it correctly. As such, one can, like Professor Stenger, just walk away from it puzzled. On the other hand, it does fit snugly into the Christian gospel, and thus contributes to a case showing an overall consistency and continuity between the Old Testament and the later Christianity.

The next passage that Professor Stenger questions is Psalm 110:1 (The Lord says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool. ESV.) This is referred to in the New Testament on a few occasions. One should be careful to note the context; the Psalm goes on to say that the Lord on the right hand is also a Priest of the order of Melchizedek (i.e. not a Levitical priest). New Testament references to Old Testament passages are often citations or allusions to single verses, but used to indicate that the reader should be thinking about the context of that Old Testament verse as well to illuminate the point the New Testament writer is making. The reference indicates a singular lord and priest, accepted as such by David. Other passages refer to the messianic figure as a descendant of David. It could not be a self-reference, as David was never appointed nor claimed the title of priest. (Jesus was not appointed but claimed the title required for his self-sacrifice for the remission of sins.) If this lord was a mere descendant of David, then how can David regard him as having authority? That suggests that there is something more going on with this descendant. Once again, within the context of Christian theology, this passage fits and explains in poetry what the New Testament makes explicit.

But once again, I can see Professor Stenger's point, if not the way he phrases it. He questions whether Jesus' placement on God's right hand can be verified scientifically. No, but why bring the methods of science into something to which they are inappropriate? Science isn't the right tool for every problem. Now if Christianity is true, then this text is important because of the theology it helps establish, and it is a successful prediction. But to use it in an argument for Christianity is ultimately circular reasoning. It is just too vague to appreciate without the context of its fulfilment. So I agree with Professor Stenger that Josh McDowell shouldn't have used that example in his book; at least not without a strong caveat. It can be used as evidence of the consistency of Christianity, but serves less well as evidence of the truth of Christianity. Of course, one could argue that there is a cumulative case to be made from all examples such as this; but it would take a rather more scholarly work than this blog post (or, apparently, McDowell's book) to do so convincingly.

The third example that Professor Stenger cites from McDowell's book is a little different. This is Psalm 22:1 (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? ESV), words spoken by Jesus on the cross. Professor Stenger ridicules this, asking why Jesus (or the evangelist) could not have cited some old but well known poetry at the moment of crucifixion. However, once again, Professor Stenger ignores the context. Psalm 22 as a whole is a vivid description of a man suffering crucifixion, written well before that method of execution was invented. We know that Psalm 22 predates the life-time of Jesus. There are some verses which apply specifically to Jesus' crucifixion, at least as it is recorded in the New Testament (They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots. Psalm 22:18 ESV). The final verses of the Psalm record both the victim's death (verse 29), but that he will subsequently perform his vows to a people redeemed from all the ends of the earth who will serve him and worship God. In other words, the Psalm as a whole is a powerful piece of predictive prophecy, which Jesus applied to Himself by citing the opening verse.

Could the evangelists have made up the story to fit the Psalm? Maybe the detail about the garments being divided, but otherwise no. The crucifixion is crucial to the Christian story; you can't just add it on when writing the gospel account because the core shape of the covenant story would have to be established from the first. You can't just go around proclaiming "This is a great new religion! It's truth shall set you free." And then a few decades later when the gospels were written change the story to say, "By the way, this great teacher was crucified by the Romans rather than he died in his sleep. Sorry we didn't mention that until now." Nor could the apostles had made it up at the start. They were trying to honour Jesus, and spread Jesus' message. Making up a story of how he was executed in the most humiliating way possible wouldn't have done that. Could Psalm 22 refer to any random crucifixion victim, and not necessarily Jesus? Its final verses describing about how people from the ends of the earth should come to God following this affliction suggest not. I should note that Psalm 22 was written well before the first person was executed by crucifixion.

In other words, Psalm 22 as a whole is an example of what Professor Stenger was looking for: a reference to a unique future event that is well established historically. One can still, of course, raise doubts -- one can always raise doubts. But then it is not the only Old Testament passage of this sort.

Professor Stenger next raises Micah 5:2: (But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. ESV) He makes two complaints: firstly that Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is only recorded in the New Testament, and could have been make up by the evangelists. I think that he has half a point here. Obviously, I believe that the gospels are correct and Jesus was born in Bethlehem, making this a fulfilled prophecy. But that is because I have independent reasons for thinking that the gospels are inerrant. One could ask whether this is a detail that the apostles would make up. After all, Jesus' place of birth was known to Jesus' family, several of whom were prominent members of the early Church, as attested by Josephus as well as the New Testament. The apostles believed that people's salvation, including their own, depended on the message they were preaching being true. That is good motivation for not intentionally lying. But, on the other hand, the place of Jesus' birth is a relatively incidental detail to the overall story which could have slipped into the account at a later time. It is the sort of detail which might not have been taught when Christianity started to spread, and thus people would accept if introduced later. One argument against the place of birth being a later insert is that it is found in two independent accounts -- the start of both Matthew and Luke's gospels. That means that the point would have originated when the two presentations of the gospel that evolved into the written texts we have diverged -- the common ancestor of the two birth narratives. That would have been an early date -- Luke and Matthew's ministries did not overlap significantly. So Professor Stenger has a point here, but not quite as strong as he thinks.

Professor Stenger's second objection to this passage is that Jesus was never ruler in Israel. This is a failure to understand the symbolism of the passage. Note that the ruler is both in the future, and Israel's ruler is from ancient days. God is the one true ruler of Israel; and was so from the first. So this is actually a prophecy about the incarnation; about how God Himself shall come forth from Bethlehem. While Jesus never held political office, he was nonetheless the divinely appointed ruler in Israel -- and, indeed, everywhere else. This is made clear explicitly in the New Testament. Once again, you have to accept the New Testament to appreciate the fulfilment of the prophecy, so this isn't useful in an argument for the truthfulness of the New Testament, except as part of a cumulative argument showing an intricate consistency in the Christian sources.

He also cites promises of Jesus' return as a failed prophecy; his main criticism is his interpretation that Jesus promised to return within a generation. That interpretation is not universally held; while it can, perhaps be read into passages such as John 21:22-23, those passages don't definitively say that, and indeed the passage in John I mentioned specifically denies that interpretation. For example, Mark 13:30 reads

Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.

The words translated this generation could convey a range of meanings. It could mean "within the single lifetime of the people living today," as Professor Stenger interprets it. It could mean that the events described will occur within a single lifetime, so a single generation, but not necessarily the one that Jesus is speaking to, will observe the events Jesus describes. Or it could mean, more figuratively, "age" or "period of history" which does not imply any implications about the timescale. The point is that the saying is nuanced and unambiguous, and Professor Stenger's reading is not necessarily the correct one. One can only say that the prophecy has failed if all possible interpretations have been contradicted. There are other passages, such as Mark 13:32 which say that we should refuse to give any timescale. The command is simply to be ready at any time: it will happen when you (or society in general) least expects it.

Finally, in the discussion of Messianic prophecies, Professor Stenger brings up Isaiah 7:14. (Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. ESV) His complaint is surprisingly not the common one that the Greek translation of the word here translated as virgin is inaccurate, but that Jesus was never called Immanuel. Professor Stenger's objection is easily answered: Immanuel means "God with us," and as a descriptive title that is a good description of the Christian understanding of Jesus. Professor Stenger once again assumes that his interpretation of the English text is the only way of reading it; neglecting the symbolism, imagery and word-play that underlies a lot of the Bible. The objection regarding the translation is stronger. The Greek term specifies a virgin. There is another Hebrew word which unambiguously has the same meaning. However, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah 7:14 implies a young, unmarried, woman, which is something slightly different. However, the Hebrew term carries strong connotations of virginity. There isn't a perfect equivalent translation of that word in Greek (or English). Maiden or "young woman" don't really convey the implications of the Hebrew. Furthermore, we need to look at the wider context. The young woman conceives on her own. As this is a sign (what we would today call a miracle), there needs to be something notably unusual about the event. The translation of virgin is thus not unreasonable. The virgin birth of Jesus, of course, doesn't depend on this verse but is attested unambiguously in the New Testament, and is required for the Christian doctrine of the incarnation.

This brings me to Professor Stenger's main criticism. He complains that the Biblical prophecies are only validated in the Bible -- the same book -- which he accuses of not being independent evidence. But the Bible is not a single book. It is a collection of books. How many depends on whether you are Jewish, Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The later books (in date composed, not their order in the anthology) do depend on the earlier texts. But the earlier books are independent of the later books -- aside from any overall divine authorship.

Professor Stenger next cites the spirit of Hume, saying that before making any extraordinary claims, we should not rule out the more plausible hypothesis that the events are just fictional. However, probabilities are always conditional. One can only say that something is more plausible in the context of a set of prior assumptions. Among the assumptions needed to say that the accounts are more plausibly fictional is the assumption that the overall message of the New Testament is false. In other words, to argue that the Biblical text in this way you need to first assume that the Biblical text is fictional. However, if you look at the evidence in an unbiased way, allowing for the possibility that it might be true, then you will find that the possibility that the account is fictional to be very implausible indeed.

Professor Stenger also complains about more generic prophecies in the Old Testament. His first criticism is, I think, fair enough: that some of them, such as the prophecy that Josiah will deface Jeroboam's altar in 1 Kings 13 isn't much use in apologetics. The reason is not, as Professor Stenger argues, that the fulfilment of the prophecy is only recorded in the Bible. Instead it is that everyone agrees that the text of the book of Kings, which is our only record of the prophecy, was compiled well after the time of Josiah. There is thus no external evidence that the prophecy wasn't inserted into the text (or made more specific) sometime after the fact. We would need a record of the prophecy from before Josiah's time to use it in apologetics. That is not to say that the prophecy and its fulfilment didn't happen as recorded in the book of Kings. It's just that a Christian can't prove it happened without assuming disputed matters such as the inerrancy of the Bible.

Professor Stenger also looks at the prophecies of the nations, and states that there are numerous failures here. Here he is on shakier ground. The problem is that history is a long time. Saying that a city will be abandoned, for example, at some unspecified point in the future isn't that bold a claim, especially in ancient times. Cities were frequently abandoned, and then re-occupied. You just have to look far enough into the future. Equally, one has to be aware of metaphor, hyperbole, literary context and form and the subtleties of the original language which might be missed in translation when evaluating any text, including the prophecies.

The question here is whether there is inconsistency between the Biblical prophecies and the ancient records. It would be a blow to Biblical inerrancy if there was. The burden of proving an inconsistency is, however, quite high. Here are the examples Professor Stenger cites:

  1. Isaiah 17:1 predicts that Damascus will "cease to be a city." Instead, Professor Stenger claims that it has been continuously inhabited.

    The verse in question reads (ESV):

    An oracle concerning Damascus. Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins.

    The context of this passage also criticises the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which is to be made low, and then its revival as people abandon the Canaanite idols and turn to God. The text also predicts the general desolation of Syria. The historical context is that previously the King of Damascus attacked and devastated Israel. Now the threat of Assyria has emerged, and the Kings of Israel and Damascus allied themselves. They attacked Judah. The King of Judah then bribed the Assyrians to assault Syria and Israel.

    Damascus is a modern city, and has not been well excavated, because to do so would mean evicting people from their homes. Thus when examining its ancient history, we are relying on external sources. We know that Damascus was attacked and conquered by the Assyrians, under Tigalth-Pileser, usually dated to 732BC. Tigalth-Pileser records his victory over Aram-Damascus, and that he deported much of its population. Damascus was re-established as an Assyrian colony and provincial capital. There was another rebellion involving several cities in Syria and Israel about a decade later following the ascension of Sargon II, and Damascus was again attacked and captured by the Assyrians. Following this, it fell into the Babylonian, Persian, Selucid, Roman, and finally Islamic empires.

    Because of the scarcity of evidence, it is difficult to be sure whether or not there was a period when Damascus was abandoned. The natural place to place this would be after the Assyrian invasion, either under Tigalth-Pileser or Sargon.

    Tigalth-Pileser's account of his conquest of Damascus reads:

    That one [viz. Rezon of Damascus] fled alone to save his life *** and like a mouse he entered the gate of his city. His nobles I captured alive with my own hands, and hanged them on stakes and let his land gaze on them. soldiers of my camp *** I selected, and like a bird in a cage I shut him up. His gardens and *** plantations without number I cut down, not one escaped *** (L.i.776.) Hadaru the house of the father of Rezon of Syria where he was born, I besieged, I captured ... captives I carried off. districts of Syria I destroyed like mounds left by a flood.

    It seems that Tigath-Pileser established an Assyrian province of Damascus at this time.

    Sargon's records mention Damascus (along with Samaria) as one of the cities involved in a rebellion against him led by Hamath and Qarqar. There was a battle at Qarqar, where that city was destroyed, and Hamath was similarly despoiled. There is no mention of what happened to Damascus. During Sargon's reign, Syria was rearranged into several Assyrian provinces (rather than vassal Kingdoms) and resettled.

    Tigalth-Pileser's mention of leaving the districts of Syria like mounds left by a flood is the typical hyperbole encountered in ancient reports. However, it is clear that he did attack, and partially destroy the city, and carry off many of its inhabitants, with their replacements not brought in until later. It is clear that the ancient Kingdom of Damascus ended at this time. There was a clear discontinuity in the political administration, culture, and population.

    The state of the city after Sargon's campaign is less clear, since it isn't recorded in Assyrian records (other than as participating in the rebellion). It would not be unusual for Sargon to be severe in his retribution. But our records are too sparse to say anything. If Damascus was destroyed, it would only be for a brief period.

    The options for those supporting the Bible are: 1) Isaiah was referring to the destruction of the city and depopulation under either Tigalth-Pileser (as recorded in the Assyrian records); or a presumed destruction under Sargon (not explicitly mentioned, as far as I am aware, in Assyrian records, but hinted at). The period of abandonment would be quite brief before the city was resettled by the new inhabitants. The text would be somewhat hyperbolic, so exaggerating considerably for effect. But it is in line with the hyperbole used by the Assyrian Emperor himself when describing his victory. 2) It refers in a more metaphorical sense to the destruction of the royal line and Kingdom of Damascus, which definitely occurred; but it does require a significant twisting of the Biblical text. 3) It refers to some future event.

    None of these options are completely palatable, but it is difficult to rule them out given the scarcity of evidence. So, yes, this text is a problem for Christians, but not a death blow.

  2. Jeremiah 49:33 predicts that Hazor will become an everlasting wasteland which will never be inhabited again. The King James Bible states that it will be populated by Dragons.

    This is the verse in the ESV:

    Hazor shall become a haunt of jackals, an everlasting waste; no man shall dwell there; no man shall sojourn in her.

    I am not sure why Professor Stenger refers to the KJV. It was a brilliant translation for its time -- and the fact that it is still usable today speaks of its quality -- but these days we have a much better sample of ancient manuscripts, and a much better understanding of the ancient languages. The net result is that we have significantly better translations. The KJV does contain a number of notable mistakes. There are some rather poor modern translations, but I would always trust a literal modern translation, such as the ESV, over the KJV. Of course, any question should ideally refer to the original Hebrew text.

    As for the archaeological question, the city was destroyed by the Assyrians under Tigalth-Pileser. There are a few minor Assyrian and Persian remains (little more than a few houses), and after the city was abandoned. Given the site's archaeological importance, it is most unlikely to be resettled. It is not clear how many Jackals lived in the ruins, but aside from that Jeremiah seems to have got this one right.

  3. Zechariah 10:11 predicts that the Nile will dry up. This is the verse in its context. It refers to a future restoration of Israel and Judah.

    9 Though I scattered them among the nations,yet in far countries they shall remember me, and with their children they shall live and return. I will bring them home from the land of Egypt, and gather them from Assyria,and I will bring them to the land of Gilead and to Lebanon, till there is no room for them. He shall pass through the sea of troubles and strike down the waves of the sea, and all the depths of the Nile shall be dried up. The pride of Assyria shall be laid low, and the sceptre of Egypt shall depart. I will make them strong in the Lord, and they shall walk in his name, declares the Lord.

    The restoration could refer to either the return under the Persians (Zechariah was written during the Persian period, but the Jews continued to trickle back into their land after his time) or the modern day restoration of Israel (or some future restoration). Given the literary context of the passage the imagery is clearly intended to be metaphorical, indicating the way in which God will make roads for the Israelites to return.

  4. Ezekiel 29 and 30 records the land of Egypt being laid waste by Nebuchadnezzar, its people killed and the rivers dried up, coupled with 40 years of abandonment.

    The whole passage is two long to quote, but these are the verses which I think Professor Stenger is referring to:

    29:5 And I will cast you out into the wilderness,you and all the fish of your streams; you shall fall on the open field,and not be brought together or gathered.To the beasts of the earth and to the birds of the heavens I give you as food. 6 Then all the inhabitants of Egypt shall know that I am the Lord. Because you have been a staff of reed to the house of Israel; 7 when they grasped you with the hand, you broke and tore all their shoulders; and when they leaned on you, you broke and made all their loins to shake. 8 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will bring a sword upon you, and will cut off from you man and beast, 9 and the land of Egypt shall be a desolation and a waste. Then they will know that I am the Lord. Because you said, The Nile is mine, and I made it, 10 therefore, behold, I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Cush. 11 No foot of man shall pass through it, and no foot of beast shall pass through it; it shall be uninhabited forty years. 12 And I will make the land of Egypt a desolation in the midst of desolated countries, and her cities shall be a desolation forty years among cities that are laid waste. I will scatter the Egyptians among the nations, and disperse them through the countries. 13 For thus says the Lord God: At the end of forty years I will gather the Egyptians from the peoples among whom they were scattered, 14 and I will restore the fortunes of Egypt and bring them back to the land of Pathros, the land of their origin, and there they shall be a lowly kingdom.

    30:10 Thus says the Lord God: I will put an end to the wealth of Egypt, by the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. 11 He and his people with him, the most ruthless of nations, shall be brought in to destroy the land,and they shall draw their swords against Egypt and fill the land with the slain. 12 And I will dry up the Nile and will sell the land into the hand of evildoers; I will bring desolation upon the land and everything in it, by the hand of foreigners; I am the Lord; I have spoken. 13 Thus says the Lord God: I will destroy the idols and put an end to the images in Memphis; there shall no longer be a prince from the land of Egypt; so I will put fear in the land of Egypt.

    Once again, these verses are full of typical imagery, filled with hyperbole and metaphor.

    Egypt was conquered by the Assyrians, before the time of Ezekiel, and became an Assyrian vassal. When the Babylonians rebelled against Assyria, the Egyptian army came out to support the Assyrians, where it was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar. After that, Nebuchadnezzar rapidly took control of the former Assyrian provinces and vassals in Syria and Israel, forcing the Egyptians to retreat back to their own lands. After a campaign against Tyre, and around the time he was attacking Judah, Nebuchadnezzar turned his attention to an attack on Egypt. This was also about the time that Ezekiel had his vision. He defeated the Egyptian army, forcing it to withdraw to its own country, but had less success in his invasion of Egypt itself. There was an attempt to usurp the Egyptian throne, and the deposed Pharaoh, Hophra, fled to Nebuchadnezzar and allied himself to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar sent his troops into Egypt to support his new ally. After a struggle that lasted a few years, the Babylonian's favoured candidate was captured and (probably) executed, and the Babylonians withdrew. Later on, as Persia became more powerful, the Babylonians and Egyptians allied against Persia. The Persians conquered Babylonia and Egypt, and Egypt lost its independence and became a Persian province. That occurred in 525BC. Egypt remained under the control of the Persians until 404BC (except for a few rebellions, most notably in 486BC, 460BC and the final rebellion which ended Persian rule for a while), when a native Egyptian dynasty took control again. The Persians reconquered Egypt in 343BC, before being defeated in turn by the Greeks in 332BC. The Greeks established a new dynasty of Pharaohs, which continued until Egypt was absorbed into the Roman Empire. That marked the end of ancient Egypt, and its last days as an independent super-power. Later on the Arabs would conquer Egypt along with much of the Eastern Roman Empire, and largely displace its native population. The last remnants of the ancient Egyptians are the modern day Copts.

    So with regards to the passage in Ezekiel, the general picture is consistent with history, if one reads it as partly referring to the Babylonian attack and partly to the Persian attack some 40 years later. One would have to acknowledge the hyperbole and exaggeration in some of the imagery, but that is not out of place in an ancient text. Discussion of rivers drying up and desolation is typical exaggeration used in the ancient world. Kings completely wrote, after winning a minor skirmish, that they completely destroyed and obliterated the enemy. The same is true here: God is judging the Egyptians for their faithlessness towards Israel, and using exaggeration and hyperbole to really make the point. Nebuchadnezzar did attack Egypt. The Egyptian Kingdom was destroyed by foreigners, albeit not by the Babylonians but their successors, the Persians. After the Persian invasion, Egypt would never again recover its power and prestige, although it recover some dignity and wealth during the Greek period. During the Roman period, when Egypt adopted Christianity, the idols were no longer worshipped, and this continued under Arab domination. There is also some evidence that the Persians destroyed the Egyptian idols and tried to eradicate the ancient Egyptian religion.

    There are, of course, a few details which are harder to reconcile with history; for example that the Egyptians will be scattered among the peoples for forty years until Egypt is restored. Forty years is often a symbolic number in the Old Testament meaning "a long time", so it shouldn't be taken too literally. The Egyptians were made subject to the Persians, and later other Empires, but not really scattered. Secondly, while the text (nor a similar passage in Jeremiah) doesn't explicitly say that Egypt will be destroyed specifically by the Babylonians, it does say that the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar would carry off the wealth of Egypt and cause much destruction and devastation. Now, Nebuchadnezzar did invade Egypt, but we have very limited evidence for precisely what happened. There is one reference in the Babylonian Chronicle that Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt and fought against Pharaoh Ahmose. The next year, Ahmose hired some Greek mercenaries to aid him, and Hophra won some battles. Possibly the year after that, Hophra was defeated and the Babylonians withdrew. The Babylonians would have caused damage and destruction to Egypt during that time, and maybe captured loot. But we don't have many records of that war, and so cannot really conclude much one way or the other.

    So, yes, this is a problem for Biblical inerrancy. The prophecies in Ezekiel and Jeremiah might be reconciled with history if they are assumed to partly refer to Nebuchadnezzar's brief attack on Egypt, which would have caused devastation but which is not well documented, and partly to the Persian campaign 40 years later which did succeed in conquering the land and suppressing the native Egyptians and their religion. But this is all a bit of a stretch.

So Professor Stenger gives four examples. In one of them, the Biblical prophet got it absolutely right. In a second one, he has misinterpreted the text, and read metaphor as prose. In the last two, he has a point. With regards to Damascus, the Assyrians deported a lot of the people and would have caused damage, and they did permanently end the Kingdom of one of Israel's most powerful enemies. Was Damascus abandoned for a few years, as Isaiah seems to imply? That is harder to say. There are gaps in the Assyrian evidence. Possibly, if the text is taken to be hyperbolic (not unreasonable) it could be reconciled with a city sharply reduced in population, if only for a short time. But it is a stretch of the historical evidence and the text. The fourth example regarding Egypt is another problem. If you split the prophecy between the Babylonians and Persians, and suppose that the poorly documented Babylonian campaign in Egypt caused more destruction than would seem to be the case from those records we do have.

So there are certainly problems here, but there are some gaps in the historical record at key moments, which make it harder to prove beyond doubt that there is a contradiction.

In conclusion, any prophecy of what was then the future can fall into one of four categories. Firstly, it can be exceptionally vague. Or it is unclear that the record of the prophecy was written before its fulfilment. In either case, it would be of little use in apologetics. Secondly, it can unambiguously be shown to be true. Thirdly, there might be gaps in our historical knowledge, coupled with uncertainties in the interpretation, so we don't know if it were true or not. Fourthly, it can be unambiguously false. It is only this fourth option which disproves Christianity; while the third option could be troubling depending on the weight of evidence. Professor Stenger's examples all fall into the first three categories. Some of those in the third category are certainly troubling, but none of them amount to disproof of the God hypothesis.

Reliability of the New Testament

Professor Stenger adds a few brief notes concerning the reliability of the New Testament. His thesis is the following:

We have nothing outside of the Gospels that rules out what is the more plausible account: the authors of the Gospels formulated the life and death of Jesus to conform to their conception of the Messiah of the Old Testament.

One problem with this is that the phrase more plausible doesn't mean very much outside of a belief system or set of assumptions. So if one is an atheist, then certainly this account is more plausible than the possibility that the gospels are at least broadly accurate. If one is a theist, then the opposite might well be true. Arguing from a neutral perspective is difficult; mainly because for most things there is no neutral perspective. Instead, one should try to see things from all perspectives in turn, and then judge which one is the most consistent and best explains the raw data.

So what points does Professor Stenger put forward to support this conclusion?

  1. The eyewitness testimony is only second hand, contained only in the Bible, recorded decades after the event. That time-span does not make it extraordinary evidence.
  2. Even eyewitness testimony recorded on the spot can be unreliable. He cites people released from prison based on new DNA evidence.
  3. There is no independent confirmation of the events described in the gospels; while we would expect to see it in either Philo, Josephus, or one of the many historians of the time. He cites in particular the curtain of the temple being torn in two, and dead people being raised in Matthew 27:51.
  4. The few mentions of Christus in pagan literature are decades after the event, and reflect the beliefs of a new cult rather than first-hand data. Josephus' statements are still controversial. There is no record of Jesus being tried by Pontius Pilate in the pagan literature, not least the resurrection.
  5. The stories of the empty tomb are inconsistent. The simpler explanation was that somebody took the body.
  6. There are similarities between the gospel accounts and various pagan myths. Through not exact, they suggest that the Jesus story was patterned after other god-men.
  7. Early Christian writers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Iraneus dismissed these similarities by saying that the pagan myths were the work of the devil.

Eyewitness testimony is discussed in Bauckham's book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which I highly recommend. The situation is far more complex that Professor Stenger suggests. Sometimes eyewitness testimony and memory is unreliable. Sometimes it is highly reliable. It depends on the context. Events which are distinctive, unique, elicit emotional responses, and which are repeatedly re-told, particularly when passed on in a community, are usually remembered reliably. Events which are mundane, not recollected until they are noted down, and which the person making the recollection is disinterested in tend to be forgotten or misremembered. The gospel accounts belong to that first category. We should not forget that while the gospels might have written down decades after the event, the stories were constantly repeated by the apostles to the Churches they ministered to. How many decades after the event the gospel accounts were written is unclear and disputed.

We should also not forget that the gospels were written at a different age to our own. I do not believe that the majority of the apostles and evangelists were illiterate -- they did not belong to the lowest social classes, and (as witnessed in Josephus and the Talmud) second temple Judaism had a strong educational system based around the synagogue in which most people participated. But writing materials were expensive, so while people could read and write, except for the elite they would not have done so as much as we do today. As such it was a culture that relied on memory far more than our own, and being more practised they were better at it. So making conclusions about memory retention in the first century based on studies performed today is likely to be misleading. Professor Stenger's justification based on DNA evidence is an irrelevance. He doesn't examine the individual court cases and determine to what extent the miscarriages of justice were due to people misremembering things. Nor does he examine the details of what they misremembered, and the context, and if that was in any way analogous to the events described in the gospels.

Furthermore, it is not clear that all the gospels were second hand accounts. Luke's certainly was. Matthew is attributed to a primary eyewitness. John's gospel itself claims to at the very least have been written under the supervision of an eyewitness. Early traditions state that Mark's gospel is based on the testimony of Peter, although Mark was likely, when he was a youth, a resident of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, and thus could have also witnessed some of the events himself. Of course many dispute this traditional attribution. But other scholars support it. The simple fact is that we don't have enough external evidence to know when the gospels were written, beyond that they are clearly works of the first century, and either written by or very closely based on sources who were very familiar with the culture and geography of late second temple Judea and Galilee. Many scholars make grandiose claims that the gospels were late or written by schools rather than the people attributed to them, but this is just speculation that goes way beyond the evidence and in some cases against the evidence. Liberal scholars generally date them from the 70s-90s AD, primarily by assuming that the predictions of the temple destruction must have been written after the event, and some similarities between Acts and Josephus in certain passages. Conservative scholars would place the accounts much earlier (perhaps in the 50s AD), citing a possible reference to Luke writing the gospel in 2 Corinthians 8:18, the citation of Luke's gospel in 1 Timothy 5:18, the accounts of the destruction of the temple which read like they predated the actual event in 70AD, the accounts and traditions of the next generation of Christians, and the abrupt end to Acts of the Apostles in 62AD. While we can be sure that the gospels are first century texts, the evidence simply isn't clear enough to be more precise than this with any certainty. My reading of both sides suggests that the weight of evidence favours an earlier dating. But in either case, they were still written decades after the events they describe, albeit within the lifetime of the original eyewitnesses. So Professor Stenger's statement that the gospels are second hand (or later) testimony is unproven.

Furthermore, Professor Stenger's dismissal of eyewitness testimony and second hand sources would deny us knowledge of all of ancient history. Almost everything we know about the ancient world, and indeed more recent periods as well, is based on eyewitness testimony; much of it only recorded second hand (or later). If Professor Stenger's methodology was adopted, we would have to dismiss every historical account. Christians only demand that the New Testament is treated fairly; given the same credibility as other ancient sources. I would imagine that Professor Stenger's retort would be that the events described in the New Testament are extraordinary, while those of other historical accounts are merely ordinary. But the New Testament accounts are only extraordinary if you have previously come to the conclusion that Christianity, or theism in general, is false. If Christianity were true, then they describe the sort of things we might expect to happen were God to decide to resolve the problem of sin and death by becoming incarnate and through an act of self-sacrifice and resurrection. So to dismiss the New Testament accounts on these grounds is a classic case of circular reasoning.

No non-Christian historians or writers made a detailed account of the life of Jesus. There are a few well known references in various historians and early writers, although I agree with Professor Stenger that these were for the most part more likely referring to the beliefs of the early Christian community rather than based on first hand knowledge of Judea in the early first century. So when Tacitus mentions Christ's execution under Pontius Pilate, it is more evidence of what Christians in Rome believed either in the 60s during the period he described or the 110s when he was writing. Of course, that those early Christians believed those things is still significant; but the evidence of the Roman historians is more indirect.

Is this a significant argument against Christianity? Not really. We wouldn't expect those historians or what writings we have to mention Jesus directly, partly because they don't discuss anything in the province of Judea, and partly because they didn't consider Jesus to be an important figure. At the time these sources were writing, the late first century or early second century, Christianity was just a small cult, and everyone outside the Church expected it to die off soon enough, as so many other cults of the time did. To the historian interested in the pagan gods and Roman Emperors, what was the relevance did an executed criminal who had disputes within a reviled religion, and built up only a small following (but not, at that time, among the Roman elites)? Professor Stenger states that there is no evidence from non-Christian sources. But that is an invalid argument from silence. There is no good reason why we should expect those sources to discuss aspects of Jesus' life and resurrection, since they don't mention anything about that time of place. We don't possess Pilate's record of the trial of Jesus; but we don't possess any of Pilate's reports so this is not a surprise. They were long since destroyed by the ravages of time. Justin Martyr alludes to these records in one of his apologies, but more in expectation than direct knowledge of them. The only evidence we have concerning Pilate are a stone inscription mentioning his name, a few coins, and the accounts in the New Testament, Josephus, Philo, and other writings derived from these. So, given this paucity of documentation, we expect to have no records of Jesus' trial outside the New Testament.

The Jewish philosopher Philo is often mentioned as somebody who should have mentioned Jesus but didn't. However, Philo, while he maintained links to the Jerusalem authorities, lived and worked in Alexandria, so wasn't a first hand witness. Most of his surviving works pre-date Jesus' public ministry. Of those that post-date the ministry, the only one that describe the situation in Judea was his Embassy to Gaius. The emperor Caligula attempted to erect a statue of himself in the Jewish Temple. Philo was one of the Jewish leaders who protested against this. His testimony focuses on an event a few years earlier when Pilate sought to desecrate the city with golden shields which had his name and the Emperor Tiberius' inscribed on them. It describes how the Jews threatened riot over this, and Tiberius relented and ordered the shields not to be made. There is passing mention to various cruel actions of Pilate. Why would we expect this passage to mention Jesus? The Jewish authorities and Philo would have regarded the execution of Jesus as one of the few good things which Pilate did. No need to include it, or any other executions of common criminals authorised by Pilate, in a complaint to Caligula.

We should not forget that Jesus was not considered an important historical figure at the time, except by his disciples and followers. To the rest of the world he was just an itinerant and heretical Rabbi who managed to gain a significant popular following. A nuisance to Jewish authorities, but no more than that. There was no reason for non-Christian sources to mention him except in passing. It was only later, as Christianity started to become dominant, that Jesus' significance was more generally realised.

Wouldn't the miracles (if they happened) gain attention? Well, they did, if the Biblical account is to be believed. But we shouldn't forget the time period. There was no social media, no television, no newspapers. Enough people were literate, but writing materials were expensive. And anything which was written, unless later copied, would have long since rotted away. People generally didn't travel far from their hometown, except (for the Jews) the seasonal pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Judea and Galilee was a backwater in the Roman Empire. The Jews were considered a bit weird, and were generally shunned, and they themselves shunned others. There was also a language barrier between Jews and Gentiles. The primary language used by the Jews was Aramaic, while most Gentiles in that part of the world spoke Greek. (Of course, many Jews would have also spoken some Greek as a second or third language, but many wouldn't and it still remains a barrier to social mixing.) It was an oral culture, so word about Jesus would have spread by word of mouth, which only spreads as far as people travelled and spoke to each other. Of the authorities, who might have kept some records which might have been copied or incorporated into the works of the later Roman, Jewish or Church historians, the religious authorities hated Jesus, so wouldn't spread his claims, and the civil authorities (including the Romans) generally ignored him, until they were forced to act by the religious authorities. Jesus' public ministry only lasted for a short time. And, of course, there was the same reluctance to believe testimonies of miracles that we observe today. There is little reason why we should expect word of Jesus to spread much beyond the usual circles of Galilean gossip, even with the miracles. Aside from Jesus' followers, the people who could have recorded Jesus' miracles were either removed by too many people from the eyewitnesses (and had no desire to record frivolous Jewish twaddle), or were actively opposed to him. So why should we expect to see any detailed accounts, outside the New Testament?

There are two exceptions to the rule that most sources were derived from Christian beliefs rather than independent accounts, which could contain traces of Jewish stories concerning Jesus. Firstly, we have the references to Jesus in the Talmud. The Talmud is a late source -- the earliest parts of it dating from the third century -- but is based on traditions going back to the first temple period. So anything it records is likely to be distorted, but may contain an trace of what the religious authorities at the time of Jesus thought. Jesus is mentioned several times; albeit from a very critical perspective. While not a primary source, this does show that the earliest Jewish traditions we possess argued that Jesus was a fraud, but acknowledged his existence.

Secondly, there is the Jewish historian Josephus. Josephus' life is interesting. He was born in Judea shortly after the time of Christ. He participated in the Jewish revolt of the late 60s, firstly fighting for the Jews, and then switching sides to join the Romans. He moved to Rome, where he wrote three important works. Firstly a description of the Jewish revolt. Secondly, a general history of Judaism, the Antiquities, written in the 90s. Thirdly a work in defence of Judaism. So Josephus would not have been a direct eyewitness of the events around Jesus. His parents would have been around at the time, but he was born too late. He would have been a young child during the events of the early part of the book of Acts, which take place in and around Jerusalem, before the narrative shifts to describe Paul's missionary journeys. So Josephus is not first hand testimony, but reflects the Jewish opinion of the first generations after Jesus.

The Antiquities contains two mentions of Jesus. The second reference is not controversial, and mentions Jesus in passing while discussing the execution of Jesus' brother James, the head of the Jerusalem Church, in the lead-up to the revolt. The first passage is somewhat more controversial, and mentions Jesus directly. It is only a paragraph long, and doesn't go into much detail, but it has been used by apologists as an independent confirmation of the gospel accounts.

Josephus' first testimony is sometimes thought to be a Christian interpolation. The two main pieces of evidence for this are that it makes statements that a devout Jew would not make about Jesus, such as calling him the Christ, and questioning whether he was a man. The second evidence is that there are no Christian citations of this passage until Eusebius in the fourth century. Earlier Christian writers might have found it useful, but didn't cite it. For example, the third century writer Origen cited Josephus' second mention of Jesus, but not the main one (at least not in any surviving work of his).

There are, however, also strong arguments in favour of the genuineness, or partial genuineness, of the text. The most important of this is the manuscript evidence. We have a few dozen Greek manuscripts (the original language) containing the relevant passage; several hundred Latin translations, and also other translations. In most of these, there is no significant textual variation. The exceptions are an Arabic translation and a Syriac translation, which preserve the passage, but tones down the stronger Christiological language. This is significant when we can think of how texts were copied in the ancient world. There was no central control of the text. People who wanted a copy would just find the nearest person who had one, hire a scribe, and have him duplicate the text. Each scribe could change the text, and they usually did make unintentional mistakes, albeit these were rarely anything significant which changed the meaning. But that change only gets copied into those manuscripts which are descended from the one that is changed. All the other manuscripts are left unaffected. If we have a large number of manuscripts which have no significant changes for a particular passage, then that passage must have come from their common ancestor, which would most likely be either the original manuscript or one of the first copies. So if a third or fourth century Christian decided to insert the testimony, at a time when there would have been thousands of copies of the Antiquities in circulation (the book was popular among all of Romans, Jews and Christians) then all the Greek copies we possess and all the translations would have to be descended from that one particular late altered copy. This seems particularly unlikely given that the argument against the testimony depends on many Christian writers having access to versions of the text without the testimony. The other possibility is to propose a massive conspiracy between medieval monks, for which there is no evidence, little motivation, and no obvious mechanism how the monks in isolated monasteries could have communicated with each other.

The second argument for the testimony being at least partially genuine is that it doesn't read like it was written by a Christian either. For example, no Christian would have denied that Jesus was a man.

Thirdly, the second mention of Jesus presupposes that He was already known to Josephus' readers. That implies that there should have been an earlier mention of Jesus, which would have to be the testimony in book 18.

Fourthly, the arguments against the testimony being genuine are unconvincing. The argument that no Christian cited the passage until the fourth century is an argument from silence. Firstly, we don't know that no Christian cited the passage. Few manuscripts from antiquity have survived to our day, since both papyrus and parchment rot. Unless a text was copied, or we got very, very lucky, it would become lost. Most texts, including those written by Christians, are lost. What we possess today is only a small fraction of what was written. Secondly, there could be many reasons why the passage was not cited in those texts we do possess, not just that the text was a later insertion. Its absence in the Christian works does not imply that it was absent in Josephus.

The argument that Josephus, as a Jew, would not have written the passage, for example called Jesus the Christ, is considerably stronger. However, it is not inconceivable that Josephus could have written it. He was writing in Rome, about 30 years after Nero's persecution, and around the time of Domitian's persecution. The people he was writing to would have known of Christianity, although possibly not known much about it. But they would have known that the Christians were named after and worshipped someone they called "the Christ", and that it originated in Judea. By calling Him Christ, Josephus wasn't making a messianic statement, but just identifying this Jesus with the name He was known by among his readers. Perhaps later, on reflection, he might have decided that writing the "so-called Christ," as he did in the second passage, would be better. People make mistakes; referring to Jesus as he would have been known in Rome without adding a qualification is not an incomprehensible slip. (Alternatively, he might have written "so-called Christ. It is not inconceivable that numerous Christian scribes could have independently decided to omit "so called," while the more complex change of them all independently deciding to insert the whole claim in the same place is harder to imagine.) Other troublesome passages in the testimony similarly reflect what someone writing in Rome at that time would have wanted to convey to his readers, perhaps with a hint of irony, what Christians believed. This is, of course, speculation and just one theory. There are others. The point is that it is not impossible for Josephus to have written the passage as it stands in the Greek and Latin. It is still unlikely that he would have written it, but that has to be weighed against the stronger evidence for the passage's authenticity from the manuscripts. The testimony would have been backed up by stories of the original events told by Josephus' parent's generation.

On the basis of the manuscripts, it is easier to see how the late Arabic and Syriac texts would have deviated from an original in line with the Greek and Latin manuscripts than vice versa. They were written in a time and place where Islam was dominant. Making a strong Christological statement would likely offend their Muslim readers; and so the translators or copyists toned down the text. However, this version is seen as being more likely to have been written by the Jewish Josephus.

Scholars are divided whether the original text of the Antiquities mirrored the Greek manuscripts or the Arabic version, or something between the two. Few today think that it was a complete forgery or interpolation. The evidence against that is simply too strong.

It is notable that Professor Stenger does not mention the positive evidence for Jesus' existence and the reliability of the gospels. Chief among this is the existence of Christianity itself in the form that we observe. Something has to explain the emergence of Christianity from Judaism, and I don't think that there are any plausible alternatives than that there was a man, Jesus, who lived at that time, taught, won disciples, split from mainstream Judaism, and was believed by his disciples to be the Jewish Messiah.

There is little doubt that the apostles believed that if they were wrong, then they and all who believed them would be condemned to eternal punishment in hell. That is a strong motivation not to just make up the details concerning Jesus' life. In particular, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are central to Christian theology. Without them, it would be a very different religion. In other words, the apostles couldn't have invented those stories to justify the doctrine, since the doctrine makes no sense without that historical basis. Equally, it is not something that could be added later once Christianity began to spread. You can't expect people to believe a religion where you keep changing the central articles of faith: there would be division and conflict, which would be mentioned in the historical record and the surviving writings. There was division and conflict in the early church, but not over this. Knowledge of the crucifixion and resurrection had to proceed the New Testament theology.

We know that in the 30s AD, the church in Jerusalem split up, and its members started spreading the gospel through the Roman and Persian Empires and into Africa. From this time onwards, we have churches which operated with a large degree of independence. Their successors (who left records) all accepted the central Christian beliefs concerning Easter, and the theology surrounding it, without any sign of dispute or divergence. They disputed about other things, but not this. So we can trace back the belief in the resurrection to their common origin, which is the Jerusalem Church no more than a few years after the resurrection. The earliest written account we have of the Resurrection appearances, in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, reminds the Corinthian Christians of what they knew from the first and of first importance. It traces the traditions of the resurrection back to at least when Paul visited the Jerusalem Church, again just a few years after the resurrection.

In other words, we can trace back Christian belief in the resurrection (which, given the Jewish context, could only refer to a physical resurrection) to the original eyewitnesses and only two or three years after the event. The resurrection is not something the apostles could be mistaken about. They had strong motivations not to lie, given that they faced expulsion from Jewish religious society on account of what they were saying (hugely important for someone from that culture), and eternal hellfire if they were mistaken.

I have not seen another explanation for the emergence of Christianity which explains the shape of the religion and all the facts, except to suppose that the Christian account, as later written down in the gospels, is broadly accurate.

The idea that somebody took the body out of the tomb is not the simplest explanation, because it doesn't explain all the facts. If all the disciples were involved, then you have the problem that they would all know that what they were teaching was a lie. If only some of them were involved, or it was a separate group of people, then it does not explain the testimony of the resurrection appearances. The resurrection testimonies could not have started with a desire or vision, and then gradually morph into the accounts of a physical resurrection that we find in the gospels. For first temple Jews, "resurrection" always meant a physical resurrection. If all they observed were visions, they would have used a different word from the start to describe their experience.

The idea that the distinctive aspects of Christianity are based on pagan myths cannot be regarded seriously. Firstly, those myths which are closest to Christianity post-date rather than pre-date the emergence of Christianity. Secondly, the myths which are cited differ from Christianity in key details. Thirdly, the apostles would have had to have borrowed these stories, but not any of the beliefs and theology that accompanied them. Why borrow from other religions, if you believe those religions to be utterly false? Fourthly, the apostles came from a culture which was deeply antagonistic towards pagan belief systems, and gave birth to a culture which was deeply antagonistic towards pagan belief systems. And yet we are supposed to believe that they themselves were happy to incorporate ideas from those beliefs into their theology, without passing that acceptance along to their successors. While, of course, keeping a very Jewish underlying world view. It is possible that their successors borrowed language from the pagan world in order to preach their beliefs to that world. But that's just language; the external wrapping. The meaning conveyed by those words as used by the early Christians has its roots in Judaism, not pagan culture.

While it is true that the likes of Justin Martyr (e.g. First Apology 54) attributed the pagan myths to demonic activity, there is no indication that this was written to cover up a pagan origin of Christian doctrine. Rather, it is part of an attack on paganism; to explain that the evidence cited in favour of it is unreliable. Today, a Christian would dismiss those pagan myths in other ways, such as by reflecting on that the earliest sources for the events date from a time centuries after the supposed events occurred -- which is not a case for the Christian account.

In short, Professor Stenger merely echos some popular atheist talking points. But his suggestions have little substance. They merely indicate his ignorance of the culture of first century Israel, and the historical sources and methodology. The points he has raised have been well answered by conservative Christian scholars (e.g. Wright, Baukham, Habermas, Pitre, and Wallace, to name but a few who I have found useful).

Conclusion

In this chapter, Professor Stenger discussed subjects as diverse as archaeology, prophecy, private revelation, and the evidence for Jesus. However, it is clear that he had not adequately researched any of these topics. He seems to have based his arguments on a limited survey of some atheist literature. However, these are all complex topics, and there are different points of view. Finkelstein is not the only or last word on Biblical archaeology. Carrier and Ehrman are not the only nor last words on the life of Jesus. And, even as he tries to summarise their works, Professor Stenger makes simplifications which betray that he knows little on the debates on the topic.

That is not to say that Professor Stenger does not make a few good points. I have tried to acknowledge these as I have gone on. In particular, I regard Old Testament archaeology as one of the weaker points of the conservative Christian world view. As outlined in my posts on the subject, I don't think that the sceptics have made a completely convincing case. Their arguments are not watertight. And recent evidence has generally tended to support rather than further undermine the Biblical account. But there is no doubt that there are still anomalies which I don't think the Christian archaeologists have yet adequately answered. Not to the point where we can be sure there is no answer, but enough that it ought to make Christians uneasy.

Regarding the New Testament, Professor Stenger has less of a case. Here he parrots rather extremist positions (rather than a more mainstream position as with Old Testament archaeology); and I regard the archaeology and historical context of the New Testament to be secure.

With regards to prophecy, Professor Stenger makes some good points regarding whether certain prophecies can be used in an apologetic, since we have no firm evidence that the prophecy was not recorded until after the event. This is a useful warning to certain brands of Christian apologists who do sometimes have a tendency to over-exaggerate their case. But there are other examples where that is not the case, and the prophecies can be used in an argument. His analysis of the fulfilment of Biblical prophecy is generally historically naive and betrays a lack of understanding in how to read an ancient text.

None of this is surprising. Professor Stenger is not an expert in these fields, but a physicist. Neither does he have any strong motivation for independent study, unlike a Christian. Now I don't claim to be an expert on these topics either. You shouldn't take my word as law in these areas, but should turn to the actual experts (though a wide sample of experts, representing different points of view). But I do claim to be more widely read and better informed than Professor Stenger. And even from my limited knowledge, I can see that his argument is, not entirely but generally, too simplistic and full of holes once you go down into the details.

Next time, we will see if he does any better on the topic of ethics.



Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 20: Ethics


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