This is the tenth post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this post, I intend to look at his sixth chapter, The failures of revelation. This chapter focuses on the Biblical text.
As an evangelical, my Christian life has a particular focus on the Old and New Testaments. But I have hardly written anything on the subject, either here or in my book, instead focusing on more philosophical issues and arguments that are usually seen as being more the purview of Roman Catholics. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, there is the matter that that before one can argue from the Bible, one needs to establish the reliability and supreme authority of the Bible, and before one can do that it is necessary to establish the plausibility of classical theism. Secondly, my own training is in physics, with an interest in the philosophy of physics, which spills over to the philosophy of religion. While reasonably well read, when I write on the Biblical text, I am moving further away from my area of expertise, and there are better people than me to answer any critics.
But it still hurts my Protestant sensibilities that I haven't written on this topic. So I am glad that Professor Stenger has given me the opportunity. And, while I might not be an expert, I still know far more than he does, at least if writing in this chapter is representative of his understanding.
So I intend to take my time over this chapter, giving far more details than is necessary to answer his particular objections. This post will just give an overview of the chapter, leaving most of his questions unanswered, or going into too much detail, so that next time, I can dive straight into my first topic, which will be biblical archaeology.
For most of the below (there will be a few exceptions, where I don't intend to return to the point later) I am describing Professor Stenger's views. Note that I disagree with almost everything he wrote, but I will present my response in detail in subsequent posts.
While much of revelation cannot be confirmed directly, some of it can. We should, according to Professor Stenger, be able to find examples of revealed information, unknown to science at the time, but later confirmed by observation. We should see successful predictions of future events.
Instead, he claims, we find the opposite: no predictions that can be found by other means; scriptures which disagree with science.
We need to use standard scientific criteria to evaluate these claims. Predictions must be risky and made before the fact. Personal testimonials and anecdotal stories have no value as evidence for the truth of extraordinary claims. Uncontrolled observations are similarly useless.
While I wrote that I wouldn't respond in detail just a few paragraphs ago, I will have to make an exception here since I don't intend to revisit his introduction.
Firstly, I would dismiss that idea that anecdotal evidence is of no value in all circumstances. Of course, it depends on what the evidence is for. Finding a correlation between one person's drinking of snake oil and their recovering from a cold, for example, does not mean very much. We know that people recover from colds without snake oil. Maybe snake oil improves the chances of a quick recovery. But as soon as we start discussing matters of chance or probability, we need a large sample of observations to test any claims. A single observation is not good enough. For that matter, an improperly controlled observation is insufficient. You can't just rely on anecdotes in cases like this.
On the other hand, when discussing matters of possibility rather than chance, a single account, if deemed to be reliable, is enough. For example, we can consider the proposition that it is possible for a human being to run 100 metres in less than 9.6 seconds. We do not need a randomised controlled trial to determine this. Indeed, that would be impossible. It's the wrong methodology for this question. We just need a single reliable observation of a single incidence of it occurring. An anecdote.
This applies even more when we consider historical evidence. Historical evidence is based on eyewitness testimony. There can be no other source. Some events only have a few witnesses recorded late. It is not, of course, just a matter of reading something and believing it. The historian has to weight the evidence, determine which sources are and are not to be trusted, and to what extent. But we cannot dismiss them because they are just anecdotes.
And what of extraordinary events? Firstly, of course, there is the problem of determining what is and is not extraordinary. This depends on one's expectations, which in turn depends on various assumptions drawn from one's philosophy. For example, to the committed Christian, it might be said that the claim that Jesus didn't rise from the dead is extraordinary, given all else that is believed about Jesus. To the atheist, the claim that He did is extraordinary. It all depends on one's perspective. On the other hand, if we mean by extraordinary that the event is unique, then it is clear that only individual or anecdotal evidence is possible. Dismiss such evidence out of hand, and you deny the possibility of any unique event occurring. Not on the grounds of evidence, but because you have let your philosophical assumptions blind you.
The second thing we can question is whether we should expect to see scientific truths revealed in the Biblical text. That is not their purpose. Instead, the Biblical texts are there to teach us about man's moral status, dependence on God, how we can be made right with God, and the history of at least some of God's interactions with humanity. The Bible was written for people of its time and through people of its time. So why would we expect, for example, that Moses, after revealing the ten commandments, should immediately launch on a discourse about the principle of least action? It is not part of the purpose of Moses' dialogue, and the people of the time wouldn't have understood it anyway. Instead, the required information is expressed in ways which convey the key information using illustrations that would have been understandable and relevant both at the time and in later periods.
Does that mean that the Biblical text is scientifically useless? No. It teaches us that God is the creator of the universe, sustains it, and something about the nature of God. But this is at the level of general principles, rather than specific details. And these general principles, as I have argued at length elsewhere, are fully consistent with what we find from contemporary science. As long as we adopt the correct understanding of the relationship between God and physical law.
But in all these things, we should be realistic in our expectations. A lack of evidence doesn't implying anything unless we have very good reason to suspect that it would be there -- and Professor Stenger does not provide such reasons.
Many people have claimed to have had religious experiences. But how do we know that these aren't just in people's heads?
Professor Stenger claims that we should expect people who have religious experiences should have gained new information and facts about the world. Yet no such report has stood up to scrutiny. If the religious experiences were as significant as claimed, then there would be hard data to support that.
Scripture And Science
The religious scriptures, Professor Stenger claims, contradict what is known in astronomy, cosmology and biology. We can compare the Biblical creation story against other myths around the world, and to the scientific account. Both in the way that creation proceeds and in the timescales involved, the Biblical account is in disagreement with the scientific account. The Biblical and Koranic statements about the natural world look just like they would if they had been written by the scientifically ignorant people of the time rather than an all-knowing God.
We should also expect the Bible to have foretold numerous confirmable events, which (while seeming strange at the time) would make sense later. For example, the Bible should have predicted that two thousand years after Christ, there should be a prediction of astronauts playing golf on the moon (this is an example that Professor Stenger uses). Then we might believe it.
But instead, we have no risky prediction in scripture which has come true.
What we do have are a bunch of predictions which are so ambiguous that they could be interpreted to mean anything, or later events which fit the facts. Professor Stenger's discusses a list from the evangelist Josh McDowell. He mentions a few prophecies in particular -- Genesis 3:15, Psalm 22:1, Micah 5:2, Isaiah 7:14, and Jesus' promise to return within a generation. But the only place that these are confirmed is in the Bible -- there is no independent confirmation. Later Biblical authors could have invented their stories to fit the earlier prophecies.
The only evidence for Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection is from the New Testament. That's the only place which mentions the eyewitness testimony. This was recorded decades later, and eyewitness testimony is hardly the most reliable anyway. And, if the events really happened, they would have been recorded by the various other historians of the time. Inconsistencies between the accounts undermine them. And they read just as they would have been if copied from pagan myths.
Without any independent confirmation, the New Testament can't be relied on. Some scholars even claim that Jesus never existed, although we don't need to go that far to dismiss the accounts.
There are similar Old Testament prophecies which fail either because the record of their fulfilment is only later in the Old Testament, and thus unreliable, or which fail directly. Professor Stenger cites Isaiah 17:1, Jeremiah 49:33 (King James Translation only), Zechariah 10:11, and Ezekiel 29 and 30.
Archaeology and the Old Testament
Many of the events in the Old Testament and New Testament ought to have been recorded in the archaeological record. There is a paragraph from Professor Stenger's introduction to the topic which requires immediate comment (since I won't come back to this point).
For example, suppose some bones are found that can be identified as those of Jesus by means of accompanying physical evidence. This would disprove the doctrine that he rose bodily into heaven, which at least demonstrates that the hypothesis of Jesus' resurrection is eminently falsifiable. Such a discovery would not ring the death knell of Christianity (although William Lane Craig seems to think so) where today, most Christians think in terms of immaterial spirits as the entities that survive the grave and dwell in heaven or hell.
This passage just reveals how limited Professor Stenger's understanding of orthodox Christianity is. Firstly, I am with Professor Craig on this one: if Jesus' bones were discovered (albeit I am not sure how we could ever be sure that they were His), it would mean the end of Christianity. The doctrine of Jesus' resurrection as a foretaste of the general resurrection to take place at the future judgement, and the means by which death is defeated, is one of the key doctrines of Christianity on which everything else depends. Prove it wrong, and the whole religion collapses.
Equally, Professor Stenger doesn't seem to understand how Christians understand our future life. Christianity followed ideas which were popular in second temple Judaism, based on a few hints in the later parts of the Old Testament and numerous references in the deutero-canonical and other inter-testament work. They are associated with the Pharisees, although were held more widely than this. In this belief there is a two stage process. The end goal is resurrection; the reuniting of soul and body, which is to take place for everyone at the final judgement at Christ's second coming. This means taking up a new physical body, albeit perfected. Jesus' post-resurrection body is an example of this new life. The only example: the cases in the Old Testament and Gospels of others coming to life are more like a resuscitation rather than resurrection in this sense. Before then, there is an intermediate state where souls remain until the time of the resurrection. Heaven and hell are not to be inhabited by immaterial spirits but by people just as physical as we are today. This was taken from Judaism, not paganism.
If Jesus' bones are found, that means that either Jesus did not rise, or the resurrection body is not immortal. Either way, it is a death blow to Christianity.
The ancient pagans opposed the idea of resurrection. There were three main views: firstly the sort of immaterial existence which Professor Stenger mentioned; secondly that we collapse into nothingness; and thirdly that we ascend to become stars. The body was seen as a prison for the spirit. Resurrection for the pagans was either a nonsense or something undesirable. The "spiritual" immortality that Professor Stenger discusses is thus a pagan belief rather than Jewish or Christian. That's not to say that it hasn't crept into European culture, which has roots in Greek and Roman mythology just as it does in Christianity. There have certainly been some, even some in the Church, who have advocated for spiritual immortality. But this wasn't the position of the Jews of Jesus' day, it wasn't the position of Jesus, nor his disciples, nor the Church fathers, nor the Church traditions of whichever creed as they developed through the centuries, nor of the best Christian scholars and teachers today.
Relying on the work of Finkelstein and Siberman, Professor Stenger gives a brief overview of their views on archaeology as it relates to the Old Testament. He claims that there is no evidence of an Israelite presence in Egypt before the popular date of the Exodus in the thirteenth century before Christ. There is little evidence of the battles by Joshua at this time. He states (citing William Dever, who I can't believe would have made this mistake) that Jericho was destroyed at about 2400 BC, and uninhabited after that time. There is no mention of David or Solomon's empire. The Tel Dan Stele, the only evidence for King David, might have been a forgery. Excavations in Jerusalem should have revealed David and Solomon's glories, but haven't.
The point is we should see evidence. We have plenty of evidence for other time periods. But we don't see evidence. Therefore that counts as evidence that the major Old Testament figures were a myth.
I will go over these claims in detail in the next series of posts. Clearly, this is only a superficial summary of the point of view of Israel Finkelstein. While a prominent archaeologist, his book does only give one side of the argument, and essentially ignores any other interpretations of the data. But I will discuss that in my next posts.
I have presented here Professor Stenger's views as expressed in this chapter. I am sure that he would have had more to say if he were not just restricted to a few pages. And, of course, he isn't alone in having these views. Far from it.
Some of them are probably supported by the majority of scholars in the field, while others are somewhat less well supported. But, of course, there are also those who support the historicity of the Biblical account. The most important criticism I can make of Professor Stenger's work is that in each section he seems to have only consulted a single source. He hasn't tried to see what responses are made against that by the other side of the argument. Professor Finkelstein's work is a case in point. Professor Finkelstein is trying to defend a thesis: that the bulk of the Old Testament history was basically written in the time of Josiah (albeit edited later) and largely invented to support that King's religious reforms; that Judah was a weak and functionally illiterate kingdom until the fall of Israel. In doing so, he presents some evidence (a few things incorrect), while ignoring any evidence against his view, interprets the evidence in a particular way, and presents a great deal more speculation based on that interpretation. He completely ignores any contrary views, and fails even to acknowledge their existence. In all things evidence, not expert opinion, should be what sways us to one side or the other. Experts can point us to the evidence; but in disputed matters each side will have its biases, so it is best to get a more rounded picture.
So in the next few posts, I intend, as best I can, to explain why I think that Professor Stenger was wrong. I will start with the archaeology of the Old Testament, which (to my mind) is a fascinating subject.
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