An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 24: Incongruities
- In this short chapter, McDowell address the fact that the Pentateuch, supposedly written by Moses, is written in the third-person, and contains an account of the death and burial of Moses.
- The third-person voice. Despite the documentary assumption that this indicates someone other than Moses wrote the Pentateuch, McDowell proposes two plausible explanations that allow for Mosaic authorship.
- First, Moses may have dictated his work to a scribe. In fact, according to McDowell and Roland Keith Harrison (whom McDowell quotes in support of this alternative), Moses may have dictated the various books he authored to many different scribes. In fact, says Harrison:
- “Quite possibly many of the small or isolated sections in the Hebrew text were committed initially to the priests for safekeeping, and only at a later period were the manuscript pieces assembled into some sort of mosaic and joined together into a roll.” (Roland Keith Harrison, INTRODUCTION TO THE OLD TESTAMENT, p. 538)
- So the first five books of the Old Testament that we have today were originally compiled from smaller manuscripts by people other than their original authors. You know, except for the insistence that Moses himself dictated their contents, this is very close — in a general sort of way, of course — to how those who accept the documentary hypothesis believe the Pentateuch was assembled.
- Is it just me, or does admitting the possible participation of scribes in the writing of the Bible make the whole “inerrant Word of God” thing even hard to swallow? Remember, McDowell has said previously that he believes the original autographs of the Bible were perfect — totally without flaw, without contradiction. And the reason for this is that they were inspired by God. God saw to it that the people writing those original manuscripts did it exactly the way he wanted.
- But now McDowell is allowing for the possibility that Moses didn’t actually write the original autographs of the Pentateuch, but rather dictated them to scribes. So not only did God inspire Moses, who was the author of those books, he also inspired those scribes who took down the words dictated by Moses without making a single mistake.
- Now, here’s why I say this makes the “inerrant word of God” more difficult to swallow: if God supernaturally prevented the scribes who were writing down the words dictated by the author from making any mistakes, why didn’t he do the same for the next generation of scribes who copied those original manuscripts? Or the scribes who wrote the next generation of copies after that? And so on? Because McDowell admits that the copies of the Bible we have today are not without error. He hides behind the non-existent original autographs, says they were the truly perfect versions.
- So God inspired the original author, Moses, to dictate a perfect document. And he inspired the scribes who took Moses dictation to write that perfect document. And then God just stopped paying attention? It was important that he transmit his Word into writing in an inerrant form, but just that one time, in an original that almost no one would ever actually read — it wouldn’t have taken omniscience to realize that.
- If God wanted to transmit his perfect, inerrant word in writing to humanity — and he did, according to McDowell and millions of other Christians — why did he only inspire the original authors and the scribes that worked directly with them to produce error-free texts? God is omnipotent — nothing he does exhausts him or requires the slightest effort. He could have seen to it that every copy made from those perfect originals was equally perfect, that every translation from the original language was flawless, preserving his words and his message exactly as originally intended. For that matter, he could also have protected those original autographs, kept them from being lost, so they would be around to use as a point of comparison, to prove that the latest copies are 100% perfect duplicates of the originals. God could have done all of that just as easily as he inspired the original authors and their scribes, because God can do anything. But he didn’t. If that does nothing to arouse your suspicion, if that doesn’t cause you to doubt the likelihood of God’s role in the creation of these books just a little bit, then you are too credulous for decent company.
- The other alternative, of course, is that Moses didn’t rely on scribes to take dictation. He actually wrote the original manuscripts of the Pentateuch himself, and simply wrote them in third-person. McDowell points out that other writers from antiquity wrote about themselves in third-person.
- And that’s fine. It takes a bit of the edge off of what I was just talking about, although it still doesn’t make sense to me that God would inspire the originals to be perfect, and then say “Fuck it, who cares?” about the countless copies produced from those originals.
- I would also note that an author writing a work of supposed nonfiction about his own life in the third-person would be just as weird whether it were dictated or written personally. Even if Moses was giving dictation, he would still be dictating a third-person narrative. Unless in the time between the words leaving Moses’s mouth and being written down by the scribes, God decided he wanted his word to be written in third-person instead of first-person, and inspired the scribes to change the perspective on the fly.
- Even if we assume, as I suspect McDowell would like to, that Moses wrote the Pentateuch personally, with his own hand, in the third-person, Mosaic authorship is still a pretty implausible proposition. The evidence for the documentary hypothesis is so broad and diverse that it can afford to discard a relatively minor line of evidence like the third-person voice and still remain standing strong — if not specifically the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, then something very much like it, explaining the Pentateuch as the work of multiple authors whose work was compiled later by others.
- Before we leave this chapter, let’s return to the problem of Moses writing about his own death and burial. McDowell solves this problem real quick-like:
- “The account of Moses’ death was a later addition.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 517)
- Oh. Okay. Well, what are we arguing about, then?
- McDowell goes on to inform us that it is a Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud, to attribute the final chapter of Deuteronomy to Joshua. We should look at it like Moses’s obituary, added to the end of his work.
- I want to get into this in some more detail, but before I do, isn’t it interesting how willing McDowell is to accept the Jewish view when it doesn’t conflict with his Christian view? The Jews have apparently got Isaiah 53 totally wrong, but they know who wrote the ending tacked-on to Deuteronomy, at least.
- Now, then. McDowell says that all of Deuteronomy was written by the same author — Moses — except for that final chapter, which was written by Joshua. So let’s take a look at that final chapter, Chapter 34 of Deuteronomy, and see what it says. As always, I’m reading from the King James:
- “And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And the LORD said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.” (Deuteronomy 34:1-6)
- Okay. Now, I’m not a linguist, but I would buy that this was written by a single author. Sentence structure seems consistent. And it reads like a nice, definitive ending to the book. Moses dies, God buries him, and to this day no one knows where.
- But the thing is, that’s not the end. Deuteronomy 34 continues:
- “And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. And the children of Israel wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days: so the days of weeping and mourning for Moses were ended. And Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom; for Moses had laid his hands upon him: and the children of Israel hearkened unto him, and did as the LORD commanded Moses.” (Deuteronomy 34:7-9)
- Okay. Seems like a bit of an afterthought. Reads like it was just sort of tacked on to the end there, but it makes sense, especially if Joshua did write it, since he makes sure to put himself over real good, writing that he’s full of the spirit of wisdom, that he was Moses’s rightful successor. Okay.
- But that’s still not the end. Deuteronomy 34 goes on:
- “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, In all the signs and the wonders, which the LORD sent him to do in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land, And in all that mighty hand, and in all the great terror which Moses shewed in the sight of all Israel.” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
- And that, finally, really is the end of Deuteronomy 34, and of the Book of Deuteronomy.
- Again, it seems like things have been brought to a conclusion, only to be started up again with that “And there arose not a prophet since . . .” This suggests to me that either this chapter was written by one person who was a shitty writer who couldn’t make up his mind what to do for an ending, or that each of these three endings were written separately and combined after the fact.
- And according to the documentary hypothesis, this is precisely what happened. Those last three verses were written by the Deuteronomist, or the D source. D was also the author of most of the Book of Deuteronomy, as you might have expected from the name, the Deuteronomist. Most of Deuteronomy was written, according to the documentary hypothesis, by the same author. Then, beginning about halfway through Chapter 31, we see material from another author, the Elohist, or E source, start to appear. It was E who wrote the first six verses of Deuteronomy 34 that I read. Also in the Book of Deuteronomy, we find text probably written by the Priestly, or P source. And it was P who wrote verses 7-9 of Deuteronomy 34.
- If you read Deuteronomy 34 with an open mind, without any presuppositions, it seems plausible, and even probable, that it was written by more than one author. The winding down and winding back up character of it is suggestive of this, even if nothing else is. The claim that this final chapter was written by one author, and that that author was Joshua, strikes me as less plausible.
Chapter 25: Internal Diversity
- In this chapter, McDowell deals with the diversity in the Pentateuch, and argues that despite the changes in style and diction and subject matter throughout the five books, Moses was the sole author.
- McDowell considers three areas where the Pentateuch exhibits diversity: subject matter, style, and diction. He dismisses the suggestion that the diversity of subject matter indicates multiple authors, since other ancient writers were able to write fluently about many subjects, and in many forms (one of McDowell’s quoted experts specifically cites the example of the ancient Egyptian writer Khety).
- Seems a little simplistic to me, but McDowell is looking for any excuse that allows him to maintain his presupposition that the Bible is divinely inspired, so okay, maybe Moses was a man of diverse interests capable of writing articulately about many different subjects.
- Or maybe he was just writing what God told him to write. It seems to me that, if McDowell really believes that, and he considers it a reasonable, respectable belief, that he should just default to that. Why should we believe Moses was capable of writing about all these different subjects? Because God was revealing it all to him. Right?
- Moving on to style. McDowell cites an interesting example to support his argument that a diversity of styles doesn’t necessarily imply multiple authors:
- “Dante’s Divine Comedy provides a helpful example of a work that has only one author but divergent styles in presenting God’s nature. Many passages colorfully depict the intervention of God into human affairs . . . while immediately beside them are passages rich in systematic doctrine. Yet here we have one author and one document — no more.” (McDowell, p. 519)
- Well, for one thing, we know that Dante wrote The Divine Comedy. We have a much more certain provenance of that work than we have of the Pentateuch. For another, Dante was openly writing a creative, poetic work. He wasn’t presenting it as a literal history or the inspired Word of God.
- Finally, and most obviously, Dante’s characterization of God is based on the Bible. Pointing out that Dante was capable of depicting God in a variety of ways suggests nothing about the authorship of the Pentateuch.
- The last area of diversity consider is diction. McDowell admits that there are noticeable variations in vocabulary throughout the Pentateuch, but he insists that this doesn’t imply multiple sources (because how could he not?).
- “While it is readily admitted that there is considerable variation of vocabulary in the Pentateuch . . . the evidence for the existence of unique diction in each ‘source’ is the result of the critics’ circular reasoning. They compile a list of all the passages that contain certain words, labeling these passages as being from a particular ‘source,’ and then announce that since these words do not appear elsewhere in the text outside that ‘source’ they are, in fact, characteristic of that ‘source’ only. Thus, the phenomenon is created by the hypothesis itself.” (p. 521)
- Except, not really. There isn’t anything circular about observing that certain passages of the text appear to be written in one idiom, and certain other passages appear to be written in another.
Chapter 26: Conclusion to the Documentary Hypothesis
The Imposition of a Modern Occidental View on Ancient Oriental Literature
- McDowell address some of the strengths of the documentary hypothesis.
- The collective force of the hypothesis. Even though no single criterion is sufficient to make the documentary hypothesis convincing, when taken collectively, they present a very strong argument. McDowell rejects this, claiming that a series of invalid criteria possesses no force.
- Ah, but McDowell hasn’t shown that the individual criteria of the documentary hypothesis are invalid. At most, even if we grant him his various arguments, he’s only shown that each individual criteria is insufficient. But this is the point of considering them collectively. By itself, the varying use of divine names might not be enough to assume multiple authors. By itself, the changes in the character of God might not be enough to assume multiple authors. By itself, the changes in vocabulary and style might not be enough to assume multiple authors. But all of those things — which McDowell doesn’t deny are present in the text — along with the other features elucidated by documentarians, considered collectively, are sufficient to conclude that the Pentateuch was written by multiple authors — in the judgment of many Bible scholars, nearly all of whom, I remind you again, are Christians.
- So what’s with this widespread acceptance of the documentary hypothesis (which McDowell also acknowledges, while continuing to refer to those who hold to it as “radical critics,” because he doesn’t know what words mean)? McDowell says this:
- “Why, it may be asked, if the documentary hypothesis is as invalid as this investigation has attempted to show, was it so eagerly received and defended in most scholarly circles throughout continental Europe, Great Britain, and the United States?” (p. 527)
- That awkward moment where you accidentally ask a question that answers itself.
- What are some of the fatal methodological weaknesses of this documentary hypothesis? McDowell describes five examples:
The Lack of Objective Evidence
- Here McDowell takes issue with the practice of using the vocabulary and form of a document to date it. This isn’t fair, he says, because there are no other surviving examples of ancient Hebrew literature to compare with the Pentateuch, and because the scholars attempting to date the documents this way are foreigners to both the time and the culture in which the documents were produced.
- McDowell’s solution to the dilemma of being a foreigner to the culture that produced the Pentateuch is, of course, to uncritically accept everything it says as the absolute truth.
- I love this one. McDowell says:
- “Even the most dogmatic documentarian must admit that there is no objective evidence for the existence or the history of the J, E, or any of the documents alleged to make up the Torah. There is no manuscript of any portion of the Old Testament dating from earlier than the third century B.C.” (p. 528)
- So when documentarians refer to sources they presume must have existed as a result of their textual analysis, that’s methodological weakness. But not when literalists like McDowell appeal to the non-existent original autographs to argue for Biblical inerrancy.
Substitution of Disintegrative Approach for Harmonistic Approach
- McDowell insists that the harmonistic approach is the only valid way of approaching the Bible — that is, the assumption that apparent contradictions in the text aren’t actually contradictions, that there are solutions whether we’ve found them or not. McDowell argues that if you look for contradictions in any text as diverse as the Bible, you will certainly find them.
- We’ve gone over this before. It’s not that we go in looking for contradictions when we read the Bible critically. It’s that we recognize contradictions as such when we find them, and we don’t continue to insist that there are no contradictions when contradictions stare us in the face.
- Are there some apparent contradictions in the Bible that can be resolved? Sure. I mentioned some of them in previous episodes. For instance, the different names for the mountain on which Moses received the ten commandments — Sinai and Horeb. They could just be two names given to the same location. Okay. But not all contradictions can be resolved like that. And McDowell knows this, and admits it, which is why he has reminded us in previous chapters that it’s only the original autographs of the Bible that are truly inerrant, truly without contradiction. So if we follow his methodology, when we find a contradiction in the Bible that cannot be resolved in any other way, we should assume that this is a copyists error and that the original autograph, which no longer exists and hasn’t been seen for thousands of years, doesn’t contain this contradiction and is perfect.
- McDowell repeatedly claims that the harmonistic approach is the way all ancient documents are evaluated. But the approach he’s advocating for the evaluating the Bible goes beyond harmonistic. He’s not saying, “Don’t assume a perceived difficulty in the text is unresolvable until you’ve checked it out further and made sure.” He’s saying, “Don’t ever accept any perceived difficulties, no matter how unresolvable. Appeal to non-existent sources and blame the difficulties on the scribes if you have to, but don’t ever accept that there are real, unresolvable difficulties in the text, because the text has to be perfect.” And this is emphatically not the way other ancient documents are evaluated.
The Number of “Original Documents” Is Unlimited
- McDowell claims that, as the documentary hypothesis gained acceptance, the number of sources increased, with the J, E, D, and P of the Graf-Wellhausen being joined by J2, L, K, S, and others. And since there are no controls on how many sources might be identified, consistent analysis of the text is impossible.
- There are more recent theories based on Graf-Wellhausen that identify more sources than J, E, D, and P. But there are also more recent theories with fewer than those four classic sources. There are theories that have J, E, and D playing the most prominent roles, with P contributing relatively little. There are theories that include significant contributions from redactors, and some that require minimal redactor activity to work. There is a lot of disagreement, in other words, among these so-called “radical critics” on the specifics of how many sources there are, what passages were written by which sources, which sources were writing before which other sources, and so on, and so on. But one thing the overwhelming majority of modern scholars agrees on that the Pentateuch was written by multiple authors, and none of those authors was Moses.
- McDowell accuses documentarians of arguing in a circle, building their preferred conclusions into the premises of their theory. He presents us with two examples of this.
- First, the formulation of the J, E, D, and P sources. McDowell claims that the characteristics of the four documents were predetermined, and then passages were assigned to each source according to how their characteristics matched those of these predetermined sources.
- McDowell is either lying or honestly ignorant about how the sources were differentiated. Either way, he’s got it backwards. He makes it sound as if Julius Wellhausen was sitting back smoking a pipe one way, when he decided out of the blue that there would be four original sources for the Pentateuch, that one of these would feature an interactive, personal God, and another would feature an aloof, transcendent, and one would be interested in emphasizing the covenant between God and Israel, and another would be interested in religious ritual.
- Wellhausen didn’t arbitrarily define the sources, and then divide up the text accordingly. He read the text with his critical scholar’s eye, and he recognized that there seemed to be multiple voices speaking to him from that text, and that at times it was obvious when the handoff from one voice to another had taken place. I would cite the two creation stories from Genesis that we went over in the previous video as an example of an instance where this transition from one voice to another is so obvious as to be unmistakable.
- Wellhausen thought there were four voices, or four documents. Others thought there were three, or five or six. A lot of these disagreements are over very subtle distinctions. There are sections where there is very broad agreement. For instance, it’s most scholars agree that the vast majority of Deuteronomy was written by a single author, the D source. But there is still some disagreement. And it all starts from the text. Whether McDowell agrees with it or not, he can’t argue that the documentary hypothesis is something that is being imposed on the text from the outside. It’s exactly the opposite — it’s an interpretation derived from the text itself. McDowell is free to disagree with it, but to claim that it’s the result of a presupposition or a circular argument is just wrong.
- The other example of irresponsible logic McDowell describes is the dependence on redactors. By relying on redactors, who are responsible for compiling the documents and also may have been responsible for adding certain passages, McDowell says, the documentarians have essentially admitted that their theory doesn’t work. Every appeal to the redactor is a tacit admission that the theory breaks down at that point.
- I would tend to agree with McDowell that a version of a documentary hypothesis that relied too heavily on redactors would be weaker than one that needed to rely on redactors to a lesser degree. If Graf-Wellhausen or any other version of the documentary hypothesis was attributing lengthy sections of the text to an unknown redactor, that might be a problem. But if you look at how the text of the Pentateuch breaks down according to the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, you see that this isn’t really an issue.
- There’s a very easy way to do this, too. In the description box of this video is a link to an online copy of the King James translation of the Pentateuch, that is color-coded according to the Graf-Wellhausen version of the documentary hypothesis. (http://tinyurl.com/ku2n8y4) The redaction sources are printed mostly in red. Scroll through each of the five books, and compare how much red text there is to text of other colors. You won’t see a hell of a lot of red. There will be some. There are a few long passages, especially in Genesis and Exodus, that are attributed to redaction sources, but far less than is attributed to J, E, D, or P. And the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy have almost no redaction content. (I counted: Leviticus has 14 verses attributed to a redactor, and Deuteronomy has 5.) So this is not a mortal wound.
- So the amount of material attributed to the redactor is relatively small. But what about it? Despite the much more significant contributions of the main sources, there are occasionally, as I said, some long passages attributed to redaction sources. What about that? Is that an admission from the documentarians that they can’t account for those passages? That they don’t seem to fit one of the established sources, so they’re just chalked up to a redactor?
- Well, so what if they are? One thing fundamentalists like McDowell consistently misunderstand about science — and if textual criticism is not a science, it at least makes use of the scientific method in its investigations — is that a scientific theory doesn’t have to explain every single aspect of a phenomenon in order to be sound and useful. Creationists exaggerate the significance of the so-called holes in the theory of evolution, seizing on the bits of biology that it can’t explain, or over which there is some disagreement in the scientific community, and declaring it invalid, or “a theory in crisis”. Similar pronouncements are made about the big bang theory. But the questions a theory can’t answer don’t negate the ones that it does. And like the theories of evolution and the big bang, the documentary hypothesis provides plausible, useful answers to questions about where the Pentateuch came from — more plausible than “Moses did it,” and certainly more useful than “God did it,” which is the most useless explanation you could ever give for anything.
- That wraps up McDowell’s attempt to refute the documentary hypothesis. Next time, we’ll finish up this section of the book as McDowell turns to the New Testament and takes on form criticism. But before we wrap things up in this video, I wanted to point out something. Some of you may have noticed it yourselves, but I want to underline it, because I think it’s important. It’s an example of the fundamentally dishonest method by which Josh McDowell operates in this book.
- For most of these last several chapters about the documentary hypothesis, McDowell has defended Mosaic authorship. He’s done this by defending the credentials of Moses, by insisting that Moses was not only a real person, but that he had the education and the experience and the cultural familiarity to write the first five books of the Old Testament. He’s also argued that Moses would have been fully capable of writing articulately about the various subjects addressed in those five books, and in the various styles we find, using the various forms and vocabularies — all of which McDowell acknowledges are present. In other words, McDowell argues for Mosaic authorship as if Moses wrote the Pentateuch all by himself.
- But that’s not what McDowell actually believes. According to Josh McDowell, Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch all by himself. He was inspired by God to write the Pentateuch. These aren’t just five books written by a talented and highly educated author with a diverse life experience. These books are the inerrant Word of God.
- McDowell doesn’t just dismiss the documentary hypothesis — or the more general position that the Bible, however it was written, was not divinely inspired. He addresses the various premises upon which the documentary hypothesis is based, and attempts to invalidate them by arguing against multiple authors and for Moses as the single author. And the reasons he gives might sound good to a Christian looking for an excuse to reject the naturalistic explanation of where his scripture came from. But that entire line of argumentation is disingenuous. Josh McDowell doesn’t believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch. He believes God wrote the Pentateuch and Moses was his secretary. All that stuff about the qualifications of Moses and the plausibility of one author writing in different styles, etc., etc., is artifice. It’s ornamentation designed to make McDowell’s position look a lot more impressive and well-founded than it is — elaborate, but ultimately useless.
- And McDowell switches back and forth between “God wrote the Bible” and “Moses wrote the Bible” without notice, whenever it suits him, just as William Lane Craig jumps back and forth between arguments for a generic deistic Prime Mover God and arguments for the specific God of the Bible, while pretending that they’re the same thing. It’s a deception meant to disguise a simple religious argument as a sophisticated philosophical or scientific argument. Of course, it ultimately fails because McDowell is an apologist and, like Craig, he sucks at philosophy and science.
Next: Conclude Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 27: Introduction to New Testament Form Criticism
Chapter 28: Historical Skepticism
Chapter 29: Jesus Under Fire
Chapter 30: Conclusion to Form Criticism
Chapter 31: Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism by C.S. Lewis