An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 14: Introduction to the Documentary Hypothesis
- In this brief chapter, McDowell summarizes the basics of the Documentary Hypothesis. This is the most widely accepted explanation of how the Bible was written. It is a naturalistic explanation that doesn’t require the involvement of any god or supernatural revelation. It holds that the Bible is an imperfect, man-made book, and that Moses did not write the Pentateuch. It derives these conclusions by applying literary criticism to the Bible.
- The Documentary Hypothesis is also sometimes referred to as the JEDP Hypothesis. Those four letters stand for the four authors of the Pentateuch as identified through literary analysis. These four authors are:
- J, or the Yahwist. This author is named for his tendency to refer to God using the name “Yahweh”.
- E, the Elohist. This author is named for his use of “Elohim” to refer to God in stories that take place before the life of Moses, in order to emphasize the importance of the revelation of the name Yahweh to Moses. J and E were apparently combined into a single history by an unknown editor, and therefore are sometimes referred to collectively as JE.
- D, the Deuteronomist, was interested in reforming religious practices. This author wrote sometime before the works of J, E, and P were combined.
- P, the Priest or a group of priests, was primarily interested in the practices of worship. This author created a Priestly Code that was combined with the JE document. When P was combined with JE, it served to place added emphasis on the intervention of God.
- The four documents are dated roughly as follows: J and E – 9th century B.C., D – approximately 650 B.C., P – 5th century B.C. And the Pentateuch as we know it today was put together around 400 B.C.
- As I mentioned in the previous video when McDowell brought up the Documentary Hypothesis, this theory is the product of Christians. It’s not an atheistic conspiracy designed to mislead unsuspecting Christians — it’s the result of Christians working to discover the true origins of their scriptures. And it’s now the dominant, mostly widely accepted explanation of where the Bible came from.
- So why does Josh McDowell have a problem with the Documentary Hypothesis?
- “The documentary hypothesis calls into question the credibility of the entire Old Testament. One would have to conclude, if their assertions are correct, that the Old Testament is a gigantic literary fraud.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 394)
- By imposing this either/or choice on how we regard the Bible, McDowell is demonstrating that he actually has less respect for his holy book than I do. To him, if the Bible is not the inerrant, revealed Word of God, then it’s a fraud, it’s a hoax, it’s worthless. This shallow, simplistic way of viewing the Bible is typical of the disrespect fundamentalists show their scriptures. They don’t see it as disrespect, but as someone who was an English major in college, I have a hard time seeing it any other way.
- Fundamentalists like McDowell base 100% of their reverence for the Bible on their belief that it is the Word of God. They view the Bible’s complicated provenance as something to be explained away and minimized, not explored and embraced. They view its contradictions and incoherencies as figments of heretical imaginations, rather than fascinating evidence of the changing attitudes of ancient people about their God and their society. They can’t appreciate its mythology and its poetry and the beautiful language of the King James version for their own sake — these things all have to be evidence of divine inspiration to be of value. And I find that a very sad, boring, one-dimensional way of approaching the text. It’s like saying that the Homeric epics only have value because Homer was an actual person, and if Homer’s existence were ever to be definitively refuted, it wouldn’t be worth it to study The Odyssey anymore.
- Imagine if I insisted that The Odyssey was 100% historically accurate and that this was the only legitimate interpretation. Wouldn’t that strike you as a bit reductive to a complex and important and beautiful work? That’s exactly how I feel when fundamentalists insist the same thing about the Bible.
Chapter 15: Introduction to Biblical Criticism
- McDowell defines the difference between lower criticism, or textual criticism, and higher criticism, which deals more with the origin and the original intent of the authors.
- McDowell says that higher criticism has a negative connotation (presumably he means to Biblical literalists such as himself), but that this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
- “Unfortunately, the higher critical school that grew up out of German scholarship in the last century employed some faulty methodology and tenaciously held to some questionable presuppositions. This seriously undermined the validity of many of their conclusions.” (p. 398)
- Hopefully we’ll explore some of those questionable presuppositions in the coming chapters.
- McDowell summarizes three schools of what he terms “radical Pentateuchal criticism.” There’s the documentary hypothesis, which we’ve already covered. There’s also form criticism, which also rejects Mosaic authorship but focuses on the compilation of the original documents from earlier oral traditions. Finally, there’s the Oral Traditionalist school, which focuses even more exclusively on the oral traditions and holds that the Bible must be approached as a collection of oral traditions rather than a written document.
Chapter 16: Introduction to the Pentateuch
- Once again, McDowell reminds us that the Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament, also known as the Torah. The contents of the Pentateuch range from primeval history to the history of the Patriarchs to the life of Moses, which includes the handing down of the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law.
- McDowell has this to say on the purpose of the Pentateuch:
- “The Bible is history, but of a very special kind. It is the history of God’s redemption of mankind, and the Pentateuch is chapter one of that history.” (p. 401)
- McDowell goes on to quote Merrill Unger, who places the Pentateuch into the context of Christian salvation, claiming that the author of the Pentateuch was tasked with giving an account of God’s provisions for salvation.
- This is a late, Christian interpretation of the Pentateuch, an attempt to claim, as McDowell has previously, that the entire Bible is ultimately about the redemption of mankind through Christ. There’s no evidence in the text itself for this, and all the supposed evidence is the result of a tortured retroactive interpretation by Christians who want to force Jesus into a document written centuries before he was born by people who had no idea he was coming.
Chapter 17: Development of the Documentary Hypothesis
- McDowell summarizes the history of the documentary hypothesis. In the 18th century H.B. Witter, who McDowell acknowledges as a Protestant priest, was the first to note that there were two distinct creation accounts in the Pentateuch, and that they were distinguishable by their use of different names for God. In the 1750s French doctor Jean Astruc published his version of a documentary theory, identifying two distinct authors of Genesis — what are now called J and E — but still defending Moses as the compiler, though not the author, of the documents.
- In 1800 a Catholic priest named A. Geddes constructed his own theory which held that Genesis was the result of a large number of fragments being compiled into a single document. Later authors developed Geddes’s theory to hold that at least 38 separate fragments had been combined to create Genesis.
- This so-called Fragmentary Hypothesis was abandoned with the acceptance of the Supplementary Hypothesis, which explains Genesis as being based on one document (E), which supplementary material inserted from another source (J).
- Later, there was Crystallization Theory, which explains the entire Pentateuch as the product of five separate authors, whose work was compiled into its final form by the last of these five.
- Modified Documentary Theory was then developed by Herman Hupfeld. This theory held that the Pentateuch was the result of four documents: P, E (which was based on P), J, and D.
- Finally, the modern Documentary Hypothesis, developed in the 1860s and ‘70s by Karl Graf, Abraham Kuenen and Julius Wellhausen. This modern theory (again, the most widely accepted explanation of the origins of the Pentateuch), holds that J and E are the earliest sources and that these independent documents were compiled into a single narrative by the author of J. D was written and incorporated into JE later by the Deuteronomist. Finally, the Priestly document (P) was edited in around 200 B.C.
- McDowell lists several subsequent variations of the theory, but essentially the Graf-Wellhausen theory is what is accepted, and is what is usually referred to as the Documentary Hypothesis.
Chapter 18: Ground Rules
- McDowell lays out three ground rules — principles which ought to be adhered to when evaluating the Bible.
- Approach the Hebrew Scriptures Harmonistically. This means give the document the benefit of the doubt. McDowell quotes Oswald Allis on the advantages of the harmonistic approach:
- “It has two obvious advantages. The one is that it does justice to the intelligence and common sense of the writers of the Bible. . . . The second is that it is the biblical method of interpretation. . . . Most important of all, this method of interpretation is the only one which is consistent with the high claims of the Bible to be the Word of God.” (Oswald Allis, THE OLD TESTAMENT, ITS CLAIMS, AND ITS CRITICS, p. 35)
- So much for objectivity. If we don’t presume that the Bible is the Word of God before we begin our considerations, we shouldn’t worry about whether a given interpretation is consistent with that belief. If our analysis shows that to be a possibility, fine. If our analysis eliminates that as a possibility, fine. What Allis and McDowell are saying is that we should favor the harmonistic approach because it’s the approach that allows for our preferred interpretation. That’s not an honest approach. That’s not objective. That’s not scientific. That’s starting with your conclusion and tossing out everything that contradicts it, rather than reaching the conclusion through considering the evidence.
- Exercise an Open Mind. McDowell sums up this principle nicely:
- “The direction in which the facts lead may not be palatable, but it must be followed.” (McDowell, p. 409)
- I agree. McDowell doesn’t give me any reason to think he actually follows this principle himself, but it is a very sound principle nevertheless.
- Submit to External, Objective Controls. In other words, make sure any consideration of the text is rooted in the known facts about the culture in which it was produced.
- In conclusion to this chapter, McDowell says:
- “Instead of beginning our biblical studies with the presupposition that the Old Testament has errors throughout, many contradictions, historical inaccuracies, and gross textual errors, our study should include a meticulous examination of the Hebrew text in light of modern archaeology and existing knowledge of cultures of the ancient Near East in the third millennium B.C.” (p. 411)
- As with his claims about anti-supernatural bias, McDowell is mischaracterizing the position that the Bible is flawed and historically inaccurate as the result of a presupposition. In fact, it’s his own presupposition that the Bible is the Word of God that warps his judgment, because it prevents him from accepting any detected errors as such. I don’t think the Bible is a flawed, contradictory, man-made document because of any presupposition. I think so because of the evidence contained in the Bible itself, because I have no religiously imposed presupposition requiring me to reject anything which suggests the Bible is less than perfect.
Chapter 19: Documentary Presuppositions
- McDowell examines some of the “very important presuppositions” underlying radical higher criticism of the Bible. First and foremost among these is, of course, the supposed anti-supernatural bias of critics. I’ve discussed this extensively already, I mentioned it just a moment ago, but one more time: naturalism (what McDowell calls anti-supernaturalism) isn’t a presupposition; it’s based on an honest, rational approach that withholds belief in incredible claims until there is evidence to establish those claims.
- So, what are some other presuppositions of radical critics?
Priority of Source Analysis Over Archaeology
- Proponents of the documentary hypothesis, McDowell says, rely too much on literary analysis to determine the historical background of the Pentateuch, and not enough on the findings of archaeology. Unlike the biased analyses of radical critics, McDowell says, archaeology has confirmed the authenticity of many passages of the Old Testament.
- McDowell and the sympathetic experts he quotes focus their objections to so-called radical criticism on what they claim to be inaccurate conclusions about the history of Israel. But this isn’t really the crux of the disagreement between those who hold to the documentary hypothesis and those who hold that the Bible is a supernatural book divinely revealed by God. As with the claims that archaeology and extra-biblical history support the New Testament, McDowell and those he cites are talking about the relatively mundane details contained in the Bible. Even if it could be shown convincingly that the actual history of Israel was more or less as presented in the Old Testament, the claims of divine intervention, including the creation account, the interactions of God with Abraham, Jacob, and others, and the many miraculous events depicted in the life of Moses, would still inspire incredulity in anyone who wasn’t a dogmatic true believer.
- The number of Biblical claims confirmed by archaeology isn’t as important as the nature of those claims. How many miracles of the Old Testament have been positively confirmed by evidence? The parting of the Red Sea? The handing down of the Ten Commandments? And what about the Old Testament stories that are not merely unconfirmed, but ruled out as reasonable possibilities by science, such as the creation story or the Great Flood? If McDowell expects critics and skeptics to accept archaeology as evidence that the Bible is the Word of God, then he needs evidence for incredible events like these, because these are the events that demand our skepticism, not the more plausible details of the Biblical narrative.
Natural View of Israel’s Religion and History
- McDowell summarizes the natural view, that the religion of the ancient Israelites, which eventually became Judaism and served as the basis for Christianity, developed as religions have been seen to evolve in other human societies, beginning with spirits and tribal gods, then to more clearly established concepts of polytheism, and then ultimately to the belief in one supreme god, monotheism.
- “Such a position either ignores or discredits Israel’s own account of her history as we have it in the Old Testament.” (p. 418)
- That would be the account with the talking snake and all the shit that never happened.
- McDowell chalks up this natural explanation for Judaism, the cultural evolution from tribal gods to monotheism, to — what else? — anti-supernatural bias:
- “The radical critics are here expressing the obvious results or conclusions of their anti-supernatural presuppositions applied to the religion of Israel in the Old Testament. Since a direct revelation from God is ruled out, their monotheism must have developed through regular evolutionary channels like other religions.” (p. 419)
- McDowell is arguing that the religion of Israel is unique, that it didn’t develop along the same lines as other religions. That argument is based on his belief that the Bible is the result of direct revelation from God. But that direct revelation is totally unsubstantiated. Without evidence that this direct revelation from God actually took place and was the source of the Bible, there’s no reason to assume that the religion of Israel has a unique supernatural origin.
- McDowell refers to this as the “evolutionary presupposition,” again misusing the word “presupposition.” What he is actually referring to is not an evolutionary presupposition, but a lack of a fundamentalist Christian presupposition.
- McDowell and his supporting experts make the claim that not only did the religion of Israel originate as a monotheism inspired by the Torah, but it was the first and only nation to develop a national monotheistic religion. McDowell quotes Gleason Archer declaring this to be “an incontestable fact of history.”
- I think the Zoroastrians might like a word with Archer about that. McDowell quotes Archer as saying no other nation ever developed a true monotheistic national religion, except those influenced by the Hebrew faith. But not only was Zoroastrianism a national religion of no less than three ancient empires of Persia, it predates the Hebrew faith and probably influenced the Hebrew faith to some degree. McDowell and Archer’s claim that the religion of Israel was not only the first but the only monotheistic national religion is almost laughably preposterous. It’s telling, I think, that in the passage quoted by McDowell, Archer lists the Babylonians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks as nations that never developed monotheism, but says nothing about the Persians.
- McDowell spends the next several pages raising and attempting to refute various aspects of the documentary hypothesis, including the assumptions that the religion of Israel was borrowed from the religions of neighboring cultures, that the Second Commandment (banning worship of images) is an anachronism that works against Mosaic authorship, and that the Levitical laws are much too recent to have been originally written by Moses.
- Here’s my favorite example yet of McDowell unwittingly undermining his own position. One reason for which McDowell claims critics are skeptical of a Mosaic origin for the Levitical laws is that they are too complex to have been created by such a primitive culture as the Israelites. To counter this, McDowell refers to the Code of Hammurabi, which was created in Babylon hundreds of years before the supposed time of Moses. To establish the plausibility of an early date for Leviticus, McDowell quotes multiple sources testifying not only to the complexity of the Code of Hammurabi, but also to its similarities with the law of Moses.
- Once his point about complexity not being a bar to an early date has been made, McDowell immediately attempts to fill in the hole he’s just dug for himself, shifting gears to emphasize the differences between the Code of Hammurabi and the Mosaic laws. But for me, even if we assume no direct influence whatsoever from Hammurabi to the Mosaic laws, the most interesting point stands: McDowell indirectly admits that there is nothing necessarily divine about the law of Moses. A sufficiently advanced civilization is perfectly capable of creating complex laws governing a variety of behaviors, all by itself, with no help from Josh McDowell’s God or anyone else’s.
- McDowell also makes mention of the Ras Shamra Tablets, which date back to approximately the time of Moses and record several laws very similar to those found in Leviticus, including instructions for making various types of sacrificial offerings. Like the Code of Hammurabi, McDowell means to use the Ras Shamra Tablets as evidence that complex laws were being made in the vicinity of the ancient Israelites at the time of Moses.
- And like the Code of Hammurabi, again McDowell undermines his own position, producing yet another example of a nearby culture creating laws and religious practices very similar to those of the Israelites, without any instruction from Yahweh (or Elohim, or whatever his name is).
- If the Ras Shamra Tablets represent laws and customs that predate the time of Moses (which is likely even if we grant the premise that Moses actually existed, since Ugarit, the city where the tablets were produced, may have existed for thousands of years before the era when the tablets were made), it’s possible that the laws of Moses were actually based on the Ras Shamra Tablets, rather than on divine revelation. McDowell quotes Joseph Free attempting to dispose of this possibility by suggesting that either the Mosaic laws simply came first and therefore influenced the Ras Shamra laws, or that the Ras Shamra laws actually reflect a corruption of laws and customs originally handed down in an earlier revelation from God (one that apparently wasn’t worth mentioning to Moses when he was writing the Pentateuch).
- The Ras Shamra Tablets are perhaps an even better example of the absurdity of McDowell’s claims of divine origin for the Pentateuch. Here we have a record of laws and customs, bearing some significant similarities to the laws and customs of ancient Israel, created with no help at all from the God McDowell credits for dictating the law of Moses. The laws on the Ras Shamra Tablets, along with the Code of Hammurabi, establish that there is nothing incredible or inexplicable about the law of Moses, even if we allow for McDowell’s preferred early date instead of the later date favored by the so-called radical critics.
- To the contrary: the Ras Shamra Tablets suggest that it is McDowell’s claim that the law of Moses suddenly appeared which is incredible. As I said, the Ras Shamra Tablets were created in the city of Ugarit, which may have existed in some form for over four thousand years when those tablets were created. Given such a long history, it’s unlikely that the laws and customs recorded on the Ras Shamra Tablets were recent innovations of the culture. It’s more likely that they were the product of a long process of cultural evolution.
- Yet McDowell wants us to accept that the law of Moses and the religious beliefs and practices it codifies, were not the product of a long, gradual cultural evolution, but were given to Moses all at once, directly from God.
- The only source for this origin, by the way, is the same document which contains the laws, which, according to McDowell, was written by the same person. Yet another example of the Bible being called as a witness on its own behalf.
- So we have a set of laws and customs with similarities to the law of Moses, produced by a culture in the same region, through a process of natural cultural development with no divine intervention necessary. Oh, and by the way, McDowell, in his eagerness to argue for the plausibility of an early origin for the law of Moses, also mentions the Lipit-Ishtar Code, and the Laws of Eshnunna — two more law codes which are even older, which also bear similarities to the later law of Moses, which their cultures somehow managed to create without direct revelation from the God of the Old Testament. And yet, McDowell insists that the law of Moses was not the result of such a process, but was revealed in its finished form by God. And this man has the balls to accuse his critics of relying too much on biased presuppositions.
- In the remainder of the chapter, McDowell employs similar methods to dismiss documentarian views on the lack of written language in Moses’ time, and the legendary status of the patriarchs. He wraps it all up, then, dismissing the documentary hypothesis by doling out another lash to his favorite dead horse: anti-supernatural bias. And this time, he outdoes himself with his mischaracterization:
- “Anti-supernaturalism must be rejected on the grounds that it claims to have absolute truth regarding the existence of God or the extent and nature of His intervention in the natural order of the universe, i.e., either His existence or His divine intervention is ruled out as an impossibility on an a priori basis.” (p. 448)
- I’ve already explained several times in this series why naturalism — what McDowell self-servingly and inelegantly terms anti-supernaturalism — isn’t an a priori assumption. What strikes me about this description is McDowell’s claim that anti-supernaturalists claim to have absolute truth. Those who reject the supernatural claims of the Bible neither claim nor require absolute knowledge of God’s existence. If I reject a supernatural claim because there is no evidence for that claim, that’s what I’m doing — I’m rejecting the claim. I’m not saying that I know for 100% certain that the claim is not true. I’m saying that I see no reason to assume that the claim is true. Again, McDowell wants us to treat his claims as true by default. He insists that skeptics disprove his claims 100%, while making no effort to demonstrate that they are true in the first place.
- A commenter on a previous video challenged me to prove that the Bible is not the Word of God. My response was to challenge the commenter to prove that Mount Everest was not built by faeries. Can you prove Mount Everest wasn’t built by faeries? No, you can’t. Not for certain. If we treat that claim the same way McDowell treats the supernatural claims of the Bible, the only reasonable option is to conclude that faeries did, in fact, built Mount Everest. In the absence of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, it’s only your anti-faerie bias that causes you to doubt that conclusion.
Chapter 20: Consequences of Radical Higher Criticism
- To quickly summarize this brief chapter: McDowell lists and explains three undesirable consequences of the documentary hypothesis:
- The Old Testament is essentially unhistorical.
- Israel’s religion is totally natural, not supernatural in origin and development.
- The history and religion of Israel (as found in McDowell’s literalist interpretation of the Bible) are basically fraudulent.
- What reason, ultimately, does McDowell offer for rejecting these three entirely sensible conclusions?
- “It is clear upon reading the Hebrews’ account of their own history and religion as laid out before us in the Old Testament that they intended the account to be accepted by readers as truly historical. The sequence of Moses giving the Law and then later the prophets judging the people by harking back to the Mosaic Law was meant to be an account of what really happened — and the precise order in which it happened.” (p. 454)
- Because that’s not what the Bible says. This, in a nutshell, is McDowell’s entire argument. The documentary hypothesis isn’t true because the Bible says it isn’t true. Seems airtight to me.
- McDowell concludes the chapter:
- “Whoever wrote the Old Testament books and canonized them wanted us to think that the history depicted in them was indeed the real history of Israel. If the documentarians are right, the historians of the Old Testament are wrong, and there does not seem to be any reasonable way of getting around the implications of a ‘contrived’ history.” (p. 454)
- Of course, the history need not be 100% wrong nor be contrived in the sense I think McDowell means for the documentary hypothesis to remain the best explanation. The history, especially the early history, depicted in the Old Testament is probably the result of generations of legendary embellishment, the same as the stories about Jesus found in the New Testament. Just as cultural evolution shaped the laws and religious customs recorded in the Bible (and in the artifacts of other nearby cultures), it also shaped the stories told about the creation, the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood, the Patriarchs, and the life of Moses.
- But nevertheless, McDowell’s right — the implications of a natural explanation for the Pentateuch and the religion of the Israelites are clear. It’s too bad so many fundamentalist Christians would rather follow Josh McDowell’s example and ignore those implications rather than facing them and coming to an understanding of where their religion really came from and how false it truly is.
Next: Continue Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 21: Evidence for Mosaic Authorship
Chapter 22: The Phenomenon of Divine Names
Chapter 23: The Repetition of Accounts and Alleged Contradictions