An Atheist Reads Evidence That Demands a Verdict
Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 21: Evidence for Mosaic Authorship
- Now McDowell begins his offensive against natural explanations for the origin of the Bible, and specifically against the documentary hypothesis, by defending the claim that the Pentateuch, consisting of the first five books of the Old Testament, was actually written by Moses.
- Anyone else think it’s silly that it’s 2013 and there are still billions of people insisting there’s something magical — like, literally, truly magical — about their church’s scripture?
- McDowell begins — where else? — with the evidence for Mosaic authorship found in the Bible itself. He describes the witness of the other books of the Old Testament, the witness of the New Testament, both of which affirm that Moses was the author, and most absurdly, the witness of the Pentateuch itself, the very work Moses supposedly wrote.
- McDowell lists references from the Pentateuch identifying Moses as the author, then lists Moses qualifications for writing such a book:
- “(a) Education: Moses was trained in the highly developed academic disciplines of the royal Egyptian court. . . . (b) Tradition: He undoubtedly received the traditions of the early Hebrew history and their encounters with God. (c) Geographical familiarity: Moses possessed an intimate knowledge of the climate and geography of Egypt and Sinai as displayed in the Pentateuch. (d) Motivation: As the founder of the Commonwealth of Israel, he had more than adequate incentive to provide the nation with concrete moral and religious foundations. (e) Time: Forty long years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness provided ample opportunity to write this work.” (Josh McDowell, THE NEW EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT, p. 457)
- And the source for all of that information about Moses is . . . the Pentateuch. The one and only source for biographical information about Moses is the Pentateuch. And whether you agree with McDowell about Mosaic authorship or you believe the Pentateuch was written by people other than Moses, this just doesn’t work.
- If you believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch, then you are deriving this information about Moses’s qualifications from Moses himself, with no way to corroborate anything he says. What if the Pentateuch said “Moses was the smartest man in the world”? Intelligence! Add that to the qualifications!
- Also, let’s not forget that Moses also had the uncanny ability to describe his own death and burial, and to declare at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses.” Writing about yourself in the third-person is a bit eccentric. But writing about yourself as though you died a long time ago? That’s the sort of thing Moses’s editor should have had him fix in the second draft.
- (McDowell claims that the account of Moses’s death and burial was added by Joshua, as an obituary. How did Joshua know the circumstances of Moses’s death and burial, since Deuteronomy describes Moses dying alone and being buried in a secret place by God himself? Eh.)
- If you believe the Pentateuch was written by others, then, in the absence of external evidence, you have no reason to believe Moses even existed, given the incredible nature of many of the events that are depicted as occurring in the life of Moses.
- Either way, it makes no sense to accept the Pentateuch — or any other book, for that matter — as evidence of its own claims. The Sherlock Holmes stories establish Dr. John Watson as eminently qualified to chronicle the cases investigated by Holmes — he had a record of honorable military service, he was an educated man and a respected physician, he was closely acquainted with Holmes and often accompanied him on his adventures. None of that gives us any reason to believe for even an instant that Holmes or Watson are real people. And just as the Holmes stories purporting to be written by Watson is not evidence that they were actually written by Watson, neither is the Pentateuch claiming to be written by Moses evidence that it was actually written by Moses.
- One last thing about the qualifications of Moses: Maybe I’m being too simplistic here, but why do his qualifications even matter? Why is it important that he was educated, or that he knew of the Hebrew traditions or was familiar with the climate and geography of the area — information that many people would have had besides Moses, by the way. Didn’t God reveal the Pentateuch to Moses? What difference do is personal qualifications make if he’s just writing what God tells him to write?
- McDowell moves on to evidence from other parts of the Bible. He lists a series of verses from the remainder of the Old Testament referring to the Law of Moses, and from the New Testament where authors refer to the writings of Moses, or where Jesus indicates that he believes the Pentateuch was written by Moses.
- Note how McDowell breaks up the Bible into separate books when he wants to use part of it to confirm another part. But when he’s establishing the historicity of the Bible, it becomes a monolith again, and evidence for the truth of a mundane, plausible passage is expected to establish the truth of the whole thing, miracles and talking snake and all.
- The witness of the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament is just as useless to us for determining authorship as the witness of the Pentateuch. Even if we accept that the various books of the Bible were written by their traditional authors, all these authors are doing is repeating their religious traditions. Paul refers to a passage from the Torah by saying “Moses writes,” or John writes of the “law given through Moses.” So let’s say Paul and John and whoever else really wrote those things. Let’s say they really believed Moses had written the Pentateuch — or the Torah, as they would have called it. So what? They weren’t critics, they weren’t archaeologists, they weren’t historians. They didn’t investigate the history of the Torah and determine at the conclusion of their examinations that Moses was the true author. They accepted it because that’s what their religious tradition told them. They aren’t witnesses to anything other than their own belief. Citing them as authorities on Mosaic authorship is a silly waste of time.
Chapter 22: The Phenomenon of Divine Names
- When he’s through citing the Bible as evidence for itself, McDowell moves on to citing the opinions of people who accepted the Bible as the Word of God.
- As external evidence, McDowell lists Jewish tradition, the Talmud, the writings of Philo and Josephus, and the writings of early Christian leaders, all of whom accepted that the Pentateuch was written by Moses.
- Again, it’s insulting to the intelligence of a critically thinking person to even suggest these so-called witnesses as evidence of Mosaic authorship. All of them — every single one of them — base their opinion on the testimony of the Bible. These are not experts — these are people repeating the same religious belief. They are not authorities on who wrote the Pentateuch, not in the slightest.
- For example: McDowell quotes Leontius, a Christian theologian from Constantinople who wrote: “As for these five books, all bear witness that they are the work of Moses.” All he’s doing is saying that the books of the Pentateuch say that Moses wrote them! How is that evidence of anything? How is his acceptance of shitty evidence supposed to count as good evidence?
- The rest of McDowell’s “external evidence” is of this type: Jews or Christians expressing their religious belief that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, cited as experts on the subject.
- McDowell uses the rest of this chapter to argue for an early date for Deuteronomy. He claims that its literary form marks it as a product of the second millennium B.C., many centuries earlier than most documentarians date it. This view is rejected by the consensus of Biblical scholars — most of whom, I feel I must remind you, are Christians. Their consensus is that the oldest part of Deuteronomy was written in the 7th century B.C., and that more recent sections were then added to the beginning and the end of the book in the decades that followed, eventually resulting in the Book of Deuteronomy we have today. This is broadly accepted and backed up by over two centuries of scholarship. Nevertheless, McDowell repeatedly refers to those who accept this conclusion as “radical critics.”
- The significance of the occurrences of the two most commonly used names for God — Yahweh (or Jehovah, its Latinized form) and Elohim — is one of the fundamental aspects of the documentary hypothesis. The two earliest sources of the Pentateuch, according to the documentary hypothesis, are the J or Jehovah document, and the E or Elohim document. McDowell rejects this theory, denies that there were ever two separate documents, and spends this chapter attempting to refute the arguments documentarians make for assuming separate sources for the Pentateuch on the basis of the divine names.
- McDowell offers an explanation that is at once simpler and more convoluted than the documentary hypothesis. The two names of God each have unique significance, he says, and are used interchangeably in the text depending on the context of the passage. For instance, Yahweh is used to refer to God’s ethical character, his relationship to Israel, or when the theme of the passage has to do with the law or with religious tradition. Elohim is used to refer to God the creator, or when God is referenced in a more general or obscure manner, or when he is spoken of in reference to someone who is not of the Chosen People (for instance, Satan).
- To further defend his assertion that the two names of God don’t indicate separate authors, McDowell makes one of his rare references to a faith other than his own. He appeals to the Qur’an:
- “The Koran provides a helpful parallel to the irregular distribution of the divine names in the Pentateuch. No one questions the single authorship of these Arabic scriptures. Yet they display the same phenomenon as their Hebrew relative. . . . This is conclusive evidence that ancient Semitic literature was capable of using two names for God, yet with one author.” (p. 490)
- Maybe I’m missing something, but there doesn’t seem to be nearly the same level of critical scholarship of the Qur’an as there is of the Bible. This might be due to the fetishistic adoration of the Qur’an, or to how childish and oversensitive Muslims in general, and fundamentalist Muslims in particular, are when faced with criticism of the Qur’an. Or maybe it’s a product of how quickly the Qur’an was compiled compared to the Bible — a few decades, at most, compared to many centuries. There really is no comparison between the Qur’an and the Bible in this regard — the Bible has been critically examined and deconstructed to a much greater degree than the Qur’an. So the scholarship upon which something like a Qur’anic equivalent of the documentary hypothesis might rest just doesn’t exist.
- Finally, by focusing on the divine names and seeking to explain them in a way that is harmonious with Mosaic authorship, McDowell ignores the fact that the divine names are not the only basis on which documentary scholars divide the Pentateuch into multiple sources. Referring to the sources by the names they use for God is a useful shorthand for identifying them, but it by no means indicates that the names are the only distinguishing feature. If this were the case, how could it have been determined — as in the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis — that there were sources other than J and E? Both the E and the P documents use Elohim as the name of God, so there must be some other way of determine if a given verse where Elohim is used comes from E or P. (There’s also D, which uses the compound name Yahweh-Elohim, which is also used by J.)
- Another way of distinguishing the sources is by the name they give the mountain on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The J source and the P source call it Mount Sinai, while the E and D sources call it Mount Horeb.
- There are also stylistic differences: J is narrative, while E is said to be less eloquent. J depicts Israel as a nation destined for greatness, and its Yahweh is an active God who creates and interacts with humans. E tends to focus more in Israel’s tendency to rebel against God, and its Elohim is less active, opting to reveal himself through prophecies and dreams.
- When you take all of this into consideration, I think it becomes clear that Mosaic authorship is actually a more complicated proposition than that of documentarians. Instead of multiple authors writing separate documents that were later combined into a single work, McDowell wants us to believe that the Pentateuch was the product of a single author who not only switched back and forth between names of God depending on what he was writing about, but also wrote in alternating separate, distinctive styles, each style with its own identifiable focus and goal. In other words, Moses didn’t write a book about the active, personal side of God, and then another book about the more mysterious, detached side of God; or a book about the great destiny of Israel, and then another book about the shortcomings and disobedience of Israel. It’s all mixed together, just as we would expect it to be if it were not the work of a single author, but rather the work of many authors, writing at different times, augmenting and altering earlier work and compiling old and new together into a single document.
Chapter 23: The Repetition of Accounts and Alleged Contradictions
Repetition of Accounts
- In this chapter McDowell addresses the documentary assumptions on repetition and contradiction in the Pentateuch, and argues that the repetition of particular stories does not indicate multiple authors, and that there are no contradictions.
- The first instances of repetition considered are the two accounts of creation found in Genesis — the first in Genesis 1, and the second in Genesis 2. The two accounts differ, but are not necessarily contradictory. McDowell asserts that they differ mainly in focus:
- “An essential difference in the two accounts must be appreciated: Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world, while Genesis 2 details and further describes the specific creation of Adam and of his immediate environment in the Garden of Eden.” (p. 496)
- And this is exactly the point that documentarians make. They are two different accounts of two different events. But, contrary to how McDowell describes it, documentarians argue that the differences are significant enough to suggest that the two stories originated from distinct sources.
- I agree with the documentarians. The two creation stories differ in more than focus. They present distinct characterizations of God, and tell their stories in different styles.
- Let’s compare the two stories. First, Genesis 1. The God of this chapter is a God of the universe. He creates everything, and he does it effortlessly, by simply speaking things into existence. He is anthropomorphized to a point, but look at the phrases used to describe what he does in the King James version: “God created the heaven and the earth”, “God said, Let there be light”, “God said, Let there be a firmament”, “God said, Let the earth bring forth grass . . . and the earth brought forth grass”, “Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind”. He’s causing things to happen, creating through sheer will. He commands the heavens and earth, the waters, the plants and the animals and finally man to appear, and they do.
- Let’s also examine how Genesis 1 is structured. The narrative is very regimented. It moves from one day of creation to the next, and makes the separation of the days very clear. That was the end of the first day, that was the end of the second day, etc. It’s simple, plain, and direct: here’s what God did, here’s when he did it.
- Now let’s look at Genesis 2. The second creation account properly begins with verse 4; the first three verses are the conclusion of the story of Genesis 1. Right away, we should notice a change in both the character of God and the style of the writing. We have that shift in focus, that much finer level of detail that McDowell mentions, but it’s more than that.
- From verse 4 through to the end of chapter 2 of Genesis, God is referred to as LORD God. That’s the King James translation of that compound name for God I mentioned earlier, Yahweh Elohim, which is used in the D source and is also indicative of the J source, as is the case with Genesis 2. It’s a sudden, clean switch from “Elohim” from Genesis 1:1 to Genesis 2:3, to “Yahweh Elohim” starting in Genesis 2:4.
- It’s not only God’s name that changes. The God of Genesis 2 is much more personified than the transcendent, all-powerful God of Genesis 1. In Chapter 2 we have God forming man from the dust and breathing life into his nostrils. We have God planting the Garden of Eden and placing man in this garden. And God commands the man verbally, as one person to another, to not eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God makes the animals out of the ground just as he made man, and when he creates woman as a mate for the man, he takes a rib from the man and makes woman out of that. And the verse says that God closed up the flesh of Adam where he’d taken the rib — he performs surgery on Adam. This is a very different, more personal, more hands-on God than the one we saw willing things into existence in the previous chapter.
- There are differences in the writing style as well. As I said, Genesis 1 is very regimented: God creates plants on the third day; he creates creatures of the air and water on the fifth day; he creates creatures of the land, including man, on the sixth day. In Genesis 2 the same story is retold, but now the narrative flows from one event to the next rather than stopping to specify which day on which each act of creation occurred. Listen to how this creation narrative begins:
- “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew: for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground.” (Genesis 2:4-5)
- The Hebrew word translated “day” in this verse is the same word used to refer to the days of creation in Genesis 1. It’s yowm. And like our English word “day,” it can refer to a specific 24-hour day, or to a more general period of time. I think from the context and style of this passage, “day” is more properly interpreted to mean a general period of time, not the specific day of the seven days of creation when God made these things, but the time of creation, generally speaking. So the style has shifted from the strictly timed reporting of a series of events, to a smoother narrative with more fine detail, yes, but less concern for specifying when everything happened.
- Compare that passage I just read, how it sets the stage for the story in a very easygoing, conversational way, to the blunt opening of Genesis 1: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Genesis 1 gets straight to business. Genesis 2 seems more interested in telling a story.
- Now, are these two creation accounts irreconcilable? No. The King James version appears to show disagreement in the order of creation, with Genesis 1 showing God creating man after creating the animals, and Genesis 2 showing God creating the animals after creating man. But McDowell and his experts point out that a better translation of Genesis 2:19 would be “God had formed” every beast of the field, fowl of the air, etc., and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And I can live with that. Because to me, the important point isn’t that the two stories contradict each other on the details. It’s that they are so noticeably different in their characterizations of God, and in their style.
- The contrasts between these two creation stories are a good introduction to the kind of distinctions that are the basis of the documentary hypothesis. It’s not just that they use different names for God, though that’s part of it. It’s not just that they feature different levels of detail, though that’s part of it. It’s not just that they portray God behaving in different ways, although that’s part of it, too. It’s all of those differences, considered together, suggesting very strongly that these are different stories, created independently, about the same subject.
- Now, is that necessarily the case? No. Is it absolutely impossible that these two stories were written by the same author at about the same time? No. It’s possible. But unless I have some other evidence that they were written by a single author, or some reason to want them to be — say, a strong preference for a traditional view of the text that recognizes only a single author — the separate authors theory strikes me as an easier fit. Not every shift from one source to another is as easy to see as the one from Genesis 1 to Genesis 2, but this one is easy to see. It’s quite striking, I think. And despite what McDowell, with his simplistic “God told Moses what to write” interpretation, would say, I find that recognizing and accepting the contributions of these separate sources deepens my appreciate for the Bible. It doesn’t reduce it or detract from it; it makes it a more fascinating, more beautiful text.
- McDowell spends the first half of the chapter rejecting other repetitions as evidence of multiple authors in much the same way he rejects the two Genesis creation accounts as such. Then he moves on to the contradictions.
- McDowell argues, of course, that there are no contradictions. Seemingly obvious contradictions such as the two names for the mountain where God handed down the Ten Commandments (Horeb and Sinai), are explained away as typical of idiosyncrasies of place-naming in the ancient Near East, or given other such explanations that I suppose are satisfying to people eager enough to believe them. But even if he’s able to harmonize every single apparent contradiction, McDowell misses the point. Here’s a quote that illustrates his attitude toward the contradictions and how they related to the documentary hypothesis:
- “The two alleged accounts of Aaron’s death at Mount Hor . . . and at Moserah . . . provide good evidence for the multiple document theory, or so a documentarian would say. But a careful scrutiny of the passages will show that in fact there is no contradiction and thus no ground for a multiple source conclusion.” (McDowell, p. 508)
- And then McDowell explains how “Mount Hor” refers to a location, while “Moseroth”, derived from “Moserah”, refers not to a location but to the event of Aaron’s death. But as I said, he’s missing the point. It’s not the contradictions that indicate multiple sources. It’s the existence of two accounts. Even if you can harmonize the accounts, you’ve still got two of them, distinguished not just by the events they depict but by how they depict them.
- There’s a final section of this chapter on Anachronisms, where McDowell objects to how documentarians use certain words that seem to come from later time periods than the traditional era of Moses in order to date the Pentateuch. McDowell explains away these anachronisms as either attempts by later scribes to update the manuscripts they were copying, or examples of words that may have been rarely used in the time of Moses, but are not necessarily of later origin. It’s the same sort of biased, tortured excuse-making that McDowell indulges in so frequently to preserve his presupposed conclusion.
- Before I wrap things up here, I want to mention that, even though the documentary hypothesis has been and still is the most broadly accepted explanation for the origin of the Pentateuch, there is a lot of debate and disagreement among Biblical scholars on details such as which verses should be attributed to which source, and when these various sources originated. The Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis, which has long been the version most people meant when they referred to the documentary hypothesis, has been abandoned by many modern scholars for other versions. But the key point is this: these newer theories, like Graf-Wellhausen and the documentary theories that preceded it, are based on the premise that the Pentateuch is the product of multiple documents, written independently of each other, that were later compiled. The trend is actually moving toward even more recent dates for these various sources than those supposed by Wellhausen. Despite their disagreements on dates and how to identify the various sources, one thing the overwhelming majority of modern Biblical scholars — McDowell’s “radical critics” — seem to agree on is this: whoever wrote the Pentateuch, it was not Moses. That is no longer a realistic explanation, and Christians interested in knowing where their Bible really came from ought to abandon it.
Next: Continue Part Three: The Case For and Against Christianity
Chapter 24: Incongruities
Chapter 25: Internal Diversity
Chapter 26: Conclusion to the Documentary Hypothesis