Evidence that Demands a Verdict
A Review of Part 1, ‘Introduction and Evidence for the Bible’
The title is famous, in Evangelical circles at least, though I never read the original edition when I was a young Evangelical Christian. I might have benefited from it then as I fitted precisely the target audience. It seems like good timing to be reading it now as I would not have written a review forty or so years ago. What intrigues me now, given the title, is that this is not a book for the unbeliever or the agnostic, it is a tool, or a treasury of tools, for the converted. Personally, I have crossed over since my early days as a Christian, if I had read this book forty years ago I could have found it useful in addressing my own anxiety about the claims of Christianity (not the claims of the Bible) and how they stood up to critical non-Christian, or liberal, challenge. I have now embodied the scepticism to which this book responds, while remaining a (liberal) Christian. This should put me in a good place to evaluate Evidence.
I was pleased to read this in the long introductory section of this 900 page book — ‘The presentation of evidence (apologetics) should never be used as a substitute for sharing the Word of God’ (p. xviii). I have become very disillusioned with ‘evidence’-based approaches and especially what I would describe as strong apologetic approaches, better to share the Word and our own stories of faith. The big difficulty with such a large approach to a large problem is that a book such as Evidence is on too great a scale, there is an inevitability in it seeking to do too much, or perhaps that there is an inherent risk of anachronism and well-intentioned misdirection. This is illustrated by the authors’ stating, while describing the work of Douglas Groothius, that there are ‘examples of how Jesus rationally defended the crucial claims of Christianity’ (p. xxxiii). In fact, during Jesus’ earthly life Christianity did not exist and it did not have any claims.
I also struggle with the idea of, or attachment to, ‘truth’ in the world of belief and religious claims, holding instead to the hope that the useful term ‘truth-claims’ helps to emphasise the difference between truth and claims, or belief. If I was writing my own book on evidence or apologetic (and the critic should always be aware of how it is easier to criticise and destroy than to create something of one’s own) then I would concentrate on the story of faith, either my own or the Gospel stories of Jesus. I believe that Christians, especially within the Evangelical tradition, can drift away from the Story (which is crucial and foundational) into something else — rigid and uncompromising — as Jesus might have characterised those whom he challenged. This is why I wrote my own ‘book’, serialised here, ‘Jumbled up in Jerusalem’.
Evidence aims to enable Christians to ‘articulate good reasons for why their beliefs are true’ (p, xxxiv). For me, this is apologetic going too far, though it can be argued that apologetics, by its nature, always has a tendency to go too far. We are not called to demonstrate that our beliefs are true, if that was even possible. The familiar reference to Peter’s letter (1 Peter 3.15) which resonates in this quote from Evidence only asks the believer to give an answer about their hope. It would be more helpful and accurate, in my view, if instead this statement was about articulating good reasons for why Christians believe what they do. What is needed here though, is not apologetics but discipleship, apologetic books should not be part of the faith formation, or buttressing, of Christians.
I struggle in similar vein with this statement — ‘the Christian faith is an objective faith’ (p. xxxvii). I’m not sure if this means object-based, or ‘fact’-based, as faith is not objective. Of course this shows how, despite sharing the same faith as the authors, I do not share their worldview.
The first chapter of Evidence is ‘Evidence for the Bible’. At the beginning of this section (one of four) the phrase ‘not accepting the Bible’ (p.3) appears. Only Evangelicals can use this phrase as complete in itself. How does one ‘accept’ the Bible, what does one accept about it and what does one not accept? This is fraught with difficulties when acceptance actually means not accepting certain things which are commonly accepted about it as part of mainstream critical study and observation, such as the fact, from my perspective, that none of the Biblical writers sought to harmonise anything that they wrote with any other writer. They wrote independently without the benefit of peer review, or agreement on how they would consistently ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’. It also seems to me, and many others, that it is demeaning to talk of those who do not accept the Bible. It’s time for a better choice of word and more acceptance of a range of views. The British Methodist Church has done this in the report ‘A Lamp to my Feet and a Light to my Path’, which enables us to avoid writing off those who have different views.
This problem, of excessive claims and unrealistic outlooks, i.e. not evidential, appears again when ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ are introduced. Writing about the Bible, the authors refer to ‘its claims to … infallibility or inerrancy’ (p.4). In fact, the Bible does not (and cannot) claim either of these things. The suggestion that it does must lead to some tainting of the evidence.
Introducing these concepts creates an evidential burden, though I would suggest that, without them there would be less of a drive for books such as Evidence and more acceptance of the failings, limitations and partisan (for good purposes) nature of the Bible. Likewise, on page 64, writing again about the Bible they claim that it ‘asserts[s] itself to be the inscripturation of the infallible inerrant Word.’ Again, it does not, and how much easier such studies would be for everyone if it did! The best that could be said, about some parts of the Bible, is that they have come direct from God as divine speech or proclamation (if one accepts this), leaving the vast bulk of the rest of the text as the work of man (creating numerous gender issues in its wake). No Evangelical would open up this clear scriptural evidential (i.e. solidly Biblical) statement of a fully Divine Canon within a fallible human canon.
The evidence surely does point against ideas of infallibility and inerrancy, but neither concept is evidentially driven or ever has been. Arguably, this shaky foundation is a crumbly basis for the evidence and evidence-handling that the authors offer. If there is evidence to be had in the Bible it is too limited to produce the authoritative positions that Evangelicals extract from it, because they are not engaged in an evidential process. I think that this is really important and raises a big question for me — if this is a book of evidence why is it not aimed at the ‘unbeliever’? My answer is because it does not and cannot work.
Continuing with the theme of infallibility/inerrancy, there is no surprise that this is one of the higher level and most difficult theological premises, as the evidence points so dramatically in the other direction. It is interesting that Evangelicals have such issues with the inconsistencies in the Bible (both apparent and actual) as these too are evidence. The Bible has no issue with inconsistencies, it doesn’t even notice them because they are exactly what one would expect from diverse religious writing with various subversive motives over hundreds of years, including especially the discontinuity between the Hebrew Scriptures and the ‘New Testament’ which is mediated through proof texts and other textual misuse from the Septuagint. The Bible does not harmonise itself, does not seek to and cannot do so, nor should its readers, it is a foreign anti-evidential approach.
Many years of reading and studying the Bible and writing about it, seeking to engage deeply and authentically with it, including creative rewriting (another kind of ‘translation’ and proclamation) leads me to observe that the Biblical writers would be mightily surprised that their readers are troubled by inconsistencies and contradictions. Of course they might be even more surprised that their writings have become Scripture.
In a book of this kind the reader needs to consider how the authors handle their evidence and claims. On page 18 they state that the university was a Christian invention, not mentioning the (earliest) ancient universities of Islamic countries. They might wish to assert that they were not universities as generally understood in the West but they should be mentioned, especially in a book of evidence.
Other than the above lengthy comments I am not commenting on the contents of Chapter 1 — The Uniqueness of the Bible as I do not take uniqueness as evidence, I see it as a characteristic which may be observed subjectively. Nor am I commenting on Chapter 2 — How we got the Bible.
In a book that is attached to the idea of evidence the authors do not engage fully with the issue of assessing the evidence that is in front of them, failing to categorise witness statements, hearsay, fabrication, propaganda and misdirection. In a section entitled ‘The NT Writers were Eyewitnesses’, there is no wrestling with the question of whether the writers really were eyewitnesses. This book is, in parts, not a presentation of evidence as we know it. The religious creativity of ‘undesigned coincidences’ (p. 71) is best left undiscussed as it is not applied rigorously or even-handedly, i.e. addressing the question of disharmony in narratives. This is discussed in Chapter 3 — Is the New Testament Historically Reliable.
I do have issues in this book with what may be misuse or unobjective readings of purportedly evidential texts from non-Biblical writers. The authors point out that ‘Josephus wrote that John’s baptism was not for the remission of sins’ (p.84). In fact the extract they quote from Antiquities does not say this.
Chapter 4 is Have the Old Testament Manuscripts been Transmitted Reliably? Here I, inevitably, question their observations about the Biblical text, on pp. 116/117 they suggest that a scribe introduced ‘Dan’ into the text. It does not seem to occur to them that Dan may be the original reading and that the text is actually later than the time of Joshua and the Judges.
Furthermore, I question the validity and relevance of supposed validation of the Hebrew Scriptures by Jesus and the Apostles as they relate to the text as they had it. They tell us nothing about its origins, development, authorship or editing or of precisely correct interpretations, they used texts creatively and sometimes subversively, as was indeed part of the Jewish tradition. In any discussion of evidence supporting the authenticity of the text the room is inhabited by a very large invisible elephant — what actually happened? This must be grappled with when talking about evidence for the Bible’s contents.
Thus, they are able to say that very little of the ‘historical’ writing in the Bible has been proved to be fiction, while ignoring the fictional qualities, or fictional storytelling, of the accounts of ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ (the names being a clue), Noah and the Flood, the Tower of Babel, Job, Jonah and Esther, to name a few. Much (unwarranted) assurance is taken from just a general outline of historical headlines (see p. 120). The authors really should be engaging with the phenomenon of ethno-religious community storytelling, especially origin stories, parables and philosophical explorations, rather than offering evidence.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (which could be considered a creed too far), with which I was previously unfamiliar, is placed (p. 122) on top of foundations that will not bear it. It must be emphasised that not only has God nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture but also not even suggested that there will be a collection of inerrant Scripture of any kind, it is a modern idea. Any idea which creates a framework or lens for viewing Scripture distracts from what Scripture really is, causing us not to see what it really is and to see what is not there. This is a problem rooted in the use of Hebrew Scriptures by the ‘New Testament’, for those who are honest and objective enough to acknowledge it.
I do not offer any comments on Chapter 5 — Gnostic Gospels and other Nonbiblical Texts and close with this observation in response to what seem to me absolutist, and unevidenced, claims — rather than a Conclusive Answer, Scripture should be seen as a Creative Puzzle.
An appreciation: I would like to thank Josh and Sean for sending a free copy of their book for me to review, perhaps not knowing what I might write, though Sean is familiar with my tweets.