Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Bible's Human Origins: Kings and Prophets

In this article I look at the stories of some of the kings and prophets in the Bible. Are these accounts historically accurate? And what does this mean for the claim of divine inspiration?



David and Solomon

Archaeologists agree that David was a real, historical person. The inscription "House of David" on the Tel Dan Stele pretty much confirms this. As for the size of his "kingdom" and the details of his military power however, the evidence tells a different story.

In 2001, Neil Silberman and Israel Finkelstein released a book titled "The Bible Unearthed", in which they uncover some of the latest discoveries from archaeology and show how they might relate to the Bible. There is also a documentary called "The Bible's Buried Secrets", which you can watch on NOVA. I highly recommend it.

Their findings cast some doubt on various aspects of the biblical accounts:
Although the book of Samuel, and initial parts of the books of Kings, portray Saul, David and Solomon ruling in succession over a powerful and cosmopolitan united kingdom of Israel and Judah, Finkelstein and Silberman regard modern archaeological evidence as showing that this may not be true. Archaeology instead shows that in the time of Solomon, the northern kingdom of Israel was quite small, too poor to be able to pay for a vast army, and with too little bureaucracy to be able to administer a kingdom, certainly not an empire; it only emerged later, around the beginning of the 9th century BCE, in the time of Omri. There is little to suggest that Jerusalem, called by the Bible David's capital, was "perhaps not more than a typical hill country village" during the time of David and of Solomon, and Judah remained little more than a sparsely populated rural region, until the 8th century BCE. Though the Tel Dan Stele seems to confirm that a "House of David" existed, and "clearly validates the biblical description of a figure named David becoming the founder of the dynasty of Judahite kings in Jerusalem", it says nothing else about him. 
There are remains of once grand cities at Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer, with archeological evidence showing that they suffered violent destruction. This destruction once was attributed to the 10th century BCE campaigns by Shishak, these cities therefore being ascribed to David and Solomon as proof of the Bible's account of them, but the destruction layers have since been redated to the late 9th century BCE campaign of Hazael, and the cities to the time of the Omride kings.
Source
What of David’s vast empire? It never existed. One would have expect to find such a vast empire to be described by the neighbouring kingdoms. Yet there is no description of any kind about any vast empire in Palestine during that time in the texts of the Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians. The extensive conquests narrated of David would have required enormous infrastucture and manpower. Yet extensive archaelogical studies concentrating on Judah - David’s base - have shown that the Judah of the tenth century BCE was sparsesly populated - only 5,000 inhabitants including Jerusalem - with no major urban centers. It consisted of Jerusalem which was “no more than a typical highland village”, Hebron and about twenty small villages.
Source
Josiah and the birth of the Bible
As recorded in the Book of Kings, Manasseh's grandson, Josiah, enacted a large religious reform soon after he became king; he ordered renovations to the Jerusalem Temple, during which the High Priest 'found' a scroll of the law, which insisted on monotheism with sacrifice centralised at a single temple—that in Jerusalem. Finkelstein and Silberman note that most scholars regard the core of Deuteronomy as being the "scroll of the law" in question, and regard it as having been written not long before it was 'found', rather than being an ancient missing scroll as characterised in the Bible; Deuteronomy is strikingly similar to early 7th century Assyrian vassal-treaties, in which are set out the rights and obligations of a vassal state (in this case Judah) to their sovereign (in this case, Yahweh).
Source
Inspiration

So here we have more evidence that much of the Old Testament was written in the centuries surrounding the time of the Babylonian exile. What this effectively means is that many of these books were not written by the authors traditionally ascribed to them. This does not in itself mean that the books were not divinely inspired, but once again it is a rather contrived and unusual hypothesis that claims God inspired people to write down a version of their "history" that was not only factually incorrect, but which also claimed to have been written much earlier. I don't know if anyone actually claims such a thing, but I also don't know how apologists still manage to reconstruct some kind of "divine inspiration" from the leftover pieces. They never really say how it all works at this point.

As a case in point, here is a snippet from biblical scholar Pete Enns:
One such theological model is called an incarnational model. Simply put, this is the idea that the Bible is no more a book dropped out of the sky than Jesus is some superman who flew down from heaven. Instead, just as Jesus was a human being, the Bible is a book that fully reflects its cultural contexts. Jesus is “God incarnate,” both divine and human. Likewise, the Bible is a book that speaks God’s word but thoroughly reflects the thoughts, ideas, and worldviews of the human authors.
Source
It almost sounds nice and peachy until you start to ask the question, "So what would it have looked like if the writers weren't inspired?". And the obvious answer (well, it's obvious to me anyway) is that it wouldn't have looked any different! The belief in divine inspiration appears to be one that is accepted on blind faith.

If you read through that entire article, you'll notice that any mention of how inspiration is actually supposed to work is extremely vague. It all sounds rather sketchy. By using the exact same hypothesis, one could just as easily conclude that the works of Shakespeare were divinely inspired! Or even this article! Perhaps this article speaks God's word but thoroughly reflects my own thoughts, ideas, and worldview. Do you see how much sense that doesn't make?

Until these apologists come up with some way of distinguishing between material that is inspired and material that is not inspired, their claim of inspiration is entirely redundant. But I doubt we'll see anything of that sort from apologists, because that would make the belief in divine inspiration falsifiable.

Prophecy

While we're on the topic of inspiration and falsifiability, it seems to me that fulfilled prophecy would be one such way that we might be able to demonstrate at least that the biblical writers had access to material from some external, non-human source. It would falsify the "human origins" hypothesis.

Fulfilled prophecy would not conclusively prove divine inspiration, because there are potentially other explanations that are equally as likely. If we accept the existence of gods, that also obliges us to accept the existence of all supernatural agents, which includes angels, demons, witches, goblins, spirits, and so on. Almost any of these could "explain" a genuine fulfilled prophecy just as well as the god hypothesis. If we're allowed to posit magical beings as an explanation for something then we're only limited by our imagination.

Be that as it may, a genuine fulfilled prophecy would at least be consistent with divine inspiration, and at the same time it would be inconsistent with naturalism (although one can always claim it is a mere coincidence). It would be a great place to start, if we are to get anywhere with the divine inspiration claim.

Of course, even if a prophecy was genuinely fulfilled, it wouldn't get us any further than claiming that the prophecy itself was inspired. Yes that would be amazing, but otherwise useless. If we're feeling lenient we could perhaps extrapolate further and say that that particular author was inspired in everything they wrote, but anything beyond that would definitely be a stretch. The Bible was not written as a single book, so each text must build its own case.

So are there any genuine fulfilled prophecies in the Bible? Apologists would obviously be quick to say "Yes!". And I would obviously be quick to doubt them.

How should we determine that a prophecy was firstly actually a prophecy, and secondly that it was actually fulfilled?

I've written an article on how apologists normally do it, and why their methods are severely flawed.

Ezekiel

I have also previously written in some detail about Ezekiel's prophecies against Tyre and Egypt, and about the utter failure that both of those prophecies were. This presents a difficulty. Apologists like to claim that Ezekiel correctly predicted the return of the Jews to Israel in 1948, but if the same author got some predictions right and some wrong, what are we supposed to do with that information? Does divine inspiration only have a 33% success rate? Is it allowed to make mistakes?

Or perhaps we should follow the accommodationist formula and claim that the failed prophecies merely incorporated the views of the author. See how that argument backfires?

Personally I think that, given the solid case for the prophecy failures, we should look more critically at the prophecy (or prophecies) that we think were fulfilled. My earlier article on the flawed methods of prophecy (see link above) would serve as a useful guide for this. As an example, apologists generally commit several of the listed errors when dealing with the prophecy in Ezekiel 37. In essence, they see what they want to see, both when interpreting the Bible, and when interpreting world events. Humans see patterns everywhere, even in random data. What is less clear is whether the patterns we "see" are real or imagined. The easiest person to fool is ourselves, so it always pays to be more critical, and even skeptical, rather than credulous.

Daniel

The book of Daniel is a hot favourite for Christadelphians, especially in public lectures. But once again it seems that their bold claims are out of touch with what scholars now know about the Bible.
Traditionally ascribed to Daniel himself, modern scholarly consensus considers the book pseudonymous, the stories of the first half legendary in origin, and the visions of the second the product of anonymous authors in the Maccabean period (2nd century BCE).
Source
So that means the "prophecies" in Daniel were not really prophecies at all!

But wait! Why do scholars hold this view?
The prophet Daniel supposedly predicted that four great empires were to rise and fall in succession between his day and the end of the world: Babylonia, Media, Persia, and Greece. Alexander the Great's Greek Empire was to break up into four smaller empires, the most important being the Seleucid Empire in Syria to the north, and the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt to the south. After seven Greek kings ruled in succession, the eighth was to snatch the throne from three candidates who had more right to it than he did. This king, Antiochus Epiphanes, provoked the Maccabean War. The Book of Daniel predicted that God would miraculously destroy Antiochus Epiphanes, resurrect the righteous dead, and set up an everlasting, worldwide Israelite Empire three and a half years after the desecration of the Temple; in other words, the Messianic Empire should have begun in June of 163 BC. Since these predictions largely came true until the middle of the war and failed thereafter, we know that the author lived in Seleucid times, not Babylonian times.
Source
It is common for apologists to object to this, and claim that these scholars simply have a bias against supernaturalism, or something along those lines. But is that really the case?
Whenever critical scholars point out that Daniel's purported predictions were written after the fact, Christian believers routinely retort that they are merely showing a philosophical prejudice against the possibility of supernatural prophecy. Actually, it is not a question of philosophical presuppositions, but a question of hard evidence and inference to the best explanation. Daniel's "predictions" of events up to the desecration of the Temple in 167 BC and the beginning of the Maccabean revolt substantially came true--yet its predictions of a new invasion of Egypt by Antiochus and the Resurrection of the Dead soon thereafter totally failed. The author correctly "predicted" the rise of Alexander the Great, and the history of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kings, but he fared far worse in his predictions that God would supernaturally slay Antiochus Epiphanes, raise the dead, and inaugurate the messianic age in 163 BC. The most likely explanation of this strange pattern is that these prophecies were first composed just before the time they started to fail by an author who had no genuine talent for predicting the future.
Source
Failed Prophecy and Divine Inspiration

Earlier I mentioned that prophecy provides a potential way to verify the divine inspiration hypothesis. That is, prophecy could actually go some way towards confirming it as true, or at least disconfirming the "human origins" hypothesis while holding up divine inspiration as consistent with the evidence.

But falsifiability is a two-edged sword. While a genuine fulfilled prophecy could potentially act as confirmation of divine inspiration, a failed prophecy actually rules it out.

Between Ezekiel and Daniel, I've listed several failed prophecies in the above sections (and related articles).

Once again, these prophecy failures are easily explained, and even entirely expected, under the "human origins" hypothesis. But as I have already mentioned, they falsify the divine inspiration hypothesis. If we wish to rescue the divine inspiration hypothesis, we must drop all prophecy claims and make it once again an unfalsifiable claim that one must accept on (blind) faith. It is unfortunately still entirely redundant.

Conclusion

So to recap, the biblical accounts of a large, successful united empire under King David and King Solomon are not supported by archaeological evidence, nor by any textual evidence external to the Bible. We know King David existed, but that's about all we can say in support of the biblical text. The evidence from the 10th century BCE suggests that the land of Judah was sparsely populated, and the northern kingdom did not emerge until the 9th century BCE, in the time of Omri (for whom we have much more archaeological evidence). These facts directly contradict the biblical text.

So what does this all mean for divine inspiration? Did God inspire people to write down a history of their people that was factually incorrect? Or maybe some yet-to-be-discovered evidence will overturn the current views and prove the Bible true. If so, wouldn't it still be more intellectually honest to at least remain agnostic until such evidence turns up? Beliefs should follow the evidence, not the other way round.

Besides, even if the Bible was historically accurate in all natural events, this still would not necessarily mean it was divinely inspired. We have plenty of other historical records that were not inspired, and yet match archaeological evidence. The divine inspiration hypothesis requires something more. Something that would falsify the "human origins" hypothesis.

Until then, the "human origins" hypothesis remains. It satisfies all of the known evidence, and requires fewer assumptions than the divine inspiration hypothesis. Until evidence arises that disconfirms the "human origins" hypothesis, it is more reasonable to conclude that the Bible was not divinely inspired.

Next Article: Gospels - Part 1

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