XFiles: The Historical Reliability of the Old TestamentNovember 7, 2009 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)
Christian apologists Dr. Norm Geisler and Dr. Frank Turek are putting the finishing touches on their argument that it takes more faith not to believe the Gospel than to be an evangelical, Trinitarian Christian. Let’s see what objective, verifiable and irrefutable evidence they have to share with us today.
In addition to declaring that the Old Testament is divinely authoritative, imperishable, infallible, and inerrant, Jesus affirmed two of the most historically disputed stories in the Old Testament: Noah (Matt. 24:37-28) and Jonah (Matt. 12:40). Jesus spoke of those stories as being historically true.
Sometimes these posts almost write themselves, don’t they?
As has been their strategy throughout much of the book, Geisler and Turek use the assumption that a miracle-working God exists, in order to “prove” that it’s possible for the supernatural events of the Bible to have occurred.
And why shouldn’t they be true? The miracles associated with Noah and Jonah are child’s play for the all-powerful God who created the universe. With our limited intelligence, we build great ships and keep people alive for months underwater. Why couldn’t God do the same?
When examining the evidence for evolution, Geisler and Turek demanded that scientists provide a detailed account of pretty much every cause-and-effect chain of events all the way back to the Big Bang (and before!) as being the minimum evidence that would be needed to avoid jumping to the superstitious conclusion that God did it all. For Bible stories, however, it’s sufficient to shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, why not?” This is called “needing more FAITH to be an ATHEIST.”
Let me mention in passing that if it is indeed “child’s play” for God to destroy almost all life on the entire planet, and then completely repopulate it with the tremendous number and variety of organisms that we see today, all within recorded human history, then He ought to find it far, far easier to show up in real life to participate in the kind of in-person, tangible, objectively-real relationship that the Gospel tells us He wanted badly enough to die for (literally!). And conversely, if we do not see God demonstrating any willingness and ability to show up in real life to do what the Bible says He wants to do, then why should we believe the more incredible and unrealistic legends it ascribes to Him?
There are, of course, numerous problems and inconsistencies in the Noah’s Ark story, as has been well-documented elsewhere. If, as Geisler and Turek assert, Jesus naively accepted this legend as historical fact, that’s a point that should have been considered when they were assessing the evidence for and against his alleged deity, and not saved until now. Of course, they could have claimed that this was just another instance of Jesus’ human nature interfering with his alleged divine omniscience, as it did when he admitted not knowing when the Second Coming was supposed to happen, eh? Maybe he thought the Flood story was true, but he also had a human nature, and human nature is fallible! Right?
I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time rehashing the evidence against the historicity of the Flood. I’ll just mention the two or three things that convinced me, when I was a Christian creationist, that maybe it was best not to be to literal about the early chapters in Genesis. The ice layers in the polar ice cap were one point I couldn’t really explain away without resorting to some kind of divine tampering intended to deliberately deceive those who were looking for the facts. Had there been a truly global flood, all that water covering the poles would have left a substantial mark on the ice caps!
The other kind of evidence was the abundance of geological strata that could not have been formed by a consecutive series of depositions during a single, global inundation. You just don’t have a lot of wind-swept sand dunes forming at the bottom of the ocean, nor do you have land animals walking across mud flats that were subsequently sun-baked and hardened in the middle of a stack of sediments above and below that were all laid down by the same flood. The biggest thing that turned me away from creationism, however, was the dishonesty of the creationists. I like to check my facts and go back to original sources, and time and again I found that creationists were taking quotes out of context, suppressing important data, and outright lying.
But that’s a whole field in and of itself, and I want to keep this blog-lengthed, so let’s move on and have a look at the story of Jonah.
At first glance, it might seem like Geisler and Turek were on safe ground here. After all, if one man were swallowed by a “great fish” thousands of years ago, there wouldn’t be a whole lot of physical evidence we could review to determine whether or not the incident really happened. But what we can do is take a look at the story itself in a broader context, and see if it’s really reasonable and self-consistent. Even assuming that an almighty God could miraculously cause a person to survive being swallowed by a fish, is that the most reasonable and effective approach a wise God would choose?
The book of Jonah is the story of how God wanted to send someone to Nineveh to tell them to stop sinning, so He called Jonah. Jonah, however, did not want to go, and took the nearest ship heading the opposite direction, whereupon God sent a great storm that threatened to sink the ship. Jonah took the blame, and the sailors pitched him in the drink, and the storm abruptly stopped. Whoa! Then a big fish came and swallowed Jonah, took him to the beach closest to Nineveh, and Jonah reluctantly went into the city and proclaimed God’s impending judgment. The Assyrians repented, God spared them, and Jonah complained that this was exactly what he was afraid of, because he’d have been happier seeing Assyria wiped out. And then there’s this tiny epilogue where God makes a tree, and then kills it, and Jonah misses the shade, and God says, “You care about trees, I care about all the people, and besides, they have a lot of cows.”
They just don’t write stories like that these days.
Now, certain stories have certain conventions—unwritten rules that can be completely arbitrary and even senseless, but the story teller can never break them. Superheroes can’t reveal their secret identities. Wizards never use their magic wands to simply poof piles of money. The bad guy never just shoots the hero in the back when he has the chance. And God never shows up to speak directly to the people He wants to talk to.
We see that in the story of Jonah. God has something He wants to say to the capital of Assyria. But He can’t just, you know, go there and say it, because that would break The Rules. He has to pick someone to go in His place. Naturally, He’d pick someone who could be trusted to carry out the mission, right? Someone who understood the importance, or who was at least willing to trust God’s judgment in the matter, eh? Whoops, no, out of all the potential prophets He could have chosen, He picked the guy that didn’t even want to go. Does this make any sense at all so far?
As history, it seems a bit strange, but it does make a certain kind of sense if you look at it from a literary perspective. If we take Jonah’s tale as a story written to accomplish a specific narrative intention, we can see that the characters in the story, and the twists in the plot, all work to create a theme expressing the idea that God’s dealings with Israel (personified by Jonah) and the surrounding nations (exemplified by Nineveh) were complex, and not necessarily to Israel’s liking. As history, it seems convoluted and unnatural, but as a fable it works well, especially if the target audience were Jewish exiles in Babylon and elsewhere.
At the Christian college I graduated from, the faculty explained that Jonah tells us how God has a purpose for everything. Had He destroyed Nineveh in Jonah’s day, they wouldn’t have been around a few years later to come in and slaughter the Israelites as punishment for Jewish polytheism and idolatry. And wouldn’t that have been a shame. What they failed to explain, of course, is why God didn’t just show up in the first place so that His chosen people could see the difference between a real God and the false ones. Then they wouldn’t fall into idolatry, and God wouldn’t need to keep a bunch of murderers and rapists around to make His beloved children suffer and die violent deaths.
But hey, that would break The Rules, right? God’s not allowed to show up in real life, except in a very few isolated (and unverifiable!) cases, and even then most people can only hear about it second- or third-hand. God can’t just show up in real life and tell people what He wants to communicate to them because the conventions of religious narrative insist that prophetic/miraculous authority has to be given to real people, who will then serve as God’s visible representative. And God will go to extreme and even absurd lengths, like transporting someone in the belly of a fish for three days, in order to avoid violating those narrative conventions.
Like most Bible stories, God’s actions in the book of Jonah are dictated not by what would be the most reasonable and effective way for a genuine God to accomplish His goals, but by the needs and desires of the person telling the story. Stories about God have to take place in a world where we all can see first-hand that God does not show up in real life. This absence must therefore be incorporated into the Bible stories, in the form of an unwritten Rule that forces God to go through any number of contortions rather than following the simple and direct path that would achieve His goals at the cost of exposing His existence to ordinary people.
Believers don’t understand why God fails to show up in person in the real world, but they know it’s a fact of life, and their stories necessarily reflect that awareness, and befuddlement. They read tales like Jonah, and it doesn’t occur to them that a real God would act any other way, because they know that in the real world you don’t see God preaching to the Assyrians, you see people claiming to have been sent by God. The bizarre convolutions in the story merely reflect the kind of twists and turns you have to go through to keep believing in divine intervention when reality is so visibly God-free.
Jesus seems to have gone through those same kinds of convolutions, as Geisler and Turek proudly agree. But that’s not a point in Jesus’ favor. Jonah’s story is an obvious fiction, whose characters and plot complications exist primarily to solve problems that would not exist if there were a real God Who simply showed up and interacted with us the way the Gospel claims He wants to do. That true not just for the story of Jonah, but for the whole Old Testament, and all of human history. We live in a reality characterized by the absence of the Biblical God, and all the interesting quirks of the Bible story are merely attempts to rationalize the believer’s faith with that unrelenting fact.