XFiles: The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament

(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.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 8 Comments »

8 Responses to “XFiles: The Historical Reliability of the Old Testament”

  1. Parker Says:

    DD I thoroughly enjoy the fact that you were such a hardcore Christian before this time. I love to see your old perspective and how you used to defend your views. I’m in an area with alot of fundamentalists and it helps me understand their bend on things, and also helps me to debate them!
    Happy Carl Sagan Day!

  2. Jer Says:

    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

    WTF? That is the most hard-hearted interpretation of the parable of Jonah that I think I’ve ever heard in my entire life. My understanding/interpretation of Jonah is that it’s a repudiation of a lot of what the previous portions of the Bible stood for. Through much of the OT God is the God of Israel – he’s exclusive to Israel and ignores the rest of the world. My reading of Jonah is that the writer is repudiating that stance – God is the God of the entire world, not just Israel. His Word needs to be spread to everyone, not hoarded by the Israelites alone. God loves all people and wants all of them to repent and be saved, not just the Jewish people alone. By my reading it’s a very proto-Christian, evangelist message, which is probably why the author of Matthew stuck a reference to the story into Jesus’s mouth. (But then I don’t claim that my reading is the only one – I just have never heard the idea that God saved Ninevah so that they could turn around and slaughter the Israelites later – that’s just cold).

    As for this being argument that Jesus thought that Noah and Jonah were literally true events that happened sometime in the past – this isn’t even an argument. First of all, once again it’s an argument to the infallibility of Matthew not to the infallibility of either Jesus or the Bible. Mark has the same argument between the Pharisees and Jesus (Mark 8:11-13), but never mentions Jonah or Noah in it – Matthew added it for some reason. (There are more problems with these two accounts – like the fact that they contradict each other completely, but that’s another issue). Second of all even if we just go ahead and assume that Matthew had access to the “correct” dialogue here, there’s STILL nothing there that says that the stories of Noah and Jonah should be taken as literal history rather than as references to the stories themselves as stories – parables that are useful as a teaching device. It’s not like Jesus himself never used a parable to make a point.

    And Jonah is pretty damn clearly a parable not a dictation of history. A believer trying to communicate to others what his vision of God was like and what the duty of a believer was. Just like Job. But now I’m wondering if the same folks that take Jonah as history take Job as history as well. And that just makes me sad – I’m not sure I want to know that people like that exist.

  3. Swimmy Says:

    Jer: I’m a former Christian too, and I can promise you, there are lots of people who believe that Job was a literal story rather than a parable. Lots and lots. Since the New Testament quotes it so often, I’d imagine even Geisler and Turek do, as that’s the logic they use here.

  4. mikespeir Says:

    The stories of Noah, Job, and Jonah certainly have the marks of fiction; but what, exactly, compels us to see them as a parables?

  5. Jer Says:

    mikespeir –

    I’m not going to claim that Noah is a parable, though I can see that I was sloppy with my response above and it looks like that’s what I’m saying here. I do think that the story of Noah is in the book for a theological message, but I guess I wouldn’t quite go as far as to say that it counts as a “parable”. (It more fits into the recurring theme of the whole book – God tells people to do something, they don’t do it, God kills lots of people and forces the remainder into exile, then God restores the exiled people to their place and gives them some new rules to live by so the cycle can start all over again. It’s pretty much a consistent theme of the OT – I’d even argue that The Fall from the garden is just another variation of this without the restoration bit. But I wouldn’t really call it a parable.)

    But my understanding of the word parable is that it’s a story that is specifically intended to highlight an ethical or moral question and give the “proper” teaching via the direction of the story. By that definition Jonah is clearly a parable – the story is set up with a dilemma and ends with a moral lesson (the moral being that God cares about everyone, even non-Jews, so you should too). God pretty much narrates the moral right at the end with that bit about the vine, making it almost a fable rather than a parable – since a parable usually seems to entail the reader having to think for themselves about what the teaching actually is. But God is suitably cryptic in his response to Jonah, so I’ll just call it a parable.


    You don’t know how depressed you’ve made me. That someone could look at the story of Job and all they could think is that it’s some kind of record or history almost makes me physically ill. I can understand thinking Genesis is real history – the folks who committed it to papyrus back in the day probably assumed it was real history themselves. But Job? It’s clearly as much a parable as the story of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Talents. Sigh. I think I need a drink. Some days I’m really glad to have been raised Catholic – at least you’re allowed to believe that the writers of the Bible could have employed allegory and poetry and metaphor to make their points under Catholic theology.

  6. mikespeir Says:

    I think your definition of “parable” is too liberal, Jer. By it almost any work of fiction could be considered a parable. Now, in some abstract sense perhaps they are; after all, they’re all trying to make a point. The real question is, was it written to be a parable? Did Jesus consider the stories of Noah and Jonah parabolic? (And not actual history, I mean. It’s possible, of course, to derive moral lessons from history.) How would we know? How would his words with regard to them be any different if he had considered them literal history? If there’s no way to tell, why do we enter the discussion assuming Jesus did not think of them as literal history?

  7. Bacopa Says:

    “Parable” and the mathematical term “parabola” are related words in Greek. A parabola is a conic section where the square on the line drawn at right angles from the axis to the curve is exactly equal to a rectangle formed by the line where the axis is cut by the perpendicular and a line defined by how you cut the cone. Likewise, a parable is a story where there is an exact correspondence between elements of the story and “real life” persons and events. Jonah could be a parable in this sense: Nineveh=foriegn idoloters, Jonah=smug Hebrews.

    The ellipse falls short of the perfect correspondence of the parabola by a fixed ratio. The ellipsis represents falling short in speech or thought. The hyperbola’s diameters exceed the fixed correspondence of the parabola. Hyperbole is overstatement in speech.

  8. David D.G. Says:

    Can I give this post a few more than five stars? Say, about 12 or so? I know I tend to be a “generous grader,” DD, but this really is one of your best posts yet!

    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….

    Okay, and I agree that it probably was best here to stay on topic, but I’d love for you to come back to this topic on its own at length sometime, if possible.

    ~David D.G.