Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Estranged Notions: How Richard Dawkins Helps Prove Biblical Inspiration

Today's post (well, it was today's when I started, probably yesterday's by the time this is done):

How Richard Dawkins Helps Prove Biblical Inspiration

The ‘bronze-age goat-herders / desert tribes / whatever’ dismissal of the Bible is probably the atheist meme that I find most annoying. It's true that the Old Testament portrays itself—and of course not merely the Protestant fundamentalists but also a substantial Catholic traditionalist contingent concurs in this—as containing a record of bronze-age events and individuals; but this position has long since ceased to be tenable.

As usual, though, Heschmeyer fails to make any kind of credible response.

The authors of the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—were not herders or peasants or fishermen, but educated men in civilized societies that lacked general literacy, and therefore at least in the lower fringes of the social elite. In the case of the OT, they were frequently compiling, extending or redacting earlier texts, but there is no evidence that any of these sources actually trace back in any meaningful way to before about 800-900BC, or that any accurate oral tradition from before this time is preserved.

Heschmeyer, though, responds by setting up a false dichotomy, by claiming that if the Bible is not inspired, it must be the work of some literary genius or conspiracy of same, which of course is not particularly likely. He fails to admit the possibility that it is the work of people with ordinary—for their class—literary skill working in their own traditions—not always in agreement with each other—with the resulting texts selected or discarded as suited the views of those who followed them.

One reason Heschmeyer does not admit this possibility is that he apparently believes in prophecy (in the sense of predicting future events, which is not actually the point of most biblical ‘prophetic’ literature). The problem of course is that most prophecy of this kind is either written after the events described, or is being substantially reinterpreted by those who are claiming its fulfillment. The book of Daniel is a classic example of the first; Heschmeyer apparently believes it was written in Babylonian times, when in fact it is virtually certain to originate in the 160s BC. Most of Heschmeyer's examples are, however, remarkably clear illustrations of the second:

The Book of Micah specifies that the Messiah will come from Bethlehem, and be of the tribe of Judah.

We have no reason to believe that Jesus—assuming his existence—came from Bethlehem, because the only sources that claim that he was are in conflict with each other; both writers clearly know of such Messianic prophecies and are obviously adapting their accounts to accord with prophecy.

The Books of Malachi and Haggai prophesied that the Second Temple of Jerusalem (destroyed in 70 A.D.) would be greater than the First Temple because the Lord Himself would enter it.

Neither Malachi nor Haggai say any such thing. Malachi, however, does explicitly predict the return of Elijah, and this was obviously taken entirely literally by a Jewish tradition in the Gospel period, since the authors of Mark and Matthew make explicit reference to it: “Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”.

And Psalm 22 depicted the Messiah as being executed by having his hands and feet pierced, a description eerily reminiscent of Crucifixion, despite having been written several centuries prior to its invention.

The truth here is stranger: the word “pierced” is added by translators who already know about the Crucifixion. The honest English translations admit the uncertainty of the Hebrew text; the NABRE is not one of these. (The LXX has a word that translates as “dug” or “gouged”, while the Hebrew has no explicit verb and just an allusion to lions.)

[long list elided] Unlike the explicit Messianic prophecies, these weren’t predictions that the Apostles “had” to show as fulfilled in order to present Jesus as the Christ. And yet the Gospels are filled with events like this one, each one chock full of meaning and Scriptural significance.

And the Gospel authors obviously knew about these Scriptural references, and incorporated them intentionally.

And at the end, Heschmeyer simply descends into pure fantasy:

Now perhaps this could be the work of a literary genius, who found a way to take the whole Jewish religious tradition, set it in the context of a single (real or fictional) human life, and combine the various prophecies and literary elements like so many instruments in an orchestra. But of course, the New Testament is no more the work of a single author than is the Old Testament, and we know from Roman sources like Pliny and Tatian that there were already Christians followers in the 50s and 60s A.D., before most of the New Testament (including the Gospels) was written. So the skeptic is left positing, not a single genius, but a cabal of geniuses, conspiring to craft a false Messianic narrative for reasons not immediately apparent. (This is precisely the direction skeptical Biblical scholarship has gone, creating ever-more complex theories about the textual origins of the Bible,)

We know from Pliny and other early sources that there were Christians in the 110s AD. The state of Christianity in the couple of decades after the time of Paul is almost completely unknown; but of course there were Christians around at the time the Gospels were written, because who else would have written them? There is no need to propose a cabal, because we already know that the Gospels are not independent; the author of Matthew had a written text of Mark in front of him, and the author of Luke had both a text of Mark and either a copy of Matthew or of a major additional written source of Matthew in front of him. (It's less clear what the author(s) of John had access to, since they wrote in their own words rather than copying; but there is good reason to believe that they at least knew the content of Mark and Luke.)

As for them being “geniuses”, it would be completely unsurprising for each of the Gospel authors to be one of the best writers within their own community: because who else would do it, or have their work preserved and copied if they did? And these early Christian communities were not, as is often claimed, drawn exclusively or primarily from the lower classes; analysis of names and circumstances of people mentioned in the authentic Pauline texts suggests that early church groups were centered on people of significant means. Nothing in the Gospels requires or displays any level of skill which would be out of place in such a context.