The Old Testament and Christian apologetics, part 1: some types of apologists

This post has its roots in a comment thread on Yvain’s blog, the OP of which I discussed here. But it’s not the post itself that prompted this blog post, but rather when I said:

But it seems we have very different formative experiences in this area. My experiences reading replies and counter-replies with things like the evolution-creationism debate or Christian apologetics more generally is that it does eventually become clear who’s right and who’s full of shit.

My experiences are similar to celandine13′s in this way. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s “not that hard,” as she does, but “doable eventually with time,” yeah.

And Yvain replied that the evolution/creation debate is a special case, and furthermore:

I’m surprised you’ve found Christian apologetics in general to be an easy issue. I’ve been constantly impressed with, and every time I look at them I end up thinking their defenses of certain Biblical points are much stronger than the atheist attacks upon them (this could be because atheists massively overattack the Bible; the Bible being mostly historically accurate, or not having that many contradictions, is perfectly consistent with religion being wrong in general). The camel issue comes to mind as the last time I had this feeling, although apparently that’s not tektonics at all and I might be confusing my apologetics sites.

The first thing to point out about this is that asking, “Is the Bible historically reliable?” is a bit like asking, “What was life like during the Middle Ages?” The period covered by the Bible is just over 4000 years if you go by Ussher, more if you allow for gaps in the genealogies, which is what some inerrantists do when they realize there’s no way in hell to reconcile Ussher with modern science not to mention archaeology.

But in particular, there are really stark differences between the situation with the Old Testament and the situation with the New Testament. And the best way I know to highlight this is to talk about some different types of Christian apologists I encountered when I started digging in to the subject.

First are the grossly incompetent, of whom Josh McDowell is the prime example. McDowell is most famous for his book Evidence That Demands A Verdict, or rather I should say “his” “book,” because it’s essentially just a series of quotes from various sources strung together (rather than a book in the traditional sense), and most of the work behind its various editions seems to have been done by other people.

This is especially clear in the first edition (which I own two copies of), which says “compiled by Josh McDowell” rather than simply “by Josh McDowell.” The first edition also lists the names of the evangelical undergrads who did the actual research (insofar as collecting quotes is research) fairly prominently. Later editions, however, are less clear about the book’s origins.

Given this, it’s not surprising that, when you read McDowell, it quickly becomes obvious that he doesn’t have the faintest clue what he’s talking about. The quotes that make up Evidence That Demands a Verdict are sort-of organized but don’t really add up to much of a coherent argument. And ETDAV isn’t even McDowell’s worst.

To give you an idea of just how incompetent McDowell can get, his book The Resurrection Factor declares early on that it’s just obvious the New Testament is historically reliable, and then spends the rest of the book arguing that if you assume the NT is 100% historically reliable, then Jesus must have rose from the dead. I wish I were making that up, but not only does that book exist, but many evangelicals apparently see no problem with that style of argument (which is why I wrote this post).

A second type of apologist is the ones who seem to have some idea of what they’re talking about, but are tragically clueless about one important issue: what their arguments sound like to people who aren’t already conservative Christians. The epitome of this category is Normal Geisler, whose CV includes a PhD in philosophy, being the first president of the Evangelical Philosophical Society, and involvement in founding and leading two evangelical seminaries.

In spite of Geisler’s legitimate status within evangelical academia, he’s a bit hard to take seriously. He does things like try to defend Biblical inerrancy by brandishing a list of rules for evaluating alleged errors in the Bible which non-evangelicals can tell is transparently designed to make it impossible for any error, no matter how blatant, to count as a genuine error. (I discuss this in chapter two of my first book.)

The third group is apologists who are actually capable of figuring out to some extent how their arguments will sound to outsiders, and adjust those arguments accordingly. Examples of this group are Gary Habermas, Habermas’ apprentice Mike Licona, and most especially William Lane Craig.

Craig’s views on Biblical inerrancy, as far as I can tell, are near-identical to Geisler’s (even if he is more forgiving of Licona’s teensy deviations from orthodoxy). But good luck getting Craig to defend inerrancy, or the historical reliability of the gospels, or anything involving the Old Testament, in any kind of conversation with non-Christians. Craig is clued in enough to realize all that’s a tough sell so he stays the hell away from those topics.

Similarly, Craig goes to great lengths to position himself as having the full support of mainstream science and scholarship. He doesn’t, but he knows how to use half truths and things that are at least close to being possibly sorta true to mostly avoid looking like… well, a McDowell. He can occasionally be caught repeating long-debunked creationist canards, but advises his followers to avoid discussing evolution with non-believers.

The relevance of this long digression to the Old Testment/New Testament distinction is that it didn’t take me long to notice that the smarter apologists, namely Craig, Habermas, and Licona, weren’t touching the historical reliability of the Old Testament with a 10-foot pole. If you know even a little about mainstream Biblical scholarship, it’s easy to understand why they avoid doing that.

With the New Testament, mainstream Biblical scholars generally don’t think that the gospels are eyewitness accounts, but they at least can agree they were written on the order of decades after Jesus’ death. That means that Craig can go to an audience that doesn’t know much about such things and claim the stuff in the gospels about Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t possibly be legendary without sounding completely stupid (though he’s definitely wrong for reasons I discuss in my books–hmmm, looks like today is self-promotion day).

With most of the Old Testament, on the other hand, the mainstream view is that they weren’t written until centuries after the events they describe would have happened (there are exceptions, like maybe the later parts of Kings). That means an apologist is fighting a hell of an uphill battle if he wants to argue they’re historically reliable (actually, insofar as McDowell and Geisler attempt this it comes off as more of a desperate rear guard action).

So for a long time after I started reading Christian apologetics, I mostly ignored issues like the camel issue because it seemed clear that overall (ignoring small details like that), it was not only clear the apologists didn’t have a case re the Old Testament, it seemed like the more clued-in apologists knew they didn’t have a case. I remember reading this article on Internet Infidels, and thinking, “pity the poor Jewish apologists, having to defend the Old Testament because they don’t have the New Testament to focus on.”

More recently, though, I’ve gone back and read up on Old Testament scholarship. I’ll talk about that in future posts.

  • eric


    this could be because atheists massively overattack the Bible; the Bible being mostly historically accurate, or not having that many contradictions, is perfectly consistent with religion being wrong in general
    This is supposed to be a defense of apologetics? I.e., giving a reason why dismissing it shouldn’t be easy? If so, its not a very good one. I don’t care if Kings and Chronicles get the order of some BC leaders in the region correctly. I care whether someone rose from the dead, whether Genesis is reliable in terms of explaining the human condition, and so on. Look, let’s say the Illiad documents some real events that occurred in a real war. Does that mean we should believe three goddesses asked Paris to judge them in a beauty contest? No. Same goes for the bible. Its a mix of both historical and mythic/fabulous claims. The correctness of this historical claims does not give anyone a good reason to believe the mythic ones – to people already biased in favor of that religion, that might seem reasonable. But to those outside – like all of us are to the Greek pantheon – this line of argument (believe the fablulous parts because the history contains true facts) just sounds ridiculous.

  • eric

    ack, sorry about the formatting. Total html fail.

  • MNb

    “Is the Bible historically reliable?”
    In case Yvain reads this: this is a silly question. The Bible is neither more nor less reliable than the vast majority of Ancient books. What’s more, it wasn’t meant to be historically reliable. Liberal christians are absolutely right here. The conquest of Israel and genocide stories for instance were meant as a justification of the Jewish kingdom(s) and more overed served to scare the big bad neighbours Egypt and Babylon.
    Nah, what I rather like to ask is this – and I couldn’t find the answer on – not that I searched very hard.
    How do you liberal christians read Lev. 15, especially the second part about menstruation? How do you combine this with Matth. 5:17 plus what follows? You see, where I live quite a few marroon people, only converted 100-150 years ago to either protestantism or katholicism live according these rules. Menstruating women have to sleep on the ground.
    So if you liberal christians think this silly, like we atheists do, when will you send someone to tell them? Here at Moengo we have several American bigots around, you know. And these marroons know I’m an atheist, so they won’t listen to me.
    Or don’t you feel responsible? Makes your belief system look quite lame.

    @Eric: “But to those outside”
    it is even unscientific.

    We know the versions of the NT which made it to the canon depend on each other. Where we can have a look at the original versions – like Marcus – which may have some independence all kind of weird things happen. Marcus doesn’t even mention the Resurrection:

    Relevant quote translated: “this means that the author of the oldest of the four Gospels did not believe in the Resurrection of Jesus; this has to be a later development.”

    Fortunately it also works the other way round. Here a popular atheist argument (never used by CH as far as I know) gets thoroughly debunked:

    • carmel Ka

      There are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Mark. But it’s
      not correct to say the author didn’t believe in the resurrection. The
      tomb is empty but for “a young man” who says “He has risen; he is not

  • C.J. O’Brien

    There are no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in Mark. But it’s not correct to say the author didn’t believe in the resurrection. The tomb is empty but for “a young man” who says “He has risen; he is not here.”

    • Greg G.

      I think Mark was writing a midrash about the destruction of Jerusalem, rather than a biography of Jesus. Mark made it as obvious that the demonaic named Legion as John Goodman’s eyepatch in O Brother! Where Art Thou? that the character was the cyclops from The Odyssey. Matthew left that part out and Luke omitted the entire story.

      Mark has Jesus curse a fig tree (Mk 11:12) and then throw his Temple tantrum (Mk 11:15). The next day, they notice the tree was withered (Mk 11:20). Written soon after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the rest of the syllogism would have been clear.

      The Parable of the Evil Tenants begins the next chapter (Mk 12) and drives the point home about the benefits going to others.

      Paul tells us that members of the Twelve were based in Jerusalem. The women being afraid to tell would explain why the disciples didn’t go to Galilee to safety like they were supposed to in Mark’s story. Mark was trying to give Mr. Deity some plausible deniability for not warning his main guys out of Jerusalem in time.

  • Anat

    I remember reading this article on Internet Infidels, and thinking, “pity the poor Jewish apologists, having to defend the Old Testament because they don’t have the New Testament to focus on.”

    There’s a story Israel Finkelstein tells of speaking to one of the prominent members of the Israeli religious right-wing about how the Biblical narrative about Abraham in Hebron was ahistorical, and that the structures at the site of Machpela are Herodian. Finkelstein was completely surprised that this revelation made no impression on his conversation partner. His response was that his faith did not rely on the Bible being an accurate history. The fact that Jews had been worshiping in Hebron since Roman times is enough for him, even if the people and events those Jews were commemorating were not as they believed.

    The strongest defense Jewish apologists have is that in Orthodox Judaism the ‘simple’ (more-or-less literal) reading of the Hebrew Bible is the least important one, it is a reading intended for children and simpletons. The Bible is to be read metaphorically, allegorically and mystically. It is completely unimportant if Moses really climbed a mountain to bring down Yahweh’s laws, what is important is that Jews at some point accepted that those were the laws their god demanded from them. It is unimportant if there ever was a man named Moses who was anything like the biblical character, what matters is that this character is inspirational to them.

    • Chris Hallquist

      This is a good point. I’ve known for a long time that Jews typically care more about practice, less about doctrine, though I guess I’ve gotten in the mental habit of associating that with more liberal Jews.

      • Chris Hallquist

        (Though I should add that there are exceptions. One does occasionally encounter Orthodox Jews who are young-earth creationists.)

        • Anat

          Yes, has to do with there being entire ‘education’ systems, both in the US and in Israel, that barely teach secular content, whether science, history or the language of the broader society in which the respective community resides.

    • Steven Carr

      ‘The Bible is to be read metaphorically, allegorically and mystically. ‘

      In other words, you are not allowed to work on the Sabbath, eat non-kosher food etc etc.

      Why are metaphorical, allegorical and mystical readings of the Bible not even more full of crap than literal readings?

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