reviewing two reviews of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (3)

reviewing two reviews of “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” (3) February 20, 2015

patterns of evidenceThe recently released documentary “Patterns of Evidence: Exodus” attempts to redirect the modern scholarly discussion of the historicity of the exodus by revealing evidence that mainstream scholars “don’t want the world to see–because it could cause them to shift their long-held positions.”

The stated justification for the film, however, is not so much scholarly as it is the need to stem the tide of “attacks” on the Bible in modern culture, which have led directly to moral decline and young people leaving the church.

Whatever arguments there may or may not be for the historicity of the exodus, culture-war rhetoric seems armed and loaded here, yet it is the very thing evangelicals need to avoid, not encourage. It simply falls on deaf ears.

That is my main concern with this documentary–that it would encourage further retrenchment, drawing of lines, and “here I stand” moments.

Two popular online reviews of the documentary do just that: one by Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition and the other by Gregory Alan Thornbury at Christianity Today.

I summarize Carter’s review as follows:

I know the Bible is true–meaning, I know the Bible is historically accurate. Jesus himself settles this question. Most biblical scholars, however, are “Biblical Minimalists,” i.e., they dismiss most or all of the Bible as presenting historical truth, and they rely too much on the inexact science of archaeology.

This inexact science, however, has put forward a new theory that supports the historicity of the exodus–a New Chronology of Egyptian history that is more compatible with the Bible’s presentation of history than mainstream academic theories. I can’t be sure if this theory is correct, but archaeology is due for a paradigm shift anyway, and it wouldn’t surprise me is this is it. 

But, bottom line, no matter how long it takes, the Bible’s historical veracity will be proven, since the Bible is God’s Word.

Thornbury’s review:

The exodus happened because it has to have happened. Without it, Judaism would be based on a myth, and New Testament writers who refer to it would be wrong, including Jesus, who connects his crucifixion to Passover. Simply put, if there is not exodus, there is no Christianity.

Furthermore, without the exodus there is no basis for western law, especially the notion of the limits of government, and the entire notion of liberty. Martin Luther King understood this, as he rooted his civil rights movement in the reality of the exodus.  

Yes, the exodus had to have happened, or we have none of these things. Those who claim that the exodus didn’t happen are glib. “Patterns of Evidence” may be just what we need to “restore factory settings” for the Evangelical tradition–to reinvigorate serious conversation about the [absolutely non-negotiable historical] basis for faith.

Thornbury’s line of reasoning is common among evangelicals: “It needs to be true, so it is.”

I see the same line of reasoning used concerning evolution: “If Adam is not the first man, then the gospel is false. Since the gospel can’t be false, that means Adam has to have been the first man and evolution is false.”

It is never a good idea to argue that something is true because one feels it has to be true. If we all argued as Thornbury does, than everything would be true.

Whatever one thinks of Thornbury’s great line of falling dominoes if the exodus didn’t happen (they are questionable), the simple fact that Thornbury values Judaism, Christianity, the limits of govermanet, and liberty does not mean the exodus happened. It means Thornbury needs for it to have happened.

I venture to guess that Thornbury would not tolerate this type of argument from someone who does not share his ideology–say, atheists or ISIS.

I would have no objection for Thornbury or others to say, “I think the exodus is important and so I very much want it to have happened.” But Thornbury’s review plays on theological fears: “Look what is at stake, people, if the exodus didn’t happen: everything we hold dear. You don’t want your existence to be built on a lie, do you? So hold on with all your might.”

The exodus may or may not have happened. Wanting or needing it to have happened is irrelevant for addressing that issue.

Carter makes a number of questionable assumptions, but the main one should be familiar to anyone with experience within the Evangelical orbit: for the Bible to be “true”requires that it be historically “true,” which means historically accurate.

What needs to be examined here, and in fact has been examined–again and again–is whether these simple equations can be made, and what “truth” means when the topic turns to the thorny issue of historiography, especially ancient Near Eastern historiography.

Perpetuating these sorts of facile associations is the very problem Evangelicalism needs to overcome, not the first line of defense and hill to die on. Appealing to “truth” like this may seem faithful and courageous, but it is under-informed and simply doesn’t help.


Neither point I am making here concerning these two reviews, or the film itself, has anything to do with answering one way or the other the question “What happened?” Neither does it imply that history should be a non-issue for Christians.

My point here is that these reviews perpetuate unhelpful yet common Evangelical lines of defense that are rhetorical rather than substantive and will do little more than further encourage a “hunker down” mentality of protecting the fort rather than exploring the nature of biblical truth–which might result in needing to “restore factory settings” of Evangelicalism in quite a different way than Thornbury’s metaphor implies.

It may require of Evangelicalism some intellectual reassessment–something which a critical mass of Evangelicals feels is long overdue.

But both reviews choose rather to engage in culture-war rhetoric: they assume the absolute inviolability of their own theology and lay the blame at the feet of the “other.”

The question of the relationship between the Bible and the events of Israel’s history are fascinating and engaging, but also perennially difficult to navigate, both intellectually and emotionally.

And this is precisely why it would be an immense step in the right direction if everyone were just to put down their weapons and step away.


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