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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  • JL Schafer

    Great article. By default, human beings tend to act as Thornbury does. If something looks or feels like an existential threat, we quickly react against it. Fight now, ask the self-probing questions later. Individuals and tribes that do this well can increase their chances for survival, at least in the short term. But what if we become less interested in survival of our personal tribal identities and more interested in encountering Truth?

  • Thornbury’s argument is the engine of evangelicalism’s Atheist Factory.

    He’s hoping (probably correctly) that his readers will see the whole, “If A isn’t true, then B isn’t true, so A has to be true,” and will keep affirming that A is true no matter what. The problem is that there’s always going to be a thoughtful group of people who go, “Huh, ok, Then I guess B isn’t true, either.”

    “If A isn’t true, that has unpleasant ramifications, therefore A must be true,” is a line of argument that should satisfy no one. It is a hinderance to communicating with non-Christians and a hinderance to exegesis. We need to ditch it ASAP.

  • Nate Sparks

    New career choice: writing reviews for GC and CT. I spent exactly one year at a fairly large, highly conservative evangelical university -which shall not be named here – and in all my Bible classes they referred to the reliability of archaeology for defending biblical historical veracity. The GC review made me laugh out loud at it’s own self-defeating irony. Likewise, I’m pretty sure my 6 year old just made the same argument for me buying her a My Little Pony Doll that Thornbury made for Exodus being historical. I’m all for the ACTUAL discussion of the history of the Bible, but these guys are more like kids trying to swipe all the pieces off the board game because they don’t like the outcome of their turn.

    On a side note, I’m reading a commentary from the New Cambridge series by Carol Meyers right now with some interesting ideas about how Exodus is history without being historical – Peter Enns, are you familiar and if so, any thoughts?

  • Bev Mitchell

    You give the short answer to these perennial, tiresome, singularly unhelpful and ultimately dishonest evangelical defence tactics in “The Bible Tells Me So” when you rightly say something like “the present does not serve the past, the past serves the present.”

  • Meriwether_R

    Ah, the old “appeal to consequences” fallacy. It’s always seemed the most transparent in revealing defense mechanisms to me. I actually had a friend tell me recently that his entire faith rested on the Bible being inerrant in the traditional sense, which seems like such a fragile worldview to me. No wonder defenses get activated.

  • Ross

    The view I’ve come to, which is usually refuted and on the surface alien to a classic inerrantist, is that the problem comes down to confusion in the minds of the inerrantists.

    Stripping everything down to bare basics we have the argument; “God has written the bible, God cannot make mistakes, if there are mistakes in the bible then God can’t exist.” This line is followed by both inerrantists and anti-theists (I’d have to say that it seems in this, most anti-theists are actually inerrantists as well!). If you follow this argument from the starting position of being a believer, then growing doubts about “scripture” can lead to a loss of faith.

    The confusion itself is between the Creator of the Universe and a pile of letters on paper/vellum/whatever. The Creator is not the words on paper, full stop. Don’t confuse them and the problem goes away. Simples.

    Okay this may make it a bit harder trying to work out what is truth and how we know things, including who the creator is and what He may want. It may involve a bit of trying to work out how the Creator may have influenced those who wrote those words on paper. It may even mean going as far as trusting that the Creator may reveal stuff to us in the here and now. But surely that’s a bit better than trying to divide the World into “Inerrantamundalists” and everyone else.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I was noting this on a recent post on Scot McKnight’s blog. Thornsbury’s argument is akin to someone refusing to try a Five Guy’s burger, because they fear it may result in the Wendy’s Double Stack no longer being their favorite. It’s irrational and frankly a juvenile position.

  • Johnny Number 5

    Now this is just truly bizarre: “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.”

    Thornbury is basically saying that if the exodus was not an actual historical event, then the civil rights movement literally could never have happened. And obviously it did happen (though incompletely, unfortunately). So that means that the canonical exodus story has to historically accurate, somehow. But wait a minute! He’s therefore claiming that fictional stories literally cannot be an inspiration for positive social change (which I guess means that Jesus’ parables all have to be exact retellings of true events, lest they be empty of any meaningfulness?), not to mention that the civil rights movement gained rhetorical power not through the historicity of the exodus (e.g., SCLC wasn’t sending archeaologists to Sinai to verify Israel’s wanderings in order to encourage people who’d just been attacked by Birmingham fire hoses) but by the power of the metaphor of the exodus. What must it be like in Thornbury’s world where stories and metaphors literally can’t have any impact on history?

    • Andrew Dowling

      “The entire notion of liberty” . . .wow

  • Kim Fabricius

    … culture-war rhetoric seems armed and loaded here …

    Evangelical Sniper? Or, more accurately, Celluloid Suicide?

  • Mark K

    Pete, this has been a powerful series; thank you. What began for me on this blog a time ago, was scaled up with The Bible Tells Me So, is continuing, not insignificantly with this series of posts. But I hope you’ll stop soon, because I need my world to stop shaking.

  • A Zook

    Peter, I’m in agreement with your encouragement to step away from the
    weapons and not fight these fights – BUT – I guess I need more than just
    that. I go to an evangelical church and by all appearances am an
    evangelical – I share your frustration with the culture war. But again I
    need more than just a call to stop it. I need substance, words, ways of
    talking about the Biblical story that show those around me that I and
    they can be passionate followers of Jesus; can be godly people full of love, faith, and hope in a present/future Kingdom of God WITHOUT a proven historicity
    of the Bible…

    I need something of substance to replace the slippery slope rhetoric and the all-or-nothing belief system. I understand the limits of one blog post but somewhere, somehow those of us who are tired of the cultural war need more than just, “We’re quitting” We need something to fill in the blank when we say, “I’m a Christian, I want to love and serve God with all my being, I believe and follow Jesus BUT I’m unsure of, can’t prove without a doubt, don’t believe in every jot and tittle of the OT and its stories…

    Or said in another, more clarifying way: “I don’t believe in every jot and tittle of the OT but I am still committed to Jesus and serving Him and here’s why I can do that even if I don’t believe all of the OT.” From my experience/observation the evangelical mind can’t comprehend that being possible – I know that if I spoke that way to my family/friends they would immediately question my faith…I would assume most would consider me a near agnostic/atheist…and in a way I couldn’t blame them because the only paradigm they’ve ever known is that you must accept every jot and tittle to be absolute true without error in any way (it is a video camera that was there!) in order to be considered a saved/justified person right with God…
    It’s that here’s why part that I’m lacking and it often keeps me from engaging these issues with those around me, because I know I don’t have a good answer to the inevitable come-back of, “How can you be a christian and doubt anything in the OT?”… I think you believe it’s possible; you hint that it is…but how?

    • Chris Falter

      @ A Zook – From listening to Pete’s podcast appearances, I think that he has addressed your very important question in The Bible Tells Me So. I have not yet read the book, so I’ll have to let Pete (or others) confirm this.

      Pax Christi

    • Ross

      Our sermon in church today was on Ephesians 4; “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

      It seems to be that Paul, or someone trusted to speak in his name is urging some form of unity. The point of our sermon being that we have some unity with Christians across the spectrum.

      If you feel that that unity is only between those who hold to an inerrantist doctrine then stick with the inerrantists.

      If you feel that it is possible to follow Jesus without adhering to a doctrine which is not in the bible and that it is possible to follow Jesus with some or many doubts, then maybe you can get the courage to walk away from those who are holding a metaphorical gun to your head.

      Maybe you have a choice, the choice between following God or following a man made exclusive doctrine which is designed to split the body of Christ.

    • Dear A., this is what I wrote in another context:

      This might be helpful to you.

      I’d be glad to discuss with you. My email is lotharson57(at) 🙂

  • Morgan

    In the description of the movie/book, it is stated that, “For more than 50 years, the vast majority of the world’s most prominent archaeologists and historians have maintained that there is no hard evidence to support the Exodus story.”

    Why should this be surprising? For the past 50 years, the only research that gets funded by ‘major’ universities is secular. Added to this is a dedicated Palestinian effort to rewrite the history of the Holy Land to de-holy it so the ancestral claims of the Jews can be dismissed.

    Is this science, when researchers with agendas get to determine what constitutes ‘hard evidence,’ and then dismiss anything they don’t like as failing the test?

    Do the ‘vast majority’ of the world’s most prominent archaeologists and historians accept this new theory? What makes one a ‘prominent’ archaeologist and historian – who decides that? Is there a litmus test, such as they agree with the theory?

    if that’s science these days, it seems to have more to do with politics than objective evidence and a meaningful search for the truth.

    • RoverSerton

      This is exactly the line in the sand the author was referring to. Many religious groups have been hunting for Noah’s Arc. Archaeologists that care about the accuracy of the Exodus would gravitate to this area but have found exactly nothing to support 1,000,000 people (266,000 warrior age plus their families). All but 2 of the Million died in the journey. It would be difficult do walk across that small area of the world with a Million skeletons without tripping on them.

  • Don Bryant

    Deduction in theology can be a cage. “If you believe this, then you have to believe that, and furthermore, if you believe that then you have to believe this.” Ad infinitum. Deductive reasoning has a place but it needs to be carefully monitored. Much of the appeal of the High Calvinism I found in seminary is its supposed air tight coherence. On second look I recognized that some of what I was being taught was rooted in deduction rather than induction based on the biblical text. The text was made to submit to the deductive coherence, even in the face of clear textual evidence to the contrary. Ad fontes!!

    • peteenns

      Ha. I could write a 3 vol. work on this phenomenon of “High Calvinism.”

  • J. Inglis

    “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.”

    Now, I don’t buy into the OT being modern history, and I don’t buy into the Chicago statement on inerrancy, and I think Thornbury is OTL on the consequences of a lack of modern historicity or a historiological approach in the OT, however, the quoted characterization of his argument is both untrue and unfair.

    He is not arguing that historicity is true because he “feels” it has to be true. He’s not arguing on the basis of feelings. I’m sure he has feelings on the matter, but he did not use them to justify his argument.

    Furthermore, his argument is entirely logical and plausible. What you, and others who have already responded, attack are the premises for his argument. That is fair game, but it is incorrect to attack his argument; it is properly logical.

    If God (the Yahweh god) exists (premise which is to be established), and if Yahweh never lies (premise to be established), and if the Bible is effectively dictated by Yahweh (premise), and if the Bible proposes that a particular event happened in space time (premise), then it is logical to conclude that the event occurred. That conclusion stands even if there is no other or independent verification of the event occurring, and even if the evidence at this point in time suggests otherwise.

    Furthermore, we are dealing with evidence, not with repeatable results from a science lab. Our evidence to date is incomplete and sometimes appears to be conflicting or inconsistent, and we are constantly obtaining new evidence, and is open to variant interpretations. It is therefore open to Thornbury, et al., to believe that it is possible for an interpretation of the evidence to be available which supports a modern historiological approach to the Bible’s record of events.