The (bogus) historicity of the Old Testament

[Note: This is sort of a preview of the work-in-progress that is my book (with edits to make it more blog-friendly), taken from the second chapter: "Why I Am Not a Christian"]

The Old Testament is full of some extremely barbaric stuff – ritual human sacrifices, slavery, rape, genocide, stonings – and most of it is commanded by the Hebrew god. But if there's a saving grace to the stomach-churning cruelty, it's that it probably never happened. The Old Testament is almost entirely fictional. But shouldn't this be problematic? Isn't the Bible supposed to be the Word of God? How do Christians (and Jews, for that matter) reconcile this? How do they amend their theology to account for the fact that this is all just made up? Let's look at some of the more significant historical claims in the Old Testament, and how we know they are false:

I. Creation 

Few, save perhaps for a fringe of fundamentalists, hold that the Genesis view of creation is anything but fiction. The order is wrong, and nonsensical: water exists before anything else (and apparently does not need to be created); light is created before the sun, the Earth before the stars, plants before animals. We now know that this is simply a creation myth, just like those found in innumerable cultures all over the world. We now know the universe is some 13.7 billion years old, and that our sun is a third-generation star formed from the debris of supernovae in the distant past, and that the Earth formed over several billion years. 

II. Adam and Eve

It is simply impossible, given everything we know about molecular biology and genetics, for all of humanity to have come from two individuals. 
In terms of human genetics, the concept that all humans descended from two historical persons is impossible.[17] Genetic evidence indicates humans descended from a group of at least 10,000 people, and to account for the observed human genetic variation it would take an impossibly high mutation rate if all humans descended from two individuals several thousands of years ago as young Earth creationism claims.[17] [Wikipedia]
There have been some spurious attempts to salvage the myth with mitochondrial Eve, the matrilineal most recent common ancestor of all living humans. But not only was she not the only woman alive, but her patrilineal counterpart – Y-chromosomal Adam – lived some 140,00 later. Adam and Eve's non-existence creates some big conundrums for Christian theologians, but more on that later.

III. The Flood

The Biblical narrative of a worldwide flood is well-established as fictional. Not only does it counter everything we know about the geological record, but the logistics of it are hilariously absurd. While most Christians have abandoned this story as fiction, there is no shortage of literalists such as Ken Ham, who is funding a multi-million dollar replica of the Ark. 

In Chapter 2 of his book Believing Bullshit, Stephen Law looks at the perpetuation of the Flood myth and highlights some of the absurdities:
"So how did Noah feed all his creatures while they were at sea? Christian Information Ministries suggests they hibernated:

How Noah and his small family could have cared for this large menagerie is unknown, not to mention the sanitation problem! What we must remember is that this event, i.e., the Flood, had supernatural elements. For instance, the animals came to the Ark against their natural instincts (Gen. 6:20). It is therefore reasonable to assume, as some creationists do, that the animals' metabolism may have been slowed down during their confinement, even to the point where some of the animals may have gone into a state of hibernation.

Of course, once we allow “supernatural elements” to play a role, we could just say that God shrank the dinosaurs to pocket size during their journey. That would also deal with many of these problems." [more]

IV. The Exodus

Similarly important to the Bible is the story of the Exodus. Thousands of Jews were enslaved by Egypt, until Moses stood up to the corrupt Pharaoh and, with God on his side, freed God’s chosen people and led them into the desert, where they wandered for 40 years before establishing what would become the Davidic Empire.

There’s a big problem with this famous story: there isn’t a shred of historical evidence for it. Egypt has for hundreds of years been perhaps the single greatest archaeological hot spot on Earth, and yet no trace of evidence that Jews were enslaved en masse has been found, and there is no mention of it in any Egyptian writings. Furthermore, the archaeological evidence we do have shows the origin of Israel to be indigenous. From Wikipedia:
The archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel is "overwhelming," and leaves "no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness."[21] For this reason, most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus as "a fruitless pursuit."[21] A century of research by archaeologists and Egyptologists has found no evidence which can be directly related to the Exodus narrative of an Egyptian captivity and the escape and travels through the wilderness,[18] and it has become increasingly clear that Iron Age Israel - the kingdoms of Judah and Israel - has its origins in Canaan, not Egypt:[22][23]

V. The conquest of Canaan and the Davidic empire

The genocidal conquest of Canaan has similarly been shown to be a work of fiction. From Wikipedia:

By the 1920s, it was clear that the idea of an Israelite conquest of Canaan - the story of the book of Joshua - was not supported by the archaeological record. The response of the time was to propose that the main biblical idea was still correct, but that the Israelites entered Canaan peacefully instead of through conquest. Later, even this compromise was abandoned, and the Israelites were interpreted to be indigenous Canaanites. The revision of Israelite origins has implications for Israelite religion: whereas the bible had depicted them as monotheists from the beginning, the new understanding is that they were polytheists who harboured a small and ultimately successful group of monotheistic revolutionaries.[8]

The new understanding, even if it recognised the Israelites as Canaanites by origin, still treated post-Conquest biblical story as real history. But eventually this also came under challenge: if, after 200 years of archaeology, there is still no direct evidence of the existence of David and Solomon, then they too must be fiction, the product of Jews of the 6th and 5th century Persian empire. The most radical reconstruction goes even further, alleging that the Jews originated as a "mixed multitude" of settlers sent to Jerusalem by the Persians, where they concocted a past for themselves. There are few scholars who believe this, but it demonstrates how the paradigm (the argument) has shifted.[9]

As Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, "If there was a Davidic Empire stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea around the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, no one else seems to have noticed it." [p.11]

Theological hurdles

Over at the Christian blog Wide as the Waters, Jack Hudson has a post where he talks about the historicity of the Old Testament. He makes an important claim:
There were no archeological controversies over ancient Greek or Roman religious beliefs because they were never understood to be historical in nature – they didn’t pretend to be. We don’t talk about Hindu archeology or Buddhist archeology because those religions are not reliant upon historical facts. None of these religions even pretends to be the product of a set of events that occurred in a particular time and place in history; only vague references to certain individuals whose actual existence is unimportant to the belief system. Biblical belief however is definitively set in a particular places and times and concerns certain individuals. [link]
Exactly. The Bible is rooted in historical claims – so since we have overwhelming evidence that many of those historical claims are false, it creates real problems for Christian theology. 

Take Adam & Eve. Their non-existence creates a theological conundrum: the Fall of Adam and Eve is the catalyst for curse of sin upon all humankind; the entire purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection is to right the wrong of the Fall. Pastor Tim Keller, author of The Reason for God, explained the dilemma in an article for the website Christianity Today:

"[Paul] most definitely wanted to teach us that Adam and Eve were real historical figures. When you refuse to take a biblical author literally when he clearly wants you to do so, you have moved away from the traditional understanding of the biblical authority," Keller wrote. "If Adam doesn't exist, Paul's whole argument—that both sin and grace work 'covenantally'—falls apart. You can't say that 'Paul was a man of his time' but we can accept his basic teaching about Adam. If you don't believe what he believes about Adam, you are denying the core of Paul's teaching."

This means that Christians are forced to either deny science or re-interpret the Bible in light of our new-found scientific knowledge. “Perhaps sin entered the world gradually”, they might say; “perhaps Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans, but were still the first to rebel against God.” This kind of post-hoc rationalization is the inspiration for evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne’s frequent quip: “Theology is the art of making religious virtues out of scientific necessities”. Isn't it ironic, after all, that no one seems to bother mentioning that most of the Bible is a metaphor until after empirical investigation has shown its historical claims to be false?

If the Bible is so easily re-interpreted as metaphorical, how much of a stretch would it be to re-interpret the New Testament in the same way? The historical facts are not on the side of the gospels either, but with 2/3rds of the Bible being mostly fictional, what's another third? I suspect it's nothing that some clever theological gymnastics can't dance around.


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