The Bible is a worthless historical document

The story of the Jewish exodus out of Egypt is of pretty pivotal importance in the Bible. It's what established Moses as God's chosen leader of his chosen people, and that leadership became integral to the establishment of Old Testament law. Indeed the covenant of the Jews before Christ came was called the Mosaic Covenant.

One problem though: there's not actually any evidence that it ever happened. There's zero evidence that the people of Israel were ever enslaved by the Egyptians at all, much less that they escaped in a brave insurrection. Some modern-day Christians are fond of incorporating a healthy dose of retroactive rationalization to explain the total lack of contemporaneous or extra-Biblical evidence. But it's a myth, a fable – and most historical scholars know this.

This raises some interesting questions. The creation story of Genesis, Adam and Eve, the Flood, Jonah and the Whale, the story of Job – all myths, proved completely implausible by modern science. Even the notorious slaughter of the Canaanites most likely never happened. Far more likely, stories such as Exodus and war stories littered throughout the Old Testament are hagiography. Luke over at Common Sense Atheism expounds:
Obviously these stories are hagiography – a tribe of people telling fictional and exagerated [sic] tales about its glorious history and importance. Every ancient culture that wrote their own history did this. It would be rather shocking if the Israelites were the only ancient people to record a literal, accurate history of their own tribe.
And, with the exception of fundamentalist/literalist loons who frankly are not even worth the trouble engaging in rational discourse, most modern believers know that these stories are fictional. So, if they're not actually true, what's the point? Well, (so we're told) they're apocryphal! It's all metaphor, to teach us something or other. What exactly these stories are supposed to teach us is anyone's guess. But they're not historical. There's no independent criteria to tell us how to properly interpret the Bible. We can try to gather some kind of lesson from them if we choose, though we're likely just imposing our own biases on the narratives.

The New Testament

Here's a shocker: The gospels aren't historic either. This is kind of a big deal. Christians have varying opinions on the historicity of the Old Testament, but it's safe to say that the New Testament is generally regarded as being historically reliable.

I discussed much of this in my three-part critique of Lee Strobel's The Case For Christ movie (which has since been removed from Hulu), so I'll just recap the major points:
  • Christians claim the gospels are based on eye-witness testimony. This is dubious, because Jesus is often documented as going off to be alone, and yet somehow we are privy to the exact words he spoke (most famously, the temptation in the desert – where he was purportedly alone for 40 days – and the prayers in Gethsamane while the disciples were asleep). This means that, at best, the gospels are a combination of eye-witness testimony and hearsay.
  • Even if the gospels were based on eye-witness testimony, such testimony is notoriously unreliable, as a litany of modern research reveals
  • Christian subsequently claim that these stories were passed on through meticulous oral traditions. However, such "meticulous" oral traditions among the Jews had been reserved for Rabbis, and even then they were not obsessed with historical details [link]. There's no evidence that the illiterate peasants who supposedly witnessed these events had any kind of reliable oral tradition.
  • We don't have the original manuscripts, but copies of copies of copies, which are frequently littered with contradictions, omissions, additions, and errors.
  • This culminates in the four books we now have, which are themselves filled with internal contradictions. When presented with these contradictions, Christians claim that the disagreement is to be expected. Of course, they propose no independent criteria to establish an acceptable amount of contradiction. What is the correct amount? Why, the amount in the Bible, of course! This is retroactive rationalization.
  • The gospels make unsubstantiated historical claims, including the census and slaughter of the firstborns commanded by Herod. 
  • The gospels make supernatural claims, which demands more evidence than mundane historical claims. Christians typically invoke special pleading to rationalize their dismissal of the historicity of other cultures' supernatural claims. 

The best argument that believers seem to be able to conjure up is the old canard that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". It's a famously misunderstood take on a famous Carl Sagan quote – where evidence should be abundant, its absence certainly is evidence that the purported events did not take place. Believers will say, for example, that the Egyptians might have just destroyed any records of the Jews' enslavement to avoid embarrassment. This is highly implausible, since many thousands were purportedly enslaved and such events are unlikely to escape all contemporaneously documented and archaeological evidence. The same is true for Herod's slaughter of the firstborns which, while consistent with Herod's character, is unlikely to have entirely escaped contemporaneous documentation from all who might have witness and been involved the event. Most glaringly though, such arguments are merely an attempt to shift the burden of proof by suggesting that we cannot disprove such events.

Putting the burden of proof where it belongs

It's not a skeptic's job to conclusively invalidate the historicity of the Bible, or to disprove every possible way in which this might stuff might have actually happened. Here's the real question: why should I believe the Bible is true? Even Christian and Jewish scholars know that most of it is fiction. What about the Bible demands that any reasonable person must agree that it can be nothing less than the product of divine revelation gifted to us by the One True God?

Think about it: the Bible is touted as the one book given to humanity by an all-knowing, all-powerful god – and yet it's filled with myths, historical inaccuracies and internal contradictions. That is precisely what we would expect if the Bible were simply a collection of loosely connected writings conjured up purely by the imaginative minds of men. Why should I believe otherwise?


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