Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Evaluating Historical Claims

From *The Skeptical Review*, 1995/May-June:

by Farrell Till
The biblical characters presented as emissaries of God were almost always miracle-workers. They parted the water of seas and rivers; they walked on water; they commanded the sun to stand still in the sky; they healed the blind and the deaf; they raised the dead. Nothing, it seems, was impossible for them to do.

The Bible is filled with tales of such fabulous deeds as these, and fundamentalist Christians believe that every one of these stories of miraculous achievements is literally true. If the Bible says that the prophet Elisha retrieved an iron axe head that had fallen into the Jordan River by making the axe head float ( 2 Kings 6:7), then fundamentalist Christians insist that this literally happened. If the Bible says that the body of a dead man whom a band of Moabite marauders cast into Elisha's tomb revived and stood upon its feet when it touched the bones of Elisha ( 2 Kings 13:20-21), then fundamentalist Christians insist that this literally happened. If the Bible says that a donkey conversed with its owner in a human voice ( Num. 22:28-30), then fundamentalist Christians insist that this literally happened. If the Bible says that an earthquake opened the graves in a cemetery after which the dead people in the opened graves revived and went into the city of Jerusalem ( Matt. 27:51-53), then fundamentalist Christians insist that this literally happened. If the Bible says... but why continue? We could fill this entire issue with examples of other events just as fabulous as these that the Bible presents as actual historical occurrences--all of which fundamentalist Christians believe literally happened exactly as recorded.

In accepting the literal truth of stories like these, fundamentalist Christians accord the Bible a privileged status that they deny the literature of other nations contemporary to biblical times. Belief in the supernatural was commonplace back then, and so the literature of the times reflected that belief. The Jewish historian Josephus, for example, claimed that during the feast of unleaven bread just before the Jewish-Roman wars, a light so bright shined around the temple altar at the ninth hour of the night that it gave the appearance of "bright day time" for the space of half an hour (Wars of the Jews 6:5.3). He reported that a heifer being led to the altar at the same festival gave birth to a lamb in the midst of the temple and that the eastern gate of the temple, which was so "vastly heavy" that 20 men had been needed to close it, was seen to open "of its own accord about the sixth hour of the night" (Ibid.). He went on to report that a few days after the feast, just before sunset "chariots and troops of soldiers in their armor were seen running about among the clouds and surrounding the city" (Ibid.).

Not even radical fundamentalists believe that these events actually happened, even though the works of Josephus contain some of the same miraculous claims that are in the Old Testament. His Antiquities of the Jews told of Noah's ark through which life on earth was saved from a great flood (1:3.2-5), of God's confusing of tongues at the tower of Babel (1:4.3), of God's appearance to Moses in a burning bush (2:12.1), of Moses' parting of the Red Sea (2:16.3), and of many other miraculous acts that are also recorded in the Bible. Fundamentalists, of course, believe that if Josephus recorded stories of miraculous deeds that have their parallels in the Bible, then they should be believed insofar as they agree with the biblical accounts, but if Josephus wrote about miraculous deeds that don't have parallels in the Bible, like those mentioned earlier, then they may be rejected.

To say the least, there is an inconsistency in this approach to evaluating historical claims. For one thing, Josephus was far removed from the time of Noah and Moses and, therefore, had no opportunity to investigate firsthand the miraculous feats that allegedly happened in those days. On the other hand, Josephus, an actual participant in the Jewish-Roman wars, was alive and in Jerusalem at the time that the altar in the temple allegedly shined like the light of day at the ninth hour of night, when the heifer gave birth to a lamb in the temple, and when the heavenly chariots and soldiers were seen running about in the clouds. He had the opportunity to interview witnesses and gather firsthand information about the events. Whether he actually did so is not known, but at least these were events that allegedly happened right in his midst, so if one is faced with the choice of believing either the miraculous claims that Josephus made for his own time or those that had presumably happened centuries before, it would be more reasonable to believe the claims that he had at least had the opportunity to investigate personally.

The truly rational person, of course, will accept none of the fabulous deeds that Josephus wrote about, whether they have their parallels in the Bible or not, because rational people realize that the Bible is no different from the other literature of its time. The people of those times, in all nations, believed that miracles happened routinely. The Roman historian Suetonius, for example, recorded as a fact that while Roman magistrates publicly argued about where to take the body of Julius Caesar to be cremated, two "divine forms" came down with torches and set fire to the bier on which Caesar's body was lying in state (The Twelve Caesars, Penguin, 1979, p. 52). He reported that Caesar's "soul" was seen as a comet for seven consecutive days about an hour before sunset (Ibid., p. 53). He reported that some had seen the spirit of Augustus Caesar ascending to heaven in the crematory flames (Ibid., 111). Suetonius told of a woman named Claudia, who to prove "her perfect chastity" prayed to refloat a boat grounded in a mud-bank on the Tiber river, "and did so" (Ibid., p. 114). A footnote in the Penguin version of the book dates this event at 204 B. C., so it is unlikely that a woman living in Rome at that time would have been praying to Yahweh, the Hebrew god. Bible fundamentalists, therefore, would say that if the boat in this story did actually float free from the mudbank after Claudia's prayer, the pagan prayer had had nothing to do with it. On the other hand, they would argue with their dying breath that Peter's prayer to the "true" God was directly responsible for raising Dorcus from the dead (Acts 11:40), a feat that would be far more difficult to accomplish than floating a boat free of a mud-bank.

Bibliolaters like to talk about the "uniqueness" of the Bible, but actually it is a rather ordinary collection of writings for the times that produced it. The Old Testament often speaks of Yahweh's leading the Israelites to victory over their enemies, but the literature of surrounding nations tells of gods who led their people to victory too. The Moabite Stone, discovered in 1868 east of the Dead Sea, recorded the victories that the god Chemosh had led Mesha, a Moabite king mentioned in 2 Kings 3, to win over his enemies. The text reads much like a page from the Old Testament:
I am Mesha, son of Chemosh..., king of Moab, the Dibonite. My father was king over Moab thirty years and I became king after my father. And I made this sanctuary for Chemosh at Qrchh, [a sanctuary] of salvation; FOR HE SAVED ME FROM ALL THE KING AND LET ME SEE MY DESIRE UPON MY ADVERSARIES. Omri, king of Israel, he oppressed Moab many days, FOR CHEMOSH WAS ANGRY WITH HIS LAND. And his son succeeded him and he too said, "I will oppress Moab." In my days he spoke [thus], and I saw my desire upon him and upon his house, when Israel perished utterly forever. And Omri had taken possession of the land of Medeba and [Israel] dwelt in it his days and half the days of his son, forty years; BUT CHEMOSH DWELT IN IT IN MY DAYS. And I built Baal-Meon and made it in the reservoir, and I built Qaryaten. And the men of Gad had long dwelt in the land of Ataroth, and the king of Israel had built Ataroth for himself. But I fought against the town and took it and I slew all the people of the town, A SPECTACLE FOR CHEMOSH and Moab. And I brought back from there the altar-hearth of David and I dragged it before Chemosh at Qeriyoth. And I settled there the men of Sharon and the men of Mchrt. AND CHEMOSH SAID TO ME, "GO, TAKE NEBO AGAINST ISRAEL." And I went by night and fought against it from the break of dawn till noon; and I took it and slew all: seven thousand men, boys, women, and [girls] and female slaves, FOR I HAD CONSECRATED IT TO ASHTAR-CHEMOSH. And I took from there the vessels of Yahweh AND DRAGGED THEM BEFORE CHEMOSH. And the king of Israel had built Jahaz and he dwelt in it while fighting against me. BUT CHEMOSH DROVE HIM OUT BEFORE ME. And I took from Moab two hundred men, all of them leaders, and led them up against Jahaz and took it to annex it to Dibon. I built Qrchh, the walls of the parks and the walls of the mound; and I built its gates and I built its towers; and I built the king's house; and I made both the reservoirs for water inside the town. And there was no cistern inside the town of Qrchh, so I said to all the people, "Make yourselves each one a cistern in his house." And I had ditches dug for Qrchh by prisoners of Israel. I built Aroer and I made the road by the Arnon. I built Beth-bamoth, for it was destroyed; I built Bezer, for it was in ruins, with fifty men of Dibon, for all Dibon is under my authority. And I reigned [over] hundreds of towns which I had annexed to the country. And I built... Medeba and Beth-Diblathen and Beth-Baal-Meon, and I led up there the breeders of the sheep of the land. And as for Hauronen, there dwelt in it.... CHEMOSH SAID TO ME, "GO DOWN, FIGHT AGAINST HAURONEN." And I went down... [and there dwelt] in it Chemosh in my days... (D. Winton Thomas, Documents From Old Testament Times, Harper & Row, pp. 196-197, emphasis added).
There are gaps in the text, represented by the ellipses, and the absence of vowels in the Semitic dialect in which it was written makes the pronunciation of some place names undeterminable, but the text itself is sufficient to show that the Moabite religion was very much like the Hebrews'. The Hebrews thought that their god Yahweh was actively envolved in their daily affairs, but the sections of the Moabite text emphasized in bold print show that the Moabites believed the same about their god Chemosh.

The Hebrews believed that their god saved them and their kings from their enemies: "Thus Yahweh saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all others, and guided them on every side" ( 2 Chron. 32:22; see also Ex. 14:30; 1 Sam. 10:17-18; Ps. 44:7). But as the first point of emphasis in the Moabite text shows, King Mesha believed that Chemosh "saved [him] from all the kings and let [him] see [his] desire upon [his] adversary." In times of adversity, the Hebrews thought that they were being punished by Yahweh: "And the children of Israel did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, and Yahweh delivered them into the hand of Midian seven years" ( Judges 6:1; see also Judges 2:11-12; 4:1; 10:7-8). King Mesha of the Moabites likewise believed that his god punished the people when he was miffed at them: "Omri, king of Israel, he oppressed Moab many days, for Chemosh was angry with his land." According to the Old Testament, Yahweh at times even talked directly to the Israelite kings to give them battle instructions: "Therefore David inquired of Yahweh, saying, 'Shall I go and attack these Philistines?' And Yahweh said to David, 'Go and attack the Philistines, and save Keilah'" ( 1 Sam. 23:2). In the text of the Moabite Stone, however, we see that the god Chemosh at times talked directly to kings too: "And Chemosh said to me, 'Go, take Nebo against Israel.'"

According to King Mesha's account engraved on the Moabite Stone, he "went by night and fought against it [Nebo] from the break of dawn till noon." Mesha claimed that he took Nebo and "slew all: seven thousand men, boys, women, and [girls] and female slaves," so, yes, indeed, this reads very much like a page out of the Old Testament, right down to the details of the massacre of the captives. It just shows how very much alike the nations of that geographical region were at that time. They all thought in terms of "our god can lick your god," and when they won, they all dealt quite harshly with the losers. The shame of Bible fundamentalists is their absurd belief that slaughters like the one King Mesha described were immoral acts of superstitious heathens, but massacres executed by the Israelites were morally right because they were commanded by Yahweh. The Israelites were separated from the Moabites by only the Dead Sea and in some places by just the Jordan River, so reasonable people, living in enlightened times, should have enough common sense to realize that if the Moabite god Chemosh wasn't real, then neither was the Hebrew god Yahweh, who was so much like Chemosh in temperament and character.

If we assume that the battle for Nebo happened as Mesha described it, one might wonder why the Israelites living in Nebo didn't question why an omniscient, omnipotent deity like Yahweh would have allowed an upstart pagan like Mesha to defeat his specially chosen people, but the Hebrew prophets would have had a perfectly sensible explanation. They had done something to displease Yahweh, and so he had used Mesha to punish them for their evil. You have to give the sorcerers and prophets of that era credit where credit is due, because they knew how to cover all of their bases. If something fortuitous happened, usually victory over their enemies, it was a sign that they were pleasing Yahweh; if something calamitous happened, it meant that Yahweh was punishing the people for wrongdoing. Either way Yahweh came out smelling like a rose, and it is all so ridiculous that I find it absolutely incredible that intelligent people today can take such stuff as this seriously.

All of this brings us back to a point that I have made in past articles: the only sensible way to evaluate claims that one has no firsthand knowledge of is to apply a rule of evidence that Carl Lofmark explained in What Is the Bible?
When you lack evidence, the only way to decide whether or not to believe something is to ask: Is it likely? If you tell me a bird flew past my window, I will probably believe you, even though I did not see it myself and I have no evidence. That is because such a thing is likely. I have seen it happen before. It is more likely that a bird flew past my window, than that you are deceiving me. But if you tell me a pig flew past my window, I will not believe you, because my past experience tells me that such things do not happen, and so I presume that what you reported is false. Thus, where there is no evidence we have to rely on our own past experience of the sort of things that really happen (pp. 41-42).
If we do not apply this rule of evidence to historical claims, we will be driven to an extreme that Thomas Paine described in Age of Reason:
As to the ancient historians, from Herodotus to Tacitus, we credit them as far as they relate things probable and credible, and no farther; for if we do, we must believe the two miracles which Tacitus relates were performed by Vespasian, that of curing a lame man and a blind man, in just the same manner as the same things are told of Jesus Christ by his historians"* (Part Two, 200th Anniversary Edition, p. 62).
This method is the only rational way to evaluate historical claims. If we apply it impartially, we will have to reject the fantastic claims in the Bible for the same reason we reject the many fantastic claims that are in other ancient documents contemporary to biblical times.

*Actually, Suetonius rather than Tacitus attributed these miracles to Vespasian (The Twelve Caesars, p. 284).

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