Contradiction: Was There a Sojourn in Egypt or Not?

Peter, one of the regular readers here, pointed my attention to a post that shows a discrepancy in what the Bible claims about Jacob’s descendants spending 400+ years in Egypt. I won’t try to summarize it here — I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Just check it out for yourself:

Why Some People Believe the Bible (And Why the Reasons Aren’t Good Enough)

I’m writing this post in response to something a fellow blogger has written about why the Bible is trustworthy (though I’ve lost the link to the post). He and I come down on different sides of this issue, and I thought the best way to tackle this would be to respond to each of his points in order.

1) We should treat the Bible like any other historical document.

Yes, we should, but this means different things to different people. When we read ancient historical texts, what do we think about the supernatural events that they relate? Many ancient historians talk about miracles, or attribute certain events to various gods — do we accept those claims? Of course not. We accept the events, like wars, famines, political upheavals, but we chalk up the supernatural claims to superstition.

However, when Christians ask that we treat the Bible the way we would treat other historical sources, they don’t mean it in the way I just described. They’ll say, “if you believe the histories about George Washington, why do you reject the stories of the Bible?” But this isn’t a true comparison. If we had an historical account that claimed George Washington could fly, we would dismiss it, even if everything else it recounted was factual.

There’s another difference as well. What we believe about George Washington has no real impact on the rest of our lives. However, most versions of Christianity say that if we don’t believe Jesus was the actual son of God, we’ll face eternal consequences. What could be more important than making sure we hold the correct view? So if God loves us and wants us all to believe, doesn’t it make sense that the “extraordinary claims” of the Bible would have “extraordinary evidence”? That’s the standard we would expect from any other historical document, and it’s the same thing we should expect from the Bible.

2) Witnesses for the Bible.

It’s often mentioned that the Bible was written over a period of 1500 years by 40+ authors. That timeline is not accepted by all scholars, but even if it were, this has nothing to do with whether or not it is accurate or inspired. In order for later authors to write things that fit with what came before, they only need to be familiar with those earlier writings. In other words, the Bible is much like fan fiction.

Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 people after his resurrection, so some Christians point to that as evidence too. But who were these 500 people? Where did they see the risen Jesus? Was it all at once, was it 500 separate appearances, or was it something in between? This claim is so vague, there’s no way it could be contested. Even if a critic could have rounded up a multitude of people who all claimed to not have seen Jesus post-resurrection, Paul would only have to say, “It was 500 other people.” No, Paul’s 500 witnesses are completely useless. Instead of actually being 500 separate witnesses for the risen Jesus, this is just one claim — Paul’s. Plus, let’s not forget that Paul is telling this to fellow Christians, not skeptics. No one in his audience would be inclined to call foul anyway.

Sometimes it’s pointed out that the earliest critics of Christianity did not question Jesus’ existence or his miracles, but just claimed that he was one of many people who claimed similar things. But I don’t think we should really expect ancient critics to focus on his existence or miracles anyway. How do you prove that someone didn’t exist? And aside from Christian writings, we have no sources about Jesus anyway, so how could they disprove either his existence or his miracles? And these critics lived in a time in which the existence of miracles were almost universally accepted. So arguing from this point doesn’t seem very convincing to me.

When it comes to historical sources for Jesus, it’s true that Josephus probably mentions him. And there are a couple of other references by other historians within the first 100 years or so after his death. But these references tell us nothing about Jesus other than that he might have existed, and that there were people at that time who were Christians. These points are virtually uncontested — and they say nothing about who Jesus really was. It’s hard to count them as any kind of evidence in Jesus’ favor.

3) Archaeology

Christians will often cite the Bible’s agreement with archaeology as one reason to believe it may be divinely inspired. For instance, most historians used to believe that the Hittites never existed, since the only record of them came from the Old Testament. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, evidence finally came to light that overturned that opinion, exonerating the Bible.

But does this agreement with archaeology really indicate that the Bible was divinely inspired? Many books have been written that seem to record accurate history — does this mean we should assume those authors were inspired by God? Of course not. While agreement with archaeology is a good sign, it’s not necessarily a reason to leap to the conclusion that God had anything to do with writing the Bible.

The story doesn’t end here, though. As it turns out, archaeology does not always agree with the Bible. The Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, for instance, has no archaeological evidence. While that is an example of missing evidence, we also have examples of contradictory evidence: archaeology indicates that Joshua’s conquest of Canaan did not actually happen, the kingdoms of David and Solomon appear to be far smaller than the Bible depicts, and the Book of Daniel contains several anachronisms, including its incorrect labeling of Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s son.

Examples like these show that the Bible’s agreement with archaeology is not nearly as strong as some would claim, making it very shaky grounds for staking the claim of inspiration.

In the next post, we’ll talk about other reasons that people give: prophecy and internal consistency.