For all their boasting of how reading the Bible is a great way to make an atheist, atheists tend to be the least biblically literate people on the planet.1 (I say that as an atheist.) There are a few reasons for this: poor hermeneutical education, superficial and cursory readings of biblical texts, and, pertinent to this review, an ignorance of secondary scholarly literature. Joshua Bowen, an independent scholar with a PhD in Assyriology, seeks to remedy this with a new series entitled The Atheist Handbook to the Old Testament. The first volume, endorsed by such notable scholars as Joel Baden and Francesca Stavrakopoulou,2 was published in 2021 and promises to be the first fruits of a helpful corpus covering a swath of topics related to the Hebrew Bible that will raise the level of discourse between the faithless and the faithful.
Following the introduction (pp. 1-10), Bowen begins in ch. 1 (pp. 11-46) with a look at the narratives of the Torah, beginning with creation in Genesis 1 and concluding with the death of Moses in Deuteronomy 34. Though it is no substitute for a reading of the biblical texts themselves, Bowen does an excellent job of summarizing this foundational section of the Bible. Additionally, he tables for a later chapter questions about the sources of these narratives that center on discussions of doublets, contradictions, and more. Chapter 2 (pp. 47-102) is a veritable crash course in ancient Near Eastern history while ch. 3 (pp. 103-161) introduces readers to archaeology generally – including Bowen’s own experiences doing field work – as well as specific issues related to so-called “biblical” archaeology like Levitical and prophetic denunciations of child sacrifice by Canaanites and the origins of the Philistines and their presence in the Levant.
The fourth chapter (pp. 162-202) zeroes in on the various contradictions in the Pentateuch and their implications for claims of Mosaic authorship. Specifically, Bowen goes over the problems present in Genesis 1 and 2, the Flood narratives of Genesis 6-9, the story of Joseph and his duplicitous brothers in Genesis 37, and more. In ch. 5 (pp. 204-273), our author considers the dating of the book of Daniel, a contentious issue among some in the pop-apologetic world, but a subject virtually settled among critical scholars. Chapter 6 (pp. 274-322) covers slavery in the Hebrew Bible. For readers of Bowen’s previous volume – Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?3 – much of the material will serve as a refresher course; for others, it will serve as an introduction. In ch. 7 (pp. 323-380), Bowen turns his attention to an example of failed prophecy in the Bible: the predicted destruction of Tyre. The volume closes with a conclusion (pp. 381-387), an index to biblical texts and other ancient sources cited in the book (pp. 388-393), and (my favorite) a bibliography.
As he does in Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery?, Bowen excels here in two things: distilling complex information so it can be easily digested by the reader, and summarizing and sticking to scholars who specialize in the subjects he covers. For example, in his discussion of the Aramaic evidence for the dating of the book of Daniel, he informs the reader he is dependent upon John Collins’s magisterial commentary on Daniel for the Hermeneia Commentary series despite having some training in Aramaic himself. He writes,
[W]hile I am trained in Semitics and have studied the Aramaic language in a variety of dialects, I am not an Aramaic specialist, and I have yet to read through all of the Aramaic texts that would be necessary to firmly draw these conclusions on my own. Instead, this presentation will rely on the analysis of experts in the field, who will be cited accordingly. (p. 208)
This epistemic humility is characteristic of Bowen and stands in stark contrast to the ramblings of various pop-apologists who opine on a variety of topics despite being poorly read and possessing virtually no relevant training.
As this review is published to my blog, I am in the middle of reading Bowen’s work a second time. It is not simply because my typical habit is to read a book at least twice before reviewing it. (Yeah, I jumped the gun. I couldn’t resist!) It is also because Bowen’s work contains some of the best summaries of critical scholarship, complete with references, available. As I’ve said before, the best part about any volume is its bibliography and Bowen’s work does not disappoint. While I recognize plenty of names – William Dever, Joseph Fitzmyer, Carol Newsom – there are others whose work I’ve never encountered. Thus, volume 1 of The Atheist Handbook to the Old Testament isn’t an end in itself. Rather, it is the first step on a journey toward understanding and appreciating the biblical library that only ends when we breathe our last. (So, let’s hope vol. 2 comes out soon.)
1 And yes, for all their boasting of how transformative the Bible is as the inspired word of God, Christians often rival atheists in their illiteracy.
2 Bowen’s volume was also endorsed by atheist Aron Ra. While I understand that Bowen and Aron Ra have a friendly relationship, I’m not sure why the endorsement was needed. In my opinion, an endorsement by Aron Ra is a liability more than it is an asset. This is evident from the first sentence of the popular skeptic’s blurb: “Bowen’s book reminds us that the Hebrew Bible is not precise, and the evidence is overwhelming that it wasn’t written by Moses” (my emphasis). Who in the world believes that Moses wrote the entirety of the Hebrew Bible? Sure, there are many conservative Christians who hold to Mosaic authorship of the Torah (i.e., Genesis – Deuteronomy), but I know of no one who thinks that Moses was responsible for the entire canonical Hebrew Bible from Genesis to Chronicles. If Aron Ra read Bowen’s work as closely as he’s apparently read the Bible, his endorsement is meaningless. For more on this, see Chris Hansen, The Foundational Falsehoods of AronRa: How an Educator Has Misinformed Thousands (2019). You can read my afterward for that book here.
3 I wrote a review of Did the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? that may be of interest to readers.