With Christian Apologists, It’s Never “Trust but Verify,” It’s Only Ever “Verify”

“The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.”
Proverbs 18:17, NRSV

INTRODUCTION

In a prime example of “it takes one to know one,” many Christian apologists, for all their accusations that skeptics take biblical passages “out of context,”[1] have turned quote mining into an art form. An example of this can be seen in a 2010 article entitled “Moses and the Art of Writing” written by Eric Lyons at the website Apologetics Press.[2] Before we get to this piece, let me briefly explain why this particular blog post came to my attention. 

One or the other of my readers may know the name Robert Clifton Robinson. He was the subject of a 2019 post I wrote showing that despite his railings against scholars and his assertion of his independence from their work, Robinson is in fact wholly dependent upon them for a wide range of things: from the existence of his English Bible to his knowledge of how many Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are extant, and so much more.[3] Robinson is a self-styled scholar, unwilling (or unable) to let it be known what his credentials actually are. And despite his claim that he’s debated thousands of atheists, so far as I can tell he’s never debated one a day in his life. (Unless you’re using the broadest possible definition of “debate” imaginable.) To read the material on his website is truly a sneak peek into the mind of a man with an overinflated sense of importance. But if you’re looking for really bad arguments from outdated scholarship (or no scholarship at all), then Robinson is your guy. Just like if you’re looking for really bad arguments that have probably been plagiarized, SJ Thomason is your gal.[4]

While Robinson has me blocked on Twitter, it hasn’t prevented him from talking about me behind the block. It also hasn’t prevented me from becoming aware of his ramblings, including this snippet of a conversation between himself and Scott Richards, an apparent friend of Robinson and the author of Answers for the Skeptic.[5] Here is a screenshot. 

There is a lot that we could unpack here, whether it’s Robinson’s incorrect use of the em dash or his raising of his own profile by raising that of Joshua Bowen’s to that of a Yale professor (i.e., “See, I’ve ‘debated’ not one but two Yale guys!”) But that’s not what this post is about. Instead, it’s about what Richards claims, namely that “the linchpin of the Documentary Hypothesis” is “that written language didn’t exist at the time of Moses,” a claim which “has been thoroughly and repeatedly discredited.” As a “linchpin” is used to refer to something of central importance to an argument or idea and, thus, causes said argument or idea to collapse when removed, Richards is asserting that the Documentary Hypothesis falls apart entirely when the linchpin of “there was no writing at the time of Moses” is dispelled. While few things apologists say these days causes me to raise my eyebrows, this one caught my attention. And so, I quoted tweeted Richards and asked for citations. I asked and I received: Richards commented with a link to the article by Lyons mentioned above. Let’s dig in a bit, shall we? 

TWO QUOTES

Lyons opens with an anecdote about someone who was taught in Sunday School that Moses wrote the Pentateuch but was later told in college that he didn’t. This “impressionable young freshman” was being taught something that contradicted what she, as an impressionable young child, had been taught years before. (The horror!) He then moves on to the Documentary Hypothesis itself and claims that “one of the first assumptions upon which this theory rests was disproved long ago. From the earliest period of the development of the Documentary Hypothesis, it was assumed that Moses lived in an age prior to the knowledge of writing.” To bolster his argument, Lyons quotes from two German scholars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Julius Wellhausen and Hermann Schultz. He quotes Wellhausen first: “Ancient Israel was certainly not without God-given bases for ordering of human life; only they were not fixed in writing.” Next, he quotes Schultz: “Of the legendary character of the pre-Mosaic narrators, the time of which they treat is a sufficient proof. It was a time prior to all knowledge of writing.” The rest of the piece is a demonstration that writing existed well before the era of Moses and, therefore, “one of the earliest assumptions of the Wellhausen theory” is dead wrong. 

Case closed! Or is it? 

The Seeds of the Documentary Hypothesis

Lyons doesn’t define what he means by “the earliest period of the development of the Documentary Hypothesis,” but when considering the history of source criticism generally and that of the Pentateuch particularly, there are some names which are bound to come up. In fact, Wellhausen himself in his Prolegomena to the History of Israel implies his own reliance upon earlier scholars when he writes, Since the days of Peyerius and Spinoza, criticism has acknowledged the complex character of that remarkable literary production [i.e., the Pentateuch], and from Jean Astruc onwards has laboured, not without success, at disentangling its original elements.”[6] Peyerius is the French theologian Isaac La Peyrère and Spinoza is, of course, Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. To my knowledge, neither author wrote that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch because they thought writing didn’t exist when Moses was around. 

Spinoza (from Wikimedia Commons)

Spinoza, for example, doubted Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch on other grounds. In his Tractacus Theologo-Politicus, he notes that the Pentateuch reads as if it wasn’t written by Moses but by someone else: Moses is talked about in the third person, there are signs of later development, etc. Documenting this evidence against Mosaic authorship, he wrote, “Thus from the foregoing it is clear beyond a shadow of doubt that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but by someone who lived many generations after Moses.”[7] Nowhere does Spinoza argue that Moses couldn’t have written the Torah because written language didn’t exist. In fact, a few paragraphs later he wrote that while it would be “a reasonable assumption that Moses wrote down the laws at the time and place where he happened to promulgate them,” it was nevertheless unwarranted.[8] Had Spinoza thought written language didn’t exist at the time of Moses, there would be nothing reasonable at all about such an assumption. Additionally, Spinoza thought it possible that such laws were from Moses and were simply written down by “the elders.” Such writings were then used by a later historian to compose the Pentateuch.[9]

Astruc (from Wikimedia Commons)

The third person Wellhausen talks about is Jean Astruc. Astruc was a French physician of the 18th century whose interests went beyond that of medicine, probably in part because his father Pierre had been a minister.[10] Pertinent to the subject at hand is a work that roughly translated into English was entitled Conjectures on the Original Memoirs Which It Seems Moses Used to Write the Book of Genesis. The title gave his thesis away: Astruc surmised that Moses had used sources – two to be exact – when writing the book of Genesis. Fundamental to this thesis was the idea that Moses wrote. Thus, at this early stage of the development of the Documentary Hypothesis, there was an open acknowledgment that Moses lived at a time when written language was available to him.

Back to Wellhausen

It is doubtful, for reasons that will become apparent shortly, that Lyons did much research on the history of the Documentary Hypothesis when he wrote his piece. Setting his work aside, let’s take a closer look at the two quotes from Wellhausen and Schultz that he offered. Remember, Richards tweeted that the “linchpin” of the Documentary Hypothesis was the idea that Moses lived before written language existed and Lyons contends that such an idea was “one of the first assumptions upon which the [Documentary Hypothesis] rests.” Is this true? And do the quotations from Wellhausen and Schultz demonstrate it? We’ll begin with Wellhausen.

As I already noted, Wellhausen was a German scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who is best known for the aforementioned Prolegomena to the History of Israel. While he was no doubt an influential figure in the development of the Documentary Hypothesis, a lot has happened in Pentateuchal scholarship since the publication of Prolegomena. Biblical scholar James Kugel observes that “some elements of Wellhausen’s approach have been modified over time, and of late a serious challenge has been mounted to its chronological ordering of things, but the basic idea of the Documentary Hypothesis has nonetheless survived the sustained scrutiny of scholars over the last century.”[11] Questionable was Wellhausen’s evolutionary view of Israelite religion which, Michael Coogan notes, included “an implicit anti-Semitism.”[12] Additionally, some scholars have resisted Wellhausen’s fusing of the Yahwist (J) and Elohist (E) sources into what is essentially a single source, JE.[13] Regardless, as Kugel wrote, the core of the Documentary Hypothesis espoused by Wellhausen “has…survived the sustained scrutiny of scholars over the last century.” 

The quote Lyons offers in his piece comes from ch. 10 of Prolegomena entitled “The Oral and Written Torah.”[14] Given the way in which Lyons utilizes Wellhausen’s words, we should inquire as to whether a denial of written language at the time of Moses is part and parcel of Wellhausen’s thought. Based upon that quotation, can we conclude that Wellhausen believed Moses could not have written the Torah because written language did not exist at that time? Only if you ignore what Wellhausen is doing in that particular section of his Prolegomena

Chapter ten begins with the subject of the so-called “Book of the Covenant,” a section of legal stipulations that begins in Exodus 22:22 and concludes with 23:19. This section, he contends, “was given to a people who were settled and thoroughly accustomed to agriculture, and who, moreover, had passed somewhat beyond the earliest stage in the use of money.”[15] In other words, it belongs to an era after that of Moses when the people were no longer wandering tribes in the wilderness but were instead settled communities in Palestine. The Decalogue on the other hand, “is commonly maintained to be in the strictest sense Mosaic,” particularly “on account of the statement that it was written down on the two stone tablets of the sacred ark.”[16] Wellhausen had qualms with this idea, noting that we cannot be certain either the nature of the tablets nor their contents. He wrote, “It results from this that there was no real certain knowledge as to what stood on the tablets, and further that if there were such stones in the ark – and probably there were – there was nothing written on them.”[17] It is following this that we find the quote provided by Lyons: “Ancient Israel was certainly not without God-given bases for the ordering of human life; only they were not fixed in writing.”[18] What is Wellhausen getting at here? 

In the German theologian’s model, the earliest sources from which a later redactor put together the Pentateuch were those of J and E. The other two important sources, the Deuteronomistic (D) and Priestly (P) sources, “were only reduced to writing at a late period.”[19] The question becomes, Were the other sources (i.e., J and E) around at the time of Moses? Wellhausen, referring to J and E as “Jehovistic” did not think so. The Book of the Covenant discussed above he considered to be part of the “Jehovistic legislation” and, as we saw, he thought it must have been written after the era of Moses and after Israel was already an agricultural society.[20] Thus, none of the written sources which make up the Pentateuch were around when Moses lived. But if Israel was without written instruction, does that mean it was without any instruction whatsoever? No, Wellhausen argues, they “were certainly not without God-given bases for the ordering of human life; only there were not fixed in writing.” While this is where Lyons stops quoting Wellhausen, this is not where the thought ends. He continues, “Usage and tradition were looked on to a large extent as the institution of the Deity. Thus, for example, the ways and rules of agriculture. Jehovah had instructed the husbandman and taught him the right way. He it was whose authority gave to the unwritten laws of custom their binding power.”[21]

As evidence of these “unwritten laws of custom,” Wellhausen offers various phrases found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible that suggest such oral legal traditions must have existed. For example, the phrases “[i]t is never so done in Israel” and “that is folly in Israel” suggested to him that such “expressions of insulted public conscience are of frequent occurrence, and show the power of custom: the fear of God acts as a motive for respecting it.”[22] Further evidence can be found in places like Genesis 13:13 wherein the people of Sodom are described as sinning against Yahweh. Sodom surely did not have a copy of the Torah and yet they could be described as sinning against Yahweh. Additionally, in Genesis 18:19 Yahweh states that he chose Abraham and his offspring “to keep the way of the LORD by doing righteousness and justice, so that the LORD may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him” (NRSV). The Torah did not exist at the time of Abraham and yet somehow Yahweh expected him “to keep the way of the LORD.” How could this be?

It’s obvious what Wellhausen was doing in this section: he was demonstrating that simply because there was no written instruction to which the people of Sodom or even the patriarch Abraham could refer doesn’t mean they were without divine instruction altogether. “We see that the requirements of the Deity are known and of force, not to the Israelites only, but to all the world; and accordingly they are not to be identified with any positive commands,” Wellhausen wrote. He then punctuated this point by saying, “The patriarchs observed them long before Moses.”[23] So then, it is possible for people to obey Yahweh’s commands before such commands existed in written form, then it is possible that Yahweh’s commands could have existed in an unwritten form during the time of Moses and after and, consequently, Moses need not be considered the author of the Pentateuch.

In the next paragraph, Wellhausen argues that the earliest iterations of the Torah were not written at all. Instead, it sprang from the teachings of priests and prophets who, using such tools as the Urim and Thummim, decided correct courses of action. It was, fundamentally, oral in nature: “There is no torah as a ready-made product, as a system existing independently of its originator and accessible to every one: it becomes actual only in the various utterances, which naturally form by degrees the basis of a fixed tradition.”[24] For the priests, their understanding of Torah was “derived…from Moses,” claiming “only to preserve and guard what Moses had left” since he was “counted as their ancestor.”[25] The Priestly codes found in such works as Leviticus became the law of Moses. But it was law based in an oral tradition that was only later written down.

There is much more to Wellhausen’s argument that I simply cannot get into here. I invite readers to pick up this chapter in his work to find out more. My examination here has hopefully showed that nowhere does Wellhausen suggest that the reason Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch was because there was no written language available to him at that time. The quote provided by Lyons when examined in context argues against such an interpretation. I would also contend that even out of context the quote doesn’t even approach what Lyons asserts it does. To go from Wellhausen’s “they were not fixed in writing” to “Wellhausen denied the existence of written language at the time of Moses” is definitionally a non sequitur. But it does make you wonder how such a leap came about. 

Brief Comments on Schultz and “Knowledge of Writing”

Let’s table that leap for just a moment to consider the second person Lyons quotes from in his piece: Hermann Schultz. Schultz, like Wellhausen, was a German scholar of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Though not as famous as Wellhausen, he was nevertheless a prolific author in his own right. The quote employed by Lyons comes from the first volume of Schultz’s two-volume Old Testament Theology: “Of the legendary character of the pre-Mosaic narratives, the time of which they treat is a sufficient proof. It was a time prior to all knowledge of writing.”[26] This is where Lyons terminates the quote, but it is not where that second sentence ends. Schultz wrote, “It was a time prior to all knowledge of writing, a time separated by an interval of more than four hundred years, of which there is absolutely no history, from the nearest period of which Israel had some dim historical recollection, a time when in civilised countries writing was only beginning to be used for the most important matters of State.”[27] This and what follows provides some nuance to Schultz claim. 

First and foremost, Schultz is not denying the existence of writing either at the time of Moses nor even in an era before that of Moses. He acknowledges the existence of writing among “civilised countries” but contends it was reserved for governmental matters. Whether or not that is true is not pertinent to the discussion at hand. What matters here is that Schultz was not denying the existence of written writing at the time of Moses or even before. What Schultz does seem to be arguing is that in the “interval of time of more than four hundred years” prior to Moses there is no reason to think the patriarchs had any ability to write. This point becomes more plain later when he asserts that “wandering herdsmen have invariably an instinctive dislike to writing.” Because of this, he contends, there is no reason to think that the patriarchs “could hand down their family histories, in themselves quite unimportant, in any other way than orally, to wit, in legends.”[28] This is precisely what we find, he says: “[T]he patriarchs are described exactly after the fashion of ancient heroes.”[29] The examples he offers – Cain, the Deluge, the miraculous birth of Isaac, etc. – are all set in the time before Moses and are thus the “pre-Mosaic narratives” he referred to earlier. 

Schultz was not arguing that written language did not exist at all before Moses. He was arguing that it was unknown among Abraham and his descendants. Nor did Schultz contend that Moses himself did not know of written language as he was specifically addressing the pre-Mosaic period. In fact, Schultz had a high view of Moses, referring to him as “the most important religious personality of whom we have really trustworthy historical information” apart from Jesus.[30] Moreover, despite his belief that “we now have the picture of Moses only as it appeared in the light of a much later age, and we meet with a not inconsiderable variety of tradition regarding him,” Schultz was nevertheless confident that “the true picture of the man who made Israel a nation can scarcely have got its main features obscured.”[31] Additionally, Schultz considered Moses to be “exceptionally familiar with the wisdom and culture of Egypt.”[32] Though he doesn’t come out and say it, it seems likely that Schultz believed Moses to be literate. But even if he didn’t think that, Schultz isn’t claiming that the reason Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch was because written language didn’t exist at the time. That wasn’t his case at all. 

Lyin’ Lyons

It is clear that neither quotation provided by Lyons in his piece supports his contention that a lack of written language was one of the “first assumptions” upon which the Documentary Hypothesis was built. Read in their respective contexts, neither Wellhausen nor Schultz argued for such a thing. Additionally, the argument that written language didn’t exist at the time of Moses was not a feature of the arguments of men like Spinoza or Astruc. So, from where has Lyons derived this argument? Whence the non sequitur of Wellhausen’s “they were not fixed in writing” to the claim that he believed no written language existed in Moses’s day? 

When I first read Lyons’s article, the combination of quotes from Wellhausen and Schultz stuck out to me. After thinking about it for some time, it finally dawned on me why: I had read them before as a teenager after I purchased Josh McDowell’s The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict,[33] an update of his two-volume set Evidence That Demands a Verdict. I can still remember purchasing it at a Christian bookstore in the Great Northern Mall sometime around the year 2000 or 2001. In a lengthy section covering the Documentary Hypothesis, one of the arguments with which McDowell wrangles is found in the header of a section entitled “No writing in Israel at Moses’ time (c. 1500 – 1400 B.C.).” There you will find as evidence for this view quotes from both Wellhausen in Prolegomena and Schultz in volume one of his Old Testament Theology. No other scholar’s words are offered in support. So, at first glance it appears that Lyons got these quotes not by reading Wellhausen or Schultz directly but by reading McDowell. And given that neither quotation supports the view they are claimed to, McDowell has engaged in the Christian apologist tradition of quote mining. Lyons, therefore, has quote-mined a quote mine. (It should be noted that in the most recent version of McDowell’s work, Evidence That Demands a Verdict co-written with his son Sean McDowell,[34] this argument makes no appearance whatsoever: the quote from Wellhausen is removed and Schultz disappears altogether.)

Pages 430-431 of McDowell’s New Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

But perhaps this isn’t true. Perhaps Lyons arrived at these quotations independently of McDowell. More evidence militates against this view. First is the citation of Schultz in New Evidence. McDowell cites it as “Schultz, OTH, 25-26.” That is because when McDowell quotes Schultz, he is using the same translation of the work that I used in this post – a translation of the German original made by J. A. Patterson. In that version, McDowell’s lengthy quoting of Schultz comes from pp. 25-26 of that translation. The citation of Schultz in Lyons’s article appears as “1898, pp. 25-26.” This edition is the same edition used by both McDowell and I. But there is a glaring problem. When Lyons quotes Schultz in the Patterson translation, the material he draws from appears only on p. 25 and not on p. 26. Yet he cites it as being on pp. 25-26, a sign that he is using McDowell as his reference and not Schultz directly. Had he been appealing to the primary source (i.e., Schultz) he would not have made that kind of mistake. 

That isn’t all. Lyons quotes Schultz as saying, “Of the legendary character of the pre-Mosaic narrators, the time of which they treat is a sufficient proof. It was a time prior to all knowledge of writing” (emphasis added). But this isn’t what Schultz wrote per Patterson’s translation. Rather, he wrote, “Of the legendary character of the pre-Mosaic narratives, the time of which they treat is a sufficient proof. It was a time prior to all knowledge of writing”[35] (emphasis added). Not narrators but narratives. How does this quote begin in McDowell’s work? “Of the legendary character of the pre-Mosaic narrators, the time of which they treat is a sufficient proof”[36] (emphasis added). McDowell misquoted Schultz and Lyons, because he is using McDowell rather than going to Schultz directly, misquotes him as well. 

But wait, there’s more! In the references section of Lyons’s work, at the end of the piece, he lists Schultz’s volume as being “translated from the fourth edition by H. A. Patterson.” As noted earlier, the volume was translated by J. A. Patterson, not H. A. Patterson. How does McDowell list Schultz’s work in his bibliography toward the end of New Evidence? It is listed as being “from the fourth edition by H. A. Patterson.”[37] If I’m being generous, this is merely a typo on McDowell’s part given that H and J are right next to each other on a QWERTY keyboard. But Lyons it seems just blindly follows McDowell. He never bothers to investigate the works of Wellhausen or Schultz himself. He is instead reliant on another source that, as we’ve seen, merely quote-mines. 

THE MORAL OF THE STORY

What can we say by way of conclusion here? The first thing is that such quote-mining by apologists is nothing new and until they raise their standards and decide to engage with scholarship honestly then this is precisely the sort of thing they will continue to do. It is, of course, the easy path, a short cut that requires little time and effort on their part. And given how rare it is that their audience knows enough to fact-check them, such apologists are often safe from criticism. 

This leads us to the second thing: when it comes to Christian apologists, it is never “Trust but verify.” It is only ever “Verify.” Pop-apologists simply cannot be trusted to accurately quote or cite their sources or to even engage directly with the relevant literature, preferring instead to access it second hand. It is a sure-fire way to reach your preferred conclusion, but it is not a way to arrive at the truth. 

So, to Robert Clifton Robinson, Scott Richards, and Eric Lyons I say, “Do better. Your witness is at stake.” 

And I say that as an atheist!  


[1] That isn’t to say unbelievers don’t perform such cherry-picking: they absolutely do. 

[2] Eric Lyons, “Moses and the Art of Writing” (3.28.10), apologeticspress.org. 

[3] See “Impeaching Robert Clifton Robinson” (6.25.19), amateurexegete.com. For those who don’t know Robinson, he loves the word “impeach,” hence the title of my own.

[4] See, for example, “Caught in the Act: SJ Thomason Is at It Again” (2.11.20), amateurexegete.com.

[5] R. Scott Richards, Answers for the Skeptic (Costa Mesa, CA: The Word for Today, 2002). 

[6] Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel with a Reprint of the Article Israel from the “Encyclopedia Britannica, translated by J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1885), 6.

[7] Benedict Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, in Spinoza: Complete Works, translated by Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002), 474-475.

[8] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 476.

[9] Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, 476.

[10] For an overview of Astruc’s life, see Rudolf Smend, “Jean Astruc: A Physician as a Biblical Scholar,” in Sacred Conjectures: The Context and Legacy of Robert Lowth and Jean Astruc, edited by John Jarick (New York: T&T Clark International, 2007), 157-173.

[11] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 42.

[12] Michael D. Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures, third edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 51.

[13] See the discussion in Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 105-106.

[14] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 392-410.

[15] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 392.

[16] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 392.

[17] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 393.

[18] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 393.

[19] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 392.

[20] Ordinarily, the Book of the Covenant or “Covenant Code” is attributed to the Elohist. See, for example, Richard Elliot Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses (New York: HarperOne, 2003), 154-159.

[21] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 393.

[22] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 393-394.

[23] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 394.

[24] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 395.

[25] Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, 396.

[26] Hermann Schultz, Old Testament Theology: The Religion of Revelation in Its Pre-Christian Stage of Development, translated by J. A. Patterson, second edition (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1898), 1:25.

[27] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:25-26.

[28] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:26.

[29] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:26.

[30] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:125-126.

[31] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:126.

[32] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:128.

[33] Josh McDowell, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999).

[34] Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2017). 

[35] Schultz, Old Testament Theology, 1:25.

[36] McDowell, New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 430.

[37] McDowell, New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, 721.

Bible Study for Amateurs #27 – Hey Jude 17-19!

Jude attempts to keep the family together.

‘The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy’ by Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry – A Brief Review

I once knew someone who said that the scariest movie they’d ever seen wasn’t a horror movie at all. It was the 2001 drama A Beautiful Mind. When I asked why such a movie was so terrifying to them, this person replied, “To not know what’s real and what isn’t, to lose control of your own mind despite being so brilliant – that is true terror.” The film stars Russell Crowe as real-life mathematician John Nash and it tells the story of his struggles with mental illness. In the movie, Nash would hallucinate and think he saw people who were not there. It jeopardized not only his own well-being but that of those closest to him. Nash, who died in 2015, had a long and productive career despite his struggles. His work still influences the fields of mathematics and economics today. Nevertheless, considering its subject matter, it’s hard to argue against my acquaintance’s reckoning that A Beautiful Mind is a horror film.

In a similar vein, were you to ask me what the most frightening read of the past twelve months has been for me, I wouldn’t answer with Colson Whitehead’s Zone One or S.H. Cooper’s Inheriting Her Ghosts or even Nick Cutter’s The Troop. All three fall somewhere in the genre of horror fiction and were excellent reads. (Cutter’s in particular was hard to put down.) Instead, I would respond with a work of non-fiction written by sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry entitled The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2022). Though it is but a brief work at 176 pages, it has managed to haunt me well after I finished reading it. Specifically, the authors set out to answer “four fundamental questions: (1) What is white Christian nationalism? (2) When did it emerge? (3) How does it work politically? And finally (4) Where might it be headed tomorrow?” (p. 3) 

To answer the first, Gorski and Perry point to “a constellation of beliefs” (p. 14). For example, believing that the United States was in some sense founded upon Christianity is part of that constellation, as is the notion that the US should adopt Christian values. Additionally, there has been a historic merging of so-called Christian values with the Republican party which is itself predominantly white. This conflation means that in the eyes of many white evangelicals, to be a Christian is to be a Republican. Added to this mixture is a “deep story,” a narrative that informs white Christian nationalism explaining America’s greatness. It typically involves elevating white characters and either ignoring or denigrating minority ones. 

An example of this can be seen in the textbook I used during my two semesters of American History at Pensacola Christian College. Entitled United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom,[1] the volume presents a particular understanding of the nation’s history that is decidedly conservative (i.e., Republican) and Christian (i.e., Baptist fundamentalism). In ch. 1 in a section on the religion of Native Americans in North America prior to the arrival of colonial powers, the authors write this: 

The native Americans, like most early people, forsook the things they once knew about God. Rather than worshipping the Creator, they worshiped creation, particularly things they could not understand such as thunder, wind, fire, and the sun. They also believed that spirits lived in the mountains, water, trees, plants, and animals around them. Because superstition kept the Indians from working together to develop the land in which they lived, America would remain an untamed wilderness until the Europeans arrived.[2]

By casting Native Americans as ignorant and superstitious, unable to tame the wilderness because of their religious beliefs, the authors not only set up white settlers as saviors, but they also suggest that Native Americans today are backward and foolish if they continue believing in their non-Christian religion, thus perpetuating Christian (and white) supremacy. Most telling is a question that appears in the chapter review at the end: “Describe native American religion. How do you think native American religion hindered their advancement?”[3] Note that the question isn’t “Did native American religion hinder their advancement?” Rather, underlying the question is the assumption that Christianity is superior because it brought “civilization.” In fact, later in the textbook the authors make it clear that American democracy was only successful because of “the influence of Biblical Christianity” and that it only works “in a nation where a majority of citizens are steeped in the virtues of Biblical Christianity.”[4]

In ch. 2 of The Flag and the Cross, the authors look at the history of white Christian nationalism, offering readers a crash course in the racism that has held sway over this nation since before the Revolutionary era. Referring to “the spirit of 1690,” the authors trace the history of white Christian nationalism through a series of years: 1689, 1763, 1889, and 1989. In the early days before the dawn of the republic, theologians supplied an eager audience a “racist theology” that had two tracks. The first was “pre-Adamism” which claimed that prior to Adam there had been a degenerate race of humans who lacked souls. The second was the curse on Canaan that “condemned his offspring to perpetual servitude” (p. 55). These bigoted ideologies served as justification for a host of evils that came to a head in the American Civil War. Yet even then it was not done away with, especially with the “Lost Cause” myth promoted by former Confederates and their descendants. In the twentieth century, the Christian Right came into its own. Gorski and Perry note that despite the claims of many conservatives, it wasn’t Roe v. Wade that created the Christian Right. Rather, it was “[o]pposition to racial integration [that] was the real catalyst” (p. 69). Though not mentioned by the authors, one indication of this was the creation of private schools in the wake of the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, a subject discussed at length in J. Russell Hawkins’s fascinating volume The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy (Oxford University Press, 2021).[5]

Chapters 3-4 look at recent developments in white Christian nationalism, including the insurrection that took place on January 6th of 2021, as well as what the future might hold if these beliefs go on undeterred. They open ch. 4 by writing, “It is tempting to dismiss the insurrection as an isolated incident by a few bad actors” (p. 103). They warn that we should not sleep on this because a “second eruption would likely be larger and more violent than the first. Large enough to bury American democracy for at least a generation.” And this is what makes The Flag and the Cross such a terrifying book. If conservative white evangelicals continue to align themselves with populists like Trump and continue to hold views contrary to reality (e.g., that whites are more likely to experience racism than blacks; cf. pp. 20-22), then an insurrection of a much larger scale is seemingly inevitable. Trumpist America would not be Hitler’s Germany,” they write. 

But it would be not so far removed from Putin’s Russia either. And like this and other populist and kleptocratic regimes, it would be characterized by governmental incompetence accompanied by gradual economic decline. Ironically, a serious attempt to ‘make America great again’ would probably ending up making it chaotic and poor” (p. 127).

How do we prevent this? By building “a popular front stretching from democratic socialists” all the way to “cosmopolitan #NeverTrump evangelicals” (p. 128). To do so, we must be open and honest about our nation’s history, and we must learn to focus on our most essential rights, especially the right to vote. 

The horror genre is a broad tent. It can include zombies and werewolves and poltergeists and serial killers and alien viruses. But for the most part, these are pure fiction. No rational person fears werewolves or zombies or even aliens. A large-scale insurrection, however, is a real possibility and it is up to us to do all that we can to make sure it never happens. Gorski and Perry have written a horror novel of sorts by showing the monstrosity that is white Christian nationalism and what it can do should we fail to act. And if we fail, we will be living in a horror novel of our own making. 


[1] Michael R. Lowman, George Thompson, and Kurt Grussendorf, United States History in Christian Perspective: Heritage of Freedom, second edition (Pensacola, FL: Pensacola Christian College, 1996).

[2] Lowman et. al., United States History in Christian Perspective, 7.

[3] Lowman et. al., United States History in Christian Perspective, 21.

[4] Lowman et. al., United States History in Christian Perspective, 132, 133.

[5] Hawkins considers the specific case of South Carolina and the efforts to circumvent integration by creating private schools that could be practically (though not legally) segregated. You can read my brief review of Hawkins book as well.

The Roundup – 5.7.22

The Roundup – 5.7.22

Bible Study for Amateurs #24 – Hey Jude 8-10!

What a dispute over Moses’s body tells Jude’s audience. 

Amateur Hour #8 – Leaving Christian Science w/Rev N Fidel

In this episode of Amateur Hour, I talk with Rev N Fidel about his experience as a Christian Scientist (and what that means) as well as his work in Christian publishing at the dawn of the digital age.

‘Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus,’ edited by W. David Beck and Michael R. Licona – A Brief Review

If it happened, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would have been one of the most important (if not the most important) event in human history. It is little wonder that apologists spend so much time and treasure defending it. One of the premier defenders of Jesus’s resurrection in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has been Gary Habermas, professor of philosophy and apologetics at Liberty University, and a recent volume edited by W. David Beck and Michael Licona entitled Raised on the Third Day: Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Lexham Press, 2020) aims to honor Habermas who has not only influenced Beck and Licona but countless other apologists. In the course of roughly 392 pages and a dozen and a half chapters, various authors offer their thoughts on subjects which Habermas has engaged in his nearly half-century career. Contributors include J.P. Moreland on substance-dualism (ch. 2), William Lane Craig on the connection between Jesus’s “atoning death” and the resurrection (ch. 6), Dale Allison on near death experiences and their relationship to Christian theology (ch. 10), and more. In some ways, Raised on the Third Day is a Who’s Who? of Christian apologists and thinkers.[1]

Though subtitled “Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus,” some of the essays in the volume seemed irrelevant to this lofty goal. For example, in ch. 5 we read Francis Beckwith’s engagement with political philosopher John Rawls. Specifically, Beckwith attempts to take Rawls’s “neutralist liberalism” on subjects like abortion and see how it could be applied to issues like whether Christian bakers should be required to make cakes for same-sex weddings. It’s a piece better suited for a volume on contemporary issues in Christian political philosophy than one on the resurrection of Jesus. The same could be said of David Baggett’s piece on a “minimal facts” moral argument (ch. 7) as well as W. David Beck’s on the underlying structure of moral arguments (ch. 8). These too would be more appropriate for a work on philosophy of religion rather than one on the historicity of the resurrection of God’s son.

In addition to these seemingly misplaced essays, Raised on the Third Day features not one but two separate chapters on the Shroud of Turin. Whatever the value of the shroud and no matter its authenticity, it generally plays a very minor role in evangelical apologetics and, to my knowledge, has no direct bearing on the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Mark Foreman offers a variety of “naturalistic” hypotheses to explain the image on the shroud, including the idea that the shroud was at some point irradiated. This, he writes, “is currently the best explanation for how the image was formed on the Shroud” (p. 55). But while some might think that it was the resurrection itself that was the radiating event, Foreman cautions against such a conclusion writing, “The fact is, we simply do not know what a resurrection event would look like, nor what residual effects it might leave behind. To make any such claims is to go beyond the evidence, even if the Shroud is the authentic burial cloth of Jesus. I am open to the radiation hypothesis as being in line with the resurrection, but I would not claim it is evidence of it” (p. 58). In which case, what good is the shroud? To prove Jesus died? We already knew that. 

Two essays do stand out. The first is Beth Sheppard’s contribution entitled “Racing Toward the Tomb: Purity and Sacrifice in the Fourth Gospel” (pp. 225-255). Sheppard is a professor at Ingram Library at the University of West Georgia and has a variety of works including one on how biblical scholars and historians make use of the New Testament documents to reconstruct the past entitled The Craft of History and the Study of the New Testament (SBL, 2013).[2] Prior to reading her contribution to Raised on the Third Day, I was unaware of Sheppard’s work. Now that I’ve been introduced to it, I can say that her writing is as delightful as it is informative. Whether it’s disputing Habermas’s claim that the scene in John 19:34-35 is “evidence that the type of wound Jesus received was lethal” (see pp. 226-230), or alerting readers to the Fourth Evangelist’s desire to “portray Jesus as possessing a constant state of purity” (p. 248), Sheppard writes methodically and thoroughly. If there is any essay worth rereading in Raised on the Third Day, it is Sheppard’s. 

The second essay that stands out does so for reasons opposite of Sheppard’s. It is Frank Turek’s closing chapter entitled “What Everyone Should Learn from Gary Habermas” (pp. 325-338). The only redeeming quality of the piece is its brevity; it is one of the shortest in the volume. Turek, taking his cues from Habermas and Michael Licona, trots out many of the same, tired arguments for the reliability of the Gospels that when looked at closely simply do not hold water. For example, he spends considerable space on the criterion of embarrassment, making such asinine claims as Jesus’s genealogy is unlikely to be an invention because it includes “two prostitutes… (Tamar and Rahab), an adulterer (Bathsheba), and a king (David) who lies, cheats, and murders to cover up his sins. That’s certainly not an invented royal bloodline!” (p. 329). Setting aside the fleeting utility of the criterion of embarrassment, Turek’s lack of imagination and general unacquaintance with any scholarship that doesn’t have the word “apologetics” in the description makes Raised on the Third Day seem amateurish. (And I should know – I am an amateur.) 

Raised on the Third Day is not the best book on the resurrection of Jesus I’ve ever read, nor is it the worst. But apart from Sheppard’s contribution and perhaps that of Dale Allison on NDEs, it is not a very useful volume. Readers would do better to pick up Allison’s recent work on the resurrection or even Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (IVP Academic, 2010). Or save your money and perhaps one day Habermas himself will publish that “magnum opus” everyone keeps talking about.[3] 


[1] Sometimes these categories overlap!

[2] See http://bethmsheppard.com/biography/.

[3] Sometimes I make myself laugh.