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.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on writing introductions to the New Testament!
Despite the rather reductionistic takes from some of my atheist brethren, the Bible contains some rich and beautiful texts. One of them is Psalm 23, a song with which most people are familiar, at least in the Christian West. Though attributed to David, Israel’s most famous monarch, we don’t really know who composed it. Nor do we know how it would have originally been sung. Thus, any attempt to render it musically is interpretive. And that’s okay.
Before I share my three favorite musical renditions of Psalm 23, let me say something about the sheep/shepherd imagery it employs. Some of my fellow atheists are fond of pointing to imagery like that of v. 1 – “The LORD is my shepherd” – and saying things like, “See you’re just sheep to them. Stupid sheep! That’s how your Sky Daddy views you!” The criticism, though stinging, misses the point of sheep/shepherd imagery. Take that first verse, for example. After saying that Yahweh is his shepherd, the psalmist follows it up with what can only be an explanation of what that entails: “I shall not want,” i.e., “I will never lack for anything.” Because sheep represented the livelihood of the shepherd, they were forced to take care of them. They had to be fed which required grass and, therefore “green pastures” (v. 2). They needed to drink safely and therefore needed “still waters” (or, “waters of rest”). Because sheep have few means of defense, they were susceptible to predators, and so they needed the comfort and protection of the shepherd’s rod and staff (v. 4). The end of the psalm, vv. 5-6, of course changes the theme but the image of a god who comforts and protects remains. So safe is the psalmist that even with his enemies close at hand to see, Yahweh has prepared a feast for him (v. 5). Best of all, he will get to enjoy the deity’s presence his whole life through the temple, “the house of the LORD” (v. 6). The whole point of the psalm is that the god of Israel is this ancient author’s caretaker.
As a teen and even in my early 20s, I had little appreciation for this psalm. More often than not, I heard it read at funerals and so it took on some fairly negative baggage. But as I got older, I came to appreciate the language of the song more. The psalm isn’t about death at all but about a full and rich life. And while I no longer believe Yahweh exists, I can appreciate the psalmist’s words and what he must have felt while writing them. Now, onto my three favorite renditions of this psalm!
First up is one with which some of my British readers may be familiar. Written by Howard Goodall, this rendition served as the opening to the BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley. This was a show I watched a lot because my mother loved (and still loves) British comedies. (Her favorite by far was Good Neighbors, or as it appeared in Britain, The Good Life.) If you’ve not watched The Vicar of Dibley, you probably should as it is arguably one of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen. And who doesn’t love Dawn French? This particular rendition is by the Smith Ensemble that was recorded well after the series aired. One of the things I love about it is the violin that opens the piece and punctuates throughout.
Next is a version of the song that first appeared on the album Glory Revealed II back in 2009, a time when I was an evangelical Christian working in youth ministry. The song is sung by Trevor Morgan, a worship pastor in California, and Geoff Moore, the one-time lead singer of the band “Geoff Moore and the Distance.” This album was constantly playing in my 2000 Chevy Cavalier and this song became a repeat hit. It’s kind of folksy, complete with a fiddle that shows up throughout. The chorus that is repeated a few times is v. 4 and it emphasizes the theme of comfort prevalent in the psalm.
The final version is one in Hebrew and performed by the band MIQEDEM, a word that means “from the east.” I only recently stumbled across this version of it, but I’ve become obsessed. The harmonies are beautiful and the music itself is arresting. And halfway through the song, the tone of the song shifts as they sing v. 4. The tempo picks up and the percussion really begins to take on a life of its own. It’s just a great rendition.
The Bible can be terrible but there are parts that are equally as beautiful. And texts like Psalm 23, especially when put to music, come through as shining examples of the genius of these ancient authors. There’s a reason their words still resonate with us today.
Michael Coogan is da man!
The New Testament is a lot more Jewish than some give it credit for.
This past Friday I had the privilege of talking with Ruben of Placebo Effect. Ruben is a former atheist who became a Christian and he invited me on to talk about my journey from Christianity to atheism. We also got onto a fun tangent regarding the authorship of the Gospel of John. The conversation is short, only around 30 minutes, but it is pretty packed. I enjoy these sorts of discussions because they are vary casual and informal. If you haven’t subscribed to Ruben’s channel, go do it! Now!
Yesterday afternoon, I had the chance to talk with the Non-Alchemist and Matthew Hartke about the resurrection of Jesus, cognitive dissonance, Paul’s experience of the risen Christ, and much more. (You can also hear me mispronounce Ralph Fiennes last name. How embarrassing! Though it’s not nearly as embarrassing as the fact that neither of these two were familiar with the 80s classic The Boy Who Could Fly. For shame!) This conversation was a sequel to one we had back in 2020 and it was nice to reconnect with these two gentlemen and talk about these weighty topics.
If you haven’t already, go ahead and subscribe both to the Non-Alchemist’s channel and Hartke’s. Both have produced high quality content that I think sets the standard for how skeptics need to talk about topics related to the philosophy of religion and the historical claims of Christianity. I’m hoping that we will get to have another conversation in the near future. In the meantime, Hartke recommended to me some resources on the subject of cognitive dissonance theory and its relationship to the resurrection of Jesus that I will in turn recommend to you.
I would also recommend (and Hartke would concur) Dale Allison’s recent work The Resurrection of Jesus: Apologetics, Polemics, History. It is one of those books that is fun to wrestle with since Allison is the sort of scholar who wears his skepticism on his sleeve. Though a Christian, he is more than willing to poke and prod apologetic arguments for the resurrection, contradicting even the rhetoric of the New Testament when it exhibits a lack of historical parsimony or utility.
In any event, I hope you enjoy watching the conversation as much as I did participating in it. And I also hope you learn as much as I did!
For whom were the Gospels written? The community of the faithful or something else? And to which genre of ancient literature do they belong? These are the two fundamental questions that Robyn Faith Walsh, assistant professor of the New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami, Coral Gables addresses in her 2021 volume The Origins of Early Christianity: Contextualizing the New Testament within Greco-Roman Literary Culture (Cambridge University Press). Weighing in at around 250 pages, Walsh’s work seeks to not only undermine the idea that the Evangelists were written solely to Christ following communities but also to place their writings as not only bioi (“lives”) but specifically as “subversive biographies.”
Following a discussion of Thomas Jefferson and his mangled edition of the New Testament, Walsh contends that Jefferson’s belief that the Gospel writers had managed to supplant while supplementing Jesus’s teachings with pagan ideas meant that they were no longer writing history but something else is fundamentally correct. “Their literary choices rendered an idealized vision of Jesus and his life using details more strategic than historical,” she writes (p. 4). To illustrate this point, in ch. 1 she talks about the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, writing that “[i]f the gospels and Acts function as myths that Christianity tells about itself, scholars must be careful not to reinscribe those myths as history” (p. 21). For example, whereas the letters of Paul suggest an early Christ-following movement beset with conflict and controversy, the Acts of the Apostles “spackles over the messiness of Paul’s real-life mission…and instead offers him a prominent role on par with the disciples in the establishment of the Jesus movement” (p. 34). Later in this chapter, Walsh shows that the canonical Gospels exhibit few of the signs of social formation in religious communities. The view that it was to and for communities of Christ-followers that the Gospels were composed originates with German Romanticism, a subject covered in depth in ch. 2.
In ch. 3, Walsh turns her attention to the work of writing and the training it took to become an author in antiquity. “Any act of writing requires a certain institutional structure, training, and other ‘social conditions,’ both to legitimize and to support the specialists involved,” she writes (p. 113). This meant not only training in rhetoric but also a network of like-minded artists who could read and promote the work. The Evangelists, Walsh contends, would have been no exception. They must have had access to “the same relative levels of education, necessary training, and associated social networks” as other ancient authors (p. 121). Additionally, as she argues in ch. 4, the Gospels engage with many of the same motifs and issues brought up in contemporary literature. She spends several pages comparing them to the Latin composition Satyrica, noting that (among other things) both it and the Gospels contain stories of anointing, a crowing rooster, crucifixion, and missing bodies. Their significance in the context of “paradoxography” is explained later in the chapter.
In the final chapter of The Origins of Early Christian Literature considers the Gospels as a subset of the bios genre – “subversive” biography. Examples of this kind of biography are offered (e.g., Plutarch’s bios of Alexander the Great) and Walsh thinks that the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus fit well within this mode. At the very least, she writes, the Gospels “are the products of creative literary activity” (p. 194). This may not sit well with some readers, but she is no doubt correct. The Evangelists were not merely receiving a tradition and putting it to paper. We know, for example, that Matthew, Luke, and probably John used the Gospel of Mark as a source for their own accounts. The way they handle Mark is evidence for their creativity as authors. They rearrange, replace, and otherwise revise what he had to say about Jesus of Nazareth. In so doing, they necessarily create their own version of the Jesus story. This is the work of authors, not mere redactors.
Walsh’s contribution to the issue of Gospel origins and the workmanship of the Evangelists is fascinating. Despite being unfamiliar with a range of ancient works she discusses, I found her style as readable as it was scholarly. Her discussion of the influence of German Romanticism on the field of New Testament studies, warts and all, is a must for those who want to know where some of scholarship’s most cherished ideas have come from. In the span of just a few hundred pages, Walsh has given me a lot to chew on.