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Errors of the Elohist

By Robert M. Price

We are gathered this weekend to celebrate the life and legacy of the great Robert Ingersoll. At such a time of backward-looking, there are two senses in which we wonder whether his work has stood the test of time. First, is it still well-known? Are readers still conversant with Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses? In his day, his lectures of this title were so well beloved (and hated!) that people seemed to regard them immediately as public property, not the possession of the speaker who had created them. So they rushed pirate transcripts into print and circulated them, much like bootleg CDs made from rock concerts and circulated among fans today.

Second, we have to ask if the value of the work is abiding. If not, the work is as well forgotten. Sometimes a book with no value stubbornly hangs on because, as the writer of the Pastoral Epistles said, people's ears are itching to hear what it has to say, however worthless. A case of this would be Nicholas Notovitch's bogus Unknown Life of Christ, a supposed Tibetan account of the Asian travels of Jesus. Debunked decades ago by the great Orientalist Max Müller, this book continues to be reprinted and avidly devoured by New Agers who find the premise attractive (--which is apparently their sole criterion for truth!). Occasionally Freethought works circulate in the same manner, having outlived their usefulness. For instance, Kersey Graves's The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors is now something of an embarrassment to the cause, since more accurate information on comparative mythology makes many of its claims seem untenable.

Into which of these categories does Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses fall? I am glad to report that its value and its power remain undiminished after 120 years, like gunpowder kept dry and ready to fire. It is no mere relic of outmoded polemic. Unfortunately it is generally treated like one, though we owe Prometheus Books a great debt for keeping it available to new generations. One gets the impression that the book is in danger of relegation to the same airless limbo as all the other relics on display in the Ingersoll Home: tokens, mementos, time capsule fodder. This neglect is possibly partly the result of the incautious, tactless manner of Ingersoll, no longer politically correct, though I confess that his scathing style one of the book's chief attractions for me. Ingersoll understood that, if a proposition is ludicrous enough, we lend it undeserved credibility when we respond too politely. This has certainly been my own policy, for instance, in my contributions to the Internet Infidels collection of replies to fundamentalist Josh McDowell.

But Ingersoll's great book on the Pentateuch certainly does not deserve the obscurity that is gaining upon it. Its scholarship is by no means out of date, as a close, literal reading of the biblical text never is. Ingersoll must have known that the sands of critical opinion shift and drift, and that, even as Christian faith is perilously founded upon historical and exegetical uncertainties, so is the rejection of faith. That is to say, Ingersoll's critique of the Bible and its deity are not predicated upon any particular critical theory, whether in fashion or out. He refers throughout the book to Moses as the author of the Pentateuch, but only in a conventional sense. He shows how the book must have originated long after the time of Moses's supposed dates. But who was the author? My title makes reference to one of the critical theories of Pentateuchal authorship, the famous Graf-Wellhausen theory that the 5 so-called Books of Moses were a textual fusion of four earlier documents. "J," the Yahwist Epic, consistently used Yahweh as the divine name. "E," the Elohist Epic, calls God "Elohim" until the burning bush story and then switches to Yahweh or combines the two. "D," our Book of Deuteronomy, is a law code prefaced by a summary of J and E, already sown together in the Deuteronomist's time. "P," or the Priestly Code, is another vast legal corpus prefaced by stories of the Patriarchs and Moses. This elegant and illuminating hypothesis held the field for over a century. It is only being questioned by critical scholars in our day, though there is of course no thought of going back to Mosaic authorship, let me hasten to say. Had Ingersoll made use of the JEDP hypothesis, he might have been hailed as an astute biblical critic. But if he had, his polemic would have depended on a thousand critical points of debate and would have waned as the theory itself waned.

And besides, it was unnecessary. Colonel Ingersoll was, after all, a military man, and he knew you don't shoot a mouse with an elephant gun. He was not primarily an educator in the right understanding of the Bible. Old Testament critics did and do explain the sources of the Pentateuch, form criticism, and other such matters, because they want Bible readers to plumb the depths of this ancient document unimpeded by the dogmatic blinders of the past. Biblical inerrantism was and remains the worst enemy of the proper appreciation of the Bible. But Colonel Ingersoll was fighting the war for intellectual liberty on a broader front.

Too great praise challenges attention [Ingersoll wrote], and often brings to light a thousand faults that otherwise the general eye would never see. Were we allowed to read the Bible as we do all other books, we would admire its beauties, treasure its worthy thoughts, and account for all its absurd, grotesque and cruel things, by saying that its authors lived in rude, barbaric times. But we are told that it was written by inspired men; that it contains the will of God; that it is perfect, pure, and true in all its parts; the source and standard of all moral and religious truth; that it is the star and anchor of all human hope; the only guide for man, the only torch in Nature's night. These claims are so at variance with every known recorded fact, so palpably absurd, that every free, unbiased soul is forced to raise the standard of revolt. (pp. viii-ix)

Note, if you please, Ingersoll is no Bible-hater, no village atheist with a tin ear for the beauty of scripture. No, he would doubtless say, we are more likely to stand conscience-stricken at Isaiah's oracles against the exploitation of mortgaged farmers, more likely to warm to the Gandhi-like insights of the Sermon on the Mount, if we do not feel foolishly obliged to pretend that the stupefying pedantry of Leviticus or the bloodthirsty genocide of Joshua are on the same level with them! To listen to some Freethinkers, one might imagine the Skeptic's task to be the mirror image of the fundamentalist's: to make the sublimities of the Bible appear as barbaric as its superstition and priestcraft. This seems to me the bizarre and superfluous approach, for example, of the recent broadside Queen Jane's Version. Today's Freethought debaters and polemicists (I am happy to be one of them) could stand to emulate Colonel Ingersoll's balance. He was not like Dracula, recoiling in fear and loathing from scripture, and we shouldn't be either. Not only is it neurotic; it causes us to play right into the stereotypes our opponents have of us. Personally, I approach my debates with the likes of William Lane Craig and Craig Blomberg not as an enemy of the Bible, but as a champion and partisan of the Bible. I love it! I read it as we read all other ancient books, like the Iliad and the Odyssey. I love them, too.

No, Ingersoll's point was that the Bible had become an idol and a tool of oppression wielded with great force and subtle skill by the Grand Inquisitor. It was a bottomless cornucopia of false hopes and empty threats for those cowed, like Dostoyevsky said, by miracle, mystery and authority. His aim might be summed up in a memorable phrase from the Reverend Jim Jones: I've got to destroy this paper idol! Ingersoll had to demonstrate what the Bible is not by showing inescapably what it is. How did he show that the Bible could be a sure guide neither to nature nor to the supernatural?

Ingersoll first shows the untenability of the seven-day creation account as compared not only with the fossil record but with what else we know of ancient history. We need much more history than a single week allows. Knowing that supposedly critical theologians are merely apologists retreating to plan B, Ingersoll then cuts off the escape route of allegory. He will not allow apologists to make the "days" of creation into long periods of millions of years, for then we must ask how plants can have flourished for so long in their allotted "day" with no animals or insects to eat them and help them reproduce? Etc., etc.,. And what of the Sabbath? Were the Deists right, then? Did God take a rest of millions of years after finishing the creation?

So the Genesis One creation story is wrong; it contradicts all known data. If, like Jerry Falwell said on a TV show with Carl Sagan, one proposes simply to close one's eyes to the scientific data and to believe the Bible instead, Ingersoll shows one is no better off--since then which of two contradictory accounts is one to believe? The Garden of Eden story contradicts the seven-day creation story in every particular. It is simply impossible to believe both at the same time. (Fundamentalists, for all their vaunted attention to the letter to the text, either never notice the problems or resort to pathetic spin-doctoring to sidestep them.) Since it is merely the presence in the biblical text that requires the reader believe in either one, the poor biblicist is painted into a corner! You must choose! Yet your choice of either undermines the reason you took either one seriously in the first place!

But Ingersoll, canny tactician that he was, knew his enemy's path of retreat. He knew the next ploy would be to shorten the line of defense by cutting loose the natural data of the Bible, its erroneous statements about the age and shape and workings of the world, and to defend the inner courtyard instead: to claim that, though the Bible's teaching might be clothed in the terms of an ancient world-picture, its affirmations on morality and religion were still to be regarded as infallible. This is still the approach of sophisticated Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics today.

But Ingersoll saw the fortress crumbling and pressed his assault. He had not the slightest difficulty in demonstrating that the Bible, especially of course the Pentateuch, was filled with ancient barbarism: slavery, genocide, human sacrifice, oppression of women. In a particularly devastating tour-de-force, the Colonel laid bare the awful irony of the whole fundamentalist enterprise, what I like to call the sliding scale of biblical infallibility. It is this: biblicists start out claiming that the Bible is a divine revelation and should therefore govern both belief and behavior. Robust but naive biblicism lasts only so long before the facts of science (e.g., the sphericity of the earth) become problematical, and then biblicism becomes either fanatical (e.g., the Flat Earth Society--it really does exist!) or sophistical. In the latter case, it switches tactics and admits science is correct, the earth is round, but says that science has only clarified what the Bible was trying to tell us all along! And then passages will be quoted out of context to make it look like Isaiah or Job envisioned a spherical earth. How pathetic! Biblicists start by trying to lead the way, albeit as blind guides of the sighted, and they wind up playing catch-up, like the Soviets in the 1960s: "We inwented it first!" Ingersoll said:

A few years ago, Science endeavored to show that it was not inconsistent with the Bible. The tables have been turned, and now, Religion is endeavoring to prove that the Bible is not inconsistent with Science. The standard has been changed. (p. 242)

Ingersoll at least implicitly made the same point in the case of biblicism in morals. Once biblicists led the way, or tried to, demanding that all follow the dictates of the Bible. In the ancient monolithic culture of Israel and Judah, whose mores we may be sure the Bible reflected rather than determined, there was no great gap between the law and people's lives. But in modern pluralistic America, biblical law has become highly problematic, and it is easy to recognize dogged biblical literalists as fanatical. The counterpart to the Flat Earthers in the realm of biblical law would be the Christian Reconstructionists like Gary North and Rousas Rushdoony, who want to live in an America where adulterers, smart-mouth kids, and loud-mouthed atheists would be executed.

If the Reconstructionists are the fanatical biblicists, who are their opposites, the sophistical biblicists? They are most Christians of whatever denomination who simply assume that the Bible teaches what is right. And what is right? Middle-class moralism. Whatever mulligan stew of Victorianism, Thomism, and pop psychology their pulpits happen to be dispensing at the moment. The Babbit-like Congressmen who want to post the Decalogue in public classrooms could never have suggested such a policy if they had recalled for a moment how the commandments actually read! Monotheism? Aniconic worship? Sabbatarianism? Considering women chattel alongside livestock? No commandments against lying ("bearing false witness" is more specific), fornication, drugs or intoxicants? Ingersoll might have been thinking of our Congress when he wrote:

It has been contended for many years that the Ten Commandments are the foundation of all ideas of justice and of law. Eminent jurists have bowed to popular prejudice, and deformed their works by statements to the effect that the Mosaic laws are the fountain from which sprang all ideas of right and wrong. Nothing can be more stupidly false than such assertions. (p. 234)

Presupposed in all such public rhetoric, whether from Falwell or from Congress, is an unacknowledged fact: again, the standard has changed! The poor Bible is following, not leading. Of course supposed advocates of biblical morality (except for our Reconstructionist zealots, who thus constitute the exception that proves the rule) do not advocate genocide or slavery any more than they believe the earth is flat, even though the Bible says all these things equally. When pressed about these distasteful teachings, they will start arguing for "progressive revelation." God, we will be told, had to take the ancients as he found them and work with what he had. He couldn't shock their system too severely all at once. Well, this is just absurd; both Old and New Testament writers had more advanced moral standards available to them in their environments, as surviving records show. They were retrograde even at the time.

Once upon a time, some fundamentalists could see that the Bible condoned and even commanded slavery. It was easy for them to recognize that, since they themselves owned slaves. Other biblicists' consciences proved better than their creeds, but they couldn't afford to realize that. They harmonized the contradiction by managing to read the Bible as an anti-slavery text. The Civil War has come and gone, and now all biblicists recognize slavery as a despicable evil; they say that the Bible merely "tolerated" slavery for the sake of the ancients' hard hearts. Once all biblicists recognized that the Bible assigns women a secondary role, but when Suffrage came along, some were able to re-read the Bible as an egalitarian document. In both cases, biblicists find themselves, as they did in the case of natural science, playing "catch-up." Their strategy is to follow the distinctive morality of the Bible as long as it does not become as offensive to them as it is to "unbelievers," and when it does, they reverse course, claiming that the Bible, understood rightly, is as enlightened as secular morality any day. What damning faint praise! And what pathetic self-deception. By such a process of gradual assimilation liberal theology was born from fundamentalist: by and by, all that made Christianity a distinctive option, even if an obnoxious one, has bled out, and Christianity has humanized itself by moving ever closer to Humanism. Why not just go all the way?

The same is true even in the area of philosophical theology. Ingersoll is everywhere concerned to rub the reader's nose in the biblical depiction of God as a mythical being on pretty much the same level with Zeus. He will have none of the apologetical hogwash that has always tried to say "God's image," in which human beings were made, referred to rationality or some such abstraction. No, Ingersoll insists that we read the text literally and not take Jehovah to be some Anselmian abstraction when "Moses" clearly presented him as a temperamental tyrant whose "grace" is just the arbitrary "thumbs up" of a Nero at the Coliseum. Alfred North Whitehead recognized the biblical Jehovah for what he was:

As for the Christian theology, can you imagine anything more appallingly idiotic than the Christian idea of heaven? What kind of deity is it that would be capable of creating angels and men to sing his praises day and night to all eternity? It is, of course, the figure of an Oriental despot, with his inane and barbaric vanity. Such a conception is an insult to God. (in Lucien Price, Dialogues of Alfred North Whitehead, p. 277)

Colonel Ingersoll--the title always reminds me of the Dayton Tennessee Scopes Trial, immortalized in the film Inherit the Wind, because of the titular elevation of both protagonists, Brady and Drummond (Bryant and Darrow) to the rank of honorary colonel in the State Militia. It was silly, and yet it was right on target as Colonels Brady and Drummond blasted away at each other with salvos of unequaled oratory. Colonel Ingersoll, too, fought on that battlefield. And what a delightful coincidence that the chief theoretician of 19th century American fundamentalism was Benjamin B. Warfield!

I think it is Warfield's kind of thinking that Ingersoll has in view when he repeatedly asks if we must be damned to hell for not believing this or that biblical absurdity. Did fundamentalists ever claim belief in biblical inerrancy was a condition of salvation? It sounds like Ingersoll is bayoneting a straw man. But I don't think he is. You see, Warfield was trying to close the door on liberal theology, which might otherwise tempt his Princeton Seminary students. Liberal theology said you could very well accept Jesus as savior without believing in the infallibility of scripture: two different issues, no? But Warfield said you were not much of a disciple of Jesus, not much of a follower of Christ, if you picked and chose which of his teachings you felt like accepting. And as it happens, Warfield reminded his students, Christ and the apostles can be shown to have shared the contemporary Jewish scholastic doctrine of scriptural infallibility. Had Christ not addressed the point, we would be left to our own best speculations, but as it is, like it or not, a good Christian must share his Lord's doctrine of scripture. Doesn't this imply that anyone who fails to share this belief is no disciple of Jesus? And thus damned! In case you hadn't noticed, fundamentalists simply do not believe what they say they believe and think they believe: that one is saved by the simple grace of God. There are too many shibboleths for that.

I started by observing that a once-great book might become outmoded in two senses. Some Mistakes of Moses has been left behind in the popular consciousness, and that is a tragedy, since it is far from outdated in the cogency of its arguments. A third sense of outmodedness, however, is this: is the book still timely? Is it relevant? And plainly Ingersoll's Some Mistakes of Moses is at least as important to the perennial struggle for intellectual and social liberty as it ever was, perhaps even moreso. And I am convinced that at least some of us must join that battle using the same techniques as Colonel Ingersoll used: debate, polemic--in the opponent's home stadium! As Ingersoll did, if we hope to show biblical fundamentalists the error of their inerrantist ways, we have to debate with them as they do with each other in their more-or-less friendly sectarian disputes. To be taken seriously we must, as Ingersoll sought to do, demonstrate a superior understanding of the text of the Bible read literally and in detail. We must not retreat into the vagaries of allegory and demythologizing as liberal Christians do. We must join fundamentalists in their disdain for such sleight-of-hand. We must ask what reading of the text makes the most sense, answers the most questions, solves the most puzzles. That is the only argument a biblicist can respect, and rightly so! After all, it was precisely such honest, unblinking scrutiny of the biblical text that led many of us out of fundamentalism and into Humanism in the first place. To this end, I invite your support for three strategic measures:

First, of course, the renewed propagation of Ingersoll's own Some Mistakes of Moses. It is as winsome and as powerful as the day it was written. Second, the funding of translations of several foreign language classics of biblical criticism which have, thanks to Christian control over religious publishing, never been rendered into English before, notably the works of Bruno Bauer and W.C. van Manen. And third, the publication of what I call a Skeptic's Annotated Bible, a study edition of the Old and New Testaments with notes and articles detailing the prescientific and fictive character of most of the narrative, as well as the shocking moral and religious ideas tactfully smoothed over by Christian study editions. Introductory essays would explore the questions of who chose the books to go into the Bible, why and when, the political issues involved, etc. Where this and that Bible passage point in a "heretical" direction, the Skeptic's Bible would hasten to point it out. Cross-references would highlight contradictions, not paper them over. A critical, scientific, and skeptical perspective on the Bible would become clearer than ever, and the Freethinker would have at his fingertips all the ammunition he requires for the battle into which our brave Colonel led us these many years ago.


 

Copyrightę2007 by Robert M Price
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