Some comments on Biblical History

A commenter Arkenaten states in the comments to this post that:

I am always mystified how highly intelligent people like yourself maintain a Christian worldview in the face of an ever-growing body of scientific evidence that has already refuted the Pentateuch; now generally accepted as historical fiction, and is busy dismantling the New Testament.

Thanks for coming over and expressing your point of view in a polite manner.  Let me start by pointing out that you are making an Argument from Authority.  Now there's nothing inherently wrong with that—none of us can be experts in every field, and usually when the experts all agree on something, they are right.  But I do like to have some idea of what is the kind and quality of data (and the philosophical presuppositions) that the experts are basing their conclusions on, in order to have some idea about whether I should trust the conclusions.  I am not a fundamentalist, and I am open to modifying my religious ideas based on whatever can in fact be shown scientifically, but I'd like to know that it actually has been shown!

In general, our knowledge of history comes from two complementary sources, written documents and archaeological finds.  Archaeology generally tells us broad features of the movements of people and life in cities, while written sources are needed for more fine-grained biographical and cultural details.  Sometimes our various sources of knowledge conflict, and it's not surprising that the farther back we go in history, the more frequently this happens, since things become harder to reconstruct.

My wife St. Nicole was a classics major; while she was in Ireland she took a class on Celtic languages in Britain.  Apparently in that field, the linguists all swear that there have to have been pre-Celtic peoples on the British Isles, who were then conquered and assimilated by a massive migration of Celts from the continent, while the archaeologists are equally adamant that no such migration can have happened.  (I don't know if the situation has been resolved since then, but that's not important to my point.)  What this shows is that doing ancient history is HARD!  Just as in Science, the different types of data don't always agree very well, and we have to put things together the best we can.  I am not very shocked by most of the apparent contradictions involving biblical history, for the same reason that I'm not very shocked when seeming contradictions arise in other historical fields.  I figure there's a lot of stuff we don't know, and it's easy to get confused.

Heck, cosmology is a more rigorous subject than archaeology, and there, until recently, we had this problem where many galaxies seemed to be older than the universe.  (This issue has since been resolved due to the discovery of the cosmological constant, among other things.)

Now, as St. Scott points out (with many references) you can find experts with many different points of view on the subject of Biblical history.  I can see why you would think that the religious scholars are biased towards finding that the Bible is historically accurate (and I agree that many of them are biased) but what I can't understand is why you think secular scholars would be un-biased!  As St. Chesterton says:

Why should they be impartial, what is being impartial, when the whole world is at war about whether one thing is a devouring superstition or a divine hope? I do not pretend to be impartial in the sense that the final act of faith fixes a man's mind because it satisfies his mind. But I do profess to be a great deal more impartial than they are; in the sense that I can tell the story fairly, with some sort of imaginative justice to all sides; and they cannot.  (The Everlasting Man)

If a person disbelieves in miracles and prophecy, it seems quite natural that they should discount any historical documents in which these things seem to occur.  But this does not make them any more unbiased than a Christian.  And I have frequently found that, when I go so far as to ask why e.g. biblical critics believe that various biblical documents were written at late dates and by other people, I usually find that there seems to be just as much naturalist assumptions in their work, as there is bias in the other direction in the scholarship of conservative Christians.

I do not consider Wikipedia to be generally a reliable source when it comes to highly controversial religious or political issues, but the article on "biblical minimalism" says that:

Although these debates were in some cases heated, most scholars stayed in the middle ground between minimalists and maximalists evaluating the arguments of both schools critically, and since the 1990s, while some of the minimalist arguments have been challenged or rejected, others have been refined and adopted into the mainstream of biblical scholarship.

This seems to contradict the claim of Philip Davies (relayed by Arkenaten in his original comment) basically saying that the minimalists have completely routed the scholarly opposition.

Now, to discuss the specific points.  You have mentioned various time periods which even in the case of the Old Testament are a millennium apart, and I think the amount of evidence we have concerning different periods is wildly different.  Even on a conservative point of view, the Patriarchs were hundreds of years before the Book of Genesis was written, and (unless Moses receieved supernatural revelation concerning them) we can expect that the vicissitudes of oral tradition would have taken its toll.

And I agree with you that there are some serious archaeological difficulties surrounding the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan.   I'm not an expert in this area, but I gather that, although Jericho does indeed seem to have been dramatically destroyed sometime midway through the 2nd millennium BC, the most recent carbon dating suggests that it occurred around 1550 BC, approximately 150 years earlier than the traditional date of the Conquest.  The error bars for this are supposedly considerably smaller than 150 years, but who knows what kinds of systematic errors there might be in the collection of artifacts to sample, etc?  There is also little evidence of the large numbers of people migrating as described in the Pentateuch, although some have suggested that the census numbers have been inflated or misinterpreted somehow.

These are issues which should be taken seriously by archaeologists, and they do suggest the possibility of major problems with the biblical accounts, but as I said I'm used to the existence of apparent discrepancies when it comes to history.  In the broad scheme of things, these are the types of problems which often get ironed out with more data.

And even taking all this data at face value, I don't think it necessarily implies that there was no such person as Moses, nor the Pentateuch was spun from whole cloth and not based on any historical sources, nor that there was no Exodus from Egypt with accompanying miracles.  Of course, the Israelites have to have come from somewhere, and it is a bit surprising that, if they were making up an origin for themselves out of whole cloth, they would view themselves as the descendents of oppressed slaves in Egypt (not a very prestigious origin) if in fact they had always been in Canaan.

It seems perfectly consistent with everything we know (or at least, that I know; did I mention that this is not my area of specialization?) to say that most of the historical sources which went into the Torah predate the Monarchy and that its account of the Exodus is accurate in its broad outlines, perhaps with some significant distortions and inaccuracies due to later editing.  (At least some editorial comments have to date from no earlier than the time of the Monarchy.  As a Supernaturalist I'm fine with Moses prophesying the future Exile of Israel or legislating for a future monarchy, but comments like "These were the kings who reigned in Edom before any Israelite king reigned" (Gen 36:31) sure don't sound like prophecy to me!)

Also, there is some genetic evidence that (a decent proportion of) the Jews who claim to be descended from the first High Priest Aaron do in fact share a common patrilineal ancestor from around 3,000 years ago or so.

We don't have much archeological data regarding the nation of Israel until the Monarchy period, although there are extrabiblical references to an Israel starting in 1209 BC, as well as archaeological evidence for camps of a people group with new customs (e.g. circumcision and avoiding pork).  Once we reach the Book of Kings there is a lot more data.  For example, there are several extrabiblical references to King Omri, Ahab's father.

And it's hard for me to believe that the historical books about the life and reign of David are not essentially historical.  They contain lots of boring mundane trivia (including lists of various temple servants that are skipped by all but the most avid Bible readers), realistic characterizations, are open about the flaws of the heroes in a way that is viewed as highly remarkable by the historical standards of the time, and they don't even contain very much in the way of overtly supernatural events (for those skeptical of such things).  What can I say?  It feels quite obvious to me from the feel, that I'm reading genuine history when I read it.  (I feel much the same way when I read the Gospels, by the way, although they contain much more in the way of the miraculous.)  Plus David left a bunch of poems with a characteristic style with a novel degree of subjective honesty, and founded a dynasty which we have later evidence for a few generations later.  That's quite a lot.

I think only somebody who thinks that written sources are as nothing compared to archeological data should disregard this.  (To be consistent one would also have to discard most of our written historical sources about ancient China and so on.  One has to come to grips with the fact that most of our evidence about history comes from believing whatever seemingly sober written historical texts say happened.  When skeptics talk about not wanting to believe a religious story just because it is written in a book, I start wondering where they think we get the rest of our historical knowledge from...)

But once we get to the people who think everything was made up during and after the Babylonian Exile, I think it is they who are departing from reality and common sense.  The exiles returning from Babylon had to have had a pre-existing sense of national identity in order to overcome the obstacles needed to rebuild Jerusalem as a pitiful remnant.  The idea that they could be given a new foundational text at this point, having no core religious identity beforehand, is ridiculous.

How was one and the same religious text (the Torah) foisted on both the Jews and the Samaritans, who hated each other?  Recall that in the standard Biblical chronology the Northern and Southern kingdoms had been at odds for hundreds of years, since the time of Rehoboam, Solomon's son.  I've never heard any of the biblical minimalists try to explain the Samaritan Pentateuch, but perhaps I just haven't found where they discuss it.

Or why does this text focus obsessively on the idea that there are exactly twelve tribes of Israel and that it is important to include all of them, when by this time most of the tribes had had their cultural identities absorbed into either Judah or Ephraim/"Israel".  As I read through the Old Testament histories I get a strong sense of many cultural changes (the religious and cultural differences in tone from the patriarchs to Exodus, from Joshua/Judges to Monarchy to post-Exile are all quite striking to this reader).  If the histories had all been made up in one time period, one would not expect to find this stratification of concerns, most of them rather anachronistic given the concerns of the post-exilic period.

What about the numerous references to the Exodus and the Law of Moses, not just in the History books but in the Psalms (many of which predate the Exile) and the pre-Exilic Prophets?  These do not, of course, prove that these events really happened, but they do establish that they were already part of the national identity of Israel by the time of the Monarchy.

And how could archaeological evidence possibly show that Monotheism was a late invention among the Israelites?  I suppose they could dig up evidence of people worshipping pagan gods instead of, or alongside, YHWH, but... surprise!  The Bible says that the Israelites were constantly turning away from the true God to worship idols, and that it was only various revivals of prophets and kings which preserved the faith which came from Moses.  So if anything, that would only support the Biblical narrative.

And the idea that someone like Ezra could have made up a literary masterpiece such as the Torah... well, no disrespect to the inspired word of God, but if the books of Ezra-Nehemiah are any example, the literary and cultural resources of the demoralized yet hopeful returning Israelites were simply not up to that level.  Everything about the priest Ezra says methodical-revivalist, not creative-founder.  That man couldn't have invented anything so original, but he could take what was already there and turn it into Judaism.

I'm not an expert biblical critic, but I can tell when what I'm hearing seems completely out of touch with the text they are trying to explain.  These are just a few examples of the disconnect.  My wife and my best friend St. Yoaav both went to the Chicago Divinity School (like the Ivy Leagues, it was full of generally skeptical or at best extremely liberal biblical scholarship) so I think I know from their reports something of how these people think.  To a large extent I think they are pulling things out of their behinds, using anti-religious presuppositions, rather than actually following the data wherever it leads.  (A lot of them talk about "methodological naturalism", the idea that History by it's very nature can't address any supernatural claims, so they are only allowed to consider naturalistic explanations.  This is obvious circular reasoning if one then wishes to use their conclusions to refute Supernaturalism.)  St. Lewis' essay on Fernseeds and Elephants is also relevant here.

I've been focussing on the Hebrew Scriptures here; I don't really have the time to address the New Testament in this post.  But as a Christian, the Resurrection of Jesus is at the core of my faith in a way that the details of the Exodus are not.  If I were a Jew (or a Hindu) I would be quite bothered that my religion was based primarily on events too far back in the past to have much good historical data for.  But as a Christian, I can point to texts which claim to be based on eyewitness accounts to the Resurrection, at a time period for which we have much better historical data (yay for Greco-Roman culture!) than during the Old Testament period.  (Yes, I know all about the arguments that the Gospels and Acts weren't really written by Sts. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and I don't find them convincing for reasons I've blogged about elsewhere.)

Then, after one accepts that there exists a God who does miracles, and who chose to send his Son to one highly peculiar monotheistic culture, then it seems reasonable, speaking as a Christian, to think that there must be some basis for that people's odd origin story: that God made their distant ancestor Abraham a promise, and then they were slaves, and then God rescued them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, feeding them with the bread of angels.  To prepare for that bread which later came down from heaven, for us men and for our salvation...

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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29 Responses to Some comments on Biblical History

  1. Steven Jake says:

    What are your views regarding the fact that the majority of NT scholars believe that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet?

  2. Drew says:

    Jake, out of curiostiy, could you point me towards any surveys, or such? In my readings, I've really only ever seen Bart Ehrman and his peers make that assertion.i definetly see how they came to it, but I'd like some further reading on the subject

  3. Steven Jake says:

    Drew, I'm just going off of the literature I've read on NT studies. Most scholars--even conservative ones--that I've read claim that apocalypticism is the most widely held view. I'm going off of pure authority here.

  4. Aron Wall says:

    If an "apocalyptic prophet" means someone who prophesies that God will end the world as we know it, then of course Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. It's quite explicit in the Gospels (see e.g. the Olivet discourse). But it doesn't mean he was just an apocalyptic prophet; you can be that and a lot of other things too.

    As St. Chesterton said:

    I maintain therefore that a man reading the New Testament frankly and freshly would not get the impression of what is now often meant by a human Christ. The merely human Christ is a made-up figure, a piece of artificial selection, like the merely evolutionary man. Moreover there have been too many of these human Christs found in the same story, just as there have been too many keys to mythology found in the same stories. Three or four separate schools of rationalism have worked over the ground and produced three or four equally rational explanations of his life. The first rational explanation of his life was that he never lived. And this in turn gave an opportunity for three or four different explanations, as that he was a sun-myth or a corn-myth, or any other kind of myth that is also a monomania. Then the idea that he was a divine being who did not exist gave place to the idea that he was a human being who did exist. In my youth it was the fashion to say that he was merely an ethical teacher in the manner of the Essenes, who had apparently nothing very much to say that Hillel or a hundred other Jews might not have said; as that it is a kindly thing to be kind and an assistance to purification to be pure. Then somebody said he was a madman with a Messianic delusion. Then others said he was indeed an original teacher because he cared about nothing but Socialism; or (as others said) about nothing but Pacifism. Then a more grimly scientific character appeared who said that Jesus would never have been heard of at all except for his prophecies of the end of the world. He was important merely as a Millenarian like Dr. Cumming; and created a provincial scare by announcing the exact date of the crack of doom. Among other variants on the same theme was the theory that he was a spiritual healer and nothing else; a view implied by Christian Science, which has really to expound a Christianity without the Crucifixion in order to explain the curing of Peter's wife's mother or the daughter of a centurion. There is another theory that concentrates entirely on the business of diabolism and what it would call the contemporary superstition about demoniacs, as if Christ, like a young deacon taking his first orders, had got as far as exorcism and never got any further. Now, each of these explanations in itself seems to me singularly inadequate; but taken together they do suggest something of the very mystery which they miss. There must surely have been something not only mysterious but many-sided about Christ if so many smaller Christs can be carved out of him. If the Christian Scientist is satisfied with him as a spiritual healer and the Christian Socialist is satisfied with him as a social reformer, so satisfied that they do not even expect him to be anything else, it looks as if he really covered rather more ground than they could be expected to expect. And it does seem to suggest that there might be more than they fancy in these other mysterious attributes of casting out devils or prophesying doom. ("The Riddles of the Gospel", The Everlasting Man)

  5. i like pizza says:

    While Arkenaten does make an argument from authority, one of his quotes from Wikipedia does deserve a footnote:

    "The opinion of the overwhelming majority of modern biblical scholars is that the exodus story was shaped into its final present form in the post-Exilic period ..."

    This is based on The Evolution of Adam by Peter Enns. I've read some of Enns' stuff online ( and from what I can gather, he's a faily orthodox Christian (though he does have some views, particularly regarding the Old Testament, that are controversial among conservative scholars). I have no idea how strong his arguments are but I would assume that he at least has no naturalistic assumptions.

    At the same time, the quote was used to a support the view that a Christian worldview is untenable, yet it's based on the work of someone who finds the evidence strong enough to hold a Christian worldview.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    i like pizza,

    Well, don't forget the motivation to not look like those stupid fundamentalists over there. You know, taking pride in always following the latest revisionist theories concerning the Bible, and looking down on people who can't be as flexible and liberal about their beliefs as you can be. One could easily have a situation where, one group of atheist scholars believes in, e.g. late OT dates because they don't accept the possibility of long-range prophecy, and then other liberal Christian scholars believe it too because that's the "scholarly consensus" and they want to fit in with it.

    But I'm getting bored now with impugning people's motives. The only reason I did so in the post above, was to try to make the point that everyone brings their own interpretive assumptions to the text, and you can't necessarily assume that the "majority of scholars" are taking a neutral and unbiased point of view (whatever that means).

    I'm not trying to say that I don't have presuppositions and biases of my own, but I think I'm flexible enough to respond to good evidence if it is fairly presented to me. But I'm not prepared to hand my mind over to the biblical critics on these questions because I don't trust them at all, they've said too many things which seemed to me to be poorly motivated (like multiple Isaiahs, or the "JEPD" Documentary Hypothesis).

    So I don't really care what St. Peter Enns or "the overwhelming majority of modern biblical scholars" think. What I do care about are the reasons why they think it. Which elements in the Exodus story could only have come from post-Exilic sources? Where's the smoking gun? If anyone actually knows what arguments Enns endorses for this propostion, I'd love to hear from them. I don't want to be overwhelmed, I want to be reasoned with.

    Also, I'd like to point out that "shaped into its final present form in the post-Exilic period" is very different from "Invented from scratch in the post-Exilic period"; it's a rather flexible statement which doesn't tell us much until we specify what type of editing was in fact performed. In fact it's compatible with most of the information in the Pentateuch dating back to the time of Moses! At the same time, I'm not buying even this minimal statement until someone gives me an actual argument.

    PS The Bible on my nightstand didn't reach its final edited form until 1984 AD, but I'm given to understand that some aspects of the text go back farther than that.

  7. Arkenaten says:

    And even taking all this data at face value, I don't think it necessarily implies that there was no such person as Moses, nor the Pentateuch was spun from whole cloth and not based on any historical sources, nor that there was no Exodus from Egypt with accompanying miracles. Of course, the Israelites have to have come from somewhere, and it is a bit surprising that, if they were making up an origin for themselves out of whole cloth, they would view themselves as the descendents of oppressed slaves in Egypt (not a very prestigious origin) if in fact they had always been in Canaan.

    While doffing my cap to your erudition, a long treatise such as this make me think of the times spent sitting in Church listening to a sermon - I was never any good at it and unfortunately my staying powers have not improved over the years. Sorry.

    So forgive me for cherry picking this particular juicy fruit.
    Taking the data at face value actually does imply that there never was an Exodus or the events or individuals surrounding it.
    This has been a ''done deal'' for ages. As Dever once noted. ''It is dead''.
    And as mentioned in a previous comment the evidence Finkelstein has uncovered demonstrates the where, when, and pretty much the how, none of which includes the biblical narrative and certainly not the nonsense of the miracles.

    That's pretty much where archaeology stands on this issue.

  8. Hi Aron, I'm a fan of Peter Enns, and I can tell you a little of why he comes to those conclusions.

    1.Some of the stories and some of the laws have similarities to other and apparently older Ancient Near East texts that we would regard as at least partly legendary, and it must be likely that some parts of these were borrowed.
    2. Nomadic people almost certainly didn't carry round with them the materials needed to write stories down, and theirs was an oral culture.
    3. The Hebrew language was probably only developed about 1000 BCE so they couldn't have been written in that.
    4. There are references to names, places and peoples that appear to be anachronistic in the second millennium, but make sense in the first millennium.
    5. The Biblical stories of the patriarchs, Exodus and Conquest contain elements that reflect authentically the world they take place in, but there is little evidence in Egyptian records, archeology or Canaanite records to confirm the Biblical stories - though of course that likewise means there is little to contradict the Bible stories either.

    None of those is a smoking gun, but together they are at least suggestive. Scholars who place great weight on archaeology and little on the text will come to a different view to those who accept the archaeology tells us little either way and rely more on the text.

    I have only read a little on these matters, but I think that represents at least some of what Enns thinks.

  9. I'm sorry, I meant to add that Enns believes the stories were handed down orally from a much earlier period, modified and embellished to suit the needs of the Israelites, and written down and edited in the first millennium BCE.

  10. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks very much for your attempt to meet my inquiry. But the little bit of information you provided just makes me wonder how they could possibly know these things with any degree of certainty.

    Let me start by saying that "First millenium" covers a lot of centuries before the Exile, 1000 BC was during the reign of King David. I was asking for the evidence that specifically points to a post-exilic date for the Torah.

    Bearing in mind that you are only summarizing someone else's views and not providing the full evidence, I still think it is worth recording my initial reactions:

    1. Of course there are similarities with other ancient Near East literature! It's hard to see how there wouldn't be stylistic similarities with the literary products of nearby cultures on almost any view of when and how the Torah was compiled. How does this date the events in question (considering that the "Ancient Near East" as a culture extended over an even longer time period)? I'm aware of the similarities of e.g. creation stories, but Wikipedia tells me that the most similar ancient text (the Enûma Eliš) is dated by most scholars in the 18th-16th centuries BC, which is earlier than even the traditional date of the Exodus. As for the similarity of laws, there's a lot of similarity to the Code of Hammurabi, but this is c. 1754 BC so again it seems to suggest an early date more than a later one.

    2. Circular reasoning. The only way we could know that they were an "oral culture" as opposed to a "written culture" is the absence of written documents dating to that time period, and this is precisely what is under dispute. Certainly other nearby cultures had writing before this time. (Presumably only a small fraction of the population would have been literate.) The OT portrays the existence of fixed settlements in Israel, and whatever problems there are with the evidence for the Conquest, I think the archaelogical evidence agrees on this point. So I don't think it's fair to characterize them as being strictly nomadic either. (Nor do I see why nomads would necessarily lack literacy.)

    3. Again based on the absence of written texts dating from before 1000 BC? And how could this establish a post-Exilic date given that everyone agrees Hebrew existed for centuries beforehand?

    4. Here at least we have the potential for some actual conflict with the data. I could imagine a situation where, say there's a town with name X in post-exilic times, but it wasn't settled during the time the text was supposedly written. But I'd need more details to actually engage with this. There are all kinds of possibilities for mistakes, such as if a small village with a given name is replaced by a larger community nearby, keeping the same name.

    5. Even if I granted for the sake of argument that the Exodus never happened as written, how would this imply a very late date for the Torah?

  11. Steven Jake says:

    Aron, by apocalyptic prophet I--and most scholars--mean someone who believed and preached that the end of the world was imminent and would come to fruition in their lifetime or the lifetime of their followers.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    So if somebody said that they personally didn't know when the end would come, and said several times that it might be "a long time", such a person would not count as an apocalyptic prophet?

    Of course, this hypothetical person may have said other things which suggested the time was short, but we can't look at just one side of the evidence, can we? Especially if some of the things he predicted did happen within the lifetime of his followers, and he might have been talking about those things.

    I notice you never answered the question I ended our last exchange with. Here it is again:

    What is your answer to Jesus's question, "Who do you say that I am?"

  13. i like pizza says:

    Hi Arkenaten,

    I really don't know much about biblical archaeology or the reliability of the Old Testament so feel free to take this comment with a grain of salt, but I can't get past the fact that your argument is basically, scholars X, Y and Z say so, and they say everyone agrees with them; therefore it's true. Talk about most scholars being minimalists seems to overstate things.

    As Aron has pointed out, most scholars hold a middle ground between minimalists and maximalists. In fact, William Dever himself apparently argues against minimalism (

    Adding to that:

    Recently Finkelstein has joined with the more conservative Amihai Mazar, to explore the areas of agreement and disagreement and there are signs the intensity of the debate between the so-called minimalist and maximalist scholars is diminishing.[72] This view is also taken by Richard S. Hess,[86] which shows there is in fact a plurality of views between maximalists and minimalists. Jack Cargill[87] has shown that popular textbooks not only fail to give readers the up to date archaeological evidence, but that they also fail to correctly represent the diversity of views present on the subject.

    Like Aron, I tend to be skeptical of Wikipedia on controversial topics, so take that however you will.

    Just a few other notes:

    Furthermore, he is an evangelical Christian. And yes, this means he has a presuppositional agenda.

    Bias doesn't equal 'wrong'. Suppose proposition X is either true or false. One person is biased in favor of it. One person is biased against it. They're both biased, but one of them is still correct. What matters is not whether one is biased (as Aron has explained, naturalists are just as biased as supernaturalists), but whether the argument they're making is valid.

    Truly, for a serious discussion on this subject there is little point in referencing Christian and especially evangelicals.

    Keep in mind that this is a fallacy known as poisoning the well.

    I believe he and every other biblical archaeologists are dead wrong. That's my view. because I hink the bible story is hokum.


    And as mentioned in a previous comment the evidence Finkelstein has uncovered demonstrates the where, when, and pretty much the how, none of which includes the biblical narrative and certainly not the nonsense of the miracles.

    These statements themselves seem to reflect belief bias.

  14. Hi Aron, I am very far from having any detailed knowledge of all this, but my limited reading suggests that historians have a more nuanced approach than you have considered. For example, if a similar story appears in very different contexts, we may wonder whether one has copied the other rather than both being historical. If the law given by God to Moses reads very like other apparently older law codes, we may wonder whether God would reveal a "copied" law in such a direct way to Moses.

    The oral culture thing may not be circular reasoning. Orally transmitted stories have a different character to written stories (repetition, structure, even mnemonics) and I imagine (though I'm only guessing here) that linguists can draw conclusions about texts we have. But Enns also says that permanent writing in the second millennium was "either etched in stone or pressed into large blocks of wet clay", processes and materials that "common people" didn't use and which would have been difficult for nomadic people.

    I think a post-exilic date is considered to make more sense of the final literary form, and of the apparent anachronisms, but I too would be willing to question that.

    Finally, I don't think it is as black and white as the Exodus never happened. Enns says most historians believe there is history behind the stories, but overlain with legend and lessons - fictionalised history is the term often used.

    Like you, I don't think any of these arguments is totally compelling, but I think there is enough evidence for some legendary elements (CS Lewis certainly thought so, and the numbers in the Exodus - about 2 million - seem quite improbable) so to my mind it is a question of how much, not "if".

    I'm not strong or dogmatic about this, just sharing the limited amount I have read. Thanks again.

  15. Arkenaten says:

    @I like Pizza.

    In case it isn't clear, I am referring to the Pentateuch, with specific reference to the supposed Egyptian Captivity/Moses/Exodus/Conquest of Canaan.

    For all these there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever and just so's we don't get into a nit-picking argument over semantics let just say the majority of scholars consider this to be true.

    And in fact, the evidence that has been uncovered, including the settlement pattern,generally refutes the biblical tale. You will note that my terminology is now, purposely, a little more ''cagey''.

    This is to give you ample opportunity to produce any evidence from qualified archaeologist or other scholars that you might believe do have evidence.

    Although, I would please ask you not reference Woods or Kitchen, Hoerth, etc as while they may be considered experts in several areas of archaeology and ancient texts none has ever produced a shred of genuine evidence for the particular discussion at hand.

    As for you accusation of belief bias. Or any other bias for that matter. No, sorry I do not have one.
    I make any judgement call based on evidence.
    Christianity has no verifiable evidence for its supernatural claims.

    Thus, in this regard, the Exodus etc is simply mythological. There is no genuine evidence to suggest there is any basis in fact.

    Albright stumbled and fell here and so has every other archaeologist who has tried to bang the square peg of the Exodus into the round hole of evidence.

    Experts know the region was under the watchful eye of the Egyptians, and there is no evidence that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for decades. None at all. And it is a little disingenuous of some people to suggest the Egyptians would have erased every trace of their presence.

    Sorry, good old-fashioned common sense will tell you it simply didn't happen. :)
    But as I said, feel free to present any and all the evidence you have at hand.

    Though I feel I must add, I am now a little wary you may start hinting at Wyatt and his hunt for Noah's Ark at any moment. I hope this is not to be the case?
    In fact I sincerely hope you do not consider there is any veracity to this (Noah) tale?


  16. Scott Church says:

    Ark, sorry for yet another delayed response.

    While doffing my cap to your erudition, a long treatise such as this make me think of the times spent sitting in Church listening to a sermon - I was never any good at it and unfortunately my staying powers have not improved over the years. Sorry.

    So forgive me for cherry picking this particular juicy fruit.

    In the parent post to this discussion you referred to "the overwhelming scholarly and more important, archaeological view" that that the Old Testament (or at least the Pentateuch) is "fiction," and here you claim to "make any judgement call based on evidence..." But you acknowledge that you've cherry picked that evidence based on how "juicy" it is to you. First, let me say that I appreciate your honesty. All of us struggle with objectivity at times (I'm certainly no exception) and it's a mark of character that you can admit that. But no matter how good it may feel, or how badly we want to believe something, cherry picking ultimately undermines everything. Facts care little for what impresses us or what we fancy as "juicy." They tend to be stubborn that way. If a truly reliable worldview is what we seek, something more is required... due diligence. And that, my friend, requires staying power... which you claim not to have.

    At first blush I might be inclined to agree. Reviewing your comments here and on the parent post I find only...

    Glowing praise for the work of a single researcher who happens to be in your camp (none of which was actually cited).
    Opinions... yours and those of a tiny handful of others in your camp (also uncited).
    Increasingly strident insistence that scholarly consensus is on your side (yet again, also uncited).
    Dismissive ad hominem and well poisoning directed at anyone with differing religious views.

    The closest you've gotten to any real content was an indirect reference to a Wikipedia page from which you lifted a few quotes, carefully avoiding any context in the process... context which I had to provide. As for my sources, they were offered precisely because they provide an overview of the current scholarship in this area, along with discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of each position. Your only response was to poison the well... the atheist weapon of choice in my experience. And now I see you doing the same to everyone else who tries to offer you contrary evidence. You don't seem to realize that others could do the same just as easily... I could dismiss all of Finkelstein's work as that of a biased anti-religion minimalist... especially given his penchant for uncivil pissing contests with scholars who dare to disagree with him (Shanks, 2004), which doesn't exactly bode well for his objectivity. I didn't. Why not? Because I happen to know that poisoning the well is a basic logical fallacy that wouldn't get past any freshman philosophy student. And since i am not given to cherry picking, I also know that Finkelstein has made valuable contributions to Old Testament history, as have other minimalists. But he's hardly the one and only scholar alive today who has done so, and all strident, condescending protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, he does not represent virtually all extant thought in the field. If you ever take a course in archaeology or Old Testament history other names and viewpoints will be part of your assigned reading. To wit, here are a few more overviews of Old Testament archaeology and some reviews of the work of Finkelstein and other minimalists: Garfinkel (2011), Frendo (2011), Cline (2009), Meyers (2009), Hess (2001; 2002), Dever (2001), Roddy (2001), and Ben-Tor (1992). All are in turn cited to other research in the field, and this well includes non-"fundamentalists" and other less-easily dismissed scholars, which ought to make it a little more difficult to poison. ;-)

    And speaking of objectivity... In the parent post you shared a YouTube video of a presentation by Finkelstein, who allegedly is, which according to you borders on trolling and here you describe your last comment as "purposely, a little more 'cagey'." With all due respect, trolling and caginess are not characteristic of thoughtful open-mindedness. They're the behaviors of a cornered animals. Sorry Ark, but I Love Pizza is right... you've offered nothing but textbook examples of belief bias. It's been said that a reasonable argument is one that would convince a thoughtful person not committed to any particular point of view. Well, I'm here to tell you... this won't. It seems to me your ego is writing checks that your staying power can't cash.

    But... I'm not sure I agree about your claimed lack of staying power. I suspect it's a lot better than you give yourself credit for, and if you aren't using it there's a reason why...


    Ben-Tor, A. (Ed.). (1992). The archaeology of ancient Israel. Yale University Press. Available online at Accessed May 9, 2015.

    Cline, E.H. (2009). Did David and Solomon Exist? Adapted from Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, E.H. Cline, Oxford University Press, 2009. Available online at Accessed May 9, 2015.

    Dever, W.G. (2001). What Did The Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. Available online at Accessed May 10, 2015.

    Frendo, A. J. (2011). Pre-exilic Israel, the Hebrew Bible, and Archaeology: Integrating Text and Artefact. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. Available online at Accessed May 9, 2015.

    Garfinkle, Y. (2011). The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism. Biblical Archaeology Review, 37 [3]:46-53,78, May/June. Available online at Accessed May 10, 2015.

    Hess, R.S. (2001). The Bible Unearthed - A Book review. Denver Seminary. Available online at Accessed May 9, 2015.

    Hess, R.S. (2002). Literacy in Iron Age Israel. in V. Long, D. Baker, and G. Wenham, Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel” Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. pp. 82-102. Available online at Accessed May 10, 2015.

    Meyers, E.M. (2009). Israel and Its Neighbors Then and Now: Revisionist History and the Quest for History in the Middle East Today. In Confronting the Past: Archaeological and Historical essays on Ancient Israel in Honor of William G. Dever. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2006. Available online at Accessed May 9, 2015.

    Roddy, N. (2001). The Bible Unearthed in the Context of the Tenth Century (BCE) Debate. Journal of Religion & Society, 1, 3. Available online at Accessed May 9, 2015.

    Shanks, H. (2004). In This Corner: William Dever and Israel Finkelstein Debate the Early History of Israel. Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2004.

  17. Scott Church says:

    Which brings me to the next point... When I was in graduate school my thesis adviser used to say that when everyone disagrees on the answer to some question, one of two things is always true: a) There isn't enough evidence to answer the question decisively; or b) They're asking the wrong question. In this case I think both are true. Like it or not, regarding the literal historicity of the Pentateuch the textual and archaeological evidence is inconclusive and there is no conclusive proof whatsoever for, or against it. A credible case can be made for both sides, and anyone who says otherwise is grinding ideological axes. That is exactly what's happening here. Why? Because it's the wrong question. What we should be asking is...

    So what?

    Even if I were to agree that the entire Pentateuch is one colossal fable, there isn't a single foundational Christian doctrine that depends on its literal verbatim historicity. So what exactly is the problem with maintaining a Christian worldview without it? This viewpoint presumes a fundamentalist inerrantist view of the Bible but even a casual investigation of the breadth and depth of Christian thought is more than enough to reveal that for the straw man that it is. Yet here you are preaching against it as though 2000 years' of Christian tradition is thereby toppled when you could be basing your judgments on the best and most robust insights that tradition has to offer. I find it hard to believe that someone as thoughtful as you couldn't manage the due diligence necessary to learn any of it before climbing onto the soap box.

    So... what interests me is your story. What is it about this pinched, limited view of Christianity that is so attractive to you?

    You say there is "no verifiable evidence for [Christianity's] supernatural claims." What sort of evidence were you looking for exactly, and how did you go about searching for it...? Was there really nothing more to that search than some YouTube videos and quote-mined opinions...? Is there really nothing of worth in it other than opportunities to embarrass illiterate bible-thumpers...? Never mind the opinions and chest-beating of others Ark... whom do you say Jesus of Nazareth is, and why...?

    Forgive me if this sounds like a challenge... it certainly isn't meant to be! :-) You are more than entitled to your opinions and whatever methods seem appropriate to you. At this point we've gone about as far with this as we reasonably can in blog comments, and you've already been offered more than enough for a deeper investigation of differing views. It's your prerogative to decide whether you want to. I'm not looking for answers to these questions... They're offered only as food for thought.

    As I've said before, you strike me as thoughtful and bright... someone who's serious about building a credible and convincing stance regarding belief in God, and Christianity in particular. If so, then in my hopefully humble opinion it's in your interest to stop wasting time on straw men and go the distance with the real questions. I for one, am convinced that with a more open mind and the staying power you're truly capable of you can do better than this... And whether you end up revising your views or not, I believe we'll all benefit if you do.


  18. Arkenaten says:

    First up.
    Are you a Christian?
    If so, why?

  19. Sarah says:

    @Hello Mr. Ark!!

    I'm just curious, as I am new to intelligent... calm debate between a skeptic and a believer (which I have enjoyed and learned a lot from... thank you for your contribution), why when Scott asks you a question you then don't answer with an answer but a question?

    Personally I'd love to hear your story if you'd be willing to share. I know our personal stories are more intimate than our thoughts on science, history, archeology etc. so if you'd like to keep personal information out of the discussion I understand!!

    I hope you see/find a lot of beautiful butterflies today and that your doggy doesn't eat your dinner ;-)

  20. Scott Church says:

    Hi Ark,

    In case it wasn't obvious, yes, I am a Christian and have been (seriously at least) for almost 42 years. Why? Wow... that's a huge question... one that I doubt I could do justice to in a few blog comments. But suffice to say that ultimately it boils down to two things;

    First, a lifetime of discipleship. Countless lessons learned sojourning though bright sunshine and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Grace and strength given in time of need, tears shed and dried, unmerited grace given, prayers lifted up and answered (often in ways I hadn't sought or expected but always clearly and for the best)... In short, a lifetime of trusting God and the many promises given in the Bible and not finding them wanting. "Taste and see that the Lord is good!" said the Psalmist (Ps. 34:8). I have... and He is! To some, this may seem too subjective to be of any use, but like it or not the fullness of life is far too rich a mystery for datasets and differential equations alone. St. Augustine once said solviture ambulando, which from the Latin means it is solved by walking. Some questions must be lived into to be answered in any way that matters. You find the answers by walking the path. If you have doubts about that ask your mother why she loves you. I'll bet good money that her answer doesn't involve datasets or differential equations.

    Second, a lifetime of questioning. Sifting through countless ideas, beliefs, and conundrums, wrestling with doubts, and building a worldview one fact, one conclusion, one brick at a time. After many years studying history, comparative religion, philosophy, and science (including, but not restricted to, a graduate degree in Applied Physics) the most broadly-based and robust worldview I could build--the only one that physically, spiritually, and rationally stood to scrutiny on all levels--was grounded in Christianity.

    For the record, throughout this journey I've read and/or engaged in dialogue with many atheists and agnostics. Some of those encounters were just mean-spirited exercises in futility resulting in evasiveness, substandard scholarship, and at times even claims that violated the laws of physics. But many others enriched me and broadened my horizons in ways that a "faith-based" search alone couldn't have. My worldview, and faith, were broadened by those encounters and I am eternally grateful for them. But in the end, by themselves, the answers they left me with simply could not account for reality in all of its fullness like Christ and Him crucified.

    Other than that, in a forum like this the best I could probably do to give you more depth would be to share some of the scientific, philosophical, and spiritual books and writings that have most influenced me over the years. If you like I'd be happy to do that... and despite my OCD nature and the size of my library, I'll do my best to keep it to a reasonable length. :-) Best.

  21. Sarah says:


    Have you read F. Collins' Language of God? I'm reading Belief (by F. Collins) and Simply Jesus (by N. T. Write) right now which I'm enjoying. LOG and The Everlasting Man are next.

  22. Scott Church says:

    Hi Sarah!

    Yes, I have read The Language of God and enjoyed it very much. But even so, I must say I was a tad disappointed. Not that there was anything wrong with it per se... The science was fascinating and well written for those with limited training in his field. But to me at least, his defense of faith and spiritual commentary seemed a little vanilla. None of it struck me as delving into the relationship between God and science with any real depth. Good stuff to be sure... but given his background and pedigree he could've done so much more with the topic. But that said, I would recommend it to others just the same.

    Btw, I owe you a report on Nancy Pearcey's book too! I enjoyed it as well! Her insights were for the most part spot-on, including her heuristic approach of framing the discussion in terms of idolatry. Given the common street parlance and First World sensibilities of today, that terminology would likely put off someone who wasn't a Christian, but with a proper understanding of the Biblical concept of idolatry it makes a lot of sense. I especially liked her explication of Paul's comments on the topic. The subtleties of the Greek in those passages had eluded me!

    The only caveat I would offer is this: In defending a few of her statements she paints with a pretty broad brush. One case in point is her argument that atheism inevitably leads to moral bankruptcy. Astute atheists will quickly, and correctly, point out that the world is full of unbelievers who are not only decent, moral people, but in many ways more so than many believers. What's more to the point is that as Nietzsche showed, atheism (or more specifically, materialism) necessarily renders the concepts of objective human value and purpose meaningless making morality at best entirely personal and subjective, and at worst nihilistic. Atheists who live by the Golden Rule and expect others to do the same do so because they cannot, or will not follow their own worldview to its logical conclusions. Whether they realize it or not, this is to their credit. They are the people they are largely because their character has won out over their beliefs. But in failing to draw this distinction Pearcey unnecessarily exposes her otherwise unassailable philosophical conclusion to criticism and allows atheists an out they don't rationally deserve. Other than that, I'd recommend the book to others in a heartbeat.

    One last thing... given some of the struggles you've had of late with God's love vs. His justice, I really do recommend Paul Copan's book Is God a Moral Monster? - I think you'll find it most interesting. In fact, if I were you I'd make that my next read. :-) Best!

  23. Aron Wall says:

    As a little update involving the Exodus thing, apparently ancient Christians typically identified the Pharoah of the Exodus as Ahmose I (1550-1525 BC) which is about a century earlier than what I was calling the traditional date, and which would seem to fall within the correct time period to be compatible with the carbon dating for the destruction of Jericho. (Presumably, being a century earlier, it is even less compatible with whatever anachonisms there supposedly are in the Exodus account, but such are the breaks.) I guess the fundamentalists won't like it because it's longer than 480 years before Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6:1).

    Apparently the Tempest Stele describes some sort of terrible event (a storm?) involving darkness and which is both attributed to the anger of the gods and yet is said to "surpass the power of the great god". Oh, and his eldest son Ahmose-ankh died before him. Apparently he also claimed to have conquered a certain mysterious "Hyksos" people and expelled them from Egypt to Canaan, which might conceivably be the Exodus wrapped under some pretty heavy layers of PR. (Josephus apparently identified the Hyksos with the Hebrews, but the modern historians do not agree, so take this with the appropriate-sized grain of salt.)

    Please note, I'm filing this under "interesting/potentially worth exploring" rather than "proof that the Exodus really happened"! I'm not even remotely an expert in Egyptian history, and as I said in my post I think there's a big difference in the quality of our historical data from 3500 years ago, versus 2000 years ago post-Hellenism. That's one reason why I prefer to discuss the New Testament, a time period for which I've spent a great deal more time and effort studying.

  24. i like pizza says:

    Hey Ark,

    I didn't bother to check for responses until now; hence the delay in responding.

    As for you accusation of belief bias. Or any other bias for that matter. No, sorry I do not have one.
    I make any judgement call based on evidence.

    I got the sense that some of your reasoning seems to be, supernatural claims are ridiculous [e.g. "the nonsense of the miracles"], therefore any evidence for supernatural claims are faulty. If that's not the case, then I stand corrected.

    Of course I would have to question your claim that you have no biases. We filter all experiences, arguments, information, etc through the lens of a particular worldview, which affects how we interpret it. Of course, some people are much more biased than others. And we can be aware of our biases, take them into account, and do our best to ensure that they don't affect our reasoning; but we do all have them.

    But in any case, I'll take your word for it that you're approaching things as neutrally as possible.

    Christianity has no verifiable evidence for its supernatural claims

    Since we're using arguments from authority, the majority of scholars accept that Jesus was executed and buried; his tomb was subsequently found empty; and different groups of people somehow 'saw' him following all of this. This is evidence for his resurrection. Perhaps you can say that this isn't verifiable, but large amounts of what we know about history isn't verifiable. As Aron has pointed out before, there is plenty that's not directly verifiable, but which is reasonable to believe.

    Thus, in this regard, the Exodus etc is simply mythological. There is no genuine evidence to suggest there is any basis in fact.

    All of this talk of 'no evidence' brings to mind the old saying: "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."

    Unfortunately, as I said previously, I know very little about archaeology so I can't really add much more to the discussion.

    Though I feel I must add, I am now a little wary you may start hinting at Wyatt and his hunt for Noah's Ark at any moment.

    Why is that?

  25. gary says:

    [This comment has been deleted due to being an exact duplicate of a post on the author's own blog---AW]

  26. David says:

    I'm just gonna dump some notes about the sort of environment we could expect the early church to be, if that's quite alright.

    It seems to me that a lot of "modern scholarship" about the NT is based on the idea that it was full of anonymous whisperers who could get away with saying whatever they wanted and attributing whatever they said to whomever they wanted. This may be true, but it is certainly not based on the evidence.

    *The books of Romans, I Corinthians, and Colossians all end with long lists of names of particular people whom Paul knew and whom he expected the recipients to know.
    *In I Corinthians, Paul complains that loyalty to particular human teachers (such as Peter and Apollos) are distracting the church from its unity in Christ.
    *In I Corinthians and Galatians, Paul goes out of his way to show that he has the same kind of apostolic status as such folks as Peter, James, and John by emphasizing the fact that he had seen the Risen Lord.
    *passages in both letters to the Corinthians imply that Paul had been receiving correspondence from them - which in turn entails that the early church was sufficiently well off to be able to send messengers around the Mediterranean.
    *Paul stresses the importance of apostles, prophets, and teachers in the church in such passages as Romans 12:7, I Corinthians 12:28, and Ephesians 4:11.

    *As a general rule, community leaders tend to exert a significant degree of control over the content of the oral tradition in an oral culture.
    *Jewish rabbis would have been expected to memorize important texts word for word - indeed, rote memorization was the central aspect of Jewish education.
    *Changes in oral tradition - especially the sort regarded as religiously significant to the speaker - are extremely rare. Major changes just don't happen in a generation or two if the story matters to the tellers and there is any kind of check on innovation.

    *By the first half of the second century, Christian apologists were denouncing heretics on the basis of what they had been taught by known associates of the apostles - the notion was that apostolic succession had been established to safeguard Christian doctrine.

    The picture we get from an analysis of the salient data couldn't be more different from the liberal sea of anonymous whispers. What the evidence seems to indicate is a community that takes apostolicity very seriously indeed, that the ability to connect one's doctrine to an apostle or eyewitness counted for a great deal, that major teachers and apostles left trails of well known figures - who served as church leaders - in their wake and gathered up entourages of well known individuals as they passed through, and that if one wanted to find out what an apostle really said, it wouldn't have been that hard to send a messenger to Jerusalem or Antioch or Rome and just ask them. If somebody said something, and tried to pass it off as apostolic, it seems like the community had means, motive, and opportunity to fact-check them. It also seems that close associates of the apostles would have been available for questioning as well. Moreover, these associates would very probably have memorized the words of the apostles, as was typical of education at the time. All in all, it looks like the community would have had very little room for anonymous doctrines or stories, and that the apostles had the power of position and personality to effectively squash dissent and innovation. This also fits in very well with the way later Christians viewed Apostolic Succession.

    It seems that the simplest hypothesis is the one that takes all these data at face value - that apostles and eye-witnesses served as the primary authority in the early church, and that their close associates scrupulously preserved their testimony.

    I'm not saying that liberal views of the big shots in new testament studies are wrong, per se. I'm just saying that they're unparsimonious and disconnected from the evidence.

  27. Efraim Cooper says:

    I honestly think the archeological issues surrounding the exodus and subsequent conquest of Canaan are overrated. Read Michael S Bar-Ron's essay on the matter, it seems pretty compelling to me.

  28. Efraim Cooper says: can find experts with many different points of view on the subject of Biblical history. I can see why you would think that the religious scholars are biased towards finding that the Bible is historically accurate (and I agree that many of them are biased) but what I can't understand is why you think secular scholars would be un-biased!...

    In the same vein, Bible Professor Joshuah Berman, in his recent book Ani Maamin: Biblical Criticism, Historical Truth, and the Thirteen Principles of Faith writes as follows (Pg. xvii):

    First, I am troubled by the blind and obsequious manner in which some in the Orthodox [jewish] world view the authority of the academy as the repository of ultimate truth. We find individuals who identify as Orthodox [jews] and proclaim acceptance of "the findings of biblical criticism," with no attendant caveat of what they do not accept. Let me be clear: I am not speaking about a failure to establish theological red lines. What I mean is that in some quarters there is no critical eye turned on the criticism itself. Everything is accepted in the name of truth, but nothing is rejected in the name of truth. "The findings of biblical criticism" are embraced the whole hog, as it were. Go to the major academic conferences in biblical studies and you will see that there is hardly a conclusion anymore that is accepted consensus. The field is more fractured concerning its most basic methodologies and conclusions than ever before. ironically there is far more criticism of "the findings of biblical criticism" among the critics themselves than the is in certain corners of the halakhically observant [jewish] community

    That about sums it up.

  29. James says:

    I don't think you have to question unbelievers motives either.

    The simple fact is the Whole world is under the influence of the Evil one.

    And as stupid as that sounds to these atheists who have flocked to the fields of "Origins" and Media (virtually every discipline in which you teach people what to believe), it explains an awful lot to believers.

    When have a person who is never going to accept Christ investigating the very evidence for his own Doom, you have a clear conflict of interest.

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