The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible (SAB) is a god-send for Christians. If you want a convenient summary of the many and various objections that might be raised against the Bible, the SAB is just the thing.
There’s nothing new about it, of course. Over a century ago two ‘freethinkers’ rejoicing in the names of Foote and Ball (I tell you no lie) produced their innocently-named Bible Handbook, which attempted much the same job. I have previously written about this:-
Far from being an informative guide to the Bible it turned out to be a compilation of supposed errors and contradictions as uncovered by two ‘freethinkers’. Well, I thought I would have a good look at these alleged problems and inaccuracies. I examined carefully any number of Bible passages that were supposed to be problemmatic but came to the settled conclusion that the difficulties were apparent, rather than real. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I found answers to all the questions or solutions to all the problems. But I did find that the whole exercise confirmed my belief in the inspiration and authority of the Bible.
Back to the SAB: one of its strengths is that it is quite comprehensive. It takes us through the entire text of the Bible (in the Authorised Version), finding fault with everything from Genesis to Revelation. Another merit is that the compiler does allow for (encourage, even) Christian responses to the problems raised.
The compiler makes the following surprising (and unsupported) assertion in the preface:-
‘Nearly all passages in the Bible are objectionable in one way or another.’
And then, turning to believers who make it their job to defend and promote the Bible he asserts (again, without evidence):-
- They point out the consistencies, but never mention the inconsistencies.
- They either attempt to explain or excuse the ‘absurdities, cruelties, vulgarities and insults to women’, or else ignore them altogether
- They emphasise the ‘relatively few’ passages that present a decent image of God.
That is to say, those who defend the Bible are engaged, not in explanation or interpretation, but ‘propaganda’.
I think that the SAB is ultimately self-defeating, because it is entirely uncritical. Granted, the compiler concedes that there is some ‘good stuff’ in the Bible. But his approach is ‘maximally sceptical’ in that he constantly seeks most negative interpretation possible. I call this self-defeating because it exhibits the very problems that sceptics so frequently accuse Christian apologists of – exaggeration, bias and irrationality.
As a specimen of an entirely blinkered view of a ‘problem’ text, consider the SAB’s note on the treatment of the Levite’s concubine (recorded in Judges 19):-
After taking in a traveling Levite, the host offers his virgin daughter and his guest’s concubine to a mob of perverts (who want to have sex with his guest). The mob refuses the daughter, but accepts the concubine and they “abuse her all night.” The next morning she crawls back to the doorstep. The Levite puts her body on an ass and takes it home. Then he chops the body up into twelve pieces (while still alive?) and sends them to each of the twelve tribes of Israel (Parcel Post?). The story, which must be one of the most disgusting stories ever told, ends with: “consider of it, take advice, and speak your mind.” Those who do consider it will immediately reject the idea that the Bible is inspired by God. Hopefully, they then will speak their mind.
But this is to naively assume that the Bible approves of everything it records. But this is manifestly not the case here. You simply have to read Judges 19 to see that the episode is recorded not to approve it, but rather to show just how bad things had become in those days ‘when there was no king in Israel’ (Judges 19:1). See here for more detailed comments on this passage.
I don’t deny that there are ‘problems’ in the Bible. In fact, it is precisely because some of those problems are not only unresolved, but possible unresovable, that I am reluctant to commit myself to something as cheerful confirdent as ‘inerrancy’. Let there be proper discussion and debate between sceptics and believers about these. For this to happen, believers need to take seriously any reasonably question and challenge that is raised, and sceptics need to take seriously the reasons and evidence that believers adduce in support of the Bible.
In other words, sceptics need to be a little more sceptical about their own scepticism.