Scott Bidstrup on the Bible and Christianity

Scott Bidstrup offers us a rather conspiratorial view of how he thinks Christian origins went. For the most part he simply lifts uncritically whatever he can pick up from the sources he already agrees with (Finkelstein, Spong, Doherty, etc -- works whose conclusions are highly in dispute, and/or we have addressed elsewhere on this page). Don't expect Bidstrup to offer critical interaction with other points of view.

I will limit myself to addressing areas related only directly to the Biblical text, since that is my area of specialty. Many of Bidstrup's comments are vague generalizations or of no dispute, and we'll have no comment on those.

Prehistory to 1850 B.C.E. -- Borrowed [by Genesis] from the Epic of Gilgamesh are stories of the creation of man in a wondrous garden, the introduction of evil into a naive world, and the story of a great flood brought on by the wickedness of man, that flooded the whole world.

On the contrary, consensus is that the Epic of Gilgamesh and Genesis represent parallel developments from a common core -- not that one borrowed from another. See here.

The problem is that we don't really have any good archeaological evidence to support the Abraham story, and there is much archaeological evidence to contradict it. The land where Abraham supposedly settled, the southern highlands of Palestine (from Jerusalem south the the Valley of Beersheba) is very sparse in archaeological evidence from this period.

A question I would ask here is, "What are we expecting?" A tablet that mentions Eridu the farmer and says he filed a lawsuit is, I would think, good evidence that Eridu existed and filed a lawsuit. What "archaeological evidence" does Bidstrup want of Abraham (other than the OT record, which he simply doesn't accept) and why do we not need more evidence for Eridu?

I do not refer here to evidence for miraculous acts, or the intervention of God -- no one argues that we have support for that archaeologically. What I want to know is, why does this suggest that there is a problem? Bidstrup writes:

It is clear from the archaeological record that its population was extremely sparse - no more than a few hundred people in the entire region, and the sole occupants of the area during this time were nomadic pastoralists, much like the Bedouin of the region today. We know from clear archaeological evidence that the peoples known as the Phillistines never even entered the region until the 12th century B.C.E., and the "city of Gerar" in which Isaac, the son of Abraham, had his encounter with Abimelech, the "king of the Phillistines" (in Genesis 26:1) was in fact a tiny, insignificant rural village up until the 8th century B.C.E. It couldn't have been the capital of the regional king of a people who didn't yet exist!

Again, what is the problem? Abraham was a nomadic pastoralist. There is nothing against him being one of those "few hundred people" that Bidstrup tells us about -- other than what we have already refuted -- pardon me while I plagiarize myself:

  1. The alleged "anachronism" of the word "Philistines", a matter I have addressed here already.
  2. The alleged anachronism of camels, which Glenn Miller has refuted here.
  3. The alleged anachronism of "the cargo carried by the camels - 'gum, balm and myrrh,'" which we are told "were products of trade with Arabia"' and that is a problem supposedly because "trade with Arabia didn't begin until the era of Assyrian hegemony in the region, beginning in the 8th century B.C.E." I couldn't begin to guess where this is derived from; Bidstrup doesn't list a source. (I found out later it was from The Bible Unearthed.) This page offers the following information:

    Gum: Nekhoth in Hebrew....The Targum renders it as sh'af, a kind of wax or gum (Rashi; cf. Bereshith Rabbah 91). On the basis of Semitic cognates, it is usually identified with tragacanth, the aromatic sap of a species of Astragalus, a short prickly shrub of the family Papilionaceae (cf. Septuagint). Others say that it comes from the member of the carob family (Lekach Tov; Ibn Janach; Radak, Sherashim). Rashi says that nekhoth is a generic word for spices.

    Balsam: Tzeri or Tzori in Hebrew. Balsam is a gum extracted from the sap of the tree Commiphora apobasamum, and it is used for incense and perfume.

    Resin. Lot in Hebrew. On the basis of Semitic cognates, it is usually identified as labdanum or laudanum, a soft, dark resin derived from various bushes known as rockroses, of the genus cistus. It is used for making perfume. The Midrash defines it as mastic (Bereshith Rabbah 91), the resin of the mastic tree, Pistacia lenticus, a member of the pistachio family (cf. Septuagint). The Targum renders it letum, a species mentioned in the Mishnah (Shevi'ith 7:6), and identified as a chestnut (Rambam ad loc.; Ibn Janach) or pine extract (Ibn Janach; cf. Radak, Sherashim). Rashi identifies it as aristolocia, the birthwort. (See Otzar Maasoth, p. 95).

    Clearly none of this requires any connection to Arabia or involves any anachronism. The Genesis commentaries of Sarna and Wenham confirm the above, note that these three words are rare terms ("gum" appears only twice in the OT, in Genesis; "balsam" only 7 times, twice in Genesis and three times in Jeremiah, and "resin" only twice, in Genesis), and aver that the identity of the products is uncertain -- how then could it possibly be argued that this is an anachronism?

  4. The alleged anachronism of patriarchal people being called "Arameans" even though this name "does not appear in the archeological record prior to 1100 B.C.E., and [was] not a significant group until the 9th century B.C.E." Our critics need to note that Aram is referred to, as the predecessor of Arameans, in Genesis 10:23. The objection here is presumably that simply because no one else refers to the Arameans by name prior to 1100 BC, this means that they didn't exist, which is an argument from silence.

    Though this may rather be a case of intentional anachronism as with the link on the Philistines above, the indications in Genesis suggests rather that this group did exist, but simply weren't much of a group to be reckoned with by others until much later. Either way, arguments from silence prove nothing either way about historicity.

The Problem of the Exodus Story and the First Great Revision of Judaism -- before Bidstrup can be given credence, he needs to deal with the data showing the validity of the new Egyptian chronologies offered by David Rohl and others.

Bidstrup next endorses the JEDP theory of Israel's history -- of rival groups of Js and Es. But as shown here there is little support for this thesis beyond those who cannot see any other alternative.

Jeremiah's Failed Prophesy of Exile in Babylon and The Fourth Great Revision -- the generalization if offered that "Jeremiah's message was that God is dependent on man to carry out his wishes in the world, a view very much in contrast to the writers of Exodus, who had Yahweh being a powerful, independent and even capricious god."

No cites are offered in support of this, so I will simply dismiss it until proven.

It is said that Jeremiah "predicted that Babylon would conquer Palestine and the occupants of that land would spend 70 years in captivity by the rivers of Babylon. Well, the captivity happened, but it didn't last 70 years. We know from secular sources that it actually lasted from 586 to 538 B.C.E., a period of only 48 years." This is answered as follows"

According to Jeremiah 22:24-30, Jeconiah was cursed by God; according to Jeremiah, Jeconiah would be childless. Yet Jeconiah did indeed have children 1 Chronicles 3:17-18.
Jeremiah 34:4-5 predicts that King Zedekiah would die in peace. In reality, his son was killed before his eyes, he himself was blinded, and he apparently died while languishing in a Babylonian prison. Lastly, Jeremiah 29:10 predicts that the Exile will last 70 years. But the Exile only lasted 48 years. Since Jeremiah is a false prophet, there is no reason to suppose that Yahweh will be sending prophecies to us through him.

1) Jeremiah 22:30 states:

This is what the Lord says; Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime, for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.

Far from saying that Jeconiah will be childless, this verse acknowledges that Jeconiah will have/has children (offspring). He is to be recorded as if childless because none of his descendants will receive an inheritance from him.

2) Jeremiah 34:4b-5a says:

You (Zedekiah) will not die by the sword. You will die peacefully...

See here.

3) Jeremiah 29:10 says:

This is what the Lord says: "When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place."

This verse says nothing about the Exile. The seventy years begins at 609 BC, the start of the Babylonian Empire, or at 605 BC, the year Babylon defeated Assyria and became the ruling power in the area; and ends in 535, the year that the foundations of the new Temple were laid down, symbolizing the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian captivity.

(Skeptics may retort that there is no reason to choose the laying of the Temple foundations as the ending point; the actual defeat of Babylon (540) or the return to Judah from Babylon, authorized by Cyrus (538), they would say, is better. This would result in totals of 65 and 67 years. Either of these might be reasonably accepted in view of Jeremiah's 70 being a rounding up to the nearest ten, in line with the rounded number which represented a human lifespan. Berry/Lippard's "48 years," while a sufficient account of the number of years from the fall of Jerusalem (587) to the fall of Babylon (540), fails to take into account that in 29:10, Jeremiah is communicating with Jews who were taken captive in an earlier incursion by the Babylonians.

The Exile started much earlier than 587 for some of them: The OT records at least three separate deportations to Babylon. Indeed, for poor King Jehoiakim [2 Kings 24:2, 2 Chron. 36:6] the Exile began c. 598, when he was carried off to Babylon in fetters. Finally, as noted, the number of years is that of a human lifespan and may be programmatic; on the Black Stone of Esarhaddon, 70 years is give as the "period of time during which Marduk shows displeasure toward Babylon." -- Holladay, Jeremiah commentary, 669. For more see here.)

Then his wife died, and Ezekiel was forbidden to mourn. Instead, he had to lie down on one side for 390 days and then on the other for 40. On another occasion, he was required to eat excrement. For a period of five years, he spoke to no one.
Yahweh had not just become a violent and jealous god, he was also demanding and irrational at times. No wonder Ezekiel complained about the burden of being a prophet.

Demanding and irrational? This begs the question of whether Ezekiel had a legitimate message to preach. It is a;sp bigotry of the highest order to refer to this in terms of "a circus performer". (See here for a corrective to this type of thinking.)

For the matter of Isaiah not being a unity, see here. Bidstrup's attempt to divide the prophets by their portrayal of God as "tranquil" vs. judgmental is a false dichotomy that assumes it is impossible to be either one as situations arise in time.

The Christian Era and the Last Great Revision of Judaism -- Bidstrup uncritically accepts the "Cynic sage" thesis of Mack, but does not discuss it at all; for a refutation of this thesis, see Boyd's Cynic Sage or Son of God? Bidstrup also hints at endorsement of the Christ-myth; see here for a debunking of that position. Bidstrup next seeks to apply the Negative Evidence Principle to the NT records, thusly: have good reason for not believing in a proposition if the following three principles are satisfied: First, all of the evidence supporting the proposition has been shown to be unreliable. Second, there is no evidence supporting the proposition when the evidence should be there if the proposition is true. And third, a thorough and exhaustive search has been made for supporting evidence where it should be found.

And the application, other than inadequate consideration of the secular references (see above link)? We have:

On NEP Principle 2:

The next stricture of the Negative Evidence Principle is that there isn't any sound evidence where there should be, and here again this stricture is met. First, there are no records whatever of Jesus' life in the Roman records of the era. That's surprising, since he stirred up so much unrest, at least by Biblical accounts. There at least ought to be a record of his arrest and trial, or some of the political notoriety the gospel writers describe. Yet the Roman histories are silent, even though they are quite thorough (Flavius Josephus alone wrote dozens of volumes, many of which survive, and he is far from the only historian of Palestine in this period whose writings have survived in some form). Second, as mentioned, there is no reliable account in Josephus.

Bidstrup somehow seems to not know that there are no Roman records from this era left at all. He is also y overestimating Jesus' influence in a political context. See the linked essay above on the secular references. He provides the name of no Roman historian who otherwise should have made light of Jesus (and Tacitus does make note of him).

Josephus was a historian who was so very thorough he would write a three page history of the trial and execution of a common thief, and wrote extensively about John the Baptist, but on Jesus, his two small references are seriously doubted by scholars as being genuine.

Bidstrup doesn't name this "common thief" Josephus writes about, nor give a reference, but the section of John is no longer than the longer reference to Jesus -- even without interpolations; and it is mostly about Herod Antipas, not John. Again, Bidstrup reports inadequately about Josephus and the Testimonium reference. It is especially dishonest that he cites Feldman, who believes that the Testimonium is mostly genuine.

On NEP part 3:

The third stricture of the N.E.P. holds that we must have conducted a thorough and exhaustive sweep for evidence where there should be evidence. Indeed, thousands of scholars, religionists, crusaders, apologists and skeptics alike have searched for such evidence since the earliest days of the Christian era. That they haven't found any reliable evidence that should have been there says that the third stricture has been clearly satisfied.

This is extremely vague and begs the question of excluding the NT as evidence -- are such extra demands placed on the records of Tacitus or Livy? And what evidence do we not have that we should (which we have not already addressed, viz. Doherty, above)?

After this Bidstrup offers his own version of how he thinks Christianity began. He proposes a view from "scholars" (though he names none) that "the Jesus myth began as a social movement to 'reJudify' Judaism" and was derived from the Essene movement -- in this summary he accepts uncritically a wide variety of speculations and poor readings from writers on the Dead Sea Scrolls whose orientation is not accepted by sober Scrolls scholarship.

He also alludes, as in his response to Strobel, to the Toledteh Yeshu, making the same errors made by Oliver. Amazingly he also alludes to rabbinic sources for this purpose, even though they are far later than Paul's letters which he has already declared worthless in part because they are written 20 years or so after the fact.

What follows is a creative reconstruction of multiple "Jesus Movements" -- history invented to explain away history. As with Burton Mack here, there is not literary data nor archaeological data at work -- merely imagination.

Each of these Jesus Movement groups had its own ideas, often networking with others of a like mind, often disputing with others of conflicting ideas. While we have no writings from them directly, we have many quotes from them by contemporary historians, so we have some awareness of what they believed and practiced, if filtered by others.

Contemporary historians? Which ones, and where? This is simply made-up information.

By the time of Paul, the Jesus Movements had become extraordinarily diverse. Some were bands of internent preachers, others were guilds of settled craftspeople. Some were simple study groups, others were formal schools of scholastic research.

There isn't a shred of evidence for any of this, but one may ask why a unified "Jesus Movement" as we suppose the early church to have essentially been could not have had people of diverse profession and learning curves. Is evidence for difference in professions evidence of difference in ideology? Were craftspeople told they couldn't join the preaching group?

While none of what they wrote has survived intact, scholars are reasonably certain of a "Sayings Gospel Q" (subsequently revised at least three times), which is lost to us except where Mark quoted from it much later in "his" gospel, and a Gospel of Thomas, which has survived to the modern era in at least two versions, contain if not the pristine writings of Jesus Movements, at least quotations from them.

For material on Q, see here. For material on the Gospel of Thomas, see here.

Bidstrup next promotes the work of John Shelby Spong which results in the conclusion that Paul was a repressed homosexual. I have addressed one point of Spong's "evidence" here. Bidstrup's comment that "Homosexuality was not widely condemned in this region at the time" is factually untrue in terms of the Jewish community; this was not merely Paul's "personal interpretation of Levitical proscriptions".

Next Bidstrup offers his version/interpretation of epistle events:

We can only speculate as to the details of what was discussed during this meeting, but one thing is clear: Peter and Paul had a heated discussion as to just who this new gospel should be preached to, whether gentiles should be included with Jews. He returned to Antioch satisfied that he had convinced Peter and James of his point of view.

Actually the discussion wasn't "who this new gospel should be preached to" -- it was, "should the Gentiles follow the law" (and that only indirectly, see here). Bidstrup's further points about the need to "concoct" a new and appealing Judaism are pure invention. Scholars of Judaism (Sanders, Vermes, etc.) know of no such effort to popularize the Jewish religion.

Moreover, Bidstrup places the meetings between Paul and Peter and the other luminaries, it seems, after 70 AD. No scholar (or any writer) I know of places Paul in the 70s.This is a paradigm shift that requires much more from Bidstrup.

On claims of pagan copying: Bidstrup alludes to Dionysus specifically. He claims: Dionisus, for example, was depicted as being given a crown of ivy, dressed in a purple robe, and was given gall to drink before his crucifixion. The depiction on a Greek vase from the 5th century B.C.E. even shows a communion being prepared.

I have addressed the first two points in my essay, but have never found any evidence for the last two -- especially the third; there is no evidence of Dionysus being crucified until Freke and Gandy's third century depiction (which is actually a forgery).

On the last, how does one know that the vase depicts a communion? If it is because bread and wine are served, those were ancient staples in any meal. The vase is more likely depicting lunch rather than "communion".

Finally Bidstrup analyzes each canonical gospel individually (and very, very briefly), with many vague generalizations and begged questions. We have already referred to our essay linked above, which debunks much of what Bidstrup offers. Some notes:

In conclusion -- with so few specifics offered, it is rather difficult to effectively address what Bidstrup says, although I think we have made it clear that the topics at issue are far more complex than what he has to offer.