Tim McGrew

I doubt Tim McGrew would be happy to hear of his ultimate influence on me, but he is the last Christian apologist I studied (via YouTube) before de-converting from Christianity.

Tim (and his wife Lydia) promote the argument that the Bible is trustworthy because it contains "undesigned coincidences".

(In his blog, Richard Carrier demolishes this argument.)

Tim argues that the New Testament is based on eyewitness testimony, having inaccuracies due to the limitations of memory.

But this shows the incoherence of the doctrine of inerrancy. If the best we can hope for in the Bible is flawed eyewitness testimony, then the Bible is not inerrant. If the Bible is not inerrant, than Christianity is not true. And so I reject it all!

I should mention: the view that the New Testament is from eyewitness testimony has serious flaws:

  1. There were no witnesses for certain events.
  2. People can't remember long long speeches verbatim.
  3. Psychology teaches that memory is so flawed that eyewitness testimony is not trustworthy at all.

I sent an email with many questions to Tim McGrew, and he graciously answered. Then, a brief follow up, and it was over — I abandoned Christianity.

These red boxes contain my comments from today; they are not part of the original emails.


Tim's reply to my first email:

Subject: Historicity of the Hebrew Bible

Thanks for your note. You raise a great number of points that would consume enormous amounts of time and space to discuss in detail, so I am going to take your request for relevant references and resources quite literally.

0. Before I get into the details: my faith does not depend on the inerrancy of Scripture. I agree with Warfield on this point. In particular, it does not depend on the inerrancy of the creation account, the details of the conquest of Canaan, etc. That said, I have a much higher view of the historical value of this material than you seem to, as will become apparent from some of my responses below.

I think Tim means to object to strictly literalist interpretation. But the problem is in determining exactly how each passage is to be interpreted, what God wishes to convey, what is in the mind of God. Sadly, Christians disagree.

Yes, of course Tim's faith doesn't depend on inerrancy — he can't defend inerrancy, and distances himself from it often. But merely having historical value is insufficient to prove all the miraculous claims (but he even fails to demonstrate the historical value).

The current scholarly milieu can be very confusing, as some people who have positions at prominent institutions may not be deserving of all of the credit their lofty positions might lead one to give them. On Christine Hayes, for example, you might want to read Jacob Neusner's monograph "Are the Talmuds Interchangeable? Christine Hayes's Blunder". William Propp is a well-credentialed ancient historian, but alas! — the field is so wide that one cannot be an expert on everything, and so we are forced to rely on the expertise of others unless we have the leisure to look into these matters in detail for ourselves. I will suggest alternatives to some of Dr. Propp's positions in the comments below.

Tim's argument against Christine Hayes fails.

Tim makes it sound like William Propp is promoting a fringe view, but not so; his views are mainstream.

Now on to your particular points:

1. Genesis 1 with its firmament resting on a flat earth with water above.

I believe this interpretation reflects a radical overreading of the text. See Warren, The Earliest Cosmologies (1909) for a critique that still seems to me to be unanswered.

The view that Tim is recommending is wacko — no one agrees with it.

Note that Tim favors old books.

2. Old earth, old universe with pain, suffering, and death from the beginning.

I agree about an old universe and an old earth. Life itself is a latecomer, so pain, suffering, and death do not seem to have been present from the beginning but only in the last 500 million years.

The fact of creatures who suffer is fatal to the argument for God.

3. The first modern humans appeared 200,000 years ago and migrated to all continents by 60,000 to 30,000 years ago.

This may be so, though the evidence that far back depends on some identifications in the fossil record that were somewhat tenuous last time I checked.

In my email I neglected to mention of the contradiction between scientific fact and the biblical account of Adam who was a farmer. Farming began about 10,000 BC, but humans appeared long before that.

4. No global flood.

I am inclined to agree, but the fact that there are remarkably similar flood narratives from around the world gives me pause. On the existing geological evidence, I would say that the Noahic flood was likely a large flood in the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates. It is important to remember to read such phrases as "the whole earth (haretz)" as they would have been understood originally, which does not entail a world-wide flood.

5. No Exodus of 4 million people and their numerous animals wandering around a barren desert in close proximity for 40 years (the animals didn't have manna).

I agree, but probably not for the reasons you would give. The Hebrew term eleph needs to be translated "thousand" in order to get the 4 to 6 million people number. However, both from the use of similar terms in Akkadian and from its use in the Hebrew Scriptures themselves (e.g. 1 Kings 20:30), we know that the term has other meanings, including "clan" and "chieftain." I think the number of people who escaped in the Exodus was on the order of 20,000. On this and related points, I recommend Wenham, "Large Numbers in the Old Testament," Tyndale Bulletin 18 (1967), Humphreys, "The Number of People in the Exodus from Egypt: Decoding Mathematically the Very Large Numbers in Numbers I and XXVI," in Vetus Testamentum 48 (1998), pp. 196-213, and Humphreys, "The Numbers in the Exodus from Egypt: A Further Appraisal," in Vetus Testamentum 50 (2000), pp. 323-28.

Why does it take modern scholars to finally learn the true meaning of the Old Testament? What is the point of believing a book if no one even knows what it says?

For points regarding the historicity of the Exodus more generally, including a critique of Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, I recommend Kenneth Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (2003).

I prefer scholars and historians whose purpose is not to prove the Bible at all cost.

Propp accepts unquestioningly the documentary hypothesis regarding the composition of the Pentateuch. One of the best recent defenses of that position is Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed (2003). I strongly suggest you to do a comparison of Friedman's arguments with the critique of those arguments in William Henry Green, The Higher Criticism of the Pentateuch (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895). In my judgment, Green has much the better of the debate, notwithstanding his having written over a century earlier. His point about Genesis 21:1-2 is devastating.

William Propp summarizes the archaeological evidence against the Biblical account.

I don't agree with many claims of the documentary hypothesis. I agree that splitting a single verse into multiple sources seems far-fetched. My objections really have nothing to do with the documentary hypothesis.

6. The events of Joshua spanned 800 years.

I find this claim implausible on the basis of the historical evidence. See Kitchen for a responsible timeline.

I reject archaeological timelines from those who wish to support the biblical account at all cost.

7. David and Solomon's kingdom was small, not mighty.

These are relative terms. Recent discoveries (e.g. the slag heaps from Solomon's copper smelting operations) suggest a much larger kingdom than the minimalists would like to suppose.

Not everyone agrees with Nelson Glueck's conclusions about this topic.


My reply:

Thanks for the abundant information and references. I shall study them in detail.

I want to say the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible word of God. My current solution is to note that it contains fiction of several categories:

The key is that none of the fictional verses, passages, or even whole books were written with the purpose of deceiving anyone, even when knowingly passing on fiction, knowing others would believe it.

If someone passes on a fictional account, it remains fiction; it doesn't morph from fiction to error.

The presence of benign fiction does not render a work not-infallible, not-inerrant. Fiction is not error; rather, it's... well, it's fiction.


Tim's reply:

I should say that fiction that one is passing on knowing it to be fiction, intending that the audience will also understand it as fiction, is unproblematic. This is the case with (say) a parable one hears and then passes on as a parable. Everyone understands this — at least, everyone reasonably well informed understands this.

But if Luke hears something that is a fiction, believes it to be fact, and passes it on as fact to his audience, who will not be in any better position than he is to understand whether it is fact or fiction, then Luke is passing on an error. He has made a mistake, and his audience will therefore also be liable to make the same mistake.

And so it is: the Bible contains errors — lots and lots of them. It is, therefore, not the word of God.