Monday, March 17, 2014

How Much Evidence Do I Need in Order to be Justified in my Belief in the Bible?

Let us say Bill is a churchgoer who works fifty hours per week at a local penitentiary.  Bill has a lot of stress on his job, dealing as he does with manipulative criminals, and when he comes home from work, he must help with dinner, cleanup, and with putting the children to bed.  Before this, he plays with his children, and after dinner, the family enjoys fellowship and devotions from the Bible, replete with catechism, prayer, and a song.  It is now late, and Bill and his wife decide, before collapsing into bed, to watch the latest documentary on A&E’s “Mysteries of the Bible,” where scholar Pete, who claims to be an orthodox Christian (say, he devoutly subscribes to the Apostle’s Creed), says there is no evidence whatsoever for the Exodus, and that the Old Testament account of the event written in the book with its namesake is a myth, and is best understood as a theological and moral lesson. 

Upon seeing the program, Bill experiences an “epistemic crisis” (his wife, fortunately, fell asleep during the program). Bill knows his Bible well, and reads throughout it how it seems as if the people of God have always believed in the historicity of the Exodus, as is told in the entire Tanakh and in the New Testament as well (especially 1 Corinthians 10:1ff.).  Bill wonders, “How could scholar Pete, who is an orthodox Christian, say the Exodus never happened, and why would he say such things?”  Meanwhile, Bill understands that the New Testament is chock full of allusions to the Exodus event in the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus, in Jesus’ life (baptism and temptation in the wilderness, choosing of the twelve, sending out the seventy [the seventy elders of the desert sojourn]), death (Jesus is the Paschal Lamb) and resurrection (he transfers his people from the power of darkness to the kingdom of light [Col. 1:13]).[1]  

Bill is therefore vexed in his mind, as he now doubts other parts of Scripture as well: was Jesus wrong about Moses writing the Pentateuch?  Or, was Jesus accommodating to the peoples' ignorance of these things? Since Bill has a healthy respect for experts in the field, he wonders what he should do.  The question before him concerns his epistemic duty and how may he obtain to epistemic virtue and ease in light of his epistemic crisis?   Here's the important thing for Bill: he has his limits.  He simply cannot afford, in terms of income, time, and energy, to read all of the critical, biblical scholarship (CBS) out there before he makes a decision on whether to believe in the historical reliability of the Exodus account.  He may involve himself in a life-long habit of collecting and reading CBS, but do both epistemic duty and virtue demand that Bill suspend judgment at this point about the historicity of the Exodus until he has read all of the relative literature?  How is it even possible to sift through all the written data?  The shelves are stacked with a "new insight" into the life of Jesus or the Bible every day, it seems, from some expert who has  "fresh insight" or a "new perspective" or a "key to the lost secrets" of the Bible.  What's a hard-working man to do? 

Well, in order to obtain epistemic virtue, Bill, out of his own sense of duty, reads two books written by evangelical, “Bible-believing” scholars: one, On the Reliability of the Old Testament by Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen, and two, Israel in Egypt: The Evidence for the Authenticity of the Exodus Tradition, by professor of biblical studies and archaeology at Wheaton College, James K. Hoffmeier.  Now that Bill has read these two scholarly tomes which both testify to the veracity (or plausibility) of the Exodus account, using all the best tools of CBS, is Bill now justified in believing as he always has before watching the program on A&E? 
But ah, Bill’s friend Bob the Skeptic[2] reminds Bill that while Kitchen and Hoffmeier may have their say on the subject, surely Bill needs to be fair and read “the other side.”  Bob the Skeptic is placing Bill back onto square one, in his epistemic crisis: that Bill surely has not encountered all of the evidence and research available (does not have “direct access”), but only the “biased opinions” of “fundamentalist scholars.”  And now, the volumes, journal articles, etc. pile up in the catalogues of Bill’s mind and overwhelm him.  How much evidence is needed for Bill and other members of the laity who desire to believe the Bible as inspired and historically reliable in order for them to be justified in doing so? 

Bob the Skeptic confirms Bill’s epistemic crisis by citing philosopher Richard Feldman, who writes, “It is extraordinarily difficult to state in a general way the conditions under which a body of evidence provides evidential support for a belief.”[3]  Accordingly, no amount of evidence is going to give Bill peace of mind.  Bill now has two problems: first, even the evangelical scholars say the Exodus account is plausible[4] (in contrast to certain), and second, CBS says the Exodus certainly is not plausible at all; in fact, it didn’t happen.  Or if it did, it was a mere migration, happening over eons of time, or it was a “mnemonic event,” meant to impress the ethos of the postexilic Israelite community of a proper memory in search of communal identity.[5]  Bob then suggests to Bill that he place belief in the Exodus account in the bin of skepticism in order to be intellectually honest and epistemically virtuous, based on that “fact” that there is insufficient evidence for Bill to be epistemically justified in believing in the historicity of the Exodus account.  We can state Bill’s predicament technically with the help of philosopher Paul K. Moser whose work on the nature of evidence as it relates to knowledge is helpful here:
For a person, S, to have knowledge that p on justifying evidence e, e must be truth-sustained in this sense: for every true proposition t that, when conjoined with e, undermines S’s justification for p on e, there is a true proposition, t¹, that, when conjoined with e & t, restores the justification of p for S in a way that S is actually justified in believing that p.[6] 

On Moser’s proposition (he is attempting to resolve the Gettier problem), Bill would be justified in believing the historicity of the Exodus account given that the “true proposition ” is fused with other evidence that Bill has for believing the historicity of the Exodus account.  If Bill receives “truth proposition” t, such that “in all the Egyptian and Sinatic desserts, there is no trace of a mass of 2 million (or 200,000 or even 20,000) people who traversed on a 40-year journey some 3500 years ago” as it were, then Bill, upon obtaining t in his cognitive faculties, lands himself in an epistemic crisis.  But, if Bill later obtains to t¹, such that “a careful reading of the Hebrew text of the birth narrative [of Moses] reveals that a number of words used are of Egyptian origin,”[7] and given that this propositional knowledge obtains using the tools of philological investigation, then Bill is justified in his belief that the Exodus account is historically reliable (p).  This is because, as Moser states, restores the justification of p for S (Bill).  But what if there is, following t¹, a counter-proposition, t², such that is a rebuttal of

The stacking of evidence in order to obtain justified true belief places Bill in similarity to the problem of the infinite regress common to classical foundationalism.[8]  Here, Bill finds himself back to square one of the epistemic dilemma.  What should he do?   Moser’s solution is that a healthy epistemology of justified true belief with have a fourth condition of “evidential truth-sustenance”[9] “that is sustained by the collective totality of truths”[10] which are themselves to be countenanced by “varying strengths in notions of propositional knowledge.”[11]  Moser further adds that “These strengths are determined by the accessibility qualifications on the set of relevant knowledge-precluding underminers.”[12]  Moser’s idea of having a defense against epistemic underminers fits with Reformed Epistemology’s defensive position of “properly basic” beliefs of the “great things of the gospel” (Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, Resurrection, etc.), and having acceptable rubrics for establishing the evidence required for justified true belief as well as having fulfilled epistemic duty and obtaining epistemic virtue. . 

However, we might object to this notion.  It seems here that we are saying that in Bill’s case of evidence and counter-evidence (t...t¹...t²...tⁿ), in order for Bill to have justified true belief regarding p, Bill needs to be on a continual plane of evidence compilation regarding his belief in the historical reliability of the Exodus.  How might this be any different from an internalist approach to justified true belief?  But, if Moser is correct that the evidence for p is “truth sustained,” and if Bill can use proper techniques for investigation, then he should be justified in believing p. 

In support of this concept of “truth-sustainability,” historical scholar Gary Habermas offers four criteria of historical epistemology that may be used for obtaining justified true belief when he cites Oxford university professor Richard Swinburne.  These four criteria are: our own apparent memories, the testimony of others (either spoken or written), physical traces left behind that may point to the event in question, and the application of scientific principles.”[13]  Clearly the latter three can be plausibly applied to the event in question, and can serve as Moser’s “truth sustaining” exemplars of Bill’s cognitive apparatus, providing Bill with epistemic ease.  So far, if Bill holds to an externalist account of justified true belief, he has fulfilled his epistemic duty by investigating the relevant data (by reading Kitchen and Hoffmeier) as this data has been compiled in accordance with Swinburne’s recommendations for historical epistemology.  Thus, the work of Kitchen and Hoffmeier serve as “evidential truth-sustenance” for Bill and he is therefore justified in knowing he has done his epistemic duty, he is justified in having his epistemic ease, and for Bill, epistemic virtue obtains.

So yes, Bill can believe in the historicity of the Exodus account simply by virtue of believing the Bible for one, and secondly by reading believing scholars like Hoffmeier and Kitchen because of the evidence they provide for Bill.  Bill can be open to "hearing the other side."  And he should be open.  But, his trust in the Bible's historical veracity should not be held in check or dismissed to the dust bin of skepticism until he has read all of the relevant literature.  If that were the case, Bill would never be able to make a decision about what to believe about the Exodus, or anything, for that matter.  

*This post is part of a paper submitted for a class on Epistemology in the graduate program at Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC for professor Dr. J.T. Bridges.

[1] For a thorough study of New Testament allusions to the Exodus, see R.E. Nixon, The Exodus in the New Testament, December 4, 2013. 
[2] Who among the Christian fold that dares to speak to apologetic issues such as “Science and Faith” and so on, hasn’t heard from a friend or family member, “You need to read the other side”? 
[3] A Companion to Epistemology, 121.
[4] In Israel in Egypt, Hoffmeier writes, “It is my contention and the purpose of this book, that in the absence of direct archaeological or historical evidence, one can make a case for the plausibility of the biblical reports based on the supporting evidence.” (preface, x).  Kitchen, in Reliability of the Old Testament, concludes his book with a more user-friendly quip, writing, “In terms of general reliability--and much more could have been instanced than there was room for here--the Old Testament comes our remarkably well, so long as its writings and writers are treated fairly and evenhandedly, in line with independent data, open to all,” p.500.  This notion of plausibility fits well actually, within the framework and modus operandi of RE. 
[6] Ibid, p. 158. emphasis mine.
[7] Hoffmeier, 138.
[8] It should be noted that Moser is not a foundationalist, but an evidentialist.  See his Knowledge and Evidence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). 
[9] Moser, 159.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Gary Habermas, “Historical Epistemology, Jesus’ Resurrection, and the Shroud of Turin,” p. 2. Located at  Accessed December 6, 2013.  

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