2. The Bible is Not Reliable Secondary Evidence
2. The Bible Is Not A Reliable Source of Secondary Evidence For God.
This post is my ongoing discussion of answers to objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that the Bible provides sufficient secondary evidence for belief in God.
Some of the most popular Christian apologetic works begin from the proposition that the Bible is true, including Josh McDowell’s seminal Evidence That Demands A Verdict and Lee Strobel’s effort to follow in McDowell’s footsteps, The Case For Christ.
If you are enamored of these two books, I would strongly recommend that you begin by reading (1) The Jury Is In, a massive online refutation of McDowell organized by Jeffrey Jay Lowder, and (2) Lowder’s lengthy review of Strobel’s Christ, The Rest of the Story.
Eventually, I will go into these (and other, similar works such as Geisler & Turek’s I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be An Atheist in subsequent posts, and I will link those posts here.
B. The Bible Is A Collection of Manuscripts Selected By Humans, Not God
There is no single, agreed-upon, authoritative “Bible;” rather, different sects of Christianity consider a wide variety of books to be Biblical “canon.” Thus, we (and I) err when we speak of “the” Bible, singular. In reality, we are talking about various compilations assembled and debated by ordinary people.
Thanks to the works of people like Bart Ehrman, we also know that the books of whatever Bible we do have are changed — often in substantial ways — from earlier texts.
i. Mark 16 as an example
Consider a relatively famous example, Mark 16. Go ahead and click on the link, and you’ll see a funny little notation there: “The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20.” In other words, historians now believe that everything after Mark 16:8 is a forgery.
Among those are verses 15 through 18, which read:
He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
That highlighted bit there (verses 17 and 18 ) is where Jesus supposedly promises Christians that they can do all sorts of magic things, including handling snakes and drinking poison. Now, perhaps it’s no big deal for you that this promise from Jesus turned out to be a forgery — but there are literally hundreds of thousands of Pentecostal Holiness Christians who have believed that all of Mark (including the forged, poison-drinking, snake-handling bit) is the divinely-inspired, inerrant word of God for about a century. And, of course, all Christians thought Mark 16:17-18 was genuine until 20th Century textual critics came along.
ii. Development of the NT canon is arbitrary
What do we really know about the New Testament? The Gospels are pseudonymous (that is, Mark did not write Mark, and so forth), and even conservative Biblical literalists believe that Matthew and Luke were partially copied from the lost Q document. And thanks to some contemporary works of fiction, many Christians now realize that the New Testament canon was not assembled until more than three centuries after Jesus’s supposed death.
Think about that for a minute. When Athanasius was declaring various NT books to be “canonical,” he bore the same relationship to the events described therein as you and I do to, say, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679. If there were 200 books about that Act, would you feel qualified to decide which ones were fact and which ones were fiction? I sure wouldn’t.
What you have on your bookshelf labeled “the Bible” is the product of debate and vote over three and a half centuries — some of which continues to this very day.
C. The Bible Bears the Unmistakable Hallmarks of Legend and Myth
i. “Just So” Stories
For example, consider Genesis 3, the well-known story of the Fall of Man, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by the serpent in the Garden of Eden into eating the forbidden fruit, with predictable results.
This passage, on face, appears to be a series of “just so” stories: it is the tale of how snakes came to crawl on the ground without legs (what the Bible colorfully calls ‘eating dust’); why childbirth is painful; and how come men have to do all the hard work. Don’t these passages seem exactly the same as “How The Zebra Got Its Stripes?” and the like?
And the Bible is literally full of “just so” stories like this. Genesis 9:13 purports to explain how the rainbow came to be — are we really to believe that light did not refract prior to Noah’s flood? Similarly, Genesis 11 (the well-known Tower of Babel story) purports to tell us how come so many people speak different languages. How is any of this any different than, for example, the story of Prometheus bringing fire to mankind?
ii. Talking Animals
In general, when you see talking snakes and donkeys (Num. 22:21-30), people living for hundreds of years (Gen. 5), stars somehow falling to the earth (Matt. 24:29) (or, alternatively, fighting in battles alongside humans! (Judges 5:20)), you know you’re reading fiction. When Matthew 27:51-54 tells us that a horde of zombies went on a rampage throughout downtown Jerusalem after Jesus’s death, we should probably recognize that as a legend. We know that people don’t generally take up residence inside fish (even “great” ones!), and we’re a little bit suspicious that eight people could gather together and cram all those animals on a big wooden boat. And so on.
To be clear: my argument is not that it is impossible for there to have been zombies, big boats full of animals, people living inside fish, talking snakes, virgin mommies, or any of that stuff. Anything’s possible, I guess. My argument is only that those sorts of things, coupled with the “just so” morality tales we see in the Bible, give off the unmistakable whiff of myth.
D. The Bible Garbles Actual History
Some things in the Bible are set in actual historical places and at actual historical times. But much of whatever Bible you’re using garbles what we know of actual history, placing it squarely in the realm of what we call today “historical fiction.” Here, I think a comparison to Homer’s Illiad is helpful. The archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann actually found the remains of Homer’s Troy, validating many of the names, places, and events in the Iliad. Although this discovery changed the way we viewed the Iliad as literature, it did not stop us from viewing it as literature. In other words, the fact that the Iliad correctly records that there was a city called Troy that was attacked by Greeks, it does not follow therefrom that the Greeks actually smuggled in a big wooden horse, or that the various gods fought alongside the Greeks and Trojans, or even that the Greeks dragged Hector’s body through the streets heaping abuse upon it.
Similarly, although some of the events in both the Old and New Testaments are recorded in history, the Biblical writers make a hash of it. Historians generally believe that there was no exodus of Jewish slaves out of Egypt as described in the Bible, or in fact, any of the subsequent conquest events described in Exodus. We know that Asa could not possibly have mustered an army of 580,000 Israelites and then used that army to slaughter a million Cushites (as described in 2 Chronicles 14); Bronze Age goatherders and desert warriors could not plausibly have maintained lines of supply for armies that big. (By contrast, for example, the Athenian invasion of Sicily — occurring nearly a thousand years later — was less than 1% of the size of the fantastic numbers frequently claimed in the Bible!) For this and other reasons, it is not surprising that none of these hundred-thousand-person battles attested to in the Bible are corroborated by any other source.
Similarly, although the historian Josephus chronicles the life and reign of Herod the Great in agonizing detail, he somehow never sees fit to mention the supposed slaughter of the innocents ordered by Herod described in Matthew 2:16-18. Is it more reasonable to believe that Josephus simply forgot to describe what would have been one of the worst atrocities in history — or that the passage in Matthew is a reworking of (and allegory to) Pharoah’s slaughter of the Jewish innocents described in Exodus 1:22-2:1?
In other words: when we review a Bible, we see that the historical events described therein are best categorized today as “historical fiction” — that is, real events embellished for literary and other reasons, and fictional events that are told in a historical setting but with garbled details, persons, and so forth. This is also true of the Gospels — they mangle contemporary historical events (as partially described above), are uncorroborated by contemporary historians, and bear the marks of legendary development and creative fiction.
E. The Bible Appears to be of Human Origin
i. Physical Description of the World
Finally, the works assembled into various Bibles are unmistakably of human, rather than divine origin. The world described in the various books of various Bibles reflects the world as understood by the people who wrote it. The cosmology is all wrong; the writers repeatedly depict a fixed firmament to which stars — alternatively described as either small bits of fire or living beings (see above) — are affixed. The geology is all wrong; the Earth is described as a flat disc (Is. 40:22) that God lives “above”, and from which it is possible to see “all the kingdoms of the world” if you just climb a mountain tall enough. (Matt. 4:8 and Luke 4:5, respectively.) The reason why today we use phrases like, “I feel sorrow in my heart” as figures of speech stems from the fact that the people who wrote the Bible believed it to be literally true; they did not understand that the brain was the source of thought.
Ask yourself: how could God have conversed and inspired the authorship of the Bible, and not corrected basic misconceptions about the world — obvious things like the moon not being a “lesser light” in the sky, or the shape of the earth, or the fact that the sun does not revolve around the earth, and so on?
ii. Morality — Slavery and Genocide
Worse — and most damningly — the morality of the Bible reflects the morality of the people who wrote it, including explicit endorsements of slavery and genocide that would make all but the worst villains of history blush.
Go read Exodus 21 and Leviticus 25:39-46, in which the God of the Universe sets forth precise rules for how the Jews can buy, sell, and keep slaves. (In a similar vein, in Joshua 9, God supposedly gives the Gibeonites to the Israelites in perpetual slavery!) And lest you think this is confined only to the Jews (as if that matters?!??), Colossians 4:1 explicitly permits a master to own slaves (but encourages him to “treat them well”), while Titus 2:9-10 instructs preachers to preach compliance to slaves.
In fact, in the New Testament, God even has his own version of the Fugitive Slave Act — which, you may recall, is considered one of the greatest moral atrocities in U.S. history. (See 1 Cor. 7:17-24 and Eph. 6:5-9.) And Paul dutifully returns a runaway slave to his owner in Philemon 1:1-13.
Imagine if you were a time-traveller accidentally sent back to the 1st century AD, and you happened to interact with the characters in the New Testament. Would you be able to bite your tongue as Paul ships Onesimus back to his master for punishment? Would you be able to sit through the sermon in Titus 2, in which the church is supposed to preach servility to slaves? Wouldn’t you cry out at the injustice?
And yet we are supposed to believe that Jesus — the divine, omnipotent creator of the Universe made flesh, the most perfect man ever to exist — that he walked amongst these people and never once clearly and unambiguously said something like “owning another person is always wrong, now and forever?” I don’t buy it.
I haven’t even gotten to the genocide of the Amalekites, in which Saul is first ordered to kill every man, woman and child in Amalek, and is killed by God for the sin of showing mercy. (1 Sam. 15) Is it even remotely conceivable that an all-just, all-loving God could behave in this way?
In conclusion: we get nothing out of the Bible that Bronze Age goatherders did not put into it. Some of what they put into it is good; much of it is evil. Some of their conceptions about the universe were correct; many more were staggeringly wrong. But none of it is divine. Moreover, what we even call the Bible today reflects human debate and cherry-picking over the next 300 years after the events supposedly described, and even those cherry-picked books are subject to alteration and forgery.
F. Resorting to the Bible as Evidence Is Self-Contradictory
It is worth noting that the arguments given by apologists for belief in the Bible are contradicted by the Bible itself. Acts 9 tells the famous story of Saul of Tarsus’s conversion on the road to Damascus, in which Jesus himself is said to appear to Saul and convinces him to give up his former life persecuting Christians and take up a new life preaching the Gospel. It was only the personal vision of the risen Christ that caused “the scales to fall from Saul’s eyes” and shepherded his conversion to Christianity.
Similarly, every Christian knows the story of doubting Thomas, John 20:24-31, in which one of the disciples — acting as a good skeptic, I might add! — sensibly notes that “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” in the resurrected Jesus. And so he gets to feel around inside of Jesus. A little gross, to be sure, but effective.
But these two events (and countless others) raise far more problems than they solve. Why do Saul and Thomas get to experience the risen Christ firsthand, while billions more have nothing to go by except the flawed Bible and the bad apologetics of the likes of Lee Strobel? John 20:29 tells us, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,” but what about those of us who have not seen and therefore cannot believe? It doesn’t make sense — and, if you think eternal salvation depends upon sincere belief in the risen Christ as a prerequsite — it’s grossly unfair.
For these reasons, I conclude that the Bible is not reliable secondary evidence for God and thus this second set of arguments is insufficient to refute the general case for atheism.