February 10, 2009

The Bible?

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , at 4:00 pm by Andrew

2. The Bible Is Not A Reliable Source of Secondary Evidence For God.

This post summarizes the second set of answers to potential objections to my Summary Case for Atheism, in which some Christians have contended that the Bible provides sufficient secondary evidence for belief in God. My ongoing, in-depth analysis of this issue is hyperlinked to the right and can be found here.

Many Christians argue that although God does not manifest himself to people today, he did at particular times in the past, and that revelation is, in turn, recorded in the Bible. Christians often say things like “the Bible is consistent in theme and congruency [and] fits together into one cohesive story” and the Bible “bears the ring of truth” to it. My argument is that the reverse is actually far more likely: when we read the Bible and look at it objectively, we unmistakably recognize what we’re reading as fiction, as myth, as the product of exclusively human imagination.

a) First, 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.

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.

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.

b) Second, when we turn to the text of whatever Bible we’re using, we find the unmistakable hallmarks of legend and myth. 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?

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.

c) Third, 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.

d) 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?

Worse — and most damningly — the morality of the Bible reflects the morality of the people who wrote it. 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.

For these – and for the other reasons discussed on the in-depth “Bible” page, 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.


  1. Who Cares said,

    Not going to go fully in depth right now, (there’s no real arguement in these questions, you’re just stating your facts, and it’s cool too, since I don’t see your point in saying them or, the fact that what you’re stating is not only the flaw of the Bible, but of the world’s history and anything else in it.)

    But, just touching on your point a) About the no agreement on any singular form of the bible. I mean, first, many people have many translations of works of Shakespeare, the Odyssey and the Iliad, and any non-enlgish originated text we have, and the translations of those text into english, or some other language. And you assume we cannot agree on any of those text? Maybe people have, okay, but do we? Scientists and people with P.h D’s aren’t always correct. Maybe I saw something in the Iliad that wasn’t there in the original manuscripts. Are we going to assume that the writer might’ve not said it on a different time, or it was something that happened but was forgotten to be included in? It happens, and

    Do I automatically assume someone must have added it there for no reason except to Try and authenticate the Iliad? Let’s use this analogy with George Washington to explain.
    So we have information on George Washington, we’ve got books and stuff on Washington from back then. What if, oh a few years ago, we find some information that we didn’t know existed, since we didn’t see it in the “original text”, but we see it’s legitimacy, or we see the place where it came from or other context clues that help us prove it. Are we trying to assume with the bible, that we blatantly made up verses, just to help substantiate ourselves? What if there was a short view verses written about the situation it explains, and some time later, it was circumvented into the bible, only reason it wasn’t there since we didn’t know about the information at the time. About each books of the canon portion of the bible, so different people wrote it, you yourself say that they are mearly pseudonyms, why should we care? Finishing with your possibility of 200 books of Acts, since the rest of my stuff is pretty half-said right now due to lack of sleep, if there were, 200 books of Acts, we’d have to read them all, and after verifying it with the rest of the Bible and it’s separate information, to see if the variations hold or not. And after that, you’d have to try, and I know it might be hard, but try to imagine, the time it was written, and the fact that so many people wrote it, and what the reason would be for the variation could’ve came from and evaluate things yourself. Unless you can’t do that, then I don’t know. There’s little point for intentional straight-out debating with an atheist. Debating, is trying to force your beliefs on others, and for christians, we do it because we know it’s the way to live and to be saved, and we see people like you who think you’re so smart trying to dig up all these facts we don’t understand clearly, (we do too), but when we’re in the boat of “finite” living, and we see the helicopter that comes to save us, and you stay in the boat and try to prove to us the boat ain’t sinking, that the water is just coming from the ocean, or try to say that boats are always faulty like that, but just scoop it out, but what happens when you can’t scoop it out anymore? We drown, we see all these proofs that are showing we are drowning and that the helicopter is the only way, sadly, when you profess your faith only at the very end, you don’t get the chance, because you chose to reject it the whole time, BEFORE, the end. Get lead to God now. Great, now I sound like I’m preaching to you aren’t I? Well, that’s why people care about you, and why I post here, try to convince you. Sadly, I might not be able to reply to your responses to my arguments, since we’re on different boats actually.
    The helicopter is there to accept us, and we see people in the boats, and we try to help them, but we can’t stay with them and try forever to convince them, because the helicopter would leave, and we’d be stuck with you, lost in faith. Why won’t helicopter come back? Because you had a chance, but you threw it away. Why won’t God give me more chances? Guess what, he does, it’s because every time you see it, you throw it away. Why am I stuck with you? I say stuck with you, because it means I got thrown away from God because of you, you dragged me with you. A rotten fruit can turn fresh fruit into rot also. You can’t make the rotten fruit fresh again, but you can cut the parts that aren’t rotten off, (these people who have the chance are the people who haven’t known God in the beginning, but then moved to know him). What I became, is a fallen person, and I became rotten by staying.
    I’m rambling, so it’s a sign I’m not going to be able to make as many logical reasons as why you should believe because I don’t have to care about you. Sounds harsh? Oh well, it happens, I’m just saying, I care, but I’m not going to fret about it.
    I hope you come back to Christ, but if not, your loss. Even if you think it’s not, and you yourself will laugh thinking I’m dumb, but when a person who knows Christ has the proof for themselves, they can say like I can, that if you don’t accept Christ as savior, you’re going to be lost forever.You might ask, since I hold such information, that I prove it to you. You probably won’t though. You already stated that you don’t the reject the supernatural, that the people who are healed and touched and are spoken to by God, might be true. But that testimony isn’t going to convince you, like you said. And so, with the fact that I hold, I know your codemned if you don’t change. You yourself don’t know or care, but I do, so have fun man, I know I’m leaving you with foul words, and I’m probably leaving you looking like a coward after you reply to my posts on your wonderful site, I mean wonderful sincerely; you’re not that obtrusive. But, I hope, although I sound like some kind of hypocrite to you, and that I’m some illiterate boon since my responses are so devoid of logic, and other things that you’d use as proof I’m a complete swab. But, at least in Christianity, we believe in clean slates, I don’t know if you do anymore really, but if you do, we can always seem to make a clean slate, even though I’m a hypocrite and you’re smarter. Wow, the clean state things sounds like a hypocritical statement to the thing about the boat analogy. I’ve no need to explain, because although my flaw is viewed, you can try reading the bible. Don’t want to believe it because it’s not true to you? Well, okay then, if that’s what you want. But, with the subject on religious books, if you really want to know which is the real religion, I’d suggest that you read all the “biblical” books that each religion or belief has. You can read books on Buddha, Islam, Judaism, Christian Bible, WitchCraft(if you’re real beliefs seem to lead there, unlikely, since people hated witchcraft, and although that doesn’t prove anything, I think if people actually hated it that much they’d try to eliminate it, it’s probably not real if it has to be all hushed info), and whatever books the religion revolve their faith from. If you read the Bible, the bible in and of itself, you’d see it can substantiate itself a lot more better than the other faith books the other religion has. First step in deeming if a religion is false or not, is to see if their doctrine is sound within itself. And I know you’ll try to use that against me in speaking about the Christian bible, but remember those things with a slight more than usually open mind, when reading the bible, and the other books. Well, since I’ve lost myself in my text, I’m going to say good-bye. And since you’ll be my speaker for now, unless I reply myself, you personally can assume everything I wrote is illogical, was brought up without sources, and so on. Nothing I can do, you have you views on things, and they’re different from mine. It’s like trying to argue whether it’s okay to have an abortion, people think of the fetus differently, and there is no logical way to prove your position when another person has a different one. So, farewell, (dang, I’ve been trying to leave for along time and I still haven’t) Andrew. I hope you live a long and plentiful life. I’ve enjoyed reading your essays and looking at my faith after viewing them, I hope you aren’t angry for me speaking for you, since I was assuming you weren’t going to reply any time soon, and that someday, you’ll find a truth.
    “In some cases, we learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.”
    “-you will very likely reach your own conclusions. They will probably be wrong; However, since they will be yours, you will feel a little more satisfied with them.”
    Think on it if you want.
    Good bye and Thank you Andrew.
    -Who Cares

  2. Gavin G. Young said,

    To ‘Who Cares’ :

    In the post called “2. The Bible Is Not A Reliable Source of Secondary Evidence For God” Andrew wasn’t saying referring to how the words of biblical texts are translated in different translations of the Bible, but rather to their eing different canons of the Bible, namely disagreements among Christians about which books make up the collection of books called the Bible. For example the Jewish Bible has the books the comprise the Protestant Old Testament but no more. The Roman Catholic Bible has some additional books in its OT and in the distant past it included some books that even the Catholic church now considers to be Apocryphal and that are rarely now printed in Catholic Bibles (if at all, except in excumenical editions of the Bible, such as the New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha). Likewise there are differences in the collection of books in the Greek Orthodox Church vs. the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. Some modern Christian Bibles and some modern Christian denominations/sects don’t accept Mark 16:9-20 as being a part of the Bible whereas others do. A number of ancient Greek Christian Bibles included some books in their New Testament that not included in the New Testament of modern day Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant Bibles, such as the book called “The Shepard of Hermas”, except for editions made for a small niche group of readers. Likewise the Gnostic gospels are only considered scripture by a small niche of some Christians and small niche of some other people. Thus Andrew is correct in saying that Christians, as a whole, don’t agree which collection of books constitute the Bible.

    For the record, I am a former Christian evangelizer/deacon who is now an atheist, scientific naturalist, and secular humanist.

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