October 16, 2009

More on Biblical Contradictions

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , at 10:48 am by Andrew

There’s a great discussion going on in the comments section relating to Biblical contradictions; in light of that, I thought I’d clarify the point regarding those contradictions — at least to me.
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September 28, 2009

Answering “Who Cares” on Biblical Reliability, Authenticity, and Veracity

Posted in Answering "Who Cares", Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 11:40 am by Andrew

In the comments section, “Who Cares” raises a number of issues related to the basic notion of whether we can “trust” the Bible. I think it’s worth unpacking some of those assumptions:

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-english 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?

Here, “Who Cares” is eliding together three common atheist arguments that are, in fact, logically distinct. The first is the question of reliability; that is, how confident are we that what appears in our Bibles is a reliable transmission of what appeared in the original manuscripts. If the Gospel According to Mark we use today differs materially from the earliest circulating Gospel of Mark, for example, we would have questions about the reliability of our copy of Mark.

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April 28, 2009

Loftus on “The Strange And Superstitious World of the Bible”

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 9:26 am by Andrew

I thoroughly recommend John Loftus’s Why I Became An Atheist. In my mind it fills the gap nicely between pop-atheist works (like Dawkins) and specialized scholarship (such as Michael Martin). Of course, any well-read atheist or theist should have all three authors on their bookshelves, anyway.

John has rightly trumpeted his “Outsider Test for Faith” as a new and unique contribution to atheist counterapologetics (and I agree). But I wanted to focus in on a less-celebrated but still insightful passage. This is from page 152 of the paperback edition:
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April 19, 2009

Does the Gospel of John Subvert the Synoptic Gospels?

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 3:55 pm by Andrew

Rev. Jeremy Smith seems to think so. His argument stems from (1) John’s omission of the prayer at Gethsemene followed by (2) John 18, in which Rev. Smith claims that Jesus quotes from, and ridicules, the prayer account contained in the other Gospels.

HT: James McGrath.

April 15, 2009

My Responses to Becky LuElla Miller on Why The Bible Is (Not) True

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 5:33 pm by Andrew

Over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, Becky LuElla Miller has two posts up on “How Do We Know The Bible Is True?” In part 1, Becky argues that internal fulfilled prophecies prove that the Bible is true; in part 2, she suggests that external archaeological corroboration of some Biblical events means that “it is logical to accept as true the Bible’s record of events not yet corroborated independently.” I responded on Ms. Miller’s blog but will repeat those responses here:
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April 13, 2009

Zalmoxis, Jesus, and James McGrath

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , , at 5:05 pm by Andrew

In the comment section of a previous thread, there’s a bit of a discussion about the parallels (or lack thereof) between the Zalmoxis religion in ancient Thrace and the Jesus story.

Nathaniel argues, in part, that:

According to Herodotus, when Zalmoxis reappeared, nobody thought he had risen from the dead, since it was explained that he had just been hiding. According to the gospels, everyone who came to believe that Jesus was alive realized that this meant he had risen from the dead.

In a coincidence of timing, religion professor (and Christian) James McGrath has an excellent post up at his blog entitled “Celebrating Easter with the Doubting Disciples, detailing just who “came to believe that Jesus was alive,” even assuming that the Biblical accounts record actual events. The money quote:

Be that as it may, the point remains that Easter is not about historical certainty. In Matthew, it even explicitly includes doubt. And by making the day a day for celebrating certainty, we risk losing one of the most important steps that may help us to experience the “resurrection power” that drove early Christianity and has continued to transform lives down the ages.

February 23, 2009

Poe’s Law

Posted in Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , at 3:12 pm by Andrew

A serious question for my Christian readers: can you tell me if this little vignette is a parody or not? I certainly read it that way, until I dug into the parent directory, which appears to be an in-all-seriousness online manual for youth ministry.

But seriously:

Jesus: Wait a minute, didn’t I heal ten lepers? Why didn’t the other nine come back to thank me? The only one who came back to give praise to God was the Samaritan.

Disciple 1: Hum, maybe we were wrong about Samaritans.

Now I know how I read Luke 17:11-19, which is the passage of Scripture on which this little vignette is based. I think about those other nine lepers for a moment — but only a moment, because they’re not real. We know that even the worst ingrates are incapable of behaving like this; if you get magically cured of one of the worst diseases known to man, you’re going to at least stick around and figure out what just happened, right?

And that’s why it only takes a moment. As the reader, you can instantly recognize this passage as a badly-written bit of fiction. (That’s not to indict the whole Bible; there’s a lot of well-written fiction in there, too.) The nine ingrate lepers aren’t real people; they’re cartoon extras who exist for the sole purpose of providing the Samaritan leper some sharp relief. He gets to behave sensibly, and then Jesus can make his point. It’s a morality play, not a work of history. And the more you read the Bible, more and more of it reads the same way.

That’s why on first reading, I thought “Ten Lepers” had to be a clever parody. But now I’m not so sure, and that’s Poe’s Law in a nutshell.

February 21, 2009

Victor Reppert and Methodological Naturalism

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, The Bible, Worldview tagged , , , , , at 3:36 pm by Andrew

One of my favorite Christian bloggers, Victor Reppert, has responded to one of my comments on his blog. He has a longer post up that’s definitely worth reading. His argument is that the Christian apologist who has a preexisting commitment to Biblical inerrancy is morally equivalent to the atheist debater with a preexisting commitment to methodological naturalism. I think he’s wrong, and here’s why:

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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.