Nov 10

The Bible is Unique (Part 2 of 2)

I finally got around to wrapping up this topic. I’m going to cover it briefly and would recommend The Uniqueness of the Bible, an essay by Farrell Till for anyone who wants to delve deeper. Following are my responses to McDowell’s claims listed in the previous post. If I reference something you don’t believe or haven’t heard before and would like more information, please let me know and I’ll provide sources.

 

Continuity and Cohesiveness

The claim here is that the Bible, written over many years by a variety of authors, presents a certain continuity from beginning to end.

Right off the bat we have a problem because people picked which books were “holy” after the fact, so they could simply choose ones that agreed with their overall sense of what the correct teachings were. But, even so, we do not see the kind of cohesiveness one would expect from the word of God, written directly or inspired. Here are a few of many examples from Till:

In 2 Kings, God praises Jehu for his destruction of the royal family at Jezreel. God says “You have done well in carrying out what I consider right.” Later, in Hosea, God says, “for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel.” Biblical innerantists, like McDowell, have a difficult task ahead because such passages exist. If you think it’s God’s infallible word, then how can he contradict himself? However, if you realize these are men writing with agendas that sometimes conflict, it is perfectly natural to have disagreement. But that is not McDowell’s assertion.

In Leviticus, and throughout the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, animal sacrifices are encouraged and even commanded. You can note this is still the case in the time of the New Testament. However, in Jeremiah, God said, “For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” Also in Psalms we have “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” Several other OT sources also contradict the idea of required burnt offerings.

Also pointed out by Till, the bible states that “God shows no favoritism to people (Acts 10:34; Deut. 10:17; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6: Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; 1 Peter 1:17), but it also states that Yahweh selected one people ‘above all people on the face of the earth’ to be his chosen people (Deut. 7:6).”

Not pointed out by Till are the many New Testament inconsistencies, especially between gospel writers concerning the lineage of Jesus, the time and date of his death, OT prophecy mistakes, and much more.

And of course you have the issue of God being merciful and loving in contradiction with the mass killing in the OT.

 

Survival

The Bible is the most printed book of all time (I think it also may be the best selling). This is true, but as I had issue with the claim in Part 1, survival has nothing to do with truth – only popularity. I believe the second most printed book of all time was by Chairman Mao. Does that require us to think that Communism is the ideal form of government because it’s the most popular book on the subject? I think we can also give very convincing historical reasons for the spread of Christianity as the dominant religion.

 

Unique Teachings

This is one of my favorite topics because it’s remarkable when you see the similarities between the Bible stories and those of preceding religions, especially Egyptian and Babylonian. I also think the Jesus story being unique is an opinion shared by many Christians, in my experience. In most cases, people are genuinely surprised when they hear that their stories mirror older ones to an uncanny degree. I know I was. Here are a few of many examples:

Monotheism, animal sacrifice, reward/punishment for your deeds, temple building, and many other ideas preceded the Hebrews.

According to Till, “The first 11 chapters of Genesis were derived from Babylonian mythology, as all serious Bible scholars know.” You can find further confirmation of this and many more borrowed OT stories in 101 Myths of the Bible, by Gary Greenburg.

I would like to focus in particular on the story of Jesus. I have to thank Bill Maher for keeping this fresh in my mind, as he brings this up in Religulous. Predating Jesus by a significant period of time was the Egyptian god Horus. Horus was the product of Immaculate Conception – his mother, Isis, was impregnated by divine fire. He was the only son of the God Osiris. His human family was of alleged royal descent. His mother experienced an annunciation by an angel, like Mary. His birth was heralded by a star. Ancient Egyptians celebrated his birth at the winter solstice (around December 21) by parading with a manger and child, representing Horus. (By the way, other deities who are said to have been born on December 25 include Mithra, Dionysus, and Sol Invictus). Shepherds witnessed his birth. During his infancy, a local ruler tried to have him killed. There are no details of his life between childhood and adulthood. He was baptized in a river at age 30. His baptizer was later beheaded. He was taken into the desert alone to be tempted, but he resisted. He had 12 followers. He performed miracles, including walking on water, casting out demons, healing the sick, restoring sight, and he “stilled the sea by his power.” He raised his father from the dead. This father, Osiris, was also called “the Asar” and there are linguistic reasons to believe this translated into Hebrew would be Lazarus. He gave a famous sermon on a mountain. He underwent a transfiguration at one point. When he was killed, he was accompanied by two thieves. He was buried in a tomb and was resurrected three days later. This resurrection was discovered by women. He will later reign for 1,000 years in his role as savior of humanity.

I feel like I just rewrote a synopsis of the gospels. Again, these stories predated Jesus by several centuries. To be completely forthcoming, there are some doubts about the accuracy of some of these comparisons, but even if some are incorrect, there is still remarkable similarity. I would say unbelievable similarity – the kind you can only achieve when you copy. And the really interesting thing is that Horus is not the only deity predating Jesus with this kind of similarity.

 

Influence

Once again, this claim proves nothing about the truth of the Bible (see section on survival and the post in Part 1).

 

Summary

That was quite a bit of info, but hopefully all interesting. I, for one, always find the comparisons of the Jesus story fascinating. If you’d like more details or clarifications, please comment.

Oct 15

The Bible is Unique (Part 1 of 2)

Recently, it was recommended that I read Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict. In the interest of full disclosure, I have not had time to read the book yet. I hope too soon. However, I have become acquainted with its first chapter. The book opens with the claim that the Bible is unique. There are two central ideas within this claim – the response to the first will essentially render the response to the second unnecessary, but I’ll go ahead and respond to both briefly in two parts.

 

Uniqueness and Correctness
The first idea is not stated, but I think it’s implicit (this is my personal opinion), and it’s an idea that I’ve heard before so I don’t feel too bold in making my assumption. The idea is that if the Bible is unique, then that has some bearing on its truth value. To expand on this point, if the Bible were the same as the Koran, the Buddhacarita, the Book of Mormon, etc., then it wouldn’t place Christianity in any special standing. And, if Christianity is uniquely correct (and these other religions incorrect), then it needs to be different. For example, creationism (in our current form) and Darwinian evolution cannot both be correct because they make contradictory claims. But intelligent design and creationism can both be correct because they make very similar, non-contradictory claims. So, in order for Christianity, and only Christianity, to be correct, the Bible needs to be unique.

I have no problem with this line of reasoning—the Bible should differentiate itself if it is to be considered the only true religious text. However, we make a mistake when this claim is given explanatory power. The Bible being unique (and I don’t think that’s a given) is an empty claim. What I mean is uniqueness does not equal truth. Ulysses by James Joyce was certainly unique when it was published, but it doesn’t make it a true story. A better example might be a book that claims to be non-fiction, like Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams. This was wildly unique and even provocative when published, but is now widely disregarded by Psychologists. The matter is further complicated when you consider that, if you consider the Bible unique from the Koran, then you also consider the Koran unique from the Bible. It creates a kind of standoff.

McDowell himself admits that none of the evidence for uniqueness proves it is the Word of God, which leads you to wonder why include it at all. I think it’s for the reasons I gave in the second paragraph. As I’ve shown, though, there is no logical entailment of truth from the claim.

 

Why is it unique?
My first point is all that is necessary to counter this argument, but I wish to respond to the second element of McDowell’s claim just because I think he is being dishonest. This second element pertains to reasons why the Bible is considered unique by McDowell. These reasons include its continuity, cohesiveness, survival, unique teachings, and influence.

The response to these claims is considerably more in-depth and not really related to the main point of this writing, which is that uniqueness is not an adequate explanation. So, I will discuss these claims in a second part to hopefully come within a few days.

Aug 27

Why is faith valued?

People follow general rules of logic and science in almost every aspect of their daily lives. When they see an incredulous story on the cover of a magazine, they look at it with doubt. When they want a method to arrive at work, they get a vehicle, rather than attempt astral travel. You see my point, I hope. In general, people find no reason to question rational, even critical, thinking and praise scientific discovery and analysis. There is one area of exception– religion.

Why is faith valued, and even praised as a virtue? Benjamin Franklin (a Christian) once said something like “Faith is what happens when reason closes its eyes.” Here you have an intelligent, scientific man who recognizes the topic of my discussion and believes it is a good thing. This is perplexing and frustrating to me. It is exactly as he described – closing your eyes at the scary parts. And that is how I view the phenomenon. The reason for faith is that religion is in direct conflict with reason. This threatens religion, and people hold these beliefs very dearly. So, just ignore it – not for every other area because you would starve or die in some other way, but for the area in which you wish to remain blissfully ignorant. Faith is an invention, a hiding place, to avoid admitting irrationality. Or, in the case of considering faith a virtue, people actually embrace the irrationality; they are competing for who can have the most faith.

I should address that some will rebut that non-believers also have faith; this argument is usually wrought toward science (Side Note: when did science become the villain?). They may say one of the following, or some variation:

  • Don’t you have faith in evolution?
  • Don’t you have faith in the Big Bang?
  • Do you believe in the wind even though you can’t see it?

This is preying upon the term having multiple meanings. Yes, it is true that in common parlance people say they have faith in x or y, but there is a nuance being missed if you lump those things in with religious faith. When it comes to scientific things, there is an element of testability. That doesn’t mean it is true, it means there are ways to determine its truth. Religion does not offer that. The claims are either not testable or the believers still won’t admit they are falsified if the tests are not in their favor. With things like evolution or the Big Bang, I am actually quite indifferent to whether they are true. They seem to be plausible explanations given the evidence so far, but there is an excellent chance one or both will be proven wrong. And people are attempting to do that every single day.

Religious claims, for the most part, are also subject to test in that they are making a claim about something in the world being affected. This is an excellent start for any test. So, you say there is a yeti roaming the wild? Let’s search for him. There is poison in the victim’s body? Let’s do an autopsy. The bread and wine transform into flesh and blood? Ok, let’s test it. Of course, the tests never (and I mean never because this would be big news – front page stuff) produce affirmations of religious claims. That is the faith with which I take issue.

I challenge someone to tell me why faith is a good thing. Further, if it is good, then why does it not manifest itself in other areas of our lives?

Jun 01

The Day the Earth Stood Still

A number of people have taken religion to odd conclusions. I always find particular enjoyment with one group – the people at www.fixedearth.com. It is their assertion that the Earth does not rotate around its own axis or revolve around the Sun.

You may ask, “How can they make such a ridiculous claim given our knowledge of the Solar System and planetary orbits?” Well, they have a list of “scientific” articles to support their cause. Oh, and a few bible verses taken out of context for the icing on top.

They do this all to diligently carry out their motto:

Exposing the False Science Idol of Evolutionism,
and Proving the Truthfulness of the Bible from Creation to Heaven…

Indeed. How can we continually fall prey to the false idol of bad science? You know, the kind of science that looks at facts and research results, and then draws conclusions (BAD). Instead, we should take a pre-determined conclusion, like things in the bible, and try to make the facts meet them (GOOD). It makes total sense. I particularly love that this method even violates a bible verse they promote on the front page of their own site! “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame unto him.” Proverbs 18:13

They follow that up with further irrefutable evidence like:

“The world also is established that it cannot be moved.” Psalm 93:1

AND

“He…hangeth the Earth upon nothing.” Job 26:7

I hope you enjoy the site as much as I always do. While you’re there, check out their air tight refutation of Darwinian evolution.

May 04

Recap of Bart Ehrman Lectures

I had the privelege of attending all three lectures by Bart Ehrman last week. It was very entertaining and he was quite funny. I’ll provide a quick recap of the subjects of the three and some general observations. I’ll provide approximate titles, as I don’t have the programs in front of me.

Lecture 1: A World of Contradictions

This lecture focused on the fact that there are irreconcilable differences in the Christian New Testament. Some have tried to explain these away over the years, but it’s an exercise in theological gymnastics and leads to outright illogical conclusions. Rather than ignore these differences between mainly the four canonical gospels, we should understand the differences and why the authors made the changes. One example is the dispute in when Jesus was crucified between Mark and John. John, for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into, is believed to have changed it from the earlier version of the story to make a theological point about Jesus being the sacrificial lamb from the original passover story. The author had a specific point of view and changed the writing to match it. This was done numerous times throguhout the gospels, either by the original authors or later scribes.

Lecture 2: Liar, Lunatic, or Lord?

This lecture was about the historical Jesus. Ehrman discussed tests used by Scholars to measure what may be historically accurate in texts. A few of these are multiple attestation, dissimilarity, and historical context.

Multiple attestation simply means it appears in more than one story, with the caveat that it can’t be copied. For example, something from the Q Gospel that was written nearly verbatim in both Matthew and Luke does not count as multiple attestation. On the other hand, something that appears in Q, Mark, John, and the letters of Paul is more likely to be accurate.

Dissimilarity means something that would not be similar to the common notions of what the writers wanted to prove. For example, to say that the Jewish Messiah, who was expected to be a warrior, was crucified by the Romans would indicate accuracy.

Many of these gospels were written well after Jesus lived. If something is true to the historical context of 1st century Palestine, it is more likely to be true. For example, some of the wordplay that only makes sense in Greek probably did not link back to Jesus, who likely spoke Aramaic.

Ehrman’s ultimate conclusion was that to best understand the historical Jesus, we can’t remove him from his context. He was a Jewish apocalypticist who felt the end of the world was happening within his lifetime.

Lecture 3: Literary Forgery in the New Testament

The point of this lecture is pretty simple: the books in the New Testament were not for the most part written by the attributed author. This was a common practice of the time and used to grant authority to your work. An early church was more likely to follow your letter or gospel if it were written by Peter, for example. Some of the letters attributed to Paul may be accurate, but that’s about it.

Thanks for reading. If anyone wants more information on a particular topic, let me know and I can expand in the comments.

Mar 25

Common Arguments for God’s Existence

I’ve been inspired recently by a debate between William Lane Craig (theist) and Victor Stenger (atheist). In it, Craig presents the same, tired arguments that have been in use for centuries. Though discounted many times over the years, these arguments still haunt us today. They are a constant reminder that those using the arguments either do not care to research what has already been said on the topic or simply choose to ignore the fallacies of these arguments.

For now, I will cover (briefly) the Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument, and the Ontological Argument. Later, I may discuss some new hybrids, but let’s stick to the classics for now.

The Cosmological Argument

Everything that exists was caused, the universe exists and must have a cause, nothing can cause itself. Yes, the old nothing can come from nothing approach.

The most obvious flaw, and one that I assure you can never be overcome, is that God would have to be held to these same restrictions. There is no adequate proof that God should count as an exception to this. You could say that God has always existed, but then you open the possibility of the Universe always existing, and you’re back to square one. God, in this case, acts as a typical deus ex machina. An intersting side point by Stenger during his debate was that, in particle physics, we know of things that exist with no appparent or intelligble cause.

The Teleological Argument

Nature is complex and seems to have a purpose. These complexities seem like they can only have arrived from mind, rather than random chance. This implies a designer, ala Paley’s watchmaker. There is a modern remix of this argument called the Argument from Fine Tuning, but I won’t go that in-depth here.

Darwinian evolution serves as a counterpoint. Basically, our evolutionary history has resulted in only keeping the lifeforms that function relatively well. Many may say here that we must prove evolution. Not true. This logical construction is arguing that it is necessary for us to have been designed. Our only job is to show that it may have come about in other ways. A more obvious retort could also be that there are so many problems with our species, planet, etc. that it would seem to be poorly designed in many areas. This would conflict with the traditional notion of God as perfect, but does not necessarily derail the argument as a whole.

The Ontological Argument

This one is my favorite, as I don’t see how the terrible logic could convince anyone; yet, it remains in use today.

We can conceive of nothing greater than God. To exist is greater than to not exist. If God did not exist, then we would be able to conceive of something greater than God. So, God must exist. Incredible. I’ve always seen this as less of an argument for God’s existence and more of a definition for people who already believed – God is the greatest thing you can possibly conceive.

The problem, and it is a ridiculous one, is that conceiving is not the same as existing. Kant also critiqued this argument by saying that existence is not a property. For example, you wouldn’t logcally treat walking on two legs and existence the same. So, to add existence to the definition of a concept produces numerous fallacies. Go ahead and think of something ridiculous and then also think that it exists. Whatever you think about must, by definition, exist now. It works like magic! More traditionally, we treat existence as something that has to be empirically proven. That is why people don’t believe in unicorns – because no one has ever seen one.

Conclusion

I hope that all makes sense. I assume readers don’t want to digest an entire term paper, so I kept it short. That also means that I had to move through the arguments fairly quickly. If there is something you think I should clarify, feel free to comment.

Mar 22

Bart Ehrman speaking in St. Louis

Bart Ehrman will be in St. Louis April 23-24. I will be attending on the 24th. The subjects of all three sound interesting and I’m really looking forward to it. See details below:

Friday, April 23 @ 7 PM

Lecture 1: A world of contradictions? An historical approach to the new testament.

Saturday, April 24 @ 9 AM

Lecture 2: Liar, lunatic, or lord? Searching for the historical Jesus.

Lecture 3: Is the new testament forged? Literary forgery in the early Christian tradition.

Lectures will be held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. 1200 North Warson Rd, Saint Louis.

For more info and directions, visit St. Peter’s Episcopal Church

Mar 19

Guess Who?

Let’s play a game. I’ll describe someone to you and you see if you can guess who it is.

This is a man who lived around the First Century of the Common Era (some people may call this A.D.). He was a well known Jewish teacher from Galilee and had many followers who claimed he was the Messiah. It is said that a voice in the sky even proclaimed him the son of God. He worked miracles and was eventually martyred outside the walls of Jerusalem around the Passover.

Did you guess Honi the circle drawer? No?

Ok, how about Hanina ben Dosa? Still no?

Oh, well then you probably guessed Jesus. That’s what I thought.

Well you would have been right on all three. There have been many Jewish Messiah claims over the years and a lot of supporting miracle stories to back them. You could even extend it further to find prominent figures in other religions who were born of virgins, or conquered death, or some other fantastical claim.

My only point is that the story of Jesus is by no means unique. Messianic claims are a dime a dozen and not a single one of them can stand on evidence.

You might counter with: “Yes, but look at how many people still believe in Jesus and I’ve never heard of these others.”

Interesting point. I’m sure Muslims would be interested to hear a Christian answer the same question regarding Muhammad. Why not follow him?

Mar 16

Killing a Giant

Last time, I discussed a well known story from the Christian New Testament. This time, I’d like to kick it old school.

First of all, I can’t believe I even have to make this argument. This story should be discounted on its own merits alone. It is as silly, and obviously made up, as any other classic hero-as-a-child story. Does no one read Joseph Campbell? Anyway, here we go.

Today, I want to discuss the man who, according to the bible, killed Goliath. His name was Elhanan. But what about David and Goliath? Elhanan and Goliath doesn’t have the same ring to it! Spoiler alert: the bible contradicts itself many times and this is one of them. This is another of those items it’s just easier to never cover on Sunday mornings. We probably all know the story of young David, only 12 years old when he used a sling and stone to kill the well-armored giant, Goliath of Gath.

Elhanan, on the other hand, was a member of King David’s elite fighting force called, “The Thirty”. The story of Elhanan killing Goliath is part of a set of four short stories about members of The Thirty killing giants. A story about killing Goliath certainly fits that motif, so it makes sense in that context.

I don’t want to make all the necessary arguments to hammer the David version of the story’s inauthenticity home because it would take forever, so here are the highlights and I can give you a reference if you want to dig deeper:

  • The Hebrew Bible attributes Goliath’s killing to Elhanan in 2 Samuel 21:19. If you read that verse today, it will probably say he killed the brother of Goliath (unless you have a good translation like NRSV). That is because scribes intentionally changed the passage. It can be assumed this was changed to avoid conflict with the beloved story of David. A well-known warrior already seems more believable than a 12-year-old boy, but I’ll continue.
  • In the David version, Saul asks Abner “Whose son is this youth?” after Goliath is dead. Abner replies, “As thy soul liveth, O king, I cannot tell.” That’s funny because by this time David was already a favorite of the Royal Court. Saul would surely have known David.
  • In the David version, David supposedly brought Goliath’s head to Jerusalem after slaying him, but Jerusalem was under control of the Jebusites. It didn’t come under Israelite control until after David was king.
  • The David version usually just speaks of “the Philistine” when referencing the man who was killed. Goliath’s name is randomly placed here and there and seems likely to have been a later addition.

Whew! That’s a lot of bible study. I hope you didn’t get bored. I promise it will be short, sweet, and powerful next time. Check out 101 Myths of the Bible by Gary Greenburg if you want to read more.

It seems totally believable when Caravaggio paints it.

Mar 13

Let him who is without sin fudge the first story.

One of the most beloved stories in the canonical gospels tells us of an encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees. In it, they bring a prostitute to Jesus and ask his opinion of what to do. The Jewish Law of the time advocated stoning for the offense. Jesus is famously quoted as saying “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Take that, Pharisees. Such Solomon-like wisdom could not be countered.

I also love that story, but for different reasons than most. It is a fake. The story was not in the earliest manuscripts of John that we have (we don’t have the autographs, or originals, of any New Testament writing). It was added later by a scribe. According to a footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible (my bible of choice) the “episode is not found in the most authoritative manuscripts.”

The part I find most interesting is not the continued re-telling of this story. It imparts what many Christians feel is valuable wisdom regarding our haste to judge others. Rather, it is the ignorance regarding the story’s authenticity. It is common knowledge among Christian scholarship, including most pastors who have attended some version of seminary, yet no one mentions it outside of textual criticism circles. In my life, I have probably heard that saying repeated in church hundreds of times, but it wasn’t until a New Testament class in college that I learned that.

My point in all of this is only to share what was once a new and interesting revelation for me. I don’t feel this knowledge has to cheapen the story’s status among Christians. It would probably be just as revered if attributed to Paul, James, or Ignatius.

There are countless changes, additions, and deletions that have been made over the years to the Christian bible, most of them minor, but some quite interesting. If you want to know more on the subject, Bart Ehrman is a great resource for books on modern textual criticism.

Tune in next time when I take on an even more well known, and loved, biblical story.

Older posts «

» Newer posts