The reliability of the gospels

May 29, 2008

You may remember quite a while ago a rant I posted here about a couple of Canadian evangelicals who were trying to convert me but actually ended up getting swayed more by me than I did by them. They left me with a book called The Case For Christ by Lee Strobel for my own perusal. I’ve been reading revision books and more recently Catch 22, so I haven’t got around to reading it yet, but I’m about halfway through, and when I finish I’ll be sure to post a more in-depth review. The first 2 chapters, however, are specifically about how reliable the gospels are in regards to being passed down faithfully and having been written by eyewitnesses or disciples of eyewitnesses, and I have a couple of points. You’ll have to excuse me, I’ve rather stupidly left my copy somewhere so I don’t have it in front of me.

Strobel constantly reaffirms and asserts that when he was making this ‘2-year spiritual journey’ from effective atheism to committed Christianity, he approached the subject with an open mind and like lawyers in a court case would, but it’s clear from the text that this simply isn’t true. He seems very up to date on polemics in modern Christian theology and he often just takes the experts’ words at face value without questioning it at all (typical of a religionist to use arguments from authority rather than reason), even though his language would make you think he’s probing deeper all the time. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was never an atheist; he never takes the skeptic’s point of view and I could do a better job of grilling these experts.

I’d also like to mention that, unlike most journalists and certainly unlike a court case, Strobel only addresses one side of the story. Not a single time so far has he spoken to anyone who doubts the literal interpretation of the gospels and the orthodox doctrine of the evangelical church, even though he’s devoted a whole chapter to interviewing Greg Boyd, who does little more than dismiss the evidence and research of the Jesus Seminar (a liberal Christian group who separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus of faith). He never speaks to anyone from the Jesus Seminar.

Strobel and Metzger (some expert he’s interviewing at the beginning) constantly compare the evidence in favour of the New Testament to evidence in favour of other documents such as biographies of Caesar or someone else. But in this they are totally missing the point! If Mother Theresa or George “I cannot tell a lie” Washington — Totally off topic but does anyone else think that phrase of his is ironic? He was physically capable of telling a lie, so “I cannot tell a lie” in itself is a lie… duh — anyway if Mother Theresa or George Washington or anyone else that doesn’t normally lie told you that they woke up at 7am that morning, you’d believe it just like that, but if they told you that a pink elephant crash landed in a field from the sky, then disappeared, you wouldn’t!

It doesn’t matter at all how well the gospel story is preserved, or how trustworthy historians believe these ancient writers to be. The important question to ask is which possibility is more likely: that Jesus really did perform all these miracles and really did rise from the dead, or that early Christians and the writers of the gospels were either lying, lunatics or mistaken? I think the latter is much more plausible. A magician’s show might seem wonderful and supernatural, but nobody but naive children genuinely believe it to be magic. We should apply this same level of skepticism to the gospel stories, particularly since the deity of Jesus is not supported in any contemporary document outside the gospels. Think about it, if all this genuinely did happen, any historian or journalist worth his salt would be all over it! And yet there’s very little to support it, even within the Jewish community.

Christians on the March

February 24, 2008

I’ve been meaning to blog this for a few days now but I’ve been writing essays. It’s become clear that the evangelical wing of Christianity is becoming much more active in the UK. Before, Christianity was something you could choose to partake in, or to ignore, but more and more I’ve noticed people going out trying to convert people.

Take Thursday, for example. I was eating my lunch in the Student Union, minding my own business, when 2 people came up to me asking if they could talk to me about “spirituality”, as they put it. “Sure,” I thought, “but it’ll be the biggest grilling you ever get”. The 2 Canadian students were from an organisation called Agape, associated with the Christian Union somehow (incidentally the CU have also had a marquis up in the Meadows to try and get Christianity out there a bit more).

They started off by asking about me personally, trying to get me to like them so they look like the nice guys. Then all of a sudden it turned to religion. “So,” he said, “do you have any kind of spirituality?” I replied with my position that I’m a humanist, which I had to explain, and then that basically I don’t believe anything unless I have a good reason to believe it, and evolution explains my existence (as an aside, this guy said he studied biology, but I had to explain macro-evolution to him) so I don’t need to invoke a creator God. “You believe you’re here because of chance?” Argh! Just because there’s no intelligent force behind it, doesn’t mean it’s chance!

“But if God exists” -big if – “do you think he loves us all?”. Well if he does he’s got a funny way of showing it, there are good innocent people in Africa living hellish lives, and the world is full of evil, so I don’t see how he can possibly love us all.

Quickly moving on, the guy (can’t remember his name for the life of me), then explained that there’s a big gap between God and us, and that gap is because of sin, and we are all sinful. I told him that I have a problem with thinking of myself as “sinful”, just because I’m not perfect; generally speaking I’m quite a good person.

Again , pretty much ignoring what I said, he went on to say that Jesus is the only way to bridge the gap between man and God, and it doesn’t matter how good we are on our own, without Jesus there is no way to bridge the gap, as it says in John 14:6 (John seemed to be a particular favourite of his). I asked one of my old favourite questions, how can you be sure that you are right, but the Muslims at the mosque down the road are wrong? For every quotation from the Bible that you have supporting your worldview, they have another from the Koran which supports theirs.

“Well the thing is,” he said, “Jesus is just so perfect that he must be right, and he died in our place.” I had issues with the Jesus being perfect thing but my main point was, how do you know that Jesus died in our place? How do you know he didn’t just… well die?  Because he believes in the Bible, was his answer. I explained to him just how unreliable the gospels are, that they were written a long time after Jesus died (Mark was the first written, and that was 30 years after Jesus died, all the others were much longer after that, and most of those were based on Mark’s account). “But wouldn’t you prefer to have an eyewitness account?” he replied. Yeah I would, but unfortunately that’s not what we have in the Bible. This guy seemed totally unaware that the gospels were not written by the apostles themselves and I pointed out that there are many parts where Jesus is alone, so how do we know what he did? None of the apostles were there when he was born, for example, or when he was in the desert, and in Luke’s account of the ascension it specifically says that it’s not an eyewitness account. So the only written record we have of Jesus’ ministry is a collection of myths, legends and hearsay.

The next part was almost pitiful. He brought up CS Lewis’ argument that Jesus was either lunatic, liar or Lord. Again, I’ve shot this down so many times, but my theory is that he was actually none of these, but was merely a normal man who did exist, a great teacher, but he was lied about in order to make him fulfil the Old Testament prophecies. It’s entirely appropriate, the Jews needed the Messiah to free them from slavery, and some of them were getting desperate.

“But the Bible is historical fact!” he replied. Apparently they found some books in an old library (at least that’s what he claimed), which verified the whole story. Then when he started to make sense, he said that biographies of kings at the time, for example, mention that Jesus was around. But that doesn’t make him the Son of God. Let’s look at it from another view, using the same argument. The gospel account says that Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead. If this actually happened, do you not think that the news would spread like wildfire across Palestine? Do you not think that historians of the day would think it worthy of putting it into their journals, that a man was raised from the dead? And yet there is no record of it outside the Bible. Hmm…
So I had a problem with pretty much everything he said, and I asked him questions that he’d obviously never even considered before. He was just a young guy that didn’t really know what he was talking about, he approached converting me just as he would have an on-the-fence agnostic who’d never really thought about it, and I’m sure that if he thought about his beliefs objectively, he’d be an agnostic. The only way he managed to get through our conversation with his beliefs intact was by ignoring my arguments.

I know this isn’t very constructive, but it’s just so frustrating when people come to you with half arsed arguments that haven’t been thought through, with smug moral attitude. At one point he actually said “if only you knew what I know”. Come back when you’re willing to have an open-minded conversation.