26 May 2012

The Gospel Challenge

All the recent hullabaloo over the historical Jesus (or Jesus McGee, as I like to call him) got me thinking about some of my past arguments regarding the historical reliability of the Bible. Oddly enough, the Bible's historicity or lack thereof wasn't really a factor in my deconversion 13 years ago; it was more spurred by what I perceived as the inanity of the theology (I've often said that reading the book of Hebrews did more to deconvert me than anything else). But the generally lousy reliability of the Bible as a collection of historical documents has certainly bolstered my confidence in my deconversion over the years.

I'm talking specifically about the New Testament (and more specifically, the gospels), although the OT is cannon fodder as well. What's interesting, though, is that Christians actually tend to agree on a lot of the basic facts. We generally agree that:
  • The gospels were written, at the earliest, several decades after Jesus purportedly lived, in a language different from the one in which the story purportedly originated
  • We do not have the original gospel manuscripts, but rather copies of copies of copies ad nauseum
  • The manuscripts we have are full of copy errors, omissions, additions, and often contradict each other
Lest you think that last point is controversial, I would challenge you to watch Lee Strobel's movie The Case for Christ, which I reviewed in a 3-part series some time back (at the time of this posting, the film can be viewed on Netflix's streaming service).  A relevant quote, with emphasis added:
John the Baptist helping drunk Jesus to his car
[The] gospels contradict each other in countless places, and omit information altogether in others. These are often not trivial factual contradictions either. If eyewitness accounts and oral tradition are as reliable as Strobel and company claim, why do the contradictions exist at all, much less in such abundance?

Strobel and company attempt to quell the issue not by denying the presence of these errors (no intellectually honesty critique of the Bible can do so), but by suggesting that a certain amount of disagreement is not only to be expected, but even desirable (Strobel's words: "That's okay, you want that."). If the stories disagree too much, we would dismiss them; Strobel suggests that if they agreed too much, we might also dismiss them out of suspicion that the authors colluded. What is the right amount of disagreement? Their reasoning is circular: Why, the amount in the gospels, of course! It begs the question: what is the criteria for determining an acceptable amount of disagreement? This is a clear-cut case of confirmation bias

To hammer the point home, I'm going to yank out a list of ten factual contradictions among the gospels:
1. Was Jesus executed before or after the Passover? John says before, Mark says after. And did he die in the morning, as Mark says, or in the afternoon, as John says?
2. Did Jesus carry his cross the whole way (John), or did Simon of Cyrene carry it part of the way (Matthew, Luke, Mark)?
3. Did both robbers mock Jesus (Mark and Matthew), or did one mock him and the other defend him (Luke)?
4. Did the temple curtain rip in half before (Luke) or after (Mark, Matthew) Jesus died?
5. Did Mary go to the tomb alone (John) or with other women (Matthew, Mark, Luke)? If the latter, who? Each gospel gives a conflicting account.
6. Was the stone rolled away when they got to the tomb (Mark, Luke, John) or not (Matthew)?
7. At the tomb, did they see one man (Mark), two men (Luke), or an angel (Matthew)?
8. Did the women tell the disciples to stay in Jerusalem (Luke) or to go to Galilee (Matthew, Mark)
9. Did the women keep what they saw a secret (John) or did they tell people (Luke, Matthew, Mark)?
10. Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem (Luke), or did they go immediately to Galilee (Matthew)?

The Gospel Challenge

Let's take a second to remember that the Bible is not supposed to be some mundane historical document, but the inspired words of the one true God who is the Lord and Creator of the universe. We all agree on the basic facts. Occam's Razor tells us not to multiply assumptions beyond necessity, and I think the internal factual errors, unsubstantiated supernatural claims and dubious historical origins of the gospels constitute overwhelming evidence that they are best explained as merely the works of delusional human beings. So my challenge to Christians is this: given the basic facts, I challenge you to demonstrate either logically and/or empirically that the only plausible explanation for the gospels is that they are the inspired words of Godthat no reasonable person could conclude, based on the facts, that the gospels are nothing more than the works of ordinary, delusional human beings.

Again, quoting from my review of The Case for Christ:
 Let's imagine, though, that I'm completely wrong about all this. Imagine all this stuff really happened, and Christianity is just as true and just as important as Strobel and friends make it out to be. Why did God do such a lousy job? This is supposed to be the one book that an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly loving God wanted his people to have. And what do we have? A book of dubious historical origins filled with unsubstantiated supernatural claims and riddled with internal contradictions. Is this really the best God could do? If God is so deeply concerned for my soul, why did Lee Strobel even have to make this movie?

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