How the Bible was made

From Christians, we often get letters quoting scripture and telling us the Bible is god’s word. From atheists, we sometimes get letters asking us about how the Bible came to exist–usually because they’re in a debate with a theist online who is making claims about evidence of textual reliability.

When I was a Christian, I was swayed into accepting the religion by a set of claims put forward by professional apologist Josh McDowell. I was a naive 15-year-old living in the days before the Internet, and the claims Josh made that were impressive to me had to do with the meticulous record of Biblical texts and the reliable methods of reproduction of those texts. His foundational argument is that the Bible stories are trustworthy–in so far as accurately representing honest reports by the authors. That is, what people wrote is what they believed they saw. And we can trust the book we read today matches the original texts nearly flawlessly. His further arguments all springboard off Biblical claims. So, the resurrection then requires an explanation–because obviously the events in the gospels are accurately reported–so what did people see to make them think a resurrection had occurred?

Bear in mind most churches do not teach classes on how the Bible came to exist. And before the Internet, unless a child thought on their own to go and look for this information, they would surely be impressed by someone who is describing these events and scenarios in a way that made him sound informed and scholarly. In other words, a kid in this class would be impressed by perceived authority and accept, very likely, these claims without question–having never been told anything different.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I actually met anyone who wasn’t a theist (at least openly). Prior to that, everyone I met was some brand of Christian. And eventually, at college, I was challenged on my parroted claims from Josh McDowell’s courses. In an effort to prove my fellows wrong, I ended up spending hours and hours in the basement of the UCF library where the “religion” section was then housed. It was there I first learned I’d been hoodwinked. From church histories produced by Catholic societies, to secular scholarship, they all agreed on the relevant facts: The origins of the Bible are quite opaque until centuries after the events they record–where they then surface as quite murky for some time further. What is recorded leaves any person with a working mind with the understanding that there is no basis for taking these texts at face value.

It was still many years later until I finally became an atheist. Eventually I found Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus. I loved it because it was as though he took all the research I had done and bound it into an easy-to-read, short book–and then added even more that I hadn’t found, since, unlike him, my life’s work has not been to study these texts in their original languages in great detail.

I’ve recommended this book to many people over the years who have expressed an interest in Bible origins. But I’m always disappointed when I realize that many people simply aren’t readers. Now, however, I’ve found a way to remove all excuses and make, what took me many nights and hours in a university library basement, easy for you. On Youtube there is a 10-part lecture by Bart Ehrman on the topic of Bible origins, where he talks about the information in “Misquoting Jesus.” Even if you don’t have the stamina to sit through all 10 parts, I promise you the first two will be sufficient for you to grasp the point.

If, after viewing this, there is any doubt in your mind as to the level of (un)reliability of the Bible’s content–then you have a mighty faith, indeed!


The “Ressurection” Guy Writes Back

The young man featured in Martin’s last “resurrection” post wrote back to me on a response I had offered him. My original response wasn’t nearly as long and thorough as Martin’s. I had only asked a simple question:

To paraphrase: “Many Christians assert the resurrection stories align perfectly, and this is evidence of their truth. You are writing to say they are not aligned, and this is evidence of their truth. My question is: How do we identify a falsehood if stories that are either consistent or inconsistent are both evidence of truth?”

Since other people as well replied, I didn’t expect an answer from such a brief note from me. But when he wrote back he explained he’s in a confused state where he doesn’t know what to believe, and he’s contacting us mainly as a sounding board to see what we say to evidence and reason that seem convincing to him currently. He even added that what we said, he thought, “made a lot of sense.” I admire that he’s even asking questions. And I also understand how indoctrination can make nonsense sound sensible. So, even though the rebuttals seem obvious to me, I do get that he really doesn’t see them.

His point back to me was to issue another question. He thinks it is valid to consider that many parts of the Bible are myth, and not all literal. I agree. The difference between us is that I classify anything that isn’t demonstrated in reality (or conflicts with demonstrated reality) into the “myth” category, while he is trying to sort out which of the things that defy reality are “literal.”

He expressed that he has heard that god wrote to Hebrews in terms they could understand—to the mind of an ancient Hebrew—and that’s why the content is sometimes wrong or less than perfect. He asserted further that if the Bible is concerned with how to get to heaven, rather than how the universe works, then it’s not right to judge the problems it presents in its less-than-accurate models of reality. He gave me a quote from Galileo to support this. It is ironic the quote he offered was from Galileo—a man who dispelled more than a few erroneous Christian beliefs, some of which were supported by Biblical texts. Nobody would know better than Galileo that the Bible got it’s “reality” a bit muddled. But he excused it by saying this isn’t the point of the Bible’s divine message.

Again, I asked the same question (again to paraphrase): It is either the case that you are right, and a god wrote a book using ancient Hebrews, that was riddled with the misconceptions and ignorance we would expect to find in the ancient Hebrew mind, or it is the case that it actually is a book written by ancient Hebrews including all the misconceptions and errors within it we would expect to find in an ancient Hebrew mind, but attributed to a god in the same way many other cultures have developed similar stories about gods that sound like their own minds. If this book contained correct and advanced scientific statements, would you then consider it’s not from god, since it doesn’t sound like an ignorant Hebrew? Really, I think that if it had that sort of really good and sufficiently advanced grasp on reality within it, you’d be writing to say anyone should see no ancient Hebrew could have produced such knowledge out of his own head without an advanced intelligence to guide him. So, I’m back to the question: If god writes books that sound just like books ignorant people write—how do we tell books written by gods from books not written by gods?

I also suggested he do some research into the canonization process to make his own assessment about whether that sounds like a good strategy for a god to use to get his message to mankind.

What’s interesting to me, as well, is the emphasis this young man puts on the idea that god inspired the Bible. He’s putting the cart before the horse. The question of whether or not god inspired the Bible can only be relevant after the question “Does a god exist?” has been answered. And I did bring this up with him as well—that I don’t see any reason to believe a god inspired anything until I see some demonstration of gods in reality.

Eventually, I’m betting, he’s going to get to that point—to the realization that the real question here isn’t what god does or does not do, but whether there is a god at all. We can start the dialog at the middle or the end, but until that question is resolved, no claims about god—god’s actions or attributes—matter.

And I wonder how long it will be before we get to ID? To the point where I’m asking the same question about the universe: How do we tell a universe without a god from one with a god where god makes it look like he’s not there? There’s an old saying, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck…” I would like to change the ending to “then why would you assert it’s a god disguised as a duck, rather than a duck?”

I’ve said before that it’s a testament to the awesomeness of nature that so many people can’t believe what they see before their very eyes. It reminds me of Matt. Yes, I agree he’s awesome; but that’s not what I’m driving at. Matt does magic tricks. The last one I saw was a really good one where he sat me down with zener cards and “I” was able to predict all of the cards before he turned them over, on a table right in front of me—supposedly a “test” of my “psychic abilities.”

I joked with Matt that one problem with the trick is that he can’t do it without me—since psychic powers like mine are demonstrably very rare from even a cursory survey of reality. I don’t know many people who could do what I just did sitting at that table—successfully predicting every card without so much as breaking a sweat!

Of course, we all know it’s a trick—even if we never find out how it was done (and no, he didn’t tell me, and I knew better than to ask). But what a testament to the wonderful illusion of that trick if someone was thoroughly convinced that it had to have been done through magic—real magic: “No mortal man could possibly have done what I just saw. Matt has magic powers, the ability to draw out my psychic capacity in some way.”

If I walked away convinced of that—what a trick that would be! Now, it would pay no homage to Matt’s real skill as a magician in one sense, since I failed utterly to appreciate the work that really went into creating such a brilliant demonstration of mental manipulation. But in an odd way the fact I would seriously doubt his skill as a magician, and become convinced the trick is real, demonstrates how well the trick was executed.

And nature is exactly the same. What a testament to nature’s amazing presentation that so many walk away convinced that what they see happening each day, before their very eyes, is completely impossible without magic.