My nonconversion story, Part 3: About scriptural (un)reliability.

This is the third part of my multi-part story of how, as a non-believer, I spent years looking at the evidence for and against Christianity as fairly as I could, eventually concluding it wasn’t true. The introduction is here, and I’ll link all the parts back there as I write them.

By the way, the last piece seems to have been linked on an athletics news site despite having nothing whatsoever to do with athletics (rather ironically, since it was about me at sixteen and I was probably about as anti-athletic as it is literally possible to be), so I assume this was a case of the ‘Motivation’ title being encountered by an undiscriminating bot. So, just in case anyone’s come over to check that out and got caught up in the story; welcome! Hope you enjoy, even if it wasn’t what you expected.

Anyway, so far I’ve written about how I grew up without any religion and about how my horror of Christianity led me to decide to give it a fair hearing, so on to start talking about what I covered in my reading.

I wish I could give you some kind of organised X-point plan of what I covered and what sources I used, but my passion and commitment unfortunately weren’t matched by anything even vaguely resembling organisational skills. Basically, I spent the next several years gravitating to the ‘religion’ section in every library and bookshop I visited (which was a lot of libraries and bookshops, BTW) and seeing what I could find, as well as trying to read the gospels (more of that in the next post) and praying rather incoherently to the potentially-existing God to ask that I might possibly be shown some sort of conclusive sign, if that wouldn’t be too much trouble (while meanwhile trying to suppress my horror at the prospect of the answer potentially being ‘Yes, I exist and I really do want all non-Christians to burn in hell, so deal with it’). So I would not say I had A Starting Point in all this, as such. However, I think the obvious starting point for this account is the question of how reliable/accurate the New Testament is; after all, that’s the source of all our information about Christianity’s origins. So that’s what I’m going to write about here.

I’d have loved to have access to something like Bart Ehrman’s writings on the topic, but I was decades too early for them, and everything I could find seemed to be either a simplistic pronouncement or an overly specialist work that was too hard to follow. (Looking back, I’m really quite surprised by how many of the latter seem to have be available in our local library; I mean, this was Wimbledon Public Library, not an obscure university archive.) So I struggled with dry discussions of obscure technical points about manuscripts and translations and writing style, giving up on making sense of many of the finer details and being left with no clear idea of why experts reached what conclusions they’d managed to reach on the subject. However, two clear points did emerge:

  1. Everyone apart from the more hardcore of Christians agreed that nobody really knew for sure who had written the gospels or what sources they used for their information. There were traditions about who the authors were, but there was widespread agreement that these weren’t based on very strong evidence.
  2. Everyone, even fervent Christians, agreed that the gospels weren’t written until several years after the events they described. In fact, with the exception of one source (no, I don’t remember what it was) giving ten years post-events as a possible lower boundary for when Mark might have been written, there seemed to be a general consensus that they weren’t written till decades after events.

Even though I couldn’t at the time make sense of how these conclusions had been reached, there was enough of a general consensus on them that it seemed fair to accept them both. That meant that what we had were accounts written many years after events, by unknown people whose sources were also unknown. And I knew enough to recognise that that was the sort of situation that allowed for quite a bit of inaccuracy and exaggeration to creep in over time.

And this was more than just a theoretical concern; when I compared the way different stories or issues were treated in different gospels, I could see signs of the stories getting more detailed with time. The resurrection stories progressed from an anonymous man in the original gMark ending telling the women that Jesus had risen, through to increasingly detailed/physical appearances in later stories, with the pointed Doubting Thomas story thrown in by the time we got to John’s account decades later (I was pretty naive in those days, but not so much that I missed the obvious motive that an early church would have had for including the claim of blessedness upon people who believed unquestioningly). Jesus’s alleged claims to divinity all seemed to occur only in John, the latest gospel; not only that, but in the earlier gospels he was explicitly describing himself as the son of God or the son of man, both expressions that I learned would have been considered in that culture to describe a human rather than a god. And Jesus’s most impressive miracle – the raising of a man dead for four days – was somehow only mentioned in the fourth gospel, and I really didn’t think that was because none of the other authors thought something that dazzling wasn’t worth a mention.

So, being as fair and even-handed as I could, and fully accepting that this didn’t mean I could assume everything in the gospels was false… I did conclude that there was satisfactory evidence that the gospel stories had been embroidered along the way, and that, while we didn’t know to what extent this had happened, it had clearly gone beyond trivial detail into some theologically significant matters.

The pro-Christian books I read had various attempts at counter-arguments to this:

Yes, the apostles Matthew and John really were the authors of the gospels attributed to them.

…which would have been a lot more convincing if scholars other than hard-core Christians had agreed. Since no-one else – including, as I recall, at least some of the Christian authors I read – seemed to agree that the evidence for this claim stood up, it really didn’t seem to me that the evidence could be that convincing.

We had more evidence for Jesus’s life than for Caesar’s.

(I should point out that I’ve learned since then that these types of argument aren’t even factually correct. However, I didn’t have that information at the time, so this is my response when I read it as a teenager.)

This argument struck me as just plain weird. Maybe there are people out there who feel the story of the Caesars is of such vital emotional importance to them that they cannot deal with any apparent flaws in the evidence or counter-arguments, but, if so, I’m not one of them. I didn’t know how much evidence we had for Caesar’s life and I didn’t care. If we genuinely didn’t have enough evidence to support widely-held beliefs about Caesar, then I really wasn’t going to respond by clutching my pearls and gasping ‘No, no! We must keep believing in Caesar! This cannot be!’ So this wasn’t something I was going to use as a benchmark for Reasonable Amounts Of Evidence To Believe Something.

An expert had done research into the matter and found that it took two generations for myths to arise when stories were being passed on, so, even though the gospel stories were written years after events, they were still early enough for the information to be accurate.

(Also not true, but also something I only found out later to be flawed.)

I didn’t know what to make of this one. I had a great respect for experts and it seemed quite absurd for me to question the word of one… but that didn’t mean I could just blindly accept something that was clearly not correct just because someone told me an expert said it was. If I’d read that an expert claimed that objects fall upwards or that the sky was green, I wouldn’t consider that a good enough reason to believe those things. Likewise, I knew perfectly well that there was no mysterious two-generation requirement for inaccuracies and exaggerations to creep in when stories were passed on; although that effect got worse with time, it could happen from the very start. So, expert or not, this one was so clearly flat-out wrong that I couldn’t accept it. I was baffled by it as I couldn’t understand how an expert could be so wrong, but there we were.

The part about the resurrection definitely had to be true; there was no way everyone would have acted in the way they did after Jesus’s death if he hadn’t really been resurrected.

And this was the argument that always sounded too convincing to keep me from dismissing the whole thing even in the face of all the other flaws I found.

I was still determined to give the whole thing as fair a hearing as possible, which meant not dismissing all of it just because the story had been embroidered on the way. And apologetics books insisted that only the actual sight of an actual resurrected Jesus could have convinced the disciples to spread the word in the way they did and that the only possible explanation for the Romans not displaying Jesus’s dead body to prove his continued death to everyone was that it was missing as a result of having come back to life and walked away from the tomb. To which I couldn’t, at the time, think of any solid counter-arguments.

I wasn’t ever completely convinced by those arguments, reasoning that we surely couldn’t be that certain what people would or wouldn’t have done in response to one particular set of circumstances two thousand years ago. But, at the same time, I sure as hell couldn’t think of another explanation. I could easily see how the story could have grown, but not how it could have got started.

I couldn’t find any counter-arguments in anything I was reading, either. This was a gaping hole in what anti-apologetics information I could find. I didn’t know, at the time, how easily people could come to believe in miracles. And this was still years before Richard Carrier’s Why I Don’t Buy The Resurrection Story, or Kris Komarnitsky’s writings on cognitive dissonance reduction and how that might have influenced the disciples in the immediate aftermath of the crisis of Jesus’s execution, or even the nights when I’d try to explain to my small daughter that, no, just because I didn’t know the cause of the noise she’d heard that still didn’t mean it was a ghost or a monster, and ruefully reflect on how sometimes you really don’t even need a watertight alternative explanation to dismiss a massively improbable one.

So, at the time and for years afterwards, this argument stumped me.

So, where did this leave me?

Confident that at least some of what was in the gospels had been invented for dramatic effect, but still left without a way of refuting the basic dogma of ‘Jesus was raised from the dead’, or, more worryingly, ‘Jesus was sent to die for everyone’s sins and all non-believers will BUUURRRRN IN HELL’.

Next up: what I made of the content of the gospels.