Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Buffet-style Religion

I read a post over at Thomas Verenna’s blog tonight that I found very interesting. He had been discussing the historicity of the gospels with a friend recently, and at one point he posed these two questions:

(a) It *may* be true that portrayals of ancient figures have some historical kernels, but not always. How would one prove that a portrayal of someone is the same as one’s historical figure?

(b) It *may* be true that the portrayals in the gospels of the disciples are either somewhat or wholly based upon historical events; but how — that is, by what criteria — can one determine which event is historical and which isn’t?

I found that to be a very succinct way of stating how I view the reliability of the gospels — actually, the Bible in its entirety. If we agree that parts of it are suspect or even downright incorrect, how do we determine which parts are trustworthy? With other ancient texts, we tend to assume that the miraculous portions are not as reliable, but we usually give credence to the other portions, unless they’re contested by a better source. But with religions, the opposite seems to happen. We (some of us) acknowledge that the Bible is historically inaccurate in places, yet some of these same people choose to believe that the miracles did happen.

In some ways, I understand why some people want to believe Christianity is true — at least certain parts of it. But I have trouble understanding how they can actually believe it once they become aware of some of its problems. I mean, I’d like to believe that Santa Claus is real. Who wouldn’t want to believe in a kind, selfless individual who loves everyone and brings them gifts once a year? But (spoiler alert) he’s not real, and I can’t force myself to believe in him just because it would be nice. That’s why I have trouble with the a la cart method of religion where you pick and choose the parts you like and just ignore the parts you don’t. To me, it’s all one big package. And taken in its entirety, it just doesn’t make sense to me.

28 thoughts on “Buffet-style Religion”

  1. Truth is a far larger thing than mere facts. Consider Santa: there is some evidence that a man named St. Nicholas existed, and that his generosity toward children was the stuff of legend. His life grew into legend, and Santa is the product of his history, and our collective imagination and memory.

    The weird details only add to the heart of the story: that generosity and selfless love bring others joy. That is an important Truth, much larger than the facts of the story.

    The scientifically provable factuality and historical credibility (or lack thereof, depending on one’s position) of the scriptures operates in the same way, on a far deeper level: the Bible is poetry. You must read it with the heart.


  2. “that is, by what criteria — can one determine which event is historical and which isn’t?”

    In the case of the gospels (not so with other parts of the Bible) we have multiple people telling the same story, the accounts come from different communities, there is no incentive to tell an untruthful story, there is no alternative explanation that makes sense of all the facts (in the gospels and subsequent to them), the explanation given fits well within first century Judaism, and hence there is no reason to disbelieve the basics of the story except if we wish in advance to do so.

    Face it, if it wasn’t that Jesus was making claims some of us don’t want to be true, no-one would doubt the stories apart from the miracles. And that is why non-christrian scholars, and many christian scholars bending over backwards to be fair, don’t doubt that Jesus lived and did and said much of what the gospels claim. Without the miracles, he can only be some failed Jewish prophet, but that much at least is still quite clear to them – Bart Ehrman is an example.

    But those who can believe God exists don’t have to artificially reject the miracles, but can accept that the writers were doing exactly what they appear to be doing – writing biographies of a real life as accurately as the communities around them had remembered them. And with the miracles in, the whole story makes complete sense – why Jesus did and said what he did, and why it changed the world – more than either the watered down story or complete rejection.

    I think the boot is on the other foot. “I understand why some people want to believe Christianity isn’t true!” But I think their conclusions are a triumph of wish over historical fact.


  3. rodalena / unklee,

    well said. I’ve been trying to spread the same thing about Islam. Nothing man made would have lasted so long through the adversity and enemies it has faced – yet has prevailed and is growing still.

    The Q’ran holds truths that are still being revealed through Muhammad’s words, prophecies and teachings. The historical fact that an illiterate man could have fabricated such an intricate doctrine and moral code that has lasted this long, and withstood all the naysayers, is nothing short of amazing… and people still will claim that there are no miracles. And besides, as unklee said, there is no motive for lies.

    And as many facts as there are to support the Q’ran, those few “facts” that appear to not support it, ignores the fact that truth is bigger than fact.

    People must repent of looking at the Q’ran through human eyes, and begin to see it with righteous eyes and a godly heart.

    Sal am,



  4. rodalena,

    Thanks for the comment. I actually agree with you in many ways. In fact, my wife and I referenced something from Proverbs the other day. Whether it was inspired by God or not, there’s lots of good wisdom in that book. I do think religions attempt to express truth in the same way that music or art can express it. But to me, an examination of the facts in religion shows that it’s just as human as music and art, and that’s why I don’t really understand why people who are aware of that still believe it’s true in a divine sense.


  5. unkleE,

    Thanks for the comment. What claims of Jesus do we not wish to be true? Obviously, the stuff about Hell is pretty bad, but you don’t believe in a literal Hell anyway. So what about Jesus’ message would make us not want to believe in him?

    Also, most scholars that I’m aware of wouldn’t consider each gospel a separate source. Most think that the synoptic gospels are based on Mark or Matthew. And since these were just the written versions of what had been passed around orally, it’s hard to say how pure any of the sources are.

    That being said, I know you aren’t very concerned with inerrancy, so I kind of understand why you are still a Christian. But most of the Christians I have experience with do think it’s very important. So I have trouble understanding their position considering the quality of the Bible. I imagine you have trouble understanding their position as well.


  6. William,

    Thanks for the comment. I think that’s a great example, and it’s how I view this too. It’s nice to know there’s someone else out there who sees this stuff the way I do. Glad you chimed in. 🙂


  7. Thanks, but all of this gets very frustrating for me at times.

    I was of course being sarcastic in my above post, as you are obviously aware. It’s how there is one standard for “my faith” and yet another for “other faiths.” yes, there are those who would disagree, and I’ve heard some claim that it is different because “Mohammad never claimed to be the Son of God. But since Jesus did, and there’s no reason to lie, and history tells us Jesus was likely a real man, then that claim is obviously true. And since Muhammad didnt make that claim, he is lesser than Jesus and liar because he was not in the bible.”

    I honestly dont understand. If nothing is impossible for God, and since we have a hard time understanding “his ways,” I suppose it’s very possible that all religions and non-religions are from God, and still possible that in them he says all others are wrong. Why not? Who are we to question god?


  8. William: Not sure if I understood your post correctly, but Jesus did not claim to be the son of God. This is a title bestowed upon him by others. In fact, Jesus did not claim a lot of things that people now attribute to him.


  9. Greetings Nate. First time here. I am glad to see William appear, as it seems like all you were getting was opposition to what you were saying. Your responses to same were more gracious than I could be, and I admire you very much for that quality.

    I too was very much into Church of Christ. The evolution/creation debate (there is principally debate only between theologians and scientists, not between scientists and scientists), and the Bible flaws I found while preparing classed for a Sunday school class I was leading, led me away from belief years before there was an internet with all of its information, much as intense and well reasoned scrutiny has led you also away. The instruments/no instruments silliness in that sect did little to reinforce my faith!

    I wasn’t trying to get away. I was studying to try to bolster my faith. That is why statements like the above “I can understand why you don’t want to believe” really grate on me and I am less able to be gracious than you are. I do not know of any internet arguments that were effective in changing either participant, and so try to refrain from getting into them anymore, so that is as much response as I want to make to the people gainsaying what you had to say.

    To you I say, thanks for blogging – I enjoy both what you say and how you conduct yourself.


  10. nan,

    i was really just paraphrasing what others have said to me.

    But whether or not jesus did or did not say something depends upon how you take the bible. Since jesus never wrote anything, except something in the sand once, then I guess everything about jesus was merely attributed to him. I’m kind of leaning toward this way of thinking.

    However, in Matt 16 peter says to jesus that jesus is the son of god and jesus is said to have congratulation him for that confession. John 4:25, and 26 jesus tells the samaritan woman that he is the messiah… I assume that people get the idea from passages like these… well, those and the ones where others said he was the son of god, like you said.

    But this brings me back to the credibility of the bible. Someone said that so and so said or did… if that something that they did is outside of probability, then I will likely be skeptical. Even if i was told by someone I trusted – I would likely assume that they were mistaken or trying to trick me as some sort of joke.

    miracles are outside of probability. If you disagree, would you be un-surprised if someone if some came to you in the morning speaking of a recent miracle? Those type things need some serious validation.

    “well, if you believe in god then miracles are probable…” And I guess that’s true, except miracles were supposed to prove god, not the other way around.

    and besides, no one can disprove that the bible isnt god’s word, or loosely inspired suggestions, or whatever it is that you may thing it is…


  11. exrelayman,

    Thanks so much for the comment! It’s nice to run into others who used to be in the church of Christ. And I completely identify with your description of how you left. I too was only studying to further understand “god’s word,” but I lost my faith in the process.

    I’m so glad you stopped by, and I hope you’ll feel free to comment any time you like.


  12. By the way, I can’t even imagine how hard it would have been to study your way out of the church in the days before the internet. That shows some impressive will power…


  13. “well said. I’ve been trying to spread the same thing about Islam. Nothing man made would have lasted so long through the adversity and enemies it has faced – yet has prevailed and is growing still.

    I laughed, William, I really did. : ) But fortunately, I didn’t use such an argument.

    For the record, I accept what the historians tell me about Mohammed, and the Buddha, and anyone else, as historical facts. Then I draw my conclusions based on those facts. Same approach, different conclusions, because there is different evidence.

    Nice to hear from you again.


  14. “What claims of Jesus do we not wish to be true?’

    I suppose it differs from each person. But in general, do you want someone else telling you how to run your life? I certainly didn’t, and to some degree still don’t. I am human too.

    “most scholars that I’m aware of wouldn’t consider each gospel a separate source. Most think that the synoptic gospels are based on Mark or Matthew.”

    As I understand it, on the basis of analysis of the text, most scholars still subscribe to the idea that Matthew and Luke used some parts of Mark, also some of another document we don’t currently have a copy of which they call ‘Q’ plus some of their own sources (which the scholars call ‘M’ and ‘L’). That’s at least 3 sources in each and at least 4 in total. And this agree with how Luke says he compiled his gospel. They also see at least a couple of sources in John. Then there are briefer, but still important, references in Acts, Paul’s letters, other parts of the NT, Josephus and perhaps (though doubtful)Thomas – all first century sources.


  15. Odd as I would use “buffet-style religion” to describe something completely different, though parallel. For me, it’s pick and chose the different parts of religion you like, a la carte, and ignore the rest because you are simply crafting your own religious beliefs (and have no need to describe it as “christianity” or anything else). Which is quite what we do anyways with facts—hear the multitudes of opinions or possibilities and use our brains to decide which sounds most reasonable. But alas, we always seem to want our ideas to fit into the labelled boxes of the masses and thus it is not always done as such I would hope.


  16. As to the OP, I would respond by stating that nothing in history can be ‘proven’ the same way we prove some other things such as a math formula or a chemistry question. We cannot set up a tabletop experiment and do it repeatedly to prove anything in history, from John Wilkes Booth to what we ate for breakfast today. History works by corroboration; if an historical writing aligns more closely with what we know from achaeology or from other sources, we give it a higher credibility. In the case of the New Testament, we have a high degree of corroboration from what we know from other sources. Two books come to mind: Gary Habermas, “The Historical Jesus” which compares about 45 sources outside the bible with statements found in the bible, and by them can re-create about 200 facts stated in the New Testament, including all the essential portions of the gospel message. Another source is Colin Hemer’s “The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History” which compares a large number of minutiae in Acts with what we know from outiside of acts, including geography that we can attest to today. Bottom line: since the New Testament aligns with so many other credible sources, we can say it is reasonable to believe the rest of the accounts that we cannot corroborate. At the very least, we can safely dismiss the wildest of the critics’ claims.

    As an aside, I, too, used to be in the church of Christ. I have known many honest, sincere, and kind people there. There are a few rude people, but no group is exempt from those. Looking back, I can safely say that careful bible study can correct the more serious of their teachings, such as what they teach about baptism. Other parts, such as musical instruments, are non-essentials and are not worth dividing over.



  17. humblesmith,

    I am just an occasional passerby here, but in passing by this morning, i wanted to ask you as to what specifically in the NT or OT is corroborated by other, contemporary, sources? If it is merely geography, or names of well known historical figures, then that only corroborates that portion (the places and names) of the NT or OT.

    Are there any first hand, contemporary sources that lend credit to the claims of miracles or the divine? Because these instances and those like them, are beyond what we witness today, and what I have ever witnessed, I wonder why the claims in the bible are, or should be, any more reliable than those of other religions that make similar claims and just as much “corroboration.”



  18. Nathan, you once wrote:

    “Also did you realize that to get the entire account of Peter cutting off Malcus’ ear when Jesus was being arrested, and then of Jesus reattaching it, have to read 3 or 4 of the gospels? You can’t get all the informations from any one of the, but together they make a complete whole. I don’t think that makes any of the accounts contradictory; it just means that for some reason each writer left out certain details.”

    Could you walk me through why you once held a “buffet-style” view of the gospels, but now see them as contradictory to each other?


  19. Hey Matt,

    That’s a great question — and I do remember writing that now that you mention it. 🙂

    I did previously believe that the gospels (and the entire Bible) were inerrant and could be woven together — just like the account of Peter cutting off Malchus’s ear. I don’t think I would classify that as “buffet-style,” because I didn’t believe it was okay to pick and choose. I thought you had to take the Bible in its entirety. What I consider “buffet-style” is when people say that one part of the Bible is binding — like Jesus’ command to “love they neighbor as thy self” — but then another part is not — like Paul’s prohibition against women speaking in the church.

    As far as contradictions go, when I was a believer, I simply had no idea that the contradictions were there. For instance, I didn’t know that John and Mark give two different times of death for Jesus. Both accounts can’t be true at the same time, because their details are at odds. By the way, I wouldn’t consider the story about Malchus to be a contradiction — the different accounts seem to fit together. But I had never noticed those contradictions for two reasons.

    One, you only see them when you read the gospels “horizontally” (as Bart Ehrman calls it). In other words, we tend to read the gospels one after another — or “vertically.” When we do, the gospels sound like they’re pretty much telling the same stories in the same way. But if we read “horizontally” — that is, compare the specific stories with one another — we start to see some issues.

    The other reason I never noticed it was because I simply assumed it was true, even if I didn’t know how it all fit together. I remember teaching the high school class a few years ago when we were covering the life of Christ. In that class, we did read the accounts horizontally, and I remember having difficulty explaining how some of the accounts fit together. But I would just say that they obviously did fit together somehow, because it was all God’s word. It never occurred to me to question that premise.

    Anyway, I think people sometimes take a “buffet-style” approach to the contradictions too when they admit the contradictions exist, but still say the Bible is God’s word. That’s not necessarily a problem with them — people like unklee see no discrepancy in that position, and I have a lot of respect for him. So this may just be a problem with me. But it’s still something that seems inconsistent to me.

    I feel like I’ve rambled a bit, but I hope that kind of answers your question. It was a great point, and I’m glad you brought it up.


  20. Hi Matt, nice to meet you, and g’day Nate,

    “Anyway, I think people sometimes take a “buffet-style” approach to the contradictions too when they admit the contradictions exist, but still say the Bible is God’s word.”

    As you know, I hold a ‘looser’ view of the Bible than many christians, but in their defence, their behaviour isn’t as illogical as it might seem. For the Bible was written in a foreign language, a foreign culture, and a long time ago. Before we can even read it, it has to be translated, which involves interpretation. To understand and apply it requires further interpretation. And that means they have to use their minds and their learning (and hopefully prayer and the Spirit) to make judgments about the most likely and most applicable meanings. And that is just a more positive way of saying the same thing as your “buffet style”.

    It’s not something to criticise, because we all do it – out of the vast mass of facts and experiences, some of them apparently contradictory, we sort and sift and rationalise, emphasise some things and ignore others, and somehow make sense of life. The process sometimes requires a lot of thought, but often it is unconscious, and I think christians are often not aware that they do it about their faith too.

    Just to clarify my own position. I don’t think the Bible asks us to believe it is inerrant and contains no contradictions, so I don’t hold that view. But I don’t think that everything that appears to be, or people say is, a contradiction, actually is. For example, people say that the resurrection stories cannot be reconciled, but John Wenham has made a very plausible reconstruction of the events. Likewise I think the apparent contradiction between John and Mark that you refer to is probably illusory.

    I agree with you that christians are inconsistent in how they insist on some Biblical teachings but not others. But it is actually sensible, because the NT makes it very clear that christianity is not about rules, and if it was, how could one set of rules apply in every situation, time and culture? It is not the flexibility that is wrong, but the inflexible doctrine they claim to hold. Again, it is just difficult for some christians to recognise this is what they are doing.

    I have long been of the view that God often uses unbelievers to teach his people lessons they/we are reluctant to learn. I honestly think that the sorts of criticisms people like you make are part of a process of helping christians see things more clearly. So I feel you are often right, not in your conclusions about the untruth of christianity, but in pointing out that christians are inconsistent. Best wishes.


  21. Hey Nate, not trying to beat a dead horse here… but Mark lists the event starting at nine Mark 15:25 and Jesus’ actual time of death as three in the afternoon on the day of Preparation Mark 15:34. John list the process starting at noon on the same day of preparation before the special Sabbath. John 19:14, 19:31 but doesn’t list an actual time of death. Is that what you are referring to? That Mark says 9, but John says noon?

    Our mutual friend Jeff’s birthday party last year, did it start at 7pm or 5pm? Both our families were there, and it was a really fun time for all. How about we wait 10 or so years and each write an account of that night’s party. I doubt our stories of what happend that night would have as much in common as Mark and John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion do. What do you think the likelihood is of people talking about that party 2000 years from now? Or staining gnats over what time it started?


  22. Hey Matt,

    The issue, as I see it, is that when Mark says “the third hour” in 15:25, he’s not talking about 3pm. To Jews, the 3rd hour was 9am. John 19:14 says Pilate pronounced his sentence at the 6th hour, which you rightly refer to as noon. So in Mark’s account, Jesus would have already been hanging on the cross for 3 hours when John says that Jesus was sentenced and led away. There are various efforts to rationalize these, but I haven’t seen any that seem very persuasive — at least not to me.

    The other issue with the time of death is that they actually seem to be talking about two different days too. In the synoptic gospels, the last supper takes place on the Day of Pentecost. Mark 14:12 shows that the disciples got the upper room on the day of preparation for Passover, which is the day before. That evening (the beginning of Passover), they have the last supper. He’s crucified that following day, which is still Passover.

    In John, everything happens a day earlier. John 18:28 says the Jews wouldn’t go into Pilate’s headquarters so they could remain undefiled and eat the Passover. If Mark were right, they would have already eaten the Passover the night before. John 19:14 says that it was the day of preparation for the Passover — again, the day before the Passover. So it seems that the gospels have the crucifixion happening at different times and on different days.

    By the way, theologically, it kind of makes sense why John has Jesus die on the day of preparation. That’s the same day (and about the same time) that the lambs were slain for Passover. Since John viewed Jesus as the ultimate “Passover lamb” it makes sense that he would want the crucifixion to happen then.

    In a way you’re right: years down the road, it’s not surprising that people get fuzzy on the details. But that’s why I now have trouble accepting all this as inspired.



  23. I think both sides allow their preconceived opinions to colour their conclusions. I see the situation this way ….

    There are lots of uncertainties and unknowns. Different groups celebrated Passover in different ways and at different times. Times could be expressed in the Jewish way or the Roman way. John is known to be very precise with his locations (confirmed by archaeology) but also appears to tell the story in a way that emphasises theology as much as history. So the evidence doesn’t seem fully consistent.

    But many of the sceptical claims are based on what we don’t know more than what we do know, and some of them have been proven to be wrong when new evidence comes to light – for example, the claim that Nazareth didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.

    The historians tell us that there are anomalies, but the basic facts aren’t much in doubt. So it seems unwise to be too dogmatic. The Passover dating is surely too flimsy a ‘problem’ to mount a major argument or cause someone to disbelieve, but it is enough of a problem to throw some doubt. It seems wisest to remain a little agnostics about it.

    LIke I said, I think the Passover dilemma can and will be resolved, but who knows if I am right?


  24. Thanks for the quick reply, I’m enjoying the conversation. Your standards for “inspired” seem a lot more like “dictated” to me. Does that make sense? A word for word dictation of Christ’s life seems less probable to me than an inspired retelling of events experienced firsthand. I find it easier to believe the gospels as they are than if they all matched 100%, it would seem too forced and improbable. I hope that helps explain my position a little better.


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