Agnosticism, Atheism, Bible Study, Christianity, Faith, God, Religion

Why Some People Believe the Bible (And Why the Reasons Aren’t Good Enough)

I’m writing this post in response to something a fellow blogger has written about why the Bible is trustworthy (though I’ve lost the link to the post). He and I come down on different sides of this issue, and I thought the best way to tackle this would be to respond to each of his points in order.

1) We should treat the Bible like any other historical document.

Yes, we should, but this means different things to different people. When we read ancient historical texts, what do we think about the supernatural events that they relate? Many ancient historians talk about miracles, or attribute certain events to various gods — do we accept those claims? Of course not. We accept the events, like wars, famines, political upheavals, but we chalk up the supernatural claims to superstition.

However, when Christians ask that we treat the Bible the way we would treat other historical sources, they don’t mean it in the way I just described. They’ll say, “if you believe the histories about George Washington, why do you reject the stories of the Bible?” But this isn’t a true comparison. If we had an historical account that claimed George Washington could fly, we would dismiss it, even if everything else it recounted was factual.

There’s another difference as well. What we believe about George Washington has no real impact on the rest of our lives. However, most versions of Christianity say that if we don’t believe Jesus was the actual son of God, we’ll face eternal consequences. What could be more important than making sure we hold the correct view? So if God loves us and wants us all to believe, doesn’t it make sense that the “extraordinary claims” of the Bible would have “extraordinary evidence”? That’s the standard we would expect from any other historical document, and it’s the same thing we should expect from the Bible.

2) Witnesses for the Bible.

It’s often mentioned that the Bible was written over a period of 1500 years by 40+ authors. That timeline is not accepted by all scholars, but even if it were, this has nothing to do with whether or not it is accurate or inspired. In order for later authors to write things that fit with what came before, they only need to be familiar with those earlier writings. In other words, the Bible is much like fan fiction.

Paul says that Jesus appeared to 500 people after his resurrection, so some Christians point to that as evidence too. But who were these 500 people? Where did they see the risen Jesus? Was it all at once, was it 500 separate appearances, or was it something in between? This claim is so vague, there’s no way it could be contested. Even if a critic could have rounded up a multitude of people who all claimed to not have seen Jesus post-resurrection, Paul would only have to say, “It was 500 other people.” No, Paul’s 500 witnesses are completely useless. Instead of actually being 500 separate witnesses for the risen Jesus, this is just one claim — Paul’s. Plus, let’s not forget that Paul is telling this to fellow Christians, not skeptics. No one in his audience would be inclined to call foul anyway.

Sometimes it’s pointed out that the earliest critics of Christianity did not question Jesus’ existence or his miracles, but just claimed that he was one of many people who claimed similar things. But I don’t think we should really expect ancient critics to focus on his existence or miracles anyway. How do you prove that someone didn’t exist? And aside from Christian writings, we have no sources about Jesus anyway, so how could they disprove either his existence or his miracles? And these critics lived in a time in which the existence of miracles were almost universally accepted. So arguing from this point doesn’t seem very convincing to me.

When it comes to historical sources for Jesus, it’s true that Josephus probably mentions him. And there are a couple of other references by other historians within the first 100 years or so after his death. But these references tell us nothing about Jesus other than that he might have existed, and that there were people at that time who were Christians. These points are virtually uncontested — and they say nothing about who Jesus really was. It’s hard to count them as any kind of evidence in Jesus’ favor.

3) Archaeology

Christians will often cite the Bible’s agreement with archaeology as one reason to believe it may be divinely inspired. For instance, most historians used to believe that the Hittites never existed, since the only record of them came from the Old Testament. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, evidence finally came to light that overturned that opinion, exonerating the Bible.

But does this agreement with archaeology really indicate that the Bible was divinely inspired? Many books have been written that seem to record accurate history — does this mean we should assume those authors were inspired by God? Of course not. While agreement with archaeology is a good sign, it’s not necessarily a reason to leap to the conclusion that God had anything to do with writing the Bible.

The story doesn’t end here, though. As it turns out, archaeology does not always agree with the Bible. The Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, for instance, has no archaeological evidence. While that is an example of missing evidence, we also have examples of contradictory evidence: archaeology indicates that Joshua’s conquest of Canaan did not actually happen, the kingdoms of David and Solomon appear to be far smaller than the Bible depicts, and the Book of Daniel contains several anachronisms, including its incorrect labeling of Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s son.

Examples like these show that the Bible’s agreement with archaeology is not nearly as strong as some would claim, making it very shaky grounds for staking the claim of inspiration.

In the next post, we’ll talk about other reasons that people give: prophecy and internal consistency.

528 thoughts on “Why Some People Believe the Bible (And Why the Reasons Aren’t Good Enough)”

  1. RE: “most historians used to believe that the Hittites never existed, since the only record of them came from the Old Testament”
    We also know that the Hittites introduced the chariot to Egypt in 1500 BCE (This, Neuro, is where I would normally have uploaded an image of Hittites in chariots, battling pedestrian Egyptians, but WP doesn’t allow for that), yet our “historical” Bible has Joseph and an unnamed Pharaoh riding in chariots 300 years earlier.

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  2. RE: “when Christians ask that we treat the Bible the way we would treat other historical sources, they don’t mean it in the way I just described. They’ll say, “if you believe the histories about George Washington, why do you reject the stories of the Bible?

         One thing I recall vividly from my text book in second grade, was the story of how the Father of America, George Washington, when just a child himself, received a new hatchet for his birthday. Anxious to try it out, little George surveyed the rows of blossoming cherry trees lining his father’s long, winding driveway. Choosing one of these, he commenced to break up the set by using his hatchet and chopping it down. Obviously his father noticed its absence on the buggyride up the driveway to the house, after a long day at the office, located his young son, and asked him about it.

         I think even those readers who may not be native to America are familiar with little George’s famous reply, “Father, I cannot tell a lie – I did it with my little hatchet.”

         As a reward for his honesty, little George’s father, George Herbert Walker Washington, declined to punish little George W for his behavior, thus freeing little George from the belief that actions require a willingness to accept responsibility for those actions, so that should he decide to invade a country for its oil, once he’d become president, he would feel no compunction about inventing weapons of mass destruction as an excuse. But I digress —

         Once upon a time in America, in 1800, there was a “gentleman,” and I use the term ever so loosely, named Weems. Reverend Mason Locke Weems, it seems, was not only a pastor but also, each in its turn, a sailor, a medical student, an accomplished player of the fiddle, author, and a traveling book salesman. During his pastoring days, which occurred sporadically whenever his book sales were down, he found himself teaching a Sunday School class in addition to his regular duties, predicting hellfire and damnation. He wanted his wide-eyed young class to learn the evil of telling lies, so he concocted the story of young Washington as a shining example of the reward for always being truthful. He taught his lesson of truthfulness by fabricating a lie and passing it on to innocent little minds as the truth, a lie so convincing, that generations later, that lie could still be found in reputable text books designed to educate other little children.

         Later, he wrote a book about the life of Washington, likely just as authentic as his Sunday School story, but because, in the early 1800’s, the public was hungry to learn about the father of their country (combined with the fact that there was little else but the Bible to take to the outhouse for reading material) that, authentic or not, it sold well. The story has since been deleted from all official public school books, but for many years, it was what all young children were taught.

    My response to your associate would be that that may have been true when this nation was young, just as a child believes in the Tooth Fairy, but no more – we have grown up and put away childish things.

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  3. John says Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb before sunrise, found the stone rolled away, and then told Peter and James that his body was missing. Mark says Mary the mother of Jesus, the sister of Jesus (Salome), and Mary Magdelene went together, and encountered a man who told them he was risen. Matthew has mother Mary and Mary Magdelene go to the tomb together and witness the stone being rolled away by an angel. Luke has the stone already rolled away and there were two men who said, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” John says Mary Magdelene saw Jesus at the tomb. Matthew says Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdelene were met by Jesus who told them to tell his brothers to go to Galilee to meet him (this is the only sighting of Jesus in Jerusalem found in Matthew). Luke has Jesus materializing in the upper room where he orders them not to leave Jerusalem. John has Peter resuming his fishing occupation in Galilee before Jesus appears to him. These accounts cannot be harmonized without the utmost gyrations in apologetics.

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  4. Linuxgal – another question would be, regardless of which Gospel you read , why were women sent to the tomb in the first place, without any manpower to roll away the heavy stone?

    The first three gospels, as you may know, are known as the “synoptic” gospels, because they “sound alike” – good reason for this, as Matthew copied from Mark, and Luke from both. Check out the ‘fishers of men” story from the synoptic gospels, and compare it to John, who says he, his brother James, Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, all met Jesus when they were following John the Baptist (not fishing), saw him across the Jordan river (not the sea of Galilee), and followed him.

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  5. “These accounts cannot be harmonized without the utmost gyrations in apologetics.”

    au contraire. the resurrection account is one of my favorite contradictions to debunk. Most people who claim this suffer from “Easter play syndrome” where they thinking the people all moved in mock unison like in Easter plays. When I have the time I might come back and debunk it but I have spent far too much time today answering very weak evidence in posts on this blog..

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  6. Nate I might add that this post is in poor internet etiquette. If you are responding to a blogger it is customary to link to him and even let him know that you are responding point for point. If you can’t even remember enough to find the site again then its very unlikely you will even be doing a very good job summarizing what his points were much less responding to them point by point.

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  7. I have spent far too much time today answering very weak evidence in posts on this blog
    Could I get some links to those great debunkings,? So far, I haven’t seen any.

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  8. “Could I get some links to those great debunkings,? So far, I haven’t seen any.”

    You wouldn’t be honest enough to admit it even if you did. You could always flesh out your “fishers of men” claim whatever it is and I could debunk that as easy as a backstroke on a calm summer Sunday 🙂

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  9. I am SO sorry – it was the Hyksos, not the Hittites, that brought the chariot to Egypt in the 1500’s BCE – it’s been a long day, folks – mea culpa.

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  10. Yes folks, it’s wind up time! Nate’s ‘naughty side’ surfaces. I love posts like this.

    Nate I might add that this post is in poor internet etiquette. If you are responding to a blogger it is customary to link to him and even let him know that you are responding point for point.

    Ah, diddums, did Mikey think we were talking about him den? Shame, poor liddle MIkey?

    I’ll let Arch and Mike duke it out for a while…

    I think we all know who should be arriving soon. 😉

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  11. @ archaeopteryx1

    I am SO sorry – it was the Hyksos, not the Hittites, that brought the chariot to Egypt in the 1500′s BCE – it’s been a long day, folks – mea culpa.

    Yes, get it right, you old fossil. This is about believable history: miracles such as waking on water and stuff, for the gods’ sake. The Hittites introduced the tea bag and a working model of the internal combustion engine.

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  12. Well said. This subject always reminds me of Rabbi Wine:

    “Facts are facts. They are enormously discourteous. They do not revere old books, they do not stand in awe before old beliefs. They do not bow before famous ancestors. They are simply the stuff out of which reality is made and the final judge of truth” (Wine, Sherwin. Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 156.)

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  13. Mark several times have seen people write posts and choose not to link to the original post for various reasons and Nate here has been forthright to say he can’t find the link. Why pick a bone where there is none?

    The question of inspiration for the bible ought to be answered. What does it mean to say a book is inspired?

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  14. “When I have the time I might come back and debunk it but I have spent far too much time today answering very weak evidence in posts on this blog..”

    You obviously have no clue how silly this sounds.

    Reminds me of 3 boys after school challenging a 4th boy who responds, ” I could stay here and whip all 3 of you, but I have to go home to feed my cat”

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  15. “You obviously have no clue how silly this sound”

    actually you have no idea how silly your retort sounds.

    A) its the standard fair of atheists to claim that theists or Christians sound silly (ego thing though they deny it). Not to fear though ark out did you in the silly retort area. second place is not as conspicuous as first. 🙂 Silver lining?

    B) No theist that posts on this blog would accept any assessment of how he sounds since its predominantly atheist and anti theist anyway.

    I had engaged Nate and Wiliam quite a bit yesterday and yes there are so many times in the week to reply online. at least for me (perhaps others have less of a life?). Me? bashful about engaging on subjects on this blog? Surely you jest.

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  16. I see that there is no thread nesting here. So perhaps Arch will see this if he’s subbed to this discussion.

    “(This, Neuro, is where I would normally have uploaded an image of Hittites in chariots, battling pedestrian Egyptians, but WP doesn’t allow for that), yet our “historical” Bible has Joseph and an unnamed Pharaoh riding in chariots 300 years earlier.”

    A simple link to the image would work. 😉 I also understand you meant to say Hyksos. Do share the link to the image if you care to bother.

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  17. “Mark several times have seen people write posts and choose not to link to the original post for various reasons and Nate here has been forthright to say he can’t find the link. Why pick a bone where there is none?”

    Its poor ettiquete and as such has nothing to do with how many times you have seen it. I’ve heard people burp at a dinner table and not say excuse me too but thats poor form as well. I can take you to countless blogs where the etiquette is observed. Plus its just dubious that you can answer a post “point by point” when you can’t remember enough of it to even find it in a Google search. You are just not going to do a good and balanced job 9 times out of 10.

    Now of course if you don’t want to hear the other side then of course you will find no issue with it. Thats the real point isn’t it?

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  18. There are cultures where burping at the dinner table is actually acceptable. Whatever your tastes, if you have a problem with it, too bad.

    Whether I want to listen to the other side or not is mine to decide, not yours

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  19. Mike, instead of telling us how easily you could debunk issues we have with the bible, why dont you just present the information you have that debunks them?

    That way you get your point across without it getting tangled up blow-hardiness and we may actually learn something.

    I am very eager to see how you can reconcile the discrepancies (apparent) between the gospels. issues like those troubled me as a believer and are one reason I couldnt believe it any more. I just didnt see how a perfect god could mess up the details of his own story, nor could I understand how all of those events could be true simultaneously.

    that being said, i realize I have shortcomings and lack perfect understanding, so i’d be willing to consider what you have to offer.

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  20. “Its poor ettiquete and as such has nothing to do with how many times you have seen it.”

    I cant speak for nate on this, but if i were him, I’d just say, “okay, sorry mike. I’ll do better” just so we can get back to the point.

    although, I do find it interesting that you’re complaining about proper etiquette anyhow. nevertheless, do you want to talk about blog etiquette or these biblical topics?

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  21. I’d like to see Mike’s debunking. I’m always interested in both sides of any given proposition.

    He said:

    You wouldn’t be honest enough to admit it even if you did. You could always flesh out your “fishers of men” claim whatever it is and I could debunk that as easy as a backstroke on a calm summer Sunday 🙂

    I would be honest enough to admit it if it were convincing. I’ve seen Nate engage in a respectful manner. I think we’re all after the truth here so it would be most dishonest of any of us not to concede a point that refutes the presented material with certainty.

    If it is so easy to debunk this, wouldn’t have been better to debunk it than to engage in sandbox theatrics?

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  22. I won’t have a lot of time until the weekend but since poor kcchief thinks I would need to run away to ahem feed my cat I’ll give you a quick taste of why the resurrection story contradiction claims flounder and for swiftness I’ll just use the one posted in this thread

    “John says Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb before sunrise”

    This is a total fabrication John never States Mary was alone. Alone is nowhere in the text. One writer may refer to one person in a group. One may refer to other people in a group. Perfectly natural. I might say I responded to Kcchief a few days from now and someone might point out i also responded to Nate as well. Sorry no contradiction

    “ound the stone rolled away, and then told Peter and James that his body was missing.”

    Yes Mary does break away from the group and Goes to Peter and JOHN

    ” Mark says Mary the mother of Jesus, the sister of Jesus (Salome), and Mary Magdelene went together, and encountered a man who told them he was risen.”

    and?

    ” Matthew has mother Mary and Mary Magdelene go to the tomb together and witness the stone being rolled away by an angel.”

    Back to fabrication – One of Nate’s convenient readings of the text where what matthew really does is say there was an earthquake and then explains the reason for it. Though the Passage states that they talked to the Angel there is nothing in the passage that says that they saw the stone being rolled away. Thats an assumption/invention.

    “Luke has the stone already rolled away and there were two men who said, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

    NO problem there since Matthew never says they watched as the stone was rolled away as Nate claims I believe in his article as well

    “John says Mary Magdelene saw Jesus at the tomb.”

    NO problem there since John accurately indicates that Mary left the group. In real life people do not move around in unision like Cattle herded. this is probably the biggest error that people who swear the resurrection accounts are contradictions make. I call it the “easter play syndrome” since in stage re-enactments thats how people move around – however not in real life.

    “Matthew says Jesus’ mother Mary and Mary Magdelene were met by Jesus who told them to tell his brothers to go to Galilee to meet him (this is the only sighting of Jesus in Jerusalem found in Matthew).”

    This is just sloppy reading. The closest reference to that verse is “the women” in ver 5 Not Mary Magdelene specifically.

    “Luke has Jesus materializing in the upper room where he orders them not to leave Jerusalem.”

    How this is a contradiction seeing it comes way later than early morning is beyond me. Luke implies the evening of the day had come and gone so this is just dishonest to put in as a contradiction or there was some VERY lazy reading

    “John has Peter resuming his fishing occupation in Galilee before Jesus appears to him.”

    Again this is just sloppy and to be honest – quite dishonest. this occurs much later and has no inconsistency with the earlier events.

    “These accounts cannot be harmonized without the utmost gyrations in apologetics.”

    Your account maybe be but the New testament is quite fine. You just mangled it as you read (or scanned over it). Once we realize that Mary breaks away from the group the alleged contradictions fizzle and die and all that is left is begging and special pleading that there is a contradiction. EZ peazy

    Now ummm Can I go feed my cat now Kcchief. I can finish whipping the three boys (whoever they may be ) later. Yes I know. No matter how badly they are whipped you will claim otherwise. You’ll be a good friend but not too good with the facts..

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