Last night, my friend Matt and I had an opportunity to go to one of the church services that I talked about in my last post. As I mentioned there, this is a series of lessons surrounding the topic “Can We Believe the Bible?” by an evangelist / college professor / apologist that I corresponded with several years ago, named Doy Moyer. I was excited about going, but also nervous. It had been almost 5 years since I was last inside a conservative Church of Christ, and I knew I would probably see a couple of people that I knew. It was really nice having Matt along for the adventure.
Once we came in and got seated (last row, stage left, which I guess placed us firmly in the “goats” section), I noticed my in-laws sitting in the center section as well as the preacher from their congregation — the same one who was there when I attended. Let me state upfront that I still care deeply for all three of them. My wife’s parents are genuinely great people, and I couldn’t have gotten better in-laws. Granted, things aren’t as good now as they once were, but they’re just as hurt by all that as we are. And the preacher is a great guy as well. We were pretty close, once upon a time.
Anyway, while we waited for the service to begin, the PowerPoint was showing the topics that they plan to cover each night:
- 3/30/15 — How Is Bible History to Be Perceived?
- 4/6/15 — Can We Trust the Gospels?
- 4/13/15 — Have the Gospels Been Hopelessly Corrupted?
- 4/20/15 — Can We Use the Bible to Prove the Bible?
- 4/27/15 — What About God and the Slaughter of the Innocents?
- 5/4/15 — How Can the Bible Really Be Understood?
Those are interesting topics. And though there’s no way I’ll be able to make each one of them in person, I plan to listen to them all. But last night was the second topic, “Can We Trust the Gospels?” It more or less went the way I expected it would.
Moyer started by quoting Simon Greenleaf, who once said something to the effect that every witness should be considered credible until proven otherwise. He then spent some time talking about presuppositions — and this is apparently something he talked about at length during the first session as well. He said that atheists (I don’t remember if he implied “all” or “most”) start with the presupposition that miracles are impossible, so of course they don’t accept the Bible. He also said that when examining the Bible we should avoid modern biases. In other words, he implied that some parts of the Bible might look problematic, but that’s only from our modern mindset. He pointed out that the authors of the gospels displayed historical intent and referenced Luke 1:1 as evidence for that. He also mentioned that CS Lewis was convinced that the accounts did not bear the markers of legend. Moyer stated that the authors seemed to know what they were talking about. And he said that their bias was not a reason to discount their testimony, since we all have bias of some kind or another.
All in all, I didn’t disagree with much of his introduction. I wish he had pointed out that presuppositions can run both ways, but I can’t say I was surprised by that omission. Of course, I disagreed with his assertion that the main reason people reject the gospels is because they’ve eliminated the possibility of miracles. But the rest of his points were decent, in my opinion, though I could tell he was going to take some of them in directions I wouldn’t agree with.
He then got into the guts of his presentation, laying out several arguments that supported his belief that the gospels can be trusted. Much of his information came from Lord or Legend?, by Gregory Boyd and Paul Rhodes Eddy, and Can We Trust the Gospels?, by Mark D Roberts. I’ve read the latter, but not the former. The rest of Moyer’s presentation went as follows:
Were the authors in a position to know?
According to Moyer, some of the gospels make eyewitness claims. This was one of the first statements that really stood out to me. Is that true? I don’t really think it is, but I haven’t looked into it for a while and haven’t had a chance to since last night. I’d be interested in anything you readers might have to say about this claim.
Moyer also asked, if the gospels were fabricated, then why were the names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John chosen for them? He pointed out that pseudonymous works typically used names that were well known and carried weight: like the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, etc. Why would anyone have used Mark and Luke, since neither of them were eyewitnesses or knew Jesus? In fact, Moyer argued, the anonymity of the gospels suggests legitimacy, since they didn’t feel the need to claim the names of well-known disciples.
But I didn’t find this point particularly compelling. First of all, his point would only hold true for Mark and Luke, since Matthew and John were both very well known disciples. Furthermore, he made it sound as though we didn’t really know why the names Mark and Luke were assigned to these, suggesting that the Christians who began using those names must have known something. But we do know why those gospels are named as they are. Mark carries its name, because Papias said (about 100 years after Jesus’ death) that Mark was simply transcribing dictation from Peter. But the majority of modern scholars don’t accept that claim. And the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts are said to be written by Luke, because of some pronoun usage in Acts (Luke was a companion to Paul). But again, most modern scholars don’t accept that position, since parts of Acts are not in agreement with statements made in Paul’s epistles.
Moyer also made it sound like the authorship of the gospels was pretty settled, which is definitely not true, unless he’s only considering the opinions of ultra-conservative scholars.
In all, I didn’t think this point was particularly strong.
Are the copies reasonably close to the originals?
Here, Moyer went through the typical points about the number of manuscripts, how the textual attestation for the Bible is better than any other document from antiquity, etc. These points were pretty accurate, but a little misleading. For instance, while he mentioned that the Greek manuscripts date from about 50 years after the originals to about 1500 years, he didn’t point out that about 94% of those manuscripts date from the 9th century or later, or that the oldest manuscripts are just fragments. Nevertheless, the actual facts he referenced were pretty accurate.
He did point out that he’ll cover this in more detail in the next meeting. And for what it’s worth, I do think that the biblical texts are likely very close to the originals — at least in most cases. In some ways, this is actually a problem for Christianity, in my opinion, since it makes it very hard to claim that all discrepancies are the result of copying errors.
Are the reports consistent with eyewitness testimony?
Here, Moyer referenced things like Aramaisms (the recording of an Aramaic saying in another language, like “Lama, Lama sabacthani”) and references to places and people. Here, he referenced another book, Richard Baukham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
These points have never seemed especially strong to me. Maybe they should, I don’t know. But when a Spider-Man comic references Barack Obama, or Michael Bloomberg, I don’t suddenly think it must be true. And Aramaic was still being spoken at the time the gospels were written — would it be weird for Greek-speaking Christians who were educated enough to write these gospels to know some Aramaic as well?
The gospels contain self-damaging material
Moyer pointed out that if the gospels were being invented, surely the authors would want to portray the protagonists in the best possible light. Yet the gospels talk about the disciples being inadequate at times, they reference some people thinking Jesus was crazy or demon-possessed, and they show his disciples either betraying or abandoning him in the end. On top of that, the first people to find Jesus after his resurrection were women, who were considered unreliable back then.
But I don’t know many skeptics who think the gospels were pure inventions. Most believe (like most scholars) that the gospel story began as oral traditions that circulated among the believers. I think each gospel was written by someone who believed the bulk of what they were writing. And is there really no value in having stories that show the weaknesses of the disciples? It’s a great way to illustrate the supremacy of Jesus’ wisdom, as well as provide a compelling character arc for the disciples.
Do the gospels demonstrate reasonable consistency?
This was probably the one that bugged me the most. You have to remember that this was being presented in a Church of Christ, and every member of the CoC that I know believes in biblical inerrancy. Yet you can see from the wording of this heading that Moyer was playing it safe with phrases like “reasonable consistency.”
Moyer again stressed that the gospels weren’t written from a modern point of view. He also stressed that there was a difference between a “difficulty” and a “contradiction” and that the bar for proving an actual contradiction was extremely high. He referenced the synoptic problem, but complained that when the gospels differ people say they’re contradictory, yet when they agree people claim it’s evidence of collusion. This is a false dichotomy, of course. Otherwise, no one would ever be able to recognize plagiarism. The simple fact is that parts of the synoptics are direct copies of one another, while other portions of the gospels are diametrically opposed.
Moyer also showed his hand on the subject of inerrancy a bit by stressing that “for core historical events, it’s not necessary to prove flawlessness.”
Is there other literary evidence?
Moyer ended things by talking about the references to Christ and Christians in ancient sources like Tacitus, Seutonius, Josephus, Thallus, Pliny, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Talmud. He didn’t go into details, but did acknowledge that none of these sources corroborate things like the resurrection, etc. But he felt that they did demonstrate some basic things, like Jesus being a real individual, that he died by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate’s authority, and that Christians believed in the resurrection.
I didn’t have any real problems with his points here.
He didn’t say much in the conclusion, other than again stressing the problem with an a priori position that miracles are impossible.
He opened the floor up for questions, and he got a few. Nothing major. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to jump in. I didn’t want to be a jerk — that would have been the wrong move with my in-laws, and they were the only real reason I was there. At the same time, I figured that most people in the audience hadn’t realized how soft Moyer’s position on inerrancy is. And while I think that’s appropriate for a Christian who’s aware of all the information, I knew that he was essentially pulling one over on everyone there. Most of them view inerrancy as a major piece of evidence for Christianity, but that’s not how Moyer sees it.
So I raised my hand (I was pretty nervous, I have to admit), and when he called on me, I asked, “It seems like the authors you’re quoting from imply that inerrancy isn’t very supportable… am I understanding that correctly?”
To me, he seemed uncomfortable, and he didn’t really answer the question. He talked about first needing to determine what the gospels were trying to say. Then, based on their historical reliability, one could think more about things like inerrancy. As a Jesus follower, he would need to establish what Jesus thought about scripture and inerrancy and then follow that.
As you can see, he didn’t really say what he believed Jesus’ position on that was. He was trying his very best to be noncommittal on the subject of inerrancy. I’m not sure how noticeable that was to everyone else, but maybe they picked up on it.
After the service, Matt and I walked over and spoke to my in-laws and the preacher from my old congregation. Matt knows all of them as well. The interaction was friendly — a little awkward maybe, but still friendly. I also introduced myself to Moyer, but I don’t think he remembered me from our previous correspondence.
All in all, I’m glad I went. My in-laws are obviously attending all of these, and I want to know what they’re hearing. We should get an opportunity to discuss all of it at some point, and I’m looking forward to that. It was still weird being in a church, though.
55 thoughts on “My Recent Field Trip”
I never had a problem trusting the gospels. I did not take them as literal, because there are too many discrepancies between the gospels to allow that. But I took them as honest reports of what people remembered.
My problem with Christianity, was that if I trusted the gospels, then standard Christian theology got a lot of it wrong.
Realizing they weren’t inerrant was a big thing for me. Still is, really.
But I do agree with you that I think the authors were being fairly honest. I do think Matthew twisted some things to fit in all his “prophecies,” and either he or Luke (or both) made some conscious choices in those areas where they diverge from one another. But I still think the authors had good intentions, for the most part. I just need better evidence before I can accept all the supernatural stuff.
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First I don’t think miracles are dismissed a priori. That’s not what I did.
When he says the gospels contain damaging material, he is referencing the criterion of embarrassment which led to a lengthy discussion the other day on my blog about Easter.
IS it possible to separate the history of the church and that of the gospels? If not and the stories were embellished over time, we expect that in the main, they resemble one another but only differ in details.
Since no one knows who the authors were, it is I think difficult to arbitrate on what they knew and when they knew it
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Thanks Nate. I admire your constraint and tact. There is an old saying ‘preaching to the converted’ that comes to mind in regard to your report of the presentation – I am not even sure if I am referring to Moyer or yourself [my joke, please don’t take offence].
I have been recently reading through Raymond E. Brown’s “Introduction to the New Testament”. It had been one of the texts on the course list when I studied Mark’s Gospel at Theological College a few years ago. Brown was an ordained Catholic priest and remained so until his death, this did not stop him being honest about the issues in the Bible. I am up to page 196 of 878 and I would suggest that on average he raises about two issues of concern (error or inconsistency) in the Biblical text per page.
As an example he argues that the author of Matthew clearly did not understand the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. Otherwise in Matthew 21:7 he would not have referred to Jesus riding both an ass and colt. This was based on the Zechariah where the prophecy was clearly referring to one animal. Likewise John 19:23-24 ‘garment’ and ‘clothing’ and Acts 4:25-27 ‘kings’ and ‘rulers’ all show New Testament writers failing to understand that Hebrew poetry in the Old Testament routinely repeated ideas using slightly different terms to refer to the same matter.
Sorry Nate, I think I am trying to train to be an anti apologist!
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Peter if you are training to be an anti apologist, you are doing very well. It is enough being an apologist though 😛
There’s a lot of good stuff here, and I was happy to see the sign for the Vestavia Hills Church of Christ hasn’t changed much since I left the area! Also, I apologize in advance for the length of the comment.
Anyways, there’s a lot of points I’d like to comment on. The first is that the presuppositionalist approach actually isn’t accurate. Essentially as I’ve seen the argument presented, it attempts to say that atheists start by assuming something isn’t true. This isn’t always correct, since one doesn’t need to assume anything to be an atheist. Instead, the only assumptions that must be made are about logic and that if it is proper to believe in something without sufficient evidence. Also, there would need to be assumptions about what “sufficient” means.
I don’t like such arguments because in the long run it’s an attempt to say that assuming God already exists is just as okay as assuming nothing about any deity existing. Putting it differently, it’s an attempt to justify assuming a conclusion. And even if Mr. Moyer didn’t take it there, at least he straw manned atheism by saying there’s an assumption that miracles are impossible.
Another point is about the Bible being close to the originals. I saw a video by Bart Ehrmann(sp?) explaining that we don’t have any originals to compare our current texts to. At best, we have knowledge that some fragments existed a century after they might have been written. The earliest existing copies are fragments copied from those copies. This presents a giant question as to accuracy. To use an analogy, it would be like trying to say a contract existed that was the handwritten copy of another copy of a fragment of some hearsay. Even if one could say it was accurate, we still couldn’t know if it was accurate as to the original assertions.
Third, I think it’s telling that Mr. Moyer used the word “reasonable.” It’s an attempt to get around “nitpicky” objections. While that is fine, I think there are some big objections that can be made. For example, your note of inerrancy was a great point. Reasonable consistency, however, is a pretty open-ended idea. Are they consistent in that they talk about Jesus? Sure. Are they consistent that they all mention how when Jesus died it was like “Night of the Living Dead” in Jerusalem? No. (Matthew 27: 51-53).
Fourth, the concept of self-damaging text in the gospels is familiar to me. Sadly, the kind of self-damaging texts are often not relevant to the core teachings. Evaluating these statements gets too much into conjecture and intent so as to render the whole conversation moot, I think. Personally, I think it distracts from other more persuasive discussions.
Finally, you’re a trooper for showing up and asking a question. Of course he punted on inerrancy, because he’s talking to people who might ascribe to it. Still, I’d be interested to see if he tries to rely on “accurate” translations of earlier languages. What I mean is that by claiming accuracy, he’s foreclosed on claiming that later translations didn’t get a word right.
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Hi Nate, thanks for your account. Granted the things you have said about your old church, I thought it was a more reasonable presentation than I expected. I’ll offer some comments, trying to stick to factual, not polemical, matters, though of course you know my viewpoint.
1. Re eye-witness claims – John makes them, Luke specifically says he wasn’t, Matthew & Mark aren’t clear. The late Maurice Casey (who was a non-believer) concluded both Matthew & Mark had significant direct eye-witness sources including the apostle Matthew for Matthew (surprise!). I don’t think that’s representative of all scholars, but it shows it is a respectable view.
2. I don’t think Papias is the reason why the gospels have the traditional names. I think Bauckham and others say that while the names aren’t in the text, they were most likely written on the outside of the scroll. So the names, right or wrong, were quite likely those by which they were popularly known even before Papias.
3. I agree with you and against siriusbizinus (sorry! great name! 🙂 ) about the accuracy of copying. The fact that we don’t have the originals isn’t important. We have copies of copies produced independently in various parts of the Empire, and it is beyond belief that the same errors were made consistently in all these different locations. So two (say) 5th century texts from different parts of the Empire which agree are not very likely to be in error in that piece of text. This technique isn’t all that different in principle to how they do DNA tracing to establish ancient population movements (e.g. whether the Pacific Islanders came from Asia or South America).
4. The accurate reference to places and titles certainly doesn’t prove accuracy of everything else, but it does show the sources were reasonably contemporary, and not written a century later and a thousand miles away.
5. Your question about inerrancy is very interesting. Inerrancy is like a base-level dogma to many christians in the US, but not so much elsewhere I don’t think, and coming under severe questioning from evangelical christians even in the US. So I believe we are in a transition time, when some people will no longer believe in it (at least as it used to be formulated) but don’t feel free to rock the boat just yet. Some will, like Peter Enns, some won’t, but I think most major social movements include people from both inside and outside the “system”.
Anyway, thanks for sharing that, it is an interesting insight.
You may be interested in visiting the local Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham. Our congregation is mainly Atheist. I met your wife years ago when I birthed one of my children. She had questions why an Athiest would go to church. It was a pleasure to meet her.
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Susan, why would an Atheist go to Church?
For community mostly especially if you have children. The principles of the UU church are pretty much all people are equal, serve your community, be kind to your planet…… The principles are easy to look up I just don’t know them off the top of my head. A lot of members and visitors actually don’t like the use of the word church and prefer I am going “to a meeting”. We are a safe haven for anyone in the LGBT commmunity. You can believe whatever you want and still have a place to hang out eat and talk.
The question of attributions to Mark are interesting. Folks don’t realize the blackout effect we actually have or what the decade intervals between accounts really implies. We have good textual evidence that the later gospel writers were attempting to correct things from prior writers per how they thought the story should go. Luke was scrupulous in expunging a lot of Markan ideas in the rewrite. Might be best to think of the writers as competitive with one another, and one can see the urge to outdo the preceding gospels in the story inflations.
But Mark is interesting, because people make the “he was a nobody” argument. Hence, there must be some credibility behind not having made up a grander author. But we know little enough about the period outside the texts to ask: how do you know he was a nobody when his name became attached to that account? later writers trying to push their own versions of what happened would leave the “early church traditions” with minimizing hues surrounding Mark. We don’t know much about any of the early followers. Gospels came along when they were dead. All we really know is what stories about them survived.
And anonymity doesn’t help. It’s an argument that somehow having less data improves the resolution of the data set. It’s nonsense.
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Thanks for sharing this Nate, it’s almost like being there!
Some of the weekly topics seem shallow to me and don’t really seem to address the major criticisms that non-Christians have against the Bible. If they wanted to get serious, I would propose these topics:
– The formation and canonization of the old and new testament
– The apocrypha and other non-canonical texts
– Dealing with contradictions and errors in the Bible
– How the Biblical genealogies stack up against the age of the earth
– Is God a moral monster? (They could reference Paul Copen’s book here)
– How we can accept the miraculous claims in the Bible, but dismiss all others
– Reasons to believe the Bible beyond tradition and social guilt
It is amazing what weak evidence conservative Christians will use to cling to their belief that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, and therefore proof that a first century dead man walked out of his tomb with a superheroes’ magical body.
Here is the (very weak) evidence:
1. Large sections of Matthew and Luke are direct quotes from Mark.
2. John seems to follow the same basic story of the Synoptics, but the Jesus of John is very different from the Jesus of the Synoptics. In the Synoptics, Jesus speaks in confusing parables and seems to want to hide his messiahship from the public. Jesus never specifically refers to himself as the Son of God. In John, Jesus refers to himself as the Son of God all over the place and preaches in long sermons. What happened to the parables and the secrecy?
So why would Matthew, an alleged eyewitness, need to borrow material from Mark (a non-eyewitness) to write his Gospel? And why would John, an alleged eyewitness, have such a different recollection of the preaching of Jesus (sermons instead of parables) as Matthew?
These facts alone are sufficient evidence to me that the Gospels are not eyewitness accounts, but then add on top of this all the discrepancies in the four resurrection accounts (read the accounts in parallel) and the evidence is overwhelming against eyewitness authorship.
3. The author of Mark doesn’t seem to know his Palestine geography. He makes numerous errors. This indicates that the author of Mark was not from the Palestine region and was most likely not John Mark.
4. And here is the biggest issue: the authorship of the Gospels. What evidence is there that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote these books?
a. Because the books are anonymous they must be eyewitness accounts. Nonsense! Conjecture!
b. The original scrolls “most likely” had the names of the authors written on the outside of the scrolls. Conjecture!!
c. Papias, writing 90-100 years after the death of Jesus, records that presbyter John told him that John Mark, Peter’s companion, had written a “gospel”. He does not identify the gospel. Papias also mentions that oral sources had told him that the apostle Matthew may have written a gospel in Hebrew. That’s it.
Think about this: If Matthew wrote a gospel in Hebrew, and Mark wrote his gospel in Greek, how is it that the Greek translation of Matthew’s Hebrew gospel is in many places word for word the same as Mark’s Greek gospel? Any one who has translated from another language knows how ridiculous that assertion is.
5. No Christian writer refers to the specific authorship of the four gospels we have today until Ireneaus and the Muratorian fragment in the late second century. Early Christians quote from these four books (and they quoted from many non-canonical gospels as well), but never mention authorship. For instance, no one in the early second century says, “The Gospel of the apostle John tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God…” If early Christians knew that apostles or associates of the apostles had written these four gospels, isn’t it odd that not ONE of them mentions that fact??
Bottom line: Probabilities. Which is more probable:
1. Jesus lived, Jesus was executed by the Romans. Jesus’ body was thrown into a unmarked, common grave with other executed criminals as was the Roman custom. Oral legends soon developed about Jesus. Paul hears them and writes down that Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, but no empty tomb. Other than the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper, that is ALL that Paul tells us about the life and teachings of Jesus. The author of Mark writes down the version of the oral story that he hears which does not include post-resurrection appearances, just an empty tomb. Matthew writes down the version of the oral legend he hears which includes earthquakes and zombies roaming the streets of Jerusalem, but uses Mark as a template. Luke admits that he received his information at best second hand, he also uses Mark as a template and then adds other details from other, unknown, sources. Then the author of John uses the Synoptics as a template, but instead of copying Jesus’ actual sayings, he creates sermons on theological topics important to that particular time in the Church.
None of these authors were eyewitnesses. None of them were lying. All of them believed what they were writing was true.
2. A decomposing dead man walked out of his grave with a superhuman body that could walk through locked doors, teleport between towns, and levitate into outer space.
Conclusion: We have all seen how an oral story can grow as it is told and retold, with wild details added, even within a matter of days. None of us have seen a zombie.
It’s a legend, folks. If there was good evidence, we agnostics and atheists, would accept it. But there isn’t.
He apparently didn’t note the 300,000+ variations in the original texts of the biblical documents when he pointed out that the bible is so very well documented. He also didn’t mention that the so-called miracles in the Bible that atheists like me scoff at aren’t even once mentioned by outside sources. Does he not think it noteworthy that the sun stood still in the sky for a whole day or that a sunny day became dark and the dead walked the streets of Jerusalem? Didn’t he find it strange that the Romans didn’t object to Jesus wandering around preaching sedition for 100 days after his reported death? That the Romans were curious that a body was missing from a tomb when tomb robbing was a very serious crime, especially when the body belonged to a condemned seditionist? Did he mention the myriad was the four gospels disagree (was the scourging of the temple at the beginning of Jesus’ mission (John) or near the end (the Synoptics)?
Methinks the presenter cherry-picked a bit.
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Wow, Steve … ya’ think? 😉
I have to say I enjoyed the outing very much, more for the company than the content, but that is to be expected. In a nut shell I felt the speaker was half assing it. He quoted too much from a few books with very little original material. He exaggerated his facts, to the point of down right lying on a couple. Nathan caught him more or less saying that the bible isn’t inerrant, called him out on it, and the dude totally side stepped a direct question. Sadly this fact went well over the head of the majority of folks there. I did get a few new ideas to study over and research which was great for me. Learning about the “Q” source for authorship of the gospel was new to me. I listened to the CD from the previous week’s sermon, I was less than impressed with it as well. At least it gave me a break on my long road trip today.
It was great to see Nate’s in-laws, I grew up with his wife and have know them since I was a kid. While I can’t understand or condone being able to withdraw the way they did, I do want to say a few words about them. They are genuine, kind people that are unfortunately caught in a sect/cult that runs their life. I know their hearts have been broken over this and I’m glad things are at least better now than they were and hope for continued progress.
“He apparently didn’t note the 300,000+ variations in the original texts of the biblical documents when he pointed out that the bible is so very well documented.”
Hi Steve, I think it is you who has omitted facts. here’s what I understand the be true:
1. There are more than 25,000 NT documents in Greek and Latin (dated from the 2nd to the 15th centuries). There are more than a million pages of text there.
2. Across this 1 million + pages there are 400,000 variant readings, or less than one every 2 pages.
3. The vast majority of variant readings are easily detected (they are obvious spelling/copying errors or changes in word order which doesn’t affect Latin and Greek) and they stand out from the thousands of other copies of the same text.
4. Very few make any difference to the sense. Expert textual scholar Bart Ehrman: “To be sure, of all the hundreds of thousands of textual changes found among our manuscripts, most of them are completely insignificant, immaterial, of no real importance for anything other than showing that scribes could not spell or keep focused any better than the rest of us.”
5. Ehrman is seen by many as critical of the text. Yet read his book Misquoting Jesus and you’ll find these are the “worst” textual errors he raises:
* Two well known additions (Mark 16:9-20 & John 7:53-8:11) which have been noted as probably not original in most Bibles for years.
* Two smaller passages, amounting to a few dozen words (Luke 22:43-44 and 1 John 5:7-8) which appear to have been added to the original text.
* About half a dozen passages (notably Mark 1:41, Hebrews 2:9, John 1:18, Romans 5:1, Luke 2:33) where a word or two has been changed which affects the meaning slightly.
6. The innocuous variations affect less than 10% of the text and the significant variations affect less than 1%. No doctrine or teaching is significantly affected by the changes, though indirect support for the Trinity loses a couple of verses.
Helmut Koester: “Classical authors are often represented by but one surviving manuscript; if there are half a dozen or more, one can speak of a rather advantageous situation for reconstructing the text. But there are nearly five thousand manuscripts of the NT in Greek… The only surviving manuscripts of classical authors often come from the Middle Ages, but the manuscript tradition of the NT begins as early as the end of II CE; it is therefore separated by only a century or so from the time at which the autographs were written. Thus it seems that NT textual criticism possesses a base which is far more advantageous than that for the textual criticism of classical authors.”
So the text is far, far better than you suggested. Of course whether you believe the text is a different matter.
Okay, I’ve been away from the blog most of the day, so thanks for all the great comments! There are several I want to respond to, and I’ll start with the most recent and work my way up:
@unkleE — Yeah, I think that’s a fair assessment of the texts. Your understanding matches up with mine. As you know, I find some of those facts to be more troubling than you do, but we at least agree on the facts! 🙂
@Matt — I enjoyed the outing too! Thanks for coming along — and thanks for the kind words about my in-laws. They’re definitely good people.
@Steve — Thanks for the comment! I completely agree about the lack of records on some of those big miracle claims, and the discrepancies bother me a great deal as well.
@Dave — Your suggested list of study topics is brilliant! I’d love to see those issues tackled honestly. I know some apologists are willing to, but I can’t think of any who would do it in front of a group of Christians who believe in inerrancy.
@Matt Barsotti — Excellent thoughts on Mark’s gospel. I hadn’t thought of some of that, so thanks for sharing!
@Susan — Hi again! Yes, I do remember you, and my wife does as well. We did attend a service at the UU church a couple of years ago and liked it. Much to my own surprise, I’ve found that I don’t miss services as much as I initially thought I would. I don’t think either of us really feels a need to go anymore. But it’s nice to know you guys are there, and we may visit again someday. Thanks! 🙂
@unkleE — Thanks for the additional info about eyewitness claims in the gospel — that helps me direct my own study. I also appreciate the info on where the gospels may have gotten their names.
@Sirius — Thanks for the comment! I especially relate to what you said about his claim that skeptics just have presuppositions against the supernatural. I think you’re right that it’s an attempt to make the abnormal seem normal and put naturalism and supernaturalism on equal footing. It wouldn’t bother me so much if he applied it more consistently and entertained all supernatural claims from all cultures.
@Peter — Yep, I’ve seen commentary on the parallelism issues too, and I agree that it’s awfully compelling. Thanks for pointing that out!
Hey Nate, I don’t want to go on too long given the responses you’ve gotten, but I wanted to say that I agree with your criticism of the “atheists just presuppose miracles cannot happen”. I think that’s too simplistic from my experience. Not saying that the problem with miracles is not important, rather there are plenty of other problems to consider; miracles are not necessarily the epicenter of doubt.
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Here are the problems with the Christian claim that the Bible is the best attested document from Antiquity.
1. Matthew, Luke, and most likely John, borrow heavily from Mark. Mark must be accurate, therefore, for these three other books to be accurate. Only a few fundamentalist NT scholars reject the Synoptic Problem: that two, maybe three gospel authors used Mark as a template. These four books are NOT independent accounts.
2. So everything rides on Mark.
But, who wrote Mark? When was Mark written? Where was Mark written? Why was Mark written?
Could Mark have been written by John Mark, Peter’s associate, writing down accurate accounts of what Peter saw and heard? Answer: yes. But, it is also just as possible that the Gospel of Mark was written by a Greek-speaking Christian in Rome or Antioch, based on the oral legend about Jesus circulating at that moment in time, in that city.
Now Christians will say, “but there were still eyewitnesses alive at the time of the writing of Mark that would have refuted it if it were false”. Let’s look at one possible scenario that refutes this claim:
1. Author X writes a gospel, the first gospel, in Rome in 72 AD. (Most scholars believe that “Mark” was written sometime between 65 and 75 AD.)
2. If author X wrote his gospel for the local church in Rome, how do we know that there were any eyewitnesses to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus living in Rome in the early 70’s? Maybe there were, maybe there weren’t. Remember, both Paul and Peter are dead.
3. So how many years did it take for this gospel to reach Palestine? One year? Ten years? We don’t know. Let’s say, five years. So, in 78 AD, a copy of the gospel of X arrives in Palestine. This is eight years after the destruction of Jerusalem. How many witnesses survived the slaughter? Of those witnesses who survived, how many are still in Palestine and not carried off as slaves? If someone was 20 years old in 33 AD, they would now be SIXTY-FIVE in 78 AD. The average life span in first century Palestine was 45 years old.
So we have the Gospel according to X, based on an oral tradition that had evolved over 40 years, traveling from person to person, from city to city, from Palestine to Italy, and we are to believe that the story remained 100% accurate??
So whether there are 25,000 or 25 million copies of Gospel X and the other gospels that used it as a template—these many, many copies, even though they contain very few discrepancies between them—do NOT in any way, shape, or form indicate that the original story, as told by X, in the Gospel of X, is accurate, historical information.
Bottom line: Having tens of thousands of copies of books for which no original text exists to compare them, does not prove the original story true. More than that is this: Even if author X wrote down an accurate story, maybe the guy who made the first copy completely altered the story—Maybe the first gospel of X only had Jesus claiming to be a prophet and that after he died, his disciples believed he had resurrected solely due to visions—and then the original story was subsequently lost or destroyed. So now the only text, from which those tens of thousands of copies are going to be produced, is a complete fraud…but who will know it??
Christians will say: That isn’t what happened. I say, prove that it didn’t!
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Warning: Reading Nate’s blog is dangerous for your Christian Faith!
If you are a conservative Christian and want to keep your faith, I strongly urge you to STOP reading Nate’s blog! It is very hazardous to your faith. I believe that the Internet and such well read skeptic/agnostic/atheist blogs such as Nate’s are the doom of Conservative/orthodox Christianity. I am living proof. If I had not had a computer, if I had not “surfed” the internet one boring day in February of last year, I would still be a devout, every-Sunday-go-to-church, conservative Christian. But on that fateful day, I decided to do a google search on “ex-fundamentalist Christians turned atheists” and came upon the blog of Bruce Gerencser, a former fundamentalist Baptist pastor.
Four months later I was an agnostic.
Without the internet, how would I have come upon the mountains and mountains of evidence that prove the supernatural and historical claims of Christianity false? Would I have put out the effort to go to the public library to look up these issues? Would I have gone to a book store to read books on this issue? Would I have joined a social group of Christians and non-Christians to explore and debate the claims of Christianity? I don’t think so. I wasn’t looking to deconvert! I loved my Faith! I was perfectly content with my conservative Christian belief system. I had no doubts about the complete truthfulness of my Faith. And, I had been thoroughly indoctrinated not to be “unequally yoked” with unbelievers: My social network was comprised entirely of Christians. How would I have ever been exposed to this information?
But I lost my faith because of a one second click on my computer mouse. And that, my friends, is why conservative Christianity is doomed.
I now have scientific evidence that backs up my claim that it is the Internet, not materialism, not poorly motivated Christian evangelism, that is the cause of the continuing, and rapid decline of Christianity in America. Check out this excerpt from a scientific study. I will post the link to the article immediately below this comment.
This is the headline of the article: Using the Internet can destroy your faith. That’s the conclusion of a study showing that the dramatic drop in religious affiliation in the U.S. since 1990 is closely mirrored by the increase in Internet use.
Back in 1990, about 8 percent of the U.S. population had no religious preference. By 2010, this percentage had more than doubled to 18 percent. That’s a difference of about 25 million people, all of whom have somehow lost their religion.
That raises an obvious question: how come? Why are Americans losing their faith?
Today, we get a possible answer thanks to the work of Allen Downey, a computer scientist at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts, who has analyzed the data in detail. He says that the demise is the result of several factors but the most controversial of these is the rise of the Internet. He concludes that the increase in Internet use in the last two decades has caused a significant drop in religious affiliation.
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Link to above article:
That’s exactly what happened to me. My search was “Is the Bible the Word of God?” and I came across infidels.org. That was 2011 and I’ve learned a lot since then, both from books and the Internet.
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Gary, this is interesting not because it isn’t true but for me the internet only made the process quicker. By the time I started reading atheist material on the internet, I had kicked religion outta the brain
Gary that is exactly what happened to myself as well. Blogs like Nate’s and Matt B.’s just had an overwhelming amount of information. Suddenly I was exposed to hundreds of articles, books, writings and so on. It was information overload at first but I slowly worked my way through all the details. I haven’t come out to any of my family and only few of my friends having places like this where we can discuss ideas and socialize helps a lot.