Contradiction: Was There a Sojourn in Egypt or Not?

Peter, one of the regular readers here, pointed my attention to a post that shows a discrepancy in what the Bible claims about Jacob’s descendants spending 400+ years in Egypt. I won’t try to summarize it here — I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Just check it out for yourself:
https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/the-story-of-ezer-and-elead-and-what-it-means-for-the-exodus/

Which Nativity Story?

Well, it’s that time of year again. Regular church attendees are going to have to share their pews with people who have finally decided to make it out for their second service of the year. Their belief that Jesus bled and died so they can gain eternal salvation might be unshakable, but it apparently isn’t all that motivating, considering how little these believers seem to do in response. Nevertheless, they can at least be counted on to show up for a retelling of Jesus’s miraculous birth.

But what version will they hear? More than likely, they’ll hear a “Hollywood” version of the tale that incorporates the most exciting elements of the two versions that we read about in Matthew and Luke. A quick Google search turned up this one, which illustrates my point perfectly. But what if someone tried to tell the full version? A version that included every detail that both Matthew and Luke provide?
Continue reading “Which Nativity Story?”

God and Football, or: Facts Should Matter

For the past few months, my wife and I have been meeting periodically with some family members to discuss our religious differences. The conversations have been interesting.

When we tried this during our deconversion six years ago, it didn’t go well. Emotions were simply way too high. This time around, we’ve all come to accept the status quo, so there’s less pressure on both sides. The conversations have gotten heated at times, but nothing like they used to. Overall, I feel like they’ve been going pretty well, though I don’t think any positions have been changed, and I don’t expect them to.

Most of you know that my wife and I once believed the Bible was completely inerrant, and this was pretty much the consensus of everyone at our congregation. The Bible’s flaws had a lot to do with our leaving Christianity, and I tend to refer to them any time I’m discussing religion with someone. But these family members have reacted to this in a way that I don’t really understand, and that’s what I want to talk through in this post.
Continue reading “God and Football, or: Facts Should Matter”

Is It Fair to Expect Inerrancy from the Bible When We Don’t Expect It from Other Sources?

In the comment thread of my last post, some of us mentioned that it’s hard for us to understand the point of view of Christians who believe the Bible can be inspired by God, without holding to the doctrine of inerrancy. unkleE left the following comment:

How is it that in everything else in life – whether it be ethics, or politics, relationships, science, history, law, even disbelief – we are willing to make decisions based on non-inerrant evidence and reasoning, but when it is belief in God we require inerrant evidence? I reckon your first thought might be that the stakes are so much higher. But that logic applies to disbelief as well. If we applied that logic, no-one would be an atheist because they didn’t have inerrant knowledge for that conclusion. You would not have any belief either way until you gained inerrant knowledge.

Continue reading “Is It Fair to Expect Inerrancy from the Bible When We Don’t Expect It from Other Sources?”

The Big Picture

We live in a world where it’s possible to question the very existence of God, even the supernatural altogether. Our world also contains many religions that, more often than not, tend to break out along ethnic and cultural boundaries. Most of these religions claim to be the one true way to win the “game” of life — whether that’s through reaching enlightenment, receiving salvation, etc.

So for the sake of argument, let’s say that there really is a God, and he’s given us one of these religions that we’re supposed to follow. As most of these religions teach, picking the wrong belief system will result in horrible punishment that is likely to last an eternity. I already see lots of problems with this scenario, but let’s ignore those for the moment.

How are we supposed to know which religion is the true one? Continue reading “The Big Picture”

The Book of Job: Serious or Satire?

I’ll let you know up front that this is a longer than normal post, but there was no good way to break it up. Hopefully, you’ll find the time it takes to read it well spent.

I’m a big fan of Seth Andrews and his podcast The Thinking Atheist. A week or two ago, I was listening to an episode, and Seth’s guest was Chris Matheson, who was one of the writer’s for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (one of my favorite films, as some of you may remember).

Anyway, Matheson has recently written a book called The Story of God: A Biblical Comedy about Love (and Hate), and that was the subject of their interview. Seth asked him if he had a favorite book in the Bible, and Matheson replied that it was Job. When asked why, he said that he views Job as a wonderful satire. That really piqued my curiosity. Could it be that the writer of Job truly intended his book to be a satire, like Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal?

The idea stuck with me for several days, and I realized that I needed to revisit the Book of Job and find out for myself. Is it serious or satire?
Continue reading “The Book of Job: Serious or Satire?”

Is Belief in an Afterlife Pragmatic?

I thought the following comment from Dave (whose blog you should definitely check out) deserved its own discussion thread:

I’m almost finished reading a book called Joker One and part way through the book the author (a former marine lieutenant who served in Iraq) starts to talk about God. He is recounting his time in Iraq and just described the first loss of life that occurred within his own platoon. He decides that it is better to believe in God and his logic goes something like this:

If there is no God then there is no hope for his dead comrade. He is gone forever and has served and died for no ultimate purpose.

If there is a God then there is hope that this man is still alive in Heaven and has sacrificed himself for the greater good serving a higher purpose.

I think the point he makes brings up a good question: Would we be better off having hope in an afterlife from a pragmatic point of view? Would we be happier and less prone to become depressed if we at least clung to some *hope* that there is a better life waiting for us after we die? Would this hope do us any harm in the here and now or is it possible that holding on to this hope could make us a better person?

Let the discussion commence!

PolitiFact Misses the Mark on Jesus

I love PolitiFact. I follow them on Facebook, and I always appreciate the fact-checking they do every time a politician makes a claim. Last week, they had an article that caught my eye, titled “Jesus was an ‘undocumented immigrant,’ ordained minister says.” The minister, Ryan Eller, is the executive director of a group that works to promote awareness about immigration issues, and he was trying to point out that people shouldn’t be so judgmental toward undocumented immigrants — that even Jesus would have been considered an undocumented immigrant when he and his family fled to Egypt to avoid persecution from Herod.

PolitiFact decided to investigate this claim, and they quickly pointed out that during Jesus’s life, Egypt was part of the Roman Empire. Therefore, the comparison doesn’t really hold up — Jesus and his family were still traveling within the boundaries of the same empire, which was allowable under Roman law.

All of that is fine. But where I have a bit of a problem is that PolitiFact didn’t deal with this as thoroughly as they could have. Consider this paragraph, for instance:

Even though many scholars don’t agree on the exact years Jesus was born or moved to Nazareth as a youth, we know the family left Egypt after Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E. The region known as Judaea (where Bethlehem was) became a Roman province in 6 C.E., after Rome removed Herod’s son Archelaus, who had become king of that portion of Herod’s kingdom. Nazareth, meanwhile, was in Galilee, an area later ruled by Herod’s son Antipas, known as the king who eventually beheaded John the Baptist.

“We know”?! No, we really don’t know. Yes, if Matthew’s story (his is the only gospel that tells us about this flight to Egypt) is to be believed, then Jesus’s family left Egypt after the death of Herod. But we don’t really know that Jesus’s family went there in the first place. Earlier in the article, we read this:

Luke 2:1-5 says Joseph lived in Nazareth with Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, when the Roman emperor called for all the residents of the empire to be counted and taxed. Joseph left for Bethlehem, where King David had been born, because Joseph had roots there.

Anyone who celebrates Christmas is pretty aware what happened in Bethlehem, but Eller is referring to what happened after that.

Matthew 2:12-16 describes how the Magi visited Jesus, then were warned by God in a dream not to tell King Herod, who wanted to kill the child. Joseph then took Mary and Jesus to Egypt. According to Matthew, Herod then had every male child in Bethlehem younger than 2 killed. Verses 17-23 say Joseph moved the family back to Nazareth after Herod died.

But here’s the thing, as many of you who read this blog know, it’s pretty apparent that Luke’s and Matthew’s versions of Jesus’s birth can’t be reconciled with one another. One or both of them is a fabrication. According to Luke, Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and are only in Bethlehem temporarily; therefore, it’s only in their version that we have the manger scene. Shepherds come to witness his birth, but no wise men are mentioned. According to Luke, around 6 weeks after Jesus’s birth, the family goes to Jerusalem to present him at the temple, do the sacrifices, etc. And once they finish that, they go straight home to Nazareth.

Matthew, on the other hand, starts his account with Mary and Joseph already in Bethlehem. There’s no mention of a trip to Jerusalem, and there’s no mention of the shepherds who witness his birth. However, we’re told that when he was born, some “wise men from the east” traveled to Jerusalem to find him. We have no idea how much time has passed since his birth. But after the wise men tell Herod why they’re there, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem under the age of two in an effort to eradicate this threat to his throne. Joseph is warned of this by an angel, and he and the family flee to Egypt. Matthew also tells us this was done in accordance with some prophecies, but when you look at those “prophecies” in their original context, you see that they aren’t prophecies at all. It’s also important to note that no historians of the time talk about this slaughter of children that supposedly took place, even those who had no love for Herod. Finally, Matthew tells us that after Herod’s death, the family decides to go back to Judea (the province in which Bethlehem is situated). However, Joseph worries that Herod’s son, who has now taken the throne, might still be a threat. So instead of going back to Judea, they go to Galilee and settle “in a city called Nazareth,” which seems like an odd way to refer to their hometown.

In Matthew’s version, instead of a journey to Jerusalem, it becomes the most dangerous place they could travel to. And in Luke’s version, there’s no mention of a trip to Egypt. Instead, they go to Jerusalem shortly after Jesus’s birth and then go home to Nazareth. Traveling to Egypt is simply unnecessary. Even if Herod had actually decided to kill all the children in Bethlehem, there was still no reason to go to Egypt. They could simply have gone back home to Nazareth. The city wasn’t under Herod’s control, and he didn’t actually know who they were, anyway.

In other words, there’s very little reason to think that Jesus ever went to Egypt at all. I know PolitiFact isn’t in the business of fact-checking religion. But since they took the time to examine this preacher’s claim, why not address it fully? Their entire shtick is fact-checking. I don’t expect them to flat-out say that Jesus never went to Egypt. But they could have at least mentioned that there’s no scholarly consensus about whether or not this even happened.

It reminds me of an article that Lawrence Krauss wrote for the New Yorker a couple of days ago that describes why scientists should stop being so PC with religion. We can still be respectful of individuals without compromising our standards of truth when it comes to their belief systems. And I feel that PolitiFact got it wrong this time.

“Times of Ignorance”

There’s a passage in the Bible that has long stood out to me. When I was a Christian, I found it comforting; now, I just find it perplexing. In Acts 17 (beginning in verse 16), Paul is visiting Athens. Since it was a hub of philosophy and culture, it had temples and altars to a multitude of different gods, including an altar “to the unknown god.” Paul uses this opportunity to preach to them about the Jewish god — the god that (according to Paul) created everything. Then, in verses 30-31, Paul says this:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

When Paul talks about “the times of ignorance,” he’s obviously talking about all the time before that moment — a time when God “allowed” people to serve “false” gods. But what does he mean when he says that God overlooked that time? I’d be curious to know how other denominations view this passage. When I was a Christian, my view of it tied in with the first three chapters of Romans. Those chapters lay out a case for why both Jews and Gentiles needed Christ. Romans 2:12-16 says this:

For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

The Old Law was given to the Jews. While the OT didn’t teach the concepts of Heaven and Hell, many Christians believe that keeping the Law is what let Jews go to Heaven, before Christ came. But what provision was there for Gentiles? Romans 2 seems to say that even though Gentiles didn’t have the law, those who lived righteously anyway were a “law to themselves,” which could “excuse them” on that day of judgement. This is still vague… did it mean that the Gentiles had to somehow anticipate the actual Mosaic laws? Or is this just talking about basic morality? I tend to think it’s the latter, since the former would be virtually impossible.

So let’s go back to Acts 17:30. When Paul says that God overlooked these “times of ignorance,” I took that to mean that he judged Gentiles merely on their morality. It seems like this would be a more forgiving scale, since it wouldn’t include any ritualistic precepts that only apply to specific doctrines. In other words, it seems to fit pretty well with Romans 2.

When I was a Christian, this gave me great comfort. After all, it meant that before the time of Christ, salvation was still awarded to many people, even if they weren’t Jewish. The alternative, that all Gentiles were automatically consigned to Hell, is just too horrible to contemplate.

But this also brings up some uncomfortable questions. First of all, Acts 17:30 goes on to say “but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” This would indicate that Gentiles could no longer simply be judged on a general moral law. Instead, they would be required to become Christians. But how much sense does that make? If Paul really made this speech in Athens, most sources I’ve seen estimate it to have taken place around 50 CE. This is before any books of the New Testament had been written, which means Christianity was solely spreading by word of mouth. How could all Gentiles have been expected to respond to the gospel at this point in time? Even decades later, once some of the writings were circulating, there were also “non-canonical” writings in the mix. How could people have known which were accurate? For centuries, Christians simply didn’t have access to all the canonical books of the Bible, and even if they had, the majority couldn’t have read them. So they would have relied on the testimony of clergy. When disagreements arose surrounding doctrine, how could they have known what to believe? This doesn’t even deal with the very big problem that Christianity, for most of its history, barely spread outside of Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa. Most of the world knew nothing of it.

If God no longer excused ignorance after Paul’s speech, then millions upon millions of people were consigned to Hell through no fault of their own. If God did still excuse people’s ignorance, then Paul’s speech doesn’t make a lot of sense here.

But there’s another problem as well. If God was able to save people simply based on their morality, then why did he ever do anything different? Let’s say God still overlooked ignorance even after Paul’s speech. If you had been a Gentile living at that time, you would have had a greater chance at salvation if you never heard the gospel. Because if you heard it, but rejected it, you would be accountable to it. If you never heard it, then simply living a moral life would be enough for salvation. This means that those who preached the gospel were actually doing a disservice. Ignorance truly would have been bliss. Why would God have implemented such a flawed and unfair plan?

When I was a Christian, I took it for granted that Christianity was true, so I when I read this passage, I really just focused on the comfort I got from thinking that Gentiles still had an avenue for salvation before Christ came. But I now see this as another red flag about the truth of Christianity. So I’m curious as to how other groups view this. Are there ways of looking at it that aren’t so problematic? Or is this a minor enough passage that most of you never paid much attention to it?