Tag Archives: Bible

An Atheist Who Gets It

A lot of the atheists I run into have a really warped view of the Bible–almost the mirror image of the fundamentalist view. I understand where that comes from–it’s largely a reaction to vocal fundies in the media. But for people who espouse the virtues of rational discourse to dismissively refer to the Bible as a collection of fairy tales about an evil old man in the sky is an absurd a failure to see what it actually is–about as absurd as saying that it is inerrant and never contradicts itself.

Robert Price, an atheist speaking to a group of (mainly) atheists, gives them a better view of what the Bible actually is, and why even a non-believer can (and should) love it.

Listen to it here, on the podcast of the “Point of Inquiry” radio show.

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 3: When the Author States his Method, that Counts Too

In full:

Any theory of Biblical inspiration needs to account for what the authors tell us about their own writing process.

You can learn a lot if you pay attention in the right places.  One of the most overt Biblical statements of authorial intent and process is in the prologue of Luke’s gospel:

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

This is a gold mine of information:

  1. there have been many written accounts of the work of Jesus by the time Luke sets out to write his
  2. the stories were first handed down (orally) by people who were eyewitnesses to them
  3. Luke himself was not an eyewitness, so he conducted a careful investigation
  4. it seemed good to him to write an orderly account
  5. the purpose of his writing is that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught.

Already, several popular theories are dead in the water.  Luke wasn’t some kind of flesh and bone pen, taken over by the hand of God, scribbling down the thoughts of the Holy Spirit.  I think you have to throw out verbal plenary inspiration, at least as a statement about the entire Bible, if you take Luke at his word.  And you have to get rid of that super-popular illustration that compares the four gospels to four witnesses at a car crash, claiming that their differences are merely matters of different perspective.  That doesn’t fit well, because Luke lets us know up front that he wasn’t a witness.   And he reason for writing is so pragmatic–“it seemed good to me.”  I know a lot of folks would prefer it if he said that “the Spirit led me to write this” or “God placed a burden on my heart” or whatever the new catch-phrase is for a vague and unverifiable holy prompting, but that’s not what we have.  Luke did a survey of the literature about Jesus, thought that it was generally inadequate (presumably confusing or erroneous) and set out to write a better one.

When you compare the gospels against each other, it becomes clear that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Exact sentences are repeated, word-for-word, in two or sometimes all three of them.  Someone is incorporating parts of someone else’s previous writing.  Biblical scholars who try to sort out exactly who was reading which of the other gospels and what order they were written in call this the “synoptic problem.”  Most scholars set Mark as the first and earliest of the canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke coming later, and using Mark as a primary source.  It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was one of the earlier accounts that Luke read, and Luke must have thought that it was the best of the bunch, because he uses much of its material.  On the other hand, he also thought it wasn’t quite right for his purposes, since he didn’t just copy it and send it on to Theophilus.  He wrote an expanded version with a special emphasis on showing Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had promised in the Old Testament.  (Read the first four chapters of Luke carefully, much of which is unique to his gospel, and you can see his desire to link Jesus to the Jewish tradition.)

Put all that together and we learn that it is okay for a Biblical writer to:

  1. do research
  2. quote other sources (sometimes without attribution)
  3. write because it seemed like a good idea (without special divine prompting)
  4. have specific purposes in mind when he writes (be conciously aware of his own authorial agenda)

That doesn’t seem very challenging or controversial to me, but you would never think those things were possible based on some popular theories about the Bible.  There is a lot of Luke’s own initiative and interest in his gospel, and he explains the production of it in simple human terms.  If you’ve ever become interested in a topic, read what was already written about it, and incorporated the best information into a new document you were writing that emphasized certain things that were especially important to you, then you’ve done exactly what Luke says he did to write the Gospel.  As the bumper sticker proclaims, “Luke said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Here’s another passage that we need to account for in our theories of inspiration, 1 Corinthians 1:13-16:

13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now, I would never, ever want to claim that Paul’s memory is occasionally faulty and possibly erroneous, but unfortunately, Paul makes that claim himself.  Even though he is writing a document that will become holy scripture, the Holy Spirit has not intervened to give him perfect knowledge, even about his own ministry!  Paul simply can’t tell his readers with certainty how many people he baptized. So let’s add one more thing to the list.  It’s okay for a Biblical writer to

5.  show signs of faulty human memory.

Even if Paul hadn’t told us that clearly, we would have figured it out when he wrote this nine chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10:

7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.

And then we looked it up in in Numbers 25 and read:

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

I look at this and think, “Ah, twenty-three thousand, twenty-four thousand, no big deal.  He was only a thousand off and it doesn’t change the point he was making.  So what if he can’t remember who he baptized for sure, and he mis-remembered the number who died in the plague?  Maybe he wrote 1 Corinthians when he was really sleep deprived.”  And I go on reading and studying, faith intact.  My faith depends on the perfection of Jesus, not of Paul.

That seems to be working out pretty well for me, but it is unacceptable to the folks over at Apologetics Press:

So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”

By this account, I am supposed to believe that Paul was supernaturally given special knowledge of the event beyond what was recorded in the scriptures.  He knew that 24,000 died in the plague, but he also knew that 23,000 died in the first day, and another 1,000 lingered on into day two.  Rather than just referring to the 24,000 total who died, Paul emphasized the number who died within 24 hours–the 23,000.

But what about the idea that Paul just had a little, inconsequential memory slip?  That was Peter Davids’ theory in Hard Sayings of the Bible, and he’s a pretty conservative writer.  But that’s a non-starter at Apologetics Press:

Unbelievable! Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, and F.F. Bruce pen an 800-page book in an attempt to answer numerous alleged Bible contradictions and to defend the integrity of the Bible, and yet Davids has the audacity to say that the apostle Paul “cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong.” Why in the world did Davids spend so much time (and space) answering various questions that skeptics frequently raise, and then conclude that the man who penned almost half of the New Testament books made mistakes in his writings?! He has concluded exactly what the infidels teach—Bible writers made mistakes. Furthermore, if Paul made one mistake in his writings, he easily could have blundered elsewhere. And if Paul made mistakes in other writings, how can we say that Peter, John, Isaiah, and others did not “slip up” occasionally? The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But as we noted above, the skeptic is not right! First Corinthians 10:8 can be explained logically without assuming Paul’s writings are inaccurate….Paul did not “invent” facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names.”  Unless, of course, that name was “Stephanas.”  You can dance all around the Bible grabbing verses to try to make your case for inerrancy, but sooner or later you are going to have to deal with 1 Corinthians 1:16.  Paul says clearly that he is relying on “his own cognizance” to remember a name, and that his memory might not be accurate.  No carefully woven theories of inspiration, no syllogisms or dogmas get to trump the clear statement of the apostle.  You have to deal with what he says.

Who is the real Bible believer in this argument?  I believe what Luke says about his writing methods.  I believe what Paul says about his memory.  I honor their writings as scripture, and I accept their self-report.  If you believe in inerrancy, then you have to believe that Paul was literally correct and without error when he wrote that he couldn’t remember for sure who he baptized.  Which means his writing isn’t inerrant.  I have no doubt that someone has done a Rube Goldberg thought experiment to get out of that dilemma, but I sure don’t see how.

My plea: can’t we just accept what the Bible says?

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Why Does This Matter?

I’ll get back to a specific discussion of Genesis and Jonah before long, but let me zoom out for a minute and look at the big picture.  What’s the point of discussing the minutiae of details about historicity in Biblical texts?  Here’s why I think it’s important:

1)      Biblical inerrancy/literalism is an unnecessary barrier to faith. I started down this line of thought by noting that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, an atheist polemic, wants to limit his readers’ option to atheism or fundamentalism.  At that point, all he has to do to lead them out of faith is create sufficient doubt about Biblical inerrancy—which, in my opinion, is devastatingly easy to do.  I don’t think it’s either gracious or smart to tell people who have noticed tensions in the Biblical text that they can’t be real Christians unless they cling to the doctrine of inerrancy.  That strategy is creating more new atheists than new evangelicals.  Same thing goes for literalism (a closely related proposition).  Tell a young person who is gifted at science that he or she must be a creationist (or worse, a young-Earth-creationist) in order to be a Christian, and chances are that person is walking away from faith forever.  Because we made something other than submission to the Lordship of Jesus a requirement for entrance.

2)      These texts are read better when assigned to the correct genre. Take the creation accounts for example.  A lot of ink is spilled trying to defend the proposition that Genesis is an accurate telling of the origins of the world, and I still see people claiming that what Genesis teaches is in harmony with modern scientific understandings.  That doesn’t hold up, to put it mildly.  I don’t think you are going to find a reputable astronomer who seriously believes that the very first thing to appear in the entire universe was the planet Earth.  But that’s the picture in Genesis.  No stars until day four, just Earth, floating alone in the void of space.  Scratch that—the Biblical picture is that Earth is immovably built atop the foundations that God laid (Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, 82:5, 103:25, 105:5, and other texts).  I have yet to have a young-earth creationist give me a satisfying answer as to why Genesis 1 is literal history, but the many references to God laying the foundations of the immovable earth are not.

So, back to the point: one thing I hope we all can agree on, regardless of our view of the scriptures, is that there was no such thing as a secular evolutionist when Genesis 1 was written.  And yet a lot of the same people who teach the basic interpretive principle that “the text means what it meant to the original readers” completely throw that out the window when it comes to Genesis, and turn it into an anti-evolutionist polemic—one of the things it couldn’t possibly have intended to be.  Some very devout Christians have been reading this text for decades without ever asking the basic questions, “but what did this mean way back then?  What did the first audience think was important about Genesis 1?  How did it challenge existing ideologies?”  We have a hard time getting to those questions because the theory of Biblical inerrancy overwhelms our study with the agenda to defend the literality of these texts, which, ironically, makes it less likely that we’ll ever get to real theology at work in Genesis.  This unnecessary agenda diverts us to questions like “Did humans and dinosaurs co-exist?” “Has the speed of light changed?”  “Did the Flood change the global climate?” and all manner of diversions from letting the text spiritually form us.  But that’s where you inevitably wind up if you take a mythic poem and insist on defending it as a scientifically accurate text.  It stops being scripture and becomes the starting point for endless argument.

It’s really incredible the change that happens in Christian formation when you say, “Let’s set aside our modern scientific questions and try to hear what the text said to readers in the ancient world.”

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 2: Its Priorities May Differ From Mine

This is related to the conversation about genre, and also to Ben Witherington’s comments I quoted below.  Next in the list of assumptions:

2) Some things that seem important to me don’t matter to the Biblical writers

Actually, that Witherington post covered a lot of what I intended to say.  The point is this: even in the New Testament period, when there is an established discipline of history, the ancient standards are still very, very different from our modern ones.  Compare the temptation accounts in Luke and Matthew, and you’ll see pretty quickly that the chronology differs.  In Matthew it’s stones to bread, jump from the temple, bow down to Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world.  In Luke it’s bread, kingdoms, jump.  At least one of these is presented in an order that doesn’t represent the actual historical chronology.  It’s easy for a skeptic to point to this as an example of the Bible being “wrong,” but that’s a pretty silly critique.  More likely each writer has chosen to present the temptations in the order that best presents the themes of their book.  Matthew’s Jesus is the rightful king, who already is heir to all power and authority.  Notice that Matthew surrounds the temptation accounts with the exact same line, said once by John the Baptist, once by Jesus: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (3:2, 4:17).  Luke, on the other hand, is well-known for his strong sense of geographical movement.  In Luke’s presentation, the Temple (and, by extension, Jerusalem) has enormous symbolic significance.  Jesus is dedicated there as an infant, and at age 12, when his family was leaving Jerusalem after Passover, Jesus stayed behind in the Temple.  When an anxious Mary and Joseph found him, he said “Didn’t you know I had to be in my father’s house?” (2:49).  After that, Luke doesn’t show Jesus in Jerusalem again until he enters it for his crucifixion, a journey that he makes gradually but inexorably (see 9:51, 13:33, 17:11, 18:31, 19:11).  Because Jerusalem is the climax of Luke’s story, he makes it the climax of the temptations.  There are always people who want to say that either Matthew or Luke must have erred in their temptation account, but in reality, both did it the right way for their own purposes, and in keeping with the literary conventions of their own time.  As they say in marriage counseling, neither is wrong, they are just different.

So, if you think inspired history has to be meet modern standards of objective reportage to counter as scripture, the Bible is going to disappoint you over and over again.  Ditto if you feel the need to know what exact words were said on a given occasion.  Or even to whom they were said.  You just aren’t going to get that certainty in the Bible.  Different gospels are going to have somewhat different wording.  Sometimes two or three gospels will cover the same event with very different emphases.  Look at the healing of the centurion’s servant, for example.  To make this a bit easier, I’ll underline some parts that are unique in each account.

Matt 8:5-12

Luke 7:1-10

5 When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. 6 “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed and in terrible suffering.”

7 Jesus said to him, “I will go and heal him.”

8 The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 9 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

10 When Jesus heard this, he was astonished and said to those following him, “I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

13 Then Jesus said to the centurion, “Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.” And his servant was healed at that very hour.

When Jesus had finished saying all this in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. 2 There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. 3 The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. 4 When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, 5 because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.” 6 So Jesus went with them.

He was not far from the house when the centurion sent friends to say to him: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. 7 That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

9 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd following him, he said, “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.” 10 Then the men who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant well.

The first time I encountered these texts in my ministry training, my instructor went out of his way to point out that there wasn’t necessarily an historical discrepancy here, because there is a sense in which statements communicated through intermediaries could be honestly recorded as statements between the two principal parties.  His example (this was back in 1991) was that President Bush could send Secretary of State James Baker to deliver a message to Prime Minister John Major, and the newspaper headlines could honestly say “Bush Tells Major “We’re On Your Side!” although the two men hadn’t even been in the same continent, and those exact words weren’t said.

If you find that convincing, I won’t try to talk you out of it (well, not right now, anyway), but that didn’t work for me.  At the time, I thought it was pretty deeply troubling that the people who only had Matthew’s account would have a completely wrong mental image of what happened, and it seemed to me that if the Spirit was going to give fuller details to Luke’s reader, he certainly could have done that for Matthew’s.  Making things worse, the lines from Jesus in Matthew 8:11-12 don’t appear at all in Luke, nor does the information that the servant was healed “at that very hour,” which means that Luke’s account is also flawed!  Neither was meeting my standards for what I thought the Bible should be.

Only some years later did I try to read those texts in terms of what the original audiences needed, rather than what I thought I wanted.  Of course, we’ll never know for sure what was going on in Matthew and Luke’s heads when they wrote their gospels, but each of them were writing at a time when tensions between Jews and Gentiles were high.  Luke, a Gentile writing to Gentiles, probably thinks it is important to reinforce the point that God had chosen the Jewish people first, and the Gentiles were being brought into a grace relationship that already existed.  What better way to do that than to write about an incident where Jewish elders intercede with Jesus on behalf of a Roman soldier–one who “loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  The soldier serves as a model of Gentile discipleship that is openly supportive of the Jewish people and their religious environment–exactly the kind of example that Luke wants his Gentile audience to follow.  And he wants them to see Jewish religious leaders who are quick to do what they can to bring blessing to a Roman.  That picture only helps them cultivate a healthier attitude toward Israel.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a Jew writing mainly to Jews.  And he could be concerned that if he writes this up the way Luke does, his Jewish readers are going to use this as evidence that Gentiles can’t approach God on their own–they have to either become Jews or use Jewish friends as intermediaries.  They might get the idea that the only Gentiles God will respond to are ones who are building synagogues and actively befriending Jewish elders.  That’s could easily spin into an ongoing sense of entitlement and superiority that Matthew doesn’t want to reinforce.  And so in his version, the centurion comes to Jesus on his own.  And Matthew is sure to include the parts where Jesus makes it clear that some faithful Gentiles will be dining with the patriarchs in the kingdom, and some of the Jewish people won’t.  It’s a matter of faithful response to God, not DNA.

Notice that “I have not found such great faith in Israel!” becomes a rebuke of Israel in Matthew’s story.  (“You Israelites ought to have this kind of faith, but none of you do!”  In Luke, though, it seems like Israel has set a very high standard for faith, but the centurion exceeded it.  “Wow!  Even in Israel no one has quite this much faith!”  It doesn’t seem like a rebuke of Israel at all.  In fact, it seems like Jesus implicitly compliments their faith by using it as the baseline for comparison.

Both authors are interested in history.  I don’t think either of them is making this story up.  But they don’t have accurate historical detail as the highest priority.  And in a situation where giving their audience the most complete possible historical truth could lead them into theological error and ungracious attitudes, it’s obvious to the gospel writers which is the better path.  Ultimately, they aren’t writing history so much as narrative theology with deep pastoral concern.  I might want straight history from them, but they want to form churches in the character and spirit of Jesus.  It could be that those seldom conflict, but when they do exacting historicity takes a back seat to kingdom concerns.

After a while it occurred to me that Matthew and Luke have a better idea what good scripture is than I do.  Part of my submission to the Bible is letting it be what it is, not insisting that it’s flawed if it isn’t what I wanted.

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An Aside: Ben Witherington on Ancient Historiography

In response to Bart Ehrman’s latest book (which I haven’t read yet):

Bart reminds us early on that the method of studying the Bible taught in most mainline seminaries is “the historical critical method”. It is also, in fact perhaps the main method of teaching the Bible in evangelical seminaries today as well. And two of the major things one is taught, quite correctly in the study of this method are: 1) ancient historical texts must be studied in their original historical contexts to be properly understood; and 2) modern post-Enlightenment historiography is at odds with the historiography of most ancients, particularly when it comes to the issue of God’s involvement in human history.

There is a further corollary—in order to understand the Gospels or Acts, or Paul’s letters, or Revelation, one needs to understand the features and characteristics of such ancient literature—in short their respective genres. The Gospels are written like ancient biographies, not modern ones, or in the case of Luke-Acts like an ancient work of Hellenistic (and Septuagintal) historiography. Unless one knows the conventions and limitations that apply to such literature, one is in no position at all to evaluate whether there are “inconsistencies” “errors” or other problematic features of such literature. Error can only be assessed on the basis of what an author is attempting to do and what literary conventions he is following. Let us take an example Bart uses from p. 7 of his book—the fact that in John the cleansing of the temple comes early in the Gospel account, whereas in the Synoptics it is found in the Passion narrative. He is right of course that some modern conservative Christians have attempted to reconcile these differences by suggesting Jesus did the deed twice— once at the beginning and once at the end of the ministry. The problem is, that this conclusion is just as anachronistic (and genre ignoring) as the conclusion that the Gospels contradict each other on this point. What do I mean?

If you actually bother to read ancient biographies (see e.g. Tacitus’s Life of Agricola, or Plutarch’s famous parallel lives) you will discover that the ancients were not pedants when it comes to the issue of strict chronology as we are today. The ancient biographical or historiographical work operated with the freedom to arrange there material in several different ways, including topically, geographically, chronologically, to mention but three. Yes they had a secondary interest in chronology in broad strokes, but only a secondary interest in that.
If one studies the Fourth Gospel in detail and closely in the Greek, comparing it to other ancient biographies what one learns is that it is a highly schematized and edited product, and the sign narratives are arranged theologically not primarily chronologically. And whilst this might cause a modern person some consternation, it is not a reason to say that John contradicts the Synoptics on this Temple cleansing matter. The Fourth Gospel begins by showing that Jesus replaces the institutions of Judaism with himself—a theological message (he is the Passover lamb, he is the Temple where God’s presence dwells etc.). The Synoptic writers are likely presenting a more chronologically apt picture of when this event actually happened. But strict chronology was not the major purpose of the Fourth Evangelist, we should not fault him for not giving us information we might want to have, or for focusing on the theological import of the event, rather than its timing. Such was the freedom, within limits, of ancient biographies and histories. I must disagree with the conclusion then when Bart says “Historically speaking, then, the accounts are not reconcilable.” (p. 7). False. This is only so if one insists on a flat modern anachronistic reading of the text which pays no attention to what the authors are attempting.

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Believing in the Bible

Just ran across this column from Bart Ehrman at the Washington Post site.  Excerpts:

The idea that to be a Christian you have to “believe in the Bible” (meaning, believe that it is in some sense infallible) is a modern invention. Church historians have traced the view, rather precisely, to the Niagara Conference on the Bible, in the 1870s, held over a number of years to foster belief in the Bible in opposition to liberal theologians who were accepting the results of historical scholarship. In 1878 the conference summarized the true faith in a series of fourteen statements. The very first one — to be believed above all else — was not belief in God, or in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was belief in the Bible….

To make faith in the Bible the most important tenet of Christianity was a radical shift in thinking — away, for example, from traditional statements of faith such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, which say not a word about belief in the Bible….

Here are the historical realities. Christianity existed before the Bible came into being: no one decided that our twenty-seven books of the New Testament should be “the” Christian Scripture until three hundred years after the death of the apostles. Since that time Christianity has existed in places where there were no Bibles to be found, where no one could read the Bible, where no one correctly understood the Bible. Yet it has existed. Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible.

And so, biblical scholarship will not destroy Christianity. It might de-convert people away from a modern form of fundamentalist belief. But that might be a very good thing indeed.

I think Ehrman is being a little coy.  If you read the introduction to Misquoting Jesus, you get a brief version of Ehrman’s faith journey, which basically boils down to “I was a conservative, Bible-believing Christian for a while, and because of that I got deep into Biblical scholarship, and what I learned about the Bible turned me agnostic.”  I don’t think he’s lying here–he certainly knows that there are a lot of Christians who take a liberal or post-liberal stance toward the scriptures but are still guided by a deep faith in Jesus.  I’m one of them.  But I think if Ehrman were really pressed on this point, he would admit that while there are people who accept Biblical criticism while retaining Christian faith, he himself doesn’t find that position tenable.

I don’t want to pick on Ehrman too much.  I’m pretty appreciative of his books, which essentially take the basic Biblical information you’ll learn in a mainline seminary and make it accessible to a mass audience.  We ought to be discussing the difficulties with the Bible in church more, and it really isn’t Ehrman’s fault that some people learn this information and drift away from faith.  (As per this post, I think it’s the fault of the kinds of churches who essentially make their congregants choose between believing in inerrancy or becoming an atheist.)  But he ought to be a more honest about the reality that his books certainly will provoke a faith crisis in a fair number of his readers, if not an outright rejection of Christianity.

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