Continuing the journey – now we begin to get to the meat of Why I’m Not a Christian (WINC).
As mentioned in my first two posts, my angle of investigation for investigating the truth claims of Christianity was questioning the historicity of the alleged resurrection of Jesus.
A Digression on Citations
I’m totally going to look like a one source pony here – I promise I did read from various sources and perspectives (mostly online) on these issues, and I watched debates on YouTube – but some of Matt Barsotti’s posts are great summaries of the issues I’m discussing here; and a couple of them really helped me turn the corner in changing my mind on these things.
So, in light of that, my own desire for efficieny, and my new-found lack of patience for what I now consider to be nonsense and falsehood…at the risk of looking like a fanboi…muchos citations to Jericho Brisance follow, with limited summaries by yours truly.
Gospel Authors Unknown; Message Unauthenticated
The gospels are primary sources for the claims we have about the resurrection. Let’s start with some points of consensus among biblical scholars:
- The gospels were all written decades after the alleged death and resurrection of Jesus.
- The earliest of them was Mark, generally dated around 70 CE.
- John is last, generally dated in the 90s CE.
- Matthew and Luke are dated after Mark, and before John.
- They’re all of anonymous authorship.
- The earliest known manuscripts do not include the titles by which we’ve come to know them (e.g. “The Gospel According to Mark”).
- They do not claim to be authored by eyewitnesses to any of the events they describe.
- They were written in Greek.
- Jesus disciples would have spoken Aramaic, and would likely have been illiterate – never mind being able to write in another language.
Matt put together a great summary of these items and more in his Infographic – Timeline of the New Testament Books. (Click the picture to enlarge; click the preceding link to read the post that introduced it.)
The above points, taken together, strike me as a compelling argument that not only do we not know who wrote the gospels; we do know that they were most likely not written by eye-witnesses to the events in question. That makes their claims hearsay.
Recall the extraordinary level of the claims, and that the burden of proof rests on the claimants. The tri-omni God of the universe wants to communicate a message of the utmost eternal importance to us, and he doesn’t even bother to authenticate his intermediate authors? Color me skeptical. However, in my mind, I still allowed for the possibility that there could be other indicators of divine inspiration, like amazing internal cohesion, prophecy fulfillment, or historically verifiable miracles.
But it gets worse.
Drawing on the work of several biblical and historical scholars and the gospels themselves, Matt made another great infographic that illustrates many of the apparent contradictions between the various gospel accounts, as it relates to the Easter narrative in particular. (Again, click through to enlarge; click the link to read the post.) My survey of apologetic attempts to harmonize these types of differences makes me think that it takes some impressive mental gymnastics to do so. On balance, it looks more probable to me that the legends grew, and the stories evolved over time, with Matthew and Luke being separate (and somewhat disparate) attempts at making a “new and improved” gospel of Mark.
Even if it’s possible to stretch these things to reconcile all the “apparent” contradictions, it seems improbable to me that an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent god would allow such differences to remain, thus leading genuine searchers away from the Truth. But suppose he had done so; that seems irresponsible to me, for the same reason.
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and his name shall be called Emman′u-el”
The short version:
- Matthew refers to Jesus’s mother Mary as having conceived while still a virgin.
- “Young woman” is probably a better translation of the Isaiah text than “virgin” here.
- The original context in Isaiah had nothing to do with foretelling a messiah.
If the author of the gospel of Matthew even intended for this to be evidence of Jesus’ divine origin by fulfillment of predictive prophecy, it fails as such. It’s like taking a movie quote out of context, and using it to refer to something in your own life. The only possible way I see around that is the so-called “dual fulfillment” idea. I’ve read those harmonization attempts, and I say: bullshit.
- YouTube – “Isaiah-Gate” and the Virgin Mary… Minus the Virgin
- Includes a video of Bart Ehrman (45:08 to 49:03), explaining the original context, the mistranslation, and the theological biases of the translators.
- Reprise of “Isaiah-Gate” – Catholic Tremors and Affirmation
Who’s Flying This Thing?
- The gospels have differing accounts of Jesus before Pilate. (Part 1.)
- He is silent in the synoptics, which is alleged (in Acts) as prophecy fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7.
- He is not silent in John, which is at odds with the alleged prophecy.
- The depiction of Pilate is at odds with what we know of him from external sources. (Part 2)
These stories just don’t add up. Still not looking divine.
But What Do Other Sources Say?
In a perfect analogue to the grand assertions of every cult and religious fiction, not one of the astonishing claims regarding the life of Jesus – the Herodian slaughter, the great census, the heavenly star, the many miracles, the raising of Lazarus, the great earthquake, the hours of darkness, the rending of the temple veil, the hordes of walking dead, the mass post-mortem sightings, or the ascension – was recorded by a single contemporary outside of the faith tradition.
Unauthenticated messages; unsourced miraculous and implausible historical claims; bunk alleged fulfillments of non- and out-of-context prophecies; clear religious bias; internal inconsistencies; and lack of external verification all lead me to believe that I cannot treat the gospels as reliable sources of historical data. There may be some kernels of truth beneath the more mundane (non-miraculous) parts, but my confidence level in even them is low.
I think this is the reason that contemporary Christian apologists retreat to “minimal facts” arguments to support their claims of Jesus’ resurrection. And yet, these findings undermine the argument itself. Even if we treat the gospels in the same way as historians treat other primary sources:
- Alleged miraculous events are (rightly) excluded from what we consider history.
- History doesn’t demand our assent to propositions or tellings of events, or threaten consequences if we don’t accept them.
At this point, I wasn’t quite “out of the woods” yet, on account of maybe another pillar and a half propping up my faith, and inertia. But the exit was coming into clearer view.
1. Some might say that I am making an “appeal to authority” here. That can be a logical fallacy. However, there seems to be little to no disagreement from both Christian and non-Christian biblical scholars on these points. As such, it is not an argument from particular hand-picked authorities, but from best-knowledge in the field.
Here’s the video that was included there. (8.5 minute excerpt, from 48:30 to 57:06. May not work correctly in some browsers.)