A Skeptical Response to the Bible – Romans 1:1-7

Hi Pascal. Thank you for posting about Romans 1:1-7. I promised you a response…

Was Paul subject to The Problem?

Was Paul fulfilling a wish?

Yes, I think all indications were that Pharisees were looking for a savior. This would have been a common desire, or a wish. He may have been justified in his beliefs. But pattern matching and confirmation bias were surely at play.

Was Paul seeing a pattern where there was none?

I don’t know. I do believe that he was as capable of seeing false patterns as you and I are.

Was Paul subject to confirmation bias?

Certainly, we all are.

Did Paul misunderstand the lumpiness of randomness?

Very likely. It’s my impression that we only recently were able to identify this through experimentation, and few of us understand its effects on our thinking even occasionally.

The Problem is both demonstrable and sufficient to explain all of the Bible and the other faiths we’ve seen. It definitely does exist and it does explain how the Bible, the modern church, and all the competing religions could come to be. Paul’s supernatural claims (e.g. the God-hood of Christ and his resurrection from the dead) are neither demonstrable, nor likely, nor required to explain what we see in the world around us. When we take a sufficient explanation and add to it, each assumption reduces the likelihood that our belief is true (Occam’s Razor). So why posit a sufficient explanation plus all these unnecessary unknowns? Paul did not see Christ crucified. Nor did he see him rise. Nor did he see him at all. Ever. He only heard a voice when he was struck with something like a seizure. He probably heard about Christ, but his information up to that point was based on beliefs of others (hearsay about what people in pre-scientific times believed happened, not rigorous testing of what actually happened). Also, all the other sources of writings we had were probably based at least in part on Paul’s ideas.

I think it’s fair to say that Paul was a victim of The Problem in the same way that we all are, but that in itself doesn’t nullify or invalidate his claims any more than it does ours. He was probably more subject to it than modern scientists because a) many of us are aware of it and there’s no indication he was, and b) he was raised in a culture of certainty and faith. Let’s look at some of his claims.

The virgin birth

“… concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead…” – Romans 1:3-4

Paul gives no indication anywhere in any of his writings that Jesus was born of a virgin. Nor do the writers of Mark or John. He is clear that Jesus was descended from David “according to the flesh”. I don’t have a problem with this. What challenges belief is that Matthew and Luke both think he was born of a virgin and each tell of strange conflicting stories to explain his birth and the place of his birth. Both contradict each other and archeology, and each conflict with Paul’s view. If the virgin birth happened, why wasn’t it important enough for Paul, Mark, and John to mention it? This is extremely suspect for me. While we’re on the subject of Jesus’ parentage, what about the author quoting from the Septuagint which, according to many scholars, misquotes the Old Testament passage in a way that turns “young woman” into “virgin”. I would give Matthew and Mark the benefit of the doubt, but since neither Paul, nor Mark who wrote before, nor John who wrote after, seemed to think that his mother being a virgin was important enough to mention, I can’t. I find it too difficult to believe that Mary would have been a virgin given this biblical evidence. This leads me to conclude that the Bible is very likely wrong about some parts of Jesus’ parentage. Are you confident that his virgin birth is accurate? If so, why? Is there a justification for confidence beyond a desire for inerrancy? Perhaps I’ve overlooked something? Maybe it doesn’t matter for his God-hood if his mother was a virgin, but doesn’t it matter for determining whether scripture is reliable? If some authors are caught making up wild supernatural claims that aren’t true, why should we trust any of them in any supernatural claims?

For an even more extreme example of this,

“The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.” – Matthew 27:53

Does this sound like an event worth mentioning by Paul, Mark, Luke, or John? As much as any event in the Bible, this is a solid miracle that could have convinced many if it were true. Yet it only gets one sentence in passing in Matthew and nothing from any other writer in the Bible. Is it more likely, then, that this is true, or that Matthew or one of his sources made it up? How can we justify being certain it is true given the evidence (or lack of evidence)? There are many other examples of this caliber, but I’ll save them for another post.

Let’s get back to the subject of Jesus’ parentage (since it affects your quote from Paul). I, like St Augustine, am confused by the differing genealogies between Mathew and Luke. Who was Joseph’s father? I haven’t been convinced by the answers I’ve seen, though I hold them as possible. If one of them was quoting the maternal ancestry why do neither say they are? The tradition is to quote the paternal ancestry. If one of them quoted the maternal line, why would they not say so? Would this not be deception? What about the contradictions between the two genealogies and the vast difference in the number of ancestors quoted in each – including the average age for reproduction for Matthew’s genealogy? If the Jews were expecting a Messiah in the lineage of David and the lineage is always traced through paternal ancestry, it is easy to see why they would reject Jesus as the messiah. What is your explanation for why Jesus is mentioned as the fulfillment of a promise which requires he be in David’s lineage when the gospels contradict each other on his genealogy, and both state he is the son of Joseph when both claim that Joseph was definitely not his father? That is, except for Paul who says he was descended from David “according to the flesh”.

Competing saviors

What about the other gods already worshiped at the time that were said to have similar attributes to those ascribed to Jesus (i.e. being born of a virgin, called the son of God and savior, being resurrected after three days, etc.)? Are we certain there is no truth to any of these claims? Is it suspicious that Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (named Augustus), was called the Son of God in 42 BC?

Take a look at these quotes from Justin Martyr, an early apologist born around 100 CE. These are important enough that I’m including these quotes here along with the blog author’s commentary. Everything you see here until I say otherwise is copied straight from that link – I’m just adding formatting. He writes an explanation before the each of Justin Martyr’s quotes. Blog author’s commentary begins now…

This one is rather self-explanatory. Justin Martyr simply states that the virgin birth of Jesus, without sexual union, as well as his crucifixion, death, and resurrection were nothing different from the mythology surrounding Jupiter (In Greece, Zeus).

Ch. 21

And when we say also that the Word, who is the first-birth of God, was produced without sexual union, and that He, Jesus Christ, our Teacher, was crucified and died, and rose again, and ascended into heaven, we propound nothing different from what you believe regarding those whom you esteem sons of Jupiter.

Similar to above, Justin Martyr compares the birth of Jesus and his status as the “Word of God’ to that of Mercury, who was also born in a similar way and who was also the “Word of God.” He goes on to compare the crucifixion with the lives of the sons of Jupiter, which were on par according to him. Finally concluding by comparing the birth of Jesus with Perseus, and his miracles with that of Aesculapius.

Ch. 22

And if we assert that the Word of God was born of God in a peculiar manner, different from ordinary generation, let this, as said above, be no extraordinary thing to you, who say that Mercury is the angelic word of God. But if any one objects that He was crucified, in this also He is on a par with those reputed sons of Jupiter of yours, who suffered as we have now enumerated.

And if we even affirm that He was born of a virgin, accept this in common with what you accept of Perseus. And in that we say that He made whole the lame, the paralytic, and those born blind, we seem to say what is very similar to the deeds said to have been done by Aesculapius.

Again, this one is very self explanatory. Justin Martyr simply states that Christian beliefs are similar to Greco-Roman mythology.

Ch. 24

In the first place [we furnish proof], because, though we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ, and though we do no wrong, are put to death as sinners

Now, you might ask yourself, “Why would a notable apologist for the early Christian church admit to all of the similarities and influences between Christianity and Greco-Roman paganism?” Probably because the influences were too strong to cover up or hide.

But alas, like a good apologist Justin Martyr had an excuse. It was what is referred to as “diabolical mimicry” – the notion that the devil or devils knew ahead of time that Jesus was coming, thus setting up pagan religions to thwart the faithful.

Diabolical Mimicry

For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, [wicked demons] put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvelous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

The devils… said that Bacchus was the son of Jupiter, and gave out that he was the discoverer of the vine, and they number wine among his mysteries; and they taught that, having been torn in pieces, he ascended into heaven. (Referring to Jesus turning water to wine as Dionysus, or Bacchus, did 600 years earlier.)

[The devils] gave out that Bellerophon, a man born of man, himself ascended to heaven on his horse Pegasus. (Reference to Jesus riding into town on an ass.)

And when [the devils] heard it said by the other prophet Isaiah, that He should be born of a virgin, and by His own means ascend into heaven, they pretended that Perseus was spoken of. (Reference to Perseus being born of a virgin before Jesus.)

And when, again, [the devils] learned that it had been foretold that He should heal every sickness, and raise the dead, they produced Aesculapius. (Reference to virtually all of the miracles of Jesus being copies of Aesculapius.)

Mimicry of Baptism

And the devils, indeed, having heard this washing [baptism] published by the prophet, instigated those who enter their temples, and are about to approach them with libations and burnt-offerings, also to sprinkle themselves.

Mimicry of Eucharist

Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.

Keep in mind that these pagan religions all came first. Justin Martyr is not claiming that they copied Christianity after Jesus came, but that “wicked devils” knew ahead of time of Jesus’ coming, and thus set up pre-copies of Christianity.

He makes reference to virtually every rite and doctrine found within Christianity – baptism, Eucharist, virgin birth, crucifixion, water into wine, resurrection.

OK. Back to me. So what does all this mean? It means we should, at the very least, be very skeptical of the claims of Christianity. It bothers me that I could be an adult Christian having never heard of this. Many theologians have spun this, but I think the message is clear. I included this here because Paul mentions that Jesus is the son of God who was resurrected. For more similarities recognized by Justin Martyr between the early Christianity and the pagan religions (such as immortality and the soul), open the link above. Here’s the link to the full text from Justin Martyr — The First Apology of Justin.

Forbidden ancestry

Here’s another problem with Jesus’ lineage. He has as his ancestor a king that God cursed. None of this king’s offspring were to prosper or sit on the throne of David. Those are two things which the Messiah was supposed to do. Yet, in Jesus’ ancestry we find that cursed king. Here are the relevant verses…

“Therefore this is what the Lord says about Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah:” – Jeremiah 22:18

“This is what the Lord says:… none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David…” – Jeremiah 22:30

“The sons of Josiah: … Jehoiakim the second son” – 1 Chronicles 3:15
“The successors of Jehoiakim: Jehoiachin[e] his son…” – 1 Chronicles 3:16

The footnote [e] here says, “Hebrew Jeconiah, a variant of Jehoiachin; also in verse 17”.

The Royal Line After the Exile
“The descendants of Jehoiachin the captive: Shealtiel his son…” 1 Chronicles 3:17

Matthew’s genealogy says:

“…Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah[c] and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.” – Matthew 1:11

The footnote for [c] says… “That is, Jehoiachin; also in verse 12”. So Jeconiah and Jehoiachin are the same name/person. Also, this and both say they are the same name/person.

Stay with me…

“12 After the exile to Babylon:
Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel…” – Matthew 1:12

“…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.” – Matthew 1:16

Summary:

Jeremiah says God cursed Jehoiakim so that none of his descendants would prosper or sit on the throne of David. Shealtiel is his descendant and is Jesus’ ancestor. Therefore, Jesus is a descendent under the same curse, yet he is claimed to be the Messiah. Something is wrong. Maybe it’s the genealogy. Maybe it’s the curse. Maybe it’s the intent. Maybe the curse was lifted and it wasn’t recorded or I missed it. Maybe there is no God that delivered such a curse. Maybe the prophecy or results weren’t recorded correctly. Maybe Jeremiah is a false prophet – which actually would make sense given the other part of the prophecy that failed… Jehoiakim’s son did sit on the throne of David for three months. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever the reason for the problem, does it evoke a level of trust that would justify us in taking it’s word on supernatural claims?

False prophecies

And what does the Bible say about false prophets? They shall die, but this clearly doesn’t happen. How do we know if a prophet is a false prophet?

“21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.” – Deuteronomy 18:21-22

Was Jeremiah a false prophet according to this definition supposedly give by God in Deuteronomy? According to the failed prophecies we’ve seen here. It seem so. If so, what else did Jeremiah prophecy? Shouldn’t we be skeptical about it?

And there are others he spoke which appear to have failed according to the Bible.

So did Jesus, right? What did he say about when he would return? Where is he? Do you think the rationalizations for his absence are solid enough to be certain that they are true? Why or why not?

How can we be confident in which prophecies are prophecies?

Actually how do we know Prophecies in the Bible are always predictions of future events rather than people writing after the events and claiming “prophecy” in retrospect? Maybe some of the ones that came true are at least partially retro-prophecies and the ones that didn’t (like Jesus’ return or Jehoiakim’s death – a related issue I’m not writing about here) are future prophecies, or ones in which the author didn’t know there was another story already circulating? How can we know that this isn’t the case in at least one prophecy?

I found and wrote about this material myself (based off research I did after hearing a recent message in Sunday School about Jehoiakim). However, there are many articles from people who have much more time and energy to put into this than I. A few articles worth skimming are from rationalwiki.com and skepticsannotatedbible.com. They each probably have some different content. Here is one I just found that does a better job of explaining the Jehoiakim issue than I have. Open this prophecy problems link and search the page for “Jehoiakim”.

Deceptions?

The issue is further compounded due to another error. All the references clearly state that Jeconiah and Jehoiachin are the same person. However, 1 Chronicles 3:16 says that Jehoiachin is Jehoiakim’s son, while Matthew’s genealogy asserts that Jehoiachin is Josiah’s son. Some speculate that the genealogy was doctored to remove the reference to the cursed Jehoiakim. Either way, it’s an error to say or imply that Josiah was Jehoiachin’s father when he wasn’t. Even if you rationalize it, it’s still either a mistake, a lie, or a deception.

The Bible argues with itself about homosexuality and many other topics

Which brings me back to the question, even if it were inerrant, that doesn’t mean you can trust your interpretation of the versions of the book we have. If it is deceptive in that some verses say or imply one thing and others say or imply another, it isn’t fully trustworthy, is it? Is it really right to say the all work cohesively together when some of them say different things that contradict? Hence your mission to train people to drop their interpretation of how gay people should be treated and adopt your biblically supported version. However, you still have to overcome verses contradicting your interpretation…

“If a man practices homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman, both men have committed a detestable act. They must both be put to death, for they are guilty of a capital offense.” – Leviticus 20:13

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” – Matthew 5:17-18

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-11

I know your heart is to show compassion to these people and you want to use the Bible to help other Christians find the right way to think about and care for their fellow sinners. However, it seems clear that the Bible’s message on many topics, including this one, is confusing at best. Christians would be justified in coming up with a different interpretation than you have. Add to that the certainty in Biblical claims, and it’s an uphill battle against bigotry for genetic sexual orientation.

We also can’t be sure about what the audience for any letter knew. Remind me to tell you about the knowledge problem and the “tappers” and the “listeners” sometime (this is already getting too long but I can’t stop :)). I just found this letter written in the 250’s AD. I don’t know what letters they had and what they considered scripture, but this early church was still stoning people for things like saying God is without mercy (assuming they don’t give in to the threat of stoning and “approach the mystery of Christ” – search the page for “stone”). That’s obviously not how we interpret our Bible today, so something about the context has changed.

I’m getting off topic. If I ramble too much I’ll cover the whole Bible, this will be over a million words, and posting it will break the whole internet. Here are some more issues that are more in-line with the verses you quoted…

Who to trust? Paul or the author of Acts?

Galatians, written by Paul, might have been the first New Testament book written, and it was penned well before Acts (which had a different author). In chapter one of that letter Paul asserts four times that his gospel was revealed to him not through men, but from Christ himself. See verse 1, 12-13, 16-17, and 18-19. In verse 20 he goes out of his way to say that he is not lying. What strikes me about this is verses 16-19. Paul is very clear here. He did not go to Jerusalem for at least three years (after he returned from Arabia to Damascus). He did not speak to any disciples until his trip to Jerusalem, where he spoke to Cephas (Peter) for 15 days. He also saw James while he was there, but he did not see any other disciples. He insists that he is telling the truth about this.

Now let’s look at Acts 9, the chapter you cited. This chapter says immediately after encountering Jesus he went to Damascus. Verse 19 says he was with “the disciples” there. “His disciples” were with him in verse 25. So maybe Paul didn’t consider these disciples to be the disciples he didn’t see when he told his story in Galatians. I want to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt here. Verse 26 says he went to Jerusalem. There’s not a break in the story and it sounds like he left Damascus and went straight to Jerusalem. This is in contradiction to Galatians which says he went to Arabia first and then Jerusalem (but not for three years). I’ll give the Bible the benefit of the doubt again and just assume they left that part out. Verse 27 is a problem, though. It says he was with Barnabas and “the apostles”, going in and out among them preaching. This is exactly what Paul insisted he did not do in Galatians.

Would you say the natural reading of these two stories are in agreement with on another? If not, why think these are the words of God rather than men who made mistakes? If there are mistakes, why insist that the Bible is so trustworthy that it is flawless in its supernatural claims?

Paul’s conversion, brain events, the foundation of the New Testament, and distinguishing the natural from the supernatural

I won’t bother going into the discrepancies between the telling and retelling of Paul’s conversion story in Acts (Acts 9:7 vs Acts 22:9 – who fell and what did they hear – and why is “hear” translated as “understand” in one verse when it’s the same word)? They are very minor issues at best and I’ll assume I just don’t understand. But while we’re on the subject of conversions and brain events… did I tell you I once met a man who claimed to be a prophet at a Walmart late one night? He had a very similar story for how God called him to be a prophet and apostle. He was struck down on the floor. Paralyzed. He saw a light. He heard a voice telling him he was a prophet of God and other things. He was in pain. He couldn’t move for over six hours. He was shaking for days and still recovering. He seemed like he hadn’t showered in a quite a while. He invited me to his house to talk about it and his ministry. He seemed entirely convinced and I could completely imagine him writing about it or dying for his belief. Needless to say, I’m a bit skeptical of events that sound like brain malfunctions accompanied by lights, voices, and a word from God because these are perfectly natural phenomena. I’m especially skeptical of stories like Paul’s where the details change with the retelling. It doesn’t really sound like Wayne Bent’s conversion at 5:57 (you should re-listen to the worship from 4:48 – 5:18), but it does remind me of this event (see 33 seconds into the video).

This goes back to the writing question. If God exists and really wanted us to believe this story, couldn’t he have intervened in a way that we wouldn’t later find out is very similar to a brain malfunction that could naturally cause such experiences? Either way, if we wouldn’t believe it with certainty if we heard it today, why should be certain of what we read from an ancient book full with outlandish-sounding supernatural claims and contradictions? Why do Muslims, Hindus and other non-Christians often think we’re a little crazy when we trust such things? If Paul’s conversion sounds suspicious to begin with, I wish it could at least be consistent between retellings. After all, Paul is the messenger who starts us on the journey of Christianity. Unfortunately, the story of his conversion does not inspire great confidence.

Just getting started

This is just a quick assessment of some of the problems in the verses around the first page you referenced. I can likely provide something similar for most sets of verses you post about, but I don’t know that I have the energy to research and write about each issue. They are plentiful.

What would justify trust in supernatural claims?

It’s not about whether there is any possible way that a verse could be conceived to be true. It’s about whether a natural reading (given what we can ascertain about the context including the time of the writing and audience) yields something more likely true than false. And each claim (the Bible consists of hundreds or thousands of claims) necessarily entails a probability of truth. To say the Bible is completely trustworthy is to refuse to acknowledge that fact and assert that all the claims are necessarily true, regardless of the of plausibility of the natural reading. Further, even if all the non-supernatural claims were more likely than not in the way they naturally read (given the context), that would not justify belief that the supernatural claims would be true. However, I believe this fact is irrelevant because the Bible does not present a set of claims that are each likely true. Some are very likely not true due to contradictions with other Bible claims and the present knowledge of physical and human nature. The Bible does not need to be demonstrated to be false. To justify that it is trustworthy in supernatural claims (for which a natural explanation is always more likely), it would need to provide the following:

  1. A set of claims for which the natural reading (in context) is more likely true than not. This does not mean there is some possible way each claim could be true. It means each claims would need to be more likely true that not.
  2. Some subset of these claims would need to be demonstrated to be supernatural. In other words, there would need to be sufficient evidence in prophecy or in some knowledge that an author could not have had, with a frequency and/or improbability that would disprove the null hypothesis (e.g. show that it was not due to chance alone).

If the Bible made no supernatural claims, having 1 would make it trustworthy (with a justifiable probability of certainty that is necessarily not absolute). However, the Bible does make many supernatural claims so both 1 and 2 are required to establish sufficient trust. If requirements 1 and 2 were both met, trust could be justified, but again that trust would be a probability, not a certainty. Like natural claims, some supernatural claims could be true and others false. Unfortunately, 1 is demonstrably false and I’ve seen no evidence for 2. There’s nothing I’ve read in the Bible that could not have been written by the authors. There’s nothing for which an natural explanation is not far more likely and more plausible than a supernatural explanation.

Final questions

Before hearing about the Bible there would be no reason to conclude that it is error-free. Do you agree? No other ancient writing is presumed to be so, right? It is only when someone tells us it is and we want to conform that we start seeing it as error-free and desiring it to be so (usually in childhood or in a very impressionable time of life). But how can that position be justified if we remove desire (or motivated reasoning) from the equation? Even if we saw no errors, I don’t see how we could defend the position that it is trustworthy in supernatural claims which are both unknowable and extremely unlikely? Further, given the demonstrable errors in the Bible (we’re barely scratching the surface here), what justification exists for certainty in such a position?

I feel like I should put the following references at the bottom of every post or comment that deals with questioning scripture:

  1. Same Bible Verses, Different Conclusions
  2. God is not the author of confusion – often quoted but demonstrably false (probably a context thing)
  3. The Problem, is both demonstrably true and sufficient to explain the Bible and all religions. If you disagree, I’d like to discuss it. If you agree, why assume that this is something like the intent of a God that exists? (scroll down to “Why Is the Bible Hard to Understand?”)? Isn’t that additional set of supernatural explanations the perfect unfalsifiable network of rationalizations and motivated reasoning that we’d expect if the Bible was man-made like other religious texts? Isn’t it the same false reasoning we would accuse the adherents of any other faith to be committed to? So how do we justify Christianity?

Sign-off

I’m sorry for taking this long to get started in Romans. There’s a lot more in verses 1-7 that could have been unpacked, but I try to have a life. Yes, I did show some restraint. 🙂

I’m looking forward to breakfast tomorrow, friend.

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

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