Three Questions from a Pastor

My wife is at a bachelorette party this weekend so I get our enchanting little giggle boxes all to myself! These girls are the biggest joys in my life and these are definitely my favorite times! The one-year-old just went down for a nap and the four-year-old (who has just earned the right to watch one episode of her favorite new show) and I are planning a dance party when the little one wakes – so my time for this post is very limited.

The pastor of the church that is doing “The Table” event discussing Questions Christians Hope No One Will Ask (which we’ve been blogging about here, here and here) emailed me three honest questions. I do have an immediate response to each of these but (as you know) I tend to get long-winded and my girls have my day! I also know that my opinions are flawed and your perspective is incredibly valuable. So, I wanted to open these questions up to all of your input – believer or nonbeliever. Please respond with whatever thoughts you have. Here are the questions…

  1. Where do you see the New Testament to be inaccurate historically?
  2. Do you believe in a historical Jesus? If no why?
  3. What are some of the contradictions you see in Scripture?

I’ll put my thoughts in the comments as I have time in the next few days. Her show is almost over – time to party! 🙂 If you have kids, hug them in person or long-distance today!

Gentleness and respect,
–Russell

22 comments

  1. As an atheist…

    Honestly I don’t know enough about the non-Biblical historical records to say much. Most of what I know came from Biblical teaching when I was a Christian, and it was primarily science, philosophy and personal experiences that caused me to lose my faith.
    Yes, there was probably a man named Yeshua who gave some if not all of the teachings we associate with Jesus Christ. I know some argue he is a complete legend, but I’ve read essays by them and not found them more convincing. As with most early historical figures, what is fact and what is myth is impossible to know for certain, but I don’t believe he was supernatural or divine.
    I’m not sure whether he just means places where the Bible contradicts itself internally, or whether external contradictions count as well.

    If external contradictions count, obviously we have the timeline of creation vs a multitude of scientific tests, including fossil records, carbon dating, observations of the stars etc. There are also some less well known examples. Leviticus 11:6, which is part of a list of unclean animals, states that rabbits chew their cud. They do not.

    As for internal contradictions, one of the ones I find hardest to explain away is the question of Jesus’ ancestry. Two lists, almost completely different, are given at the beginning of Luke and Matthew. I’ve heard one Christian tell me one is a list of Mary’s ancestors and one is of Josephs, but both clearly state they are the genealogy of Joseph. Another is that Matthew, Luke and John all disagree as to what Jesus’ final words were.

    The lists of factual contradictions go on and its fairly easy to google and find a list. But the biggest ones for me are the morally philosophical ones; the ones where God is stated to be good and loving, yet he orders the people of Jericho slaughtered and the firstborns of Egypt are slain and gays stoned, etc etc. Those I think are the most difficult to discuss, because unlike the ones above there is no objective evidence or clear logical contradictions to be pointed to. Moral evidence is more instinctual. It is easy to solve the Euthyphro dilemma by accepting that morality flows from God, thus whatever he declares is by definition right, whatever the consequences and however we feel about it.

    I simply cannot hold to that. I cannot betray my moral feelings, and if I had irrefutable proof today that the fundamentalist God I was raised to believe in is real, I still would not choose to hurt others and wound my own soul (which is transgender and gay) in the way he commanded me to. I would rather burn in Hell.

    I say this not to insult anyone, much less the many Christians who don’t have the same interpretations as the literalist fundamentalists who I grew up with. It’s simply my take on probably the most controversial type of contradiction that can be pointed to in the Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A couple of thoughts I hope you’ll find helpful…
      1. The “rabbit” of Leviticus 11 is translated from the Hebrew word “arnebeth.” What an “arnebeth” is doesn’t seem to be known and may be extinct. I’ve found that animal names in English translations are best looked up in the original Hebrew because early translators were not familiar with the flora & fauna of the region and so “chose” an animal they were familiar with.
      2. I’d tread carefully around the mentioned scientific tests and carbon dating as providing proof. Some would have us believe that they are conclusive proof when they are not.
      3. Different genealogies for Jesus Christ…I posted a reply earlier with a comment about each of the 4 gospels, if you’re interested…http://russellandpascal.com/2015/03/17/is-the-bible-trustworthy/

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      1. Thanks for your response. In the case of Point 1, I googled it and found several sources that claimed the word does in fact mean hare or rabbit, neither of which chew their cud but do things that could be mistaken for it, such as grinding their teeth and eating their dung. The only people I found who claimed it was an extinct animal were those who claimed that since the Bible is perfect and inerrant, and rabbits don’t chew their cud, the word can’t mean rabbit and its meaning is a mystery. Biblical inerrancy was the only evidence they offered for their conclusion. The source I found that explained the reasoning behind the translation most exhaustively was Christian; http://biblehub.com/topical/h/hare.htm

        In Point 3, the comment you made only stated that one gospel traces his ancestry to Abraham, and the other traced it to Adam. This is interesting, but not actually the contradiction I was talking about. My issue is that the names from David to Joseph are completely different; this is especially strange as, given that those are the most recent, they should have been the easiest to verify. Its odd that the two can’t agree on something as basic as the name of Jesus’ grandfather, and I’ve yet to see a satisfactory explanation.

        As for point 2, I should probably inform you that I was raised a hard-core young earth creationist, and also homeschooled. All my science education came from people who seriously doubted carbon dating and any other scientific endeavors that cast doubt on Biblical inerrancy. As a precocious youngster, I devoured books claiming to disprove evolution and evidence for an earth older than a few thousand years. So I am extremely familiar with that worldview.

        Later I found that my doubt was based on a very limited information that frequently included outright misstatements of science as scientists would explain it. In fact, the only reason I avoid the term “lie” is because I do believe my teachers were genuinely misinformed themselves and did believe what they were teaching me was true. Having compared both points of view, I find science the most convincing.

        Now, if you too have compared both points of view, if you’ve sought out the perspective of scientists unfiltered by those who disagree with them, and you still find science unconvincing, very well. That is your prerogative as a human being with a mind and your own free will. However it was frustrating for me to honestly answer a question about my own perspective, and have you tell me to “tread carefully.” It felt like an attempt to silence my point of view. Presumably that was not your intent, but that’s how it felt.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. “However it was frustrating for me to honestly answer a question about my own perspective, and have you tell me to “tread carefully.” It felt like an attempt to silence my point of view. Presumably that was not your intent, but that’s how it felt.”

          I apologise – I was, genuinely, trying to be helpful. To cause offence was not my intention.

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        2. Hello Lane,
          I apologize for my delayed welcome, but please let me offer it now. What you wrote about being raised YEC really resonated with me. I was also brought up in that milieu. I now consider myself a theistic evolutionist. That essentially means that “In the beginning God created” is where I stand. I don’t think that science and faith conflict any more than melody and harmony. Truth is truth. So, as I trained as a scientist (admittedly a life scientist not a physicist or geologist) the complexity of creation and beauty of the evolutionary mechanism brought me closer to rather than further from God.

          I’m so glad that you are here. I note nljs’ humble apology which is completely in the spirit of this table. You never need to apologize for your views – – they enrich our conversation.

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    2. Ahh – – the core. How can I disagree with your moral argument? I can’t and won’t. I only hope that the conception I was raised with was wrong and that my knowledge is incomplete.

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    3. nljs; thanks for your apology, it is much appreciated. As I said, I suspected your intent was not to offend. I still felt it was worthwhile to inform you of my feelings, because I think often Christians aren’t aware of how some things they say come across to unbelievers (and vice versa, for sure). I accept your apology, and I genuinely am glad you shared your perspective.

      pascal; thanks for your kind comments. I’m very glad to have found this website, and I look forward to continuing to participate in the discussions.

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  2. Hello there!

    These responses are from an atheistic perspective. I’m no Bible scholar (just a former Christian), so I’m just shooting from the hip here. I’ll number them to correspond with the numbers of the questions.

    1 – I’d say the most inaccurate part of the New Testament that I can think of is Matthew 27:52-53. Another that comes to mind are parts of the Nativity story. There is no confirmation outside the Bible for people raised en masse from the dead (and no NT confirmation for Matthew’s story). As for the Nativity, I am currently unaware of any evidence that eastern mystics were aware of any prophecy that would take them to Bethlehem, let alone a mass chorus of angels.

    What troubles me about these two examples are that they are big enough to warrant at least some fragment of information from some external source.

    2 – I’m unsure if an historical Jesus existed, though my instincts say that there had to be teachings from someone to prompt dissemination of a message throughout the Roman Empire. However, there isn’t enough of a secular record to say that he certainly existed. Then again, there isn’t enough of a secular record to allege an alternative hypothesis. For that reason, I’m comfortable making assumptions that a person named Jesus existed, and that different disciples did talk to this person.

    3 – Personally I do not spend time reading the Bible for specific contradictions, although some websites actually do list them. The reason for this is that many people who believe find them unpersuasive, or at most a minor trouble. Instead, I look at teachings and interpretations that have changed over time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. John Dominic Crossan argues that the majority of people at the time the gospels were written, Christians included, would have known that Matthew invented the nativity story. In essence he was making up a birth story for Jesus based on a re-telling of the legendary stories of Romulus, Caesar and Moses. The sensitivities of the people two thousand years ago seemed different to us, they were prepared to accept a bit of pious fiction.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I’m working my way through the Crossan book that you recommended and I’m very thankful for the referral. Crossan has a different perspective than NT Wright and I’d like to learn what that is. I have not yet concluded if Crossan considers Jesus to be God. Don’t spoil it for me – – I look forward to arriving at the conclusions based on his careful writing and scholarship.

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    2. Thanks so much for being here. To address your point #2 I found Will Durant, author of the Story of Civilization, to be helpful. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning skeptic and a delightful author. He considers your argument valid and the historicity of Jesus to be secure. The argument was posed by German scholars to Voltaire. He also joins your atheism in rejecting Jesus as the son of God. Well reasoned perspectives from people with different viewpoints from mine – – I treasure them. In this instance, however, a respected historian at least answers the question of existence with less of an axe to grind.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. In his introduction to the New Testament Raymond E. Brown, an ordained catholic priest until his death, was honest about some of the challenges posed by the Biblical text. This is part of what he said about Luke:

    “The setting for the birth of Jesus is supplied by the decree of Caesar Augustus for a census of the whole world, the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Historically this description is fraught with problems: There never was a census of the whole empire under Augustus (but a number of local censuses), and the census of Judea (not Galilee) under Quirinius, the governor of Syria, took place in AD 6-7, probably at least 10 years too late for the birth of Jesus. The best explanation is that, although Luke likes to set his Christian drama in he context of well-known events from antiquity, sometimes he does so inaccurately. In Acts 5:36-37 circa AD 36 he has Gamaliel speak about Theudas’ revolt which occurred circa 44-46 and thinks that Judas ‘at the time of the census’ came after Theudas, when in fact he was forty years earlier. Those convinced of Bible literalism are hard pressed to explain away all these inexactitudes.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Not sure about 1 or 3.
    In regards to 2: I have not read the writings of Josephus but I have heard that his historical record is considered one of the most ‘historically accurate’ text for the time period surrounding Jesus life. I know that I have a book about his writing but have not had a chance to read it. Also, I have heard that historical text in generally actually have a fairly low level of reliability, hence the ‘historically accurate’ above.

    That said I grew up hearing that there is more evidence that Jesus lived than evidence that George Washington lived. I also was taught at Christian college that Josephus text are more reliable than most and that the Bible is head and shoulders more accurate than any other historical text. Most of my learning about this is from F. F. Bruce’s book “The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?” I also hear about all the archeological finds that were found based on the Bible or support the Bibles descriptions. However, I have no idea if there have been archeological contradictions to scripture.

    Seth

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    1. there is more evidence that Jesus lived than evidence that George Washington lived

      Seth once you reviewed the historical evidence for Jesus versus George Washington for yourself what did you think about the reliability of your early teachers?

      I just read an article about the reliability of the Resurrection. It made the claim that we could trust the accounts given all the attestation to the event. However when I reviewed the evidence provided it consisted solely of the reports in the Bible. That comes down to the crux of the issue!

      The issue is whether or not the Bible is a reliable record. Having looked at this from both sides of the fence, so to speak. My conclusion is that one’s answer is primarily dependent upon the attitude one has to the Bible before asking the question.

      It took a veritable mountain of information that cast doubt upon the integrity of the Bible before I was even prepared to consider that it might not be God’s own infallible word.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hey Peter,

        To be honest I’ve never done research to the historical accuracy of George Washington. I’ve never really had a need to. The information about his is not generally challenged by anyone I know and information about George Washington does not demand any kind of life change in my personal life. Information about Jesus the Christ does demand a response and some kind of life change, either belief in the Biblical claims about him or disbelief.

        All the research I can think of in the past has been of ‘Christian’ origin. Of course this is a difficult area isn’t it. If a person agrees that the New Testament is reliable they are almost certainly bound to be ‘Christian’. If a person does not agree that the New Testament is reliable they are almost certainly bound to be ‘secular’. So that said while I have read mostly or solely ‘Christian’ sources I do not want to convey that they are not scholarly. There are actually many different ways to evaluate a historical document. For instance, in another of the posts the pastor mention the number of text fragments found. The reason this is significant is because it relates to a particular type of historical document evaluation and thus historical document reliability…..

        I just realized I’m just teaching what I’ve learned from F.F. Bruce’s book which is not what I want to do. I am interested in learning more about the ‘secular’ scholar opinion but am not sure what books to start with. From what I have read and learned so far, the scholars I have read have given good arguments for why the New Testament documents are reliable and as such I have decided to believe their accounts.

        It sounds like you have done a far more robust study than me though and I believe it would likely take a mountain of evidence for me to question as well. It is hard to even decide to evaluate scriptures (meaning this as all ‘sacred books’) since they seem to be such a unique type of genre. The bible, I know, being not actually a history book but a book to describe God’s participation in the timeline of Jewish history with the eventual beginning of Christian history. So a weird religious book but with obvious historical claims. The point is not to convey history, or science, or … but to convey God’s interest and involvement. I think this may be the a large reason why I continue to believe but also why I feel in an almost catch 22. I look to the reliability of the document to try to establish if the testimonies are trustworthy yet at the same time the historical accuracy is less significant than the proclamation of God.

        I don’t know that I can really fully explain or justify my stance. I simply feel that I know where I rest and I believe that I have reason to do so. But my reason may be insufficient for many.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I understand that F.F. Bruce had started out as a non-believer and having studied the history and archaeology became a believer.

          In my own case I just don’t know anymore. I just wish there could be certainty one way or the other. Unfortunately I doubt that will ever be the case.

          I am now stuck in this limbo where I doubt the reliability of the Bible – but can’t fully through it away. It is not a comfortable place to be.

          What I do appreciate is coming across people who are prepared to engage with the issues in an open manner. I appreciate your outlook on these matters.

          Best wishes
          Peter

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  5. I like the fact that you dare ask these questions. They are some very good questions to ask. One thing I have never understood is how in Genesis God created animals on two different days. Sometimes I wonder if the Bible holds all the answers or whether we should just admit … that it doesn’t and that we should not look for them in there either. Hope you will find what you are looking for. Keep on blogging in a free world – The False Prophet

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    1. It is always possible to come up with an explanation for a Bible issue. Such as saying Genesis one is the overview and Genesis two to three is the detail. At an individual level this can be sufficient for the casual inquirer. I find it is the sheer volume of issues that wears me down.

      I came across an interesting one last night. In Acts 21:25 the Jerusalem Church inform Paul that they had written to Gentiles regarding the outcome of the council of Jerusalem as though it were news to him, even though in Chapter 15 it is Paul and Barnabas who deliver the letter. The Apologist will comes up with reason for this such as this maybe being another letter. But the more obvious answer might be worth considering – Luke was a sloppy editor (he has form if you study his writings in detail).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I am convinced, that Jesus lived and that his teachings were correctly transferred to us. He lived in a world of curelties and preaching, that we shall love our enemies could only be done by either a crazy person or someone, who at least is deeply convinced, that his insiights are correct and the best, what humans should do.
    I wonder a bit more, why almost nobody really believes in the teachings of Jesus and tests them. Jesus taugth, that he is in the mid of those, who are together in his name and also, that we can heal everybody, if he and we believe in it.
    If this is true, then all Christian priests should train, to do it. That would be more convincing than a lot of words.
    What I also wonder about is, that almost nothing is told us, what happened between Eastern and Pentacoste. Jesus taught a lot to the apostles and they mastered perfectly foreign languages, which they could not speak before. How could they learn them so quickly and each apostle another language. That means, that Jesus himself must have mastered all of those languages. ( 11 languages )

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    1. Actually a number of people have left the faith because they have concluded that the promises in the bible are not honoured. I know people who have prayed and prayed and prayed. God never answered. What are they to conclude?

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