Unravelled Threads

One of the hallmarks of a well-tested scientific theory is that it is supported by numerous, independent lines of evidence. We have the greatest confidence that a theory is true when results from completely different fields of science, which have no obvious reason to agree, all converge in support of the same conclusion, like threads weaving together to form a unified tapestry. This coming together of evidence was called consilience by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in his book of the same name.

One of the great success stories of science, the theory of continental drift, bears witness to how this process operates. Continental drift is backed up by independent lines of evidence: rock strata that match up across continents, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; fossils of unusual species that exist in only a few, widely separated places; and magnetic striping in the ocean crust which indicates that the seafloor has been steadily spreading over time. All these unrelated lines of evidence independently converge to support the same conclusion.

This sort of evidentiary consilience is notably absent when we examine religious scriptures such as the Bible. Far from possessing independent lines of evidence that converge on the same conclusion, these texts contain numerous fantastic stories that are uncorroborated by history or even by other retellings of the story elsewhere in the book. Instead of weaving a coherent tapestry, these threads unravel into a tangled, confused mess.

Consider the story of Herod and the slaughter of the infants. This tale is recounted in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. In it, the tyrant Herod orders all the infants of Bethlehem to be slaughtered in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus, whose parents were forewarned and fled with their son to Egypt.

This tall tale finds no corroboration even within the pages of the Bible. The epistles never speak of it, and Mark and John have no nativity stories. Luke does, but his version is completely different. In Luke’s story, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, following which his parents return with him to Nazareth (2:39). No mention is made of Herod’s slaughter or an intervening flight to Egypt. The historian Josephus, who chronicled the historically bloodthirsty reign of Herod in detail, also never mentions it.

An even wilder story can be found in Matthew 27. In this story, after Jesus dies on the cross, there is a mass resurrection witnessed by apparently nearly the entire city of Jerusalem:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Needless to say, there is no historical record of such an astonishing event, and no other book in the Bible so much as mentions it – a stunning omission, considering this easily qualifies as the most spectacular miracle of the New Testament. Yet if we are to believe Christian apologists who say that every word of the Bible is true, this mass resurrection really did happen, and then sank into obscurity without a ripple and was forgotten. Not a single person who witnessed it felt compelled to write it down or make any record. Nor does any Christian evangelist of the first several centuries ever refer to it in their preaching.

If this had really happened, it would have been a catalyst for mass conversions throughout the Ancient Near East and would have been recounted far and wide. It would have been remembered like no other event in human history has ever been remembered. An undoubtable, verifiable miracle of the highest order, one whose recipients could personally testify about it! And yet, the silence of the historical record is deafening. This is one case where the argument from silence absolutely is valid, and the only rational conclusion to draw is that this biblical story is pure fiction and that the events it describes never happened.

The question of how the apostles died is another notable example of unravelled biblical threads. Apparently, to judge from the historical record, the original twelve Christians handpicked by Jesus himself all vanished into mystery and obscurity within a few years, with no reliable evidence surviving to show how any of them died or even what they did during their lives. All we have today are a handful of wild, apocryphal, and often mutually contradictory tall tales.

Indeed, the story of Jesus himself could be considered the greatest unravelled thread of all. Far from enjoying a consilience of historical evidence, the formative years of Christianity are dim and confused and almost completely lacking in extra-biblical verification. Substantial evidence suggests that there may not have been a historical human being at the root of this religion at all, but rather belief in a mythological figure which only gradually, and after many twists and turns, developed into belief in a recent human individual. Although the early defenders of orthodoxy did much to rewrite church history to fit their own newly developed conception, they could not hide the fact that this story is still lacking in points of empirical contact with the external world.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Brock

    Several years ago, when I was a recent fugitive from fundamentalist Xianity, one of the first books on freethought I read was Paine’s “Age of Reason.” He of course mentions this passsage, and my immediate thought was that he had made it up, because I prided myself on my biblical knowledge, and I had no memory of this passage. So I went and looked and there it was! I had blotted it out, because it was so obviously a problem to deal with. I never heard it mentioned by any preacher, or anyone else during my years with the religious. I haven’t tried this, but I think it would be interesting to ask xians at random if they have an explanation for this verse, and see whether my experience of bleeping it from my memory is an isolated or common occurrence.
    I was told recently about a New Testament professor who challenged his class to come up with a Xian heresy that had neveer been thought of, and over the course of the semester, they were unable to do so. I have one which I modestly submit. This verse in Matthew 27 refers to the actual judgment day, the raising of the 144,000 virgins from the tribes of Israel who are mentioned in Revelation. they still inhabit the earth today, secretly of course, and our only chance of salvation is to find and assassinate them in hopes that we can take their place.
    I’m off the subject, sorry.

  • Brock

    Several years ago, when I was a recent fugitive from fundamentalist Xianity, one of the first books on freethought I read was Paine’s “Age of Reason.” He of course mentions this passsage, and my immediate thought was that he had made it up, because I prided myself on my biblical knowledge, and I had no memory of this passage. So I went and looked and there it was! I had blotted it out, because it was so obviously a problem to deal with. I never heard it mentioned by any preacher, or anyone else during my years with the religious. I haven’t tried this, but I think it would be interesting to ask xians at random if they have an explanation for this verse, and see whether my experience of bleeping it from my memory is an isolated or common occurrence.
    I was told recently about a New Testament professor who challenged his class to come up with a Xian heresy that had neveer been thought of, and over the course of the semester, they were unable to do so. I have one which I modestly submit. This verse in Matthew 27 refers to the actual judgment day, the raising of the 144,000 virgins from the tribes of Israel who are mentioned in Revelation. they still inhabit the earth today, secretly of course, and our only chance of salvation is to find and assassinate them in hopes that we can take their place.
    I’m off the subject, sorry.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Brock:

    I don’t think it’s unusual, your deletion of it. I certainly did the same; I hadn’t thought of the passage for 15 years until I re-read the Bible (as an atheist) in 1992. Of course, religion relies on this “remembering the hits, forgetting the misses” aspect of human psychology. How else does one explain faith in the face of SO many failed prophecies?

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Brock:

    I don’t think it’s unusual, your deletion of it. I certainly did the same; I hadn’t thought of the passage for 15 years until I re-read the Bible (as an atheist) in 1992. Of course, religion relies on this “remembering the hits, forgetting the misses” aspect of human psychology. How else does one explain faith in the face of SO many failed prophecies?

  • http://stupac2.blogspot.com Stuart Coleman

    I remember quite fondly sitting in a Roman History lecture, discussing Christianity. It was the only time that I can remember a professor actively insulting a religion, but from a historical prospective Christianity is just so obviously a mesh of competing religions from Judea that no real historian takes its claims seriously (at least that I have yet to meet).

  • http://stupac2.blogspot.com Stuart Coleman

    I remember quite fondly sitting in a Roman History lecture, discussing Christianity. It was the only time that I can remember a professor actively insulting a religion, but from a historical prospective Christianity is just so obviously a mesh of competing religions from Judea that no real historian takes its claims seriously (at least that I have yet to meet).

  • Herb

    Substantial evidence suggests that there may not have been a historical human being at the root of this religion at all…

    According to Wikipedia, this seems to be a minority opinion among academics.

  • Andrew A

    Herb,

    I can’t see anything on Wikipedia’s article on Jesus that says a lack of historical evidence is the minority opinion. It is simply one of the ideas listed among others.

    Also, I hope you’re not claiming that an idea’s truth is related to the number of people that believe it. An idea is true regardless of how many people believe it is true, and the same holds for false ideas.

    I find it a bit odd that the history section of that article is about the same size as the list of sources at the bottom of the page, but the notes section contains many more words.

  • Andrew A

    Herb,

    I can’t see anything on Wikipedia’s article on Jesus that says a lack of historical evidence is the minority opinion. It is simply one of the ideas listed among others.

    Also, I hope you’re not claiming that an idea’s truth is related to the number of people that believe it. An idea is true regardless of how many people believe it is true, and the same holds for false ideas.

    I find it a bit odd that the history section of that article is about the same size as the list of sources at the bottom of the page, but the notes section contains many more words.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    I’m not so sure that Jesus’s historicity is that pertinent, anyway. It is his supposed divinity — or lack thereof — that is the focus of my argument.

  • Herb

    Andrew,

    These articles claim that Jesus-as-myth is a minority opinion:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historicity_of_Jesus
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus-myth_hypothesis

    Of course, this is just a Wikipedia search and therefore not conclusive. And of course no amount of ancient documentation is enough to convince us that a virgin had a kid.

    Truth is certainly is not a democracy, but a creationist could use the same argument against scientists. In matters in which I have no expertise (in this case history) I must defer to the majority opinion of experts. If 9 out of 10 doctors tell me I have a tumor that must be removed, I have no reason to prefer the one dissenter. The alternative is for me to become an expert myself on history, cancer, etc. which I’m not going to do. I put my trust in consensus and expect that this will result in the fewest number of mistakes.

  • http://www.anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This post has a bearing on the Empty Tomb story as well. I have had apologists tell me in blog debates that unless I can explain the Empty Tomb story to them or produce the body of Jesus, their faith will remain unshaken.

    If memory serves, I read that Lee Strobel argues that if the Resurrection had been faked, the authors of the Gospels would have made the Resurrection some fantastic event. Why fake a story where only a handful of people, and women at that, discover the empty tomb and the angel telling them that Jesus was born? But that is precisely it. If the Resurrection had been written as some spectacle witnessed by so many people, it would have clashed with the memories of people still alive in 1st century Judea who were aroud during the time of the alleged Resurrection. By making the Resurrection a rather low-key event, the Gospel writers do not have to worry about anyone who could argue from living memory that no such thing happened.

    In other words, the Gospel writers deliberately made the Resurrection story unverifiable.

  • Bechamel

    Quoth Herb:

    Truth is certainly is not a democracy, but a creationist could use the same argument against scientists. In matters in which I have no expertise (in this case history) I must defer to the majority opinion of experts. If 9 out of 10 doctors tell me I have a tumor that must be removed, I have no reason to prefer the one dissenter. The alternative is for me to become an expert myself on history, cancer, etc. which I’m not going to do. I put my trust in consensus and expect that this will result in the fewest number of mistakes.

    You’re missing one other option: you can ask those people what evidence they base their views upon. You needn’t spend years to make yourself an expert to know that if the nine doctors are telling you that you have a tumor based on a funny spot on an X-ray, and the lone dissenter has looked over your medical history and done several different tests, and tells you it’s harmless scar tissue from an earlier event, that that’s a possibility worth looking into a lot more closely before going in for surgery.

    Similarly, you can look at what people have published, both in print and on the internet, as to why they believe what they do about Jesus. I find that Ebon makes a very strong case that not only is his ahistoricist position well-supported, but that his opponents’ beliefs are “based more on assumption and tradition than a thorough survey of the evidence.”

    Sure, you can go with the majority, and you’ll be right more often than not. But don’t let laziness join you with the crowd calling for the death of us heliocentrists.

  • Herb

    Bechamel,

    Of course what I mean is that I defer to a consensus of experts with all else being equal – no fair setting up an imbalanced comparison. Credentials surely matter as does experience with the question at hand. I consider the opinions of academics, not the opinions of random internet-people. I have no reason to believe that that the majority of historians are unskilled or have not seen the same evidence for the Jesus myth. I do worry about bias – surely there are many Christian historians who may not want to believe good evidence.

    I do think Ebon makes an interesting case, which is why I’ve considered his position at all. But at the end of the day, my own opinion carries no weight because all I’ve done is read a few essays on the internet – so I must defer to consensus. Anyone who is deeply familiar with the historical record can come to his own conclusion.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    The non-historicity of Jesus is certainly a minority opinion among academics. Equally certainly, most of the academics who’ve devoted their lives to studying the topic are Christians, and are not likely to support a view that contradicts the beliefs that led them to that field of study in the first place.

    However, as Bechamel said, the deciding factor in any debate should be the evidence, not people’s opinions. Herb, I suggest you read the essay I linked to in the last paragraph of my post; you may find reason to reevaluate your position.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Brock: You’re not off-topic at all! I think your experience testifies to the exact kind of thing I’m talking about. These stories are often forgotten or glossed over precisely because they lack coherence with the text and with external reality.

    Of course, the parts of the Bible that are better substantiated are endlessly talked about and praised, and this naturally leads to large numbers of believers mistakenly thinking that the entire text is of similar evidentiary quality.

  • Herb

    I read the essay a while ago, and it is compelling. But it could all be wrong and I would never know the difference.

  • Herb

    …likewise, I’m sure that arguments for intelligent design are compelling to people with no background in biology.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    One of the hallmarks of a well-tested scientific theory is that it is supported by numerous, independent lines of evidence.

    I think that’s the best thing philosophy of science ever taught me. Popper’s falsifiability criterion is useful, but ‘consilience’ (or ‘bootstrapping’, as it’s sometimes called when invoked as some kind of solution to the problem of induction) seems to me to be a more central indicator of good science. It also has the advantage that it highlights the fact that science is largely an attempt to find things that are objectively true, and in general, things are objective if different people can look at something in different ways and get the same result.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    Numerous, independent lines of evidence effectively convince us of claims, even extraordinary claims. Provoked by Brock’s reference to Matthew 27, I pulled out my Bible and read about that earthquake that allegedly occurred right after Jesus died. And then I read that all of those dead people suddenly became alive and wandered around the city, scaring the “bejesus” out of everyone in the city (Matthew 27:54).

    Ebonmuse, I agree with you that someone somewhere would have written something down about those extraordinary events, had they really happened. These are truly mindblowing events for anyone, even if that person didn’t know who Jesus was, on the day before the alleged crucifixion. Certainly after his death caused all of THAT commotion, people would be talking about Jesus constantly, far and wide. Secular historians (even those who were not first hand witnesses) would write about Jesus in hundreds of places and some of those writings would have been found and preserved.

    But, alas, there is no account of the earthquake of the zombies outside of Christian writings. Even more incredible, there is no Christian account of any of Jesus of Nazerth for decades following the alleged crucifixion, a time during which dozens of letters were written (the “Epistles”) among dedicated Christians. In fact, as argued by Earl Doherty of Jesus Puzzle (the link is on this site), Jesus of Nazareth himself is barely mentioned in the Epistles. This leads to only one conclusion among those of us who care about separating baseless claims from rampant speculation: these extraordinary events described in Matthew 27 did not occur.

    This does not present a problem to those who dispense with the need for evidence when it’s inconvenient. The unrelenting irony, however, is that these same fervent evidence-shunning Jesus-loving Believers scoff at the equally (or less) extraordinary and equally (or more) substantiated beliefs of OTHER religions.

    My own conclusion for this willingness to believe baseless claims is that religion is only superficially about the claims that gods and angels intervened on Earth. Rather, religion is about a desperate and often unconscious need to belong to a social group. The extraordinary set of beliefs of any particular religion serve essentially as a flag, merely identifying a group a people gathered under that particular baseless set of beliefs. In my view, sets of religious beliefs are functionally interchangable. The one you were raised with will usually do just fine. It’s a rare Christian who concludes that the evidence doesn’t support the Bible claims and then becomes a Hindu.

    From your well-written post, I take away the following: the rampant cherry-picking of Believers, including the downplaying of inconvenient claims that don’t “fit” in their belief structure, point to the need to further study regarding why this cherry-picking happens so often and so blatently, including among otherwise well-educated and otherwise skeptical people.

    If anyone is interested, David Sloan Wilson is publishing some interesting stuff these days about the potentially adaptive role of religions, countering the writings of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that religion is an often-destructive evolutionary byproduct. For more on that, see (as one example) http://dangerousintersection.org/?p=1539

  • Wedge

    Religion lacks consilience.

    What a beautiful summary of why I think all religions are unbelievable. Thanks!

  • Jerryd

    Erich, Regarding your comment: “From your well-written post, I take away the following: the rampant cherry-picking of Believers, including the downplaying of inconvenient claims that don’t “fit” in their belief structure, point to the need to further study regarding why this cherry-picking happens so often and so blatantly, including among otherwise well-educated and otherwise skeptical people.”

    I satirically refer to what I call “The God Switch.” This is what turns off all critical thought in humans and allows them to accept utterly ridiculous information. This includes humans of great intellect, including, every one of our elected national officials but one–at least if they are telling the truth on their religiosity. One thing is required for this blind acceptance, “It must be God’s word.” If so, that dogma becomes a virtual lock vault gripping the use of critical reason completely. No amount of logic can break open this vault.

    I’m not sure where I saw the concept, perhaps here or at godisimaginary.com, but it was the suggestion that the paradigm you have when you read the Bible is critically important. Basically I think the only way to turn off The God Switch would be to somehow convince the biblical reader to view the Bible from the standpoint of its being the works of ignorant tribal clans that lived from about 2,000 to 4,000 years ago, not at all from its being the word of God. Immediately all the consiliency issues, the flaws, the repetition, unscientific passages, unsound medical advice, the vile, genocidal, murderous, sexually idiotic dictates, the rape and incest, and all other problems make total sense. These are the words of uneducated, ignorant peoples–just as you would expect them to be before the age of reason. There is no need for excuses for a perfect god’s flaws and lack of power or omniscience: everything makes complete sense. But how do you get someone to change his or her mental state as they read? I wish I knew.

  • Yoyo

    I agree with you Jerry D,

    but I dont know how to make xian people read it as the ramblings of uneducated clans even tho they will be quite happy viewing the “words” of Mahommed in that way. It’s the same theme Sam Harris refers to in his arguments against a belief in Zues.

    My children are appalled by bible stories because they do not read them through the “god filter”. Unfortunately theist parents are appalled by the way I raise my kids.

  • Yoyo

    I agree with you Jerry D,

    but I dont know how to make xian people read it as the ramblings of uneducated clans even tho they will be quite happy viewing the “words” of Mahommed in that way. It’s the same theme Sam Harris refers to in his arguments against a belief in Zues.

    My children are appalled by bible stories because they do not read them through the “god filter”. Unfortunately theist parents are appalled by the way I raise my kids.

  • Stacey

    According to my dad (and I’m certain a great many other Christians), the gospels are written as “broken puzzle pieces”; a seeming discrepancy means that you have to put the two accounts together and they somehow fit without completely contradicting each other. Supposedly the gospel writers (not counting, of course, however many other gospels there were that were tossed out the window) all kept tabs on each other’s stuff so they wouldn’t have to repeat themselves.

    For example, concerning the nativity story and the massacre of the innocents: Mark and John didn’t need to have a nativity story because it was already covered by Matthew and Luke, and Luke didn’t need to cover Herod because Matthew already did.

    Because despite traveling around with a different set of people in Acts, Luke talked to the other three writers to hammer out these issues so as not to confuse later generations. :/

  • http://cafephilos.blogspot.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I think there might have been an historical Jesus, just like there was an historical Elvis. Then, after his death, “urban legends” grew up around Jesus, just as they have around Elvis.

  • http://cafephilos.blogspot.com/ Paul Sunstone

    I think there might have been an historical Jesus, just like there was an historical Elvis. Then, after his death, “urban legends” grew up around Jesus, just as they have around Elvis.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Bingo, Paul.

  • OMGF

    Stacey,
    I suggest you get your dad to read some stuff by Ehrman. “Misquoting Jesus” has a part about how trying to harmonize the gospels is completely wrongheaded. It’s very well written and very accessible to those who aren’t Biblical scholars. (Although it’s possible that your dad is a Biblical scholar, but I think you know what I mean.)

  • OMGF

    Stacey,
    I suggest you get your dad to read some stuff by Ehrman. “Misquoting Jesus” has a part about how trying to harmonize the gospels is completely wrongheaded. It’s very well written and very accessible to those who aren’t Biblical scholars. (Although it’s possible that your dad is a Biblical scholar, but I think you know what I mean.)

  • Stephen

    Supposedly the gospel writers … all kept tabs on each other’s stuff so they wouldn’t have to repeat themselves.

    Stacey, this is indeed a very common excuse among Christians, but it doesn’t stand up to examination, precisely because the gospel writers did repeat themselves on a large scale. Something like 90% of Mark is reproduced in Matthew with minor changes, and 70% in Luke. We aren’t talking about the same stories being told in each author’s own words, but in many cases near word-for-word copying. On the other hand, where there are differences, they are often changes to the actual events, not just to the way they are described.

    None of the gospels refers to any other (although they refer to the old testament a great deal). It is almost certain that each of the writers intended his/her gospel to be the one and only gospel. (Yes, “his/her” – there is some textual evidence that the writer of Luke was a woman.) And in any case the argument fails to explain the absence of the nativity from Mark, since the gospels of Matthew and Luke hadn’t been written yet.

    I presume your suggestion that the four writers all got together to discuss their gospels is just for humorous effect? Or are there Christians who know so little of the bible that they actually believe that?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    That interests me – I haven’t heard the argument that Luke was written by a woman. What evidence is there for this?

  • Stephen

    Randel McCraw Helms covers it pretty well in his book “Who Wrote the Gospels”. The main aspects are that the writer of Luke/Acts mentions women far more often than the other new testament writers and gives them a more prominent place. For example Matthew has the annunciation made to Joseph, Luke to Mary. Luke uniquely has Mary’s Magnificat. Luke has women telling of the resurrection and men not believing them. Luke mentions the fetal quickening (1:41) which is the sort of subject more likely to be mentioned by a woman.

    According to Helms, Luke uses the word “woman” more than the other three gospel writers put together. Luke uses the word “womb” eight times, and the other three put together just twice. Helms gives numerous other examples as well.

    But to me the most striking example is Luke 8:2-3, which has the women keeping the men out of their own resources. It’s fairly hard to imagine a man writing that down in the male-dominated middle eastern society of two millenia ago.

  • Stephen

    Randel McCraw Helms covers it pretty well in his book “Who Wrote the Gospels”. The main aspects are that the writer of Luke/Acts mentions women far more often than the other new testament writers and gives them a more prominent place. For example Matthew has the annunciation made to Joseph, Luke to Mary. Luke uniquely has Mary’s Magnificat. Luke has women telling of the resurrection and men not believing them. Luke mentions the fetal quickening (1:41) which is the sort of subject more likely to be mentioned by a woman.

    According to Helms, Luke uses the word “woman” more than the other three gospel writers put together. Luke uses the word “womb” eight times, and the other three put together just twice. Helms gives numerous other examples as well.

    But to me the most striking example is Luke 8:2-3, which has the women keeping the men out of their own resources. It’s fairly hard to imagine a man writing that down in the male-dominated middle eastern society of two millenia ago.

  • Stephen

    And having dug a little further myself, I see that Elisabeth, Anna, Joanna, Susanna and the widow of Sarepta are all characters mentioned only by Luke.

  • http://dailyatheist.blogspot.com Strappado

    Incidentally, I had just given Matthew a little scrutiny myself in this blog post: http://strappado.blogspot.com/2007/09/no-guards-at-tomb-of-jesus.html
    In short, Matthew is based upon Mark but Matthew is the only gospel with a closed grave. And Matthew is the only one with guards mentioned. So in Mark, Lukas and John – anyone could have grabbed the stonecold body of Christ and left the door open. Matthew has simply tried to cover obvious holes in the story.

  • http://dailyatheist.blogspot.com Strappado

    Incidentally, I had just given Matthew a little scrutiny myself in this blog post: http://strappado.blogspot.com/2007/09/no-guards-at-tomb-of-jesus.html
    In short, Matthew is based upon Mark but Matthew is the only gospel with a closed grave. And Matthew is the only one with guards mentioned. So in Mark, Lukas and John – anyone could have grabbed the stonecold body of Christ and left the door open. Matthew has simply tried to cover obvious holes in the story.