Why atheists don’t think the Bible is historically reliable

I’m almost ready to start talking about some modern arguments that many people would say are better than O’Reilly’s or van Inwagen’s. But before I do that, I need to say a little bit about the Bible.

Many religious believers claim in some way that their holy book itself is proof that their religion is true, for example because it’s so perfect or because of supposedly “amazingly accurate” fulfilled prophecies. I touched on this a bit in chapter 4, when I talked about things like the Mormon claim that Joseph Smith was too uneducated to have made up the Book of Mormon.

Philosopher of religion Ted Drange has an article titled “The Argument from the Bible” that goes into some detail about what’s wrong with these arguments, but the big thing that believers should ask themselves with these arguments is “what I think of a similar argument, made based on some other religion’s holy book?” (say, the Quran if you’re a Christian or the Bible if you’re a Muslim.)

One place where it’s worth saying a little more, though, is the issue of the historical reliability of the Bible. Or at least the New Testament. It seems that most people have gotten the word that the books of the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible) may well have been written centuries after the events in them supposedly happened, so they’re not really historically trustworthy.

Many Christians, though, seem to just assume that the New Testament is historically reliable, even when arguing with atheists. I’ve experienced this personally. It’s as if they expect atheists to agree, without any argument, that the Bible can be trusted.

So let me say this very clearly: the vast majority of non-Christians (and some Christians!) don’t regard the Bible as historically reliable. To explain why they don’t, I’m going to give a run down of Biblical scholarship 101.

The Bible is divided into books. The majority of these books were actually inherited by Christianity from Judaism, and Christians call them the “Old Testament,” though Jews don’t like that term. The books specific to Christianity are called the “New Testament.”

Different groups of Christians disagree about which Jewish books should be accepted into the Bible, but pretty much all Christians agree on the same twenty-seven books for the New Testament. The first four of these are the gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The next book is the book of Acts, an account of the early Christian church. After Acts are twenty-one letters, or epistles, attributed to leaders of the early church. And finally, there’s the famously weird book of Revelation.

Nobody knows exactly when these books were written, but they’re generally dated to the first century A.D. on the Christian calendar. Since some people have misconceptions about the Christian calendar, here’s how it’s supposed to work: the year 1 B.C. was supposed to be the last year before Jesus’ birth, while the year 1 A.D. was supposed to be the first year after Jesus’ birth. There was no year 0. Similarly, the first century B.C. was supposed to be the first century before Jesus’ birth, and the first century A.D. the first century after.

There are some problems with this. First, it’s generally thought that Dionysius Exiguus, the monk who came up with the B.C./A.D. system in the 6th century, he was a bit off in adding up the years. Second, outside of conservative Christian circles, it’s generally recognized that the gospels give inconsistent information about when Jesus was born. Still, it’s generally thought that Jesus was born within a few years of 1 B.C/1 A.D. So to say the books of the New Testament were written in the first century A.D. is to say they were written within 100 years or so of Jesus’ birth.

(The misconception that may people have about this is that “A.D.” stands for “After Death.” It actually stands for Anno Domini, Latin for “Year of Our Lord.” In fact, it’s generally thought that Jesus died in the year 30, maybe a little later.)

It’s generally thought the books of the New Testament, in addition to having been written in the first century A.D., are the oldest surviving Christian writings. That is not to say Christians wrote nothing else in the first century, just that none of those other writings survived. Now that may not be quite right—there may be a little overlap between when the last books of the New Testament were written, and when the earliest surviving non-Biblical Christian writings were written—but it’s probably at least close to being right, close enough for our purposes.

In addition to not knowing exactly when the books of the New Testament were written, we don’t know who wrote most of them. Certainly they were not all written by the same person. The gospels were traditionally attributed to apostles or companions of apostles, but this is widely doubted among mainstream scholars today. The authorship of most of the epistles is seriously doubted by mainstream scholars, but most scholars are confident that a number of the epistles attributed to the apostle Paul really were written by him.

A final important point about basic New Testament scholarship is that the books of the New Testament were almost certainly not written in the order in which they appear in modern Bibles. In particular, even though the gospels appear first, they were very likely written after Paul’s (authentic) epistles: Paul’s maybe wrote in the 50′s, while there’s a good chance the gospels weren’t written until the 70′s or later (but again, we don’t really know).

Now, in Christianity, usually when you hear someone called an “apostle” it means they were a follower of Jesus during his life. But Paul claimed the status of apostle based on his claim that Jesus had appeared to him after his death and supposed resurrection.

So Paul’s (authentic) letters may be a good source of information about the early church as Paul knew it, if you take into account that Paul was taking a side in fights within the early church and that may have distorted his reporting. But Paul was not an eyewitness to the life of Jesus, and in fact says very little about the life of Jesus. That means that, in the eyes of almost all informed non-Christians, and may more liberal Christian Biblical scholars, the Bible contains no eyewitness reporting on Jesus’ life.

Furthermore, again in the eyes of virtually all informed non-Christians, as well as many liberal Christian Biblical scholars, there’s little evidence that the authors of the New Testament even got any of their information from people who had known Jesus, or anything like that. And that means we don’t know any of them were really in a position to know whether what they were writing about Jesus was true.

The authors of the New Testament could easily have been just writing down legends about Jesus, and there’s good reason to think in many cases they were. The accounts of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke, for example, are both outlandish and hard if not impossible to reconcile with each other.

If you want a good introduction to how informed non-Christians, as well as many Christians, view the Bible, I strongly recommend Biblical scholar Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus, Interrupted. (Ehrman has written many excellent popular books on the Bible, but I’d start there.) But here, my goal is just to get you to understand that when Christian apologist Josh McDowell calls it an “obvious observation” that the New Testament is historically reliable, he looks completely ridiculous to anyone with a basic knowledge of Biblical scholarship.

And Christians, whatever you do, when arguing with an atheist don’t make the first words out of your mouth, “If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, how did his body get out of the tomb with Roman soldiers guarding it?” That’s the kind of argument David Mills described as proving 1% of the Bible by assuming the other 99% is true.

The problem with the argument is that there’s no evidence Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb outside the Bible. And only the Book of Matthew mentions Roman guards. Unless you can give some reason to believe the Bible about those things, your argument will be totally unconvincing to atheists–not to mention Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, deists, and even many informed Christians.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    Even without these appeals to external reality, there are quite a few inconsistencies. The most glaring ones are the differences between the account of Paul’s life in Acts and his own account and who goes to Jesus’s tomb and what they do. I find these are easier to explain to Christians without having to teach them any history or literary theory.

  • http://fathergriggs.wordpress.com Lord Griggss[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]

    We have no evidence of the reliability of the writers from other sources!The outlandish stuff notes their unreliability!William Lane Craigs arguments about the Resurrection reveal a credulous person!
    What rational person would want to be around that rascal,Yeshua anyway?Miklos Jako has his number as the moral leader the scam of the ages in ” Confronting Beievers.” Col. Green and Lord Russell know agree,ineffect!
    We rationalists ought to note Yeshua’s sophistry!
    By the way, scholars,what is the context for find my enemies and bring them before me and slay them?
    http://ehrmanpaine.wordpress.com
    http://buy-bull. posterous.com

    • http://fathergriggs.wordpress.com Lord Griggss[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]
  • HP

    Whenever anyone recommends the Bible to me, whether as literature or the repository of some kind of transcendent “TRUTH,” I always counter with Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad is f*cking amazing, both as literature, and as a religious discourse about the relationship between the human the divine, and fate. There are tons of translations out there, and while each has its strengths and weaknesses, they’re all pretty good. (I read the Lattimore when I was a college freshman, but the Fagles translation blew me away as a grown man.)

    It’s like someone took a handful of chapters in Joshua and expanded them out to novel length, and simultaneously established the Western tradition of storytelling.

    Seriously, is there anything in the Bible that the Illiad doesn’t do first, and better? As beautiful as Ecclesiastes is, can it reasonably compare to The Shield of Hephaestus? (Also, not in the Iliad, but compare The Song of Solomon to the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite. So much sexier.)

    If you’re going to be objective, and you want to choose a Mediterranean early Iron-Age text to build your life around, you’re much better off with the Iliad than the Bible.

    • ‘Tis Himself

      Are you suggesting that I should be like Achilles and sulk in my tent?

    • Reginald Selkirk

      I found the Odyssey to be a much better read than the Iliad.

      • Aidan O’Brien

        Sorry but I’m going to have to go with HP and say the Iliad was better. I found it much more enjoyable.

  • Gnumann, quisling of the MRA nation

    The problem with the argument is that there’s no evidence Jesus’ body disappeared from the tomb outside the Bible.

    There isn’t any evidence for the body or that the man supposedly having owned it have ever lived either AFAIK.

  • Kilian Hekhuis

    Similarly, the first century B.C. was supposed to be the first century after Jesus’ birth, and the first century A.D. the first century after.

    The first after -> before.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      Fix’d!

      • Brian

        Before, after, it’s all just a little bit of history repeating….

  • mnb0

    Chris, science since long has addressed the problem of historical reliability of Ancient texts.

    http://www.livius.org/th/theory/theory-maximalists.html

    For the record: the first biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than two centuries after his death. You are treating the Bible as special case in this article. An atheist shouldn’t do that – it makes the book more important than it deserves.

    “the Bible contains no eyewitness reporting on Jesus’ life.”
    Guess what? That applies to Alexander the Great as well.

    “The authors of the New Testament could easily have been just writing down legends .”
    Wrong. We are sure they were writing down legends. With one exception every single Ancient author did. Exactly that is the task of the historian of Antiquity, like Jona Lendering of the previoius link – to separate fact from fiction. You cannot dismiss the Bible as a historical source for this reason unless you want to reject almost everything we know about Antiquity.
    Of course Josh McDowell still looks ridiculous. He is as wrong simplifying the issue as some atheist non-scholars are.

    Well written though; I criticize the content of several alinea’s, not the form.

    • G.Shelley

      “the Bible contains no eyewitness reporting on Jesus’ life.”
      Guess what? That applies to Alexander the Great as well.

      So what? Even if this were true and there was no other evidence that supported the existence of Alexander the great, it would only mean we don’t have good evidence for him, not that we should consider the evidence for Jesus to be good.
      Chris was just giving a brief overview. I am sure if he wanted to go into much further detail, he could have written about how historians in antiquity worked, how we know who are the good ones who referenced their sources and which ones didn’t, the extent to which archeological evidence can support the stories, how confident we can be that the versions we have now are essentially similar to the original ones and so on, but that wasn’t really the point here.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      I’m aware of this stuff. This post was aimed at Christians who know nothing of mainstream Biblical scholarship, and think Josh McDowell’s arguments are good. And I wanted it to be reasonably precise.

      In the specific case of Alexander the Great, our best ancient sources for his life aren’t eyewitness accounts, but they are written by historians who are very clear about how they wrote their books, namely by basing them off of eyewitness accounts which were available in their day (or so they claimed) but have since been lost. They might not have been telling the truth about that (Compare Philostratus’ life of Apollonius of Tyana), but most historians today generally think they were telling the truth.

      Anyway, nothing about Alexander undermines the basic point that when arguing with atheists, Christians cannot proceed on the assumption that the New Testament is historically reliable.

    • cory

      For the record: the first biographies of Alexander the Great were written more than two centuries after his death.

      “the Bible contains no eyewitness reporting on Jesus’ life.”
      Guess what? That applies to Alexander the Great as well.

      Simply false. There were multiple contemporaneous accounts of Alexander surviving in Arrian’s day (including the memoir of Ptolemy, one of Alexander’s leading generals), and he based his history on them. There were no contemporaneous accounts of Jesus surviving when the gospels were written. This is why historians take Arrian much more seriously than they do the gospels.

      A better comparison would be the Alexander Romance. But this comparison doesn’t do the gospels any favors, since if a source this bad can appear when there are multiple reliable sources around, think what could happen when there is only an oral tradition.

  • wholething

    I’ve read about a dozen Ehrman books and he gives a good account of the consensus of Bible scholars. I pretty much agreed with his views on the historical Jesus. Then I read his latest book Did Jesus Exist and saw how thin the evidence for Jesus really was.

    I decided to read Earl Doherty’s The Jesus Myth and found his arguments were much better than Ehrman’s. He was very convincing that the epistles were not written by anyone who thought Jesus had been on Earth at a specific time.

    Then I reread Ehrman’s criticism of Doherty and Bart seemed to focus on Doherty citing 1 Thessalonians 2:15-16 as an interpolation. Bart dismissed it because mythicists always claim inconvenient verses to be insertions even though Doherty only does it twice and the other is thought by even Ehrman to be in a pseudo-Pauline letter. But Ehrman didn’t discuss verse 16 which is an obvious anachronism. (Ehrman uses 1 Thess. 2:14-15 in Misquoting Jesus to establish Paul’s attitude toward the Jews.)

    I had read a couple of Randel Helms books that pointed out the Old Testament verses that were reconfigured into stories about Jesus’ miracles. Robert M. Price’s The Christ Myth Theory And its Problems collects those and similar findings of other authors (who are mostly not mythiscists) that trace Gospel stories to the Old Testament and Homer. There’s not much of the Gospels left out.

    So I accepted that there were probably many itinerant preachers from Galilee named Jesus and some of them may have been crucified by Pilate but the New Testament is not about any of them.

    • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

      OP is A+

      >>there were probably many itinerant preachers from Galilee named Jesus and some of them may have been crucified by Pilate but the New Testament is not about any of them

      Well put, WT. Yet another main character that isn’t a historical figure ;)

  • mnb0

    Two simple examples of the mixture of fact and fiction in the NT are these.
    1. The infanticide supposed to be committed by King Herodes. He was a puppet king and no way Emperor Augustus would have allowed it. The theme of the hero narrowly escaping death is well known: Moses, Oedipus and Paris are famous examples.
    The census really has happened though – confirmed by Roman sources.
    2. The resurrection is also a well known theme. Think of Orpheus in the Underworld, crossing the Hades and getting back. The crucifixion is new though. The famous words “Father, why has thee forsaken me” (or something like that) indicate that Jesus has died from torture indeed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/chris.hallquist Chris Hallquist

      IIRC there was a census under Quirinius, but it wasn’t like the census described by Luke.

    • http://deusdiapente.blogspot.com J. Quinton

      “My god why have you forsaken me” is a quote from the Psalms. A lot of (liberal) Christian scholars have known for a long time that the entire passion sequence was built from the Psalms.

    • josh

      “The crucifixion is new though.” Not to the, I should think thousands, of forgotten ordinary shlubs who got crucified for one reason or another under the Romans. It may not have been borrowed directly from an earlier story, but the idea of martyrdom or a gruesome, unjust death for the hero wasn’t new and making it a crucifixion wouldn’t require much creativity in the Roman period.

      “The famous words “Father, why has thee forsaken me” (or something like that) indicate that Jesus has died from torture indeed.”

      Well, they indicate that whoever first added that element to that version of the story also had in mind a story of Jesus suffering. That phrase is a quote from Psalms so it doesn’t look particularly authentic to any historical Jesus, it looks like an embellishment (although it’s conceivable that some Jesus figure knew it and quoth it while dying.) Note that the same Psalm, a general lament calling on God who will eventually come to the rescue, includes the elements of the sufferer, ‘being poured out like water’ (the spear wound from which water flows), piercing of the hands and feet (not every translation seems to use ‘piercing’), and the clothes being divided by casting lots. I’m not a scholar of these things but you could argue at the outside that the whole Jesus martyrdom narrative was adapted from this and similar passages.

      • josh

        J. Quinton beat me to it.

    • wholething

      The census really has happened though – confirmed by Roman sources.

      The idea that Joseph was traveling to *comply* with the census is absurd. One of the main reasons the Romans would do a census was to determine the population to formulate the amount of tribute that would be due. Those being counted would have an incentive to avoid being counted, and to avoid being counted in their homeland. The Jews would be even more resistant to a census because of God’s reaction to David’s census.

      Luke/Acts has dozens of correspondences with Josephus and they all point to the author using Josephus as a source.

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  • http://www.in-His-own-image.com archaeopteryx

    The author who has been arbitrarily dubbed “Mark” wrote his gospel first, then the author dubbed “Matthew,” the Greek translation of Levi, the tax collector, literally copied, in some cases word for word, “Mark’s” work. The author dubbed “Luke,” then took from both “Mark” and an unknown author, who, for lack of a name, has been called, “Q,” to create his own work – these three are known as the “Synoptic Gospels,” because all three sound alike, having basically the same points of origin. If “Matthew” really HAD been Levi, an actual apostle (according to the NT), then he would have had his own story to tell, from his own viewpoint, and would have had no need to copy “Mark’s.”

    The author dubbed, “James,” who would have been one of the sons of Zebedee, the fisherman, totally discounts the entire “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” story, and relates that he and his brother John actually met Yeshua (Jesus’ real, Hebrew name – Jesus is only the Greek translation) at the Jordan river, and that there were no “fisher’s of men” involved.

    I’d think long and hard about buying a used car from any of those guys.

    • wholething

      It’s not only Luke that used Q as a source. It was proposed to account for similarities between Matthew and Luke that don’t appear in Mark. The Gospel of Thomas seems to have used it, too. Mark seems to have been familiar with it by quoting from memory. For example, there are the verses about “take up your cross” that Matthew and Luke copied from Mark and a harsher version that Matthew and Luke got from another source that is more like a passage in Thomas.

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  • Guest

    I think that the holy text writers (specific books are irrelevant) were in actuality most likely atheists working towards a common good in order to secure a societal infrastructure out of what was otherwise complete and utter chaos. They have had plenty of idiotic wars and backlashes, but at the time, were actually quite necessary, and the process at least seems to have worked as intended for the most part.

    That old apologetic gem, “Without religion, how can you possibly find any kind of morality”, I think is proof of that. Intelligent people don’t need religion in order to be ethical or moral. Idiots do. If you can convince a mass of unruly people to be afraid of an obviously non-existent and vengeful entity in order to keep peace more often than not, than all the better.

    Religion is formed out of a necessity in order to control chaos and reptilian urges which in turn will help to propagate and continue the advancement of the species. The evidence is persistent all the way from tribal communities to cults to Mecca or the Vatican etc.

    The existence of secret societies, world bankers and whathaveyou, I find only strengthens and supports my theory. Groups of people have been controlling the world from the shadows for centuries… and I’m totally fine with that. In fact, I support it 100%. The dumb should be tricked and subjugated if it means the betterment of everyone as a whole, and keeps the ball rolling.
    Things could be far far worse, where a “moron” genocide is declared (which is basically what Hitler tried to do with his eugenics nonsense. Believing that this man was a lone mastermind in his cause, as a leader, is quite frankly… fucking stupid). Let that sink in.
    Most people don’t realize just how good they have it living in an industrialized and modern society, where being homeless is a thousand times better than being the chief of an african tribe.

    So, from where I stand, yes, I think that the belief in any kind of religion is quite bluntly, idiotic. The invention of religion, however, is probably one of the most ingenious things that humans have ever come up with.

    As an atheist, do I want to do away with religion and think humanity would be better off without it?
    Even in this day and age… Absolutely not.
    We still have a long way to go.

  • FacepalmingduetotheseAtheists

    The four Gospels were written by who they said they were by. Simple. Luke was a doctor/historian, Mark was a minor apostle, Mathew and John were best friend with Jesus. Paul changed from being an evil jerk to being an awesome person via a miracle, and helped strengthen the Early Church from heresy.
    NONE OF THEM WERE ATHEISTS! nobody says any Christian is an atheist now, so why would people of the time who were Jew APOSTATES. Fake it?

    • conservativedavekraft

      The Gospels were written in Greek. How is it that Aramaic-speaking, illiterate commoners managed to write books in Greek?

      • Pofarmer

        Not only were they written in greek, they have ideas that were in the Greek OT, but not the hebrew, so they were reading and composing in Greek, for a Greek audience.

    • Ophis

      The four Gospels were written by who they said they were by. Simple.

      “Who they said they were by” would be, in order, unspecified, unspecified, a friend of some guy named Theophilus, and unspecified.

  • redeemedanew

    I’m not an English or Logic scholar but your arguments seem flawed. I mean, is there a thesis statement anywhere here? Looks like smoke and mirrors, dancing around multiple points. Are you trying to slam, or inform? You’re obviously not to encourage, which is unfortunate because that’s what this world needs more of.

    It’s easy to say that there isn’t enough (or any) proof that this or that happened, I understand that. But what Christians know is that when they knock, the door is answered. I ask the Lord for advice or help, and he gives it to me.

    TRUST IN THE LORD WITH ALL YOUR HEART AND LEAN NOT UPON YOUR OWN UNDERSTANDING. IN ALL YOUR WAYS ACKNOWLEDGE HIM, AND HE WILL DIRECT YOUR PATHS. Proverbs 3:5-6

    It may not be science, but it’s true. Try it

    • ApolloniusDionysus

      I’m sorry but it’s your argument that is flawed. Just because you believe something is true isn’t evidence that it’s so. I choose to only believe what can be shown by trustworthy evidence. I’m sure your religion makes you happy (as is also the case with Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, and Budhists) but just because your religion gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling inside doesn’t make your belief true.

      • Malik

        Personal experience can tell a lot to that person and to some others. I agree you can’t have his experience but he gave you the reason he had the experience. It is up to you to give it a try.

        • ApolloniusDionysus

          Do you give belief systems, other than your own, a try? For instance, if you are a Christian, do you give Islam a try? You really think I can give being willfully ignorant of the evidence a try?

  • lyn

    Have you ever tried to build a case for the Bible ? Take your opinion out of your research and go for the facts. Stop searching for the negative and see what you find.

  • Wes

    I have a question. I am writing a paper on this and I am very curious about the authors of the Gospels were not written by who Christians say they were. Could you explain the reasoning by which they did not? I’m having a hard time proving they did not write it. I could use some sources.

  • Sam Taylor

    Well then you have to explain who created God and so on. You could say that God is eternal but then I could easily say that the universe is infinitely regressive or that something that lacks mass like energy started the universe. The assumption that a personal god exists is less logical than my proposal. Therefore belief in God is not more logical.

    • Malik

      God claims to be Alpha which is the beginning. Atheism has a pattern to where things come from because they want to avoid including God, but it is not possible to use God creation against him.

      • Sam Taylor

        “they want to avoid including God” – of course we do because there is no sound reason to included him. Why would we seek to use god to explain something when god’s mere existence is not evident.

        “it is not possible to use God creation against him” – The god’s of Abrahamic religions have to explain all the inaccuracies about the earth that you will find in their very own holy books. Looking at these ‘holy’ books it seems as if god does not know his ‘creation’ as well as we do today. Almost as if he never created anything but rather he found the universe and took credit for it. How human of him….

        Then there is the ridiculous assumption that god would care about our actions. I think that is is also funny that you believe that he gave us freewill but in the bible he seems to want us to behave like robots. Are you telling me that you actually think that your specific god is the logical answer?

  • soused rat

    Scholarly work and logic have no effect on Bible believers.
    There were thousands of traveling miracle workers just like Jesus/Joshua at the same time in Rome-occupied Judea and many of them were also crucified. The apostles thought this Jesus would usher in the new era of a Hebrew ruled world of peace and plenty. Then he is crucified. Many years later Paul of Tarsus starts a revival of this one guy and rewrites and revitalizes this cult following. Viola, Christianity is born.
    But no amount of historical facts or biblical scholarship is going to get those who believe to stop believing. Only those who WANT to see it from a different perspective do so.And I guess if I believed the myth of that great party in the sky called Paradise, with all my friends and loved ones and everything I ever wanted, it would be really hard to give up too. It’s just sad that this mythology is running our government and making public policy 2000 years later.