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.

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