Welcome to Vacation Bible School – Rational Doubt Version

Editor’s Note: For the next few weeks, in keeping with a long-standing tradition of vacation bible school, Rational Doubt will be featuring blog posts by Mike Aus, former Lutheran and nondenominational pastor and current humanist community leader. Mike has given permission to reprint posts from his paganpreacher blog, which he started writing in 2011 as a “closeted” non-believing pastor, and then as an “out” atheist, after appearing on MSNBC on the “Up with Chris Hayes” show in March, 2012.  Mike has many insights on the Bible, having studied it carefully in seminary and as a pastor for 19 years. Mike started his blog off with a harsh questioning of how the family of Jesus could possibly have such a long record of its genealogy.

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Lesson #1:  Jesus’ “Genealogy” (Originally published 11/10/11, by paganpreacher)

My journey to skepticism and free thought started because of fundamental questions about the Bible.  For years I have taught mid-week Bible studies as part of my pastoral duties.   When you spend any time with the Bible at all you quickly begin to see the glaring contradictions and fabrications that abound throughout scripture.  (The typical Bible study attendee, however, hardly ever asks any questions about these obvious problems with the text and that’s always puzzled me.)

In the New Testament, the problems begin on page one.  Matthew’s gospel starts with a genealogy of Jesus that stretches back not just to the time of David, but even to the time of Abraham who lived some 1,800 years before Jesus was born.  Now think about it.  Who on earth could ever trace their lineage back that far?  Even today genealogy experts with modern research tools could maybe take you back a couple centuries at the most.

Nobody on earth could ever track their family roots back to the 1st Century C.E.  So how are we supposed to believe that Jesus’ family tree was accurately traced back to more than a thousand years before his birth, in a time when most people were illiterate and didn’t keep any kind of written records.

And that’s just on the first page of the gospels.

Stay tuned for more crazy Bible “facts” which call into question the entire enterprise of organized Christianity.

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Bio: Mike Aus After serving in Christian ministry for twenty years–as a missionary in Japan and then as a pastor in the U.S–Mike Aus publicly came out as a non-believer on MSNBC in March of 2012.  He is now the Director of Houston Oasis, a 501(c)(3) secular education and service organization in Houston, TX, which describes itself as “a community grounded in reason, celebrating the human experience.”  Mike is a graduate of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN).

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photo credit: <a href=”https://www.flickr.com/photos/alanenglish/584404692/”>Al_HikesAZ</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>
http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gutenberg_Bible.jpg

About Linda LaScola

Linda LaScola is co-author, with Daniel C. Dennett, of Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (2013) and “Preachers who are not Believers” (2010). She is an independent qualitative research consultant who works out of Washington, D.C. She holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from the Catholic University of America and is a co-founder of the Clergy Project.

  • gg

    I am a family historian. You’d be surprised at the number of people who matter-of- factly tell me they have traced their lineage back to Adam and Eve. One even told me. “of course they all go back to Adam and Eve, but this is the first one I’ve ‘proved’.”

    • Maine_Skeptic

      Two problems… there’s was a file clerk shortage for a few thousand years, and even if you could get access to the warehouse, which alphabet was Abraham’s birth certificate filed under?

  • Richard T

    The really fun part is that it’s Joseph who is supposedly descended from David. And whatever else Joseph did, he had no part in the begetting of Jesus. So the claim that Jesus is descended from David rests entirely on the doctrine that a wife and everything she has are the husband’s property.

    • Kingasaurus

      How do the liiteralists get around this? Kill 2 birds at once by saying one of the contradictory genealogies of Jesus actually belongs to Mary not Joseph. She is also (conveniently) a descendant of David.

      Of course, the text itself denies this – both lines of descent are claimed to go through Joseph. But why let that little detail stop us?

  • Kent Truesdale

    In the liberal church we don’t waste time ridiculing a Bible that was never intended to be a work of history or science in the first place. We look only for spiritual truth (not supernatural revelation) in scripture, including that expressed in the synoptic genealogies. Is this ‘bible school’ just going to be an exercise in knocking down straw men?

    • Linda_LaScola

      Kent — please contact me at the email above in the “about us” tab if you want to discuss writing something from your perspective for vacation bible school

      • Kent Truesdale

        OK, I’ll think about your offer Linda, but I would have to protect my anonymity as a closeted unbelieving minister.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Sure, Kent — confidentiality is always assured.

    • mason

      Kent, with the “bible” being a collection of 66 writings by 40 different authors I have difficulty considering it a work, but when I was a fundamentalist clergy I adamantly believed it to be the inerrant word of God penned by men, and historically and scientifically accurate. Quite an embarrassing memory. I have an almost impossible time convincing people who didn’t know me during my dark ages, that I really was the stereotype bible preacher thumper. :)
      Other than the Golden Rule and social justice writings, which have a very mixed message even in the New Testament, what kinds of spiritual truth do you find to exposit upon?

    • ctcss

      I would have to agree with Kent on this one despite the differences in our theological outlooks. (As nearly as I can tell, I don’t think my church would be considered to be liberal, or conservative for that matter. We’re just too non-mainstream for those kind of convenient labels.) But be that as it may, this first “VBS lesson” is lacking in my view. It brings up a point that, when viewed in isolation, might seem to have merit. But anyone reasonably familiar with the gospels would (or should) note that the point being made falls flat when Jesus’ own words point out that he isn’t even interested in a such a genealogically-based claim to office. In fact, he challenges the notion outright. (Matt 22:41-46, Mark 12 :35-37, Luke 20:41-44) Jesus seemed to have a very different notion of the authority he was operating under. Matthew and Luke may have had reasons for including their genealogies, but trying to shore up the authority that Jesus operated under would not seem to be one of them. The authority underlying Jesus’ ministry speaks for itself IMO.

      I hope this “VBS” is composed of more than just shallow attacks based on the claims Bible inerrancy or literalism. That, indeed, would be like propping up straw-men that can easily be knocked down. It’s one thing to ask sincere questions about puzzling concepts that are found in scripture. (As a Sunday School teacher, I always appreciated it when a student would notice such things and ask about them.) It’s another thing altogether to ignore the answers to those questions that scripture can be seen to offer.

      My 2 cents.

      • http://boldquestions.wordpress.com/ Ubi Dubium

        If the genealogy was not important or relevant, then why was it included at all? And if the bible writers included material that’s not important, then how are we to judge which other pieces are important and which are not? Even back when I was a liberal believer, that was a problem. If we can disregard some parts of the bible as being clearly mythological, or unimportant, how were we supposed to sort out which parts were not mythological and essential to believe?

        I also think Mike’s talking more to the biblical literalist with this post than to you. Even if you don’t take the bible in that way, there are enough people out there who do to make this kind of exercise worthwhile.

        • ctcss

          If the genealogy was not important or relevant, then why was it included at all?

          I cannot claim to know why something was included. But generally, people either include something because they think it might be useful to someone else (as Mike and I are both doing here, but from different viewpoints), or they are not sure why it might be important (because it might have been handed down to them from someone else), but want to make certain that nothing potentially valuable gets lost. For instance, there are stories in OT that appear to have been carefully redacted from differing sources. Those editors apparently wanted to make sure that nothing got left out. To me, that’s not a problem because I am not literalist. I look at the larger picture to try to understand where things are going in a narrative.

          However, I am not claiming that the genealogy included by Matthew and Luke has no use. I was trying to point out (in refutation of Mike’s assertion that the contents were very likely wrong) that the inclusion of that material didn’t change anything about Jesus’ ministry because Jesus wasn’t using a genealogical basis to establish his authority. So IMO, nitpicking about the narrow likelihood of a 1st century family having a complete and accurate genealogy of their family is a non-starter. It may be a valid (although narrow) concern to bring up, but it misses the forest for the trees IMO.

          And if the bible writers included material that’s not important, then how are we to judge which other pieces are important and which are not?

          Short answer, we don’t need to. Studying the Bible is not meant to be a sprint, any more than education is supposed to be a sprint. Education and understanding are ongoing processes. They never stop. I am in my 60s and am still seeing things I hadn’t noticed before in my religious studies. Heck, I can quite confidently say I have only barely scratched the surface of this infinitely deep subject area. And that’s OK. There’s no rush involved. God isn’t going anywhere and He is not about to abandon His children. The concept of God that I was taught is not impatient, petty, vindictive, or heartless. God is love. I am not frightened or bothered by the (to me) nonsensical notion that Love is looking for the smallest excuse to try to do me in. Rather, I am welcoming Love and expecting good from it’s influence and presence.

          If we can disregard some parts of the bible as being clearly mythological, or unimportant, how were we supposed to sort out which parts were not mythological and essential to believe?

          Once again, it’s not a sprint. We have as long as it takes for us to learn and understand what needs to be understood. And as for deciding whether something is literally true vs not literally true, it really doesn’t matter, at least not from where I stand. And that’s because my goal is not to make such a decision. My goal is to learn and understand more about God. The Bible is a book that focuses on God and the notions that people had about God, as well the experiences people were said to have had with God. (Actually, it’s a collection of books about that.)

          Books convey ideas. Ideas can be very useful. I am quite certain the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan stories were made up. Are they useless because of that? No. There are lots of narratives in the Bible that I am not necessarily looking at as stenographic transcripts of events recorded in real time as they happened. But whether literally true or not, I still find them very useful as helpful insights into the subject of God. And since I am a Christian, I am interested in understanding God as Jesus seemed to. Jesus never said to throw away the Bible. Rather, he pointed out the need to understand what was written in the Bible. The Bible was not meant to enslave man, or to trap man. The Bible was meant to help bless and free man. Or, to paraphrase Jesus, “The Bible was made for man, and not man for the Bible.”

          So basically, I am not viewing the Bible narratives as tyrannical demands for me to believe in God, or else suffer the consequences. Rather, I am viewing them as invitations to learn and understand more about God. And since I don’t know what I don’t know, I am not in a position to judge (nor do I wish to judge) whether or not I should discard something as useless. As I said above, I am still seeing things I hadn’t realized in places I had previously just glossed over because I hadn’t thought them to be all that relevant. So chucking those “not relevant” passages would have been an unwise move on my part. And that’s not a problem for me because I recognize I am not done yet. I have full expectations that I will get there some day.

          I also think Mike’s talking more to the biblical literalist with this post than to you. Even if you don’t take the bible in that way, there are enough people out there who do to make this kind of exercise worthwhile.

          While I applaud the idea of helping people understand things better, I’d be happier if the material being presented showed a bit more insight. Mike has been convinced that God does not exist. That’s all fine and well for him. Everyone should have the opportunity to make up their minds about that question. And although many things in the Bible may have made him personally question the notion of God, are his conclusions accurate enough for people to accept them? He led off with his genealogy example as something damning. My question is, had he ever considered the point I brought up? If so, why not point it out, but show why it is invalid? And if it was not considered, perhaps Mike should have not led off with that point.

          Of course, one point does not terminate a discussion. But it does bring out the idea that maybe this whole area needs further thought. Sunday School, or Bible School, should be something that causes people to look deeper. And hopefully, it should make people realize that the subject area is rather large. And thus, maybe the search needs be correspondingly large, and the effort, correspondingly patient. But maybe I can only say that because I believe that God exists, that He is good, and that there is a reason (or at least, I have a reason) to persist in trying to learn and understand more about Him.

  • Rennyrij

    I think Mr. Truesdale, et al, should wait until a few more lessons are posted, before finding fault with Mr. Aus’s blog. Incidentally, what struck me first about the truth claims of the bible, is “how could ‘Moses’ be dumb enough to say it was a serpent that tempted Eve, when the animal didn’t lose its legs until AFTER the temptation and the consequent expulsion of Adam & Eve from this garden”? Any kid could see that this was just stupid, and that the animal that tempted Eve had to have been a lizard of some sort! (Lounge lizard?) I was about 6 when I figured this out.

  • lizardofahaz

    I once used a bible for toilet paper but it gave me a rash….. To this day I believe it was because my a s s has to much class….


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