Was Jesus Born to a Virgin? William Lane Craig Answers This and More (2 of 3).

Was Jesus Born to a Virgin? William Lane Craig Answers This and More (2 of 3). December 5, 2019

William Lane Craig (WLC) was asked by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof six questions about Christianity (part 1). Since “Was Jesus really born to a virgin?” was the initial question, this seemed a good topic to begin the Christmas season. Let’s continue.

Must we take the Bible as literally true?

“You don’t believe the Genesis account that the world was created in six days, or that Eve was made from Adam’s rib, do you? If the Hebrew Bible’s stories need not be taken literally, why not also accept that the New Testament writers took liberties?”

WLC replied that Genesis 1–11 is “history clothed in the figurative language of mythology,” but why think that it’s history at all when it looks like mythology and nothing more? And if there’s history in the Garden of Eden or Flood stories, how do you reliably sift it out of the myth? Why imagine that it’s any more historical than the tales in the Babylonian Enuma Elish or Epic of Gilgamesh? The obvious conclusion is that all three are mythology. Only excellent evidence, which no apologist provides, would save Genesis from the mythology category.

By contrast, WLC calls the gospels ancient biography. Here I agree. But WLC’s argument may be relying on the ignorance of his readership. We understand what biography means, but ancient biography is not merely biography written long ago. Wikipedia gives this definition: “Ancient biography, or bios, as distinct from modern biography, was a genre of Greek (and Roman) literature interested in describing the goals, achievements, failures, and character of ancient historical persons and whether or not they should be imitated.” Ancient biographies often were moral critiques, showcasing a life as a good example to follow. So, yes, the gospels were ancient biographies, not biographies as we know them, which meet the high standards of historical or journalistic accuracy.

But the New Testament has contradictions

“How do you account for the many contradictions within the New Testament? For example, Matthew says Judas hanged himself, while Acts says that he ‘burst open.’ They can’t both be right, so why insist on inerrancy of Scripture?”

I explore the contradiction between the Judas accounts here.

WLC replied:

I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity.

That the Bible has contradictions is a stop-the-presses problem. How could an omnipotent God allow his message get in circulation looking just like any other ancient manmade book of legend and mythology? Cobble together your own personal response as you choose, but this should prompt anyone who is actually following the evidence to reconsider the entire Christianity project.

Christians don’t lose much sleep if their religion gives no respect to the facts, so we unfortunately won’t make much headway following that angle.

WLC wants to focus on “mere Christianity,” the core beliefs that Christians typically don’t fight over, but problems remain. For example, the Trinity is one of those core beliefs, and yet that doctrine isn’t in the Bible. And isn’t it odd to allow the feuds between denominations define your core beliefs?

As for mere Christianity, why stop there? Why not mere religion, where Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and all the rest find the intersections of their religions? (More here.) It’s nice to seek harmony with fellow believers, but it seems an odd way to find the truth.

Harmonizing perceived contradictions in the Bible is a matter of in-house discussion amongst Christians.

That’s not an in-house discussion. This is the fodder that apologists will use when I point out contradictions, so let’s not pretend that this is off-limits to critique from outsiders. I will continue to highlight contradictions within Christianity or the Bible.

And let me add an aside on harmonizations. I’m sure that there is some harmonization or rationalization for any contradiction that I might bring up. But the apologist’s job isn’t to simply find an answer to puzzles like these, it’s to find the better answer. A contorted rationalization will never beat the naturalistic explanation, that Christianity is just another manmade religion.

Concluded with the final two questions in part 3.

Blasphemy is speech that has been outlawed
to prevent your religion from losing arguments.
— seen at the Godzooks blog


Image from Oleg Sergeichik, CC license

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  • eric

    WLC replied that Genesis 1–11 is “history clothed in the figurative language of mythology,”

    If that’s a legitimate apology, then what’s to stop us from dismissing all the miraculous stuff in the NT by saying the NT is history clothed in the figurative language of mythology?

    I don’t insist on the inerrancy of Scripture. Rather, what I insist on is what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” that is to say, the core doctrines of Christianity.

    From the little I’ve read, Lewis got the idea of ‘mere Christianity’ from Richard Baxter. Baxter was a 17th century protestant preacher who mixed criticisms of how wrong and corrupt Catholicism was in with his teachings on how all Christians believed the same core beliefs. Talk about your lack of self-awareness.

    And that Protestant-Catholic divide is a pretty big block to the ‘mere Christianity’ idea even today. After all, if Christianity is supposed to be the path to salvation, and there’s a huge honking split over whether the Chrisitan salvation requires faith and works or faith alone, then in practical terms there is no ‘mere Christianity’ in which all Christians believe.

    It’s also worth pointing out that WLC is a divine command theorist. It’s hard to square his DCTness with his claim here that he only insists on the core doctrines of Christianity, given that DCTness isn’t one of them.

    • If that’s a legitimate apology, then what’s to stop us from dismissing all the miraculous stuff in the NT by saying the NT is history clothed in the figurative language of mythology?

      Or even substantial amounts of non-miraculous stuff which doesn’t rise to the level of “history”. Like the existence of Jesus.

      • Jim Jones

        If it was history, wouldn’t many more of the characters have names, not just occupations, and wouldn’t more of them turn up more than once in the stories?

    • Matt Brooker (Syncretocrat)

      Don’t forget the first great schism between the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. Whereas Roman Catholicism and some branches of Protestantism (notably the Anglican Communion) retain fairly cordial relations, the Orthodox church is clear that the Western churches are basically heretics.

      • Jim Jones

        With rare exceptions, they’re all heretics to each other.

        And now I must join Emo Philips on the bridge.

        • Greg G.

          The 41st St Bridge or the 49th St Bridge?

        • Jim Jones


        • Greg G.

          You prompted me to look up that joke again. I see that GQ magazine rated the top 75 jokes of all time and that one was #44.

        • Michael Murray

          Also got a win for “funniest religious joke of all time”


      • They reconciled somewhat in 1965 with Vatican II.

  • Lex Lata

    “By contrast, WLC calls the gospels ancient biography. Here I agree.”

    So do I, but WLC is indulging in a bit of diversionary question-begging here. Assigning the Gospels to a genre, by itself, sheds no useful light on their reliability, especially with regard to their miracle narratives. Categories like “mythology” and “history” and “biography” are merely general, post hoc terms of convenience, of little epistemological value when we’re assessing specific claims in the record.

    The biographical literature of pagan antiquity and the Middle Ages is riddled with tall tales, omens, prophecies, signs, wonders, monsters, spirits, etc.–most or all of which I’m sure WLC would readily dismiss as products of the human imagination. That it’s our convention to label written accounts of individuals’ lives “biographies” doesn’t in any way mean their magical and miraculous elements are more likely to be true.

    • Jim Jones
    • Ignorant Amos


      If Jesus Never Called Himself God, How Did He Become One?

      One of the things that historians cannot show as having happened in the past is anything that’s miraculous. Because to believe that a miracle has happened, to believe that God has done something in our world, requires a person to believe in God. It requires a theological belief, but historians can’t require theological beliefs to do their work. …

      [Historians] don’t invoke miracle because it’s beyond what historians can prove. Miracles may have happened in the past, but they’re not part of history. So that applies to the resurrection of Jesus. Historians acting as historians — whether they’re believers or nonbelievers — acting as historians, they simply cannot say Jesus was probably raised by God from the dead.


      • Lex Lata


        Contrariwise, if we’re going to accept miracle narratives in the Bible as historically accurate, intellectual consistency demands that we extend our credulity to analogous events and entities in other records of antiquity–the account of the Minotaur in Plutarch’s biography of Theseus, for example, or the miracles and appearances of Greek deities in the Histories of Herodotus.

  • Jim Jones

    > By contrast, WLC calls the gospels ancient biography. Here I agree.

    I do not. IMO, these are fan fiction about a (supposed) 1st century Slender Man. You could certainly see 4 (or more) of such, written with nothing but a few scraps of belief about the subject. It certainly explains the copying AND the contradictions.

    BTW, if Jesus was born of a virgin, he was a she. Shesus?

    • That seems to be what ancient biography really was, in modern terms. A fan fiction of someone the writer liked.

  • Polytropos

    My understanding, though I am not in any way an expert in this field, is that the gospels can’t really be definitively classified as ancient biographies. They share some characteristics with ancient biography, but the comparison is not straightforward, and they also share characteristics with ancient novels. WLC thinks his audience don’t realize people wrote novels in the ancient world too.

    Even if we classify the gospels as ancient biographies, this doesn’t make them factual or reliable accounts of a real person’s life. Assuming that they are shows ignorance of ancient biography as a genre, which operated on a spectrum from well researched and reliable through to totally made up. And the gospels don’t share attributes of the more reliable ancient biographies. Clicky.

  • Michael Neville

    Okay, Craig, what are the “core doctrines of Christianity”? There are Christians who deny the trinity, who deny the godhood of Jesus, who disagree about faith or good works necessary for salvation, who disagree about transubstantiation, who disagree about sola scriptura, and who even disagree about substitutionary redemption.

    • Ignorant Amos

      And some Christians who disagree Jesus was divine. Denying he was God incarnate.


      • Not only Christian atheists, but others labeled heretics (who were theists) did this. It’s the main reason “orthodox” Christians codified doctrines.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Belief in the biblical God is a minority view in Western Europe


        • I’ve heard that, yes.

        • Brian Shanahan

          About 10% of Irish mass going catholics (as in they’re hogging the radiator every Sunday morning mass) don’t believe in any god, the rcc found in 201y. I wonder what percentage of census only catholics have no god belief.

        • Pofarmer

          So then why are they going?

        • Brian Shanahan

          Cultural inertia mostly. That or the mammy’s making them. It’s the same as atheist jews.

        • Pofarmer

          I get the Atheist Jew thing. They’re maintaining their cultural heritage. Ok. But, I mean, there’s just so much nasty baggage in Catholicism. Yeah, I mean the pomp and superstition is kinda cool………..

        • Ignorant Amos

          But, I mean, there’s just so much nasty baggage in Catholicism.

          You’d think mate, wouldn’t ya?

          Catholic atheism is a belief in which the culture, traditions, rituals and norms of Catholicism are accepted, but the existence of God is rejected. It is illustrated in Miguel de Unamuno’s novel San Manuel Bueno, Mártir (1930). According to research in 2007, only 27% of Catholics in the Netherlands considered themselves theist while 55% were ietsist or agnostic deist and 17% were agnostic or atheist. Many Dutch people still affiliate with the term “Catholic” and use it within certain traditions as a basis of their cultural identity, rather than as a religious identity. The vast majority of the Catholic population in the Netherlands is now largely irreligious in practice.


    • Michael Murray

      Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, everybody knows that.

  • Michael Newsham

    This is what I call talk-show theologising. WLC knows how ridiculous his real beliefs sound to outsiders, so he tries to water them down. What he says to his fellow evangelists is a lot more blood and thunder.

    • RichardSRussell

      Or, as it’s more accurately known, thud and blunder.

    • Chuck Johnson

      Changing the stories to suit the audiences is a time-honored way to deceive the people.
      Crooked politicians and crooked theologians make use of this trick.

  • abb3w

    A contorted rationalization will never beat the naturalistic explanation

    Depends on the basis for measure of “better”.

  • Greg G.

    SMBC on evolution.

    Don’t forget to check the mouseover text and the Big Red Button.

  • RichardSRussell

    I’m sure there are fundies who truly believe every word of idiocy that spews from their mouths, and I’m equally sure there are some who got into the game because it served up a bottomless well of suckers willing to part with their hard-earned cash in return for the best snake oil the con artist could bottle up for them. I suppose it’s even possible that there are some who are both. I keep wondering about William Lane Craig, tho. Can somebody with an academic background in philosophy truly take seriously his own rationalizing and blathering, or has his ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance achieved Olympian proportions?

  • NSAlito

    Whine for the day: I suppose it’s a stock photo, but I’d prefer it if mama looked less like a wholesome white suburbanite and more like a young teen with brownish skin.