The Atheist Game of Telephone

The Atheist Game of Telephone January 9, 2016

A friend shared this meme, together with the comment, “Showing that whatever else atheists are, they are not students of history and historical criticism.”

Game of Telephone

The irony is that the claims in the image above themselves circulate and circulate in the manner of the telephone game, among atheists and other self-proclaimed “skeptics” who are nothing of the sort, as they clearly fail to fact-check memes that come their way. Almost everything that is claimed in the image is wrong, or at least uncertain and open to dispute. Which kings had things removed? Which major mainstream translation today is a translation of an earlier translation? Paul didn’t write 30 years after the events in Jesus’ life, and if any New Testament source was written 90 years after the fact, it certainly didn’t do so in the absence of written sources, as should be self-evident.

Atheists, please consider this: The fact that Christians are sometimes wrong, and cling stubbornly to beliefs even when they are wrong, cannot be considered decisive proof that Christianity is wrong about everything. If it could, then the atheist penchant to do exactly the same thing would be proof that atheists are wrong about everything, too, wouldn’t it?

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  • arcseconds

    this is being a little glib with the term ‘atheist’, isn’t it?

    I suppose it’s probably true that typically atheists aren’t students of history and historical criticism, but there definitely are those who are. And this is certainly true of Christians, too, and probably any other religion or religious attitude you could name. So it seems rather prejudicial to say this as though it’s some huge failing on behalf of atheists.

    And it’s also not true that atheists typically pass around this kind of stuff. I’m pretty sure most atheists aren’t really interested in this topic.

    • Erp

      I was taken a bit back by McGrath’s friend lumping all atheists together in the mythicist camp.

      I do think there are some well known atheists who have promoted unacademic views of the Bible and history. However the key word is ‘some’; there are also atheists who are knowledgeable in the area though most haven’t been outspoken (Bart Ehrman is an exception but he claims the agnostic title).

      One can look at the reaction to Neil Carter’s post in Godless in Dixie to see the firestorm (also to see another atheist who disagrees with the mythicists)

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        Interesting link. It reminds me of my recent experience at Debunking Christianity. The presence of someone suggesting that Jesus existed was rather like the presence of a fox in a hen-house. Or that is how it seemed, at least. It is possible that only a minority of commenters were mythicists, but they were the ones doing the talking, while the rest remained silent.

        That seems to be typical of such discussions. The sound of atheists arguing in favour of mythicism is far louder than the sound of atheists arguing against mythicism.

        • The owner of the blog, Debunking Christianity – John Loftus – is not a mythicist.

          • AliKat

            I think that was his point-however ambiguously written. A lot of people are upset with Loftus for agreeing with the mainstream academic view of Jesus instead of mythicists like Carrier.

          • Well, I’m an atheist who comments at Debunking Christianity and I’m not a mythicist. Mythicism doesn’t characterize most atheists I know (and I know quite a few – they are my “crowd”).

          • James

            Well said.

            Even if we accept biased, a-contemporaneous, hearsay sources as legitimate history – as is common within academic history – it does nothing to meet a supernatural burden of proof. Religion is a matter of faith.

        • arcseconds

          I’m going to re-emphasize the fact that very many (I’m pretty sure it’s the vast majority, actually) atheists are not movement atheists, they don’t follow atheist blogs, and simply aren’t interested in these discussions.

          The reason I say I think it’s the vast majority is that I know a lot of atheists, both online and off, and until I started commenting on Patheos, I could count the ones that had been at all seriously involved in sceptic movements or whatever on one hand.

          Or at least, that I knew of. But it’s not uncommon for me to have discussions about religion or some other topic where this might come up.

          For the most part, they just don’t talk about religion at all. It’s not because they hate it or anything, it’s just not really on their horizon. Just like, say, Americans don’t talk about cricket very often.

          Also, I’ve had discussions with a few atheists I know about mythicism recently, and they’ve all gone “Oh, OK, yeah, I guess he did exist then” even if they were vaguely agnostic to begin with. They recognise there’s nothing much riding on it, and aren’t particularly invested in any particular view on it.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I appreciate that. Most atheists just aren’t very interested in the issue. I may start using the term “antitheist” – an antitheist being someone who actively seeks opportunities to argue against theism. It may still be the case that only a minority of antitheists are mythicists. However, antitheists who are not mythicists rarely challenge those who are. That was my point.

          • arcseconds

            Well, as I said in my debate with JGravelle a few weeks ago, the community that participates on blogs such as Debunking Christianity does have a label for itself, and that label is ‘atheist’. This is used to label blogs, authors, books, conferences, podcasts, speakers, etc. that are produced by and of interest to this community.

            So unfortunately that means ‘atheist’ now is ambiguous. It could just mean ‘denies the existence of God’, which is what people like JGravelle are prepared to defend endlessly as the only definition as soon as they see a generalization they don’t like, but it also clearly refers to a community that has adopted the word as its moniker. It would be nice if we could distinguish the two uses, like we can with ‘theist’ and ‘Christian’, but we can’t.

            But I think we need to be careful about this, so I usually try to use ‘movement atheist’ (one guy here, can’t quite remember his name, claimed to be a ‘sedentary atheist’ after he heard it, which I quite liked 🙂 ) or sometimes ‘internet atheist’.

            Not all movement atheists are antitheists, but there’s certainly a tendency there, and I think the criticism that no-one challenges mythicism might also apply to them.. perhaps Debunking Christianity might be expected to be largely antitheists, though.

            One point worth noting, though, if you’re not that interested in a subject and don’t consider it very important, that doesn’t give you a lot of motivation to (a) inform yourself about it and (b) have dragged-out arguments about it with your opinionated fellow-travelers.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Funnily enough, I tried out the term “antitheist” in my discussion with J. Gravelle. He didn’t like it. I find it a bit odd when movement atheists complain about misrepresentation. That is what J. Gravelle was doing quite recently and now it turns out that he is probably a mythicist himself – although he is so confused about the subject that it isn’t clear what he believes.

            Very few movement atheists seem to regard mythicism as something to be rejected outright. It is quite common for them to be rather apologetic about not endorsing mythicism. You often hear something like, “Even if Jesus existed, he was just some mad preacher,” as if the acceptance of Jesus’ possible existence had to be accompanied by a vigorous statement of one’s atheist credentials.

          • arcseconds

            Well, with a smidge of charity that might be a bit like us saying “yes, there are doubts about a lot of Jesus’s biography. That doesn’t mean he didn’t exist.” In other words, the point of saying this is to combat a widespread falsehood so that other readers don’t get the wrong idea.

            And it’s not like people often don’t get the wrong idea from straightforward statements…

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Yes, I’m happy to set the record straight about atheists and mythicism. What I find intriguing is the attitude of those atheists who complain about the overestimation of the prevalence of mythicism among atheists. Their complaints would be very understandable if they regarded mythicism as an obvious folly with which they didn’t want to be associated. And that may be the attitude of some. But it seems that many of those complaining may be at least sympathetic towards mythicism.

            The point was made that John Loftus isn’t a mythicist. I give Loftus some credit for his stance, since I can imagine that it might have been tempting for him to jump on the mythicist bandwagon. But even Loftus is sympathetic towards mythicism. He has described Carrier’s book as a “magnum opus” – and I don’t think he was just referring to the number of pages. He also praised a very foolish comment that someone made about Jesus possibly being based on a “few schizophrenics”.

            Furthermore, Debunking Christianity is a minefield of ignorance about the historical Jesus. All sorts of bizarre comments are made which are rarely, if ever, challenged. So I would say that mythicism is a problem for the atheist movement.

          • arcseconds

            I could imagine myself describing it as his magnum opus… one’s great work doesn’t need to be any good, after all 🙂

            I agree, it does look to be a problem for the atheist movement. A lot of the high-profile atheists are giving it some form of credence, and it seems to be widespread.

            Although I would say a blog with the title Debunking Christianity might be expected to be unrepresentative. That’s going to be gathering people with an investment in hearing about how silly Christianity is. Atheist groups don’t necessarily have this focus on Christianity: they can be more about carving out a place for atheists in predominantly Christian societies, sceptic groups often are focused on pseudoscience, etc. Friendly Atheist, for example, doesn’t have quite the same focus on exposing intellectual failings of Christianity and more of a focus on religious freedoms, for example (not that I’m that familiar with it, but that’s what I’ve seen).

            I might have mentioned my discussions with a ‘sedentary’ atheist friend of mine about this. His initial take was that Jesus’s existence was the most probable explanation, but was by no means certain. But after I laid out the argument he was like “yup, that’s convincing!” (still not convinced that the crucifixion itself is probably enough…. still working on that, but I think he’s bored of the discussion now). What he was incredulous about, though, was that anyone was a ‘hard mythicist’ and arguing for it seriously…

        • James

          The sound of fundamentalists arguing in favor of young Earth creationism is far louder than the sound of progressives arguing against young Earth creationism too, and YEC is a vastly more intellectually bankrupt position to defend than mythicism. The mythicists actually raise valid criticisms, many of them gleaned from progressive Christian historians – they just drive their good points over a cliff. And they don’t represent atheism in general, unlike YECs who poll after poll shows they comprise a majority among American Christians, and crucially, they hold political power to teach bad science in classrooms, unlike mythicists who have yet to abuse our political system so egregiously..

          McGrath seems to have a frustrating tendency to assume that all, or even most atheists are mythicists and additionally, that memes represent the depth of their understanding of history. Lay Christians (and a great many highly trained professionals) use terrible arguments all the time, many of them on memes – I assume McGrath would agree that atheists shouldn’t assess Christianity by the worst, most shallow arguments that YECs can devise.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Firstly, anyone who says that creationism is a Christian problem has a valid point. It is a Christian problem and Christians do have a duty to challenge creationists. It just so happens that the owner of this very blog is a prominent critic of creationism.

            I am afraid that I can’t take anything that you say about mythicism seriously after your last contribution to the subject.

          • James

            I sincerely hope you don’t think, as the author apparently does, that a silly, comedic meme constitutes a serious intellectual argument, or was intended as such. Your failure to engage any of my points suggests that you do, so I won’t waste my time any further. Cheers!

      • arcseconds

        Bart Ehrman is being a little pedantic when he says he’s agnostic.

        He says that because he can’t prove the non-existence of some kind of supreme being. But he’s pretty certain that a God corresponding to any remotely traditional Christian notion does not exist, and he doesn’t think any kind supreme being is very likely either.

        This is exactly what many people who self-identify as ‘atheists’ say.

        • Erp

          He might think an ‘unkind supreme being’ could exist.

          However unless he chooses to call himself an ‘atheist’ I will not label him as such (except with caveats). BTW according to the Pew Forum survey there are a moderate number (5%) of self-identified atheists who do believe in a “God or a universal spirit” (at the fairly or absolutely certain level).

          • arcseconds

            Oh, sure, I’m just saying that there’s not actually much of a distinction between him and a self-identifying atheist in terms of belief, apart from not accepting the label due to a quibble. He’s even pretty open about this and says he’s basically an atheist when he clarifies, I think.

            Where this might be at issue is if someone wanted to establish the diversity of theistic commitment in biblical studies. ‘Agnostic’ could be easily interpreted as ’50/50 : maybe wants to believe in a god’ or something.

        • James

          Many people don’t know that agnosticism and atheism are two different positions on two different questions and that the two generally go hand-in-hand, but I’m sure Dr Ehrman knows that well.

          • arcseconds

            Lots of people treat them as answers to the same question: ‘is there a God?’. Atheism is “no”, agnostic is “dunno”.

            What makes those people wrong and you right?

          • James


            Atheism concerns with belief, agnosticism concerns knowledge. These two different concepts are often misused and abused in common parlance, much like YECs equivocating scientific theory with pure speculation. Nevertheless, words have meanings.

          • arcseconds

            Who defined these terms, and what gives them authority over the English language?

          • Erp

            Well Thomas Huxley coined the term ‘agnostic’ though whether the word continues to have the same meaning can be debated. Atheist is much older.

          • Matt Woodling

            What’s important is that people understand what you think. Arguing about the meaning of those words and then concluding from that what someone believes is silly. Find out from them what they believe and why. Then you can talk about whether or not you think they are correct.

            To conclude that what someone believes depends on your understanding of the label they use to describe themselves is silly.

          • arcseconds

            Wouldn’t this be better directed at James? He is the one insisting on a particular definition of atheism, not me.

  • The Eh’theist

    Which major mainstream translation today is a translation of an earlier translation?

    Do Catholic translations qualify as major mainstream translations for you?

    • Modern Catholic thanslations like the New Jerusalem Bible certainly do.

      • The Eh’theist

        When I read the original comment, the RSV-CE(2) and the NAB came to mind as being the closest to this idea, especially given the RSV-CE’s walking back of some of the original RSV scholarship, in favour of the Vulgate and some Catholic translation preferences.

        I’m not as familiar with the NJB (I consulted the JB on occasion to see how it worded things, but haven’t had the need of late to update) but I assume that the Catholic ‘preferences’ are at least still captured in the notes. The NABRE has moved more in that direction compared to the NAB.

        In terms of non-Catholic translations I would certainly agree with your comment. I currently use the Oxford NRSV when discussing with most people, and the AV when discussing with people who won’t listen to anything else. One could make the argument for the AV being a rework of a previous translation,but it isn’t a “major, mainstream translation” now.

        • Certainly there is influence from earlier translations on subsequent ones – especially earlier translations into the same language. I don’t have the impression that that is what the meme was referring to.

  • Cecil Bagpuss

    In order to understand atheist misinformation, one must understand the atheist mentality. This can be explored at Debunking Christianity. DC is not so much a discussion forum as an atheist support group. It is an environment where atheists can offer each other reassurance. An important part of this reassurance is cutting Jesus down to size. The best way of doing that is to show that Jesus never existed. Failing that, one must show that the Gospels are as unreliable as possible.

    A comment made at Debunking Christianity sums things up rather well. Someone said that Jesus may be based on a “few schizophrenics”. Isn’t it reassuring enough to know that the real Jesus was a nutcase? Apparently not. The power of Jesus is sufficiently diluted only when it is shared among several nutcases.

    • jjramsey

      What do you mean “the atheist mentality”? Atheists are hardly monolithic, and some, like Tim O’Neill, get really annoyed when they see atheists spread misinformation.

    • James

      Uh, no. The historicity of Jesus one way or another does nothing to support the extraordinary claim that he was divine. Joseph Smith, Rev. Sun Myung Moon, the founding gurus of Sikhism, the Bab, Abdul-Baha and Mohammed are all legitimate historical figures, to name a few, and each supposedly received supernatural truth directly from God. How do we know this? That’s what the historical record says. These various “supernatural truths” conflict with both one another and with Christianity, which is based upon evidentially similar anecdotal historical claims. No one other than believers in their respective religions consider mere historicity a good argument for their supernatural claims. To sort out which supernatural claim, if any, is correct, we need something better than a-contemporaneous, often inconsistent, often anonymous hearsay.

      Even if there was a wandering Jewish apocalyptic rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who preached rabbi ben Hillel’s golden rule, that does little to establish that Jesus had divine powers, much less was God Himself. Such claims can only be justified though evidence and the evidence is sorely lacking – hence the overreliance in theology on “faith.”

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        You seem to have misunderstood my comment. When I talked about the power of Jesus, I was referring to something whose non-existence the commenters at Debunking Christianity cannot completely convince themselves of. Hence the need for mutual reassurance.

    • Nathan Aldana

      speaking as an atheist I have no problem with the idea that a historical jesus of nazareth existed. I just dont see any compelling evidence he was divine in nature

      • Cecil Bagpuss

        That’s a reasonable position and probably the one to which most atheists adhere. The problem is that a minority of atheists are very keen on promoting the idea that Jesus never existed.

        • saab93f

          Is that actually odd at all since on the other side of the fence there are loads of people who are adamant that Jesus not only existed but was a deity?
          Considering the amount of animosity atheists encounter in the US it is hardly surprizing if there´d actually be a need for reassurance from fellow human beings.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            You do raise an interesting point. Perhaps atheists really do need this reassurance. I don’t live in the US; so I may not be able to appreciate the problem.

          • The view that Jesus existed but was not divine is not just the view that most atheists adhere to, it is the view that the overwhelming majority of scholars adhere to as the conclusion of their research into the matter. And that is at the heart of the point of this post – that most atheists accept the conclusions of scholarship, but some don’t, and the latter group, though small, is problematic, especially inasmuch as they tend to think of themselves not just as skeptics, but as “more skeptical” than other atheists who accept mainstream scholarship’s conclusions.

          • In what sense are they “problematic”? What problem do they present?

          • What I said at the end of my comment – that they show that there is a form of “skepticism” which actually embraces pseudoscholarship in much the same way that denialists among the religious do.

          • Why is that anyone’s problem but theirs? An assertion that a person was not a God perhaps because there was no person to begin with is at worst an abstruse exercise in point-scoring that does not reveal the predominant thinking of most of the atheist communities at issue and threatens none but the very weakest of faiths. This isn’t something that has policy or social implications, and beyond being wrong (which is something that everybody gets to do once in a while), and beyond the obviously flippant and exaggerated statement of the claim that one actually finds in memes like the one you posted, so what’s the actual issue?

          • I beg to differ. I am not concerned with purported threats to weak faith, but the fact that denialisms share common methods of casting doubt on the conclusions of experts, and it is easy to branch out from one to another, as we see in Bill Maher’s embrace of both Zeitgeist nonsense and antivaxxer claims, or Robert Price’s mythicism and sympathy towards 9/11 trutherism and things of that sort. The kind of approach to expertise that underpins young-earth creationism and anti-flouridation stances is also at work in mythicism and Holocaust denial, even if the latter may not have direct policy implications in the way the former pair do. The issue is the overall impact of people being satisfied with shoddy arguments and inadequate evidence, which sooner or later does impact policy, and so should never be ignored.

          • Others on the thread have covered amply how these comparisons are not particularly apt due to extent (it really isn’t serious the way that anti-vaxxing and trutherism et al. are). I’d also like to point out that the expertise in question here is not epistemologically similar enough to science denialism to consider them manifestations of the same phenomenon. To wit, most (perhaps the vast majority) of scholars in the field of NT historicity are themselves believers in the God they purport to study. Because of that, there is plenty of space there to question bias (especially the presence of unconscious bias) that wouldn’t necessarily be in play with a more quantitative discipline or falsifiable claim.

          • arcseconds

            They’re the same phenomenon.

            In all cases most of the people are asserting something on the basis of ignorance, that’s promulgated by members of the community they trust, and speaks against a community or similar that they distrust.

            They all accuse the mainstream experts of vested interests.

            The Christian bias is just the mythicist’s version of that. The creationist’s is that mainstream biologists are prejudicially committed to a naturalistic world-view. These are just mirror images of one another: in both cases the researcher’s worldview is presumed to shape their activity so completely that they’re unable to respond to the evidence appropriately.

            In both cases, though, the experts are promoting a view that is the result of decades of research, and the accusation of bias only seems reasonable because people have no familiarity with the field, its history, or how it has come to the conclusions they make.

            And in both cases it’s notable that the mainstream view is supported by people with different faith commitments, and in fact in spite of their faith commitments in some cases.

            Part of the ignorance in the case of mythicists is that they seem to think that the Christian scholars are all continuing to assert the existence of the Gospel Jesus. As we have seen, it’s actually quite difficult for many atheists to conceive of a Christian that does not do that.

            But mainstream Christian biblical scholars have largely rejected the notion of the Gospel Jesus, at least as far as what can be historically asserted.

            And for a Christian to agree that the historical Jesus worked no miracles, was not prescient, and didn’t rise from the dead is already going against every important claim made by traditional Christianity.

            They have already thrown away the traditional view so completely, so I don’t see how the presumed bias is supposed to operate any more. What use is it to a Christian biased towards traditional Christian views to assert the existence of an ordinary man who was wrong about a lot of things and go crucified? The historical Jesus is an embarrassment to this view, and arguably they would, in fact, better off asserting that there was no historical Jesus, or at least that the historical Jesus is totally uncoverable, and turn their attention entirely to the Jesus of the texts.

            And biblical scholarship and theology has already been down that route…

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Why is it a problem for anyone but atheists themselves? I think you have answered your own question by accusing NT scholars of bias. The accusation is frequently made not just elsewhere but on this very blog, whose owner is an NT scholar. Wouldn’t scholars in any field want to correct such a misconception?

            But there is something that puzzles me. Are atheists upset because they don’t want people to think that something as foolish as mythicism is more widespread in their community than it really is? Or are they upset because they don’t think mythicism is foolish at all and object to it being characterised as such?

            If the myth theory is actually entirely reasonable, contrary to the opinion of virtually all biblical scholars, then it wouldn’t really matter if its prevalence in the atheist community was overestimated, would it? It seems that atheists want to have their cake and eat it. Even atheists who wouldn’t endorse mythicism have a sneaking hope that it will be vindicated, while playing down its popularity in their community.

          • As I said, training one’s mind to believe nonsense even in a relatively inconsequential matter can have more serious consequences when you later approach another matter the same way. This is not a new point, as you will know if you have read Clifford’s classic essay, “The Ethics of Belief.”

            And so I am disturbed that you decided to take another step down the denialist path. You have chosen to accuse an entire field of scholars of bias, in order to defend the accuracy of a meme with a quote from a comedian. I would recommend strongly that you approach this differently, and consult an agnostic or atheist scholar in this area, such as Bart Ehrman, to see whether the professionals in this area (I am not talking here about people at faith-based institutions, but about secular scholarship) have a consensus, and if so, whether it is one that can genuinely and legitimately be accused of bias, conscious or unconcious, aimed at supporting Christianity.

          • This is not a new point, as you will know if you have read Clifford’s classic essay, “The Ethics of Belief.”

            A Cliffordian Christian? I guess that’s about as weird as me being a Jamesan atheist. Clifford overstates his claims pretty badly, as William James points out ably in “The Will to Believe”. There are many circumstances in which a position can, and indeed should, be adopted prior to or entirely absent from conclusive evidence of its truth.

            And so I am disturbed that you decided to take another step down the denialist path.

            Your concern for my intellectual soul is touching.

            You have chosen to accuse an entire field of scholars of bias…

            No, I didn’t. I said that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that the entire field of scholars in this instance might be biased, due to their worship of the subject of study. And while I do not agree with mythicists in the details, they are not wrong to point out that mythicist positions, even if they were supported by copious evidence, would not be received warmly by the scholarly community whose members are personally invested in the truth of Jesus Christ as God’s son and their Savior.

            I would recommend strongly that you approach this differently, and consult an agnostic or atheist scholar in this area, such as Bart Ehrman, to see whether the professionals in this area (I am not talking here about people at faith-based institutions, but about secular scholarship) have a consensus, and if so, whether it is one that can genuinely and legitimately be accused of bias, conscious or unconcious, aimed at supporting Christianity.

            To me, as to most atheists, the actual existence of Jesus is trivia. I’ve read many approaches on the subject (including Ehrman), and I personally don’t hold as jaundiced a view of the theological academy as many of my compatriots. But I do not blame them for doing so, since they have sufficient and plausible reasons to remain skeptical of the neutrality of that academy. It is much like, the African-American community has been experimented on medically, horribly, for years (Tuskeegee et al.) and so I have more sympathy for a person from that community being skeptical that the predominantly white medical establishment truly has their best interests in mind than I might for the skepticism of a suburban white anti-vaxxer who doesn’t like vaccines because woo.

          • I think I see why we have had such a disconnect in our communication. Have you been assuming that I am a representative of the “theological academy”? I’m not, although I have taught at such institutions in the past, but as a result of that experience, I am currently vocal in my questioning of whether anything deserves to be called “research” if it is undertaken in a context in which a statement of faith dictates in advance what are and are not acceptable conclusions. But there are a great many individuals in the secular academy, including both current and former people of faith, who have the honesty and academic integrity to follow the evidence where it leads.

            I have been talking throughout about the conclusions of secular scholarship, while your responses seem to have been about theological and sectarian scholarship.

          • And I’m saying that there is space to believe, justifiably, that that is a distinction without a difference when the personal commitment of the researchers is identical. We aren’t talking about conclusions reached primarily through history or archaeology or anthropology, but through theology.

            The reason why the question seems like such a cipher, particularly to atheists, is that since we have copious evidence of itinerant apocalyptic Jewish preachers in the vicinity of Jerusalem at the time in which the gospels are set, it stands to reason that one of them would have a name like Joshua or Jesus and got a bit popular and then got killed, and like Socrates, was lucky enough to have his own scrappy team of Platos to tell his tale and make his points into perpetuity.

            But this is basically an empty claim because of its triviality. What would make the claim meaningful is also what would put it beyond the scope of history or archaeology or anthropology, which is attaching any of the supernatural (or at least, if you like, metaphysically fuzzy) bits of the NT narrative and then trying to situate those events in reality. Then you run into obvious problems, like all the dead of Jerusalem getting up and walking around but no contemporary source, you know, noticing or writing it down.

            Defending the historicity of Jesus without delving into supernaturalism is basically pointless for that reason. It changes very little, from an atheist perspective, whether the story was based around a real person, a kaleidoscopic collage of similar people, or a myth made from whole cloth, since they all lead to the same conclusion. The only people who have reason to care, in the Jamesan sense (it is a live question and option) are Christians. And so given the sheer energy with which cases are made as to historicity, and the vehemence with which mythicism is castigated (beyond being a hypothesis in likely error), it is very hard to take claims of neutral scholarship on the matter seriously.

          • Perhaps you have been imagining yourself to be having a different conversation with a different person. I have been talking about the conclusions of history, archaeology, and textual criticism, and most certainly not theology. And it is simply not true that the point and relevance of historical study vanishes because the miraculous and supernatural is set aside as inherently unlikely. You are free not to care about history, but that does not mean that others will not or should not.

          • What on earth are you talking about? Josephus and Tacitus, if you even take them at face value (and which, you know full well, shouldn’t be), only get you to corroboration that there are folk who followed a preacher named Jesus and called him Christ. That’s the beginning and end of the independent historical record. Archaeology gets you to the conclusion that, yes, there were several itinerant apocalyptic Jewish preachers in and around Jerusalem. Textual criticism gets you, at best, to more-or-less dismiss the Johnnanine gospel and focus on Mark and Q, neither of which are plausibly eye-witness accounts, and so are useless for historical confirmation of existence. Textual criticism, given this, is useful only for trying to construct a unified narrative of the Jesus character through the gospels and acts, and does not bear effectively on the existence question. It’s not that historical or textual study vanishes once supernaturalism is set aside, it’s just that it leaves an entirely unremarkable claim that even unexamined is almost certainly true and is, on that basis, not particularly interesting aside from its theological implications (it’s hard to believe in a savior who is a figment of myth).

            Jesus probably existed, in the sense that there was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who caught on with disgruntled Jews and gentiles and was subsequently killed (alongside many others); it’s a conclusion compelled by parsimony, and little else, because the claim itself is so bare and, as stated, quite probable because of the conditions that pertained at the time and place in which the story is set. History doesn’t get you there, and archaeology doesn’t get you there, unless you stretch the meanings of those words beyond the disciplines that they normally denote. If you have historical or archaeological evidence that is quite apart from the NT text, Josephus, and Tacitus, by all means publish it; it will make you famous and wealthy beyond measure.

          • Again, you seem to be having a different conversation with someone other than me.

          • You claimed that history and archaeology and critical textual analysis gets us to an historical Jesus. You claimed this in direct contradiction to my assertion that those disciplines only get you to an historic generic-apocalyptic-Jewish-preacher-in-Judaea.

            So, where is this dynamite historical-archaeological-critical theory argument that gets you over the hump to Jesus as something other than literally a guess in service to parsimony in storytelling? Are we still having two different conversations, or are you blustering because you don’t actually have a response?

          • Once again, I think you may have commented in response to the wrong person. But in response to your comment, it seems odd to say that the study of the evidence only gets one to a “generic” apocalyptic Jewish preacher in Judaea. Why not also in Galilee, and how is this allegedly “generic” figure not the historical Jesus about whom historians and other scholars write?

          • Because–and this we do know from archaeology and history–apocalyptic Jewish preachers were a-dime-a-dozen at that time and in that general area; there’s even another one besides Jesus described in the NT. It’s approximately as startling a claim as asserting that in the late 19th century, there were Mormon priests in Utah. So, having proved that there are Mormon priests in Utah, do you think that such a showing is sufficient on its own to make claims about a particular storied Mormon priest? Do we get to claim that since there are references to Mormons in Utah in the 19th century, then obviously at least some of those references must be directly related to the particular priest at issue?

          • When we have a source mentioning a particular Mormon by name, or better still multiple sources, then we might well be able to say that individual is likely to have been historical, and not only the category to which he belonged. Indeed, often we deduce the existence of a category from the individuals mentioned rather than the other way around. It all depends what the evidence justifies as a conclusion.

          • The problem is not that the name is tied to a discrete individual. It’s that it’s tied to many discrete individuals. Joshua is not a rare name for the time (there are other Yeshuouas and Yeshuas and Joshuas mentioned by one roughly contemporary writer or another, which in turn is not surprising since the OT features a Joshua and is a well-attested Hebrew name, Hellenized when appropriate), much like if we were to look for a Mormon Priest in Utah, and we knew his followers purportedly called him Bob. The problem isn’t that there isn’t a Robert who matches, historically, it’s that there are likely several such Bobs. How are we to know, with the incidental evidence so scarce, which mention is likely to line up with the particular Robert we’re interested instead of an incidental Bob?

          • I’m not sure what your point is. Certainly in later rabbinic sources we see a number of Joshuas blurred together into Yeshu ha Notzri. But you seem to be suggesting something else, and I cannot quite figure out what. You are not suggesting that the Gospels, Paul, and Josephus were all referring to different but very similar individuals, are you? And presumably you are not suggesting that we cannot draw conclusions about someone named Joshua or Paul because other people in their time had the same name, are you?

  • Brad Feaker

    Which kings had things removed?

    I would suggest reading “Constantine’s Bible: Politics and the Making of the New Testament” by David L. Dungan

    • I’m familiar with it. What in the meme do you believe it supports, and why?

      • Brad Feaker

        I am not referring to a specific meme. Just pointing out that you incorrectly called out that part of the meme in question.


        • I have pulled the book off the shelf. If you can give me some clue as to what you think provides an example of a king (presumably Constantine) not merely influencing the developing canon, but having his favorite parts removed, please let me know where to find it.

  • Michael Wilson

    I disagree with lumping atheists together in a sort of quasi religion. Many are thoughtful but in our new open market of religious ideas certainly many semi-educated louts are checking the atheist box.

    The quote is a bit of a generalization, but I don’t think its that far off. It’s meant to counter fundamentalists ideas of inerrancy which is most if what atheists meme makers know about religion. It does however play with the silly but popular idea that Constantine and the popes (and king James, etc) made the bible what ever they wanted.

  • EdmondWherever

    The fact that Christians are sometimes wrong, and cling stubbornly to beliefs even when they are wrong, cannot be considered decisive proof that Christianity is wrong about everything.

    Of course not. But the talking animals, resurrections, and general magic in the Bible certainly help suggest that Christianity is wrong. The vast disagreement among Christians about biblical dogma also contributes to this doubt. Christianity is pure speculation, and every Christian appears empowered to interpret scripture to their personal liking.

    If it could, then the atheist penchant to do exactly the same thing would be proof that atheists are wrong about everything, too, wouldn’t it?

    Atheists are simply people who have heard stories about gods, and have found them to be unconvincing. There’s nothing to be wrong about. Atheism isn’t an absolute claim of knowledge that zero gods exist. It’s a claim that someone else’s claim seems implausible.

    • I agree with atheists when they say that belief in the supernatural based on stories from the past, or even from the present, is problematic. But is it more problematic than what the meme does, which is to not depict even remotely accurately that which we know based on historical evidence?

      • EdmondWherever

        Yes. It’s more problematic that people accept ancient fables with magic and talking animals as if they were true, than it is for people to mildly misrepresent the timeline of the compilation of the Bible. However inaccurate the meme is, it touches on many truths. We do know that the Bible represents several layers of translation, often of ancient texts we no longer have any original copies of. It’s known that many candidate writings were deliberately selected for exclusion because they didn’t uphold the intended narrative, and some of these writings were even destroyed, irreplaceably, so that they could not contradict the selected portions. Kings, popes and emperors had their hands in compiling the book, each of them with their own agendas. Many of the authors of the books of the Bible are not even known.

        People who claim to live by the Bible are the primary source of discrimination against gays, legislation against female bodily sovereignty, and a complete disregard for science in public classrooms. This is highly problematic. Not all Christians are like this, of course, but the interpretability of the Bible makes it very personally customizable to almost any point of view. This opens it up for use by all manner of crackpots and radicals, like the WBC. It’s more problematic because these examples are actual problems. I can’t even think of one problem that’s created by not knowing the exact year a piece of scripture was written after an event it depicts. But our country is in turmoil partly because of the people who insist that everything in the Bible is true, handed down by the Creator of the Universe, and that everyone else is compelled to live by its commands.

        • I appreciate that this comment acknowledges that the stance of American fundamentalist Christians would probably be very similar regardless of what is in the Bible, never mind how it got to be that way. But I do not find that most of the details in the meme about what is involved in translation, or the purported post-compositional editing, matches what we find in history. Perhaps you could indicate which specific claims you think are correct and worth defending?

        • Korou

          Thank you for that comment. Hit the nail on the head!

  • As you know, I am an atheist; a theologically trained atheist. I’ve argued that if atheists are going to critique Christianity then they should spend time trying to understand its teachings (in all its various forms). One atheist told me that there is no need to do so since Christianity is a myth.

    I’m often embarrassed by things notable atheists say about Christianity and the Bible. That said, there are plenty of errant anti-atheist memes floating around that are every bit bad as this one.

    I suspect the King in this meme is King James. He and the translators of the King James Bible certainly gave the text an Anglican-friendly translation.

  • Brian Westley

    If you’re going to object to a lack of rigor in arguments, why are you quoting a comedian?

    • It doesn’t say “just kidding” at the end, and just like Bill Maher’s stuff, there are people who will assume it is factually correct.

      • Brian Westley

        That’s your serious answer? I think you just didn’t know David Cross was a comedian; either that, or you did know, and you left out that rather significant bit of information on purpose.

        • When Bill Maher spouts nonsense he got from the Zeitgeist movie, or antivaxxers, is it less problematic because he is a comedian? I am not sure what your point is here.

          • Brian Westley

            It’s from a standup routine of his, “Bigger and Blackerer”. It’s a JOKE. It’s MEANT as a joke. Why are you taking it at all seriously?

          • It doesn’t sound like a joke, but if your claim is that Cross is a poor comedian rather than someone poorly informed about the Bible, I will concede that as a possibility.

          • Brian Westley

            Well, it gets laughs in the special, you can find that exact bit on youtube.

          • Erp

            Brian, can you be a bit more specific. A quick check shows that “Bigger and Blackerer” is over an hour long and this is probably from one specific sketch. I note the Wikipedia article lists the individual sketches.

            Is it the one at


          • Brian Westley


          • arcseconds

            I guess it must all be in the delivery…

          • Nick Gotts

            Well that does often make a difference in comedy. Which also often involves exaggeration for effect. But it probably helps to have a sense of humour to appreciate these subtle points.

          • arcseconds

            I’m afraid the joke’s on you, Nick!

            You either haven’t got my joke, or you did and you decided to insult me anyway in a bad-humoured and not very funny way.

            So there is indeed something funny about your reply, but it’s the unintentional irony of demonstrating you in fact don’t have a sense of humour 🙂

          • Nick Gotts

            Indeed I didn’t get your joke. Do explain. But of course if you have to explain a joke, it’s probably not a very good one.

          • arcseconds

            Ah! So as the Cross thing had to be explained, that also isn’t a very good joke.

            Glad you agree with James and me on that point.

          • Nick Gotts

            I don’t have an opinion on the quality of Cross’s joke, since I haven’t heard it told as part of his routine. But in the absence of an explanation of yours, I’ll throw this open. Anyone else understand the “joke” in arcseconds’ comment:

            I guess it must all be in the delivery…

          • arcseconds

            But we weren’t exposed to it as part of the routine, we were exposed to it in a meme.

            Are you actually that curious into what makes an offhand remark of mine funny, or are you just bizarrely invested in showing me up?

          • Nick Gotts

            We weren’t exposed to it as part of routine, but it’s clearly unfair to judge its quality as a joke out of that context, as both you and James McGrath have done; and unfair to David Cross to use it as the basis of this blog post in the first place, without bothering to check the context.

            or are you just bizarrely invested in showing me up?

            Now coming from you, that is funny!

          • arcseconds

            There are rules as to when you can critique jokes?

            Maybe you’d better explain this to me, because it certainly isn’t obvious to me at all!

            As another data point, maybe you can also explain why it’s not fair for us to critique Cross’s joke, but it is fair for you to critique my joke in this context?

          • Nick Gotts

            I have already explained why your “critique”, and James’s, were unfair, as you well know: a stand-up comedian’s jokes are often a lot funnier when delivered as part of a routine, than in print. As for your “joke”, if there was one, we have the full context in front of us.

          • arcseconds

            I’m sorry you feel I’m invested in showing you up, but the fact is that you’re frequently a bit of a grouch, and, moreover, a big ol’ meanie.

            On occasions such as right now!

            Was there any point to your initial reply, apart from to be mean to me?

            Maybe I’ve got you all wrong, and you’re just trying to be helpful, or something… now’s the time to tell me!

          • Nick Gotts

            You responded to the mildest of teases as if it were a serious insult. I think that says a lot more about you than about me. And I think you lied when you claimed that I missed a joke. Of course you (or anyone else) can prove me wrong on that point, in which case I will apologise.

            Edited to add: I see I did not answer your question about the point of my orignal response. I interpreted your response to Brian as sarcastic (I think correctly), and wished to make clear that despite that, what you said was, in fact, a real possibility. I also wished to draw attention to another common facet of humour – the use of exaggeration for comic effect. I admit I also took the opportunity for a bit of snark at your expense – which I should perhaps have avoided, taking into account how touchy you are. But then, it did give you an opportunity for exercising your most marked talent, so there’s that.

          • arcseconds

            We have the sort of relationship that we can tease each other with impunity? This is the best news I’ve had all day, Nick! I mean, I’ve been passing up opportunities to have a dig at you for months, because I thought you didn’t like it, and it annoyed you greatly!

            Frankly, our past history together did not suggest this, and neither does the way you behave in general. I’ve never seen you engage in banter or fun; the only jokes you ever seem to make are sarcastic jibes at other people’s expense.

            Moreover, didactically explaining something that’s perfectly obvious and implied very clearly in what I had just said (and, in fact, intended) does not seem like a ‘mild tease’, to me, I’m afraid. It seems like you think I’m a bit thick and I need something explained to me.

            So if you genuinely intended this as a mild tease, well, your delivery needs work!

            Try to sound a bit less like a dictionary or a really boring theatre critic next time.

            Also, I never claimed you didn’t get the joke, although your response gave no indication that you did. I gave that as one of two possible options: the other being that you were just deliberately trying to insult me.

            I’m not quite sure where you think I’m overreacting.

            Despite seeming grouchy and bad-humoured and just plain insulting, I treated your remark with all the seriousness it deserved: none whatsoever!

            And I responded just as if it were a piece of banter: by turning it back on to you. I would have done exactly the same had it been someone where I was quite sure it was a joke.

            So if that’s what you think overreacting is, it’s a naked double-standard: you mildly tease, but if I respond with the same tease, I’m taking it seriously!

            But what happened after that cannot be interpreted as a mild tease at all: you went ‘public’ to get the rest of the community to weigh in on my joke. This is not a mild tease, it’s an attempt at public humiliation. There is no way going “hey everyone! Is there anything funny about this at all?” is a mild tease.

            That’s when I asked what on earth you thought you were doing. I was in fact being charitable here: I thought maybe you missed the fact it was a joke completely, and got confused and were getting upset because I was biting back.

            And now it turns out you understood it was a joke all along, so this whole thing looks like a desperate attempt to show me up, just like I thought. You’re still trying to suggest it’s not recognisable as a joke, despite the fact you recognised it as one!

            Now, to be absolutely clear about this, I don’t care. I mean, the whole thing is completely laughable: there’s no way that trying to publically humiliate me because a passing quip wasn’t absolutely hilarious can look anything other than ridiculous. Maybe this could nevertheless work in a community where you’re respected and I’m not, but here it’s the other way around.

            It’s painful to have to go over this in such detail, but as you seem to be confused about even your own role in this, it seems I had little choice.

          • Nick Gotts

            Yeah, yeah. You “don’t care”. That’s why you had “to go over this in such detail”, painful as it was. I don’t think you’re fooling anyone, even yourself. But I apologise for accusing you of lying about your “joke”: apparently you just don’t know the difference between sarcasm and joking, which is unsurprising.

          • arcseconds

            Apology accepted! I mean, it’s obviously no use discussing humour with you, as you appear to think didactically explaining things I clearly understand already is funny. Ironic that you think I’m the one lacking a sense of humour.

            Now, what about the attempt at public humiliation? And trying to pass my incredulous question off as overreacting to a mild tease?

            Or am I just going to have to accept the fact you’re an unapologetic bully?

            (I mean, it is classic bully behaviour, after all… )

          • Nick Gotts

            Bullies don’t generally pick on those they know are well able to fight back. And non-bullies may well tease the smug, pompous, and self-righteous.

          • arcseconds

            Standard excuse of a bully: “I was only teasing”.

            Public humiliation never counts as ‘teasing’.

            If there is any doubt about this, try what you just tried on me next time you’re in company and someone makes a joke that you don’t think is all that funny. Stop the conversation, and ask everyone if they can see what the joke is.

            Then tell them you were just teasing.

            You must understand this at some level, surely… hopefully you’re just doubling-down because you don’t want to deviate from your ‘just teasing’ message.

          • Nick Gotts

            My apppeal to other commenters was a response to your very annoying refusal to explain the “joke” – understandable, as it turns out, because there wasn’t a joke at all, just – as I initially thought, and as I responded to, a piece of sarcasm. Sarcasm which I thought misplaced, because it could indeed well be that the humour of Cross’s words was all, or mainly, in the delivery. And I note that no-one else seems to have thought there was a joke either – and I really did think, given your insistence, that maybe there was a joke I had missed, perhaps in the context of something else in this thread, or an earlier one, or even somewhere else entirely – it could have been a catch-phrase from a show I don’t watch but many people do, for example. Presumably, no-one else here shares your delusion that there is no difference between sarcasm and jokes. As for attempts at public humiliation of others – you really do completely lack self-awareness in some respects, don’t you? I suppose that’s necessary if one is to achieve your level of self-righteous smugness.

            Now, as I know from experience that you are prepared to continue this sort of exchange indefinitely, I’ll try not even to see your response, to avoid the temptation to respond in turn – although as this thread still has other discussions going on, I won’t promise.

            Edited to add: My original snark about you not having a sense of humour was a response to you judging Cross’s joke as not funny on the basis of seeing it in print, not hearing it in the context of his routine. That does indeed indicate either a lack of a sense of humour, or an unfair determination to insist that the joke in question is of poor quality. Or, of course, both.

          • arcseconds

            So you were actually so intent on getting an explanation for the joke, and not trying to show me up!

            So why, when I asked you about this, did you refuse to answer, and instead insult me again?

            That just confirmed in my mind that it was an attempt at public humiliation.

            You do need to understand that when you open with an insult, follow up with something that’s plausibly interpreted as public humiliation, then respond with another insult when asked to explain yourself, the obvious conclusion is that you’re not trying to have an honest discussion, or even a bit of fun banter, but are just trying to be hurtful.

            Also, it’s rather odd behaviour to get this obsessive about some random quip. If you don’t understand it, and it’s not being explained to you, then why not just leave it?

          • arcseconds

            Also, you had already said you thought it was probably a bad joke. why would I want to explain anything to anyone who had already started off so negative about it?

            The problem here basically, nick, is that you appear to think that interacting with me is all about getting what you want: you get to insult me, disparage my humour, get explanations, call everyone else in if you’re not getting what you want from me, not answer my questions about why you’re doing any of this.

            Apparently what I’m supposed to do is to just take it all on the chin and give you exactly what you want, all the time!

            Well, in case it’s not already obvious to you, not gonna.

          • arcseconds

            Moreover, it’s particularly cruel to do this to someone who you believe is touchy and over-sensitive.

          • Nick Gotts

            I didn’t say “over-sensitive”. And being “touchy” can be a correlate of being smug, pompous and self-righteous.

          • Nick Gotts

            It would have been sensible to make an attempt to find the context of the quote before basing a blog post on it.

          • The quote was circulating independently of whatever its original context may have been. On this blog I deal with early Christian literature in a historical and contextual manner, but I often also address what people do with small snippets of that literature taken out of context. The need for the one does not necessarily eliminate the need for the other.

          • Nick Gotts

            First, that does not justify misrepresenting David Cross, treating his joke as if it was intended to be taken literally. You are, rightly, very hot on the need to consider genre, when assessing Biblical text. But apparently careless misrepresentation is just fine when it comes to an atheist comedian. When you make an error like this, the sensible thing to do is to insert a correction in the post, apologise if the misrepresentation is bad enough, and move on.

            Second, where was it circulating? The image has the label “Atheist Republic”, but I can’t find it there – others may have better luck. Searches for “David Cross”, “re-re-edited” and “re-translated and re-edited again” did not find it, and Cross is not listed among authors represented in the gallery. A google search on the phrase “re-translated and re-edited again” brings up exactly 6 results, which hardly suggests it’s the atheist meme du jour. The only individuals we know are circulating it are you and your friend.

          • arcseconds

            Well, it would be lovely to believe that everyone thinks this is humorous nonsense, but unfortunately it’s one of those poe’s law things, where something said in jest doesn’t seem that far removed from what people actually say.

            Is it in fact a joke that no-one believes and is just a bit of harmless fun do you think, or is it one of those jokes which is delivered humourously, but people are going “HAhahah .. funny exaggeration, but it’s so true”, a bit like racist jokes?

            Given that it seems to appear in collections of memes bashing Christians with titles like Religion is a Fraud, and that people actually do have some very strange ideas about how the Bible was put together, I’m kind of inclined to believe that this isn’t actually harmless fun after all…

          • Brian Westley

            Well, I’m of the opinion that if you want your criticism to be taken seriously, you criticize serious things, and not obvious jokes (and yes, it IS obviously a joke). It would be like quoting Katt Williams to show how stupid god-believers are about evolution.

            And here’s a meme someone made of Williams:

          • The Eh’theist

            So, if I understand correctly, every time you see a meme on the Internet, you research its origins before responding to it, in case it was created by someone who was a comedian, or had some other background that would require it to be taken as a joke, and then temper your response to the results of that research. You’ve found this to be the best use of your time, and that it has generated positive results for you.

            Given that you always undertake this sort of research, you feel it would be beneficial for others to do the same, and therefore you’ve come to commend this beneficial practice to all of us.

            Have I properly assessed your intent?

          • Brian Westley

            So, if I understand correctly, every time you see a meme on the Internet, you research its origins before responding to it

            If I’m going to reply to it as some sort of serious statement, yes. There are plenty of fake founders’ quotes out there, for just one example.

          • The Eh’theist

            Ok, but that brings up the reality that researching these quotes will bring up sources who accept the quotes as true, and sources that consider them to be spurious. Depending on how Google shakes out for a person you might get a mix of both, or a single point of view on the quote.

            So we get a mixed response to our research. Likewise, we can’t depend on seeing someone’s name to assume their intent. You point out that Cook is a comedian, but without seeing the comedy special, one doesn’t know if he was doing a bit or speaking seriously. If I give you a quote about the US government by Al Franken, are you going to interpret it based on his identity as a politician, or by his identity as a staff writer on SNL?

            Yes more research can be done to determine the time period and context, but what are the bounds of reasonable review? Likewise if we see others accepting the information at face value and propagating it as true (like Barton with the Fathers quotes) it makes sense to address those comments in a serious way when dealing with that particular audience, while working to convince them of their falsity.

            At some point we have to move from an ideal process to take into account people’s real usage, and the realities of time constraints and prioritization.

          • Brian Westley

            Ok, but that brings up the reality that researching these quotes will bring up sources who accept the quotes as true

            Well, David Cross really DID say that quote in a standup routine. But it’s obviously a joke. It has a punchline.

            At some point we have to move from an ideal process to take into account people’s real usage, and the realities of time constraints and prioritization.

            How does taking standup routines as if they were serious arguments help?

          • arcseconds

            Well, that’s obviously not true. You can tell a lot about a community by the kinds of jokes they make.

            I’m sure we can all see that there’s some kind of humorous intent here: a sarcastic jibe at the very least. My question is to what extent to people take it seriously?

            Do they think it’s just a piece of silliness, like Monty Python’s ‘Parrot Sketch’? Or do they think that it’s substantially true, even if cast in a humorous form?

            As there are people right here in this very comment thread who are defending the notion that it is a game of broken telephone, it seems that the answer is that some people do in fact think it’s substantially true.

          • Brian Westley

            And you can tell a lot about a community when someone responds to a joke as if it were serious, and doesn’t reveal the fact that it was said by a comedian.

            As there are people right here in this very comment thread who are defending the notion that it is a game of broken telephone, it seems that the answer is that some people do in fact think it’s substantially true.

            But James F. McGrath was trying to point out specific things wrong — “Which kings had things removed? Which major mainstream translation today is a translation of an earlier translation?” And it’s a comedy bit.

            It can be substantially true in the sense it’s like a game of telephone, without any of Cross’ specific statements being true. Which is why it’s ridiculous to respond to a comedy bit as if it was serious.

          • arcseconds

            Well, I’m glad you now accept that of course you can discuss a joke seriously.

            Unfortunately, as we’ve already tried to explain to you, religion-critiquing atheists believe in all sorts of preposterous, unhistorical notions, like Jesus being Horus in drag.

            Cross may or may not have thought it was literally true. Hopefully he doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter: believing this story as being literally true is well within the nonsense that many atheists already spout, so when they post this around the internet, it isn’t possible for us to know that they don’t believe the history was actually like this.

            It’s Poe’s Law, I’m afraid.

          • Brian Westley

            Well, I’m glad you now accept that of course you can discuss a joke seriously.

            Only the parts that make sense.

            Unfortunately, as we’ve already tried to explain to you, religion-critiquing atheists believe in all sorts of preposterous, unhistorical notions, like Jesus being Horus in drag.

            Hey, bring in that red herring.

            Cross may or may not have thought it was literally true. Hopefully he doesn’t. But it doesn’t matter: believing this story as being literally true is well within the nonsense that many atheists already spout, so when they post this around the internet, it isn’t possible for us to know that they don’t believe the history was actually like this.

            So, how about all those idiot Christians who ask, if human descended from apes, why are there still apes?

          • And with that bit of tu quoque, we return to the point of my original post.

          • Brian Westley

            Yes, taking a joke as if it was meant seriously, and not identifying that it was said by a comedian during a comedy routine.

            PS: and my reply was a parody of a tu quoque, as I only used it to show how stupid it is to tar a group using a bit from a comedian’s standup routine. I certainly don’t consider Katt Williams to be a serious anything.

          • arcseconds

            It’s hardly a red herring; I’ve already explained it’s relevance.

            It doesn’t stop being relevant just because you don’t want it to be.

            And yes, the same thing applies to Christians. Do you think they’re joking when they say that?

            If so, I’m jealous… it must be a much happier world you live in, where all the ridiculous things people say are jokes.

          • Brian Westley

            No, it IS a red herring — the fact that some atheists believe any sort of false things does not justify critiquing a comedy bit as if it was offered seriously.

            And yes, the same thing applies to Christians. Do you think they’re joking when they say that?

            I would reply to Christians who actually say that — what I would NOT do it reprint the Williams meme and create a straw man to attack.

          • arcseconds

            You’re not actually bothering to listen to a thing I say, are you?

            The question is not is it a joke, but how seriously people take the content. You only have a point if no-one takes the content seriously.

            Even if they think it’s a joke, they can certainly still take the content perfectly seriously. A good comedian can make things that are entirely factual seem hilarious — take Flanders and Swan’s ‘The First and Second Law of Thermodynamics’ for example, or Monty Python’s ‘The Oliver Cromwell Song’.

            Also, being intended as a joke is not a transitive property. Just because Cross thought it was humorous nonsense (on the charitable assumption that he does), does not mean that the people who made the meme thought it was. And if the people who made the meme thought it was humorous nonsense, does not mean those who post it do.

            So the question is, do we have any reason to believe that people take the content seriously?

            Well, yes, we do. We know that they believe in other historical nonsense that is just as ridiculous. So there is no guarantee that they think this is ridiculous, and every chance they think it’s broadly accurate, especially as you can see it up among other memes and statements that they do agree with.

            So, you know, not a red herring.

            (Feel free to put “it’s a red herring” in bold, if you like, but typography isn’t a convincing argument, I always find. )

            And also… there’s someone right here who is asserting the punchline as fact, so you know, we have firm proof that at least one person is taking it seriously. You seem to think that this can be taken seriously… but why? Surely the punchline of the joke is a ‘comedy bit’, if any of it is. And if someone takes the punchline seriously, what stops them taking the rest of the joke seriously?

            It’d be nice if you could actually respond to this argument, not just repeat assertions that I’ve already responded to…

          • Brian Westley

            The question is not is it a joke, but how seriously people take the content.

            I say that IS part of it, since McGrath didn’t point out that the quote was from a comedy routine. Now, since he didn’t cite any actual use of it by atheists, and only quoted a friend of his who used it to tar ALL atheists, as if ALL atheists “are not students of history and historical criticism”, the entire exercise was utter claptrap on McGrath’s part from the start.

          • arcseconds

            That it’s from a comedy routine might give us reason to believe it’s just all nonsense through and through and everyone understands that, but unfortunately there are good reasons to believe otherwise.

            Actually, I’m almost inclined to say that Cross is being irresponsible (if he knows this to be substantially false) or unknowingly perpetrating falsehoods (if he thinks it’s broadly true). The level of ignorance about the history of the Bible among people who have strong opinions about it is quite startling.

            Making jokes that involve widespread misunderstandings as an unexamined premise just encourage the misunderstanding.

            I’d be saying exactly this if he was making a joke that had anti-vaxxing as such a premise, too. Too many people are anti-vaxxes for us to accept a joke that relies on such a premise as being harmless nonsense that we don’t need to (and moreover, aren’t permitted to) critique.

          • Brian Westley

            How does that excuse McGrath not identifying Cross as a comedian from the outset? How does that excuse McGrath for his approving quote from a friend of his that managed to tar ALL atheists with a hasty generalization fallacy?

            It is completely dishonest to suggest that atheists “are not students of history and historical criticism” based on this.

          • Did you even read the original post? Did you just badly misunderstand it?

          • Brian Westley

            Did you even read the original post? Did you just badly misunderstand it?

            1) you did not identify David Cross as a comedian nor that the quote was from one of his standup routines.
            2) You quoted your friend using the mere existence of this meme to justify tarring all atheists as “not students of history and historical criticism”.

            And now you’re trying to say I “misunderstood” it.

            Where did you identify David Cross as a comedian? You didn’t.
            Where did you disclaim your friend’s tarring of all atheists because this meme exists?

          • Since there are people who take what comedians say seriously, I did not feel that was relevant, since he is not at any rate identified as a comedian in the meme.

            I have always talked about what “some atheists” and “some Christians” do, and you will notice that in my post, I did not address all atheists, except when I warned of the risk of being a self-proclaimed skeptic and yet not being a skeptic in practice, something that is a risk for every would-be skeptic.

          • Brian Westley

            It’s obviously a joke, and you lead off with your friend’s quote which tarred all atheists.

          • Nick Gotts

            So are you now saying that you knew this was a joke from a comedy routine, but decided not to include this information, and nonetheless critiqued it as if it was intended as a literal claim of fact?

          • No, that is not what I am saying.

          • Nick Gotts

            So you knew he was a comedian, but it didn’t occur to you that this might be an extract from a comedy routine, and therefore not intended to be the literal truth? Or what?

          • arcseconds

            Well, certainly in retrospect it would have been better for McGratho have done this, and explain that the origins aren’t necessarily relevant for its later interpretation.

            I have already made the later point, so I’m with you there.

            I mean, obviously typically atheists aren’t students of history and historical criticism, but in this they don’t differ from the general population. It’s certainly dishonest to suggest that atheists on the whole are any worse, and given the correlation of atheism with education you’d expect them to be slightly more likely to be, as a group.

            There are also a number of atheists who are bona fide biblical scholars, so it’s not even true that there’s some kind of notable absence in the relevant specialist area…

          • arcseconds

            to put it another way, the fact it’s a joke is a red herring.

          • Brian Westley

            In my opinion, that should have been pointed out by McGrath as part of his entry.

          • Nick Gotts

            See my response to James McGrath below. There seems to be very little evidence that atheists are posting this joke (whether presented as such or not) around the internet – a total of 6 results from a google search on the phrase “re-translated and re-edited again”.

          • If your point is that memes often contain text the source of which may be impossible to trace through such searches, then I agree with your frustration.

          • Nick Gotts

            No. As I think you know perfectly well, my point is that there is in fact virtually no evidence that this “meme” is being passed around – i.e., that it is a meme. Certainly neither you nor anyone else have produced any.

          • This is the link to the post on Facebook (you will need to insert the main Facebook address before it – if I posted the whole address, it just showed the image and didn’t give the link):


            I think enough people there liked it to make it worth responding to.

          • Nick Gotts

            How many, over what period? And how do you think you know they thought it was intended as literal truth, not a joke from a comedy routine? And how many of them passed it on, which would be required for it to be a “meme”?

          • It says 785 shares. The image was posted on January 5th.

          • Nick Gotts

            Wow! A whole 785!!! That must be around 1 in 2 million Facebook users. Any number of whom, like you’re friend, could have been sharing to say “Look at this atheist nonsense”, or “Good joke – but of course greatly exaggerated”, or “Hey, this guy looks like you!”. A meme, in the sense the word has acquired, is something that is being passed around in a sustained process, reaching millions of people.

          • arcseconds

            It seems like you have not caught up with the latest meaning of ‘meme’, which is a graphic with a quote on it.

            As in “I made a meme”.

          • Nick Gotts

            That’s true, I see – but in that sense, there’s nothing about being a meme which suggests that the image, or the text in it, is actually being passed around among atheists to more than the trivial extent for which evidence has been provided.

          • arcseconds

            If you google for “the world’s oldest game of telephone” you can see that there are at least a couple of versions of the meme, and Cross is being quoted fairly extensively.






            Those are just a sample.

            It’s pretty clear that the quote is appearing on many websites, and it’s really not clear that it’s being seen as a joke… it’s put up along with many other quotes most of which are not jokes in that last one, for example.

          • Nick Gotts

            Thank you. I concede the point.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      It isn’t always possible to distinguish between the comedian and the serious atheist. Consider, for example, the idea that Romans 1:3 is a reference to a cosmic sperm bank. It would be nice to think that this was intended purely for amusement.

    • jjramsey

      Comedians sometimes use humor to try to make serious points. Jon Stewart has done it. Bill Maher has done it. Al Franken has done it. Just because comedians say something, it does not automatically follow that they don’t believe what they’re saying and don’t expect others to believe it either.

      Now is there a joke in that meme from David Cross? Sure, the punchline about the game of telephone. However, it looks more like he’s trying to make fun of a pre-existing absurdity — namely what he thinks was the way the Bible has been transmitted — rather than invent supposed absurdities about the Bible. He looks like he’s aiming to do what Stewart, Maher, and Franken have done.

      • Brian Westley

        Comedians sometimes use humor to try to make serious points.

        Yes, of course. That doesn’t excuse McGrath not identifying Cross as a comedian from the outset, nor for his approving quote from a friend of his that managed to tar ALL atheists with a hasty generalization fallacy.

  • Rob

    Your criticism on specific points relating to this meme may be valid…up to a point. However you are surely being as blind to the facts as you accuse the author of this meme to be.

    I think that this meme (and I am sure you know it too) is partially referencing the devotion of many christians to the KJV – itself a questionable translation of a questionable translation, Let’s face it – Jesus spoke aramaic, the gospels were written in koine Greek. Therefore not even the earliest texts contain the actual words of Jesus – merely a translation.

    Also, the meme is correct in stating that the stories about Jesus were handed down orally for 30-90 years. Mark’s gospel was written about 30 years after Jesus’ death and John was written about 90 years after his death. So…God himself walked on Earth, but no-one bothered to record this fact in writing for at least 30 years. Doesn’t that strike you as the least bit odd?

    You say that Paul wrote about Jesus less than 30 years after Jesus’ death – and you are right. However, by his own admission, Paul never met Jesus and Paul also disagreed vehemently with Peter over what Jesus’ message actually was. Do you think that if God actually came down to Earth that his message would be so vague that people would be arguing over it just a few years later??

    So…you take issue with some specific points about the text in this meme and you think you have right on your side. This enables you to avoid thinking about the undeniable fact that the central point of this meme is actually…..correct.

    • If we are going to discuss this from a historical perspective then the first thing that needs to be pointed out is that, in the earliest Christian sources, Jesus is not thought of as God come to Earth, but the human messiah exalted by God after his death. Next we need to get the date of Paul’s letters into the picture, and the fact that the earliest Christians thought they were living in the final days of history, apparently because Jesus himself had mistakenly said that.

      • Rob

        Thank you for taking the trouble to reply James. I have a couple of thoughts in response to your points:

        Firstly, whether people thought that Jesus was “Emmanuel – God with us”, or something else, is it not odd that no one recorded his words and deeds for at least three decades? In any event, how can an account 30 years after the event be the least bit reliable? What if the first accounts of the Watergate affair were only now just being written (and being written by mad keen Nixon supporters at that) – would you consider them accurate?

        Also, do you really think that Jesus ‘mistakenly’ told the early Christians that they were living in the end times? Isn’t it more plausible that Jesus never said this and that the gospel writers made up this part of the narrative? Remembering that the synoptic gospels were written at the time of the first Jewish-Roman war when, to put it bluntly, the Jewish people were ‘in the market’ for a messiah (as I am sure you know, they expected the messiah to be a leader who would liberate them from their oppressors – who at the time were the Romans).

        Lastly, could you please point me toward these early Christian sources that did not consider Jesus to be God come to Earth? I have a genuine interest in the historicity of these issues and I am keen to fill in any gaps in my knowledge.


        • It seems unlikely that the early Christians, after his death, invented sayings such as that Jesus said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, and that seems to me to be in the same vein of apocalyptic expectations. John P. Meier, of course, has argued the case for the “some standing here will not taste death” and similar sayings being later inventions by the church.

          Most scholars think that there were written collections of Jesus’ sayings prior to Mark, never mind Matthew or Luke. But to deal with your example, if we only had the first written account of the Nixon Watergate scandal being written now by Nixon supporters, it is still unlikely that embarrassing details could be ignored altogether, since there are people around who remember the incident. And so we would expect, as we also find in the Gospels, apologetic attempts at damage control which lead historians to suspect that what is being denied was in fact the case. No one, to my knowledge, was in the market for a failed Davidic anointed one around the time of the Roman war, or before or after that for that matter.

          For early Christian texts in which Jesus is not God, see the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, as particularly clear examples.

          • Rob


            I am disappointed in the last sentence of your reply.

            “For early Christian texts in which Jesus is not God, see the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke,”. I am sure that a Bible scholar of your standing knows full well that the texts you cite can be taken as both Jesus’ denial of his being God and as proof of his claiming to be God. Please do not dismiss me by referring me to the text of the synoptic Gospels with which we are both familiar. I was rather hoping for some independent early Christian sources that I had not previously encountered.

            This brings me back to a key point…whether Jesus was God, or a man sent by God – why would his message be so ambiguous?

            In any event, does not your (unprovable) statement that “there were written collections of Jesus’ sayings prior to Mark, never mind Matthew or Luke” rather make the same point as the meme you attack in your article?

            The Bible is a game of telephone. No?


          • The Synoptic Gospels do not depict Jesus as being God. One can read such things into them, but historical critical study is fairly consistent in its conclusions, and those conclusions are accepted even by many religious scholars. Take a look, for instance, at Raymond Brown’s Introduction to New Testament Christology.

            How is the use of literary sources – as well as oral tradition – by authors like the telephone game, in your opinion?

  • KRS

    The broad point that the Bible is like a game of telephone is probably valid. It seems like the biggest error in the statement is treating the entire Bible like it’s one coherent work instead of a collection of works, each with its own history. For example, the bit about stories being told “30 to 90 years after they happened” only applies to the Gospels.

  • Pete Migdale

    What is it that you are claiming that only Christians are right about?
    As there is no such thing as a loving omnipotent god, the Bible can only be a work of fiction anyway. The character in it called Jesus can only be a fictional creature if he is fathered by something that cannot exist.
    I find it astonishing that any adult can accept that a book with talking serpents, virgin birth, and the dead coming back to life is anything like true.

    • I don’t recall claiming that on Christians are right about anything. And Jesus was not considered to be miraculously conceived, or fathered by God, in the earliest sources, such as Paul who explicitly says that he was of the seed of David. Obviously lots of claims to royal ancestry turn out to be false, the point is merely that he did not think that Jesus lacked a male human parent.

      • Pete Migdale

        Then who do Christians agree on, as being the male human parent of Jesus?

        • Who cares what Christians agree on? That is not how matters of history are determined.

          • Pete Migdale

            Then who do you say is the father of Jesus? Which church agrees with you?

          • What churches say is not determinative of the conclusions of historians.

          • Pete Migdale

            You then? Are you saying that Jesus was not the son of god, born of a virgin?
            Are you really a christian?

          • If may join in? There are many Christians who don’t think Jesus was the “son of god, born of a virgin.” Probably the most famous one in the last couple of decades is former Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. But others include Professor Marcus Borg from OSU, the famous Roman Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan.

            And neither of our two Baptist ministers at a Baptist church in California believed that either.

            Most such Christian leaders write that the father of Jesus was Joseph, that the whole “born of a virgin” motif is similar to what many famous leaders get assigned to them as their legend develops. And that furthermore, the virgin idea is a misunderstanding of the original Isaiah passage.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Sometimes the argument is made that any “real” Jesus must be so different from the Gospel Jesus that it doesn’t make sense to say that “Jesus” existed. Supposedly, it is a question of degree. At what point along a continuum of difference does the identity between the real Jesus and the Gospel Jesus break down?

      However, it is unusual to see the argument made in quite the crude way in which you have presented it. You appear to be arguing that even a single point of difference is enough to negate the identity between the two Jesuses. The Gospel Jesus was divinely conceived; that sort of thing doesn’t happen; therefore Jesus is a fictional character.

      Your point about talking snakes is also rather odd. If accounts of Jesus’ life and a story about a talking snake are brought together in one volume, centuries after Jesus died, the very act of bringing these texts together has a magical retroactive power to make Jesus fade out of history.

      • Pete Migdale

        Rather than being “crude” my argument is made in a way that highlights the absurdity of “son of God” claim.
        It was certainly not me who brought together the old and new testament. If the veracity of the new is dependent on the existence of a character in the old a rebuttal of the old, definitely reflects on the new.
        Concisely, rather than crudely. If god does is a fictional character then it follows that Jesus cannot be its son and be real.
        It is easy to establish that a loving, omnipotent does not exist. No western religion, that I am aware of claims there is any other type.

        • Apollo was a fictional character, and therefore individuals who were thought to have been parented by him, such as Plato or Alexander the Great, must also be fictional. Is that the gist of your argument?

          • Pete Migdale

            Absolutely correct. The Plato and Alexander, who had Apollo or Zeus as a father are fictional. There may have been a real Plato and real Alexander, but each would have been fathered by a real male human.

            The christian claim there was a chap called Jesus who was the son of god (a fictional character), born of a virgin, is obviously a fiction.

          • Well, my interest is in the historical figures, not the fictions that historians set aside.

          • Pete Migdale

            Thanks for clearing that up, James. I was under the misapprehension that you were a theist.

          • Robert Eckert

            Theist =/= fundamentalist

          • Pete Migdale

            Robert, I realize that. James said he had no interest in the fictions. As there is clearly no such thing a a loving, omnipotent god, that must be one of the fictions he has set aside.
            Which would make him an atheist.

          • Nick Gotts

            No, no, no! James McGrath has told me his concept of god is “whatever ultimately exists”. I’ve never managed to elicit how “ultimate existence” differs from common-or-garden existence; possibly the difference is too profound to be expressed in mere words.

          • Erp

            I suspect he has been reading Tillich. Also do a web search on ‘sea of faith’ though they might be going a bit too far for him.

          • Nick Gotts

            Yes, I don’t think he’s a non-realist, like the “sea of faith” people. I’ll admit I’ve never read Tillich, nor am ever likely to, given the finite nature of human life!

          • I don’t know what McGrath’s views are.

            But generally what Merriam-Webster Dictionary means when it defines God as “1capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality”
            the essential reality from which temporary expressions of matter and energy come.

            Matter and energy are contingent, they come and they go or change back and forth. Stars are born, stars die; an animal is born, an animal dies. etc.

            But God is essence, is transcendent, is eternal.

          • Robert Eckert

            He might quite easily disagree with you about God being a fiction, which is not as “clear” to everyone as it is to you. Willfully misunderstanding the people you are conversing with is not conducive to dialogue. It does illustrate the point that the original post was making.

          • Pete Migdale

            I was taking him at his word. If you can establish beyond reasonable doubt that god is anything but fictional I’d be glad to see it.
            Till then, “no fictional characters” must include god.
            Where’s the misunderstanding?

          • Robert Eckert

            No, you’re taking HIM at YOUR word. It may be YOUR opinion that fictional characters MUST include God, but it was not anything that HE said.
            All you are doing is reinforcing the narrative that atheists are trolls by nature.

          • Pete Migdale

            Methinks you doth protest too much.
            It is not me, but you, who has resorted to caps lock shouting (and maybe trolling).
            What evidence in this entire discussion makes you think James believes in the biblical god.

          • Robert Eckert

            I have shouted at you because you are feigning deafness. I will leave it to James to clarify, if he wishes, what he does or does not believe in: you are the one trying to dictate to him what he must believe, on the assumption that he must believe as you do. That is what “trolling” refers to: a refusal to communicate honestly.

          • Pete Migdale

            I am not, in any way, ” trying to dictate to him what he must believe”.
            From his words it appears you assumed one thing, whilst I assumed another. He has not really made his position clear. No need to get your knickers in a knot about it.

          • Robert Eckert

            I was not making any assumptions. You were. I was informing you that you don’t have a right to assume he agrees with you. There has never been any need for you to be snotty, as you have been from the beginning.

          • As long as you insist on deciding what I believe by means other than asking me or reading what I have written, and as long as distinctions between viewpoints are considered unimportant, I have no desire to join in this discussion.

          • Pete Migdale

            I don’t insist on anything, It would help to know your position as to the existence of god and what similarities does it have to, or what major differences from, the generally perceived position of mainstream Christians regarding God?

          • If it would help to know such things, then why do you not read at least one of my many posts on the topic?

          • Pete Migdale

            Certainly, which one do you feel provides the most succinct summation?

          • Ben Murray

            Thanks for these links! Where does Jesus come in to this apophatic world view for you? Do you retain belief in his divinity?

          • If you are asking whether I think Jesus was a pre-existent divine person distinct from the Father who subsequently became a human person, then no, I don’t think of Jesus in those terms.

          • Pete Migdale

            Thank you for that, but I did ask which “one” do “you feel” provides the “most succinct summation”. That list is somewhat obfuscative by its sheer volume.
            I am asking for your opinion on which article is the most concise and accurate.
            Another commenter has suggested trying to get a straight answer from you on this is “like trying to nail jell-o to a wall”. I was hoping you would prove him wrong.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It is interesting that most of those defending David Cross’s comment have been making a point about theology. If the Bible is unreliable, then we cannot be confident that God’s message has been accurately transmitted to us. This will obviously be a concern for theologians, but it can be disregarded by biblical scholars. A point which James has made before is that the tools of biblical scholarship simply can’t be used to prove theological claims.

          • I prioritized them, and so just read the first or second and ignore the rest if you are so inclined.

          • Pete Migdale

            Thank you for that, I will have a look Contrarian that I am, looked at the last one first. It’s what prompted my earlier reply.

            Have looked now.
            If I have a skill, it is being concise. many times over the years it has been said to me that I am able to strip things down to the basics, whether the result is welcome or pleasant or neither. I can’t help it.
            If you are asked for a concise description of your beliefs, you could answer, with a degree of accuracy that would satisfy the vast majority of people, “Deist with a christain leaning”.
            I do not mean this as a put down, and I am sure it lacks the nuance that would satisfy you, but would be close enough for most of us.

          • arcseconds

            One question to ask is whether ‘Christian’ means more having certain beliefs, or engaging in certain practices as a member of a tradition.

            We’re very inclined to think of this in terms of belief, sure.

            But on closer inspection this is problematic: across time and space, there’s very little beliefs that all Christians have had in common.

            The Trinity, for example, was not accepted by many early Christians, and has been rejected again in more modern times.

            Even something like “God exists” is questionable as being the same belief, because they certainly don’t all have the same understanding of ‘God’, not remotely.

            What all Christians definitely do have in common is a common ‘descent’ in the sense that they learn their Christianity from a Christian, who learnt it from a Christian and so on back to Jesus.

            Beyond this, reading the Bible, attending church, participating in the eucharist, and prayer are more obviously consistent factors than particular beliefs.

            (Note there is such a thing as a Christian atheist, too)

          • Pete Migdale

            “Note there is such a thing as a Christian atheist, too”
            If your ability to redefine words has reached proportions this Orwellian, I think any further conversation with you is, at best, problematic.

          • arcseconds

            Unfortunately as it is a fact that there are people who identify as both Christian and atheist, that just means your conversation with the world is, at best, problematic.

            Maybe rather than insisting your understanding of ‘Christian’ is correct and eternally binding on everyone (is there any reason to think this to be the case? Are you an expert in some branch of religious studies) and therefore I must be confused or deliberately confusing, you should consider revising your notion?

            Or at least understanding that other people are working with different notions of what it is to be Christian?

          • Pete Migdale

            People could identify as blue bananas but it would make them neither blue nor bananas, nor would blue bananas suddenly exist.
            For exchange of opinion to occut, words must mean at least something approximately similar to the writer and reader.
            It is not “my understanding” that I would bind on anyone, but I would say agreement with either the apostles creed or the nicene creed or something very similar would be a recognized base level for christianity, wouldn’t you?
            Anything less is picking and choosing so little as to be barely worth bothering.

          • arcseconds

            Right, so unless you understand ‘Christian’ as those who use the word of themselves do, you will not be able to understand them.

            I mean, someone’s going to have to be flexible here, and realistically it’s going to have to be you. The cost to you is small: you just have to be prepared to adjust your definition. What’s that to you, really? The cost to self-identifying Christians who don’t meet your standard is that they are suddenly divorced from a tradition that’s important to them. What are they supposed to say? “Well, yesterday I considered myself Christian, but then I talked to Pete, and he wouldn’t budge on his definition, and I don’t meet his definition, so now, sorry, can’t take communion any more or get my kids baptised.” You’re basically wanting to dominate their lives to avoid the trouble of being a little mentally flexible.

            And you are just begging the question here, aren’t you? I mean, you’re assuming that you’ve got the correct definition of Christian, and they don’t. Why do you think you understand Christianity better than self-identifying, practicing Christians?

            Saying it’s the name of a tradition, and not the name of a set of beliefs, does more justice to how the term has been used historically.

            No, the Nicene creed doesn’t cut it for me. That came into being in the 4th century, and Christianity was already around at that time. Insisting on that would mean, say, Origen or Irenaeus couldn’t count as Christians.

          • Pete Migdale

            Methinks there would not have been much of a gap between us as we queued at the stake to be burned as heretics, while such things were happening.

          • arcseconds

            Yes, the authorities insist on orthodoxy, which probably ought to make us suspicious of orthodoxy as being definitional, if anything.

            But actually, I think what the authorities really insist on is a form of orthopraxy. They want you to read out the Nicene creed and not publically deny any part of it, but no Christian authority, as far as I am aware, has ever invested much effort into working out what people actually believe, as opposed to what they say. No-one really tries to make sure you’ve got the correct age-appropriate (and degree of theological training) idea of God in your mind, so no-one knows when you say “I believe in God the Father” whether you’re referring to a big ghostly man in the sky; an eternal, transcendent, imminent omni-entity that’s nevertheless absolutely simple, the universe, the Hegelian Absolute, something so unspeakably transcendent it doesn’t actually exist, the Platonic Form of the Good, a certain kind of experience, etc.

            (And with that kind of diversity of ideas, what does it matter if you don’t think ‘God the Father’ refers at all, or refers in just the same way as ‘Zeus’ does, to something which is entirely mythical?)

          • Pete Migdale

            If I read you correctly, if one were to make a “Richter scale” of Christian biblical literalists, with, for example, Ken Ham at 10 you would be right down at the 1 – 2 end?

          • arcseconds

            I’m not a Christian, much less any kind of biblical literalist, so maybe i don’t belong on the scale at all?

            But if we’re talking about literalism, it’s probably worth noting that substantial parts of the Bible (whole books!) were almost certainly never intended to be taken literally. Now, I don’t think the author’s intention is authoritative for the interpretation (and many books in the Bible don’t have authors in the sense that we’re used to anyway), but reading something literally that was intended metaphorically is unlikely to be a fruitful interpretation, and insisting that the literal interpretation that you’re bringing to the table means it actually happened is a gargantuan mistake.

            So I think literalism actually means you can’t understand large parts of the Bible in just the same way that thinking, I dunno, there really was a giant donkey and a giant elephant fighting over North America at some point means you won’t be able to understand American political cartoons.

          • Pete Migdale

            If you are not a christian, you are in no more of a position to define what they may or may not believe, and still be defined as christians, than I am.
            If it calls itself a duck, its a duck, appeared to be you definition earier. Personally I usually look for a few duck -like characteristics before accepting duckness

          • arcseconds

            Exactly. So when McGrath tells me he’s a Christian but doesn’t believe in the resurrection or the virgin birth or most other aspects of Christian theology, I don’t start saying “but that doesn’t fit my definition of Christian, so you can’t be!”, I start adjusting my understanding of Christian.

            And I’m just reporting to you the results of my enquiries.

            The problem with your analogy is that you are still setting yourself up as being more likely to be correct about what counts as Christian than a Christian is.

            Why are you so confident you understand the matter better than McGrath does?

          • Pete Migdale

            Once a word is removed far enough away from its commonly accepted usage, it becomes no longer useful in conveying information between people.
            At what point on my scale does the definition of christain become useless as a descriptor, 2-3?

          • arcseconds

            This is just more of your insistence that ‘Christian’ has to fulfill your needs, rather than the needs of the people who call themselves Christian.

            You think it’s important to pick out biblical literalism. But there’s a huge number of Christians who aren’t biblical literalists. And historically there has never been a commitment to anything like the degree of literalism Ham requires.

            I mean, for goodness sake. Augustine didn’t interpret Genesis literally. If Augustine doesn’t count as a Christian, or is even a bit iffy, it’s you that has the bizarre and off-the-wall definition that doesn’t match anyone else’s, not me.

            Once upon a time I was dragged to a Christmas eve service by a Christian friend of mine, and the pastor basically said in the sermon that the Christmas story was not literally true.

            High degrees of non-literalism are common. The Anglican Communion, at least in western countries, is rife with it (there are endless jokes about it, including believing in ‘at most one God’) just to pick one example.

          • Pete Migdale

            Its not to fulfil my needs, it is to enable communication.

          • arcseconds

            Communication could be most easily facilitated by you updating your understanding of the term to fit how the term is actually used, and in particular by those who use it of themselves.

            It’s hard to believe this is actually your goal, when you keep insisting on your own definition despite evidence it’s not how the term is actually used, and despite a total lack of expertise, authority, or even any kind of indigenous right to the term.

          • Pete Migdale

            Communication would actually be better faciltated by you not redefining words out of their common meaning.
            What superior right do you claim to be able to set definitions. You are, at best, a pot calling a kettle, nigger!

          • arcseconds

            So, when are you going to stop using it to mean ‘biblical literalist’ then?
            Everyone accepts Augustine and Martin Luther King Jr. as Christians, don’t they? If your definition rules them out, it’s you that is using a definition contrary to its common meaning.

            Cease with the racist slurs, please.

          • Pete Migdale

            I don’t recall saying that being a biblical literalist was a prerequisite to being a modern christian.
            If you point out where I have been racist I will gladly retract and apologise.
            If you cannot, I fell it would be fair to demand the same of you.

          • If you think that Ken Ham is an actual Biblical literalist, and if you think that he – rather than someone like Martin Luther King Jr., for instance – represents what being Christian really looks like, then that just shows that you have gullibly accepted Ham’s propaganda, and I would kindly ask you to stay out of the Christian-defining business until such time as you have investigated the matter in a much less superficial and naive manner.

          • Pete Migdale

            It ‘s your blog you can be as dictatorial as you like and ask what you like, and arguably redefine words used on it.
            I speak of definitions that most people use, not those of ivory tower academia.
            Are you now saying that Ham is not on My Richter scale of christains? I would understand your embarassment about being on the same page as him, bu t so it goes.

          • The point is that Ken Ham’s approach to the Bible, like that of fundamentalists more generally, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. It is a response to the Enlightenment and the rise of the natural sciences as well as higher criticism of the Bible, and its conscious selective literalism coupled with the claim to be consistently literal and faithful to the Bible is very different from the emphases one finds in Christianity in the pre-modern era. And so if you want to define Christianity the way modern fundamentalists define it, you are free to do so, but I am most certainly going to point out that you are simply accepting a claim of Christian fundamentalists which, as a scholar, I think you ought to treat with more skepticism, and which, if you were to investigate it, you would find problematic.

          • Pete Migdale

            I agree, Ham’s literalism is both problematic and selective.
            I would also posit that the catholic church’s interpretation is also both problematic and selective, as is the interpretation of all shades of protestantism.
            One thing that I do notice of all believers (that I have experienced thus far), is that their god agrees with them on every issue. Whichever book they claim to base their faith on, they interpret it to fit their needs.

          • arcseconds

            Many atheists also insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible. So their mistake would be thinking that while of course there was no giant donkey and elephant, Americans think there are, and this is recorded in their political cartoons (and if you don’t believe in the giant donkey and elephant, you’re not a proper American, often, too).

            That’s not to say that a lot of it wasn’t intended to be read rather literally, but historically literal interpretations of the whole thing have not been the norm. And even in the bits that presumably were meant to be read somewhat literally, and were in fact read literally, there’s often discernable symbolism (and probably symbolism we can’t discern) and messages that you’re supposed to be understanding, not just ‘this stuff happened’.

          • Matthias Thalmann

            First of all, which nicene creed do you use? The one from 325 or 381? Or are both accepted? Does it still count if you include filioque or not?

            Anyways if you use the nicene creed as a test to determine whether someone is a Christian or not, does that mean that no one before the councils in which it was made was a Christian (which ironically would mean that the creed was made by non-Christians who became Christians only the very moment they had finished the creed)? Arianism which was the majority opinion during parts of the fifth century denied the nicene creed, was it not christian?

          • Pete Migdale

            The reason I chose the Nicene and Apostles creeds, is because that is the standard for acceptance as a christian to be employed as a chaplain by the Scripture Union of Queensland Australia, the largest supplier of nondenominational christain chaplains to Queensland schools.
            It seemed like a fair call.
            We were talking about contemporary definitions of christianity, rather than the minutiae of christian history. My suggested basic definition would certainly not have been appropriate in the fifth century, but that is not when I am suggesting it.

          • Matthias Thalmann

            So you essentially argue that the Scripture Union of Queensland Australia is the authority which determines who is Christian? Setting aside for the moment that people might not accept this authority, which version of the nicene creed do they use? The one from 381 – excluding oriental orthodox churches? The catholic one stating that the holy spirit proceeds from the father and the son (filioque) thus excluding orthodox churches? Or the orthodox one stating that the holy spirit proceeds from the father alone, thus excluding catholics? Or do they accept all creeds placing them in conflict with all three branches each condemning the creeds of the other as heretical?

            Which version of the creed they use is not a historical minutiae because right now there are still disputes over which creed is the authoritative one.

          • Pete Migdale

            No, obviously the SU is not the final authority, but surely they are better qualified, being a broad association of christains, to make a call, than an individual atheist, such as myself. I was deferring to them.
            If you are embroiled in disputes about the relative merits of competing Nicene Creeds, you clearly go to different pubs to the ones I occasionally frequent.

          • Matthias Thalmann

            Even if you defer to someone else you still decide who gets to be a christian by proxy (since you establish who can establish the definition). Anyway, I’m wary of any authority defining who is Christian as historically this has lead to persecution/murder of the “not-christians”.

            Now, in the pubs I frequent there are no discussion about the nicene creed but then again the people there don’t determine who is a Christian by checking if he adheres to the nicene creed. You said that adherence to the nicene creed defines a Christian, which raises the question which nicene creed(s) are acceptable to you (or rather your chosen authority the Scripture Union of Queensland). Other people who do not rely on the nicene creed obviously don’t need to figure this out.

          • Pete Migdale

            I suggested it as a possible definition, clearly, to you, it is not. I can live with that. It was never going to make everybody happy, but then, what would?

          • Nick Gotts

            Before the Reformation, few Christians read the Bible (indeed, many don’t seem very familiar with it now). Prayer fails to single out Christians. There are even denominations (Quakers, Salvation Army) who self-identify as Christians, but don’t practice the eucharist. That leaves us with your criterion of descent – which suggests that even if the Bible can’t reasonably be described as a game of telephone, Christianity (given the radical changes in belief and practice over the centuries) can!

          • arcseconds

            Yes, just like any cultural tradition. Western civilization, the English language, classical music: none of these can be defined by a list of properties that holds true for all time, except of course genealogical properties.

            I wasn’t really trying to get a list of practices that would do better than a list of beliefs for defining Christianity, but rather note that they do just as good a job, if not better, than tracing beliefs. Yes, reading the Bible doesn’t work historically, and it’s more of an aspirational goal than an actuality even these days, however, the Bible certainly has been a big constant (even though that’s not exactly the same set of books from branch to branch, and of course only came into being some time after the beginning of the tradition). Maybe ‘having the Bible quoted to one on a regular basis’ would be better 🙂

            As with any cultural tradition, though, we can find things that run through Christianity, the set of which is distinctive of Christianity, even though the threads aren’t always present everywhere, and some are present elsewhere. I’d recommend looking into Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblance. The metaphor he has of a rope is quite useful, I think: no strand goes all the way through the rope, yet we can see it’s the same rope.

          • Nick Gotts

            In fact, I almost used Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance” metaphor myself, then diverted down a different track. What you say about cultural traditions is true, but not all cultural traditions work in the same way. In the domain of rational enquiry (science, mathematics, and history, philosophy and even politics practiced in certain ways) there are systematic, although of course imperfect, means of error correction. In others (the arts, fashions in dress and manners) it’s not clear there is any viable concept of error at all. Religion (and specifically, Abrahamic religion) is unusual in insisting that there is indeed such a thing as error – and indeed, those thought to be in error have often been condemned to both real and imaginary torments – but no even approximately agreed ways of determining what is error and what, correct belief. This is a large part of what makes it so dangerous.

          • If I may ask a question?

            You wrote, “In others (the arts, fashions in dress and manners) it’s not clear there is any viable concept of error at all.”

            Which reminds me of Martin Gardner’s opposite take in The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener where he argued against relativism in the arts and ethics.

            If you are familiar with Gardner’s view, why do you disagree?

          • Nick Gotts

            You can ask, but I have no intention of answering. I deliberately said “it’s not clear that there is any viable concept of error”, not “there is no viable concept of error”.

          • Nick Gotts

            Thanks for that list. I read the first three. What I don’t see there is any evidence that anything “transcendent” exists, or that positing something called “Being itself” (with a capital “B”, although as Tillich was German, I’m not sure what that would have meant to him) has any explanatory value. Your analogy of the two cells simply takes your conclusion for granted: we know that our cells are part of our body; we have, as far as I am aware, no evidence whatever that we bear such a relation to anything larger. (Obviously we are part of the physical world, and of social formations, but these relarelationships are radically different from the cell/body relationship, and as an aside, organic metaphors for society have a long and disturbing history in supporting various forms of hierarchical authoritarianism.) Of course many people have a feeling that there must be such a transcendent whole, but that only tells us something about human psychology and sociology. It’s no better evidence for your beliefs than religious homophobes finding gay sex icky is evidence for their belief that God agrees with them.

            As for the alleged parallel between changes in science and theology, I don’t find it at all convincing. Science has intersubjectively checkable access to its objects of study, and clear language (including mathematics) in which to describe them. Theology does not. As a consequence, while there are plentiful disputes between scientists about their objects of study, these do generally get resolved in time*, and there are institutional systems which have the function of resolving them. I see no sign at all of theologians coming to an agreement on any important topic. For example, there are plenty of Christian theologians, well beyond what is usually described as fundamentalism, who still believe in miracles, most notably the resurrection and the virgin birth. Many still accept beliefs, such as trinitarianism and the hypostatic union, that are logically impossible. Indeed, I’d guess you are in a distinct minority in rejecting them. Moreover, it seems to me that theology, unlike science, has largely changed (where it has), under external influence: science, and textual criticism, were what made earlier conceptions of God untenable to some – but by no means all – theologians. However, I’d be interested in evidence to the contrary.

            * It could be argued that this does not apply to the social sciences (sometimes referred to as the “hard sciences”, where “hard” = “difficult”!). But even in sociology and anthropology, there are many practitioners who reject the dogmatic relativism of (much) postmodernist thought, and seek understanding on the basis of empirical evidence.

          • I don’t think that the cell analogy begs the question, since it offers two options, and implicitly acknowledges that from the perspective of the cells, there is no way for them to be certain whether they are in fact part of something greater. It is that point which it seems to me you are sidestepping in your own response to me, which seems to assume that the other cell is correct to say that, if it cannot detect a transcendent level of organization of which it is a part from its level of things, then there must not be any such transcendent level of organization.

          • Nick Gotts

            Actually there are such ways – or would be if cells were capable of cognition and language, which you have to assume they are to make the analogy. For example, they could compare their DNA but note, if they were of different cell types, that they use different portions of it in their activities. They could note that they receive specific instructions (in the form of chemical signals from their mutual environment to make proteins), which they have no choice about following and which have no function in their own metabolism. These instructions may even tell them to kill themselves, which they do (unless cancerous) without demur.

            However, if that were not the case, they would ex hypothesi have no evidence for the existence of the “transcendent” level of organisation, just as you have none. Yes, it’s possible that there is one, but it is irrational, and I would say irresponsible, to believe in “transcendent” entities just because they are possible. It’s possible that the god of the homophobes really exists. They have at least as much evidence as you do for your beliefs – they can at least point to specific texts which say he does. It’s possible that David Icke is right, and the world has been taken over by evil reptilian aliens. He has just as much evidence as you do for your beliefs – none. Now of course it’s true that your beliefs are not directly harmful in the same way as those – but they give credence to the idea that believing in transcendent entities without evidence is intellectually respectable.

          • Two obvious issues with your response are the following. One is that you treat views for which there is not adequate evidence as though the were on a par with views which have strong counterevidence against them. Second, you have not shown how cells, by studying their own DNA, could have any sense that they are part of something like a human person, or what the experience of being a human person is like.

            And yes, obviously I know that in making the analogy I am attributing things to cells that they do not actually have. I presume that you were not complaining that my analogy, flagged as an analogy, is an analogy.

          • Nick Gotts

            Where’s the strong counterevidence against at least something very like the homophobes’ god (an omnipotent being with a finger-wagging fixation on gay sex), or David Icke’s reptilians (malevolent aliens, able to disguise themselves as human beings, and walking among us)?

            The point about DNA is that all cells (with a few exceptions) in the human body have near-identical DNA, and yet none of them use more than a fraction of the protein-coding parts (this is nothing to do with “junk DNA”). The particular parts they use are determined by their function within the body, and the parts they don’t are actively inhibited from being transcribed. This should be quite enough to get a couple of scientifically-inclined cells wondering. How far they could get depends on what you allow them to do – can they talk to cells apart from each other, do they know or can they trace their ancestry, what can they learn about their environment – but of course we are not limited to discussion with a single partner, so your analogy as stated is not remotely a fair one. The bit about what the experience of a human person is like is just a distraction – the question is, could they have evidence that they are part of a “transcendent” whole of some kind, and the answer is “Yes”. Now it’s possible there is such evidence awaiting discovery for us – but so far, there is none. Zip. Zilch. Just as there is for finger-wagging nobodaddies or malevolent pseudo-humans. There’s simply no more positive reason to believe in any of these than any other.

            In fact, I don’t think a Universal Transcendent Wotsit is compatible with current physics, which indicates that no information can be transmitted faster than the speed of light, and also that distant parts of the universe are forever causally disconnected from us, and more and more are becoming so as a result of accelerating cosmic expansion. So in that sense, there’s more evidence against the UTW than against malevolent pseudo-humans, and one could argue that your beliefs are more irrational than David Icke’s.

          • I would expect a gay-hating deity and/or powerful malevolent aliens to be able to accomplish their purpose in a much more effective way that appears to be the case. Isn’t the absence of evidence of a powerful or even omnipotent being counter-evidence towards the existence of such an entity?

            As to the question of the speed of light and transcendent levels of organization, the phenomenon of quantum entanglement suggests that the cosmos may be a much stranger place than your comment acknowledges.

          • Nick Gotts

            You don’t know what other purposes the gay-hating deity or malevolent aliens might have. The absence of obvious signs of their presence is only evidence against a gay-hating deity or malevolent aliens whose only purpose is to eliminate gay sex or take over the world (respectively) a.s.a.p.

            Quantum entanglement (do you really want to emulate Deepak Chopra?) does not permit the superluminal transmission of information. Now it may be that future physics will change this; but resting your claims to the plausibility of the UTW on that possibility (apparently remote, according to the relevant experts), means you have abandoned the claim that your religious beliefs are compatible with our current understanding of how the world works, just as much as any creationist. Moreover, if information could be transmitted faster than light, that would mean, according to the relevant experts that it could be sent backwards in time, and in that case, the “present” and the “past” could presumably be made to look any way at all by a sufficiently powerful agent, and we can’t deduce anything from astronomy, geology or biology.

          • I really don’t think it is fair to attempt to tar anyone who mentions quantum phenomena with the Chopra brush. I have never read anything by Chopra except accidentally in memes in Facebook. I am not trying to us quantum mechanics to justify religious views that I already hold. I am genuinely interested in understanding these phenomena, which scientists have referred to with terms like “spooky.” The ability of quantum phenomena to connect events at a distance at which the speed of light would eliminate the possibility of transmission of information is well documented, even if not yet understood. My point is not that this makes room for a theistic anthropomorphic deity, but that it makes room for things to be connected and organized at transcendent levels in ways that we do not as yet understand. There is more that is mysterious about the nature of things than you seem willing to admit.

          • Nick Gotts

            No, it does not make room for things to be “organized at transcendent levels”, because organization requires the transmission of information, which according to current science cannot happen at greater than light speed, by any mechanism whatsoever including entanglement. And yes, you are precisely trying to use quantum mechanics to justify religious views you already hold. But your particular species of woo-woo gains no more support from quantum mechanics than Chopra’s.

          • What religious views that I already hold does my positing that there could be higher levels of organization of existence than that which we experience justify beliefs that I already hold? I view this perspective as representing a departure from classical theism in the direction of panentheism or even radically emergent theism, neither of which is a viewpoint that I set out looking to embrace. And so I found this statement of yours surprising.

          • Nick Gotts

            I don’t know the history of your religious views, beyond that you were once a fundamentalist and now no longer believe in an anthropomorphic god or the divinity of Jesus, but still identify as Christian, so I may have got the order of events wrong. I should certainly make clear that in comparing your use of quantum theory to Chopra, there’s a huge ethical difference in that you’re not using it to fleece the gullible. However, your “positing that there could be higher levels of organization of existence than that which we experience” is to all appearances a religious belief, since it is at least an important part of the basis on which you say you are a theist. As far as I can see, you are trying to ground this belief on a misunderstanding of current science. Quantum field theory (QFT, the merger of quantum physics and special relativity) is quite clear that information cannot be transmitted at any velocity greater than c, the speed of light in a vacuum. (Contrary to common belief, it does not say that nothing can have a greater velocity, see here.) But unless you want to argue that organization can occur without the transmission of information (in which case, I’d ask for examples or a description of how this might be possible), your belief in a panentheistic/radically emergent “higher level of organization” plainly contradicts QFT, rather than being potentially supported by it. And while QFT is not the “final theory of everything”, most relevant experts expect any replacement to maintain the existing speed limit – and those who suggest it might not have to be ready to accept time travel as well. You rightly excoriate the mythicists who dismiss expert historical scholarship; you don’t get to do that and at the same time, ignore or misrepresent the consensus conclusions of physicists. In fact, I’d say classical theism is more readily reconcilable with current physics than panentheism, since the physics can’t really say anything about a hypothetical observer outside our spacetime.

          • Sorry for the delay in replying. I’m not sure that we can bypass the laws of physics by positing an entity “outside of spacetime” on the one hand, or that any allowances that might apply there could not also fit an entity that encompasses and transcends multiple spacetimes or emerges out of them on the other hand. I will say that the limit on transmission of information is one reason that I think it inappropriate to envisage God as a giant person. But the whole point of my analogy was precisely that, if we can say that “giant person” is inappropriate, it is not because we can safely conclude that there is no transcendent reality, but because whatever that reality is like will be beyond our comprehension and our ability to describe it. Hence the use of symbols and metaphors.

          • Nick Gotts

            You leave this “transcendent reality” as a completely empty concept, supply no reason at all to believe that any such thing exists, and in effect admit that your attempt to give it plausibility by reference to quantum theory fails completely.

          • Perhaps the problem is that you thought I was trying to give my view of God plausibility by referring to quantum theory. In fact what I am trying to do is to articulate how the cosmos as I perceive it and as science reveals it to be might fit together into a worldview.

          • Nick Gotts

            I don’t see how that’s any different. The fact is, they don’t fit together. QFT, implies that there isn’t any way for any “transcendent reality” to “emerge”, because distant parts of the universe can’t communicate fast enough – or indeed, for distant enough regions, at all, if current cosmology is correct. The current estimate is that for places more than around 16 billion light years away, cosmic expansion is increasing their separation from us so fast that nothing at all will ever reach us from them or vice versa. Fantasies of emergent transcendent realities are just pie in the sky.

          • How are they “pie in the sky” or are you using that term in a different manner than is customary?

            I’m sure you know that quantum mechanics and gravity do not fit together. I find it strange, in view of that, that you are so adamant in objecting to a metaphor on the basis of what is clearly our partial understanding of reality.

          • Nick Gotts

            They are “pie in the sky” in the usual sense: piffle, if you prefer the expression. There is no more reason to believe in “emergent transcendent realities” than in the fairies.

            It is quite true that general relativity and quantum field theory do not fit together. But any replacement will have to retain the considerable achievements of both. Now it’s conceivable that future developments in science might change the situation, but current science does not appear to leave room for “emergent transcendent realities”. If the phrase means anything worth discussing, then there must be features of the universe that should lead us to give more or less credence to the existence of such realities. Surely the limit on the speed of information transmission, and the apparent fact that distant parts of the universe are totally causally disconnected from us, tell against their existence? If not, what would do so?

            The “cells in the body” metaphor would be a bad one even if there was some reason to believe in “emergent transcendent realities”. Cells in the body are, in fact, in constant communication with each other, they have obvious functional specializations for communal existence, and they are all* descendants of a common ancestor in the near past. The metaphor is internally incoherent: it depends on first postulating cells with sufficient intelligence to discuss whether they are parts of a coherent whole, then denying them the ability to investigate the issue and discover these facts.

            *Not always strictly true, as some people are chimeras.

          • The point of the analogy is not that we are in some literal sense part of a bigger organism analogous to us, but that our experience of the world suggests that it would be surprising if we were the ultimate level of transcendence in the cosmos.

            Since I am not positing that this higher level of organization to the cosmos guarantees my personal immortality or anything like that, I’m not sure that “pie in the sky” is a particularly apt description. I don’t know that I get anything other than the same kind of homebaked here-and-now pie that others get who happen to be – or be married to – expert piemakers.

            (Sorry for the delay in replying).

          • 90Lew90

            NB. The social sciences are the “soft” sciences as opposed to the natural, “hard” sciences. Other than that, I’m in agreement with the thrust of your argument.

          • Nick Gotts

            Yes, I know that’s the way things are usually described. That’s why I said ‘where “hard” = “difficult” ‘, and ended the sentence with a ‘!’. In the usual metaphor, it’s actually not clear exactly what “hard” and “soft” mean. But the social sciences are “hard” as in “difficult”, because your object of study is far more complex than anything the natural sciences deal with, and what’s more, capable of arguing with you!

          • 90Lew90

            It may be pedantic to say but the “soft” sciences such as sociology, economics and to an extent psychology, are “soft” because they’re mostly speculative trash practiced by people who have appropriated the term “science” for themselves mainly to garner the respectability which is accorded, justifiably, to the “hard” sciences (for which read “real” sciences).

          • Nick Gotts

            That’s not pedantry, just ignorance and prejudice.

          • 90Lew90

            How so? Economics is cod science (as should be patently obvious) and even economists blush when people try to pretend it’s a science. Psychology and sociology are only even remotely scientific up to the point where they involve statistical analysis, and beyond that point you’re into, well, very unscientific speculation. “Ignorance and prejudice”? No, I just have a high regard for actual science and calling sociology or economics “science” does real science no favours. And if you think sociology is hard, maybe it’s you who’s ignorant.

          • Nick Gotts

            As I said, just ignorance and prejudice. You evidently know nothing of the subjects you dismiss, or you would be aware, for example, of the last 20 or more years’ work in behavioural/experimental economics, work on the effects of economic inequality (which straddles economics and sociology), work on the sociology of prejudice and the sociology of religion, vast amounts of work over the last century in experimental and cognitive psychology… Just go away and educate yourself, if you can set aside your dogmatism, which I doubt.

            Edited to add: Articles in all three of the disciplines you named regularly appear in the top scientific journals such as Nature, Science, and PNAS. Go argue the point with their editors.

          • 90Lew90

            I have a 2:1 in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford. Economics and sociology are not sciences. For very simple reasons. That doesn’t mean they’re bad or useless, or else I wouldn’t have spent three years studying them and then done a masters heavily drawing on them, but they are not sciences, and that’s all I’ve been saying. Go and figure out why for yourself and stop being such a butt-hurt, gormless little dimwit.

          • Nick Gotts

            Since I’m here, to respond to a comment by James McGrath, here are a number of recent research articles from Nature, which clearly fall into the disciplines which you insist are not sciences:

            Research | 04 November 2015
            Australia is ‘free to choose’ economic growth and falling
            environmental pressures
            Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Heinz Schand, […], Alex Wonhas
            Nature 527,49–53

            Research | 09 September 2015
            Inequality and visibility of wealth in experimental social
            Akihiro Nishi, Hirokazu Shirado […] Nicholas A. Christakis
            Nature 526, 426–429

            Research | 18 November 2015
            The ontogeny of fairness in seven societies
            P. R. Blake, K. McAuliffe […] F. Warneken
            Nature 528, 258–261

            Research | 19 November 2014
            Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry
            Alain Cohn, Ernst Fehr & Michel André Maréchal
            Nature 516, 86–89

            Now, whose opinion on the possibility of doing science within economics and sociology* should I give more weight to: a pseudonymous blog commenter with a 2:1 in PPE from Oxford and an unspecified Masters, or the editors of the world’s premier science journal? Tricky, tricky…

            *Of course they can be done non-scientifically, and even un-scientifically – the foolishness is in dismissing the entire disciplines as “not sciences”.

          • 90Lew90

            First of all, have you read any of the above articles? The level at which you’re arguing this tells me you’re not worth bothering with further, because I’d only end up repeating myself. As I’ve already said, beyond statistics, economics, psychology and sociology are speculative and as such are quite often wrong. They have no predictive power whatsoever on their own, which is one of the chief characteristics of anything calling itself a science. Neither do they have much explanatory power, which is another characteristic requisite of anything calling itself a science. Have you been feeling the pinch since 2008? Well, if economics was a science, that devastating crash would have been predicted and avoided, and moreover, economists would be able to agree on an explanation of what happened. It was neither predicted and neither is an explanation for what went wrong agreed upon. That being the case about just one outstanding example, economics is not a science.

            The Cambridge economics professor Ha-Joon Chang would argue that it is because the teaching of economics is so caught up with its own ivory-tower idea of itself as a “science of everything” and its focus on extremely heavy mathematical and statistical study at undergraduate level (the sciencey part), that it turns out economics graduates with so little notion of real-world economics that it’s not surprising that crashes of the kind that happened in 2008 come about, which were based on mathematical models so sophisticated that only computer-run algorithms could keep up with their effects in real time, and why the financial models concocted to drive them are impenetrable to the layman and take no notice of him other than to make the amazingly stupid assumption that he will act rationally — the layman being a person, who is of course the primary economic unit.

            You could also look at the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s work, popularised in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ which is in one sense about why even the most cherished of economic theories are doomed to fail, chiefly the Neoclassical theory that free markets are self-regulating (based again on the idea that individuals will act rationally). No government even accepts this and no history, recent or distant, reflects any belief in it, but it is quite convenient for them to keep repeating that mantra.

            You could look at how the real science of biology keeps blowing out of the water the just-so stories promulgated by evolutionary psychology, which is so speculative as to be ridiculed quietly even among psychologists, whose own long-cherished notions keep being exploded by neuroscience.

            Don’t even get me started on “sociology”. The only thing that’s any use for is journalism or teaching sociology. It’s a running joke that it awarded itself its own -ology and if someone like Max Weber had been told it was masquerading as science these days he’d be turning in his grave. The supposed granddaddy of sociology today, Anthony Giddens, stops short of calling his subject a science and instead opts for the adjectival description of it as the scientific study of, well much like economics, everything. The distinction is important, however discreet.

            Go and look into these things and stop giving me reading lists of things you haven’t even read yourself just to try to win a petty point. There’s plenty out there to get your teeth into in the way of primer material but it strikes me as though you’re someone who probably wouldn’t even know where to start and needs some teaching, and even if I was up to it, that’s not my job. Good luck.

          • Nick Gotts

            I’ve read the abstracts, which is all I have available at present, but I am in any case well acquainted with the work on behavioural economics and social networks which three of the four concern. If the editorial staff of Nature did not consider these articles science, then they would not have appeared – so take it up with them. I’m familiar with the ideas of both Chang and Kahnemann, and would agree with you about neoclassical economics and (so-called) evolutionary psychology, both of which are largely ideological endeavours, aimed at supporting the status quo. Your ignorance is in thinking that this justifies damning entire disciplines as non-scientific (although I see you’ve made a concession there in your somewhat less than honest reference to Giddens). Disciplines such as climatology, biology and physics can also be pursued in unscientific and ideological ways.

            Have you been feeling the pinch since 2008? Well, if economics was a
            science, that devastating crash would have been predicted and avoided,
            and moreover, economists would be able to agree on an explanation of
            what happened.

            Ah. So, if some important class of events cannot be reliably predicted or given an agreed explanation, the discipline dealing with them is not a science. Oh, dear. Astronomers cannot predict the length or other characteristics of sunspot cycles, and do not have an agreed explanation for the rotational speed of galaxies – so astronomy is not a science. Biologists cannot predict the course of evolution either in the lab or in the wild, and have not yet agreed on an explanation for the maintenance of sexual reproduction – that’s biology gone. Climatologists cannot predict El Nino, nor do they agree what causes it – delete climatology. Physicists cannot predict the behaviour of so simple a system as a double pendulum, nor do they have an agreed explanation for the accelerating expansion of the universe. Cross off physics. We’re not really left with much, are we?

          • 90Lew90

            I’m sorry but the “hard” sciences have much more capacity for accurate prediction than you’re giving them credit for. For the last time, because you really are becoming a bore and setting up little challenge, the soft sciences of sociology, psychology and economics are speculative. The people actually practicing them don’t pretend they’re anything but speculative. The only element in the compounds that they are which is remotely scientific, and upon which they all rely, is stats. That’s all there is to it.
            I don’t know what your attachment to them is and I don’t much care, but I’d prefer to keep such a well-honed and useful thing as science — real science — uncontaminated by the kind of bluff these other bullshitters throw up. It does nobody any favours when all you get is snake oil. That is my main objection. Now, no doubt you’re going to have to have the last word here and you’re welcome to it, but that’s where I stand. And have you noticed that your arguments for the inclusion of what you think should be called science align pretty precisely with those of creationists and various other nutjobs? Chew that over. Goodbye.

          • Nick Gotts

            the soft sciences of sociology, psychology and economics are speculative

            You’ve been denying they are sciences at all up to now. Progress!

            The only element in the compounds that they are which is remotely scientific, and upon which they all rely, is stats.

            Utterly false, of course. The behavioral economics work I already cited, many thousands of experimental papers in multiple areas of psychology, sociological work on social network dynamics, the systematic collection of empirical data in all three sciences, all show quite clearly that you are completely wrong.

          • 90Lew90

            And they have been able to predict… What exactly?

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Consider this argument: Alexander the Great was the son of Zeus; Zeus didn’t exist; therefore Alexander the Great was a fictional character. In one sense this is true. The Alexander the Great who is defined as the son of Zeus never existed, whereas another Alexander the Great who was very similar to the aforementioned one (but not the son of Zeus) did exist.

          But is this a helpful way of looking at things? I don’t think so. The reason why it isn’t helpful is that it adds further confusion to the debate about Jesus mythicism.

          Update: I see James has beaten me to it 🙂

          • Pete Migdale

            So you would agree that there was no Jesus who was the “son of god”?

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I agree that Jesus was not divinely conceived. Perhaps you spend a lot of time debating people who believe in the virgin birth. If that is the case, then this blog may be unfamiliar territory for you.

          • Pete Migdale

            What, a christian who denies Jesus as the son of God? From my experience, this has always one of the few things christians of all denominations claim.
            It is certainly unfamiliar turf for me to be discussing this with a christian who rejects one of the big basic tenets of christianity.
            Do you believe in a loving omnipotent God or is that gone too?

          • There are people on the far, far extreme liberal end of Christianity who deny the fantastical elements of the Bible, yet somehow they maintain that they are, in some meaningful sense, Christian. I guess they are because they say they are.

            I find discussions with Christian like this to be like trying to nail Jell-o to the wall. They seem to have few theological hills, of any, they are willing to die on. Of course, James will argue that the discussion at hand is a historical one, but for the Christian, that history must, at some point, translate into some sort of theological belief.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            We seem to have strayed from the original question, which was whether it is helpful to say that Jesus was a fictional character. It might be permissible if there was no danger of misunderstanding.

            Perhaps one can say that the world was created in six days, in the confident knowledge that six days will be taken to mean 13.8 billion years?

          • Pete Migdale

            Sorry Cecil, that reply was so incoherent, that I have no idea what you are getting at

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It’s quite simple. In the context of the mythicism debate, saying that Jesus was a fictional character is likely to cause confusion. Some people will confuse the statement that Jesus the virgin-born miracle worker never existed with the statement that there was no historical figure on whom the Jesus movement was based.

            It is enough to point out that Jesus did not have certain qualities attributed to him in the Gospels. There is no need to talk about Jesus not existing.

          • Pete Migdale

            Now I get it, but I feel you are being somewhat pedantic.
            If I say “Jesus didn’t exist” I would generally be reasonably confident that it could be assumed that I was saying that the “Jesus of the bible” didn’t exist.
            I would not expect a listener to assume that I meant that there was never one or more people named Joshua on whom the Jesus movement was based.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Yes, perhaps I was being pedantic. That’s what can happen when you spend too long debating mythicists 🙂

          • If you said that you do not think Lee Harvey Oswald existed, I would understand you to be denying his existence, and not merely the way he was depicted in the movie JFK.

          • Pete Migdale

            That is hardly a valid comparison, the bible to an obscure and forgotten movie. Particularly as there is so much alternative evidence available to establish the late Mr Oswald’s existence.

          • The point was not about the degree of evidence for each, but the meaning of your words.

          • Pete Migdale

            Common usage.

          • arcseconds

            The idea that ‘Pete Migdale is American’ entails ‘Pete Migdale does not exist’ is hardly common usage.

          • Pete Migdale

            Unless there is one hidden away somewhere, Peter Migdale, the American, does not exist.

          • arcseconds

            By any normal account of pragmatics, though, I was not referring to Peter Migdale, the American, I was referring to you.

            If I say “You are american” do you think I’m talking to a non existent person?

            How, on your account, do we ever manage to say false things about people, rather than referring to other, possibly non-existent people?

          • Pete Migdale

            Could the confusion be based on the fact that my “common usage” response was to something James said, not you?

          • arcseconds

            I don’t think so. It is the same thing that is at stake in my discussion with you, isn’t it?

            The question is: what does ‘Jesus’ mean?

            You seem intent on interpreting it as someone who has the properties ascribed to him by the Gospels.

            But this is not how names function in English, or any other natural language I’m familiar with. However they work, they do not suddenly fail to refer because someone gets a property wrong.

            (Nor even if they get many properties wrong. Consider how ‘atom’ is understood to refer to the same things despite the fact that the properties they are understood to have has changed massively over the years. )

            So your appeal to ‘common useage’ does not help you: you require a very uncommon usage whereby names pick out sets of properties.

            But I’m repeating myself.

            It’d be nice to see an attempt to actually understand what I’m saying, instead of doubling down on your idiosyncratic theory of reference which entails no-one can ever make a false statement about anyone.

          • arcseconds

            Maybe it would help if I tried to explain how names actually work, rather than continuing to deal with your naïve theory that results in absurdities.

            At some point, someone assigns a name to something they’re directly acquainted with. Thereafter, the name refers to that thing, and it keeps this reference despite the fact that people may have very different ideas about it.

            So Dalton decided to call the then-theoretical (in fact ‘speculative’ isn’t going too far) entities he used to explain the ratios involved in chemical reactions ‘atoms’. The current use of the word has its origins in Dalton’s use, and the entities we now know for certain exists are indeed responsible for the ratios of substances involved in chemical reactions. So despite the fact that people’s ideas of the properties of atoms have changed massively over the last 200 years, the word continues to refer to the same thing.

            The same is true of Jesus. He got the name ‘Jesus’ (well, ‘Yeshua’) presumably from his parents (though it doesn’t matter if it was a nickname chosen by his apostles or if he adopted the name himself. Then he went on to preach, gather apostles, and get himself crucified, and his apostles were the first generation of a movement that later became known as Christianity.

            Afterwards all sorts of beliefs sprung up about who he was (or is) and what he did. But this doesn’t matter.

            Just as ideas about atoms don’t stop ‘atom’ referring to things we now know to be comprised of protons, neutrons and electrons, ideas about Jesus don’t stop ‘Jesus’ referring to the person who was born, named ‘Jesus’ at some point, and started the movement we all know and love today.

            I don’t think any of this can be seriously in dispute, but if you insist on disputing it, you need to explain how your take on how names work can cope with examples like the changing notion of atoms, and how we can say false things about anything.

          • Pete Migdale

            There is even less resemblance between the modern commonly accepted (rather than academic) image summoned up my the name Jesus, and a jewish carpenter named Josh, who did some preaching, was crucified and was buried never to rise again, than there is between the atom as described by Dalton, and the atom, as it is known now.
            Your non-immaculate conception, non miracle working, not risen from the dead Jesus would be alien to the vast majority of contemporary christians. Maybe that is why I found your point so hard to fathom.

          • arcseconds

            Only someone unfamiliar with quantum physics could make the statement that the current picture of the atom is less like a solid, indivisible, ball-bearing type particle than the historic Jesus is like the Gospel Jesus as though it were obviously true.

            Quantum particles undermine our notions of causality and what it is to possess a property. Gospel Jesus is tame by comparison.

            I suppose it could be argued that the Trinity likewise is a challenge to common-sense metaphysics, but the Trinity is a later development.

          • Ellis Kurtz

            Your non-immaculate conception, non miracle working, not risen from the dead Jesus would be alien to the vast majority of contemporary christians.

            Just a FYI technical point here: the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth of Jesus are two different things. The IC refers to the conception of Mary, mother of Jesus:

            The Immaculate Conception, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, was the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, free from original sin by virtue of the foreseen merits of her son Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul (keeping her “immaculate”) at the time of her conception.

            The Immaculate Conception is commonly and mistakenly taken to mean the conception of Mary’s son Jesus Christ in her own womb, and the Virgin Birth of Jesus. These are covered by the Doctrine of Incarnation, while the Immaculate Conception deals with the conception of Mary herself, not that of her son.

            One wonders why God did not make all our souls “immaculate”, so that there would be no need for Jesus to come to Earth and be crucified.

          • Nick Gotts

            One wonders why God did not make all our souls “immaculate”, so that there would be no need for Jesus to come to Earth and be crucified.

            Well, where would be the fun in that?

          • Nick Gotts

            Given the slew of conspiracy theories around JFK’s assassination, surely someone has claimed Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t exist!

          • arcseconds

            That is certainly an unusual understanding of the semantics of proper names you have there.

            Normally we think that it’s possible to refer to something, and yet to be really quite wrong about most of its properties.

            If I think Herbert Hoover was president in the 1910s and was a crossdresser (because I’ve got him confused with J. Edgar), no-one would say to correct me ‘Herbert Hoover doesn’t exist’.

            Nor is it normally considered correct to say to a 5th grader that ‘atoms don’t exist’, despite the fact they no doubt have a lot of wrongheaded ideas about them.

          • Pete Migdale

            I have no idea what you are talking about, sorry.

          • arcseconds

            Well, that makes life difficult, because I thought I was pretty clear, and I my inclination is to repeat what I just said.

            But let’s try another example.

            If I said “Colorado borders California” and thought it consisted of wide, flat plains, which of these would be the correct response, in your opinion?

            a) Colorado doesn’t exist
            b) Colorado doesn’t border California, and is famous for its mountains.


          • Pete Migdale

            I am Australian, and am not as familiar with your local geography as you are. Whilst I am reasonable confident that Colorado exists but have no idea of its bumpyness.

          • arcseconds

            I’m not American either, I just assumed most people would know at least that Colorado had mountains. It is at least a pretty well-known skiing destination.

            OK, say refer to ‘Paul Hogan, the famous Australian Labour Party Prime Minister and professional wrestler’.

            (probably the most likely interpretation is that this is a joke, but let’s say it seems I’m serious)

            Which of these is the correct thing to say in response?

            a) Paul Hogan doesn’t exist
            b) Paul Hogan is neither a professional wrestler nor a former Prime Minister: he is an actor.

          • Pete Migdale

            You have been concise in “a)” and more explanatory in “b)”.
            If “a)” was
            “a) Paul Hogan, the famous Australian Labor Party Prime Minister and professional wrestler” does not exist.” then “a)” would be as true as “b)”.
            I am not trying to be obtuse, I genuinely don’t get what you are driving at.

          • arcseconds

            And I don’t understand how you can possibly be this confused about names.

            I’m sure you must be able to use them in the normal manner, and I presume you’ve never reflected on how they are used.

            Names are normally understood to pick out an individual. So ‘Paul Hogan’ refers to Paul Hogan. Unfortunately on the internet, I can’t actually pick out Paul Hogan in any other way than use language, but imagine I have him beside me and point to him and say “this guy right here. He is Paul Hogan”.

            Now, obviously people can be wrong about the properties an individual has. So if I think Paul Hogan is 6′ tall, then it’s not that I’m thinking about another Paul Hogan, who is 6′ tall, starred as Crockadile Dundee, and doesn’t exist, I am thinking about the same Paul Hogan as everyone else does, it’s just that I’m wrong about his height.

            This is all rather obvious, I would have thought. When people say things like ‘Paul Hogan is really tall! Like 6′ or something’ we don’t say “that Paul Hogan doesn’t exist” but rather “no, you’re wrong, he’s only about average height.”

            Now, maybe there could be a language like English, except that names are consistently understood as referring to lists of properties, and “Paul Hogan doesn’t exist” was always understood to be denying someone matching that description. But that’s not how English works. ‘X doesn’t exist’ (where X is a name) doesn’t mean ‘The set of the things that has those properties denoted by X is the empty set’, but rather ‘The name ‘X’ does not pick out a real person’. This is obviously false of ‘Paul Hogan’: there really is someone of that name.

            What you are doing by your translated a’ is redefining ‘Paul Hogan’ to refer to that which matches a certain definite description, and denying that the definition matches anything.

            ( We can of course introduce names that are the same as existing names any time we want, but if I decide to name my coffee cup ‘Paul Hogan’ and say “no, Paul Hogan is about 4″ high and sitting on my desk” then I’m just being perverse. )

            Have you actually ever used this kind of construction in practice? When someone (in normal parlance) gets something wrong like ‘Sydney is the capital of Australia’, do you ever say ‘The Sydney that is the capital of Australia does not exist’? Or do you say “No, Sydney is not the capital, Canberra is.” ?

            Have you ever heard anyone say anything like that?

  • The following is a list of the verified documents from authors written contemporarily with the purported life of Yeshua:

    . . .

    This concludes the list.

    Odd enough that a generation or more later, the speech given by Yahweh’s kid was able to be transcribed word for word. Curious-er yet that none in Jerusalem who witnessed the biblically purported zombie uprising thought it interesting enough to jot down for posterity’s sake…

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      And your conclusion?

      • That one compiled storybook does not validate the historicity of a messianic zombie, nor should it warrant the worship of the same…

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          Actually, I don’t think the Gospels said anything about the risen Jesus shuffling around and trying to eat people.

          If your point is that the evidence is insufficient to establish the occurrence of a miracle, I won’t object. However, you seem to be arguing that the Jesus movement was not centred on an actual person who lived in first-century Palestine. In that case, I do object.

          • I don’t think I said anything about Jesus eating people, either. Our friends at Oxford assure us that merely rising from the dead qualifies a corpse for zombie status…

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Now that we have resolved that issue, what about the other question? Are you denying the existence of a historical figure on whom the Jesus movement centred?

          • No. I am doubting that the assertion that Jesus existed has been demonstrated to warrant merit…

          • Mits

            My take on the historical Jesus bit is that of course there was some guy named something like Jesus somewhere in that area sometime about then. Just like there were a couple of kids named Dick and Jane with a dog named Spot somewhere in suburbia around the 1950s. And there was a girl named Alice in England.

            If the Jesus stories were made up from scratch, the authors picked probable names and professions and actual locations. (Not like saying it was a post-op Aleut named Ogelthorpe who programmed service droids in the underwater city on Mount Tiddlypom.) Somebody, somewhere, was most like the Biblical Jesus – as the book says, messiahs were a shekel a shulful.

            And even if a fiery-eyed fellow from Nazareth left his stone-working job to die in Jerusalem, stone-hard convinced he was the Messiah, basing the gospels on that particular non-miraculous guy still means nothing miraculous. His historicity means no more than Pilate’s.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I am afraid you will have to share the credit for that fatuous idea with the many other people who have suggested it.

            The question is not whether there were enough Jesuses at the time to make it likely that someone vaguely corresponds to the Jesus in question, but whether one of these Jesuses was the brother of the James whom Paul speaks of meeting.

          • Mits

            “Fatuous”? Thanks. I never said it was unprecedented, but I did work it out myself. It is not such a popular idea that this non-scholar has ever seen it.

            But you have just moved the historicity over a bit, like a religious game of telephone. You now assume that Paul was real, and that he wrote facts, and that he really met a James and that said James had a brother Jesus.

            And I scoff, and say that even if Paul’s provenance is undisputed, and he really wrote what he heard, we are still back to playing Telephone. And even if the Paul met the only James with a brother Jesus who died in Jerusalem because he gave up stone-masonry, that Jesus may not have made miracles.

            But what do you mean? My scholarship is not such that I reel at your reply. My Sunday School taught that Jesus was an only child.

          • No historian, unless he is disregarding the way academic historical study works, concludes that Jesus did miracles.

            That there was a historical Paul who wrote some but not all of the letters attributed to him is not an assumption, but a conclusion of historical research.

            What makes your Sunday school teacher seem like a trustworthy authority on this matter, or any?

          • Mits

            I don’t trust my Sunday School teacher, anymore. I didn’t say that I did. I don’t trust religious people in general, any longer, partly because of my Sunday School teachers – there were many, of many denominations.

            But so. There was a Paul. Yay for him. I will happily assume that he was as real as Josephus and Pontius Pilate, and that some of the letters weren’t really his. Yet what does that show about his veracity, or of James’s truthfulness? (I am guessing Paul interviewed James.)

            And again, if there really was a stone-mason who got crucified in Jerusalem, but who did not work miracles, where are we? Is it a touching story of one of the many messiah-bees? What of the a-historic non-miracles that attend the tale? Did the birth happen when, where and as described? Did Herod order the babies killed? What do you sort out, and what is the point?

            Look, I read a lovely book by Georgette Heyer, called _The Spanish Bride_. The title character really existed. (Ladysmith Black Mombazo even gets their name from her.) But Richard Sharpe, who would have met her, and who is more well known, didn’t exist, but lots of people he supposedly met, did exist. But Wellington never gave him a telescope.

            Paul reporting on a real person is great. But when all sorts of mythology is intertwined, and some historical details are doubtful to impossible, where do you stop, and what does it matter?

          • Where do you stop what? You asked a number of questions about specific details in specific sources. You do realize, don’t you, that historians have been through the sources with a fine-toothed comb, and that there are answers readily available to your questions? Most historians would tell you that the crucifixion of Jesus is as close to certain as anything we know about this sort of figure – one that did not write any texts and was not a wealth person with status who could leave inscriptions or otherwise literally make their mark. And most historians would tell you that the massacre of the innocents in Matthew most likely did not happen. It is in keeping with Herod’s character, but is not attested elsewhere and is included only in Matthew’s highly mythological and symbolic infancy story. But such mythologized infancy stories are quite common in ancient literature about historical figures, and so the fact that such material is unhistorical does not automatically cast doubt on the historicity of the embarrassing execution of the man they thought was going to ascend to David’s throne and restore his dynasty.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It is ironic that some people on this thread are complaining that a comment made by an atheist comedian has been taken out of context. Now we have someone denying the existence of a person whose letters we possess. Is this also part of a comedy routine?

            If you have a theory about when and why the character of Paul was invented, you are welcome to share it. You may be sure that any theory you might come up with will be far more deserving of scepticism than the existence of Paul himself.

          • Mits

            I am not denying the existence of Paul. I reserve the possibility that there is a hoax about him – simply having his letter proves nothing (I have a Darth Maul light saber, myself) – but I said I’d accept his existence.

            But now you, a Biblical scholar (I assume), misread what I said so badly that you are snarking on the exact opposite of what I said. Which is entirely typical of internet Bible defenders, and which is why I doubt your abilities as a scholar. How can you misread and misinterpret so, and still expect respect for your Bible reading and interpretation?

            Again, fine, Paul existed and wrote the things you think he wrote. Hallelujah, I believe that! Now, what does that prove about the historicity of Jesus? It is all still second hand, and all mythed up.

            But Paul, God love him, he existed.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Let’s return to the point you made originally, which was about the alleged correspondence between “Jesus” as we understand him and someone who may have lived in first-century Palestine. Your point, as I understand it, is that any such correspondence would be a rather hit and miss affair. There probably was some itinerant preacher named Jesus and to that extent Jesus really existed.

            What you failed to take into account was the possibility of a causal connection. In other words, the movement, whose existence is indisputable, may have been started by a man named Jesus. If that was the case, then your vague speculations about the correspondence between Jesus as we understand him and a putative actual Jesus are irrelevant.

            The existence of a Jesus who actually started the movement is entirely plausible, and, indeed, the idea that the movement was based on an imaginary figure is implausible. Therefore, the burden of proof would be on you to show that such a figure didn’t exist.

            But beyond this we know that James was a key figure in the early movement and that he was the brother of Jesus. This specifies the identity of Jesus even further, since the movement cannot have had only a vague connection with a historical figure if his brother was a leader in the movement.

            You say that Paul might not have met James or that James might not have been the brother of Jesus, but you have nothing to base this on – it is pure speculation.

          • Paul had met Jesus’ brother. When we have a letter from an individual who tells us he had met someone’s brother, in most instances that is sufficient evidence of the person’s historicity, if the individual had no good reason to make it up. If the individual had good reason not to make it up, then the historian will feel even more confident.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            It is not uncommon for antitheists to harbour such doubts. It usually turns out that their doubts are based on something other than a firm grasp of the subject. It is also quite common for antitheists to be blissfully free of doubt when they assert that Jesus never existed.

          • It is not uncommon for rationalists to harbor such doubts, either. And while I don’t assert that I have, say, a firm grasp on the subject of Leprechauns, I’d hope my skepticism toward them wouldn’t be dismissed as willfully blissful ignorance. My contention is that magic Irish elves not been convincingly established to have existed.

            So too with magic Jewish carpenters…

          • Did you notice that you started out doubting elves, and ended up doubting the existence of carpenters?

          • Magic carpenters, in fairness.

            Not counting Karen and Richard…

          • But when the Wilson sisters sing about a magic man, the possibility that they had in mind a real individual (such as Michael Fisher) is worth exploring, in a way it would not be if they had sung about a magic elf.

          • It gets exponentially more complicated if the music is written by Danny Elfman…

          • Nick Gotts

            Not in the USA, I grant you. But in the UK, of course, and particularly dahn sarf, we ‘ave the National ‘elf Service!

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Let me see whether I follow your reasoning. It is not necessary to know the details of a particular supernatural claim in order to be sceptical of it. This is because supernatural claims in general are inherently improbable. So far, so good.

            However, I had just gone to some trouble to establish that we were discussing not the supernatural claims about Jesus, but the fact of his existence. You appeared to accept this and then expressed your scepticism even about the existence of Jesus as a historical figure. And you justified your scepticism on the basis of an analogy between Jesus and leprechauns, which are supernatural entities.

            Your hope that your position will not be dismissed as “wilful ignorance” may be a vain one.

          • “It is not necessary to know the details of a particular supernatural
            claim in order to be sceptical of it. This is because supernatural
            claims in general are inherently improbable.”

            I make neither of those claims.

            But I will concede that, for a simple pronouncement such as:

            There may have been a guy named Yeshua walking around circa 30 C.E. talking to people

            …I don’t think I’d have much of an argument. If you have a more detailed assertion, I’d be happy to consider it…

          • Surely the statement that there were people named Joshua around this time is so uncontroversial as to not require qualification?

          • If that’s the extent of the claim, sure…

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Thanks for the offer to consider any assertion I might make, but I’m not sure whether it would be a fruitful exercise. So far it appears that you have considered two assertions: that there was a miracle-working zombie messiah – an assertion which you have rejected; and that there was some guy called “Yeshua” walking around – an assertion to which you have granted provisional acceptance.

            Perhaps you might like to see whether you yourself can think of any other possibilities. Think of it as an intellectual exercise.

    • Erp

      You do realize that academic historians agree that Jesus was a relatively obscure character in an obscure corner of the empire and that resurrections of the dead and the other miracles did not happen (at least not as historical events). We also don’t have that many ancient reports (at least that survived). The number of contemporary reports about anyone of Jerusalem at that time is only a bit longer.


      and Philo actually lived in Alexandria. To give an example the number of existing reports on Pontius Pilate in the first century are

      Josephus (who is not immediately contemporary and who also mentions Jesus though far less frequently than Pilate)
      Tacitus (again not immediately contemporary and mentions Pilate in connection with Jesus)
      the canonical gospels and Acts (again not immediately contemporary)
      and one brief inscription

      and yet Pilate was ruling that area for about 10 years. So the one source that does not mention Jesus is Philo (and the inscription), but, Philo’s one report was in a letter to Caligula hoping to persuade the emperor to rescind a decision just as an earlier decision by Pilate had been rescinded. In other words not much about Pilate beyond the decision so no reason to mention Jesus (unless he was included among those killed in “his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned”; none of whom are listed).

      A shortage of evidence is not evidence of absence in this case.

  • Randy Burbach

    First off, the compilation of the Canon gospels was conducted under various chirch leaders – often those favored by secular rulers such as Constantine, who was the first known leader to order large numbers of texts. But long before then, the “original” texts were largely passed on in fragments and as oral stories. King James directed the translation of the English bible from Latin texts, not from the Greek, Aramaic, and other languages in which the “originals” were written, and they were, whether by order of the king or by the translators’ own idea, skewed toward supporting the Church of England over the papacy.

    • I didn’t understand the meme to be about one antiquated translation into English, and the King James version was not translated from the Latin – where did you get that idea from?

    • The King James New Testament was based on the Textus Receptus, a printed Greek New Testament compiled by Erasmus. Because some Greek sections of the text were missing, Erasmus filled in a few gaps by “back-translating” the Latin Vulgate into Greek. Some scholars point out other Vulgate influences on Erasmus compilation.

    • Robert Eckert

      This is precisely the kind of pseudo-lore he was talking about. Constantine had nothing whatsoever to do with the compilation of the gospels, which were largely in final form (up to a few copyist changes here and there) two hundred years before his time, in the early second century; the decision that the four gospels we now know as canonical, and no others, plus Acts and the Pauline epistles and some other epistles, were the book received was already in place by the late second century, although the status of some peripheral books remained controversial until the fourth century; by the end of the second century, turn of the third we have complete manuscripts for some of the books although only fragments from before then. The King James translation, by the way, rejected dependence on the Latin Vulgate and went back to the Greek and Hebrew, although it has been questioned how well those translators really knew the scriptural language.

      • Randy Burbach

        the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era, I never said Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels. just that those who did work on various bibles were often under sponsorship of secular leaders. the King James gospels were translated from Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew, and likely Greek translations of Hebrew translations of Aramaic, hence the problematic translation of “virgin.” Regardless, the texts themselves often plagiarize earlier Jewish sources, have no clear antecedents that were less than two generations removed from the alleged time of Jesus.

        • Robert Eckert

          “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era” That is not correct. As I said we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier.

          ” I never said Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels” What you said was “the compilation of the Canon gospels was conducted under various chirch leaders – often those favored by secular rulers such as Constantine”

          “the King James gospels were translated from Greek, not Aramaic or Hebrew” Because the gospels were WRITTEN in Greek, nor Aramaic or Hebrew. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, except for small portions in Aramaic, and the King James translators went back to the Hebrew text for their version of the Old Testament (although it is questionable how well they did understand Hebrew). Your claim was that the King James was from the Latin, which was not correct.

          “the texts themselves often plagiarize earlier Jewish sources” what are you even trying to say here?

          “have no clear antecedents that were less than two generations removed from the alleged time of Jesus” The Pauline epistles, the gospel of Mark, and the Q material in Matthew and Luke were all composed while people who knew Jesus were still alive.

          • Nick Gotts

            As I said we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier.

            No, we do not. Here is a list of early New Testament papyri. Perhaps you’d like to explain how you get “near-complete preservations from c. 200” from that, or what is missing from the list.

          • Robert Eckert

            P45, with near-complete gospels, used to be dated 200. If the Wiki now says 250 I’m sure there are reasons, but in any case this absurd assertion that the gospels weren’t compiled until Constantine needs to be put to rest. P46 with near-complete Pauline epistles is still dated 200.

          • P45 does not have “near-complete” gospels. Less than 15% of the original codex survives, and it is heavily damaged and fragmented.

          • Robert Eckert

            It contains all four canonical gospels plus Acts with sufficient samplings of each that if any of the texts had significant differences from the received versions we ought to see some. That is plenty complete enough to answer the question of whether the gospels had already been compiled in their final or nearly-final form by that time. People have such unrealistic expectations about how much completeness should be expected.

          • It might be an indication of early compilation, but P45 most certainly does not have “near-complete” gospels, and in fact contains many variant readings from other Greek manuscripts. So much so that one of it’s foremost textual critics, E.C. Colwell stated that the P45 scribe worked “without any intention of exactly reproducing his source … harmonizing, smoothing out, substituting almost whimsically … the scribe does not actually copy words. He sees through the language to its idea-content, and copies that– often in words of his own choosing.”

            Another textual scholar, James Ronald Royse, says of P45, “The scribe has a marked tendency to omit portions of text, often (as it seems) accidentally but perhaps also by deliberate pruning.”

          • Robert Eckert

            Apparently you and others take “near complete” to imply something quite other than what I was meaning. As for Colwell and Royse, both of them are taking it for granted that the exact Textus Receptus we now have already existed in the examplars P45 was copying from, whereas it is more likely that P45 was from a period when no verbatim text was yet standardized: THAT is what I was meaning by saying it was a “near complete” text of the canonical gospels, not meaning that it had 90% (or whatever) of the verses in the surviving scraps of papyrus, but rather that the text it was showing us was already quite close to the text we have now. Yes, there were variations in the wordings, and not all sections were yet considered essential (perhaps a few had not yet been composed? it is widely assumed, for example, that “the woman taken in adultery”, even though a very popular story, is actually a quite late addition); however, overall we see that the canonical four have already been singled out, and coupled with a book of Acts, and are essentially the texts we know. So I’m sorry that “near complete” was a poor phrasing: I was referring to the completion of the compilation and editing process, not to the attestation of particular verses.

          • Er … yes. I and others take “near complete” to imply, well, near complete. I certainly wouldn’t take near complete to imply the convoluted description that you just gave of P45. I wouldn’t call “near complete” poor phrasing. I would call it ridiculously incorrect phrasing.

          • Robert Eckert

            Well I was wanting some non-convoluted way of expressing what P45 shows about the state of development of the canon by the time that manuscript was prepared. Recall that I was interested in the issue of whether it was good evidence for the gospels already existing in much the form we know them, which is what the argument was about (not about the number of verses present or absent from a particular MS). If you have a concise phrase that would have said that, suggest away.

          • Well, whether P45 with it’s high degree of variance from other Greek manuscripts and it’s fragmentary nature, can be cited as evidence for “the gospels already existing in much the form we know them” is highly debatable.

            But that is not what you said. This is what you said:

            ‘”the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era” That is not correct. As I said we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier.’

            In the next comment you added:

            “P45, with near-complete gospels, used to be dated 200.”

            Whatever point you’re trying to support, your statements are plainly false.

          • Robert Eckert

            Since I’m not a fundamentalist Christian (or a Christian of any kind) and do not expect that the canonical gospels have been copied word-for-word ever since the four evangelists first wrote them down in a glow of holy inspiration, it does not surprise me in the least that c. 200 there were still lots of variants in the wordings and even in what pericopes were included or left out: the scribes had not yet started treating these books like Masoretes treat the Tanakh (with fastidious attention to copying every letter). But the differences between what they had then and what we have now are what we would consider trivial in the case of any other book.

            “This is what you said:
            ‘”the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era” That is not correct. As I said we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier.'” I don’t know why you are finding it so difficult to understand what point I was trying to make. Randy was asserting that no Christian bibles existed before Constantine’s era. I point out that what we have from c. 200 is evidence that the Christian Bible was nearly complete. I do understand that you took me to be saying that the manuscripts themselves had almost all of their pages present, and have apologized for a phrasing that obviously leant itself to that reading– but Jesus freaking Christ, can’t you look at the question and answer and get that I don’t care how many pages were present in a particular manuscript but rather was addressing the question of whether Christian Bibles existed yet?

            “”P45, with near-complete gospels, used to be dated 200.”
            Whatever point you’re trying to support, your statements are plainly false.” I stand by my statements. Even though we can’t see everything that used to be in P45, we can plainly see that the gospels were near complete at that time. Was Mark still missing an ending? Did Luke have a different speech at the Last Supper? Was John missing the woman taken in adultery? Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the books were nearly in their complete form.

          • I’m afraid I can’t tell you whether or not Jesus was a “freaking” Christ, but thank you for clarifying your position, that the books (the gospels? the epistles? both?) were nearly in their complete form (in 200? 250?).

            But, no, if you think that statements like “we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier” make it clear you “don’t care how many pages were present in a particular manuscript but rather was addressing the question of whether Christian Bibles existed yet”, then you must be speaking a different language.

            Especially when you’re addressing the statement that “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”. The word “extant” does not mean “existed at the time”; it means “still in existence, surviving.” You might argue that P45 counts as an extant bible (I would heartily disagree), but it could hardly be described as “near complete preservation”.

            I get that you’re arguing something different now. That the compilation of the New Testament was nearly complete at the time P45 was written. Again, that’s a far cry from what you actually said. Which is important because the commenter you were addressing made it quite clear that he was not arguing that “Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels”.

          • Robert Eckert

            “if you think that statements like “we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier” make it clear” I have apologized repeatedly, saying that I understand on re-reading why it seemed to be something else. I don’t know what more you want here.

            “The word “extant” does not mean “existed at the time”; it means “still in existence, surviving.” You might argue that P45 counts as an extant bible (I would heartily disagree)” WTF??? Are you disagreeing that P45 exists, or that it is biblical?

            ” the commenter you were addressing made it quite clear that he was not arguing that “Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels”.” That was back-pedalling after I called him out. His claim was that the whole process of compilation was driven by secular rulers, NONE of whom were Christian before Constantine.

          • What more do I want? I don’t know. I didn’t ask for an apology, but I certainly don’t want an “apology” paired in the same sentence with a “Jesus freaking Christ, can’t you look … and get”. You can keep that sort of “apology” to yourself.

            I’m not sure what about my statement warrants a “WTF”. If you want to call fragments of 15% of the gospels and acts an “extant bible”, be my guest. Hell, you can call any ancient biblical fragment a bible if you like. But as I said (and it’s curious that you only chose to quote half of my statement) it could hardly be described as “near complete preservation”.

            The next time you “call someone out”, you might try calling him out with something other than claims of “near complete preservations from c.200”. Otherwise, as we’ve seen, you’ll have to do a bit of your own back-pedalling.

          • Robert Eckert

            ” I certainly don’t want an “apology” paired in the same sentence with a “Jesus freaking Christ, can’t you look … and get”. ” Because that was coming after I’d explained myself repeatedly. You seem to want some more self-flagellation from me, but I am not sure what you are after.

            ” If you want to call fragments of 15% of the gospels and acts an “extant bible”, be my guest.” That would seem to be the normal usage of the words by English-speaking people. It would seem to be the usage you yourself defined.

            “But as I said (and it’s curious that you only chose to quote half of my statement) it could hardly be described as “near complete preservation”.” One more time, I agree that it was a bad choice of phrase on my part which led to a perfectly understandable confusion. Is there something more that you require than my repeated acknowledgement of that?

            “The next time you “call someone out”, you might try calling him out with something other than claims of “near complete preservations from c.200″. ” I should have not have used that phrasing, but indeed, the way to call out someone claiming that the compilation of the gospels was under secular leaders like Constantine is to point out the preservation of evidence that the compilation process was largely complete well over a century before Constantine or any other Christian secular leader.

          • I don’t want anything from you, Robert. I’m not sure why you keep insisting that I do.

            No, Robert, most English-speaking people do not call biblical fragments an “extant bible”.

            Yes, I noticed you calling out Randy even after he explained that he never meant that Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels. And of course, you never meant to say that there were near complete preservations of the bible from c.200.

            You seem unable to accept anyone’s errors but your own.

          • Robert Eckert

            “I don’t want anything from you, Robert.” What is your point, then? You say that “near-complete preservation” was a very wrong description, and I agreed. You tell me it was wrong, again, and I agree with you, again. And again. And again.

            “most English-speaking people do not call biblical fragments an “extant bible”.” What, in your opinion, is the word “extant” used for? Only things that are still in pristine condition?

            “I noticed you calling out Randy even after he explained that he never meant that Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels” His original claim was that the compilation was controlled by secular leaders, such as Constantine. If he did not mean Constantine, then what did he mean? Someone even later than Constantine? He has not made any effort to explain what else he could have meant.

          • I think the question is, what is your point? You say that the compilation was complete before Constantine, and everyone agrees with you, even Randy, who you were first responding to. His very next comment to you acceded the point.

            What does extant mean? Still existing, surviving. P45 may be extant fragments of the gospels and acts. It is not an extant bible. More to the point, Randy’s phrase, “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”, is not incorrect, as you try to insist. I don’t know why you feel the need to spout off about “pristine conditions”. It has nothing to do with P45 being pristine: far from simply being pristine, it completely lacks all of the epistles that are an inseparable part of the New Testament, and it lacks the vast majority of the content of the books it does include. It is fragments of gospels.

            Randy is hardly the only person who calls texts like the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest bibles extant:


            And we all know what is meant. This fourth century text is the oldest bible that can even remotely be considered complete. Earlier manuscripts are fragmentary and incomplete. Including P45.

            Whatever Randy meant about Constantine, he clearly conceded the point that Constantine had nothing to do with compilation. Randy’s statement was no more egregiously incorrect than your statement that P45 was a near complete preservation.

          • Robert Eckert

            “I think the question is, what is YOUR point?” I’ll respond to you as long as you want to keep this up, but it is not at all clear what you are after anymore.

            “What does extant mean? Still existing, surviving. P45 may be extant fragments of the gospels and acts. It is not an extant bible.” So in your usage you would say “There are no extant human skeletons from prehistoric times”? It is not what I was taking Randy to mean by the word, nor I think how most people would use the word (your CNN source does not use “extant” at all).

            “Whatever Randy meant about Constantine, he clearly conceded the point that Constantine had nothing to do with compilation.” He was wrong to talk about “secular leaders such as Constantine” at all. When I showed that it was wrong to attribute the compilation process to Constantine, his response was a claim that he had never said it was Constantine. But if he meant any secular leaders other than Constantine, that would be even wronger, since all other Christian secular leaders were even later.

            “Randy’s statement was no more egregiously incorrect than your statement that P45 was a near complete preservation.” It is a preservation indicating that the compilation process was near complete, which was the issue being addressed. The phrasing was taken to imply that the paper was almost completely preserved, which I agree is not true, and never meant to claim (indeed never intended any tangent on the condition of early manuscripts at all, which is not really relevant), although I see why it was taken to imply that and acknowledge I should not have phrased it that way. Are we done here?

          • I can’t tell if you are being purposely obtuse. Of course we use the word “extant” to refer to all sorts of surviving manuscripts, but scholars are generally specific about what is extant: an extant fragment of Mark, an extant manuscript of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, etc.

            I know of no scholars who would refer to a fragmentary manuscript as an “extant bible”.

            But scholars will often refer to the 4th century codices as the “oldest extant bibles”, “oldest extant New Testaments”, or “oldest Christian Bibles” – just as Randy did.

            “Written around the middle of the fourth century AD, Codex Sinaiticus is arguably the earliest extant Christian Bible.”


            “Among the foremost stars of the show were some of the manuscript treasures of Saint Catherine’s, especially some of the important New Finds – including part of Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest extant Christian Bible”


            “The Codex Sinaiticus is a fourth century codex bible removed from Saint Catharine’s monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt in the 19th century and now largely in the British Museum. Its early date makes it plausibly the first extant bible as that term is conceived in Christian terms.”


            “The oldest extant Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written in Greek, in all capital letters, with no spaces or punctuation.”


            “In the Codex Sinaiticus (c. 330-360), one of the earliest extant Bible manuscripts, the writing is left to right, but it still has no punctuation and no spaces between the words.”


            “Experts from the four institutions that own parts of what scholars consider the oldest extant version of both the Old and New Testaments in one volume launched a project March 11 to create a complete copy of the Codex Sinaiticus online. ”


            “It is shown by Tischendorf that this codex was written in the fourth century, and is thus of about the same age as the Vatican codex; but while the latter wants the greater part of Matthew and sundry leaves here and there besides, the Sinaiticus is the only copy of the New Testament in uncial characters which is complete. Thus it is the oldest extant MS copy of the New Testament. ”


            “Constantinus Tischendorf is perhaps best known for his discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus (one of the oldest extant copies of the New Testament in Greek, circa 360 A.D.)”


            ” To the fourth century belong the earliest extant Biblical manuscripts of anything but fragmentary size.”


            The language that Randy used is not uncommon at all. I’m surprised you had trouble understanding his meaning. But your confusion was compounded when you went on to describe P45 as a “near complete preservation”. I know you’ll protest that you “apologized” for this – and that’s fine, I’m not asking for an apology. I am only pointing out that Randy’s statement about the oldest extant christian bibles being those of the 4th century is quite correct and phrased in a manner familiar to scholars. Your “correction” was actually the incorrect statement.

          • Robert Eckert

            “I know of no scholars who would refer to a fragmentary manuscript as an “extant bible”.” I was not responding to a “scholar”: I was responding to a poster who appeared to be under the impression that the New Testament was written following Constantine’s conversion. I had to guess what he meant by saying “extant bibles” only start in Constantine’s time, which sounded very much to me as if he thought there was nothing at all surviving from before then.
            “The language that Randy used is not uncommon at all.” I had not heard it before, and what apparently happened is that Randy read something like the quotes you give and understood them to mean that there was *zero* evidence for the existence of the gospels or epistles *at all* prior to the 4th century.
            ” I am only pointing out that Randy’s statement about the oldest extant christian bibles being those of the 4th century is quite correct and phrased in a manner familiar to scholars.” He was drawing a conclusion from the phrasing that was not what was intended. I compounded the confusion by using a phrasing that also led people to a conclusion that was not intended.

          • Though scholars certainly refer to fourth century codices as the “oldest extant bibles”, sometimes “extant Christian bibles” to delineate them from older Old Testament texts, many of the web sites I cited in that last post were not by scholars. It is clearly the common and obvious understanding of the phrase “extant bible”. Would you like more references? There are plenty.

            So not only did you make an assumption about Randy’s statement that was completely wrong, when I pointed this out and “heartily disagreed” with you that P45 could be considered an “extant bible”, your immediate response was “WTF” and a continuous insistence through multiple posts that I didn’t understand “normal usage” of the word “extant”. Even if we dispense with your initial exchange with Randy – your exchange with me is even more offensively wrong!

            Even in this last post you are still insisting that Randy believes that “there was *zero* evidence for the existence of the gospels or epistles *at all* prior to the 4th century.” But in the very same initial comment in which he mentions Constantine, Randy also says “but long before then, the “original” texts were largely passed on in fragments and as oral stories.” I don’t see how you could possibly read Randy’s comment, and assume that he thinks there is “zero evidence” for the gospels prior to the 4th century. Unless you just have poor reading skills.

            Your arguments are hampered by major errors (“near complete preservations” of the gospels in P45, a complete misunderstanding of the phrase “extant bible”), and as Randy has clearly not expressed the misconceptions you are trying to attribute to him, you seem to be arguing against a complete strawman.

          • Robert Eckert

            “in the very same initial comment in which he mentions Constantine, Randy also says “but long before then, the “original” texts were largely passed on in fragments and as oral stories.” ” WHICH IS TOTALLY WRONG, since the gospels were not passed down as oral stories or as little fragments of writing, but in the form of four books titled “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke”, and “John” for well over a century before Constantine. The wrong-headedness of the belief in a “game of telephone” story of the origin of the gospels is, if you haven’t noticed, the whole point of the article on which we are commenting. Randy is defending this belief that the four books were composed out of a smorgasbord of oral traditions and fragmentary writings to serve the purposes of secular political leaders, which cannot be the case since the books developed well before there were any political leaders sympathetic to Christianity. This is what the topic is: when and how were the books assembled. And this is what my aggravation with you is rooted in: your refusal to understand what the issue even is here.

            “Your arguments are hampered by major errors (“near complete preservations” of the gospels in P45…”: again, when you tell me that P45 does not preserve anything like 100% of the texts of the books that were originally contained in the manuscript, I agree with you; I further agree with you that my phrasing was wrongful in that it led to that wrong implication. But you don’t seem to want to take “yes” for an answer.

            “…a complete misunderstanding of the phrase “extant bible” ” Indeed I have never seen that phrase before. I am accustomed to how the word “extant” is used in other fields, to mean *even the most minimal* survival. Crossopterygia (the lobe-finned fish) is called an “extant” group because there is a single species left (every taxonomic group that is not “completely extinct” is called “extant”); and when discussing the possible age of a group, the minimal age is that of the oldest “extant fossil” which will be, say, a single tooth. This is why I was asking whether you would refuse to use “extant” for any prehistoric human skeleton (which of course will only contain a minority of the bones, usually a tiny minority).

            So OK, in the field of Biblical history (at least, Christian Biblical history: I have seen it said that Ezra is “extant” in the Qumran scrolls although there are only three small scraps of papyrus with not one verse complete) the word “extant” is restricted to pristine preservations. This is odd, and I believe it is the source of Randy’s belief that things like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are the oldest evidence for the existence of the four gospels (as opposed to the blur of oral and “fragmentary” traditions from which he sees them emerging, in Constantine’s time, like Athena emerging in full armor from the brow of Zeus).

            The underlying problem, I think, is the dominant role of fundamentalists in the field. They want to believe that the gospels were understood to be sacred texts, to be copied word-for-word and letter-for-letter, from the very beginning: they will grudgingly admit that copyists may have made mistakes here and there, but “surely” copyists wouldn’t add new material, delete passages they didn’t like, or change wordings to alter the meaning? Ummm, yes, throughout the 2nd century and into the 3rd they were doing all those things, and this evolution of the texts is a fascinating puzzle to try to unravel– but fundies of course don’t believe in evolution, so they like to discount things like P45 as “bad copies” (they are implicitly assuming that the scribe who wrote P45 had the final-final -canonical text in front of him, since of course the final-final-canonical text is what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John “must have” written in the first place).

            So I will make one more attempt to explain to you what I actually think P45 shows. We have four books with the titles we expect, and while we don’t see nearly as much of those books as we would like, we see plenty to tell us that the contents are basically the books we know: “Luke” is already associated with a book of Acts, “Matthew” is not just the “Q” quotations bereft of any narrative (as Papias describes the “Matthew” he knew c. 100) but is combined with a slightly altered Markan narrative and some other unique material, etc. The compilation process at that date was not “complete” (some things we find in the final-final-canonical text are definitely missing, either not yet composed, or not yet considered vital) but it is “near complete”

          • I’m not claiming that Randy expressed a perfect understanding of biblical transmission in the few comments he’s made on this post. In fact I corrected him on the source for the King James Bible.

            But you have lost credibility by repeatedly making false statements about him:

            He never once intimated that “there was *zero* evidence for the existence of the gospels or epistles *at all* prior to the 4th century.”
            He never once said that “Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are the oldest evidence for the existence of the four gospels”
            His statement that “oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era” was entirely correct and is precisely the language used by a plethora of biblical scholars and laymen as I have shown, but you maintained that both he and I were wrong about this and the use of the phrase “extant Christian bibles” for comment after comment in this thread.

            You are grossly overstating his errors and making multiple errors of your own in the process, insulting me along the way, with expressions like “WTF” to my perfectly reasonable and correct assertion of what an “extant Christian bible” refers to. It’s difficult to find a comment you have posted to this thread, which does not contain errors, misstatements, or misrepresentations of others.

            So when you now condescendingly “make one more attempt to explain to” me what you think of P45, you’ll just have to excuse me if I find your back-pedaling, unoriginal display of Wikipedia knowledge less than interesting.

            I understand the issue of the post, Robert, despite your patronizing “aggravation” – what you don’t seem to understand is your own incompetence in arguing for the issue of the post. You just spent over half a dozen lengthy comments trying to convince me that I am wrong to say “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”. And after I show you numerous examples of exactly the same sort of wording in a variety of sources, you are still rambling on about your understanding of the word “extant”! And those ramblings are just as confused – an extant organism is a whole organism, an extant fossil can be a fossil of anything a tooth or a skeleton, but you wouldn’t call a fossil tooth an extant skeleton.

            More to the point your incoherent understanding of the word “extant” is not the issue. You started us down this road by arguing rather vociferously that my use of “extant” was wrong. No, Robert, you have been wrong for the past several comments – wrong in accusing me of being wrong! Forgive me if I’m not interested in the nuance of your underlying argument; you’ve wasted far too much time attacking me for a completely correct statement.

          • Robert Eckert

            “I’m not claiming that Randy expressed a perfect understanding” What he expressed was the precise misunderstanding the article is directed against.

            “He never once intimated that “there was *zero* evidence for the existence of the gospels or epistles *at all* prior to the 4th century.” ” He said “the “original” texts were largely passed on in fragments and as oral stories”: not that we only have “fragments” NOW, from what were entire books at the time, but that fragmentary writings were all that was being passed down. He doesn’t think that there was any gospel of “Mark” etc. until Constantine’s time, just little snatches of stories, mostly not even written down, which were compiled into books by “those favored by secular rulers”. No, I am not exaggerating the level of the misunderstanding. When I told him in my first reply to him that the books already existed in nearly their final form long before Constantine (not that we have pristine preservations, but we do have more than enough evidence for the existence of complete books at that time), he talked about “the oldest extant christian bibles” being from Constantine’s time, not to contradict any assertion about the state of preservation of early manuscripts (I had not uttered the infamous “near complete preservations” phrase yet), but to contradict the assertion that THE BOOKS EXISTED before (and he went on to demonstrate the depth of his confusion with talk about “the King James gospels” and “translations into Hebrew from Aramaic”).

            “He never once said that “Sinaiticus and Vaticanus are the oldest evidence for the existence of the four gospels” ” because I doubt he knows the names “Sinaiticus” and “Vaticanus”. But his impression that the Biblical books did not exist as books until Constantine’s era is evidently derived from the “plethora” of people describing those two as the first “extant” copies of the gospels, which to most people who have ever encountered the word “extant” in any other context, implies that there are not even the most miniscule survivors of any copies of the gospels, as gospels, from before that time.

            “expressions like “WTF” to my perfectly reasonable and correct assertion of what an “extant Christian bible” refers to” ” You had given a definition of “extant” as “”still in existence, surviving” immediately followed by a denial that P45 fits that definition, which sounded very much as if you were denying that P45 still exists or survives. If you are going to hammer me over and over again for the way that my phrase “near complete preservation” implied something patently untrue, then let me hammer you again and again for not acknowledging that this usage of “extant” (regardless of how many other people have used it that way before) is most easily read (by Randy, for example, as well as all the other people that this article is addressed to) as a denial that any previous gospels existed at all. It is not consistent with how the word is used in other contexts.

            ” It’s difficult to find a comment you have posted to this thread, which does not contain errors, misstatements, or misrepresentations of others.” Oh? Go through every comment I have meant to Randy, to Nick, and to you and see if you can find anything to complain about other than the same things you keep harping on and on about ad nauseam.

            “display of Wikipedia knowledge” As opposed to your CNN knowledge?

          • You are sadly mistaken if you think that “extant Christian bibles” is “most easily read as a denial that any previous gospels existed at all”. If the stack of references I provided you of how everyone I have ever encountered (just a few more than CNN I believe) defines the phrase “extant Christian bibles”, then I don’t know what else to tell you.

            I can’t cure willful ignorance. What can you say to someone for whom facts and evidence (even basic definitions) mean nothing?

          • Robert Eckert

            “You are sadly mistaken if you think that “extant Christian bibles” is “most easily read as a denial that any previous gospels existed at all” ” No I’m not. There are a large number of people who believe that the gospels (as books, rather than snatches and shreds of stories passed down haphazardy) only started to exist in Constantine’s time: THAT IS, IF YOU HAVEN’T NOTICED YET, WHAT THE SUBJECT OF THIS ARTICLE IS. You are helping me to understand how people could get so sadly misinformed: it now looks likely that this widespread use of “extant Christian bibles” to exclude everything pre-Constantine, contrary to how “extant” is used for any other kind of thing except “Christian bibles”, is what sparked that.

          • I have noticed the subject of James’s article, and I agree with it. The meme he posted does make a number of historical errors, but a belief that “the gospels … only started to exist in Constantine’s time” is not one of those errors; and your insistence in all caps doesn’t change that. All caps sentences in blogs are generally viewed as a text version of shouting. And shouting has never been a particularly reasonable form of making an argument.

            I am now finding your armchair “hypothesis” about the use of “extant Christian bibles” rather comedic. Bless your heart, Robert, the biblical scholars I’ve cited are better trained in the use of words like “extant” than you are. It is no different than the use of the word “extant” in any other context, despite your obvious confusion.

          • Robert Eckert

            “The meme he posted does make a number of historical errors, but a belief that “the gospels … only started to exist in Constantine’s time” is not one of those errors” The James Cross version of this meme is certainly less extreme than other angry-atheist versions of how late the composition of the NT was, but I think you are being disingenuous in pretending never to have seen the more extreme belief and especially to deny that Randy was peddling it. For a particularly whacko version:
            “Christianity was an invented religion. Unambiguous evidence of Christianity, the New Testament, Christians and Jesus, does not exist before the appearance of the Constantine Bible.
            Did Jesus Christ really exist?
            No. Like Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Grey and Harry Potter, he was a literary invention.
            Where did Christianity really come from (Geographically)?
            What are the true origins of the literature of Christianity?
            The canonical books were fabricated under the commission of Constantine, with Eusebius as their editor-in-chief, between 312 and 324 CE. The non canonical books were authored between 325 and 336 CE as a Alexandrian Greek reaction to the status and integrity of the Constantine Bible, perhaps by Arius of Alexandria, but were the subject of censorship, military search and destroy missions, destruction, burning, prohibition and imperial damnatio memoriae.”
            Christian sites often feel the need to include a tab refuting “Constantine created the New Testament” in their FAQ lists, as for example or or others you can readily find. If you have spent any time on religious debate boards, as it certainly sounds as if you have, you must have run into this dozens of times.

            ” All caps sentences in blogs are generally viewed as a text version of shouting.” Indeed. I shouted at you because you give a strong appearance of deafness.

            ” And shouting has never been a particularly reasonable form of making an argument.” You have not given the impression of being interested in conducting a reasonable argument. You might contrast with the other fork of this thread, where Nick had the same objection to what I said as you said, but when the misunderstanding was cleared up and I acknowledged being at fault for creating it, that was the end of the matter.

            “I am now finding your armchair “hypothesis” about the use of “extant Christian bibles” rather comedic.” It is not an armchair hypothesis. You made me want to trace down this misconception to its origin. This may not be the only source but has been influential:
            “The Church makes extraordinary admissions about its New Testament. For example, when discussing the origin of those writings,
            “the most distinguished body of academic opinion ever assembled” (Catholic Encyclopedias, Preface) admits that the Gospels “do not go back to the first century of the Christian era”
            (Catholic Encyclopedia, Farley ed., vol. vi, p. 137, pp. 655-6).
            This statement conflicts with priesthood assertions that the earliest Gospels were progressively written during the decades following the death of the Gospel Jesus Christ.
            In a remarkable aside, the Church further admits that,
            “the earliest of the extant manuscripts [of the New Testament], it is true, do not date back beyond the middle of the fourth century AD”
            (Catholic Encyclopedia, op. cit., pp. 656-7).
            That is some 350 years after the time the Church claims that a Jesus Christ walked the sands of Palestine, and here the true story of Christian origins slips into one of the biggest black holes in history. There is, however, a reason why there were no New Testaments until the fourth century: they were not written until then, and here we find evidence of the greatest misrepresentation of all time.
            It was British-born Flavius Constantinus (Constantine, originally Custennyn or Custennin) (272-337) who authorized the compilation of the writings now called the New Testament. ”

            The line in the Catholic Encyclopedia about the “earliest of the extant manuscripts” first appeared in the 1908 edition. At that time the earlier mss containing collections of NT books were not being excluded from the term “extant” on grounds of being insufficiently complete, but because they were not yet known to exist (Chester Beatty announced the discovery of P45 and P46 in 1931, for example). The Catholic Encyclopedia has scarcely been edited at all in the century since, so this line is now just a thoughtless replication of outdated info.

            ” It is no different than the use of the word “extant” in any other context, despite your obvious confusion.” It is very different from how either biologists or even non-Christian Biblical scholars use the term, as I have shown you.

          • How odd. You still haven’t provided one example of someone using the phrase “extant Christian Bibles” to mean “denial that any previous gospels existed at all”. I would even assume that you might be able to find one or two, though it’s most certainly not “most easily read” that way as you claim. But not even one example?

            I would agree that Randy Burbach’s few comments were quite confused and misguided (including a hint of mythicism), but as he referred to “no clear antecedents that were less than two generations removed from the alleged time of Jesus”, it’s obvious that he doesn’t think (as you claim) that “there was *zero* evidence for the existence of the gospels or epistles *at all* prior to the 4th century.”

            No, Robert, you haven’t shown me any differences in the definition of “extant”, only differences in words that it modifies. A biologist would never refer to an extant tibia as an extant skeleton. There are countless species of monkeys that have gone extinct, but the order primates is still extant, because many species of monkey (with whole living organisms) still exist.

            A work of literature may no longer be extant, but a fragment of the work may be extant.

            In our case, of course, we were discussing my use of the phrase “extant Christian Bibles”, not “extant manuscripts” (all sorts of writings qualify as manuscripts), and in the the Catholic Encyclopedia reference you mention, the writer has missed the context of the paragraph, in which the particular manuscript being discussed was the gospel of John. The word “manuscript” is a trickier word to nail down as it’s specific meaning is usually determined by context.


            I never “pretended” that some extremists may date the composition of the bible no earlier than Constantine. But that’s not the mistake being made in the Meme that James presents in this post. The more common mistake is the idea that Constantine “compiled” the New Testament at the Council of Nicea, and the source for this mistake is not a misunderstanding of the word “extant”. It comes from an eighteenth century story popularized by Voltaire, that Constantine piled the possible books of the canon on an altar and kept only those that didn’t fall off:


            But Randy Burbarch has denied believing even this error.

          • Robert Eckert

            “You still haven’t provided one example of someone using the phrase “extant Christian Bibles” to mean “denial that any previous gospels existed at all”.” I have provided TWO examples. “I would agree that Randy Burbach’s few comments were quite confused and misguided” including his statement that only oral traditions and fragmentary writings existed before Constantine. Quite opposite of your repeated assertion that “it’s obvious that he doesn’t think (as you claim) that “there was *zero* evidence for the existence of the gospels or epistles *at all* prior to the 4th century.” ” it is entirely obvious that this is exactly what he thinks, that the books did not previously exist as books until they were assembled in Constantine’s time from “antecedents” most of which were not even written down, and none of which were in a form recognizable as the four gospels. I showed you also one of the first (perhaps the very first) authors to put forth this theory based precisely on the old usage of “earliest extant” to describe the 4th century mss.

            “A biologist would never refer to an extant tibia as an extant skeleton.” You are so full of bullshit. Random Googling for the phrase “extant skeleton” gives as first hit “the museum burned down and the specimens were destroyed, including the one extant skeleton of her Podokesaurus” (Wiki for Mignon Talbot) linking to a description and pictures of the “poorly preserved, incomplete skeleton” and questions about the independence of the genus “[b]ecause of the poor preservation of the original type material of Podokesaurus”. To biologists, as to just about everybody who uses the word (including non-Christian Biblical scholars) “extant” means that ANY part survives: “the order primates is still extant, because many species of monkey (with whole living organisms) still exist” and an order is still called “extant” even if only ONE species still exists.

            In the sources you give of Sinaiticus etc. being called “earliest extant”, you see many qualifiers such as “one of” the earliest extant, the earliest extant with “both the Old and New Testament in a single volume”, or “arguably” the earliest extant, or most tellingly, “plausibly” the first extant “as that term is conceived in Christian terms” acknowledging that the way Christians use this term is a little odd compared to how anybody else uses it.

            “I never “pretended” that some extremists may date the composition of the bible no earlier than Constantine.” You are denying that in this very post where you claim not to be denying it.

            “he more common mistake is the idea that Constantine “compiled” the New Testament at the Council of Nicea, and the source for this mistake is not a misunderstanding of the word “extant”.” But the more recent mistake, that Constantine didn’t select from books which already existed, but composed books when nothing more than fragmentary stories had existed before, does indeed derive from the use of “extant” in the earliest example of this particular variety of mythicism which I could locate.

          • Impressive. Two whole examples for your armchair theory about the phrase “extant Christian Bibles”. Except that Randy’s “antecedents” hardly qualify as “zero evidence”, and, embarrassingly, your second example doesn’t actually use the phrase “extant Christian Bibles”.

            You do like colorful language. But calling “bullshit” doesnt’ explain the relevance of your “Podokesaurus” example. It’s an extant skeleton. Not an extant tibia.

            Your mention of a biological “order” is bizarre. Yes an order is extant even when some of the species in it are extinct. And the bible is extant, even though countless bibles have been destroyed over time. Apparently, classifications are a little over your head.

            And insisting that I deny things that I don’t actually deny is just silly (I am not sure to what end).

            I still find it very funny that you think you know better than biblical scholars how to use the phrase “extant bibles”. You’ll have to forgive me if I find the scholars more convincing.

          • Robert Eckert

            “Impressive. Two whole examples for your armchair theory” Indeed, it is no longer an armchair “hypothesis” after a testable prediction has been confirmed. I traced back references to this “Constantine wrote the gospels” pseudo-lore to the source they link back to (a 2001 book “The Bible Hoax”) and indeed that source cites the line about “earliest extant” as its justification. If you want to refute my theory you need to show that there was some other source. Now of course you are correct that this pseudo-lore was strongly influenced by the earlier pseudo-lore “Constantine had dozens of gospels to choose from and picked four arbitrarily”; but this particular wrinkle does indeed derive from the readily misunderstood use of “extant”.

            “Except that Randy’s “antecedents” hardly qualify as “zero evidence” ” For the prior existence of books called “gospels”? Indeed Randy believes there was zero evidence for such books: what he thinks the antecedents consisted of was solely a batch of oral stories and occasional “fragments” of writing. He might even be so confused that he doesn’t understand that the shreds of papyrus that we have now were complete books back then, and thinks the Christians were passing torn little bits of papyrus around in the first couple centuries; but I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that when he talks of “fragments” of writing he just means that there were only short stories written, none of them strung together into a cohesive narrative until Constantine.

            “But calling “bullshit” doesnt’ explain the relevance of your “Podokesaurus” example. It’s an extant skeleton.” It WAS a small collection of broken bones, containing a lesser percentage of the content of the whole skeleton than the percentage of the gospel texts contained in P45. You were denying that biologists say “extant skeleton” in such cases.

            “Yes an order is extant even when some of the species in it are extinct.” Even when almost all of the species in it are extinct. “Extant” simply does not require “near complete preservation”: it refers to any level of preservation greater than zero.

            “And insisting that I deny things that I don’t actually deny is just silly lying ” You denied, again, in this very post that Randy was taking the position that the gospels didn’t exist before Constantine; it requires an unbelievable level of obtuseness to still fail to understand what the issue is here; and here, you are denying that you are denying it, and accusing me of “lying” for pointing out that you continue to deny it.

            “I still find it very funny that you think you know better than biblical scholars how to use the phrase “extant bibles”.” Those scholars, according to the sources you yourself brought up, as I just pointed out to you last post, know better than to say Sinaiticus is the earliest extant Christian bible without using qualifiers, such as saying it is the earliest extant complete, or the earliest extant with Old and New Testament in the same ms, or “arguably” the earliest extant (acknowledging that the usage of the term is dubious), or “plausibly” the earliest extant “as Christians understand the term”, explicitly acknowledging that the usage is unique to Christian Biblical scholars. I believe now that this odd usage arose because the 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia passage kept on being repeated, even though the facts had changed, and so out of deference to authority the word was re-defined so as to keep the sentence correct.

          • No. Your 2001 reference never refers to an “extant Christian Bible” or even an “extant Bible”. Obviously, scholars use the word “extant” to describe all sorts of ancient surviving documents and fragments of documents. “Manuscripts”, also, is used by scholars for all sorts of documents.

            I do understand why you keep steering clear of the word “bible”. Even if the fragmentary gospels in P45 were complete, it still wouldn’t qualify as a “bible”, lacking 22 of the 27 documents that make up a New Testament. That’s not an issue of “preservation”. There’s no indication that P45 ever contained more than those 5 books.

            If “extant” is used to refer “to any level of preservation greater than zero”, then why do scientists not call the bones an “extant Podokesaurus”. That would be the analogue to an “extant bible”. Is this obscure dinosaur all the evidence you have to prove that biblical scholars abuse the word “extant”?

            Let me remind you of the context:

            “‘I never “pretended” that some extremists may date the composition of the bible no earlier than Constantine.’ You are denying that in this very post where you claim not to be denying it.”

            No I never denied that some extremists may date the composition of the bible no earlier than Constantine. And no assertion on your part will change that.

          • Robert Eckert

            “Your 2001 reference never refers to an “extant Christian Bible” or even an “extant Bible”.” So??? It is interpreting the sentence to mean that no pre-Constantine mss exist for New Testament books (which is what the sentence did mean when it was written in 1908).

            “I do understand why you keep steering clear of the word “bible”.” No, you don’t understand. I don’t care which quotes do or don’t contain the specific word “bible” because that has zero relevance to any issue I have ever been talking about.

            “There’s no indication that P45 ever contained more than those 5 books.” Who ever said it did??? Certainly not me. P45 indicates that the four gospels existed, as recognizable books with their familiar titles and very nearly, though not exactly, the content we know. Randy was denying that gospels existed except as oral stories and little fragments of writing.

            “If “extant” is used to refer “to any level of preservation greater than zero”, then why do scientists not call the bones an “extant Podokesaurus”. ” Because when you are speaking about a taxon, which is an abstract predicate as opposed to a concrete object, you say it is “extant” if there is still any living creature to which it applies. Saying that “Podekesaurus” was extant would be naturally read as meaning that some creatures still belong to one of the species in that genus. You should not say that Raphus cucculatus is extant, and saying that some museums have “extant dodos” is an unfortunate ambiguous phrase (a creationist got made fun of for misunderstanding such a poor usage, so “Extant Dodo” is the name of a video-blogger who tears apart creationists) and it is preferred to say that some museums have “extant specimens of the dodo” to make it plain that a concrete object, not the taxon, is the referent for “extant” here. Saying that museums have “extant specimens of the dodo” does not imply that any of them have anything remotely like a near-complete preservation of a dodo.

            ” Is this obscure dinosaur all the evidence you have” Sigh. I told you quite explicitly that it was simply THE FIRST GOOGLE HIT when I checked for you how biologists actually use the phrase “extant skeleton” (in quotes). Do we need to go down more Google hits? You said they would “never” use that phrase for a single bone, and I can agree with you that far, but they certainly do use “extant skeleton” for a collection of bones which is quite paltry (partially articulated spine with no skull, a few ribs, and the left hind femur).

            ” I never denied that some extremists may date the composition of the bible no earlier than Constantine” You persistently deny that Randy was doing so, obtusely refusing to understand what the issue ever was.

          • You seem to have forgotten that we were addressing the statement “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”, to which you mistakenly replied, “that is not correct”.

            Historical scholars (including biblical ones) refer to all sorts of “extant” things: extant fragments, extant letters, extant manuscripts, extant papyrus, etc. from all over time (not just the 4th century).

            Your “Bible Hoax” reference claims that the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to:

            “the earliest of the extant manuscripts [of the New Testament]”

            But, if you check the citation, the Catholic Encyclopedia never uses the words “of the New Testament” and, in fact, is using the word “manuscripts” only to reference the earliest gospel of John that was known at the time, not the earliest bible.


            A Podokesaurus, like a human, can refer to either a taxonomy or an actual object, but whether such a creature is extant or not is certainly not determined by your made-up definition of “any level of preservation greater than zero”.

            I’m glad you agree that P45 is not a bible. One would assume that you could now agree with biblical scholars that the earliest extant Christian Bibles date from the 4th century, rather than presenting this half-baked hypothesis that biblical scholars don’t understand the word “extant”.

          • Robert Eckert

            “Your “Bible Hoax” reference claims that…”: I have often referred to Jesus-myther theories as “the atheist equivalent of creation science” because they exhibit similar tendencies, such as quote-mining. Yes, I did notice that “Bible Hoax” took a quote about John, specifically, and turned it into a claim about the New Testament, in general. However, the author was also using statements from the same encyclopedia about how it was necessary to take on faith that the scriptures had been passed down accurately from the apostolic generation; the assertion that there was no physical evidence for the existence of gospels prior to Constantine’s era was essentially correct in 1908 (only P1-P14 were known then, of which a couple, containing bits of Matthew only, are now dated 3rd century although that wasn’t clear at the time), although there is little excuse for the “New” Catholic Encyclopedia edition of 1967 or for the online text now at the New Advent site to be retaining all those statements without any mention of the change in underlying facts.

            “Historical scholars (including biblical ones) refer to all sorts of “extant” things” which is why it is better to be precise about specifying what, exactly, is extant– but while you are correct that a single tibia would better be referred to as “an extant tibia” rather than “an extant skeleton”, in discussing the fossil record it would not be at all unusual to refer to “the extant hominid skeletons” and include on the list those from which only a single jawbone or pelvic girdle survives. “A Podokesaurus, like a human, can refer to either a taxonomy or an actual object” which is why a phrase like “extant hominid” with no qualification would generally be avoided (since they raise the same ambiguity as “extant dodo”); “extant hominid species” would mean alone, or also include the pongids if the broader definition of hominid is used.

            Now the thing is, the scholarly (as opposed to journalistic) sources which you cited are similarly careful to avoid “earliest extant bible” without qualifying phrases clarifying what they mean: they says that Sinaiticus is the earliest extant examplar with Old and New Testaments in one cover; or the earliest extant bible in the particular sense used by Christians; or “arguably” the earliest extant (that is, if some special definition is accepted). This is the third time I have pointed this out to you (you should not have had to have been told even once, since you were the one who brought up these sources). It is a recurrent annoyance that you have to be told the same things over and over, as if you were stupider than you actually appear to be. I think it is because you do not read what others write with any view to understanding what is being said, but only skim to look for things you can argue against.

            “I’m glad you agree that P45 is not a bible.” I agreed to no such thing. I was interested solely in refuting the particular “myther” claim at issue, that the gospels were not assembled until Constantine’s time or later. I don’t give a goddamn what you or anybody else does or does not decide to call by the word “bible”. I possess a green pocket-sized book with the New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs, but none of the Torah or the Prophets (or most of the Writings): do you exclude this from your definition of “bible”? The Gideons, who have passed out tens of millions of these over the past 75 years, call them “bibles”. I also possess a book called “The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible” containing all the scriptural texts which can be gotten out of Qumran (of course, all on individual scrolls and not codices, with far from all the text of not quite all the books of the Tanakh), and the subtitle is “The Oldest Known Bible, Translated for the First Time into English”: would you exclude this also from “bible”? My own view on how that word “ought” to be used is: I don’t care. It is not an issue I ever had any interest in arguing about. I knew what Randy meant when he used the phrase at issue, and that what he was saying was wrong; my only interest was combatting that pseudo-lore.

          • Yes, exactly my point. Your Bible Hoax site misquoted it’s Catholic source. Whether or not it’s relevant to the larger question of how Christian scholars refer to “extant bibles”, you haven’t shown where the Catholic encyclopedia is currently incorrect in it’s usage.

            Do you have a source for a pelvis or a single jawbone referred to as “extant hominid skeletons”? Presumably there should be many such references since you claim it “would not be at all unusual”.

            Despite your apparent confusion, I have no private definition of “bible”. Biblical scholars (or even most laymen) understand the basic usages of the word which can include the entire 66 books of Christian scriptures, the Jewish scriptures (the Torah, Prophets and Hagiographa), or the New Testament independently. There are more informal uses of the word to refer any great book (Grays’ Anatomy might be called the anatomists “bible”), but to a biblical scholar or anyone discussing Christianity, the relevant definitions are obvious.

            It’s commendable that your “only interest was combatting that pseudo-lore”. Unfortunately, you can’t combat pseudo-lore with more pseudo-lore. I only began this thread because of your inane response to Randy:

            “‘the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era’ That is not correct. As I said we have near-complete preservations from c. 200 and fragments from earlier.”

          • Robert Eckert

            ” you haven’t shown where the Catholic encyclopedia is currently incorrect in it’s usage” It continues to state that the earliest extant manuscripts of John are from the 4th century. This has not been true for decades. You seem to have lost the thread of the argument here: you were objecting that it would be fine to call Sinaiticus and Vaticanus the “earliest extant bibles” because they were the earliest exemplars with all the books assembled together, and that phrase should not imply to any reader that no earlier manuscripts of the individual books existed; but here you have a flat-out statement that no earlier manuscripts exist. The Catholic Encyclopedia also still contains assertions that it must be taken on faith that the scriptures were passed down faithfully from the apostolic authors. In this case it may simply be inertia (new articles added to the later editions, but old articles not looked over and re-edited), but part of the reason why other Christian sources of the fundie-Protestant type discuss the mss. from 200-250 or the more scattered indications of the state of the texts in the 2nd century is that the evidence reflects a messy history, not like the story they would like to tell of how the apostles they were writing under divine inspiration and so their followers recopied the text letter for letter to the best of their abilities.
            “Despite your apparent confusion, I have no private definition of “bible”. Biblical scholars (or even most laymen) understand the basic usages of the word which can include the entire 66 books of Christian scriptures, the Jewish scriptures (the Torah, Prophets and Hagiographa), or the New Testament independently. ” Or some more restricted collection of biblical books: in the David Cross quote which this article is about, “the bible” quite plainly refers to the accounts of the life of Jesus in the four gospels (it is not talking about anything from the Old Testament or even about Paul’s epistles), and Randy was understanding “earliest extant bible” in that sense.
            “to a biblical scholar or anyone discussing Christianity, the relevant definitions are obvious” A scholar using the phrase “earliest extant bible” will qualify, to clarify what he means, as the sources you yourself brought up demonstrate. Journalists are not always so careful, hence Randy’s misunderstanding about what it meant.
            “I only began this thread because of your inane response to Randy” You completely ignored what my conversation with Randy was about. He asserted that “the compilation of the Canon gospels was conducted under various chirch leaders – often those favored by secular rulers such as Constantine” to which I responded “Constantine had nothing whatsoever to do with the compilation of the gospels, which were largely in final form (up to a few copyist changes here and there) two hundred years before his time” at which point he retorted “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”. You have persistently refused to understand what the topic even was. I have agreed, long ago, that “near-complete preservations” was a horrid choice of words, whose plain meaning reads that I am making an assertion about the state of preservation of the manuscripts; but the topic was the state of compilation of the gospel books and “preservations of near-complete forms of the gospels” is what I meant. Why you have continued to flog this dead horse for weeks I cannot really fathom.

          • How odd. I distinctly remember Randy saying, “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era, I never said Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels”. And there’s no indication that by “bible”, David Cross meant “gospels”. Why you would assume they meant anything by “bible” other than that what ordinary people mean by “bible” is beyond me. Even if you were to include collections of gospels as “bibles”, calling the fragments of gospels in P45 an “extant bible” is a stretch by anyone’s definition. It certainly doesn’t warrant the false claim that it is “incorrect” to date the “oldest extant christian bibles” to the fourth century.

            A little context, and taking people at their word, can make conversations more productive.

          • Robert Eckert

            “I distinctly remember Randy saying, “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era, I never said Constantine had anything to do with the compiling of the gospels” ” And I distinctly remember explaining to you that he most certainly insisted that “secular leaders” controlled the people who compiled the gospels; among his other confusions apparently is an unawareness that Constantine was the first secular leader even to tolerate Christianity; he also seemed to think that the “King James gospels” were new books, which had previously been through a process of translation “from Greek into Aramaic”.
            “And there’s no indication that by “bible”, David Cross meant “gospels”” Why don’t you try actually reading it, and seeing if it makes sense as a purported description of anything except the life-accounts of Jesus?
            “Why you would assume they meant anything by “bible” other than that what ordinary people mean by “bible” is beyond me” Ordinary people use “bible” in a variety of different senses. What David Cross meant by it, and what Randy meant by it, is obvious if you bother to read what they are saying.
            “Even if you were to include collections of gospels as “bibles”, calling the fragments of gospels in P45 an “extant bible” is a stretch by anyone’s definition” No, it really isn’t, no more than calling a partial spine, handful of ribs and a femur an “extant skeleton”.
            ” It certainly doesn’t warrant the false claim that it is “incorrect” to date the “oldest extant christian bibles” to the fourth century.” It certainly does, when what the person who wrote that phrase meant was that the gospels had not been compiled as books, but only existed as scattered oral traditions and small fragments of writing. One more time you are refusing to understand what the conversation you injected yourself into was even about in the first place.
            “A little context, and taking people at their word, can make conversations more productive.” You betcha. Try it some time.

          • I did more than read the David Cross quote. I watched the entire show. If you had any sense of context, you would know that the entire quote is a set-up for a joke about the Book of Revelations!

            No, Robert, the phrase “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”, does not mean “the gospels .. only existed as scattered oral traditions and small fragments of writing.”

            Randy may have had that misconception, but if you want to deal with his errors, quote his errors, not the things he gets right! Claiming that a true statement (a statement used by numerous biblical scholars) is false, makes you look just as uninformed and shallow as those this post addresses!

          • Robert Eckert

            “No, Robert, the phrase “the oldest extant christian bibles date from Constantine’s era”, does not mean “the gospels .. only existed as scattered oral traditions and small fragments of writing.”” It might not mean that to other people, but it did mean that to Randy.
            “Randy may have had that misconception” which is why I was telling him he was wrong.
            “Claiming that a true statement (a statement used by numerous biblical scholars) is false” It is an AMBIGUOUS statement, dependent on the definition of the terms employed. NO Biblical scholar as far as you have shown would make such a flat statement without qualifications to explain that it is only true with a special (and rather unusual) choice of definitions; scholars try to avoid making such ambiguous statements precisely to avoid misleading potential readers into believing the wrong interpretation, as we see demonstrated very precisely in Randy’s case.

          • No, Robert it is not ambiguous at all. You will not find a scholar referring to any other texts as the oldest or earliest “extant Christian bible”, and there are no “unsual” choices of definitions being used by any of the scholars I cited. You will certainly not find a scholar using that phrase to describe P45.

            But despite numerous citations to the contrary, you not only claimed that the statement is ambiguous – you claimed that it is “not true”.

            “Written around the middle of the fourth century AD, Codex Sinaiticus is arguably the earliest extant Christian Bible.”


            The only “qualification” here is “arguably”, which is hardly unusual given that scholars still sometimes debate which of the four 4th century uncial codices is “oldest”. (Though most agree it is the Codex Sinaiticus).

            “Among the foremost stars of the show were some of the manuscript treasures of Saint Catherine’s, especially some of the important New Finds – including part of Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest extant Christian Bible”


            No qualification there.

            “The oldest extant Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written in Greek, in all capital letters, with no spaces or punctuation.”


            This biblical professor gives no qualification.

            “The Codex Sinaiticus is a fourth century codex bible removed from Saint Catharine’s monastery on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt in the 19th century and now largely in the British Museum. Its early date makes it plausibly the first extant bible as that term is conceived in Christian terms.”


            Nor does this one, unless you count “plausibly” – which clearly is not inserted to leave room for P45.

          • Nick Gotts

            “Near-complete Pauline epistles” looks to me a considerable stretch. No 2 Thessalonians, possibly Philemon, 1–2 Timothy or Titus. Chunks missing from Romans and 1 Thessalonians. Some lines at the bottom missing from each folio. Of P45, wikipedia says:

            The papyrus was bound in a codex,
            which may have consisted of 220 pages, however only 30 survive (two of Matthew, six of Mark, seven of Luke, two of John, and 13 of Acts). All of the pages have lacunae, with very few lines complete.

            Your assertion that we have “near complete preservations” from c.200 looks at least as absurd as the claim you are denying. You don’t effectively counter one absurd assertion by making another.

          • Robert Eckert

            You have what I would consider to be absurd expectations for the state of preservation of paper from 19 centuries ago. The manuscripts are sufficient to indicate that the texts in question existed in nearly their present form at the date the manuscripts were made, which is the only issue here.

          • Nick Gotts

            No, I have no such expectations. I simply showed (as did Beau Quilter before me) that your claim of “near-complete preservations” from c.200 is false. If you make false claims (and I’m certainly not claiming you did so deliberately), you must expect people to dispute them.

          • Robert Eckert

            As I said in reply to Beau, I was meaning by “near-complete” that the canonical gospels were nearly in their complete form by the end of the second century, as far as the manuscripts show; not that the manuscripts themselves contain nearly every verse, and I apologize for the phrase “near-complete preservation” which I see was most easily read the way you and Beau did. My response, remember, was aimed at Randy’s claim that the gospels were compiled under the lead of “secular rulers” (none of whom were on the Christians’ side before Constantine), and what I was trying to get at was that the *compilation process* was near completion over a century before Constantine.
            I was taking you to be making one of the other kinds of argument often seen on these boards, that we have such exquisitely full records from Roman times that it is evidence against the existence of Jesus that there are only fragments referring to him etc. I’m sure you have seen that kind of line (one person told me we have “trial transcripts” for every crucifixion the Romans ever ordered). I see now that this is not what you meant: I agree with you that very old manuscripts are seldom in “near complete” condition, and should not be expected to be.

          • Nick Gotts

            Some are. P45 and P46 are not among them.

          • Robert Eckert

            The state of preservation markedly improves post-Constantine because we get more manuscripts on parchment instead of papyrus: leather fares much better than paper, which is why it was preferred among those who had enough money for it.

  • I’ve seen the term “self-proclaimed” quite a bit lately. Heard it, too, on Christian radio. Seems such a strange idea: that atheists or skeptics or whatever Other group you want to use it on, would need to be “self-proclaimed.” Do the self-proclaimed need to proclaim ourselves? Are we assumed not to know our own minds, and thus we just proclaim ourselves, when in fact the Christians know our thoughts much better? Then it’s doubled up with “skeptic” in quotation marks–a double dose of false self-proclamation, then?

    I don’t think I have ever in my life used the term “self-proclaimed Christian.”

    • arcseconds

      James used that about sceptics, not atheists, and being sceptical is actually something you can be wrong about. A lot of people who claim to be sceptics actually turn out to be, at best, selectively sceptical, and on other matters quite credulous. In fact, one might doubt that some are really sceptical at all: like many people they seem to believe whatever their community does, or whatever is held up by their authority figures.

      (Of course, I’m always rather upset about how “sceptic” has been watered down! Now it just seems to mean ‘doesn’t believe in spooky stuff’, but they will believe in things like an external world, causality, etc. all of which were doubted back in the days when sceptics were real sceptics… )

      I mean, if we’re happy to say that “sceptic” is just an identity label and doesn’t really mean anything, therefore people can’t be wrong in using it of themselves, I suppose we can do that, but I think the people who adopt this label still think it means something like “only believes in what is warranted, not what people say is true” or something?

      • Well, his quote was “among atheists and other self-proclaimed ‘skeptics’ who are nothing of the sort,” so it seems to me that he’s trying to be quite (har) inclusive. Either way, it’s simply something I’ve seen apologists (and those with apologist leanings) do quite a bit: imply that anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a “self-proclaimed” skeptic/rationalist/humanist/atheist. Sure, those are words with which a person could inaccurately describe herself. I just find it amusing that Christians are so rarely “self-proclaimed.” Guess they just know their own thoughts better than those silly nonbelievers.

        • I used it specifically in relation to anyone who calls themselves a skeptic, and yet accepts what the meme says uncritically, or who has heard the same things embedded in the meme and accepted them as fact despite never having informed themselves from a credible academic source about the subject.

          • It’s actually pretty interesting to Google “self-proclaimed Christian”–the first link I got was a conservative using it in reference to Barack Obama. So the phrase has a certain context. Then look at the results for “self-proclaimed atheist,” “self-proclaimed skeptic,” and “self-proclaimed pagan.” The people using it generally are not doing so in a, shall we say, academic context, instead implying that anyone of another mindset is not to be taken seriously. I appreciate that you were using the term in a specific way for yourself, but as someone who has read and heard the term many times, it just screams “apologist who doesn’t think other people know their own minds.”

          • “Self-proclaimed” (since you were apparently unfamiliar with the terminology) is a way of suggesting that someone makes a claim about themselves, but that you dispute the claim or find them to be behaving in a way that undemines the claim or at least renders them hypocritical in making it.

          • Aww. How cute.

            As you can see above, I included searches so you can see not only the meaning of the words themselves, but their most common context (taking swipes at religious minorities). In the OP, you seemed to put stock in doing the research. Then again, you posted the OP without doing sufficient research to discover that David Cross is a comedian, so perhaps I overestimated that.

          • I addressed the meme based on what it said and what it would be perceived to say by most who read it. If a meme requires research to understand it correctly, it isn’t a very good meme.

            The fact that apologists are among those who use phrases that are in common usage is irrelevant. But I can understand why you would prefer to try to tar me with that brush that to address the actual issue my post is about.

          • Well, your friend used the meme, good or bad, to take a swipe at all atheists. And heck, I’m not convinced it’s even a meme: as it stands, it’s just a quote from a comedian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Research, in any event, can be something that takes a few minutes or takes a lifetime. Doesn’t take too long to figure out who David Cross is. Or how often “self-proclaimed” is used to write off minorities.

            But okay, use whatever dismissive terms you want about other people. So your friend says that atheists aren’t students of history. I wasn’t aware that comedian David Cross was representative of the historians that atheists are all supposed to be, but are all Christians supposed to be historians, too? If so, do they (as all atheists ought, apparently) have a deep and nuanced understanding of ancient texts and languages, such that they can trace the evolution of the books of the Bible and show any nonbeliever that it is all the inspired word of a very specific god, a complete and accurate accounting of historical and supernatural events, including those in the life (and death and afterlife) of his fully-god-and-fully-man son?

            And since atheists are supposed to be experts on a religious book not their own, are Christians experts on religious books not their own? That is, can Christians not only demonstrate that their own book is true but that other religious books are false? And can they do so using uniform standards and assumptions and research (sorry!) techniques?

            I mean, fair’s fair, right? Atheists should all be historians, and Christians should be too, so they can show us “self-proclaimed” skeptics how wrong we truly are. Still, in a nation where the majority of people, including believers, can barely spit out half of the Ten Commandments…well, I guess it shows that whatever else Christians are, they are not students of the Bible.

          • arcseconds

            For crying out loud, Ruby_Tea, ‘self-proclaimed’ is not used particularly of minorities!

            You can no more prove this by googling for ‘self-proclaimed atheist” than you can prove ‘stupid’ is used especially of Christians by googling for ‘stupid Christians’.

            So stop saying this.

            As for the rest of your comment, surely it’s only reasonable to expect Christians, atheists, and everyone else to do a modicum of research before they start opining on the history or contents of any book , people, or cultural practice and not just go for a hyped-up version of the local prejudice.

            If they don’t want to do this, then they should remain silent on the matter, or at the very least couch their opinions in somewhat uncertain terms.

            The alternative is that anyone can proclaim any misinformation they like as fact, and there’s already too many falsehoods held as proud certainties.

          • I’ll stop saying it when I so damn please; you’re not the boss of me. 😛

            That said, I believe in doing research. Which is why I’m surprised that it wasn’t noted that this was all a quote from a comedian to begin with, yet it reflects on all atheists, who are all supposed to be historians, as opposed to Christians, who are supposed to…well, I’m not seeing any requirements for them. Whatever else they are.

          • Conservative Christians in particular are notorious for ignoring historical and other kinds of academic scholarship. When a conservative Christian meme passes my way that complains about atheists ignoring historical scholarship, you can be sure I will comment on the irony then too, especially if the meme gets facts wrong. This is not about atheists vs. Christians. It is about scholarship vs. people who ignore it, and even more so about complaining that others are gullible while not checking one’s own facts.

          • In that case, I hope you have some other friends. The one who sent you this particular comedic quote has some…interesting standards for atheists.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Ruby, you seem to be in denial about the problem of misinformation in the atheist community. Atheists should be doing more to root out ignorance, if only for the sake of self-interest. The more ignorance is allowed to fester, the more ammunition your opponents have.

            By the way, there is something rather ironic about the game of telephone analogy. It can be argued that the information which Mark records in his Gospel has been corrupted by forty years of transmission. An atheist may wish to press this point. However, atheists are increasingly offering a rather different argument: Mark is not passing on corrupted information – oh no! – he is indulging in an act of audacious creativity.

            So audacious is Mark’s creativity that Jesus is actually said to be a human being. No one had thought of this before.

          • Not sure how objecting to the snide characterization of all atheists as not-historians is being in denial about atheist misinformation.

            Moreover, I think that atheists disagreeing about whether Mark was fiction from the beginning or corrupted along the way (and why not both, eh?) is far less of a “problem” than a society where we can still read snide comments about atheists and not even blink. Where atheists are expected to all have advanced degrees in history and ancient languages and know the exact year every text was edited, but Christians don’t even need to Google the name on the Facebook postcards they’re sent.

            If there is indeed some misinformation out there that is preventing us non-history-professor atheists from converting, then I’m happy to look at it and be corrected on its fine points. But I can pretty well promise you that my conversion wouldn’t have anything to do with how well a specific text has survived unedited through the years. I’m an atheist because I don’t see any evidence for any gods, not because a particular ancient manuscript was or was not edited 17 times.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            We can talk about the problems faced by atheists if you like, but I’d rather not be distracted from the issue at hand. If some atheists are saying that the idea of a Jesus who walked the Earth first appeared in Mark’s Gospel, then there is a problem. And if those atheists are frequently making this claim on atheist websites while others fail to challenge it, then there is definitely a problem.

            But you should be agreeing with me about this. It will hardly help your cause if this sort of information is allowed to go unchallenged in the atheist community. Your opponents will simply say, “See! What did I tell you about atheists. Just look at this discussion on an atheist forum.”

            Ironically, the point you make in your last paragraph actually echoes what I have been saying. The accuracy of textual transmission simply isn’t the issue. You doubt the claims, not because they may not have been reliably reported, but because you just don’t believe they are the kinds of things which can actually be true.

          • The issue at hand? The OP opens with a dig at atheists, and the rest of the piece does nothing to point out that such a dig is inaccurate. Ironic, when the issue is supposedly that atheists are the ones who don’t fact check. So not only does the dig stand, but so does the idea that atheists (all of us, of course) have designated this comedian to speak on our behalf on matters of Biblical history. That’s not only engaging in “look at all the silly atheists” and being hypocritical about doing research, it’s just bizarre.

            And if the idea is to correct atheist misinformation, the OP still does nothing to show where the postcard is specifically wrong, instead just questioning without answering or citing, and saying that one or more of the answers is “self-evident.”

            How is that so very different from the argument, “Of course there’s a God! Just look at nature!”

          • No, it is like saying “this meme gets the facts about evolution wrong” and assuming that the creator of the meme ought to have known better, that most who read the complaint will know better, and that those who don’t ought to care to inform themselves from scholarly sources and as a result know better.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            If I go to an atheist website and find people saying that Jesus never existed but no one contradicting them, it may look as if atheists have designated mythicists to speak on their behalf. Certainly, one could be forgiven for thinking that mythicism is more prevalent among atheists than it actually is.

            There seems to be a general unwillingness within the atheist community to take responsibility for the spread of misinformation, and your response exemplifies this.

          • So non-mythicist atheists are supposed to find all mythicist atheist blogs and declare themselves non-mythicists? I didn’t know that was what I signed up for, but if that’s your standard, I guess it goes along with the common view these days that all moderate Muslims need to find a TV news camera every time any act of terrorism is perpetrated by a Muslim person, and denounce it.

            The OP is already full of misinformation: that atheists think with a hive mind, that we have elected comedian David Cross our representative, that a random Facebook postcard is representative of the views of all atheists, and that all atheists, by virtue of this postcard, have shown we are not historians, which apparently we were all supposed to be in the first place.

            My responses, and the responses of many others, have been arguing against this misinformation.

            You’re welcome. 🙂

          • The OP was addressing the meme on its own terms. If you as an atheist object to someone declaring an “Atheist Republic” that is your problem, not mine…

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Ruby, I’m disappointed in your response. You had an opportunity to acknowledge the problems in your community but you chose not to do so.

            One point which I would make in mitigation is that many atheists may not feel confident enough in their knowledge of the subject to challenge the purveyors of falsehoods. In that case, there is a need for atheists to educate themselves in biblical scholarship. You complained in a previous comment that atheists are expected by Christians to have detailed knowledge of the subject (I’m not sure where you got that idea), but the reality is that this is an expectation which at least some atheists should be placing on themselves.

            But the first step in dealing with the problem is to acknowledge it, and it seems that even this is too much for some.

          • Well, the fact that I’ve disappointed you sure does rip me apart inside, but I think the standup routine of one comedian is less important than these strange ideas in the text of the OP that all atheists think with a hive mind, and that we have some unwritten duty to all have advanced degrees in history (a qualification not required of others, apparently). To me, the fact that swipes at atheists can be taken, and not an eye blinked, is a far bigger problem in a far bigger community than one Facebook postcard.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            What makes you think that a single comment is considered to be a problem? An individual comment will only be made the subject of a blog post if it represents the kind of things that are being said more generally. If you doubt whether there is a more general problem, you should spend more time on this blog.

            There is no suggestion in the post that “all atheists think with a hive mind”, but there is a suggestion that misinformation is a problem in the atheist community. This is the case if a minority of atheists express erroneous views which are rarely challenged within their community.

            Nor is there a suggestion that all atheists should have advanced degrees in history. Atheists don’t all need to become experts themselves; they just need to listen to what actual experts say. If virtually every expert says that Jesus existed, then amateurs have no justification for saying the opposite.

            But again, it worries me that you don’t acknowledge this.

          • Again, your definition of “problem” seems to extend only to things that atheists do. The OP opens with a problem:

            “Showing that whatever else atheists are, they are not students of history and historical criticism.”

            The whole thing is a slam against atheists and “self-proclaimed” skeptics, strangely based on a comedy bit. Yet you want me to think that this comedy bit in a Facebook postcard, pointed to by the very person making the slam in the first place, is a bigger problem than the slam itself.

            At the end of the day, whether a story was told 30 years after the fact or only 20 is simply a less important problem today than the fact that people don’t bat an eye at OPs opening with slams against atheists.

            And again, it is all the more ironic that when this is supposed to be all about how those silly, non-historian atheists are bad fact-checkers, when apparently no research was done into who David Cross is. It’s so ironic that we could make it into our own meme: “Accuses atheists of being bad researchers—Doesn’t research quotes provided online by friends.”

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Yet you want me to think that this comedy bit in a Facebook postcard… is a bigger problem than the slam itself.

            I don’t expect you to think that a single remark is a big problem, as I made clear in my previous comment. What I would like you to do is to consider whether there is a problem in general. There is certainly a problem on this blog, which is frequently visited by people who argue that the first Christians believed Jesus to be a purely celestial being who was actually crucified in heaven rather than on Earth.

            At least on this blog, such views can be challenged by a genuine expert like James McGrath. That probably won’t happen on an atheist blog where commenters are left to wallow in their own ignorance.

            I have made a sincere appeal to you to accept that there is a problem in your community, but you have spurned my efforts.

          • You keep talking about the “problems” on atheist blogs where the commenters (all of them, of course) wallow in ignorance. Yet the expert here didn’t fact-check enough to find out that David Cross is a comedian, and that those terribly unacademic remarks were part of a comedy routine.

            Moreover, I’m not sure what you expect me to do about the “problem in my community,” since, as a lowly atheist, I am automatically not an historian. None of us are. The OP makes that abundantly clear.

            As to your request that I “consider whether there is a problem in general,” I have, as my above comments make clear. Once again, I consider it a bigger problem that slams are made against atheists with impunity, than that some comedian doesn’t know the exact date of every revision of each book of the Bible.

          • I will say it yet again, as I have several times already: First, comedians do not only say things that are comical – there are abundant quotes by Bill Maher, Tim Minchin, and others which are intended to actually convey their view about religion. Second, it is not clear that those who made the meme circulated it because they thought of it as comedy rather than information. Third, it isn’t clear how, if this was supposed to be a joke, its then deliberate misrepresentation of the facts would be comical.

            I hope not to have to make these points again.

          • Oh, I agree that comedians can say serious things. But it has already been shown to you that this is indeed a bit from a standup routine, which words are followed by laughter from the audience. Whether or not you enjoy the joke is largely personal, as it usually is with comedians. I like Margaret Cho, you like Dane Cook. And so forth.

            Second, the little postcard features a picture of Jesus with a smartphone. Again, we can differ on taste in comedic writings and pictures, but that does cast at least a bit of doubt in my mind as to whether it was meant to be taken in an academic sense.

            Third, “misrepresentation of the facts” is a common comedic device. Or, as we might also put it, exaggeration. So if you are so keen to school comedian David Cross on the finer details of the timing of the editing of Biblical texts, you might also want to spare some time to enlighten a gentleman by the name of Chris Rock that rotary phones are not, in fact, seven feet tall.

          • I wonder what makes you conclude that the reason for the laughter is that the audience sees the discrepancy between his words and accurate information and finds it funny, when a more obvious reason for their laughter would be their enjoyment of his poking fun at religion in what they consider to be funny but on the whole accurate ways.

          • You didn’t fact-check to see that Cross is a comedian, didn’t fact-check to see that the quote is part of a standup routine, didn’t realize that a picture of Jesus with a smartphone might be a signal that the picture is humorous, and were not “clear” that exaggeration is commonly used by comedians for comedic effect.

            Given all that, you’ll forgive me if I don’t put too much stock in your opinion of what is the “more obvious” reason that laughter occurs at a comedy show.

          • As I said before, I dealt with the meme on the terms in which it was presented. And I have pointed out that words can be humorous in numerous ways, and can likewise fail to be humorous even if their source is a comedian. I did not offer reasons for drawing a particular conclusion in my previous comment, I asked you why you drew the conclusion you did.

          • The postcard was presented by your delightful friend, complete with slam on atheists. And you dealt with it by scolding atheists for not fact-checking things, even though you fact-checked the postcard so little that you didn’t realize the quote was from a comedian.

            Now that you know, if you don’t find David Cross’s humor funny, there’s nothing wrong with that. To each his own. But I’ve already explained once that comedians use exaggeration (along with other tools of their trade like anecdotes, puns, and double entendres) to get laughs. I wouldn’t go to Cross’s show expecting an academic lecture on which dates ancient manuscripts were edited, and I wouldn’t go to an academic lecture on U.S.-Korean relations expecting an hour of Margaret Cho telling anecdotes about her mother.

          • arcseconds

            I find it extremely difficult to believe that the audience would have been familiar with the history of the Bible to see this as being a huge and inaccurate exaggeration. Most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have very little familiarity with this topic.

            Was the venue a biblical studies conference, or something?

            If not, I think we can be reasonably confident that the laughter was not because they saw a ridiculous contrast between what he was saying and the actual history.

            Anyway, you can find this quote from Cross alongside other quotes which are serious criticisms on some web pages, so some people, at least, appear to take it seriously.



          • I’m not sure what conversion has to do with this discussion, unless you are referring to people who embrace mythicism “converting” to an acceptance of the conclusions of mainstream scholarship. And that is the point here – not that all atheists are expected to have advanced degrees in any field, but that atheists (and anyone else) sharing information publicly, who want to be considered well-informed, ought to look into a matter and obtain accurate information and circulate that.

          • arcseconds


            It’s a common enough phrase, that McGrath takes himself to know the meaning of. And I think he is correct about that. I understood what he meant, for example.

            And here is the definition that google comes up with:

            described as or proclaimed to be such by oneself, without endorsement by others

            It often does connote not just lack of endorsement but actual doubt, of course.

            Now, you seem to have (slightly) misunderstood it and are used to it as a kind of a slur directed particularly at atheists, or something. Your experience supports that, so, you know, fine, but you’ve now learnt something! It’s not only or necessarily mostly applied to religious discussions.

            (The use I think I’ve seen it most has been ‘self-proclaimed expert’)

            What you seem to be suggesting is that McGrath needs to google every colloquial phrase to make sure it’s not being used in way that might confuse you or possibly connote some unfortunate implication. Doesn’t that seem like an absurd demand to you?

            (Do you do this yourself? Did you research “put stock in” before writing this post?)

            And if he had done, I don’t think it would actually have helped.

            Here are the first few non-dictionary entries on googling ‘self-proclaimed’:

            — ‘self-proclaimed vampire’
            — ‘self-proclaimed genius’
            — ‘self-proclaimed smartypants’
            — ‘self-proclaimed foodie’
            — ‘self declared Islamic state’
            — ‘self proclaimed ‘queen mother’ ‘

            The first one that could possibly be a sideswipe at religious minorities appears on page 4, and it’s a ‘self-proclaimed Satanist’.

            (There’s a few on page 6 about self-proclaimed prophets and a wizard/energy healer, but as an atheist I would expect you’d be supportive of the idea of expressing doubt about the expertise of such people. )

            This does not support your notion that it’s most commonly used to take sideswipes at religious minorities. Naturally if you search for “self-proclaimed atheist” you’ll find doubt being cast at atheists, but you know what ‘confirmation bias’ means.

        • arcseconds

          Grammatically, the ‘self-proclaimed’ modifies ” ‘skeptics’ ” and nothing else. Reading it as modifying ‘atheist’ is finding what you want in it.

          Now, there is an implication that atheists are all, or typically, ‘self-proclaimed’ sceptics and not genuine ones, which I suppose you could criticise. I have already criticised the unchallenged notion that passing around memes like this is typical of atheists, many (I think most) of whom are just uninterested in this entire debate.

          (Unfortunately, while it may be an uncomfortable truth that it would be more polite and charitable to gloss over, I think it is actually true, though. It’s rare to find people who are actually interested in subjecting everything to scrutiny, and people who are really just another form of dogmatist are much more common. Bit like Christians rarely live up to the self-sacrificing love they espouse, and Christians who actually seem to be trying hard to live up to that ideal are rarer than those who appear to ignore it entirely )

          But there isn’t any notion here that an atheist could be wrong about being an atheist. McGrath has never to my knowledge suggested that on any other occasion, either. I don’t think he has ever criticised atheists for being atheists.

          On the other hand, he has certainly criticised Christians for not being genuine Christians.

          Finally, I see no sign of McGrath having apologist leanings. In fact, he gives apologists a rough time.

    • Orion Jones

      With regards to self-proclaimed atheists, I’d assumed it’s atheists who actually describe themselves as atheists. This distinguishes them from the (possibly much larger) group who, whilst technically atheist, use other descriptions – like agnostic or “I’m not particularly religious” because of the negative connotations and social stigma often associated with the word ‘atheist’.

  • Skeptic NY

    Christianity is not wrong because of the “game” of telephone regarding the bible, it’s wrong because the stories themselves are unbelievable and extraordinary and have not one scintilla of empirical evidence to back them up. Same goes for all religions.

    • Mits

      And atheism is not wrong because somebody passes around that meme.

      • Pete Migdale

        Are you really suggesting that the passing around of one slightly inaccurate meme proves that a god exists?

        • Mits

          No. Why on Earth would you think that?

          • Pete Migdale

            I thought your reply was sarcasm. Sorry my bad.

  • Matt Woodling

    I don’t think that I’ve ever heard an atheist say Christianity is wrong about everything, so straw man argument on the author’s part. We do say there’s no good reason to believe there’s a Christian god, or any other god for that matter. Some atheists go further and say that “there aren’t any gods”. I would say most of us don’t go that far, but many of us come close.

    • I had in mind mythicists, who claim that Christians are so untrustworthy that you can’t even expect them to have gotten right whether there was a person named Jesus at all, and don’t just dispute Christian claims about that individual. In doing that, they of course place themselves at odds with the conclusions of secular historical study.

    • Pete Migdale

      I used to be an “I don’t believe there is a god” atheist. I have hardened this over the last few years to the point where I am now an “there is no god” atheist.
      It is easy to establish that there is no such thing as a loving omnipotent god. A quick visit to your local hospital’s pediatric oncology ward will do that if you have any doubts.
      Nobody in any forum has ever claimed that an arsehole or impotent god exists.
      That pretty much and pretty simply wraps it up for gods. Sons of god then become, at best, problematic.

      • Matt Woodling

        I think the standard apologist response to this is that “we don’t know the mind of God”. I would expand that to suggest we don’t know the anything of God. So, what’s the point in believing in the god or thinking that the god, if he exists, has our interests in mind?

  • Matt Woodling

    All we ask is that you point to the god you believe in or at least present some evidence he exists, or that miracles happen and they are caused by a god or faith in the god. THIS is the reason we think faith in a god isn’t warranted. It has nothing to do with how much of the Bible has been changed or misinterpreted or edited. The changes and inconsistencies and errors in the Bible speak volumes, however, about the likelihood the Bible was completely man-made.

    • That the Bible is completely human-made is not controversial among scholars and historians (probably by men as opposed to women, but we cannot be sure).

      • Matt Woodling

        Let me be clear. I think the clearest, most likely answer is that the Bible is made of the ideas of men. Once there’s evidence of “inspiration” from a god or evidence of the god itself, we can entertain that idea.

        • If you want to debate the idea that the Bible is inspired by God then presumably you should do that with someone who thinks that these texts are something more than human literature. If, on the other hand, you are disputing the conclusions of mainstream secular historical study of the Bible, then I will definitely want to defend that.

          • Matt Woodling

            I see. I made the small leap that you are an apologist of sorts.

          • Pete Migdale

            I made the same mistake. Good luck trying to find out what his position actually is on the existence of god. My best guess would be agnostic-atheist with an academic interest in ancient middle eastern literature.

          • If that is your term for someone who defends mainstream science and history against denialists, then indeed I am.

  • James

    Dr McGrath, you seem to have declared war against strawmen – surely you don’t think that obviously comedic memes constitute serious intellectual arguments, or are meant as such? My social media gets filled up with shoddy arguments for theism on a day-to-day basis, but I don’t make the mistake of thinking that’s the best that theism has to offer. Sometimes a meme is just a meme.

    • It would be great if shoddy arguments were not shared online, but we do not live in such an ideal world. In your opinion, ought scholars to ignore when shoddy aguments are made, especially those which, having been left unchallenged, are embraced by others?

  • mreed2

    I’m a bit surprised that nobody has attempted to directly answer your questions,

    Debate over the authorship of the New Testament, especially focused on the dates when they were written: (this is obviously an atheist website — however, it contains citations to non-atheist websites, so feel free to chase links…

    Modification of the Bible by cumulative error: (It doesn’t look like the list of changes has been published on the linked website — but this book looks to contain at least some of the information, and there is another book by the same author that looks to contain additional information).

    Translation from a translation: (kinda — different bible translations use different source documents, all of which [nominally, at least] should share a common ancestor).

    I can’t find a source (in a fairly quick Google search) that talks about /deliberate/ modifications as part of commissioning a translation, so I’ll grant that this statement is of dubious truthfulness.

    The argument made in the meme seems to be valid to me: Even if we grant that God exists and that God inspired the /original/ authors of the works that eventually became part of the Bible, it is almost certain that there are significant deltas between what we have today and what was originally written. Given the amount of time that has passed, and the fact that there is general agreement among the scholars with appropriate expertise that a significant gap exists between the death of Jesus and the oldest known works that make up the bible, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to assume that one sentence out of 100 is different enough from its original text that its meaning has changed.

    And that doesn’t even get into the fact that /translation/ is an inexact science to begin with — the languages used to write the Bible have not been spoken in thousands of years, and furthermore there is no guarantee that there is any sentence in language X that exactly matches what sentence Y would mean to a native speaker of language Z. This provides numerous opportunities for the biases of the translator to be injected into the translation.

    Of course, the normal response to this is “God additional inspired [some] translators / scribes to ensure the meaning of His word would not be corrupted due to the passage of time”. However, this response isn’t very satisfactory (to a non-believer):

    A) “God says X is wrong.”

    B) “How do you know that?”

    A) “It says so in the Bible.”

    B) “How do you know that the Bible is accurate?”

    A) “Because God wouldn’t permit the Bible to be changed.”

    B) “But there are many translations, and some differ on this point — they can’t /all/ be correct, right?”

    A) “Those Bibles are false — this translation is correct.”

    B) “How do you know that?”

    A) “Because that’s what I believe” or “God inspired me to select this translation”

    By the end, the original statement “God says X is wrong” is no longer true because the /Bible/ says it is true — it is true due to either the personal beliefs of the speaker (and therefore carries no more weight than anyone’s opinion) or due to direct inspiration from God (in which case it could contradict the Bible outright and /still/ be something that should be heavily weighted when deciding policy — God is not bound by what appears in the Bible, of course, unless he chooses to be).

    While such debates have no /direct/ bearing on the existence of God (given that the assume God exists), they /do/ have enormous relevance in debates regarding “Should act X be permitted?”, whether that be in the context of LGBT, reproductive rights, slavery, self-defense, etc. Given that the “militant atheists” that you hear about in the news are mostly interested in cases where religious belief intersects with secular government attacking the validity of the Bible is an easier line of attack than trying to disprove the existence of any and all deities.

  • Kyle Everett

    Honestly the meme seems irrelevant even for an atheist. Whether or not the bible is a hodgepodge collection of writings that has been revised selectively by multiple individuals doesn’t change my main issue with its reverence: It is a man-made text full of unproven assertions relating to God and His existence.

    Why should any sane person consider the Bible to be factually true? On what basis do Christians believe their text is true despite the lack of empirical evidence?

    • No well-informed and sane person will consider the Bible as a whole to be factually true. But any historically well-informed individual ought to know what historians conclude about the material in the Bible, some of which isn’t even the kind of material about which is makes sense to talk about it being factually true at all (erotic poetry, for instance), some of which has confirmation from other sources (Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem comes to mind), some is historically probable based on internal considerations, much is uncertain one way or the other, some is historically unlikely based on internal considerations, and some is ruled out by external evidence.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      It is entirely worthwhile to address misconceptions about the Bible. Given that an increasing number of people believe Jesus never existed, there is clearly a need for more education on the subject. It is strange that anyone would question this. Do you really want scholars to be indifferent about the spread of ignorance?

  • Brandon Roberts

    um i’m sorry the early church did add and remove things (probaly) and i’ll admit some athiests can be jerks but this article seems a bit “wah wah atheists are meanies” this meme was just meant to make a point that you shouldn’t blindly believe everything in the bible as fact. and yes there’s no foolproof way of knowing everything works hell even science makes mistakes every once in a while

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      The meme was a starting point for a discussion and is not particularly significant in itself. This blog is regularly visited by atheists with odd ideas. Fortunately, those ideas can be challenged. That isn’t the case on every blog where similar ideas are expressed. Ignorance regarding the historical Jesus may not be a problem of national importance, but ignorance of any kind needs to be challenged.

    • The point of the post is not “wah wah atheists are meanies” but to point out the irony that this particular atheist wanted to make the point that you should not blindly believe the Bible, and yet could not be bothered to get his own facts straight, and his words were in turn blindly believed by some who heard or read them. There are plenty of issues one can point out with the Bible, and with things people do with the Bible, and Mr. Cross could have informed himself about them and gotten the details right, but either he could not be bothered, or he did not think it mattered since he is a comedian, and either way, whoever made the meme didn’t care to fact check the details either.

      There are enough issues scholars have identified with the Bible that there is no need for anyone to invent their own or to be deceitful about the events of history. Indeed, won’t doing so give the impression that the actual issues with the Bible must not be so serious, if some atheists feel the need to misrepresent things, apparently in an attempt to make the Bible out to have even more problems than it actually does?

  • I am an atheist now, but I spent almost eight years (between Christian high school and university) studying the bible and Christianity. I am always happy to join you in correcting misinformed atheists about Christianity because I have an extensive background in it and I, like you, am interested in truth prevailing.

    With that said, there is something to ponder after debunking the incorrect information in this image. Even with 21st century technology, when people have the ability to seek out and destroy falsehoods just by googling and finding the right information, we still see exaggerated or false “facts” propagating. Imagine how much more easily a person could create and propagate a fantastic story a couple of millennia ago.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      It might be interesting to relate some of the issues raised in this discussion to a specific example. Consider the story of the empty tomb and then ask the following questions:

      Is the story doubtful because Mark’s Gospel may not have been faithfully transmitted through the centuries?

      Is the story doubtful because it may be a mistranslation of the original version in Aramaic?

      Is the story doubtful because either the author of Mark or someone before him may simply have made it up?

      It is quite obvious that the third reason for doubt is the only one that matters. The other two can be discounted. The game of telephone analogy seems to be no help to those who are sceptical of claims of the supernatural.

      • I think you may be discounting a fourth reason: it is doubtful because miracles are doubtful. Just as Christians doubt the miracles that occur in any other religion outside of Christianity (and a good chunk of those even claimed by Christians, like Appalachian snake handlers), atheists also include Christianity’s miracles. The list of miracles that atheists doubt is only slightly larger than the list which Christians also doubt.

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          No, I did take that into account. The point that I was addressing was how the story had been relayed. Assuming that the story is false, how is it that we came to possess this false report. We have no reason to think that it was invented during the last 1900 years or so. If it was invented, then that must have happened around AD 70 or earlier.

          So the point that people have been making about the potential unreliability of textual transmission seems to be largely irrelevant. Or, at least, it seems to be irrelevant to the matter of debunking the miracles associated with Jesus, which I suspect is the issue concerning many of the commenters.

          The moral of the story is that atheists need to learn how to apply their scepticism properly.

          • Nick Gotts

            Differences between the gospels about what happened at the tomb and after show that the “game of telephone” was already being played before they were written. Who went there? What did they see? Who did they tell, if anyone? To whom did Jesus appear subsequently, where and when?

            But Roomba is not distinguishing between the (alleged) fact of someone finding a tomb they had expected to contain Jesus’s body empty, and the miraculous explanation doctrinally orthodox Christianity gives of that alleged fact. If it was a fact, there are a number of possible mundane explanations, falling into the two general classes of:
            1) Jesus was never there.
            2) Someone removed his body.

            My own favoured explanation falls into the first class. I’ve linked before to this article by the Christian scholar Byron McCabe, who both shows the process of mythification occurring between gMark and gJohn, and argues that if any of Jesus’s followers saw him buried, it would likely have been from a distance. They would have been in a state of extreme grief and fear. They were also (this is me now, not McCabe) hicks from the sticks – strangers to the big city. What more likely (me again) than that the woman or women who “went to the tomb”, actually went to the wrong place, and the tomb was empty because no-one had ever been put there. Meanwhile, Jesus’s body was quietly rotting elsewhere. The (apparent) absence of a body, together with normal psychological and sociological processes, is then quite enough to account for the spread of a belief that Jesus had risen from death.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            But the game of telephone wasn’t being played between, say, AD 100 and 1100; so the point about the unreliability of textual transmission would have no relevance to a discussion about something like the empty tomb. Certainly, there would be doubts about whether the empty tomb story was accurately recorded in the Gospels, but those doubts would exist even if we only had Mark’s Gospel. We don’t need the discrepancies between the Gospels to justify scepticism about the transmission of the story between AD 30 and 70.

            It is true that an empty tomb could have a natural explanation, but from what I understand the debate no longer focuses on that issue. The usual objection to the empty tomb argument is that the story was completely invented, not that we just don’t know enough about the details.

          • Nick Gotts

            Your “AD 100” is too early, since we don’t have manuscripts from that date, but I agree that’s not relevant to whether there was an empty tomb. As for “the usual objection”, I don’t know if you’re right, but even if you are, so what? The story may have been completely made up, or it may have a mundane explanation, as I think more likely (and I believe James McGrath does too, although he favours a different one). The only utterly ludicrous claim being put forward on this matter is that Jesus rose from the dead.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            A number of commenters had related the remarks made by David Cross to the issue of miracles. I was trying to see how relevant the one point was to the other. The answer seems to be that there isn’t much relevance.

            Your own scenario for the empty tomb seems to bear that out. Suppose that the women went to the wrong tomb, discovered it empty, and mistakenly concluded that the body had disappeared. In that case, you can’t really fault Mark’s Gospel. Mark has given us a reasonably accurate account of what was believed to have happened 40 years before. We don’t need to know exactly how many women went to the tomb, and it wouldn’t matter if that information had been accurately preserved.

            So the issue of accurate transmission doesn’t arise here. An accurately transmitted mistake is still a mistake.

          • Nick Gotts

            gMark claims that the women encountered a young man who told them Jesus had risen (and this is not in the final verses which are generally believed to be a later addition). I suppose this might have been a prank on the part of the young man, or more plausibly a later alteration to the verses generally supposed to be original; otherwise, this claim about what he said (or indeed, his existence) has been introduced in the time between Jesus’s death and the writing of gMark.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            The point of my original comment was to challenge the idea that the Gospels have been hopelessly corrupted since they were first written. In the case of the empty tomb story, there has been an attempt to alter the text of Mark (as you point out regarding 16:9-20), but textual criticism has identified this, which is quite encouraging.

            If David Cross had said that the potential for corruption of the Gospels after they were written was insignificant in comparison with the potential for change during the period of oral transmission, there would not have been a problem.

            If the truth of the matter is that the women went to a tomb and found it empty, but there was no mysterious man in white telling them that Jesus had risen, this may be of some interest. If you ever have the chance to debate William Lane Craig, you may be faced with the challenge, “OK, so you can explain the empty tomb, but how do you explain the messenger?!” It seems that you will be well prepared.

            In reality, the probability of a fluke natural explanation for the empty tomb is less than the probability that the story was invented.

          • Nick Gotts

            In the case of the empty tomb story, there has been an attempt to alter the text of Mark (as you point out regarding 16:9-20), but textual criticism has identified this, which is quite encouraging.

            Ah. So the discovery of one fraudulent alteration to the text should encourage us in the belief that there are no others. I see, I see.

            In reality, the probability of a fluke natural explanation for the empty tomb is less than the probability that the story was invented.

            You have made that assertion twice, but no attempt whatever to support it. Nor have you pointed out anything implausible in my proposed explanation of the empty tomb.

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Unless you want to defend the claim that the Gospels have been utterly corrupted in the process of transmission, I cannot see the point of this conversation.

          • Nick Gotts

            You keep making untenable or unsupported claims. If you stop making them, I’ll stop rebutting them or challenging them.

  • J

    “The fact that Christians are sometimes wrong, and cling stubbornly to beliefs even when they are wrong, cannot be considered decisive proof that Christianity is wrong about everything.”

    I dunno, can’t it? Isn’t there some specific Christian doctrine that says that god would never allow Christians to be wrong about anything that had to do with god, because otherwise salvation would be impossible.

    • Nope.

    • arcseconds

      It would be a bit hard to maintain that, because it’s obvious that Christians don’t agree with one another about much.

      However, I think there is a Catholic doctrine that the magisterium can never seriously err on matters to do with salvation, or something, but that’s certainly not ‘all Christians’ or ‘wrong about anything’.

      Anyway, even if there were such a doctrine, how could that possibly count as proof that they’re wrong about everything? They’re wrong about being right about everything, but that hardly means they are wrong about everything.

      To put it more simply: if someone says “I never make mistakes”, well, that’s almost certainly not true. But we can’t conclude from that that they always make mistakes.

      • J

        If they are wrong about god, then anything they are right about is sort of beside the point, init?

        • arcseconds

          Being right about God is of such overwhelming importance to you that you’re not interested in any other issue, whatsoever?

          At some point don’t you at least need to buy groceries or something?

          • Nick Gotts

            Can you help us here by setting out the Christian doctrine on grocery shopping?

  • 90Lew90

    As an atheist, I wouldn’t suggest that Christians are wrong about everything and I think you’re knocking down a straw-man with that inference. However, to try to pretend that the Bible wasn’t subject to political influence in its various forms and translations is rather ignorant. It’s a bit much that you seem to suppose “atheists” speak with one voice. And it’s also a bit much that you’ve chosen a kind of joke postcard from the internet to represent what you suppose atheists will all agree upon. Poor show, frankly.

    • I don’t think that anyone who reads this blog regularly could get the impression that I think atheists speak with one voice. Indeed, it is a point that I myself have made on countless occasions. What I was addressing was specifically the view one encounters in mythicism, for instance, which says that Christians are so untrustworthy that not only were they wrong about whether Jesus was the Messiah or God or whatever, but you can’t even trust them to pass on truthfully or accurately whether the man himself ever existed. I am sorry if, by wandering into the middle of an ongoing conversation, you got the wrong impression.

      • 90Lew90

        Maybe I did “wander in,” but taking this as a standalone piece I think my points are valid.

  • In some ways this reminds me of the logic of KJV-only advocates, with their “Modern translations remove Christ from this verse and his blood from that verse,” as if the modern Bibles were translated from the King James.