Is the Bible Lying?

Is the Bible Lying? February 17, 2016

Being a Christian isn’t a matter of accepting the Bible Dan Wilkinson

I hate the false antithesis that many online debaters try to impose in discussions about the Bible – either it is the inerrant words of God or it is garbage. I hate to think how they applied that viewpoint to their parents’ fallible but useful advice. Then again, maybe they did so, and thus hold this view despite parental warnings to avoid false antitheses.

Dan Wilkinson had a nice post recently on this topic. I particularly appreciated this quote:

Being a Christian isn’t a matter of accepting the truthfulness of the Bible, it’s a matter of accepting the possibilities — and the hope — that can be found within the complex narrative of Christian scripture and tradition. 

Click through to read the rest.



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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    Or the variation, “How can we trust God’s Word if it could have mistakes in it?” As if we don’t trust texts that could have mistakes in them all the time.

    But what I find is even more common with the “Is God’s Word lying?” types is that this is the other horn of a dilemma posed by their interpretation.

    “Of course Jesus is God. ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Or is the Bible lying?”

    So, those are my two options. Either their position is correct or the Bible is lying.

    Don’t even get me started on whether or not books can lie.

    • Book authors can lie. Though I agree with James, that the composition of the Bible is somewhat more complicated than simple lies.

    • I’m sure we could play that game with a lot of less flattering verses:

      “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” Does nature teach that, or is the Bible lying?

      “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Good advice, or is the Bible lying?

      “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.” Good advice, or is the Bible lying?

  • John MacDonald

    I think it’s reasonable to think Joseph Smith was lying about the golden plates. I think it’s reasonable to think Muhammad’s disciples were lying about Muhammad ascending into heaven. I think it’s reasonable to think Jesus’ disciples were lying about Jesus’ miracles because there are no such things as miracles. Jesus’ followers probably lied about Jesus’ miracles because they thought it would help to get people to accept Jesus’ ethical teaching. Ancient authors would sometimes fib and say their teaching was grounded in the divine, such as when Parmenides cites a Goddess as the source for his didactic poem. It was also accepted back then that “noble lies” told for the benefit of people could be very useful ideas, such as in Plato’s Republic or Euripides’ Bacchae. There is no more reason to accept the miracle stories of Jesus than there is to accept the ones about Apollonious of Tyana or the ones in the historical writings of Herodotus.

    • This seems to paint with too broad a brush. People have experienced healing at the hands of traditional faith healers, and it is possible to deny the miraculous element, and yet to believe that some people genuinely did experience recovery from illness, and that that served as the basis for the later legendary elaborations.

      • John MacDonald

        And yet Jesus is reported to have done more than just “healing” miracles.

        • Yes, there are clearly legendary elaborations in the gospels, as James says.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Those narrative are over laden with tons of ritualistic metaphor; they aren’t simply “see how awesome Jesus the magic man was!”

          • John MacDonald

            The stories would therefore appeal to the masses on an exoteric level, and to the learned class on an esoteric level.

      • Bethany

        Along those lines, I’ve always been struck by Paul’s comment in 2 Corinthians: ” The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works.” Basically, it sounds to me like he’s saying, “Hey, we’re real apostles! Didn’t we do miracles when we were there?”

        Whether they really did miracles is another question, but Paul sure seems to think the Corinthians genuinely believed he had.

        • Well … I’ve known pentacostal ministers to brag about the “signs and wonders” performed in assemblies I’ve attended. They were talking about “prophecies” with no predictive power, the babbling that sells as “speaking in tongues”, and bogus “healings”, such as the old sunday school teacher who was “healed” of cancer, shortly before dying of cancer.

          I have no doubt that such hysterical “magic” was common in the first century in many forms.

        • John MacDonald

          If Paul was lying, of course he would make it seem as though he wasn’t lying. Beyond that, if Paul was lying, we would expect him to swear up and down that he wasn’t lying, which is exactly what he did (see Gal 1:20, Rom 9:1, 2 Cor 1:23, 2 Cor 11:31). As Shakespeare said, methinks he doth protest too much.

          • Bethany

            But my point is that he was writing to people saying, “Hey, didn’t we do miracles when were there?” If he hadn’t in fact done things that were perceived as miracles when he was there, then their response would presumably have been, “Er, no, you didn’t” and it would have been a lousy argument.

            It’s one thing to lie about a miracle that supposedly occurred 50 years before when any actual witnesses would presumably never find out what you wrote. It’s something else entirely to lie about performing miracles to the people who would actually witnessed said miracles.

            This leads me to think that the Corinthians did indeed see Paul and his fellows to have performed things they interpreted as miracles. (Of course, people interpret many things as miracles that are not in fact miracles.)

      • Nick Gotts

        There would probably have been far more temporary “cures”, such as occur at modern “healings”, than permanent ones: people convince themselves, and the rest of the audience, that they have been cured, but the next day, out of sight, are back to their previous condition.

        • Yes, and alas, that kind of information rarely is recorded by, or even has an unambiguous on, a religious tradition and its storytelling.

    • John MacDonald

      Perhaps the original Christians believed creating a better world was a cause worth dying for, even if they didn’t believe Jesus could do miracles.

  • David Evans

    OT, but I think a possibly interesting speculation inspired by your graphic. Suppose someone invents a time viewer – a device which lets us watch and listen to events at any past time and place of our choosing. It proves its accuracy by (for instance) finding buried treasure and lost manuscripts. Then we start looking at the events described in the Bible…
    How much of the Bible would have to be proved false in this way before Christians would start losing their faith?

      • Nick Gotts

        Interesting link. You say:

        As far as my faith in God more generally, it would be shaken if I could go to the end of time and see that nothing from our universe survived – I don’t mean me as an individual, I mean nothing whatsoever survived, not even on some other level or plane of existence. That, I think, would challenge my faith at its core, because it would suggest that nothing of what we do matters in the long run, and that even God does not survive.

        Leaving aside the “other level or plane of existence” for a moment, what you describe is what current science indicates our future probably has in store. If dark energy has a fixed density through time (no evidence that it varies has yet been found), then in around 100,000,000,000 years everything except the “local group” of galaxies will have vanished over the cosmic horizon – we and they will have no further effect on each other. What’s left within the horizon will then “run down” over a period of trillions of years, until there’s no longer sufficient useable energy for life of any kind to exist. In the very long term, black holes will evaporate and all that will be left is elementary particles. There are various other possibilities, but I’ve seen none that allow the effects of our actions to affect the arbitrarily distant future in any coherent way.

        But of course, you can’t zip to the end of time, which makes your faith irrefutable, if that’s the only thing that could challenge it! Moreover, even if you did find yourself situated at the end of time, how do you think you would know whether you’d missed some “other level or plane of existence”, on which our actions are still of infinite significance? Even if you’d surveyed the 5th through 26th dimensions and found no traces of such a thing, maybe it’s hiding in the 27th? So the “other level or plane of existence” is an all-purpose cop-out card. Don’t like the look of the universe? Postulate an “other level or plane of existence” and fill it with whatever fantasies prop up what you want to believe.

        In any case, what if it all will come to nothing in the end? Why does that make the beauties of the world, or our relationships with other people, or our hopes for a nearer-term future, any less meaningful?

        • I am not certain that things which are ephemeral are unimportant or lacking in value. On the contrary, I think there may be value precisely in their transitoriness. My faith is that something persists, because it would seem that a complete end not just to me, not just to humanity, not just to our planet or our universe, but to everything would indeed represent as thorough a possible erasure not only of ephemeral beauty but also of its enduring impact of any sort. My faith is a hope that something endures. It isn’t a positing of dimensions that I have no reason to think exist. It is a hope that something will go on, and my point was simply that, if nothing does go on, then my faith, my hope, is wrong.

    • Remember the Great Disappointment of 1844? Some refused to admit that they’d been wrong. Similarly, there’s nothing that would get some Christians to admit they’re wrong–not even the discover of an ossuary with the bones of Jesus that all historians agree is authentic.

    • John MacDonald

      Recall Seneca famously said “Religion is true to the masses, false to the wise, and useful to the rulers.”

    • charlesburchfield

      ‘if’? there is no such thing.

      • David Evans

        If you are saying the time viewer is impossible in principle, you may be right. But there are other possibilities with the same effect. Suppose aliens have been observing us closely for the past 6,000 years, and recording everything. They present us with a searchable database of the records, or we find it in their ruins.

        • Nick Gotts

          That would be less convincing (and rightly so), than a time viewer we invent ourselves – how do we know that the aliens recorded what really happened, rather than producing fictitious records? Naturally, as servants of Satan, they would misrepresent the events accurately recorded in our sacred scriptures :-p.

          • David Evans

            True. But Satan could equally subvert what the time viewer appeared to show us (for evidence of his power to produce large-scale hallucinations, see Blish, J., A Case Of Conscience)

          • Nick Gotts

            Good point. I always forget how devious Satan is!

            I recall seeing a science fiction story about the invention of a time viewer on TV many years ago (called The Dead Past, I think, in a BBC series called Out of the Unknown). It appeared to be a wicked-government-suppresses-innovation story until the very end, when the implications of the device are revealed by the virtuous government agents who’ve been trying to suppress it: the “dead past” is continuous with the living present, so you can watch what your neighbours were doing a minute ago.

          • David Evans

            I didn’t see the TV production, but I read and was impressed by the story by Isaac Asimov on which it was based. It was more deeply felt than most of his work. You can read it at,%20Isaac/Asimov,%20Isaac%20-%20The%20Dead%20Past.pdf

          • Nick Gotts

            Thanks for that – I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, that it was Asimov.

        • charlesburchfield

          what are you hoping to find?

          • David Evans

            This is pure speculation, I don’t expect it to happen and therefore I’m not hoping to find anything. As an atheist I would expect it not to show any evidence of the supernatural. But if it did, my first reaction would be sheer excitement. I’m not one of those atheists who wants there to be no Heaven, though I would prefer there to be no Hell.

  • David Evans

    Ah. I should have known you would be there before me. (this was meant as a reply to James but seems to have ended up in the wrong place)

    • I probably should share that thought experiment again. It has been a while!

  • charlesburchfield


  • John MacDonald

    I think the original Christians believed The Future was far too important to be left to chance.

  • The Eh’theist

    Is Dan Wilkinson saying that those who identify as Christians, but insist on the truthfulness of the Bible as a condition of being a Christian, aren’t Christians?

    If he is, on what basis does he do so, and if he isn’t, what value does his statement have except to cheer on his ‘team’ and denigrate the other Christians for being wrong about what they believe?

    There’s a difference between comparing scriptural narrative with evidence for its accuracy, and arguing for a definition of a “Christian”. Wilkinson may have a preferred definition, but how does he assert it is correct? It seems an appeal to pragmatism to argue that others must change their definition to conform with his because parts of the Bible are known to be untrue.

    Some could maintain their definition of a Christian and instead argue that it is impossible to be one due to the flawed source material.

    Or some could say it doesn’t matter if one’s definition is correct or not if one truly believes it and let everyone believe what they wish.

    On what basis does one choose one approach over another?

  • Bethany

    I’d also observe that there’s a difference between “lying” and “wrong.” We know know that much of the early history presented in the Hebrew Bible is not factually correct (but some of the later history was, highlighting the fact that one can’t talk about the “truth” or “falsity” of the entire Bible as a unit). But that doesn’t mean the authors are *lying*. They were writing about something that happened, what, 500-800 years before, based only on oral tradition that had been passed down over the generations: no written history, no modern archaeology. Of course their history was inaccurate — how could it have been otherwise? — but that doesn’t mean it was a deliberate lie or that *they* knew the things they were writing to be inaccurate.

    • Actually, quite a few scholars of OT source criticism view the Deuteronomist contributions as largely ancient propaganda.

  • This is a good word!!

  • Not knowing the mind (nor heart, if we want to be poetic) of my fellow man, I try never to assume up front that either the devout or the authors of their source material are being purposely deceptive.

    I’ve typed “I don’t think you’re lying, I just think you might be mistaken” more than a time or three. I don’t always get the same courtesy in return though, largely because the book assures the devout that we infidels MUST be disingenuous…