Creationism: Snapshot No. 3

Creationism: Snapshot No. 3 July 11, 2005

The walls came tumbling down

A college classmate of mine had a crisis of faith during our trip to the Holy Land. A group of us spent three weeks in Jerusalem, traveling throughout the West Bank and Israel. Our jam-packed itinerary included a stop in Jericho.

There we were, in Jericho. As in Joshua fit the battle of. At 260 meters below sea level, it is the lowest city on earth. It is probably also the oldest. Humans have been living in Jericho more or less continuously for more than 10,000 years. In touring the excavations at Jericho, we saw one unearthed stone structure that the archaeology student guiding us around the dig said was probably about 8,000 years old.

This was mind-boggling for all of us. We were all Americans — people who think of places like Independence Hall or the chapels of Santa Fe as "ancient" because they have stood for centuries. We had a tough enough time with the Roman sites we had visited earlier, yet there we were, staring at this Neolithic wall that had already stood for millennia when Caesar was born.

So, you know, impressive.

But for one fellow student it was horrifying. He had been raised in a fundamentalist church to believe in a six-day creation and a young earth. How young? They embraced the skewed arithmetic of the infamous Bishop Usher, the Irish churchman who, in the 17th century, added up all the genealogies of the Old Testament and concluded that God created the earth in 4004 B.C.E. So there my friend stood, in 1990, in Jericho, believing that the universe was 5,994* years old and staring at a man-made wall that was 8,000 years old.

Something had to give.

The most dangerous thing about fundamentalism is not that it sometimes teaches wacky ideas, like that the world is barely 6,000 years old or that dancing is sinful. The most dangerous thing is that it insists that such ideas are all inviolably necessary components of the faith. Each such idea, every aspect of their faith, is regarded as a keystone without which everything else they believe — the existence of a loving God, the assurance of pardon, the possibility of a moral or meaningful life — crumbles into meaninglessness.

My classmate's church taught him that their supposedly "literal" reading of Genesis 1 was the necessary complement to their "literal" reading of the rest of the Bible, which they regarded as the entire and only basis for their faith. His belief in 6-day, young-earth creationism was not merely some disputable piece of adiaphora, such as …

Well, for such fundamentalists there is no "such as." This is why they cling to every aspect of their belief system with such desperate ferocity. Should even the smallest piece be cast into doubt, they believe, the entire structure would crumble like the walls of Jericho. If dancing is not a sin, or if the authorship of Isaiah turns out to involve more than a single person at one time, or if the moons of Jupiter present a microcosm that suggests a heliocentric solar system, then suddenly nothing is true, their "whole groundwork cracks, and the earth opens to abysses."

This was, roughly, what was going on in my poor classmate's head as he stared at those rocks, which had been carefully put in place by some ancient citizen of Jericho thousands of years before the tiny literal god of the fundies had gotten around to creating the universe. If he were to cling to the framework he had been raised to believe, then either he must reject the existence of that wall, or he must reject everything he thought he believed about God.

Fortunately he was among friends, and we were able to convince him of a third option, which was, of course, not to cling to the framework he had been raised to believe. We were able to convince him that the existence of a 10,000-year-old city no more disproves the existence of God than the existence of God disproves the reality of that city. Once he was able to accept that belief in God and belief in the ancient world were not mutually exclusive, then he was able to set about the hard but necessary task of deciding for himself just what it was he really believed.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Or is it 5,995? The whole no-year-zero thing throws me off. In any case, the Australian Aborigines have songs that are older than that.


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92 responses to “Creationism: Snapshot No. 3”

  1. “The most dangerous thing about fundamentalism is not that it sometimes teaches wacky ideas, like that the world is barely 6,000 years old or that dancing is sinful. The most dangerous thing is that it insists that such ideas are all inviolably necessary components of the faith. Each such idea, every aspect of their faith, is regarded as a keystone without which everything else they believe — the existence of a loving God, the assurance of pardon, the possibility of a moral or meaningful life — crumbles into meaninglessness.”
    Ain’t it the God’s truth!??! Thanks Fred!

  2. Fred,
    I have been a long-time reader, and comment very infrequently (at best). I just wanted to pop in and say that your blog posts are consistently engaging, challenging, and interesting.
    And regarding this particular post, my dad has a favorite saying about such things: Nobody knows what they believe until [topic] happens to them. Sounds like this was writ large on the walls of Jericho for that person who suffered the crisis of faith.
    Thanks!

  3. According to the Ussher-Lightfoot Calendar, the world will be 6,008 years old this year. (That’s 4004 + 2005 1. The 1 is to account for the lack of a year 0.)

  4. The last of my walls came tumbling down when I sat in class and listened to a professor fumbling to explain astronomical observations of far away galaxies by concluding that Genesis proved the speed of light changed after the Fall. And that wasn’t even in Kansas.

  5. The last of my walls came tumbling down when I sat in class and listened to a professor fumbling to explain astronomical observations of far away galaxies by concluding that Genesis proved the speed of light changed after the Fall. And that wasn’t even in Kansas.

  6. This is a great series, Fred. And again, the need for Biblical literalism baffles me. I simply can’t understand why it should be so important that every single word in the Bible be 100% factually accurate. In addition to causing problems such as those outlined in this post, there’s also the matter of this:
    “To be a part of my religion, you should believe in God, that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and that you shouldn’t steal, lie, or kill.”
    “Okay, cool, I can roll with that.”
    “Also, that this guy packed two of every animal into a ship.”
    “Uh, okay.”
    “And this other guy stopped the sun so that he could kill more people.”
    “Um.”
    “Oh, oh, also? The reason Jesus needs to die for your sin is because there was this snake, right, who convinced this woman to eat a piece of fruit…”
    “Hey, I just remembered an elsewhere I need to be!” (runs)

  7. Bishop Usher seems to have aged the Earth an extra 245 years, or so. As of Oct 4th of this year, the world will turn 5766, according to the Hebrew calendar.

  8. Ussher was committed to a scheme in which there were 4,000 years from creation to Jesus, and 2,000 from Jesus to judgement. He gave the date 4 BC for the birth of Jesus, using the year of the death of Herod the Great; hence 4004 BC for the creation.

  9. Fortunately your friend is showing some sense and not moving to the wild convolutions of logic that so many fundamentalists use to try to hang on to their literalism.
    Like the God as practical joker theory. You know, He created the world with that wall already in place and aged by a few thousand years. It would be a good test of our faith when we eventually found it.
    Sort of like the way He created the universe with the light from the further stars already well on its way to Earth.

  10. “If [selected doctrine is false] than our faith is in vain and we are all fools.”
    That’s my favourite line when talking to fundamentalists.

  11. “In any case, the Australian Aborigines have songs that are older than that.”
    Can I get link, please? That’s sounds facinating.

  12. Bishop Usher seems to have aged the Earth an extra 245 years, or so. As of Oct 4th of this year, the world will turn 5766, according to the Hebrew calendar.
    Maybe the Hebrew calendar dates to the Fall?
    Not that I believe in a literal Garden of Eden or anything; but you know . . .

  13. There is actually a whole section on that, [blank], in First Corinthians 15, e.g.: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” If the resurrection never happened, Christianity is empty. I could see Christians arguing about this and caring about why it is true (or not).
    But I have a suspicion that going much further than that (Methuselah was 969! You must believe!) is passing out of the realm of religion and into the realm of sectarianism. I admit that many Christians who desperately need the inerrancy of the Bible as a sure epistemological foundation would disagree with me.
    wvmcl points out that the God as practical joker theory is ridiculous by scientific standards. That’s true, but it’s also true that we have just as much proof of consistent, logical causation, physics, and history as we do of God the practical joker. Sounds very Hume-esque to me to call the ultimate foundations of science on a par with a practical joke. But there it is.
    Like “He created the universe with the light from the further stars already well on its way to Earth”. But that’s just the point; if God can create something out of nothing, why not a frozen vector snapshot as opposed to a big bang?
    Not that I think this is how things are, but I would call empiricism, faith in logic and science, primitive assumptions. Reminds me of a great quote I read in a philosophy essay somewhere: “I take it for granted that there are self-evident truths.”

  14. Ain’t it the God’s truth!??!
    Yes it exactly is. Years ago, I saw a NOVA episode with Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis in which he says point-blank, “If I can’t trust what the Bible says about biology, how can I trust what it says about morality?”
    In his deceptively titled “Argument [against] the Abolishing of Christianity in England”, Dean Swift claims that the freethinkers, all by themselves, came to
    consider it as a sort of Edifice wherein all the Parts have such a mutual Dependence on each other that if you happen to pull out one single Nail, the whole Fabric must fall to the Ground. This was happily expressed by him who had heard of a Text brought for proof of the Trinity, which in an ancient Manuscript was differently read; he thereupon immediately took the Hint, and by a sudden Deduction of a long Sorites, most logically concluded, Why, if it be as you say, I may safely whore and drink on, and defy the Parson.
    (The “Abolishing of Christianity in England” was actually nothing more nor less than the repeal of the Test Act, which effectively forbade non-Anglicans from holding public office. As my Norton Anthology of Literature explains, “Swift’s technique is to assume blandly that to argue against the Test Act is to argue against Christianity and the church…” Sex education: Communist Trojan Horse in our schools. Numbers: Nothingarian squid-trap in our schools. The same drivel repeated eternally.)

  15. I’ve never posted any comments to any blog before, but this one struck a strong chord with me.
    I had my own crisis of faith at Jericho about a decade ago, not because of the super-fundamentalist framework that I was brought up in (which I was), but because, for me, the story of Jericho seems counter to a God of love and grace.
    To stand in a place where the canon tells us the Prince of Peace ordered the slaughter of men, women, children, and animals. . . .
    I’m not sure I’m past the crisis yet.

  16. Let me boil all that down to one really interesting question:
    Is there really a need for the belief that Jesus was anything but a carpenter who had charisma and some cool ideas about how to treat other people?
    I can live with the fact that some people have/need to have the idea of some sort of Divine Being. I can live with the Bible as a collection of myths and parables, some of which have some relevance even today.
    But the divinity of Jesus seems not only far-fatched, but actually counterproductive to the idea of a God that does not require proof, but relies on faith itself. (Admittedly, most of the OT works against that idea too).
    And don’t even get me started on the omnipotence…

  17. Erin,
    The story of Jericho is not that the Prince of Peace ordered the slaughter of men, women, children and animals. On one level, it can be read that way. On another, it can be read that the Israelites understood that God told them to do that, leaving the question of whether God really told them that or not up to us to answer.
    Or, we could see this as not being history in the post-Enlightenment Western definition of the word. We could understand that it is highly unlikely that the early recipients of this tradition knew that the conquest of Jericho didn’t “happen” the way the story says, but that the story has a point aside from the “happening-ness” of it all.
    I’m not one for cop-outs. But Fred here is pretty good about showing us which crises are real and which have been manufactured for us by well-meaning but ultimately foolish people. I hope that you are able to find a way through this crisis that gives you peace, whatever “conclusions” you may reach.

  18. I remember a long time ago in a theology class that my lecturer discussed a study which looked at the reaction of cult members who believed that a certain date would be the end of the world after this proved not to be the case.
    Surprisingly, the failure of such important and seemingly foundational elements of the belief system did not generally lead to the cult member losing faith or questioning the balance of the cult’s beliefs.

  19. John E Thelin said “Is there really a need for the belief that Jesus was anything but a carpenter who had charisma and some cool ideas about how to treat other people?… the divinity of Jesus seems not only far-fatched, but actually counterproductive to the idea of a God that does not require proof, but relies on faith itself.”
    Christians (insert appropriate qualifier) are not looking for an idea of God that does not require proof, and don’t think that what the world needs now is theories sweet theories about who or what God is.
    Rather, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” The divinity of Jesus (in some theologically messy definition of God) is very important if Jesus was “God-with-us” and concerned not with defining God, but with reconciling all people to God.
    Christianity arrives, not at a philosophy but at a theology of history. For God’s interventions in history, and above all his Incarnation in the historical person of Jesus Christ, have a transhistorical purpose–the salvation of man. — Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane
    If Jesus was some hip Jewish pastor who played the guitar around the campfire and told people to be excellent to each other, Christianity is meaningless; you might as well become a groupie for the Rolling Stones. But that’s not what the Christians think of him.

  20. So, Christianity is meaningless. That’s the ultimate outcome of non-literalism, no?
    If you start questioning every aspect of the Biblical word, it falls apart rather fast.
    If there is no need to believe in “six actual 24 hour periods” for universal creation, then I don’t see why there is a need to believe that Jesus was fathered through som divine form of intercourse.
    Once you start unravelling the thread, where do you stop, and why there? It seems an arbitrary decision to make, wherever you intend to apply it.
    Which aspects of Christianity are ludicruous as read vary from reader to reader, so if its the *perception* that one particular bit is parable that decides its veracity, you’re never going to find any solid breakoff.
    Again: why dismiss some parts of the Bible and take others as…well, gospel?

  21. In high school a fundamentalist friend of mine, knowing about my interest in ancient history, asked me if it was true that there is no archeological or historical evidence that the Egytians enslaved the Hebrews en masse. It was pretty strange.

  22. i’ve been away from such mindsets for almost a decade. i’ve returned ‘home’ so to speak and i’m beginning to find this sort of thought again. just a few folks, but…you know…its disarming after these many years not being around fundamentalists.

  23. The most dangerous thing is that it insists that such ideas are all inviolably necessary components of the faith.
    Actually, the most dangerous thing about it is that some of them are SO strongly wedded to those ideas they actually WILL try to destroy the things and/or people that make them doubt the ideas.
    To stand in a place where the canon tells us the Prince of Peace ordered the slaughter of men, women, children, and animals. . . .
    Hi, Erin. To add to what Stephen said, it’s also possible the early Israelites FOUND one version of Jericho in ruins (it’s been occupied a long time, but not necessarily ALL of that time) and needed an explanation for it, so they attributed its destruction to their own ancestors.
    Also, the canon doesn’t say “the prince of peace” ordered it… it says his DAD did so, and the old testament god is documentably unstable, vindictive in one chapter and gentle in the next. Maybe even bipolar by current definition of that disorder; maybe that’s why later followers had to devise a split between god and devil… to justify that kind of unpredictable behavior without putting themselves in the difficult position of having to jettison their whole belief system.
    a study which looked at the reaction of cult members who believed that a certain date would be the end of the world
    I heard about that study in a social psych class. If it’s the same one, the group was a cult led by Marion? Marilyn? Keach in Chicago who believed a UFO was going to take them off Earth on Xmas day in the 1950s or 1960s. Several members DID leave the group afterward, but some didn’t — mostly the core group, who had the most to lose socially by leaving.
    Ussher was committed to a scheme in which there were 4,000 years from creation to Jesus, and 2,000 from Jesus to judgement.
    Ah. I’d always wondered how he came up with such an inane number… he pulled it out of the sky. Obviously, he didn’t actually READ Genesis, b/c the list of “begats” there adds up to over 8,000 years, starting long before 4004 BCE even if you start counting at Jesus’ birthday.

  24. “If Jesus was some hip Jewish pastor who played the guitar around the campfire and told people to be excellent to each other, Christianity is meaningless;”
    Why is “be excellent to each other” a meaningless message? Why do good works have to be done in obedience to the Creator of the universe? What’s wrong with parables?

  25. “Why is “be excellent to each other” a meaningless message? Why do good works have to be done in obedience to the Creator of the universe? What’s wrong with parables?”
    For the same reason that we’ve discovered that many fundamentalist Christians are a hair’s-breadth away from being sociopaths. Their argument is, if God doesn’t exist, then laws, social codes, and morals mean nothing, and therefore it’s perfectly okay to do whatever you want. This is how they feel me and my fellow atheists see the world, and are baffled as to how we can have any kind of morality if we don’t accept a divine being.
    These are the people who needed the proctor in the test room to keep them from cheating. They need the firewall at work to keep them from visiting gambling and porn sites. They need laws to prevent them from engaging in sexual acts that supposedly they’re not interested in actually engaging in.
    As is evidenced by their politics, they want to worship a God of Power. And powerful means executive, judicial, and legislative branches all in one. Power of making laws, even laws they don’t really like, and of enforcing those laws with terrible consequences. That stirs them. In fact, there are all these hints throughout their philosophy that God did things a certain way because “He had to” which seem to imply that there’s some rules that God has to follow. (Perhaps, like a video game or action movie, this is a foreshadowing that there’s an even Goddier God hiding in the wings!)
    In other words, it’s not just the search for a higher power. It’s the validation of that higher power. Jesus has to be divine because we can’t have multiple Gods, so we have to say that he’s the same Guy as the other Guy.
    I know it’s confusing to you, because to say that only Jesus’ divinity gives his message any authority implies that his message has some authority in the first place. Very few people are interested in being excellent to each other (especially people different from them) even IF the divine Jesus said to.

  26. Bishop Usher gets a bad rap. He didn’t make up the 4,000 BC figure, it was a standard for world history at the time. And he didn’t just count up the “begats”–there are gaps in the system, so he had to coordinate Bible history with secular history to make everything match up.
    That doesn’t make him right, but he was a legitimate scholar by the standards of his time, not a crackpot (Stephen Jay Gould has an excellent essay on Usher in one of his books, from which most of the above comes).
    2)On the concept of God-created-an-old-world: Once you accept that, how do you know it was 6,000 years ago rather than, say, 50 (I took this very seriously when I was about 10 years old)? If physical reality doesn’t prove evolution, it doesn’t prove Bible history, secular history or anything else.
    3)John, the fact that like so many creationists you can’t see any reason for accepting only part of the Bible doesn’t mean that other people can’t draw rational true/false lines. Sure, the lines will differ, but so what? That’s no different from debates over the message, the interpretation or for that matter, which are the divinely ordained books and which aren’t. The fact people disagree doesn’t prove there isn’t truth in it.

  27. Bishop Usher gets a bad rap. He didn’t make up the 4,000 BC figure, it was a standard for world history at the time. And he didn’t just count up the “begats”–there are gaps in the system, so he had to coordinate Bible history with secular history to make everything match up.
    That doesn’t make him right, but he was a legitimate scholar by the standards of his time, not a crackpot (Stephen Jay Gould has an excellent essay on Usher in one of his books, from which most of the above comes).
    2)On the concept of God-created-an-old-world: Once you accept that, how do you know it was 6,000 years ago rather than, say, 50 (I took this very seriously when I was about 10 years old)? If physical reality doesn’t prove evolution, it doesn’t prove Bible history, secular history or anything else.
    3)John, the fact that like so many creationists you can’t see any reason for accepting only part of the Bible doesn’t mean that other people can’t draw rational true/false lines. Sure, the lines will differ, but so what? That’s no different from debates over the message, the interpretation or for that matter, which are the divinely ordained books and which aren’t. The fact people disagree doesn’t prove there isn’t truth in it.

  28. Again: why dismiss some parts of the Bible and take others as…well, gospel?
    The problem is that you assume that if one does not accept your interpretation of the text, they are ‘dismissing’ a passage outright. That is hardly the case. I, for example, am an inerrantist, but I am not a literalist. I believe that a literalist interpretation is not only absurd, but creates contradictions within the scripture where none would otherwise exist.
    Let us take, for example, the story of Adam and Eve. Specifically, let’s examine Genesis 2:16-17. Now here, God tells Adam that in the day he eats from the tree, he will die. The Hebrew word used for day is yowm, the same one used to describe the days of creation. The Hebrew word used for die is muwth, the same one used to describe real, literal death throughout the rest of the Old Testament.
    So if the days are literal, and the death is literal – why did Adam not die the same day he ate that fruit?
    Could it be that the text is not literal, but metaphorical? Indeed, the Apostle Paul would seem to agree, as his text in Romans 5:12-14 advances the non-literalist interpretation of Adam’s death as spiritual and not physical. Oddly, many literalists try to use that same passage to advance a theory that humans, prior to the fall, did not die physically. Of course, that interpretation rests on making God a liar in Genesis 2.
    In short, it would seem that one can either accept a literalist interpretation of Genesis, or one can accept that God is telling the truth to Adam. One cannot accept both.

  29. John,
    Because the first article in Newsweek is incorrect or skewed, does not mean the next article, written by another author, will have the same errors. The Bible was written by a lot of different people at a lot of different times, and the authors, translators, and compilers had a lot of different opinions, philosophies and agendas. What makes it holy to Christians is that it contains glimpses, within these differing views, of the same God. We don’t all agree on a unifed picture of that God, but we all agree there’s something especially compelling about that book. Holiness, in my mind, is not synonomous with infalibility.

  30. How do you know that all these different writers with their different agendas are talking about the same god? How do you know that there’s any there there? Even if you have an unarguable, personal sense of the divine, what makes you so certain that this is connected to the Bible, as opposed to the Koran, the book of Moroni, the Bhagavad Gita, or some as yet unwritten text of the church of Iwdfugwi?

  31. I don’t claim to know that. I’m quite convinced, actually, that many have perceived the divine through some of the other texts you’ve mentioned. I may feel that the Bible has some sort of connection to God, but by no means do I believe it to be an exclusive one.

  32. I’d simply like to point out that this near-maniacal insistence on some edifice of “truth” shows up elsewhere in fundamentalist reasoning. The best examples I’ve seen of it are in (1) our drug war, and (2) hysteria over the sexual liberation of women.
    Marijuana has been demonized since the thirties. By now we pretty much know how dangerous it is. I think it’s safe to say that alcohol kills more people in the US, even if you adjust for the higher usage rate. But which one is portrayed as a “gateway drug” that will tempt our children into greater and greater sins until they are lost to damnation?
    Reagan’s War on Drugs was specifically sold as a moral campaign.
    Many others have written for more eloquently than I about the fear of female independence and empowerment, so I will leave that topic be.

  33. Did Jesus rise from the dead?
    If you have a sense of the divine, nothing more, you can’t answer that question.
    If you have a sense of the divine that is specifically a sense of Christ, or is specifically linked to the sense that the Bible is largely true, you can answer the question.
    I’m very curious about how people can have so specific a sense of the divine.

  34. Ray,
    I may not be the best person to answer your question because I’m Episcopalian of a fairly Arminian bent–from a tradition that is formed as much by John Donne, John Milton, George Herbert, Jonathan Swift and Good Old C.s. Lewis as by any one else, but I’ll try anyway.
    To me, the Bible is truth in the way that poetry is true, not the way reportage is true. To me, if everything word of the Bible is literally true, then where is there room for faith?
    I have a sense of the divine and a very specific one at that, but I can’t tell you how or why. I have no concrete evidence, I could not convince a skeptic, or put any of my faith on a bumpersticker, but there it is, all the same.
    Did Jesus die and was buried? yes. Did he descend into hell and on the third day rise again to the right hand of the father? Yes. Do I have photographs? No. But I believe. And I think the very absurdity of this unfounded belief of mine is what gives my faith it’s power. For me, I would have a crisis of faith if someone did produce photographs.
    I cannot speak for other Christians and may of them would be appalled if I did. But, you asked and I felt I had to answer even knowing that this answer probably doesn’t shed much light.

  35. Ray,
    I may not be the best person to answer your question because I’m Episcopalian of a fairly Arminian bent–from a tradition that is formed as much by John Donne, John Milton, George Herbert, Jonathan Swift and Good Old C.s. Lewis as by any one else, but I’ll try anyway.
    To me, the Bible is truth in the way that poetry is true, not the way reportage is true. To me, if everything word of the Bible is literally true, then where is there room for faith?
    I have a sense of the divine and a very specific one at that, but I can’t tell you how or why. I have no concrete evidence, I could not convince a skeptic, or put any of my faith on a bumpersticker, but there it is, all the same.
    Did Jesus die and was buried? yes. Did he descend into hell and on the third day rise again to the right hand of the father? Yes. Do I have photographs? No. But I believe. And I think the very absurdity of this unfounded belief of mine is what gives my faith it’s power. For me, I would have a crisis of faith if someone did produce photographs.
    I cannot speak for other Christians and may of them would be appalled if I did. But, you asked and I felt I had to answer even knowing that this answer probably doesn’t shed much light.

  36. “I’m very curious about how people can have so specific a sense of the divine.”
    If I had to come up with that theory on my own, I don’t think I’d have any such specific sense. But I do have a strong sense that the Bible is the self-expression of the divine, and I get a sense of God speaking in various other texts.
    As for where to draw the line between literal and figurative interpretation, it can be tricky. But not, I think, too much trickier than figuring the sense of “Hark! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun…” It’s not too hard to figure that the window is not, in fact, the east, nor Juliet the sun, but that Juliet is indeed in the window. Inerrancy without literalism is not an impossibly illogical view.

  37. A couple of times now, “inerrancy without literalism” has been mentioned. If it helps, the seminary in which I work has used the word “infallibility” to better articulate this stance, since “inerrancy” DOES tend to be tied to literalism most of the time.

  38. I really don’t understand how one can have a direct, personal sense not only of the divine, but of some particular acts of the divine that happened 2000 years ago. At a stretch, I could imagine some sort of sense that the God you feel is the kind of God that _would_ do such a thing, if necessary, but even that’s reaching a bit.
    Why can’t it all be a metaphor, a poem, a symbol? There was no perfect mix of man and god born in a manger, but the story shows us what good can come from humble beginnings. There was no death and resurrection, but the story shows us what love can be. Why believe in these as any more than parables, teaching us about the good life? Would the nature of the good life change if these stories were untrue (in the reportage sense)?

  39. It works terribly as a metaphor for me. I’m not capable of that kind of selfless love, of perpetually putting others first. Bad things happen, and sometimes good things don’t follow.
    On the other hand, to know my Father, to know His nature… to know why the universe is screwy, to know it’s not always as screwy as it looks… to have specific documentation of this… it’s something else entirely. :) I’ve gotten my share of comfort from poetry and myth, from the deeper truths disguised there, but the deepest comfort comes from truth unhindered by disguise.
    Not that I want to make an issue of it. I don’t believe there’s any point in arguing anything which can’t be argued rationally, and this isn’t rational truth.

  40. Why can’t it all be a metaphor, a poem, a symbol?
    This seems to more and more be the default position in the more secularised Western countries.
    I think it was the Swedish Arch Bishop of Uppsala who, when asked about if God existed answered “That depends on what you mean by ‘exist’.”
    Imagine any high-level US priest, bishop or even politician giving that ambiguous an answer to that question. Maybe one day…
    Anyone who has played Chinese Whispers more than once should be a bit wary of those Biblical tales handed down, retold and retranscribed many times.
    Hell, anyone who’s ever been interviewed or known the background to a news story will know how badly things get skewed in the retelling, even when it’s just one step removed from the events.
    Considering that even from the very beginning, the tale of Jesus smells off, I have to wonder why so many people take it at face value.
    There is no historical evidence of the huge census which was supposed to put Joseph and Mary on the move, so that their Nazarene son could be said to have been born in Bethlehem in accordance with prophecy. Sounds like some serious after-the-fact fudging to me…
    Your mileage may, quite obviously, vary.

  41. My personal opinion is that Christianity starts with a belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus; without this, what is Christianity but incommunicable mysticism? But already other Christians in this thread have stated their divergent opinions.
    “why dismiss some parts of the Bible and take others as…well, gospel?” John asks again. Ray touches on the same issue when he says “what makes you so certain that this is connected to the Bible, as opposed to the Koran, the book of Moroni, the Bhagavad Gita, or some as yet unwritten text of the church of Iwdfugwi?” Well, from my view, you don’t just trust the Bible. You doubt and doubt and doubt the things the writers tell you, rip them to shreds. If at the end of all that, you still think that Jesus came back from the dead, then you have a sort of starting place to view the world, a fact to shake the foundations of any metaphysical system. If Jesus came back from the dead, all bets are off, right?
    Of course, Christianity doesn’t end with some historical belief. As I’ve said elsewhere, Christianity is a faith lived out, not just a belief held to be probable or true.
    Ray asks whether you can live the faith without having the belief (more or less): “Why believe in these as any more than parables, teaching us about the good life? Would the nature of the good life change if these stories were untrue (in the reportage sense)?” Let’s answer this question with an episode from Jesus’ life.
    A rich young man asked Jesus a similar question, something like, “So what do you have to tell me about the good life?” Jesus sent him back to the ten commandments, but the man asked him again for a special task, maybe to assure himself of his goodness. Jesus said “Ok, if that’s what you want… Sell all your crap and follow me.”
    The interesting thing about this story is that the good life consists only in following Jesus with no strings attached. This is different than Mill or Bentham or Deepak Chopra or Aristotle. Jesus demands that we follow him; the others just advise. So Christianity is not just about some good life that can be encapsulated in a few simple rules for human behavior.
    Christianity is really about a bunch of stuff that happened two thousand years ago. If it never happened, Christianity isn’t really about anything. That’s what I was trying to say before.

  42. If it never happened, Christianity isn’t really about anything.
    That’s about as damning an indictment of Christianity as I’ve ever seen.
    That it should not be able to stand up on its own without the actual, undenied birth, death and resurrection of The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man should be reason enough to doubt the entire structure.
    Not to mention the truly breathtaking arrogance of dismissing all other gods and religions.
    A Christian chooses only to deny belief in less God than I. On what compelling evidence? None other than faith, say the believers in this thread.
    But why *this* faith over all others? That’s the part I don’t get (because I see the power of Faith – Christian or otherwise – at work every day)

  43. So, Dan, what makes you sure that the resurrection happened? If you’re down on mysticism then you’re presumably ruling out personal revelation. Is it a belief in the accuracy of the Bible? On what grounds – corroborative evidence or personal revelation? Or do you have some other reason for being certain of the historical truth of the death and resurrection?

  44. many fundamentalist Christians are a hair’s-breadth away from being sociopaths. Their argument is, if God doesn’t exist, then laws, social codes, and morals mean nothing, and therefore it’s perfectly okay to do whatever you want.
    Thanks, Dave. I have often wondered why nobody seems to think this is a strange point of view. Of course, there are all sorts of ramifications.
    Since morality is defined by the threat of eternal damnation, does that mean that there is nothing inherently good about any moral rule?
    How do we know that God is good? Suppose Lucifer is really God and vice versa.
    Do these “Christians” really want to rape, pillage and murder? How much time do they spend wrestling with these evil desires?
    It’s just all very bizarre to me.

  45. This last post has some interesting and valid questions. I can’t speak for all Christians, but as a Christian, here are my thoughts (if not always actual answers).
    * Since morality is defined by the threat of eternal damnation, does that mean that there is nothing inherently good about any moral rule?
    I would certainly agree that the notion that people must be “scared” into being Christian isn’t much of a faith.
    * How do we know that God is good? Suppose Lucifer is really God and vice versa.
    I’ve long thought about the question in this way: How is “good” defined? Many Christians seem to think that “good” is defined pretty much solely by what God wills or does (after all, “God is good, and cannot do evil,” says the Christian). Yet in the Old Testament, we see God sanction acts that are, by any human definition, evil. It is not enough for me to “explain this away” by saying that “it must be for a good reason” or “it really isn’t evil, because God commanded it.” Genocide is, by all sane definition, evil. I admit to continuing to wrestle with these texts. While I have some theories that allow me to retain my faith in God, I won’t bother posting them here, because they are, at best, speculative. And they’re certainly not going to be agreed to by many Christians.
    * Do these “Christians” really want to rape, pillage and murder? How much time do they spend wrestling with these evil desires?
    Possibly not these specific acts, but I’d wager that pretty much everybody struggles with something. For one example, who hasn’t thought about having sex with someone not their spouse at some time or another? The Christian (most, anyway) says that this is a sin. Their faith (if not fear of eternal punishment, see above) keeps them from this “immoral” (so says the Christian) act. To be a bit more broad, I’d say that all “sin” is, at its heart, selfishness. This is something that pretty much everybody struggles with in some form or another. Selfishness is not, by most definitions, a good thing. (This is not to say that there is no good place for any kind of self-interest) Non-Christians can also regulate their selfish desires without resorting to religious faith, but that doesn’t make the condition less universal.

  46. Just on that last point, and your example of adultery – if some Christian thinks “I would like to commit adultery, and I don’t really care about the pain that it would cause my partner, but I won’t do it, because adultery is a sin”, do we really want to hold them up as a moral examplar? If some Christian says “murder would be okay, if God hadn’t said it was a sin”, do you stand up and applaud or give him a slap?

  47. Just on that last point, and your example of adultery – if some Christian thinks “I would like to commit adultery, and I don’t really care about the pain that it would cause my partner, but I won’t do it, because adultery is a sin”, do we really want to hold them up as a moral examplar? If some Christian says “murder would be okay, if God hadn’t said it was a sin”, do you stand up and applaud or give him a slap?

  48. Ray,
    I hope that it’s clear that I’m *not* holding such people up as “moral exemplars.” In fact, I reject the assertion the Christians are more moral people than non-Christians in general. I think that Christian morality is, in fact, a pretty good morality. But I would not assert that Christians themselves are even that good at following it, let alone getting into the reasons *why* they may or may not follow it.

  49. Bishop Usher gets a bad rap. He didn’t make up the 4,000 BC figure, it was a standard for world history at the time. And he didn’t just count up the “begats”–there are gaps in the system, so he had to coordinate Bible history with secular history to make everything match up.
    That doesn’t make him right, but he was a legitimate scholar by the standards of his time, not a crackpot (Stephen Jay Gould has an excellent essay on Usher in one of his books, from which most of the above comes).
    2)On the concept of God-created-an-old-world: Once you accept that, how do you know it was 6,000 years ago rather than, say, 50 (I took this very seriously when I was about 10 years old)? If physical reality doesn’t prove evolution, it doesn’t prove Bible history, secular history or anything else.
    3)John, the fact that like so many creationists you can’t see any reason for accepting only part of the Bible doesn’t mean that other people can’t draw rational true/false lines. Sure, the lines will differ, but so what? That’s no different from debates over the message, the interpretation or for that matter, which are the divinely ordained books and which aren’t. The fact people disagree doesn’t prove there isn’t truth in it.
    4)As to good and evil, CS Lewis once argued (I forget which book) that there is an inherent moral order to the universe: Jesus couldn’t come down and say “Rape children, vivisect kittens and screw over your neighbor” and thereby make these things good.

  50. Me: If it never happened, Christianity isn’t really about anything.
    John E Thelin: “That’s about as damning an indictment of Christianity as I’ve ever seen.”
    As well it should be. In fact, in this passage, one of the earliest Christian documents we have, Paul writes that if that one thing never happened, Christianity is a futile, empty cheat. That is, how damning the indictment is has always depended on whether or not the resurrection actually happened; I say this to point out that Christians should accept that this one fact is crucial to their religion; but, like I said before, throw a pie, hit a Christian who disagrees with me.
    “That it should not be able to stand up on its own without the actual, undenied birth, death and resurrection of The Guaranteed Eternal Sanctuary Man should be reason enough to doubt the entire structure.” The way you said this is very interesting to me. I have heard (in a philosophy class, from the professor) that Christianity is ridiculous because someone in Israel could dig up a tablet that says “Jesus: He Was Never Crucified” (or some similar proof) and invalidate the whole religion.
    This is anti-critical reasoning. We didn’t believe relativity (another truly bizarre tale about the way things are) because it explained less and depended on less facts than classical mechanics. We believed it because it explained more, because we could see light bending around the gravity well of the sun, because there was more in it to validate or invalidate, because of its predictive power. Scientific hypotheses are better when they provide more to test; Christianity is like that in the case of the resurrection, more to test.
    Of course, a lot of hypotheses fall by the wayside because, however much they explain, they are untrue. This happened to “ether”, when Michelson and Morley set up their interferometer. The same thing can happen to Christianity.
    So Ray asks for the hypothesis: “If you’re down on mysticism then you’re presumably ruling out personal revelation. Is it a belief in the accuracy of the Bible? On what grounds – corroborative evidence or personal revelation? Or do you have some other reason for being certain of the historical truth of the death and resurrection?”
    The short version is: “some other reason.” Without making this post extremely long (it is already very long), let me point out a couple of things. There is a collection of “books” called the New Testament; it is really just a diverse bunch of documents written by the leaders of a nascent religion in an outlying Roman territory several centuries ago. They have no magic powers.
    I think this is a proper point from which to start an investigation of Christianity; without assumptions about the Bible as a unit, without red herrings about inerrancy, or infallibility, or the idea that if there is no corroborative archaeology, there is no history. These documents are history, are archaeology, written by real people with certain motives and agendas.
    So here is a first expansion of “some other reason”: these documents, read and criticized with a historian’s eye, create huge plot holes for the story that the resurrection never happened. Let me exit this post without vomiting them all out; but of course, we can discuss them.

  51. Not to mention the truly breathtaking arrogance of dismissing all other gods and religions.
    I’m not really sure how else one could be religious. How could you be a good Jew, for instance, while simultaneously accepting that the Wiccan Mother Earth, the Greek Jupiter and the Japanese Izanagi and Izanami all existed and did what their various followers believe they did? The Earth would have been created time and again, by different deities, at different times, in different methods, and that’s just to start with. An even more difficult question is, if all gods are real, then which gods are real? If you must accept all religions, must you believe in the generally-discredited Greek and Roman pantheons? Must you believe in the Norse gods? Ra and Seth and Horus? Any cult leader who sets himself up as the second coming or the starchild or the messiah?
    Simply put, if all religions must be accepted as true, then no religion could be accepted as true.

  52. I’m no longer a Christian (born & raised Catholic; Pagan for almost 20 years now), so I can’t answer Garnet’s question as a monotheist, but I will say that I *do* believe that all deities that have had believers exist, in some fashion. Even the god of the O.T. and N.T. The thing is, I don’t feel like Yahweh is the right god for me, so I don’t worship him. But on those occasions when I’m in a Christian church, I am respectful to the presence I “feel”, because I believe gods deserve no less, even if they’re not my gods.
    I just don’t get the whole idea of thinking there is any One Absolutely Righteous Way To Truth. My way works for me, other people like Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or any of hundreds of different paths.
    And if none of them are “objectively true”, but they help people be good people, and make the world a better place because they’ve lived, that’s good enough for me.

  53. Dan, we already know that the Bible is contradicted by other documents (for example, the absence of any Roman records of a census). A quick look around the world will turn up plenty of other documents that, like the bible, were written after the event by believers in a religion, and, like the bible contain descriptions of magical and unlikely events. Should we start by assuming that all of these descriptions are accurate? The angel talking to Mohammed, and the angel showing the golden plates to Joseph Smith? The Bhagavad Gita from the Mahabharata, the Zoroastrian Avesta?
    To choose some more current examples, what about reports of alien abductions? Of ghosts and poltergeists? Of psychic powers and magical feats? Of spiritualists and mediums? Of homeopathy and energizing crystals? For any of these beliefs, you can find reports written by people who claim to have witnessed supporting events – reports that, in most cases, aren’t contradicted by other evidence.
    What historical plot holes are created if we believe the bible is wrong about the resurrection? Are there other documentary sources which don’t make sense without the resurrection? I don’t think so, the support all seems to be internal. The only problem seems to be – why would all these people believe something that isn’t true? But since you probably agree that millions of other people believe other things that aren’t true, this is not very strong argument.

  54. Dan, we already know that the Bible is contradicted by other documents (for example, the absence of any Roman records of a census). A quick look around the world will turn up plenty of other documents that, like the bible, were written after the event by believers in a religion, and, like the bible contain descriptions of magical and unlikely events. Should we start by assuming that all of these descriptions are accurate? The angel talking to Mohammed, and the angel showing the golden plates to Joseph Smith? The Bhagavad Gita from the Mahabharata, the Zoroastrian Avesta?
    To choose some more current examples, what about reports of alien abductions? Of ghosts and poltergeists? Of psychic powers and magical feats? Of spiritualists and mediums? Of homeopathy and energizing crystals? For any of these beliefs, you can find reports written by people who claim to have witnessed supporting events – reports that, in most cases, aren’t contradicted by other evidence.
    What historical plot holes are created if we believe the bible is wrong about the resurrection? Are there other documentary sources which don’t make sense without the resurrection? I don’t think so, the support all seems to be internal. The only problem seems to be – why would all these people believe something that isn’t true? But since you probably agree that millions of other people believe other things that aren’t true, this is not very strong argument.

  55. Christianity is really about a bunch of stuff that happened two thousand years ago. If it never happened, Christianity isn’t really about anything. That’s what I was trying to say before.
    Not really. The bible is about those things (whether they physically happened or not); christianity is about linking those events to the big picture… at least in theory. But for some christians, esp. fundamentalists,that big picture seems to conveniently ignore the long stretch of time that came BEFORE those events, and the various cultural traits that already existed and were adopted into christian beliefs. Things like the god’s sacrifice & resurrection, salvation, the god as parent (male or female), etc, long predate christian doctrine and/or existed in cultures worldwide independently of it.
    Those factors mean that christians SHOULD be perfectly comfortable with accepting other religions as valid, as “true,” b/c they all talk about the same thing, often using similar images. But fundies can’t do that because they have the pathological need to be special and even superior…

  56. Simply put, if all religions must be accepted as true, then no religion could be accepted as true.
    And thus you are one step closer to enlightenment, grasshopper.
    Just as no selection of music or literature could be said to be true in the sense that their artistic merits are provable absolutes, so no faith can be true in an empirical sense. It’s really a nonsensical idea to begin with.
    “What is the meaning of life?” is a sentence that’s grammatically sound, but that’s about it. As a starting-point for a discussion, it makes as much sense as “What color is F Sharp?” or “Can you bounce aromas off of happiness?”
    Organized religion is really an oxymoron. Faith is personal, non-empirical and only individually “true”. No two interpretations of even the most rigid of faiths will be identical. Thus, no two faiths – even once that profess to be exactly the same – are anything but personal interpretations of a more or less arbitrary series of symbols and rituals.
    Once you grasp that, there’s really no need for literalism of any kind, other than that which you choose for yourself.
    And then, all religions are equally true (though some may be more effective in producing certain results – that’s another issue),

  57. And thus you are one step closer to enlightenment, grasshopper
    And thus, you are not a monotheist. Which makes your answer, while interesting, rather pointless from the standpoint of exclusive monotheistic religions like the topic religion, Christianity.
    And I still maintain that, if all religions must be true, then no religions could be true, for the simple reason that there are such vast differences between so many of them. How do you reconcile, for example, the omnipotent creator-god of the Jews, Christians and Muslims with the cyclical pantheon of Hinduism? How can there both be and not be a hell, since some, but not all, religions believe in its existence? How can you be rewarded with eternal life in paradise at the same time as you’re being reborn according to your karma?
    As an agnostic you can fudge various bits and pieces of religions, to the point where you can find common ground and accept a unified concept of sprituality. As a Christian, or a Muslim, or a Jew, however, there are certain inviolable precepts that must be accepted, and you cannot ignore them while still being a member of that religion, in much the same way you cannot pray for deliverance and consider yourself an atheist.
    And as for the ‘arrogance’ of people believing theirs is the one true way… *shrugs* Isn’t it just as arrogant to declare that you know that a certain religion is -not- the correct one?

  58. Fred, I’m surprised your friend didn’t do the logical thing and conclude that the archaeologists were mistaken about the age of the ruins. After all, if somebody told you the bits of Jericho you saw were only 3,500 years old, would you be any the wiser, just by looking at the stones?

  59. How can there both be and not be a hell, since some, but not all, religions believe in its existence? How can you be rewarded with eternal life in paradise at the same time as you’re being reborn according to your karma?
    To build on the metaphor I employed in my previous post: How can both Black Flag and Emerson Lake and Palmer be the best band in the world?
    I’m not talking about empirical truth, because – let’s face it – it very quickly causes all sorts of problems for any literal reading of religion.
    What I mean is that if, for you, there is a hell of eternal damnation for those who don’t acknowledge your God, then there is…for you.
    In trying to quantify the ungraspable, to pin down the unknowable, you lose sight of what divinity is all about. I wouldn’t hesitate to call it a form of heresy, actually.
    And this desperate need for people to pin down their variety (and make no mistake: each one is unique, whatever kinship they may feel with others of the same professed faith) as The One Truth just smacks of desperation to me.

  60. Are you saying that, if you believe something, then that belief is true for you, and its the psychological effects of that belief that are important, rather than their correspondence to actual (but unknowable) events?
    Or are you saying that, when you die, if you believe in heaven and hell you’ll get sent to one or the other, if you believe in karma you’ll be reborn, etc, etc?

  61. How do you reconcile, for example, the omnipotent creator-god of the Jews, Christians and Muslims with the cyclical pantheon of Hinduism? How can there both be and not be a hell, since some, but not all, religions believe in its existence? How can you be rewarded with eternal life in paradise at the same time as you’re being reborn according to your karma?
    I’ll answer all those questions, but only after you tell me whether God can microwave a burrito so hot even He can’t eat it.
    But seriously, anyone speaking from inside the famework of christianity has no standing to criticise others for not explaining how something works. I don’t recall the bible detailing the manner in which Jesus rearranged mollecules of water into the various mollecules of wine, do you?
    How can the universe be both only several thousand and and at the same time billion of years old? How can hell both exist and not exist? What keeps Zeus from chucking lightning bolts at Ganesh? It’a a miracle.
    Next question.

  62. >Their argument is, if God doesn’t exist, then laws, social codes, and morals mean nothing, and therefore it’s perfectly okay to do whatever you want. This is how they feel me and my fellow atheists see the world, and are baffled as to how we can have any kind of morality if we don’t accept a divine being.
    Ah, but its not so much how they think atheists see the world, but how ‘they’ see it. Want proof – Every hear of a guy named Horsely? He is a big anti-gay marraige freak and fundimentalist. He also admitted on a radio show that his first sexual experience was with a mule and that quote, “If it is warm, wet and vibrates, its normal for ignorant young men to experiment.” Then there is the pedophile that showed up on a nudist forum, spent a month crying about swingers, public sex and the horrors of exposing children to what he was **sure** went on in such places, including pedophilia, before finally admitting in one of his posts that in fact he was one. Then there are people like Rush, who scream about drug abusers, but become one. Anti-gays that have gay kids. Televangelists that ‘still’ have congregations, in spite of years screaming about adultery, etc., who get caught with prostitutes (and probably still hire them, if with more discression having been caught at it). My own feeling is that, other than those merely raised as such, the vast majority of converts to fundimentalism are people who, lacking a literal and inflexible version of faith to beat themselves with, would be arrested five minutes after they gave up on it for any or even all of the things they are afraid the rest of us supposed moral relativists are already doing behind their backs.
    Of course, I have also said on several occations that contrary to the idea that everyone else is a moral relativist, especially atheists, the first commandment they always break is bearing false witness, then follow with nearly everything else. If someone came up with a Biblical passage or priestly declairation that adultery could cure gays, they would offer themselves and their wives up at the drop of a hat to ‘cure’ all the poor gay people, then claim it didn’t count, since it was perscribed by the Bible in that instance to combat something worse. As near as I can tell, its the ‘only’ commandment they don’t find an excuse to break, while claiming the rest of us are the immoral ones. lol

  63. Hi again, Ray. I can see that my program has not penetrated, where you say “we already know that the Bible is contradicted by other documents (for example, the absence of any Roman records of a census). … plenty of other documents… like the bible, were written after the event by believers in a religion, and, like the bible contain descriptions of magical and unlikely events. Should we start by assuming that all of these descriptions are accurate?”
    Let’s pretend for a moment that the Bible doesn’t exist as a unit, because that’s how it actually was for (probably hundreds of) years. Like I said, let’s try to look at the Bible as if no one has a stake in proving that it makes no factual errors of any kind. Let me repeat that these documents have no magical powers and we should not begin by assuming they are true. We have to judge their truth on a case-by-case basis, just like every other judgment we make.
    To that end, for the sake of argument, let’s live in a world where the birth narratives may just be folk tales collected by the redactors of Matthew and Luke. But I will say I am puzzled that the first thing that jumped out at you from your reading of the four gospels as just documents is an insignificant, dubious detail rather than the main characters and plot line. The gospel of Mark, the earliest one, contains no birth narrative, but does have six chapters on the week from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the empty tomb. John has nine chapters on it. (I’m not saying this all to provoke you, I’m trying to work within the thought experiment.)
    “Are there other documentary sources which don’t make sense without the resurrection? I don’t think so, the support all seems to be internal.” I think this is a misleading way to talk about these New Testament documents. What I have been saying is that these documentary sources don’t make sense without the resurrection; we are not, on the other hand. trying to build an unassailable premise “the Gospel according to Luke is true” from extrabiblical evidence and then deducing that his account of the resurrection is true. That would be a circular argument and the long way around.
    When you say that a question raised by these documents is “why would all these people believe something that isn’t true”, I actually think that this is an important line of inquiry. Saying that millions of other people have been deceived is no evidence that “these people”, the people who wrote the New Testament documents believe something that’s untrue, just that we should keep our eyes open as we explore their stories.

  64. Hi again, Ray. I can see that my program has not penetrated, where you say “we already know that the Bible is contradicted by other documents (for example, the absence of any Roman records of a census). … plenty of other documents… like the bible, were written after the event by believers in a religion, and, like the bible contain descriptions of magical and unlikely events. Should we start by assuming that all of these descriptions are accurate?”
    Let’s pretend for a moment that the Bible doesn’t exist as a unit, because that’s how it actually was for (probably hundreds of) years. Like I said, let’s try to look at the Bible as if no one has a stake in proving that it makes no factual errors of any kind. Let me repeat that these documents have no magical powers and we should not begin by assuming they are true. We have to judge their truth on a case-by-case basis, just like every other judgment we make.
    To that end, for the sake of argument, let’s live in a world where the birth narratives may just be folk tales collected by the redactors of Matthew and Luke. But I will say I am puzzled that the first thing that jumped out at you from your reading of the four gospels as just documents is an insignificant, dubious detail rather than the main characters and plot line. The gospel of Mark, the earliest one, contains no birth narrative, but does have six chapters on the week from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to the empty tomb. John has nine chapters on it. (I’m not saying this all to provoke you, I’m trying to work within the thought experiment.)
    “Are there other documentary sources which don’t make sense without the resurrection? I don’t think so, the support all seems to be internal.” I think this is a misleading way to talk about these New Testament documents. What I have been saying is that these documentary sources don’t make sense without the resurrection; we are not, on the other hand. trying to build an unassailable premise “the Gospel according to Luke is true” from extrabiblical evidence and then deducing that his account of the resurrection is true. That would be a circular argument and the long way around.
    When you say that a question raised by these documents is “why would all these people believe something that isn’t true”, I actually think that this is an important line of inquiry. Saying that millions of other people have been deceived is no evidence that “these people”, the people who wrote the New Testament documents believe something that’s untrue, just that we should keep our eyes open as we explore their stories.

  65. And this desperate need for people to pin down their variety (and make no mistake: each one is unique, whatever kinship they may feel with others of the same professed faith) as The One Truth just smacks of desperation to me.
    Frankly, aside from the extreme fundamentalists, who don’t just believe their religion is the ‘right’ one but demand everyone else believe it too, I find that the ridiculous comments about people having to accept all religions smack of desperation, a certain fear that maybe, just maybe, one of those religions actually is right, and it’s not yours (used in the general sense, not referring to the poster in particular).
    If it is arrogant to believe that your religion is correct, why is it not equally arrogant to believe that someone else’s is incorrect? Why do polytheists and pagans and agnostics on this board feel qualified to state that all religions must be true, and that only silly, small-minded people would believe something as foolish as the fact that their beliefs are true?
    But seriously, anyone speaking from inside the famework of christianity has no standing to criticise others for not explaining how something works.
    I’m not speaking from inside the framework of Christianity; I’m speaking as a person who respects the rights of others, particularly exclusive monotheists, to have their own beliefs, respect that several other posters on this board don’t seem to share, strangely. Why, I wonder, is it so important to some people that other people don’t share their views?

  66. One of the views seems to be the relative importance of convincing people of your own view.
    Let the recursion begin.

  67. Dan, the reason I picked up on the Nazareth/census thing is that it was the first element of the story I could think of that could be checked against other sources. I agree it is a minor thing, but are any other elements corroborated?
    The central element of the gospels is the death and resurrection, agreed, so in that sense they don’t ‘make sense’ if the resurrection didn’t happen. Why should we presume that they ‘make sense’ in that way? They would not be the first documents to describe something that didn’t happen, or the last. The only reason I can see for assuming the gospels are accurate is, “people believed it, therefore its probably true”. But given that we agree that not all things people believe are true, we shouldn’t start by assuming that this belief is true either, right?
    So, what do we have? There’s this story, about someone who dies and comes back to life. We know some people believe it, but we know that people believe some funny things. There isn’t a wealth of documentation from the period, but what there is doesn’t support any of the supernatural elements of the story. Why believe this story is, essentially, true? Why believe this story is true, but disbelieve, or reserve judgement on, the story about an angel revealing golden plates to Joe Smith?

  68. I’m not speaking from inside the framework of Christianity;…
    I didn’t assume you were, but the parent post was written about fundamentalist Christianity, and I was sort of continuing in that vein. Really though, it works for anyone who believes in miracles that sweep aside the most adamantine laws of physics like so much hot air. If you swallow that camel, you can’t choke on the gnat of logical paradox. To do that would be to reduce the almighty to one of those cheesy scifi robots whose heads explode when you tell them eveything you say is a lie.
    Why, I wonder, is it so important to some people that other people don’t share their views?
    Beats me. I count myself lucky if I can get three other people to agree with me about what should go on a pizza.

  69. Frankly, aside from the extreme fundamentalists, who don’t just believe their religion is the ‘right’ one but demand everyone else believe it too, I find that the ridiculous comments about people having to accept all religions smack of desperation, a certain fear that maybe, just maybe, one of those religions actually is right, and it’s not yours (used in the general sense, not referring to the poster in particular).
    Nah, just a desperate desire to get them to quit beating us over the head with their Bibles.
    I’d rather have a vacuum cleaner salesman knock on my door than a representative from the latest “Save the Souls” campaign. The vacuum cleaner salesman can eventually be convinced that ‘No’ really does mean ‘No’.

  70. the psychological effects of that belief that are important, rather than their correspondence to actual (but unknowable) events?
    That’s the one. I know there’s tremendous power in faith, but it’s all too rare to find Faith without her wicked stepsister Dogma.

  71. OG: Not if he’s a good salesman.
    Better: The vacuum cleaner salesman only wants a few hundred dollars, but then he doesn’t come back.

  72. About this idea that there was no census…..
    While it is true that there was no record of any census taken at the exact time of Jesus’ supposed birth, there are in fact records of a census taken in AD 6, which would indeed have been under the governorship of Quirinius (see Luke 2:2). This census is also mentioned in the writings of Josephus, a secular historian of the late first century.
    On one hand, one can argue that this “proves” the lack of historical reliability of the Bible. (I use quotes, because someone can always say that a census occured that we have no record of. But I think this is unlikely.) On the other hand, many Christians, such as some of us on this board, are happy to say that the writer of the gospel of Luke, who was eager to set the birth narrative in an historical context, simply got his figures wrong.
    Incidentally, much has been made (elsewhere, if not here) of the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives. I would submit that the fact that both have a birth narrative at all gives the independent thinker occasion to wonder why such a narrative was included. It was not (is not, in my opinion) essential to the Christian faith, evidenced by the fact that Mark and John give no evidence of such a birth narrative at all. Yet these two writers not only wanted to include it, but agreed on some major points (the Virgin birth, for example: Matthew going so far to make his point that he quotes a passage of Isaiah that had never held the meaning of “virgin” in its original context.) while differing in many other details.
    All of this is to say that, if one expects the Bible to give historical accuracy, there will be problems. However, the texts, taken for what they are: human attempts to relate experiences with something divine, complete with the occasional human error, I see no reason why they should be summarily rejected.

  73. The census is a minor point, but let’s chase it for a minute – the reason the census is mentioned is that it explains why a family from Nazareth would be in Bethlehem at the time. It has a real effect on the narrative – the whole ‘born in a manger’ thing wouldn’t happen if Joseph and Mary had been at home. So if there wasn’t a census, what were they doing there? Were they there at all? A census ten years later doesn’t explain anything.
    Why is it significant that two of the four gospels, written decades later, should contain roughly similar stories? Is it not equally significant that two of the gospels don’t mention the birth narrative? Are the completely different genealogies not also significant? I don’t know what your point is here.
    I’m not summarily rejecting them. But if I’m to believe that the gospels really tell the story of someone dying and coming back to life (actually two people dying and coming back to life), I’ll need something more than an open mind, I’ll need some positive evidence.

  74. BTW, the lack of proof of a Roman census is not at all minor. It would be an enormous event, so for it to have happened and not be mentioned anywhere but NT sources is unlikely in the extreme. Without the census, Jesus was born in Nazareth, and is not the Messiah of prophecy.
    Quite major, if you ask me.

  75. BTW, the lack of proof of a Roman census is not at all minor. It would be an enormous event, so for it to have happened and not be mentioned anywhere but NT sources is unlikely in the extreme. Without the census, Jesus was born in Nazareth, and is not the Messiah of prophecy.
    Quite major, if you ask me.

  76. cjmr’s husband: Then I’ve yet to encounter a “good salesman”. The ones I’ve met all seem to understand that they are one phone call away from an arrest for trespassing. :)
    Probably my most disturbing encounter with religious overtones was the 6 or 7 year old girl who came up to me in a parking lot and politely begged for money so her mommy and daddy could be missionaries. I found her parents easily, sitting in a nearby van and watching closely, but I still wonder if I should have gone back into the store and called the police. Given where I live, I would probably have just gotten a lecture from the cops, but I still wonder.

  77. Ray,
    Although I wonder if I should even bother to continue this dialogue, as obviously neither I nor anyone else will ever provide “positive evidence” of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you do raise some valid points to address.
    As to the context of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, Matthew doesn’t use a census, but rather suggests that they were already IN Bethlehem, and left town to escape Herod’s persecution, after which they moved to Nazareth. It’s worth noting that Herod’s killing of all young male children is not attributed in extra-Biblical literature (unlike the census, which I should emphasize DOES have an historical refferent, as noted in my earlier post. I point this out only because John E Thelin seems to have missed it.), but is in keeping with the character of Herod as recorded in such extra-Biblical sources. These tell us, among other things, that Herod killed three of his own sons rather than see them grow into threats to his power.
    This leads to your question about whether the lack of the mention of the birth narrative is significant. I’ve already suggested that the lack of such narratives in Mark and John tells us that belief in the supernatural birth of Jesus was not considered an essential article of faith at the time of the writing of the Gospels.
    The different geneologies are also significant. While some Christians try to explain this as saying that one was Joseph’s family, and the other was Mary’s, I see no reason for assuming this. In fact, the texts themselves do not in any way suggest it. Rather, the connection to King David is the important connection here. But again, this was not considered “essential,” or we might have FOUR competing geneologies, one in each gospel. These descrepancies are “significant,” if only because they tell us that we shouldn’t hold as tightly to certain truths as many Christians claim to. However, the differences do not seem to be a reason for rejecting the faith if taken as mistakes made by human scribes writing a document to tell of their religious experiences. The similarities are MORE significant, given such human origins. Especially if we note that, as you suggested, these were written DECADES later (but within the lifetimes of people who would have had firsthand experience of many of the events. Not likely, I grant, the birth narrative, though. That pretty much HAD to be through second-hand sources at the very least.). Our fair superior news agencies have trouble detailing a lot of the events that happened on November 22, 1963 with any real agreement, just to use a quick example.
    What all this tells us is up for debate, but if we can’t agree on the exact timeline (Herod died in 4 AD, two years before the census that is attested), the idea that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem (which I should note, was not understood by first century Jews to be a requirement of being the Messiah, irrespective of the ways that later first century Christians used Hebrew Scriptures to suggest that it had been prophecied all along) to a family that consisted of a mother Mary and a father (so it was assumed) Joseph. Even the Virgin Birth wasn’t considered a requirement of “Messiah-hood” by Jews of the time (again, irrespective of the way in which later Christians used Hebrew texts to say “Look! See! This was how it was supposed to be!”), yet both birth narratives agree on this.
    One further note on sources: It has been noted that “only NT sources” say certain things, as opposed to some secular authority (such as Josephus). It should be remembered that the NT sources did not become “Scripture” until years (often hundreds of years) later. They should be taken just as seriously (or non-seriously?) as any other document of that same period. This certainly means that we should attempt to discern what purpose each document was written for (some had more desire to chronicle events in an analogous fashion to “history” than others), of course.

  78. Ray,
    Although I wonder if I should even bother to continue this dialogue, as obviously neither I nor anyone else will ever provide “positive evidence” of Jesus’ death and resurrection, you do raise some valid points to address.
    As to the context of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, Matthew doesn’t use a census, but rather suggests that they were already IN Bethlehem, and left town to escape Herod’s persecution, after which they moved to Nazareth. It’s worth noting that Herod’s killing of all young male children is not attributed in extra-Biblical literature (unlike the census, which I should emphasize DOES have an historical refferent, as noted in my earlier post. I point this out only because John E Thelin seems to have missed it.), but is in keeping with the character of Herod as recorded in such extra-Biblical sources. These tell us, among other things, that Herod killed three of his own sons rather than see them grow into threats to his power.
    This leads to your question about whether the lack of the mention of the birth narrative is significant. I’ve already suggested that the lack of such narratives in Mark and John tells us that belief in the supernatural birth of Jesus was not considered an essential article of faith at the time of the writing of the Gospels.
    The different geneologies are also significant. While some Christians try to explain this as saying that one was Joseph’s family, and the other was Mary’s, I see no reason for assuming this. In fact, the texts themselves do not in any way suggest it. Rather, the connection to King David is the important connection here. But again, this was not considered “essential,” or we might have FOUR competing geneologies, one in each gospel. These descrepancies are “significant,” if only because they tell us that we shouldn’t hold as tightly to certain truths as many Christians claim to. However, the differences do not seem to be a reason for rejecting the faith if taken as mistakes made by human scribes writing a document to tell of their religious experiences. The similarities are MORE significant, given such human origins. Especially if we note that, as you suggested, these were written DECADES later (but within the lifetimes of people who would have had firsthand experience of many of the events. Not likely, I grant, the birth narrative, though. That pretty much HAD to be through second-hand sources at the very least.). Our fair superior news agencies have trouble detailing a lot of the events that happened on November 22, 1963 with any real agreement, just to use a quick example.
    What all this tells us is up for debate, but if we can’t agree on the exact timeline (Herod died in 4 AD, two years before the census that is attested), the idea that Jesus was indeed born in Bethlehem (which I should note, was not understood by first century Jews to be a requirement of being the Messiah, irrespective of the ways that later first century Christians used Hebrew Scriptures to suggest that it had been prophecied all along) to a family that consisted of a mother Mary and a father (so it was assumed) Joseph. Even the Virgin Birth wasn’t considered a requirement of “Messiah-hood” by Jews of the time (again, irrespective of the way in which later Christians used Hebrew texts to say “Look! See! This was how it was supposed to be!”), yet both birth narratives agree on this.
    One further note on sources: It has been noted that “only NT sources” say certain things, as opposed to some secular authority (such as Josephus). It should be remembered that the NT sources did not become “Scripture” until years (often hundreds of years) later. They should be taken just as seriously (or non-seriously?) as any other document of that same period. This certainly means that we should attempt to discern what purpose each document was written for (some had more desire to chronicle events in an analogous fashion to “history” than others), of course.

  79. Hmm. There is one theory that can explain the contradictions of say the resurrection. All three versions contain mention of angels and completely different people all being the ‘first’ to find the tomb empty. Atwill suggests in “Caesar’s Messiah”, that the whole Gospels are a satirical work taking the conquests of the emporer Titus against the Jews and rewritting it as a story about a ‘prophet’ bringing them salvation. Intended to be read in combination with the history of those battles, the three versions are also intended to be read as three parts of a single ‘scene’ with each group mistaking all the others that showed up as angels. The whole point of the parallel stories in the NT and Titus war was to convince as many gullible people, who where ignorant of the events in the war, to turn from their God to worshipping Titus in his guise as the new Messiah.
    But then that is a fairly new interpretation of the evidence. As someone that didn’t believe all of it in the first place, I can have a good laugh at the prospect. I suspect a lot of the people here won’t see the humor in it though, whether or not it turns out to be true.

  80. Atwill’s thesis strikes me as highly unlikely, given that there were many additional gospels floating around the early Church, and it wasn’t until the Council of Nicaea that Christianity adpoted the current set of texts as “canonical”.

  81. The Christian (Catholic) canon dates to somewhere in the mid-300s CE. It may or may not have been decided at the First Council of Nicaea.

  82. Whoops, got the Council wrong. In any case, the thesis clearly contradicts the known history Biblical development.

  83. ” as obviously neither I nor anyone else will ever provide “positive evidence” of Jesus’ death and resurrection”
    I wouldn’t have brought it up, to be honest, but for Dan saying “Christianity starts with a belief in the historical resurrection of Jesus”. Okay, I’ve argued that I can’t see how a personal experience of the divine can be tied down to a particular religion, but I’d have reckoned the belief in the resurrection has to come after the belief in god/christianity, or at last as part of the same deal. I can’t imagine someone starting with the belief in the resurrection, and going from there to the rest of christianity. Especially since Dan has ruled out mysticism. So, while I don’t usually expect people to be convinced either way in these discussions, Dan seems to be setting up a position where the things that he points to as evidence for his faith should be the kind of things that are, at least in principle, convincing to me.
    What you’re telling me seems to be 1) the timelines can’t be right – the census, Herod’s death, and the generally supposed date of birth don’t match at all, 2) the genealogies can’t all be right. One of them might be, but they might all have been made up to support that link to David, but 3) the place of birth and supposed parents are agreed on. Though they are agreed on in documents written decades after the fact, from second- and third-hand sources. But its not such a big problem, because the birth isn’t the important bit anyway. Okay, these are not reasons for me to throw the whole thing out immediately, but they are not reasons for me to start believing the wilder claims either, you see?
    And yes, outside sources really are necessary. Just as I don’t believe the story about Joseph Smith and the golden plates because our only sources are Mormon sources – no-one else saw the plates or the mysterious translating device, and they’ve conveniently disappeared since then – I don’t believe stories about people coming back to life when these stories only appear in documents written by the believers in that religion. It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, any more than the Mormons are wrong, but it means they’re not particularly credible witnesses* on this subject.
    *the writers probably weren’t witnesses at all, in fact.

  84. Just a real quickie:
    “2) the genealogies can’t all be right. One of them might be, but they might all have been made up to support that link to David”
    I don’t actually think either writer “made up” names to support their link. Rather, I think that their sources (at least one, if not both) were mistaken. Geneological research was not then what it is now. And even now, it’s easy to see how one bad link throws the whole thing off.
    In any event, I’m not really trying to give you “reasons to believe” what must seem to you to be “wild” claims. That would take more time than the format of this blog permits, even if such reasoning is possible. All I’m trying to do is keep everyone’s minds open while acknowledging that there ARE actual gaps and errors in our knowledge that are not easily overcome.

  85. Creationism

    Part the 3rd: this is the good one
    ….The most dangerous thing about fundamentalism is not that it sometimes teaches wacky ideas, like that the world is barely 6,000 years old or that dancing is sinful. The most dangerous thing is that it insists tha…

  86. The design IS intelligent.

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law…

  87. The design IS intelligent.

    There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law…

  88. Harsh words for Bishop Usher. I think, given what he believed, his way of estimating the Earth’s age was reasonable. He had no reason to think that any of the time intervals in the Old Testament were intended metaphorically.