This is an excerpt from my book, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey. A bit of background: Jim is a wealthy, housebound, and somewhat obnoxious atheist, and Paul is the young acolyte of a famous pastor, doing his best to evangelize. It’s 1906 in Los Angeles, and they’re in Jim’s study.
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“Let’s discuss the accuracy of the Bible.” Paul looked for approval from Jim, saw nothing, and continued. “Many say that the Bible contains the world’s greatest literature. It’s certainly the world’s most influential book—a book that has inspired mankind for thousands of years.”
“I won’t disagree.” Jim picked up what looked like a clumsily wrapped cigar laying on the sofa and put the soggy end in his mouth. It left a small dark stain on the seat cushion.
Paul wanted to continue but was distracted as the end of the thing bobbed up and down under Jim’s shaggy mustache while he chewed, making gentle crunching sounds. “Is that a cigar?” Paul asked finally.
“Cinnamomum zeylanicum—cinnamon bark,” Jim said, his words garbled as he spoke while holding the cinnamon stick with his lips. “It promotes sweating.”
Paul had never considered sweating worth promoting. He tried to ignore the noise, deliberately looking down at his note card to avoid the distraction. “So what I’m saying is that the Bible is very accurate. Researchers have found thousands of copies, enough to convince them that errors introduced from copy to copy have been insignificant. And old, too—less than 400 years after the New Testament originals.* In other words, today’s English translations started with a copy that differed minimally from the original text. Aside from the different language, we read almost the same words as were originally written two to three thousand years ago.”
Jim shook his head. “That’s a foolish argument.”
Paul’s jaw went slack.
“I can say the same of Homer’s Iliad,” Jim said. “It’s quite long and very old—older than much of the Old Testament. We have many old copies of the Iliad, and today’s version may also be a decent copy of the original. Using your logic, must we conclude that the Iliad is correct? Must we say that Achilles really was invulnerable, that Cassandra really could see the future, that Ajax really was trained by a centaur?”
“But that’s not a good comparison,” Paul said. “No one believes the Iliad. Biblical fact is quite different from Greek mythology.”
“Don’t change the subject. You introduced the question of the accuracy of manuscript copies. Does your logic help us judge the accuracy of ancient books or not?”
“I don’t think the Bible and the Iliad can be compared is all.”
Jim sighed. “To your point, no one believes the Iliad now, but they once did. Achilles, Hector, Helen, Aphrodite, the Trojan War—the Iliad tells much of the history of the Greeks just like the Bible is a history of the Jews. And, of course, many of the places and people in the Iliad actually existed. Archeologists have found Troy, for example.”
Jim held up a hand as Paul opened his mouth to speak. “Of course I see the difference. While the Iliad and the Bible were the histories of their people, only the Bible is believed today. Here’s my point. Let’s assume that the Bible and the Iliad are both faithful copies. That doesn’t make them true.”
Paul said, “It’s not just the Bible—other sources confirm Bible stories. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, for example, writes about Jesus.” He glanced at a note card in his hand. “Also, Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and other writers from that time.”
Jim jerked a hand as if dismissing a gnat, and his face showed an exasperated disgust. “I’ve read these sources, and they strengthen your case not a bit. They basically say, ‘There are people who follow a man named Jesus’ or ‘Jesus is said to have performed miracles.’ I already agree with that! I’d be interested if an eyewitness from the Jerusalem Times newspaper wrote a report the day after a miraculous event, but that didn’t happen. You’re left with four—not thousands, but four—written accounts that summarize the Jesus story after it had been passed around orally for decades, and they’re not even completely independent accounts. I need a lot more evidence than that.”
Paul thought for an instant how satisfying it would be to take their argument to the street, even though it would be an unfair fight. He rubbed his right fist against his left palm and strained the muscles of his upper body to drain away some rage. In five seconds he might remind this atheist of his manners. But he had to take the high ground and he pushed on, using a response that Samuel had given him. “Why do you need more evidence? You never saw George Washington, but you accept the historical account of his life. The Bible has the historical account of Jesus’s life—why not accept that?”
Again Jim shook his head. “We have articles from newspapers of Washington’s time published within days of events, and there are hundreds of accounts by people who met him. We even have Washington’s own journals and letters. By contrast, Jesus left no personal writings, we have just a few Gospels as sources of his life story, and those are accounts of unknown authorship handed down orally for decades before finally being written. They were even written from the perspective of a foreign culture—Jesus and his disciples would have spoken Aramaic, and the New Testament was written completely in Greek.”
“You’re overstating the problem. If you don’t like Washington, take Caesar Augustus—you accept the story of Caesar’s life even though he’s from the time period of Jesus.”
“How can you make this argument? Are you stupid?” Jim leapt to his feet. “The biographies of historical figures like Washington and Caesar make no supernatural claims!”
Paul opened his mouth to protest but retreated as Jim waved his arms as he stalked back and forth in front of the sofa like some hysterical prosecuting attorney.
“They were great men, but they were just men. Suppose you read that Washington was impervious to British bullets during the Revolutionary War or Caesar was born of a virgin—these claims were actually made, by the way. You would immediately dismiss them. Or what about Mormonism: Joseph Smith invented it just fifty miles from my hometown of Syracuse, shortly before I was born. We have far more information about the early days of his religion—letters, diaries, and even newspaper accounts, all in modern English—and yet I presume you dismiss Smith as a crackpot or a charlatan. In the case of Jesus, the most extravagant supernatural claims are made—why not dismiss those stories as well? The Bible has tales you wouldn’t believe if you read them in today’s newspaper, and yet you see them as truthful ancient journalism.”
Paul struggled to keep his hand steady as he glanced at his note card. He had no response but was not about to admit it. He decided to try a new line of attack and took a deep breath. “Okay, answer this one. The Bible has stories of fulfilled prophecy. Early books documented the prophecy, and later books record that prophecy coming true. There are hundreds about Jesus’s life alone. For example, the book of Isaiah details facts about the Messiah’s life, and then the New Testament records the fulfillment of that prophecy.”
“Okay, let’s look at Isaiah 53.”
Jim walked to his bookshelf and pulled off a large leather-bound Bible.
Paul turned to his own copy. “Isaiah says, ‘He is despised and rejected of men’—Jesus should have been the king, but He was rejected by his own people. ‘He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth’—He could have proven that He was God with a word, but He chose to keep silent. ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities’—this describes the beatings He endured before crucifixion. ‘With His stripes we are healed’ and ‘He bore the sin of many’—Jesus was whipped and took the burden of our sins when He died. All this was written hundreds of years before the crucifixion.”
“Unconvincing,” Jim said. “‘He is despised’ doesn’t sound like the charismatic rabbi who preached to thousands of attentive listeners and had a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. And I notice that you’ve ignored the part of this chapter that was inconvenient to your hypothesis: in the same chapter, God says, ‘Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.’ Jesus is counted as merely one of the great ones and must share with them? That’s quite an insult to the son of God. And who are these equals? Most important, note that there’s no mention of the resurrection here. How can this be a Jesus crucifixion story without the punch line? This chapter is actually a very poor description of the crucifixion because the ‘he’ in this chapter is not Jesus but Israel.”
“But the Gospels themselves refer back to this chapter as prophecy of Jesus.”
“I don’t give a damn—this chapter isn’t about Jesus.”
Paul felt blindsided, as if he were lying on the ground, wondering where the haymaker came from. Samuel hadn’t told him about this rebuttal. Paul said, “Well, what about Psalm 22? It describes the crucifixion experience and has Jesus’s last words, exactly. It even describes the guards casting lots for his clothes. And this was written centuries before Jesus’s day.”
“Come now, think about it! The writers of the Gospels were literate, and they would have read all of the Law—what we call the Old Testament. They could have sifted through it to find plausible prophecies before they wrote the Gospels. Don’t you see? It’s as if they looked at the answers before taking a test.”
Paul leaned forward. “You’re saying that they cheated? That they deliberately invented the Gospel stories to fit the prophecy?”
“Think of the incredible boldness of the Bible’s claims,” Jim said, “that Jesus was a supernatural being sent by an omnipotent and omnipresent God who created the universe. That’s about as unbelievable a story as you can imagine. Deliberate cheating to invent this story—that is, a natural explanation of the Gospels—is much more plausible than that the story is literally true—which is a supernatural explanation. But here’s an explanation that’s more plausible still: suppose Jesus was nothing more than a charismatic rabbi. The original facts of Jesus’s life were then told and retold as they went from person to person, each time getting a little more fantastic. Details might have been gradually changed until they matched a particular prophecy. If people assumed that Jesus was the Messiah, he had to fulfill the prophecies, right? The Gospels were passed along orally for decades after Jesus’s death before they were written down, gradually translated into the Greek culture on the way. No need to imagine the deliberate invention of a false story.”
“But there was no oral tradition. The Gospels were written by eyewitnesses.”
“Ask any minister!” Paul said with a chuckle that probably betrayed his unease. “It’s common knowledge. Matthew was an apostle, he was an eyewitness, and he wrote the book of Matthew. And so on for the other Gospel authors—all apostles or companions of apostles.”
“The names of the Gospel books were assigned long after they were written. No one knows who wrote them—each Gospel is anonymous, and the names are simply tradition. No Gospel begins, ‘This is an account of events that I witnessed myself.’ Even if they did, should that convince me? You take any fanciful account, put ‘I saw this myself’ at the beginning, and it becomes true? A natural explanation—that the Jesus story is just a legend—is far, far likelier than the supernatural explanation.”
Jim had been noisily worrying his cinnamon stick but now set it back on the sofa. “Besides, we have lots of examples of similar things in other religions—holy books that are really just myth. For example, we can probably agree that the Koran, Islam’s holy book, is mythology. Muhammad wasn’t really visited by the angel Gabriel and given wisdom from God. Did Muhammad invent it? Did a desire for power push him to create a new religion, with him as its leader? Through extreme fasting, did he have delusions that he interpreted as revelations from God? Any of these natural explanations and many more are much more likely than the Koran being literally true. Or Gilgamesh or Beowulf or the Hindu Vedas or the Book of Mormon. They all have supernatural elements and they are all mythology. How can you and I agree that these are mythology and that mankind throughout history has invented religion and myth, but you say that the Bible is the single exception? When you cast a net that brings up Christianity, it brings up a lot of other religions as well.”
“You can’t lump the Bible in with those books. It’s in a completely different category.”
“Prove it,” Jim repeated, and he slammed his Bible onto the table.
“Why should I have to prove it?”
“Because you’re the one making the remarkable claims.”
“Remarkable?” Paul paused, his mouth open, as he collected his thoughts. “How can you say that? You’re in the minority and you reject the majority view. Christianity is the most widespread religion the world has ever seen. Almost everyone in this country is thoroughly familiar with Christianity. They wouldn’t think the claims are remarkable.”
Jim smiled. “I wouldn’t make that majority claim too loudly. Within your own religious community, your views are in the majority, but your flavor of Christianity isn’t even in the majority right here in Los Angeles. Even when you lump together all the denominations of Christianity worldwide, the majority of people on the Earth still think you’re wrong.
“It’s true that the tenets of Christianity are widely familiar, but that doesn’t make them any less remarkable. A God who can do anything, who has been around forever, and who created the universe? Take a step back and see this as an outsider might. You’ve made perhaps the boldest claim imaginable. No one should be asked to believe it without evidence, and very strong evidence at that.”
Jim picked up his cinnamon stick and waved it as he spoke. “Suppose someone claims to have seen a leprechaun or a dragon or a unicorn. Next, this person says that, because no one can prove him wrong, his beliefs are therefore correct. And since they’re correct, everyone should adopt them. This is nonsense of course. He is making the bold claim, so he must provide the evidence. In other words, we are justified—no, we are obliged—to reject extraordinary claims until the extraordinary evidence has been provided.”
“I have provided evidence!” Paul said.
Jim leaned back on the sofa and looked at Paul, for the first time at a loss for a quick retort. “Son, this is what I expected from you,” he said quietly, almost gently. “But this evidence barely merits the name. What you’ve provided is a flimsy argument that might satisfy someone who wants to support beliefs that he’s already decided are correct. But don’t expect this to convince anyone else.”
Paul sat back in his chair as if hit in the stomach. He had been preparing for a debate like this with increasing intensity for two years, and he thought that he deserved more. He didn’t expect accolades for his cleverness . . . but something? He tried to salvage the discussion and glanced at his note card, almost used up. His voice felt shrill and unreliable as he began. “But you must adjust your demands given how long ago this was. You can’t ask for photographs and diaries when the events happened close to two thousand years ago. It’s not fair.”
“Not fair? Suppose you come to me and ask to buy my house. I say that it’s worth three thousand dollars. You say, ‘I’ll give you five dollars for it.’ I say, ‘No—that’s ridiculous. I must reject your offer.’ And then you say, ‘But that’s not fair—five dollars is all I have.’”
Jim leaned forward, staring at Paul and with his arms outstretched. “That would be absurd. But it’s equivalent to the argument ‘since proving the fantastic claims of the New Testament is quite hard, you’ll have to accept whatever evidence we have.’ No, I don’t! I won’t accept five dollars for my house, I won’t accept pathetic evidence for leprechauns, and I won’t accept it for God.”
Jim paused and then said, “And while we’re at it, neither should you.”
I am the punishment of God….
If you had not committed great sins,
God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.
— Genghis Khan
*Older copies have been found since 1906.
Photo credit: Sheba_Also
- This series explores the reliability of our biblical manuscripts: What Did the Original Books of the Bible Say?
The accuracy of historical reports of people such as George Washington and Caesar Augustus isn’t all that important. No one is making life decisions based on what they believe about those people. No one is doing a crusade or jihad or inquisition or witch hunt based on the teachings of those people. No one is passing laws restricting the rights of others based on what those people might or might not thought proper.
Quite a difference from belief in religious figures.
I’m wrestling with a post on Lessing’s “ugly great ditch,” which touches on this point. The basic idea is just as you say–that the magnitude of the claim determines the necessary weight of evidence.
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