We are pleased to share this video from our recent presentation to the Fellowship of Freethought in Dallas, Texas. Special thanks to our good friend Zachary Moore for filming, editing, and uploading this presentation! Thank you for watching, and we invite any and all feedback! Cheers!
When Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote his 39th Festal Letter in the year 367CE, this marked the first early Christian Church leader to write down in any formal way exactly which documents should be included in the New Testament that we now recognize. He was not the first person to propose the idea that there should be a canon, but he was the first one to name all of the ones (books) that we now recognize.
The NT contains four types of documents:
1. Gospel – this is a narrative of the life of Jesus, and the canon has four of them.
2. Acts – think of this as a history of the early church. In the case of the Acts we have in the canon, it records the handoff of the leadership of the Christian church from Peter to Paul, and then tries to provide an account for Paul’s missionary work.
3. Epistles – these are nothing more than letters written by one Christian and sent to another Christian or group of Christians. In the NT, the first 13 epistles are purportedly written by Paul although only seven of them are generally regarded as authentic. The rest of the epistles are written by other early christians, and scholars debate the identity of the authors.
4. Revelation – this is a prophecy. The last book in the NT is called Revelation, but scholars refer to it as the Revelation of John in order to distinguish it from other Revelations that are not included in the canon.
[Note: some folks might consider Hebrews to be a Sermon rather than an Epistle]
There is something fascinating that people who have not looked into the academic work surrounding the NT may not know, and that is that the 27 documents we have are *not* the only 27 documents written by early christians. There are in fact dozens and dozens of others that were written by christians but were never widely accepted as authoritative. We have other gospels, we have other acts, we have other epistles, we even have other revelations…but those texts are not considered reliable or inspired. Contemplate that for a moment. Why would Bishop Athanasius pick the four gospels that we recognize today, but exclude all of the others? The answer is because he likely favored the message and teaching of the four he chose. Because they represented the version of Christianity he thought was most correct. But how would he know they were genuinely authentic? How could he know? The key takeaway here is that we know for a fact that early christians were making up stories about Jesus, and since we know that’s true (and we know that Athanasius knew it was true) then how do we really know that what we see in the canonical gospel narratives is reliable?
In an earlier blog post I talked about the idea of eyewitnesses and explained how there really isn’t any intellectually defensible way to conclude that any of the four canonical gospels could possibly have been written by an eyewitness, so we can dispense with that. This leads us to the need to consider the texts more carefully.
There is very broad agreement that of the four gospels we have in the canon that Mark was written first, sometime around the year 70. Simply by reading the texts we can see clearly that Matthew and Luke drew heavily on Mark’s account to such a great degree that nearly half of Matthew and nearly half of Luke are *word-for-word* copies of Mark. Because the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are all based on a single source (Mark) we can only really consider this to be one narrative. That leaves us with John, which was written much later, and which shows a clear pattern of the myth of Jesus growing over time. Because John comes so much later, and because it shows a much more advanced christology, I think we can safely conclude that it is a a theological source rather than a historical one.
So when we boil all of that down, here’s what we find. The earliest record of anything about Jesus’s life comes from Mark, and we’re left with no way to reliably determine whether Mark made any of it up. If we look at all of the non-canonical gospels, we have to admit that early Christians were definitely making stuff up, which can only leave us with a question mark, for Mark (that was a cute pun, did you see what I did there?). For us to think that we know anything at all about a historical Jesus forces us to admit such a heavy reliance on Mark that if he did make anything up then we may have no real facts about Jesus’s life and teachings at all.
One of the common arguments that we hear in favor of the existence of a deity is that it is the best explanation for the human capacity to recognize the difference between good and evil. A corollary of this argument is that without the existence of a deity there can be no objective determination of good and evil or right and wrong (going forward I will refer to these together as the “argument from morality”). So the conclusion is that a deity must exist. What do we make of this? Well, its really a bad argument, and if we unpack it a bit I think we can expose some of it’s flaws.
1. Let’s say that there is such a thing as a deity, and that deity has determined on his (her/it’s) own what was good and what was bad. If this is the case, then if we take the question up one level, we find that morality outside of the deity would still have no objective basis. Morality in this construct would be nothing more than the whim of a deity, which is certainly not objective.
2. This brings us to the alternative of the case I was just discussing above. If we consider the concepts of good and evil as transcendent from a deity, where good and evil are independent of that deity’s will or desire, then we find the logical contradiction that the deity has limits on what he (she/it) can control. This would really be a contradiction of what it would mean to be a deity. We would be forced to redefine what it would mean to be omnipotent if we relied on this construct.
When we consider points 1 and 2 in combination we find a paradox that lacks any reasonable escape. This seems to be pretty sound reasoning that defeats any argument from morality, but there are some other things that we can explore while we’re thinking about it.
Christians love to tell us that their deity is merciful and loving. We’re told in John 3:16 just how much love the god of the Bible had for the world in sending down his son to die for all of us. We’re told that the moral example set by Jesus is another strong argument in favor of Jesus’s divinity and in favor of the truth of the Christian message. What do we think of that? To frame the question directly, what do we really find when we evaluate the behavior of the Christian deity as depicted in the Bible? What does the Bible tell us to look for when love is present? I find the Apostle Paul’s description of love to be one of the most beautiful pieces of prose on the subject of love that I’ve ever come across, so I’ll quote from 1 Cor 13:4-7 (NLT translation because I thinks it’s rendered most poetically):
“4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.”
3. This bring me to my third point. Let’s play a game. Let’s do a simple substitution of the name Yahweh in place of the word love in this passage, and let’s ask ourselves if the statements are true when we restate each sentence that way.
Yahweh is patient and kind. Is this true? No, Yahweh is quick to anger, he hardens many hearts throughout the entire bible, and orders the deaths of many people or just kills them himself outright.
Yahweh is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Do we find that to actually be true? No, we don’t. Yahweh says explicitly that he’s a jealous god. At one point in the Old Testament he even says his name is jealous (Exodus 34). He is the great I Am, and he’s certainly proud of it.
Yahweh does not demand his own way. Is that a true statement? No its not. And he has a lake of fire to prove it. He explicitly commands the Israelites right there in the very first commandment to have no other gods before him.
Yahweh is not irritatable, and keeps no record of being wronged. Is this a true statement? No, quite the opposite. Yahweh is continuously angry with the Israelites for rejecting him, and our names are all being taken down in the book of life.
Yahweh does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Is this a true statement? I guess it would have to depend on whether you think it was just to drown an entire world in a temper tantrum. I’ll vote no on this one but your mileage may vary.
Yahweh never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. Can we say this is true? Definitely not. A deity that never loses faith would not drown every living thing on the planet save for a boat full of people and animals.
So when we look at the question of good behavior and we try to evaluate Yahweh using the lens that Paul gives us in his letter to the church in Corinth, what do we find? We find that Yahweh exhibits the very opposite of what we are told to expect from good and loving behavior. Christians always object to a human passing judgment on Yahweh, but hypocrisy is wherever you find it. As a side note before I move on, it’s a fascinating observation that one of the very early schools of Christian thought, as postulated by Marcion of Sinope, was that the deity referred to in the Old Testament was actually a different deity than the father of Jesus. This tells us that as early as the first half of the second century, some Christians had already noticed the contradiction between the vindictive tyrant of the Old Testament and the loving deity depicted in the gospel narratives, and were trying to adapt their theology to account for it. But there is an even better explanation: the stories in the Old Testament are made up and that Yahweh doesn’t actually exist. In any case, at this point the argument from morality has a number of flaws. But wait…there’s more.
4. The argument from morality assumes that no naturalistic mechanism could explain why humans do in fact seem to have a conscience. If our sense of right and wrong didn’t get put into us by a deity then where could it have come from? The answer is that the human conscience evolved over millions of years as a consequence of natural selection. The ability of an early human or proto-human to be able to see and recognize suffering in others and to be able to take steps to reduce that suffering where possible would have conferred a survival advantage on that population. This makes perfect sense. In fact, when we look at other primates we see some forms of group altruism in action. Since there is a plausible explanation for how the human conscience came to be I find the appeals to a deity to be unnecessary.
5. The last argument I will make here is that there is no reason why right and wrong or good and evil have to be transcendent. The use of the adjective “objective” to described morality is not really meaningful at all. The fact is that our standards of behavior are mutually agreed to in a social context, have continued to be refined over time, and will continue to be. Steven Pinker has written much on the subject in his excellent book “The Better Angels of our Nature” and I can’t say it any better than he could, so please consider my recommendation to read that for yourself if you haven’t already. The arguments that theists make that without a deity morality is nothing other than what we’ve all agreed to is just nonsense, and ignores the fact that we are motivated by our evolved consciences and by our understood commitment to each other to do as little harm as possible to ourselves or others. Atheists all over the world wake up every morning and behave properly, so we know no theistic belief is necessary in order to be a decent human being.
So what have we explored here? First we looked at the contradiction that results immediately when one makes the argument from morality. Either good and evil are nothing more than a fiat by a deity, making them the opposite of objective, or they are transcendent, making the deity something other than omnipotent. Next we considered whether we find the god of the Bible behaving in a way that we would expect if he were in fact the source of all goodness and virtue. In this exercise we made use of the New Testament itself in order to ask ourselves if Yahweh rose to the standard laid out by the Apostle Paul, and we found that in every single case Yahweh does not meet the standard. Next we considered where morality could have come from if it didn’t come from a deity and we found that a natural explanation was entirely plausible. Finally we considered the the question of whether using the word “objective” to describe morality is really meaningful at all, and we found that it isn’t. So the very underpinning of the argument from morality is a flawed premise. You can pick any reason you like, but I think we can see that an argument in favor of the existence of a deity on the basis of morality can be dismissed.
A friend of mine posted a notice on his wall on New Year’s Eve telling Facebook that he is refusing permission to allow them to share his photos and other personal information. His post was based on an untrue urban legend that has been publicly proclaimed false many times, the confirmation of which is easily verifiable with even the smallest amount of effort. No, Facebook did not just change its privacy rules on New Year’s Day. So why does that matter?
We are told by Christian apologists (notably William Lane Craig and Lee Strobel) that we should not doubt the historicity of claims made in the gospel narratives because those narratives were being circulated at a time when it would have been a simple matter of asking a person who witnessed an event personally whether it were true, and if it weren’t true then the people of the time would simply have disbelieved it. Essentially this is an argument saying that fake news would have been easily debunked during the time it was happening, even without the benefit of Snopes.
The truth is that the New Testament narrative about the bodily resuscitation of Jesus is nothing more than the first century version of an urban legend. Eventually somebody wrote that urban legend down, but that doesn’t make it any more true that the false claim that facebook just changed its privacy policies.
Skeptical Texans wish you a happy new year!
As we sit here and contemplate the season for the reason I thought it might be fun to shed some light on some of the things we think we know about the traditional Christmas story.
1. The virgin birth. The first author we have writing anything down about the life of Jesus is Paul the apostle, and his authentic letters date from about CE49 to CE59. Paul never mentions anything about Jesus’s mother having been a virgin. The second author we have writing anything down about the life of Jesus is the author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s gospel dates to around 70CE and doesn’t gives us a birth narrative at all, it begins when Jesus is older. We have to wait until Matthew, writing sometime in the 80’s, before we finally get a Christmas story. Matthew is the first person we know of who wrote that Jesus was born of a virgin. When we look at the evolution of the legends told about Jesus, Mary’s virginity looks like one example of the myth growing over time. Incidentally, the author of Luke/Acts also refers to the virgin birth, but the author of John makes no reference to it.
2. The classic nativity scene. Only two of the four gospels in the canon provide us a birth narrative. The story almost everyone knows about Christmas is the one where Jesus is born in a barn and sleeps in a manger because there was no room at the inn. This is the scene that’s set by many of the popular Christmas carols: Silent Night, Away in a Manger, We three Kings, etc…This is the account we find in Luke’s gospel, but its not the account we find in Matthew. Matthew’s account is a bit uglier, and not one that would inspire singing or celebrating. In Matthew’s account we have the holy family living in Bethlehem when the evil King Herod hears that the new king of the Jews is going to be born, and since Herod can’t allow that to happen he orders all the newborns killed. We call this the Slaughter of the Innocents. In order to escape from the danger the holy family flees for Egypt, and they don’t return until after Herod dies. The good news is that none of the historians who documented events during this timeframe took note of such an awful event as the killing of all newborns, so historians tend to discount that it happened at all.
So this Christmas, whether you choose to celebrate it purely as a humanist or as a believing Christian, now you have some insight about precisely what the Bible says about Christmas.
I wish all of you, believers or not, a safe and wonderful holiday. And be sure to decorate your Christmas trees so that we can keep the paganism in Christmas!
Have you ever heard a Christian apologist claim that the gospel narratives are eyewitness accounts of the stories they narrate? How likely do we think that might be? In order to examine that we first need to understand who the traditional authors are, so here’s a short redux of who and what Christians claim the authors were according to the traditional view:
Matthew – would have been one of the original twelve, and according to the gospel accounts he would have been a tax collector before joining Jesus’s ministry. This means that Matthew, according to the traditional view, *could* be an eyewitness.
Mark – would have been a traveling companion of Peter. Peter would have been one of the original twelve, but we don’t actually have a gospel according to Peter (at least not in the canon), so the next best thing would be a gospel according to Mark, who would theoretically provide an account of Peters’s experiences. Assuming this is true, at best this would be hear say rather than an eyewitness account, because even assuming the traditional authorship nobody ever claims that Mark would have been one of the party that traveled with Jesus.
Luke – is said to have been a traveling companion of Paul. Christians love to say that Luke was a physician because in the modern world we all live in this implies a great deal of formal learning and critical thinking, but the truth is that in the ancient world there was no such thing as a medical doctor in the modern sense. There were no formal medical schools or medical degrees, and the best we could conclude about being a “healer” of some kind would likely mean faith-healing or some other kind of witch-doctoring. Moreover, the Apostle Paul would never have met the living Jesus so all we have in Luke’s account is, at very best, a retelling of what Paul would have said. This means that in Luke’s case we have – again, at best – second level hearsay.
John – would have been one of the original twelve, and was a fisherman before he joined Jesus’s ministry. So John is only the second of the four gospel writers to actually have the *potential* to be a real eyewitness.
Now let’s unpack the question just a bit more. First, none of the gospels is actually signed, they’re all anonymous. This should raise the immediate question about how authorship eventually was attributed to these four men, and the answer is that somewhere near the end of the second century some unidentified Christian said these would have been the four authors. The documents themselves would have been circulating for perhaps a hundred years before anyone claimed these four fellows as the authors. I would argue that the authorship was assigned precisely to provide authority for what would eventually become the orthodox view. Keep in mind, too, that with the evolution of the canon that the other stories being written had to be harmonized. It wasn’t going to work to attribute authorship to somebody who had already suffered an early demise according to church lore (someday Rex and I will have to write another blog post about the problems presented by Luke/Acts). Another problem is that none of the gospel writers actually *claims* to be an eyewitness. To make sure everyone is keeping up so far, all this means that even if we take the traditional authorship purely at face value, we only have two potential eyewitnesses because neither Mark nor Luke claim to be and the traditional understanding doesn’t say they are. On top of that Luke freely admits in his preamble that he has been looking at other sources in his attempt to create his own narrative (and we happen to know that Luke borrowed heavily from Mark).
So what are the problems with the traditional authorship claims about our two possible eyewitnesses?
Matthew. One of the biggest problems with the traditional view is that Matthew clearly copied much of his work directly from Mark (just as we know Luke did). The vast majority of biblical scholars agree that Mark’s gospel was the very first one to appear in circulation among Christian communities, and a modern textual analysis of Mark and Matthew shows us that Matthew takes nearly fifty percent of his narrative from Mark – and he does this *word for word*. Why would an eyewitness need to copy from somebody else? The second problem, which we will see again when we discuss John, is that it is very unlikely that a man who would have come from a rural part of a backwater of the Roman Empire would have been literate in his own language, let alone in Greek. If you weren’t aware before now, each of the four gospel narratives is written in Greek, which was *not* the language of Jesus. Jesus would have spoken a language called Aramaic, which isn’t even close. In the ancient world there was no public schooling, which means that the only literate people would have been the wealthy, who had access to formal private learning. The best estimates of literacy in the ancient world tell us that perhaps only 1% of the population would have been able to read and write, and moreover that the 1% in question would be concentrated in large population centers rather than in a rural area like Galilee. Before you go arguing that a tax collector would have to be literate, we know from history that this isn’t actually true. And more than that, being able to count and to take names and numbers is a far cry from being able to write a literary composition in a non-native language. I’m willing to bet that you (the reader) are able to count to ten or maybe even to a hundred or more in some other language – say Spanish. You also probably have the ability to write down a number of Hispanic names. But being able to do that does not in any way enable you to create a literary composition in Spanish, and you’re already literate in your native language! The third problem is the date of the writing. Whoever this author was, he waited until 50 or so years after Jesus death before he wrote the story. Taken altogether, this means that in order for the traditional authorship claim to be true in Matthew’s case, he would have to live fifty more years (not likely in the ancient world – consider that if he were Jesus’s age it means Matthew would have been an octogenarian at the time of his writing), learn to read and write very literate Greek late in his life, and then wait until he came across the non-eyewitness account provided by Mark and copy nearly fifty percent of it word for word. This strains credulity to the breaking point.
Ok, then what about John? In John’s favor the story he tells is unique compared to the Synoptics and doesn’t seem to be copying from any earlier source. The date of this work is later than that of Matthew, and most scholars would say it was written somewhere between 90-110 CE. So the problems with traditional authorship in John’s case are that an even older man than Matthew would have been has now waited until he is an extremely old man (consider that if he had been Jesus’s age then he might have been more than 100 years old when he decided to write his narrative), and that a fisherman would eventually come to be writing in literate Greek. Once again this really defies credulity.
What do apologists say? One of the first things you’ll hear them say is that Mark wasn’t the first gospel, that Matthew was. This is problematic for a lot of reasons, and there is a clear theological agenda for making that claim. The evidence is strongly in favor of what we call Marcan Priority (Mark was first). The other thing that apologists will tell you is that there is *no*reason* that the gospels could *not* have been written by old men, in Greek, and that these old men could plausibly have waited their entire lives to learn a new language and then to tell the greatest story ever told. Note the bait and switch there – when confronted with the request for evidence to substantiate the traditional view, the reply is merely that it *could* have been that way. Given what we know about the ancient world, how likely do YOU really think that is? And why would these guys wait so long to tell their stories?
What if we asked this question in a modern context as a way of framing likelihood? Imagine living in rural Nebraska in the year 1920 and witnessing space aliens coming down to earth in the middle of a farm field to establish their first interstellar embassy with the people of planet earth. That would be a world changing event, right? So then let’s imagine that such a world changing event wouldn’t make any of the newspapers, and eventually that only two people would ever bother to record that this event had happened at all. And then let’s imagine that those two people waited the entire lives to write down a narrative of what they saw. And then let’s imagine that they wrote that narrative in Chinese in the year 2010. Does that really sound plausible? No, clearly it doesn’t.
Conclusion: no, even in the best case scenario the gospel narratives are not eyewitness accounts of the events they narrate.