Author Archives: owenyounger

Eyewitnesses?

Owen here….

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.

American Atheists Conference – March 30, 2018

Owen here….this weekend Rex and Owen are in Oklahoma City at the American Atheists conference, enjoying the great weather and all of the fantastic speakers. You’ll have to forgive us for the picture above, we’re pretty sure that’s NOT the Holy Spirit sitting on our shoulders. 😉

One of the things that’s clear for conference attendees is the number of atheist and freethought organizations all over the country. There are dozens of community groups and affiliate organizations that all share common cause with us: encourage secularism, advocate for freethought, and promote humanism in the world. But most of all we are surrounded by people who have made an affirmative decision to love out loud.

So on this April Fools weekend we want to share this short note with you to encourage you to support your local groups and organizations, and always live out loud.

All the best!

It’s Always Paul! – March 5, 2018

Owen here… a month or so ago Rex made a blog post about something that we see with a greater than 95% consistency whenever we visit a bible study class somewhere: it’s always Paul. When we speak with atheist and free thinker groups usually our audiences are able to immediately grasp why this is significant to us, but in a recent conversation with a Christian I got a confused look and a question in reply: why should that be interesting? This blog post is my attempt to answer that question.

The Christian religion holds that there is a single deity having three parts, and that one of those three parts, Jesus, actually came down to earth and lived among us for a little over thirty years as a human being, roughly two thousand years ago. During the thirty or so years that Jesus was here, Christians believe that he spent the last year or two of his life traveling, teaching, and expanding on what God’s message and hope was for humanity, and then the culminating event of Jesus’ life was to be a human sacrifice to serve as a means for God to forgive humanity for its sins. I’m giving you the nutshell version.

The Christian holy text, the Bible, and in particular the New Testament of the Bible, contains four different accounts of Jesus’s life, and we call these the four gospels. Following the four gospels there is one document calls the Acts of the Apostles, which really just tells us stories about what the Apostles did, and after that are the thirteen letters attributed to the Apostle Paul (nobody really thinks Paul wrote the letter to the Hebrews and I am not counting that one – so I said there are thirteen). After Paul there are some other letters, and then the last book in the New Testament is a Revelation.

So when you’re a Christian in a bible study class you have a wide choice of things you could focus on in your study. The four different gospel accounts presumably (and I use the word presumably because scholars debate the veracity of the gospel stories) capture the words and deeds of Jesus. On the other hand, the letters of Paul (only seven of which were actually written by Paul, the others are forgeries) are documents written thirty or more years after the death of Jesus by a guy who never actually knew Jesus in life. So let’s think through that for a minute. On the one hand, if Jesus really was the incarnate god of the entire universe, if he was literally the author of the entire universe, and he were here on earth teaching us a very important message, would the message and the behavior of that incarnate god be the most important things that human beings could ever learn about? I would think so. And the more deeply you think about it the more interesting it becomes. Granted I don’t accept that the Christian concept of god actually exists, but what we’re talking about is how Christians prioritize what they study. And Christians overwhelmingly choose to study the writings of Paul and not the deeds and words of Jesus. Could this be significant? We think it is, for lots of reasons. First, consider what Paul didn’t seem to know about Jesus. Paul didn’t seem to know that Jesus had a ministry, and if Paul did know that he never mentioned it. Paul had no idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. Paul had never mentions the Sermon on the Mount. Paul never talks about any of Jesus’s miracles – feeding the five thousand for example. If you’re a Christian and you’re studying Paul instead of Jesus, why? Don’t you think the message that the creator of the universe had for us would be more important than what Paul wrote about three decades later? Why should Paul even be an authority if he didn’t really know anything about Jesus’s life? It has been said that all Paul really knew about Jesus was that he came and then died. If Paul wrote a gospel account of Jesus it would literally be a single sentence. Why wouldn’t Paul know these things if he were living and writing three decades after Jesus died? Isn’t that an interesting question? But there is still at least one more reason why the things Paul didn’t know might be significant. The second reason, then, is that Paul disagreed with the disciples of Jesus who were still living. Paul writes in his letter to the Galatians that he confronted Peter in Antioch because he thought Peter was wrong. Let’s consider the context: Peter would have known the living Jesus even if Paul didn’t, and Peter had a different understanding of what Christianity was supposed to be than Paul did. Paul was opposed to “Judaizers” by which he mean people who were teaching that before you could be a Christian you first had to be a Jew. As it turns out, the people who knew Jesus while he was alive thought you needed to be a Jew before you could be a Christian…and Paul thought that was wrong. See what I mean about this getting more interesting?

How do we really know that Paul’s understanding was and is the correct one and that the people who actually knew and traveled with Jesus had always gotten it wrong? Is there anything else that might be called into question? As it turns out, scholars have argued that Paul’s lack of knowledge of Jesus’s life combined with the way in which the gospel stories seems to evolve over time clearly demonstrate that much of what is recorded is likely legendary in nature and not literally true. This would be particularly true for the Gospel of John, the last one that was written. If I were a Christian, the idea that I was following Paul and not Jesus might cause me to lose sleep at night. I might also lose sleep at night wondering if there was anything reliable that I actually knew for sure about Jesus.

Every time Rex and I walk into a bible study class and see a verse from Romans or Ephesians up on the board we wonder to ourselves if the folks in the class have ever really thought this particular set of problems all the way through.

This particular religion is called Christianity, but the single most important Christian proponent in history knew virtually nothing about namesake of his own faith. And most Bible study classes that we visit prefer to study Paul rather than Jesus himself.

Fascinating.

If you’d like to learn more about the academic scholarship on New Testament studies please take a look at our recommended reading page and look for Ehrman and Mack as a place to begin.

Thank you, Houston Oasis! – February 19, 2018

Owen here…

Yesterday Rex and I presented to the Oasis organization in Houston about our project, and we were ecstatic about how well received we were. This was our first exposure to Oasis, and we loved what we saw and experienced with you. We want to give a big Texas sized shout out to Mike Aus, to the leadership team at Houston Oasis, and to all of the volunteers who make Oasis happen on the ground for every meeting. The questions we received were excellent, and the lunchtime conversations and feedback were awesome. It was clear to Rex and me that y’all are deep thinkers who care about the world, and who do the hard work that is required to stay inclusive. This is an amazing, interesting, and friendly group of folks who are wonderful models of humanism and atheism, and Rex and I are looking forward to visiting again. The atheist and freethought community in the Houston are is fortunate to have such a strong organization there. Thank you so much for having us, and keep living out loud!

No True Scotsman – February 10, 2018

Owen here…

One of the things Rex and I encounter with disappointing frequency is the No True Scotsman fallacy. As former Christians who are now atheists and advocates for freethought, it is sometimes difficult for believers to accept that we were ever Christians to begin with. The argument usually goes something like: “No true Christian could ever fall away, so you couldn’t have really believed.” I’ve always tried to take this reply in stride. It’s not worth being offended about because it doesn’t really diminish me at all personally, and from the point of view to my counter-party it makes sense that some kind of rationalization would be necessary to help that person confront the difficult reality right in front of them: it is possible to be a true believer and then walk away. When you unpack that, even just a little, what you find is a person who’s intellect is already struggling with the idea that disbelief is even possible. There is cognitive dissonance there, right under the surface. The saddest thing of all is that this would have been an argument I might have used many years ago back in my Christian days if I had encountered a former Christian. There are several takeaways, I think. First, anytime you have a conversation with someone where you have taken ownership of non-belief, please don’t ever be offended at the responses you receive. Try to understand the interaction from the perspective of the person saying this to you. This is a potentially painful and personally challenging situation for that person. Second, when you see a flawed argument like this, point out (gently and politely) to the person that the argument they’re using is actually a common and well understood logical fallacy that actually has a name. Explain to them why its a fallacy (it’s circular – the premise and the conclusion are the same). And finally, remember that you’re a representative of freethought, and the behavior you model might stay in that persons mind forever. You’re planting a seed into the mind of a person who may never have encountered a non-believer before. You never really know how that seed may germinate.

What matters to you?? January 28, 2018

Owen here….

One of the things that Rex and I hear all the time in conversations with believers is that life can only have real meaning if you believe in a deity of some kind. If you have listened to or watched our presentation on “Answering the Five Claims” you will have seen us spend some time on that, and if you’re a fellow skeptic you will likely already agree with us that the meaning in our lives is self-determined rather than ordained for us in advance by a supreme being. This is important. Frankly, this might be the ultimate freedom that comes from a rational skeptical world view like ours.

So here’s what I ask: tell us what makes your life meaningful. Let’s make our voices heard that we’re allowed to choose this meaning for ourselves.

Living Out Loud

Owen here…

Rex and I have the good fortune of being able to live “out loud” as atheists committed to free thought and rational inquiry. Our lives, families, and professional responsibilities are not hindrances and do not impose any filters on our ability to live openly as skeptics, but this is not true for some, and maybe even many, Americans. For many people, the pressure of family, the expectations of peers, or the potential professional implications of admitting to being an atheist on an open forum like Facebook, is a significant barrier in allowing you to outwardly live the life that your mind and your integrity have determined is right for you and correct in truth.

If you’re one of those people who for social, family, or professional reasons simply cannot admit to being an atheist or even a skeptic, know that we appreciate your silent moral support, and we who can live out loud will work to make America safer for you and for future generations to openly admit their skepticism without any negative consequences.

If you’re a believer and you assume that nobody around you could ever harbor any doubts about the faith you assume everyone shares with you, let me assure you that you’re wrong. Rex and I talk to these doubters all the time, some of whom even cautiously look both ways in the church hallway before admitting their doubts or even outright non-belief to us.

Rex and I are committed to helping America reach a place where the only consideration a person need consider in openly rejecting faith is that person’s own conscience.

I wish you all the best.