7 Important Questions for Bible Believing Christians [Part 2]

Written at Starbucks in Los Gatos with Katy Perry on Pandora (“Teenage Dream” playing when I typed last sentence] with a double espresso and two pumps white mocha.

Do the Gospels Contain Eye Witness Tradition? dwdwdwdwd

First point: The Gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. They are all anonymous and the titles in your Gospels were added by later editors.

Second point: None of the Gospels claim to written by the name it bears. Again, these are later traditions.

These traditions do not begin appearing for about 100 years. Some people think that there is an early church father named Papias who attests to the eyewitness of Mark and Matthew, but in fact there are very solid reasons to think that Papias, who lived around the year 120-140 is not referring to our Mark or Matthew. The first time anyone mentions the names Matthew, Mark, Luke and John was Irenaeus in the year 180. One hundred years after these book were written. Let me reiterate that the Gospels were written anonymously and were not written by eyewitnesses.

But let me also make another point. Even if the Gospels were written by eyewitness, this would not guarantee that the Gospels are indeed accurate. Think about our legal system today. Are eyewitnesses always accurate in what they report? If so then why do we have trials that call into testimony more than one eyewitness? If eyewitnesses were always 100% accurate in what they report we wouldn’t need law courts, if we wanted to know what happen, we would just simply ask somebody. Eyewitnesses do not always get the information correct, but even if they did it wouldn’t matter because the gospels don’t claim to be written by eyewitnesses. The Gospel writers were living 40 to 50 to 60 years after Jesus died. They wrote the gospels in Greek, Jesus’ language was Aramaic. These Gospel writers were living in a different country, decades later. Where did they get their information from? They were not the followers of Jesus and they don’t claim to be the followers of Jesus. So, again, where did they get their information from? They heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation year after year, decade after decade. Now, what happens to oral stories that are transmitted orally? They change. The Gospel writers have discrepancies among them because the stories that were told to them and then retold, and then again retold decade after decade. And in the continual retelling of these stories, we know that the Gospel writers themselves sometime change the stories. This is why scholars might be able to tell you generally what the stories of Jesus were about, and they can list eight things that Jesus did, but they can’t tell you the details and agree. Why can’t they agree? Because there are so many discrepancies.

Do archeologists and historians use the Gospels as sources? wdwdwd

Archeologists do not use the gospels as a guide for their digs. Historians, however, do use the Gospels when trying to understand the Historical Jesus. But the Gospels are that we have. One thing that most Christians fail to understand is that we have much scanty documentation about the life of Jesus. Most people don’t realize this, but Jesus is never mentioned in any Greek or Roman non-Christian source until 80 years after his death. There is no record in these sources that Jesus even lived. In the entire 1st century of Christianity, Jesus is not even mentioned by a single Greek or Roman historian, religion scholar, politician, philosopher or poet. His name never occurs. The first time Jesus is mentioned in a Roman or Greek source is by the Roman governor of a province in Asia Minor, named Pliny in 112. And even then Pliny doesn’t name him “Jesus,” he simply refers to his name as “Christ” in passing. That is the only reference within 80 years of Jesus death. Jesus is mentioned very briefly by the Jewish historian Josephus in the year 93, which is 60 years after his death; but he is mentioned in no other Jewish texts in the 1st century at all. If you want to know about Jesus, you have to turn to Christian sources. The earliest Christian source is the apostle Paul, but to the surprise of many Bible readers Paul scarcely mentions anything about the words and deeds of Jesus. Paul says a lot about Jesus death and resurrection but almost nothing about his words and deeds while alive. Which means we are left with the Gospels if we want the earliest writings concerning Jesus, which are written anonymously, not by eyewitness, and full of discrepancies.

Apologists usually retort, “but eyewitnesses were around and could have provided verification as to the validity of these texts.” This is one of hundreds of fabrications by Christian apologists. Christianity started out as a small group of Jesus followers in Jerusalem right after his death. Within 30 years there were Christian communities that were establish in and around the urban areas of the Roman Empire. There were Christian churches in Palestine, Syria, Asia Minor (Turkey), in Greece, in Rome, possibly in Northern Africa, and almost certainly in Alexandria Egypt. Hundreds of people were converting, thousands of people were converting – how did they convert? By people telling them stories about Jesus. Who was telling the stories? If I convert you, and you convert your wife, and she converts her next door neighbor, and her next door neighbor converts her husband, and her husband converts a business associate, who goes to another city and converts his business associate … who’s telling the stories? Is it eyewitnesses? Are the 12 disciples talking to everyone and telling them the stories and telling them, “make sure you get this right.” The eyewitnesses are probably in Jerusalem. But where are the eyewitnesses in Ephesus? Where are the eyewitnesses in Tarsus? Where are the eyewitnesses in Alexandria? They are not there. The stories are changes and retold many times.

wdwdHave the Gospel’s been accurately preserved throughout the centuries?

It’s important to know here that we do not have any originals of the New Testament. What we have are thousands of copies of the New Testament that were made, in most cases, centuries later. These copies that were made centuries later contain tens of thousands of mistakes.

This is the pivotal question: If God had inspired the Bible without error, why hadn’t he preserved the Bible without error?

Take the Gospel of Mark; whoever wrote Mark wrote it and then put it in circulation and then somebody copied the Gospel of Mark, then somebody copied that copy, then somebody copied the copy of the copy – so on and so forth – oh and by the way, we don’t have any of those copies. Everyone who copied the texts made mistakes. Our first surviving copy of Mark dates to around the year 220. Our first complete copy of Mark comes from around the year 350 (280 years after Mark!). We have thousands of copies of Mark. Now when you compare these copies of Mark they all differ from one another. What is striking is that the earlier you go to look at the manuscripts the more differences you find. The earliest copies have the most mistakes. What would happen if we found copies that were still earlier? The only evidence we have is the evidence that survived which suggests that the earliest period of copying contained the most mistakes. We have no way of knowing what the author was really trying to communicate.

Often you will hear apologists say that the New Testament is the best attested book from antiquity and therefore you can trust it. I agree. It is indeed the best attested book from antiquity, but the attestation is all from a 1000 years later. It doesn’t make sense to say you can trust it because it’s well attested, if the New Testament was well attested then you could say what the New Testament originally said. Whether you can trust it or not is another question. But the reality is that we have many late manuscripts of Mark and of every other book of the New Testament.

Do any scribal errors impact any important teaching of Jesus?

Did Jesus say, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”? Nope. This was not in the original NT Gospel and was inserted later by a scribe.

Did Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you go and sin no more”? Nope. Does it matter whether Jesus said it or not – turns out it was in a textual variant and it was not in the original New Testament.

Did Jesus say “go out into the world and preach the gospel to all of creation, he who believes in me will be saved but he who does not believe will be condemned?” – Nope, it’s only found in a later textual variant.

Did Jesus say, “These are the signs that will accompany those who believe, in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up serpents and if they drink any deadly thing it will not hurt them, they will lay their hands on the sick and they will recover.” Nope. Does it matter if Jesus really said it?

Did Jesus give the entire Lord’s Prayer, or just half of it – as in Luke? Does it matter? It depends on which manuscript you read.

Does it matter whether or not the doctrine of the Trinity is taught in the New Testament? The only verse that comes remotely to teaching it is found in I John 5:7-8, yet, it’s a later addition.

Does it matter if the Gospel of John never calls Jesus the unique God or not. It’s based a textual variant.

Does it matter whether or not the Gospel of Luke teaches an atonement or not? The view that Jesus dies for the sake of others; well it depends on a textual variant.

Does it matter that Jesus was in such agony before his death that he began to sweat blood? It’s found only a textual variant found in the Gospel of Luke.

Does it matter that entire words, lines, paragraphs, and pages were left out by some scribes? Does it matter that there are numerous places in the New Testament where scholars cannot decide what the original text says.

Does it matter that we will never know what the original author said?

Many evangelicals claim that it does not matter. But I don’t believe them because many of these scholars devote many years to studying the manuscripts. Why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? Major evangelical seminaries raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for manuscript projects to study these manuscripts; why would they do that if it doesn’t matter? It does matter.

How can the Gospels be a trustworthy and reliable guide if we have no idea what the original author even said? While the Gospels shed light on the Historical Jesus, they do not provide information that can be trusted.

~Wes Fornes

Part 2- New Testament: Literal or Metaphorical

The “Biblical literalist” or “believer in the God inspired” text needs to answer several questions. First, what is the literal meaning of a parable? What is the literal meaning of a symbolic narrative?

When I stand in line at the grocery store, I cannot help but notice the sensationalized magazines on the stands. For instance, the National Enquirer and Star Magazine which uses heavy doses of hyperbole to stir the gossip pot. There are good reasons as to why reasonable people do not take the headlines of the National Enquirer as dogma. As children of the Enlightenment, we have cultivated modes of testing and questioning in order to meticulously scrutinize with the goal of determining what conclusion(s) are most probable. So when the headline reads, “Doctors Say Bruce Jenner Has Baboon Genitalia,” we are in a better epistemic position to reason our way through the possibilities of fact/fiction compared to our bronze aged ancestors. In contrast, when a doctor suggests chemotherapy to treat an ailing cancer patient we expect that her suggestion has gone through the rigorous matrix of scientific investigation employed by methods verified by testable data. In modernity, we are in a better position to utilize methods and ask the right [or better] questions in order to employ proper skepticism while glancing through preposterous headlines from articles.

When it comes to the Bible we should proceed with the same calibrated caution as we would while standing in line at the grocery store. There are 3 major reasons:

1. The New Testament was not written by eyewitnesses.

2. We have no authentic original manuscripts from the New Testament.

3. New Testament scholars agree that, we have over 200,000 variations (at minimum) of New Testament writings.

The “authors” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John never identified themselves as the actual authors. The followers of Jesus, as we learn from the New Testament itself, were uneducated lower-class Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine. The gospels, however, were not written by people like that. The actual authors of the gospels were highly educated, Greek-speaking Christians of a later generation. Just to make sure we are on the same page: Jesus spoke Aramaic and the Gospels are written in Greek.

But wait, don’t we have original manuscripts of the Gospels that tell the story of Jesus? Actually, we have no original manuscripts. Also, the very first surviving account of Jesus’ life was written around 35-40 years after his death. Our latest canonical gospel (John) was written 60-65 years after his death. That’s a lot of time for stories to develop and morph. To bring this issue to modernity, John F. Kennedy died 51 years ago and we still have numerous conflicting stories, such that, any written biography of his life would definitely stir conflicting narratives.

As of today, 94% of our surviving Greek manuscripts of the New Testament date from after the ninth Christian century. That is 800 years (years!) after the so-called originals. What good do these late manuscripts do us? They do us a lot of good if we want to know what text of Mark, Paul, or 1 Peter was being read 800 years after the originals were produced. But they are of much less value for knowing what the authors themselves wrote, eight centuries earlier.

One more reason to raise our suspicion is that even though we have over 5,000 manuscripts from the Bible, scholars since the 16th century have found over 200,000 variations. It might be helpful for us to know the famous passage in John 8 that provides us the catch phrase, “He who is without sin cast the first stone,” is nowhere to be found in the earliest manuscripts. Pentecostals and snake-handlers in rural Kentucky should know that the last 12 verses in the book of Mark is gone as well. Much doctrine has been built off of those 12 verses that were later inserted hundreds of years later. Then there is the infamous I John 5:7-8 where we find the complete trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Trouble is that later scribes inserted this in the text to justify their own views- hundreds of years later.

I want to provide a caveat here to address a very common remark that apologist make when confronted with mistakes in Scripture. Their claim goes like this: “Well, there may be small mistakes in the Bible, but the core principles are all there.” First, we don’t know what was really there because we have no original manuscripts. Second, we have enough information in our manuscripts today to show that Jesus did not consider himself to be God (see Bart D. Ehrman’s “How Jesus Became God”). Third, as I already mentioned: we have over 200,000 variations!

One core doctrine that is in conflict is that of salvation by faith or works. Paul – who never met Jesus – spent his time propagating a high Christology of that salvation coming through faith, not works. Romans is filled with this doctrine. Yet, my favorite passage in all of Scriptures turns Paul’s theology upside down. In Matthew 25:31-46, the author is describing the Son of Man separating his sheep (“Christians”) on his right with the goats (non-Christians) on his left. Take a look.

“For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me. 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.”

As you can see, Jesus excludes faith and shows that the fruits you bear through good works is what makes you a sheep rather than a goat. Contra to Paul, salvation is through good works. This comes as no surprise to me. I spent 3 years in seminary with one of the best Koine Greek scholars, and the amount of linguistic gymnastics used to harmonize the New Testament is simply unbelievable. But when belief-driven indoctrination has metastasized to the heart, it easily distorts judgment. This is why it should not surprise us that millions of Christians, Mormons, and Muslims believe extraordinary things with little evidence. The most prevalent spiritual gift of religion is intellectual gymnastics.

All this to say we should be careful to assert that the Bible is “God-breathed” or “God inspired.” Rather, the Bible is inspired by humans communicating meaningful stories within their own historical matrix. I am not saying that the Bible is irrelevant or should be discarded. To the contrary, the Bible should be affirmed and held in high esteem in a metaphorical way.

The woman caught in adultery (John 8) who is unfairly judged can teach a moral lesson about the dangers of judging other people. And Matthew 7:5 can challenge us to remove the telephone post in our own eye before we try and remove the splinter in someone’s eye. And how does the Bible – and Jesus – empathize with our struggles? Well, just as Jesus had to go through the dangerous and forbidden Samaria, so we too go through our own “Samaria” with the hope of a future peace. Samaria can represent loss, grief and the pain we go through in life. Did Jesus speak of a literal splinter in someone’s eye? Did Jesus ever go through Samaria? I don’t care. I don’t even care if we find proof that Jesus never existed.

The point is the meaning we get from the passage. When we can get to the point of seeing meaningful metaphors, we can stop using Scripture to indoctrinate and use it, rather, for personal flourishing.