7 Important Questions for Bible Believing Christians [Part 1]

skWritten from Starbucks in San Jose by my office with Milky Chance on Pandora. Drink of choice is a blonde roast coffee.

Are the Gospels reliable?

I believe that there is historically reliable information in the Gospels, but there are also pieces of historically unreliable information. This can be seen by the fact that sometimes there are flat out discrepancies between the gospels; as you will see yourself if you just read them carefully side-by-side. Let me give you a taste out of thousands of examples.

The Gospel of Matthew says that the father of Joseph, Jesus’ father, was Jacob; his grandfather was Matthan, his great grandfather was Eleazar. The Gospel of Luke says Joseph’s father was Heli. His grandfather Matthat; and his great grandfather was Levi. Well, which was it? The genealogies differ.

One of the key motives of the Gospel of Mark is that the disciples don’t recognize him as the Messiah until chapter 8. But in John the call him Messiah right away; the first time they meet him chapter 1. Which is it?

Was Jairus’ daughter sick but still alive when Jairus father came to Jesus and ask to heal her as he does in Mark 5:35-43; or did she die before Jairus came, so that he could ask Jesus to raise her from the dead as he does in Matthew 9? Hard to see how it could be both ways.

The Gospel of John says explicitly that Jesus died on the day of preparation for Passover, the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten. The Gospel of Mark says explicitly that Jesus dies the morning after the morning the Passover meal was eaten. Don’t take my word for it, read it in John 19 and Mark 15 for yourself.

Or look at the resurrection accounts sometime in the four Gospels and ask yourself how many went to the empty tomb? What were their names? Was the stone rolled away before they arrived or after? What did they see there? One man? Two men? Or two angels? What were they told to do? To tell the disciples to go to Galilee or not? Did they tell the disciples or not? Did the disciples go to Galilee or not? Well it depends what Gospel you read. You get a different story every time.

We should not say that these are a bunch of details that don’t affect the larger picture. The larger picture is made up of nothing but details. And the big picture differs greatly between the gospels.

nhDo the Gospels accurately preserve the teaching of Jesus Christ?

In the New Testament, there are things that Jesus did actually say. But there are other things in the Gospels that he did not say. The leading Christian apologists today will retort that there are methods that are employed to decipher between early and later traditions and evangelists. What this means is that some of the New Testament sayings for Jesus go back to Jesus himself, and some were made up by those who told stories about Jesus, and some were made up by the Gospel writers themselves. This is actually something that Christian apologists and scholarly skeptics agree on. My question is then: Is the Bible inaccurate in some of the things it says that Jesus said? Because if it is inaccurate in some things, how do we know it’s not inaccurate in lots of things? And if it’s inaccurate in lots of things, what makes us think that we can trust it? One way to prove that gospels don’t portray what this accurate is to point to the things that Jesus said from one Gospel to the next.

There is no doubt that in the gospel of John, Jesus understands himself to be God and explicitly calls himself divine. Jesus says (John 14:6) “I am the way the truth and the life, no one come to the father except by me.” And he also says, “I and the father are one” and “Before Abraham was, I am.” These are sayings found only in the gospel of John. Jesus calls himself God in the Gospel of John, the latest of our gospels, but what is striking is that he never calls himself God in Mathew, Mark and Luke, are earliest gospels. I don’t think Jesus really said these things, and any critical biblical scholar will agree. The burden of proof is on the Fundamentalist to prove on historical – not theological grounds – how Jesus manages to escape getting stoned to death for blasphemy. And more important, how Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t record him calling himself God.

And why is it whenever you read the gospel of John, it doesn’t matter what part of John you read, whether you read the words of John the Baptist, the words of Jesus, or the words of the narrator – all three sound exactly alike and speak the same theology. Why? Because in the Gospel of John we’re not hearing three voices, we’re hearing one – the narrator. The narrator has modified the voices of Jesus and John the Baptist to make them say what he wants them to say. This is not Jesus’ voice we’re hearing, it’s the voice of the author of John. Why does this matter? Because people in this world keep asking, “Is Jesus who he says he was?” and if you read the Gospel of John, you don’t learn who Jesus said he was, you learn who the anonymous author said Jesus was.

bbDo the Gospels accurately preserve the activities of Jesus Christ?

What Christian apologists say is that the Gospel writers adapted the words of Jesus. Well, that means they changed the words of Jesus. If they changed the words of Jesus then how do we know we’re actually reading the words of Jesus? The same apply to Jesus’ deeds. Can we trust what the Gospels say about what Jesus did? If the stories of Jesus were sometimes changed, as Christians told and retold the stories, as they adapted them, then how do we know they weren’t changed a lot?

I am absolutely certain that the Gospels do not give an accurate historical account of what Jesus actually did. Simply compare the Gospel stories and you will see the blatant discrepancies.

During Jesus’ temptations, what was the second temptation? To jump off the temple? Or to bow down and worship Satan? Matthew says the first and Luke says the second. If one of the authors felt necessary to change the details of the story, how do you know he didn’t feel free to change the substance of the story?

Did Jesus have extensive conversation with Pilate as he does in John or was he silent except for uttering two words as he does in Mark? How could it be both?

Here is a major discrepancy that we should consider. Jesus on his way to his death in the Gospel of Mark is completely silent. Simon of Cyrene carries Jesus’ cross, and he doesn’t say a word; they nail him to the cross and he’s silent. Now he’s hanging on the cross, both robbers mocking him, the passerby’s mock him, and he doesn’t say anything until the very end and he cries out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” And he dies. That’s the end of the story in Mark. But not quite.

Because then he is raised from the dead. But how did he feel in the end? Compare that with the Gospel of Luke. In Luke, Jesus is not silent on his way to being crucified. On his way, he sees some women weeping for him, and he turns to them and says, “Daughters of Jerusalem, weep for yourselves and for your children and for the fate that is to befall you.” Jesus in Luke’s gospels is more concerned about these women than he is about his own fate. When being nailed to the cross, in Luke’s gospel, he’s not silent, he says, “Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” In Luke’s gospel he’s hanging on the cross and he has an intelligent conversation with one of the robbers, where only one of the robbers mocks him in Luke, the other tells the first robber to be quiet because Jesus has done nothing to deserve this, he then turns his head to Jesus and says, “Lord remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and then Jesus says, “Truly I tell you that today you will be with me in paradise.” In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus does not feel forsaken like he does in Mark. In Luke’s gospel he knows he’s on God’s side, God’s behind the proceedings, he knows why this is happening, and at the end rather than crying out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”… He doesn’t say that in Luke, In Luke’s gospel he says, “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” And he dies. This is a very different portrayal.

But what people do instead is that they take the words of Luke’s gospel and then take the words in Mark’s gospel and smash them together into one big account. So Jesus says everything in Mark, he says everything in Luke, then you throw in what he says in Matthew and John, and then you end up with the “7 Last Words of the Dying Jesus,” which you find in none of the gospels. You are free to do this and smash them all together, but realize what you’ve done is you’ve written your own gospel.

Part 2 coming tomorrow …

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.