Believer defends non-literal reading of the Bible

“Sophisticated” theologians who urge a non-literal reading of the Bible always put themselves in a bind.  And it is this: if the Bible is not to be read as a literal account of the truth, then how do we know which parts really are true, and which parts are fiction or metaphor?  Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.  I almost prefer the fundamentalist literalists (granted, nobody takes every Biblical word as literal truth) to those religious people who think, for no good reason, that they can discern the stories that are true (which always, of course, include Jesus’s divinity and resurrection) from those that are simply meant to impart “timeless truths.”

Over at HuffPo, David Lose, Director of the Center for Biblical Preaching at Luther Seminary, gives his rationale for Biblical cherry-picking in a piece called “Four good reasons not to read the Bible literally.” Here are his reasons, some better than others. All quotes are from Lose, except where indicated otherwise, are indented.

1) Nowhere does the Bible claim to be inerrant.  . . . The signature verse most literalists point to is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” But one can confess that Scripture is inspired by God without resorting to claims that it contains no factual errors. We normally use the language of inspiration in just this way, describing a painting, a performance of Chopin, or even a good lecture as inspired. What binds the various and sundry texts found in the Bible together may be precisely that they are all inspired by the authors’ experience of the living God. There is no hint that the authors of the Bible imagined that what they were writing was somehow supernaturally guaranteed to be factually accurate. Rather, biblical authors wrote in order to be persuasive, hoping that by reading their witness you would come to believe as they did (see John 20:30-31).

He’s right that the self-contained claims for Biblical inerrancy are week. But I’m not so sure that the authors wrote not to impart what they thought was true, but to be “persuasive” (and what does that mean anyway?).  How can you persuade people, for example, of Jesus’s divinity without telling them that he was truly born of a virgin, resurrected, and performed miracles?

2) Reading the Bible literally distorts its witness. . . But if the primary intention of the biblical authors was not to record history — in the post-Enlightenment sense we take for granted today — but instead to confess faith, then these differences are not troubling inconsistencies to be reconciled but rather helpful clues to understanding the confession of the author.

Lose is right again that the different accounts of, say, things like the Resurrection are at serious odds with one another.  And he’s not troubled by them. But he should be, for if the discrepancies are signs of “confessions of faith,” then they’re also signs that maybe what is described didn’t happen at all.

3) Most Christians across history have not read the Bible literally. We tend to think of anything that is labeled “conservative” as being older and more traditional. Oddly enough, however, the doctrine of inerrancy that literalists aim to conserve is only about a century and a half old. Not only did many of the Christian Church’s brightest theologians not subscribe to anything like inerrancy, many adamantly opposed such a notion. For instance, St. Augustine — rarely described as a liberal — lived for many years at the margins of the church. An impediment to his conversation was precisely the notion that Christians took literally stories like that of Jonah spending three days in the belly of a whale. . . Earlier Christians — along with almost everyone else who lived prior to the advent of modernity — simply didn’t imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate, a concern only advanced after the Enlightenment.

This really ticks me off, for it’s complete crap.  While many earlier Christians and church fathers may not have seen the Bible as totally inerrant, they certainly thought that many if not most of its stories were literally true. Anyone who studies the history of Christianity knows this, and it’s disingenuous for Lose to pretend otherwise.

And to prove this he trots out the old warhorse of St. Augustine.  I’ve dealt with Augustine’s literalism in a previous post, and have also corresponded about it recently with my friend Grania Spingies, an ex-Catholic.  Rather than paraphrase what she told me about Augustine, which verges on stealing her own ideas, I’ll simply present an excerpt from her email, quoted with permission:

The most that can be said for Augustine is that he was an educated man who was prepared to believe that those parts of the Bible that were evidently not literally true (at least to the extent of his knowledge at the time) could be interpreted as metaphorical.  He was a philosopher and applied this to areas (such as eschatology) that had to be “fixed” as it was clear they were not accurate.

He was on the other hand very much a believer in the faith and therefore his reasoning was typical of theology today: trying to reverse-engineer an explanation to excuse obvious short-comings in their sacred texts. Even Aquinas said of Augustine, “Whenever Augustine, who was imbued with the theories of the Platonists, found in their writings anything consistent with the faith, he adopted it; and whatever he found contrary to the faith, he amended.”

In Augustine’s own words: “Faith goes before; understanding follows after.”  In other words, he was a cherry-picker too.

Another thing he did was to take something that he believed was a literal and historical text and try to glean a further philosophical aphorism or truth from it. (This is common enough—priests do this all the time for their Sunday homilies). It didn’t mean that he didn’t think the words had a literal meaning or truth, just that they could also convey an extra moral lesson as well.

Here’s Augustine’s money quote, showing in his own words that he thought that a great deal of the Bible was to be taken literally:  “But just as, I think, they err greatly who are of opinion that none of the records of affairs in that kind of writings mean anything more than that they so happened, so I think those very daring who contend that the whole gist of their contents lies in allegorical significations. ” (City of God, Book XVII, Chapter 3, paragraph 2)

And, there were plenty of things that Augustine believed in literally:

  • Adam & Eve
  • Jesus (Ha! the theologians never take him metaphorically!)
  • Original Sin complete with serpent 
  • Creation of world by God from nothing as in Genesis
  • The gospels (again his own words: “If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. “
  • Other Bible characters: “Who else save Joshua the son of Nun divided the stream of the Jordan for the people to pass over, and by the utterance of a prayer to God bridled and stopped the revolving sun? Who save Samson ever quenched his thirst with water flowing forth from the jawbone of a dead ass? Who save Elias was carried aloft in a chariot of fire?” (Tractates, XCI, Ch XV, 24-25, 2).

Quite a number of Augustine’s books are online here. But you have better things to do with your time than read them. He may well have been an intellectual giant of his day, but his ideas are so outdated and even then, so deliberately tendentious, that they are like much of modern theology—so much sophisticated hot air.

Finally, Lose’s last point:

4) Reading the Bible literally undermines a chief confession of the Bible about God.  Read the Bible even for a little while and you’ll soon realize that most of the major characters are, shall we say, less than ideal. Abraham passes his wife off as his sister — twice! — in order to save his skin. Moses is a murderer. David sleeps around. Peter denies Jesus three times. Whatever their accomplishments, most of the “heroes of the faith” are complicated persons with feet of clay. And that’s the point: the God of the Bible regularly uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.

Why, then, treat the Bible itself differently? Rather than imagine that the Bible was also written by ordinary, fallible people, inerrantists have made the Bible an other-wordly, supernatural document that runs contrary to the biblical affirmation that God chooses ordinary vessels — “jars of clay,” the Apostle Paul calls them — to bear an extraordinary message. In fact, literalists unwittingly ascribe to the Bible the status of being “fully human and fully divine” that is normally reserved only for Jesus.

But is that really the point? Is Moses really supposed to come off as a murderer? And, for that matter, is the Old Testament God supposed to come off as a genocidal and egocentric bully?

And was God himself supposed to be a “complicated person with feet of clay”?  The most telling thing, though, is Lose’s final sentence here.  While all the other stuff in the Bible could be metaphor, or fictional, Jesus himself is “fully human and fully divine” without a scintilla of doubt.  If he wasn’t, then Christians like Lose might as well hang up their faith. Why is the truth reserved for Jesus’s story alone, while everything else is up for grabs?  Clearly, some parts of the Bible are not negotiable.

109 Comments

  1. Egbert
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:07 am | Permalink

    Just to point out the absurdity and spectrum of Christianity, here is a useful article from the BBC in regards to ‘somethingism’ and about the mainstream protestant church in Holland, where around 1 in 6 clergy are in fact agnostic or atheist.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-14417362

    Reminds me a bit of Nietzsche’s madman but in reverse, but it does show that belief is not necessarily central to religion, as community and social relationships play a large factor.

  2. Jacob
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    The Bible itself treats many of the events (such as Noah’s ark) as historical occurrences. There is no need to re-interpret them. And what good, anyway, is the Bible if Christians can’t even agree whether certain events are literal or figurative? It renders the entire task of exegesis as utterly futile. The Christian in this circumstance cannot claim that it’s just too mysterious to be comprehended, like they do with the trinity, because the Bible is clearly meant to be understood by human minds. Any dissension from the inerrant view of the Bible can be attributed to its blatant absurdities and contradictions, which are evident even during the time of Augustine, and the subsequent difficulty that the Christian has in resolving these problems. It is not because the figurative interpretation is the more correct one.

    • Jon Hendry
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

      “The Bible itself treats many of the events (such as Noah’s ark) as historical occurrences. ”

      It doesn’t seem to me that it’s entirely clear whether references to such events are in fact intended as references to a factual occurrence, or whether they’re making a literary reference.

      If a Congressman on the floor of the House says something like “Just like when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star…”, it’s not evidence that he takes Star Wars literally.

  3. Mark Plus
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Augustine strikes me as an A- student who got dealt a bad hand by history, and he had to do the best he could with it. In a modern developed country, he might have become a competent but not probably not outstanding university professor in the humanities.

    • Allienne Goddard
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      Ha! I had a similar thought, though I felt sad for Augustine because I thought he might have been a greater contributor to the accumulation of knowledge had he been born later. I think we do forget how difficult it was to conceive of a “natural” world without a designer before, particularly, the theory of evolution. Such a simple and elegant explanation for an intractable problem: Why does life seem so well suited to its environment?

  4. Llwddythlw
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    Lose doesn’t say what he thinks of higher biblical criticism. I would be interested to see if he agrees with it and how he would reconcile it with his own views of biblical provenance.

  5. Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Lose’s position that biblical literalists are mostly only a phenomenon of the last 150 or so years seems to run negatively into the long history of Christianity. Surely there were early sects like the Gnostics who rejected literalism and embraced the apocalyptic mystery traditions of their day. It is however important to remember that such traditions were utterly stamped out by the literalists. Maybe Lose would prefer to call them the semi-literalists, or the mostly-literalists-who-had-a-few-non-literal-positionists. What I think is important to remember in all this revisionism on offer is that when Christianity held real, applicable political power their minor number of non-literal positions did little to offset the barbarity with which they silenced dissent, hunted heretics, and burned women. Literalism has always been a cornerstone of Christianity they just don’t have the power to enforce their literalism on us or each other. Nor do they have the power to censor information that would allow them to preserve literalist positions doomed by facts.

    • Jon Hendry
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      ” It is however important to remember that such traditions were utterly stamped out by the literalists.”

      I don’t think the winners were the literalists, the winners were the mainstream, the interpretive faction with power.

      And the Gnostics had their own scriptures to take literally.

      The factions that squelched the early “heresies” most likely didn’t read the Song of Solomon literally.

      • satan augustine
        Posted August 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        “…the winners were the mainstream…”

        But they were mainstream only because they were the winners. If the gnostics had been the winners of history, they would be mainsteam.

  6. Drosera
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    If Jesus is to be believed, at least the Gospels should be fairly reliable, because he said to his disciples:

    “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” [John 14:26]

    So, where did it go wrong?

  7. DicePlayGod
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that if religions give up on their claims that they have the facts right, then they have to come up with some convincing reasons why their religion is better than any other (or none). Does it help us understand human nature better? Does it lead to better behavior? A better world? And you virtually never hear any arguments like that, except the one where god is going to punish us for not doing what he says. Of course, that argument is hardly independent of factual claims.

    It seems to me that religions can’t afford to give up on their fact claims, because they have so little else to offer.

  8. PeteJohn
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    I see these arguments of anti-literalism as arguments that are actually good for non-believers. If parts of the Bible are to be rejected as literally, it’s because someone used their brain and thought, “Wait, that can’t ACTUALLY be true.” Now, granted, oftentimes some sort of excuse or tap-dance can always be cooked up to explain what the passage in question means metaphorically, but at least it’s better than blindly accepting the passage as literally true.

    It’s also a victory for our side in that it exposes the non-existence of ordered thinking about religious texts in general. What is the agreed-upon criteria for sorting metaphors from historically accurate sections? There isn’t one! What is the criteria for choosing which texts are valid? There isn’t one, though some dolts will talk about the “witness of the Holy Spirit,” which is a fancy way of saying “I’m sure in my gut this one is true.” This allows non-literal theists to be rather slimy, but at least it demonstrates how useless these texts are as sources of wisdom.

  9. MadScientist
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    I disagree with any praise for Augustine; he had the mind of a newt compared to many of the more ancient philosophers and mathematicians. Plato’s Socrates inspires us to question our assumptions to arrive at truth; he even questions the motives of the gods and the values attributed to the gods. The great Euclid’s works would be rediscovered and expounded upon by the Arabs centuries later and be an essential part of our civilization ever since. Eratosthenes, Archimedes, and even the whacky Pythagoras also made lasting valuable contributions to society. What has Augustine contributed? Nothing new – his recipes for self-deception predates him. There is nothing whatsoever to commend Augustine; he is only venerated because of the hearsay of the church – anyone with a mind who cares to assay his work would come to the conclusion that he was worse than worthless.

    • Nom de Plume
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:27 am | Permalink

      Hey, he’s got lots of churches named after him, doesn’t he? Well, doesn’t he?

      Ha! I’ve run rings around you logically.

      • Juggler_Dave
        Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

        And a German song – “Ach, du lieber Augustine”.

  10. Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for the article: My cross

  11. Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    The only people who read the Bible literally are atheists and biblical scholars. While fundamentalists claim to read it literally, they do so based on a very non-literal meaning of “literal.”

    • wilsim
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      I’ve noticed my believing friends and family that claim to take the bible literally have never read the whole bible, a whole book in the bible, and very rarely even a whole chapter anywhere throughout the bible.
      What they had done is read specific verses as part of their church homework. They (could) then claim they have actually read the bible. They then have the option to cherry-pick any verse or series or verses found piecemeal throughout the bible and claim “this part, right here, is factually true”.
      This also works to shield them from actually having to confront contradictions because i “don’t remember ever reading THAT in the bible!” is the copout excuse.

  12. Helena Constantine
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t follow theology myself–its pretty pointless–but Gerry might be interested in some recent Biblical scholarship that addresses the points he’s discussing here more sensibly (notice that even though at least one of the authors cited below is a minister, matters of faith and the supernatural don;t intrude into scientific work on the Bible anymore than it does into Evolutionary Biology):

    http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/memory.shtml

    http://www.bibleinterp.com/PDFs/Noll_Portrait.pdf

  13. Jacob
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    When I started reading that odious third point, which even if it weren’t egregiously dishonest should have been deemed irrelevant anyway, I was hoping you would go at it with guns-a-blazin’. You didn’t disappoint. Thank you. Big thanks to Grania, too.

  14. Your Name's not Bruce?
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    What is the means by which the “godliness” or “godiness” of the bible came about? If the bible is supposedly “The Word of God”, where did the “God” part come from? How did it get “into” the book? In Islam, if I recall correctly, it is claimed that Mohammad took dictation from an angel. However preposterous that sounds, at least the claim of some chain of evidence is made. Apart from Moses being given the tablets of the law at Sinai, is there any indication of how Yahweh (or Jesus for that matter) gets any editorial input that would justify the whole “Word of God” blurb?

    How did an aspiring author of one of the books of the old or new testament get “inspired”? How does revelation work? Did they take dictation? Did they hear a voice in their head? What is in any of these writings (apart from the subject matter)that would allow anyone to claim any sort of godly connection as opposed to them being the literary product of the kind of idiosyncratic brain chemistry that leads some people to believe they are Napoleon?

    And how does one decide between different holy books? Which one is holiest? Is there any way of comparing them to test their claims of being from any god or gods? If one simply accepts a holy book “on faith” one is also rejecting many more holy books without any basis for doing so. If your holy book is indeed holy, what makes the books of others unholy? Those who accept the divine origin of the books you reject have perhaps also come to their conclusions by means of “faith”. How does one decide who, if any of you, is correct?

  15. Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I’ll ask it again: Has Jesus — the Jesus who is sitting at the right hand of the Father and who will judge the living and the dead — has he read the King James Bible?

    If not, why should we? And, if not, how is that even vaguely compatible with the notion of an all-knowing judge who wants humans to live a life guided by the Bible?

    If so, why should it be taken as anything less than the absolute, literal, word-for-word authorized biography that it’s so widely marketed as?

    Either Jesus is happy for huge swaths of humanity to think that the KJV is perfect, or he’s powerless to set the record straight.

    But, wait. Huge populations also think the NIV is perfect and the KJV is flawed, or that any of the elebenty-one other translations is the One True Bible.

    Clearly, none of these facts can be reconciled with the proposition that Jesus is real, powerful, knowledgeable, and cares what people think of him. Even the most minor of celebrities could manage the job of putting out a press release to set the record straight. Hell, even a tweet would do the job. But the Divine Word and Supreme Judge can’t even manage that much?

    Clearly, something simply doesn’t add up here.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

      Well, if that’s true, I know where our investigation should start: Book of Numbers no doubt.

    • Posted August 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

      Ben – JC does tweet – http://twitter.com/#!/jesus and even has a couple of other accounts, e.g. http://twitter.com/#!/jesus_m_christ :-)

    • Jon Hendry
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

      “Huge populations also think the NIV is perfect and the KJV is flawed, or that any of the elebenty-one other translations is the One True Bible.”

      I could be wrong, but I’ve never heard of any edition having the cultish following that the KJV has.

  16. Stonyground
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    I don’t think that pretending that the Bible is a metaphor is very constructive. It seems to me to be necessary only if you want to go on pretending that it is some kind of divine revelation rather than just a fairly random collection of very old writings bound into one book. The only reason for the metaphorical approach is that the Bible writers, being a product of their time, were wrong about pretty much everything. IMHO the only way to understand the Bible properly is to look at it as just an old book.

    • Jon Hendry
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      ” were wrong about pretty much everything”

      I’m not sure they were wrong about charging interest. ;^)

  17. Kieran
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0123R6vjIoE Daragh O’Brien on evolution and the bible.

  18. Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    “Why is the truth reserved for Jesus’s story alone, while everything else is up for grabs?”

    I’ve tried several times, and I can’t condense my thoughts to an acceptably short comment.

    So, I’ll just be trite and say that Jesus just has to be true; the disquiet of finding out 30 years into being wrong is not something we humans are keen on.

  19. Mattapult
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Many Christians refer to Soloman as the wisest man in the Bible. I actually find the verse where he turns away from God oddly persuasive. If some that wise–who had real conversations with God, not just dreams or feeling–knows to turn away then maybe I should follow his lead. I doubt that’s the persuasiveness Lose was referring too.

    • Posted August 7, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Not to mention, the preferred Biblical passage about evidence for faith quickly devolves into a horror story about a zombie getting his rocks off by having somebody fondle his intestines.

      Sometimes, I think the Bible is a practical joke written by somebody in an attempt to see just how far he could string along the gullible idjits.

      Cheers,

      b&

      • Mattapult
        Posted August 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

        So if that somebody were able to see what their handiwork has become, do you think they would laugh or cry?

        • Posted August 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

          ‘Twould depend on the nature of the prankster I chose to imagine….

          b&

  20. TheBard
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 11:05 am | Permalink

    Spellling error: He’s right that the self-contained claims for Biblical inerrancy are WEEK . . . . (First paragraph after the first point).

  21. RFW
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Criticism of the bible in modern times started with Spinoza and Hobbes. See Spinoza’s “Tractatus Theologico-politicus” and Hobbes’ “Leviathan”. Tom Paine, the firebrand whose propaganda had a lot to do with the ultimate success of the American Revolution, covered much the same ground about a century later.

    Spinoza and Paine are quite readable; Paine, in fact, took pains to write in colloquial English to improve the meme uptake from his writings. Spinoza wrote in Latin, but his Latin wasn’t very sophisticated, so when translated (get the Dover edition) it’s easy to read. Hobbes is a harder slog.

    ISTM that there are three distinct views on the nature of the Biblical text: 1. The literalists (who, as another comment pointed out are far from literal); 2. The allegorists who treat the bible as a huge allegory or parable from which the reader must infer lessons on all manner of subjects; 3. Those who simply dismiss it as Stone Age writings of historical interest but without direct application to daily life.

    The allegorists seem to think that the bible is something special, but consider this: Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, regularly resorted to the I Ching for guidance. In both cases, the text used merely triggers thoughts in the reader, and almost any thought may emerge, depending on the reader, not the text. The little slips of paper inside Chinese fortune cookies would work just as well.

  22. Ian
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    “While all the other stuff in the Bible could be metaphor, or fictional, Jesus himself is “fully human and fully divine” without a scintilla of doubt. If he wasn’t, then Christians like Lose might as well hang up their faith. Why is the truth reserved for Jesus’s story alone, while everything else is up for grabs? Clearly, some parts of the Bible are not negotiable.”

    Erm. Sorry, but that last paragraph is a load of tosh.

    The two persons doctrine isn’t in the bible.

    And even if it were why do you think that in accepting it, Lose would be cherry picking on biblical authority? Or would have to have *any* doctrine of biblical authority at all.

    Can you really not conceive of any other way to arrive at a determination of what doctrines to believe than through a preceding doctrine of scriptural authority?

    Lots of your posts about theology show a tendency to be drawn back to interpreting any religious beliefs through your model of fundamentalism. Even when the point is to consider something that explicitly is non-fundamentalist.

    I think we share the same view on the quality of religious truth claims, not to mention most other matters of reason, rationality, and cats.

    But I’ve long been frustrated at creationists unwillingness to engage with the actual argument, and their tendency to always interpret anything in terms of their own crude caricatures. Features which tend to creep in to your writing about theology.

    Seems to me Lose is far more honest than Christians who claim to find doctrines developed long after the bible was written, in political arguments we have good records of, in the pages of the NT. I understand why one might “prefer” it if he were more of the lunatic fundamentalist type, as you said, but it might be better to engage with him for what he actually believes and why.

    • Ken Browning
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

      As the comments here indicate, the basic criticism of theology, including liberal theology, is one of methodology. We ask the liberals and the fundamentalists the same basic question: How do you know what you propose is true?.

      • Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

        We also challenge them when they come up with boldfaced lies. For example, we know without doubt that there was no great zombie uprising in Jerusalem in the 30s the exact same way we know there was no great Martian invasion of the whole planet in the 1930s.

        The same principle applies to all but the rare exception of the rest of the stories in the Bible.

        Cheers,

        b&

        • Ian
          Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

          Do you understand what non-literal means?

          It means its likely that he *doesn’t* claim that Matthew’s story of a general resurrection is accurate.

          Your comment is a (admittedly more barefaced) example of of what I mean by wilful misrepresentation and a failure to actually listen to what someone is saying.

          The use of “them” to homogenize people so you can dismiss everyone with stereotypes is shoddy and immoral, imo.

          • Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

            Perhaps then, if you’ll oblige me, you can tell me if the story of Jesus is literally true, or not-literally true. Did he exist, or he a plot device for the narrative to change?

            • Ian
              Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

              Which story? There are many.

              And what do you mean by ‘not-literally true’ – you can hide a lot of rabbits in that hat.

              I’m pretty confident “Jesus” existed. Or at least that there was an apocalyptic preacher called something like Yeshua who was crucified in Jerusalem, and that his followers and later converts made a religion out of his worship.

              Your last question doesn’t make much sense (I can’t parse the grammar).

              But I suspect your questions are actually rhetorical and you’re actually asking me to speak on behalf of Lose, or some section of Christendom. Which if so is rather obtuse request, if I may say so, since I am not a Christian, and my comment was about paying attention to what is actually being said.

              • Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                You’ll pardon me for having inconveniently left off the verb “is” out of my question. I can see now how that is capable of stopping you dead in your tracks.

                You claim that someone here is potentially not “listening” to the arguments actually being made; viz., not differentiating between literal and its opposite. I see no evidence of that all; indeed, it would appear that within the context of what’s being said, the issues are being addressed on their own terms and merits, and lack thereof.

                You aver that Ben Goren mayhaps fails to appreciate the difference between literal and non-literal. This you imply in response to his demonstration he understands that one is different than the other, and the extent to which that distinction exists.
                He said, “For example, we know without doubt that there was no great zombie uprising in Jerusalem in the 30s the exact same way we know there was no great Martian invasion of the whole planet in the 1930s.”

                Since you’re taking him to task by avoiding the words he used, I am directly putting it to you since you’re implying Ben might not “get it”. It is plain to me that he does understand the difference between “literal” and otherwise.

                So, since you’re implying otherwise, one is curious–in the context of the events he mentions–if you think that is literally, or not-literally true.

                I’m sure you’ll find some pedantry that will again stop you dead in your tracks, and I do in advance apologize for sharing a planet with a repository of intellectual perfection that you imagine you are. Didn’t mean to contaminate that with my unsavory, and highly intractably offensive crime of having a typo.

              • Ian
                Posted August 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

                I wasn’t trying to be a pedant. Sorry if that came over. And I certainly didn’t mean to insult you with that statement. I figured the ‘is’ – I didn’t understand “narrative to change”.

                Look, insults aside (some nice ones in your response :)) go back to the original. Lose says he isn’t a biblical literalist. Jerry accuses him of deriving his doctrine from biblical authority (and thereby cherry picking). I was just trying to say that’s not necessarily true (though it could be, of course) and for me it is indicative of frustrations I often have with Jerry’s posts on theology.

                It makes no difference what I or Lose think. I’m just suggesting we ask, rather than tell him what he thinks.

                As for Ben’s zombie apocalypse: If you’re asking opinion, I’m happy to give it. I think Matt 27:52-53 is a rather crappy apocalyptic fantasy added to the barebones (but equally ahistoric) resurrection account that Matthew acquired from Mark and various other traditions floating around the time. I can’t think of a sense for me in which it is ‘true’, literally or not. And I rather struggle to see how anyone could see it as being true. Though I’m aware they can and do.

              • Posted August 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

                I’m pretty confident “Jesus” existed.

                ORLY? On what evidence do you base your claims?

                Or at least that there was an apocalyptic preacher called something like Yeshua who was crucified in Jerusalem, and that his followers and later converts made a religion out of his worship.

                You do realize, of course, that the earliest recorded writings of those followers — in particular, the author of the Pauline epistles — never described Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher or anything that could be mistraken as such, no? Rather, Jesus was the eternal co-creator of Life, the Universe, and Everything, who was crucified at the hands of the “archons” of some vaguely-distant age.

                And there’s the fact that the only authorized biographical documents we have describe an individual whom even early-second-century Christian apologists described as indistinguishable from a pagan demigod.

                And there’s the fact that the various heresies had even more radically bizarre notions of Jesus, including the Ophites for whom Jesus was some sort of a snake god.

                So, really. What’s your positive evidence that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who was crucified?

                Or is this simply an assumption on your part that two millennia of Christians can’t be completely worng — that there must be at least some factual foundation to their blatantly obvious fantasies? If so, do you think there was an historical Krishna? Buddha? Hercules?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Ian
                Posted August 8, 2011 at 5:26 am | Permalink

                Ben,

                ORLY? – Yes RLY.

                Because I don’t take my information from mythicist blogs, half-rate scholarship and conspiracy theorists. I take it from a reading of the original source material, and 5 years of schooling in ancient history and 25 years of subsequent research, on early Christianity and other religions of the ancient Mediterranean.

                And I arrive at the point where I think it is *possible* that Jesus was a myth constructed whole-cloth, (there is no doubt among 99% of scholars that the Jesus Christ of the NT and of subsequence creeds is substantially a myth – a fact that many mythicists don’t realise, in my experience). But I think it is very unlikely.

                Still, I figured you were trying to force this into your mythicist chip-on-the-shoulder.

                If you need a crash course in early christian history, stop reading the mythicist propaganda and read some genuine scholarship. There is a reading list below. I say the same things to creationists: if you want to understand real biology, stop reading creationist resources.

                I’ve posted various things on my blog on how we do Jesus history too, e.g. http://irrco.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/mythicism-and-the-problem-of-sources/ (can’t post tons of links).

              • Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:25 am | Permalink

                I take it from a reading of the original source material

                Then perhaps you can enlighten me.

                First, just to make sure we’re on the same page: who was this historical Jesus you’re so sure existed? What facts and attributes are you confident in ascribing to him?

                Second, what original source documents support this hypothesis of yours?

                I’ll note that, exactly as with religious believers and their gods, every time I ask historicists for a coherent theory of Jesus and positive evidence supporting said theory, they flee for the hills. But perhaps you’ll be the first….

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Ian
                Posted August 8, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

                “Every time I ask a biologist where the real evidence for evolution is, they flee for the hills.” I’ve heard it put that way before. It usually means exactly the opposite, that they’ve been told and didn’t want to listen, or dismissed the evidence out of hand.

                For example, if you *really* wanted to know, you could just pick up any book on the historical Jesus (that wasn’t written by a mythicist) and find out. It would be really simple. So I suspect you have absolutely no desire to know at all, and you have just completely prejudged all the source material without having ever read it because it fits better with your ideology that the idea of a historical Jesus is a big conspiracy.

                We have, give or take, about 50 sets of early literary tradition about Jesus, more or less direct. Some of them we have in literally hundreds of variations (notably those that a few centuries later became part of the orthodox Christian canon), some of them we have in a single fragment, some only in quotation in other ancient works. They agree on almost nothing about this figure except that he was a human being, that he was a religious figure, and that he was crucified.

                I think it rather likely there was a religious figure called Yeshua who was crucified.

                It is possible, of course, that this was all a masterful propaganda campaign. That a select group of early Christians so thoroughly disseminated a myth so well that within 20 years of the purported date of this figure’s death, nobody could tell the difference. They faked folks who knew him, relatives, a history, biblical controversies, embarrassing moments, and so on.

                If they did, they credit to them. They did well. I think it is much more likely that a itinerant Galilean preacher, a disciple of John, came to Jerusalem at passover, was talking about being a messiah, got crucified for insurrection, and then his followers interpreted this colossal failure as some kind of spiritual success (as countless followers of failed messiahs have ever since). That’s the kind of process that happens all through history, and it is a better fit for the evidence, than some grand conspiracy.

            • RFW
              Posted August 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

              Boy, do I have a book for you!

              “The Historical Figure of Jesus” by E. P. Sanders; ISBN 0-14-014499-4.

              It’s rather like a biography of Shakespeare by an eminent American scholar: though hard facts are scanty, a fairly reliable picture of each man’s life can be constructed.

              I’m pretty sure it’s Sanders that concludes about the resurrection that, though we do not know exactly what happened, *something* happened that made a very deep impression on the followers of Jesus. Sanders is in no doubt that Jesus existed.

              “Jesus” by Michael Grant, ISBN 978-1-898801-90-0 is generally similar in spirit, but more of an analysis of the significance of Jesus’s revolutionary teachings.

              These two books may not be the end all and be all of modern Jesus scholarship; they’re just titles I picked up as remainders a couple of years ago. However, anyone wanting a lucid discussion of the biblical accounts without a heavy coating of sentimental religiosity could do worse than read them.

              “Know thine enemy.”

              • Ian
                Posted August 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

                Add ISBN 0801035856 Dale Alisons recent “Constructing Jesus” for an indicative book on post “3rd-quest” modern historical Jesus research.

                And ISBN 019512474X Bart Ehrman’s Jesus if you want a non-scholarly popular introduction to some of the issues and techniques of historical jesus research.

                And incidentally biblical critics and mainstream historians of christian origins are most definitely not the enemy. If you have the truth on your side, then good critical scholarship is *always* going to be your friend.

          • Posted August 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

            Do you understand what non-literal means?

            Why, yes. Yes, I do.

            Do you understand why there’s often little sense in ceding rhetorical ground to fools?

            Central to the story of Jesus is the Crucifixion. If there’s one biographical fact that everybody can agree upon about Jesus — even regardless of whether or not one realized he’s a fictional character — it’s that he was crucified.

            Of the four authorized accounts of the crucifixion, the first one in the book places it in the context of a mass zombie uprising. The non-literalists would have us believe that Jesus was literally crucified, but that the passage describing his crucifixion was not literal.

            Can you not see how utterly batshit insane this position is?

            Cheers,

            b&

            • Jon Hendry
              Posted August 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

              “Can you not see how utterly batshit insane this position is?”

              Doesn’t seem terribly batshit insane. Something happened, but the reporting was flawed. Happens all the time.

              Just look at mainstream science reporting. Rarely bears more than a passing resemblance to the research being reported on. Doesn’t mean the research didn’t happen.

              If as Lose argues, the Bible is not inerrant, and is not all to be taken literally, then that’s plenty of justification for discarding passages like the post-crucifiction walking dead.

              • Juggler_Dave
                Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

                But what then is the rule or set of rules for determining what is not to be discarded? Sounds good to discard something that is contradictory or impossible, but just because something sounds nice or reasonable doesn’t mean the big man upstairs had a hand in getting it written down. This is what I expect never to see – a set of rules that makes sense for determining what to leave in and what to leave out.

              • Notagod
                Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

                Thus, It becomes useless as a guide to proper morality and a useful tool for those that want to manipulate and deceive people.

            • Ian
              Posted August 8, 2011 at 5:42 am | Permalink

              “Can you not see how utterly batshit insane this position is?”

              No. From what I’ve read of the sources, and of non-Christian ancient texts, it seems to me to be both very likely and incredibly common.

              The death of Julius Ceasar, for example, was described in many fantastic ways in a range of popular accounts. With knifes miraculously dissolving, curses, skies going black, and the like. But we don’t doubt he actually died at the hands of a plot.

              In the case of Matthew adapting Mark and other sources, it seems perfectly reasonable that he takes the crucifixion story and embellishes it in ways that fit his rather batshit apocalyptic. Countless other writers from antiquity to the modern day do just the same.

              • Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:35 am | Permalink

                The death of Julius Ceasar, for example, was described in many fantastic ways in a range of popular accounts.

                But not in those, for example, of Suetonius and Plutarch.

                So, where is the evidence of the Crucifixion that’s not plagued by such nonsense?

                In the case of Matthew adapting Mark and other sources, it seems perfectly reasonable that he takes the crucifixion story and embellishes it in ways that fit his rather batshit apocalyptic.

                Elsewhere you dismiss John as an unreliable account of the life of Jesus. Here you likewise dismiss Matthew. I presume Luke is out, as well; after all, he opens with an account of the game of telephone he’s playing.

                So, how reliable a source is Mark, in your opinion? Are you not at all disturbed by the opening passages with voices from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of god who does personal battle with Satan?

                I’ll ask it again. You make some mighty extraordinary claims — namely, that a run-of-the-mill pagan demigod actually manifested in first-century Judea. What is the nature of the extraordinary evidence with which you support these claims?

                Cheers,

                b&

              • Ian
                Posted August 8, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

                “But not in those, for example, of Suetonius and Plutarch.”

                No. The circumstances of the death of Ceasar are much better attested than the circumstances of the death of Jesus.

                “So, how reliable a source is Mark, in your opinion? Are you not at all disturbed by the opening passages with voices from heaven declaring Jesus to be the Son of god who does personal battle with Satan?”

                None of the sources are reliable! Seriously, this is remedial stuff. Please go and read some proper scholarship on it.

                “You make some mighty extraordinary claims — namely, that a run-of-the-mill pagan demigod actually manifested in first-century Judea.”

                No, no no no no no no no no no no. Please *read my comments*. I make no such claim! I deny it explicitly! Sheesh, its like debating a wall.

      • Ian
        Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

        Of course. I’m neither ignorant of that nor unamenable to it.

        My frustration is that “you” don’t seem to listen when they try to tell you.

        (“you” since you used “we” for what I infer is solidarity)

        • Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

          Being unconvinced by what “they” try to tell “us” is not the same as not listening.

          It’s not “our” problem that none of the arguments put forward by any theists, be they fundamentalist or liberal, meet even the lowest of evidentiary standards.

          • Ian
            Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

            No, of course. Who said it was?

        • Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          Is there something about long quotations and point by point responses that generally indicates one isn’t engaging the points being made?

          Want a different response – have people say things that make more sense.

          All of the arguments “you” have are the same as the arguments from 20 generations ago. The arguments failed then and have not improved. Why should I work on developing better rebuttals when “you” have put no effort into making up new arguments?

          Further, that my previous paragraph is true doesn’t imply in the slightest that “we” don’t listen. “We” hear you; “we” hear the sales pitch. “We” just aren’t buying the product because after the sales pitch, there is no demonstration.

          Even traveling vacuum cleaner salespeople know better: talk about the product, then use it do something to show it a.) exists, b.) works, and c.) isn’t a waste of time & money.

          • Ian
            Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

            Given that my comment was about not listening to what is being said, I really hope you’re not trying to suggest I’m a theist.

            • Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

              Replace “you” with “one” if you feel better about it. I was just following your lead in scare quotes on pronouns for emphasis. It’s irrelevant if you are a theist; my argument doesn’t turn on such a trivial factor.

              The fact is that the arguments under consideration are not new; they’ve existed in one form or another for eons. They were no more valid than now; to the extent that your claim of not listening has any relevance, it’s to the extent that these arguments have been handily refuted.

              It wasn’t done on accident. It came as a result of listening/reading and then carefully analyzing them. Thereafter, came the rejection for want of cogency.

              Moreover, you’ve conveniently sidestepped answering a single question put to you by implying that what I’ve said putatively is related to your status as theist or not, as though this feature serves any function in what I said.

              • Ian
                Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

                Lose wasn’t giving an argument for the existence of God, but an argument on why the bible couldn’t be interpreted literally.

                To then suggest that the guy holds a doctrine (which we don’t, incidentally even know he does hold) that isn’t even *in* the bible, on the grounds of biblical authority, is just sloppy.

                You certainly don’t have to convince me that the grounds for belief in God is lacking. But we can do better in the discussion. Otherwise we, as atheists, just live right up to our stereotypes.

              • Notagod
                Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

                Each christian has there own god-idea, if you want to debate each christian to exhaustion that’s your business but, you shouldn’t expect others to do likewise. The basis of christianity is their guide book, once that is discredited, as it has been, there is no need to also laboriously discredit each of the millions of christian god-ideas.

                You are setting yourself a task that is endless and expecting others to follow your leader.

              • Ian
                Posted August 8, 2011 at 5:05 am | Permalink

                “The basis of christianity is their guide book,”

                Easy to assume what you’re trying to prove. But the original poster was claiming exactly the opposite.

          • Ian
            Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

            … and I wonder if you actually read Lose at all, since his piece is not every trying to present evidence for the existence of God, but to discuss the problem of interpreting the bible literally.

            • Ian
              Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

              every->even

    • Darth Dog
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      I think that you aren’t being fair Ian in saying that “we” don’t listen to more sophisticated Christians interpretation of the Bible. I have lots of discussions with friends who have very similar views to the ones expressed by Lose. Of course the gospels differ. They were written by different people many years after the event. Of course there is stuff in them that we don’t agree with. They were written by people in the culture of the first century. They interpret the gospels as writings by people who are just describing the events of Christ’s life as best they can. But the problem I always have with that is I see no reason to accept Christ’s divinity as true, just because he said so. The same way my liberal Christian friends have no trouble rejecting claims they read in the paper about alien abduction or whatever. What does “divinely inspired” mean and what does it apply or not apply to?

      • Ian
        Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

        “What does “divinely inspired” mean and what does it apply or not apply to?”

        It means very many things to different people. You’ll have to ask someone who has a theology of divine inspiration. To some it means nothing more than the folks who wrote the bible were Christians. To others it might mean that those who decided the canon were inspired, to yet others it might mean that the bible was dictated by the voice of God.

        I have no clue what Lose believes. But I know there are plenty of ways to derive a theology of doctrine independent of scriptural authority. Lose might subscribe to some variant of one of them.

        I disagree with them, incidentally, because I’m an atheist.

        But that wasn’t my point. My point was to try to draw attention to the that last paragraph. We can decide that someone’s reasons for belief are insufficient, or fallacious, or tendentious. But it doesn’t help anyone if we’re discussing beliefs they don’t hold.

        • Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

          But I know there are plenty of ways to derive a theology of doctrine independent of scriptural authority.

          And what, therefore, is the evidentiary basis for such a theology? Lacking evidence, why should one even pretend that it’s anything but the exact same variety of bullshit as theologians spew everywhere else?

          b&

          • Ian
            Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            You shouldn’t. I think theology is an exercise is pure post-hoc rationalisation. It can be pretty good at that.

            All I’m saying is that if I want to believe “crazy proposition X”, I don’t *have* to go through “I believe it because I think it is contained in this book, which is the divinely inspired word of God”. That might be the preferred justification of a lot of Amercian Christians, but it isn’t obligatory.

            Look, I’m an atheist. I think ultimately all theology is an exercise in angels on pinheads. But my whole point is that if you want to debate someone, then it is a good idea to actually make some effort not to wilfully misrepresent them. Do you have to admit they have a good point? No, not if they don’t. Do you have a basic human moral obligation not to tell lies about them? Yes, I think you do.

      • Ian
        Posted August 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

        Incidentally, and rather following a tangent. I would suggest there are very few critical scholars of the bible and early Christianity who would claim that Jesus thought of himself as divine, let alone that he ever claimed to be such.

        [Except in as much as he *might* have used phrases like "son of God", which of course are only interpreted as claims of divinity because of the Christology that developed later -- I could claim to be a "son of England" withough claiming to be a country. Though there is some good historical grounds to doubt he even used son of God language.]

        • Posted August 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

          I would suggest there are very few critical scholars of the bible and early Christianity who would claim that Jesus thought of himself as divine, let alone that he ever claimed to be such.

          Excuse me?

          John 14:6 Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

          Do you have any idea how many similar statements there are throughout the Gospels?

          Here’s one at random.

          John 10:34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?

          35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;

          36 Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?

          37 If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.

          38 But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.</blockquote.

          Either you're quite perversely misrepresenting the overwhelming majority of "critical scholars," or the entire lot of them are complete and total blithering fucking idiots.

          Well, I suppose it could be both….

          Cheers,

          b&

          • greg byshenk
            Posted August 8, 2011 at 4:51 am | Permalink

            Just quoting Bible passages really doesn’t work well for this sort of thing.

            I’m no Biblical scholar, but my understanding of current scholarship is that “John” is a late book having a particular theological slant, and therefore not a good guide to the views of the “historical Jesus” (whomever he might have been, presuming that he existed in some meaningful way).

          • Ian
            Posted August 8, 2011 at 5:32 am | Permalink

            Confusing what the bible says with what scholarship of early Christianity says is rather a silly mistake.

            Try actually reading some critical work on John. Or on the development of Christology. It is fascinating historical stuff.

            And you’ll find it actually supports your atheism. There is no better ally to atheists, I think, than good biblical scholarship.

            • Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:39 am | Permalink

              Confusing what the bible says with what scholarship of early Christianity says is rather a silly mistake.

              Then either this scholarship is based on extra-biblical evidence which I’m sure you’ll be glad to point me to, or it’s naval-gazing bullshit.

              b&

              • Ian
                Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                No its based on historical research, with the bible as an unreliable source text. The bible is *just a bunch of ancient documents*. Serious biblical scholarship doesn’t treat it as some magical or privileged book. It is just a bunch of documents. In fact it is many such documents, as different manuscripts of books that later (300 years later, incidentally) came to be part of the orthodox Christian scripture, are found in many variations.

                Just like any other ancient set of texts. If you are *any* kind of historian, of any time, you don’t read texts uncritically. You apply certain tests and a historical methodology.

                You use the fact that often incredible details accrue around mundane events, and by considering the context, the details of the texts themselves, and the uses those texts were put to, you can reconstruct a spectrum of possibility. From things that are reasonably likely through to things that are almost certainly untrue. Specific details can move around on there, and *everything* is subject to new data (but frustratingly history often is limited in its ability to provide new data, though in the last 100 years we’ve found masses of new source material on Christian origins – most of which runs directly counter to many orthodox doctrines and was therefore supressed).

                There’s nothing different about this process whatever text you do it to. You do this through a whole bunch of techniques, textual-criticism, source-criticism, statistical linguistic analysis, redaction criticism, analysis of achaeological evidence, and more recently from research into memory and psychology.

                And you do it all with a methodological naturalism and the assumption that the text is *not* privileged. That is why good biblical scholarship is an atheists friend.

                I’m sorry that the mere mention of the bible sees you foaming at the mouth. But once again, I’d encourage you to stop assuming that you’re a lone voice among the loonies and actually read some of the stuff you think you’re railing against.

          • Ian
            Posted August 8, 2011 at 5:36 am | Permalink

            “or the entire lot of them are complete and total blithering fucking idiots.”

            Odd, since you think Jesus didn’t exist. So why would you think these words were Jesus’s words?

            And if you think they weren’t, why do you think that biblical scholars would disagree with you? It would be rare (but not impossible) to find a scholar who things Jesus actually said those things. There are very good historical reasons that he almost certainly did not.

            They are rather related to the kinds of arguments you obvious read in mythicist blogs and videos, but the actual scholarship is far more detailed and specific.

            As comes up with creationists all the time, if you with no relevant specialist education in the field can trivially see right through the detailed scholarship of the leading researchers in the field. Then it is far more likely that you’re missing something than that they are all “blithering fucking idiots”.

            • Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:44 am | Permalink

              Odd, since you think Jesus didn’t exist. So why would you think these words were Jesus’s words?

              Of course I don’t think they were Jesus’s words, any more than I think , “Luke, I am your father,” were Darth Vader’s words.

              But it’s the only evidence we have for one Jesus of Nazareth. If direct quotes attributed to him and widely preached as being authentic aren’t reliable, then what sense does it make to claim that anything else in there is reliable?

              And without anything that even pretends to masquerade as a reliable source, and in the face of strong Christian evidence to the syncretic origins of Christianity (vis. Justin Martyr), how can any rational person come to the conclusion that the liars-for-Jesus are right about the central, most important, least-evidenced, most-contradicted claim of all in the face of all the rest of their lies?

              As comes up with creationists all the time, if you with no relevant specialist education in the field can trivially see right through the detailed scholarship of the leading researchers in the field.

              This is the Courtier’s Reply, of course. Upon what “evidence” do these so-called “scholars” base their conclusions? Evidence, man. Evidence!

              Cheers,

              b&

              • Ian
                Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

                This is the Courtier’s Reply, of course. Upon what “evidence” do these so-called “scholars” base their conclusions? Evidence, man. Evidence!

                But can’t you see how this is exactly a creationist saying “We need *Evidence* for evolution. Where’s the *Evidence*. There is none. I’m not going to actually read your stinking books, because they’re worthless unless you actually give me the evidence.”

                Seriously go buy Ehrman’s (who isn’t a Christian and is a damn good biblical scholar) “Jesus Interrupted”, or “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium”. Both describe the source material and the historical methodology is some detail. Hell, if you could find a way to send me your details, I’ll buy you the book.

                Either will show you that biblical scholarship is *not* theology. And I would strongly contend that it *does not* support the claims of the faithful.

    • Posted August 8, 2011 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think (of course, I won’t claim to know his mind) Jerry was trying to demonstrate what doctrines Lose actually holds. Only that the project of “de-liberalizing” the Babble doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously. What are the criteria for discerning “true” bits from “metaphorical” bits? If Lose can even articulate some criteria, how did he arrive at these criteria? (Hint: secular reasoning.) And, finally, if, as time marches on, and the bible becomes increasingly de-literalized, what is the point of trying to retain one’s “Christianity”? I mean, this us god, here. You know, eternal truths and whatnot.

      Jerry’s just trying to demonstrate the silliness of the whole project.

      • Posted August 8, 2011 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

        Jeesuschrist!

        “de-literalizing”

      • Ian
        Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Well, to be fair Lose didn’t ever claim that there were “true” bits and “metaphorical” bits. And he was told rather than asked how he came up with these determinations.

        Seems pretty clear to me he is using a loosely empirical set of criteria: if something appears to be wrong, and is irrational, its probably wrong.

        There’s lots of ways to have a faith without having *any* doctrine of scripture, however. As countless Christians and sects of many religions have shown over the years.

        I don’t see how someone saying that the bible is full of nonesense is “silly”.

        We might all thing his other beliefs are silly, but the point of his post is correct, surely? I object to the way that we don’t seem to believe he really does think that way. As if he can’t *really” be a non-literalist, because we understand literalists, and we know why they are stupid, so we’d “prefer” (as Jerry said) him to be one too.

        Look, ignore the guy if you want to. Ridicule his beliefs. Fine. But pretending he’s something other than he claims to be is just douchebaggery.

        • Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

          The silliness lied in determining the bible is full of nonsense, but retaining one’s Christianity, and then trying to create ad hoc reinterpretations of the nonsense so it seems a little less non-sensical. If you tilt your head. And squint.

          • Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

            Goddamntouchscreens!!!

            …silliness lies…

          • Ian
            Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

            It is a particularly evangelical characterisation of Christianity that assumes fundamentally that one’s faith comes from the bible. *That* is what I’m trying to draw your attention to.

            I think your observations are right.

            But you’re making the tacit assumption that you start from a position that the bible tells you what to believe, then you abandon that, and then why bother believing it?

            I think Jerry was making the same assumption. But it isn’t a good one. It is quite characteristic of right wing american evangelicalism, however. Plenty of them want to tell you that’s how it *should* be. That the bible is the source of their doctrine and faith.

            But, as we know that’s rubbish. What folks believe has very little to do with what is actually in the bible. As far as I can see the bible is *always* secondary in matters of doctrine. They may *think* they believe because of the bible, but they don’t. So when someone comes along and says “I don’t believe because of the bible” it is rather ignorant to say “do too”.

            • Ian
              Posted August 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

              ““I don’t believe because of the bible” it is rather ignorant to say “do too”.”

              I’ll add that I think the correct response is “so why *do* you believe?” Eventually given enough rope he’ll hang himself. But until then its rather unpleasant to go round attacking him for agreeing with you.

            • Posted August 8, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

              If the faith of people like Lose has nothing to with the bible, why are they trying desperately to salvage it with the silliness of which we speak? By trying to make it unsay what it says?

              And, whether or not Lose’s faith depends on the bible is irrelevant to the point Jerry makes that trying to make it unsay what it says is a silly project.

  23. Max
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    “I almost prefer the fundamentalist literalists . . .” I wonder whether the ‘almost’ is necessary here. It seems to me that there is a signficant degree of kinship between Prof. Coyne’s habits of mind and those of the fundamentalists. I don’t mean this as a criticism and I’m not trying to peddle the shopworn “atheists are just as dogmatic as fundamentalists” line. I just mean that there’s a common element of impatience with nuance and “sophistication.” There’s a shared belief that “facts are facts” and that “this stuff either means what it says or it doesn’t.” And of course there’s a common disdain for David Lose and his ilk, whether housed in religion departments or elsewhere in the humanities (or text-interpreting) disciplines.

    These commonalities likely have largely separate origins. I would say, for example, that much of what Prof. Coyne brings to the discussion of religion fits pretty comfortably into the framework laid out in C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures. Often, it seems to me, the real enemy isn’t religion, it’s “humanities types” (Prof. Coyne’s phrase from a few weeks ago).

    On the other hand, there is perhaps a more direct connection. The historian Mark Noll, in an excellent little popular work called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, has emphasized the great influence on American Protestantism of Scottish Common Sense philosophy and Baconian science — or rather a misunderstood and popularized nineteenth-century version of Baconianism. I’m not an expert on American history, but I found Noll’s narrative pretty persuasive. If he’s right, there’s an important sense in which fundamentalism is an attempt to be scientific, as science was understood by many Americans in the nineteenth century. And it should perhaps be no surprise that Prof. Coyne, a masterly practitioner of a discipline descended, however remotely, from Baconian science, would find it easier to talk to the fundamentalists than to other theologians. At least he and they can agree on what they disagree about.

    Just my two cents.

  24. raven
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

    “JC:

    Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.”

    Sure they have.

    The xians just fight wars among themselves. The winner has the right to declare themselves the True Xians with the True Doctrine.

    It started at the very beginning, with conflicts between the Jewish xians and gentile xians. Then the orthodox became the orthodox with more than a little bloodshed.

    The Albigensian crusade is estimated to have killed 1 million people and not one single Albigensian survived.

    The Reformation wars killed tens of millions and ended a whole 10 years ago in Northern Ireland.

    For now the violence has died down. There are occasional conflicts between and within sects that end in death but they are small compared to the past.

  25. raven
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    Historically the people who wrote the NT didn’t treat it as inerrant and god’s words.

    The writers of Matthew and Luke just rewrote Mark. They certainly didn’t look at Mark as anything but a spare parts bin. They had different view points than the first gospel writer and no hesitation about keeping what they liked, changing what they felt like, and discarding the rest.

    A lot of the epistles of Paul are known to be forgeries.

    “Criticism of the bible in modern times started with Spinoza and Hobbes. See Spinoza’s “Tractatus Theologico-politicus” and Hobbes’ “Leviathan”. Tom Paine,..”

    And Thomas Jefferson. Criticism of the bible isn’t new, or even old. It’s really old. The old Roman pagan philosophers read it and said what any bible scholar today will say.

    Anyone can read it and see that it is a kludgy, contradictory mess.

  26. TheBard1599
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    RE: Spellling error: He’s right that the self-contained claims for Biblical inerrancy are WEEK . . . . (First paragraph after the first point).

  27. Diane G.
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    (subscribing)

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    But what else can theology do? It can either clarify or obfuscate.

    There is very little to clarify, and what is of it gives the game away.

  29. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    There once was a Babble called “Holy”,
    that none could understand wholly.
    Many did try,
    words they let fly,
    the result was mostly ‘by golly‘.

  30. Jon Hendry
    Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    Jerry’s need for Biblical literalism to be an all-or-nothing deal reminds me a little of the people who can’t handle reading fantasy or science-fiction.

    Sometimes I wonder how hyper-literalist hyper-rational atheist types cope with things like Aesop’s fable of the fox and the grapes, or the grasshopper and the ants. Not remotely literally true, but nevertheless conveying lessons worth learning.

    Personally, I figure a decent rule of thumb for determining where something in the Bible sits on the literal->fable continuum is that Old Testament is more likely to be fable because it’s such old tribal history with the requisite exaggerations and such. New Testament is at least set in a time of increased literacy, trade, and settlement, so is somewhat more likely to be true-ish. At least, more likely than Noah’s Ark, the Tower of Babel, etc. Beyond that, common sense applies.

    • Posted August 7, 2011 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

      Jon Hendry:
      I take your point entirely. Point of clarification, so that we’ll know (and perhaps so that Jerry will know as well) – is it better to read it as fantasy or science-fiction?

      I think I’d be comfortable either way, but I’m willing to be nudged into one camp or another.

    • Peter Carlton
      Posted August 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Jerry has a “need” for Biblical literalism at all…
      Rather, the criticism is that people who claim to be able to choose between the parts that are totally made up and the parts that are not, are usually not using evidence such as independent historical attestation through archaeology or other written accounts, but rather they are using what feels right to them, or what their priest told them, or what is currently politically convenient.

      And you do not seriously wonder how anyone “copes” with Aesop’s fables, do you?

    • raven
      Posted August 8, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

      “JH

      Beyond that, common sense applies.

      Common sense says even the NT is mostly fiction. A lot of the NT is almost universally regarded as forged, many of Paul’s letters.

      The consensus among biblical scholars, many of whom still identify as xians, is that the gospels were a literary form, jesus fan ficition. That’s why they are all different, despite 2 being derived from Mark.

      FWIW, even after 2,000 years of suppression, we still know of ca. 60 other gospels. Jesus fan fiction was a popular pastime. The ones in the bible were chosen for their theology.

    • raven
      Posted August 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

      “JH

      Jerry’s need for Biblical literalism to be an all-or-nothing deal reminds me a little of the people who can’t handle reading fantasy or science-fiction.”

      You seem to be confused here.

      JC is an atheist and doesn’t much know or care which parts of the bibel are true and which aren’t.

      It’s the fundie death cult xians who need it and they say so constantly.

      To the point of trying to sneak their mythology into our kid’s science classes, hating science and scientists, and threatening to kill and occasionally beating up scientists.

      The numbers are dismal. 26% of the fundies are Geocentrists and can’t diagram the solar system. 20-40% of the US population are creationists who think the universe is 6,000 years old.

      The flat earthers are almost all gone but a lot of fundies think the moon is a self illuminated disk because it says so in Genesis.

  31. vel
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    gee, outright lies and the usual magic decoder ring claims. How unsurprising.

  32. KP
    Posted August 8, 2011 at 7:29 am | Permalink

    This part made me say WTF?:

    “Earlier Christians…simply didn’t imagine that for something to be true it had to be factually accurate…four gospels that diverged at different points…was instead seen as a faithful and fitting recognition that God’s truth as revealed in Jesus was too large to be contained by only one perspective.”

    Huh? For something to be true it doesn’t have to be factually accurate??????? Oh, but it’s SO true that it can’t be contained in a document that’s accurate. Whatever. I’d like to revise Sam Harris’ statement. Theology is bullshit with wings.

  33. Posted August 8, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Ian, forgive me for starting a new top-level reply. There’re a half-dozen sub-sub-sub-sub-threads above worth replying to, all with similar points. I think it’ll be more readable to consolidate them here.

    For example, if you *really* wanted to know, you could just pick up any book on the historical Jesus (that wasn’t written by a mythicist) and find out.

    [...]

    We have, give or take, about 50 sets of early literary tradition about Jesus, more or less direct.

    [...]

    None of the sources are reliable!

    [...]

    [The conclusion of an historical Jesus is] based on historical research, with the bible as an unreliable source text.

    [...]

    But can’t you see how this is exactly [like] a creationist saying “We need *Evidence* for evolution. Where’s the *Evidence*. There is none. I’m not going to actually read your stinking books, because they’re worthless unless you actually give me the evidence.”

    Seriously go buy Ehrman’s (who isn’t a Christian and is a damn good biblical scholar) “Jesus Interrupted”, or “Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium”. Both describe the source material and the historical methodology is some detail. Hell, if you could find a way to send me your details, I’ll buy you the book.

    If a creationist asks me for evidence of the validity of the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection, I will summarize, as succinctly and accurately as possible, the DNA evidence that demonstrates a closely-interrelated web of life and the fossil evidence showing morphological changes — hominids, horses, and whales are all particularly well-documented examples, especially on the ‘Net. I would also mention Richard’s wonderful thought experiment of a girl holding hands with her mother and the rest of her maternal ancestors, a chimpanzee doing the same, and the two lineages converging some millions of years ago. Where to go from there would depend on the particular objections (if any) the creationist raised.

    I am asking for you to do something similar.

    You’ve repeatedly simultaneously claimed that, in essence, there are no reliable sources for the historicity of Jesus but that somehow the weight of historical evidence still supports his historicity.

    You’ve summarized your theory of Jesus as follows:

    I think it is much more likely that a itinerant Galilean preacher, a disciple of John, came to Jerusalem at passover, was talking about being a messiah, got crucified for insurrection, and then his followers interpreted this colossal failure as some kind of spiritual success (as countless followers of failed messiahs have ever since). That’s the kind of process that happens all through history, and it is a better fit for the evidence, than some grand conspiracy.

    If you wish to convince me, please start with two brief data sets:

    * The best three citations you’re aware of that support your thesis, be they Biblical or extra-biblical. The ‘Net is teeming with translations of Classical documents, so all I need is the author’s name and enough hand-waving for me to track it down from there. For example, you might mention Pliny the Younger’s correspondence describing his torture of Christians, and that’d be plenty for me.

    * The three best-documented examples of this process happening with somebody other than Jesus. Again, no need for anything exhaustive on your part; the names of the individuals would be plenty in this case.

    Instead, I think we’ll find that there’s still no “there” there: that none of your “50 sets of early literary tradition” are any more substantive than the comparable sets of documentation for Hercules, Orpheus, Horus, or any of the rest; and that the process you’re suggesting is common is, in fact, unprecedented.

    But maybe you’ll be the first to point me to this elusive evidence that nobody else ever has. We’ll see.

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted August 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      Ben – as you and most of the rest of us here well know, there will be no evidence presented to address your requests. As a ‘quasi NOMA’ I see science as a self-correcting, continuing, communal effort and religion as an ultimately idiotypic endeavor that is based on nothing resembling scientific evidence. Even within one of the myriad Christian denominations and sects, I don’t think there are two people who would hold the same beliefs regarding the truths of their faith. If all those who call themselves Christians were completely honest, the number of sects would equal the number of Christians. They all cherry-pick scripture, and despite claims to the contrary of “having a high regard for all of scripture”, they place higher regard on certain scriptures over others. Ham bets the farm on Genesis, Compolo hangs his hat on Matthew 25 sans the fire and brimstone, and Spong is not even considered a Christian by many, and on and on.

      I think that most conversations between atheists and Christians re religion are aikin banzo – worthless work.

  34. Posted August 8, 2011 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    “For many Christians, the Bible is like a software agreement – they don’t read it and just scroll to the bottom and click I Accept.”

  35. Posted August 9, 2011 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    “nobody takes every Biblical word as literal truth”

    Really? I’ve met a few.

    Also, you have “week arguments”; should be “weak”.

  36. Kevin
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    “Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.”

    This is a pretty bold statement. Would it not be more accurate to say that you’ve not found anyone that has found convincing way to “winnow the truth from the metaphorical?” You might be right about this, but unless you’ve done an exhaustive search of the literature on the subject, then you might have overstated your case here.

    I found the remarks made in this interview kind of convincing: http://www.npr.org/2011/08/09/138957812/evangelicals-question-the-existence-of-adam-and-eve

    Basically, John Schneider notes that Genesis is a text that is of an entirely different genre than the gospels. Genesis 1, for example, in the original Hebrew, is a poem. Poems are pretty different than from what, say, “Luke” was trying to do with his gospel:

    “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”

    On a more general note, even if there’s no way to divorce literal from metaphorical truth, there are some Christians who might reply, “Who cares?” To be sure, these Christians are not really in the limelight, so its not surprising that they aren’t discussed here, but let me just drop one fellow’s name here who might have the aforementioned who-cares-reply: Marcus Borg.

  37. Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    The Bible itself tells us not to take the Bible literally – not just some of it, but all of it. Mythology has much more spiritual value than any literal interpretation.

    http://www.spiritofthescripture.com/id2292-16-scriptural-reasons-not-to-take-the-bible-literally.html

  38. Posted December 24, 2013 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    The Bible itself tells us not to take the Bible literally – not just some of it, but all of it. Mythology has much more spiritual value than any literal interpretation.

    http://www.spiritofthescripture.com/id2292-16-scriptural-reasons-not-to-take-the-bible-literally.html


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  3. [...] HuffPo, Karl Giberson, in attempting to “answer” a question posed by, among others, Jerry Coyne at WEIT, suggests that the Bible ought not be considered a single book: The Bible is not a book. It is a [...]

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