Uncle Karl tells us how to read the Bible

Karl Giberson is still wrestling in public with his faith, and I’m reminded of the last stanza of Carrion Comfort, by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Cheer whóm though? The héro whose héaven-handling flúng me, fóot tród
Me? or mé that fóught him? O whích one? is it eách one? That níght, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

Karl’s concern—as with all the folks at BioLogos (Giberson used to be vice-president)—is whether to take the Bible as metaphor or literal truth.  In a new piece at HuffPo, “The Bible is a library, not a book,” he comes down largely on the former side. Or does he?  He recognizes that much of the Bible is fiction and metaphor. The Adam and Eve story is an example, though Giberson deliberately avoids discussing how the falsity of that tale impacts Christian theology.

The biblical references to the fixed earth and the first couple require interpretation. You cannot simply read a book like the Bible — you have to read it through complex filters to properly understand it. The most obvious such filter is that of language. The story of Adam and Eve originated as a Hebrew oral tradition, which is a long ways from an English prose translation. And there are more complex filters related to culture, author intent, literary form, historical setting, anticipated audience and so on.

Application of these filters leads many readers to conclude that the biblical story of Adam and Eve was never intended to be read as literal history. The world “Adam” for example, is the generic Hebrew word for “man.” “Eve” means “living one.” The story is about a couple with the improbable names “Man and Living One,” who reside in a magical garden and take walks with God in the evening. It is far from obvious that this should be read as literal history.

And then Karl addresses a question I raised in a previous post: if the Bible is largely metaphor and fiction, how do we know which parts aren’t fiction? For if they all are, then fundamental tenets of Christianity, like the virgin birth, divinity, and resurrection of Christ, are simply stories. And even many liberal Christians assert that these “facts” about Jesus are non-negotiable—that is, if they are fiction then their basis for belief completely crumbles.

But how do we decide which parts of the Bible should be read literally? This question is often posed with an “Aha! I have got you” exclamation, as though the inquisitor is certain it cannot be answered. Jerry Coyne, in his endless quest to discredit all things religious, put it like this in a recent blog:

“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.Less triumphalist versions of this same question were posed to me by a radio listener this morning and a former student yesterday on my Facebook wall.

Giberson thinks the answer to this dilemma is “straightforward, even simple”.  What is it?  The answer is unbelievable:

The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous. It would be like going into an actual physical library and saying “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”

Acknowledging that the Bible is a library doesn’t do all the hard work for us, of course. But recognizing this at least lets us avoid the so-called slippery slope where a non-literal approach in one place somehow compromises a literal approach in another.

As you see, this is a complete non-response.  The question I asked is this: which parts of the bible are Harry Potter and which parts are Abraham Lincoln?  And how can you tell? Admitting that some parts of the Bible are literal truth and others fiction does not enable us to tell them apart!  What are the criteria we should use?  We have, of course, empirical ways of knowing that Harry Potter isn’t real but Abraham Lincoln was.  We can’t apply those criteria to the divinity or resurrection of Jesus, and many scholars aren’t even certain that Jesus existed.

Giberson’s real answer, of course, would probably be something this: “I just know that the stuff about Jesus is real. Therefore I needn’t use external or historical criteria to distinguish Biblical fact from fiction.  I know the answer by revelation—by what the church tells me and by what I feel in my heart.”

As always, interpreting the Bible rests on a combination of wishful thinking and making stuff up.


UPDATE:  Over at EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse has a longer and better critique of Giberson’s piece.  Here’s a bit:

As it happens, though, I do think a Christian has a way of evading this problem. He could conclude that the Biblical text is inspired only in the sense that its authors had genuine encounters with God that they then put down in writing as best they could. The words themselves are not inspired, they were written by fallible human beings. On this approach we simply abandon the notion of inerrancy, but that is good riddance to bad rubbish. To the Christian who worries that this leaves him without a firm basis for believing what the Bible says about Jesus I would simply ask what it was that convinced him of Jesus’ divinity in the first place. If it was really the complete historical accuracy of Genesis then we have a problem. But if it had something to do with religious experience, or if it was the result of positive changes in their life that occurred after coming to faith, then I fail to see how those reasons are diminished by taking a more moderate approach to the Bible.

UPDATE 2. Over at Choice in Dying, Eric MacDonald, a genuinely sophisticated (ex) theologian, also demolishes Giberson’s “library” idea. A snippet of his post:

The resurrection, in its literal meaning, is absolutely central to Christian faith as traditionally understood, that is, in accordance with the creeds and the consensus of the faithful, so it needs to stay put. That means that, by hook or by crook, Christian apologists will make the resurrection turn out to be confirmed by all the canons of critical historical scholarship, no matter to what lengths they have to go in order, to their own satisfaction, anyway, to do this. But there is simply no way that this can be done with Adam and Eve, as Giberson acknowledges. Therefore, since this story is linked to the meaning of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, and thus to the significance of the resurrection, this must also be held onto, and made firm, but, in this case, by means of figurative interpretation.


  1. sng
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:31 am | Permalink

    Circular logic is the best kind of logic!

    • Digitus Impudicus
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

      Because it’s circular, and circles are best, because of their roundness, which is better than other shapes … I’m tired.

      • articulett
        Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:47 am | Permalink

        circular logic works because circular logic works because circular logic works…

        (This would be even truer, of course, if I wrote the above in a circle.)

  2. Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:33 am | Permalink

    The Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences will surely crumble when a formal introduction is made.

  3. Frank Messina
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    The only puzzling aspect of all this is how Gilberson cannot be unaware of the fact that he has completely skirted the issue you raise – with his silly library analogy. The capacity for self-delusion in this person is truly impressive. Perhaps this is the surest sign of a “thinking” theologian.

  4. Divalent
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    It’s simple, really.

    – If it is absolutely central to my version of Christianity, it is literally true, even if there is good evidence it can’t be true. (Look! A puppy!)
    – If it is not absolutely central to my version of Christianity, and is flatly contradicted by strong real world evidence, it is quite obviously and clearly a metaphor, as any “proper” reading of the bible will show. Of course, knowing how to “properly” read and interprete that part of the bible may require a book length treatise to explain. (Look! A puppy!)
    – If is merely important to my (current) version of Christianity, it is literally true, unless the evidence proves that it is 99.99999999999999% certain that it could not be literally true. (What is the meaning of “know” and “observe”? And I should point out there is a guy in Montana that looked that this issue and has doubts… Look! A puppy!)

  5. Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:48 am | Permalink

    If I go into a library aren’t there sections “History” and “Fiction”?

    To expand upon his poor analogy, Jerry walks into a library and asks the librarian “Excuse me, where is the history section?”

  6. Sajanas
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:51 am | Permalink

    Does Giberson realize that this ‘library’ is made so that the later books include references, some of them quite deliberate, to earlier books? A better example would be that his library starts with Harry Potter, and then features other books that reference Harry Potter as if it were true history, and even fulfills prophecies referenced there. So, do treat seriously a history that includes one of the Boy Who Lived’s descendants as a primary character?

    Because the Bible expects us to do that with Jesus, since they trace his ancestry back to David and Adam, and Gospel Jesus references the ‘time of Noah’ and does a lot of things that deliberately reference various earlier scriptures. Not to mention that they get other, real history wrong. At best, what you have is a series of book written that describe what people believe, or wanted to believe, not what actually happened. Propaganda and fictionalization, not history.

  7. Kevin
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    I wonder if Karl realizes that he basically just asked your question again in a different form?

    OK. I get it. Library. Bound together in a single volume.

    Choose for me the “fiction” vs the “nonfiction” sections, please. Is Genesis ALL fiction? How about Exodus? Leviticus? Numbers? Deuteronomy? Ruth? Mark? Luke? John? Acts? Revelation?!eleventy!!??

    More importantly, how do you know what you say is true? Again, we return to something that should be trivial for biblical scholars. Evidence. Where is the evidence? Considering that this “library” was completed somewhere around 1500 years ago, that’s a LOT of time for the evidence of your truth claims to surface.

    Where, oh where, is the contemporaneous eyewitness corroboration that there existed a person named “Joseph”, who had a wife named “Mary” and a son named “Jesus”?
    Never mind the miracles…let’s put the cart before the horse.

    Myths, fairy stories, revisionist Jewish history, and some dietary guidelines for people with no ice. A little smutty poetry. Anachronistic “rules” to live by. That’s the sum total of the “library”.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:52 am | Permalink

      “I wonder if Karl realizes that he basically just asked your question again in a different form?”

      You’ve discovered the secret to sophisticated theology.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

      “A little smutty poetry” The Song of Solomon? Do remember that it is Abrahamic horror of sex that gave rise to the concept “smutty”

  8. NoAstronomer
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Has Karl ever actually been to a real library? You know, one where they have separate sections for fiction and non-fiction.

    I suppose Karl is going to tell us what these filters are and how to use them. Thereby setting himself up as the arbiter of morality.

    Dear Karl,

    Kiss my ass.


    • Chayanov
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Perhaps his assumption is that anyone who buys his “explanation” has never been inside one.

  9. Ken Browning
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:10 am | Permalink

    Giberson’s use of the library metaphor obfuscates the core problem. The necessary issue is not which parts of the collection are historical but which parts are revelatory. For this there is no adequate methodology. Historicity is only a subset of the slipshod process of declaring transcendent knowledge.

  10. daveau
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:14 am | Permalink

    Exercises in intellectual dishonesty. Futile.

  11. Matt G
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    I keep hearing the following: “the writer(s) of Genesis INTENDED it to be taken figuratively”. I’d like to know HOW they know what the writer(s) intended, and why, ~3000 years later, so many Christians (leaders as well as followers) continue to assert that it should be taken literally.

    • Wowbagger
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

      When theologians hear questions like this it is, to them, the cue to begin their well-choreographed tapdance and handwave routine.

  12. Tulse
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    The metaphorical approach to the Bible is nothing more than a variant on god-of-the-gaps — the only reason one takes a “metaphorical” interpretation is because a literal one has been made untenable. And what counts as untenable increases over time, as we learn more about science and history.

    Does Karl really believe that Adam and Eve were taken as mythic when the Bible was written?

    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:12 am | Permalink

      Aquinas certainly goes in to great detail about how Adam was the first man, and why it was right and necessary that Eve was created second and out of Adam’s rib. He treats none of it as myth.

  13. Jolo
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    This is the second time this month that I have heard “It is not a book, it is a library”. I am wondering if this is the new argument for the Bible.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:30 am | Permalink

      “I’m a man of one library.” — John Wesley

    • Tulse
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:38 am | Permalink

      Jason Rosenhouse has an excellent reply to this argument:

      Finally, what of Giberson’s proud declaration that the Bible is a library and not a book? The problem is something known as the unity of scripture. It is standard Christian theology that the Bible tells one continuous story throughout the entirety of its sixty-six books. Moreover, the Old Testament and the New Testament are so intertwined that it is impossible to fully understand the Old except in the context of the New. Indeed, Christian apologists often point to this unity as evidence for the Bible’s divine origin. (Here’s one example.) That the Bible is one continuous narrative, despite receiving contributions from dozens of authors separated in time by more than fifteen hundred years, can only be explained by invoking divine inspiration.


      That is why Giberson’s Harry Potter analogy is frankly ridiculous. No one has ever claimed that the Harry Potter books have a connection to the books about Lincoln. But people certainly do claim that Genesis is intimately related to Romans, or more generally that the Old Testament is related to the New. A better analogy would be that if we decide, in the course of reading the first Harry Potter novel, that Hermione is just a figment of Harry’s imagination (rather like Brad Pitt’s charcater in FIght Club), then that will certainly affect how we read the later books in the series.

    • Abbie
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

      Well, it’s a truth worth emphasizing. The Bible is indeed a library (or anthology), with a lot of different stuff all jumbled together. True believers take it as a unified whole, but they are wrong.

      But, as said above, the fiction and nonfiction shelves are hopelessly intertwined.

  14. NewEnglandBob
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    As I posted over at Jason Rosenhouse’s website:

    The bible(s) are not a library, they are a collection under one category in a library: “Fantasy and Fiction”. The “Science” section is where one goes for knowledge.

    • Abbie
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

      actually it should go under “historical sources”, and evaluated under the same heuristics we evaluate all historical sources.

      In the process, most will be thrown out as ahistorical legend, just as, say, the Epic of Gilgamesh is.

      Look, I know its fun to trash the Bible because its been misused for millennia, but its just a bunch of old writings. I think we can remove its power by examining it objectively. Vilifying it and its authors as scum of the earth is taking it way too seriously.

      • newenglandbob
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink

        Vilifying it and its authors as scum of the earth is taking it way too seriously.

        I did no such thing. You take it way too far. I love science fiction which is what the bibles were when written. The NT has been conclusively shown to be fiction.

        • Abbie
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:57 am | Permalink

          I guess I should have made it clear that I’m mostly discussing the Hebrew Bible.

          The NT is fiction? A bit of a stretch. Surely the gospels are, and the forged letters, but the “authentic” Pauline epistles record a historical situation (whether or not the author was actually Paul, someone was doing his job and writing those letters.)

          • newenglandbob
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            Ok, you admit 80 % of the NT is fiction but the other part which is claimed to be only a vision is historical? Sorry, that is hysterical.

            Yes a few parts of the OT is historical. SOME of the cities did exist. The rest are fables about characters who are 90% fictional. The Genesis II snake was real though.

            • Abbie
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

              I’m not going to retread this again, except to say there is more concordance than ‘some cities.’ The Torah is the part of the NT people are most familiar with, but it is actually not very representative for the rest of the Hebrew Bible. There is plenty of historical information in 1st Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezra/Nehemiah, etc. We can’t take them as gospel, but we can’t just dismiss them because they happen to be in a collection of texts that later people abused.

              • Tulse
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

                But Abbie, you’re continuing to argue a straw man. No one is saying that the Bible cannot possibly have historically real elements. What people are saying is that we cannot know which bits are historical and which bits are fiction without independent archeological evidence. Historical claims based solely on the Bible are meaningless, and finding archeological support for some events depicted there gives us next to no confidence that other depicted events are themselves historical.

                In other words, the Bible is useless as an historical document.

              • newenglandbob
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 6:46 am | Permalink

                And there is no archaeological evidence of the Kingdom of Judah. It was probably a dozen small villages until Jerusalem grew.

              • Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

                So… historical claims based on any written records are meaningless?

                as for the “kingdom of Judah”, I agree the evidence for a united Israel/Judah monarchy is scant, and that the “kings” probably amounted to tribal chiefs.

              • Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

                So… historical claims based on any written records are meaningless?

                That’s an exaggeration…but not much of one.

                Julius Caesar wrote a detailed multi-volume autobiographical account of his conquest of Gaul. As best I know, every archaeological dig to date has confirmed his account. We, of course, don’t have archaeological confirmation of all details there, but we can be pretty confident that Caesar was a reliable source.

                In contrast, the Bible — all of it — is contradicted by archaeological evidence on pretty much every detail of any significance.

                It’s great for anthropological studies; it tells us what the authors of the time believed (or, at least what they wanted to convince others to believe). But it doesn’t tell us anything about actual history.

                Many other documents fall somewhere inbetween. Josephus seems to be pretty reliable, but it’s also clear he had some agendas of his own he was pushing.

                It also can’t be stressed enough that, with rare exception (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls), all we have are copies-of-copies-of-copies that were originally penned in the dark ages. And we know that those copies got tampered with along the way; see the Testamonium Flavanium in Josephus.

                Historians like to pretend that they know more than they do, and they justify this pretense by protesting that, if we hold history to the same standards as other sciences, we wouldn’t know anything at all about ancient history. This is, curiously enough, the exact same protest that religious apologists offer: if we don’t accept the revealed truths where science has yet to offer an answer, we don’t have any answer at all! Both, however, are grossly overstepping the bounds of academic integrity. The proper answer is, we simply don’t know.



              • Tulse
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

                So… historical claims based on any written records are meaningless?

                No, but it strongly depends on the source, and whether they can reasonably be called “records”. Documents of the day-to-day workings of a government or city, sure. But a written “record” that opens with a talking snake?

                Let me throw this back to you — how do you suggest we evaluate the historical claims of written records? Should we treat the Odyssey the same way we treat the Domesday Book? Should we consider the Epic of Gilgamesh to be as historically reliable as Babylonian legal documents?

              • Ichthyic
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

                “So… historical claims based on any written records are meaningless?”

                First…meaning is not relevant to accuracy.

                Second, whether a piece of writing documents historical events accurately, obviously DOES require independent corroborating evidence.

                surely you can see that?

                if not, suggest you sit down and think about it for a second or two…

  15. Egbert
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    Moving the goal posts does not mean that the goal has disappeared.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      He didn’t move the goalposts. He merely pointed at them and said “there they are” without actually trying to kick a ball through them.

  16. Heleen
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    how do we know which parts aren’t fiction
    There is independent evidence from Assyrian / Babylonian sources for some of the kings of Juda / Israel. There are archaeological excavations that indicate that on the site of the present day Jerusalem actually a city existed, at least for the later kings. By around 700 BC there is an historical base. Historians and linguistic scholars have been a bit busy on that point.

    • Jim Jones
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:15 am | Permalink

      “Jerusalem actually a city existed, at least for the later kings. By around 700 BC there is an historical base.”

      So, because Scotland exists so does Harry Potter? Because London exists so does James Bond?

      • Tulse
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:22 am | Permalink

        Because Troy existed so does Zeus.

      • Abbie
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:02 am | Permalink

        Oh please, this line gets trotted out anytime anyone wants to claim there is a speck of historicity to the Bible.

        Heleen’s point is entirely valid: there is some historical confirmation for elements of the Biblical narrative. Not a lot, and only starting with the late, divided monarchy. But its there.

        Nobody here is claiming that historical evidence of a “house of Omri” means that the narrative stories about Omri are 100% true. Just that there was a house of Omri, and the Biblical authors were working from somewhat accurate historical sources. Not a lot to go on, but its something.

        • Kevin
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:17 am | Permalink

          As I said, revisionist Jewish history. So?

          How do get from “there was a real ancient city” to “Jesus was totally real and a half-god born of a virgin who performed miracles before he was killed and raised himself from the dead and therefore we can all get to heaven if only we believe in him”?

          The point is that if there are some historical VENUES listed in the bible, this in no way proves the TRUTH CLAIMS of the bible.

          Get it?

          • Abbie
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink

            Um, we don’t get there. Nobody here is making claims like that. As I said: historically verified claims in the Bible don’t validate patently ahistorical claims. The information about Sennacherib doesn’t make the story of magic man Elijah (or Elisha) true.

            Look, the Bible contains historical information, authentic at the very least to the 8th-6th century, involving Israel’s destruction by the Assyrians, Judah’s destruction by the Babylonians, and their restoration by the Persians. There’s a lot more to the Bible than the silly myths of the Torah.

            • Tulse
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:40 am | Permalink

              I don’t understand your point, Abbie — I don’t think anyone here is claiming that the Bible is complete myth and fiction. But the point is that we know the Bible contains authentic historical information because of independent, objective, archeological confirmation.

              The Odyssey also contains some historical information that was authenticated by Schliemann — what does that tell us about the historicity of the events described in the Odyssey?

              • Abbie
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

                Well, I think we can make judgements about the non-confirmed portions in a rational matter. Many seem to be claiming that the Bible is 100% fiction, except the exact points that happen to have outside confirmation. That would be a bit coincidental.

                And is this uber-scepticism applied to all ancient texts? We know the Assyrians exaggerated their claims to bias themselves, but do we dismiss everything they said as fiction unless it has archaeological concordance? Is that how history works?

              • Kevin
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:36 am | Permalink


                You’re arguing a strawman.

                NOBODY is claiming that the bible is 100% fiction. What we ARE declaring is that it’s impossible to tease out the fictional parts from the nonfictional parts.

                The fact that the bible contains (as I’ve said now multiple times) some revisionist Jewish history does not validate anything else within its pages. It doesn’t even validate the historical accounts — which even you yourself regard as suspect.

                But the argument theists such as Giberson make is that there are nonfictional parts that are quite aside from even the revisionist historical parts. Those things they take to be the core of their religious beliefs.

                Things like: a virgin giving birth to a half-god, that half-god performing hundreds of miracles before thousands of eyewitnesses, a showy entrance of that half-god into the country’s capital in a manner deliberately designed to declare himself as a king, a showy trial and bloody execution of that person, a resurrection of that person after death (along with hundreds of dead saints rising from the grave and walking about town in at least one account), and the bodily assumption of that almost-dead half-god directly into heaven, along with the claim that anyone who believes in this fellow will live forever (and according to a LOT of dogma will be raised bodily from the grave).

                Karl believes at least some of those things listed above are literally true. Me, I see myths and fairy stories and wishful thinking about the after-death. Him; he sees facts. He places those stories in the “nonfiction” aisle, regardless of the fact that they’re clearly unbelievable to any rational person.

                The fact those stories are set in places that we can currently identify on a map is quite beside the point. Are you claiming that because there is a real Jerusalem that we must then give credence to the above-mentioned fairy stories? How much of the “gospels” do you place in the nonfiction aisle?

                It also seems to be me that what’s being asked is not to decide which books of the bible should be taken at face value as accurate and which are to be declared myth, but which verses within the individual books. Are we REALLY to believe that the “historical” account of Luke as to the birth of Jesus is “real”? If not, how then can we declare ANYTHING within Luke to be a valid history? Who picks? You? Me? Giberson?

                Validate just ONE aspect of the “gospel” stories besides a location, and you’d have a beginning of an argument. Without contemporaneous eyewitness corroboration of the fact claims, and what you have is a boat load of codswallop.

              • Abbie
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

                ‘Are you claiming that because there is a real Jerusalem that we must then give credence to the above-mentioned fairy stories?’

                As I’ve said above, or below, or somewhere: no.

                I’ve also said that I don’t think any of the gospels are at all historical. It can simply be a case of the logic of recording history: was someone trailing Jesus with a tape recorder his entire life? No. It’s obviously a constructed history, built out of traditional sayings and misinterpretations of the Hebrew Bible.

                Same goes for the Torah, which is again obviously myth.

                How can we tell myth from fiction? I’m not an expert on it, but it’s what historians do. They must have criteria and heuristics. Those should be applied to the Bible just as to any other historic text.

                For instance, we have 1st Isaiah writing about Judah considering an alliance with Egypt circa 700BCE to fend off Assyria and Israel (!). Is that historically plausible? Sure. Would anyone have a reason to invent such esoteric geopolitics? Should we consider it provisionally true, without external evidence? Would we apply equal skepticism to an identical claim made by the Assyrians?

    • Tulse
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:21 am | Permalink

      Archeology also tells us that a lot of the Bible is pure fiction, such as the complete lack of evidence for any significant Jewish presence in Egypt during the time of the supposed enslavement.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

        Well, actually, there was a large period of time where the place we now call Israel was Egyptian territory. So, the Jews were “in” Egypt all along. Just not on the other side of the Red Sea where the “library” puts them.

        And, of course, one also has to note that it’s darned difficult to pinpoint the time of the so-called enslavement when the “library” only refers to him by title and not name. Surely, writers of an historical account would have actually named which pharaoh that Moses spoke to…but no. We never get an actual name that could be checked against — oh — actual Egyptian records. Add to that the utter absence of any archeological record of the 40 years of “wandering” by upwards of 2 million people, and you have a “library” that shouts MYTH!

        Of course, Karl will agree on that one. Exodus is mythological.

        But then, Karl, why do you insist that there was a guy named Jesus who performed miracles and raised himself from the dead? There is precisely and exactly the same amount of historical and archeological evidence for those stories as well — meaning zero. None. Nada. Bupkis.

        • TheBlackCat
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

          There is also the slight problem of neither Egypt having any record of all of their food eaten by pests, their water poisoned, a large portion of their population and all of their military wiped out. Add to that the fact that the massive social disruption and lack of any military would not have been ignored by the numerous enemies who were waiting for an opportunity to invade.

          • Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

            I’ve raised that point myself a couple of times in arguments about Exodus: certainly, I admit that the humiliation of losing Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea all at once might well have caused Egyptian authorities to remove all reference to any of those events. Such revisionism wasn’t unprecedented: they attempted to erase the heretical Pharaoh Akhenaten from the records after he, among other things, moved the capital city and imposed a new state religion.

            But even if Egypt did successfully expunge their own records of any mention of losing most of their workforce & army overnight, Egypt was a wealthy & powerful nation of conquerors. As such, it had many neighbours who would’ve jumped at the chance to balance the books. Also, I can’t imagine competing empires like Rome looking the other way once word was received that Egypt was defenceless.

            For analogy, I ask people to imagine that Nazi Germany lost most of the Wehrmacht & Luftwaffe one catastrophic night in early 1940. Even if the Nazis successfully covered it all up it’s a fair bet France, Poland & Britain wouldn’t have ignored it. Stalin might well have exercised his might at that point too.

            I’m not sure which part of the Exodus story is more implausible: that 2 million people vanished & wandered a desert for a generation without leaving a trace or that a powerful empire lost its king and army but nobody next door noticed, wrote it down or even tried to take advantage of the situation.

            • Sajanas
              Posted August 17, 2011 at 8:52 am | Permalink

              Rome didn’t exist when the Exodus was supposed to have occured (1400BC), but certainly the Hittites were around back then, and whatever empire was running things Mesopotamia. The first reference to ‘Israel’ comes from a Pharaoh too, though its around the 1300s.

              Its also important to realize that the Bible describes the Jews being enslaved for 400 years! Its one thing to say, oh, they cut the Jews off of the monuments, but its another to suggest that they opened up every tomb, destroyed every bit of buried papyrus and inscription, and removed all those buried villages free of pig bones. Its not just that there’s no evidence of an Exodus, there is no evidence of *Jews*, at all, in Egypt or elsewhere, until the 1300s and later, and not as an actual civilization until much later. People were still living in that area of course, but they wouldn’t have been distinguishable from anyone else.

              • TheBlackCat
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink

                Egypt was also at pretty much constant war with the Nubians to the south through most of its history.

    • Sajanas
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink

      The archaeological evidence and outside sources *are* history. The parts of the Bible that aren’t completely mythological (which is a fair bit) are at best, propaganda documents, where they’ve re-written history so that God has always won the Jewish victories, and their defeats were always God’s punishments.

    • RFW
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

      Spinoza, to whom I have referred before in other comments, considered that the OT was primarily “the history of the Jews”, interleaved with poetry, prophecy, and a few (n.b.: few) specifically religious rules: do this, don’t do that. I don’t recall that he touched on the degree to which the history of the Jews had been fabricated, but he sure comes across as a skeptic. As he did in his own time, to the degree that he was formally expelled from the Amsterdam Jewish community.

      Of the religious part, a great deal is now seen as being drawn from the common religious traditions of the eastern Mediterranean Semites, the same traditions observed, inter alia, by the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians later on. The discoveries at Urartu in the early 20th century made this clear. Other archaeological discoveries have shown that the Flood myth was known to the Babylonians and the OT account was very likely adopted (possibly indirectly) from that source.

      No doubt the OT historical account is in part based in fact, but it’s so entangled with spin and outright fabrication that no one, not even Karl Giberson, can say which is which.

      I keep harking back to Spinoza, Hobbes, and Paine as a reminder that criticism of biblical literalism is nothing new under the sun. Those who want to pursue the subject can do far worse than go back to these early pioneers.

      A further factor in creating the present-day mess is the practice of the Abrahamic religions of exegesis of the holy scriptures, in many cases torturing the obvious meaning to yield conclusions far removed from the original point – if, that is, there even was an original point.

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      There is independent evidence from Assyrian / Babylonian sources for some of the kings of Juda / Israel.

      which ones?

      and what about all the ones for which there is conclusive evidence AGAINST their existence?

      …or did you conveniently ignore the rest of the archeological data?

      • Ichthyic
        Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        I figure if there isn’t already, there really should be a link to Hector Avalos at this point, considering he worked for 30 years looking at the all the archeological data…

        Hector Avalos: How Archaeology Killed Biblical History


  17. Insightful Ape
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Eh, what? A library? What if you went into a library and all the books were lumped together with no way to tell fiction from nonfiction whatsoever? What if some of “presumed” fiction books made the basis of some of the nonfiction books? Wouldn’t you be suspicious that nothing in that library could be trusted whatsoever?
    But even that is not the worst part. When you see in the bible itself Jesus and Paul frequently referred to the Old Testament and took its stories quite literally, the only possible conclusion is that modern theologicians are pulling these claims out of their a-.

  18. TomZ
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Ah, I see, Harry PotterGod drowned all the baby kittens in the world except for 2 to teach a lesson about… something. And Abraham JesusLincoln, after signing the declaration of the constitution, personally killed those muslim redcoats with his thorny crown to save the good christians from socialism and feeling lonely.

    It so obvious which of these is fiction and which is actual history. It’s obvious because it’s obvious.

    Got it! Thanks Karl!!

  19. Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    How do we know really?

    why not let the real author of the Bible help out because he still exists.God has set the spirit part of man in us for a reason,can’t someone see this?…………… Look here, the Bible was written with spiritual guidance therefore even studying must be done with spiritual guidance if we are to understand it well. The Bible contains the mind of God really and no body can tell another persons mind except the persons spirit itself reviews…

    The fact is you will never make real sense out of the Bible until you allow God to help you.

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      Do you have evidence that God is the real author of the Bible?

      Did he author the books that were included in the Catholic Bible but not the Protestant Bible?

      • Tulse
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        Don’t be silly — the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon. You can’t believe anything in the Papist bible.

    • daveau
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

      So, you’re saying no one will ever make sense out of the bible?

    • early_cuyler
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink

      The sheer numbers of Christian denominations throughout history claiming “real sense” of the Bible shows how well that has worked out.

    • Sajanas
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:35 am | Permalink

      So, why do you even need the Bible then? Why does God need to help you interpret a book? Why should you value faith, when you clearly have just said that you need God to physically come down and adjust your head in order to think correctly?

      Just excuses for a book that doesn’t make sense when its so far removed from the mindset of its composition and its notions of goodness and holiness.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      This is what’s known as a circular argument.

      How to believe in god.
      1. First believe in god.
      2. Then, study the bible.
      3. Believe in god.

      Please learn this form, because all you’ve said is that we have to accept the fact of the existence of invisible moon men before we can understand invisible moon men.

      • daveau
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

        4. ????
        5. Profit!

        • Magicthighs
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:24 am | Permalink

          4. ????
          5. Prophet!

          There, fixed it for you

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Let me try.

      Here is a list of gods. Thousands and thousands of them. Exactly one of these thousands is claimed by you to be the “real author” of the Bible; yet, how can we take your word for it, when billions of people, over thousands of years, have believed with equal conviction that their god was the the One True God (or, were the Many True Gods, as the case may be)? The core tenets of these faiths are absolutely contradictory, so it’s obvious that they can’t all be true. Almost all of them must be utterly false. Any of them could be false. I can’t see why all of them can’t be false.

      How are we supposed to find a true belief in this sea of confused false beliefs? The way to decide between contradictory theories is with objective evidence. It’s easy — we all do it every day (the light doesn’t go on — burned-out bulb, or blown fuse? Try a new bulb; if it still doesn’t work, it’s the fuse. Or maybe there’s a third explanation you hadn’t yet considered. Keep experimenting until you find the answer.).

      You have faith in Yahweh of the ancient Israelites, but that doesn’t impress me, because the fact that your faith is strong does not mean that you are right. All I would need to counter that “evidence” would be to produce someone with faith in a different deity. Does either of you have robust, objective evidence? Is there a third explanation that you haven’t considered, that is consistent with all the observed facts, and requires fewer assumptions of things we don’t need to be true?

      Let me remind you that we sciencey types are curious people. We truly want to know stuff. But if you want us to believe in this spirit world, immortal soul, resurrected savior stuff, you’re going to have to show us the evidence.

    • Juggler_Dave
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:25 am | Permalink


      in all seriousness – please allow God to help you, then tell us whether or not you believe in the talking donkey (numbers 22:28). It will help me to understand whether or not you’ll believe in anything.

    • Matt G
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Right. And how will I know if he/she/they/it is/are helping me, and how will I know if it is the devil, or if it’s something I conjured up in my own mind?

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

      …the spirit part of man…

      Where is my “spirit part”, anatomically speaking? I’ve been looking, but I can’t seem to find mine.

  20. Nicolas Perrault
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The trouble with Giberson’s filters is that he will have to keep changing them all the time to keep pace with rigorous research in many sciences not to mention archeology and history. He should instead use the basic (and unchanging) filters of the scientific method aimed at sophistry, unreason, absence of evidence and blind faith. But then nothing would remain. An unholy and unacceptable result full of unbearable cognitive dissonance! Better to remain sealed off in a cosy bubble of delusional nonsense.

  21. Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    The trouble with the library analogy is that libraries may have sections clearly marked “fiction” and “non-fiction” (most put their bibles in the latter), but no section labeled “horseshit.”

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

      Do you mean the “Dan Brown” section?

  22. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    OK, so the Bible is a library. How was it decided which books were included and which ones were excluded?

    If you argue that the contents of the library were decided with ‘divine guidance’ how can you prove this? Especially as other religions and sects of Christianity differ over the books to be included.

    If a non-canonical gospel is validated which provides greater evidence of the existence and works of Jesus will it be included?

  23. Max
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    “. . . and many scholars aren’t even certain that Jesus existed.”

    Prof. Coyne, if you have the time, would you mention a name or two? Thanks.

    • daveau
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      I don’t know names, but here’s a decent summary of some of the arguments.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      G. A. Wells, emeritus professor of German at Birkbeck College, London, and author of Did Jesus Exist? (1975), The Jesus Legend (1996), The Jesus Myth (1999), Can We Trust the New Testament? (2004), and Cutting Jesus Down to Size (2009).

      American New Testament scholar Robert M. Price questions the historicity of Jesus in a series of books, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man (2003), and Jesus is Dead (2007), as well as in contributions to The Historical Jesus: Five Views (2009). Price is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of writers and scholars who study the historicity of Jesus.

      From Wikipedia.

      I’m sure Ben Goren will be along in a minute.

      • llwddythlw
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:38 am | Permalink

        Robert Price has a great webcast called “The Bible Geek”. You can download it in iTunes. The site is http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/biblegeek.htm. In each broadcast, he reaches into an e-rain barrel and picks out questions on biblical textual matters. It’s amusing when he reads (and is requested by the questioners to do so) the questions in a particular voice (Charlton Heston, Willem Dafoe, general German accent, general Indian accent, etc.).

      • Max
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

        Thanks. Somebody also mentioned Earl Doherty. G.A. Wells’s position seems rather nuanced, if we can trust Wikipedia (I’ll refrain from breaking the rules with a cut-and-paste). I’m still curious to know which scholars Prof. Coyne had in mind.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      We should probably differentiate between scholars who are agnostic about the existence of Jesus and scholars who argue for a wholly mythical Jesus. I think Richard Carrier, Hector Avalos, Robert M. Price, and R. J. Hoffmann are leaning on the agnostic side.

      I don’t have my references on this computer, so maybe just take my word for it 🙂 (or go out and confirm yourself!)

      • Max
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, J. I agree that the distinction is important.

        • Tulse
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          It’s also important to be clear what one means by “mythic”. Is it sufficient to merely have a preacher named Jesus around at this period for the story to be non-mythic? If I could show that a lumberjack named Bunyan lived in the Northwest, would that mean that his story wasn’t mythical?

          • Kevin
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I think that the meaningfulness of the distinction here is questionable.

            The current evidence supports one of the following contentions:
            1. Jesus never existed as a real human, but is wholly mythological. He was created as a heavenly intercessor by the Gnostics, and was later “humanized” by the Hellenists.
            2. Jesus is a concatenation of a group of Messianic preachers of the day. There were plenty of them and their preachings formed the basis of the Jesus character — who again, never existed as a single person. I happen to think that John the Baptist was one of those characters.
            3. A combination of 1 and 2. Basically, the heavenly intercessor came first, and then the messianic preachers were used in order to build a credible character. Personally, my money’s on this explanation.

            No matter which version you believe, the credibility of a half-god born of a virgin who died for our ‘sins’ makes no sense whatsoever in this context. So, pick whichever flavor of “myth” you want. The end result it the same. No savior, and no “real” person upon which to base a religion.

            What the evidence clearly doesn’t support is the existence of a single human named “Jesus”. The contemporaneous eyewitnesses who could be reliably counted on to report on Judea of that time are completely silent with regard to such a person. Even those who made it something of a hobby to report on the various “Messiahs” wandering about — of which there were plenty.

            Where’s Ben Goren when you need him? This is his area of expertise.

            • cornbread_r2
              Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

              The link below offers a pretty good overview of the spectrum of the various contemporary Jesus theories from 1970 to 2001 or so.


              When someone tells me that the consensus of biblical scholarship supports a historical Jesus I always ask: which version? I also ask them to define “consensus”.

              I eagerly await Richard Carrier’s two volume work on the subject which should be published sometime in the coming year.

              • Max
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

                Cornbread, this website looks like a useful resource. The great majority of the authors cited appear to support at least a minimally historical Jesus.

              • cornbread_r2
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:34 pm | Permalink


                (For some stupid reason there’s no “reply” button below your post, so I could only respond to you by replying to my own!)

                Even though this overview only covers a 30 year period, I wouldn’t be surprised if those proportions held up all the back to the 19th century and Bruno Bauer. For myself, the more relevant issue is how many secular (i.e. non-confessional) historians have not offered any opinion simply because there isn’t (and may never be) enough evidence.

              • Max
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:17 pm | Permalink

                Cornbread, I have the same reply-button issue. I’m not sure what you’re saying about secular historians. Are there some who have stated explicitly that they are unwilling to offer an opinion because there is a lack of evidence, or is that a conjecture on your part?

              • Max
                Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

                Cornbread: Or are you just saying that it would be interesting to know whether there are historians who have decided not to write on the topic because they don’t think there’s enough evidence? I’d agree that it would be interesting to know.

              • cornbread_r2
                Posted August 17, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

                Yes, the latter.

          • Max
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

            Tulse, I agree that it would be good for people to define their positions a bit more clearly. It would also be good if they would adopt more charitable readings of their interlocutors’ positions, or at least ask for clarification.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Doherty’s web site is here:


      Richard Carrier rates his work pretty highly.

  24. Nom de Plume
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    Actually, “collection of books” is about the most accurate description of the Bible you’re likely to get. A collection cobbled together over centuries by lots of people, with books occasionally thrown in the reject pile and then later reinserted, others enjoying a long stay in the collection before being cast into oblivion.

    The result is a library of books that do bear some relation to one another, though overall it has the feel of having been thrown together by several committees. Which it was.

    Somehow, I’m not sure this is what Gilberson had in mind in his analogy.

  25. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:39 am | Permalink

    But how do we decide which parts of the Bible should be read literally? This question is often posed with an “Aha! I have got you” exclamation, as though the inquisitor is certain it cannot be answered… The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together. The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous.

    Giberson has missed the point, which wasn’t made all that clear in the way you posed the question either.

    It is an “Aha!” question. Given (for the sake of discussion) that the story of Adam and Eve is allegory, then Giberson is caught on the horns of a dilemma. Perhaps the story of Jesus is also fiction. But if it is not, one is left with an even less palatable choice: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for an allegory.

    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Don’t be silly…he (god the son) died so that he (god the father) would be allowed (by god the whomever told god the father this was a requirement) to forgive me my mortal sins — like whacking off or mowing the lawn on Sunday.

      The whole premise of Jesus as redeemer of any sin — original or not — is incoherent.

      They literally believe that the ONLY thing an all-powerful god could do in order to allow himself to forgive mankind of “sin” was to send himself (his avatar) to Earth to be tortured and killed (albeit only temporarily). I can’t even attempt to make that sound any loonier.

      • Ken Browning
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        Sophisticated theology recognizes the looney, if only through a glass darkly, and that’s why it produces side splitters like ‘God is the plenitude of actuality’.

  26. HP
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    The only proper way to read the Old Testament is in the context of Semitic paganism. Everything makes perfect sense if you see it as a propaganda tool for a monotheistic sect in the midst of a broader polytheistic culture. It’s a collection of writings intended to discourage the worship of Baal, Tammuz, Moloch, Cybele, et al. and to establish a separate identity for the Yahwists. (For example, compare the Genesis creation myth to the Yezidi creation myth, where the Demiurge is cast out of the garden and the Serpent is a Promethean hero.)

    The New Testament is much more clever — it’s an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the two biggest threats to the State Religion of the Romans. That is, it’s a mash-up of a mystery cult (e.g., Osiris, Diana at Ephesus) with Platonism (compare Plato’s Cave with the first chapter of John, for example).

    • truthspeaker
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:08 am | Permalink


    • Abbie
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      Yep, pretty much. Although the authors were not actually monotheistic at first, just pro-Yahweh and pro-Temple. I.e, don’t worship those idols! Give your offerings to the priests! Then the priests have a nice BBQ and high-five.

      Remember, literacy was not widespread and all the biblical texts were written or recorded by elites. Who benefited? The priestly class. The Bible (at least the pre-exilic elements) is a racket.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:22 am | Permalink

        I’ve often said that religion was invented my smart guys who wanted a cushy indoor job.

        • steve oberski
          Posted August 16, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

          “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” – Seneca

  27. Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I think you’re just mad because Giberson referred to your website as a blog :p

  28. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Somehow I think this is connected to the topic:

    who reside in a magical garden and take walks with God

    How come the garden is (real or metaphorical) magic, while the god is not (real or metaphorical) magic? How does Giberson tell the difference?

  29. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    Why does Giberson find it so improbable that the first man should be called Man? If he was the only male human around, why would anyone need a word for him different from the word for “male human”?

    And Eve is “the living one”, obviously, to distinguish her from Adam’s first consort, the demon queen Lilith. (But I guess good Christians are supposed to pretend that never happened.)

    • Abbie
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

      Adam was called Man to make a hebrew pun.

      האדם = “the man”

      האדם = “the Adam”

      There is no difference in the Hebrew between “the man” and “Adam”. I honestly don’t know how/why translators choose which to use. (Maybe its treated differently by hebrew grammar?) There are later examples where the phrase “sons of men” is translated as “sons of Adam” in the KJV.

      There are puns everywhere in the Torah.

  30. Josh
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    It must be a considerable source of unease for Uncle Karl to bump up against statistics that show that people have for the most part stopped going to the library anymore.

  31. Vicki
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    I was going to point out that the New Testament is an anthology of fanfic (some of it with self-insert characters), but the way some people go at it, I think it may be Borges’s Library of Babel.

  32. Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I’m late to the party, so I’ll just subscribe by way of re-asking one of my favorite questions: Has the Jesus who sits at the right hand of the Father while he judges the living and the dead — has he read the bible?

    Uncle Karl, if you’re reading this far down, I’d really appreciate an answer….



    • Kevin
      Posted August 16, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      Heh. I just invoked your name above, if you care to chime in on the evidence for the historicity of the Jesus character.

      What I want to know is when Jesus is going to come out with a sequel…

      After all, in John, it clearly states that Jesus performed man other wondrous deed…so many that “If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

      And since Jesus uses earthly ghost writers … well … what is he waiting for? I’m personally interested in his battles with Darth Vader … or was that Lord Valdemort?

      • daveau
        Posted August 16, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

        Unlike God, when you invoke him, Ben will eventually show up.

        • Posted August 16, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

          Sorry guys — busy day today.

          I’ll try to catch up in a few hours or so.

          Short version? Christianity probably started as a mystery cult, probably in the first century BCE or even earlier. Slow start, much fracturing. Each generation added and tweaked it until it somewhat jelled a few centuries later. See the Pauline epistles, Martyr, and Lucian for specific examples, with supporting evidence in the canonical Gospels themselves.

          Gotta run; details later today.


          • daveau
            Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

            Stupid jobs.

            You left out the part about zombie intestine fondling…

  33. Claimthehighground
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    That Potter vs. Lincoln thing is a real conundrum all right. But to paraphrase Mr. Lincoln: “You can fool some of the people all of the time; and all of the people some of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time… unless, of course, they’re religious.”

  34. mimi
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    jesus did not believe the Bible was fiction=read John 17:17

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Of course Jesus believed the Bible … he was a sodding character in it and his pop apparently dictated the first part.

  35. Posted August 16, 2011 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Welcome to the intellectually empty world of theology, sophisticated or otherwise.
    Yes:- you are welcome to it!
    Keep it.

  36. Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

    So, there were a couple requests for me to give my interpretation of the origins of Christianity. I’ll try to be brief.

    First, a bit of background.

    Some 2300 years ago, scholars had already recognized that Osiris and Dionysus were the same god. Since then, there have been a great many incarnations of this same god, most notably including Bacchus, Orpheus, Serapis, and Mithras. They all share the same basic biography, especially at the end of their lives: they die, go to Hell, use the power of love to triumph over death, are reborn, and their rebirth offers eternal salvation to those who live a life inspired by the god. There’s often a trial held by a kangaroo court. There are other “calling cards.” They turn water into wine, they walk on water, they are the good shepherds. Some are born of virgins, some have twelve disciples. You get the picture.

    The earliest we know of Christianity is from the Pauline epistles. In them, it’s clear that the church is already well-established and distributed far afield.

    It’s also clear that the author is introducing certain theological concepts into the religion. This is nowhere more evident than in the instructions on how to carry out the Lord’s Supper. We also happen to know that this ceremony was stolen wholesale from the cult of Mithras — which, incidentally, was centered in Tarsus. Either Christianity didn’t have the Eucharist before Paul “borrowed” it from Mithraism, or they had some bastardized version of it and Paul was correcting them in its performance.

    Note that this is exactly what Lucian describes Peregrinus doing, though Lucian never recorded which particular doctrines it was that Peregrinus inserted into Christianity. The dates don’t quite line up, but it’s at least theoretically possible (though perhaps unlikely) that Peregrinus could have been Paul. Regardless, we can be confident that there were many fingers in this particular pie, for that’s always the way those things worked.

    Finally, a little bit of supporting evidence. Justin Martyr was obsessed with detailing all the Pagan demigods whose biographies Christians raided when the manufactured Jesus’s. And, some parts of the Gospels that make less than no sense — such as Jesus riding both an ass and a horse into Jerusalem — start to make sense as an astrological allegory; there are asterisms known as such in those days, and a planet could have “rode” both of them into another one representing a land of bread. There are passages that read something like, “and then their eyes were opened,” which would have been the cue for the priest to reveal the inner mystery to the initiates at that point in the ceremony. That sort of thing — in addition to, of course, the water-into-wine, walking on water, raising the dead, and all the rest.

    This is getting long. Let me wrap up with a last observation: the Gospels were written in scholarly Greek by educated Greeks who studied Greek in Greek schools and addressed to Greeks with Greek names, and they tell stories that Greek parents had been telling to their Greek children about Greek heroes for almost as long as there have been Greeks. And we’re supposed to think Jesus was Jewish?



    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

      One more bit.

      Any of you who have any doubt whatsoever that Christianity is a pagan sun god cult, re-read the “Our Father.” Instead of Charlton Heston as YHWH, imagine the agrarian Sun as the Father — the source of all life (and crops), the ever-present all-seeing eye in the sky, and so on. There isn’t a single line in that prayer that doesn’t work perfectly in that context. And don’t forget to remember the ancient cosmology of the dome of the sky and the like.



    • Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      “such as Jesus riding both an ass and a horse into Jerusalem – start to make sense as an astrological allegory; there are asterisms known as such in those days, and a planet could have “rode” both of them into another one representing a land of bread.”

      This is only in Matthew, which is a corruption of Mark’s single ass. Matthew misread a Hebrew turn of phrase in the LXX and thought that the “prophecy” refered to two animals. The turn of phrase is emphasizing that it’s only one animal in Hebrew (http://www.jewsforjudaism.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=77&Itemid=361).

      It more than likely has nothing to do with astrotheology, and more to do with Greek Christians misunderstanding Hebrew Semiticisms (which probably explains the entirety of Christianity).

      • Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

        It’s also possible that the Greek author was correcting the Hebrew misinterpretation of the astrology.

        Part of my objection to the orthodox historicist position (not that you’re adopting it here) is that it makes it impossible to even conceive of possibilities such as this. The assumption is that it’s real history and anything that came later was a corruption of some sort or another. In reality, there was no original authoritative source; instead, it was a literary game of stone soup.

        Matthew drew heavily on Mark, yes, but he was correcting Mark. Not because Mark got his historical facts worng, but because Matthew disagreed with Mark’s theology and interpretation of the story — he set out to write a newer and better Mark.

        It’s like all these Hollywood remakes that’re all the rage. Asking whether the original or the remake is correct completely misses the point.



        • Ichthyic
          Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

          Matthew drew heavily on Mark, yes, but he was correcting Mark. Not because Mark got his historical facts worng, but because Matthew disagreed with Mark’s theology and interpretation of the story — he set out to write a newer and better Mark.

          so… then the obvious question is:

          When will George Lucas write his version?

  37. Jhjeffery
    Posted August 16, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Gee, Jerry. It’s your own fault like the man just explained to you: you don’t have enough filters.

    So get off your ass and go buy some. You can get them at Lowe’s, so buy a couple and put them between your eyes and the Bible and everything will be clear.

  38. Posted August 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    You may be interested in a 3 part series I wrote that got some attention: “If Evolution Is Right, then What About Adam.” I look at the early chapters of Genesis and demonstrate that multiple approaches can keep both Christian theology and evolutionary biology in tact. Would love any feedback: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/category/series-if-evolution-what-about-adam/

    • Notagod
      Posted August 17, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      Drop the christian gods. I didn’t read but your description suggests that you have some work to do.

    • Posted August 17, 2011 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Kurt – my wife is a Willems, but Kansas/Indiana not California; your series will no doubt help some xians deal with “if evolution is right” but you will need to move on to simply “evolution is right…”; the anabaptists I know do not concern themselves with Genesis and hold that orthopraxis trumps orthodoxy; and finally, don your flameproof undies 🙂

    • Ichthyic
      Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:35 am | Permalink

      Kurt’s opening statement:

      Could Adam be historical? Yes! Could Adam and Eve be more parabolic? Yes! I think that both of these options are indeed consistent with historical Christian orthodoxy.

      uh, Kurt?

      before you get to whether they are compatible with any flavour of xian orthodoxy you choose to examine, do note they aren’t even compatible with each other first.

      they are either historical, or constructs.

      it matters.

      what we know about human genetics firmly supports rejection of the historical.

  39. PB
    Posted August 17, 2011 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Anybody consider the possibility that jesus was the Harry-Potter of the 30s ? (not 1930s mind you!). One Rowling-aton wrote the jesus-potter on year 33, a lot of copycats ensued, then on year 325 the governator decreed that only 4 copycats are the real cats? Hermione was not Harry’s figment of imagination, but the whole potterdom is Rowling-aton’s – the ancient rowling that is !

    (this will be at least as complicated as the “real” theology )

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  2. […] and the other as figurative truth, as Jerry Coyne points out so forcefully in his piece “Uncle Karl tells us how to read the Bible.” It’s just not, as he claims, that simple, and if he stops to think about it for a […]

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