Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Are the biblical documents reliable?

An essay by Jimmy Williams.

17 comments:

Doctor Logic said...

Reliable in what sense? Do they date to the first century? Sure. But they're not true. They're stories, many of which were plucked from earlier mythologies.

The story of the 153 fish was told by Pythagoras, five centuries earlier. There's a whole bunch of Egyptian myth and astrology thrown in for good measure. Even Christian historian Justin Martyr had to admit the similarities, and put it down to the work of the devil.

Anonymous said...

So your argument is, if a story bears any relation to an ancient myth, then everything in the text that story is embedded in is false?

Say some stories in the New Testament were borrowed from other cultures. That would mean, in your mind, that Jesus didn't exist, never gave the Sermon on the Mount, was never crucified, etc.?

Also, Biblical scholarship has come a long way since Justin Martyr. For instance, we now have a Bible. Martyr didn't.

Anonymous said...

Those who level the charge of myth can only do so at the level of highest generality, making it highly unlikely.

Mike Darus said...

DR said: They're stories, many of which were plucked from earlier mythologies.

MD: "Myth" is a tricky term. When used in a scholarly sense it is defined something like this:

"A myth is a sacred narrative ... Use of the term by scholars implies neither the truth nor the falseness of the narrative. .." (Wikipedia).

Even if the biblical stories reflect literary forms, terms, and themes of other ancient stories, it does not mean the are not true. The easy road is to find some element that does not ring true and use that as an excuse to discount it all. The more interesting approach is to look for the part that describes what really did happen. The hardest theory to uphold is that it was all just made up. There is real history here. However, this is a slippery slope. If you allow that people like David and Abraham and Jesus and Paul really existed and their deeds were recorded and unusual things happened to them, you could find evidence for miracles.

Charlie said...

Doctor "logic",

But they're not true. They're stories, many of which were plucked from earlier mythologies.

There could be mythical themes or motifs in a text but that doesn't amount to falsity.

Moreover, even if you could show that a few portions of the biblical documents are decidedly false (you haven't), it doesn't follow that "the biblical documents" themselves are all false or unreliable.

Please change your pretentious name now.

Thnx.

Doctor Logic said...

So we're agreed then: not all of the Bible is true.

Also, Biblical scholarship has come a long way since Justin Martyr. For instance, we now have a Bible. Martyr didn't.

Um, they didn't discover the Bible, they invented it. They cherry-picked their stories and compiled a Bible.

All you have are a bunch of stories written and compiled by people who were religiously motivated to believe and sell them.

Should we also believe the Book of Mormon or tracts on Scientology based on nothing but the word of the Mormons or the Scientologists, respectively? How about a book on UFO's compiled by the ufologists? A book on acupuncture compiled by acupuncturists?

It's totally inconsistent (to say the least) for you all to believe in the Resurrection based on nothing but these stories. Just because lots of people over the centuries have believed it was true, doesn't make it likely to be true. What matters is the process by which their beliefs were formed. How were the claims tested and verified? In the case of the Bible, the claims weren't tested, weren't verified, but were written, compiled and promoted by biased individuals.

Anonymous said...

What thinking people should agree on is that even if it is a fact that some stories in the Bible borrow from other near myths, it wouldn't follow that the Bible isn't true, as you claimed in your first response.

I quote you from your first post, since you have a tendency to try to weasel out of your more dramatic statements when their irrationality is pointed out:

"Do they date to the first century? Sure. But they're not true."

And the only support you gave for this statement was the fact that some of the stories in the narrative are similar to stories in other narratives.

So I think what most of the people who read this board continue to agree on is the irony of your username, given your penchant for unashamedly fallacious reasoning.

I don't know what you mean when you say the Bible was "invented". It was compiled by scholars out of the oldest and most trustworthy extant documents. The Synod of Hippo didn't produce new documents, it adjudicated the historical credentials of existing ones. It was the most reasonable, responsible way to deal with the increasing textual variations and forgeries. Is it "cherry-picking" to only use the oldest, most wide-spread, most internally-consistent, and most reliable documents? Because that's what they did. Every scholar agrees that the 4 gospels, for example, have better historical credentials than any of the purported gospels that were left out.

I don't think anyone believes in the Resurrection simply because it's a story in the Bible. I believe the Holy Spirit plays a personal role in convicting every willing heart who searches the matter that the Resurrection occurred.

You say these things should have been established in tests and verified in the first century before it was written down. I wonder, what tests could these first century men have conducted which would convince you in the present that Jesus, indeed, had risen from the dead? I think we established in another thread that you've set the bar for evidence for God so high that you've effectively immunized yourself against theism, even should God present Himself to you personally in all His power and glory. I wonder, then, why you continue to make shallow pretense of a commitment to evidential or logical principles, when the truth is nothing could make you believe?

Doctor Logic said...

Anonymous,

I quote you from your first post, since you have a tendency to try to weasel out of your more dramatic statements when their irrationality is pointed out

Really? Any support for this? No.

We debated before, so don't pretend I've got no arguments to back up my position.

So I think what most of the people who read this board continue to agree on is the irony of your username, given your penchant for unashamedly fallacious reasoning.

Sticks and stones, luv.

Now let's put your rebuttal into context.

The Bible contains many things that are simply not true. That makes it unreliable. I really don't have to say any more than this unless you want to argue that the Bible is inerrant and doesn't contain a bunch of stories ripped off from old religions. Want to go there? It'll be fun.

Is it "cherry-picking" to only use the oldest, most wide-spread, most internally-consistent, and most reliable documents? Because that's what they did.

I'm not convinced (considering the letters of Paul appear to predate the first gospels and they don't mention the Resurrection), but let's suppose this were true. That means that the Bible contains the oldest versions of the gospels. These gospels contain the very myths that Justin Martyr was referring to. So go ahead and tell me why the invention of the Bible from the gospels renders Martyr's statement invalid.

I believe the Holy Spirit plays a personal role in convicting every willing heart who searches the matter that the Resurrection occurred.

Of course you do, because you (and millions of others) want to AMPLIFY your own bias to the maximum extent possible. You're willing to believe, you want to believe, and this tends to help you confirm your belief. You call it the Holy Spirit, but it's actually BIAS.

You're taking a bet you cannot lose. A prayer is answered, you count that in your column. A prayer not answered, that doesn't count against you. This is superstition, plain and simple.

And I've seen this old tripod of belief before. When the historical evidence can't hack it, I get referred to medieval philosophical arguments and to personal experiences. When the personal experiences can't stand up to scrutiny, I get referred to historical and medieval philosophical arguments. And then the medieval philosophy turns out to be bunk, it falls again to the other two. It's like you're sitting on a no-legged stool.

I wonder, what tests could these first century men have conducted which would convince you in the present that Jesus, indeed, had risen from the dead?

I already told you what would be compelling on the other thread. You just keep ignoring me.

First, Jesus can't just appear to his own religious fanatics. (It's no good if bigfoot can only be seen by bigfoot fanatics, right? Or, worse, seen just once by bigfoot fanatics.) There have to be reports of Jesus coming back to life from Jesus's enemies. For example, suppose Jesus stages numerous acts of civil disobedience, being slain after each act, but waking up shortly thereafter, or returning the next day. In that case, the many Roman communique's looking for ways to kill him would eventually be adequate evidence for something like resurrection. It's all in the statistics.

But no, just like Joseph Smith's golden book, Jesus gets whisked away to heaven after showing no one but the religion's founders and their inner circle. I don't know how you can read this stuff with a straight face. When you heard the story of Joseph Smith, didn't the fraud alarm bells sound instantly?

I think we established in another thread that you've set the bar for evidence for God so high that you've effectively immunized yourself against theism, even should God present Himself to you personally in all His power and glory. I wonder, then, why you continue to make shallow pretense of a commitment to evidential or logical principles, when the truth is nothing could make you believe?

No, you established it in your own fantasy because you refuse to read my clear statements of where the bar is (like the one I just made). GO BACK AND READ THE THREAD!

I'm saying that your Jesus myth can't get over the bar because you don't have the evidence (it got whisked off to heaven after chatting to only his own dudes, remember?). That's not my problem, it's yours.

And the gall. You have a story which tells of extraordinary events (preposterous, more like) and tells of how the evidence of those events is effectively lost to history. You stick to the story as if it were true no matter what the probabilities involved. But when I doubt that a story which claims that its own evidence was destroyed is believable, I'm accused of being closed-minded? It's absurd.

Anonymous said...

You haven't mentioned anything in the Bible that's factually inaccurate or provably false. The only argument you've given in this thread is that the Bible is false because it contains stories that share elements of stories from other myths.

That's not sufficient to show that the Bible "isn't true" in some broader sense. If you now want to add that some aspects of the Bible are provably false, so be it. But that also wouldn't go to show that the Bible is overall unreliable unless you can show that a preponderance of the facts recorded in the Bible are false.

The letters of Paul don't mention the Resurrection? You might want to look into that.

Like I said, I'm willing to concede, for the sake of argument, that there are stories in the Bible that were lifted from other cultures. My point is, that doesn't get you to the conclusion you want: that the Bible is therefore unreliable ON THE WHOLE. Even if you add your new objection, that the Bible has many factual errors, you'd still need to show that there were a sufficient number of these errors to prove that the Bible was completely unreliable as a historical source.

I'm not interested in whether you think inspiration is a tenable epistemology. I expected you to object. My only point is, no one REALLY believes all these things because they're written in the Bible. If not the Holy Spirit, then the culprit is more plausibly the influence of their surrounding culture. If the only support for Christian beliefs was the purported fact that these beliefs are supported by a supposedly inerrant book, then I would agree with you that such belief would be irrational in the presence of other books that made equally (im)probable claims of inerrancy. My only point was, I don't think it actually works this way.

If you've read the Scriptures, you'd know that Jesus did appear to many people who were previously skeptics, most famously his own half-brother. But then, if you'd read the Scriptures, you wouldn't make claims like Paul never mentioned the Resurrection in his letters.

So you say you'd believe Jesus's resurrection if there were reports, from 2000 years ago, of multiple attempts to kill him that failed. Let's test your openness to such theories. Take the death of Rasputin. There are multiple reports, almost all of them from not just his enemies, but the very people who tried to kill him, that Rasputin survived being stabbed, poisoned, shot multiple times at close range, and drowned. Contemporary autopsies revealed that Rasputin's exposure to each of these elements SINGLY should have been enough to kill him, but he only died hours later of hypothermia. I am aware that some later research has been developed that disputed these claims, but say those reports didn't exist. Say that all we had was reports from Rasputin's enemies, and the autopsy report that confirmed that, despite being beaten, stabbed, shot, filled with enough cyanide to kill 5 men, and dumped in an iced-over river, Rasputin died hours later from hypothermia.

On the basis of just these reports, would you believe:

A. Rasputin had magical powers protecting him from being murdered, as he and others claimed.

B. All reports of this incident were fabrications or mistakes.

C. The reports are accurate, but there's a scientific explanation explaining why Rasputin was so hard to kill.

Regardless of your claims, I think it's quite obvious that you'd always find a reason to accept some form of B or C over any form of A. Particularly if we're just talking about ANCIENT REPORTS of these things. You would say their science wasn't adequate, or their analysis was tainted by superstition, or that it was more likely that the reports from Jesus's enemies were forgeries written by Christians years later. Because all those things will always be more probable in your worldview than the possibility that a man has magical powers.

As I said in our previous encounters, I'm not at all claiming that you're being irrational in not believing. I'm claiming your being dishonest in the reasons you give for your disbelief. I do not believe that multiple testimonies of enemies of Jesus that attested that He couldn't be killed would be sufficient for you to believe, some 2000 years later, that Jesus actually was resurrected multiple times. If that's the case, I'm sure I could find multiple ancient attestations of the miraculous, from multiple sources, that you would now be compelled to believe. The miracles at Fatima, for example, which were attested to by not just the faithful, but by independent, secular reporters.

More to the point, what you are asking for is in the Bible itself, as the Bible records the arguments of the enemies of Jesus. None of Jesus contemporary enemies denied that Jesus did miracles, they all just claimed He did them through the power of the devil. None of the enemies of Christianity claimed that Jesus's tomb wasn't empty, none of them claimed to be able to lay hands on his corpse, they all claimed that the disciples stole the body. There are reports from Jesus's enemies recorded in the Bible, and to some extent, they all support the claims of the early Christians.

Ilíon said...

Anonymous: "... I think we established in another thread that you've set the bar for evidence for God so high that you've effectively immunized yourself against theism, even should God present Himself to you personally in all His power and glory. I wonder, then, why you continue to make shallow pretense of a commitment to evidential or logical principles, when the truth is nothing could make you believe?"

There is an amusing corollary here: persons who assert the claim/idea that there is no "evidence" God exists are simultaneously asserting that they themselves would recognize such evidence, were there in fact any to be had. Either that, or they're simply being intellectually dishonest, and might as well be ignored, for they have nothing to say.

For, after all, one cannot rationally and honestly assert both:
1) "There is no evidence that God exists"
2) "I would not be able to recognize and identify evidence that God exists were any presented me"

The first assertion implies, and depends upon, the negation of the second.


So, ask yourself: "If I were to ask "Doctor Logic" for even one example of something that would count as evidence for the proposition that God exists [mind you, I did not say "slam-dumk" proof, I said evidence for the proposition], what sort of response do I reasonably expect he might give?"

And, of course, one might go ahead and ask him ... just to marvel at the ensuing humor.

Doctor Logic said...

Anon,

If you've read the Scriptures, you'd know that Jesus did appear to many people who were previously skeptics, most famously his own half-brother.

So, the founders of Christianity tell us that there were many skeptics who were convinced? Don't you understand that this counts for absolutely nothing?

The Bigfoot Chronicles tells us that the evidence for Bigfoot won over many independent skeptics. Are you now more convinced by the Bigfoot Chronicles?

Interesting that you bring up Rasputin: a Christian cleric who duped people into believing he had magical powers, and who preyed on peoples gullibility for personal gain.

I'm sure you've read the currently known facts of the case (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rasputin#Murder). The stories about his ability to resist various mortal wounds were exaggerated, but that hasn't stopped many from believing that he had magical powers. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that Rasputin encouraged belief in his magical powers before he was murdered.

Even ignoring the evidence against claims of magical powers, there's still not enough evidence. Let's face it, Rasputin could not have had magical defense against murder because, well, he was murdered. That ought to raise a red flag, no?

If Rasputin were murdered in public several times, and in each case he showed up the next day, none the worse for wear, and we had multiple independent reports of the events (e.g., from ambassadors), then we would have credible evidence.

However, if the newspapers didn't print anything, or he only came back to life for the storyteller, then there's an insurmountable credibility gap.

It's not simply that the source has to be an enemy. You need the story from multiple sources so that you can minimize or cancel out bias. Having a single source claim there were multiple witnesses and claim there was diligent verification doesn't cut it.

How about that word, magic. What does it mean to you? What does it mean about Rasputin that he had magic? I assume you would discount technology (no matter how advanced) as being non-magical. So does magical mean "inexplicable"? What's the difference between Rasputin using magical powers to defend against the assassins versus Rasputin inexplicably defending against the assassins?

The miracles at Fatima, for example, which were attested to by not just the faithful, but by independent, secular reporters.

Are you saying you believe the "miracles" did occur? And that scientists around the world just happened not to see anything?

Well, there you go again. It comes down to bias. Miracles are all around us, as long as we don't try to suppress our own bias using scientific methods. I don't doubt it.

More to the point, what you are asking for is in the Bible itself, as the Bible records the arguments of the enemies of Jesus.

Is this what I have been asking for? Have I been asking for the single biased source of a story to assure me that due diligence was followed? I don't recall asking for that.

Doctor Logic said...

Ilíon,

If there's a god, he can easily prove himself to me. He can stop by for a chat with me, and correspondingly rearrange stars and galaxies at superluminal speeds. We could then go and check the arrangements using scientific instruments. He could tell me he's going to rearrange stars in an unexplored region of space, I'll write it down, and then we can do some blind testing. You know, just to remove as much bias as possible. I think these would demonstrate god-like powers, don't you?

Funny that your god decided instead to let himself get killed, then hide the evidence of his resurrection so that we could only believe it when we bias ourselves as much as possible. He either wants to reward bias, or else he's not too smart.

Anonymous said...

Well, the conversion of Jesus' half-brother aside (you might be right about that particular case), I think historians are generally agreed that the arguments of the critics of Christianity that are recorded in the New Testament are a reliable indication of these critics' position. It wouldn't make any sense for the Gospel writers to record defenses against criticisms that no one was making. And the important thing to notice is that in most cases, Jesus' enemies never questioned that He did miracles, they only claimed that He did them by an evil power rather than by the power of God. You would think, if Jesus was not doing miracles, that his enemies would have pointed that out, and the Gospels would have spent time trying to prove that the miracles actually occurred. This is taken by most historians as reasonable proof that, at the very least, all Jesus's contemporaries, including his enemies, believed He was a miracle worker.

I say this not because I think this will have any hope of convincing you (as I said, I firmly believe you have successfully immunized yourself against coming to theistic belief through argument - but with God all things are possible). I say this because you have a mistaken notion that a separate source REQUIRES A SEPARATE DOCUMENT, and I don't think historians would agree. I think most would (and do - even the secular ones) count the criticisms of Jesus recorded in Scripture as SEPARATE confirmation that Jesus's enemies believed He was a miracle worker.

I brought up Rasputin as a hypothetical. I expressly asked what you'd feel if you had no other sources on his story than the original autopsy and eye-witness reports, that seemed to indicate a miraculous occurrence? This is just my gut feeling about you, but I don't think you'd believe a story from long ago simply from written testimony claiming that the story had been subject to testing long ago.

As I said, it should be pretty easy for me to find a miracle story from ancient times attested to by multiple source who were both biased for it and against it. Are you saying you'll believe such stories if I find them? If that's all it takes to shake your faith in naturalism, I can make you a supernaturalist inside of a week.

As far as Fatima goes, I don't know if I believe it or not. But it points out how you'll move the goal-posts to preserve your naturalism, which is just what I predicted you would do. Everyone present, believer and skeptic alike, reported that something strange happened in the sky there that day. To my knowledge, everyone who was there backs that up, even the people who came to debunk it. But now you claim that just having unbiased sources isn't enough, now everyone in the globe has to have witnessed the event, or it doesn't count! Who said the miracle at Fatima was a global phenomenon? The fact that it's called the miracle AT FATIMA seems to indicate that it wasn't, and the fact that everyone was told the miracle would occur AT FATIMA seems to indicate it wasn't intended to be.

But, as I said, this is exactly how I expected you'd react, and how I'm sure you'd react (if not for the intervention of the Holy Spirit) no matter what evidence was presented to you. So I just don't get why you insist on pretending you are open to evidence on this. There is no evidence you could receive that you wouldn't explain away.

Charlie said...


If there's a god, he can easily prove himself to me. He can stop by for a chat with me, and correspondingly rearrange stars and galaxies at superluminal speeds.


Yeah that was really "logical".

Doctor Logic said...

Anon,

I've been pretty clear. You need statistics, and you need controls to counter bias. You don't have that in the Bible. You don't have that for the miracles at Fatima.

For example, how many people at Fatima didn't see the miracles? Were there any isolated people who were oblivious to the prophesy who also saw the effect? Or was it only people who stared into the sun with the expectation of seeing something miraculous?

If it's a miracle, then we ought not be able to spoof the effect. So, if I make a religious prophesy and claim that staring into the sun on at a given place and time will cause people to see something unusual, then people won't see anything unusual. Of course, it's obvious that people WILL see something unusual, and they'll interpret their visions as religious because that was the premise of the whole event.

Holy Spirit = bias.

Anonymous said...

But how COULD you have statistics and controls in ANY ancient document, or collection of documents? At least, how could you have them to the degree that a modern scientific naturalist would consider a supernatural explanation more probable than a natural one?

We've been around this mountain a million times, so I agree this is pointless. But I'll again say I'm 100% sure that you are full of it, and that if an ancient miracle was presented to you that did meet your requirements you still wouldn't believe it.

The Fatima example underscores this. Even though there aren't any dissenters, I believe, even among THE SCIENTISTS AND SKEPTICS WHO WENT TO FATIMA SPECIFICALLY TO DEBUNK THE MIRACLE, you still claim that THE MERE POSSIBILITY THAT SOMEONE MIGHT HAVE DISSENTED is enough to dismiss it.

Now, I don't claim the miracle happened, obviously. I'm a Protestant who isn't particularly proud of my Catholic brother's sometimes embarrassing desire for this kind of spectacle. But it met the criteria you set (multiple, independent confirmation from hostile and friendly sources). And when it did, you changed your criteria. So I think it's a reasonable assumption that you'd do this no matter how much evidence was presented before you (but again - with God all things are possible).

legodesi said...

I've thought about the circularity of the statement that the bible is inspired by God because it claims it is inspired by God. I don't think that statement is circular. The claim that the bible is inspired by God doesn't seem to presuppose that the bible is inspired. It presupposes that the biblical writers are reliable. There is an important difference between the two, I think.