Somehow I became convinced that the bible was credible. Actually, it was systematic exposure from a young age to a well-honed message that defined acceptable vs blasphemous lines of thought, to the point where I was barely aware that I was filtering my reasoning.
Regardless of what makes you accept it originally, you then are in a position where you have to figure out how to properly understand all the little things that are hard to tolerate, because it is imbued with authority from God himself.
But most Christians I’ve talked to would say that you should use your intellect and study the Bible, not accepting things uncritically.
So what happens if you switch it around, and put the burden of proof where it should be. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The Bible makes extraordinary claims, so is there extraordinary evidence for them? Is there even okay evidence for them? Let’s keep tally of a credibility score as we scan briefly through. We’ll start with a score of 0, in other words we made no a priori assumption about it.
Creation and other genesis stories
The creation account and the story of the flood are just stories for most Christians, so I won’t be too hard on the Bible here. Many Christians take these stories literally, and some have said that if you read the Bible properly you must do so. So minus one for credibility in the latter case and neutral in the former. You do have to wonder what the story is all about theologically, and many wondrous verbal tapestries can be woven, but here I am discussing the credibility and this does not contribute positively to the score. I may post more about this later, because some Christians claim that science, correctly understood, actually supports the Biblical account, but this is simply not true.
For example, Joshua 10:13 says “So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,… The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.”
This kind of thing does not enhance the credibility of the document, especially given modern knowledge of orbital mechanics. Again, to believe it you have to do all kinds of gymnastics, inventing explanations that are not indicated by the text or any other evidence. I go more into this in my next post here. I also discuss the 10 commandments here, which again diminishes the credibility of the text.
The exodus is certainly an extraordinary story. We’re supposed to accept that magic existed back then and Egyptians could turn sticks into snakes and water to blood. The only difference was that Moses’ God could do it better? Modern Israeli archaeologists searched for archaeological evidence of the exodus believing it would be their title deeds to Israel. To their credit they have had the integrity to come back empty handed. Now absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but it seems that most scholars do not believe that the exodus ever happened. That ancient Jews were perhaps colonised by Egyptians. But whatever the case, this is certainly not a positive contribution to the credibility score.
Maybe we can’t take the (appallingly patronizingly named) ‘old’ testament too seriously then. So let’s get to the new.
Background: It is reasonably well accepted by scholars that the letters of Paul were written before the gospels; that Mark and a document called Q (which is not extant) were available to Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospels; and that John was written much later.
Genealogy of Jesus
There are two genealogies of Jesus, both going through Joseph and following the paternal line. These disagree completely with each other from David on (is Joseph’s father Jacob (Matthew 1:16) or Heli (Luke 3:23)?). Various unsubstantiated theories have been proposed. Even quite conservative scholars seem to think that this was just a conventional way of writing and should not be believed literally. But I’d have to say that it’s a negative mark on the credibility front. (Which is to say, that maybe if the documents were credible you could cobble together some way to reconcile it, but this inconsistency does not help to establish the bona fides, especially given the lack of any form of clarification in the Bible itself).
Let’s move on to the birth. I think the clumsiness of the two stories here is reasonable evidence that there was a Jesus of Nazareth. Micah 5:2 says “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel”, so the gospel writers knew that Jesus had to come from Bethlehem. But presumably the historical figure came from Nazareth, so this needed reconciling – if you were simply fabricating the whole thing you’d have him come from Bethlehem. Paul (writing first) hadn’t done it, and Mark (writing second) hadn’t done it, so Matthew and Luke both had a go (to a skeptical mind filling in the gaps in the story with increasing detail).
Matthew had them living quietly in Bethlehem (presumably not in a stable then), visited by star following magi, attacked by Herod in the slaughter of the innocents (for which no evidence exists outside of Matthew, despite some historians of the time tracking Herod’s similar attrocities quite closely), escaping to Egypt and returning to Nazareth (for no apparent reason) in fulfilment of a ‘prophecy’ (Matthew 2:23) which does not exist in the old testament or any other extant writing.
Luke has the family living in Nazareth (Luke 1:26), then (Luke 2) heading to Bethlehem because of a census (no evidence for such a census exists outside of Luke; and Roman censuses didn’t require everyone to move to some ancestral home (obviously; imagine the chaos)), born in a food trough, visited by shepherds, then peacefully back to Nazareth via Jerusalem.
Reconciling these stories would require extraordinary mental gymnastics, which is why most scholars have abandoned the whole virgin birth thing. But I’m assessing credibility here, and this is a big negative for authors whose truthfulness is meant to be accepted on faith.
Next we have a whole bunch of miracles. When I come across accounts of miracles in any other context I’m extremely skeptical. So unsubstantiated claims of miracles in the Bible should be treated no differently. Minus one on the credibility scale perhaps? It probably should be more like minus a hundred, because it would take a great deal of evidence to persuade me that such things could happen in the normal course of events, but it’s hard to see what that evidence could be. Is it too much to ask that one of the witnesses to the miracles recorded it elsewhere? But let’s just say that this doesn’t enhance the credibility of the authors given the lack of substantiation. Minus one.
So we come to the resurrection. For me, as for Paul (1 Corinthians 15:12ff) this was the sine qua non. Again there is no non-canonical evidence, and the biblical accounts are irreconcilably inconsistent. The new testament tells us that his resurrection was a fulfilment of prophecy, but it’s not clear how this is so (the only reference is Jonah, who doesn’t actually die, and which is probably a play or story with no indication that it is a prophecy at all).
Acts 10:41 tells us that the resurrected Jesus “was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God has already chosen – by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.” Minus one for the lack of disinterested witnesses.
Matthew has Jesus appearing to the disciples only once and in Galilee. Luke has it in Jerusalem (about 100km away). I get that people can have discrepant accounts of an event, but to have the same body of people supposedly tell you that they saw something for which there’s no other evidence and not even to mention the other location where the event occurred is more than a quibble. As Wells notes, if some people relate seeing a car accident, and one account has them saying it’s in London while another has them saying it’s in Birmingham and no other evidence for the accident exists, you would be excused for doubting that it ever happened. Minus one for the credibility score.
Remember that both Matthew and Luke have a copy of Mark in front of them while they are writing their gospel.
Mark 16:7 says “But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”
Luke 24:6-7 relates the same passage as “He is not here: he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’”
It seems even Luke is willing to change Mark’s gospel when it suits him. Again minus one on credibility.
The best manuscripts of Mark don’t have Jesus appearing at all after his death. Mark 16:9 onwards has been tacked on later, and has Jesus appearing “in a different form” (9:12), rebuking them for “their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (which has a very clear subtext), and a bizarre bit about Christians being able to handle snakes and drink deadly poisons. Not at all credible! I’ve just remembered that I actually picked up a snake at school when I was 12 or 13 years old relying on this verse to keep me safe. Imagine if I’d tried that with a really deadly snake. Minus one for almost killing me. I doubt many adults would have such faith! Talk about dangerous teachings.
Changing tacks again, Matthew 27:52-53 says “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” In the context this happens as Jesus dies. So it’s unclear what they were doing between his death (when they came out of the tombs) and his resurrection (when they came into the city). Again, there is no evidence for this extraordinary claim outside of Matthew. You would expect someone to notice and comment on something like that. But even other Bible authors don’t mention it. Again this kind of statement says that the author is simply not credible.
Interestingly, many Christians look surprised when you mention this event. I think for me my mind just kind of blurred over this section, just censoring it out from cognitive engagement because it’s so absurd. But that really isn’t the intellectually honest way of handling it.
My faith dissolved when I realised that there is no credible evidence for the central stories of the Bible. Am I afraid of being wrong? Of one day having to meet God and explain my lack of faith? Not at all. Religion looks to be completely man-made, and if I’m to be judged for weighing the evidence rationally then so be it.
And who am I to judge it? No one really. I stand with the benefit of those who came before me, who literally risked (and lost) their lives and at least faced ostracism from society to even think these kinds of thoughts (and still do in Islamic societies where enlightenment has yet to hit). But judge the Bible like any other testimony and it is sadly unconvincing.
It is at this point that Christians say “that’s why you need faith.” I don’t think it is too much to ask for evidence when the basis of the faith is an actual historical event. Nothing in the Bible surrounding the main events is credible, even if you assess the Bible on its own terms (the argument that inconsistency enhances the credibility you can weigh for yourself given the above). Nothing outside the Bible supports these main events. The best we can do is say that some of the historical context is corroborated externally, but that is not a very high bar. Paul Badham (quoted in Cutting Jesus Down to Size) says “A faith which claims that something which happened in the past is important cannot evade historical scrutiny of that claim.” It begs the question, on what, then, is your faith based?