Is the Bible Stupid?

November 27, 2012

I have been quite busy lately managing a household of three teens with my wife, working full weeks and spending many extra hours in my work as a school board chair. As a result I haven’t been doing the reading, writing and discussing that I do in less busy times. So I have been doing a bit of catch up recently and something that caught my eye was a series over at Mike’s The A-Unicornist’ blog. Mike occasionally comments here so I stop by there when time permits and see what he is on about. Recently he did a short series called “Why Christianity is b***s***”. Obviously the title was meant to evoke the civil dialogue Mike always strives for.

Nonetheless, the series itself is the usual collection of Sunday school level objections that ancient people could never suggest anything of value to us obviously superior modern people. Most of it is just a vague re-hash of the New Atheist claptrap that every single New Atheist regurgitates to other audiences of New Atheists. It amazes me how constantly amused they are with such obviously limited material. Wouldn’t it be easier just to type ‘Ditto’ in the comments section of better known blogs like Jerry Coyne’s or PZ Myer’s?

Nonetheless Mike does say something at the end of his first installment (another intelligently named piece called The Bible is stupid – one can almost hear the third grader in him yuck-yucking at having thought up this title – “Hey, guys, I called the Bible stupid! Funny, huh?!”) which caught my eye. At the end he makes what I think is a somewhat intriguing point:

Think of all the things the Bible could be if it were really divinely inspired. Think of all the knowledge and insight such a holy book could contain that simply could never have been made up — profound scientific insights, timeless moral instruction, and revelation clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues, like how to attain salvation. Any sane, rational view of the Bible shows it to be little more than the confused scribblings of Bronze Age tribes.

I like this because it is one of the rare times when a skeptic actually puts on the table what they expect the Bible should say rather than merely criticizing what it does say. It’s allows us to explore the assumptions that go into rejecting Christianity.

Mike gives three things that he thinks would distinguish the Bible and give us warrant to accept it as revelation.

The first is “profound scientific insights”. This one comes as no surprise because if one has read Mike’s posts (or any New Atheist’s posts for that matter) one knows that scientific knowledge is his gold standard for knowledge. Ironically atheists most appreciate science because they think it allows them to explain the universe apart from God, so why profound scientific insight would lead us to believe in the Bible isn’t clear. However, atheists also tend to believe science has been the greatest boon to mankind, so if He truly existed, presumably God’s first order of business would be to fill our heads with scientific knowledge. But would this actually be so wise? As Mike himself points out, the Bible contains many insights into healthy living – disease controls like cleanliness and quarantine. It also talks about caring for the environment and how we might best use the resources we are given. Those are fairly profound insights which despite our own knowledge, we often fail to employ today. But knowledge isn’t merely a benefit; knowledge is power. The same knowledge which allows one to understand microbes and prevent disease can also be used to turn those those microbes into weapons. We expend a significant amount of effort trying to keep some societies – like Iran and North Korea – from gaining certain scientific knowledge about nuclear engineering because we understand they could use it for great evil. The same engineering principles that allow us to transport ourselves quickly across distances creates other societal problems like pollution and the breakdown of communities. So raw scientific insight isn’t all that helpful unless it occurs within a cultural context already tempered by moral considerations.

And to his credit Mike does mention “timeless moral instruction” as one aspect of revelation. Why he doesn’t find a set of instructions like the Ten Commandments to be ‘timeless’ isn’t clear. Quite obviously if we lived in a society where everyone was honest, avoided taking what wasn’t theirs, unselfish and respectful of others property as well as making truth the highest priority and occasionally resting from our labors, the world would be a deeply and profoundly better place. Imagine no third world corruption, no wars driven by greed, no murders over petty disputes, no fathers prioritizing work over time spent with family and friends and people respecting each other’s lives and property. No one can argue this wouldn’t transform human experience in the most amazing ways – humanity would have the ability to achieve in ways it never has before.

Jesus distills it down even further for those who can’t handle ten laws – He reduces all human morality to two simple rules – love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. A world that could follow the simple rule of loving others as we loved ourselves would be as close to heaven on earth as we could possible imagine – in practice it would eliminate greed, most poverty, the suffering we intentionally cause one another and a significant portion of suffering caused by neglect. It is nothing if not timeless and profound.

So in this respect the moral instruction Scripture gives certainly meets the criteria Mike proposes for a revelation from God. Like most atheists, Mike might point out that others have come up with similar rules, and so why should we consider the Bible to be special in this regard? But the fact that the rules are simple doesn’t make them any less timeless or profound. In fact if the precepts Jesus taught were actually the way humans were intended to live, then we would expect that we would have some inherent inclination to come up with such rules. The Bible makes it clear that all humans have consciences that instruct them in what is moral – so it doesn’t surprise me when others come to the same conclusions about the best ways for humans to live together.

So given the obvious benefits of the Bible’s teachings and its pervasiveness at least in the Western world, why don’t all men act morally? If mere knowledge were sufficient then we would expect the knowledge of the Ten Commandments and Christ’s teachings to be sufficient to modify human behavior. And yet every single human continues to act selfishly and greedily in some form or another despite their moral and scientific knowledge. Knowledge is plainly not enough because what is wrong with humanity is not what we know, but our refusal to do what is right even when we know what is right. This is why the primary purpose of the Bible isn’t merely to convey knowledge, but to transmit the truths about our broken relationship with God and how it might be restored – because it is only through a restored relationship to God that we experience transformation and transformation is necessary to experience actual moral renewal for individuals, and for societies. This in turns leads to the stability and prosperity that allows us to enjoy the fruits of scientific knowledge and material wealth.

This leads to Mike’s third contention that a revelation from God would be “clear enough to prevent the innumerable schisms in Christian theology over fundamental issues”. Understanding mankind’s corruption and corruptibility explains why even though the Bible’s message of salvation is so simple a young child or mentally handicapped person can comprehend it that  people still fight over theology and traditions inside and outside the church. No one is above above this aspect of human nature – Mike wants atheists to have power and influence, and I want believers to have power and influence on our society, yet both groups can succumb to the corrupting influence such power brings.  No one is innocent in this regard. Such disputes aren’t evidence against the Bible but a primary evidence for it’s fundamental contention that human beings are sinners – that is they are corrupted in such a way that they don’t do what they ought. 

The Bible claims there is an escape from this downward cycle through spiritual transformation. Now the Bible may be wrong in this regard, but  if it is wrong nothing Mike suggests here will make a difference because humans already reject the knowledge they have. All civilizations fall and human endeavors grow corrupt and if and if there is no God, there is no escape from this. We are what we are and our fate is what it is.

Like most New Atheists Mike speaks as a beneficiary of the millennia long effort in Western Civilization to incorporate Christian values. He assumes because he inherited and internalized these values that they must be inherent to humanity and no outside agency is necessary to preserve these qualities – but this belies a profound ignorance of history, which has demonstrated again and again humans are always a generation away from barbarity. What is stupid isn’t the Bible, but the notion that knowledge is alone sufficient to transform human lives.


The Reliable Bible – The Reliability of the New Testament

May 29, 2012

Excellent infographic showing the the reliability of the New Testament text as compared to other ancient documents. The New Testament has many more existing copies from antiquity which are closer to the the writing of the original text than any other well known ancient text we have – which would be expected for a document understood by believers as being Divinely inspired.

The reliability of the New Testament

The Reliable Bible – The Davidic Kingdom

May 15, 2012

As I have mentioned before, contrary to the regular atheist meme there is actually a large body of evidence supporting the events chronicled in the Bible. Not only does such evidence exist in large quantities, it is constantly growing. And the evidence is not merely that which supports the general claims of the Bible in terms geography and place names, but it goes to the existence of very specific details concerning the experiences of the people mentioned in Scripture.

And such evidence often flies in the face of secular claims about Jewish history. One such example concerns the existence of the kingdom of King David. Atheists claim that the existence of such a kingdom is mythological, and the stories in the Old Testament were conveyed long after the supposed events took place. David and the kingdom the Old Testament claims he founded play a central role in both the Old and New Testaments. It is through the Davidic line that it was foretold the Messiah would come, and Jesus was understood to be from the line of David which helped establish His claim to be that promised Messiah. If the secular claim that David was mythological figure and no such kingdom existed is true, then the claims of both Jews and Christians could be rightly called into question and there is much reason to be skeptical of the accuracy of Scripture.

Recent evidence however appears to show that the Jewish traditions were already being practiced in the time period when the Davidic kingdom was said to exist, and that there were fortified cities and temples as befits an established nation. As ScienceDaily reports:

According to Prof. Garfinkel, “This is the first time that archaeologists uncovered a fortified city in Judah from the time of King David. Even in Jerusalem we do not have a clear fortified city from his period. Thus, various suggestions that completely deny the biblical tradition regarding King David and argue that he was a mythological figure, or just a leader of a small tribe, are now shown to be wrong.” Garfinkel continued, “Over the years, thousands of animal bones were found, including sheep, goats and cattle, but no pigs. Now we uncovered three cultic rooms, with various cultic paraphernalia, but not even one human or animal figurine was found. This suggests that the population of Khirbet Qeiyafa observed two biblical bans — on pork and on graven images — and thus practiced a different cult than that of the Canaanites or the Philistines.”

Specific objects mentioned in the Old Testament chronicle were also discovered, establishing the veracity of details mentioned there, as well as the familiarity of the writer with objects and time period considered:

The three shrines are part of larger building complexes. In this respect they are different from Canaanite or Philistine cults, which were practiced in temples — separate buildings dedicated only to rituals. The biblical tradition described this phenomenon in the time of King David: “He brought the ark of God from a private house in Kyriat Yearim and put it in Jerusalem in a private house” (2 Samuel 6).
The clay shrine is decorated with an elaborate façade, including two guardian lions, two pillars, a main door, beams of the roof, folded textile and three birds standing on the roof. Two of these elements are described in Solomon’s Temple: the two pillars (Yachin and Boaz) and the textile (Parochet).

It is impossible to explain how a writer could include such details unless he was personally familiar with them; certainly no writer could be so accurate hundreds of years later when secularists claim the text was written. Mythologies certainly aren’t known for detailed accuracies.

While this doesn’t in and of itself prove the miraculous aspects of the Old Testament, it does lend credence to the idea that the writer’s weren’t attempting to write mere fiction.

And it shows once again how vapid the secular criticisms of the Bible are.

The Reliable Bible – The Philistines

August 2, 2011

I have been a horribly negligent blogger lately in large part because summer lasts a handful of days in Minnesota, and if you are going to enjoy summer you have to head out the door every time the sun makes an appearance. The outdoors is a siren that calls me away from all screens in the summer, and I must obey her call; so the pickings are sparse around here as a result.

That being said, I keep a running list of topics I want to blog about. One subject that has appeared with increasing regularity has been evidence from archeology and linguistic studies that reinforce the historical reliability of the Bible. It has been a topic around here often enough that I decided to assign it its own category – The Reliable Bible.

To that end, a recent article on the MSNBC highlighted the work going on concerning the archeological record of the Philistines, a people group mentioned frequently in the Old Testament that were constantly at odds with the nation of Israel. Such work highlights the degree to which Biblical material was drawn from historical realities. From the article:

The hero Samson, who married a Philistine woman, skirmished with them repeatedly before being betrayed and taken, blinded and bound, to their temple at Gaza. There, the story goes, he broke free and shattered two support pillars, bringing the temple down and killing everyone inside, including himself.

One intriguing find at Gath is the remains of a large structure, possibly a temple, with two pillars.

Maeir has suggested that this might have been a known design element in Philistine temple architecture when it was written into the Samson story.

Diggers at Gath have also found shards preserving names similar to Goliath — an Indo-European name, not a Semitic one of the kind that would have been used by the local Canaanites or Israelites.

These finds show the Philistines indeed used such names and suggest that this detail, too, might be drawn from an accurate picture of their society.

The findings at the site support the idea that the Goliath story faithfully reflects something of the geopolitical reality of the period, Maeir said — the often violent interaction of the powerful Philistines of Gath with the kings of Jerusalem in the frontier zone between them.

Absent the details in Scripture, it is unlikely that archeologist would know anything about the Philistines – certainly not to the degree shown here, and they certainly wouldn’t be able to place them into a detailed historical context. In turn, the discovery of such artifacts supports the Biblical narrative. Each body of knowledge informs and expands on the other.

Many skeptics might consider the fact that Scripture accurately describes names, places, events and people groups accurately to be inconsequential or trivial – this despite the fact that one of the primary criticisms skeptics have of the Bible is that it does not accurately record history

But such details or not at all trivial – instead they portray a consistent record of accuracy and almost painful dedication to getting details right, and this indicates that the record contained in Scripture is trustworthy – a record that was created over the course of millennia, by numerous authors.

The body of proof that the Bible is an apt historical record is growing – the question is, at what point do skeptics acknowledge it?

The Historical Nature of the Bible Deux

June 24, 2011

As I have elaborated on elsewhere, the Bible is fairly unique as a religious text for its reliance on testimonies that are rooted in specifically identifiable times and places. In this lecture, Dr. Peter Williams warden of Tyndale House at Cambridge and professor of ancient languages lectures here on the details that demonstrate the veracity of the historical record of the New Testament. It’s about an hour long, but the information provided is well presented and the time flew by while watching it.

The Historical Nature of the Bible

May 13, 2011

A recent post over at Neil’s fine blog Eternity Matters reminded me of a post I started as the result of chancing upon a recent edition of National Geographic (Dec. ’10) in a local bookstore. The cover story was The Search for King David. The article chronicles the growing body of evidence that King David and King Solomon are historical figures, but it also reveals something else – that the evidence is subject to much controversy in large part because of the differing views of groups involved in finding and interpreting it. Essentially there are three groups involved in the exploration of Biblical antiquities – Jews and Christians who consider the Bible as describing history, Muslims who deny that Jews have a historical presence in Israel, and secularists who deny any historical veracity of the Bible.

The views of investigators are critical to understanding what is being said about the historical nature of the Bible because unlike ongoing natural phenomena which can be objectively observed and tested, history is largely the subject of interpretation by individuals and groups. When looking at a particular artifact or archeological site, a researcher brings with him his convictions and beliefs about history. From the article:

The once common practice of using the Bible as an archaeological guide has been widely contested as an unscientific case of circular reasoning—and with particular relish by Tel Aviv University’s contrarian-in-residence Israel Finkelstein, who has made a career out of merrily demolishing such assumptions. He and other proponents of “low chronology” say that the weight of archaeological evidence in and around Israel suggests that the dates posited by biblical scholars are a century off. The “Solomonic” buildings excavated by biblical archaeologists over the past several decades at Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo were not constructed in David and Solomon’s time, he says, and so must have been built by kings of the ninth-century B.C.’s Omride dynasty, well after David and Solomon’s reign.

During David’s time, as Finkelstein casts it, Jerusalem was little more than a “hill-country village,” David himself a raggedy upstart akin to Pancho Villa, and his legion of followers more like “500 people with sticks in their hands shouting and cursing and spitting—not the stuff of great armies of chariots described in the text.

“Of course we’re not looking at the palace of David!” Finkelstein roars at the very mention of Mazar’s discovery. “I mean, come on. I respect her efforts. I like her—very nice lady. But this interpretation is—how to say it?—a bit naive.”

Now it is Finkelstein’s theory that is under siege.

The article goes on to delineate evidence that David was much more than a ragtag rebel; however I think the fact that there is a controversy at all is telling. Unlike most other religions, Christianity (and Judaism from which it springs) is solidly mired in historical realities. There were no archeological controversies over ancient Greek or Roman religious beliefs because they were never understood to be historical in nature – they didn’t pretend to be. We don’t talk about Hindu archeology or Buddhist archeology because those religions are not reliant upon historical facts. None of these religions even pretends to be the product of a set of events that occurred in a particular time and place in history; only vague references to certain individuals whose actual existence is unimportant to the belief system.

Biblical belief however is definitively set in a particular places and times and concerns certain individuals. Take the opening to the 3rd chapter of the Gospel of Luke:

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.

There is a very specific list there of historic individuals
and places. There is no doubt about when and where the events were understood to have taken place. Interestingly, the historical existence some of the individuals in the list (Pilate and Caiaphas) were questioned by secular historians until late in the 20th century; that is until archeological evidence of their existence came to light. It is apparent that the author of the book was himself familiar with these individuals and places. Now these facts don’t in and of themselves prove that the events chronicled in the gospel occurred, but it does differentiate it from other religious beliefs at the time and since.

Indeed there is countless archeological evidences from the Bible to support its historical claims. The lack of evidence for certain individuals, often trumpeted by secular skeptics, grows smaller over time. Some evidences I would be surprised to find – for example of Abraham, an isolated nomad wandering across an ancient wilderness. Others however been have been demonstrated to exist – in addition to the evidences for David and Solomon mentioned above, we have good archeological evidence for the existence of the Israelites in the age of Joshua and Judges, King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, the prophet Jeremiah, King Jehu, King Hezekiah, the Babylonian Prince Belshazzar, the existence of Pontius Pilate, as well as the High Priest Caiaphas who condemned Jesus to death. There are numerous other examples both of the existence of people mentioned in the Bible, as well as artifacts which denote the general familiarity of the writers with the times in which they were writing.

Now obviously these evidences don’t in and of themselves prove the existence of God, or that Jesus was who the gospels claim he was – but what they do is distinguish the Bible from other religious beliefs and texts. Skeptics constantly seek to find flaws with the Bible, and claim many exist (a tendency that obviously skews their interpretations of the evidence that supports the Bible) but they can’t deny the distinction of the Bible when compared to other religious beliefs,

The text of Jews and Christians is by no means a mere superstition.