Tired Arguments

Travel experts often recommend that your in-flight book have something to do with your destination, to help prime your interest and teach you something about the locale.  My parents recently took their dream vacation to Europe, and my dad indulged in a novel called The Templar Legacy, by Steve Berry, because it takes place mostly in France, particularly in Avignon.  Since I had also been there, he suggested I read it, and was eager to know what I thought of the book.  I’m 346 pages into the book, and I know now why he wanted me to read it: I just finished a chapter which gives a “bible lesson”, and he wanted to see my reaction (and probably verify if any of it was true).  Since this “bible lesson” repeats almost every bad argument I’ve ever heard against the authenticity of the New Testament and our understanding of Christ, I thought it’d be worth picking apart here.

1. The Control of the Catholic Church

Thorvaldsen nodded.  “History is clear that the New Testament, as we know it, was formulated during the first four centuries after Christ as a way to universalize the emerging Christian message.  After all, that’s what catholic means – ‘universal.’

“The main reason the Catholic version survived, while others faltered, was its ability to impose its belief universally.  They grafted onto the Scriptures so much authority that eventually no one could question their validity without being deemed a heretic.” – p. 324

If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard complaints about how the New Testament is untrustworthy because the Catholic Church had total control over it, I’d have a couple bucks.  (If you think about it, that means I’ve heard that quite a bit).  This is based on anachronism: we have a tendency to take our modern understanding of the Catholic Church, or worse yet the corrupt parts of the medieval Catholic Church, and project it back onto the early church.  The truth of it is, the “Catholic Church” (and the image we have of it) didn’t exist when the New Testament canon was chosen, much less when the books were written.  When Thorvaldsen (in the quote above) says that the NT was formulated in the first four centuries after Christ, it gives the impression that the books were written over three or four hundred years; in fact, all of the books of the NT were written in the first or early second centuries, but they were not formalized in a closed canon until the fourth century.

It’s the closed canon that bothers many people.  Why were some writings included, while others weren’t?  Authors like Steve Berry and Dan Brown make much of the existence of other gospels such as the Gospel of Thomas, using them as a major plot point.  Supposed religious scholars like Tom Harpur draw on them to dramatically challenge our understanding of Christ.  And everyone loves to point at the Catholic Church for excluding books that they didn’t agree with.  What’s funny is that at the time of the canon there was only one church; seven hundred years later or so, it split into the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church; and five hundred years after that, the Catholic Church was split again by the Protestant Reformation.  Each of those subgroups of Christianity uses slightly different bibles, but the Catholics and the Orthodox accept more books than the Protestants do – yet nobody jumps on us Protestants for not including Jubilees or Bel and the Dragon in our Old Testaments.  To point to the Catholics as the problem is ridiculous.

Now, you may be saying that I’m guilty of my own criticism, that these writers are referring to the Catholic Church in its other sense, i.e. the universal Church, or the one church these three subgroups came from, and I’m the one that’s talking about the modern or medieval notion of a particular organization.  But Steve Berry doesn’t make that distinction, and he uses the capital letters that mark it as a proper noun – and most people who spout these arguments are referring to the institution we know today.

Having surveyed several deuterocanonical works (i.e. the books that didn’t make it into the canon), it’s not hard to see why these other books were not admitted.  First of all, most of them were written much later than the canonical books.  Secondly, they were pseudepigraphal – they claimed to be written by apostles or other heroes of the faith in order to gain authority.  And thirdly, they’re completely inconsistent with the other NT books, giving a drastically different picture of Christ that fits nicely into the drastically different theologies that they promote – theologies that had been rejected by most of the early church, and if you read the rest of the NT, also rejected by the apostles.  But who am I to claim consistency for a book that, as is often claimed, is so inconsistent?

2. The Inconsistency of the Gospels

The Bible was a favourite of Malone’s.  He’d read it and much historical analysis and knew all about its inconsistencies.  Each Gospel was a murky mixture of fact, rumour, legend, and myth… – p. 324

“Come now,” Thorvaldsen said.  “There are too many examples of contradictions for us to simply dismiss them as intentional.”

“Would you not think that God would have at least been reasonably consistent with His Word?”
“Gospel variations have been the subject of thousands of books,” Malone made clear.
“True,” Thorvaldsen said.  “And the inconsistencies have been there from the beginning – largely ignored in ancient times, since rarely did the four Gospels appear together.  Instead, they were disseminated individually throughout Christendom…” – p. 325-6

For several pages, Berry lists numerous inconsistencies of the four gospels.  Aside from his embellishment of the differences, his analysis is based on the faulty presupposition that they were ever intended to give a “historical account” as we think of it.  The modern notion of “historical accounts” is precisely that – modern.  Nor are gospels history.  “Gospel” is its own literary genre, which presents historical events in whatever sequence and in whatever light is necessary to achieve its goal – not at all unlike any other ancient history (or even many/most modern ones – dun dun DUN!), except that the evangelical purpose of gospels is made explicit.  They never claim to be objective – quite the opposite.  They are very openly written to convince and encourage people of a particular message regarding Jesus of Nazareth, e.g. that he is the Christ, the Saviour.  Berry actually sums it up nicely:

“…Remember, the idea behind the Gospels was to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Old Testament – not to be an irrefutable biography.” – p. 327

What Berry (and/or his characters) doesn’t seem to get is that this makes the nit-picking over inconsistencies between the four accounts useless.  It’s one thing to say that four accounts disagree among themselves (usually on perspectives, or historically unimportant details, never on the actual existence of an event), but that doesn’t necessarily mean that any one of them, or even all four, are wrong or historically inaccurate.  Just because you present a truth in a different light doesn’t mean that it’s not true in any light; at most it means that we don’t know exactly what happened, which is something that could be said about any moment in history.

Take, for example, the day of the crucifixion (Berry does, on p. 339).  Was it really important if Jesus was crucified on a Friday or a Saturday?  For us, not at all – unless we want to be really sure of which day to celebrate Good Friday on.  But it was important to John (who gives a different day of the week than the other writers) because John wanted to identify Jesus with the Passover Lamb, so his gospel has Jesus being crucified at the same time as the Passover Lambs were being ritually slaughtered.  John was making a very strong and important comparison, and used the narrative to do so – but his lack of agreement with the other gospel writers over which day of the week it was in no way means that Jesus didn’t die at all, nor does it detract from the trustworthiness of his writing.  Ultimately, any list of so-called inconsistencies amounts to nit-picking details that ancient writers had no interest in, except as tools to be used to tell the tale they really wanted to tell.

3. Lost In Translation

This is a combination of the above two arguments.  Observe:

“They [the Catholic Church] grafted onto the scriptures so much authority that eventually no one could question their validity without being deemed a heretic.” – p. 324

Each Gospel was a murky mixture of fact, rumour, legend, and myth that had been subjected to countless translations, edits, and redactions. – p. 324

“And the Gospel of Thomas, which is to them perhaps the closest we have to what Jesus may actually have said, since it has not been subjected to countless translations.” – p. 340

The idea here is that the New Testament as we now have it has been radically changed from its original content, both accidentally and deliberately.  Deliberately, because that ever-present Catholic Church had an agenda of power; and accidentally, because it was translated so many times.

Interestingly, Berry notes that the NT was originally written in Greek, which is true.  And the translations we have today are translated directly from the Greek.  So where are all of these intervening translations?  And how did the Church change them to benefit themselves?

There are thousands of ancient copies of the New Testament, and scholars have rated them based on their age and many other factors to decide which copies are closest to the original (which we do not have).  The criteria for these ratings make sense: e.g. a difficult reading is better than an easy one, because it would be easy to see why a scribe copying out a book would “correct” what he considered to be a misspelling or awkward sentence, rather than the opposite – human beings like to make things simple and smooth, not difficult.  While no two of these ancient texts are exactly the same, they are grouped into families that are mostly the same, and it’s possible to construct theories of when and where certain readings were copied and passed on to later generations of manuscripts.

The best manuscripts date back to the first and second centuries, before there was any major, organized ecclesial body we would call The Church.  We have manuscripts from every century between then and now, and they don’t differ considerably – and where they do differ, it’s on minor issues of grammar, or misspellings, or accidentally repeated or omitted lines.  These differences rarely – if ever – make any difference theologically.

And as for the notion mentioned above, that the four Gospels were not usually circulated together, that’s just plain false.  While the New Testament didn’t take its completed form until the fourth century, many documents were often grouped together, such as the letters of Paul, or the Gospels.  These groups of generally accepted texts – i.e. texts that were accepted by Christians everywhere, a status the so-called Gnostic Gospels never achieved – were canonized in part because everyone agreed on them.

4. The Straw Man

The last thing I’ll point out here (though I’m sure I could go all night on this) is that writers like Steve Berry make a good case out of bad arguments by portraying the debate as a simple choice between faith and reason.  Observe:

“I assume,” Stephanie said, “you don’t adhere to the principle of biblical inerrancy?”

“There’s nothing whatsoever literal within the Bible.  It’s a tale riddled with inconsistencies, and the only way they can be explained is through the use of faith.  That may have worked a thousand years ago, or even five hundred years ago, but that explanation is no longer acceptable.  The human mind today questions.” – p. 339

Throughout Thorvaldsen’s lecture to Stephanie about the inconsistency of the Gospels, Stephanie makes naive comments about faith which Thorvaldsen easily defeats with simple logic.  And here, he counters Stephanie’s remark about inerrancy with the charge that the Bible is not literal, and basically tells her that she’s naive, and that Christians throughout the ages were naive too.  To sum it up, Christians are silly superstitious people who walk blindly, depending on faith, which is somehow the opposite of reason, and believe ridiculous things because we want to.  Stephanie is set up to look like this, so it’s no wonder Thorvaldsen can point it out so easily; this is what debaters call a “Straw-Man argument”, because it sets up a false image of the opposing view (a straw man), and then easily defeats it.  So let’s reveal this straw man for what it is.

First, faith and reason are not opposites, nor have they ever been.  Reason requires faith, because it’s based on the assumption that there is order in the world, that 1 plus 1 will always equal 2.  Without faith that this will always stay the same, we’d doubt all of our reasoning.  The scientific method was created by Christians who based their reasoning on their belief in a created, ordered universe that was consistent and therefore logical.

Second, as I’ve mentioned above, these “inconsistencies” that can supposedly only be explained through faith can actually be much better explained by a basic understanding of ancient literature.

Not only is this straw-man argument plainly false, it’s incredibly insulting to all people of faith in all eras.  I’m amazed that a writer of mediocre spy novels (the main character’s name is Cotton Malone, who is a military pilot turned lawyer/covert operative with an eidetic memory and a thorough knowledge of medieval history and, in spite of his unbelief, the Bible – I mean, come on!) would have the cojones to belittle and undermine the writers of the most influential and important, not to mention best-selling, book in human history.

If you want to read an okay novel, with lots of mysteries and action, pick it up.  Just don’t believe anything it says about the Bible, and don’t fall for these old, tired arguments that mystics and atheists have been using for decades to undermine the New Testament.  If you have better arguments than Steve Berry and want to talk it out, by all means; but it’s my profound hope that I don’t get any more nickels from this garbage.

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3 thoughts on “Tired Arguments

  1. Excellently written Jeff, it’s so annoying talking to those self righteous people who dredge up these worn out, faulty arguments and believe themselves to be intellectually superior. You have a gift of taking apart complex ideas like this, pointing out the logical inconsistencies, and yet keeping the language at a lay-persons level. I’m looking forward to Fall and the return of Theology Lunch!

  2. Jeff, Great post. I’m about 80% done with “The Alexandria Link” and couldn’t agree with you more–Steve Berry is using weak, tired arguments to refute the claims of the Bible. His misquoting of scripture is only taken seriously by people who haven’t read it in its entirety.

    Best regards,

    Tim

    tim@befaithful.org

    • Thanks Tim! I don’t think that it’s malicious or even intentional, I think it’s just shallow and reaching for controversy. I still haven’t read the DaVinci Code, but I expect that Dan Brown will be little better, though I’ve heard that it’s quite engrossing and fun.

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