Wednesday, March 06, 2013

"God and Reason" - Lecture 5 - "Is the Bible Reliable?"

On February 26th, I attended the 5th lecture in the God and Reason course given by Christian professors at my university. It was entitled "Is the Bible Reliable?" Attendance was way down compared to previous talks; I estimate there were about 60 in the audience.

I was looking forward to this one, because I saw it as a test of the commitment of the people running the course to fairness and academic standards. Christian evangelists have been claiming for hundreds of years that the Bible is reliable, when this is simply not the case. For example, Luke 3:23 says that Joseph's father was Heli, but Matthew 1:16 says Joseph's father was Jacob. And who first visited the claimed empty tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene (John 20:1), or did others come with her, as it says in Matthew and Mark? And there are dozens of other problems. While it's true that evangelists claim some answers for these contradictions and inaccuracies, many of these answers are contrived and implausible.

I was expecting a straightforward admission that this is the case, but I was disappointed. Not a single contradiction or error was mentioned.

This session was given by David Matthews, professor of statistics at Waterloo. Like the other speakers, he was effective and clear. As usual, my comments are in brackets.

He started with "What is the bible?" - 66 books, attributed to various human authors, in 2 parts. The Hebrew scriptures: 39 books from Genesis to Malachi, an account of continuing interaction between the Jewish nation and a god. The New Testament: 27 books, written in Greek, from Matthew to Revelation, depicting various accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, and events in the years after Jesus' death.

Claim: the bible is reliable (in the sense that it is consistently good in quality or performance, able to be tested). It is trustworthy as an historical account, primarily of the sayings and teachings of Jesus. He focussed on the "synoptic Gospels" (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and John:
Matthew - a tax collector who became a disciple
Mark - younger companion of Peter
Luke - educated Greek, close companion of Paul
John - fisherman who became disciple

Three books of the Bible (Matthew, Peter, John) are eyewitness accounts.

How soon after the events were the various gospels compiled? He gave two sets of dates: a "conservative" set and a "generous" set:

Matthew 85-90 CE  45-75 CE 
Mark 65 CE 65 CE
Luke 80-85 CE 59-63 CE
John 90-100 CE 70-95 CE

From the standpoint of historical research, Prof. Matthews claimed, the elapsed time since occurrence is satisfactorily short. [Perhaps I am reading more into in it than what Prof. Matthews claimed, but I do not believe historians establish some kind of standard of the form "less than 100 years = satisfactory", "more than 100 years = not satisfactory". Instead, we know that human memory is extremely malleable and unreliable, even just a few years after major events. And it is relatively easy to create false memories through a variety of techniques, e.g., Thomas and Loftus, Memory & Cognition 30 (2002), 423-431.]

Early versions of the bible: Codex Vaticanus (350 CE); Codex Sinaiticus (350 CE). [Wikipedia says of the former, "It was at that point that scholars realised the text differed significantly from the Vulgate and the Textus Receptus"; so much for claims of reliability.]

Prof. Matthews then compared these versions to other ancient manuscripts:

Work                  When written         Earliest copy      Elapsed Time    # copies 
Iliad, Odyssey 900 BCE 400 BCE 500 643
Gallic War 100-50 BCE 900 CE 1000 10
Herodotus, Histories 480-425 BCE 900 CE 1300 8
New Testament 65-100 CE 350 CE 300 5300

[It wasn't clear to me how any of this is really relevant to the claimed accuracy of the bible. There are thousands of copies of Madame Bovary and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion known, too, but the existence of many copies doesn't make them a more accurate rendering of events. And who thinks all the events depicted in the Iliad and Odyssey really took place?]

Fragments of the bible are known, said Prof. Matthews:

Rylands Papyrus               part of John      130 CE
Geneva-Bodmer Papyri II       most of John      200 CE
Chester Beatty Papyri         parts of NT       200 CE

There are also documents of the early church fathers, dated 100-200 CE and, Prof. Matthews claimed, more than 85,000 quotations from or allusions to some part of the NT in these documents. [This claim of 85,000 is, apparently, a subject of some dispute. It seems to come from the work of John W. Burgon, a defender of the inerrancy of the Bible, but apparently some have taken issue with Burgon's methodology, such as Gordon Fee. I am not even remotely an expert on this, so I could be wrong.]

More early documents: Polycarp's [69-155 CE] letter to the Philippians; Polycarp's student, Irenaeus (c. 120-202 CE) of Lugdunum; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History.

Results of modern archaeology support the claims of the Bible. For example, Gospels and Acts mention many secondary details about towns, people, events, and buildings that are substantiated elsewhere, e.g., John 5:2 mentions a pool near the "sheep gate" which was found in excavations in 1888 and 1964, near St. Anne's church.

[Again, it is not clear to me how any of this impacts the claims about Jesus. Madame Bovary gets many of the details of mid-19th century France right, which is not surprising because Flaubert lived then. But that doesn't mean that the events depicted in that novel actually happened. It would be really surprising if writings of the time did not depict places and people of the time with at least some accuracy.]

Prof. Matthews said Josephus accurately depicts the death of Herod. If he was accurate about details like this, why would he not be accurate about others? He quoted the Testimonium Flavianum, but did not make any mention that many scholars think that this passage has been augmented and modified to make it more supportive of the biblical story.

To summarize, Prof. Matthews claimed the Bible is trustworthy because
- it depicts eyewitness accounts of the apostles or companions of the apostles
- all accounts were written before 100 CE within 70 years of the events depicted
- the Bible is corroborated by archaelogy and non-Christian documents
- when you read them, they resonate with authenticity
- if what they report never happened, why would early Christians risk death and persecution?

[I don't find any of these things remotely convincing. There are detailed eyewitness accounts of alien abductions, written within a few years of the supposed events. Does Prof. Matthews find these convincing? ]

[As for the last issue, this is a common trope of evangelists, but I have always found it puzzling that anyone finds it convincing. Let's look at Mormonism. Eleven men signed a statement that they had seen the "golden plates" supposedly discovered by Joseph Smith. This statement was obtained shortly after the supposed event took place. But these golden plates reside in no museum today, and there is no good evidence they actually existed. One of the witnesses, Hyrum Smith, was martyred for his religion on June 27 1844, when, awaiting trial in Carthage, Illinois, he was attacked by a mob and shot in the face. Hiram Page, another claimed witness to the golden plates, was "severely beaten by a group of non-Mormon vigilantes on October 31, 1833", probably because of his religion. If Smith and Page hadn't seen the golden plates, why would they have risked death and persecution for their religion? Does this mean that what Joseph Smith said is true? Of course not. The golden plates might have been fabricated, or witnesses could have been intimidated by other followers to agree (falsely) to claim they saw the plates, or they could have wanted to believe so badly they convinced themselves they saw them, and so forth.]

[It is easy to come up with plausible alternative explanations of the supposedly miraculous events in the Bible (and in Mormonism, too). Christians have a heavy evidentiary burden to shoulder if they want to claim these events have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Prof. Matthews didn't even come close to meeting this evidentiary burden.]


John Stockwell said...

On the Huffington Post, there is an article about a chronological version of the New Testament:

One of the fundamental myths of Christianity is that the Gospels were "eyewitness accounts". It seems that the story grew with the telling.

KeithB said...

Not a big deal, but I think you mean "Philipians", not "Phillipines"

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Damn, I could have sworn I fixed that before publishing! Thanks. Will fix it now.

Jonathan Blaney said...

I don't know where he gets his information about the authors of the gospels: no one knows who wrote them; I believe the earliest manuscripts don't ascribe authorship and the ones we use are just later conventions.

When talking about manuscript traditions I wonder why he didn't mention pagan examples that are less helpful to his case. For example the earliest extant manuscript of Virgil is dated to the fourth century and so has a very similar chronological gap to the Codex Sinaiticus.

Reginald Selkirk said...

He focussed on the "synoptic Gospels" (Matthew, Mark, Luke), and John: ... Three (Matthew, Peter, John) are eyewitness accounts.

Ignoring the slip of listing Peter; No; none of the gospels are eyewitness accounts. They don't even claim to be.

Reginald Selkirk said...

Results of modern archaeology support the claims of the Bible.

This account seems very New Testament-centric. But archaeology fails completely to support the tale of the Exodus, with a large quantity of Israelites wandering around the Sinai Desert for 40 years. The Noah's Ark story is a total non-starter. Christians need to acknowledge that the whole Jesus story relies on the Old Testament material.

NT stories of the census, the slaughter of the innocents, and matching Jesus' timeline to known historical events are a complete failure.

If you want to show that a large document is reliable, cherry-picking a few successes is not good enough. And even the claimed successes are rather questionable.

Curt Cameron said...

According to his list of possible dates, he's saying that Matthew and Luke could have been written before Mark, but that's been ruled out. I knew there were people who tried to justify earlier dates, but I thought they did that by putting Mark earlier too. The trouble with doing that is that Mark mentions the prediction of the destruction of the temple by the Romans, which we know happened in 70 AD. Matthew and Luke had to come later.

It's also strange that he thinks John was a disciple, when the LOW end of his "generous" date range would have a disciple being about 70 years old at the time. That seems kinda old for a first-century Palestinian to be writing anything (and that's the extreme end of his extreme range).

He mentions archaeology supporting the Bible, but your notes just talk about towns, people, and buildings. So what? There is not any doubt that the people who wrote these stories actually lived in the area, so those claims are mundane. What about the major claims of the Bible? They're all disproved - there was no Garden of Eden, no worldwide flood, no Exodus of the jews from Egypt, no census as in Luke, and no slaughter of the innocents as in Matthew. We're pretty darn sure that "many" dead jews did not resurrect and go walking around Jerusalem at the moment Jesus died. What does that leave us? That the Bible mentions Corinth, and there really was a Corinth? Wow, reliable source you got there.

Anonymous said...

If the Bible is the word of God, then merely human support, such as being eye-witness reports, having multiple ancient copies, or authorship by Moses or Paul, are not worth mentioning in their insignificance.

Helena Constantine said...

To comment on the comments:

--The Gospel of Matthew, the Epistle of Peter, and the Epistle and Gospel of John, are what the speaker was claiming to be eyewitness accounts (no error on the part of Shallit).

--many Christians imagine that the author of John is identical with its character, the Beloved Disciple, i.e., Jesus' altar boy.

--The archaeologists who have been digging at Nazareth are becoming increasingly convinced that the site was not occupied at the turn of the era.

Diogenes said...

" The archaeologists who have been digging at Nazareth are becoming increasingly convinced that the site was not occupied at the turn of the era."

I'd like to see a reference on that. That would make the gospel writers into idiots.