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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Questions For Christians: Biblical Development

First, the usual disclaimer: the purpose of these posts is to pose questions to Christians who come here (or go anywhere, for that matter) with the intent of converting us to Christianity, but also with an open mind about their own faith. You may post your answers here, or answer them privately, at your discretion. My ultimate goal in asking these questions is to have you deconvert from Christianity. If you are not open to at least the possibility of that happening, then I suggest you not respond to these questions, as that will be a waste of your time (and possibly our bandwidth). At the same time, I am open to the possibility of learning a thing or two about Christianity along the way -- but if you answer these questions publicly, with the intention of being a teacher instead of a learner, then please don't bother doing so here. These questions are for your educational benefit.

This is one in a series of "Questions..." posts that deal with the Bible, the scriptural compilation that constitutes the conceptual framework of the Christian faith. If you were ever a Christian, chances are you've read some of the Bible. If you are still a Christian today, chances are you haven't read all of it.

These questions deal with the actual development of the Bible that we know today, particular the New Testament

1. How do we know we can trust the authors of the Bible?

With regards to authorship, we know that some of the epistles attributed to Paul really were written by Paul, but that's all we know. It was a commonly accepted practice in those days to attribute written works to a well-known person -- the first five books of the Old Testament, for instance, are attributed to Moses, the gospels are attributed to various disciples, etc. This kind of forgery, called pseudipigrapha, was not considered immoral or fraudulent.

We know that many of the books of the Bible could not have been written by the people to whom they were attributed -- the gospels, for instance, were written 40 to 80 years after the purported resurrection, at a time when the average life expectancy was 45 years. But we have no way of knowing who actually wrote the various books of the Bible. So how do we know we can trust them?

2. How can we verify the original documents, when none exist?

All we have are copies of copies of copies. We don't have a single original document of any of the Biblical works. So how can we verify, as inerrantists want us to believe, that the originals are inerrant?

3. Can we trust the translators of Jesus's words?

Jesus, if he lived, would have spoken Aramaic -- but the entire New Testament is written in Greek. Who were the translators, and how can we be sure they were competent?

4. How do you know there aren't lost documents which disprove Christianity?

We know for a fact that the early Church sought out and destroyed documents critical of Christianity; whatever evidence these documents might have offered is now lost to us forever. What do you suppose the early Christians had to hide?

5. How can you trust documents which are known to have been edited by the church?

The second part of the last chapter of Mark, for instance, was not written until the fourth century or later -- and this is the only mention made in Mark, the earliest gospel written, of any post-resurrection appearances. Another example: 1 John 5:7, the verse most often cited to support the doctrine of the Trinity, was written and inserted into the Bible around the twelfth century. How else were these documents edited over the centuries? What embarrassing passages might have been removed and destroyed over time?

6. Why do you have so much faith in a fourth century compilation?

That is, essentially, what the Bible is. The assembly of the New Testament was a process that began around the year 325, when Constantine convened the Council of Nicea, and cumulated in the canonization of the twenty-seven books we know today eighty years later, by the Pope. Why were those particular books chosen from so many candidates? Why, for example, did they include the gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but not those attributed to Peter, Thomas, Andrew, Bartholomew, Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, and Jesus himself?

Did these extremely primitive scholars just happen to pick the "right" ones? Were they, as the Bible writers themselves purportedly were, divinely inspired? How can you be sure of that?

This is the last "Questions..." post that I have planned directly relating to the Bible; there may be others in the future, but in the near future I will be concentrating on more abstract and/or more contemporary matters related to Christianity.


  1. Hey Dave,

    I've taken a second look at the theory that there is no historical Jesus. The literature on that subject tends to be hard to follow unless you have a degree in bible studies. So in the past I haven't gotten very far into the arguments. Recently I've read some web sites that have reawakened my interest. As you probably know, Paul and the other early writers never mention anything from the gospels. Paul says nothing about what Jesus said or did. It is very hard to read Paul's epistles without the gospel story playing in your head and filling in the blanks. You naturally assume so many things when you are raised on bible stories. When you go back and read with open eyes it is amazing. The theology of the early church is very interesting whether or not you think Jesus really existed.

  2. This is great Dave, thanks for doing this.

  3. Milo,

    I honestly don't know if a historical Jesus existed or not. It's an interesting question -- but also an academic one, because there's no reason to think that anyone living in first-century Palestine was divine.

  4. The funny thing is it doesn't make a difference. The life and teachings of the historical Jesus are useless to Ray and his crowd. When have you last heard of Ray preaching turn the other cheek or blessed are the peace makers?
    I am curious how they explain the complete silence of Paul about the life of Jesus.

  5. Can anyone recommend any good books on the topic of the formation of the new testament, or even the OT for that matter? The only one I know about is Who Wrote The Bible, which I could not put down out of fascination. It's a really good detective story.

    Also, can anyone recommend good websites about this? It seems I can only find fundy ones. Chick.com says the comma was in the original greek manuscripts, but was taken out and then put back in by the KJV compilers.

  6. There is a debate on historical jesus at stephen law's blog.


  7. Here. You have to scroll down a bit because the first thread is about the god delusion (chapter 1).


  8. Response to question 1

    “It was a commonly accepted practice in those days to attribute written works to a well-known person”

    It is an anachronism to assume that the gospel authors were well known men at the time that the earliest manuscripts are dated. Mark and Luke weren’t even among the twelve disciples. Matthew was but as a tax collector held little credibility. Then much later when the apocryphal gospels which were written, people chose names that carried more weight such as Peter, Mary and James.
    Besides, consider the time period you are writing about a Man who was executed in the most brutal way possible and have the both the Romans and the Jews wanting to extinguish anything left of his following. Paul, Peter and most of the disciples were martyred; John was exiled to prison for life. What was their motivation for writing these accounts? If I were going to start a new religion I’d go about it in a totally different way that’s for sure.

    “the gospels, for instance, were written 40 to 80 years after the purported resurrection, at a time when the average life expectancy was 45 years”

    The earliest portion of the New Testament that we have today is a fragment of John containing part of chapter 18. It is dated between 100 and 150 AD. Most importantly it was found in Egypt which is very far from Ephesus where the gospel was originally written. The point is, because we don’t have a manuscript dated before 45 AD does not mean the gospels were not written at that time.

  9. Response to question 2:

    Copies of copies of copies

    The NT has something arguable better than original documents: multiplicity. The amount of multiple copies of the NT compared to other ancient writings is unprecedented. Since these documents have emerged from different geographic (see ^^^) areas the only way they’d agree would be if they could be traced back to a single source. Not only do we have Greek manuscripts but we also have translations into other languages such as Latin, Syriac and Coptic. So even if we didn’t have any Greek manuscripts today we could piece together the information from these translations from an early date and reproduce the New Testament in its entirety.

    I would also submit that if you’re looking for a Xerox copy of the Gospel of John or a YouTube vid of Jesus walking on water then you’re being unreasonable.

  10. I answer your questions on my blog here

  11. A satirical response to Dave's questions is up. It's hilarious. (Dave doesn't have to respond. I was just pointing out flaws in his questions)

  12. Isn't it satirical? Don't you think?
    A little too satirical? And yeah I really do think.


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