Copied from: The Rejection of Pascal’s Wager
Replies to Common Fundamentalist Apologetics
There comes a time for every skeptic, when he or she gets posed with rhetorical questions that are commonly seen in books by fundamentalist apologists such as Why We Believe the Bible by George DeHoff, Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell and The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. For those who may not be acquainted with the evidence, these questions, or “challenges” [to skeptics] as they are sometimes called, can seem quite impressive. In reality however the questions posed are normally quite “light-weight” and have been treated in detail elsewhere in my website. However I felt it would be helpful to readers to have a single page with which all such questions are answered and the links to my website given for further reference.
- Rhetorical Questions on the Special Status of the Bible
- Q1. Doesn’t the fact the Bible shows such an impressive uniformity, although the period of composition spans many centuries, points to the idea that it had a single (divine) author?
- Q2. Doesn’t the fact that the more than 5,000 extant manuscripts of the New Testament (more manuscripts than any other works in history) guarantee the truth of the New Testament message?
- Q3. Aren’t there verses in the Bible that prove the scientific accuracy of the Bible?
- Q4.Isn’t it true that archaeology has never contradicted the biblical accounts and indeed new discoveries are made all the time further confirming biblical accounts?
- Rhetorical Questions on Jesus Christ
- Q5. Wasn’t the coming of Jesus clearly foretold in the Old Testament such that it is highly improbable that the prophecies would have referred to someone else?
- Q6. Wasn’t the manner of Jesus’ birth proof of his divine nature?
- Q7. Wasn’t the character of Jesus, as presented in the Gospels, such that it is high above all human greatness?
- Q8. Isn’t it historically true that the resurrection happened – surely the existence of the empty tomb attests to that?
- Rhetorical Questions on the “Witness” of the Apostles
- Q9. Isn’t the account of the gospels, written by either the apostles (Matthew and John)or their close associates (Mark and Luke), a historically reliable source for the miracles and the life of Jesus?
- Q10. Weren’t the apostles around to ensure the accuracy of the reports regarding the life of Jesus in the gospels?
- Q11. All the apostles died for their beliefs. Why would anyone risk his life for a belief they know to be a lie?
Q1. Doesn’t the fact the Bible shows such an impressive uniformity, although the period of composition spans many centuries, points to the idea that it had a single (divine) author?
The idea of “uniformity” is very vague. On the one hand, this claim is trivially true. One would expect some kind of uniformity in the Bible just on the basis of three contingent facts:
- The Old Testament is a collection of books from one specific people in the middle east. Thus we would expect cultural continuity (such as the same language [Hebrew or its derivative Aramaic], the same adherence to holy books, i.e. The Torah etc.) to be contained within the books since most cultures persist for some time through history.
- Similarly the New Testament is a collection of books taken from a group (although not homogeneous as we have seen above) of people who lived in the first and second centuries CE who believed that Jesus’ coming is a fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Finding some “continuity” in its message with the Old Testament is therefore not surprising.
- Finally, and this must not be forgotten, the books of the Bible were collected at (more or less) singular moments in history. The Old Testament for instance was collected by a Rabbinic “council” during the years following the Jewish revolt in 70 CE. Books that did not correspond to the theological views of the rabbis were explicitly excluded from the canon of the Old Testament. [We give a more detailed description of this process elsewhere in this website.] Thus much of this “uniformity” is not something which occurs naturally but arose out of an active selection process by Jewish Rabbis within a given period in history. Similarly many books were excluded from the New Testament because they did not conform to the views of the Church Fathers that eventually won control over nascent Christianity. [We give a more detailed description of this process elsewhere in this website.]
On the other hand, this claim is wrong. When we look at the details, we do not find a uniformity of theologies within the covers of the Bible. There are actually many differing (in some cases diametrically opposite) theologies which can be found in the Bible. In the Old Testament, for instance we find diametrically opposite views on life in Proverbs and in Ecclesiastes. Similarly in the New Testament we find completely opposing views on the value of good works between the epistles of James and Paul. Thus the claim that the Bible is an “impressive uniformity” is in one sense trivial and in another sense wrong. Back to the top Q2. Doesn’t the fact that the more than 5,000 extant manuscripts of the New Testament (more manuscripts than any other works in history) guarantee the truth of the New Testament message? The logic behind this question is badly flawed. At most, a high preponderance of manuscripts guarantee the textual integrity of the document but it does not provide any weightage whatsoever for the factual veracity of its contents. An example should suffice here. Suppose we find a couple of old manuscripts of a document of an ancient, now-defunct, religion. The two manuscripts are more or less identical except at a few verses. Let us say that there is one verse where there is a discrepancy which cannot be resolved easily. This verse [when translated into English] is given in the two manuscripts as:
|Manuscript “A”||: The moon is made of sweet cheese.|
|Manuscript “B”||: The moon is made of Swiss cheese.|
Suppose that at a later date, in something akin to the discoveries at the dead sea, thousands more manuscripts of this document dating to times earlier than these two manuscripts were found. Upon studying these new finds, it is found that they all support the reading given in Manuscript “B”. This means that textual scholars can now be certain that the verse , in its original form, reads “The moon is made of Swiss cheese.” We have now reached a state of textual purity as far as this verse is concerned. It is uncontaminated by later additions, deletions or emendations and we know that this was what the original author of the manuscript wrote down.
Note, however that textual purity does not equate to factual veracity or to epistemological truth. The statement that “The moon is made of Swiss cheese.” is still false. A more detailed examination of such claims is made elsewhere in this website. Back to the top Q3. Aren’t there verses in the Bible that prove the scientific accuracy of the Bible? On the contrary there are many more verses in the Bible that show that the biblical authors held essentially pre-scientific and grossly inaccurate views of the world around them. We have shown in this website the numerous errors in the physical sciences, the biological sciences and mathematics that permeate the Bible. The presence of a few vague verses, that when interpreted loosely, seem to show some foreknowledge of modern science must be contrasted with the preponderance of contradictions, mathematical errors and scientific guffaws found within the pages of the Bible.
Also apart from these scientific and mathematical errors, we must remember that the Bible contains internal contradictions, numerical contradictions and failed prophecies. These facts constitute further evidence for the human, as opposed to divine, origins of the book.
While there are some historical facts in the Bible (e.g. the account of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE) it represents a gross misrepresentation of the current state of the science of archaeology to say that it has “never” contradicted the Bible. Indeed , there is now so much contrary evidence against the historical accuracy of the Bible that the term “biblical archaeology” has now been discarded in professional archeology! [The preferred term now being Syro-Palestinian archaeology ] The whole paradigm of archaeology in the Near East has shifted away from thinking of the Bible as a reliable archaeological field guide to that of a collection of ancient fairy tales and legends. The BBC journalist Matthew Sturgis account in his book It Ain’t Necessarily So (2001) summarizes the current situation nicely:
|A new generation of archaeologists has emerged…they are challenging the intellectual assumptions of their predecessors…During the years since World War II it has become harder and harder to escape this sense of doubt. The expected discoveries of specific biblical artifacts and buildings were simply not being made…Discrepancies between the biblical account and the ever increasing archaeological record become more noticeable and harder to ignore…Rather than using the Old Testament as a field guide, the current crop of archaeologists is increasingly putting the Bible aside…The very term biblical archaeology has become tainted, and is now rejected by many academics…The old quest to confirm the historical truths of the events in the Bible has been replaced by a new agenda: to build a full and detailed picture of life in the ancient Near East. If the Bible is consulted at all, it is approached with varying degrees of skepticism. The onus of proof has shifted: the text [of the Bible] is now considered historically unreliable until proven otherwise. 
Over the last decade, quote a number of books have been published outlining this state of affairs.
- T.W. Davis, “Shifting Sands: The Rise and Fall of Biblical Archaeology”, Oxford 2004
- I. Finkelstein, “The Bible Unearthed”, Free Press 2001
- A.D. Marcus, “The View from Nebo”, Little, Brown & Co 2000
- M. Sturgis, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, Headline 2001
- T.L. Thompson, “The Mythic Past”, Basic Books 1999
- T.L. Thompson, “The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives”, Trinity 2002
Basically the main thesis of these books can be summarized as follows: much of what passed as history (such Abraham and the “patriarchal narrative”, Moses and the exodus and the conquest of Canaan) is now considered, based on the mass of available archaeological evidence, to be largely mythical. The Israeli archaeologist, I. Finkelstein (see his book above) goes even further; he asserts that historical evidence is lacking for even the united kingdom of David and Solomon! We provide some of the evidence presented by these archaeologists against the historicity of these biblical accounts elsewhere in this website:
- errors and difficulties in the stories of Abraham and the patriarchal narratives.
- known fictitious elements in the stories of Moses.
- problems with the stories of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan.
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Q5. Wasn’t the coming of Jesus clearly foretold in the Old Testament such that it is highly improbable that the prophecies would have referred to someone else?
Numbers have been quoted to support the supposed extreme improbabilities of such a claim. Lee Strobel quoted in his book The Case for Christ that the probability of someone else fulfilling the prophecies about Jesus is about one in 1 X 10156 – or 1 followed by 156 zeros!  However impressive such claims may sound to the uninformed, a detailed examination of the so-called prophecies in the Old Testament showed that such claims are hollow. Indeed in many cases, modern fundamentalists and evangelicals have gotten their facts upside down. It was not that the prophecies in the Old Testament were fulfilled by Jesus’ life but that these passages [considered as messianic prophecies by the evangelists (the authors of the gospels)] were used by them to concoct details about the life of Jesus – since they did not have much information about the life of Jesus (for the answer to the fundamentalist stock reply that the apostles “would not have made up such stories about Jesus and would not have died for what they know to be a lie”, see Q9 to Q11 below). Other “prophecies” such as the prophecies of the virgin birth and the of the crucifixion were based on mistakes in translations. Still others are based on what modern evangelicals and fundamentalists read into the passages.
The whole edifice of the story of the virgin birth is historically unreliable. In the two extant accounts in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, we find inconsistencies in the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, the stories relating to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and the reason why Mary and Joseph settled in Nazareth. Furthermore we find that the historical details of the nativity given in the gospels, mainly the death of Herod and the census of Quirinius, cannot be reconciled – for Herod died a full ten years before the census of Quirinius.
The story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is uncorroborated by other historical documents and evidence, and is a fictional creation of Matthew. Other details of the Nativity have also been shown to be unreliable. And of course, as we have seen above, the prophecy of the virgin birth is based on a mistranslation of Isaiah. We also note that many of the details of the nativity were concocted from Old Testament passages. In some cases, Old Testament passages were twisted out of its original context to make it “fit” the storyline. The virgin birth is myth, not history. Fiction, not fact.
It is hard for fundamentalists and evangelicals to see how anyone could view Jesus with anything but the utmost awe and respect. However it is also true that most skeptics, myself included, do not see Jesus as that extraordinary in terms of his teachings or his behavior – as reported in the gospels. Jesus was portrayed in the gospel as a racist: he referred to non-Jews as “dogs” and affirms that his teachings were meant for Jews only. The ethical lessons attributed to him were unimpressive and unoriginal. His personality was probably not much different from other peasant preachers of his era; preaching love at one moment and cursing his enemies the next. There are even passages that would make one ask questions about his intellectual prowess.
While most skeptics do not doubt that Jesus’ earliest disciples had some kind of “resurrection experience”, they do doubt that the stories, as told in the Gospels and Acts are historical. The stories about the burial, the discovery of the empty tomb, and the various resurrection appearances are not historical. For instance there are difficulties and contradictions with the burial accounts given in the gospels. Matthew’s unique story about the guards placed at the tomb, also completely contradicts the details given in the other gospels. The whole idea of Jesus’ body being placed in a new tomb is historically unreliable. Furthermore, there are contradictions among the gospel accounts in almost every detail in the story discovery of the empty tomb. The balance of evidence seems to show that there was no empty tomb; that the empty tomb itself was a later development or addition in the legend of Jesus’ resurrection.Similar to the empty tomb account above, the other gospels ( and Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians) couldn’t agree on many details of the resurrection appearances.
The oldest documents, such as Paul’s epistles, seem to indicate nothing more than a hallucinatory experience. The initial appearances of Jesus were very likely hallucinatory and fleeting in nature. There are some convincing psychological explanations as to why the resurrection appearances happened to Peter and Paul.We also note that the resurrection of gods is a very common theme in Greco-Roman paganism. Just like the case of the virgin birth, it is very likely that the story of the resurrection is the result of this cultural cross breeding of myths.
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Q9. Isn’t the account of the gospels, written by either the apostles (Matthew and John)or their close associates (Mark and Luke), a historically reliable source for the miracles and the life of Jesus?
It is a well known fact among non-fundamentalist scholars that the gospels were not written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. These names first appeared as the purported authors of the gospels only in the second century and were guesses made by the early Church fathers. Internal evidence of the gospels themselves point to the conclusion that the gospel of Mark was not written by Mark, companion of Peter, the gospel of Matthew was not written by the apostle of that name, the author of Luke-Acts could not have been the companion of Paul of that name and finally the gospel attributed to John was not written by John, the son of Zebedee. All four gospels were written after 70 CE, at least four decades after the death of Jesus, with the latest, Luke and John, written almost a century after the crucifixion. Attempts by fundamentalists to argue for early dates of gospel composition have met with failure. At no point do we have in the gospels the account of an eyewitness or even the friend of an eyewitness.
This is based on a very superficial understanding of oral tradition. Indeed we found that even in cases where the witnesses are still alive, stories tend to take a life of their own in an unskeptical oral culture. Furthermore, as we have seen above all the gospels were written after the calamity of the Jewish War in 70 CE. This upheaval would have killed many of the eyewitnesses, dislocated many others and dislodged the memories of most of the rest of the survivors. Thus there are strong reasons to believe that the apostles were either no longer around or no longer in a position to counter the falsehoods in the gospels, when the documents started circulating.
Back to the top Q11.
All the apostles died for their beliefs. Why would anyone risk his life for a belief they know to be a lie? There are three assumptions embedded in this question: all of them demonstrably false.The first assumption is that we know all the apostles died martyrs’ deaths. This is simply not the case. With the exception of the death of James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:2) and Judas (Matthew 27:9, Acts 1:18), no other apostolic deaths is recounted in the New Testament. The traditional material relating to the life of the apostles are simply unreliable. Apart from the (probably) historical tradition that Peter died in Rome, we do not know how the rest of the apostles met their end -whether it was through martyrdom, disease, accident or old age. The second assumption is that what the apostles believed about Jesus is the same essentially as what can be found in the New Testament. It must be remembered that since the stories in the gospels were not written by the apostles or any of their close associates [see Q9 above] – it is unlikely that what is described therein as the teachings of Jesus actually were what the Jewish preacher taught.
We do know that the teachings in the New Testament tend (although not always!) to be in line with what was taught by the self-proclaimed apostle Paul. Yet we have strong evidence that Paul’s teachings were opposed by the apostles who knew Jesus, that he had a falling out with them at Antioch and that his last trip to Jerusalem to reconcile himself with them very probably ended in failure. All available evidence points to the conclusion James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the apostles and the Jerusalem church after Jesus died. James was a devout Jew. Like James, the original apostles and the Jerusalem church remained firmly within the fold of Judaism. The group fled to Pella in the Transjordan before the outbreak of the Jewish war. Their later descendents consisted of groups known as Jewish Christians (i.e. the Nazarenes and Ebionites), who had no belief in the virgin birth and disavowed the divinity of Jesus – considering him a great prophet in the mold of Moses.
Thus even if it can be shown that some of the apostles died martyrs’ deaths, it is unlikely in the extreme that they died for the same beliefs or dogmas of modern fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity. The third assumption is that people will not die for false beliefs or beliefs they know to be false. This is clearly a false assumption. All religions have their martyrs. Even some non-religious political systems – such as communism – have found people willing too die for them. The current trend among Islamic militants of suicide bombing is just another sad example of people only to willing to end their lives for their [unexamined] beliefs. The last decade of the twentieth century have given us plenty of other examples. David Koresh led his Branch Davidians to fiery deaths in their final apocalyptic battle with the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Luc Jouret and his followers of the Solar Temple group committed suicide in Switzerland and Canada in 1994. Marshall Herff Applewhite and his followers, members of the Heaven’s Gate community, willingly committed suicide believing that they were to be picked up by aliens. In other words being willing to die for one’s beliefs has always been the hallmark of fanatics and true believers. The willingness of these believers to die martyr’s deaths provides no assurance whatsoever that what they believe is true.
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|1.||Davis, Shifting Sands: p145|
|2.||Sturgis, It Ain’t Necessarily So: p36-39|
|3.||Strobel, The Case for Christ: p247|
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