The Author of Genesis Did Not Intend for Us to Read his Stories Literally. Really?

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Moderate Christian Blogger:

Since religious skepticism started gaining traction critics have been harsh on the Biblical texts and their scientific findings. But are they reading the texts the way the authors intended them to be read?

This is a big one. Even in its dying breaths, New Atheism continues to shout the objection that the Bible largely conflicts with the findings of modern science. “Religion and science aren’t compatible!” so the argument goes. Attempts to align the Bible with modern science have been made from east to west, from young-earth creationism to old-earth. The problem is Young-Earthers are accused of denying scientific findings whilst those who hold the old-Earth position are accused of misreading the Bible and forcing it to agree with the evidence. Critics reject either attempt because the former position doesn’t confirm modern science and the latter doesn’t conform with what we know of ancient literature of the Bible. The best the ancients would have had, critics argue, is a guess.

Personally, I’ve jumped back and forth between each position and to be honest I’m still not entirely sure which to adhere to. However, if all the evidence points to an old Earth I will wholeheartedly agree with it and it will not affect my trust in the Biblical texts in the least. Why that is is what I will be looking at here.

When critics argue for the incompatibility of Christianity and science the first piece of evidence is always the beginning of Genesis, so I will place my focus here and thus explain how the Bible is to be read in light of modern science. While it may come as a shock, especially to those who preach a literal form of inerrancy, modern science is not relevant to the Biblical authors. They simply didn’t have the knowledge. However, a scientific journal wasn’t what the authors set out to write.

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Gary:

I believe that it is certainly possible that the Judeo-Christian god exists, that he is the Creator of the universe, and that in ancient times he spoke to people using concepts and language that they could grasp. I believe that it is certainly possible that when transmitting his message to mankind through human authors, it was immaterial to Yahweh that the language and concepts that the human authors used to convey his message were scientifically accurate. Yahweh wasn’t trying write a science book or any other kind of textbook but a message of eternal salvation.

All this is certainly possible.

But is this the most PROBABLE explanation for why the literal reading of the Bible is so often contrary to known scientific facts? Isn’t it much more probable that the reason for this discrepancy between the Bible and science is that the authors of the Bible were doing what people in many other ancient cultures were doing: Writing Creation stories and other folk legends for the simple purposes of trying to make sense of their dangerous, scary world…and…perhaps for a little entertainment?

I will bet that the original story teller of the original Garden of Eden story had no intention for his audience to believe that the fanciful tale he was spinning was actual historical fact. It was just a good story!

Why can’t we view the beautiful folk tales in the Hebrew holy book in the same manner that we view the folk legends of other ancient peoples such as the Babylonians, the Chinese, and the Mayans?

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The Irrationality of Conservative Christian Apologists

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Ask a conservative Christian apologist for the evidence of his (or her) invisible god’s existence and he will point to the natural laws of science, concepts formulated by the research and consensus opinion of scientists from all over the world using the Scientific Method.  Then ask the conservative Christian apologist if he accepts the scientific consensus that human beings evolved from lower life forms in the process known as Evolution, and he will reject the scientific consensus, claiming that the majority of scientists are biased.

Ask a conservative Christian apologist for the evidence that his god’s alleged human son, Jesus of Nazareth, really did come back to life after his public execution in circa 33 CE, possessing a new body with supernatural qualities and powers that allowed him to levitate into the clouds (and presumably outer space), and the apologist will point to:

-One literature search which indicates that the majority of New Testament scholars believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb.

-Majority scholarly opinion that the Gospels accurately describe a first century Jewish burial in a rock tomb.

– Majority scholarly opinion that the Romans in some cases allowed the bodies of persons crucified in the first century to be given to their families or the local authorities for burial.

-Majority scholarly opinion that first century Jews rarely if ever moved dead bodies on a Sabbath or even during the first year after the body’s burial.

-Majority scholarly opinion that it was very important to first century Jews to maintain the accuracy of their culture’s oral traditions and stories.

-Majority scholarly opinion that very soon after Jesus’ death, the early Christians believed that he had appeared to them alive again.

However, ask a conservative Christian apologist if he accepts the majority scholarly opinion that the authors of the four Gospels are unknown and that it is unlikely that these four books were written by eyewitnesses or the associates of eyewitnesses, and the apologist will reject the majority opinion of New Testament scholars claiming that they are biased.

Just exactly who is biased in this discussion, dear Readers?

New Testament Scholar NT Wright

 

Links to articles regarding the authorship of the Gospels:

Why Scholars Doubt the Traditional Authors of the Gospels

Excerpt:

The traditional authors of the canonical Gospels–Matthew the tax collector, Mark the attendant of Peter, Luke the attendant of Paul, and John the son of Zebedee–are doubted among the majority of mainstream New Testament scholars. The public is often not familiar, however, with the complex reasons and methodology that scholars use to reach well-supported conclusions about critical issues, such as assessing the authorial traditions for ancient texts. To provide a good overview of the majority opinion about the Gospels, the Oxford Annotated Bible (a compilation of multiple scholars summarizing dominant scholarly trends for the last 150 years) states (pg. 1744):

Neither the evangelists nor their first readers engaged in historical analysis. Their aim was to confirm Christian faith (Lk. 1.4; Jn. 20.31). Scholars generally agree that the Gospels were written forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. They thus do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Unfortunately, much of the general public is not familiar with scholarly resources like the one quoted above; instead, Christian apologists often put out a lot of material, such as The Case For Christ, targeted toward lay audiences, who are not familiar with scholarly methods, in order to argue that the Gospels are the eyewitness testimonies of either Jesus’ disciples or their attendants. The mainstream scholarly view is that the Gospels are anonymous works, written in a different language than that of Jesus, in distant lands, after a substantial gap of time, by unknown persons, compiling, redacting, and inventing various traditions, in order to provide a narrative of Christianity’s central figure–Jesus Christ–to confirm the faith of their communities.

 

Gospel of Matthew: Early Christian Writings

Excerpt:  It is the near-universal position of scholarship that the Gospel of Matthew is dependent upon the Gospel of Mark. This position is accepted whether one subscribes to the dominant Two-Source Hypothesis or instead prefers the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis.

It is also the consensus position that the evangelist was not the apostle Matthew. Such an idea is based on the second century statements of Papias and Irenaeus. As quoted by Eusebius in Hist. Eccl. 3.39, Papias states: “Matthew put together the oracles [of the Lord] in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.” In Adv. Haer. 3.1.1, Irenaeus says: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church.” We know that Irenaeus had read Papias, and it is most likely that Irenaeus was guided by the statement he found there. That statement in Papias itself is considered to be unfounded because the Gospel of Matthew was written in Greek and relied largely upon Mark, not the author’s first-hand experience.

Herman N. Ridderbos writes (Matthew, p. 7):

This means, however, that we can no longer accept the traditional view of Matthew’s authorship. At least two things forbid us to do so. First, the tradition maintains that Matthew authored an Aramaic writing, while the standpoint I have adopted does not allow us to regard our Greek text as a translation of an Aramaic original. Second, it is extremely doubtful that an eyewitness like the apostle Matthew would have made such extensive use of material as a comparison of the two Gospels indicates. Mark, after all, did not even belong to the circle of the apostles. Indeed Matthew’s Gospel surpasses those of the other synoptic writers neither in vividness of presentation nor in detail, as we would expect in an eyewitness report, yet neither Mark nor Luke had been among those who had followed Jesus from the beginning of His public ministry.

 

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Excerpt:  The questions of authorship, sources, and the time of composition of this gospel have received many answers, none of which can claim more than a greater or lesser degree of probability. The one now favored by the majority of scholars is the following.

The ancient tradition that the author was the disciple and apostle of Jesus named Matthew (see Mt 10:3) is untenable because the gospel is based, in large part, on the Gospel according to Mark (almost all the verses of that gospel have been utilized in this), and it is hardly likely that a companion of Jesus would have followed so extensively an account that came from one who admittedly never had such an association rather than rely on his own memories. The attribution of the gospel to the disciple Matthew may have been due to his having been responsible for some of the traditions found in it, but that is far from certain.

The unknown author, whom we shall continue to call Matthew for the sake of convenience, drew not only upon the Gospel according to Mark but upon a large body of material (principally, sayings of Jesus) not found in Mark that corresponds, sometimes exactly, to material found also in the Gospel according to Luke. This material, called “Q” (probably from the first letter of the German word Quelle, meaning “source”), represents traditions, written and oral, used by both Matthew and Luke. Mark and Q are sources common to the two other synoptic gospels; hence the name the “Two-Source Theory” given to this explanation of the relation among the synoptics.

 

The Gospel of Matthew (A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture)

Excerpt:  Today, however, the apostolic authorship of Matthew’s Gospel is maintained by only a minority of biblical scholars.

 

Gary:  Conservative Christian apologists will often claim that the reason why the majority of New Testament scholars reject traditional/eyewitness authorship of the Gospels is because the majority of New Testament scholars are liberals who do not believe in the supernatural.  Really?  If that is true, then how do conservative Christian apologists explain the above statements of NT Wright and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops?  Few people would describe Wright and America’s Catholic bishops as “supernatural-denying liberals”!

Accept the evidence, my conservative Christian friends:  Your supernatural belief system is based on two thousand year old hearsay and legend.

 

 


 

Why Does the Author of Matthew include Five Women in the Genealogy of Jesus?

Related imageMary of the Anunciation by Jan van Eyck

If you read “Matthew’s” genealogy of Jesus, you will find something very odd.  Among the long list of males “begetting” other males, Matthew includes the names of five women, one of them, Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Why?  Jewish genealogies were patriarchal.  Women were typically not mentioned in the genealogies of Jews.  One only has to read the genealogies in the Old Testament to see this.

So why did Matthew include these five women?

Is there any commonality among these women?  Well, how about this:  Every women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is famous for being involved ina sexual sin!

Did Matthew include these women in the genealogy of Jesus to demonstrate that Mary was not the only famous Jewish woman to be accused of inappropriate sexual conduct, yet, Yahweh blessed them anyway?  And an even bigger question: Did Matthew invent the virgin birth story as a cover for a known illegitimate birth?  Did he then include the four “sinful” Jewish women in Jesus’ genealogy to persuade his readers to accept that what on the surface might appear as sinful sexual behavior, was actually all part of God’s plan, and in Mary’s case, the greatest miracle ever told???

 

New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, from his blog:

All four women were involved with sexual activities that were viewed as scandalous by outsiders but that furthered the purposes of God.  Tamar, for example, tricked her father-in-law into having sex with her by disguising herself as a prostitute; Rahab was a prostitute who lived in Jericho (and in the tradition later became the mother-in-law of Ruth); Ruth seduced her kinsman Boaz (that’s what it means in Ruth 3 when it says that at night, she came up to him, while he was asleep, and “uncovered his feet.”  “Feet” is a euphemism in the Hebrew Bible for “genitals”), who then proposed marriage to her (they became the grandparents of King David); and Bathsheba committed adultery with David (or was raped by him, as some interpreters have suggested) and ended up marrying him (and fathering his child Solomon) after he arranged to have her husband killed.   Why would allusions to such stories strike Matthew as appropriate for his genealogy of Jesus?  Could it have to do with Mary, the last woman mentioned, the mother of Jesus, herself?  Recall: she too was thought to have engaged in illicit sexual activity when she became pregnant out of wedlock.  Even Joseph was suspicious, in Matthew’s version, and decided to dissolve their relationship in secret.  Matthew, however, saw the matter differently: once again God used a potential sex scandal to further his plans, having Jesus miraculously born from a woman who was still a virgin. 

To read Ehrman’s entire post, become a member of his blog.  It costs pennies a month and all proceeds go to charity.

Pray for the Day that Religious Superstitions are no longer Socially Acceptable

Yes, I am using the verb “pray” facetiously.

Imagine a world where young men do not fly hijacked airplanes into skyscrapers because they believe their act will please an invisible being.   Imagine a world where young men do not believe that they will be rewarded with a bevy of virgin concubines in the Afterlife for murdering men, women, and children who happen to worship a different invisible being.  Imagine a world where one culture does not organize “crusades” to slaughter millions of people of another culture just because they worship a different invisible being.  Imagine a world where modern societies do not impose the morality of ancient, scientifically-ignorant cultures on everyone in a society based on the belief that an invisible being demands it.

Imagine a world free of belief in ghosts, spirits, demons, devils, and capricious gods!

The Gospel of Mark has no Virgin Birth, no Mention of Bethlehem, nor any Mention of Joseph. Why?

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He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?”

—Gospel of Mark 6:1-3

 

Excerpts from New Testament scholar, Bart Ehrman, from a recent post on his blog:

Jesus’ townspeople are incredulous that he can deliver such an impressive address in the synagogue.  They ask: “Where did he get such these things?  What what is this wisdom that has been given to him?  And how can such miracles be worked through his hands?  Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James, Joses, Juda and Simon?  And aren’t his sisters here with us?”In other words: the townsfolk knew of Jesus as an unimpressive member of the community, who worked a day job with his hands (say, a construction worker) – not great miracles (with his hands).  And his family was all there.  The comments on the family are interesting and have prompted a lot of discussion over the years.  To begin with, Jesus is here said to be “the son of Mary.”  As frequently noted, that’s a bit odd. 

Normally you would identify someone by indicating his *father*, not his mother.  Why do they say son of Mary instead of son of Joseph?  Joseph, as it turns out, is never named in Mark’s Gospel or even mentioned.  If all you had was Mark’s Gospel, you wouldn’t know his father’s name.

Gary:  Nor does any surviving Christian document written before the Gospel of Mark (Paul’s epistles) mention Joseph.

Bart Ehrman continues:

…it is odd that in 6:3 Jesus is identified as the son of Mary rather than the son of Joseph.  None of the theories I’ve mentioned so far seem to work (that his father was dead; that his mother was a virgin).  For that reason, some readers have suggested a more radical solution.  It is because his father was not known.  But why would Jesus’ father not be known to townspeople who knew his mother and brothers? According to this theory (I’m not saying I’m buying it, I’m just saying it’s worth thinking about) Jesus was born out of wedlock.  No one knew who his father was.In this view, the later virgin birth stories found in Matthew and Luke were attempts to cover up and even make theologically significant the fact that unusual circumstances surrounded Jesus’ birth.  For that purpose, the story teller (after Mark, but before Luke) who came up with a virgin birth story also came up with the name of the legally espoused future husband of Mary, Joseph, a person not named in our earliest account because he was not “known” to exist until later.

Gary“Outrageous speculation!”  Christians will say.  And maybe they are right.

However, the idea that Christians would invent stories about famous Christians (such as a saint) is not atypical in the history of Christianity.  I am currently reading Kenneth Woodward’s The Book of Miracles.  The chapter discussing how saints in the late Roman period and during the Middle Ages were honored and venerated by Christians is a fascinating read.  One famous saint, the English bishop, Thomas Becket,  murdered on the altar steps of the Cathedral of Canterbury by King Henry II,  and then promptly canonized as a saint by the pope, is a perfect example of this phenomenon.  While Becket was alive he was not considered a noteworthy man.  Once he was “martyred”, all sorts of amazing tales sprung up about him, including a miracle-filled infancy.

“But how could such false stories spring up when eyewitnesses to the life of Thomas Becket were still alive???”

Well, we have solid proof that many people did believe these tales even though there were many eyewitnesses alive who could have disputed them.  You see, when people want to turn someone into a legendary figure, the truth and the facts are of secondary importance.

So the next time you hear a conservative Christian say, “The miracle claims in the Gospels, including the Empty Tomb story and the appearances of Jesus to his disciples, must be historical facts.  The Gospels were written within a few short decades of Jesus’ death.  Therefore, many eyewitnesses would still have been alive at the time of the writing of the Gospels.  It would have been impossible for these stories to have circulated among the churches if the Gospels contained false statements and invented stories.  The eyewitnesses would have stopped the embellished stories (legends) from ever getting started!”

Wrong!  We have proof that just such legendary development occurred, during the lifetimes of many eyewitnesses, with other famous Christians.

 

If you would like to read Ehrman’s full (fascinating) post, you need to join Ehrman’s blog as a member.  It costs about $3.00 per month and all proceeds go to charity. 

St. Augustine and the Bones of Stephen, the First Christian Martyr

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The Christians’ care for the bodies of their martyrs struck their Greco-Roman neighbors as grotesque.  To the ancient Greeks and Romans, a dead body was defiling and to be put at a distance. 

In the Resurrection of Jesus—the fundamental Christian miracle—believers found their own hope of rising again in a body glorified but with the same identity they had as individuals on earth.  Christians believed that these bodies would be reunited with the souls of the saints in heaven.  The association between the bodies of the saints and the body of Christ was routinely made during Christian masses.  [Their bones and other relics were even placed on the altars of the churches next to the “body and blood of Christ”.] 

—Kenneth Woodward, The Book of Miracles, p. 160, 161

 

Gary:  The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body caused early Christians to place great importance on the disposition of the bodies of their dead, in particular, the bodies of their martyrs and saints.   If Peter’s shadow and Paul’s handkerchiefs could heal the sick then so could the bodily remains (bones) and possessions (relics) of other saints, such as the bones of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, whose martyrdom was attended by Saul of Tarsus.

Augustine of Hippo believed in miracles and developed an elaborate theory to explain them. … but for most of his life he specifically objected to the cult of relics.  But late in life, Augustine changed his mind after the bones of Stephen, the first martyr, were discovered in Jerusalem and brought to Hippo in 416.  He saw for himself the cures and other miracles produced by Stephen’s relics, and had them carefully recorded.   —The Book of Miracles,  p. 162

Gary:  Seriously???  The bones of Stephen???  The bones of Stephen “discovered” in Jerusalem almost four hundred years after his death???

Give me a break.

How many Protestant Christians believe that the bones found in Jerusalem and brought to Hippo in 416 CE were actually those of the Stephen mentioned in the Book of Acts?  And even more, how many Protestant Christians believe that these bones caused the multiple “amazing” miracles and healings that were so convincing that they caused St. Augustine to change his mind about the powers of Christian relics?

Answer:  Not many, I will bet.

But notice that Augustine states that he carefully recorded these miracles.  So we have a known man with an honest reputation, a known superior intelligence; a man initially skeptical of the miraculous powers of relics,  who claims to have recorded multiple miracles which he personally confirmed…yet…most Protestants do not believe that these miracles really occurred.  Most Protestants believe that Augustine was sincere in his belief in the reality of these miracles, but that he was sincerely mistaken.

Yet when it comes to the miracle claims in the Gospels, books whose authorship is, at best, in question, Protestant Christians believe these miracle claims without question.

That makes no sense.

Come on, Protestant Christians,  be consistent!