Simplistic Atheism {3}: The Bible, Miracles, & History


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(Note: These exchanges are now complete. There is a Table of Contents to the discussion now available.)

We continue our response to Daniel Bastian’s blistering critique of religious belief. Part 1 tried to respond to what seems to be Daniel’s basic understanding of the world, reason, and spirituality. Part 2 focused entirely on his use of scientific claims and findings to discredit (at least the need for) religiosity. Yesterday, Daniel responded to Part 2 (here was my response). Today, we narrow in on his views of the Bible, miracles, and history.

A Simplistic Bible

(Disclosure: a lot of this is cut-and-paste from various comments here and on Facebook. Also, I’ve taught a few classes that have a more detailed discussion of a theology of Scripture. Those can be found here, here, and here.)

The points about the Bible in Daniel’s post were especially difficult to read. In fact, they were my inspiration for my post last week talking about how Christianity can shape the types of Atheistic beliefs people come to. My frustration came from the fact that, since Daniel originally wrote this (a while ago), I’ve watched him engage with and express respect for others that offer substantive critiques to what he ended up re-posting last week.

In his points, he expresses a view of the Bible that is mechanical, wooden, systematic, simplistic, and puts expectations on the text that it doesn’t even place on itself. It seems like he is only responding to the modernist, fundamentalist view of the Bible (what I called a “Straw Bible”), and I know his thinking is far more nuanced than that–I couldn’t understand why he still perpetuated this. But nevertheless, he did, so I’ll address it as it’s posted.

Every revelation of God is mediated. His revelation is always a “bottom-up” affair, rather than a top-down. Even the “voices from on high” with which he speaks in the Old testament are still using human concepts like a “voice”. God has found it fit to communicate himself through culturally-conditioned means.

This being the case, the Bible never claims for itself the modernist expectation of a “holy book”. It is not a book of perfection. It is the primary means by which God meets with his people in an active sense. It’s not this perfect text where God just chills waiting for us to see him. His Presence is more of an emergent property from the within text, revealed by the Holy Spirit to the heart of faith. Is that a completely abstract idea for which there is no objective evidence? Yup. And?

The term “inspiration” is not defined in the Bible, and even when Paul says that, he’s referring to the Septuagint–a really crappy translation that differs greatly from our modern OT, and so “inspiration” can’t mean “original manuscripts” or “all neat and tidy and perfect, with hidden scientific messages to give us”.

All inspiration seems to mean is that it contains the breath of God. The Bible itself is not that breath, nor does it claim to be. It is the means through which that breath is breathed, in a profoundly spiritual (not material) way.

The Bible never claims for itself special phenomenological knowledge or insight into the scientific workings of the world. True, Modernist fundamentalists make this claim, but even as far back as the ancient Jewish interpreters and early Christian Church Fathers, there was a belief that Genesis was not history or science.

I have no illusions about the Bible. It’s a theological interpretation of the cultural identity formation of the people of God as they were impacted by and communed with this one true God–even when they still had misunderstandings about him or attributed things to him that were wrong (which could only be fully known once the truest revelation of God, Jesus Christ, was known).

The Bible reinterprets and twists itself and its own words time and time again. And the authors know about this and freely do it. And yet, they still have no problem asserting the Bible has a unique place in the theology and spirituality of Christianity.

Simplistic Miracles

Daniel also shows a simplistic view of miracles. By the time you get to verfiable biblical history, around the time of David, “miracles” in the narrative of the Bible begin taking a slightly different form. In the earliest stories of the Bible, it’s true that often times the miraculous seems really out there and more like odd, superfluous “magic tricks” than anything with a deeper meaning.

But by David’s time, and seen most explicitly in Jesus, biblical miracles are not first and foremost “magic tricks”, but rather acts of justice. You don’t see Jesus shooting lasers out of his eyes or throwing massive rocks around. Instead, you seem him doing things like healing sickness, raising the dead, and feeding the hungry.

The idea is that the miraculous is when the world as it will be in eternity breaks into the present. God intends for the world to come–a world without sickness, death, or hunger–to have “previews” in the here and now.

And so God’s purpose in the miraculous is not to show off or even suspend the laws of nature. The miraculous is whenever the world as it will be breaks into the present when it otherwise “naturally” would not.

Because of this, I’d say that the medical and science fields are actually the realm in which God accomplish this purpose of the miraculous in developed, modern countries. Jesus healed in pre-scientific Palestine because he wanted to give them a taste of a world where sickness had no place. He did this through physical means like touch, voice, and even mud. Nowadays, I believe he still does this through other physical means: medication, research, and medical science.

This is why most modern miracles (of the explicitly supernatural sort Daniel’s talking about) are mainly reported in communities that are still pre-modern, undeveloped, or have a dearth of medical help. It’s not simply because they’re “stupider” than we are. They know a dead person when they see it. They know illness when they see it. And they can also tell when it’s gone away.

Two last points on this: (1) In case you say, “God would still do the miraculous through people don’t believe that’s what they’re being used for, and wouldn’t like it if they were?” The Bible (even the New testament) is full of accounts of people outside the family of God being used by him to do miraculous things. Not because of any faith of theirs, but in spite of their lack of faith. The miraculous is an exercise of God’s prerogative in this world. And (2) just in case you think I’m charging into outlandish heretical waters just to justify my faith, a lot of this is based on the work of Tim Keller–hardly outside the mainstream.

An Interpretation, Not Assessment, of History

The History of Miracles

God created things working pretty well and fine in this world, and God doesn’t need to intervene all the time. Miracles are not a necessity for things to function by any means. and one reason why they’re written about in the Bible (especially in the Gospels) is precisely because they’re rare, and people knew that. People knew this stuff was crazy outside the norm. It wasn’t an every day occurrence.

For example: let’s just assume for a second that the Bible does provide a literal history and everything in it happened the way it says it happened, when it says it happened. The Biblical narrative from Eden to Revelation covers (very) roughly 4,000 years, and covers three continents. Okay, so how many crazy, natural law-suspending stuff happens in the Bible? I saw one random link on Google say 333. Let’s make that an even 400.

This means that, on average, the Bible chronicles one miracle every ten years across three continents. Overall, that’s not a lot. Yes, they happen in clusters, especially at moments of intense redemptive activity in the story, but in the more “mundane” parts of the book, that chronicle personal thoughts and every day life (Psalms, the Prophets, NT Letters), you don’t hear of miracles happening a whole lot.

Nevertheless, a search on Google or YouTube for “miracles evidence” brings up a ton of hits–a lot of them wacky, and some sarcastic, and others completely unrelated. Similarly, the earliest church documents are full of references to the miraculous. (Again, they write about these things because they know these are not normal, expected, natural events. Only the highest of Post-Enlightenment arrogance would assume that they wouldn’t know a dead or sick person when they saw it).

So what if one out of every ten years’ worth of miraculous claims, even one was genuine? That wouldn’t be that far outside the biblical expectation. I believe it happens more than that, but even if not, you have the stories and claims you can sift through. The Catholic Church even has a panel of doctors and scientists that are skeptics that have to approve all of their miracle claims.

The History of the Bible and Christianity

Daniel knows I’m pretty open to very non-traditional views concerning the history and development of the biblical faith. And where I’ve stumbled in my knowledge of precise philosophical terminology and application in this exchange, I feel I more than make up for it in how much I’ve studied these sorts of questions pertaining to biblical studies and genuinely assessed the facts–abandoning some of my previous notions and reshaping others.

And yet, I genuinely don’t think the evidence bears out that the picture of Christian development that Daniel paints is accurate.

Daniel quotes Bart Ehrman, a well-known agnostic New testament scholar with a quote of his that comes from this meme that went around a while ago. I don’t know if this is where Daniel first saw this, but it’s odd that this quote is offered as central to Ehrman’s thinking–Ehrman is a vehement defender of the historical existence of Christ.

Though it’s not made explicitly clear, I don’t think Daniel was implying that Jesus himself never existed. I think he was more saying that, if Jesus was so awesome and divine, it’s odd that there’s no mention of him in the “most well-documented era in history” (which I’d still like a citation on that, but I’ll grant him it for the time being). A few quick responses:

First, Ehrman isn’t talking about there being no reference for the first 100 years after Jesus, but rather within the first century. Ehrman says elsewhere, “He [Jesus] is mentioned a couple of times within about 80 years of his life by two Roman sources [and possibly a third]”. So we’re not talking about a 100 year period, we’re more talking about a 65-year period from 35ish CE to 100 CE.

Secondly, Jesus was a random construction from a nowhere part of town who had the attention of the authorities (and those writing in this “well-documented era”) for about a week-long period. So, his actual works and words wouldn’t have made it into any other records of literate people. That would have to wait until the movement he sparked grew big enough to take notice. I think 60 years sounds about right. References start picking up in the early 100s and grow exponentially from there. This would be just about right for a peaceful word-of-mouth movement showing up on Roman radars, and it definitely would not be long enough for an entire fully-developed Jesus myth to form.

Third, this whole assumption and assertion by Daniel is, I think, entirely wrong and makes no common-sense unless someone is trying to shape the evidence to fit their views (and again, I’d be open to “more liberal” perspectives on this. I just don’t find them convincing). A good and brief lay summary can be found here.

Fourth, we don’t treat any other historical New Testament figure this way. Look at Paul. There isn’t a non-Christian reference to him until much later than Jesus, and yet he caused a whole lot more high-profile problems for the Roman government on several occasions and started riots in ancient cities. And again, there’s silence. And yet, no serious scholar I’ve come across thinks that there is a “Paul myth”. Sure, there are thought to be some letters wrongly attributed Paul (for many other reasons), but no serious scholar (that I’ve ever run across, at least) thinks that Christianity attributed false ideas/beliefs/actions to him, regardless of the lac of his “non-Christian attestation”.

Lastly, and most importantly, I simply don’t understand how people can so easily write off the Christian sources. Say they’re biased. Say they’re edited. Say they’re written later. But don’t think they’re any less historically significant because of that. Look at the evidence. Most of the New Testament had been written before the end of the 1st-century. And even if it was heavily modified, we have quotes from quite varied early second-century Church fathers of these early versions of biblical texts, and verses of consequence are there in full force. It doesn’t seem like any of the most essential aspects of Christianity were “added” to the faith later.

A few more little things

In my opinion, Mark is actually the Gospel of Peter (as is a common belief). There’s an early reference to Mark being Peter’s “hermeneutes”. We don’t quote know what that means, but it’s something like “transcriber”. The book certainly focuses on the perspective of Peter. So, I think we do have a Gospel “written by” an apostle (okay, “transcribed”–whatever), contra Daniel’s assertion.

Even if the Gospels were written “several decades after Jesus” (which is a really rough average) they’d still be written during the time when eyewitnesses were still around and could easily discount this “Resurrection craziness” these over-zealous rebels were fabricating. And yet they didn’t. (In my view, Mark was probably in the mid-to-late 50s, Matthew/Luke mid-60s, John had a couple of editions and rewrites maybe from the 80s through the early 110s.)

Even if the Gospels were written later, many of the Epistles were not. Most scholars think 1 Thessalonians was written first around 52CE I think there are really good reasons to think Galatians was first around 48-49CE. And, I know I’m in the minority, but I’ve read really convincing arguments for James actually having been written within the first 5ish years after Jesus. And all of these include a lot of the “mythical” Jesus stuff people try to say that developed later.

Paul in 1 Corinthians even tells the readers that many of the people that met the Resurrected Jesus are still alive and they should talk to them. “Resurrection” was no easily-accepted idea that pre-modern people would just swallow whole and follow. They could be skeptics then, too. They knew that when people died, they stayed dead. Except Jesus.

Lastly, (I mentioned this in a comment as well) the book of Matthew says that even as Jesus was ascending, “some still doubted”. Daniel said that he would believe if any number of miraculous things happened. The coming of Jesus and the Bible itself testify to the fact that people could see and experience all of that, and still not believe.

It seems that assenting to these ideas as truth goes deeper than mere observation or evidence. It seems that there is a spiritual disposition at play as well.

Tomorrow: some concluding words and my list of things that would make an Atheist of me.

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28 thoughts on “Simplistic Atheism {3}: The Bible, Miracles, & History

  1. Pingback: Simplistic Christianity leads to Simplistic Atheism {1}: it’s our fault | the long way home | Prodigal Paul

  2. a few recommendations for readers:

    on the Bible – Peter Enns’ work

    on historical Jesus – N.T. Wright’s work

    cheers!

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      • well, then you have clearly mastered the field and solved all the tension and problems

        N.T. Wright’s written about 3,000 pages on this stuff – tell me when you’ve finished it and we’ll talk about other recommendations

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        • Right, because having read a couple books by each is the same thing as “having mastered the field and solved all the tension”. Hyperbole much?

          Seriously is this what you’ve become-disrespectful and antagonistic? You have contributed absolutely nothing to any of these threads.

          – Daniel

          Like

        • The comment about reading a couple books was sarcasm.

          Disrespectful and antagonistic? Have you not read your own posts? Paul’s? Meat’s? Welcome to internet dialogue.

          And I haven’t been trying to contribute anything – like I said, I have nothing to add to what Paul or Eric (on facebook) have written. Besides, those guys are smarter than me anyway.

          Like

  3. “It is not a book of perfection.”

    You really need to have a discussion with the evangelicals sometime. Because they’re the ones that Dan’s “critique” is mainly focused on reaching. Though I’m sure he could write one for your watered down version of the bible and belief as well.

    Like

    • you didn’t interact with any of paul’s comments on why he/many/most of church history don’t hold to that view of scripture. just baselessly make assertions why don’t ya.

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      • I don’t have the time (or the knowledge) to get in depth about every single “point” Paul raises and to be able to do the discussion justice. There are replies to those points all over youtube in various debates done by much more knowledgable individuals than I. Furthermore, as I would have thought everyone would have picked up, the reasons why he/many/most of church history doesn’t hold the evangelical view of scripture is irrelevant. Dan’s article is focused mainly on addressing that because there is a huge number of evangelicals and they are the most noisy/obnoxious about their beliefs. And in getting new recruits.

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          • Yeah, and also, it’s important that the evangelical conservative view of the Bible is not even close to the majority view of the Bible globally, historically, or even in America (i think). they are the loudest, for sure. and so its legitimate to critique that view ( I certainly do), but to critique it, and then treat that like a critique of Christianity itself is at worst disingenuous, and at best just flat out wrong.

            daniel has been spending so much time in this thread trying to say how my characterization of HIS atheism, not wanting me to in any way I lump him in with all of the “fundamentalist evangelical atheists”, and I’ve tried to accommodate that best I can. it’s not unreasonable to ask the same of him, or you.

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  4. “Because of this, I’d say that the medical and science fields are actually the realm in which God accomplish this purpose of the miraculous in developed, modern countries.”

    After only 90000+ years of suffering without them no less! Goooooo team God!

    Like

  5. “you don’t hear of miracles happening a whole lot”

    Actually we hear about them all the time in ancient literature, it just so happens that the bible doesn’t go on and on about them, mainly due to the editing done in the creation of the bible.

    Like

  6. “Lastly, and most importantly, I simply don’t understand how people can so easily write off the Christian sources.”

    I don’t know how you so easily write off the Hindu and Islamic sources. Heck we even know precisely who wrote many of those and when and during which kind of circumstances.

    Like

  7. “Even if the Gospels were written “several decades after Jesus” (which is a really rough average) they’d still be written during the time when eyewitnesses were still around and could easily discount this “Resurrection craziness” these over-zealous rebels were fabricating. ”

    You do know that, unarguably, nearly 99.9% of the people in the land DID refute “this resurrection craziness” those overzealous religious rebels were fabricating correct? They’re called “the Jews” and the vast bulk of them did not believe. The reason they didn’t bother to “expressely refute it” in any of the surviving documents is because a. they were a small cult that nobody much cared about, tiny in fact and b. they may well have refuted it and the document simply doesn’t’ survive (especially considering the fact that the early church would have suppressed any such document and destroyed it post-haste during the glory years after constantine)

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  8. “caused a whole lot more high-profile problems for the Roman government on several occasions and started riots in ancient cities.”

    According to whom? The bible? Another mythological character (paul) does not substantiate the existence of a previous mythological character (the big J). And even presuming he did in fact exist, you can never be sure that he wasn’t in fact recorded about the day after he did something and we simply don’t have a copy of that work.

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