And Nicholas and his friends are very interesting. They tackle the bible from a scholarly perspective and I always learn something from every episode.
One thing that seems to be a big controversy is the historicity of Jesus. Did he exist? Before I heard the Skeptic's Testament, I had met another biblical scholar who told me that the consensus among the people who study biblical history is that he did. But he never really explained.
I used to believe that Jesus didn't exist. I know a lot of atheists hold to this belief, and while I don't have the tools to prove them wrong, when it comes to issues that I am not an expert in (most things, actually) I look to see what the consensus is, as that's a pretty good starting point. What do most experts say? We all have to do this in different areas of our lives. That's the nature of being interdependent as social creatures. I defer to my husband when it comes to cars and mechanical things, I listen to my doctor (and maybe get a second opinion) because she knows more than me about the human body, etc. We get to stand on the shoulders of giants.
So after listening to all of the episodes of The Skeptic's Testament, I asked Nicholas if he would mind answering some questions about this issue that is so contentious among atheists, yet pretty much agreed upon by scholars. The following are my initial questions and Nicholas' answers. This is part 1 of 2.
Q: Please introduce yourself. What are your credentials in talking about the bible?
Even though I grew up a Christian attending Church with my grandma as a youngster, it wasn’t until my teens that I began to take religion seriously, which began my fundamental literal approach to the Bible. If nothing else all that Bible reading and apologetic research built endurance. I am half way through a formal degree in Divinity, so in other words I haven’t any credentials worth talking about. Some may find it strange, an atheist taking ministry courses which are a part of MDiv, the only two points I will make about this are many of these subjects are interesting in their own right and many would be utterly surprised at just how skeptical such a course can be. It is so rigid in its skepticism, the disconnect we see between pastor and parishioner on biblical fundamentals, such as ‘who are the authors of the four canonical Gospels’ becomes bewilderingly odd. So I hope to bridge the gap among atheists and Christians alike.
Q: In conversations and in listening to your podcast, I've learned that you agree with the critical scholarly consensus that Jesus existed. Can you explain?
The critical scholarly consensus, as you put it, is derived from what is called the ‘Historical Critical Approach (more commonly Method)’ to the books contained in the Bible. It should be appositely termed ‘approach’ due to the numerous methods (too numerous to mention) used to critically examine the books which make up our compendium. Rudolf Bultmann, commonly referred to as the arch skeptic, began in the early 1900’s to create a well-defined split between history and faith, or, a devotional versus critical approach to Bible study. Bultmann was no doubt a Christian and a controversial critic of the Gospel tradition who argues against the historicity of much of the Gospel tradition. He realized how different the outcomes can be when the Bible is no longer viewed through devotional glasses, when Form, Textual, Literary, Source, Canonical and Narrative criticisms are applied, our biases (atheist and Christian alike) can be whittled away. These techniques require a well learned expert who can apply a literary science to our ancient authors whilst incorporating what we know about the ancient world from archaeology and various other forms of historical theory. These are the very same tools used to study the lives of our least and greatest known ancestors who crop up in all forms of ancient human artefact from Homer to the life of Alexander the Great.
It matters not to who I agree, and more to do with the methodology employed and how well people employ it. I enjoy the textual criticism of the great Bruce M. Metzger, no doubt a genius, whose work on the Greek Manuscript tradition has shown us that stories like the woman taken in adultery and none of the four different endings to the Gospel of Mark ch. 16 are not original to the manuscript tradition and are likely much later scribal additions. Above I mentioned Bultmann, a great critic of the Gospels, F. C. Baur’s work on early Church history, Dever and Israel Finkelstein’s work on ancient Israel. Who can go past R. E. Friedman for his work on the Documentary Hypothesis and the Dead Sea Scrolls? Albert Schweitzer, Michael Grant, Mark Goodacre, Bart Ehrman, D. L. Bock, J. P. Meier all whose work on the historical Jesus (much of which would shock many atheists let alone Christians!) leave many of us standing on the shoulders of giants. The list goes on but if we briefly draw our attention to what all these scholars have in common we notice something that may seem peculiar to some; it isn’t their belief systems, it is a methodology. Even with vastly different theologies, many even atheist/agnostics, they are all able to reach an overwhelming consensus (>90% with the remaining being more of a spectrum rather than against the entire consensus on any particular issue) on issues like what Jesus was likely to have said, scribal additions, interpolations, authorship of the Biblical cannon, the history of the early Church and early Christianity. This attests to the methodology being sound in logic and mechanics.
Q: I found a site that compares the gospels side by side. Is this a good translation and do you recommend looking at the gospels in this way? Do you have a better resource for this kind of study?
Here is a tip which will more often than not tell you whether or not you’re dealing with a good translation of the Christian Greek NT, do they continue from Mark 16:8 with only one ending and no mention of the lack of evidence for its authenticity? For the Hebrew Bible I often turn to Isaiah 7:14 to see how the Hebrew ‘amlah’ is translated, ‘young woman’ as opposed to ‘virgin’ indicates a good translation. Now that you’re armed with this information, I will reserve my judgement of the above site and allow you to scope it out. :)
Alas, the best resource often comes in the form of expensive programmes which allow one to purchase most (if not all) of the work published by researchers past and present but these are no doubt for professionals in the field. The next best resource is university textbooks which, much like scientific textbooks, contain the consensus views developed by researchers in the field. The above type of study is what we call ‘parallel reading’ which is often employed in what is called the Synoptic Problem (Syn = Together, Optic = View). When viewing the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), for lack of a better term, synoptically, we are looking for how the Gospel stories differ but more than that, we are looking for what that might mean and here is where the various forms, some already mentioned, most not, of literary criticisms are employed. It really is a daunting task in which a lot of background assumptions are not mentioned but absolutely necessary in order to draw sound conclusions that are not flawed with illogic. It is not enough to say ‘but the Gospels differ on the day Jesus was crucified’, or, ‘they don’t even agree on how many times Peter denies Jesus’, this type of lacklustre ‘criticism’ gets us nowhere and unveils an enormous ignorance about the Bible and how we ought to study it. One of my favourite authors puts it better than I ever could,
‘Amateurs often disregard the crucial importance of field-familiarity, i.e. that one must have a long and deep acquaintance with a particular time and culture in order to make reliable judgments about the probable and improbable, the expected and unexpected, and all the other background assumptions necessary to understanding the significance of any particular fact or claim--in short, one must be cognizant not merely of the literary context of a statement, but its entire socio-historical context as well. And that is no easy thing to achieve.’
Q: Are there any tools, resources or books you can recommend for people to use to approach the bible more critically and skeptically?
As easy and enjoyable popularized books can be on Biblical criticism, I do not recommend them. I mostly refer people to study Bibles or text books, journals, university level and advanced, since these are the only places one can rely on to contain consensus critical views. On the rare occasion a popularized book. This is mostly based on a problem I perceive among the popularized book audience, i.e. the lay audience, which can best be described by the adage, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. As with most topics the internet is hardly refined enough to be trustworthy and when it comes to the Bible there is an overwhelming amount of views tainted by a devotional or ignorant study of the Bible.
Thanks, Nicholas! I'm looking forward to Part 2.