Gospel Debates: Where Atheists Miss the Boat

cursing-fig-treeTo argue about the Gospels effectively, I think it is important for the Atheist to first get straight in their head their view of the Gospels.  Otherwise, Atheist speculations on the stories in the Gospels are almost as embarrassing as those of literalist, fundamentalist Christians. For example, which of these is your view of the Gospels?

The Gospels are:

  1. Total fiction constructed by the church
  2. Lies the apostles told to get followers
  3. True saying of a deluded self-proclaimed messiah
  4. The Gospels are a mixture of the actual sayings of Jesus mixed with the misperceptions of the well intending disciples.
  5. Distorted teachings of a great teacher and perhaps very moral person
  6. Stories, modified over time about an Apocalyptic Preacher whose accidental death was eventually deified.  The writers were not the disciples of Jesus.  The Stories have to be interpreted with a knowledge of that time period, and of the rhetorical methods commonly practiced at that time.

Obviously, I vote for number 6.  Let’s go over two example of how ways to approach Gospel stories:

Take this Gospel Story:

Matthew 12:40: For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

With View 5, you could argue:

  • “See how silly Jesus is, can you believe that he was so confused about science and reality — noone can be swallowed by a fish and live after 3 days !  Duhhhh ! “

Sure, you may win a few argument by shaming the naive Christian, but you are not arguing the truth.  You are just persuading.  Or you could argue with a more accurate understanding of the Gospels:

  • “This story is made up both by Luke and Matthew try and make Jesus both predict his own death and relate his story to the stories in the Hebrew Bible to give them credibility.”

It may be hard to convince Christian of this, but this is true.  You might have to actually get into understanding the truth about the Gospels which then can help the believer understand how to go further with his reasoning.

Or take this Gospel story::

Matt 21:18-22: Early in the morning, as he was on his way back to the city, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went up to it but found nothing on it except leaves. Then he said to it, “May you never bear fruit again!” Immediately the tree withered. When the disciples saw this, they were amazed. “How did the fig tree wither so quickly?” they asked. Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

You could argue:

  • My goodness, here is your Peace-loving Virgin-birth boy killing a poor tree because it is not healthy enough to make fruit.  Heck, in other stories he is healing the sick — why not heal the tree.  See how crazy he was.  Or if his analogy is that he kills or sends to hell those who don’t bear fruit, then that is pretty harsh for an all-loving god.

Yeah, that may work for a few.  But again, you are not arguing the truth.  Instead you could try:

  • Did you know that “fig” was the symbol for Sadducees (Temple Priests), one of the groups which Jesus often criticized.  This is a simple story where Jesus if putting down the teachings and practices of the Sadducees.   You need to have a better understanding of your own scriptures.

Indeed this may not help your argument at all that Jesus was just crazy or cruel.  And indeed, many Christians may already know this explanation of these old texts and if they don’t, you just help sophisticate the Christian.  But at least you have not embarrased yourself.

That is enough examples for now, but I think you see my point.  Arguing from ignorance may persuade but it gets no one closer to the truth.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

8 responses to “Gospel Debates: Where Atheists Miss the Boat

  1. Ian

    Interesting post…

    > Did you know that “fig” was the symbol for Sadducees

    Do you have a source for that other than its inclusio in Mark? In the Olivet discourse it seems to have a very different meaning… Another in Hosea 9, another in Genesis 3, and what about 1 Kings 4?. and so on…

    Given the highly contrived structure of this passage I don’t know many NT scholars who would argue that this is a safe attribution to Jesus at all, let alone want to make claims about what Jesus meant by it.

    > Arguing from ignorance may persuade but it
    > gets no one closer to the truth.


  2. Shamelessly Atheist

    As an atheist, I would opt for 6 as well, with some additions….

    1. prior to the authors (whoever they were) writing down the stories and mixing in sayings from the Q document, they were a part of oral tradition;

    2. each of the gospel authors represents completely different early Christian theologies (in fact the object of the authors of Luke and Matthew was to eliminate the theology of Mark). Early Christianity was far more heterogeneous in its beliefs than today, though you wouldn’t know it from the heated arguments amongst the various modern sects.

  3. Whilst I too am a staunch number sixer, I think there’s something to be said for considering the Gospels from some of the other angles you mention as well, particularly 4 and 5, since these correspond reasonably well to the beliefs of many Christians. There’s also a case to be made for option 1, since parts of the Gospels (the last bit of Mark, for example) are clearly insertions by the early Church.

    Shamelessly Atheist is bang on the money with his extra caveats as well. Once the Gospels are seen as disparate texts with entirely diffent theological agendas, those pesky contradictions clear right up!

  4. @ Ian, Shameless & YunShui
    Fantastic ! After getting feedback from folks like you, I will later clean up this post to capture some of these excellent suggestions. I will try to re-write so as to emphasize my main point which is not to capture the CORRECT view of Jesus (though that is part of the effort), but to encourage Atheist’s who criticize the Bible (in this case I narrowed it to the Gospels) to establish a Biblical Theory (Can I call it that?): In other words, to go through the exercise of seeing if they actually have a systematic view of the Bible which they can then use to debate. I thought that approach is better than just arguing about the Gospels as if they are indeed a literal story stripped of any cultural/historical setting. For indeed, I rarely think the Gospel stories are “just stupid”, because if you read them as they were intended and understand their purpose, and understand the time period, they are fascinating and well done for that time, albeit wrong about Jesus.
    Thanks again folks, keep the corrections coming !

  5. Ian

    I agree Sabio, it is important not to prejudge the bible based ignorance.

    There is an important point though. It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that what *you* know about a subject (say NT criticism) is what other people *should* know.

    It is also easy to use the foundation of what you know as the basis of speculation, without clearly drawing lines between what you can know, and what you are guessing.

    We see it in evolutionary debates all the time. Someone with a bit of real knowledge then riffs on that and comes out with shockers (second law of thermodynamics, anyone).

    Shamelessly Atheist’s point about Matthew and Luke wanting to ‘eliminate’ Mark’s theology is a case in point. Its a thesis that would be hard to defend (claiming knowledge of motives is always a great indicator of problems in biblical studies – unfortunately it isn’t rare). There’s a lot of primary source material for the disputes between Pauline and Jerusalem theology, but can you point to similar primary sources for Luke and Matthew’s theological traditions being in dispute with Mark’s? As opposed to an evoluton of the theology of the intervening decade or two?

    Biblical Criticism is rife with ideologically driven poor scholarship. As atheists, we should be careful about seeking the signal, not adding to the noise.

    Your ‘fig is a symbol of the Saduccees’ might be true (do you have a source?), or it might be just another useful sermon-illustration invented on the spot (‘the eye of a needle is a gate in the wall of Jerusalem’ – anyone?).

    It is essential we encourage others to learn more about reality and truth, but we should avoid the temptation to overstate our knowledge of what that is. That doesn’t mean we need to know it all, just that we shouldn’t pretend to know more than we do.

  6. @Ian: I agree 1000% (is my math Ok there?)
    And indeed, that was my intent. So, how could I rewrite my post to capture this easily and yet point out the common errors in a brief but fun to read essay with easy categories for memory aids. Hmmmmm ??. I will work on it. Feel free to e-mail me with suggestions and perhaps we can work on it together — our philosophy, on this issue, sounds identical, albeit, your seems more sophisticated (true compliment).
    Thank you again, thank you kindly !

  7. Ian

    > So, how could I rewrite my post to capture this easily
    > and yet point out the common errors in a brief but
    > fun to read essay with easy categories for memory
    > aids.

    Ah, fun… erm… gulp. You mean people don’t appreciate academic theses? Drat…

    There are a few modes of biblical study I think:

    1. Confessional – you read in order to strengthen your position (theistic or atheistic). These are your first examples from an atheistic POV. Most ‘bible studies’ do the same thing from a theistic POV.

    2. Critically – you read in order to understand the text in some way. Either
    a) Textually – what did it say, how was it altered, and when.
    b) Historically – who wrote it, why, and what was it used for.

    Historical Criticism further divides into the kinds of approaches you want to take: are you interested in genre (form criticism), the evolution of the stories (source criticism), the theology of their compilation (redaction criticism), and so on.

    A response to your first example in the context of source criticism would be that Luke has Jesus make a passing reference to Jonah’s preaching at this point, but Matthew (writing for a more Jewishly literate audience) extrapolates on this and gives Jesus a prophecy about his death. Both may be drawing from a hypothesized earlier source (Q). Given the pattern of Matthew’s use of Q, it is likely that Q did not have the prophetic component. The earliest gospel (Mark) doesn’t have this bit at all, though it has much of the surrounding material. It is very possible, therefore, that Matthew adds this description to attribute more foreknowledge to Jesus. This fits in with Matthew’s fondness for using old-testament passages in a prophetic context.

    And to the second, in more of a form critical way. The structure of the fig-tree story in Mark is a highly conventional ABCBA (the fig tree is the B). This structure is often used to draw attention to the central C passage, in this case the turning of the tables in the temple (in the A passages Jesus merely visits the temple). Mark is the only writer to place the story in this five part context, surrounding it with a parabolic story of the destruction of a tree that bears no fruit, most likely to reinforce the main point he is making in the whole section: that the Jerusalem temple is not bearing fruit.

    … but fun? Not unless you’re pretty nerdy about all this 😀

  8. Jeff

    In term of the ‘rhetorical methods’ portion of view #6, my immediate reaction to the Matt 21 passage is simple organizational manipulation to establish loyalty to the cult. IMO it is intended to create doubt which leads to fear, and that fear is used to control the follower. If they pray and their prayers are not answered, then they must not believe sufficiently.

    If A (you believe), then B (your prayers are answered). If not B, then not A. (ignoring other options such as if B then not necessarily A and if not A, then possibly B)

    A is considered the religious objective or standard, and the existence of B is the sole test of A (at least within this passage). Since, obviously, prayer is not actually answered by any diety (i.e. there is no evidence to support the claim that it does), B is unattainable in practice and will push people to doubt their position vis a vis A. They will either dismiss the underlying premise and walk away from trying to believe, or they will strive harder to believe.

    As a marketing campaign, it’s been quite effective over the years. Dismissing the premise is socially difficult (even today), and therefore people get stuck trying to attain B.

    It reminds me of golf. You can play a terrible round but have one good shot. After that good shot you think: “that was fantastic. all i need to do now is string together a whole bunch of those and i’ll be a great golfer”. Unfortunately, your skill level only permits 1% good shots, but the adrenaline of the moment makes you think otherwise.

    Similarly, if someone prays for X and then something similar to X happens, they may surmise causality and they are reassured of the ‘if A then B’ premise. For many this doesn’t have to happen many times to cement this premise while they instantly forget about the 99% of their prayers that went “unanswered”.

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