Biblical Errantism

Last week, Brian left a comment to this post that I said deserved a post of its own in response. It’s been a little while – I’ve been a bit busy, and the post sort of kept rewriting itself. It’s in at least two separate parts now. This is the first one.

Here’s the heart of his comment:

Your basic assertion, as I see it, is that much of what we have in the gospels are the thoughts, feeling, and experiences of the early Christian community trying to make sense out of Jesus. So some of what we have is history remembered and some (perhaps a lot) is entirely the product of those telling the story. I will say that, for me, this does not diminish the truths that I might find in scripture.

This is a point of view that I don’t come across very often – not because I didn’t know it existed, but because I went straight out of a fundamentalist church to atheism, without passing through any more liberal kind of Christianity. (More on this in a later post.) So most of the people I’ve spoken to about it have had a fairly solid inerrantist view of the bible.

Let me start by saying that, in principle, it is absolutely correct to say that biases in the gospels “[do] not diminish the truths that [someone] might find in scripture.” The fact that it is not direct dictation from God doesn’t immediately make it wrong in every detail. On a fairly obvious level, I have no particular reason to doubt that Caesar Augustus ordered a census, or that Jesus, his mother and his disciples went to a wedding in Cana.

More usefully, I agree that there’s a certain amount of moral “truth” in the gospels. (I put “truth” in quotes because a moral guideline isn’t “true” in the same way as, say, an account of an event.) Love your neighbour as yourself is a great principle, although I’d be surprised if Jesus was the first person to say it. Similarly, let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; don’t give to the needy to be praised by others; and others.

(As an aside, I wouldn’t say it’s all good. “Turn the other cheek” is an admirable alternative to constant revenge, but I wouldn’t say that it’s universal for every situation. Similarly, selling everything you have to give to the poor is a great ideal, but in practice it comes close to negligence. As for Matthew 5:29-30, Luke 14:26 and Luke 12:47-48, we can only hope that they are a metaphor, hyperbole and a parable. And the Old Testament pretty much speaks for itself.)

It’s a different story, however, when we start talking about Jesus feeding the five thousand, or his resurrection, or his identity as the son of God. Here, we start to lean more and more heavily on the assumption that the gospels are historically accurate, because there is simply no other reason to believe that these stories are true. Nobody alive today has witnessed any of these events; it’s hard to imagine archaeological evidence that would support them; and there are no contemporary references to them outside the bible (aside from the very shaky Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus). If the New Testament didn’t exist, nobody today would have heard of Jesus, let alone worship him.

Of course, this is also true of Jesus attending a wedding at Cana; nobody would know about that if it weren’t for John’s gospel. But it doesn’t demand much proof to say that someone went to a wedding. It may well turn out to be untrue; but it doesn’t stretch the imagination to suggest that it did happen. However, if we go forward a few verses to find Jesus turning water into wine, then it’s reasonable for us to ask why we should believe it. We know, from (sad) experience, that water doesn’t turn directly into wine. A case where it did would demand a lot of supporting evidence before we would believe it.

If the document that described it was otherwise known to be very accurate, that would go some way to supporting the truth of the story. If the document was somehow known without a doubt to be completely infallible, then I suppose it would prove it. But if we suspected that the document was “entirely the product of those telling the story”, then we’d be quite right to be suspicious. And if that document was the only evidence we had, it would be sensible to dismiss the story as fiction.

To return to Brian’s comment for a second – one of my assertions, certainly, was “that much of what we have in the gospels are the thoughts, feeling, and experiences of the early Christian community trying to make sense out of Jesus.” But there’s a more important underlying point: I’m asserting that there is an explanation for how the gospels came to be written that does not involve anything supernatural. In other words, there is a natural explanation (possibly many) for the phenomenon of a number of people writing similar stories about the son of God being raised from the dead, and even for that story being copied and retold for thousands of years. Of course, this implies either that they were wrong about some things, and that some of what they wrote is their attempt to make sense out of a difficult, but natural, experience; or that they were lying outright, which is probably less likely.

More to the point, I’m asserting that a natural explanation is more likely than a supernatural one. In fact, that’s a good principle in general – if you have two competing theories, one based on mechanisms that are understood and agreed to be possible, the other based on violations of known physical laws, which one is more plausible?

So I don’t deny altogether that there is truth in the gospels, but I’m not going to accept a supernatural story as truth when a natural one will do. When John’s gospel claims that whoever believes in the son of God will have eternal life, I am far more inclined to think that the writer was misguided, than that it is possible for people to live forever. When John quotes Jesus as saying that no one comes to the Father except through him, I think it’s more sensible to believe that either the writer or Jesus himself was deluded, than that he is the spiritual gateway between us and an invisible God.

So the question becomes: if you (I’m asking liberal Christians in general, not just Brian specifically) don’t believe that the gospels are historically accurate, then what do you believe that makes you call yourself a Christian, and why?

Part two of this post is on its way; it’s mainly a discussion of why I never did call myself a liberal Christian.

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