Among the most common evidences for God that I encounter in my day-to-day life is scriptural. Facebook and blog posts, street preachers, and acquaintances approach me by quoting from their holy book as though this is a viable resource with which to convince me of the error of my ways. In this essay, I will explain why such an approach is unconvincing to me, and will touch on what would be required for me to take such a source seriously.
Not all scriptural claims are equal
If someone claims, “I just saw a dog,” I wouldn’t require much evidence in order to accept their claim. There are dogs all over the place, so it is quite reasonable for the person in question to have seen one. This is an “ordinary claim” because it fits with our understanding of what is reasonable in the universe.
If someone claims, “I just saw a three-headed dog,” the situation is quite different. The existence of a three-headed dog doesn’t fit with our understanding of what is reasonable in the universe. This is an “extraordinary claim,” and we are therefore quite justified in requiring a higher standard of evidence before agreeing that the claim is valid. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Scriptural texts such as the Christian bible contain both ordinary claims and extraordinary claims. That a man whose teachings became the foundation of a new religion existed is not particularly unbelievable.
On the other hand, the bible also describes events that violate our understanding of the natural world. Parting waters in the Red Sea, Jesus rising from the dead, walking on water… these are the three-headed dogs of the bible. The burden of proof lies with the person making an extraordinary claim, not with the person who disbelieves the claim. And the nature of the claim raises the degree of evidence that it is reasonable to require.
Justifying scripture with scripture is circular reasoning
So, if there are scriptural claims that strain credulity, where can we look for evidence to evaluate their veracity? Archeological evidence would help. Independent accounts would help. But one thing that doesn’t help is scriptural support.
Consider a work of historical fiction, such as the kind that James Michener has written many of. Michener went to great lengths to ensure that he got the larger arc of history correct, but ultimately his works are fictional. Noting that many historical details in the text are accurate does not act as evidence for the other claims that lack similar historical support. We know they are novels, and treat them as such. Similarly, noting that some claims in scripture are supported by external evidence does not, simply by association, imply that other scriptural claims without such external support are true. We would need either a preponderance of external support for specific claims in question, or would need external support for other scriptural claims of the same type sufficient to convince us that the document is in general reliable.
One commonly-cited type of evidence for scriptural veracity is fulfilled predictions or prophesies. However, works of fiction, particularly in the fantasy genre, often contain fulfilled prophesies. The Harry Potter series, for example, contains several prophesies, most notably the one by Sybill Trelawney predicting that Harry would kill Voldemort or vice versa (I’ll leave aside the mid-series red herrings about alternate interpretations). Does the fact that the series ends with Harry killing Voldemort in any way suggest that the events depicted in the series of books actually happened in the real world? Not at all. It is child’s play for an author to make a prediction and then fulfill that prediction later in the book. Even in the case of multiple authors, such as those who produced in the Christian bible, the later authors can write their section with an eye toward fulfilling prophesies penned by earlier authors. In such cases, where the goal of writing those later portions of the book is to legitimize and support an emerging religious tradition, recording the fulfillment of prophesies is a natural way to build an appearance of legitimacy and support, whether the activities recorded actually happened or not. After all, very few of the target audience were in a position to verify what was being written. Such “retconing” is quite common in historical literature, explaining, for example, the use of Aeneas by Virgil to connect the leaders of Rome with the ancient heroes. As a scriptural example, some people contend that there is significant evidence in favor of the hypothesis that the New Testament authors wrote portions of their works specifically in an attempt to legitimize their religion. I’m going to provide a couple of examples below. Please note that I am not in any way claiming that these interpretations are the only possible ones, but rather that these passages are suspicious enough to cast doubt on the historical accuracy of the texts.
- Matthew 21:1-7 has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey and a colt simultaneously, contradicting Mark, Luke, and Jon who had him riding into Jerusalem on one. This seems to be a difference in translation among the Gospel authors of Zechariah 9:9. If these authors translated that passage differently, then they would have different interpretations of what is required for that prophesy to be fulfilled. The fact that they recounted the event differently, coinciding to different translations, suggests that they (or at least some of them) were more concerned with writing their documents in a way that demonstrates the fulfillment of prophesy than they were with accurately recounting what actually happened.
- Isaiah 7:14, predicting the birth of the savior, uses the Hebrew word “almah,” which translates to a young woman of child-bearing age, but says nothing about whether such a woman is a “virgin.” The author of Matthew, however, does claim unambiguously that Jesus was born of a virgin. This suggests, again, that Matthew, based on a mistranslation, embellished the story in order to fulfill what he perceived to be the prophetic requirements.
Again, I am not ignoring the work of apologists who have found ways, however tortuously argued, to account for these seeming discrepancies. I am merely pointing out that these discrepancies, if you approach the Christian bible with a skeptical rather than a credulous eye, can appear quite convincingly to be evidence of, to be polite, embellishment.
So in short, to someone who doesn’t already believe that scripture is historically accurate, using scripture to support an argument of any kind is questionable, and is not helped by such documents containing the occasional verified detail, nor by prophesies that are fulfilled within the document itself. What we need is external verification.
External verification for the Christian bible
Before we get started on the external evidence for biblical claims, I’d like to be clear on one type of evidence that does not work. I cannot count the number of debates I’ve listened to where Christians have claimed there to be hundreds of people saw the Risen Jesus. Think about such claims in light of the previous section of this essay for a moment. The evidence for hundreds of people having seen the Risen Jesus is biblical testimony. It is easy to envision the founders of the church making these claims, embellishing them at every turn, to solidify the supposed evidence. Claims of hundreds of witnesses is not the same thing as hundreds of witnesses. It is a handful of claims, all of which were written by people with an agenda, and none of whom witnessed the events themselves. So when looking for external verification for the biblical accounts, we need data that is truly external.
So let’s, then, look at what external verification there is for biblical accounts. I’ll go into external verification for components of the New Testament as my extended example. I am happy to do the same for other scriptural works should there be interest.
- Cornelius Tacitus (55-120 A.D.): “…Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.” Note that this historian was not a contemporary of the events described. This passage supports the notion that a person named Christus was the founder of Christianity, that Pontius Pilate put him to death, that Christianity originated in Judea, and then later spread to Rome. None of these claims are particularly extraordinary. While there certainly are those who believe that Jesus never existed or that he had little-to-nothing to do with the origins of Christianity, I am not one of them. I find it completely plausible that such a person existed, and that the details reported by Cornelius Tacitus happened. Nothing in this claim is miraculous, however.
- Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (69-130 A.D.): “Since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus [Another form of Christus], he expelled them from Rome.” This historian is also not a contemporary of the event described. Also, in this case, the specific claims are not extraordinary.
- Thallus (ca. 52 A.D.), original not extant but referred to by Julius Africanus (160-240 A.D.): “As to His works severally, and His cures effected upon body and soul, and the mysteries of His doctrine, and the resurrection from the dead, these have been most authoritatively set forth by His disciples and apostles before us. On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History, calls, as appears to me without reason, an eclipse of the sun. For the Hebrews celebrate the passover on the 14th day according to the moon, and the passion of our Saviour falls on the day before the passover; but an eclipse of the sun takes place only when the moon comes under the sun. And it cannot happen at any other time but in the interval between the first day of the new moon and the last of the old, that is, at their junction: how then should an eclipse be supposed to happen when the moon is almost diametrically opposite the sun? Let that opinion pass however; let it carry the majority with it; and let this portent of the world be deemed an eclipse of the sun, like others a portent only to the eye. Phlegon records that, in the time of Tiberius Cæsar, at full moon, there was a full eclipse of the sun from the sixth hour to the ninth—manifestly that one of which we speak. But what has an eclipse in common with an earthquake, the rending rocks, and the resurrection of the dead, and so great a perturbation throughout the universe? Surely no such event as this is recorded for a long period. But it was a darkness induced by God, because the Lord happened then to suffer. And calculation makes out that the period of 70 weeks, as noted in Daniel, is completed at this time.” Only fragments of Thallus’s writings exist, and this particular passage is only available as reported by Julius Africanus, who lived significantly after the reported events. There are many good reasons to doubt this account, which are detailed in this article.
- Pliny the Younger (63-113 A.D.): “I asked them directly if they were Christians. The ones who answered affirmatively I questioned again with a warning, and yet a third time: those who persisted I ordered led [away]. For I have no doubt, whatever else they confessed to, certainly [this] pertinacity and inflexible obstinacy ought to be punished. There were others alike of madness, whom I noted down to be sent to the City, because they were Roman citizens. Soon in consequence of this policy itself, as it was made standard, many kinds of criminal charges occurred and spread themselves abroad. A pamphlet was published anonymously, containing the names of many. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians, when they swore before me, called on the gods and offered incense and wine to your image (which I had ordered brought in for this [purpose], along with images of the gods), and also cursed Christ (which, it is said, it is impossible to force those who are real Christians to do) I thought worthy to be acquitted. Others named by an informer, said they had been Christians, but now denied [it]; certainly they had been, but had lapsed, some three years ago, some more; and more than one [lit. not nobody] over twenty years ago. These all worshiped both your image and the images of the gods and cursed Christ. They stated that the sum of their guilt or error amounted to this, that they used to gather on a stated day before dawn and sing to Christ as if he were a god, and that they took an oath not to involve themselves in villainy, but rather to commit no theft, no fraud, no adultery; not to break faith, nor to deny money placed with them in trust. Once these things were done, it was their custom to part and return later to eat a meal together, innocently, although they stopped this after my edict, in which I, following your mandate, forbade all secret societies. All the more I believed it necessary to find out what was the truth from two servant maids, which were called deaconesses, by means of torture. Nothing more did I find than a disgusting, fanatical superstition.” This is a letter detailing the interrogation and torture of Christians. This gives support to the (completely unremarkable) notion that there was fanatical belief among Christians in the divinity of Christ. Such belief does not imply the truth of that belief.
- Celsus (ca. 177 A.D.): There are several quotes of interest by Celsus, but as he is an early critic of Christianity, he provides non-miraculous explanations for miraculous claims (g., that Jesus’s mother had been convicted of adultery with a Roman soldier named Pantera, and thus that Jesus was a bastard). Celsus’s claims, coming as they do after the gospels were in circulation, and given that they are uniformly opposed to the miraculous Christian claims (though not of the existence of Jesus, his role in the origins of Christianity, and his ultimate crucifixion), it is hard to use Celsus as support for biblical claims. Because of that, I am not going to go into the details here.
- Lucian of Samosata (ca. 120-180 A.D.): “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day,–the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account…. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” Not only was Lucian not contemporaneous with the events described, he was describing those events based on the stories of Christians. There is nothing in this record that lends credence to the miraculous claims of the bible.
- Mara Bar-Serapion (after 70 A.D.): This essay is getting long, so I’m not going to fully quote (you can read it yourself here). Even assuming that the “Wise King” of the Jews he mentions is Jesus, there is no confirmation of any miraculous happenings.
- Flavius Josephus (37-100 A.D.): This may be the most important example, and the most often cited. There are several references, but the most relevant is probably this one: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ [Messiah]. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” There is, unfortunately for the argument, significant reason to suppose that this passage was inserted or amended by later Christians. For example, the early Christian writer Origen claims that Josephus did not acknowledge Jesus as the messiah. An earlier version of the text reads instead, “He was believed to be the Christ.” Many biblical scholars reject the entire Testimonium Flavianum as a Christian insertion, while others maintain that there was an original reference, but that it was expanded on by later Christian copyists. Inasmuch as there is a consensus among biblical scholars, it seems to be that the preserved extant Greek is not original, although the extent of the modifications are not agreed upon. At best, in this consensus, it confirms only that Jesus existed and perhaps was killed by Pilate (see the references at the end of the first subsection of http://infidels.org/library/modern/scott_oser/hojfaq.html for more details).
- The Talmud: The Wikipedia entry on Jesus in the Talmud is relatively good. The upshot is that the Talmud at best confirms Jesus’s existence and role in the origins of Christianity, and at worst is a reaction to Christianity rather than a historical account of the man.
- There are several further Christian sources (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Quadratus of Athens, Aristides the Athenian, Justin Martyr, and Hegesippus), but most of them were not even close to contemporaneous, and all of them were writing from the perspective of a faith-based agenda rather than as independent history.
And that’s it, as near as I can tell. There is relatively significant evidence that Jesus existed, that his teachings formed the basis of Christianity, and that he was crucified by Pontius Pilate. These are ordinary claims. None of the extraordinary biblical claims, the walking on water, the curing of a leper, the loaves and fishes, the rising from the dead, have any real evidence.
So what we are left with is two scenarios:
- The New Testament accounts of miraculous events are fictional, inserted possibly out of real belief in them and possibly out of a deliberate attempt to bolster the claims of a new religion.
- The miraculous events claimed in the New Testament are real.
The first of these scenarios depends on dubious reliability and/or motives of the New Testament authors. The second of these scenarios depends on numerous dramatic violations of the laws of physics, none of which led to independent accounts of these violations.
We know that people can be unreliable and can have ulterior motives.