On Quoting The Bible
Out Of Context
I have a question to toss to you in order to gain some feedback. I'm the founder of the Atheist Society here at Western Michigan University. I've been a strong Atheist for almost six years now, and I've heard all of the theist (Christian mostly) statements, responses, defenses (whatever you wanna call 'em). One thing that I am just sick of hearing is that I, the horrible Atheist, am taking the bible out of context when I quote from it!
For example, this past Wednesday, two Christians were on campus (from another campus -- a public university over 300 miles away -- go figure!) handing out tracts that asked, "Are you going to Hell?" Coincidentally, our group had a table on display that day. So I ran out to meet the Christians armed with our own literature. I engaged the Christians in eager discussion, and the usual tactics were used on me.
One thing that I found highly annoying was the tendency (as usual) for the Christians to quote verse after verse from the bible. Yet the moment I quoted from the bible, I was immediately told that I was 'quoting the bible out of context.' I countered by stating that I am doing nothing more (or less) than they were doing; I am taking a single line of scripture and quoting it back to them. My quoting is no more or less valid than their method. Therefore, if I am indeed taking the bible out of context due to quoting only one line, then I stated to them that they must quote the entire bible next time, not just one line. To fail to quote the entire bible means they're taking the bible out-of-context. Before they could say anything, I immediately added, "And don't try that 'I'm a true believer' crap, either. I don't recall in the bible where god gives you special permission to quote a few lines here and there and disallows anyone else that same privilege."
At this time, the 'coordinator' for the group came along and hustled them away. I had secure enough interest at this point from other heretics, so the new-found heretics followed the Christians and continued questioning. (Isn't it funny how if you show an interest in accepting Jesus, the Christians will talk to you happily? But the moment you start to ask critical questions, you're being 'confrontational' and 'argumentative.')
Might you be able to share any thoughts on this particular issue?
"The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one."
-- George Bernard Shaw
From: "Positive Atheism Magazine" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: "Matthew Rupert"
Subject: Re: "Quoting out of Context"
Date: Sunday, September 17, 2000 5:30 PM
One of my favorite examples of Scripture twisting that is popular among modern Evangelical Christians involves denouncing the habit of cigarette smoking. Many Christians have grabbed I Corinthians 3:16: "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are." Supposedly, smoking defiles the temple of God, and for this God will destroy you (through the dangerous act of smoking? need God even lift a finger?). Had these Christians read the context, they would see that this entire passage concerns the body of Christ (the Church) and the defilement is the divisions among them (such as the faction ostracizing some poor fellow-Christian for smoking tobacco?).
Meanwhile, Jesus said, in Matthew 15:11-14: "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man." In explaining this saying to Peter, Jesus says: "Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught? But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart; and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man" (15:16-20).
Unfortunately for those of us who must endure the taunts of in-your-face fundamentalist Christians, the New Testament does take Hebrew Scripture and quote it out of context. Quoting Scripture out of context is a very "Christian" thing to do, and Jesus himself, and Paul and Matthew and the others, were very adept at doing this. A simple study of places where the New Testament alleges to quote from the Hebrew Scriptures would make anyone a firm believer in the practice of quoting Scripture out of context and twisting its meaning (and even misquoting it) in order to make one's case before the gullible. In fact, more often than not, when the New Testament quotes Hebrew Scripture, it is taken completely out of context and twisted to mean something entirely different than either its natural reading or its traditional interpretation.
I will run through several examples of this, and then I will repeat a previous argument of mine stressing why it is important to be able to see the overall trends of the Gospel problems and be able to describe these bigger problems lucidly than it is to have a simple list of the New Testament's misquotation and misapplication of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Three sources that might be helpful in understanding the misuse and misquotation of Scripture are:
1. The Bible Tells Me So: Uses and Abuses of Holy Scripture by Jim Hill and Rand Cheadle (bias: somewhat neutral, basically secular).
2. The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy by C. Dennis McKinsey, particularly chapter 21, "Accommodations" (bias: secular, hostile to Christianity).
3. Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches That Abuse by Mary Alice Chrnalogar (bias: Christian, albeit leaning moderate to liberal).
New Testament Misapplications of Hebrew Scripture
The classic New Testament misquotation of a passage of Hebrew Scripture is that of Isaiah 7:14:
In 1:22-23, Matthew says, "Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us." The word virgin here was originally almah, a maiden or young woman, the word for virgin being betulot. The Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures translated almah as parthenos and the Christians ran with it.
Christians can argue the semantics of almah, betulot, and parthenos all they want: the case based upon semantics can go either way, as far as I am concerned, even though most modern translations have abandoned the word virgin in Isaiah 7:14. But fundamentalist Christians throughout the ages have tended to ignore the grave contextual significance of applying this passage to Jesus.
Isaiah 7 deals with local, contemporary issues, not some event in the distant future. The king of Syria and the king of Israel made war jointly against Ahaz, king of Judah. Ahaz became alarmed, "And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind" (verse 2).
So Isaiah assures Ahaz that these kings shall not prevail against him. To satisfy Ahaz, Isaiah tells him to ask a sign, and Ahaz declines, saying that he would not tempt the Lord. Then Isaiah, in the verse in question, verse 14, says: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a maiden shall conceive and bear a son." Not only did the sign concern the war at hand, but a time limit was given for its fulfillment: "For before this child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land which thou abhorrest (or dreadest, meaning Syria and the kingdom of Israel) shall be forsaken of both her kings." (verse 16).
As United States founder Thomas Paine put it: "Isaiah having committed himself thus far, it became necessary to him, in order to avoid the imputation of being a false prophet, and the consequences thereof, to take measures to make this sign appear. It certainly was not a difficult thing, in any time of the world, to find a girl with child, or to make her so; and perhaps Isaiah knew of one beforehand; for I do not suppose that the prophets of that day were any more to be trusted than the priests of this. Be that, however, as it may, he says in the next chapter, ver. 2, 'And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, and I went unto the prophetess, and she conceived and bare a son.'" (The Age of Reason, Part Second [very first section]). Paine called Matthew's interpretation a "barefaced perversion of this story" and called the tale "as fabulous and as false as God is true."
Note that neither child was called "Immanuel" but the one Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and the other Jesus.
But the sequel to the Isaiah story, the actual description of how it was fulfulled (rather, not fulfilled), is so utterly embarrassing that you will never hear a Christian minister connect the two. The prophecy which Matthew applies to Jesus was actually a false prophecy to begin with! Isaiah is silent on this, but another writer of Hebrew Scripture records the sordid truth for us. According to II Chronicles 28, the two kings in question, instead of failing in their attempt against Ahaz, as Isaiah had pretended to foretell, actually succeeded. Ahaz was destroyed (not protected by God, as Isaiah had foretold), and 120,000 of his people were slaughtered. Jerusalem was plundered, and 200,000 women and children were carried into captivity. As Paine aptly remarks: "Thus much for this lying prophet and imposter, Isaiah, and the book of falsehoods that bears his name."
(The entire section, except the discussion of language, is based upon The Age of Reason Part Second, by Thomas Paine.)
Here is one of my favorite examples of the New Testament misquoting Hebrew Scripture:
The author(s) of Matthew, in 13:35, said: "That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world." Matthew uses this to explain why Jesus deliberately hid his message of salvation from all but the elect.
However, Psalm 78:2-3 is completely different and very, very Jewish: "I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark [ancient] sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us."
What? Matthew is talking about "things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world" but the passage he claims to be quoting talks of things "which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us"! Nothing could be further from what Matthew is describing here, things being kept secret versus that which we have heard and known.
This one has been not only taken out of context, but has been changed around -- misquoted -- to try to validate the fact that very few Jews agreed with the message placed into the mouth of Jesus by his followers a generation later: Christians claim that the Jews just didn't understand it because it was a "dark saying." (Never mind that dark here means "ancient.") They needed validation so they took this and several other passages from the Hebrew Scriptures and changed them around to make their case. Meanwhile, I'll take the openness of the Hebrews' ongoing and public discussion over the exclusive secretiveness of the Gnostic-Christian mystery religion any day. These are, to me, the main differences between the two religions of that day.
Paul, the "Pharisee of Pharisees," and allegedly knowledgeable in Hebrew law, makes some wonderfully embarrassing errors of interpretation, most of which are based upon mistranslations of the Greek Septuagint -- demonstrating that Paul cannot have been a Pharisee because otherwise he would have been familiar with the original Hebrew and Aramaic writings and would have likely ignored the Septuagint version. He certainly would not have used the translation to make his case for what the original said, especially if the two differed so vastly from one another regarding the passage in question.
In Galatians 3:13-14 (considered a genuine work of Paul by almost all New Testament scholars), Paul says: "Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Never mind the convoluted reasoning behind what Paul is here trying to say, let's just look at the Scripture he quotes: that is problem enough for this passage!
Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says, in the King James, "And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree: His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but thou shalt in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that thy land be not defiled, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance."
First, why would the simple act of being hanged by others warrant a curse from God? What if the "culprit" was innocent and wrongly convicted? Would God still curse him simply because he had been hanged by others? Hebrew scholar Hyam Maccoby points out the difficulty in translating this passage (which all modern Christian translations render according to Paul's misreading of it). In The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, Maccoby says: "Even if the hanged person was guilty of a capital crime, he was not regarded as being under a curse, but, on the contrary, as having expiated his crime by undergoing execution" (page 67). Maccoby quotes Tosefta, Sanhedrin 9:5: "Those who are put to death by the court have a share in the world to come." So, Paul's is an entirely un-Hebrew and un-rabbinical translation of the verse, adding to this mistranslation the notion that anyone hanged on a gibbet is under a curse simply for having been hanged.
Maccoby shows us Jewish renderings of the Deuteronomy passage that make much more sense:
"The verse in question ... was interpreted by the rabbis as follows: an executed criminal's corpse was to be suspended on a pole for a short period, but the corpse must then be taken down and not left to hang overnight, for to do this would incur a curse from God: in other words, the curse was placed not on the executed person, but on the people responsible for subjecting the corpse to indignity. One interpretation was: it is cursing God, or blasphemy, to allow the corpse of an executed criminal to hang, for the human body was made in the image of God" (pages 67-68, based upon Rabbi Meir's explanation, Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 46b).
The New English Bible translates this verse: "When a man is convicted of a capital offence and is put to death, you shall hang him on a gibbet; but his body shall not remain on the gibbet overnight; you shall bury it on the same day, for a hanged man is offensive in the sight of God." Maccoby says, "This is in accordance with the Pharisee interpretation of the passage, which was a correct reflection of the meaning of the original Hebrew" (page 68).
Another interpretation offered by Maccoby, the Mishna, Sanhedrin 6:4, is that "this punishment is given only in the case of blasphemy, when the accused has 'cursed God's name' (the translation is thus, 'He is hanged because of a curse against God'). This interpretation too involves no curse on the executed man, who expiates his sin by his death" (note, page 214).
Nevertheless, regardless of how one wishes to interpret the Deuteronomy passage (and we can expect most Christian translations to side with Paul, presupposing this to be the only correct way to translate it and even forcing Deuteronomy to mean what Paul says it means), Paul here takes a parenthetical aside remark and bases upon it his fantastic doctrine of Jesus being for us a propitiation against the wrath of God, which wrath God can in no other way relieve but by cursing a certain hanged man, because God must, for some reason, necessarily curse anyone who is hanged upon a tree. Once again, the Jews look very reasonable compared to the Christian usurpers of Hebrew Scripture.
(This entire section is based upon The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity by Hyam Maccoby, which is widely available on the online used book merchants.)
I saw through this next one when I was a kid:
Matthew, in 2:14-15, says: "When [Joseph] arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son."
However, the context of Hosea 11:1-3 (RSV) has nothing to do with this at all: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Ba'als, and burning incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught E'phraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them."
Hosea is here talking about Israel bring his son, as the Hebrew Deity had previously declared in Exodus 4:22-23: "And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn: And I say unto thee, Let my son go, that he may serve me: and if thou refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay thy son, even thy firstborn." Here, as in Hosea, Israel is the "son," the "firstborn," not Jesus.
Matthew simply took the phrase my son and ran with it, possibly inventing the entire Egypt tale based upon this one passage. The Herod story appears in no other Gospels. Josephus detailed the life of Herod, recounting what seems to be every little error he committed, but he is strangely silent on this slaughter of infants. Could it be that this entire story is just as much a fabrication as the alleged "prophesy" from Hosea?
The slaughter of infants is common to many myths that predate the Jesus myth:
Moses was saved from such a slaughter described in Exodus 1:16: "And he said, When ye do the office of a midwife to the Hebrew women, and see them upon the stools; if it be a son, then ye shall kill him: but if it be a daughter, then she shall live" -- though this was not because Pharaoh expected a king to be born to replace him, but rather because of the threat of the Hebrew race itself. That Moses later became a leader is incidental to this story.
More closely related to the theme of the Jesus myth is that of the advent of the incarnate Krishna. The birth of this potential rival was announced by angels to the tyrant Cansa, who responded by ordering, "Let active search be made for whatever young children there may be upon earth, and let every boy in whom there may be found signs of unusual greatness be slain without remorse." The Egyptians had their god Osiris, who was threatened with destruction by the tyrant Amulius, wherein the parents of the god-child fled and hid him in an arm of the Nile. The parents of an earlier Egyptian deity, Horus, were given a timely warning to deliver "our lord and savior" from similar destruction. And the earthly father of the Grecian god-man and savior, Alcides, had to flee with him and his mother to Galem for protection from threatening danger. The "first begotten son of God," Salvahana, of Cape Comorin, son of a virgin mother and a carpenter, was protected from this danger. The mother of Zoroaster of Persia had dreams of evil spirits seeking to destroy the child. But a good spirit consoled her by saying, "Fear not; God Ormuzd will protect the infant, who has sent him as a prophet to the people and the world who are waiting for him." China's god-man and savior Yu was threatened with destruction in infancy, and was concealed in a manner similar to that of Moses.
(The section detailing other myths is based upon The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors by Kersey Graves, Sixth Edition, 1875, 1960.)
Isaiah 28:16, goes like this: "Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste."
Romans 9:32-33 quotes it by saying, "Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; As it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed."
I Peter 2:6-8 also attempts to use a misquotation of this passage to make the same point: "Wherefore also it is contained in the scripture, Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious: and he that believeth on him shall not be confounded. Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed."
Peter, a forgery that was written much later than Paul's works and that was based mainly upon Paul's thinking, corrects some but not all of Paul's erroneous thinking in Romans.
Isaiah is not talking about a stumblingstone or a rock of offense, as Romans asserts, but a sure foundation, a precious corner. Also he that believeth ("believeth" period, not "believeth on him") shall not make haste (not, "shall not be ashamed" as Romans says or "shall not be confounded" as Peter suggests). Those that believe, says the Psalmist, will wait for God to take care of things.
Speaking of letting a religion do all your thinking for you, Paul, in espousing his disdain for human leaning and knowledge, wrests another passage from Psalms out of context and then changes the wording to suit his needs. Psalm 94:11 says, "The LORD knoweth the thoughts of man, that they are vanity." Psalms is talking about all humanity, as is clear by the rest of the Psalm.
Paul, however, in I Corinthians 3:18-20, needs to advocate his anti-intellectual stance, so he makes this passage say, "Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, He taketh the wise in their own craftiness. And again, The Lord knoweth the thoughts of the wise, that they are vain." Psalms says "the thoughts of man" are vanity, but Paul uses his misrepresentation of this passage, "the thoughts of the wise," to express his disdain for human understanding, to the end that his followers would trust him (Paul) as God's spokesman, rather than seeking to become wise in and of themselves.
Acts 2:16-17 has Peter proclaiming the "last days," saying: "But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh..." but Joel 2:28 actually says, "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh..." Nothing in Joel speaks of "the last days." Besides, if, according to even the most conservative estimates of the universe being formed in B.C.E. 4004 (estimate by Bishop James Ussher, Primate of All Ireland, based upon his studies of genealogies in Hebrew Scripture), fully 50 percent more time has passed since Peter is alleged to have announced that his days were "the last days."
Romans 3:4 says, "God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged." However, Psalms 51:4 says, "Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done this evil in thy sight: that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest." Judging (Romans) and being judged (Psalms) are not the same thing.
The New Testament characters go so far as to quote "Scriptures" and recount "Bible stories" that don't even exist in the Hebrew Scripture!
In Matthew 2:23, he says "And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene." I hereby challenge anyone to find this even alluded to in the Hebrew Scriptures.
In Matthew 12:5, Jesus reportedly says, "Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?" Where, in the Law, does it say this?
The author of Hebrews (which is not a forgery because it admits to being anonymous) says, concerning the sufferings of the children of Israel: "Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection." Conspicuously absent from the Hebrew Scriptures is the specifically Christian notion of being willing to suffer injustice on the chance of gaining a "better" resurrection. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures are so completely devoid of the notion of resurrection at all that during the times Jesus supposedly lived, the two major rival sects, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, differed bitterly as to whether there even is a resurrection of the dead (Acts 23:6-8). This controversy would never exist were the Hebrew Scriptures clear on this matter. But they are not, providing a handful of vague, poetical sayings of the Nostradamus school, meaning that they could be interpreted any number of different ways.
In Matthew 23:35, Jesus is allegedly recounting the sins of the Jewish people: "That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel unto the blood of Zacharias son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar." One would think Jesus was recounting well-known history. At first glance, perhaps, some unlearned ones might even think he is talking about the prophet Zechariah, or perhaps King Zachariah.
The prophet Zechariah featured in Hebrew Scriptures was the son of Berechiah, according to Zechariah 1:1, but there is nowhere any mention of him having been murdered in the new temple that Zechariah himself helped to rebuild -- not even in secular history.
King Zachariah, the son of Jeroboam, "did that which was evil in the sight of the LORD" and "Shallum the son of Jabesh conspired against him, and smote him before the people, and slew him, and reigned in his stead" (II Kings 15:8-10). That a wicked king was assassinated for the good of the people and for the dignity of the Lord would not elicit from any Jesus the sympathy reserved for a martyr. Besides, he was the son of Jeroboam, not Barachias.
Another Zacharias -- the son of Barouchos -- was slain in the temple in C.E. 69: If this is what Matthew is talking about, then he has Jesus reminding his listeners of an event that occurred almost 40 years after he allegedly reminded them of it!
Referring to this passage, the Catholic scholar Dr. Hug says: "There cannot be a doubt, if we attend to the name, the fact and its circumstances, and the object of Jesus in citing it, that it was the same Zacharias Barouchos, who, according to Josephus, a short time before the destruction of Jerusalem, was unjustly slain in the temple."
Commenting on this passage, Prof. Newman says: "There is no other man known in history to whom the verse can allude. If so, it shows how late, how ignorant, how rash is the composer of a text passed off on us as sacred truth" (Religion Not History, p. 46).
(The final parts of this section were derived from The Christ by John E. Remsberg, page 149. Quotations of Dr. Hug and Prof. Newman were taken directly from this book.)
In Acts 13:30-33, Paul allegedly says: "But God raised him from the dead: And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people. And we declare unto you glad tidings, how that the promise which was made unto the fathers, God hath fulfilled the same unto us their children, in that he hath raised up Jesus again; as it is also written in the second psalm, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee."
Excuse me? How does "Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee" -- in any context -- get twisted to predict that Jesus will rise from the dead? Nowhere in Psalm 2 are any of "Paul's" notions even implied, much less stated! What happened is that the early Christian doctrine that Jesus was merely a man but was later "begotten" by God (during his baptism, according to some; at his resurrection, according to others) has become passé over the centuries and is no longer considered "Orthodox." In fact, much blood was spilt during the course of abolishing this teaching.
Earlier this month, I wrote a piece for Kameron Schulz on "Gospel Contradictions," which advocates grasping the overall picture of the Gospel problem over compiling a simple list of bible contradictions. The same, I would think, would apply to a discussion regarding the New Testament's misuse of Hebrew Scripture and, I suggest, a discussion of modern Christians' misuse of their own scripture or their accusations that you are doing the same.
I will repeat the "Gospel Contradictions" piece for you here:
It is much more effective to show the major problems with the Gospel stories than it is merely to present a list of contradictions -- which a trained Evangelical Christian apologist will respond to with any number of pat answers derived from the various "Bible Difficulties"-type books floating around the Christian bookstores.
I will discuss three major problems: (1) construction, including showing how the Gospels were constructed by the various competing Christian communities and showing the anti-Jewish, pro-Roman bias inherent within the Gospels; (2) the entire discussion regarding the very historicity of Jesus; (3) biblical errors, including why we must exercise caution when approaching biblical criticism this way
The Construction of the Gospels and the Bias Therein
A longtime favorite example of mine is to show how the scribe, in the Gospel of Mark (the earliest Gospel) approaches Jesus out of curiosity and with due respect, and asks him which are the greatest commandments. In the other Gospels, the same character (variously masked but obviously describing the same story) "tempts" Jesus and tries to trip him up -- suggesting that the later Gospel writers tried to "improve" on the Mark story, in order to portray the Pharisees as Jesus's enemies.
Another favorite of mine is the cursing of the fig tree. (Never mind that this tale portrays Jesus as being hungry and looking for figs when it's not even fig season!) In Mark, the tree does not wither immediately, but the disciples marvel over it the next day. Matthew's story has it wither immediately, and the disciples marvel immediately after it withers. In our National Bible Week Poster, I suggest that Matthew was dissatisfied with a Jesus who would take a whole day to wither a damned fig tree.
The best treatment of the progressive nature of the Gospels, from earlier to later, is Randall Helms's Gospel Fictions. This book contains at least three themes: First, most of the details of the Jesus character's life are based upon tales from the Hebrew Scriptures, such as various events in the live of Moses, Joshua, Elijah, and others. The early Christians had only the Hebrew Scriptures and were convinced that the entire story of Jesus was contained within these Scriptures. Only much later did they write down these legends in the Gospels. Secondly, when dealing with the same events, the later Gospels seem to be trying to show a more powerful Jesus than the earlier Gospels, almost as if trying to outdo the earlier "Jesus" as portrayed in the Gospels upon which they were based. Finally, the various Christian communities each had an agenda, and most of them had access to the earlier Gospels (many of which were never canonized). The differences between them betray the likelihood that they were trying to "correct" the other versions rather than trying to complement them. This is a fascinating book that makes a much stronger case than any simple list of "contradictions" ever could.
Another important perspective is shown by Hyam Maccoby in his almost impossible to find book, Revolution in Judaea: Jesus and the Jewish Resistance. In it, Maccoby goes to great lengths to show the fierce anti-Jewish, pro-Roman bias contained in the Gospels. First, he thoroughly documents the cultural roles of the various Jewish factions: basically the quisling Roman sympathizers, such as the Herodians and the Sadducees, versus the nationalist Pharisees seeking to free Judaea from Roman occupation, ranging from those expecting a supernatural event to the Zealots, who expected no help from above and who were ready to fight tooth and nail for their national liberty. Then he shows how the Gospel accounts, for the most part, have nothing good to say about the Pharisees (even though they were actually the good guys from any Jewish perspective) and little if anything bad to say about any Roman characters. (Remember, Jerusalem had been leveled before any of the Gospels were circulated.) Finally, he examines several incidents where Pharisees were actually cordial to Jesus -- at one point actually protecting him from assassination by Herod's thugs (Luke 13:31).
Maccoby's primary suggestion, as pertains to the question at hand, is that the Gospels as we know them were heavily edited from earlier stories, and that some of these earlier stories "show through" in that they completely contradict the editorial bias which permeates most of the Gospel stories. To bolster his case, he shows several places where the Gospels show the Pharisees denouncing Jesus for doing things that Pharisees would never denounce anyone for doing -- only the Sadducees would talk this way!
But seeing this anti-Jewish, pro-Roman bias in all four Gospels is very important to seeing that the entire Gospel story is itself one massive contradiction. After seeing this, all the little petty "contradictions" pale in significance. I think almost any of the Jesus Seminar books ought to at least touch on this discrepancy, but Maccoby constructs his entire book around this one problem, attacking it from many different angles. You might find it on one of the various used book search engines, such as: Advanced Book Exchange; Barnes & Noble Rare, Secondhand & Out of Print Search (expensive); Powell's City of Books (I've found four copies here over the past ten years).
You'll probably have excellent luck with an inter-library search, if your local library borrows from other libraries, or by borrowing from one of the major universities, such as the University of California, which has, I think, the most diverse and complete collection of books anywhere.
Maccoby's other popular book is The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity, which should be much easier to find than his other book. In his other book, he shows that Jesus (if he existed at all) was almost certainly a Pharisee, which was the party of the people and the group loyal to Judaea in the struggle against Roman occupation (a situation about which the New Testament is conspicuously silent). In this book, Maccoby shows that Paul cannot have been telling the truth when he told his Gentile listeners that he was a trained Pharisee. This one plays up another very important fundamental discrepancy: the dispute between Paul's Gentile followers and Peter's Jewish followers. Some traditions, particularly the Ebionites, claim Peter's group as predecessors and overtly denounce Paul as a false apostle, whereas Paul sternly denounces Peter in Galatians chapter 2. This whole scene is downplayed and smoothed over in Acts 15, which was written much later than Galatians, after the fall of Jerusalem silenced anyone who might have contradicted Paul's version of things. But the strong suggestion in this book, as in the earlier works of Baur and Bauer, is that there were at least two rival groups. (Later works show that there were more than this, and I will cover this below.)
The Historicity of Jesus, and the Lack of a Case Thereof
The final problem I will discuss is the very existence of a historical Jesus. G. A. Wells, in his various books on the subject, shows that the only remotely contemporary mention of Jesus is the Gospels themselves. Mark, the earliest Gospel, was written no earlier than C.E. 70, and probably no later than C.E. 80. Otherwise, we have absolutely no mention of a historical Jesus.
Paul, in his relatively undisputed works (those that hardly any scholars think are forgeries: Romans; I and II Corinthians; Galatians) mentions a Jesus, but says nothing of when he lived other than some unspecified time in the past. These works of Paul predate the Gospel of Mark by between ten and fifteen years. When Paul does talk of "witnesses" to the resurrection, his "facts" differ significantly from those in the Gospel stories, which say nothing of the "500 at one time." Also, Paul's understanding of "resurrection" differs significantly from that described in some Gospel stories, his being very much like a phantom (a seed planted, turning out much differently than the original body), whereas the Gospels tend to describe a simple re-animation of the physical body.
A very small number of Christian apologists still point to the so-called Testimonium Flavianum of Josephus (Antiquities 18:63-64). Most who've studied the arguments against the validity of this fragment tend to consider it a move of desperation on the part of those who still argue for its genuineness: it is thought to be easier simply to admit that there are no contemporary witnesses to Jesus's historicity. (It's certainly more honest!) The most famous apologist who still insists on its validity is Josh McDowell, though he simply asserts that Josephus is an independent contemporary witness, without even mentioning the doubts that have persisted since shortly after most scholars think this paragraph was invented. I have summarized Wells's arguments against this passage's genuineness in the dialogue, "Seek Jesus: Josephus Said He Existed." John E. Remsberg (mentioned above) handily refutes its genuineness (showing how old these arguments are) and also has some choice comments on why the early Christians would stoop to forging a passage in a major work of history.
Some Christian apologists also point to a writing by Cornelius Tacitus (circa C.E. 55-117 or later), who was governor of Asia in about C.E. 112. First, Tacitus was writing about Christians, not Christ. Secondly, from all appearances, he was simply parroting some other source, and never investigated beyond those sources. Finally, by the time he probably wrote this (C.E. 112 or so), the Gospel accounts had enjoyed wide circulation. I briefly mention the problems with claiming Tacitus as a "contemporary" or even an "independent" witness of the existence of Jesus in the same dialogue, "Seek Jesus: Josephus Said He Existed." John E. Remsberg gives the Tacitus passage a very thorough treatment and also has a few things to say on using Tacitus as a witness for the historicity of Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar is doing a world of good precisely because they do not agree as to which "historical" Jesus is the real one. A new book exploits this problem by positing "Jesus Agnosticism." Robert M. Price's "Deconstructing Jesus" has, though I haven't even finished reading it, supplanted my previous "Jesus as Rebel against Rome" model.
Price points out the Parable of the Wheat and Tares (Matthew 13:24-30) wherein a farmer plants a crop of wheat. As soon as the plants begin to sprout, his assistant shows him that half the plants are not wheat but the darnel weed. "An enemy has done this!" the farmer exclaims. This parable has been said to show that Christianity started out as pure orthodoxy and later became infested with heresy.
The model Price advocates is described with another parable:
"It is as if a man sowed his field with all kinds of seeds at random. 'Let a hundred flowers bloom!" he said. Soon the plants began to sprout, each different from the others, until one plant with long tendrils choked out all the others and filled the field with its own seedlings." (Page 22.)
Price is saying that many different myths flourished in the Roman Empire and elsewhere, and were later consolidated into the Roman Catholic religion that we all hate to love. He also makes good use of the fact that Paul's Gentile followers were rivals of Peter's Jewish followers (Peter and crew having remained in Jerusalem at least until Paul's final journey to Rome, and probably for his entire life. Maccoby brings up the Ebionites as witness to the fact that the Jerusalem Christians thought of Paul as a false teacher, and Price also delves into this and many other problems.
Price's point, though, is that every Jesus Seminar-type model is valid as long as the advocate emphasizes certain points and ignores the rest of the evidence. It is certainly impossible to harmonize all the available information into a Unified Theory of Christ -- if you will. And this fact will work to the advantage of anyone trying to refute the Gospel myth. The main gist is that even if we could find a historical figure upon whose life the Gospel tales were built, we could never know anything certain about this individual. And pointing this out makes a strong case against the orthodox Gospel story.
Lists of "Bible Contradictions" and their Limitations
Of course, if you are interested in a simple list of Gospel discrepancies, you could do much worse than John E. Remsberg's classic 1908 book The Christ. We have posted the entire work in our Historical Section and have, I think, the only Internet presence of this work. I got it from a fellow who calls himself Zardoz, and corrected many errors that his copy had. (All our historical works go through at least two comparisons with the real McCoy, and many have gone through three separate comparisons with the hard copy -- unlike most of the stuff out there, particularly that on Internet Infidels, most of which goes through a single OCR line-by-line conversion to text, seemingly with no corrections whatsoever.
Remsberg's book is thorough and is a great piece of comedy. He was trying to make available to the common reader the material presented by Strauss and Renan, which is tough to follow. Prometheus has issued a reprint of this fine work, of we have an extremely clean copy of it online (clean as online copies go, that is).
Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason is another classic work which contains many arguments that have yet to be answered to my satisfaction. We posted the Independence Edition edited by Paine scholar Daniel Edwin Wheeler in 1908 (a great year for anti-Gospel works).
Of course, C. Dennis McKinsey has The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy, but I highly recommend watching out for the several places where he resorts to petty errors unique to the clumsy and antiquated language of the King James. On the other hand, while conducting a study of mathematical errors in the Hebrew Scriptures (based upon McKinsey's Encyclopedia), I discovered that the New International Version, produced by a team of "scholars" who admit in the Preface that they are biased toward biblical inerrancy, covers up many legitimate discrepancies that the other versions leave intact. In many cases they resort to obscure manuscripts or to the Greek or Syriac versions, but in some cases they flat-out mistranslate the passage so that it conforms to their preconception of an "infallible Word of God." The NIV "scholars" obviously availed themselves of the many "Bible Difficulties"-type books that I mentioned above.
McKinsey spent 20 years publishing his "Biblical Errancy" newsletter, and has just released Biblical Errancy: A Reference Guide, which is kinda like The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy on steroids. It has exhaustive cross-references, alphabetical and topical listings, references to passages in the order in which they appear in the Bible, and even an asterisk system to rate the relevance of various passages to the question being discussed.
Again, many who study and write about biblical errancy have a habit of claiming passages as problematic that I would never call problem passages. A classic example (that McKinsey doesn't use, which I may have used flippantly in the past, but refuse to use today) is Romans 3:7 where Paul says, "For if the truth of God hath more abounded through my lie unto his glory; why yet am I also judged as a sinner?" Many opponents of Christianity have suggested that Paul is here advocating the use of falsehood to further the Gospel. (No, it was Martin Luther who advocated this, not Paul.) Taken out of its context, this sentence seems to have Paul advocating the use of falsehood. A careful reading of this passage, though, shows that Paul is actually mocking those opponents of his who, according to Paul, falsely accused him of holding this position.
The entire passage, in context, makes this clear:
5. "But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man)
Notice the parenthetical phrase, "I speak as a man," and the other parenthetical part about being "slanderously reported, as some affirm that we say." Paul may have actually advocated the deliberate use of falsehood to further the Gospel (why else would he feel the need to "protest too much" along these lines), and other passages come a little closer to suggesting that he held this position, but he is not admitting it here. This is where several Bible critics (but not McKinsey, in this case) differ from the rest. McKinsey, for the most part, is very careful to examine all possible interpretations.
Though his studies are exhaustive in that he has collected by far the most examples, he does not address the topic of which original manuscripts say what, and (unfortunately) he does not attack such "translations" as the New International Version, which deliberately compensate for the classic problem passages through: (1) what I would describe as "work-around" translation (where a passage could go either way, and the benefit of the doubt is given toward the presupposition of inerrancy, rather than going with the way similar constructions are usually or naturally translated); (2) selective use of obscure source manuscripts; (3) flat-out mistranslation of problem passages.
I think a wonderful (and wonderfully useful) study would be to compare all of McKinsey's problem passages in each of the popular translations: the King James, the New American Standard, and the Roman Catholic versions, and New International Version, and then to document places were this or that version (most likely the New International Version and the Jehovah's Witnesses New World Translation) seem to deliberately cover up known Bible problems.
I hope this puts this all into a better perspective for you. I personally find it much more compelling if I stick with the big issues, even though developing this perspective was a lot more work than simply coming up with a simple list of contradictions.
I am not in the habit of trying to deconvert Christians, though many write to me on this forum and I consider this forum a proper setting for such discussions (though I never engage in such discussions elsewhere). But, if I were trying to deconvert someone, I would pay attention to the teachings of 1970s-era cult deprogrammer Ted Patrick. I interviewed him in about 1980 and he showed me the main point of his practice: "Ask questions to which the answers lie outside the cult member's world view." Eventually, he told me, the human mind cannot help but try to reconcile the discrepancies between the cultic picture of reality and the person's observations.
Patrick's secret to success was to learn as much as he could about the cult's dogma and to try to think of obvious contradictions between it and observable reality. Contrary to the prevailing rumors of the era, Patrick never tied people to chairs and beat them into submission: he merely peppered the with questions. True, he violated people's civil rights by kidnaping them, and for this he served a prison term and was driven out of business. But I do use his technique on this forum and also during those rare occasions when I will allow myself to engage with someone in a social setting.
To me, the bottom line is this: Anybody making a claim for the existence of something (such as a god) is obligated to make the strong argument and to bring forth the evidence. I, as a listener to these claims, need do nothing. If this person can make a case, I will probably convert to theism; unless and until such time, I remain an atheist. This is called the Burden of Proof, which states that the person making an existential claim (a claim that a thing exists) is required to make the case for the thing's existence.
An atheist is (among other things) a person who lacks a god belief -- who lacks theism. It seems as if the atheist would be at an advantage in that he or she is not required to make any case for the nonexistence of gods, but I don't see it this way. I cannot prove a negative existential claim (a claim that a certain thing does not exist), so I am at a grave disadvantage. To assert that no gods exist is an untenable position, so I am stuck with saying that I have yet to encounter a claim for the existence of a god that holds water. So, to say that the Burden of Proof is a position of convenience for the atheist is simply not true: the atheist cannot prove the nonexistence of a god.
Finally, whenever someone makes a claim that contains the sound "God," you must insist that the theist describe what they mean when they utter that sound. For you to respond "No, there is no such thing" is premature on your part even if you already know what they are talking about. The good side of this little quirk is that you need never go up against the concept of "God" at all: you need only attack the theist's attempts to describe what he or she means when using this term.
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