Christian and Skeptic Debate: Is the Bible True?

<p>On April 22, 2020, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Adam Lloyd Johnson and Luke Pitts engaged in a debate over Zoom about whether the Bible was true and could be trusted. Adam, as a Christian, defended that the Bible is true, that it gets the major events right and is also correct in all its details. Luke, a skeptic, argued that the Bible was not reliable or trustworthy because of many strange, unusual, and even contradictory things found within it. The exchange included four speeches by each participant as well as a time for questions at the end.</p>

On April 22, 2020, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Adam Lloyd Johnson and Luke Pitts engaged in a debate over Zoom about whether the Bible was true and could be trusted. Adam, as a Christian, defended that the Bible is true, that it gets the major events right and is also correct in all its details. Luke, a skeptic, argued that the Bible was not reliable or trustworthy because of many strange, unusual, and even contradictory things found within it. The exchange included four speeches by each participant as well as a time for questions at the end.

Debate Transcript

Opening Speech: Adam Johnson

I’m thankful for an opportunity to discuss this important issue. I’m also thankful for Pitts, for his kindness and respect in the conversations we’ve had. I don’t think of Pitts as my opponent but as my friend. Friends often disagree, sometimes on major topics, and this gives us a chance to defend our positions calmly and rationally.

This debate is about whether or not the Bible is true. It’s important to distinguish between two senses of “true.” Imagine we had eight written accounts of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination—six by people who were in the theater that night and two by people who interviewed eyewitnesses. In this hypothetical example, let’s say some of the accounts were written soon after and some were written a few decades later. Let’s also say that these eight accounts agreed on the major events—Lincoln was shot inside a theater and John Wilkes Booth was the shooter. However, suppose the accounts disagreed on some minor details—how many shots were fired, what Booth was wearing, what time it occurred, which direction Booth fled, who was near Lincoln when it happened, etc. We’d expect such minor mistakes because of human forgetfulness; we often remember things incorrectly. They’re not lying; they’ve just made some mistakes because of their poor memories. However, though they contain minor differences, let’s say they all agree on the major events of that night—thus we’d say they’re “true” in the sense that, in general, they’re historically reliable about the major events. This is the first sense of true I want to consider. This level of truth would hold up in court, for example, if they put Booth on trial.

Let’s suppose instead, hypothetically again, that somehow these eight accounts of Lincoln’s assassination got every detail correct—they made no mistakes whatsoever. That’d be unlikely, given the weaknesses of human memory, but let’s say they accomplished this remarkable feat and their accounts had no errors at all. Maybe God supernaturally guided them somehow from making any mistakes. If God exists, it seems reasonable He could do such a thing. This is the second sense of true I want to consider—we’d say they’re true in the sense that they’re completely correct in all details. So we have two senses of “true”:

  1. An account could be true in that it’s historically reliable about the major events it describes, even though it contains mistakes about some minor details.
  2. An account could be true in the sense that it’s completely correct in all details.

Consider these two senses of “true” when it comes to the Bible. So there’s three positions: First, some claim the Bible isn’t true in either sense—this is Pitts’ position. Second, some claim the Bible is true in that it’s historically reliable about the major events but it’s not completely correct in all details. Some Christians hold this position, for example, C. S. Lewis. Third, many Christians claim the Bible is true in both senses—it’s historically reliable about the major events and it’s completely correct in all details. This is my position, so I’ll argue the Bible is true in both senses.

When I argue the Bible is true in the first sense, that it’s historically reliable about the major events, these are what I consider to be the important major events:

  1. Jesus was a real person in history who claimed to be God.
  2. Jesus and His disciples said they had messages from God, mostly about how people can fix their broken relationship with God.
  3. Jesus and His disciples did miracles as evidence they really had messages from God, the key miracle being Jesus’ resurrection.

If these major events happened, then Christianity is true—God exists, Jesus is God, and people can fix their broken relationship with God by trusting Jesus as their Savior. In other words, the basic truth of Christianity only depends on the Bible being true in the first sense. So if I’m wrong about the Bible being true in the second sense, that it’s completely correct in all details, this doesn’t affect whether basic Christianity is true or not. Basic Christianity is true, even if the Bible has mistakes in some details, as long as it’s historically reliable about these major events.

Tonight I’ll present two arguments. First I’ll argue that the Bible is true in the first sense, that it’s historically reliable about these major events. Then I’ll argue the Bible is true in the second sense, that it’s completely correct in all details.

As for the Bible being historically reliable about the major events, since my time is limited, I’ll focus on the New Testament, which contains the major events I described. There are two questions to address concerning the historical reliability of the New Testament:

  1. Do we have an accurate copy of the New Testament?
  2. Did the New Testament authors tell the truth?

We don’t have the original New Testament; all we have are copies, and these various copies contain copying mistakes called textual variants. This isn’t a secret; when someone learns Greek to study the New Testament in its original language, the Greek New Testament points out these variants. While this sounds alarming at first, the good news is that we have thousands of copies, over 24,000, some dating back to the second century, not to mention all the ancient books that quote the New Testament. The other good news is that, while these copies have mistakes, the copyists made mistakes in different places. So if one copy said Peter denied Jesus four times but the other 23,999 copies said he denied Jesus three times, then it’s fairly obvious the original said three times. It’s never that simple, but you get the idea. Professional scholars compare these copies and attempt to recreate the original.

This isn’t unique to the Bible; all ancient documents are recreated this way. However, the more copies of a document we have, the easier it is to compare the copying mistakes and the closer we’re able to get back to the original. So, to what degree of accuracy can we recreate the original New Testament? For this I’ll quote Bruce Metzger, one of the leading scholars in this field. Metzger was a professor at Princeton for 46 years and is one of the most respected New Testament scholars of the 20th century. Consider this comparison—we have 643 copies of Homer’s Iliad, one of the most popular books of the ancient world, but just like our New Testament copies, they contain various copying mistakes. However, according to Metzger, because the mistakes are in different places, we can recreate the original Iliad with a high degree of accuracy – 95%. How does this compare to the New Testament? Because we have 24,000 copies, we can recreate the original New Testament, again according to Metzger, with a remarkable degree of accuracy – 99.5%. And the 0.5% we’re unsure of doesn’t affect any Christian beliefs; they mostly have to do with spelling differences.

Some may reject Metzger’s position because he was a Christian, which doesn’t seem fair, given his academic credentials. Regardless, consider another well-known New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, who’s an atheist. Ehrman got his Ph.D. under Metzger at Princeton and has a great deal of respect for him. Ehrman wrote:

Metzger is one of the great scholars of modern times, and I dedicated the book to him because he was … my inspiration for going into textual criticism and the person who trained me…. I have nothing but respect and admiration for him…. [E]ven though we may disagree on important religious questions – he is a firmly committed Christian and I am not – we are in complete agreement on a number of very important historical and textual questions.

If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out … what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for … does not … stand at odds with … Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants….

So yes, we have an accurate copy of the New Testament. But did the New Testament authors tell the truth? I’ll give six reasons to believe they did.

First, we should believe the New Testament authors told the truth because they made their claims soon after the events took place. This is important because myths take time to develop, time for the eyewitnesses to die off. Just consider Jesus’ resurrection, the most important miracle. Imagine if the early Christians didn’t claim Jesus rose from the dead until forty years after He died; if that were the case, then their claim would be more suspect, most likely a myth that slowly developed. However, if they claimed His resurrection soon after His death, then it’s more likely they were telling the truth. It doesn’t guarantee it, but it’s more likely true than if they made the claim several decades later. So, how soon after the cross did the early Christians, including the New Testament writers, claim Jesus rose from the dead? Based on ancient creeds that date back before the New Testament was even written, we know Christians were claiming Jesus rose from the dead very soon after He died. Habermas lists forty-one things these pre-New-Testament creeds tell us about Jesus. Consider this quote from atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann: “From historical analysis, we know the disciples were proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection no later than two years after the cross.” Because they made this claim soon after the event, as opposed to decades later, this leans in favor of them telling the truth.

Second, we should believe the New Testament authors told the truth because their accounts include many accurate historical facts. This greatly increases their historical credibility. Imagine someone who claimed to witness a crime but couldn’t tell you anything about the context—what the weather was like, who was there, the murder weapon. Their testimony wouldn’t be very credible. Alternatively, if they were correct about such details, then we’d be more likely to believe they were really there and are telling the truth. The book of Acts in the New Testament is a prime example of this because it gives a historical narrative of the lives of early Christians shortly after Jesus died. Historian Colin Hemer listed over 80 accurate historical facts in Acts that would be difficult for someone to know unless they were there themselves—the names of obscure rulers and their official titles, precise geography and travel routes used at the time, unusual cultural practices, customs, even slang words from different regions that have been confirmed as accurate from other historical sources. Historian A. N. Sherwin-White wrote, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming…. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” Establishing the historical credibility of Acts is important because the person who wrote Acts, Luke, also wrote the Gospel of Luke.

Third, we should believe the New Testament authors told the truth because their basic account is affirmed by non-Christian historical sources. Consider the following ancient writers who corroborate much of what the New Testament authors wrote. Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian (AD 56-117), wrote that Jesus “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius [AD 14-37] at the hands of … Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition … broke out not only in Judaea … but even in Rome.” Josephus, a Jewish court historian for emperor Vespasian (AD 38-97), wrote that “At this time there was a wise man … called Jesus. His conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous…. [M]any people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But … his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported … he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive; accordingly he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders.” There are 10 such ancient, non-Christian sources. From these non-Christian historical sources alone we have a broad outline of the major events of Jesus’ life. Here’s what we know about Jesus from just these non-Christian sources:

  1. Jesus lived during the time of Tiberius Caesar.
  2. He lived a virtuous life.
  3. He was thought to be a wonder-worker.
  4. He had a brother named James.
  5. He was acclaimed to be the Messiah.
  6. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.
  7. An eclipse and earthquake occurred when He died.
  8. He was crucified on the eve of the Passover.
  9. His disciples believed He rose from the dead.
  10. His disciples were willing to die for their beliefs.
  11. Christianity spread rapidly as far as Rome.
  12. His disciples denied the Roman gods and worshiped Jesus as God.

That’s pretty much the major details of the New Testament. Consider there’s only nine non-Christian sources that mention Tiberius Caesar, so in a sense there’s more historical evidence for Jesus than Caesar.

Fourth, we should believe the New Testament authors told the truth because they all tell the same basic story with only small reconcilable differences. This is what we’d expect if different eyewitnesses were describing the same event from their own perspectives. Large differences between them would cause us to question their truthfulness. Also, if there were absolutely no differences in their descriptions, then we’d wonder if they got together and colluded to tell the same made-up story. Instead, they all tell the same basic events but with small reconcilable differences. These are important criteria lawyers and detectives look for in determining the truthfulness of multiple eyewitnesses. 

Fifth, we should believe the New Testament authors told the truth because they and others were transformed from cowards hiding from the authorities immediately after the crucifixion into courageous leaders boldly proclaiming Jesus as God a short time later. Even some who were previously skeptics, including Jesus’ brother James and the fiercely anti-Christian leader Paul, became devoted Christians shortly after Jesus’ death. What could have caused these radical transformations? According to them, it was seeing Jesus’ resurrected body with their own eyes. It’s hard to think of another explanation that would cause such radical transformations. 

The sixth reason we should believe the New Testament authors told the truth is that they suffered tremendously for their beliefs, many even being tortured to death. Now many people die for their beliefs, like suicide bombers. So being willing to die for your beliefs doesn’t prove your beliefs are true, but it does prove you think your beliefs are true. If the New Testament writers were lying, they wouldn’t have been willing to die because no one gives their life for something they know is false. Those that say Jesus’ disciples were lying have to explain why they were willing to die for a lie. They had nothing to gain by making this stuff up. It wasn’t like America where you can get rich and famous by creating a new religion. For them all it brought was suffering, rejection, persecution, torture, and death. 

This sort of historical analysis has led virtually all scholars to affirm the following facts:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Jesus was buried.
  3. His disciples initially despaired.
  4. The disciples had experiences they believed were appearances of the risen Jesus.
  5. The disciples were transformed such that they were willing to die for their beliefs.
  6. Jesus’ resurrection was preached early in Jerusalem.
  7. They moved the day of worship to Sunday.
  8. Paul was converted from an experience he believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.
  9. James, Jesus’ brother, became a Christian.

New Testament scholar Gary Habermas complied a list of 3,000 scholars writing in the last 50 years (Jewish, atheist, and Christian) that affirm these facts. What best explains these facts? The most compelling answer is that Jesus literally rose again, providing strong evidence that Christianity is true.

I’ve only argued for my first contention, that the Bible is true in the sense that it’s historically reliable about the major events. In my next speech, I’ll argue that the Bible is completely true in all details.

Opening Speech: Luke Pitts

I used to be a Christian. I used to believe that the world was divided between two types of people: those who worshiped themselves, their things, and their shortsighted human desires. They turned their back on the one that paid the ultimate price for them to be free of their sin. And there are those that accepted Jesus into their hearts, humbly submitting their lives to him, allowing him to form them into the person they were designed to be.

At some point I realized that among the 4,200 religions that are said to exist, I had really biased myself on one of them. Being raised in the Bible Belt, my friends, family, community, all hail from this one religion. My first hearing of ancient stories, ancient wisdom, my first spiritual experiences, were all cast in Christianity. So, I decided to challenge my views. I did this by taking the best argument from the apologist and the best argument from the skeptic to see what makes sense to me. Ultimately, Christianity is a religion of belief, and I went forward on the assumption that if God made me and he made the Bible, he wouldn’t make it unnecessarily difficulty for me to rationalize.

The great thing about America, and about Ratio Christi, is they are religiously tolerant institutions. We should be grateful that we are able to have a public debate like this. Unlike the ancient Israelites, the Christians of the Inquisition, and modern-day ISIS, we get to question our religious assumptions, and I think Adam and I both think one would be well served by doing so.

Here is a hypothetical question. In the midst of those 4,200 religions we modern humans are fortunate to get to choose from, would you join one of them solely based on its claim that 2,000 years ago, in the Middle East, a religious teacher died and his followers believed that he appeared to them after his death? I hope not, because I could be talking about Apollonius of Tyanna. I could probably be talking about many more.

This is what we get from the pre-Pauline creed in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians—that followers of Jesus, within a few years of his death, believed that he had appeared to them. Adam alluded to this creed in his first reason why we should believe the New Testament writers were telling the truth. The creed is a fascinating look into the history of the beginnings of a belief that changed the world, but on its own, as I think we all agree, it isn’t enough to become a Christian.

And we have reason to be cautious here. 2,000 years ago, in the Middle East, most people took it as a given that humans could become divine entities and that divine entities could become human. It was true for pagans, and it was also true for monotheistic Jews. Just like people of ancient times, we need more. We need to know who Jesus was, what he preached, how he died, in what nature did he appear to his followers, and in what nature was he divine.

Luckily, we have much more. Scholars identify at least 30 independent sources that can tell us about the historical Jesus, with our best sources being the Bible’s gospels. However, the gospels are not without problems. Our earliest stories found in our gospels were passed down orally in Aramaic before being written down by second generation Christians in Greek, 35 to 65 years after Jesus’ death. They do not claim to be eyewitnesses to his death and resurrection. The very reason the pre-Pauline creed in 1 Corinthians is so important to scholars is because our gospels, along with many other writings before, during, and after the events narrated in the New Testament, contain to some degree, non-historical material. Coming just a few years after Jesus’ death, the pre-Pauline creed isn’t old enough to be corrupted by the legends or embellishments that appear to have arose around Jesus.

Most New Testament scholars believe the gospels to some extent contain these non-historical elements. Bruce Metzger, distinguished Christian New Testament scholar that Adam mentioned, believed so. Bart Ehrman says it’s a view “held by virtually every professor of biblical studies who teaches at every major liberal arts college or research university in North America. Take your pick: Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, University of Chicago, University of Kansas, University of Nebraska…” It’s actually a view held by many everyday Christians; I’m sure you know many of them.

Make no mistake, the story of Jesus is not simply a legend. Nearly all scholars believe there are historical truths or bones in our gospels – the pre-Pauline creed helps establish some of those bones, and Adam mentioned nine such facts about Jesus that virtually all scholars agree. And we can actually go much further to know with relative certainty even much more about Jesus. The tools Adam mentioned can give us confidence in separating the true history from the legends, and this is what biblical scholarship since the enlightenment has been all about.

So let’s try our hand at deciphering true history from legend. It’s a pop quiz called “Did This Happen?” It’s a “Yes or No” quiz. It’s rapid fire. And just like a real quiz, you get absolutely no context:

  • Did David kill Goliath? (He was the giant, 9’ 6” man-monster which would make him the tallest man to have ever lived. Or was he 6’ 9”, about the size of an average college basketball power forward? It depends on which version of 1 Samuel 17:4 you read. Scholars favor the shorter version.)
  • Did Elhanan, son of Jair-Oregim, kill Goliath? (2 Samuel 21:19). (The apologists say it’s actually a copyist error and Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother.)
  • Did Yahweh kill 70,000 people in a plague, to punish David for taking a census for which Yahweh himself moved David to take? (2 Samuel 24; 500s BC).
  • Did Yahweh kill 70,000 people in a plague, to punish David for taking a census for which Satan moved David to take? (1 Chronicles 21; 400s BC).
  • Did God demonstrate the guilt or innocence of an accused person by whether or not they survived being thrown in a river? (Code of Hammurabi; 1754 BC).
  • Did God demonstrate the guilt or innocence of a person based on the role of dice (divination tools Urim and Thummim)? (1 Samuel 14:41).
  • Did God demonstrate the guilt or innocence of a woman accused of adultery by whether or not she miscarried after drinking a potion containing holy water, dust from a temple floor, and the ink from words of a written curse? (Numbers 5:11-31). (These methods of knowing God’s judgment are called “trial by ordeal,” and it’s found all over the ancient world.)
  • Did God say, “If a man betroth a girl to his son, but his son has not known her, and if then he defile her, he shall pay her half a gold mina, and compensate her for all that she brought out of her father’s house. She may marry the man of her heart” (Code of Hammurabi, Line 156; 1754 BC).
  • Did God say, “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay her father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the young woman, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives” (Deuteronomy 22:28-29 NIV. Some apologists say the NIV translation of “rape” here is wrong, and that’s fine).
  • Did this wisdom come from God: “For a prostitute can be had for a loaf of bread, but another man’s wife preys on your very life” (Proverbs 6:26 NIV; I’m going to have to stand behind this translation though).
  • Did this wisdom come from God: “[The High Priest] must not marry a widow, a divorced woman… but only a virgin from his own people so that he will not defile his offspring…” (Leviticus 21:15).
  • Was it ever true that one could be blessed by bashing a baby against a rock? (Psalms 137:9).
  • Did God say, “Do not turn to idols or make metal gods for yourselves, I am Yahweh, your God”? (Leviticus 19:4).
  • Did God say, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live” (Numbers 21:8; this was after the Israelites had been bitten by deadly snakes, for which God sent to punish them for complaining).
  • Did King Hezekiah have to break into pieces the bronze snake God told Moses to make because the Israelites had been burning incense to it? (2 Kings 18:4).
  • Did God kill the seven-headed sea-serpent, Lotan? (Baal Hadad in the clay tablets of Ugarit).
  • Did God crush the heads of the sea-serpent, Leviathan, and give him to the people in the wilderness for food? (Psalm 74:13-14).
  • Did God flood the earth to punish its inhabitants for their wickedness, while sparing a single righteous man, his family, and two of all the earth’s animals by telling the man to build a large ark? (Babylonian Epic of Ziusudra, extant 1600 BC, and Genesis 5:32-10:1, extant 200 BC).
  • Did the Most High fix the boundaries of the people according to the number of divine beings, and Yahweh’s portion was Jacob? (A textual variant of the Dead Sea Scroll’s Deuteronomy 32:8-9; We see prophets throughout the Old Testament say “Yahweh is my portion.” From this verse, we know what that phrase means: Yahweh is their portion of the divine beings.)
  • Did God ask for advice from other divine beings, before allowing one of them to go down to earth to be a lying spirit in the mouth of a human? (1 Kings 22:20-23; Christian scholar Dr. Michael Heiser says, “If it sounds like a pantheon, it’s because it is.”).
  • Did the sons of God come down to earth to have sex with women who gave birth to semi-divine giants? (Genesis 6:2-4; Numbers 13:3).
  • Were these giants 450 feet tall? (Book of Enoch Ch. 7; 300-100 BC).
  • Was the first king of Rome, Romulus, born of a virgin, and did he ascend to heaven and reappear alive to Proculus Julius to the amazement the Romans? (Livy, History of Rome 1.16; written 10-30 years before Jesus’ birth).
  • As a child, did Jesus heal his brother after he was bitten by a snake? (Infancy Gospel of Thomas, written 80 years after Jesus’ death).
  • Did someone heal themselves by touching Jesus’ cloak and the only reason Jesus knew was because he felt the power shoot out of him? (Matthew 9:20–22, Mark 5:25–34, Luke 8:43–48).
  • Did Jesus ride into Jerusalem straddling two donkeys, one smaller than the other? (Matthew 21:7 NIV; Matthew misinterpreted the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9; the other gospels have him on just one colt.)
  • Did Jesus say, “Let him who is without sin, cast the first stone”? (John 8:7 NIV, but it’s a later addition. Bruce Metzger said, “The evidence for the non-Johannine origin… is overwhelming.”).
  • Did Jesus say, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:16-18 NIV; Nearly all scholars agree that Mark 16:9-20 is a later addition. The original Mark ends with “trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”).
  • Did Peter make a smoked tuna swim again? (Acts of Peter 5, written 80 years after Peter’s death).
  • Did Paul’s handkerchief heal people when it touched them? (Acts 19:12).
  • Were some Christians killed by the Spirit of the Lord after selling their land and only giving a portion of the money to the church rather than all of it? (Acts 5:1-10).
  • Did Paul say, “Women should remain silent in the churches… If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14:34-35 NIV; a majority of scholars believe this is a later addition).
  • Were there letters forged in Paul’s name in circulation in Paul’s lifetime? (2 Thessalonians 2:2; coincidentally scholars are split on whether 2 Thessalonians itself is a forgery. Note that nearly all scholars agree that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are forgeries).
  • Did Judas actually not kill himself as in Matthew and Acts, but live on, “bloated so much in the flesh that he could not go through where a chariot goes easily, indeed not even his swollen head by itself…. his whole body flowing pus and worms. And when he had come to his end…the place became deserted and uninhabited until now from the stench, but not even to this day can anyone go by that place unless they pinch their nostrils with their hands, so great did the outflow from his body spread out upon the earth”? (Papias, Expositions of the Sayings of Our Lord; 65-90 years after Jesus’ death).
  • Did televangelist Benny Hinn, through the power of the holy spirit, raise a Ghana man from the dead in front of half a million people? (Benny Hinn).
  • Did Indian guru Suthya Sai Baba perform signs of his divinity such as materializations of small objects to the amazement of thousands of his believers? (1960s to 2010s; half a million people attended his burial).

If you believe that any of these claims did not actually happen, ask yourself why you think the author of them came to record a false story. Did they purposely invent them to gain power or prestige? Did they mistakenly think they had supernatural inspiration when they didn’t? Did they just misinterpret what they saw? Were they possessed by Beelzebub? Were they joking (this is an actual apologist claim for one of our Bible stories)? Or Did they faithfully record the stories they were told, but the stories had been embellished over time? What about inventing a story to fill a theological hole, or to answer a critic of their day? Or did they purposely invent the story to tell what they believed was a deeper truth or metaphorical truth, like Washington chopping down a cherry tree—it didn’t happen but the writer thought it exemplified Washington’s honesty which he was known for?

If I could guess, I would say one or more of these could be good reasons for any one of our pop quiz stories. But I think despite how our story tellers, or their sources, came to report these stories, they actually have a single underlying motivation that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a motivation we share with them: a desire for hope—a hope that we can make sense of the mysteries of the universe, correct the world’s injustices, bring back loved ones from the dead, and save us from our own deaths. It’s a motivation many through time have believed is well worth suffering for.

First Response: Adam Johnson

I’m thankful that Pitts raised many important issues that should be fully evaluated. Though I’m unable to address all of them in my allotted 12 minutes, Christians have thought through these issues carefully and their responses are available for us all to consider. Before I respond to Pitts’ objections, I’ll first give you my argument that the Bible is completely true in all details. 

Remember there are two senses in which the Bible could be true. First, it could be historically reliable about the major events but contain some minor errors. Pitts mentioned that most New Testament scholars believe the Gospels contain, to some extent, some non-historical elements. And that’s correct. While there are many scholars who, like me, believe the Gospels are completely correct in all details, there are more scholars who believe the Gospels are historically reliable in general about the major events they describe, but that they do contain some minor historical errors. It’d be as though my friend told me about her car accident but she mistakenly said the car that hit her was black when in fact it was dark blue. I wouldn’t reject the major event, the car accident, as false just because she made a mistake on that minor detail. This is how many Christian scholars understand the Bible, including C. S. Lewis—it’s historically reliable about the major events but it does contain some minor errors. Other Christians, including me, believe the Bible is true in the second sense—that it’s completely correct in all details. This would be like my friend, when she told me about her car accident, getting every single detail correct.

These two positions about the Bible being true require different types of arguments. The first, that it’s historically reliable about the major events, requires an inductive argument based on empirical evidence that these things really did happen in history. I presented this evidence in my first speech. The second position, that the Bible is completely correct in all details, can’t be argued for inductively because there are statements in the Bible that can’t be verified empirically. For example, some statements are about things that took place so long ago that they’re impossible to verify one way or the other. Plus, there are statements about the spiritual world that we can’t verify empirically. So this second position requires a deductive argument as follows:

  1. There’s good historical evidence that:
    1. Jesus was a real person in history who claimed to be God.
    2. Jesus and His disciples said they had messages from God, mostly about how people can fix their broken relationship with God.
    3. Jesus and His disciples did miracles as evidence they really had messages from God; the main miracle being Jesus’ resurrection.

So this argument begins with the inductive conclusions from the first argument, but builds on it with these premises:

  1. There’s good historical evidence that Jesus and His disciples said the books in the Old Testament and New Testament were messages from God.
  2. When God gives a message, He can only tell the truth and can’t make mistakes.
  3. Therefore, the Old Testament and New Testament are completely true in all details.

Now what if I became convinced that there is an error in the Bible? If it was a major error, like Jesus wasn’t really resurrected, then I’d reject Christianity. But if it was a minor error, I’d conclude I made a mistake somewhere in my deductive argument and I’d adopt a position like C. S. Lewis’s, that is, the Bible is true in the sense it’s historically reliable concerning the major events but does contain some minor errors.

Now for Pitts’ objections: I was encouraged when Pitts said we should try to decipher true history from legend because I completely agree. But then, instead of presenting historical evidence, he gave us a list of things, some from the Bible and some not, and asked if we thought these things happened. Here I’ll respond to some of the things he mentioned.

First, he mentioned somethings from the Bible that seem audacious, incredible, or strange. But it’s unclear what he’s implying by this; maybe that these things are so strange that they can’t be true? If so, this is a terrible way to decipher true history from false history. Should we dismiss something as false just because it strikes us as unusual at first? Let’s say my friend claimed to make seven hole-in-one shots on the golf course yesterday. That’d be quite unusual, but is that a good reason to automatically reject it as false? I may be skeptical, but I shouldn’t reject it just because it’s unusual. Instead I should evaluate the evidence – did anyone else see it, was it videotaped? Evidence, not strangeness, is the way to decipher true history from false history.   

Second, some things Pitts mentioned from the Bible are similar to other ancient stories. For example, Noah and the ark is similar to the Epic of Gilgamesh. But it’s unclear what he’s implying by this; maybe that an historical claim can’t be true if it’s similar to another story? If so, this is a terrible way to decipher true history from false history. Consider this: Morgan Robertson wrote a story about a British ocean liner that was approximately 800 feet long, weighed over 60,000 tons, and could carry about 3,000 passengers. This ship hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April, tearing an opening in the forward part of the ship, and sank along with about 2,000 passengers. The ship’s name was Titan. While this is eerily similar to the Titanic, this fictional story in his book The Wreck of the Titan was published in 1898, fourteen years before the Titanic sank, and several years before construction of the Titanic was even begun. Should we conclude the historical account of the Titanic sinking is false because it’s similar to an older fictional story? No, evidence, not similarity to other stories, is the way to decipher true history from false history.   

Third, Pitts asked us to consider possible motives that would lead the biblical authors to lie. He suggested several possible motivations, mostly evil ones. He said “If I could guess, I’d say one or more of these could be good reasons….” But that’s just it, he’s merely guessing. It’s very difficult to know someone’s motives, unless they specifically tell you, and even then, it’s extremely difficult for people to even understand their own motives most of the time! Regardless, it’s unclear what he’s implying—do we decipher true history from false based on someone’s motives, or our guesses about their motives? His main guess is that they were motivated by hope. Even if that’s true, is that a good reason to conclude they were lying? That seems quite a stretch. What if a scientist claimed to have discovered a cure for a disease that her daughter happened to have? Clearly the scientist is motivated by hope, but should we assume then she must be lying? No, instead we should evaluate the evidence that this cure works. Evidence, not motivation guessing, is the way to decipher truth from falsehood.

Fourth, Pitts said Christianity is just one of 4,200 different religions, implying it’s unlikely people who are raised in a Christian culture just happen to believe in the one that’s true. But this is a terrible way for deciphering truth from falsehood. Consider that there have been thousands of different beliefs among various cultures about the sun. Some cultures believed it was a god. Some believed it was a giant monster chasing the moon. Now I’ve been raised in a culture that believes the sun is mostly hydrogen and helium, a giant nuclear furnace. Should I doubt this belief because, of all the beliefs about the sun, it’s unlikely I live in the culture that just happens to believe what’s true about the sun? No, that’s a terrible way to discern truth from falsehood. Instead I should look at the evidence for the belief I’ve been taught and the evidence for other beliefs about the sun and then make my decision on what to believe based on the evidence.

Fifth, Pitts asked if you would join a religion “solely based on its claim that 2,000 years ago … a religious teacher died and his followers believed he appeared to them after his death.” I wouldn’t. But that’s not an accurate description of Christianity, at least not my Christian beliefs. I don’t believe Christianity is true based on the claims it makes but based on the evidence for those claims. Also, I don’t believe Christianity is true solely based on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. Though the compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection plays a large part in why I believe Christianity is true, it’s not the sole reason. There are several other well-evidenced reasons that have led me to conclude Christianity is true.

Sixth, I want to challenge Pitts’s statement that all scholars agree 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus are forgeries. D. A. Carson is a New Testament scholar who got his Ph.D. from Cambridge, and he argues, based on the evidence, that Paul wrote them. Even if the majority of scholars think they’re forgeries, which I doubt, what’s more important than which position has the majority is the evidence which leads scholars to their respective positions. We can’t all become New Testament scholars, but we all can spend some time evaluating the evidence for both sides. I’ve done this for these three books, and I don’t find the evidence that they’re forgeries very convincing. I found the evidence they were written by Paul, presented by Carson and other New Testament scholars, to be much more compelling. But don’t take my word for it, evaluate the evidence yourself.

First Response: Luke Pitts

Raise your hand if you are currently a Christian. Now keep it raised if you believe in astrology. That would be what Wikipedia defines as “a pseudoscience that claims to divine information about human affairs and terrestrial events by studying the movements and relative positions of celestial objects” (Hands stay up or go down). Why are these questions together? Because when the primary deity in Christianity, Jesus, came to earth, he used the ancient pseudoscience of astrology to signal to the world that he had arrived. The magicians or “magi” that practice ancient astrology were some of the first to know. They saw his star. Do we judge miracle claims differently based on whether they are or are not in the Bible? And there are plenty of miracle claims to judge in the birth stories of Jesus. Adam and I agree that we have to look at the evidence. So we are going to look at some evidence.

Christian apologist Frank Turek, along with the majority of New Testament scholars, believes the Gospel of Mark was written first. One reason is because Matthew and Luke seemed to have had a copy of the Gospel of Mark when they wrote their accounts. One of the stories Matthew and Luke did not get from Mark are the birth stories of Jesus. That’s because Mark doesn’t have one. In fact, Mark tells us that Jesus’ family thought he was crazy.

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

Mark 3:20-21 NIV

Did his family forget about the miraculous circumstances of his birth?

Put yourself in the shoes of a first-generation Christian trying to evangelize to Jews of the time, as the first Christians wanted to do, and all you have is the Gospel of Mark, because Matthew and Luke hadn’t been written yet. You are going to get pummeled on one very important point by the Jews you preach to: “Don’t you know what the prophets said? Micah 5:2 (NIV): 

‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clansof Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.’

Just like King David, the ruler is to come from Bethlehem. Jesus was from Nazareth. They called him ‘the Nazarene’. Nazareth is 65 miles north of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is south of Jerusalem. Sounds like you got the wrong guy.”

Coincidentally, 15-35 years after Mark was written, we get the story of Jesus’ birth, actually two of them. One in Matthew and one in Luke. These accounts were written 80-110 years after Jesus’ birth. And they overlap actually on very few points. His mother Mary gave birth to him as a virgin, his father’s name was Joseph, and although he was from Nazareth and never himself spoke of being from anywhere else, he was actually born in Bethlehem.

Strikingly, the stories told of how that last point came to be use two different explanations. Luke’s story of the travels of the Holy Family is short. They start from their home in Nazareth. They are forced by a worldwide Roman census to travel back to Bethlehem because Joseph “belonged to the house and line of David.” Jesus is born. They travel back up to Jerusalem to have baby Jesus consecrated in the temple within 40 days of his birth in accordance with the law of Moses. And then:

When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.

Luke 2:39 NIV

For Luke, the reason Jesus was said to come from Nazareth, but was actually born in Bethlehem, is because when his family (who lived in Nazareth) took a quick trip to Bethlehem, he happened to be born.

Matthew’s story begins after Jesus was born, and the Holy Family is living in a house in Bethlehem. The magi see Jesus’ star and have followed it to where it stops above the house where Jesus is. King Herod’s chief priests remind him about the prophecy in Micah 5:2 that we discussed. And then Herod:

gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.

Matthew 2:16 NIV

Fortunately, Joseph had already been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt. This would be a very long trip through the desert. After Herod dies, Joseph is told in another dream he can return to Israel, and this is where you probably were expecting Joseph to bring the family back to where we know from Luke their house is—in Nazareth. But you would be wrong. Where in Israel does Joseph want to go? Judea. This coincidentally is where Bethlehem is. It is not where Nazareth is. Joseph has to be warned in another dream to go to Nazareth. Only then is Nazareth mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew for the first time:

Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Matthew 2:22-23 NIV

In Matthew, they start in Bethlehem and they land in Nazareth as refugees. That’s how Jesus is from Nazareth but actually born in Bethlehem.

What happens if we try to combine the two stories into one single coherent harmonization? One difficult problem that comes up is where to put Matthew’s visit of the magi into Luke’s narrative. Church fathers Eusebius and Epiphanius thought the magi visit came later, a few years after Jesus’ birth. This is because of the time Herod had learned from the magi. The problem with this placement is that the Holy Family ends up in a house in Bethlehem after being back in Nazareth at the end of Luke’s narrative. It means there were actually two separate trips to Bethlehem, each with miraculous visitations.

Trying to avoid this conflict, church tradition has the magi visiting just a few days after Jesus’ birth. That’s why they are in the nativity scene. But then the problem is what Eusebius thought—why did Herod have all children under two killed based on the time he heard from the magi if Jesus was just a few days old? That would also mean when Luke says they returned to Nazareth after doing everything required of them of the law in Jerusalem, they really didn’t. They went to Egypt.

However, both harmonizations assume Matthew’s account happens after Luke’s, and both struggle here: Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. The end of Matthew’s story has the Holy Family fleeing to Nazareth seemingly for the first time as refugees.

Coincidentally, historians also have a lot of issues with the stories. For one, there is no record of the Romans ever requiring people to return to their ancestral home from a 1,000 years ago for their censuses, as Joseph was required to do because he belonged to the house and line of David. How would anyone know where to go? How could they all get there? Why 42 generations back for Joseph and not 20? And also what purpose does that serve for a census whose purpose is to tax you for your possessions? Some apologists have pointed to an ancient document of an Egyptian census from 100 years later, but it only speaks of migrant workers returning to their home to be counted, which makes sense, not people leaving their home to go to the home of their ancient ancestors.

Additionally, we can’t really know when Jesus was born. That’s because in both accounts, Jesus is born during the reign of Herod the Great. We know Herod died in 4 BC. However, in Luke’s story, Jesus is also born during the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria, and according to Josephus (the ancient historian Adam thinks we should trust), that didn’t occur until AD 6.

And lastly on the historical side, Matthew and Luke both provide genealogies, and they agree on Joseph being the first generation back, but then disagree on almost every generation before Joseph. One apologist argument is that Luke gives us Mary’s genealogy. If so, that may be the first recorded case in ancient Judaism of tracking genealogy through the mother. Also, given that they both start with Joseph, don’t you think Luke would have let us know he was talking about Jesus’ mother’s genealogy rather than his father’s? Some apologists have said that the appearance of a prostitute in Matthew’s account means he wasn’t making it up; however, lowly people coming up big is a central theme of the New Testament.

Because of these issues, a vast majority of scholars, including many Christian scholars and theologians, have concluded that the narratives of Jesus’ birth are not factual accounts. The stories appear to be invented for theological reasons many years after the events they describe to help spread Christianity. And it’s a big problem. Matthew and Luke are our earliest sources of the accounts of how Jesus appeared to people after his death.

Even though invented, we would be wrong to presume the birth stories have no value. They give us enormous insight into the history of the early Christian world. And they stand as some of the most enduring and hopeful stories ever told.

Second Response: Adam Johnson

Pitts claimed the Gospels contain certain errors, but I’ll argue these aren’t errors. First, the wise men weren’t astrologists. Considering this “star” traveled ahead of them and stopped over Bethlehem, it’s obvious this wasn’t a literal star billions of miles away. The Greek word αστερα (astera), translated “star” in English, was used for any light in the sky, including angels. God didn’t use a literal star to guide them but some sort of supernatural light in earth’s atmosphere.

Second, the Gospels say Jesus’ family thought He was crazy, but they don’t say everyone in His family thought this. We can assume Mary didn’t think He was crazy, only His siblings. We know His brother James didn’t believe He was the Messiah until after His resurrection.

Third, there are at least three plausible explanations why Matthew’s and Luke’s genealogies of Jesus are different:

  1. It’s plausible Matthew gave Joseph’s genealogy whereas Luke gave Mary’s. Yes, tracking someone’s genealogy through the mother was rare, but it makes sense Luke would do this if he believed Mary conceived Jesus as a virgin and thus Joseph wasn’t his biological parent. Then it’d be important to track Jesus’ lineage through Mary, His only biological parent. That it was rare to track someone’s genealogy through the mother might explain why Luke didn’t mention Mary in the genealogy but instead used Joseph as the “son-in-law” of Eli. Many of Luke’s readers in the first century certainly knew who Joseph’s and Mary’s fathers were, so there was no need to mention Mary.
  2. It’s plausible Matthew’s genealogy is through Joseph’s father, whereas Luke’s genealogy is through Joseph’s mother. Now both genealogies have gaps, which was a common practice. For example, when it says Joseph is the son of Eli, this doesn’t necessarily mean Joseph is his literal son. It could mean Joseph is his grandson, great grandson, or more.
  3. It’s plausible Matthew’s genealogy is through Joseph’s “biological” father Jacob whereas Luke’s genealogy is through Joseph’s “legal” father Eli. This situation happened in Judaism under Levirate Marriage—a woman whose husband died before they had kids would marry her deceased husband’s brother, and their first child would be legally registered as the son of her first deceased husband. Sextus Julius Africanus, in a letter to Aristides from the third century, explains it was known that Joseph came from a Levirate Marriage. They’d have different genealogies if they were half-brothers with different fathers. 

Fourth, there are several plausible explanations for what seems like an error about when Jesus was born. The potential problem is that the Gospels say Jesus was born during the reign of Herod, and we know from historical sources Herod died in 4 BC. But Luke seems to say Jesus was born during “the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” and some historians, including Josephus, say Quirinius became governor of Syria and oversaw a census in AD 6. Since Jesus couldn’t have been born both before 4 BC and after AD 6, some think Luke made an error. There are at least four plausible explanations for what’s going on. This material mostly comes from Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar who earned his Ph.D. at the well known University of Aberdeen in Scotland.       

  1. It’s plausible this census began before 4 BC under another governor but wasn’t finished until Quirinius became governor in AD 6. A census takes a long time, especially in the ancient world without technology. If this is the case, then Luke is saying Jesus was born before 4 BC and there’s no contradiction.
  2. It’s plausible Quirinius was merely the administrator of a census that took place before 4 BC, before he became governor in AD 6. The Greek word ἡγεμονεύω (hegemoneuo), sometimes translated as “governor” in English, was a general term in Greek used for any administrative position. It’s plausible Augustus entrusted the census to Quirinius even before he became governor. If this is the case, then Luke is saying Jesus was born before 4 BC and there’s no contradiction.
  3. It’s plausible Luke said the census took place before Quirinius was governor, not while he was governor. The Greek word πρῶτος (protos) was used sometimes to mean “first” but also used sometimes to mean “before.” If that’s how Luke was using it, then it shouldn’t be translated “this was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria” but instead “this was the census taken before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” If this is the case, then Luke was saying Jesus was born during a prior census that took place before Quirinius, and there’s no contradiction.
  4. It’s plausible Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, once before 4 BC and again in AD 6. In fact, archeologists discovered an ancient Latin inscription in 1764 which may indicate he served as governor twice. If Quirinius served as governor before 4 BC, then Luke could be saying Jesus was born during his first term, and there’s no contradiction.   

Remember that Luke has shown himself to be very historically reliable by giving dozens of instances of accurate historical information throughout his Gospel and Acts. It’s similar to when you have a friend who’s proven herself reliable and trustworthy over time but then a situation arises where it seems like she made a mistake or lied. Because of your past experiences with her, you wouldn’t immediately accuse her of making a mistake or lying. Instead, you’d assume there was just a misunderstanding until you got further evidence either way. Luke should be given the same benefit of the doubt based on his superb historical reliability.

Also, let’s say Luke did make a mistake about when Jesus was born. That would defeat my position that the Bible is completely correct in all details. But a position like C. S. Lewis’s, which merely maintains the Bible is historically reliable about the major events, would simply conclude Luke made an honest mistake. Just like if my friend said the car she hit was black but actually it was dark blue. She wasn’t being deceptive; she just made an honest mistake. Just because someone makes a mistake, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trying to deceive, it might just be an honest mistake. Pitts is making quite a speculative leap to conclude that if Luke is wrong, then therefore he’s purposefully lying. Pitts is again guessing about the biblical author’s motives and assuming they had deceptive motives because he presupposes they were making all this stuff up.

Second Response: Luke Pitts

It should be clear now that Adam is not going to be able to “prove” the Bible is true, in so much as I am not going to be able to “prove” the Bible contains invented stories. The question I started out with 10 years ago, on this inquiry, is this: how much of a leap has to be made in order to explain the apparent issues raised by the skeptic? The question assumes the apologist has an explanation, but how good is that explanation? We can all come up with a million explanations for every issue raised by the skeptic, but are they reasonable explanations? Do they require a little leap, or a big leap?

Adam says that when Mark mentions Jesus’ family thinking he was crazy, we can assume he didn’t mean Jesus’ mother. This is peculiar though because Mark actually tells us who makes up this family who’s coming to get him: “Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived…Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you” (Mark 3:31-32). And why did they come to the crowded house? Are they there to listen to the one who was a law-teaching child prodigy in the Jerusalem temple, the one about whom an angel told Mary is the Son of God, the one whom Mary knows she gave birth to as a virgin? No. She came to get him because she and her other sons think he is out of his mind.

But I think we have even a bigger leap here: The Gospel of Luke mentions Jesus’ father, Joseph, being from the line of David (that is why the Holy Family must travel to Bethlehem), and Luke gives us the genealogy of Jesus which goes from Joseph to David. But, the apologists claim, in this genealogy, Luke is actually not talking about Joseph, Jesus’ father. Think how wild of a proposition this would be if we only had the Gospel of Luke. We would have every reason to believe that the Joseph who is mentioned as coming from the line of David in Chapter 2 is the same Joseph of the line of David that is given in Jesus’ genealogy in Chapter 1. Saying otherwise discredits the writing prowess of the writer of the Gospel of Luke. Keep in mind, this is one of our most gifted New Testament writers, who gave us the Prodigal Son. I think he would have recognized he has two different Josephs from the line of David going on.

Let’s keep this issue in context, though. Of all the religions that have holy bloodlines involved, only one of them actually has a true holy bloodline. Only one time in history did a bloodline actually matter. And in this one very special case, this very special bloodline is given to us by two sources, and we don’t know why they don’t match. Adam tell us he doesn’t know why they don’t match. He doesn’t know if Luke’s genealogy is Mary’s father, or Joseph’s mother, or Joseph’s stepfather.

Adam says that we should trust the writer of Luke, because he is like a friend who has proven to be trustworthy over time and then a questionable situation arises, you know you can trust them. But does this analogy fit our topic? With the birth stories, we are talking about the first things Luke and Matthew tell us. Why wouldn’t we start there? Additionally, why would we bias ourselves to trust the writer of Luke when nearly all historians are telling us that this census did not happen and when non-historians like us can clearly see that there are issues with the genealogy, the travels of the holy family, and Mary’s understanding of Jesus? Catholic Priest, and renown New Testament scholar, Raymond E. Brown, created controversy in the late 70s amongst fellow Catholics when he said, “There are formidable historical difficulties in every facet of Luke’s description and dating of the Quirinius census. And most critical scholars recognize a confusion and misdating on Luke’s part.”

Historians tell us that some details found in Acts in regards to place names, titles of officials, and the temple rules do appear to be accurate. Unlike the question of the census, where only fundamentalist Christian historians believe it actually occurred, the question of whether Acts is historically reliable is an active debate among New Testament scholars. There is certainly some historically valuable information in Acts as well as Luke. But is it all accurate? Did the holy spirit kill Christians for not giving all of their money to the early church? Is that part accurate?

And these big leaps are found throughout the Bible, even the most important places, famously in the crucifixion and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

One of the most intriguing, and one I would be reticent to mention as a skeptic, is the story of Noah’s flood. Apologetic website Answers in Genesis did the math and figured out that the flood happened in 2,348 BC. But we have to ask, even if we look at the entire third millennium (from 3,000-2,000 BC), when was the population of the world 8 people? The Egyptians invented hieroglyphs and built their biggest pyramids well before 2,300 BC, and they were certainly active after that date. Who from the descendants of Noah learned hieroglyphs and started building pyramids again?

The oldest extant copy of the flood story is from Babylon, written on a clay tablet from 1,650 BC in Akkadian: Tablet III of the Atrahasis Epic. Astrahasis is warned by one benevolent God Enki to build a giant boat for his family and animals in order to survive a giant flood brought on by the other Gods who are fed up with humanity. 

And what is the oldest extant copy of Noah’s flood? The Dead Sea Scrolls from 150 BC (1,500 years later). Are we to believe that the flood story of Noah is in fact older than the Astrahasis Epic, and that Astrahasis in fact ripped from Noah? There happens to be three minor variations of Noah’s flood in the Dead Sea Scrolls concerning when Noah offers up a sacrifice to God. When pressed about these variations, the co-curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls display in Jerusalem, Dr. Adolfo Roitman, an ordained conservative rabbi, said, “The whole of the story of Noah is imaginary… The flood is connected to various traditions which date back to ancient times. Our Noah is just a later version of characters we know about from earlier times.”

Concluding Speech: Adam Johnson

Tonight I’ve described three positions.

  1. Some, including myself, believe the Bible is true in the sense it’s completely correct in all details. In my second speech I presented an argument for this.
  2. Some, like C. S. Lewis, don’t believe the Bible is completely correct in every detail, but they believe it’s true in the sense it’s historically reliable about the major events—Jesus’ message, miracles, and resurrection. In my first speech I presented historical evidence for these. Christians who hold this position may affirm, for example, that Luke made an honest mistake about the exact year Jesus was born. These Christians may also affirm, like Augustine and C. S. Lewis, that some of the Old Testament stories, like the Garden of Eden and Noah’s flood, shouldn’t be interpreted literally but are more like parables which teach important truths. I respectfully disagree with this, but many Christians hold this position.
  3. Some, including Pitts, don’t believe the Bible is true in either sense.

I agree with Pitts that I’m not able to “prove” the Bible is true. What I mean is that I, or any other finite human being, could never prove something is true with absolute certainty. The only way we could know something was true with absolute certainty is if we were omniscient. Since we’re not, every time we choose to believe something is true, there’s always some uncertainty. That’s why there’s always some element of trust, we can call it faith, in every decision we make, every belief we have. Even our scientific beliefs have an element of faith because we can’t prove anything with absolute certainty.

Don’t think of faith as the uncertainty in a belief. For example, when you choose to trust your mechanic, Bob, if you’re 60% confident that he’s trustworthy, because of good reasons and evidence, don’t think of the remaining 40% uncertainty as faith. That’s thinking of faith and reason as opposites, as enemies. It doesn’t make sense to think of faith that way because, let’s say you’re 99% confident, because of good reasons and evidence, that a new mechanic, Sally, is trustworthy. If you think of the 1% uncertainty as faith, you’d say you have more faith in Bob, that you trust him more, than Sally! But that’s not right; based on reasons and evidence, you’re 99% confident Sally is trustworthy and only 60% confident about Bob. Faith is just trusting something, or someone, based on reasons and evidence. The more reasons and evidence you have, the stronger your faith, or trust, is.

All our beliefs work this way, including belief in Christianity. I’ve chosen to believe Christianity is true because of all the good reasons and evidence for it. As I learn more reasons and evidence for it, my faith/trust in Christianity increases. Though we can’t prove Christianity is true with absolute certainty, that’s not unique to Christianity; there’s nothing we can prove with absolute certainty. Believing in Christianity, like all beliefs, should be based on reasons and evidence.

Now what should we trust Jesus for? We trust our mechanic Sally to fix our car. What do we trust Jesus to do? According to Christianity, we were created to enjoy personal loving relationships with God and others. One way we’re supposed to express our love for God is by following His instructions for how to have the best loving relationships. Unfortunately we’ve all disobeyed these instructions and that’s broken our relationship with God. If we continue in this state, we’ll be separated relationally from God forever. Jesus claimed He could fix our relationship with God by living the perfect loving life we’ve all failed to, and by dying on the cross to pay the punishment we deserve for disobedience. Jesus asked us to trust Him, not to fix our car, but to fix our relationship with God. He promised anyone who trusted Him would be forgiven and restored back to a right relationship with God to enjoy loving relationships with Him and others forever. Thankfully, He’s given us good reasons and evidence to trust Him.         

Concluding Speech: Luke Pitts

Adam says that we are to follow God’s instructions. It’s what he created us to do. But these errors and inconsistencies found in the Bible often contribute to confusion about what the Bible’s instructions actually are. It’s one of the reasons there are so many different Christian denominations, and so many books on how to interpret the Bible.

Here is one example: Should we execute people for the sin of loving someone of the same sex? The Old Testament says, yes, we should drop stones on them until they die (Leviticus 20:13). But are we to still observe the Old Testament law? Matthew indicates yes:

For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

Matthew 5:18 NIV

Paul seems to indicate, “no,” we shouldn’t keep following the Old Testament, but says homosexuals are deserving of death anyway:

Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans 1:32 NIV

What about Jesus? “Those without sin should cast the first stone?” As we mentioned, it’s not something he actually said. We don’t know what Jesus thought on this matter. He didn’t address it. This has led to the odd modern circumstance of having both preachers that preach death to gays, and gay preachers. At the very least we can say there is an inconsistent Biblical message.

Adam has mentioned the C.S. Lewis-style Christian a number of times, and Adam and I disagree with this perspective. Here is one reason why: In 2010, well-known evangelical scholar Mike Licona sent shockwaves through the evangelical world by claiming the account of the dead holy people coming out of their tombs and walking around Jerusalem when Jesus was resurrected (as reported solely in the Gospel of Matthew) was probably not historical, but “poetical,” a “legend,” an “embellishment,” and literary “special effects.” His former evangelical friends claimed, “‘If some or all of the phenomena reported at Jesus’ death are poetic devices, we may rightly ask whether Jesus’ resurrection is not more of the same?’” Yes, indeed we can. If some stories about Jesus aren’t historical, why should we just have faith that the “major events,” are historical as well? Why would Jesus inspire a lukewarm, half-truth Bible? And most importantly, why wouldn’t we then forgive the apparent untruths found in, say, the Koran, the Vedas, the Book of Mormon, or L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics?

Though even if we pair down to just those major events concerning Jesus, there are difficulties that can’t simply be explained by the different perspectives of eyewitnesses. There are issues among the gospels with respect to the men who were crucified with Jesus, Jesus’ last words, who came to the empty tomb, who they met when they got there, if the tomb was open or closed, or where they were told to meet Jesus. Many of these require harmonizations that merge inconsistent messages. Was Jesus in confusion and anguish in his death as in Mark and Matthew, saying “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Or is he calm and certain as in Luke, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?

We all need hope. But you can maintain hope in justice without having to believe that God once ordered the execution of homosexuals. You can maintain hope in the future, without believing that Jesus will return in your lifetime. You can maintain hope in understanding without knowing where the earth came from. And you can maintain hope in spirituality without Christianity. It’s my hope that you won’t be afraid to look deeply into these issues of the Bible with a fearlessly unbiased mind.

Convincing Proof