Tuesday, February 26, 2013

God and Reason Part 5: "Is the Bible Reliable?"

Prof. David Matthews spent some time discussing the timeline for the Bible's composition, pointing out that most of the books of the new testament were written about 65 - 100 years CE (Christian Era... after Jesus was born). Then, the elapsed time from the events until the earliest Bible was about 300 years. He compared that to the Iliad (about 500 years), and Herodotus (about 1300 years). From this, I suppose we are to favour the historical accuracy of the Bible.

I had a chance to ask a question. I said that if the age of a holy text is used as a measure of factual confidence, then the Book of Mormon and Dianetics must be even better than the Bible.

A self-described atheist in the audience pointed out that the vast majority of Biblical scholars believe that the gospels were anonymously written, even though they were attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Prof. Matthews basically had no response. Then Prof. Robert Mann chimed in and claimed that the debate was more even-sided... I don't know who to believe on this point.

Prof. Matthews also told us that the gospels mention many secondary details about towns, people, events and buildings that were later confirmed independently. He gave the example of the Pool of Bethesda.

To cap off the argument and assert that the authors of the Bible must have told the truth, Prof. Matthews asked why they would subject themselves to persecution and death just to preserve what they knew to be false?

It's like asking, "How can Islam be wrong when suicide bombers are willing to give up their lives to be martyrs?" Holy wars are groups of people with incompatible religious beliefs killing each other. They can't both be right. Yet they both feel right.

My main question, though, was about how far personal testimony can take us. It is becoming progressively undeniable that eyewitness testimony, even after a few hours, can be horribly inaccurate. The work of psychologist Elizabeth Loftus shows us how precarious our memories are. In a 2003 Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, she wrote,

Many influences can cause memories to change or even be created anew, including our imaginations and the leading questions or different recollections of others. The knowledge that we cannot rely on our memories, however compelling they might be, leads to questions about the validity of criminal convictions that are based largely on the testimony of victims or witnesses.

In other words, even if someone swears up-and-down that event X occurred, we should take it with a grain of salt. Confidence in one's recollection should not be mistaken for accuracy.

Then throw in other cognitive biases, like subjective validation and confirmation bias (here is a larger list), and a motivated person can come up with just about any story they need to.

I concede that the Bible probably DOES contain many historically accurate facts. But the facts that form the foundation of Christianity -- that Jesus is the son of God, that he performed miracles, that he rose from the dead, etc. -- were not the focus of Prof. Matthew's talk. But it is exactly THOSE extraordinary claims that require extraordinary evidence. And I don't consider decades-old testimony of a handful of witnesses who are all pushing the same ideology to be extraordinary evidence.

The more I hear about it, the more it seems like religious texts are just collections of stories with enough variety that people can find support for whatever beliefs they happen to espouse.


  1. The Aussie theologian, Barbara Thiering, in her book 'Jesus, the Man' claims that much of the Bible (originally written by pecherists, in Greek) is formulated around the Essene religious culture and language and is therefore open to much misunderstanding and biased interpretation by modern day Christians.

    A small example is that the word 'sin' as translated from Greek or Hebrew means 'lost', an 'error', or missing a target. This is rather wide of the popular Christian teaching that sin is so heinous.

    It's my understanding that the Essenes were an odd lot - and Jesus was one of them!

  2. Hi,

    I'm the guy who chimed in about the authorship of the Gospels. Prof. Mann is, to be blunt, completely wrong. While scholarly consensus is not 100% with regards to who wrote the Gospels, it's simply a fact that none of the Gospel writers identify themselves within any of the Gospels. The Gospels became attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as the Canon developed, but there is really no historical reason to believe that they are the authors. The Wiki page gives a reasonable summary of the views of modern scholarship here:


    As well, it's been well established that some of the Pauline epistles are forgeries - Again, the wiki page gives a reasonable summary:


    You're right that there are a number of things that can be reasonable determined from the NT (for example, almost all scholars agree that Jesus probably existed, and that he almost certainly was crucified), but one has to be very careful.

    If anyone is interested in more reading in this area, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has a number of books on these sorts of topics that are geared towards non-academics. Well worth reading, if you're into this topic.