“Let’s Study the Bible,” they said. “It’ll Be Fun,” they said.

So Many Blows to the Faith
A few years ago a devout Catholic friend told me she wanted to go to Israel, “…to see all the holy sites, the famous Jesus places.” Heavy sigh. I told her about Helena, the mother of Constantine, who had visited the Holy Land—some 300 years after the stories related in the gospels—and selected the sites where she supposed the Jesus events had taken place. They have been tourist traps to this day. There is no documentation whatever to support any of the guesses she made 300 years after the fact.

I suggested to my friend that if she really wanted to walk where Jesus had walked, her best chance for that would be at Capernaum; check out the ruins of its ancient synagogue. Not that the accounts can be trusted, but Mark, for example, says Jesus taught in that synagogue. But, of course, there’s no documentation for that either. Mark’s story—based on unknown sources, some 40 or 50 years later—doesn’t count as reliable evidence.

For centuries the gospels were trusted; after all, they were the ‘gospel truth,’ right? Why would anyone think that Mark wasn’t telling the truth about Jesus preaching at the Capernaum synagogue? It took a long time for suspicions to set in.

There came a time, however, when serious thinkers realized that the gospels—indeed the whole Bible—should be subjected, unprotected by piety, to the same scrutiny as any other documents from the ancient world. We all know that scholarly Bible research grew into an industry; thousands of scholars have turned out, no exaggeration, millions of books, articles, and doctoral dissertations. So the Bible is pretty well understood by now, right? Most of the researchers have been believers—a high percentage even ordained—who have been determined to glean every last bit of revelation possible from the holy writ.

But, unfortunately for this devoted army of scholars, things didn’t work out quite like they had expected. The bottom fell out of the market.

A good resource for understanding what-the-hell-happened can be found in Paul Tobin’s essay, “The Bible and Modern Scholarship,” in John W. Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails. When scholars took the Bible apart, verse-by-verse, to see what was there, history and authenticity turned out to be in short supply. I wish I’d had this essay to give to my friend as she headed off on her holy land adventure.

The fifth Loftus anthology is in the works for 2019: The Improbability of Biblical Miracles. Here is John’s announcement, if you missed it.

Digging for Truth, Literally

Tobin offers an overview of the contribution of archaeology in backing up the Bible—or rather, in failing to do so. Didn’t it stand to reason that at least a thousand years of sacred history could be verified by unearthing its artifacts? But, in fact, one after another cherished Old Testament stories turned out to be folklore—some of it borrowed. This could be expected, of course, with fables such as Noah’s Flood. The discovery of tablets recounting The Epic of Gilgamesh demonstrated that our familiar flood story is based on an earlier myth.

But then the stories of the famous patriarchs, e.g. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could not be verified, and were shown to include fatal anachronisms—quite understandable in folklore written a thousand years later. Tobin quotes an Old Testament professor at the University of Copenhagen, Thomas Thompson: “…how are we to distinguish these narratives from other completely mythical tales?”

Maybe it’s okay to ditch the dusty patriarchs, but surely the foundational tales of Moses and the Exodus qualify as history. After all, Cecil B. DeMille assured movie-goers that his film was based on ‘extensive research.’ Tobin describes how the Moses story is plagued by errors and inconsistencies—even his rescue as an infant is a based on an Akkadian legend—and there is no documentation whatever that he actually existed.

Tobin points out that “…according to Exodus 12:40, the Israelites lived in Egypt for 430 years. Yet for all this time, there is simply no literary or archaeological evidence outside the Hebrew Bible that records the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt.” And a million of them wandering in the desert for forty years? Surely, Tobin says, that many people “wandering around for forty years would have left some traces for archaeologists to find. Yet not a single piece of archaeological evidence has been found. This is not for want of trying, either.”

He cites the devastating conclusion of Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog, which he calls ‘the current consensus view’: “The Israelites were never in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a legendary reconstruction—made in the seventh century [BCE]—of a history that never happened.”

If the Israelites weren’t in the desert waiting to conquer the Promised Land, then what about Joshua and his famous conquests? For that too there is no evidence, and nothing has been unearthed to verify the stories of David and Solomon either, as Tobin summarizes: “Whatever evidence there is points to the fact that the story about the grandeur of David’s empire is a myth of a fictional golden age created by later writers. David’s ‘vast’ empire is a myth. If David was indeed king, he never ruled over the vast regions described in the Bible.”

Thus researching the Old Testament has not been the fun ride that scholars might have expected. Well, it might be fun to critique the folklore—analysis of many genres of literature, ancient and modern, has its rewards—but that is a major disappointment. They wanted to champion ‘revelation based on God acting in history.’ God isn’t ‘acting’ at all if the stories are just made up.

But the Worst Was Yet to Come

If we wanted to rank favorite Bible stories, the Jesus birth narratives in Matthew and Luke would probably come out near the top. A major component of Catholic piety is over-the-top adoration of Mary, and the Christmas crèche is a fixture everywhere when that-time-of-the-year rolls around again. But the fun part of Bible study took a major hit when these cherished narratives had to be removed from the ‘history’ category (well, there’s not a lot in the gospels in that category).

So much has been written about this, and Tobin presents a useful summary of the relevant arguments exposing the major flaws in the birth accounts. Very little in them makes sense, and in the run-up to Christmas pageants the laity doesn’t want to hear it. But virgin births were pretty routine for ancient god figures, so it’s no surprise that a couple of Christian authors wanted to add Jesus to this list, or as Tobin puts it, “…the nativity stories are merely ancient fairy tales historicized.”

It would appear, moreover, as the story is related, that God made a horrifying mistake. Just think about it for a moment, as Tobin explains:

“It is also interesting to consider this story from the framework of the problem of evil. Note that God intervened by revealing to the wise men in a dream not to go back to Jerusalem so Herod would not know exactly where the baby Jesus was to kill him. It was because of not knowing this that Herod had all male babies below two years of age in Bethlehem slaughtered.”

Tobin notes that 19th century scholar, David Strauss (1808-1874) saw that God was at fault: “… if God wanted to avoid the massacre of the innocents, he could easily have intervened supernaturally at the beginning by making the wise men avoid Jerusalem altogether and head on to Bethlehem directly. That way Herod would never have heard of the birth of the Messiah.”

Plot flaws can slip by fiction writers.

There are folks who want to hang on for dear life to the birth stories, especially since Luke brags, in chapter 1:1-4, about his research. And doesn’t it sound so convincing that Luke mentions the census ordered when Quirinius was the governor of Syria? Anyone who wants a refresher course of the problems of this reference to Quirinius—and how it just puts sand in the gears—will appreciate Tobin’s careful analysis.

Tobin’s parting shot on this issue: “With the links now completely severed between the nativity and world history, we can now see the rest of the nativity accounts for what they are…elements of a fairy tale. Removed from the anchors of history provided by Herod and Quirinius, the nativity accounts drift into the realm of myths and legends.”

When Authors Fake It

We have no idea who wrote the gospels, no matter how confident evangelicals may be, for example, that Luke was actually the ‘beloved physician’ mentioned in Colossians 4:14. That’s a desperate guess. The gospels are not signed, so to speak; the traditional names were assigned to them by tradition long after they were written. While this doesn’t mean that their gospels were forgeries, they didn’t follow what we would consider ‘best practices.’ Both Matthew and Luke copied extensively from Mark—without owning up to their plagiarism; and they changed Mark’s wording as they saw fit. John was a master at just making things up.

In his essay, however, Tobin addresses the issue of forgery, illustrating the irony of fake writing in a book that is supposed to be all about truth. The discovery of forgeries came early on as scholars picked over the wording of the New Testament epistles. As it became clear that some of the supposed letters of Paul were not authentic—well, what an embarrassment. Some of the fun of career scholarship must have eroded then as well.

He dismisses slippery Christian arguments that forgery wasn’t such a big deal back then. “Pseudepigraphy was not considered ‘okay’ by the ancients and anyone who wrote such a piece of work must have been aware of the morally repugnant nature of what he was doing. Yet the works of such people as these made it into the NT.”

Tobin cites the good reasons for believing that 2 Thessalonians was not written by Paul, and illustrates just how sneaky forgers could be:

“Far from carrying the mantle of Paul, 2 Thessalonians substantially alters what the self-proclaimed apostle to the Gentiles taught. 2 Thessalonians warns its readers ‘not to be deceived’ by a ‘letter from us’ which claims that the return of Christ is imminent (2:2-3). Since 1 Thessalonians claims to be from Paul, 2 Thessalonians is in fact calling 1 Thessalonians a deceptive forgery. The irony of ironies, the forger is calling the original a fake!”

‘Biblical truth’ has been taken down a notch.

Liberal Theology Clings to Jesus

Tobin ends his essay with a brilliant addendum: “The Liberals and the Bible.” I used to be one of those liberal Christians, and from my perspective today I can say—pardon my benefiting from hindsight—“What a bunch of wimps.” They will do anything to hold on to Jesus. Studied as religious fantasy literature instead of history, the gospels have been scrubbed clean of miracles and magic, including the resurrection.

Thus, for well over a century, Tobin states, “The liberals trip all over themselves trying to avoid saying the actual truth: if the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not historical then traditional Christianity, in any form, is no longer valid.”

So they had to get creative: “But the liberals added that the resurrection is to be understood in a different sense, but just exactly what sense is not clear. Their writings contain so much garbled speech that it is difficult to even see if they agree with one other. Most of the liberal interpretation involves accepting the resurrection as some kind of internal revelation of the disciples. This experience, they proclaim, is what really matters, not the actual historical fact of resurrection.”

Why can’t they just give it up? Tobin states the case bluntly—refreshingly so, I might add:

“Why should the visions or dreams of a few ill-educated, first century Galilean peasants be of any significance and be treated any differently from others all over the world and throughout history? Because it is about Jesus? But take away the historical claims about his supposed supernatural powers, his miracles, and his bodily resurrection, and what do we have? A first-century, xenophobic, ignorant Galilean peasant who thought the world was going to end. If this is so, why not just dispense with it altogether?”

The intense efforts of the Bible study industry, now under way for several generations, have dealt major body blows to the faith. Even though evangelicals have their heels dug in—no, no, no, these conclusions can’t be right!—these findings are not radical at all to secular historians who know how to weigh documents of the ancient past.

Tobin’s essay should be at the top of the study list for those who want to see what has been accomplished by scholars unrestricted by ecclesiastical mandate—or by evangelical cowardice. There is still an overwhelming faith bias in the industry, but the discoveries speak for themselves. Serious students will appreciate the 100 footnotes in which Tobin cites other works: so many leads and trails to follow. This is a rich resource for borrowing into vast output of modern Bible scholarship.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.