Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 5

Protecting the Bible: God wasn’t paying attention

One of the most common criticisms of Christianity is that its claims are incoherent: they do not cohere; they don’t hang together. Those of us on the outside say, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense. You can’t believe both those things at once.” Professional Christian apologists have come up with hundreds of excuses attempting to obscure, to rub out, the many inconsistencies.

For example, consider the Christian claim that the Bible was inspired by God, and thus the teaching of Jesus are superior wisdom. In Mark 11:22-24 we read:  

“Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

Even devout Christians know—but do they admit it? —that this is not true; it is an incoherent claim about prayer. But there is entertainment value, I suppose, in watching apologists trying to evade the absurdity of this Jesus-script.

The most fundamental claim about the Bible, however—that it was inspired by God—is incoherent as well, given the process by which we got the Bible. According to the theologians, its authors were uniquely tuned to the Mind of God, hence the words they scrawled on the page were not their own thoughts, but those of God. That this claim cannot be verified should be worrisome to Christians, especially since they dismiss that same claim made by Muslims and Mormons for their scriptures.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume for the moment that the “inspiration process” was authentic. Yes, God did it; the Bible is his message to mankind. Given his power, it would have been no problem for him to manipulate the minds of the Bible authors to write what he wanted. And to this day, you have the Bible on your nightstand to explore God’s Word. 

Few people seem to grasp, however, that God dropped the ball. He went to all that trouble to inspire the Bible, then lost interest? He made no effort whatever to preserve the documents, or so it seems: not a single original manuscript of any book of the Bible has survived. The original texts, supposedly dictated by God, have been lost. So that precious Bible on your nightstand: you have every right to ask, “Well, just how did it get here?” 

The process was haphazardous, even reckless: not exactly what we would expect if God was behind it all. There was, for example, the scroll that the author of Mark wrote, and he would have handed if off for copies to be made. Whatever happened to that original scroll? It’s gone forever. We can assume that multiple copies would have been made from the original, and here the problems begin. All the copies were written by hand, thus errors were made: perhaps five different copies, hence five different sets of errors: so, inevitably, the word of God was deteriorating. Each one of those copies was probably used to make more copies. Over time, generations and centuries, the errors, variants, and intentional changes multiplied, by the thousands.

Hence one branch of New Testament studies is the careful comparison and analysis of ancient manuscripts, trying to spot the errors and changes, in the effort to construct a theoretical “original” text: the words that Mark himself actually wrote. But why did God allow this mess in the first place? We gather from the gospels that he was good at magic (e.g., water into wine, raising the dead by voice commend), so why not cast a protection spell on Mark’s original scroll?

Failing that, if he inspired all those authors to write the Bible books, why not inspire someone to invent the printing press—to turn out uniform copies—in the first century, beating Johannes Gutenberg to it by fifteen hundred years? Wouldn’t preserving the original texts have been a top priority? But what do we have? The earliest gospel fragment that has been discovered dates from early-to-mid second century, a scrap of John 18 about the size of a credit card—now in a library in England. And our earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament dates from the fourth century. 

So the Bible is God’s inspired word, but he failed to inspire its pristine preservation and protection? This is incoherence at a fundamental level, thus we suspect that “word of God” is theological fantasy. Of course, the consequences have been dire. New Testament scholars are always wondering if this or that verse might be an interpolation, i.e., a text that a copyist added by mistake or intention. For example, in I Thessalonians 2, we find these verses, 14-16:

“…for you suffered the same things from your own compatriots as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out; they displease God and oppose everyone by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. Thus they have constantly been filling up the measure of their sins; but God’s wrath has overtaken them at last.” 

There has been a lot of debate about these verses because they don’t sound like Paul—and we cringe because they have fanned the flames of anti-Semitism. If we had the original of Paul’s letter, we would know for sure. 

The ending of Mark’s gospel is one of the biggest embarrassments; based on manuscript evidence, we know that 16:9-20 are fake. Verse 8 is such an abrupt ending:

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” 

Did Mark mean it to end like this? Some scholars think so. Or was the end of the scroll damaged?—hence we don’t know the ending Mark wrote. Someone else later added vv. 9-20, which include the words, 

“And he said to them, ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.’” But this doesn’t align well with 14:62, in which Jesus promised those at his trial that they would see him coming on the clouds of heaven. In other words, the advent of new Kingdom would be soon, hardly enough time for his disciples to proclaim the good news to all creation.  

In the fake ending we also find the goofy Jesus-script that baptized Christians will be able to cast out demons, speak in new tongues, pick up snakes, drink poison, and heal people by touch. This hardly qualifies as superior parting advice from the lips of Jesus: somebody in the early cult made it up. If God had been monitoring and protecting his holy word, how could he have allowed this fake ending to get tacked on? He once killed a guy for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:6-8), so he surely could have done something to prevent tampering with Mark’s text.

Other examples of incoherence—in this realm of God’s word—should be obvious as well. Was it really a smart move to inspire a book, after all, when most of the common people were illiterate? Then this book was spread for over a thousand years as translated into Latin, and kept for the privileged few, in churches and monasteries. And any five theologians who study it may come up with five different interpretations; hence the utter confusion in Christian theology that we witness today. 

Moreover, surely God could have foreseen the time—after the Enlightenment, for example—when serious thinkers would analyze the gospels and notice that something is wrong. The gospel authors never name their sources or provide evidence for them—and they were written decades after the events depicted. Moreover, Matthew and Luke copied Mark’s words and embellished them, based on their own imaginations and theological agendas. Professional historians look at the gospels and say, “No, this won’t do.” So God’s word—which supposedly will endure forever—gets stopped in its tracks; it doesn’t measure up to rigorous historical standards. We suspect that the “stories about Jesus” are anything but. More incoherence. 

And it gets worse. Through careful detective work, it emerges that Mark knew Paul’s letters, and used various Pauline texts to invent Jesus stories, as Richard Carrier points out in his new book:

“Mark takes Paul’s account of seeing Jesus explain to him the Eucharist in a vision (1 Corinthians 11:23–26, which Paul says he received directly “from the Lord”), and relocates that event to Earth, and populates it with an earthly audience (the Disciples, who are nowhere mentioned in Paul’s account), whom now (in this new version) Jesus interacts with, and so Mark invents the Last Supper. Mark takes Paul’s rebuke of Peter (in Galatians 2) and converts it into Jesus’ rebuke of Peter (in Mark 8). Mark takes from Paul’s letters the idea of a messianic secret (such as in 1 Corinthians 2:6–10) and implausibly weaves that theme throughout his narrative of Jesus—a theme so unrealistic it was gradually abandoned by later redactors of Mark.” (p. 118, Jesus from Outer Space: What the Earliest Christians Really Believed About Christ.)

Just what is the Gospel of Mark? A lot has been written about this recently. I recommend especially pp. 116-118 in this new Carrier book, his quick survey of Mark’s content. Jesus from Outer Space is a neat distillation of many of the crucial points he makes in On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt

For more on this Paul-to-Mark theological track, see especially:

·  Mark Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul: A New Look at Intertexuality in Mark’s Gospel

· R. G. Price, Deciphering Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, especially chapter 2, “Mark’s Jesus Is Based on Paul”

· David Oliver Smith, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Paul: The Influence of the Epistles on the Synoptic Gospels

So, as it turns out, not only did God drop the ball in the preservation of the original “inspired” manuscripts, he also failed to instruct the gospel writers in how to write proper history. There’s been a meme floating around on social media: Jesus teaching a large crowd, “I hope you’re taking notes. I don’t want to end up with four versions of this.” Indeed, we ended up with four gospels in substantial disagreement—and those are just the ones in the canon. And it should give Christians pause that the gospels were written in Greek decades after Jesus. Why don’t we have lots of earlier documents in Aramaic, recording the words of Jesus in the language he spoke? 

There’s something really fishy about all this. In trying to make the case that the Bible is God’s inspired word, we find far too many layers of incoherence.

My brief video comment on Bible Blunders & Bad Theology, Part 5, is here.

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 by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 400 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here.