John Beversluis, "The Gospel According to Whom? A Nonbeliever Looks at The New Testament and its Contemporary Defenders" 1:2

I'm posthumously posting six chapters from an unfinished book sent to me for comment in 2008 by the late John Beversluis (see Tag below). The first chapter is the largest one by far at 10,809 words! It was sent to me in two parts so I mistakenly thought I had seven chapters.

There are five parts to it: 1. New Testament Criticism; 2. The Inspiration and Inerrancy of the Bible; 3. Verbal and Plenary Inspiration: A Semantic Nightmare; 4. What Inspiration Guarantees and Does Not Guarantee; and 5. Back to Thomas Paine. In this installment I'm posting parts 4-5. The "contemporary defenders" he criticizes are Norman Geisler and Josh McDowell.

4. What Inspiration Guarantees and Does Not Guarantee

As we saw in the previous section, fundamentalist theologians believe that verbal and plenary inspiration guarantees that everything that the Bible teaches or implies, both explicitly and implicitly, is true; and that this applies not only to spiritual matters, but to factual ones as well (Geisler, ST, 237). In short, verbal and plenary inspiration guarantees that the Bible is never wrong about matters of fact.

There are plenty of counterexamples which seem to call this claim into question. Here is one of them. According to Joshua 10:12-13, during one particular battle, mass-murderer Joshua noticed that it was about to get dark and that he needed more daylight to complete his slaughter of the Amorites who had already been partially obliterated by great hailstones that God had caused to fall on them. So he commanded the sun to stand still. “And the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day” (v. 13). Even the dullest student in the class understands that this command implies that the sun goes around the earth—an astronomical theory called geocentrism and now known to be false. Since the book of Joshua was written more than 3,000 years ago, there is no way that Joshua (or whoever wrote it) could have known that it was false and that, in fact, the earth goes around the sun. However, while the error is excusable, it is an error—and a factual one of the kind allegedly not found in the Bible. How is this to be explained?

One thing is certain. While the author of the book of Joshua can be excused for not knowing that the sun doesn’t go around the earth, an omniscient God cannot—much less, a God who created the very solar system that Joshua presumed to interfere with. If anybody knows what revolves around what, surely its Creator does. Since this God allegedly inspired the author of the book of Joshua to include this alleged event, why did He get this astronomical fact wrong, thereby obstructing the science of astronomy for centuries? How is this factual error to be explained short of saying that the passage is not inspired? It seems that this single example is enough refute the claim that verbal and plenary inspiration “guarantees” that everything in the Bible is true and that it is always factually accurate.

Again, Geisler begs to differ. In the Introduction to this book we observed this same “harmonizer” of the synoptic Gospels admitting that John says Mary Magdalene saw two angels whereas Matthew says she saw one, but trying to salvage his position by observing that he did not say only one. Here is another dandy from his bag of tricks. According to him, verbal and plenary inspiration does indeed guarantee that the Bible is always factually accurate; however, it does not guarantee that all statements in the Bible are “technically precise by modern standards” or that they are factually accurate from “a modern astronomical perspective (as opposed to accurate by observational standards” (ST,237). McDowell manufactures and peddles the same defective merchandise (NE, 45-51).

Unlike every clear-headed person I have ever known or whose work I have ever read, this alleged theological guide asks his followers to believe that a statement can be scientifically false and still be factually accurate. Notice his strategy. He cannot very well assert that the sun goes around the earth. But he has pledged his unwavering allegiance to book which implies that it does. He cannot say that the book is wrong, because he believes it was inspired by God and is always factually accurate. But this statement is factually inaccurate. So he has two rational choices. He must either say that the passage is inaccurate and abandon his theory of verbal and plenary inspiration, or he must maintain that the passage is factually accurate but qualify his theory. He opts for the latter. Copernicus was right. The earth goes around the sun. True, the author of the book of Joshua implies the opposite. But instead of acknowledging that he was wrong, Geisler brazens it out by asserting that a statement can be factually accurate even if it is scientifically false. Or that while it is not “technically precise by modern standards” or factually accurate from “a modern astronomical perspective,” it is accurate by “observational” standards.

This alleged champion of the Bible is prepared to rest his case on the fact that, like everybody else in those days, the author of the book of Joshua believed the sun goes around the earth; however, while the belief is false, the sun certainly seems to go around the earth. Geisler concludes that the belief, though inaccurate or technically imprecise when judged by modern astronomical standards, is accurate when judged by “observational” ones. This is just flat out wrong. The author in question was not accurate in any sense. He was inaccurate. To say that he was accurate by “observational” standards only means that it seemed to him that that is what the sun does. But that is true of all honest errors. They do not seem like errors at the time. So-called “observational truth” is not truth at all, it is perceptual illusion. When Copernicus propounded his heliocentric theory of the solar system, he was not substituting technical and scientific truth for observational truth; he was substituting scientific truth for scientific error. Geisler’s entire discussion of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible is nothing more than disingenuous and face-saving bluster.

It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that such rescue-operations are not designed to illuminate, but to obscure. Their purpose is not to elucidate, but to insulate. Such writers are as slippery and elusive as a cake of soap in the bathtub. Just when you think you have spotted an irreparable flaw in their position, you discover that they have a card up their sleeve that they were saving for just such an occasion. Like one-trick ponies, they go through exactly the same routine every time. Confronted with a factual error, a contradiction, or an inconsistency, they make yet another qualification.

According to Geisler and McDowell, there are a good many other things that verbal and plenary inspiration does not “guarantee”: that everything recorded in the Bible (as opposed taught or implied) is true, that the Bible necessarily approves everything it records, that the unexplained is necessarily unexplainable, that the Bible may not use round numbers as opposed to exact ones, that all passages from other Scriptures must be quoted verbatim and must have the same application, that an incomplete report is false, that the same truth can be said in only one way, that everything a Biblical writer believes (as opposed to what Scripture actually affirms) is true, that quotations imply the truth of everything in the source quotes, that grammatical constructions will always be the “customary” one rather than one “adequate” to convey the truth, etc. (ST, 237-38; Evidence, 47). In support of this ad hoc, seemingly arbitrary, and apparently endless list of qualifications, Geisler offers a principle of interpretation called “the phenomena of Scripture.” Here it is:
[W]hat the Bible says must be understood in view of what the Bible shows. What it preaches must be read in light of what it practices. The doctrine of Scripture is to be understood in light of the data of Scripture. (ST, 238)
He does not offer a single reason or shred of textual evidence in support of this bizarre pronouncement. Since he does not, there is not the slightest reason why anybody should accept it. In fact, there is an excellent reason for rejecting it. It seems to me that the true source of the alleged principle known as “the phenomena of Scripture” is patently obvious. Having formulated his view of verbal and plenary inspiration and what it “guarantees,” Geisler rummaged through the Bible in search of passages that count against it, compiled a list of them, and then announced that verbal and plenary inspiration does not “guarantee” them. But then his original “guarantee” was worthless. It would be like an automobile insurance agent saying, “You are fully covered” but then adding, “but not for collisions, injuries sustained in collisions, vandalism, or theft.” Would you not ask, “What is the difference between that kind of ‘coverage’ and no coverage at all?” I think we are entitled to ask Geisler an analogous question: “What is the difference between that kind of ‘guarantee’ and no guarantee at all?”

This textually unscrupulous “defender of the faith” should ponder the sobering words of Albert Schweitzer:
Because I am devoted to Christianity with deep affection, I am trying to serve it with loyalty and sincerity. In no wise do I undertake to enter the lists on its behalf with the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics, but I call on it to set itself right in the spirit of sincerity with its past and with thought in order that it may thereby become conscious of its true nature. (Out of My Life and Thought, pp. 185-86)
Theories like those propounded by Geisler and McDowell are not what is expected from objective and fair-minded scholars who stay close to the texts and are sensitive to what they authorize (and do not authorize) them to say. They are not the result of careful textual and empirical investigation. Philosophers call such theories a priori theories because they are formulated prior to consulting the relevant textual evidence and continue to be held independently of them. They are examples of philosophical rationalism, pure and simple. The doctrine of verbal and plenary inspiration is not really based on textual evidence derived from the Biblical texts at all, but on previously-formulated theories with which those texts have been approached. If a passage is discovered that counts against the theory, its champions do not abandon or modify the theory; they reinterpret the passage. Mary Magdalene (Matthew 28:5 and John 20:12) and Joshua (Joshua 10:12-13) are cases in point. It does not matter to them if these reinterpretations require them to do violence to (or even manhandle) the texts; all that matters is that the theory is preserved. To sum up, the doctrine of the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible that I have been examining turns out to be an a priori theory based on a controversial interpretation of 4th century copies of earlier copies of original documents that nobody has seen for 2000 years and can only be maintained by somebody willing to deny facts and to engage in increasingly absurd interpretive contortions. We will have occasion to see this same devious strategy again and again.

One hesitates to accuse anybody of intellectual dishonesty. However, in view of the frequency (and ferocity) with which fundamentalists level this charge against atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers generally, it is worth pausing to ask oneself what really motivates these textually irresponsible interpretations of troublesome Biblical passages and these contrived and ad hoc defenses of pet theories. If the motivation is not a desire to continue to believe no matter what and to interpret the Bible however one must in order to do that, what is the motivation?

5. Back to Thomas Paine

Turning from conservative-fundamentalist theologians like Geisler and McDowell to Paine is like a breath of fresh air. As I said in the Introduction, eighteenth century Christians denounced The Age of Reason with their customary venom, calling it a “vicious assault” and a “vituperative attack” on the Bible by “a filthy little atheist” (the latter phrase is Theodore Roosevelt’s). These mean-spirited comments betray two serious misunderstandings. First, a sober reading of the book in its entirety, as opposed to a selective wrenching of remarks from their contexts, reveals that it is far from being a gratuitous—much less, a “vicious” or “vituperative”—attack on the Bible. It is a sustained attempt to apply reason to the Bible by subjecting its content to rational criticism and arriving at a rational assessment of it. Second, Paine was not an atheist, but a deist. The Age of Reason is a critique of the Bible in the name of “true religion,” i.e., deism. Both points deserve comment.

In view of recurring Christian Reconstructionist pronouncements about the piety of the founding fathers and their alleged desire to base America on Christian principles, many Americans might be shocked to discover that Thomas Jefferson advocated the same approach:
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear . . . Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts that are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy or Tacitus . . . But those facts . . . which contradict laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. (Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787 (Cousins, p. 127)
Like Paine and many other freethinkers of his age, Jefferson believed that the factual claims found in the Bible should be scrutinized closely and that their claim to be “inspired” should be regarded as suspect. He would have endorsed Robert G. Ingersoll’s trenchant quip, “I don’t care whether a statement is inspired, I only care whether it’s true; true statements don’t need to be inspired.” Paine writes:
It has often been said, that anything may be proved from the Bible, but before anything can be admitted as proved by the Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true. For if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of anything. (The Age of Reason, p. 103)
He rejected the very idea of the Bible as revelation:
Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man. No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if He pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something `` has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is a revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it. (p. 52)
More specifically, he questioned the credibility of the Bible on three grounds: empirical, logical, and moral. Empirical grounds include reports of miracles and other alleged events that violate or presuppose the suspension of natural laws as well as straightforward factual errors (historical, scientific, geographical, chronological, etc.); logical grounds include contradictions, internal inconsistencies, and other discrepancies that cannot be reconciled; moral grounds include passages which report actions performed in obedience to God’s commands that are so reprehensible that they stand condemned by all civilized moral standards and principles of justice.

On the other hand, Paine had nothing but respect and admiration for Jesus Christ:
He was a virtuous and amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before; by the Quakers since; and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any. (The Age of Reason, p. 53).
Paine’s objections were not to Jesus or his teachings, but to “the wretched contrivance” that “the Christian mythologists” and “Bible-makers” have installed in their place (p. 54). He does not believe for a moment that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, that he raised people from the dead, or that he rose from the dead himself. These alleged events are part of the “wretched contrivance.” That Jesus Christ actually existed and that he was crucified may be readily accepted. But the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth and alleged return from the dead, together with all the other alleged miracles, must be rejected by every rational person:
It is in vain to attempt to palliate or disguise this matter. The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. (p. 54)
Deist Thomas Jefferson, no mean New Testament scholar and compiler of the so-called “Jefferson Bible,” concurred:
[T]he whole history of [the synoptic Gospels] is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. (Letter from Jefferson to John Adams, January 24, 1814) (Cousins, p. 257)
In compiling the “Jefferson Bible,” whose actual title is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson extracted “the diamonds” and ignored “the dunghills”—i.e. everything miraculous or supernatural. His enthusiasm for the project is evident in a letter written to Mr. F. A. Van der Kemp (April 25, 1816):
I made for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of his morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own [the “diamonds”]; and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are embedded [“the dunghills”] . . . I gave it the title of “The Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the text of the Evangelists.” To this Syllabus and extract, if a history of his life can be added, written with the same view of the subject, the world will see, after the fogs shall be dispelled, in which for fourteen centuries he has been enveloped by jugglers to make money of him, when the genuine character shall be exhibited, which they have dressed up in the rags of an imposter, the world, I say, will at length see the immortal merit of this first of human sages. (Cousins, p. 172-73)
Paine and Jefferson were firmly convinced that the true greatness of Jesus can be appreciated and preserved only by omitting a good deal of the material found in the synoptic Gospels. Regrettably, neither of them identified the specific criteria they used in making these omissions and confined themselves to somewhat vague allusions to his “virtuous and amiable” character, his “excellent morality,” and “those passages whose style and spirit prove them genuine, and his own.” However, we can get a pretty good idea of these criteria if we note the sorts of passages they omitted and why they omitted them. There are at least four such criteria.

First, the stories are often derived from pagan mythology. Paine writes:
[Jesus] was born at a time when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared people for the belief of such a story. Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reported to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. (p. 53)
Second, the alleged events narrated in the story are scientifically impossible and credible only to the ignorant, the naïve, and the simple:
Were any girl that is now with child to say . . . that she was begotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Certainly she would not. Why, then, are we to believe the same thing of another girl, whom we never saw, told by nobody knows who, nor when, nor where? (p. 160)
Third, the alleged claims are incoherent and irrational to the point of being unintelligible to the rational person. Jefferson writes:
No on sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples . . . The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies, and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable as to shock reasonable thinkers. (Letter to Timothy Pickering, February 27, 1821 (Cousins, p. 157)
More pointedly:
The truth is, that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. (Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823 Cousins, p. 289)
Before moving on, I cannot refrain from asking two questions. First, how do the highly vocal and ebulliently confident leaders at the forefront of Christian Reconstructionism reconcile passages like these from the writings of Thomas Jefferson with their own resounding assurances that, like the other founding fathers of America, he was a devout Christian who wanted America to be based on Christian principles? With few exceptions, the founding fathers are on record as being deists and, in some cases, as detesting Christianity. Second, have these militant Christian leaders who presume to instruct the American public about the founding fathers (and about what they allegedly believed and intended) ever actually read their writings?

The fourth criterion used by Paine and Jefferson is that the alleged events reported in the synoptic Gospels are not supported by adequate and publicly available evidence. Paine was very adamant about this:
A thing which everybody is required to believe requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all . . . Instead of this, a small number of persons . . . are introduced as proxies for the whole world to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection, and, as they say, would not believe without ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas. (p. 54)
As I have already explained, Paine was not an atheist, but a deist. Here is his “profession of faith:”
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. (The Age of Reason, p. 50)
The Age of Reason is not just a rational critique of the Bible but a rational critique in the name of “true religion” which, according to Paine, is deism. However, though he rejected the Bible as divine revelation, he held fast to the idea of revelation itself:
But some, perhaps will say: Are we to have no Word of God—-no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a Word of God; there is a revelation. The Word of God is THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, independently of human speech or human language . . . It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this Word of God reveals to man all that it is necessary for man to know of God.
His power, His wisdom, His munificence, His mercy—all this and more is evident in the Creation. Hence:
Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the creation. (pp. 69-70)
I pointed out earlier that few conservative-fundamentalist Christians are familiar with Paine’s (or Jefferson’s) scathing critique of the Bible. And if you call their attention to it—or, better still, use The Age of Reason as a required textbook in a Philosophy of Religion course, as I have done for many years, your students will not eagerly devour its contents and shower you with tears of gratitude for providing them with this eye-opening experience of what is really in the book they revere as the inspired Word of God. Nor will they be shamed by the astonishingly detailed knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments that Paine and Jefferson possessed. On the contrary, when such students are required to read The Age of Reason and to discuss it in class, they become (by degrees) irritated, belligerent, and finally downright angry. Inter-Varsity and Campus Crusade for Christ types are the most vocal and the most argumentative. I welcome (and even solicit) their objections. Having heard them out, my response is always the same: “I didn’t write The Age of Reason; Thomas Paine did. Is he wrong? Did he misrepresent what the Bible says? I don’t think so. But don’t take my word for it. Go home and read your own Bibles. Check him out. If you can find a single passage that he has misquoted or manufactured or misinterpreted, write an essay in which you convincingly demonstrate his error(s) and I will give you a grade of “A” for the course and urge you to submit your essay for publication in a reputable philosophical or religious journal with my enthusiastic recommendation.” I have been teaching philosophy for 42 years and during that time no Paine-incensed student has ever submitted such an essay. The reason is clear: The Age of Reason is accurate and his documentation is irrefutable.

Having discussed these important preliminary topics, I turn to the synoptic Gospels.

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