GUESSINGS ABOUT GOD: Robert Conner’s review of new book by David Madison, PhD Biblical Studies

Books that question the validity of Christian belief and the historicity of New Testament stories appear regularly these days and they raise quite a few uncomfortable questions. Did Jesus really say the things attributed to him? Was Jesus even a real person? Did the gospel writers simply make up accounts of miracles like the virgin birth? Can we harmonize the contradictory resurrection stories? Do the gospels, written decades after the life of Jesus, record any eyewitness evidence? Who actually wrote the gospels? The gospel authors never identify themselves in their texts or speak in the first person—did they even meet Jesus? Over a century of critical study of the New Testament has raised many such thorny problems.

In the newly-released Guessing About God, David Madison and Tim Sledge take a common-sense approach to a discussion of Christian belief. Although many counter-apologetic works assume some familiarity with psychology, biblical criticism, church history or philosophy, Madison asks little more of the reader than a degree of open-mindedness, access to a Bible, some familiarity with the Christian liturgy, and a willingness to argue in good faith. Like Madison, I spent part of my childhood in Indiana: “Christianity was in the drinking water where I grew up…God was just there, a given.” Questioning what is taken for granted is often painful and occurs in stages, a process tacitly acknowledged by Madison’s thoughtful and empathetic approach.
For the people of the Bible, Yahweh was never far away—an animal ritually slaughtered and burned produced “an aroma pleasing to the Lord.” (Leviticus 3:5, 16) God was close enough to Earth to smell the smoke of sacrifice, to hear the prayers, receive the praise, and observe the actions of his worshippers. The biblical God “makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 104:3) Yahweh even accompanies his followers into battle: “God is the one who goes with you to fight for you against your enemies to give you victory.” (Deuteronomy 20:4) However, as Madison points out, these days the God of the Bible is nowhere to be found. Modern theologians are forced to claim that God is “outside space and time,” an assertion that would have been quite incomprehensible to the Bible authors who clearly write about a God that has both location and history.
“If, say, the Space Shuttle were sent speeding toward Alpha Centauri at about 18,000 miles per hour, the journey would take about 80,000 years. And that’s to the nearest star!” Humanity no longer inhabits the biblical microcosm where “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” can be viewed from the top of “a very high mountain.” (Matthew 4:8) Indeed, the incomprehensible vastness of the universe threatens to reduce the biblical world and its gods to an invisible, irrelevant speck.
In “Problem 2 — The Bible Disproves Itself,” Madison discusses what I regard as the most fundamental problem of religious belief: sacred books as self-authenticating documents. Philosophy, history, or probability aside, “proving the Bible’s authenticity by quoting from the Bible is closed-loop reasoning…no document on the planet can be self-authenticating.” Truth claims made for a sacred book cannot be substantiated simply by quoting from that book. “This irony is not lost on atheists. The theists, in fact, are among those who deny that the Word of God comes in book form—when it’s the other guy’s book. They are like kids in a playground taunting others, ‘My book is holier than yours!’”
As Madison notes, “Without question, the Bible is the most researched and minutely studied book ever written. There are countless books, articles, scholarly journals, doctoral dissertations, and sermons about the Bible.” Bible study is an industry: “Most lay people, the average individuals in the pews, are unaware that thousands of scholars make their living studying and writing about the Bible.” Likely few believers have reflected on the economic implications of seminaries and departments of religion in secular universities, the Christian broadcasting and publishing empires, or multi-millionaire celebrity preachers with private jets. Religious conviction aside, churches are big business, motivation enough to keep theologizing, philosophizing, preaching, broadcasting and publishing. For many thousands, religious belief is a matter of employment.
The third section of Guessing About God addresses the vexed question of vetting the bona fides of sinless Jesus: “Let’s suppose that in the course of your research, you found that no information was available on this man’s life between the ages of 13 and 29. Wouldn’t this give you pause?” In point of fact, it is well known among scholars that apart from the New Testament, no contemporary evidence confirms the life and career of Jesus of Nazareth. Which raises some additional questions: “Are the Gospels accurate in their portrayal of Jesus? Is their content reliable? Are they history, or something else?”
Until relatively recently, even skeptics thought the gospel accounts retained some historical core of information based on oral traditions about Jesus. It is now known with near certainty that Mark was the first gospel written and that it is a literary construct “that has nothing to do with contemporaneous documentation.” In short, we are back to self-authenticating stories again, a claim that simply won’t bear examination. “It’s no surprise that many church leaders have about as much use for Bible scholars as laypeople do. The task of such leaders is to keep the Jesus brand alive.” 
The third section confronts the reader with the present state of the Jesus Studies debate: “Enter stage left The Mythicists. The people-of-faith New Testament scholars, those who cling to Jesus, even if only by a thread, now face a phalanx of scholars who argue that the whole story of Jesus could be fiction.” At this point, Madison focuses on the best internal support for the mythicist position generally: “In the earliest of the New Testament documents, penned long before the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth isn’t there. That is, the epistles of Paul and others don’t speak at all about Jesus of Nazareth. Their focus is a divine Christ. There seems to be no awareness of Jesus’s preaching and parables, his miracles, his disputes with religious authorities, or even the Passion narratives. It’s almost as if the real Jesus hadn’t been invented yet, which would not happen until the Gospels had been created.” 
Paul is perfectly clear about the source of his gospel: “For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:12) This statement is not a confession; it’s self-satisfied boasting. Paul and his house churches had little use for a historical Jesus: “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.” (2 Corinthians 5:16) If this represented the attitude of the primitive church, there is even less reason to expect that believers treasured and transmitted details of Jesus’ life or that those details would eventually be enshrined in the text of the gospels. 
I’m in complete agreement with Madison’s conclusion: “The managers of the Christian brand have to hold onto the Gospels for dear life and to believe there must be shreds of evidence in Gospels to underwrite the reality of Jesus. If the Jesus-was-real folks want to paint themselves into this corner, that’s fine with me. I’m delighted with the Gospels as the playing field. I want to stick with the Gospels. They are the best tool for showing that the case for a credible Jesus is weak.”
In his final section, “How I Came to Write this Book,” Madison describes his personal transition from young Bible geek to the emergence of doubts based on deeper knowledge and reflection, to the rejection of his former belief entirely. There are several similarities between my story and the story of David Madison. Although I didn’t pursue an advanced degree in Biblical Studies, I deconverted after two years of university study, convinced that religious belief is without any factual basis. As the number of believers continues to plunge and enrollment in seminaries drops, it appears many more former adherents will be making the trek from conviction to unbelief. For such travelers, Guessing About God will prove a welcome guidebook.
Robert Conner is the author of The Death of Christian Belief; The Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last Days; Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story; The Secret Gospel of Markand Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics.