Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Bible's Human Origins: Gospels - Part 1

Continuing my series on the human origins of the Bible, I will now turn to the New Testament.
I intend to focus aspects that are relevant to the claim of divine inspiration.

Were the four gospels divinely inspired?

I think we have good reason to doubt.

Human Sources

The gospel of Luke explicitly claims to have received information from human sources:
Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning.
Luke 1:1-2 NET
It is difficult to imagine why this introduction would have been necessary if Luke had instead received his material from divine sources. Once again, it seems the only way around this is to insist that God inspired the words of these eye-witnesses, which just makes for an incoherent concept. If they were eye-witnesses, wouldn't their authority rest on that? How does inspiration fit into this picture?

It is also difficult to fathom how people can insist this material was divinely inspired when Luke explicitly says he received it from other people.

Also note that the gospels were actually written anonymously. The names Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were ascribed later, probably in the second century. However, for convenience, I will still refer to the authors by those names.


It is not clear to me why someone would need to be divinely inspired in order to quote from the Old Testament. It is even less clear to me why God would divinely inspire them to misquote it. And yet there are several misquotations in the gospels.
This all happened so that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet would be fulfilled: “Look! The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will name him Emmanuel,”
Matthew 1:22-23 NET 
For this reason the sovereign master himself will give you a confirming sign. Look, this young woman is about to conceive and will give birth to a son. You, young woman, will name him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14 NET
Matthew was most likely quoting from the Septuagint, which mistranslates the word for "young woman" as the Greek word for "virgin". The NET correctly translates this word as "young woman", (see the footnote against this verse in the NET) although several other translations use the word "virgin", probably to fit in with the supposed "prophecy".

The problem is that the original passage is actually talking about a sign given to King Ahaz, and the young woman is referred to as "this young woman" suggesting she was actually present at the time (see the NET footnote). The supposed "fulfilment" of this "prophecy" is given in Isaiah 8:3, and it makes it clear the woman was not a virgin at the time of the birth. There is no indication that this is speaking of a virgin birth, or of a future time, making it look very much like Matthew plucked the verse out of context and co-opted it for his own theological purpose.

Some apologists try to rescue Matthew by pointing out that he was likely following the rabbinical technique known as Pesher. I agree that that is likely what he was doing, but I fail to see how that supports divine inspiration. In any case, he still misquoted Isaiah.

Moving along.
He came to a town called Nazareth and lived there. Then what had been spoken by the prophets was fulfilled, that Jesus would be called a Nazarene.
Matthew 2:23 NET
There is no record of a prophet ever saying this.

But Matthew isn't the only one who misquoted the Old Testament.
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Mark 1:2-3 NET
Mark has mixed up two separate quotations. The first part is clearly a quotation from Malachi 3:1. The second part is indeed from Isaiah, but Mark muddled up the punctuation, changing the meaning of the text.
A voice cries out,
“In the wilderness clear a way for the Lord;"
Isaiah 40:3 NET
Note the position of the comma and quotation marks in the Isaiah quote. Matthew also copies this passage from Mark (see Matthew 3:3), making the same mistake, although it appears he recognised that the start of the quote was not from Isaiah and removed it.

Again there is no hint in Isaiah 40 that it is referring to Jesus or even a messiah.


Apologists often confidently insist that there are no contradictions in the gospels. They simply assume that if one author says Jesus ransacked the temple late in his ministry (see Mark 11) and another author says he ransacked the temple early in his ministry (see John 2), then he must have done so twice! This kind of harmonisation seems to be extremely common among apologists, but the problem with it is that you end up with an account that is entirely different from any of the four gospels.

But that aside, is it even the case that there are no contradictions in the gospels?

Consider these examples:

Had Jairus' daughter already died? or was she just really sick?
Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came up, and when he saw Jesus, he fell at his feet. He asked him urgently, “My little daughter is near death. Come and lay your hands on her so that she may be healed and live.”
Mark 5:22-23 NET
As he was saying these things, a ruler came, bowed low before him, and said, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her and she will live.”
Matthew 9:18 NET
Some apologists insist the ruler said both of those things. But there is no such evidence of that. They just make it up, because otherwise there is a contradiction. See how that works?

Were the disciples supposed to take a staff with them, or not?
He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts
Mark 6:8 NET 
And He said to them, “Take nothing for the journey, neither staffs nor bag nor bread nor money; and do not have two tunics apiece.
Luke 9:3 NET
The response from apologists is that Jesus was telling them not to take anything extra. That is, they were allowed to take the staff they already had, but no extra one. At least the carm website has the honesty to admit this is not a very satisfactory answer.

Was the curtain in the temple rent in two before Jesus died, or after?
But Jesus cried out with a loud voice and breathed his last. And the temple curtain was torn in two...
Mark 15:37-38 NET 
The temple curtain was torn in two....And after he said this he breathed his last.
Luke 23:45-46 NET
One apologist source I read claimed that the curtain ripped at exactly the same time. But that is contradicted by the passage in Luke, at least if you go by the wording in the NET. Another source claimed that just because an author mentions it later, it doesn't mean it happened later. By the looks of things, these are the sorts of tricks you need to pull if you want to believe in inerrancy. In my opinion it turns the whole exercise into a joke. Ironic, is it not?

Messianic Prophecies

Christadelphians claim that Jesus fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies, thus confirming that he was the Messiah. But there are some problems with this view.
The reality is that the so-called “messianic prophecies” that are said to point to Jesus never taken to be messianic prophecies by Jews prior to the Christians who saw Jesus as the messiah.  The Old Testament in fact never says that the messiah will be born of a virgin, that he will be executed by his enemies, and that he will be raised from the dead.
I highly recommend you read the entire linked article. It offers a very good overview of the situation.

It concludes:
You can go through virtually all the alleged messianic prophecies that point to Jesus and show the same things: either the “prophecies” were not actually predictions of the future messiah (and were never taken that way before Christians came along) or the facts of Jesus’ life that are said to have fulfilled these predictions are not actually facts of Jesus’ life.
I'm not going to cover specific prophecies here. I've already mentioned the issue with the Isaiah 7 reference above, and likewise the fact that Isaiah 40 contains no reference to a messiah.

Further, since the writers of the gospels clearly had access to the Old Testament, they could have invented any claimed fulfilment to fit the prediction (and some scholars think this is exactly what happened with aspects of the birth narrative, for example).

Next Article: Gospels - Part 2