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 ~

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Was The Bible Written By God?

When faced with strong evidence from modern science that contradicts traditional Christadelphian interpretations of the Bible, many Christadelphians claim that the Bible was written by God - the very same god who created the universe - and thus it contains a superior understanding than anything science has discovered or even can discover.

But how did they, as fallible humans, reach the conclusion that the Bible was written by God? What if it wasn't?

This article explores some of the more common arguments for the claim that the Bible is the "Word of God".

Poisoning The Well

Attempting to discredit science, Christadelphians often point to the imperfect nature of scientific understanding, or otherwise try to cast doubt on the whole scientific enterprise through such claims as scientists refusing to accept God, scientists faking or making up data to conform to their alleged atheistic biases, or just generally that scientists fail to reach the correct conclusions because they apparently do not allow supernatural agents in their theories.

Almost all of these claims are false.

Yes, some scientific data has been faked in the past, but this has been rare and the scientific enterprise encourages double-checking by other scientists. In many cases we only know about the bad science because it has been discovered by later scientists attempting to test or repeat the experiments. In other words, the way to find and correct the errant results is through more rigorous science. Once a paper is shown to be fraudulent, it is retracted.

What about science disallowing supernatural agents in its theories? The reason such agents do not feature in scientific hypotheses is because they are often untestable, and thus unable to be confirmed via experiment. Perhaps this is a limitation of science, but I see it rather as a limitation of supernatural agents as an explanation for things. If science cannot verify the existence of such agents, who or what can?

But some experiments have tested supernatural agents indirectly. For example, prayer studies implicitly test the ability for a supernatural agent to heal patients in ways that existing scientific theories could not account for. Yet in all cases scientists have found no significant link between prayer and health outcomes. The potential was there for a result consistent with supernatural causation, and yet it was ruled out.

Science is often imperfect, because humans are imperfect. The same would apply to every endeavour of humans to understand something, including (ironically) the Bible! But in fact the scientific method is specifically designed to overcome some of these imperfections, through peer review, hypothesis testing via experiment/data, statistical methods to rule out sampling biases, and much more.

Given the rigour of scientific enquiry and peer review in general, this turns the argument around and suggests that we should instead be skeptical of any method of understanding that does NOT seek to counter and overcome our natural biases, and especially one that uncritically accepts the claims of an iron age book.

So let's take a look at the biblical arguments...

Consistency Of The Bible

Claim: The Bible was written over several millennia by many authors and yet contains a consistent message from cover to cover

There are several points to address here.

Firstly, the consensus among modern critical scholars is that the Bible was written by various authors (many of them unknown) over many centuries, but was later edited and compiled into the books we know today sometime between the 6th and 2nd centuries BCE.

Except for a few passages in Aramaic, appearing mainly in the apocalyptic Book of Daniel, these scriptures were written originally in Hebrew during the period from 1200 to 100 BCE. The Hebrew Bible probably reached its current form about the 2nd century CE.

The final redaction and canonization of the Torah book, therefore, most likely took place during the Babylonian Exile (6th–5th century BCE).
The canonical Book of Isaiah, after editorial redaction, probably assumed its present form during the 4th century BCE.
The Book of Daniel presents a collection of popular stories about Daniel, a loyal Jew, and the record of visions granted to him, with the Babylonian Exile of the 6th century BCE as their background. The book, however, was written in a later time of national crisis—when the Jews were suffering severe persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reigned 175–164/163 BCE), the second Seleucid ruler of Palestine.

Secondly, the message is not entirely consistent. For example, the early chapters of Genesis provide the story of Adam and Eve's sin and subsequent punishment as an explanation for the existence of suffering in the world, and yet the book of Job suggests an alternative explanation where suffering was inflicted by an agent on behalf of God as a test of loyalty, among other things. Meanwhile the prophets routinely declared that the sufferings of the nation of Israel were God's punishments for their past sins, and this same explanation was also given in Genesis as the reason for the flood.

The Old Testament God fits the stereotype of a tribal warlord and appears quite "human". He seemed genuinely surprised every time people rebelled against him, needed to personally visit Sodom to figure out how many faithful were there, and needed to be persuaded by Moses that killing everyone and starting over might not have been the smartest course of action, not to mention the fact that Moses appealed to God's ego in the process, which worked. Other parts of the Old Testament depict God as far more lofty and impersonal (often associated with natural weather phenomena), while in the New Testament God is almost completely absent, except to endorse Jesus.

The New Testament is then almost all about Jesus, who the gospel writers go to great pains to claim was the Jewish Messiah, despite several obvious inconsistencies between Jesus and actual Messianic prophecies (as noted by many Jewish scholars both then and now). The New Testament focuses heavily on forgiveness of sins through confession and repentance rather than literal sacrifices, along with the promise of a future resurrection, a feature which is virtually absent from the Old Testament.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of inconsistencies in the Bible's message is the fact that many Christians cannot even agree on the requirements for salvation, arguably the most important part of the entire Bible, or at least the New Testament. Christadelphians go much further, insisting that over 99% of Christians have misunderstood fundamental aspects of the Bible's message.

Thirdly, any overall consistency that remains can be explained quite easily by two simple facts.

  1. In almost every case, each writer had access to the earlier writings, and in many cases had been specifically trained to read and understand them
  2. Many of the books were edited afterwards specifically in order to produce a more coherent narrative (see the Documentary Hypothesis, for example).

The point of the biblical consistency argument, as I understand it, is that the Bible is somehow so consistent in its message that mere humans could not have achieved such a feat without divine help (specifically the help of the deity mentioned in said Bible). This is at once condescending to both humans and the god that allegedly created us. Worse still, it isn't even accurate. Not only are there many documented contradictions throughout the Bible, but also the Bible we have is the result of a long history of editing, copying, collation, translation, and compilation, not to mention the clear fingerprints of ancient cultures complete with ancient moral codes embedded within it. We also have other holy books bearing almost all of the textual features of the Bible, with their own band of followers claiming those were written by God (or several gods) instead!

Bible Sales

Claim: The Bible has sold more copies than any other book in history 

This argument has always puzzled me because it is so easy to answer.

The Bible has sold more copies because Christians make up two thirds of the world's population, and have been a majority for a very long time. They buy Bibles because they already view it as the word of God, not the other way round!

The argument, in order to be effective, would need to presuppose that at least a majority of buyers were not already convinced of the Bible's authorship, and that the fact they were compelled to buy it was somehow miraculous. This would then imply that a majority of people purchased the book against their will, which has further uncomfortable implications. The argument becomes unsustainable if taken seriously, but in reality (and as already mentioned) it has cause-and-effect exactly backwards. People buy it simply because they already believe it is the word of God, not the other way round.

If, however, the argument is merely one of popularity (i.e. "millions of Christians can't be wrong") then the Christadelphian religion fails on the same grounds. If popularity equals truth, shouldn't we all be Catholic?

Prophecy And Divine Revelation

Claim: The Bible has predicted several local and world events with amazing accuracy, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of years in advance

The prophecy argument is a curious one. Again, the point of the argument is that the Bible somehow foretold major events with such stunning accuracy that no mere human could have written it on their own.

There are several problems with the prophecy argument in general.

Firstly, even if it were true (and I do not believe it is), the prophecy argument, like most other arguments for the Bible's divine authorship, fails to demonstrate why a fulfilled prophecy necessitates a god rather than some other phenomenon (such as time travel from the future or alien visitation - both extremely unlikely but far more plausible than angels or a god), and specifically the Christadelphian God. This is simply assumed without justification.

Secondly, the Bible is not just one book. It is a collection of books, written, edited, and compiled by different people over hundreds of years. Even if one prophecy was given by a god to one of the Bible's authors on a given day, there is still no reason to believe the entire Bible must have been inspired, let alone even the rest of the book(s) written by that particular author!

But what about the specific prophecy claims themselves? Have any prophecies been fulfilled? I do not believe so, and I will explain why.

Firstly, in order for it to work, the reader must assume that any event claimed as the fulfilment of a prophecy was actually the one intended by the prophecy's author. It is often trivial to demonstrate that this is not the case. Instead it is far more likely that the alleged "miracle" is being supplied by the reader with the help of some imagination and artistic license.

Secondly, if you read any alleged prophecy closely and in detail, it ceases to align with the claimed event. Take the prophecy against Tyre, for example. If you read Ezekiel 26 and surrounding chapters in detail, you will see clear references to Tyre being "surrounded by the sea", or "in the midst of the sea", which would indicate that the prophecy is referring to the island city of Tyre, not a city on the mainland. Further, the prophecy claims Tyre would never be rebuilt nor found again, which you can easily disprove for yourself with a search on Google Maps. I am aware of the many twists and dodges apologists do to avoid these conclusions, but this is nothing more than sophistry in an attempt to obscure the truth and fool themselves and others.

By far the most popular claim of fulfilled prophecy is that of the return of Israel. I have covered all of the biblical references to it in a previous article, and I cannot see how Christadelphians can sustain that prophecy claim without blatant dishonesty and cherry-picking. It only works if you don't look too closely.

They claim that various predictions were fulfilled in 1948 or 1967, yet the Bible simply doesn't make such a claim, and it doesn't make sense in its historical context if you try to coerce such a reading from it. In every case you can read each prophecy and clearly see that the author was writing to their contemporaries about events taking place in their own recent history at the time of writing. They even mention place names, names of kings, and they often specifically mention Judah and Ephraim. To pretend that a text suddenly switches from that to talking about events in the far distant future is dishonest, and poor exegesis.

Prophecies were written primarily to comfort the people of that time, who may have felt that their god had abandoned them, or needed some encouragement that their god was still on their side. The prophecies only make sense in that context. Why would an iron age author or his readers be at all interested in predicting events 2500 years in their future, long after they were all dead? It makes no sense. If your answer is that God inspired the author to write down things they didn't understand so that specifically our generation could have an "aha" moment (even though every prior generation also thought they understood it but apparently they were wrong), then you are bringing your own invented interpretation to the text after the fact, and you are no longer taking the text seriously on its own terms. You could do the same with any text, and followers of other religions do exactly that.

The problem is that the prophecies about Israel only make sense in their original context, often speaking of the ancient tribes, including the 10 northern tribes that are now lost to history. But by that interpretation, the prophecies failed, and that is why Christadelphians feel the need to come up with fanciful interpretations involving events in relatively recent history. These interpretations might get Christadelphians excited and temporarily alleviate some of their doubts, but they serve no other purpose beyond that.

Finding Answers

The question you need to ask yourself is whether you simply want to go on believing, or whether you actually want to know the truth. If all you want is belief, then by all means go on fooling yourself. Belief is easy when you don't know the answers. But if you actually want to know the answers to your questions, then you probably already understand what steps you need to take in order to avoid being lied to or misled. Follow the evidence wherever it leads, test everything, and don't allow your prior beliefs to blind you, especially ones you were taught as a child.

Was the Bible written by a god? We already know that the words were physically penned by people. That is not in dispute. What we want to find out is whether those people were actually writing on behalf of a god, or whether they merely claimed to. They probably believed what they wrote, but were they mistaken? You already believe that all of the authors of other holy books were mistaken when claiming to speak on behalf of gods. Why treat the Bible any differently? Try viewing the Bible with the same skepticism with which you view other books that make similar claims.

What if the Bible wasn't written by a god? What if it is just the work of ancient people with an ancient and superstitious view of the world? What would that mean for the universe, and for your life? Yes it can be daunting and scary to think that this life might be all there is, but if it's true then we have all the more reason to take it seriously and seek the correct answers. As Carl Sagan said, "Better the hard truth, I say, than the comforting fantasy."

If the promise of immortality was just a comforting fantasy, taught to us by well-meaning but deceived people, then what should we do now? Well, first we need to adjust our relationship with reality. It can be tempting to think that if life is finite then it must have no meaning, but I argue that the opposite is the case. Life only has meaning and value because it is finite! Think of your favourite book, or movie, or your favourite holiday. You enjoyed them at the time even though you knew those things would end. The prospect of an ending served to heighten the drama. Life is exactly like that. If your life was forever, individual moments would lose all meaning. As much as we will always want to extend our life, we can achieve greater happiness and satisfaction by accepting what life is, with its joy and sorrow, and focusing our attention on the present, especially the things that matter most to us.

There is a positive message to be found here. If there is no divine captain piloting our ship, then we need to rise up and become our own captain. This is a necessary part of growing up. With no divine parental figure to call on for help, we must take on that role ourselves, and for each other. We cannot just blindly assume there is a benevolent spirit guide looking out for us, and thus we need to take responsibility for our own lives, and plan our course wisely to become the best we can be. We will often stumble because we are human, but we need not despair because there is no cosmic judge to judge us. Rather than seeking love or forgiveness from an imagined being we cannot see nor feel, we need to provide this love, compassion, and acceptance for ourselves, and for each other. It has always been thus.

Our lives are up to us. We write our own story, and those around us will read it and share in it with us. There has never been anyone like you before, and there will never be again. That is what it means to be valuable.