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Is Theological “Truth” More Important than Historical Accuracy?

In the previous post I began to explain how there could be an account in the Gospels that is not historically accurate because an author is more interested in conveying what, to him, is a theological “truth” than in giving a history lesson about what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  In my view, the early Christian story tellers and Gospel writers (often?) changed historical data in order to make theological points.  What mattered more than historical accuracy was the ultimate point of the story. In this post I give a concrete example of how it works.  To make sense of what I have to say about this story you need to remember what I said yesterday about how the Passover feast worked in the days of Jesus.  This particular example involves only a small detail in the Gospel of John – a tiny detail, in some ways.  But it is illustrative of a larger point.  Sometimes Christian authors changed a historical fact in order to express what, for them, was a theological “truth.” [...]

2020-04-03T02:15:35-04:00May 30th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

An Example of a True Story that Didn’t Happen: Part 1

I have been trying to explain (without complete success) that the Bible, in the view of some scholars starting in the early 19th century, could contain “true” stories that “didn’t happen” – or at least didn’t happen as they are narrated.  One important point I want to make about this claim: I am *not* saying that I personally hold this view.  I’m not saying I think these stories are necessarily “true” as far as I’m concerned.  I’m saying that the idea is that these stories were designed to convey truths, rather than objective history lessons. I talk about that in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, and try to demonstrate the point by giving a couple of particular examples.  The first example will take two posts for me to cover. ********************************************************* What, though, is the evidence (that there could be true stories in the Bible that didn’t happen)?  Or is this simply a theory cranked up by biblical scholars with too much time on their hands and not enough sense simply to [...]

Would I Be Personally Devastated if the Mythicists Were Right? A Blast From the Past

For my mailbag this week I dug into one from the past -- almost exactly five years ago.  I would probably answer it the same today.  My thoughts here on how we go about knowing what actually happened in the past strike me as having very broad application (not just to the question I was asked), and (especially toward the end of my answer) to have even greater relevance now than they did then, given our current historical moment.   QUESTION: Was also wondering - and maybe you addressed this in your book ... would you feel an emotionally traumatic disappointment if it was conclusively proved that Jesus was indeed a mythical figure? In all honesty how would you feel if it were true beyond a doubt that all the arguments the 'mythicists' have presented were found to be correct (or mostly correct) regarding his assumed existence? This question is not meant to be offensive or unnecessarily provoking - I'm just curious. RESPONSE: I don’t address this in the book, and I think it is a terrific [...]

True Stories that Didn’t Happen

In my previous post I explained how the term “myth” came to be applied to the miracle stories of the New Testament in the work of David Friedrich Strauss in 1835-36.   This is all background to what happened to me personally – 150 years later!  Before talking about how my views of the Bible changed once I realized many of its stories could not be literally, historically true, I should expand a bit on the very notion that, as Strauss thought, there could be true stories that didn’t happen.  What??  Yup.  Here’s how I explain it in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. ******************************************** Skipping on to Modern Times A lot – a very lot – has happened since Strauss published his Life of Jesus in 1836.  Scores of scholars have pored over every detail of the Gospels, thousands of books and articles have been churned out, countless views have been marshaled, debated, believed, and spurned.  And none of that is going to end soon, unless some of the people who think [...]

The Gospels as Myths

In providing background to how I began to understand the Bible once I realized that it was not an inerrant revelation from God, I have been giving a kind of history of scholarship on the Gospels, explaining how it was that, before the Enlightenment, virtually everyone understood the Gospels to be Supernatural Histories, and that during the Enlightenment there were scholars who maintained they were Natural Histories.  Now I can complete this short survey by talking about a significant development, one of the most significant in the history of the entire discipline of New Testament studies, in which the Gospels came to be understood as Myths.   Let me stress that I am not saying that everyone started accepting this new view or, more germane to this series of posts, that I agree with this view as I’m presenting it: I’m simply indicating what happened in the field of New Testament studies.  Later I’ll explain its relevance for my views.  This, again, is taken from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. ********************************************************* The [...]

The Gospels as Natural Histories

I indicated in my last post that, to my surprise, I had never written about the history of the scholarship on the Gospels in terms of the major shift from seeing them as Supernatural Histories to Natural Histories to Myths.   And just as I was preparing to write about the move to see them as Natural Histories, in today’s post, I read a comment from a reader (Bless his soul, as we used to say!) who pointed out that I did indeed have a detailed discussion of the matter in my first trade book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.  I looked it up, and lo and behold, I absolutely did -- and inn precisely the terms I wanted to discuss the matter here on the blog.  For some reason none of my search engines picked it up when looked through all my files. So, today I will talk about The Gospels as Natural Histories, as lifted from that treatment in my book.  As I hope you’ll agree, this shift in understanding the Gospels [...]

The Gospels as Supernatural Histories

In order to explain the view I started having about the Bible after I had come to realize that it was filled with discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, and other mistakes – and yet remained a committed Christian – I have to set out my understanding at the time of the Bible as “myth.”  And to do that I have to give a very brief (though this will take a few posts) history of scholarship on the New Testament itself, specifically the Gospels.  (What I say about the Gospels can be applied more broadly to the Bible, as I’ll explain). When I was preparing to write this post I *thought* I was simply going to be able to copy and paste this explanation from something I had written before.  But I’ve looked everywhere, and I can’t find that I’ve ever written about it in any context whatsoever, books, articles, blog posts, nada.   How strange.  I lecture on this all the time. The history of Gospel scholarship is, of course, extraordinarily complex.  There are hundreds of scholarly [...]

How Does A Book Become A Bestseller? Readers’ Mailbag April 21, 2017

In this week’s Mailbag I deal with a question about how a book written for a popular audience becomes a bestseller, specifically with regard to Misquoting Jesus, my book that has sold the best of all by far.   QUESTION: In your previous answer to me you indicated that what makes a bestseller, in the end of the day, is massive media attention.  My question now is what sparks this attention. In other words, why, out of all your books, did Misquoting Jesus receive a great attention from the media?   RESPONSE: Ha!  It’s a great question.  I’ll start by saying that if there were a sure-fire formula for how to get media attention, every author in the planet would do it and we would *all* be on the NY Times Bestseller list!  But the reality is that there are hundreds of books sold every day in English (I was told some years ago that it’s about 600 per day,  but I have no way of knowing if that is right or not; maybe someone [...]

Can Myths Be True and Meaningful?

Yesterday I received this interesting comment on my most recent post.  It embodies a view that a lot of other members of the Blog have, and so I thought I should respond to it.  It is about whether there can be meaningful myths in the Bible.  Here is what the reader says. Imaginative stories by definition are false. To say something is myth and by extension imaginative, is asserting that it is false. For us to say something is a myth, we have to be sure that it is entirely false. Or is it not the case? I addressed a similar issue in the conclusion of my most recent book Jesus Before the Gospels.  There I take a different stance on whether non-historical accounts (which would include myths) can be meaningful to us or not, whether they can be “true” in any sense.  Here is what I say there (with respect more to the NT than the OT, but the same reasoning applies. ****************************************************************** Like most authors, I get a lot of email from people [...]

Appreciating the Myths of the Bible

When I came to see that there are mistakes in the Bible, I did not jettison it all as a waste of time.  Not at all.  On the contrary, I continued to value and cherish it, as a book that could reveal truths about God.  Yes it had discrepancies, contradictions, historical errors, glaring scientific mistakes, and so on.  Of course it did.  But that for me was not the ultimate point.  The Bible It was a product of its own time, a very human book.   Even so, it was a book through which God continued to speak. I came to think that the Bible was more important for the valuable lessons it conveyed than for the factual (or problematic) information it contained.  This view worked on two levels.  For one thing, I came to see it was important to realize that even for ancient readers what mattered about the Bible was not its factual accuracy in its details, but for the ideas that it was trying to present.  And for me personally, it was important [...]

Becoming a Non-Fundamentalist Christian

After realizing that the Bible does in fact contain mistakes, I became a non-fundamentalist Christian and remained one for many years.  It is not easy to describe exactly what I believed “at the time,” only because it was a good expanse of time and there was a kind of transition period in which I evolved into the kind of open-minded, reflective believer that I became and remained, again for some years. At the early stages I suppose you could describe me as a fairly liberal evangelical.  There are lots of Christians like that in the world, and most of my friends at Princeton Seminary were in that mold.   How does one describe that kind of Christian? Such Christians very much, and wholeheartedly, think that God speaks through the Bible.  He uses it to communicate to his people.  Not in order to give them science lessons (what really happened on the third day of creation?) but in order to instruct them about how they should live and be.  God wants his people to show love to [...]

Fundamentalism and the Truth of the Bible

I have recently received a number of inquiries about why realizing there may be mistakes in the Bible might lead someone to become an agnostic.  Here is one that came a few days ago:   QUESTION: I want to thank you for your extensive work in explaining … your journey from believing that the bible contained no errors to proving the bible is not inerrant and simply the work of human writers. What I would like to be explained is the necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant or the "word of God" to believing there is no God.   RESPONSE My view of the matter may seem odd to a lot of people, but it is nonetheless held by most critical scholars of the Bible and trained theologians.  What is the “necessary logic to go from believing that the bible is not inerrant … to believing there is no God?  There is no necessary logic at all. I have never thought that ... To See The Rest of this [...]

Eyewitnesses and the Gospels: A Blast From the Past

Five years ago today I received and answered this question on the blog.  I thought it would make a nice break from my current discussion of my change of faith, a topic to which I'll return tomorrow.  For now, here's a blast from the past.   *********************************************************************** QUESTION One of the major points of your work (if I understand correctly) is that the contents of the New Testament are at a vast remove in time, place, and source from any eyewitness account of Jesus' life. But when I consider this point in my ignorance, and simply from the perspective of chronology (from the time of Jesus to the accounts in the earliest gospels), it seems to me that at least one very old eyewitness of Jesus' life might have been able to report a significant amount of information about Jesus and his teachings directly to, say, Mark. In view of this, I wonder how scholars know that no New Testament account of Jesus could have been received directly from any eyewitness. RESPONSE It’s a very [...]

Finding More Problems in the Old Testament

Yesterday I started detailing some of the contradictions and historical or scientific problems with the Old Testament that I started to find when I was a graduate at Princeton Seminary, starting to examine the Bible not as the inerrant revelation from God Almighty but as a more human book that could indeed have mistakes in it.  The account I gave of these problems was lifted straight from my textbook: The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  There’s a reason for that.  The problems I found early on in my more scholarly investigation of the Bible have stuck with me and continue to strike me as some of the truly most important ones, and therefore the ones most appropriate to introduce to college students themselves reading the Bible critically for the first time. This is a second and final post on the same topic: a few more comments on a few more problems that strike me as completely irreconcileable, once a person admits that there can indeed be problems in the Bible.   Again, this is excerpted [...]

2020-04-03T02:21:04-04:00May 12th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Finding Problems in the Old Testament

I have been explaining that while at Princeton Theological Seminary, I started finding that there could be mistakes in the Bible.  My first realization of this involved my study of the Gospels, but I was studying the Hebrew Bible as well, and I finally got to the point where I had to admit there appeared to be mistakes there as well.  Lots of mistakes.  Contradictions, discrepancies, historical errors.  And these show up right off the bat, in the book of Genesis. Let me detail some of the differences I started finding, as I later summarized them, many years later, in my textbook on the Bible, where I talk about why Moses almost certainly didn’t write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy) and about some of the tensions one finds in the text. ************************************************************* As already mentioned, the critical scrutiny of the traditional view of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch deepened and became more rigorous as scholarship advanced.   In addition to the problems just mentioned, other troubling features of [...]

2020-04-03T02:21:11-04:00May 11th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

How I First Realized There Are Mistakes in the Bible

I have told the story before of how I first came to realize there might be mistakes in the Bible.  Rather than paraphrasing it again, I’ll simply reproduce the account as I presented it the first time I went public with my faith journey, back in my 2005 book Misquoting Jesus.  Here is what I said there: ************************************************************** Upon arriving at Princeton Theological Seminary, I immediately signed up for first-year Hebrew and Greek exegesis (= interpretation) classes, and loaded my schedule as much as I could with such courses.  I found these classes to be a challenge, both academically and personally.  The academic challenge was completely welcome.  But the personal challenges that I faced were emotionally rather trying.  As I indicated, already at Wheaton I had begun to question some of the foundational aspects of my commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God.  That commitment came under serious assault in my detailed studies at Princeton.  I resisted any temptation to change my views, and found a number of friends who, like me, [...]

My Resistance to Change at Princeton Seminary

Several people have asked me to unpack what I meant in the last sentence of yesterday’s post because, well, it doesn’t make sense.  What I was trying to say was that I had a crisis of faith in Seminary – as many people do, as it turns out – because I thought I could prove my faith claims were true (an Enlightenment position: “truth” is objective and can be proved), but the more research I did, the more I found that the facts seemed to contradict my faith claims (as many scholars of the Enlightenment had long realized). Let me explain.  First I want to stress – in case anyone queries me on it (as people do) – that my faith ultimately, in my own head at least, was based on what I took to be a personal relationship with God through Christ.  How personal?  We talked all the time.   So, on one level, my faith was not simply a set of propositions that I thought could be demonstrated (God exists; Christ is the Son [...]

My Encounter with the Enlightenment

I know I have talked about how I lost my faith before.  But I’ve never talked about it in the terms I’m going to be describing it in this post and the next.  It has to do with what happened with my notion of “truth” when I went to Princeton Theological Seminary. Princeton Theological Seminary is not administratively connected to Princeton University – it simply is in the same town, across the street, and has a shared ancient history.  What is now Princeton University started off in the mid-18th century as a place to train Christian ministers.  Eventually the school split, with the Seminary, under a different administration, becoming its own entity.   By the time I went there as a 22-year-old in 1978, Princeton was a leading a Presbyterian seminary whose mission is to train ministers for the Presbyterian Church.  I had never even stepped foot in a Presbyterian church and really knew almost nothing about it, or about Princeton Seminary.  But I suspected that many of the students and faculty there were not really [...]

Mythicists and the Virgin Birth: Readers’ Mailbag May 6, 2017

I’ve been devoting the blog to some autobiography recently, so in this Readers Mailbag I’ll make a shift to a couple of academic questions, one about Mythicist claims on the virgin birth and the other about the usefulness of ancient translations of the New Testament for establishing the original text.   QUESTION: I often read mythicists argue that Jesus was a mythological figure because he (allegedly) has many parallels in pagan gods. One of the parallels, of course, is him being born to a virgin. My question is: do mythicists realize that the concept of the virgin birth is a much later development?   RESPONSE: I have spent time with Mythicist groups, and have always enjoyed myself, finding the people friendly, eager to talk, cordial, and interesting.  But the general lack of basic knowledge about the Bible is shocking, even among the most outspoken among them.  What is shocking is not that they don’t know much about, say, the New Testament – that’s true of most people on the planet  -- but that they have [...]

What Happened Next: My Life After Moody Bible Institute

Here I’ll continue relating what I told my New Testament class the last period, when I was explaining what I personally believed and why (for anyone who wanted to come). For me, as I indicated in the last post, going to Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater) was a step toward liberalism.  Students there were not as gung-ho about the Bible – well, fanatical about the Bible – as we had been at Moody.  They were evangelical Christians, all of them so far as I could tell, yes, and they were committed to the inspiration of the Bible, most of them even the infallibility of the Bible.  But their academic interests almost always resided elsewhere. That’s because Wheaton was a liberal arts college, and most students were majoring in English, history, psychology, biology, and so on.  The students I hung around with most were in fields like philosophy and classics and, of course, my own major, English. I chose to major in English for a rather missionary reason.  I wanted to ... To See The [...]

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