Friday, December 30, 2011

The Christian Delusion - Review

Having just read a large volume by NT Wright (review/thoughts coming soon), and seeking to hear the opinions from the other side of the debate, as it were, I have been reading a book called 'The Christian Delusion' edited by John W. Loftus.

The title of the book deliberately nods to Dawkins's 'The God Delusion' (which I still haven't read) but this book is more focused in its aim - to demonstrate that (specifically) the Christian faith is unreasonable and irrational, rather than Dawkins's attack on religious belief in general - and is written by a number of different authors, with different viewpoints and specialities, the majority of whom once were bible-believing Christians, but for various reasons have now rejected their former beliefs. I'm far more interested in their opinions on Christianity than on Dawkins's as he never saw Christianity (or any other religion, for that matter) from the inside.

The collection is edited by John Loftus, who used to be an evangelical preacher and church pastor. The foreword is by Dan Barker, who also used to be an evangelical preacher and church pastor. What drives such people out of the church? What causes them to reject a belief in God? Could it be that belief in God is really a delusion?

This seems to have, unintentionally, turned into a very long blog post, sorry about that. Below you'll find comments on all of the chapters individually, but I think I'll summarise the main points and my conclusions here. So, if you want to read the whole thing you can, but if not, you'll get the gist here and can skip the remainder.

So, in conclusion:

This book is a very mixed bag. It contains a few chapters of really fascinating and thought provoking stuff, a few chapters of responses to Christian/Apologetics stuff which does not make for great reading if you haven't read the original books or articles, a few chapters on interesting but largely irrelevant topics and a few chapters which have clearly just been added to bulk the book up. As I read the Kindle edition, I couldn't see how thick the book looked anyway.

So, is this a Christianity killer? Well, if anyone in Churches (other than me, of course) actually reads it, it could do some damage. In the midst of this there are a couple of excellent anti-Christian arguments that I don't think have decent pro-Christian rebuttals. I'm specifically thinking of chapters 6 & 7 (see my comments below). Between them they do a pretty good job of demonstrating to the reader that (a) the bible is flawed, contains errors and fabrications and is certainly not inspired, and (b) that the history of Christianity demonstrates that if there is a God then he cannot communicate to his people at all.

The weight of all the other chapters certainly adds to the overall case that the Christian worldview is not consistent with the actual world in which we live, and so, I suppose that this is strong evidence that Christianity actually is a 'delusion'. No proof here, of course, but some of the arguments are compelling.

So where does this leave me? Well, it leaves me confused (as ever) and even less sure who Jesus was than I was before I started reading this. The writers of this collection of chapters have all gone the whole hog, departing Christianity and turning to atheism. I'm not there. This book does nothing to convince me that there is no God. However, it does go a long way to convincing me that if there is a God, then he isn't Yahweh/Jesus, at least not as presented in the Bible. (Interestingly enough, in Loftus's follow up collection of writings "The End of Christianity" there is a chapter called "Can God exist if Yahweh doesn't?" - I suspect the author comes to the answer 'no' but I'll be interested to read it anyway.)

So should I give up calling myself a 'Christian'? I'm not sure. Should I stop going to church? Likewise undecided. There's more to read on both sides of the debate, and a lot of thinking to be done, before I make any big life changing decisions. I have to 'count the cost', again. But I am not the sort of person who can choose to believe things that are contrary to the evidence. I need reasons to believe. I'm still looking for those reasons. Keep reading the blog to find out what happens...

And now the full review:

Part I: Why Faith Fails

Chapter 1: The Cultures of Christianities by David Eller, PhD
The first thing to say is that most of the chapter authors in this book have 'PhD' after their names. This is quite unnecessary and is only there to say "look, atheism is an intelligent position, we have doctorates here, you should be impressed". I have a PhD too, and know just how little that can mean regarding intelligence... but anyway.

This chapter sets out to demonstrate a few things:
  1. That Christianity is just a culture like any other.
  2. That Christianity itself is aware of this and uses it to its own advantage in mission / evangelism.
  3. That actually it is not one culture, but a collective name for a widely diverse collection of cultures, many of whom would not include some of the others under the same collective umbrella as themselves. i.e. there is no such thing as Christianity, there are only Christianities.
  4. That Christianity, much like other religions in other pars of the world, has such power over culture because it is institutionalised and has cultural dominance over birth, death, marriage, sexual practice, etc.
So, its fairly interesting, but nothing really ground breaking. I wasn't sure where the book was going to go from here, this seemed like such an odd start. And, indeed, the book doesn't really progress in a coherent and inter-linked way.

The chapter concludes with an interesting quote which is the most memorable thing in it, and which I'll repeat here:
"Christians are not easily reasoned out of religion, since they are not usually reasoned into it."
Chapter 2: Christian belief through the lens of cognitive science by Valerie Tarico, PhD.
Yes, another PhD, I'm still not impressed. This one is a psychologist. She makes a case that humans are not rational and that certainty is a feeling which is independent of truth or facts. She also demonstrates that the 'born again' experience is not unique to Christianity and actually is replicated in many other religious and non-religious contexts. I found this chapter more interesting than the previous one and more compelling in its reasoning against the case for faith. I don't really have much to say on the issue though, so I'll just give a few interesting quotes from the chapter:
  • "Arriving at belief in an infallible God by way of an inerrant Bible requires an unwarranted belief in yourself."
  • "Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken."
  • "it is not enough to be well intentioned - even joyfully, generously so. We also have to be right."
Basically, the chapter shows how people can come to any one of the range of religious beliefs, and believe passionately in it, without any of them being actually true. This doesn't mean that there is no God or Christianity is false, but it does mean that there is an alternative explanation for why there is Christianity without the need for there to be a God.

Chapter 3: The malleability of the human mind by Jason Long, PhD
I really have to add 'PhD' to the end of my name on all things I write, it would give them such gravitas. Anyway, this is more psychology. The chapter starts with this quote, which is quite parochial in its scope:
"Why do the majority of Americans believe in the ability to predict specific details in the distant future, the existence of winged messengers living in the sky, the worldwide flood as told in genesis, and the resurrection of a man who had been dead for over a day? How can these people believe they are enlightened enough to insist upon the veracity of these outlandish beliefs when studies show they know so little about them? They believe simply because they want to believe, they believe because they always have believed, and they believe because others around them believe. The vast majority of those who believe such things will stick to those beliefs throughout life despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary"
Hmmm. This chapter basically claims that the majority of believers of any variety are indoctrinated into it, usually in childhood, then have the belief reinforced, so that when the belief is eventually challenged, the default position is to defend the belief rather than question it:
"If the Christian were genuinely interested in the truth, he would analyze the argument critically and thoroughly to see if it adequately addressed the points of the skeptical objection. But he is not questioning, he is defending."
The chapter goes into cognitive dissonance and that sort of thing and shows, once more, how reasonable people can believe weird things. He even quotes Michael Shermer's well known line:
"Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."
This chapter by itself is nothing astounding, but this book is clearly aiming for a collective impact from all the different strands tied together.

Chapter 4: The outsider test for faith revisited by John W. Loftus
No PhD? This chapter must be worthless then. This is where you realise this book is not intended to be a stand-along work. This chapter does not really present the 'Outsider test for faith' (OTF), which comes from Loftus's earlier book, but seeks to defend it from the attacks made after the earlier book. It would really help at this point if I'd read Loftus's previous book, which I haven't.

The basic point of the OTF is that if you seriously want to question the Christian faith (or any other faith, for that matter) then you must do this from outside of the preconceptions of the faith itself. That is, view it as an outsider would. If you do this, then you start to see some doctrines, etc. as entirely arbitrary and start to see the holes in some pieces of reasoning.

I don't really have much to say here, except that this is pretty much what I am doing on this blog at the moment. However, the way the chapter is constructed makes it seem like it is part of an ongoing debate, of which I haven't heard all the earlier bits. Which is slightly a shame. I'd have preferred it if this was a presentation of the OTF, taking the earlier criticism into account. Nice quote in here, in passing is: "If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby" (David Eller).

Part II: Why the Bible is not God's Word

Chapter 5: The Cosmology of the Bible by Edward T. Babinski
Another with no PhD, sigh. This is an odd chapter. It makes its point clearly, but I think the majority of Christians out there would think "so what?" about this. The point being made is that the view of cosmology is entirely contrary to modern science. Basically, the writers of the bible (both old and new testaments, but more clearly in the old) believe the earth to be flat, the sky to be something solid (the 'firmament'), which the stars are fixed onto, and above which are 'waters' (which sometimes leaks through, hence rain). The earth is supported upon pillars, and there are waters under this, and so on. God is presented as living in 'the heavens' which is up in the sky, hence the way the floor in heaven is presented as being sapphire (the sky is blue, after all).

The point is that the writers of the bible present the world in a way which is entirely consistent with the beliefs and views of the surrounding cultures, and there is noting 'inspired' here, and certainly nothing 'infallible'. By itself this argument will not achieve very much, but when heaped with all the other chapters it piles up to make the overall argument (that the bible has no divine author) seem more compelling.

Chapter 6: The bible and modern scholarship by Paul Tobin
This chapter sets out to demonstrate 5 points, that the Bible:
  1. is inconsistent with itself
  2. is not supported by archaeology
  3. contains fairy tales
  4. contains failed prophecies, and
  5. contains many forgeries
The chapter makes its points fairly well. Part 1 quotes several contradictory pairs, including the following two verses: Romans 3v28 (A man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law) and James 2v24 (A man is justified by works and not by faith alone). And I basically agree with the point, while many of the contradictions can be explained away, the best explanation is not that they come from one infallible inspired source, but rather they come from a diverse bunch of people with contrasting and contradictory opinions.

In part 2 he demonstrates that there is no evidence for the Israelites alleged stay in Egypt, or the subsequent exodus. Furthermore, while there are stories in the bible that can be tied to real places or events, the chronology from the bible is totally at odds with the chronology from archaeology. For example, Abram came from 'Ur of the Chaldees' about 800 years before there were any Chaldeans, as far as we can tell from archaeology. The point made seems to be that almost all of Israelite history before the return from exile is totally out of sequence, exaggerated, or just plain made up.

Parts 3, 4 and 5 all do their jobs very well as well, but I don't need to give details here. Suffice it to say that this chapter is a very strong case for the non-inspiration of the bible.

The chapter ends with an interesting and, again, fairly strong argument against liberal Christianity as well. I think the author feels that he has dealt a death blow to Evangelicals (to be fair, he pretty much has) and so might as well attack the other branch of Christianity as well.

This chapter is basically a summary of Tobin's book "The Rejection of Pascal's Wager", which I think I'll read sometime (although, it is the best part of £30, so I'm in no hurry to buy it). The summary is quite interesting, thought provoking, and challenging so the full book should be worth a look.

Chapter 7: What we've got here is a failure to communicate by John W. Loftus
This chapter is also pretty compelling. The basic idea is that the history of Christianity clearly demonstrates that Christians (as a collective, not necessarily as individuals) are generally unable to hear from God. If God were able to communicate clearly to his people, then there are certain events in history that simply would not have happened, for example the many wars and persecutions between Protestants, Catholics and Anabaptists in the aftermath of the reformation - if God's message had been clearly conveyed, none of this would have happened. Furthermore, what about things like polygamy or slavery - the bible is at best ambiguous on these issues and generally seems to be in favour of them, and yet most Christians today would be strongly against both practices. So is the inference in the bible the message from God or is the evolved modern practice which goes against it really what God wants? Of course, there is a lot more in this chapter, which only serves to strengthen the case.

The chapter also considers all the usual explanations used to explain away these observations, and shows why none of them is particularly compelling. In summary:
"Christian theologians cannot even come to a consensus on what the Bible requires them to believe - that's why there are so many denominations and 'cults'. They cannot even come to a consensus on how to interpret the Bible in the first place. What is the best explanation for this? In the light of such confusion and disagreement, can anyone take seriously the idea that God communicated his perfect will to his believers?"
Chapters 6 and 7, by themselves, are the heart of this book. They make a very strong and compelling case against the inspiration of the bible, by using the bible itself. The rest of the book is just supporting evidence.

Part III: Why the Christian God is not Perfectly Good

Chapter 8: Yahweh is a moral monster by Hector Avalos, PhD
This chapter is a response to something I haven't read written by Christian author Paul Copan. Avalos demonstrates that OT morality is not significantly different from, or superior to the morality expressed in the Code of Hammurabi (Summerian law code) or various Hittite law codes we know from the time of the OT and earlier. Indeed, Avalos contends that the Bible is actually inferior to the other codes. The bible (or at least parts of it) condones genocide, infanticide and child sacrifice amongst other immoral things. The chapter makes its points clearly and compellingly, and then degenerates into a direct criticism of Copan's writings, rather than promoting its own message. Which makes this chapter fairly pointless if you read it in isolation.

Chapter 9: The Darwinian Problem of Evil by John W. Loftus
I've heard this argument before. I've heard it responded to before. But this is a clear and compelling discussion of the issues around animal suffering. Basically the point is that animals, through no moral fault of their own, suffer and die, all the time, sometimes in pretty horrendous ways. The question posed is basically 'What sort of creator would design this?'

The chapter states and then refutes the eight main arguments used by theists to defend the creator for causing or allowing animal suffering. The theist arguments are basically as follows:
  1. Animals were herbivores before the fall. That is, man is morally responsible for animals eating each other.
  2. Satan corrupted the beasts before the fall of man.
  3. Animals have no souls and don't feel (much) pain.
  4. God doesn't care about animals, why do you think he should?
  5. God is indifferent to animals as he is much more interested in human soul making. Animals and their suffering are merely by-products of this process.
  6. Its OK, as animals will be resurrected to a heavenly afterlife.
  7. That animal predation and suffering is necessary to create the right environment for human development and moral decision making. (I'm not clear how this differs from number 5 above)
  8. We simply don't know.

All of these are discussed, taken apart and more or less refuted. Loftus makes a good case and I've not really heard a good response by a Christian (in debates, etc.) yet.

Part IV: Why Jesus is not the Risen Son of God

Chapter 10: Jesus, Myth and Method by Robert M. Price, PhD
This chapter is another response to something else that I haven't read. In this case, its "The Jesus Legend: A case for the historical reliability of the synoptic tradition" by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy (which is on my 'to read; eventually' list...). The book is Boyd and Eddy's look at 'The Christ Myth Theory' (CMT) which, of course, they reject. Price is, of course, one of the most vocal proponents of the CMT and some of his reasoning is compelling. However, this chapter is mostly a response to Boyd and Eddy rather than a straight defense of the CMT.

As with the other 'responses' in this book, this would be much better if I had read the original book. As a stand alone it makes a few points, and makes then well, but is not -by itself- particularly a compelling case for anything much.

Chapter 11: Why the resurrection is unbelievable by Richard Carrier, PhD
This chapter basically expands the often repeated statement that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence' and demonstrates (fairly well, I must say) that the evidence for the resurrection is actually rather mundane, and is not sufficient to warrant belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

He starts with discussing the story of the Persian Wars, written by Herodotus about 50 years after the event. Herodotus was well educated and claims to have consulted eye witnesses in compiling his accounts, and yet there are fantastic claims in there of magical things happening.

Compare this to the gospel accounts - written some decades after the events, by well educated men, who claim to have consulted eye witnesses, and containing fantastic claims of miraculous events, the greatest of which is, of course, the resurrection of Jesus.

If you dismiss the former stories, why do you still believe the latter ones?

Carrier lays out the evidence we have for the resurrection, in detail, and then demonstrates that this evidence is insufficient to be compelling. The implication being that if you believe this reasoning that you are a bit gullible and have been convinced of something that you shouldn't have been. He appears to have a point.

Chapter 12: At best, Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet by John W. Loftus
This chapter takes the surprising presupposition that the New Testament is historically reliable and that Jesus existed, pretty much as described. From there it shows that the NT presents Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, who clearly predicted the end of the world was coming within his own generation. Given that we are looking at this nearly 2000 years later, it is clear that this didn't happen and therefore Jesus was (at best) a failed apocalyptic prophet.

Its a good point, well made, and certainly adds to the weight of the evidence of some of the other chapters in this book.

The problem with this chapter is that it treads on the 'historical Jesus' debate, which I've touched on in other posts, where only some of the main opinions of Jesus claim that he was an apocalyptic prophet. But this chapter is not written as part of that debate, this chapter was written to be read by Bible-believing Christians, and so - assuming any of them ever read it - it kind of works in that context.

Part V: Why society does not depend on Christian Faith

Chapter 13: Christianity does not provide the basis for morality by David Eller, PhD
Finally we come to three chapters that feel a bit like a 'grab bag' of an appendix. The moral argument doesn't fit in anywhere else, so is thrown in here. The chapter explains how morality and religion are different and don't depend on each other. It also shows a few examples of immoral things done in the name of God/Christianity for good measure. But, for me at least, this is not that interesting.

Chapter 14: Atheism was not the cause of the Holocaust by Hector Avalos, PhD
Can I just say, I never thought it was? But the chapter makes a good case for the Holocaust being the end result of centuries of Christian antisemitism, not the end result of any form of atheism. Indeed, Hitler was not an atheist but a Catholic with some strange views. Other important figures in the Nazi party had other theistic viewpoints. This chapter is just here for bulking the book out.

Chapter 15: Christianity was not responsible for Modern Science by Richard Carrier, PhD
And finally, a chapter that does exactly what it says on the tin. It overturns the quite common Christian belief that the advances of science in the past two thousand years are in some way dependent on Christianity, without which they would never have happened. On the contrary, the chapter demonstrates that at certain points in history, Christianity has hindered scientific advances, meanwhile 'pagan' cultures have promoted scientific advances. Again, this is interesting stuff, and adds to the overall weight of the argument, but I'm not sure this chapter was particularly essential.

And there you have it. My conclusions were near the beginning of the post, if you can remember that long ago. Thanks for reading to the bottom. You really are a glutton for punishment! (Hello Mike!)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What kind of God...? (#1)

Someone at church last week shared a story of 'what God had been doing in their life' recently.

I don't need to give many details here except to say that they had experienced an unlikely and unusual sequence of positive events in reasonably quick succession, and attributed this to the goodness of God. People in the church were also thanked for their prayers.

Don't get me wrong, I think its great that this sequence of events happened to this person. But are we right to attribute this 'lucky streak' to the goodness of God?

What kind of God rewards one of his people with a string of minor blessings (like getting extra items delivered by accident in an online shop, which the store then did not reclaim) and larger blessings like a better paid job, while countless thousands of Africans, some of whom also claim to be Christians, live in poverty and die of starvation?

Furthermore, what kind of God apparently does this (shifts blessing towards a particular person) as a consequence of the number or quality of people praying? If nobody was praying, would the blessings have been withheld?

What kind of God with the will and the ability to bless, would withhold this blessing just because not enough people asked for it?

In the light of the answer that you have formed in your mind to the question above, what is the point of prayer? If it truly moves the hands of God, which otherwise would remain idle, then I'm not sure that sort of God is the sort of God I'd want to pray to...

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Synoptic Problem and some Solutions...

I seem to have circled around the issue of 'The Synoptic Problem' on this blog for a year or two, without actually devoting a whole post to it. Given that my thinking about the Synoptic Problem led directly to to my current way of thinking about Life, the Universe and Everything (to be explained in a forthcoming post, which is taking a long time to write), I feel I should write something. So here goes, using the Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm:
  1. write down the problem
  2. think very hard
  3. write down the answer
The Problem Defined

So, some of you might be wondering what the Synoptic Problem actually is. Basically, the issue is this: There is a relationship between the three 'synoptic' gospels. There are some similarities in structure, order, content, and even word use. The question is which, if any came first? Is one (or more) of them directly dependent on one (or more) of the others? If so, which?

If you were to split up each of the three synoptic gospels into its constituent 'pericopes' (that's per-ih-co-pay not perry-cope; its the technical term scholars use for the individual, stand alone, stories or sayings that make up the gospels) and compare notes between the gospels you would find the following:
  • There is an awful lot of overlap between all three gospels. The stuff that's in all three is (not surprisingly) known as 'Triple Tradition' material.
  • There is quite a lot that is common to Matthew and Luke, but is not in Mark. This stuff is called 'Double Tradition' material.
  • There is not much at all that is unique to Mark. So little that scholars don't really have a name for it. Lets call it 'Special Mark' material.
  • There is more stuff that is unique to Matthew. Scholars generally call this stuff the 'M' material.
  • There is also a lot of stuff that is unique to Luke. This is commonly called 'L'.
  • There are also some places where Mark and Matthew agree, but Luke has no equivalent.
  • Likewise there are a few (but not many) places where Mark and Luke agree, but Matthew has no equivalent.
Look, somebody from the internet has helpfully drawn a diagram of this:

As far as I can tell, this issue has been keeping a good few theologians awake at night for the best part of four centuries now, so I'm not sure that any solutions I come to here will be final or definitive... but that's no reason not to try! Here goes...

The Proposed Solutions

As far as I can tell, there are basically four proposed solutions to the problem, there may be others, but they are generally just slight modifications from one of the main four. The solutions are:
  1. Independent inspiration (i.e. there is no problem)
  2. The Griesbach hypothesis (Markan posteriority)
  3. The two source hypothesis (Markan priority, plus the Q source)
  4. The Farrer hypothesis (Markan priority, but no Q)
So here's my thoughts on each of these possibilities.

Independent Inspiration

This view is really that there is no Synoptic Problem. The three Gospels (and indeed the gospel of John) were all inspired by God, and the evangelists wrote them down, independent of each other. Any similarities in the text of the gospels is entirely due to God and nothing to do with the men who wrote them down.

I suppose that's a fair belief, but it is a belief which is imposed onto the texts themselves, certainly not one that emerges from any study of the texts. It raises the question of what sort of God would word-for-word inspire the gospels such that in some places there is an exact wording match between Matthew and Mark, while in other places the gospels directly contradict each other, and in others the meaning is left confused and confusing?

I personally don't think this reasoning is particularly compelling. Given the apparent human character of much of the writing in these gospels, I think it is entirely justified to look for a 'human' solution to the synoptic problem. That's not to say there was no inspiration, only to say that if there was inspiration, then it was channeled through human actions.

The Greisbach hypothesis

This is the oldest solution to the problem. It basically proposes that Matthew and Luke produced their gospels first, and independently, and that Mark came along later and combined the two into one - shorter - document, by chopping out all the material that was unique to one or other, and only retaining the material which was common to both.

Of course, if you look at the pie charts above, you'll see that it can't have been that simple. 21% of Mark has no parallel in Luke, so if this theory worked, then Mark must have included some M material and got the Special Mark material from somewhere else. In other words, Mark had more sources than just the two Gospels and he had some means of selection other than just the material of overlap.

There are a few other problems with this theory. For me, the two compelling reasons not to believe that this is the way things were are the quality of the writing and the good stuff that Mark would have apparently thrown out. By quality of writing, I mean that there are passages in Mark and Matthew that are remarkably similar, except in that Matthew has better and more 'polished' use of Greek grammar, etc. Meanwhile Mark's version of the same story is expressed in clumsy wording. It makes no sense that Mark, when he was copying from Matthew, would introduce so many mistakes, yet it makes perfect sense, that if Matthew was copying from Mark, he would improve the text. Then there are things like the beatitudes and the Lord's prayer. There are versions of both in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. The Greisbach hypothesis assumes that Mark threw out such classic passages because of only minor variations between the texts. And instead of these classics, Mark introduces a small number of unique but weird things like the guy who runs away naked in the Garden of Gethsemane.

As far as I can tell, the solutions to the synoptic problem which start with Mark make much more sense.

The Two Source Hypothesis

This is the most widely held solution to the problem. Basically, it assumes that Mark's gospel came first ('Markan Priority') and was used by both Matthew and Luke when they came to write their gospels, perhaps some decades later. Additionally, this theory supposes Matthew and Luke had access to a second document, generally known as 'Q', which is now lost, and that they both used Mark and Q to compile their gospels.

Numerous theses and books have been written about Q, with some people holding that it must have been a written document, some holding that it must have been largely oral tradition, some insisting that it must have been a written document, based on oral tradition, etc. There have even been several studies looking at the development of Q, and identifying various 'strata' in the hypothetical Q document and such like. Which is all very impressive for a book which doesn't exist and is only inferred by studying other texts.

The theory goes that Q had no narrative order, it was just a collection of sayings with no nativity and no passion narratives. This explains why Matthew and Luke's order of events are in good agreement when they also agree with Mark, but why their Q material is in completely different order to each other.

My favourite Q studies are the ones which discuss the Mark-Q overlaps. Which is interesting, as - by definition - Q is the stuff that is in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark. But you can study anything, it doesn't have to be real... (it just has to be funded!)

Anyway, there are good and sound reasons for holding that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the backbone of their gospels, and added material from one or two other sources, which may have included Q.

By the way, sometimes the two source hypothesis is called the 'Four Source' hypothesis - referring to Mark, Q, M and L. but aside from that, the theory is exactly the same, as far as I can tell.

The Farrer hypothesis

Finally, we come to the Farrer hypothesis. This also supposes Markan priority, but does away with the need for Q. Basically the theory is that Matthew used Mark and some other material to write his gospel, and Luke used both Mark and Matthew, plus some other material, to write his gospel.

Using Occam's Razor, this theory is probably the most compelling as it only requires three sources, Mark, M and L, without the need for Q. Most of the problems associated with this theory (for example, why would Luke break up the sermon on the mount and spread it around his gospel at apparently random points) can be explained using plausible reasoning. That's not to say that any of the reasoning is completely compelling, but at least it is plausible.

The Final Solution

And so we come to the point - what do I find to be the best solution to the problem? Well, having read quite a lot and listened to a lot of podcasts and lectures on the topic, I am completely convinced that Mark's gospel came first, and that both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their own gospels. Thus I disregard the Greisbach hypothesis and the independent inspiration theory.

Beyond that, I am unsure. It is clear that both Matthew and Luke had access to a supply of material other than Mark's gospel. It wouldn't be particularly surprising to find that Matthew and Luke both had access to one collection of sayings that we call Q. Then again, it wouldn't be that surprising if Luke also had access to Matthew - he does start off his gospel saying 'Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us' (Luke 1v1), so it is clear that he has access to more than two gospels or proto-gospels which he used to compile his own gospel.

The implications of all this...

Actually, I don't really care if there was or wasn't a Q. For me, the most important thing to have come out of me wrestling with the synoptic problem is the realisation that both Matthew and Luke disagreed with Mark and changed his gospel to fit their purposes and beliefs. There are places in Mark where Jesus behaves in a human manner or shows evidence of limitations (e.g. Mark 6v5 where Jesus 'could do no mighty work') which Matthew or Luke rewrites (e.g. Matthew 13v58 where Jesus 'did not do' any mighty works). This one observations blows the whole case for inspiration out of the water - if Mark was inspired, then Matthew and Luke were not, and vice versa. The rewrites of Mark by the other two demonstrate that these books were written by people with human agendas, who were quite happy to change details in their sources to make the stories fit with their own beliefs. We know they did this with Mark, we can only assume that they did this with their other sources as well!

So where does this leave us? It leaves us with three different accounts of three different Jesuses, at least two of which (and we can assume the third likewise) have been modified by the writers to make the character and message of Jesus conform to their own beliefs. Thus, if the real Jesus said or did something that the authors didn't like then this will have been changed, modified or omitted.

Its not that the gospel writers believed in Jesus and tried to conform themselves to his image, it appears that they took Jesus and made him conform to their image! Thus, our only route of access to the real Jesus who walked the roads of Galilee (NB, not the 'historical Jesus' - that's a different concept altogether) is forever broken.

This brings us back to the popular question WWJD? Because of the above I now believe that we cannot know the answer to this. Sure, we can say what the 'Jesus of Luke' would do, or the 'Jesus of Mark', but not the real Jesus. So, by looking at the synoptic problem, I've led myself not to a solution, but to an even bigger problem. Sigh.
"The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know"

Saturday, December 03, 2011


I was reminded of this quote this morning:
Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.
C.S. Lewis
On reflection, and I think this is probably true for the vast majority of people who consider this quote, I think that I live as if Christianity and Christ were moderately important. I know many people who live as if it was of no importance, and hardly anyone who live as if it was of immense importance.

I suppose that is part of all the questioning I've been going through on this blog. I know I'm in the untenable moderate middle ground, and I need to find the reasons to jump one way or the other...