Sunday, February 12, 2012

OT prophecies of the Messiah...

Following some comments made in response to a previous post, I thought it would be a good time to look over the Christian claim that Jesus fulfilled many OT prophecies and is thus demonstrated to be the messiah. Some preachers claim that Jesus fulfills 'over 300' prophecies in the OT, but I don't really have the time or inclination to consider that many now, so I'll consider the 39 main ones, which I have taken from this list. If your favourite OT prophecy of Jesus isn't one of the ones on the list, please comment with a specific chapter and verse reference, and I'll have a look at that one too.

In commenting on this list, I'll be looking at a number of issues, two of the main one being whether the OT passage was actually intended or viewed as a messianic prophecy when it was written or first known, and whether or not it looks like the gospel accounts were written specifically to tick the boxes of some of the OT prophecies, that is, the gospel accounts contrived to make Jesus fulfill the prophecy, whether the historical Jesus actually did. Point 1 is case in point:

1. Micah 5:2. The Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
This was clearly understood as a Messianic prophecy.
However, two of the gospels and all of the epistles make no mention of this. Luke's story of the census does appear contrived (what sort of census counts the population in places where they don't live?), so there are hallmarks of the story being contrived to tick the prophecy box. I'm not sure this one counts as evidence that Jesus fulfilled prophecy.

2. Genesis 49:10. The Messiah will be a descendant of Judah.
“The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will obey.”
Only two of the gospels (Matt and Luke) make explicit that Jesus was a descendent of Judah. Mark has Jesus himself questioning the claim that he is a descendent of David. But none of that really matters, the main point to raise here is that Jesus had no association with a 'ruler's staff' or a 'scepter' during his time on earth and, thus far, not all the nations obey him. So, at best, this is a prophecy still awaiting its fulfillment. Of course, that means it is not evidence in favour of Jesus being the messiah.

3. Psalm 72:10-11. Great kings will pay homage and tribute to the Messiah.
The website I took this list from quotes the verse from the New Living Translation: “The western kings of Tarshish and the islands will bring him tribute. The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts.” I looked this up in other translations and the sense is somewhat different: "May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him. May the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May all kings bow down to him and all nations serve him" (NIV). In context, the whole psalm is a prayer or blessing clearly intended for the coronation ceremony of any king. The hope is that all the blessings listed, including the favour of foreign kings and nations, will be evident in the reign of whichever king was being enthroned. This would, by implication, have also been applied to the coming messiah. However, only one of the gospels relates the visit of the Magi (not kings!) to the infant Jesus, and they came from the east, perhaps Sheba (possibly modern day Yemen), but not Seba (which was not a place, but the son of Cush, thus linked with Ethiopia; South not East) and certainly not from Tarshish (thought to be Tarsus, Asia Minor; North West). This passage is debated by many scholars and thought by most critical scholars to be fiction, intended to show that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, rather than being historical.

4. Psalm 132:11, Jeremiah 23:5-6, Jeremiah 33:15. The Messiah will be a descendant of David.
“The Lord swore to David a promise he will never take back: ‘I will place one of your descendants on your throne. If your descendants obey the terms of my covenant and follow the decrees that I teach them, then your royal line will never end.”
“‘For the time is coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will place a righteous Branch on King David’s throne. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right through the land.”
“At that time I will bring to the throne of David a righteous descendant, and he will do what is just and right throughout the land.”
Two things here, firstly, and most importantly, Jesus has never yet sat on any throne or ruled over Israel or Judah. So, at best, this is a prophecy still awaiting its fulfillment. But beyond that, the gospels are unclear that Jesus was a son of David:
Mark 12: 35-37 "While Jesus was teaching in the temple courts, he asked, “Why do the teachers of the law say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: “‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”’ David himself calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?” The large crowd listened to him with delight." (Matthew and Luke copy this story and don't change it, even though both their genealogies of Jesus feature David).
Here, Jesus is clearly challenging the concept that the Messiah would be the son of David. There is no resolution to the story, so left as is, the only conclusion to draw is that, as far as Mark was concerned, Jesus was not a son of David. This is further emphasised by an implication in another Markan story, whereby the only person who calls Jesus 'Son of David' in Mark's gospel is Blind Bartimaeus. And he only says this while blind, after he has been healed of his blindness, he praises God, but makes no further mention of the 'Son of David' thing. Is there a wink and a nudge to the reader there?

5. Isaiah 7:14. The Messiah will be born of a virgin.
“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.”
This is one of the biggies, and is one of the most hotly contested. Does 'almah' mean virgin or young girl? Well, I don't think it matters, because the verse is part of a larger prophecy which goes on to say: "for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”
Did Assyria attack Judea during Jesus' lifetime, but before he knew the difference between right and wrong? No. Indeed, if Jesus was the Son of God from all eternity was there ever a time when he didn't know the difference between right and wrong? And was he called Immanuel? No. He was called Jesus. For these reasons, I cannot see how Jesus fulfilled this prophecy. Furthermore, it certainly does appear that Matt and Luke included the virgin birth theme to tick boxes, but even if it happened, a partial fulfillment of a prophecy is actually not a fulfillment of a prophecy.

6. Jeremiah 31:15. Children will be killed in effort to kill the Messiah.
The website I took this list from quotes the NLT: “This is what the Lord says: ‘A cry of anguish is heard in Ramah – mourning and weeping unrestrained. Rachel weeps for her children, refusing to be comforted – for her children are dead.”
Having compared the other translations and looked at the Hebrew (on Biblos), the original text would appear to be better translated "her children are not there" or "her children are gone". Given that this verse sits in the middle of a large prophecy about the return from exile, and the immediately following verse says "This is what the LORD says: "Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded," declares the LORD. "They will return from the land of the enemy", this verse must be understood to relate to the absent exiles who would return, not to dead children who couldn't return. Furthermore, Ramah is about as far North of Jerusalem as Bethlehem is south of it. Thus I think Matthew was entirely wrong to use this quote in connection with the slaughter of the innocents which he relates. So, once again, this is not a prophecy fulfilled by the life of Jesus.

7. Hosea 11:1. The Messiah will be taken to Egypt.
“When Israel was a child, I loved him as a son, and I called my son out of Egypt.”
In context (and even out of context) this verse is clearly not a prophecy regarding the future, it speaks about the events recorded in Exodus. Here, the 'son' in question is unmistakably the nation of Israel, not a future messiah. This verse is only understood as prophecy through the lens of Pesher, which I will probably discuss in another post, sometime soon.

8. Psalm 2:7-8. The Messiah will be the Son of God.
“The king proclaims the Lord’s decree: ‘The Lord said to me, ‘You are my son. Today, I have become your Father. Only ask, and I will give you the nations as your inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession.”
Scholars seem to think that this psalm was one spoken by the (pre-exilic) king of Israel or Judea as part of his enthronement ceremony, or as part of an annual festival. So it wasn't originally messianic in intent. However, it clearly became understood as part of messianic expectation in the post-exilic period. Thus, if Jesus is the king, then it does relate to him. However, Jesus has yet to return as king, thus this is another prophecy which remains, as yet, unfulfilled.

9. Isaiah 40:3-5. The Messiah will be heralded by the messenger of the Lord.
“Listen! I hear the voice of someone shouting, ‘Make a highway for the Lord through the wilderness. Make a straight, smooth road through the desert for our God. Fill the valleys and level the hills. Straighten out the curves and smooth off the rough spots. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all the people will see it together. The Lord has spoken!”
The funny thing about this prophecy is that the original sense of the passage is that the wilderness would be the place where the way of the Lord would be made, whereas the claimed NT fulfillment is that the wilderness is where the voice was heard shouting. So John the Baptist is only a partial fulfillment of this. But this is one of the clearest prophecies fulfilled in the story of Jesus.

10. Isaiah 11:2. The Messiah will be anointed by the Holy Spirit.
“And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.”
This is another passage that is clearly messianic expectation. But has it yet been fulfilled in Jesus? Certainly, out of context Isa 11:2 seems to be fulfilled by Jesus in the gospel stories, but what about the rest of the prophecy? Has Jesus (yet) judged the poor? Has he (yet) struck the earth with the rod of his mouth? Has he (yet) slain the wicked with the breath of his lips? (all in verse 4). No, no and no. So once again, this is one of those prophecies which Christians believe will be fulfilled by Jesus, but thus far in history, it hasn't.

11. Isaiah 9:1-2. The Messiah will bring light to Galilee.
“Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will soon be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory. The people who walk in darkness will see a great light – a light that will shine on all who live in the land where death casts its shadow.”
These verses are part of a larger messianic prophecy which ends up with the messiah on the throne judging for ever and ever. As noted above, this hasn't happened yet. However, the opening verses claim this messiah will be in some way connected to Galilee. So if you can separate verse 1 from the 7 verses that follow, then this has been fulfilled (even if it is vague) in Jesus, but if not, then this is still a prophecy awaiting fulfillment.

12. Isaiah 61:1-2. The Messiah will preach good news to the poor, comfort the broken hearted, and announce the year of the Lord’s favor.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted and to announce that captives will be released and prisoners will be freed. He has sent me to tell those who mourn that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”
The gospel accounts say Jesus claimed this prophecy was fulfilled in himself, so this one is pretty clear cut. Jesus apparently did bring good news to the poor. Not sure about the freedom for prisoners bit, unless you read that metaphorically, of course.

13. Psalm 35:19. The Messiah will be hated without cause.
“Don’t let my treacherous enemies rejoice over my defeat. Don’t let those who hate me without cause gloat over my sorrow.”
This psalm was clearly not written as a messianic prophecy, and only later Pesher has turned it into one. And the clause quoted is only a minor one in the psalm. Also, it is clear for the gospels that the pharisees had good reason to hate Jesus - he was challenging their way of life. So not a clear fulfilled prophecy.

14. Isaiah 35:5-6. The Messiah will make the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the mute speak.
“And when he comes, he will open the eyes of the blind and unstop the ears of the deaf. The lame will leap like a deer, and those who cannot speak will shout and sing!”
Yes. This one is clearly fulfilled by Jesus in the gospel stories.

15. Zechariah 9:9. The Messiah will enter Jerusalem riding a donkey.
“Rejoice greatly, O people of Zion! Shout in triumph, O people of Jerusalem! Look, your king is coming to you. He is righteous and victorious, yet he is humble, riding on a donkey – even on a donkey’s colt.”
This is a messianic prophecy, clearly, but the original context was all to do with judgement on all Israel's neighbours, a judgement that had already happened by the time of Jesus as all of them were under the dominion of Rome. Yes, the gospel accounts do have Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey (Matthew actually has him riding in on a donkey and a colt - at the same time - specifically to tick this box). However, it is fairly clear in the gospels that Jesus did this act intending to fulfill this prophecy, so is that a true fulfillment? Bus as I'm going to tally these up at the bottom of the post, then this is a yes.

16. Daniel 9:25. The Messiah will arrive in Jerusalem at a specified time.
“Now listen and understand! Seven sets of seven plus sixty-two sets of seven will pass from the time the command is given to rebuild Jerusalem until the Anointed One comes.”
This is one of those prophecies that needs unpacking. If you calculate the time of the prophecy of Daniel in a certain way and you make some assumptions about the length of a year (basically that a year is not 365 days, but is only 340!) then the numbers work out almost perfectly for the messiah coming at passover in the year 31AD. Which is (give or take a year) when most people think Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Sorry, but that's too contrived for me. And most critical scholars think that Daniel was written late, so the dates wouldn't add up. So, at best, I'm not convinced by this. Maybe I'll return to this in a future post.

17. Malachi 3:1. The Messiah will enter the Temple with authority.
“‘Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
This is another prophecy where those who claim that Jesus fulfilled it are reading his claimed future actions into its fulfillment. Yes, Jesus entered the temple with (violent) authority, but the judgement and 'day of the Lord' stuff that fills the rest of the prophecy was not fulfilled for another 40 years, at least, and perhaps has not been fulfilled yet. So this is another partial fulfillment.

18. Isaiah 53:3. The Messiah will be rejected.
“He was despised and rejected – a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care.”
Well, it depends which part of the gospel story you read. For part of the story, Jesus was accepted and welcomed by many, while he was rejected at other parts. But yes, it does look like this messianic expectation was fulfilled at the time of Jesus trial and crucifixion.

19. Isaiah 53:7. The Messiah will be silent in front of his accusers.
“He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth.”
This is part of the same prophecy as above, so I'm not sure it counts as a separate point. The gospel accounts do tell the story that Jesus was silent for most of his trial. Was that fulfillment or box ticking? This one is hard to tell.

20. Psalm 118:22. The Messiah will be rejected by the Jews.
“The stone rejected by the builders has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous to see.”
Well, Peter 2:7 says that Jesus fulfills this one. Beyond that, it is unclear in the original context what the verse is about. It doesn't look like it was written as a messianic expectation but, like many other Davidic verses in the psalms, it may have gained a messianic expectation in the post-exilic years. The original context does not suggest that 'the builders' refers to 'the Jews', so it is only reading this using Pesher and reading this using non-Jewish Christian reasoning that you can call this one a fulfilled prophecy.

21. Psalm 41:9. The Messiah will be betrayed by a friend.
“Even my best friend, the one I trusted completely, the one who shared my food, has turned against me.”
Was Judas Jesus's best friend? None of the gospels make this claim. Luckily the original language isn't as strong as 'best friend', and 'close friend' might be better. So yes, if this was understood to be a messianic expectation, then it was fulfilled in Jesus.

22. Zechariah 11:12. The Messiah will be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver.
“And I said to them, ‘If you like, give me my wages, whatever I am worth; but only if you want to.’ So they counted out for my wages thirty pieces of silver.”
There is nothing messianic in this OT passage. In order to relate this to Jesus it has to be taken completely out of context. However, I think that Matthew did read this as messianic and included it for box ticking purposes.

23. Zechariah 11:13. The 30 pieces of silver will be thrown in the potter’s field.
“And the Lord said to me, ‘Throw it to the potters’ – this magnificent sum at which they valued me! So I took the thirty coins and threw them to the potters in the Temple of the Lord.”
As above, part of the same prophecy. I think this is box ticking.

24. Psalm 35:11. The Messiah will be accused by false witnesses.
“Malicious witnesses testify against me. They accuse me of things I don’t even know about.”
Another non-messianic verse from the psalms that appears to have somehow become part of messianic expectation. Also, this translation (NLT) is not the sense of the verse preferred by most translations. Most translations drop the 'accuse' sense of it and translate as "ask me things I don't know", which is certainly not a parallel with the gospel story.

25. Isaiah 50:6. The Messiah will be beaten, mocked, and spit upon.
“I give my back to those who beat me and my cheeks to those who pull out my beard. I do not hide from shame, for they mock me and spit in my face.”
I can see how this has become 'messianic' after the stories of Jesus were circulated, but in its original context, it was clearly a passage about how the prophet ('2nd' Isaiah) was badly treated for being faithful to the Lord, and how the Lord looked after him.

26. Isaiah 52:13-14. The Messiah will be beaten, bloodied, and disfigured.
“See, my servant will prosper; he will be highly exalted. Many were amazed when they saw him – beaten and bloodied, so disfigured one would scarcely know he was a person.”
First things first, the verse clearly says it is about the 'servant' of the Lord (i.e. a prophet), not about his Son. But anyway, this is the beginning of the 'suffering servant' prophecy which certainly appears to parallel parts of the gospel story.

27. Psalm 22:7-8. The Messiah will be mocked and told to save himself.
“Everyone who sees me mocks me. They sneer and shake their heads, saying, ‘Is this the one who relies on the Lord? Then let the Lord save him! If the Lord loves him so much, let the Lord rescue him!’”
Psalm 22 doesn't appear to have been written as a messianic psalm, but by the time Christians were trying to get their heads around the idea of a crucified messiah, this psalm would have resonated greatly. The parallels are so striking that many believe that Mark wrote the crucifixion story with psalm 22 in mind. That is, it was not prophecy fulfilled, but rather a story told using building blocks from a familiar narrative.

28. Psalm 22:16. The Messiah’s enemies will pierce his hands and feet.
“My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs; an evil gang closes in on me. They have pierced my hands and feet.”
As above.

29. Psalm 69:21. The Messiah will be given vinegar and gall to drink.
“But instead, they give me poison for food; they offer me sour wine to satisfy my thirst.”
A different psalm, but the same reasoning as above can apply here. Mark used this text to build his narrative, not the other way about. And even if it is fulfilled prophecy, it is only partial fulfillment as nobody offered Jesus poisoned food.

30. Psalm 22:17-18. The Messiah’s enemies will divide his clothes among themselves and cast dice for his garments.
“My enemies stare at me and gloat. They divide my clothes among themselves and throw dice for my garments.”
Psalm 22 again. As above.

31. Psalm 34:19-20. The Messiah’s bones will not be broken.
“The righteous face many troubles, but the Lord rescues them from each and every one. For the Lord protects them from harm – not one of their bones will be broken!”
An odd verse to claim regarding Jesus. I don't think you could say that the Lord had 'protected him from harm', or that he was 'rescued'.

32. Psalm 22:14. The Messiah’s life will be poured out like water.
“My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me.”
Psalm 22 again. As above. And this one is quite tenuous anyway.

33. Zechariah 13:7. The Messiah will be struck down, and his disciples will be scattered.
“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, the man who is my partner, says the Lord Almighty. Strike down the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered, and I will turn against the lambs.”
Well, on the night he was betrayed, the disciples certainly scattered, but the story is quite clear that they were all back together again only a few days later. Beyond that, it is hard to say what the Zechariah passage is on about. It could be interpreted in a number of ways, and the prophecy fulfilled in Jesus way is certainly not the most obvious reading.

34. Isaiah 53:9. The Messiah will be buried in a rich man’s grave.
“He had done no wrong, and he never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.”
OK. That one fits.

35. Daniel 9:26. The Messiah will be killed, appearing to have accomplished nothing.
“After this period of sixty-two sets of seven, the Anointed One will be killed, appearing to have accomplished nothing, and a ruler will arise whose armies will destroy the city and the Temple.”
If this is a prophecy fulfilled, then it would seem that the 'truth' of Jesus victory on the cross would not be known until after the city and temple were destroyed. Yet most people seem to agree that the claim that Jesus death bought salvation was widely known long before the destruction of the temple in 70AD.

36. Psalm 16:10 & 49:15. The Messiah will be raised from the dead (resurrected).
“For you will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your godly one to rot in the grave.” “But as for me, God will redeem my life. He will snatch me from the power of death.”
Well, 49:15 speaks of being saved from death (i.e. not dying), so it is not relevant. But the other wasn't really written as a messianic psalm and only took on that role long after its composition. But I'll concede that this one appears to be a fulfillment.

37. Isaiah 53:4-6, etc. The Messiah will bear the sins of many and intercede for sinners.
“Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.”
This is certainly the understanding of Christians. But it is not clear to non-Christians that Jesus bore any sins or was an atonement. So I can't see how this is proof of anything, it is only part of a belief structure. And as a side point, it is not clear from some of the gospels that Jesus died an atoning death, but that's a discussion for another blog post.

38. Psalm 68:18. The Messiah will ascend to heaven.
“When you ascended to the heights, you led a crowd of captives.”
Erm, did a crowd of captives ascend with Jesus? No. So its not a prophecy fulfilled, is it?

39. Psalm 22:30. The Messiah will be served by future generations.
“Future generations will also serve him. Our children will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those yet unborn. They will hear about everything he has done.”
OK. I'll grant you that one.

So where does that leave us? Did Jesus fulfill some prophecies in the OT? It appears so. Did he fulfill all the messianic prophecies? No, far from it. Did the gospel writers arrange their stories to tick some of the prophecy boxes? Some of them did.

Out of the 39 prophecies listed here, I'd say that 10 of them are reasonably clear prophecies fulfilled in the story of Jesus. That's 25%. Not a great hit rate, given that there are thousands of prophecies in the OT and this list of 39 is someone's list of the best candidates for fulfillment.

I don't think the 'evidence' of prophecies fulfilled is that great...

(if you comment on this post, please quote the specific verses you're commenting on, thanks)

Saturday, February 04, 2012

"Why I am not a Christian"

The title of this blog post refers to the short book by Richard Carrier which I have just read, just in case you are concerned for my eternal salvation. Although, I have to say, the argument put forward in this book is very strong and compelling, such that, after reading this book, I am considerably closer to not being a Christian than I was before reading the book!

This is a short book, with an introduction, four chapters, and a short conclusion. Each chapter discusses an issue which leads Richard Carrier to believe that Christianity is false. The aim here is not to show that there is no God (although many of the things he says can be taken that way), the aim is to demonstrate to the reader that there is simply no justifiable reason to believe in the Christian God. The issue of whether or not there is a morally neutral, limited in power type god is not discussed, but the idea of an all powerful, good and loving God is considered and effectively refuted.

Don't believe me? Read the book. It is deliberately short and cheap (only £2.53 on Kindle in the UK, and less than £5 in paperback on Amazon UK). No, seriously, go and read the book. If you are a Christian, read the book. If Christianity is true, you will hopefully find the flaws in Carrier's argument, but if not, maybe you will find the truth. The truth will set you free, right? What have you got to lose?

The four reasons Carrier gives for his non-belief are:
  1. God is Silent: that is, if God is as most Christians describe him, he should be able to make his message clear to everybody. And what's more he should be willing to make his message clear to everybody. The reality is, however, that most people are not aware of a clear message from God, and the message that seems to be heard by believers is not a consistent or even a non-contradictory one. Different believers get different messages and these conflict, and these lead (quite literally) to conflict. God appears to be unable to deliver a simple message to his people, let alone to everyone else. Thus, the Christian God is refuted by his silence.
  2. God is Inert: that is, there is no evidence that there is a loving and supremely powerful God at work in the world. Innocent children suffer and die. Good people suffer and die. Innocent children of good Christian people suffer and die. God apparently does nothing to stop this. This is inconsistent with the claimed character of the Christian God, thus, God is refuted by his inactivity.
  3. Wrong Evidence: basically, extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence, and the biblical evidence is barely even mundane. The best evidence for the death and resurrection of Jesus is four non-eyewitness accounts, which contradict each other on important issues, and a bunch of letters, ostensibly from someone who never met Jesus in the flesh and only had a vision of him. And all these were written a couple of decades after the alleged events, at the earliest. How is all that sufficient evidence for the greatest claim ever made?
  4. Wrong Universe: the Christian claim is that God made the universe and put us, the pinnacle of creation, into it. So why is 99.99999% of all creation hostile to us? As far as we can tell, if you scaled the entire universe down to the equivalent size of a house, then the tiny zone which is capable of sustaining human life is as small as a single proton! Invisibly and insignificantly small. This is not what we would expect if the universe was intelligently designed for us, but is exactly what you would expect if we are merely an accidental by-product of a chaotic universe. Carrier goes into some interesting stuff about current cosmological theories which I can't summarise here, but his case is very compelling. He also contrasts the ancient view of the universe, as assumed by the New Testament writers and which is consistent with the theory of God, with the current scientific view of the universe, which is not. Fascinating stuff, and justified in the conclusion that the Christian view of God is false.
My intention, when I started reading this book was, in the way of the scientific method, to attempt to refute each of these in turn. But the problem is, Carrier actually discusses and refutes all the 'evidence' I would have used in my attempt to rebut him. So I'll leave it to you.

If you think you can demonstrate that any of Carrier's arguments are wrong, read the book and refute them. Let me know (by commenting on this post) when you have. Seriously, I'd love to hear your reasoning. I actively want to believe in the Christian God, but my faith is currently crumbling under the weight of evidence against this position.

Friday, February 03, 2012

Thought for the day

I read this comment in "The Life of Jesus Critically Examined" by David Friedrich Strauss, first published (in German) in 1835:
"The earliest records of all nations are, in the opinion of Bauer, mythical: why should the writings of the Hebrews form a solitary exception?"
The quote is in section 8 of the introduction, the reference is to G.L. Bauer "Hebraische Mythologie des alten and neuen Testaments" (1802).

When it is put so bluntly, you realise that it is a totally valid question. There is so much in the Old Testament which is similar in style to the myths of all the other cultures of the ancient middle east. Why, indeed, do we consider the bible to be a special case? If it is inspired, why is it inspired to look like everyone else's myths?

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Evidence for God: Arguments 42-50 (The Bible); and my final summary

I've made it to the end of the book "Evidence for God: 50 Arguments for Faith from the Bible, History, Philosophy, and Science" edited by William Dembski and Mike Licona. My thoughts on the first 41 chapters of the book can be found in these four posts: 1,2,3,4.

The final section of the book is disappointing (for me) in that it simply doesn't address the central issue: is the bible historically reliable? It skirts around this issue, and throws some actual evidence into the pot, but fundamentally doesn't demonstrate that we can use the bible as a collection of reasonably accurate historical writings, so all the arguments in the previous section (on Jesus), fall completely flat. Anyway, here are my brief comments on each of the chapters, in turn, followed by my summing up of the book:

42. Is the bible today what was originally written? by Andreas J. Kostenberger
More or less, yes, but what do you mean by 'originally'? This chapter does a good job of explaining how we can be reasonably confident that the bible we have today is pretty much the same as the 'bible' that was in existence around about 300AD. It doesn't give this date, of course, but reading between the lines, its there. The chapter completely ignores all the evidence of redaction and editing of the various books of the NT before they emerged in 'authorised' form sometime in the 2nd or 3rd centuries. The evidence of the lack of any extant copies of the Marcionite Canon, clearly show that the early church was very good at destroying unauthorised versions of any and all NT books. If the authorised version of, say, the epistle to the Galatians is different to the 'original', as the evidence suggests, then no, today's bible is not the same as that which was originally written.

43. Inerrancy and the text of the New Testament: Assessing the logic of the agnostic view by Daniel B. Wallace
This is very odd. This chapter admits that there are some very big issues with the doctrine of inerrancy, but deliberately (and explicitly) ignores them in order to focus on one tiny, tiny, side issue regarding inerrancy. Given that we no longer have 'the original manuscripts' (whatever that means), is there any point in justifying that these (now lost) documents were inspired and inerrant? Well, no, but this chapter thinks 'yes' and details why. As I've said countless times already, this is not evidence for God, so why is it in this book?

44. Why all the translations? by Denny Burk
Because the English language keeps evolving, we keep finding new manuscripts, and people read different interpretations into the text. Next...

45. Archaeology and the bible: How archaeological findings have enhanced the credibility of the bible by John McRay
Apparently space did not allow this chapter to look at Old Testament archaeology, but only New Testament archaeology. The author states this, but I think the title of the chapter should have reflected this too. The Old Testament details stories of wars, battles, kings, exiles and other events which, if they happened, would leave clear remains in the archeological record. The New Testament details stories of preaching and teaching, individual men doing healings, going on journeys, being crucified, etc. - exactly the sort of events that would leave no trace in the archaeological record. So focusing on the NT period is an odd choice. Perhaps it is because OT archaeology has raised some serious questions about the events described. In many cases, the OT record and the archeological findings contradict each other. In other cases, the evidence is inconclusive.

But what of the NT archaeology which is presented? Well, this boils down to confirmation of details in the setting of the stories: we know there was a pool of Siloam, we know that tombs in those days had stones which could be rolled away, we have evidence that Caiaphas was a real person, that there was a synagogue in Capernaum within a century of the time of Jesus, that the civic leaders in Thessalonica really were called by the unusual name used for them in the book of Acts, that a named character in one of the Corinthian letters (Erastus) was a real historical character, and a few other similar pieces of evidence.

All of these findings confirm the setting of the gospels and Acts. That is, it is clear from this that the writers of the stories knew details about the places, locations and people in the stories. None of this confirms the stories which are written in these settings. Its just like the way in which there are historical facts about places and people in the Sherlock Holmes stories, but that doesn't imply he was a real person, only that the author knew the details.

Nobody is in any doubt that the NT writings were written by people who knew the setting of the stories. The question is whether or not the stories are reliable, and archaeology cannot really answer that for us.

46. The Historical reliability of the Gospels by Craig L. Blomberg
Finally, the chapter I've been waiting for. Shame it is a short one that doesn't really grapple with the issues. It assumes that the gospels were based on eye-witness testimony and were written only a few decades after the events described. It uses the fact that issues like circumcision of gentiles (clearly an issue in the early church) are not discussed in the gospels as evidence that these are based on something real, rather than creations of the early church (actually, that's quite a good argument). But fundamentally, it does not address issues like the apparent 'redaction' of the gospels by a later 'ecclesiastical redactor' (as identified by Rudolf Bultmann), or the synoptic problem, which implies that Matthew and Luke copied Mark and changed it. Disappointingly shallow.

47. The new testament canon by Craig L. Blomberg
How did the canon of the NT get formed? This very short chapter presents the orthodox view of the selection and compilation of the documents based on the tree criteria of 'apostolicity', 'orthodoxy' and 'catholicity'. So how the heck did Hebrews and Jude get in there, they fail on at least one criterion? Only passing mention is made of Marcion, and no mention is made of the fact that the Marcionite Canon came first. The more I read on this issue, the more convinced I become that the 'Catholic' canon was formed as a reaction and a rebuttal to the Marcionite one. This is not discussed.

48. What should we think about the Coptic Gospel of Thomas? by Craig L. Blomberg
Not much, its probably late.

49. What should we think about the Gospel of Peter? by Charles L. Quarles
Not much, its even more probably late. (Excellent author name though! I hope the L represents 'Larles'. Although that's pretty unlikely.)

50. What should we think about the Gospel of Judas? by Craig A. Evans
Not much, its certainly late.

These last three chapters are clearly just filling up space to make this up to 50 chapters, much like most of the 'Science' section earlier. Sigh.

And there we have it. Didn't go out with a bang, but with a whimper.

In conclusion

The editors of this book set themselves a big task, finding 50 pieces of 'evidence' for God. Clearly, they never achieved this. Being generous, there are perhaps 10 good solid arguments or pieces of evidence for God in this book. The other 40 chapters are just filling, they bulk up the book without really adding anything to the debate.

With hindsight, this book is not intended to contribute to the debate. This book is intended for an audience of Christians, who have heard skeptical arguments from their friends or in the media. The aim of this book is to bolster the faith of the Christians without ever getting them to consider the real and valid issues that some skeptics make. I think the authors hope the Christian will read this book, be confused by the philosophy, be battered into submission by the science, be relieved by the weight of 'evidence' in favour of Jesus (without questioning the unstated suppositions), and be reassured by the apparent scholarship in the bible section.

The implication in lots of bits of this book is this: "Clever people have thought through all these issues in detail, so you don't have to..."

Is the evidence for God strong? Well, the philosophical and ID arguments for a Deistic creator are quite strong, although these don't fully tally with the God of the bible. The evidence for the Biblical God is quite a lot shakier. The intended readership of this book, however, won't notice the problems in harmonising the two, because those problems are not in this book.

So its been quite an ordeal, I've got angry at some chapters and been really disappointed by the lack of proper scholarship in others. The problem, for me, is that my crumbling Christian faith has not been in any way strengthened by reading this book, which actually disappoints me a great deal. I genuinely went in to this book with an open mind, actually hoping to find reasons to believe in here, but they are simply not there in any compelling way.

Why do the atheists have all the most compelling arguments?