Saturday, August 31, 2013

Do I have to study Koiné Greek?

Following my recent comments about debates on the Historical Jesus, I went away and listened to a couple more debates. One was between Dan Barker and Mike Licona on the resurrection - did it happen? You can find the audio of it here.

I'm not going to get into the details of the debate or the old 'minimal facts' argument that Licona used (expressed in a very 'appeal to consensus' manner here) in the debate. But what irked me the most about the debate was that it, once again, degenerated into an argument about the precise meaning of words in Koiné Greek (the language that the New Testament documents were written in).
2 Timothy 2:14 says "Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen."
Indeed. At one point in the debate Licona got Barker to say how long he'd formally studied Greek for. Barker said "two years". Licona casually dismissed two years of study as being 'basic to intermediate' level, and then trumped Barker by claiming to have formally studied Greek for five years, and so he therefore understood Greek at an advanced level, and therefore his interpretation of a given word was correct and Barkers was wrong.

They were arguing whether the nuances in this particular Greek word for 'raised' implied that Jesus was raised purely spiritually or raised physically.

Hang on, it takes 5 years of study to be able to resolve this question, and even then it all hangs on an ambiguous word, so ambiguous that someone who had studied for only 2 years would misunderstand it?

If that's the case, then the original ambiguous word couldn't be inspired by a God actually trying to communicate a message.

Sorry, I simply don't have the time or money to take 5 years out of my life to devote to the study of an ancient language. If it takes 5 years of study to be sure of the interpretation of some crucial verses in the bible, then I will never have a correct interpretation or understanding of some of the bible, and therefore will never be able to decide for myself what to believe. The only option open to me is to trust the opinion of one expert or another, so how should I choose?

If correct understanding of nuances in the original Greek is required to understand the original message of the NT writings, then the original intent of those writings will be forever lost to me and to billions of others, whose salvation apparently depends on it.

And yet, Christian apologists want me to believe that an omniscient and omnipotent God would inspire a book which is ambiguous on some pretty important things. For me, that is a truly unbelievable claim. If there is a God who intends to convey a message to his creation through a book, he would have done it in an unambiguous way.

Thus I can't help but conclude that if the finer points of an apologist's argument rely on a correct understanding of subtleties in the text, then that argument is invalidated, by default.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Historical Jesus Spectrum

I've read a few books and listened to a number of debates and discussions on 'the historical Jesus' over the past few years. The debates are always frustrating. This morning I realised just why they are largely a waste of time. The problem is this, the two opposing viewpoints generally presented in these debates are too far apart on the spectrum of belief for anyone to ever have their point of view changed by them.

As I see it, the spectrum of belief in the historical Jesus and the gospel stories goes something like this:
  1. The bible is completely accurate and therefore Jesus was and is the divine Son of God.
  2. The bible stories are mostly accurate, although some minor mistakes and embellishments have got in there, due to the human writers, but all the essential stuff is true, therefore we can be sure Jesus was and is the divine Son of God.
  3. The bible stories are based on what happened in history, but some legendary and mythical content has been added along the way. Jesus was and is the divine Son of God, and we can still learn all we need to know about him for salvation and righteous living from the gospel stories.
  4. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, a holy man or prophet, sent by God, and we can learn how to live and how to approach God by following his teachings.
  5. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, he was a good man who believed he was sent by God. He may even have believed he was in some way divine. Obviously some of the stories in the gospels are outright fictions and he couldn't have done all those miracles, but we can still learn something about right living from his good moral teaching.
  6. The bible stories are a heavily embellished history, but we can still see traces of the real Jesus in there, he was a charismatic political leader who lead a movement against Rome and was executed as a consequence.
  7. The bible stories are a collection of mythical stories and wise teachings which have been fictively attributed to Jesus, who was a real man in 1st century Galilee/Judea. But the legends almost completely obstruct our view of the real Jesus, so we don't really know who he was.
  8. The bible stories, including tales of Jesus the saviour, are a collection of mythical stories. At some point these were historicised, but the character of Jesus was never a real person.
The problem with debates between Christian scholars and atheist scholars is that Christians, by definition, must hold to one of the first three options on this list, while atheists, by definition, must discount the top four options. Generally debates are between someone holding to Option 1 or 2 and someone holding to Option 5 or 6. But these viewpoints are sufficiently far apart on the spectrum that there is almost no common ground between them. The only really meaningful debates on the topic of the historical Jesus are between those holding to options 4, 5 or 6. That is, it is only people who agree to a high amount of embellishment that can reasonably debate these points, Christians are pretty much excluded from meaningful debate on this topic, and thus the conclusion that Jesus was actually divine in some way is pretty much off the table.

The thing is, I really don't care which option out of 5 to 8 is true, or which option out of 1 to 3 is true. But I really do care whether the truth lies in options 1 to 3 or in options 5 to 8. Option 4, being a very uncertain place, when it comes to Jesus, is not something I want to conclude, because where would that get me? Yes there is a God, but no Jesus wasn't his Son. Yikes. I'll leave that possibility alone for now.

For me, the only thing that matters about the 'historical' Jesus is this: Was he the Son of God or not?

If he wasn't the Son of God, it doesn't matter to me if he existed or didn't. It doesn't matter to me if he was a political leader, an apocalyptic prophet or a freedom fighter. It doesn't matter to me whether or not he believed he was the Son of God or not. If he wasn't actually the real Son of the real God, then I really don't care who he was.

But if he was the real Son of the real God, then this fact should influence everything in my life.

So my problem with all the debates, discussions and books on the Historical Jesus is this - none of them helps me decide whether or not the gospel stories contain the truth.

But I am persuaded that there are errors and human embellishment in the gospels, so Option 1 is off the table for me. So the battle ground is really on Options 2 and 3. If it can be shown that the embellishments and fictions in the gospel stories are in the minority, then the possibility that Jesus was and is the Son of God is still a live option.

I've read, seen and heard plenty of stuff that suggests that the majority of material in there is legendary. But its only a suggestion, not a 'beyond reasonable doubt' proof.

Then again, I've not heard any particularly compelling case for the authenticity of the apparently legendary material in the gospels, so the balance of evidence seems to be supporting the skeptical side. But its just not conclusive for me.

And that bugs me.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Original here: