Is The Bible
Historically Reliable?
Chris Tian

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Friday, November 05, 1999 5:13 PM

No.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Friday, November 05, 1999 9:26 PM

I will briefly state why I do not trust the Bible any further than knowing what Jews believed in B.C.E. 300-200 and what Christians believed in C.E. 60-180 (and to document how, over the years, certain Christian apologists, such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the New International Version translating team, were willing to significantly alter what they claimed was "The Word of God" in order to fit their preconceived dogma).

The Christian New Testament is very biased against Jews and in favor of Romans. Even Pontius Pilate, who was removed from office for his brutality (and that's saying a lot), is seen as a good guy who seeks to protect poor Jesus from the bloodthirsty Jewish mob -- if only he could. Truth is, the Pilate we know about (from sources other than the patently unreliable New Testament) wouldn't have tried to save any Jew, and could have merely said the word and saved Jesus if that had been what he wanted to do. And the Jewish common folks that we know about would never have gone after one of their own for political reasons (especially for making himself king), like they are alleged to have done here.

The earliest documents (James; the four undisputed letters of Paul) have no details of Jesus' life -- when he lived, when he died, what he was like, what he did, etc. Only those documents that were written after the Gospels began to circulate had any details, and those paralleled what was written in the Gospel accounts. The only exception to this would be a single mention of Cephas in I Corinthians. 15.

The Gospel accounts were written in the following order: Mark (C.E. 70-90); Matthew (C.E. 80-90); Luke (C.E. 80-90); John (much later). The first three appear to have been the official accounts of rival Christian communities, and were never intended to agree with one another; rather, they appear to be trying to outdo one another in some places and seem to be "setting the record straight" in others.

They obviously were never intended to be accurate historical accounts, as can be seen by comparing those Gospels that are known to have utilized other Gospel as their basis (e.g., Matthew and Luke both used Mark). A comparison of these accounts (an attempt to harmonize them) shows some interesting details: the later writers copied many passages from the earlier writers, but did not resist the temptation to elaborate and even to change the accounts.

My favorite example of such an embellishment is the fig tree story, where the later writer's Jesus is bigger and better than that of the earlier writer. In the earlier story, the disciples noticed the withered fig tree the following day and marveled. In the later story, the fig tree withered instantly. This suggests to me that Matthew was not satisfied with a Jesus who would take a whole day to wither a damned fig tree. Matthew's account also omits Mark's mention of the fact that it was not fig season: Matthew's Jesus wasn't stupid enough to go looking for figs when it's not fig season. Along the same lines, Mark describes how Jesus, on occasion, would do certain physical things while healing, such as touch the person, make a spittle, etc. Matthew's Jesus is too powerful to resort to such mechanical means. These and similar alterations are consistent with the likelihood that the entire stories were seen by their writers as devotional fictions, not historical accounts.

Another point worth noting is that many stories in the Gospel accounts are built upon the "fulfillment" of Old Testament passages. (Some events are "fulfillments" of passages that are not even in the Old Testament!) Before they had written accounts of the life of Jesus, the Christians relied upon the Old Testament as their Scripture, and believed that the entire story of Jesus's life was contained therein. This is why so many passages in the Gospel accounts stress that Old Testament passages were fulfilled.

Many of the Gospel accounts were constructed from Old Testament passages and not from the testimony of observers. Even passages that mention no "fulfillment" of Old Testament predictions are clearly Old Testament tales with the names changed. A clear example of a "fulfillment" construction is where Matthew has Jesus riding on two donkeys because, being Greek, he was unaware that when Zechariah says, "lowly, riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass," it is a poetic couplet, where the poet deliberately repeats himself. Only a circus performer would try to ride two animals at once, and that for show; the riding of two animals at once is not properly seen as an act of humility, or a "lowly" act. John, a much later document, has Jesus sitting on only one animal.

As for the Old Testament, it was in the news recently that the apologists' archaeologists still have never found a shred of evidence to support the Exodus story. (Israeli authorities are extremely concerned and have suppressed this story because it is the very foundation of the Nation of Israel's claim to the land. They are scrambling to come up with counter arguments in order to protect their nation.

The "kingdoms" of David and Solomon were, at best, villages. I also have read some of the works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who are almost unanimous in their belief that Ezra wrote the entire Old Testament from a revelation. The allegedly "perfect" copy of Isaiah in the Dead Sea Scrolls doesn't help, because it doesn't predate the time of Ezra (and it is far from being a perfect replica of the Isaiah we have today).

Even if Moses had written the Torah, it contains the names of several cities that (according to the Bible) were not founded until much later. It also contains an account of Moses' own death and burial. But hardly anyone who is a historian or a biblical scholar believes that Moses wrote the Old Testament. Only the common sheep think that way any more.

I could go on about the flatness of the earth, the firmament (lid) on top, the water above the firmament (lid), that pi equals 30/10 (or 3), that the growth of languages can be charted very precisely by the migration of different clans (with the exception of when one nation conquered another and imposed its language), that recorded history predates when Adam and Eve were supposedly created (by a strict literal accounting such as that of Bishop James Ussher), that there was no global flood, that Jericho came down piecemeal (not all at once), etc.

A band of illiterate goat-herders used to sit around a campfire of camel dung and tell these legends to one another, for the purpose of keeping order in the tribe. This is clearly a collection of those legends; unfortunately, some modern goat-herder-types still believe them, and wish that the rest of us abide by their barbaric moral codes as well. Otherwise, I would pay no more attention to them than I do to the exploits of Hemantadevi or Wepwawet or Quetzalcoatl.

These are just some of my reasons, and I choose not to pay very close attention to it these days. I studied it intensely seven years ago, twelve years ago and for three years ending at about eighteen years ago. It is not our purpose here to discuss these matters, although we do maintain a policy of answering reasonable questions that are presented in a mannerly decorum.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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The first sentence in this next reply suggests that my response was posted on a list or board of some sort. This suspicion is bolstered by several instances wherein the pseudonymous "Chris Tian" gives several responses, each labeled "My response cont." -- suggesting that he got help on this one, but took credit for the various responses. Another possibility is that we get to play the pawns in an online anti-atheism effort.

Also note that none of the responses are backed up with fact, they are simply statements: unsupported claims.

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Monday, November 08, 1999 5:27 PM

You are the one who demanded that I stay on topic. Now you introduce side-issues regarding comments that I made within a parenthesis in my introductory remark -- which remark simply describes why the Bible is not of interest to me and why I do not want to waste my time discussing it.

Now, I think, we have bumped into the third reason why a discussion on the Bible is not a concern to me: The people who insist upon entering such a discussion tend to be overly contentious; seeming almost to get a kick out of finding new and better ways of being contrary, knee-jerk reactionaries; who appear to enjoy engaging in arguments that can be abridged: "It is so!" "It is not so!" "It is so!" "It is not so!"

You asked me a question and my one-word answer is "No." You asked me to document my reasons for my answer, and I explained to you why I would prefer spending my time discussing challenging matters. Now, you reveal yourself to be the quarrelsome crosspatch that I suspected you to be after reading your second letter.
 

If the Jehovah's Witnesses don't think they are Christians, then tell me who they think they are. And if Christ were effective at enacting His message that all should come to an understanding of him, then why are there so many "false" Christians and non-Christians? Why, even among people who think they are Christians, will so few partake of His Grace (according to your exclusionist scenario)?

Something is wrong, here; something is terribly wrong. I hope ta gaud that you are not teaching this stuff to your children.

My questions here are rhetorical and I seek no response from you. Please don't bother. I will not stoop to engaging in a discussion which contains the kind of thinking displayed above, and the accompanying dismissal of my qualifications for disagreeing with this (nowadays) minority position among modern Christians -- that of exclusionism within Christianity -- which is practiced primarily by non-mainstream Christian groups such as the Evangelicals in the United States and the Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide.

If you can write off your Christian allies without blushing, how, then, can I expect you to treat me, since I show no pretence of faith at all?
 

You are bluffing. You call me a liar of the "bald face" variety without first having examined our website (or even having asked us) to know whether we've already posted our position on this matter and the "evidence" you seek.

I will not stoop to such indignity, and neither, I imagine, would a Jehovah's Witness.

A few of my problems with the NIV are documented about midway through the letter called "Atheism: A Position of Convenience?" Suffice it to say that I stumbled upon these while compiling a list of mathematical errors, and simply went through the list one by one. My comments on tampering in the NIV are merely incidental to the piece, which is not a list of NIV botches but a list of mathematical errors.

I noticed the NIV problems as I was comparing translations and, quite frankly, I was rather shocked at just how often I encountered this very problem with the NIV. (I was also surprised at how many times the New World Translation of the Jehovah's Witnesses agreed with the popular translations.) Only once or twice in the entire list did the NIV agree with the other popular translations.

The NIV translators clearly chose to err on the side of "biblical inerrancy" rather than to choose the option having the best textual basis or even the translation that is most natural to the text. In other words, the NIV translators would prefer to mistranslate a passage or to use an obscure, unreliable source, over allowing any of the commonly known biblical errors to appear in their completed English text -- so loyal are they to the preconception that the Bible is without error that when they see even a minor counting error in the manuscripts, they will deliberately alter the translation to make it appear as if it was never there.

The NIV's bias toward biblical inerrancy is clearly and proudly admitted in the opening paragraphs of the book's Preface. My objection is that they would deliberately alter what they tell us is "The Word of God" in order to make it better fit their preconception that the Bible is, in fact, "The Word of God."

Is this not the ultimate act of dishonesty, altering what they represent to us as the infallible, unchangeable, eternal message from God to man? What the Christians did to alter Lincoln's Gettysburg address (by adding "under God" to it and later claiming that as the original) pales in comparison.

I have documented enough problems with both the NIV and the NWT to satisfy me that the New International Version contains more deliberate tampering with the available text, to support a stated preconception (biblical infallibility, as stated in the NIV's Preface), than even the New World Translation -- even though those who tend to prefer the NIV (the biblical infalliblists) are the very ones most likely to go to great lengths to show how the Watchtower Society tampers with the text to support that group's preconceptions (no "soul"; no baptism for the dead; etc.).
 

[Chris Tian writes:]

[Cliff's response:]

So, are you saying here that the authorship of none of the epistles (save those attributed to John) are disputed in any historical or biblical scholarship circles? Are you saying that even the so-called Liberal scholars (the majority) now agree with your (minority) position?

Do you see why I don't want to discuss these matters with you? You show a complete lack of dignity in responding to statements that I fell short of making. I spoke only of the "undisputed letters of Paul" -- not to their actual historicity or that of any others.

Since you think you "have said enough on this to close the door," then I can assume that you are unwilling to back up your rejection of my claim by taking the five epistles in question (Romans; Corinthians; Galatians; James), and from them (without referring to any of the other epistles or Gospels) constructing a comprehensive life of Christ. Can you, only from these undisputedly and admittedly early epistles, tell me even approximately when Jesus lived and died?

Oh, but you won't. (You can't.) You said so when you told me that you "have said enough on this to close the door."

You insist that I document my position on a topic that means absolutely nothing to me (biblical errancy), yet you will brush this one off in a single broad stroke -- simply making statements and parroting Evangelical apologists, but unwilling to bring forth any arguments whatsoever -- and that with no further ado or comment.

Do you see why I do not wish to continue a discussion with you?

These will be my only responses to you, as I feel this conversation is not going to go anywhere. I cannot hold a discussion with somebody who is unwilling to practice honesty with me. My responses to you were only to document your dishonesty and your lack of decorum. You seem to want simply to engage in a game of "Yes it is!" "No it is not!" "Yes it is!" "No it is not!" -- as if you were saying to yourself, "This is should be fun!"

If you wish to engage in a dignified discussion with me, you must agree to: (1) stay on the topic at hand, which happens to be why I think the Bible is unreliable as a historical document; (2) refrain from calling upon me to explain something (such as why a character would say or do such-and-so) which assumes a position (the historical reliability of the Bible narrative) that we have not, in our discussion, yet established; (3) agree to speak in terms of publicly available knowledge. Any truth ought to be able to prevail under these conditions.

For example, if I state my opinion that the prevailing bias within the New Testament is one of anti-Semitism, you ought first to be sure you understand what I mean by that (perhaps Cliff is using the classic argument along those lines, one that has existed since at least the times of the Ebionites or possibly even since the time of Justin and Trypho -- what a concept!), and then either to agree with me and go on, or to bring arguments to challenge my position (not simply your fantasy of what I said). If you are willing to rephrase your questions from a more neutral, truth-seeking query (as opposed to the truth-knowing interrogation I see above), I will be willing to go a little further with you. However, I have already spent more time in this discussion that I feel the topic warrants.
 

Again: Here is my position (for what it's worth):

I don't think the Bible is historically reliable; I don't refer to it in my history studies; I distrust any claims based solely upon what the Bible says: I have found the Bible to be that untrustworthy, and cannot understand why anybody studying history could possibly take it seriously.

This is my opinion after several decades of serious and often open-minded inquiry into the matter. I am an atheist because I have read the Bible; I was not one before I began examining it.

My views are my views and I can live with them.

I don't need to explain to anyone why I think the Jesus story and the Easter Bunny story are equally absurd, or why I think the Jesus story is so patently shocking that it is not suitable for children and other living things. Anybody who cannot at least see why I feel this way, who wants simply to contradict the parenthetical remarks and asides I make within my introductory comment, is beyond gaining anything from a discussion with me (beyond the kicks and giggles that some toddlers associate with being contrary).

You asked me to document my position, and I have gone to the trouble of compiling yet another statement of my position -- against my desire to do this, against my better judgement, and against the stated guidelines for this forum. If you want to engage further with me (if you even want me to read through one of your letters in its entirety), then you must honor the minimally accepted decorum for a formal discussion.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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The man too dishonest to give us his real name now takes a right turn. We present this to you in <PRE>Formatted Text</PRE> to show precisely how it arrived. This is Chris Tian's idea of a "ready defense" against our objections to biblical Christianity.

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Friday, November 12, 1999 7:02 AM

What does this mean?

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Friday, November 12, 1999 1:50 PM
 

As a human with purely human emotions, it grieves me to no end that people would exploit the dying and the grieving in this manner. The fact that it is probably fiction does not absolve those who would glory over such activities.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Friday, November 12, 1999 5:34 PM

You'll have to make an effort to make sense if you wish to continue this dialogue.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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From: Positive Atheism <editor@positiveatheism.org>
To: Chris Tian
Subject: Re:
Date: Monday, November 15, 1999 7:18 PM

Resorting to that one, eh?

You just defined a "fool" as anyone who disagrees with your position.

You lose the argument.

Have a nice life.

Cliff Walker
"Positive Atheism" Magazine

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Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.