Bible dealbreakers: Bad history

I’m doing a series this week on what I’d like to call “Bible dealbreakers,” reasons why I reject the Bible’s authority and therefore reject Christianity. This is part two of five six.

If the Bible contained accurate history, that in itself wouldn’t be sufficient evidence for me to consider it likely to be true overall. I hope this much is obvious; there are books and books of historical fiction that demonstrate the point. Merely containing some factual statements about people and places of the past is not the same thing as being a fully reliable document.

However, the Bible doesn’t even offer that much. A meaningful number of the claims it offers about history we now know to be false, or contradict other historical claims made elsewhere in the Bible. These aren’t just minor tidbits like saying Tuesday instead of Thursday — they’re major plot points. That puts the Bible one rung down, on the ladder of reliability, below historical fiction. Maybe it’d be better to call it historical fantasy.

I’m not going to spend much time on Genesis 1’s description of the ages of the universe and the Earth; while that does involve history in some sense, it’s really better classified as bad science, the topic of tomorrow’s post. But how about the Exodus? You know, the namesake of an entire book of the Pentateuch? It turns out there is no historical evidence of such a thing happening. No evidence that Israelites were enslaved by Egyptians, no evidence of the plagues, no evidence of a massive departure of slaves (the Bible claims 600,000).

Normally, I have some sympathy for the reply that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” but here we’re talking about a huge event that supposedly happened in a society known for its meticulous record-keeping. The idea that hundreds of thousands of people could go tromping around in the Middle East and leave not a single piece of archaeological evidence of their presence, and that not a single scribe would make a note of their arrival, existence, or departure? It’s so incredibly unlikely, I would classify it as inconceivable.

Speaking of archaeological evidence, let’s talk about Jericho. Joshua 6 contains this fantastic story about Joshua and his army marching around the city, blowing trumpets and shouting. Jericho is said to have secured gates, and people inside with their many possessions, and (notably) walls that came crumbling down. Except … the settlement at Jericho was abandoned by the time the Israelites showed up. It definitely didn’t have walls anymore. Jericho had been settled and deserted several times over the millennia, but the most recent decline of Jericho was still centuries before even the Biblical story of Joshua.

Let’s not forget about the New Testament. There are tons of discrepancies in its descriptions of when and how various events happened and who was  involved, and I can’t detail them all here. It suffices to say that the New Testament as a whole does not present a coherent historical account. The one issue that I do want to talk about now is the conflicting stories of the birth of Jesus, which conflict not only with each other but with the known historical record.

The historical problems with the Jesus timeline abound. (Before you try to argue with that video, see if your objection is already addressed in this one.) Here are a few especially egregious problems with the beginning of that timeline.

  • Matthew 2 says that Jesus was born “during the time of King Herod,” who died in 4 BCE. Luke 2 says that he was born during the first census that was taken “while Quirinius was governor of Syria,” which would be between 6 and 12 CE. These do not overlap.
  • A footnote in Luke 2 suggests that another translation would be “before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Not only is that a strange ambiguity, it is bizarre that the main text would have the translation contradictory to Matthew, and the potentially reconcilable one buried in a footnote.
  • It’s completely unrealistic to imagine a Roman census that required everyone to return to the town of their “house and line” (Luke’s words). It was a headcount and a property value assessment, and this just isn’t how it was done. Imagine everyone in “entire Roman world” (again, Luke’s words) traveling to their ancestral home — not only would this be unnecessary, it would be absolute chaos.
  • In Luke, Joseph and Mary leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born and placed in a manger. In Matthew, Jesus was born in Bethlehem (where it’s implied Mary and Joseph already lived) and they escape King Herod’s baby-killing edict by fleeing to Egypt, where they stayed “until the death of Herod.” An angel tells them it is safe to return to Israel, and they go to Nazareth in Galilee, not back to Judea since Herod’s son Archelaus was ruling there.
  • Matthew and Luke disagree on Joseph’s (and therefore Jesus’) genealogy. We’ll set aside for now the strangeness of considering Joseph’s genealogy at all, when Jesus is supposed to be born of a virgin and fathered by God.
  • Matthew and Luke are the only Gospels that mention Jesus’ birth at all. In Mark 1 and in John 1 Jesus just sort of appears. Even Paul doesn’t seem to be clued in on this virgin birth thing, writing that Jesus was “made of the seed of David according to the flesh.” Pretty weird, since it’s a very central part of the story of Christianity as it’s understood today, and these guys either don’t know about it or (much less likely) don’t think it’s worth mentioning.
  • In Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph is visited by “an angel” in a dream who explains the Holy Spirit/virgin birth business to him. In Luke 1:26-38, it is Mary who is visited by the angel Gabriel, apparently in person while Mary was awake, to tell her what’s going on. It’s possible that both of these could have happened — they don’t directly contradict each other — but it’s suspicious that they both include single angelic visitations with very different details, and don’t mention anything about the other’s event.
  • Even more problems crop up with dating Jesus’ birth when you take into account that Jesus was supposed to have lived for 33 years, was crucified during the administration of Pontius Pilate, 26-36 CE, and a bunch of other documented and dated events had to happen before his death.

It’s possible that you can fudge your way around a number of the historical contradictions and inaccuracies in the Bible. “Maybe this was a story of some other tribe of people who merged with the Hebrews later.” “Maybe this part was just exaggerated for effect, to give the people a story to rally around.” “When it says x, it must really mean y.” “Maybe this writer was mistaken about that detail.” “Maybe that was a mistranslation or a transcription error.” But even if you do that, you’re left with a book that’s had many of its stories exaggerated, some of which have nothing to do with the people they’re written about and are rife with mistranslations and other errors. I don’t see how that helps make the case that the Bible is a reliable and authoritative document worth building one’s beliefs around.

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  1. James Poteet

     /  April 13, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    You’re right, it would be a lot easier to just, as it were, take an eraser to part of it and fix it. The problem is, the Bible does perfectly describe God and so us making changes to it to “fix” it would be like a 2 year old attempting to “fix” the Mona Lisa. It’s NOT a mistake, it’s a deliberate, purposeful demonstration that no matter which side of Jesus’ legal family you want to reckon it from, Jesus is desended from David.
    As for contradictions, YES! There are some. That doesn’t invalidate the book. Most of them are picky things like one person says a king reigned this many years and another says he reigned some different number. But there aren’t any major contradictions. There just aren’t. Most of them arise from non christians attempting very hard to create contradictions or simply not being able to understand the overall picture.
    Sigh, I know how that sounds. I know I sound completely unreasonable when I say such things, like I’m some blind fool who can make anything work in the Bible because it HAS to. I’m not. Really. That’s why I wanted to tackle some of these. If you can see the trend in these supposed errors, you can see how the rest could work out too.
    Have you ever read the Bible? Not read it with skepticism, but actually honestly read it? I swear, when you read the newspaper I bet you aren’t half so critical of details as you are of the Bible. And I’m not saying check your brain at the door and just accept whatever fairy tales anyone asks you to read, far from it. One essential trait of God is that He is logical. He is rational, and if He seems unreasonable to us at times it’s only because His perspective is over a much longer time period than ours. TRY IT! With utter honesty approach Him asking Him to help you understand what you are reading and that if He’s in there to help you to see it, and to see it in a way that’s not inconsistent with logic and reason. He will NOT fail to answer anyone who honestly seeks Him.

  2. James Poteet

     /  April 13, 2012 at 2:52 pm

    “Most people are basically good people and some are just jerks, and that’s true for all religions and the non-religious as well.”
    This is a religious belief as well. And what is it based on? Do you think the people who lived under Stalin would agree with this belief? If most people are basically good, then I assume you don’t have locks on your doors.
    Most religions teach this belief, or the belief that people are bad and that nothing can be done about it. The Bible is unique in affirming that people are univerally bad and cannot fix themselves while simultaneously providing the solution for the problem of evil.
    You have religious beliefs, they’re different than mine, but you have them. And they’re founded on far shakier ground than mine. You need a belief system that works.

  3. Why would you assume I haven’t read your bible? I was raised christian, the perfect little happy-clappy guitar-playing youth group singalong leader. Soloed with the youth choir, volunteered with VBS, the whole shebang. Then the preachers and teachers went and said that we should read the bible, that it would strenghten our faith. So I did, I read the whole thing cover-to-cover. Twice, in two different translations, just to be sure I was getting what it said. It was horrifying. Rape, murder, genocide, slavery, bigotry, human sacrifice, all condoned and often commanded by this supposedly perfect “god”. Nonsensical rules that were later countermanded. Factual errors, contradictions, and such confusion that there are thousands of sects of christianity each interpreting the book a different way. By the time I was done with the second read-through I no longer believed a word of it. I’m not alone in this, I’ve read many stories from people who were happily christian until they actually read their book, and not just the nice bits they teach in church, and that killed their faith. James, if you are trying to convert people, the last thing you should advise them to do is read your bible.

    I no longer have any “religious” beliefs. I like reality. You can call refusing to believe in fairy tales a “religion” but that doesn’t make it one, any more than “off” is a TV channel, or “bald” is a hair color. Sure there are enough jerks out there that leaving your door unlocked is foolish. But going around telling people they are all universally bad? I’ll have none of it.

  4. James Poteet

     /  April 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    You’re mistaking religion for Christianity. You cannot be “raised” Christian. One cannot be born Christian or be a Christian through being raised in a Christian family and taking part in Christian religious practices. You were likely never a Christian. You never actually knew God. I’m inviting you to meet Him, to actually get to know Him.
    If you knew Him you would know that He would never condone rape, murder or human sacrifice. You would know that He was utterly consistent from “In the beginning” to “Amen.” I wish you knew Him.
    You do have religious beliefs. You believe that most people are basically good. You believe that without any proof and despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Have you heard of the Milgram experiments? Or the Stanford Prison Experiments? Or have you read this morning’s newpaper? Mankind is evil by nature. If that were the entire of the Gospel it would be useless, but the Bible goes on, despite all the difficulties involved, in demonstrating not only why we’re this way, but the nature of a Just yet Loving God who provided an answer. The only answer.

  5. Oh, great, the “No True Scotsman” argument. How original. If being “Christian” means believing in Jesus and sincerely asking for him to “come into my life” then yeah, I was there for years, and so were many other people who have since deconverted. If it means “having a close personal relationship with Jesus” then no one is a true christian, because there’s nobody up there to have a relationship with. Pretending you have a relationship with an invisible friend is not the same thing as actually having a relationship. How long do you knock at a door with no answer before you decide there’s nobody home? You are suggesting that despite years of knocking with no answer, deconverts should just go knock on that door again some more, that somebody surely will answer this time. Remember one definition of insanity? It’s doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results.

    And now I think I’ve imposed on NFQ’s patience quite enough with this conversation with you, because it’s gone completely off the topic.

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