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
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.