Monday, October 12, 2009

Christopher Hitchens on "The Evil of the New Testament"

I am reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. The purpose of his book is not to eradicate religion, but to bolster the atheist position in public discourse. Religious conversation, writes Hitchens, is “the beginning—but not the end—of all arguments about philosophy, science, history, and human nature. It is also the beginning—but by no means the end—of all disputes about the good life and the just city.

Chapter seven, “Revelation: The Nightmare of the Old Testament,” has specific attacks on the reliability of the Old Testament that I do not know enough to answer. I have asked a much more qualified friend specific questions related to the issue, and I am awaiting his response. More on that later.

Chapter eight, “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the Old One,” is more up my alley. In it, Hitchens does not discuss the “evil” of the New Testament as much as he does the worthlessness of it. In short, the New Testament documents are late and unreliable when it comes to information about the historical Jesus. He calls it “a work of crude carpentry, hammered together long after its purported events, and full of improvised attempts to make things come out right."

I beg to differ.

The most substantial arguments that Hitchens makes are: (1) the “lateness” of the Gospels, (2) the dubiousness of Jesus’ existence, and (3) tampering charges against the New Testament documents themselves.

The Gospels are late. It used to be theorized that the Gospels were second-century documents written long after the events described in them. This theory has been abandoned by most scholars. The 1935 discovery of P52 showed that the Gospel of John had been in wide circulation as early as the middle of the second century. This means that it could not have been written later than the end of the first century. Most scholars think that the Synoptic Gospels were written between 60 and 90 AD, and John written somewhere in the mid-90s.

The degree of overlap between the Synoptic Gospels and the Jesus material in Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23–26, etc.) demonstrates that accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds circulated early, probably both in written and in oral form. James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered is an excellent source for information on how the Gospels came to be.

Thus, while the Gospels themselves were composed 30–50 years after the events they describe, they were based on records passed down from eyewitnesses. Also, we should not be quick to dismiss the idea that eyewitnesses played a key role in the composition of the Gospels themselves (as tradition tells us they were).

We don’t know that Jesus even existed. There is strong extra-biblical evidence for Jesus' existence. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions him as does the Roman historian Tacitus. These testimonies are especially significant because neither was a follower of Jesus. Josephus says that Jesus was a magician who led people astray. Tacitus says that Jesus was executed by Pilate and that his followers were “hated for their abominable crimes.” John P. Meier’s A Marginal Jew, James Dunn’s Jesus Remembered, and N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God are excellent resources on the historical Jesus. They are tough reads, though, and N.T. Wright’s The Challenge of Jesus, Darrell Bock’s Studying the Historical Jesus, and Ben Witherington’s The Jesus Quest may be better introductions.

The New Testament documents have been corrupted over time. Hitchens cites Bart Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus to demonstrate that the New Testament has become corrupted. Specifically, he mentions John 7:53–8:11, the story of the woman caught in adultery, which scholars have shown “was not a part of the original Gospel.” Ehrman is right—most scholars do not think that John 7:53–8:11 was part of the original Gospel of John. But just about every Bible says that in the margins. It’s a great story. It probably happened. But it’s not part of John.

Hitchens is slightly deceptive when he says that the New Testament documents have been corrupted. It is true that the thousands of manuscripts that we have all include minor variations (i.e. one manuscript may read “he” when another clarifies “Jesus”), but they are over 95% similar and none of the variants affects Christian theology in any way. John 7:53–8:11 is by far the most significant variant. The longer ending(s) of Mark are also significant, as is 1 John 5:8. As with John 7:53–8:11, most Bibles have notes in their margins as to why these passages are included or omitted.

Text critics weigh the textual evidence to try to discern what the original New Testament documents said and how the variant readings came to be. Sometimes scribes made mistakes. Sometimes they tried to “clarify” the text. Sometimes they made outright edits. Thankfully, we have thousands of manuscripts to compare in order to discern the original. (Here is a simplified example of what they might do: if 9,999 manuscripts read "he said" and one says "Jesus said," can you discern what the original reading was and how the 1 variant came to be? Most text critical decisions are far more complicated that this, but you get the idea.) While we will never have 100% certainty of the original documents, we have far greater certainty about the New Testament than we do any other ancient document. We can be sure that the Bible we read is true to the original.

As I was reading this chapter, I couldn’t help but feel that Hitchens attacks were a workshop in missing the point. Let’s say we grant all of Hitchens’ objections. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, we allow that the New Testament is not a product of the eyewitnesses and that in places it is contradictory. Does this destroy its testimony to the significance of Jesus? After all, something happened. We know that Jesus lived. We know that people thought he was an exorcist and miracle worker, and that he preached the coming of the Kingdom of God. We know that he made specific prophetic actions signifying the start of a new religious movement, and that he prophesied the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. We know that he was rejected by his Jewish contemporaries for being a blasphemer and that he was executed by Pontius Pilate for claiming to be the King of the Jews. We know that his followers claimed that he rose from the dead—that his tomb was empty and that there were reports of resurrection appearances. We know that typically, when the leader of a messianic sect was crucified, his followers would scatter and disappear, but that this is not what happened with Jesus’ followers. And we know all of this by the historical method, without considering the Bible as anything special.

Even if we grant all of Hitchens’ objections (which I don’t), we have reason to give special consideration to the Apostle Paul's claim that "There is another king, namely Jesus."

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