Monday, 15 August 2011

Liar, Lunatic, or Lord

Christian apologist C.S. Lewis is remembered for a great many things, one of those being a clever argument he gave for Jesus' divinity.  Lewis suggested that, when it comes to Christ, there are only three logical possibilities...either he was a liar, he was a lunatic, or he was indeed the Lord.

My father, a Christian minister, used to give a sermon based on this outline.  (I've spoken before about my father, here)  At the time, I found this line of reasoning very convincing.  After all, these really are your only three options, right? 


Bart Ehrman suggests a fourth possibility, legend, and, as I was beginning to see, the Bible contains a lot of it.  Now, to be clear, Bart is not suggesting that Jesus' existence is legend (in fact, he argues quite forcefully for Jesus as a real historical figure) but, rather, that much of what we believe about him today is legend. 

After I got over the shock of discovering the Bible was not perfect, I turned my attention to the why questions.  For example, if Matthew and Luke were in fact copying from Mark, as most scholars believe, than why do they contradict and/or add to him in key places?  The conclusion I came to, in short, is that some of these stories were actually altered on purpose, often so that the given author could make a theological point (more on this in a later post)In other words, the legend about Jesus was developing.  This is why the resurrection story, for example, is so much simpler in the Gospel of Mark...layers were being added as time went on.  The legend was growing.  Also, I had never previously considered the fact that the Gospel writers were not neutral sources.  These authors weren't simply trying to record a historical account, as I had always assumed, they were instead trying very hard to convince their audience that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah!  Watch below, as Bart Ehrman puts many of these pieces together...

It was becoming quite clear to me, at this stage of my de-conversion, that disagreements over the truth of Christianity ultimately come down to how one assesses the available evidence.  Barring any sort of new archaeological discovery, we have what we have and we don't have what we don't have.  One side (the Christian apologists) say the existing evidence is plentiful, and should be sufficient to convince any rational person.  Others, such as Ehrman, came to precisely the opposite conclusion after in depth study.  How is one to know? 

Perhaps not all evidence is equal, I reasoned, maybe some types of "evidence" should be given more weight than other types of "evidence"?  It is to that question I will turn in my next post...


  1. What I find interesting about Ehrman is that it was not his discovery that the Bible is not some magic book dictated by God that caused him to lose faith, but rather the problem of evil, which he wrote about in God's Problem.

    In other words, learning about the actual origins of the bible need not cause one to lose faith, unless it is the bible, and not Jesus, who you worship. This is the case for most fundamentalists.

    The other thing I find interesting about Ehrman in that he is so sure of an actual "historical" Jesus. There have been, who knows? As Robert Price says if the best evidence seems to be texts which describe a person who was born of a virgin, turns water into wine, heals the sick, raises the dead, makes the blind see, walks on water, multiplies food, dies and comes back to life (while all the dead saints walk the streets), and then is wisked away up into the sky. With legendary stories at almost every turn how can we be sure that ANYTHING in the gospels was meant as history. Price says that there may have have been a historica Jesus, but he is lost to us forever. If the gospels are the best evidence we have, it's a tough case to make that any real history exists in them.

  2. Respectful Atheist16 August 2011 at 22:24

    Thanks for your comments Colin.

    Yes, "God's Problem" is in fact my favorite of Ehrman's books, and I plan to write about the problem of evil & suffering later on.

    I hear this argument about "fundamentalists" quite a bit but, frankly, I find it entirely unconvincing. How exactly does a "fundamentalist" differ from an "evangelical"? (I've noticed the former term is often just thrown about, as a pejorative, without any real clarity or agreement as to its actual meaning) Nearly all evangelicals believe the Bible is "the word of God", in so far as I can tell, and (self-described) "evangelicals" make up the lion's share of protestant Christianity (are all of them additionally "fundamentalists"?).

    If the Bible can't be trusted, than what does it mean to "worship Jesus" exactly? Isn't the Bible our primary source for knowing about Him? I guess it comes down to which parts of the Biblical narrative you still believe and which ones you don't (after you learn about "the actual origins of the Bible"). Did Jesus really call himself God? Did He die for humanity's sins? Rise from the dead? Was He born of a virgin? My personal study into "the origins of the Bible" called each and every one of these core Christian doctrines into serious question.

    One would more or less need to still believe in what the Bible says about Jesus (even if they don't think it's an "inerrant" book) in order to remain an evangelical Christian, don't you think?

    And I have no quarrel with "liberal" Christians (aka non-evangelical protestants) but I also can't get a handle on what it is they believe or why they even bother with it at all (I don't think some of them know either :)).

    I think Price makes a valid point here.

    Thanks again, for your thoughts, keep em' coming.

  3. But, there is another way of viewing this, Respectful.

    I definitely feel that the gospel writers were writing from different theological perspectives, and trying to connect with their intended audience.. The gospels were not written to be a complete biography of Jesus in the modern day sense. Events are not always arranged in detailed and chronological order. They are not a word for word kind of account of everything Jesus ever said. I think a few of these passages are not authentic, but may have been inserted later by the church..

    However, this doesn't logically follow to me that the gospel writers were just making it all up as they went along either, and cared nothing for the truth of their claims. (This certainly isn't reflected in the preface to Luke-Acts.) And, all agree that Jesus was more than a mere man, and in the reality of the empty tomb which is the central focus of Christian faith.

    The problem as I see it with thinking that the view of Jesus became more exalted as this so-called legend developed, is that the very earliest sources that we have concerning Jesus actually reflect a very high Christology. The book of Philippians was thought to have been written in AD 61. But, the confession of faith embedded in it, Phil. 2:5-11, which reflects a very exalted view of Jesus, is dated by many scholars even much earlier than this.

    Also, I agree with Colin's comment. As far as I know, it was not Ehrman's study of the origins of the New Testament which caused him to lose his faith, but the problem of human suffering.

    I do think that it is often people whose whole Christian faith is very much intertwined with a certain view of the inerrancy of the Scripture that NT scholarship seems to be the greatest stumbling block.

    You also have to know that all of the more radical scholars reflect a very naturalistic bias, so anything that smacks of the miraculous in the text, they will automatically assume that it could not have come from the historical Jesus. They are far from objective in their scholarship.

    I think we do have to consider that apart from the resurrection of Christ, what was the genesis of the origin, and radical spread of the Christian faith? It doesn't seem to me that the apostles, and earliest Christians in the culture of the time had anything really to gain by perpetuating something they knew was an intentional fraud. That's putting it mildly. (Visions of fire and lions are running through my head.)


    1. Sure, but most of what you're saying here does not, in the slightest, contradict my current views Rebecca (although you seem to be assuming that it does). I completely agree, actually, that by the time of Philippians (or even 1 Corinthians) there was widespread belief in Jesus' resurrection and his divinity. Although, I do believe that it's very possible the Apostle Paul believed in a "spiritual" (and not a physical) resurrection, but that's a whole different discussion that we can save for another time.

      But my point is that many of the Jesus stories were modified, by different New Testament writers, and often for very specific reasons. For example, the Virgin Birth story is likely a complete fabrication...manufactured to "prove" that Jesus was in fact the Jewish Messiah.

      More on that here,

      Having said that, I would agree that most of the stories were not just "made up" (but that doesn't mean they're accurate either). Ancient writers did not view the line between historical truth and falsehood in the same way that we view it, as a result, nearly all historical sources (even the careful ones) contain things we now know to be falsehoods. It was simply a very different culture, in that respect.

      So, to be clear, I totally agree that the NT writers are in agreement on the fact that Jesus was more than a mere man (my belief is that they were simply mistaken on that point...and I believe the evidence shows this to be the most likely scenario).

      No, my Christian faith was not in any way "intertwined", per se, with a certain view of the inerrancy of scripture. I would be totally fine to say that the Bible is not inerrant, but to remain a Christian, if I thought there was any actual reason to believe that the Bible is anything other than a book written by men (with no divine guidance whatsoever).

      I disagree though with your comments re: scholars and their supposed lack of objectivity. This is simply rhetoric, from Christian apologists, and I hear it all the time. The truth is it would be incredibly difficult to "prove" a miracle, using historical methods alone, since a miracle BY ITS VERY DEFINITION, is a highly improbable event...yet the historians job is to determine what "probably" happened in the past. See the problem there? People can certainly choose to have faith, that miracles happened in the past, but to demonstrate it historically is pretty difficult.

      Yes, I'm well aware of Ehrman's de-conversion story, having read 7 or 8 of his books now (but I'm not sure I see your point here?).

      Anyway, I'll leave your last comment alone, for now (the one re: the radical spread of Christianity) because I actually plan to write a post soon on that very topic (so stay tuned :)).

      Thanks, as always, for your thoughts Rebecca!