Main article: On Why I Remain an Atheist
If God directed a movie, what would its Rotten Tomatoes rating be?
A feature film by God would be nothing short of Certified Fresh, don’t you agree? With unlimited resources and the pick of the world’s foremost cast and crew, God’s picture ought to be a blockbuster that’d put all Kubricks to shame. That’s what I expect, at least, if the Creator himself was at the helm. So too I expect excellence from God’s literature. As such, I have a few expectations upon considering the Christian holy texts.
For instance, the scriptures ought to be straight-forward to understand. Assuming God is benevolent and desires salvation for all humans, it makes little sense for his word to be unclear. And yet, the Bible is confusing, even for scholars, as evidenced by the fact that there are thousands of Christian denominations who disagree on most if not all doctrines.
A contributing reason for this dilemma is that God doesn’t provide a reliable method by which to resolve metaphor from plain speech. In scripture you’ll find poetry, parables, visions and suchlike that are obviously allegorical; so too there are obvious cases of intended historical narratives. But there are grey areas too…
The first eleven chapters of Genesis, for example. Is it a historical account or allegory? In his essay, The Hermeneutical Problem of Genesis 1-11, Noel Weeks makes the case that the chapters are in fact historic. He writes in his conclusion:
We meet simple literalism in the scriptural exegesis of Genesis. Certainly not every detail of the chapters in question is referred to elsewhere but when they are literalism prevails.
Here, Weeks is referring to one of his arguments that I find quite compelling: if the other authors of the Bible considered Genesis 1-11 to be literally true, so should we. He argues that this was indeed the case, showing also that some of the authors’ arguments may actually depend on literalism.
With thinkers on both sides of the fence, it seems that the early church was divided on the Genesis issue; I don’t know what the majority of the early Christians believed, but I suspect a literal view would have been favoured. Nevertheless, literalism gained the high ground with the rise of Protestantism. Nowadays, however, figurative interpretations seem to be more common. Could our ever-maturing knowledge and understanding of the natural world have encouraged the recent rise of metaphoric concessions? I think so.
It’s my personal view that the Bible should be taken at face value. Ambiguity in art can be a good thing, but ambiguity in a holy book will only lead to strife due to the grand scope of the claims that such a book must make. Now, unless God happens to be very different to how his followers describe him, I don’t think God would benefit from discord. We should expect, therefore, an unambiguous Bible. As such, I think we ought to give the biblical scribes the benefit of the doubt, and trust that they meant what they wrote literally unless they’ve clearly used metaphor for an obvious purpose.
Genesis 1-11, to conclude the example, reads very much like a historic account.
The only other expectation that I’ll mention for now is believability. The Bible ought to be believable.
If the scriptures are really true, it must be compatible with the reality that we inhabit; if the book is divorced from our understanding of the world—if it’s not believable—its authority is rightly questionable.
Now, I reject the Bible as evidence for the existence of God; I just can’t take it seriously as a work of divine inspiration. One of the reasons for my scepticism is the flat-out absurdity contained within the pages of the Old and New Testaments. This essay is a small collection of examples in point of fact. I’ve grouped them in three categories: In Light of Nature, In Light of God’s Character, and In Light of History.
All scripture is taken from the New King James Version.
1. In Light of Nature
Amongst many other stories, the Bible tells the tale of a man who was born to a virgin, walked on water, and rose from the dead. To cherry-pick natural absurdities from the biblical orchard is a daunting prospect. Where to begin?
1.1 Heavenly Bodies
Might as well start at the beginning:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. So the evening and the morning were the first day.
And the earth brought forth grass, the herb that yields seed according to its kind, and the tree that yields fruit, whose seed is in itself according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the third day.
Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the fourth day.
The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.
And yet, if you take the Bible at face value, the earth was created before stars existed. Indeed, according to Genesis, there was light on the first day—real enough to help grow fruit trees on the third day—before the sun was made on the fourth day.
Evidently, the Bible is mistaken.
The apologetics to clarify the confusion are equally suspect. One explanation is that God simply made intrinsic light in the beginning—’cause he’s “the Father of lights” and the one “who is light“—and then later on replaced his magicked light with the real deal. Another theory is that God made the planets, moons, and stars on the first day and merely “set” them—much like one sets a clock—on the fourth day. That’s not what the text says, but okay.
1.2 The Solid Sky
Ancient cultures commonly believed that the sky was solid and that the earth was flat:
Since the sky is usually thought by pre-scientific peoples to be a solid hemisphere literally touching the earth (or sea) at the horizon, the earth must necessarily be thought of as flat. It is impossible to conceive of the sky as a hemisphere touching the earth at the horizon, and yet conceive of the earth as a globe. If the earth were a globe but the sky just a hemisphere touching the earth, half of the earth would have no sky. The shape of the earth is accordingly explicitly or implicitly described by all pre-scientific peoples as being flat, and usually circular–a single disc-shaped continent.
—Paul H. Seely
Here’s how the bible describes the making of the sky:
Then God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.” Thus God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. So the evening and the morning were the second day.
This is how the ancient Israelites’ viewed the world:
Some apologists ignore the cultural context when they try to modernise the meaning of the Genesis text by “softening” the translation of raqîa (רָקִ֫יעַ, “firmament”). To that, John Walton has the following to say:
Despite the NIV’s attempt to mitigate the meaning of this word in Genesis 1 through an ambiguous translation such as “expanse” and the attempt of others to make it scientifically precise through the translation “atmosphere,” Seely has amply demonstrated that, structurally speaking, the raqîa’ was perceived by the Israelite audience, as by nearly everyone else until modern times, as a solid dome (Seely 1991, 1992). This conclusion is not based on false etymologizing that extrapolates the meaning of the noun from its verbal forms (which have to do with beating something out) but on the comparison of the lexical data from OT usage of the noun with the cultural context of the ancient Near East.
It’s hardly surprising that pre-scientific people held a wildly inaccurate view of the world, but it is absurd that God would perpetuate the error by withholding reliable revelation from the authors of his book knowing that his readers would discover the fault and conclude, as I have, that the authors were not really divinely inspired, that they were merely ignorant men trying to explain this strange world of ours.
1.3 Old for Your Age
However, armed with a face-value understanding of the Bible, the genealogies therein, history, and some simple math you will conclude that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. That’s wrong by a factor of 450,000!
Of course, all you need to do to mitigate this spectacular error is to slacken your interpretation belt. After all, Genesis does not technically specify how long the “Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Maybe the Almighty surfed for a long time before he started the first day. You see? The earth could be as old as science says, after all.
But wait, Adam was created on the sixth day. So, the human species—if you believe the Bible plainly—has lived on earth for no longer than 10,000 years. That’s only wrong by a factor of 10. This is admittedly a respectable improvement. It remains, no less, absurd.
1.4 Dust & Bone
If I magically travelled back to the time of Jesus and found myself a wife, I could start a family. If I went back 10,000 years, I’d still be able to procreate. So too I’d be able to father offspring with women 50,000 or maybe even 100,000 years ago. It’d even be possible to have a baby with the women of our now-extinct close cousins—people like the Neanderthals and the Denisovans; we know that early humans did in fact “do it” with Neanderthals because Europeans share 2% of their DNA.
However, if I continue to dial back the years of my time machine, at some point, I wouldn’t be able to find anyone to have children with. For example, 1.6 million years ago, there were no humans. Neither did our close cousins yet roam the earth. Back then, different species such as Homo habilis and Homo erectus walked the plains. Now, if I travel back 15 million years in the past, our forebears were a type of great ape—a common ancestor that we share with the other modern apes of today. 160 Million years ago our ancestors were mouse-like eutherian mammals…
This sounds absurd to some people, and yet, that is the incredible true story told by the fossil record, genetics, comparative physiology, biochemistry, and anatomy, etc.
That evolution happened and is still happening is a demonstrable fact; and what’s really extraordinary is that we mostly know how it happens too. The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection neatly explains the evidence of evolution that we observe; in fact, it’s the only explanation that’s survived and still healthy, a testament to the theory’s spectacular success over the last 150 plus years. It’s the foundation of modern biology—a triumph of science.
And yet, the Bible would have you believe that humans were just formed, as is, from dust and bone:
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall on Adam, and he slept; and He took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh in its place. Then the rib which the Lord God had taken from man He made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.
1.5 Last Word on Creation
I get that the Bible is a book of faith and not a science text book. The question is whether we expect God’s word to contradict reality. I don’t think that makes sense. And yet, as far as cosmology and biology go, the Genesis creation account isn’t just dead wrong, it’s irreconcilably opposed to the cosmos that we seem to find ourselves living in; a literal interpretation is untenable. And I suspect that’s why many believers now choose to adopt an allegorical view. But this concession is not without issue.
If your intent is to use fiction to instruct and enlighten, why would you not make this intention clear? The failure to do so, as is the case if Genesis was indeed meant to be understood allegorically, will essentially guarantee miscommunication.
For example, there’s no indication that the author of Genesis 1:6 didn’t want his explanation for the sky to be taken as anything other than statements of fact. That doesn’t prove he meant the making of the dome to be taken literally, but he’s making a deadpan claim about an actual belief that people held in those days. As a result, many people have taken him at face value. If that’s a mistake, it’s not the readers’ fault.
As I mentioned in the introduction, the authors of the Bible who referenced the early chapters of Genesis, including writers of the New Testament—which most Christians believe are historic—seemed to think that these scriptures were literally true. I wonder if believers who disagree with the authors of their holy book recognise the paradox.
There are wider considerations too. If there were no Adam or Eve, what are the actual transgressions that we committed to deserve damnation? How many humans transgressed? All of them, just one? Are we metaphorically evil? Why not just write about what actually happened to avoid confusion and doubt?
1.6 Those Sons of God
There were giants on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of men and they bore children to them. Those were the mighty men who were of old, men of renown.
Giants. Really? Natural history museums are missing a trick.
To be fair, there’s a lot of uncertainty about the Hebrew word, נְפִילִים, which is often translated as Nephilim and translated here as giants:
According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, the basic etymology of the word Nephilim is “dub[ious]”, and various suggested interpretations are “all very precarious”.
Even literalists believe that the Nephilim could simply have been men who had fallen away from God, men who were the offspring of ungodly women and godly men such as kings or rulers from the line of Seth.
Still, many Christians believe that the “sons of God” were in fact fallen angels and/or demons that had come to earth and impregnated human women who then gave birth to giants. The same giants that Moses’s twelve spies saw on their scouting mission to the Land of Canaan:
And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
Now, I used to believe the “gigantic spawn of fallen angel” hypothesis, which is why I’ve included it here.
1.7 Shrek is the New Balaam
And when the donkey saw the Angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; so Balaam’s anger was aroused, and he struck the donkey with his staff.
Then the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
And Balaam said to the donkey, “Because you have abused me. I wish there were a sword in my hand, for now I would kill you!”
So the donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your donkey on which you have ridden, ever since I became yours, to this day? Was I ever disposed to do this to you?”
And he said, “No.”
Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the Angel of the Lord standing in the way with His drawn sword in His hand; and he bowed his head and fell flat on his face. And the Angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to stand against you, because your way is perverse before Me. The donkey saw Me and turned aside from Me these three times. If she had not turned aside from Me, surely I would also have killed you by now, and let her live.”
Forget talking snakes, I give you a well-spoken donkey. I love how Balaam acts like this is the most natural thing in the world.
1.8 Jonah and the “Whale”
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the fish’s belly.
So the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.
1.9 Not the Hair!
Samson, a superhero, falls in love with Delilah, a woman who betrays him for Philistine money. Delilah asks Samson to reveal the source of his superhuman strength and how he could be bound and rendered helpless. Samson lies to her: tying him with fresh bowstrings will do the trick. So, with Philistines lying in wait, she binds him with bowstrings while he’s sleeping and then shouts out that the enemy is come. Samson wakes up but breaks the strings no problem, foiling the abduction. This narrative repeats twice more, once with her tying Samson’s hands with rope and once with her tying his lovely locks in a loom. When this too fails, Delilah turns to aggressive emotional manipulation:
Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me? You have mocked me these three times, and have not told me where your great strength lies.” And it came to pass, when she pestered him daily with her words and pressed him, so that his soul was vexed to death, that he told her all his heart, and said to her, “No razor has ever come upon my head, for I have been a Nazirite to God from my mother’s womb. If I am shaven, then my strength will leave me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.”
When Delilah saw that he had told her all his heart, she sent and called for the lords of the Philistines, saying, “Come up once more, for he has told me all his heart.” So the lords of the Philistines came up to her and brought the money in their hand. Then she lulled him to sleep on her knees, and called for a man and had him shave off the seven locks of his head. Then she began to torment him, and his strength left him. And she said, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!” So he awoke from his sleep, and said, “I will go out as before, at other times, and shake myself free!” But he did not know that the Lord had departed from him.
Then the Philistines took him and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza. They bound him with bronze fetters, and he became a grinder in the prison. However, the hair of his head began to grow again after it had been shaven.
In the end, with hair regrown and strength restored, Samson single-handedly makes a temple collapse, killing himself and a great many of the three thousand people that had come to see him perform.
I don’t know what’s more absurd, Samson’s gullibility in trusting Delilah or that a shave can strip a man of superpowers. It’s too close to call.
1.10 The Storm Whisperer
And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling. But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow. And they awoke Him and said to Him, “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?”
Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace, be still!” And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.
Nature doesn’t heed the words of men. She’s much too busy plotting our extinction.
1.11 Demon Pigs
For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Then He asked him, “What is your name?”
And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.
Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. So all the demons begged Him, saying, “Send us to the swine, that we may enter them.” And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.
Evil spirits are often blamed for bad things that we don’t understand. That’s irrational, but it’s easy to see why people would do that. But here, Jesus listens to demons beg, then grants them their wish to possess pigs. Really?
1.12 Soothsayer Slave Girl
Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days.
But Paul, greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And he came out that very hour.
Psst. Fortune-telling is a scam. Don’t tell anyone.
2. In Light of God’s Character
The Bible is key to understanding who God really is. So who is he?
2.1 Noah and the Ark
We all know the story: a great flood is coming, Noah builds a boat to provide succour for his family and two of each animal in the world, they survive, and God makes a rainbow-promise never to murder again.
Here, I’d like to point out the absurdity of God’s behaviour:
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. So the Lord said, “I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth, both man and beast, creeping thing and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”
God’s solution to his “evil human” problem—being the “Benevolent Creator” that he is—was to murder every man, woman, and child, and to slaughter all the animals for good measure. Really!? There was no other recourse for the “Omnipotent One”? That’s absurd. And what did Koalas ever do to God, anyway? Oh, and every human is perfectly evil all the time? Even babies? Come on.
As an aside, doesn’t death by drowning indicate malice? It’s a terrible way to die. Shame on you, God.
How is this vengeful God the same as the merciful God who spoke thus to Jonah?
“You have had pity on the plant for which you have not labored, nor made it grow, which came up in a night and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh, that great city, in which are more than one hundred and twenty thousand persons who cannot discern between their right hand and their left—and much livestock?”
2.2 Tower of Babel
Now the whole earth had one language and one speech.
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
Let’s gloss over the fact that, by the Bible’s own admission, there’s already multiple languages before the construction of the tower—see Genesis 10:5,20,31. And let’s whiz past the silliness of scriptures’ explanation of how languages came about. Instead, I’d like to point out God’s ridiculous pettiness and insecurity.
We generally think about the Tower of Babel as a warning about the dangers of mankind’s arrogance. But God seems more concerned about what humans can achieve than about man’s hubris. God worries that lowly mortals will be able to do anything that they set their minds to if they work together unencumbered. Our enterprising spirit so offends God that he deliberately ruins it by encouraging strife. Dick move, God!
All things considered, God’s childishness wasn’t all that effective in the long run. Just look at the Large Hadron Collider for evidence that our ingenuity can transcend language, race and country.
2.3 Sinful, Shameful Menstruation
If a woman has a discharge, and the discharge from her body is blood, she shall be set apart seven days; and whoever touches her shall be unclean until evening. Everything that she lies on during her impurity shall be unclean; also everything that she sits on shall be unclean.
But if she is cleansed of her discharge, then she shall count for herself seven days, and after that she shall be clean. And on the eighth day she shall take for herself two turtledoves or two young pigeons, and bring them to the priest, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then the priest shall offer the one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering, and the priest shall make atonement for her before the Lord for the discharge of her uncleanness.
If a man lies with a woman during her sickness and uncovers her nakedness, he has exposed her flow, and she has uncovered the flow of her blood. Both of them shall be cut off from their people.
One can see how these rules came about and why they existed back in the day. But it’s bronze-age wisdom to be sure. Of course, it’s unsurprising that primitive people had a primitive understanding of sanitation.
The more pertinent point, however, is that God would rather accept offerings of atonement for the “sin” of biology—as if women do something wrong or cause injury—thereby perpetuating the shaming of women, instead of just educating his people properly. Not cool.
2.4 Overreact Much?
Elisha was a prophet of God and a performer of miracles. Amongst other things, he healed Jericho’s bad water with a bit of salt and magic. He also happened to be sensitive about being bald:
Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Please notice, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the ground barren.”
And he said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went out to the source of the water, and cast in the salt there, and said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘I have healed this water; from it there shall be no more death or barrenness.'” So the water remains healed to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke.
Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!”
So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.
Then he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.
Way to go God. You sure showed those meddling kids.
The apologetics to rationalise this monstrous act are a master class in how to sacrifice your humanity: the teasing children may not have been so young, the Bible doesn’t say if they survived or not, and Elisha was at fault, but God had to follow through on account of not being able to let the mocking stand… Totally makes things better, right?
3. In Light of History
Given what’s at stake, God has all the reason in the world to ensure that all the extraordinary claims in the Bible are historically verifiable. It’d be absurd not to, if you think about it.
3.1 A Veil, a Quake, and the Rising Dead
And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.
Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.
So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
To this, Bart Ehrman has the following to say:
According to Matthew, at the moment when Jesus died there were a number of enormous, cataclysmic, mind-boggling events that took place: the curtain in the temple was ripped in half (we have no record of this occurring, by the way, even though Jewish authors talk extensively about the temple at the time and would have been very interested indeed, if part of it had been destroyed!); there was a massive earthquake; “the rocks were split” (it’s hard to know what that means exactly); and, most breathtaking of all, “the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52–53).
Really? Are we supposed to think that masses of people came back to life and started walking around Jerusalem on the day that Jesus was raised? And no one else — whether Jews at the time, or Romans, or Christians, or even the other Gospel writers — thinks this is important enough to say something about? What is going on here?
Whatever is going on, almost certainly one thing that is not going on is a historically reliable report about what happened three days after the death of Jesus. Even many good Bible-believing people find this one too hard to accept as historical. But if we concede that one part of the story is probably not reliable, what is to stop us from thinking that other parts are not reliable, either?
3.2 Born in Bethlehem
According to Luke’s version of Jesus’s birth (found in chs. 1–2), his mother Mary was a virgin who had been made pregnant by the Holy Spirit. She and her betrothed, Joseph, were from the town of Nazareth (up in the northern part of Israel, about 65 miles from the capital, Jerusalem). But even though they were from there, and Jesus was raised there, he actually was born in the village of Bethlehem (near Jerusalem, in the south). We learn from another Gospel, Matthew, why it was absolutely necessary for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem, even if he actually “came” from somewhere else (Nazareth): It’s because of an Old Testament prophecy that said a savior would come from Bethlehem, the city of King David (whose descendant was to be the messiah — see Micah 5:2; quoted in Matthew 2:5–6).
But why would Jesus have been born somewhere other than where his parents lived? This is where Luke’s story picks up. Luke indicates that during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria, and Herod was the king of Israel, there was a census that required “all the world” to be registered. Normally, in the ancient world a census was instituted to register people for taxes. This would be an enormous program of taxation indeed, if the whole world had to register for it! But I suppose we are to imagine that this is a census only of the Roman Empire (not China, for example). Still, for Luke it was a very big deal.
Joseph has to register for the census not in Nazareth, where he lived, but in Bethlehem, because he was “from the lineage of David,” and that’s where King David had been born. And so Joseph takes his pregnant espoused, Mary, to Bethlehem to register, and it turns out, while they were there, Mary went into labor and delivered her child, Jesus. So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, even though he came from Nazareth. Luke then indicates that eight days later, Jesus was circumcised and 33 days later, after Mary performed the “rites of purification” (this is in reference to a law in the Old Testament, Leviticus 12), they returned back to Nazareth.
It’s a very well-known story, and a beautiful one. But did it happen? Among biblical scholars it is widely thought to be completely implausible, for several reasons:
- If Luke is right that Jesus was born during the reign of King Herod, Quirinius could not have been the governor; he became governor of Syria ten years after Herod’s death.
- We are well informed of the reign of Caesar Augustus. There is no record anywhere of a census in which “the whole world” (or, indeed “the whole Roman empire”) had to be taxed.
- More important, the census simply doesn’t make any sense. Joseph has to register in Bethlehem precisely because he is descended from King David who came from there.
- So, first of all, probably most Jews today are descended from King David, given how genealogies work. Did half the Jewish population of the world descend on Bethlehem?
- Second, David lived 1,000 years before Joseph. Are we to imagine that everyone in the Roman Empire is returning to their ancestral home from 1,000 years earlier? Imagine if the Democrats take over in this next election and our taxes get raised and you need to register with the IRS by returning to the home of your (say, patrilineal) ancestor from 1,000 years ago. Where will you go?
- And everyone in the empire is doing this? Imagine the absolutely massive population migrations. And there is no other source that even mentions it?
- Finally, if Luke’s account is right about the birth of Jesus, then the one other account that discusses it in the New Testament, the Gospel of Matthew, cannot also be right. Read Matthew’s account: what happens after Jesus is born? In Matthew, Herod decides to kill all the children in Bethlehem because he doesn’t want any competitors for his throne as “King of the Jews.” But Joseph is warned in a dream and he escapes with Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they stay until Herod dies. But if that’s right, how can Luke also be right that they stayed in Bethlehem just 41 days (eight days till the circumcision; 33 days before the rites of purification) and then returned to Nazareth? If Luke’s right, then Matthew can’t be, and vice versa.
All of this makes the account in Luke (and Matthew’s account, too, but for other reasons) extremely improbable. The only way to make it work is to interpret it so that it means something other than it says. It can’t literally be right. But why does Luke spin such a tale? For the reason I pointed out earlier. It’s because he thinks that Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem — since that’s to be the home of the savior — even though he knows he came from Nazareth. And so, he came up with a story to explain it. The story, though, is almost certainly not historically accurate.
3.3 The Forgotten Innocents
Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men.
There’s no historical evidence for this terrible event. That’s suspicious indeed.
And, surely there would be a record of Herod’s slaughter of innocent children—had that really happened. The Jewish scholars Philo (c. 50) and Josephus (c. 93) described Herod as murderous and killing some family members to keep them from challenging his throne. Yet neither mentions the slaughter of the innocents.
—Victor J. Stenger
3.4 Missing Exodus
There’s no historical evidence for the Jewish people’s forty-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness, and that’s difficult to believe.
William Dever, an archaeologist normally associated with the more conservative end of Syro-Palestinian archaeology, has labeled the question of the historicity of Exodus “dead.” Israeli archaeologist Ze’ev Herzog provides the current consensus view on the historicity of the Exodus;
“The Israelites never were in Egypt. They never came from abroad. This whole chain is broken. It is not a historical one. It is a later legendary reconstruction—made in the seventh century [BCE]—of a history that never happened.”
Professor of Ancient History and Archaeology Eric H. Cline also summarizes the scholarly consensus in his book Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction (published by Oxford University Press and winner of the 2011 Biblical Archaeology Society’s “Best Popular Book on Archaeology”);
“Despite attempts by a number of biblical archaeologists – and an even larger number of amateur enthusiasts – over the years, credible direct archaeological evidence for the Exodus has yet to be found. While it can be argued that such evidence would be difficult to find, since nomads generally do not leave behind permanent installations, archaeologists have discovered and excavated nomadic emplacements from other periods in the Sinai desert. So if there were archaeological remains to be found from the Exodus, one would have expected them to be found by now. And yet, thus far there is no trace of the biblical “600,000 men on foot, besides children” plus “a mixed crowd…and live stock in great numbers” (Exod. 12:37-38) who wandered for forty years in the desert.”
I could write about biblical absurdities until the second coming, but who has the time? Suffice it to say that given my experience, knowledge, and understanding of the world, I think there are too many stories in the Bible that are absurd and unbelievable. Is the Bible “God breathed?” I doubt it.
What are some of your “favourite” absurdities in the Bible? Inquiring minds want to know.
References and notes
- ^ “Appendix B: Methodology for Estimating Christian Movements” appendix from Pew Research Center’s Global Christianity – A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population. (Dec 2001).
- ^ For example, take the doctrine of salvation. More than any other, we should expect this doctrine to be a shoo-in for universal agreement. And yet, disagreement is what we find. “Salvation (Christianity)” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “The Hermeneutical Problem of Genesis 1-11” essay by Noel Weeks for the Theolog Review (1972).
- ^ ab “Allegorical interpretations of Genesis” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Science and the Bible” essay by James R. Adair (2008).
- ^ Reality here could well include the spiritual realm, if we had some way to actually verify its existence.
- ^ “Nucleosynthesis: The Origin of the Elements” article from UC Davis’s ChemWiki. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Nucleosynthesis” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Cosmos” book by Carl Sagan (1980).
- ^ “James 1:17” from the Bible.
- ^ “1 John 1:5” from the Bible.
- ^ “The Geographical Meaning of “earth” and “seas” in Genesis 1:10″ academic paper by Paul H. Seely from Westminster Theological Journal 59 (1997).
- ^ “Creation” essay by John Walton from IVP Dictionary of the Pentateuch (Jan 2003).
- ^ “The Firmament and the Water Above” academic paper by Paul H. Seely from Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991).
- ^ “Age of the Earth” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Scientific Age of the Earth” article by G. Brent Dalrymple from The TalkOrigins Archive (2006). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “The Age of the Earth” article by Chris Stassen from The TalkOrigins Archive (Sep 2005). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Pleistocene Homo sapiens from Middle Awash, Ethiopia” scientific paper by Tim D. White et el from Nature (Jun 2003).
- ^ “Human” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “How Old is the Earth” article by Bodie Hodge from Answers in Genesis (May 2007). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “How does the Bible teach 6,000 years?” article by Lita Cosner from Creation International Ministries. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “What is the Evidence for Evolution?” video by Stated Clearly (Oct 2014).
- ^ “Proof of evolution that you can find on your body” video by Vox (Mar 2016).
- ^ “Lines of evidence: The science of evolution” articles from University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Evidence for Evolution” articles from NECSI. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Evidence of Evolution” article by Dennis O’Neil (2013). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Neanderthal” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Denisovan” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Modern human genomes reveal our inner Neanderthal” article from Nature (Jan 2014).
- ^ “Homo habilis” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Homo erectus” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ ab “Timeline of human evolution” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Are humans still evolving?” scientific paper by Jay T Stock (Jul 2008).
- ^ “Evolution Is Still Happening: Beneficial Mutations in Humans” article by Adam Lee for BigThink. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Nephilim” article from Wikipedia. Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ ab “Who Were the Nephilim?” article by Bodie Hodge from Answers In Genesis (Jul 2008). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Problems with a Global Flood” article by Mark Isaak from TalkOrigins (1998). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “Skeptical Bible Study: Tower of Babel” article by Nate from Finding Truth (May 2015). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ ab “Ehrman’s Statement: The New Testament Gospels Are Historically Unreliable Accounts of Jesus” written statement by Bart Ehrman for Ehrman–Licona Dialogue on the Historical Reliability of the New Testament (Mar 2016). Retrieved Apr 2016.
- ^ “God: The Failed Hypothesis” book by Victor J. Stenger, pg 178 (2007).
- ^ “Evidence for the Exodus” article from RationalWiki. Retrieved Apr 2016.