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Conversation with a Christian friend

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Hello all,

I recently had this conversation with a Christian friend of mine. I wanted to comment on it further. Here it is:

“T” (Facebook status update). For the record, “T” is getting bachelor’s degrees in psychology & ministry:

Practicing for [Christian campus group] for Monday night 😀

Me:

What happens Monday?

I asked because there has been some talk about this particular Christian campus group getting together with their campus’s skeptic’s group on Monday to talk about morality, and I wanted to know if that’s what he was referring to. It’s 90 miles away, but I’m planning to attend, especially if he’ll be there.

T:

We’re just doing bible study now

Me:

What are you studying though? I’m curious 🙂

T:

We’re in Genesis at the moment talking about original sin and stuff like that

Me:

Original sin is in Genesis? It’s my understanding that original sin comes from Paul (Romans 5:12-21, 1 Cor 15:22), and from Bishop Irenaeus in the 2nd century.

T:

Well we’re talking about the first sin, that’s what I meant

Me:

ohh, the fall, genesis 2? Out of curiosity, do you think Adam and Eve were two real, literal people?

T:

Yes I do believe they were two actual people

Me:

How come?

T:

There is nothing in the bible that leads me to believe that they are metaphorical

Me:

I’m just trying to understand this, I hope you forgive me for all the questions, haha. Even when I was a Christian, I never myself believed that the Adam & Eve story was literally true. So I guess the next question is, you’re saying you believe it’s literally true because it’s in the Bible? Does that mean that you believe everything written in the bible is literally true unless it explicitly says otherwise?

T:

Not necessarily, there are many things in the bible that are explicitly meant to be metaphors and there are some things that are meant to be taken literally, but I believe that Adam and Eve is literal because there is nothing, to me, that seems to say otherwise

Me:

Right, I mean there are parables and stuff that are obviously not supposed to be literally true. But I mean, if the bible seems to say that something happened, that’s good enough for you to believe it literally happened, unless the bible itself says otherwise?

T:

Yes, why would I doubt the word of God, if I doubted the word of God then I wouldn’t be a Christian, you ask all these questions, but I don’t understand why?

Me:

I think you can be a christian and still have reasons for believing what you believe that aren’t from the bible itself. 1 Peter 3:15 says you should always be ready to give reasons for what you believe to anyone who asks. And when that was written, the bible wasn’t wholly compiled yet, so one could hardly say that all the answers are supposed to come from the bible itself.

One thing I noticed is that you said, “why would i doubt the word of god…” referring to the bible. I guess my real question is, why do you think the bible is the word of god? There are lots of books that claim to be the word of god… the qur’an, the book of mormon… what makes the bible different?

T:

Because of the prophecies fulfilled, none of those other books have the same ones. I still don’t understand why you are prying, I’m not going to change my faith and I know you are not going to change yours

Me:

Oh, I’m not trying to change your mind. I am just curious about why you believe, that’s all. I have no intention of trying to change your mind. I just want to understand your reasons… what prophecies?

T:

Haven’t we gone over this before in [Christian campus group]?????

Me:

We might have… I’ve asked a lot of Christians this over the years and honestly I don’t remember who’s told me what, LOL.

It’s something I ask everybody, when I have the chance… I am always interested in what sorts of things convince people to believe things. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to. Everybody believes for different reasons and I was just wondering what caused/causes you to believe.

T:

Lol we already talked at [Christian campus group] so yeah lol

—————

When I said that you can be a Christian and still have reasons for what you believe, I was thinking of the late Harvard Divinity School professor James Luther Adams, who, paraphrasing Socrates, said, “The unexamined faith is not worth having, for it can be true only by accident.” Like I mentioned above (1 Peter 3:15), there is also a good biblical basis for this, albeit within the apocryphal Petrine epistles, although it is still technically part of the New Testament canon.

These sorts of conversations are interesting to me, because I used to believe many of the same things, and I used to use much of the same reasoning. I believed the Bible, and that was good enough for me. In fact, I believed in the Bible so much that I wanted to know all about it. That’s why I read it for myself, cover-to-cover, the first time (NIV), and the second time (KJV), and started learning Latin & Greek, so I could read it more truly for myself the way the authors intended. What I found, though, is that the closer you look, the harder it is to keep believing, because in order to do it, the more you have to deny the obvious: That the Bible is a man-made, haphazard, pieced-together collection of fragments and copies-of-copies, and has no more divine authority than the Qur’an, the Upanishads, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Analects, or any other “holy book” you’d care to name.

The “prophecies” basis for believing the Bible has divine authority is, frankly, total bullshit. I make no apologies for saying this and I don’t care if it offends anyone, including my Christian friend. I am convinced that the only reason anyone thinks Biblical prophecies are any sort of evidence in favor of divine authorship is that they are ignorant about the real history behind these so-called prophecies.

Now, I do want to say that I am NOT calling people who believe these things stupid. Stupid and ignorant are NOT the same thing. Ignorant simply means “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about some subject in particular.” This is totally different from stupid, which my friend certainly is not. Fortunately, ignorance is easy to fix 🙂

Here’s why belief based on prophecies is bullshit:

Believing that the New Testament is of divine authority, on the basis that it tells tales of fulfilled prophecies first laid out in the Old Testament, makes no more sense than believing that the 7th Harry Potter book is of divine authority, on the basis that it tells tales of fulfilled prophecies first laid out in the first Harry Potter book.

The authors of the New Testament knew exactly what was written in the Old Testament, and they wrote their accounts in order to make them fulfill prophecies in the Old Testament, sometimes explicitly so!

And even more telling, sometimes they misunderstood the prophecies and even get them wrong!

Robert Miller, writing for the journal The Fourth R (Westar Institute), explains it well:

Twelve times in his gospel, Matthew interrupts the story to tell us that the event he is narrating fulfilled a specific prophecy, which he then quotes.

Disclosure: I am an associate member of the Jesus Seminar, which is run by the Westar Institute, and which also publishes the journal The Fourth R.

The author of the book we now call The Gospel According to Matthew (the title was assigned by committee vote decades after its composition, and “Matthew’s” authorship is an attribution – the original text was not only untitled, but anonymously written as well) had access to what we now call the Old Testament. He specifically crafted his stories, in 12 cases explicitly so, to make them fulfill prophecies. His stories do not match up with extra-biblical historical accounts, nor with the other gospel writers. 

There are a dozen to choose from, but I think the best example of Matthew “adjusting” events in order to make them more-closely fulfill prophecies from the Old Testament is in Matthew 21:4-5. Let’s start with the prophecy from the Old Testament:

In the Old Testament, in Zechariah 9:9, it’s “foretold” that the king of Zion will make a triumphal entry into the city of Jerusalem. In beautiful Hebrew poetic form, it reads like this:

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיֹּ֗ון הָרִ֙יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרוּשָׁלִַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בֹוא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנֹושָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמֹ֔ור וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֹֽות׃

Here’s an English rendering:

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

And here is the same passage in Greek. The reason this is important will become clear in a moment:

χαῖρε σφόδρα θύγατερ σιων κήρυσσε θύγατερ ιερουσαλημ ἰδοὺ ὁ βασιλεύς σου ἔρχεταί σοι δίκαιος καὶ σῴζων αὐτός πραῢς καὶ ἐπιβεβηκὼς ἐπὶ ὑποζύγιον καὶ πῶλον νέον

The Greek text above comes from the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament rendered by, according to legend, a group of 72 Jewish scholars (thus the name). According to the legend, all 72 scholars were working independently, and yet all 72 of them miraculously rendered exactly the same translation. If anything (other than my “Why Translation Matters” talk) should convince you that translation is not an exact science, this is it: It was literally considered a miracle when multiple people rendered the same translation! I have said this before and I will say it again: There is no such thing as translation, only interpretation. If you are not reading something in its original language, you are reading it through the filter of its translator, and you should ALWAYS keep this in mind if you’re even flirting with the idea of taking something that’s been translated literally.

So, back to Zechariah 9:9. One important thing to note is that the king is riding a donkey; the reason this is significant is that it symbolized that he was coming in peacetime (symbolically, coming on a horse would be warlike). But that’s not the end of the story, not by a long shot!

If you read Greek, you noticed this little tiny word – καὶ – in the Greek rendering, but not in the English rendering (it’s also not in the original Hebrew). This one little word makes a HUGE difference in understanding Matthew’s thought process here. Namely, it shows that Matthew rewrote history in order to make it LOOK like Jesus was fulfilling an Old Testament prophecy, even though in order to do that, he had to make Jesus look either ridiculous or insane within the narrative itself. The reason is that the author of the Gospel of Matthew, who could not read Hebrew, was using the Septuagint as his source for Old Testament prophecies. The Septuagint is in Greek, and among many others, contains one very important translation oddity.

That little word, καὶ, means “and.” And why does it make such a huge difference?

Because in Hebrew, there is a very important poetic device called synonymous parallelism – the repetition of a line, using different wording, for poetic effect. In Hebrew poetry, writers used this all the time. For example, it works like this:

I gave my love a flower
a rose, so red and so soft

Looking at this, anyone who isn’t brain-dead would clearly understand that the author gave his love a total of one (1) flower, and the more-specific type of flower the author gave his love was, in fact, a rose.

However, imagine if the poem said this:

I gave my love a flower
and a rose, so red and so soft

Well, that certainly changes things. It’s a lot harder to look at this now and see that the author obviously meant a total of only 1 flower. That little “and” carries so much meaning here. In linguistics, it’s called a “non-contrasting conjunction” (as opposed to, for example, “but” or “yet”).

Now let’s look back at Zechariah 9:9 (as translated from Hebrew by David Stern), specifically the part about the donkey:

riding on a donkey,
yes, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Anyone familiar with Hebrew would immediately recognize this as the poetic device of a synonymous parallelism, and understand that the author meant only 1 animal. But Matthew, who was reading the Septuagint, a Greek translation, read this, and because his translation said:

riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey

he thought the prophecy was saying that the king would ride into the city ON THE BACKS OF TWO ANIMALS!! (A colt is a male foal; a foal is simply a donkey that’s less than a year old, male or female.)

Unlike Jews, Christians believe that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy when he entered Jerusalem (Jews are still waiting for someone to fulfill it). This event is one of the most important in the entire New Testament: It marks the beginning of the Passion narrative, and takes place just a few days before the Last Supper and Jesus’ crucifixion. The so-called Triumphal Entry is a moveable feast, called Palm Sunday, and is described in all four canonical Gospels.

So, when the author of “Matthew” is telling the story of Jesus obtaining the animal, on the back of which he will ride into the city (21:2), what does he write?

Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them,“Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.

Then, in 21:4-5, Matthew MISquotes Zechariah 9:9, using the Septuagint:

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

AND! AND! aaah!

And here’s the kicker, in Matthew 21:6-7:

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on.

Come again? They spread their cloaks across BOTH animals, and Jesus rode them into the city? What, like straddling both of them?

Are you picturing this? Maybe this will help:

Still having trouble putting this together in your head? How about another angle?


You probably know that none of the four canonical Gospel writers describe Jesus between the ages of 12 and 30, but did you ever realize THEY ALSO LEFT OUT THE PART ABOUT HIS TIME TRAINING FOR THE RODEO?

People often ask me why, now that I’m an atheist, I still study the Bible “religiously.” The long answer is that regardless of my beliefs, it’s still the most influential book in Western history, and it has a lot to offer scholars in terms of understanding the language, culture, politics, and justifications of the last 3,000 years. The short answer is, BECAUSE IT’S HILARIOUS.

If we ever needed good evidence that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses (aside from the fact that the author of “Luke” says so explicitly), I think we need look no further than the Triumphal Entry. This event is also described in John 12:12-19 and in Mark 11:1-11 (and also in Luke 19:28-44, although again, “Luke” tells us that he was not an eyewitness). However, in both “John” and “Mark’s” accounts, Jesus was riding only one animal.

Mark’s account was written first, and Matthew “borrowed” heavily from it. In reality, he pretty much took the entire thing verbatim – about 60% of it, in fact – and simply added some stuff, and changed a few other things. For example, he added Joseph’s genealogy and the story of Jesus’ birth, neither of which appear in Mark – Mark starts the story when Jesus, as an adult, gets baptized by John the Baptist. He also changed some stuff – for example, the number of animals Jesus was riding when he came into the city. Why did he do this? He tells us explicitly (Matthew 21:4):

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet.

As I mentioned before, I am convinced that the main reason people believe in the Bible is ignorance. I hope that this article will help some people on their paths toward a better understanding of why the Bible is not a trustworthy source of historical information. Sure, read it for its cultural value – I applaud that. But to quote James Randi, “Enjoy the fantasy, the fun, the stories, but make sure there’s a clear sharp line drawn on the floor. To do otherwise is to embrace madness.”

Until next time,

Dave

mail@davemuscato.com

(573) 424-0420 cell/text

Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.

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Helpful resources:

Godisimaginary.com
Iron Chariots Wiki
Skeptics’ Annotated Bible / Skeptics’ Annotated Qur’an
AtheismResource.com
TalkOrigins.org

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Blogs: Greta ChristinaPZ MyersThe Friendly AtheistWWJTD?Debunking ChristianitySkepChick

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2 comments on “Conversation with a Christian friend

  1. Rebecca Vogler
    November 7, 2011

    Dave, what an interesting post! I’m discouraged that your Christian friend seemed so defensive when you questioned him. He may feel like he’s “throwing pearls before swine”, but he should be assured enough in his faith to be able to have an answer for all of your questions. At the moment, I have a question. Every time you come across a supposed contradiction in the Bible and you do a lot of research in the original text (which is a great thing!), do you bother to research what the apologetics’ answer is to the contradiction? I just read a great post on Apologetics Press on the issue of the donkey and the colt. It’s a little long, but tell me what you think of it if you get around to reading it. http://www.apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx?category=6&article=773

  2. Christian Huls
    November 7, 2011

    Dave, you continually make bold claims and statements as if they are authoritative undisputed fact, site nothing, and stand against ancient testimony that was much closer to the events than you. Your history is more fraudulent than that of Dan Brown’s…
    Matthew was not anonymous, nor was it written by someone ignorant of Hebrew. What is your evidence of this? There is good evidence that Matthew’s gospel was originally written in Hebrew or Aramaic and later translated into Greek.

    Papias (60-130), as quoted by Eusebius, makes the following obscure statement about the origin of the gospel testifying to both the author and the language (H.E. 3. 39. 16): “Matthew composed the sayings in the Hebrew language and everyone interpreted as he was able.”

    Irenaeus (130-200) (Adv. Haer. 3.1.1; also quoted by Eusebius, H.E. 5.8.2): “Now Matthew brought forth among the Hebrews a written gospel in their language, while Peter and Paul were preaching in Rome and founding the church.”

    Origen (185-254) (as quoted by Eusebius, H.E. 6. 25.3-4) asserts, “Among the four Gospels, which are the only indisputable ones in the Church of God under heaven, I have learned by tradition that the first was written by Matthew, who was once a tax collector, but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, and it was prepared for the converts from Judaism, and published in the Hebrew [or Aramaic] language.”

    Eusebius wrote of Pantaenos (died c. 190), associated with the church in Alexandria (H.E. 5.10.1-4): “One of these was Pantaenos, and it is said that he went to the Indians, and the tradition is that he found there among some of those there who had known Christ the Gospel of Matthew had preceded his coming; for Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them and had left the writing of Matthew in Hebrew letters, which was preserved until the time mentioned” (see H.E. 3.24.5-6). According to Jerome, Pantaenos brought back a copy of this Hebrew version of Matthew to Alexandria (De vir. ill. 36).

    Eusebius (H.E. 3.24.6): “For Matthew, who had at first preached to the Hebrews, when he was about to go to other peoples, committed his Gospel to writing in his native tongue, and thus compensated those whom he was obliged to leave for the loss of his presence.”

    Jerome (342-420) stated several times that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Hebrew, and even said that the original Hebrew Gospel was in the library at Caesarea in his day (De vir. ill. 3; see Ad Damas. 20; Ad Hedib. 4).

    Epiphanius (315-403) wrote concerning the Nazarenes, “They have the Gospel according to Matthew quite complete in Hebrew, for this Gospel is certainly still preserved among them as it was first written, in Hebrew letters” (Panarion 29.9.4).

    Perhaps there is some evidence that the Greek translator was not fluent in certain Hebrew/Aramaic idioms. For example, the infamous camel through the eye of a needle phrase – in Aramaic, the word for camel and rope are the same. An interesting article on this http://healing2thenations.net/papers/hebrewmt.htm

    Consider also the Aramaic words found in Matthew: Emmanuel, raka, and mammon.

    There is also external evidence for the authorship and early existence of the Gospel of Matthew as well.

    Clement of Rome (c. 90) used sections of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt. 5:7; 6:14-15; 7:1-2, 12; with Luke 6:31, 36-38) (1Clem. 13:1-2).

    Ignatius used the Gospel of Matthew (c. 100) quoting the phrase “to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15) in discussing Jesus’ baptism (Smyr. 1).

    The author of the Didache (c. 110) quoted from Matthew’s version of the Lord’s prayer (Did. 8:1-3).

    Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), whose works I just finished reading in their entirety a few weeks back, frequently quotes from a harmony that he apparently put together of the synoptic gospels. He says that there are only FOUR gospels.

    His pupil Tatian (120-180) produced a harmony of the four gospels called the Diatessaron which was the standard text in the Syriac churches until the fifth century. The harmony does not include Jesus’ encounter with the adulteress (John 7:53- 8:11), and no significant text was added. In all, only 56 verses in the canonical Gospels do not have a counterpart in the Diatessaron, mostly the genealogies and the Pericope Adulterae.

    Not centuries later. A century later it was in circulation enough that someone had put together a harmony of three of them. They were well known enough even by the critics. And it was common knowledge that there were four, and that they were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in that order.

    The earliest fragments of Matthew are dated to the middle or latter half of the first century.

    Just because a modern skeptical “scholar,” who doesn’t believe in God and presupposes that miracles are impossible, postulates that these were written in different order, assembled, etc. does prove it to be so.

    These were not merely voted upon out of hundreds of gospels centuries later, but the councils merely affirmed what was already accepted by the churches, as evident by the lists of scriptures by earlier writers.

    Regarding riding on the colt and the foal of the donkey, this is easily reconciled if the two animals are tied together and if Messiah is riding side saddle on the adult with His feet on the foal. Though this is not even necessarily so either. It could have simply been that the foal remained tied to the other and no one was riding on it. Furthermore, early hostile eyewitnesses could have easily disputed this and none did.

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This entry was posted on November 7, 2011 by in Author: Dave Muscato and tagged , .
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