01 Sep 2013

If the New Testament Merely Teaches Us Moral Lessons, Then Standard Christianity Collapses

Religious 27 Comments

Gene Callahan recently had an interesting post in Biblical inerrancy. (Loosely speaking, this is the claim that the Bible is literally true because it is the inspired Word of God. Go look at the Wikipedia entry if you want to see a subtler treatment, which contrasts Biblical inerrancy with infallibility, for example.) Here’s Gene:

[T]he story of the adulteress, the one in which Jesus talks about whoever has no sin casting the first stone, does not appear in any manuscripts or in any commentary on the New Testament before about the 12th century A.D. (Bart Ehrman speculates that something like the following occurred: one scribe in reading John saw Jesus saying things about not judging others. He thought, “I know a wonderful story that’s been circulating about Jesus that illustrates that point nicely.” He then wrote the story of the adulteress in the margin. A second scribe saw that, and thought, “Gee, this guy accidentally left that part out, and then had to write it in the margin. Let me get it in the main line of the text.”) In any case, it is nearly certain that the story of the adulteress did not make it into John until after 1000 A.D.

But why should this worry me one way or the other? It is a great story that teaches an important spiritual lesson. Isn’t that what is important, rather than whether or not it was in the earliest version of John?

Generally speaking, I very much appreciate Gene’s views on religion, but on this particular issue I’ve never agreed with his nonchalance. Because my faith is different from Gene’s, knowing which part(s) of the Bible are literally true, and which may merely be exaggerations or even outright fictions that were invented by later writers, is crucial. Here’s why:

==> Most crucial, the standard Christian view is that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate in man. God Himself decided to walk among us, teaching and healing, and He decided to enter the world through a human woman’s womb in the form of the 100% man whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth. He performed many miracles, but His most important one was literally rising from the dead after dying on a cross. If there really wasn’t such a man–or even if there had been a really wise, kind man who left disciples who made up stories about him after his death–then standard Christianity collapses. The Christian’s hope of salvation and eternal communion with God in paradise is dashed. (Maybe we could rebuild it on a different framework; Gene believes in God, after all. But my point is, standard Christianity can’t rest on a foundation of “wonderful parables.”) See Paul in Corinthians on this matter.

==> On the story of the adulteress in particular, I am very interested to know whether this is something that actually happened, or if it’s just a fable invented by subsequent Christians (presumably acting with good intentions). One of the biggest problems with Christianity is reconciling the freedom of faith in Christ with the Law laid down through Moses. When an atheist libertarian nowadays demands to know whether I am in favor of carrying out death sentences as laid out in Deuteronomy (I am not), it’s very tidy to say, “As my Master said, let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But I need to cite something else, if it’s not clear whether Jesus literally said that. Obviously we have no evidence that Jesus ever physically hurt someone (driving the moneychangers from the Temple being the only thing close), so I have no doubt that His example showed that we’re not supposed to kill people for sinning, but I personally was indeed disturbed when frequent commenter “Ken B.” on this blog pointed out the genuine doubt even among theologians about the story of the adulteress.

27 Responses to “If the New Testament Merely Teaches Us Moral Lessons, Then Standard Christianity Collapses”

  1. Carl says:

    “but I personally was indeed disturbed when frequent commenter “Ken B.” on this blog pointed out the genuine doubt even among theologians about the story of the adulteress.”

    Why stop there?

  2. Yosef says:

    Bob, it’s not really only if would carry out the death sentences laid out in Deuteronomy, but whether you will also kill when directly commanded by God, God’s prophet, or God’s king.

    Take one example. God commanded Saul to kill Agag. When he did not, Samuel was so angry he not only relayed that Saul will no longer be king, but Samuel himself killed Agag. Do you think if Saul had told Samuel “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”, that Samuel would have been fine?

    The idea of “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” may at best relieve you of death by way of punishment for offenses (“Who am I to judge?”), but even if it were entirely reliable, it would not remove the need to kill if directly commanded by God or God’s prophet. If Samuel told you to kill, would you?

    • Z says:

      Let’s suppose that Samuel told Bob to go and loot and rape throughout the land. What’s wrong with it? We already do such things to animals. Why should another animal species, homo sapiens, be spared?

      • Matt Tanous says:

        It is interesting that atheists condemn the God of the Bible as “cruel” or “inhumane” based on actions they KNOW are wrong… but why are they wrong if we just evolved from some random collection of DNA that happened to make a cell, including our moral intuitions? They condemn God for seeming to, in their eyes, violate an OBJECTIVE standard of morality… but from whence does an objective morality come from if not from a Creator God?

        • Z says:

          They’re not wrong, and there’s no such thing as moral intuitions. They are actually other types of feelings that we have mislabeled with words like ‘moral’.

  3. Jim PM says:

    I’m no expert, but there seems to be near consensus that a lot of Bible text has been altered over the centuries. There are also completely different versions or chapters, depending on which denomination’s version you are referring to. How can anyone really know what edits were made and when? If this has already been adequately answered by historians then please disregard this post.

  4. P.S. Huff says:

    I think there is consensus that the story of the adulteress is not an authentic part of John’s Gospel. Whether it is based on a real event is a separate question, naturally; but the internal and external evidence make it very difficult to believe that the Pericope Adulterae was a part of the Fourth Gospel as originally penned.

  5. joe says:

    Here is a great interview with RJ Rushdoony who is Gary North’s father in law and the leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement to which Ron Paul subscribes. Gary North is now the head of Ron Paul’s home school curriculum. Basically, the goal is to get the federal govt out of the way so that Chrisians can reconstruct the nation. Have you head of the Constitution Party? This party is based on the above belief and they hope to restore American jurisprudenceto its Biblical foundations as described by Rushdoony in this interview. Read up on Howard Phillips, Gary North, Rushdoony to understand Ron Paul’s version of libertarianism (theocratic libertarianism).

    Moyers Interviews Rousas J. Rushdoony – 1988
    Moyers: You’ve written that the Bible calls for the death penalty, and I’m just running down a variety of things as you can see. You’ve written that the Bible calls for the death penalty of some 15 crimes: rape, sodomy, adultery.

    Rushdoony: Adultery because in the Bible the basic institution is the family. There’s no law of treason against the state. The Bible doesn’t even imagine anything remotely like that. But the basic institution is the family. And so, several of the death penalties are associated with the family and its life.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Joe wrote:

      …and the leader of the Christian Reconstructionist movement to which Ron Paul subscribes.

      Where does Ron Paul say that? I tried a google search and only see it coming from people who hate him.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Don’t forget Bob, TW is an 80 year old Jesuit. Just keep that in mind …

      • Richie says:

        “Where does Ron Paul say that?”

        He doesn’t have to say it. People like “joe” assume it, which makes it true.

  6. Ivan Jankovic says:

    Bob, the story of adulteress is simply fake, we don’t have it in the older Greek manuscripts, and certainly not in the first manuscripts from the 3rd and 4th centuries. It first appears in the 12th century I think in Greek commentaries, (although in some non-Greek manuscripts you can find it much earlier).

    But, we can go further: what about Jesus’s seven different ‘last words’ on a cross, all of them by a happy coincidence confirming a theological point the writer wanted to make? Did he say God why have you forsaken me, and dies a broken and defeated man, as per Mathew, , or did he say: “Father forgive them they for don’t know what they do”. indicating that he was perfectly aware of his own divine nature (as per Luke), or did he say “it is finished” as per John? He simply could not have said all those things in the same time or in the short period of time, unless he was a complete schizophrenic. So, the only reasonable conclusion we can draw from this is that the Gospel writers invented the stories that suited their own theological agenda, or picked up the stories that could be used to advance this agenda.

    Or take the Empty tomb narrative: how many women had seen the empty tomb, who was inside who announced them the news about Jesus’ resurrection and what they have done afterwards? And to whom Jesus appeared and where? You have four completely different and contradictory stories about in the four canonical Gospels? Again, whom are we supposed to believe and why?

    Or the birth narrative. Where Jesus was born – in Nazareth or in Bethlehem? And had his parents fled to Egypt or not? Depends upon which Gospel you read, And many others like that.

    • Dan says:

      “He simply could not have said all those things in the same time or in the short period of time, unless he was a complete schizophrenic.”

      I don’t understand why atheists think these kind of comments are so persuasive. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be able to square those three statements from Jesus.

      • Dean T. Sandin says:

        I was thinking the same thing. Any half way decent Hollywood scriptwriter could work all of that into a few minutes very convincingly.

  7. Lord Keynes says:

    “One of the biggest problems with Christianity is reconciling the freedom of faith in Christ with the Law laid down through Moses. “

    It’s not necessarily a problem for the Pauline Christian at all: St Paul tells you that Christ’s death on the cross abolished the Torah (or Old Testament law), as he says in the letter to the Galatians.

    But of course you do have a serious problem in that even in the New Testament there are Christians who dispute St Paul’s view: Mathew 5:17-18 and the letter of James.

    This shows us that early Christianity already had competing sects and that Paul’s Christianity is probably far from Jesus’s teachings. It’s not for nothing that skeptics say that St Paul invented modern Christianity.

    • Matt Tanous says:

      “St Paul tells you that Christ’s death on the cross abolished the Torah (or Old Testament law), as he says in the letter to the Galatians.”

      The Galatians were Gentiles. They were never under the Torah, but followed other moral teachings. Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia concerned dealing with the teaching of an “alternative” version of the gospel that involved salvation through works (specifically, following the Mosaic Law) instead of by faith and grace. Context, LK, is important.

      “This shows us that early Christianity already had competing sects”

      It is not uncommon for any teaching to be incompletely absorbed by those that follow it. The fact that teachers in the early Church, including Paul, wrote letters to instruct the newly converted churches does not mean that there were “competing sects” in the sense that we don’t know who is right or not.

      “and that Paul’s Christianity is probably far from Jesus’s teachings”

      It demonstrates nothing of the sort. The verse in Matthew has many different interpretations – some of which indicate that “until everything is finished” refers to the Crucifixion and Resurrection. Others might say that what Christ was talking about was his fulfillment of the law, as the only one to uphold it entirely and never sin. Further, as I noted above, there is more than just the one understanding of Galatians as well. The standard one is not that the Law is abolished, but that specific questions as to how it applied to Gentiles were in doubt (re: circumcision) and that, most importantly, salvation is not through the Law. That is not the same thing as “do not follow the Law”, but instead “the Law is NOT ENOUGH”.

  8. Yancey Ward says:

    I am just guessing the 12th century scribe was fooling around on the side.

  9. Yancey Ward says:

    But on a serious note, Bob, aren’t you always going to have to rely on the veracity of some human being along the chain of the New Testament’s creation? Jesus’s life as contained in the NT was always a second-hand account.

  10. Travis says:

    On your general point, Bob, C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity about Jesus being more than a moral teacher: “You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

    That said, holding the Bible up as the inerrant and/or infallible Word of God as most Protestants do tends to lead to several problems. Orthodox (and Catholics) don’t have the same epistemological problem because we don’t rely on the Bible as our sole source of authority and knowledge, and we certainly don’t base our faith on it alone. The Church created the Bible, not the other way around. From an Orthodox point of view, the proper lens for interpreting the Bible (and indeed the Gospel message as a whole) is through the Fathers of the Church and the Divine Services – especially the Liturgy. People often ask about what the early Church was like and question the Christian faith. The Orthodox response is always a warm smile and an invitation: “Come and see.”

  11. Travis says:

    And I should add, on the issue of the Old Testament and reconciling the harsh laws and stories with the New Testament, you should check out Archbishop Lazar Puhalo’s youtube channel. He has a great series of spiritual talks and lectures on the Old Testament called “The Old Testament is About You.” There’s a lot of great information to go through, but one of the major points is that we don’t actually learn much about God in the Old Testament. Rather, we learn a lot about human beings, our relationship with God, others, and the world, and our need for redemption. It’s not until God reveals Himself in the Person of Jesus Christ in the New Testament that we learn about what God is actually like. As Jesus Christ said: “All things were delivered to Me by My Father. And no one doth fully know the Son, except the Father; nor doth anyone fully know the Father, except the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son is willing to reveal Him.” (Matt. 11:27). And Christ also explained: “Am I so long a time with you, and thou hast not known Me, Philip? The one who hath seen Me hath seen the Father, and how sayest thou, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9).

  12. Terry Hulsey says:

    All of the discussion so far assumes that there was one Christ whose historical utterances can be discovered.
    The far more obvious assumption, which better satisfies Ockham’s razor, is that there were many Christs.
    First century Judea was teeming with spiritual adventurers eager to cash in on prophecy. The name “Christ” alone opens up the field for any John Smith, to say nothing of Eesa, Eashoa, Joshua, Yahshua, Yehoshua, Yeshu, Hoshea and Eesho M’sheeka, which are all plausible cognates.
    But more decisively, how else to explain the many contradictions in the utterances and life of the Christs? Was he born in Bethlehem or Nazareth? Was his father’s name Jacob, or was it Heli? Did he go to Egypt as a child, or not? Was his first sermon on a mount, or was it on a plain? Did he raise the daughter of Jairus from the dead, or merely heal her? Did he cast out a demon from a Canaanite woman, or was she a Syrophoenician? The answer to all these questions is “yes, both” only if there were many Christs.
    Now can the “historically accurate” account of all these chattering Christs be discovered? Of course, if your mind is made up in advance.
    And further, did any one of these spiritual enthusiasts die and come back to life after being buried several days, as a promise of your own personal resurrection? Of course, if your mind is made up in advance. But then you are confronted with the problem of resurrection, which will confound any honest man, as I have demonstrated here:

    • Matt Tanous says:

      “Was he born in Bethlehem or Nazareth?”

      Just to start with the first question…. what are you talking about? The term “Jesus of Nazareth” refers to the familial home, not his direct birthplace. In much the same way one might be an Italian American, but not have been born in Italy.

      • Terry Hulsey says:

        It seems that you read the Bible as not the “literal word of God.”
        I congratulate you for cherry-picking this document to suit your morals, quite evidently and thankfully concocted elsewhere.

    • Joshua Cartwright says:

      I may be able to help with some of the issues of differing accounts. I (and I am a Christian btw) recently read the 400 page Jesus Myth which took a new point of view on the gospels. It basically said that the culture at the time of writing was an ORAL culture where things like the order of the events and the exact wording was not as important as the main point (possibly what we might call the moral) of the story was recalled. This is not to say that oral tradition cannot be highly accurate – the book argues convincingly it can. But also the stories told are adjusted for time and audience. Furthermore, the audience of the time would have helped to keep the story-telling accurate. Regarding the comments above, I cannot answer them at present but I can tell you one thing I have found in the last 16 years. The proverb ‘a man’s case seems reasonable until another comes forward.’ Many bible differences can be explained a) from what I have said but also b) you need to understand that the way the Hebrews through and spoke was literally a world away from our western thought – Hebrew thought compared with Greek (ours!) is a good book for this but hard going – and what looks like contradictions are understood not be to be in the light of new historical and especially cultural evidence.I’ll give a couple of examples. For years no-one belived Samson could have pushed down an entire temple by himself until a philistine temple of dagon was found with two central curving pillars that a man could easily have stood between. Collapse those, collapse the roof. The different times of the crucifixion account are understood to be the same when you realise one is roman time-keeping and the other is Judaic; when Jesus said to let people who want to take your cloak take your undershirt as well – he may well have been making an excellent joke because people only wore two garments and he was saying let the person make you naked so the shame falls on him. There is so much hidden from us because of our Western understanding.

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Fascinating comment, Joshua, thanks!

        • Terry Hulsey says:

          “This is not to say that oral tradition cannot be highly accurate” — in other words, you can play fast and loose, just as it suits you.
          One day I, in jaded old age, will cease to be astounded at a man’s capacity for self-justification. Till then, I marvel… I marvel.

  13. Jared Lynch says:

    Bob, you really need to read Dr. Lorraine Day’s book Who Rewrote The Bible. The most fascinating book I’ve read regarding biblical passages.

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