Sunday 16 October 2011

Unbelievable?: The Conference — Disc 2

Following my review last month of the first disc of this three-DVD set, here's my assessment of the second, which is the Bible Stream.

First up is David Instone-Brewer with "Can I trust the Bible?" He begins with a reference in John in the King James Version to some aspect of the Trinity, which is omitted in modern translations because it is reckoned to be something a copyist noted in the margin, and which was then erroneously included in the main text by a subsequent copyist. This is the kind of thing Bart Erhman has been pointing out for years and is probably nothing new.

Instone-Brewer goes on to claim that many copies had errors and omissions due entirely to personal whim — such as when someone made a copy for use by his family and censored some passages he considered unsuitable for a family audience.

For me this calls into question the accuracy of even the earliest copies. Even though there are thousands of handwritten copies there are no original manuscripts, but Instone-Brewer claims that the profusion of copies allows scholars to infer the original from the many slight differences between the many copies. That's all very well, assuming that the the copies derive from different levels of the biblical "evolutionary tree". But what if they all derive from a single, early copy that contained significant errors? The closer any early copy is to the original, the fewer examples there will be on which to perform such statistical inference, and the less likely any errors are to be correctable. In fact statistical inference will probably reinforce such errors rather than detect and eliminate them.

Instone-Brewer seems to contradict himself when he says "nothing is lost", only a few minutes after declaring his opinion that the ending of Mark is, in fact, lost. He also claims, "Thousands of copies, thousands of problems, but we've got the original." Except, as he's already explained, we haven't got the original. He claims to be able to derive the original, but I think his confidence is misplaced, especially as in answer to a question he says that original texts are fragile and don't last very long. They could, therefore, have been copied erroneously, perhaps only a few times, before being lost forever. Many of those errors are likely to be undetectable.

He also makes the claim that oral sources are more reliable than written sources. This is a claim I've heard before (from, for example, Michael Licona), but it sounds more like wishful thinking than hard fact. Stories are indeed passed down through the generations, but they are embellished and altered for dramatic and polemical effect — and this is an accepted aspect of the oral tradition. No-one expects these stories to be literally or historically true, especially when those telling them have a specific agenda.

Instone-Brewer mentions a stone inscription (apparently now on display in a Paris museum) that describes a Roman Emperor's edict that moving a body from a Jewish grave is to be punishable by death. Instone-Brewer then hints (I think) that this is some kind of evidence for the resurrection of Christ. To me it seems like evidence that the emperor was aware of a religious cult that had persisted after its deceased leader's body had been stolen from a grave, and was anxious to prevent a repetition.

Not being particularly well-read in the New Testament I must thank David Instone-Brewer for pointing out so many problems within the text that I wasn't previously aware of. It seems to me that every so-called justification of the reliability of scripture merely points up its inconsistencies and unreliability, as well as the lengths to which Bible scholars will go in their attempts to validate its historicity.

I'm not one of those who doubt the historical existence of Jesus, but nothing Instone-Brewer says suggests that the supernatural claims of the New Testament are true.

David Instone-Brewer also delivers the second talk on this disc, "Is God a moral monster?" — which is the title of Paul Copan's recent book (which I've not read).

He begins by quoting Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, where Dawkins describes the God of the Old Testament (he has subsequently stated that he included this over-the-top description largely for comic effect).

Instone-Brewer goes on to describe the morality of the Old Testament, stating that times were different then, but nevertheless the laws of Israel were far more lenient than those of its neighbours. This may have been so, but such an argument skewers the whole idea of objective morality, making it subject to context and prevailing conditions. He confirms this in an answer to a question about the Ten Commandments, claiming that "Thou shalt not kill" doesn't mean you must never kill anybody. In answer to other, harder questions he simply plays the mystery card — apparently morality was different in the past, so much so that we in the modern world cannot understand it.

With regard to sacrifices and slavery he reiterates the claim that the laws of Israel were more lenient than anywhere else. So to modern eyes, it seems, they were relatively less immoral. He answers a question about stoning one's disobedient children to death by going on about drunkards — and I can only assume he didn't properly hear the question. He admits he doesn't understand disproportionate punishment, yet still maintains that God isn't a moral monster.

Inevitably there's a question about the slaughter of the Canaanites, and he gives a good explanation concerning how children are honour-bound to avenge the killing of their parents, and the invading forces knew this, and therefore had to kill them to prevent the grown-up children coming after them years later. Unfortunately this contradicts William Lane Craig's insistence (repeated just this morning on BBC Radio) that the children would be glad to be despatched to Heaven. I think it's safe to say that dishonoured children would not be glad to go to Heaven. This last contradiction is yet another example of the contortions Christians will perform in order to twist their faith into places it will not fit.

Some of William Lane Craig's points feature in the final talk on this disc, given by Jay Smith: "Is there evidence for the resurrection?"

Smith states that the resurrection is central to Christian belief, then says he will use Craig's eight points for discussing the resurrection with Muslims and others. I lost count, but the points he raises are the prophecies in the Old and New Testaments, the mentions by Greeks, Romans and Josephus, the empty tomb and the marble inscription already mentioned by David Instone-Brewer.

As in his talk about Islam, Smith soon gets into preacher-mode, which I found a little wearing, but his confident pronouncements seem to rely more on presentation style than logic. He's no more than superficially persuasive, in my view. For instance, I find nothing persuasive about citing Old or New Testament prophecy in support of the actual bodily resurrection of Christ. As has been pointed out, those who wrote the New Testament were intimately familiar with the Old Testament, and they knew what was expected of them. Smith himself hints at this mechanism when he describes the Mithras legends as post-Christ, claiming that the reason such legends are similar to the Gospel accounts of Jesus is that they were copied from them. To me this is applying a double standard.

Smith also states that when a messiah dies, the movement that follows him usually also dies, but this didn't happen in the case of Christ, and this is evidence for the truth of the resurrection. The followers of Christ, however, would have been aware of this tendency, giving them strong motivation for somehow claiming that their messiah was still alive.

Jay Smith has comprehensive arguments with which to knock down the Qur'an and incidentally claims it was not written by Muhammad, but hearing his (understandably) biased approach to Christian scripture I have doubts about his other claims.

The final disc is titled Big Questions — I wonder what that will be about.