I’m frequently asked “are you and atheist or not?”
I rarely answer.
Why? Because most people have a very simplistic and inaccurate system of labels, often used merely to stereotype people into buckets. Most of us are binary thinkers, we think the choices are “dark red or dark blue” and if you’re not dark red, then you’re dark blue.
Hopefully this chart can help us appreciate the complexity of the situation a little bit more. These positions aren’t necessarily on a bidirectional scale, some positions overlap, some people hold more than one, other people tend to hop around all the time (I’ve been known to do that),there are still significant things missing from this chart, and etc, but at least its a start.
As a kid I was always confused as to why different Christian groups have different days for the crucifixion (some say it was Thursday, others Friday). This uncertainty runs even deeper than tradition, for even the Gospels of Mark and John narrate different dates for the crucifixion.
In this example, there have been plenty of attempts by apologists to reconcile these two conflicting dates, speculating that perhaps John was using some different way of telling time or perhaps in one of the narratives Jesus decided to celebrate the Passover one day earlier, and thus it can be called “Passover” in that narrative, even while the other narratives refer to that date as “before Passover.” However, none of these highly speculative attempts have ever been taken seriously, and today, the view of mainstream New Testament scholars remains that:
“John differs from the Synoptic Gospels also in the date which he gives for the crucifixion:
According to Mark the last supper was a Passover meal; that is, it was eaten in the early hours of Nisan 15; the arrest and trial took place in the same night and in the course of the next (solar) day Jesus was crucified. All these events took place on Nisan 15. “
-According to John the crucifixion happened on Nisan 14, the day before the Passover; the last supper must have been eaten the preceding evening. Thus the events are set a day earlier than in Mark, and the last supper is no longer the Paschal meal; Jesus died at the time when the Passover sacrifices were being killed in the Temple. Here again is a real contradiction; it seems impossible to reconcile the dates.”
– C. K. Barrett, President of the Society for New Testament Studies (1973)
Let me tell you a story. Today during lunch I did what I always do, I read an article by people who are supposed to be much smarter than I am. Surprisingly what I read explained my interactions with other people, especially when it comes to their disdain for data and preference for personal stories.
As I processed this article, I began to realize that there is a biological reason for why we prefer to believe the anecdotes our friends tell rather than cold, hard, facts. It turns out we humans are hardwired to prefer narrative.
Apparently a bunch of really smart scientist-people at Emory University did some tests and they discovered that hearing a story releases a chemical called oxytocin (don’t get excited, that’s different than oxycodone) and as it happens, this is the chemical released by breastfeeding mothers that illicits bonding.
“Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate School, found that reading simple, humanistic stories changes what is in our blood streams. Taking blood samples of subjects before and after reading a story about a father and his terminally ill son, Zak found their blood levels contained an increase of cortisol and also oxytocin after reading the story. Called the human bonding or empathy chemical, oxytocin is also released by breastfeeding mothers.” (1)
In addition, brain scans of subjects who listened to stories “showed heightened connectivity in a specific part of the brain. The left temporal cortex lit up, and not just for the period immediately following the reading assignments. The neural changes persisted for several days. This is why we sometimes say that a story was so powerful we just can’t seem to shake it.” There and a few other factors make us select narrative over data.
And thus sat and wondered whether I should just give up on charts, facts, evidence, and perhaps just start telling stories.
According to one of the world’s leading conservative evangelical scholars, most “liberal” Biblical scholars start out as devout conservatives.
Daniel Wallace, a leading evangelical scholar of textual criticism writes:
“Some years ago, I was on a committee that was working on a revision of the standard Greek grammar of the New Testament. In one of our annual two-day meetings about ten years ago, we got to discussing theological liberalism during lunch. Now before you think that this was a time for bashing liberals, you need to realize that most of the scholars on this committee were theologically liberal.
And one of them casually mentioned that, as far as he was aware, 100% of all theological liberals came from an evangelical or fundamentalist background.
I thought his numbers were a tad high since I had once met a liberal scholar who did not come from such a background. I’d give it 99%. Whether it’s 99%, 100%, or only 75%, the fact is that overwhelmingly, theological liberals do not start their academic study of the scriptures as theological liberals. They become liberal somewhere along the road.” (1)
The consensus of biblical archaeologists is that the Hebrew Bible contains much history but its “overlaid with legendary and even fantastic materials that the modern reader may enjoy as ‘story’ but which can scarcely be taken seriously as history.”
William G. Dever, commonly referred to as “America’s leading archaeologist of Israelite history” writes: “While the Hebrew Bible in its present, heavily edited form cannot be taken at face value as history in the modern sense, it nevertheless contains much history.
Let me begin by clarifying which books of the Hebrew Bible I think can be utilized by the would-be historian, whether textual scholar or archaeologist. With most scholars, I would exclude much of the Pentateuch, specifically the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. These materials obviously constitute a sort of “pre-history” that has been attached to the main epic of ancient Israel by late editors… As for Leviticus and Numbers, these are clearly additions to the “pre-history” by very late Priestly editorial hands, preoccupied with notions of ritual purity, themes of the “promised land,” and other literary motifs…
All this may be distilled from long oral traditions, and I suspect that some of the stories – such as parts of the Patriarchal narratives – may once have had a real historical setting. These traditions, however, are overlaid with legendary and even fantastic materials that the modern reader may enjoy as “story” but which can scarcely be taken seriously as history.”
(William G. Dever “What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did They Know It? – What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel” 2001 – William B. Eerdmans Publishing )
The sad reality is, most of us would side with a bumper sticker over a philosophy book, just because one is easier to understand.
“The more difficult it becomes to process a series of statements, the less credit you give them overall. During metacognition, the process of thinking about your own thinking, if you take a step back and notice that one way of looking at an argument is much easier than another, you will tend to prefer the easier way to process information and then leap to the conclusion that it is also more likely to be correct.
In experiments where two facts were placed side by side, subjects tended to rate statements as more likely to be true when those statements were presented in simple, legible type than when printed in a weird font with a difficult-to-read color pattern. Similarly, a barrage of counterarguments taking up a full page seems to be less persuasive to a naysayer than a single, simple, powerful statement.”
There have always been competing Christian groups that emphasized works vs faith. As it turns out this debate may be as old as the Bible itself.
Not only does Paul and James appear to be on two very different sides of this debate, but the four Gospels seem to take very different stances.
It’s possible that this is not a contradiction, that “both are true” and there does exist various theological explanations that zip them up together. However, it’s certainly fascinating that both groups of texts focused *solely* on one side of the equation, and fully ignored the other.