The Argument From Scripture

This is part of a section from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. It can be found in chapter 3, “Arguments For God’s Existence”, under the section titled “The Argument From Scripture”. I have retyped this myself, so any typos are probably mine (except for “fulfil” – that’s apparently how the British spell it). The only part where I interject is with the asterisk.

There are still some people who are persuaded by scriptural evidence to believe in God. A common argument, attributed among others to C.S. Lewis (who should have known better), states that, since Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he must have been either right or else insane or a liar: ‘Mad, Bad or God’. Or, with artless alliteration, ‘Lunatic, Liar or Lord’. The historical evidence that Jesus claimed any sort of divine status is minimal. But even if that evidence were good, the trilemma on offer would be ludicrously inadequate. A fourth possibility, almost too obvious to need mentioning, is that Jesus was honestly mistake. Plenty of people are. In any case, as I said, there is no good historical evidence that he ever thought he was divine.

The fact that something is written down is persuasive to people not used to asking questions like: ‘Who wrote it, and when?’ ‘How did they know what to write?’ ‘Did they, in their time, really mean what we, in our time, understand them to be saying?’ ‘Were they unbiased observers, or did they have an agenda that coloured their writing?’ Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world. All were written long after the death of Jesus, and also after the epistles of Paul, which mention almost none of the alleged facts of Jesus’ life. All were then copied and recopied, through many different ‘Chinese Whispers generations’ (see Chapter 5*) by fallible scribes who, in any case, had their own religious agendas.

A good example of the colouring by religious agendas is the whole heart-warming legend of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, followed by Herod’s massacre of the innocents. When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5: 2) had led Jews to expect that the long-awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. In the light of this prophecy, John’s gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: ‘Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’

Matthew and Luke handle the problem differently, by deciding that Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem after all. Buy they get him there by different routes. Matthew has Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem all along, moving to Nazareth only long after the birth of Jesus, on their return from Egypt where they fled from King Herod and the massacre of the innocents. Luke, by contrast, acknowledges that Mary and Joseph lived in Bethlehem at the crucial moment, in order to fulfil the prophecy? Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go ‘to his own city’. Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’. That must have seemed like a good solution. Except that historically it is complete nonsense, as A. N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version (among others) have pointed out. David, if he existed, lived nearly a thousand years before Mary and Joseph. Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier? It is as though I were required to specific, say, Ashby-de-la-Zouch as my home town on a census form, if it happened that I could trace my ancestry back to the Seigneur de Dakeyne, who came over with William the Conqueror and settled there.

Moreover, Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod’s death. Lane Fox concludes that ‘Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent’, but he sympathizes with Luke’s plight and his desire to fulful the prophecy of Micah.

*This was referenced earlier in the book. Chinese Whispers is what the British call Telephone, the game where one person whispers something to someone, then that person whispers to the next, and so on. At the end of the line, the last person repeats what he heard. Usually, what he heard was much different from what was originally said.

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