TIA Tuesday: Wrapping up HitchensAugust 5, 2008 — Deacon Duncan
Vox Day closes his chapter on Christopher Hitchens with a look at three topics where he feels Hitchens does particularly badly: historical Biblical accuracy, child abuse, and charity. Let’s look at the first of these and see how Vox does.
In discussing the Bible, Hitchens claims that the four Gospels were not in any sense a historical record and claims their multiple authors “cannot agree on anything of importance.” His only source is Bart Ehrman, an apostate former evangelical whose Misquoting Jesus is an interesting and respected textual criticism of the inerrant inspiration of the New Testament. But Hitchens is apparently unaware that Ehrman has been forced to admit that the Gospels are in accordance that 1) Jesus was crucified and buried, 2) his tomb was discovered to be empty, 3) his disciples believed they encountered him after his death, and 4) his disciples sincerely believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.
That’s an interesting rebuttal, considering that the earliest and most reliable manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark end at chapter 16 and verse 8, which mentions an angel and an empty tomb, but not any actual encounters with the allegedly risen savior, or subsequent belief on the disciples’ part. So of the 4 areas of broad general agreement that Ehrman was “forced to admit,” two of them aren’t even in the originals of one of the four Gospels.
But fair’s fair, so let’s admit that, while there are problems with some of the New Testament documents, it’s a bit much to claim that there isn’t any agreement between them. If that were the case, scholars wouldn’t be suspecting that Matthew and Luke, at least, might have copied from some common source (aka the “Q” document). But granted that the authors do agree to some extent, the New Testament documents still have a problem in that they disagree on certain factual details, a point which Vox attempts to explain away by claiming that “eyewitness accounts tend to vary greatly when it comes to the particulars.”
Now, let’s pause for a moment and recall that Vox originally told us, back in the preface to the book, that “my purpose in writing this book is not to defend God, or even to argue for the truth of my particular religious faith.” Apparently, what he meant was that he did not intend to defend the Christian faith except when he thought he could get away with it. Or maybe he meant that it was not his purpose to argue apologetics—it just kinda happens by accident. Regardless, he is making an apologetic argument here, and we should take a look.
Vox is quite correct that eyewitness accounts can vary greatly. Most eyewitness accounts, however, don’t claim to have divine, supernatural inspiration guaranteeing that their writings will be infallibly inerrant. It’s not surprising that we would find fallible, mortal men and women making factual errors based on misperception, unintentional “memory editing,” or other human flaws. The presence of such flaws in the Bible, however, argues strongly for the conclusion that the New Testament texts are more consistent with a human origin than a divine one. That’s a pretty important point to note when the book in question is routinely described as “the Word of God.”
Vox goes on to offer the discovery of Nineveh and the Hittites as giving believers reason to hope that we will one day find archeological evidence of the Exodus as well. Much as I hate to burst Vox’s bubble, I think we should remember that early skepticism about Nineveh and the Hittites was due in large part to the lack of archeological knowledge about that era and region. Such is no longer the case, especially with regard to Egyptian history, which seems surprisingly unfamiliar with the notion that at some point they lost a Pharoah, an entire army of chariots, and a few million slaves—a combination that would not only have left an indelible mark on the civilization, but that would also have left the rich, fertile farmlands easy prey for any of Egypt’s more aggressive neighbors. Vox can keep hoping, but I rather doubt he’s going to see the good news he’s hoping for on that front.
Next, Vox lists 15 factual errors in god is not Great, as documented by a Dr. Mark D. Roberts. According to Dr. Roberts, scholars now state that Jesus was most likely born in 6BC (not the 4BC I was always taught, hmm). He also lists such errors as “Bart D. Ehrman’s name is not Barton.” Mmkay, gotta get to a multiple of 5 somehow, I guess. “Fourteen errors” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Dr. Roberts also asserts that “The Nag Hammadi ‘Gospels’ were codices, not scrolls, and they were not written in the same period as the canonical Gospels, but later.” That one I’m not so sure about. The nag-hammadi.com web site refers to these texts as “a fabulous treasure with its Coptic translations, dating back to the 2nd century AC, of religious and philosophical texts that were even older, initially written in Greek.” That is, the Nag Hammadi copies may have dated back to the second century, but this doesn’t mean the originals weren’t written around the same time as the Gospels.
But let’s drive on and assume, for the moment, that Vox and Roberts are correct about Hitchens saying factually incorrect things in his criticism of the New Testament. What does this mean for us? Before we answer that, let’s look at the last error listed by Roberts.
Hitchens invents and exaggerates disagreements about the Gospels. The “disagreement” about Peter’s denial is whether the cock crowed once or twice; it is not a matter for scholarly theological debate.
It seems to be the general principle here that picky little details don’t matter. Well, that’s not quite true: it matters if Hitchens is the one getting a picky little detail wrong, and indeed the bulk of TIA is devoted to finding some picky little detail that Vox can claim some atheist got wrong. But when it’s the Holy Bible we’re talking about—when it’s the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God—then the inconsistent details don’t really matter. Go figure, eh?
And that’s about it. Hitchens, for some reason, gets off easy. Vox seems to like him, for all the flaws Vox sees in his arguments (or perhaps because of the flaws—it’s easier to be a gracious winner than a gracious loser). Vox even suggests that he might like to buy Hitchens a drink someday. He closes the chapter with this noble thought:
If God, whose power is infinitely greater than my own, does not see fit to force Christopher Hitchens to worship him, then how can I, or any other Christian, fail to do other than follow that divine example? Free will is at the heart of the Christian faith. To follow or not to follow is a choice, and I would not, indeed, I could not, rob Christopher Hitchens of his right to make that decision on his own.
I wish Vox could get these “Marriage ‘Protection’ Amendment” yahoos to see things from that perspective. But he’s right about one thing: he can’t rob Hitchens of his right to freely decide whether or not to follow God. Only God can do that, by failing to show up in real life so that Hitchens (and the rest of us) might make a free and informed decision.