Put Your Hands Up!

One of the many bad arguments skeptics make against the reliability and authority of the Bible is that the authors were biased.  The fact that they were Christians disqualifies them from reporting accurately the events they record.  Is it true that we cannot grant credibility to the Gospels and other New Testament documents because the authors were biased?  Do the NT author’s bias render their testimony unreliable?

The first reason we need not give this complaint any credence is this objection serves as a double-edged sword.  Most evangelical Atheists regularly publish works attempting to promote their convictions as the truth.  They are fully entrenched in their belief that God does not exist, and argue vigorously for this belief.  Should we consider their arguments against theism and Christianity as being too tainted to be given credibility?  This is absurd, we do not dismiss a claim, any claim, simply because we believe the one making the claim has a bias in favor of their message.  Everyone making an argument has a bias in favor of their convictions.  What needs to be evaluated is the claims themselves, not the motivation of the author.

What about the complaint that because the authors were already believers and so their testimony is now somehow unreliable?  Is it true that the only way to get reliable information is to get it from someone who is entirely neutral?  We can only trust testimony from people who do not already believe the conclusion?  J. Warner Wallace from PleaseConvinceMe.com during Podcast 80The Reliability of the Eyewitness accounts of the Gospels, offered the following analogy:

Let’s say I decide to rob a liquor store.  In the liquor store are three customers who all witness the robbery.  As I leave the liquor store, the witnesses get a good look at me and remember what  I look like, my clothes, etc.  The police arrive on scene and interview the witnesses.  While this is happening I’m caught a ways down the road, and the detectives do what is called a “field show up” where I’m standing at the curb and the witnesses are driven by to get a look at me.  In turn, each witness positively identifies me, “yep, that’s definitely him” they each say.  Their statements are recorded and the case goes to court.

The jury looks at the case and says, “wait a minute, all three witnesses believe Jim did the robbery.”  They continue, “we can’t trust those eyewitnesses, they’re all biased, they all already believe Jim did it.  We want to hear from witnesses who saw it but aren’t biased, who don’t already believe Jim did the robbery.”

The people who saw the robbery saw who did it, they saw Jim commit the crime and now are witnesses who believe Jim did the robbery.  It would be silly to say you cannot trust those witnesses because they are all biased.  Is it reasonable to insist on trusting only the testimony of witnesses who saw what happened, who saw who did it, but do not hold a bias to who committed the crime?

Wallace points out what is important when it comes to the NT author’s bias.  Were they biased by believing Jesus was who He said He was before they saw Jesus’ miracles, and saw Him alive after He was buried?  Or did the bias arise after being witnesses to the events they recorded in the NT?  What is important is not the bias, but the accurate recording of the events they claim they witness to.  Bias is not enough to disqualify the events recorded in the NT, or any other document for that matter.  It is the ideas someone puts forward and not their motivation for the ideas being offered which need to be engaged.

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Related Article: Objection Overruled, Independence Anyone?

Comments

  1. Excellent points, especially regarding the New Atheists. That is just another one of their self-refuting arguments that they are blind to.

    I just started listening to the PleaseConvinceMe Podcasts. Wallace does a great job with his ministry.

  2. excellent article…I’ll have to check out those pleaseconvinceme podcast as well! God Bless!

  3. I’ve never heard the issue of bias invoked in quite the way you’ve done here. The closest I’ve seen is Bart Ehrman’s explanation of scribal alteration and the various reasons for it.

    In any case, the key differences under your definition are that contemporary authors have more objective research from which to draw, and there is a review process for correcting error. Contemporary scholars (even the dreaded “New Atheist” ones) acknowledge their capacity for error and incorporate revision into the process. We don’t reject contemporary scholars out of hand just because they believe their own conclusions to be correct, but we also don’t believe them if they claim never to be wrong.

    Also, which of the canonical Gospels is actually written by an eye-witness?

  4. Suggestion:
    You said,”One of the many bad arguments skeptics make”
    I suggest changing to “One of the many bad arguments some skeptics make”
    maybe leave out “many”
    But if you are preaching to the choir, there may be no need.
    BTW, my recent posts addresses part of our conversation in a former post.

  5. The majority of modern Christian scholars have demonstrated the intentional alterations (bias) used by the NT writers in presenting their versions of the story of Jesus. But you are absolutely right, just because someone is biased and speaking with an agenda does not mean they do not convey large measure of truth. All writers are biased. What scholarship has shown us is that if the Holy Spirit was guiding these men’s writing, he wasn’t interfering their human agendas. This insight is threatening to many fundamentalist Christians but other Christians have incorporated this insight fairly well.

    If a skeptic complains of simply bias, they are naive at best. We are all biased.

  6. Layla Gonzalez says:

    Excellent write-up. I am enjoying reading your blog. Happy New Year and God Bless you and yours.

  7. Atheism isn’t a religion. It is the dismissal of all religions, not just yours. There is no doctrine, no dogma, and infinite room for scientifc and social development. I doubt you regard Zeus, Apollo, Aphrodite or Poseidon as anything other than the mythical creations of humans to explain something which they had no way of comprehending. There is no logical reason to assume that your particular holy book, which was written before humans had any scientific capacity to study the planet and solar system, is any more an accurate depiction of reality than those myths.

    Science is secular. It is the discovery of new things for the sake of discovering them. It is understanding the world for the sake of understanding it. Science has no reason or agenda to disprove the “guesses” that relgion makes about the universe, but if it does so incidentally, the religious become enraged. Galileo was imprisoned by the Inquistion, for his assertion that the earth moved around the sun. This discovery didn’t hurt anyone, but as it was contrary to scripture, he was imprisoned.

    The same goes for the religious outrage over the theory of evolution, which, again, doesn’t hurt anyone, but was a scientific dedcution made after years of studying fossil records, and was basically confirmed with the advent of gene research. Not only did this discovery not hurt anybody, but it was using this that mankind has improved medical care, and increased our understanding of how our species and others got to the point they are at now on the planet.

    These understandings of our planet make use of the same scientific method that has given birth to the invention of all the technology which makes your life so easy today.

    Faith should be based in what works, not in what is absurd. I have faith that when I get in my car and drive to work, the car won’t explode. I can’t prove that it won’t, but based on the fact that the mechanics of cars is a sound and tested science, I feel safe getting in the car. I have faith that when I put meat in the oven, and turn it on, it will cook it to a temperature which makes the meat safe for my consumption, without making me ill.

    I do not have faith that ghosts exist, seeing as how there is no evidence for their existence, and every claim which has been made about a ghost sighting has either been refuted or dismissed due to lack of evidence. I do not have faith that unicorns exist, despite numerous references to them in different aspects of folklore and in the media, as there is no evidence that they do now, or have ever, existed.

    If these things are eventually proved to be true, they will be proved by way of the scientific method, and then I will add them to the many things about this universe which I find incredible.

    I will not believe in things simply because they “can’t be disproven”, because that is irrational. The burden of proof is ALWAYS on the person making the claim.

    • Well, no one argued that atheism was a religion, but it certainly is dogmatic. God does not exist, period. The supernatural does not exist, period. Miracles are not possible, period.

      I also agree there is no reason to assume the holy book I find authoritative, but then again, I don’t assume that.

      Another dogmatic aspect of naturalism, is in the interpretation of the fossil record. It’s analysis presumes no God and only naturalistic means, when in fact the record reflects what we would expect with design. Organisms fully formed, with a period of stasis, then extinction. Lets not pretend there is no effort to disprove the existence of God. Read Consensus Schmensus, two high profile atheist professors and scientists making very candid admissions, So let’s not pretend atheism is a noble endeavor.

      Finally, neither do I believe anything simply because “it can’t be disproven”.

      • You seem to have misread or misinterpreted my definition. I was careful to touch upon the religious misconception of atheism as containing any kind of dogma. You wrote, as a supposed summary of atheism, that: “God does not exist, period. The supernatural does not exist, period. Miracles are not possible, period.”

        This massively misrepresents both atheism, and the points I made to you above. I was quite clear about the scientific rationality of approaching the supernatural:
        “I do not have faith that unicorns exist, despite numerous references to them in different aspects of folklore and in the media, as there is no evidence that they do now, or have ever, existed.
        If these things are eventually proved to be true, they will be proved by way of the scientific method, and then I will add them to the many things about this universe which I find incredible.”

        That is the only rational way to approach the subject, a truly objective view of what is presented to you, which, ideally, leaves you with a better understanding of the world around you.

        You also wrote “Lets not pretend there is no effort to disprove the existence of God”, which apparently ignores the fact that the burden of proof is ALWAYS on the person making the claim. As always, the best way for a theist to understand this example is to look at it in terms of another supernatural character or story. If someone told you that there was a leprechaun that lived in their back garden and granted wishes, surely you would want to see it. But if they then said something like “sorry, only I can see it” or “sorry he turns invisible when guests come over”, then it would not be rude or offensive for you to tell this person that you do not believe them. There is no reason to assume these things are true, and there is nothing wrong with wanting proof before telling people that you are 98% sure that there is an invisible man who is simultaniously everywhere and nowhere who created the world for our sake 6000 years ago.

        Finally, I hope you’ll watch this short video of scientist David Eagleman, who discusses a concept called possibillianism. http://poptech.org/popcasts/david_eagleman_on_possibilianism

        • Are you suggesting Atheism does not make those claims “God does not exist…”? Those are dogmatic statements, all unsupported by scientific claims.

          I understand where the burden of proof lies. Heres where your analogy falls short. You do not simply get to dismiss claims out of hand unless they are logically impossible, for example if I told you I had a square circle in my closet, you are under no obligation to consider the claim. However, in the leprechaun claim, you could not just say “nope”. (well, generally speaking you could, but in a debate setting no, you cant) What you would then need to do is ask for evidence. Your friend shoulders the burden of proof for his claim. If he offers no evidence, then the discussion is over with no reason to give any credence to his claim. However if he offers evidence, you must either accept, reject, or with hold judgement for need of further information. If you reject his evidence, you must offer your own reasons for rejection of his claims, you cannot just declare nonsense. See the article, A Burden The Hand for this discussion.

          • You are correct, there is no way to prove the statement that “God does not exist.” Likewise, there is no way to prove that Vishnu, Zeus, Krishna and the Flying Spaghetti Monster do not exist. From a prove they do not exist category, all are the same. thus, it boils down to evidence. Christians hold up the Bible as their evidence. I explained why I do not view that as enough evidence below. All of us use a standard burden of proof in dealing with others. The greater the importance or fantastical nature of a claim, the greater the proof we need to believe the claim. Religions attempt to claim the ultimate purpose of man – a pretty important claim – thus require a good deal of proof. The Bible would not even function as enough evidence to win a court case, which I would consider the minimum burden of proof when dealing with such an important claim.

            • I think you are wrong about no way to prove other pagan gods, there are various ways, such as looking at the claims surrounding them. It is a rather long endeavor, but it is possible. Secondly, the bible can hold up as reliable enough to withstand examination. The problem arises when someone discounts testimony simply for containing supernatural claims, but if it is supernatural claims which we are investigating, then discounting accounts of instances is essentially rigging the game before it starts. Such discounting is arbitrary and unwarranted. There is nothning which requires a naturalistic worldview, it is presumed.

              BTW, the case for the God of Christianity does not start with the Bible.

              • Well, how are you to investigate the supernatural claims of the past? There are supernatural claims in many, many texts of the past. Some Biblical, but there are many even prior to such. Should all supernatural claims just be accepted? What is the criteria for accepting them?

                Even today, supernatural claims are rejected even when supplied with testimony from credible witnesses. A good example are UFO sightings. We have record of UFO sightings and testimony from individuals that would absolutely be accepted into evidence in a court proceeding today. This testimony is far superior to the NT, as we can directly interrogate the witnesses today. From biblical record, all we have is the un-interrogated word of the authors. Actually, we do not even have that, since we have no original writings from those giving the testimony.

                Where does the case for Christianity start, if not from the Bible?

  8. I find the more common argument, which I use myself, is that the NT is not real testimony, from any legal sense. Not because of what the authors believe, as you point out, that is irrelevant. But, there are multiple reasons that the NT do not qualify as testimony.

    First off, all that exists of the NT are copies of copies. Not a single original exists. To compound the issue, not a single whole copy exists either. We only have fragments. Thus there are no originals and no whole copies. While attribution is likely, it is not guaranteed.

    An even more important issue is that of testimony. Testimony is a staple of current and past judicial systems. But, heresay is not. Here is a definition of heresay and testimony. http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/Heresay As there are no originals of the NT, the best it can be qualified as is heresay. Even if it occurred a mere decade ago, none of the NT would be qualified as testimony and it would be excised from the court record. Additionally, the simple story of an individual, without interrogation and without skepticism is not testimony. Again, covered in my link and a tenet of the judicial systems of history. The ability of an impartial judge and a skeptical examiner to interview the witness is a critical component of testimony. The NT offers none of these things.

    • Im not sure if you misspoke, or you just don’t know, so I’ll clarify.

      You said:
      “not a single whole copy exists either. We only have fragments…and no whole copies”

      This is factually innacurate. Perhaps you meant no whole copy from the first century, but there are plenty of whole copies.

      But whether you believe they would count as testimony in 21st century American courts or not is irrelevant to me. They were not written for our standards. They were adequate for the time in which they were written. The Gospel accounts are of ancient Roman biography and can be considered reliable. I do not think it is fair to anacronistically impose modern standards on ancient documents, whether secular or sectarian.

      • I wonder, how do you know there are whole copies now? As we have no originals and even the oldest copies of the originals we have, we only have fragments. While we can establish a good, qualified guess to fill in the blanks, there is no guarantee as to completeness. This guess of completeness assumes that what was missing from one copy is contained in another copy or copies.

        Even in ancient Roman times, witnesses appeared before the court to give their testimony. Even then, skeptical interrogation of witnesses and the physical appearance of the witness was required. The bible as testimony did not even qualify back then.

        • What do you mean how do we know there are whole copies? They are known, by liberal and conservative scholars, even ones who are not theists, such as Gerd Ludemann, Bart Ehrman, and the entire Jesus Seminar. I don’t know where you get the idea we only have fragments.

          Please tell me what criteria you are using to determine the bible does not hold as credible testimony.

          • I mean, “how do you KNOW there are whole copies.” Without any originals, it is possible that the best copies we have today are missing pieces of what was in the originals.

            The only record of the testimony is from the authors themselves. There was no interrogation of the witnesses and,in the case of Luke, the person giving testimony was not, himself, an eye witness.

            • Well, one quick piece of evidence is the earliest church leaders wrote prolifically. They wrote early, starting from the late 1st century on and quoted the NT extensively, so much so what the entire NT can be reconstructed with the exception of 11 verses.

              Additionally, of the more than 5800 manuscript greek copies both full and fragmented, none contain “extra” chapters, or portions of extra chapters. From the 25,000 + other manuscript copies from the early 3rd and 4th centuries written in other languages, none contain additional content. So to the extent that we have “complete” copies of entire books of the NT, they all start and stop at the same place. We do not have fragments of a book where its only a chapter or so, and it is missing from all the others. For example all the full copies of 1 Corinthians we have, all end with chapter 16. Same with the others. Its not like there is only one copy of each.

              • Fragments of copies is not evidence of the entirety of the original. While early church leaders were prolific writers, they too were working from copies. I believe that ALL of the whole copies you are referencing came into existence over 100 years after Christ died. The Council of Nicaea, which is where the gospels for the bible were selected, did not occur until 325 and was done entirely based on many descendants of the copies.

                My points being several. Original authorship did not even occur until many decades after the death of Christ. There are no originals to validate the copies as whole or complete. Authorship of he gospels is questionable. The question of Mark, for instance has been through rounds of change over the centuries and is quite suspect. Likewise for Matthew, even today it is believed that it was not written by Matthew. Finally, what we are left with is a second hand account of Christ where even the authors give nothing even remotely resembling true testimony. Testimony, from even the Roman times, consists of eye witness accounts of events questioned by a skeptical third party.

              • Well, the NT was not selected at Nicea, but rather was declared official. There is a difference. The documents which were considered authentic were already being used as a whole before nicea. There were people such as Marcion who were doing some editing, and the Church felt it necessary to make official what was already in practice.

                Second, given that there are so many copies, all in virtual agreement with one another, we can reconstruct with more than 99% accuracy what the originals said. This position you are offering is only held by a tremendous minority of those in NT scholarship, both liberal and conservative scholars generally agree what we have is what they wrote. Citing from the very fringe of scholarship to make a point doesn’t bode well for your case.

              • The incompleteness of the bible stems not only from possible loss of content from originals, but due to inconsistencies across the earliest copies. The church fathers “selected” what was deemed the correct versions of things. But that does not always jibe with the actual earliest copies. It is a long read, but here is a debate between biblical scholars expressing some of these inconsistencies and how they can materially affect the NT. This is not a fringe view, either.
                http://mp3.aomin.org/805Transcript.pdf

                The issues with the bible as testimony are not contingent on the issue of biblical completeness. I am making two distinct points.

              • Listen, all you are doind is arguing from silence. You are taking a position that since “it is possible for there to be missing parts, therefore I will adopt a view that there are in fact missing parts regardless of the actual evidence” Secondly, I know all about textual criticism, and the reason we know where things may be different is because we have so many complete copies. Listen, we can continue, but you’ll have to provide evidence for believing that there are missing sections to the NT, not just a possibility. Arguing from silence does not prove anything.

              • I am not trying to prove that there are missing sections. I am trying to get you to acknowledge that it is within the realm of possibility that there are missing sections. That was the intent of that prong of my argument.

                As I mentioned, my arguments about valid testimony are not linked to my arguments of completeness.

              • Fair enough, but possibility is not probability. Given the textual evidence it is highly unlikely there are missing sections.

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