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Some of Hitchens’s Misunderstandings or Distortions, Part 1

By Mark D. Roberts | Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Part 6 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

In my last three posts I’ve shown that Christopher Hitchens, in his book god is not Great, makes fifteen errors in his discussion of the New Testament and related scholarship. As I explained, this undermines my confidence in him as a reliable witness in other matters, those where I lack academic expertise. When Hitchens purports to lay out the facts of Western history, or Islam, or Judaism, or . . . is he generally accurate? I can’t be sure.

There’s another problem in Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament in addition to his errors. This concerns what I’ve called “misunderstandings or distortions.” These have to do with statements that, though they might not be wrong in the strict sense, so misrepresent reality as to be just about as bad as outright errors. I counted sixteen (or so) of these misunderstandings of the New Testament as I read god is not Great. And, once again, I’m focusing only on areas of my own scholarly competence.

Given what I’ve written already, I’m not going to deal in detail with all of these misrepresentations, since this would be extremely tedious both for writer and reader. (No doubt someone will comment that what I’m writing is already extremely tedious. Point taken in advance.) In today’s post I will mention and comment briefly upon a few of them. A few others I’ll pick up tomorrow. The others will have to wait in line for treatment sometime later.

Hitchens Exaggerates the Differences Among the Gospels

Here are two examples of such exaggeration, though there are others:

Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the Virgin Birth . . . (p. 111)

Most astonishingly, they [the Gospel writers] cannot converge on a common account of the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. (p. 112)

First of all, it’s disingenuous to use the verb “cannot” in this claim, which seems to suggest that the Gospel writers actually got together and tried to come up with a common account but just couldn’t do it. Whether they could have agreed or not Hitchens cannot know.

But even if he had said only that the Gospel writers do not concur on the virgin birth or on their treatments of the crucifixion and resurrection, this would be an exaggeration. Matthew and Luke both affirm what we call the virgin birth in no uncertain terms. But they narrate the story from different perspectives, with Matthew focusing on Joseph and Luke on Mary. Difference does not equal disagreement.

Similarly, the diversity in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection doesn’t detract from fundamental agreement on the main points, and even some of the surprising details (like the prominence of women in the resurrection narratives). If the four Gospels told exactly the same story in exactly the same way, what do you think are the odds the Hitchens would deride this as collusion? Methinks he’s a hard man to please when it comes to religion.

Hitchens Misunderstands What It Means to Be a Christian

He writes:

The best argument I know for the highly questionable existence of Jesus is this. His illiterate living disciples left us no record and in any event could not have been “Christians.” since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief, and in any case had no idea that anyone would ever found a church on their master’s announcements. (p. 114)

If this is the best argument Hitchens has for the “questionable existence” of Jesus, then we who believe that Jesus existed can be reassured. Here are some brief reasons why:

• Almost every scholar of New Testament and ancient history believes that Jesus existed.

• It’s quite possible that the disciples of Jesus (those who were with Him in the flesh), did write or influence two of the Gospels (Matthew and John).

• I’ve never seen a definition of “Christian” that requires belief in the biblical books per se. In fact, followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (the Greek word christianoi means “Christ people”) before the Gospels were even written (see Acts 11:26).

• It’s quite likely that some of Jesus’s first disciples did in fact read some of the books of the New Testament, at any rate, though this hardly made them Christians.

• The disciples of Jesus not only heard Jesus talk of perpetuating a community (we call “church”) after His death, but also they were in fact the primary church planters.

I’ll continue this examination of Hitchens’ misunderstandings tomorrow.

Topics: Hitchens: god is not Great |

12 Responses to “Some of Hitchens’s Misunderstandings or Distortions, Part 1”

  1. Evan Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 7:34 am

    When the dust has all settled, Hitchens’ complaint against “religion” need to be broken into two parts: Non-Christian “Religion” and Christian “religion.”

    The reason for that is that whenever some institutional evil is laid at the feet of Christianity, the actors in question had to trample over the express teachings of Jesus in order to do it. Jesus never once called for his followers to kill or even harm others, for the sake of the faith or any other particular reason. I won’t try to answer for other religions, but that is Right Out with Christianity. Jesus continually affirmed to His followers that He had come to save, not to condemn, and that His goal was that everyone would attain everlasting life.

    Specific to Christianity, Hitchens’ charges can likewise be broken into two general groupings: 1) Complaints that an “Almighty” diety has not acted in accordance with Hitchens’ expectations of what an “Almighty” diety should/could do and 2) Opinions or other contested data or theories expressed as irrefutable fact.

    In the first group falls things such as Hitchens sneering that the “Q” document is lost to history, which is “careless” on the part of “the god who is claimed to have ‘inspired’ it.” In other words, an “Almighty” diety would never have let that happen, ergo, clearly there is no “God.” He is certainly not alone in this, but it begs the question in order to be dispositive. It assumes that human beings have sufficient 1) data and 2) mental facilities to completely comprehend and analyze an infinite being, and that if something does not fit with our analysis, it excludes the possibility of such a being. The converse, however, would be that it is quite possible that given our limitations, a particular action by a being unlimited by time, space and a mere five senses might not be comprehensible to us, even as our actions might befuddle a lizard. But here is the point: I don’t beg the question in the other direction and claim that all matters are irrefutably settled. ie, we can’t understand diety, so push your child into the volcano and stop asking questions. Hitchens’ objections in this regard are not invalid, but they are simply not so dispositive as to refute any contrary thought.

    In the second category, Hitchens will assert that “many a life was horribly lost on the proposition” as to which of the Gospels should be regarded as divinely inspired. How does one disprove a false assertion like that? The scope of history shows no conflict resulting in the loss of life regarding this issue. So the “debate” comes down to “Yes, there was,” “No, there wasn’t,” “Yes, there was” with no letup in sight. So if I say, “Thousands of people lost their lives as a result of the Teapot Dome Scandal,” only a student of American history would know the silliness of the assertion off the top of their heads. For anyone else, how to “prove” there wasn’t amounts to making them read volumes of history to note this massive death-toll is NOT there.

    Many of Hitchens’ assertions are certainly evidence for his viewpoint, but they simply don’t cut off debate by being “irrefutable.” Let me give an example in the other direction. IF Jesus indeed rose from the dead, then that would give credence to His divinity and His teachings. But would it be irrefutable? Some might disagree even there. But if I started with the assertion that Jesus HAS risen from the dead as an irrefutable historic fact and proceeded to argue based on that “irrefutable” proposition, I would be commiting the same error that Hitchens does in so many instances. Reasonable minds can differ over many things, but as I have said before, it comes down to formulating a theory that cannot be scientifically or mathematically “proven” beyond doubt. It is “Faith” one direction or another. Hitchens has viewed the evidence he has and has Faith in “non-Faith.” It is not beyond dispute any more than my belief that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. I accept this, but Hitchens wants to act as though there is no dispute possible to his worldview, which is silly.

    I might add a related note that Hitchens raises the bar for historic attestation regarding Biblical events to heights I do not think he requires for other historic events that he does not contest. For example, on the radio he scoffed at the Gospel account of an earthquake at the Crucifixion and the resurrection of some folks from their graves and being seen in Jerusalem subsequently. Since there is no extra-Biblical attestion to these events, Hitchens rather huffily dismissed any possibility of their being true. Which is fine until attestation of Shakespeare entered the scene, and then such stringent standards went by the boards. Hitchens sees no doubt that all the works of Shakespeare were “written by the same person, whoever that may be,” but did not seem to really have a problem with attributing the works to Shakespeare. Juxtaposed with Hitchens’ assertion (paraphrasing) that the evidence for the historic person of Jesus to be virtually non-existent so as to call Jesus’ existence into serious doubt, it is clear that Hitchens is imposing a far higher standard of history. He justifies this by insisting that the stakes are higher with a claim to diety, which seems logical until you realize that you can continue raising the bar until you are requiring personal appearances and miracles by God before you will accept anything “since the stakes are so high.” At that point you are simply unhappy that Faith is Faith as opposed to Irrefutable Continuing Evidence. That is certainly an objection, but it is quite far afield from the “no historic evidence” that Hitchens reached by re-defining what constitutes evidence whenever the topic is Jesus.

    Hitchens has really hurt his “cause” when he cites non-existent events as “fact” or contested issues as being no contest in his favor. One can certainly view the evidence Hitchens has and come to his conclusions, but it is just silly to assert that no other conclusions are even possible, which is the nub of his end of the “debate.”

  2. Evan Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 8:45 am

    Today seems an appropriate time to note something: All of the objections Hitchens raises have been raised for centuries. Does anyone REALLY think that the humble, stupid, illiterate peasant Christians just swallowed whatever was dished out for hundreds of years and then Hitchens notes, Heyyyyyyyyy…. the Gospels have some differences! and just NOW we realize the Emperor Has No Clothes? Even a casual reading of the Gospels will reveal differences… but the early Christians were not bothered by them,
    apparently. Why would that be? My conclusion is that they understood the apparent differences to have no bearing on the underlying truth of the proposition.

    Let me give a Gospel example. Which disciples ran to the tomb on Easter morning? Luke says it was Peter. John says it was Peter AND the disciple whom Jesus loved (probably John himself.) Does that make Luke wrong because he did not mention John? Does that make him a liar? Is it a fatal conflict of facts? Of course not.

    Remember also that we only deal with fragments of history and culture, so we can lack an understanding or a context that contemporary people took for granted. One large example of this is the “dispute” over the census Luke describes. It was long fashionable to take the Hitchens position that since no extra-Biblical mention of it showed up in history, Luke was making it up, etc, etc. But as Dr. Roberts has noted, we now have found a good deal of extra-Biblical mention, so Luke is apparently spot on. But only if you know that the assertion that there is no extra-Biblical mention is a false one, otherwise, the pronouncement of “no proof”
    seems pretty impressive. But the folks deriding Luke back in the day have had to eat their words.

    This is by no means dispositive, but it illustrates my point. Suppose that 2,000 years from now, digging in a ruin, archaeologists
    find a fragmentary mention of a President, Grover Cleveland. The account describes his election in 1884, but ends there. Digging in
    another ruin, another team is thrilled to find another reference, but it too is fragmentary. This account, however, details his election
    in 1892. There are no other records. Contradiction and controversy ensue.

    What is a simple matter for us, awash in context and relatively recent history, is that unlike any other President, Cleveland was elected in non-consecutive elections. That may not be so apparent to someone 2,000 years from now. Indeed, there has been exactly that sort of dust-up over other historic figures of antiquity for about the same reasons. So the scholars later on may be scratching their heads over how we swallowed the contradictions over the administration of Grover Cleveland, when to us, there was no problem whatever. There were two separate administrations.

    I have seen folks deride Matthew and Luke since Matthew describes a sermon on a Mount, and Luke describes a very similar sermon, but says it happened on a Plain. So which is it? shout the critics. Is it possible that Jesus delivered two sermons in two locations? And in the days of no CNN, He repeated some things? Could that be why the early Christians never thought twice about
    these “conflicting accounts?” There is no way to “prove” either fatal contradiction or contextual harmonization. I simply think the
    “contradiction” was apparent to the early Christians and it did not worry them. Were they just stupid or was there really no
    problem? Again, no way to “prove” it, but I conclude the latter.

    I am not asserting that this therefore clears up all concerns about the Bible, but apparently the early Christians were not only not concerned about these issues, they died in the arenas trusting in the veracity of the “contested” accounts. Indeed, they rejected all
    attempts to merge or “harmonize” the Gospels and make the accounts agree in all particulars.

    As I have said before, you analyze the data and form your theory, which cannot be “proven” in a lab. Either way you jump, it is “Faith.” Hitchens has faith in “non-Faith,” but reasonable minds can come to the opposite conclusion.

  3. David Kleykamp Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 9:43 am

    In Matthew Jesus is purported to have said that unless you convert and become as a little child you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

    Yes, children are very gullible. They believe what they are told by adults, including unlikely accounts of the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. But, small chidren are also very innocent and they do not carry grudges. They love in an beautiful and unconditional way. They are not pretentious and have not learned to be proud.

    They haven’t written books at the top of the NY Times bestseller list either.

  4. MrMosis Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 11:21 am

    Excellent work, Evan. But sadly your epistemology is too thorough for Hitchens and his friends. What to say of those unable to see and acknowledge their own faith in not having faith? It is difficult to not be insulting to them.

  5. Steven Carr Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    ‘Similarly, the diversity in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection doesn’t detract from fundamental agreement on the main points…’

    Mark 14:57 Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.’ ” 59 Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

    I think we can agree with the author of Mark that the diversity in the accounts given by these witnesses doesn’t detract from their fundamental agreement on their main point that Jesus said the Temple would be destroyed, and in three days another would be built.

    ‘If the four Gospels told exactly the same story in exactly the same way, what do you think are the odds the Hitchens would deride this as collusion?’

    If the witnesses against Jesus had told the same story in exactly the same way, what do you think are the odds that the author of Mark would deride this as ‘their testimony agreed together’?

  6. David Walser Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 2:28 pm

    Dr. Roberts,

    As a Mormon, I’ve had several conversations with others about what it means to be a Christian. I think these experiences give me some insight into where Hicks was coming from when he said (wrongly) that the 1st century believers were not Christians. For example, one good Southern Baptist minister informed me that to be a Christian I had to accept the bible as without error. I asked, which bible? The King James Version. So, I asked about two groups of people and whether it was possible for them to be Christians, or not: Those who do not speak English, such as the Italians, and those who were born before the King James Version was published. The good preacher had never considered the question, but had to agree that his definition excluded from Christianity the Italians and everyone born before King James — including Peter.

    The point? Perhaps Hicks has had similar conversations and has learned (incorrectly) that to be Christian you have to accept the bible as the word of God or to accept the Nicene Creed. Things that were not possible for the early Christians to have done.

  7. gr thompson Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    If early Christians had impure motives they would have written one Gospel account and gotten everyone on board. As Evan says, they resisted that and instead, they encouraged alternate texts, the very ones that Hitchens uses to attack their beliefs. One has to wonder why….

    It seems odd that people with something to hide would hand their adversaries proof of a fallacy, but that is Hitchens’ claim. He leaves no room for people of good will having differnt, not conflicting, memories of the same moment.

    What he’s done is akin to tearing apart a simple sentence like, “JFK was shot while riding in a motorcade.”

    The next person claims, JFK was riding in a motorcade in Dallas with his wife. The third claims it was his wife and Governor Connelly but makes no mention of Dallas. And the fourth says it was his wife, Governor Connelly, and a driver. And a fifth source would claim that when the car pulled in to the hospital there was a fifth man, a secret service man in the car. Although Hitchens would cry, “Liars all,” a person of good faith would ask, who among those five sources told a lie or misstated a fact?

    None of them.

    Hitchens would have us believe that the first century church not only followed a man who never existed, but they constructed from the hearts of fishermen and tax collectors a collection of proverbs and stories that turned the world upside down. If so, then Jesus’ disciples are more clever in death than they were in life and the greatest miracle of all is that those common people not only corporately imagined Jesus’ life, but they went to their deaths by the tens of thousands for their collective dream; for a man who never lived. Hitchens’ contribution to history is his claim that the fire which consumed the Roman Empire was never struck…


  8. Kent Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    When reading Hitchens or Dawkins, or some of the Jesus Seminar/etc writers, I’m left with the question, “Are they completely ignorant, or do they expect their audience to be?” Unfortunately, in today’s world, a lot of money can be made by claiming to have knowledge in a society where 18 percent of Americans can’t find the Pacific Ocean on a map, and Brits can no longer even teach of the Holocaust in schools because it might offend Muslims. And don’t get me started on his misreading of history, especially with regard to the Fascists. Gosh! How brilliant of them to kill so many Catholics to throw people like Hitchens off the trail that it was all a big Vatican conspiracy! And don’t forget that secret vow of Atheism the soldiers at Normandy took before they gave their lives driving those evil… oh forget it. Even Lyndon LaRouche couldn’t come up with this pantload.

  9. Andy Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    I will agree with Christopher Hitchens’ basic point : the god he has described is not great, and does not exist. The Good News is that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the god of Mr. Hitchens.

    The bedrock of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus, and Mr. Hitchens maintains that there is insufficient evidence to support the claim of the resurrection, using the standard of extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I find Hitchens’ claim that the disciples’ changed lives were not the result of a known event, but rather the result of …what?( Seeking fame ? Fortune ?) to be quite extraordinary. Where is his extraordinary evidence? Do any of the contemporaries of the disciples support the idea that these people did not witness the event they claimed to witness ? As has been pointed out in previous replies, who would die, or let their families be brutalized, for an event they knew to be false, and for no personal gain in this life?
    In regards not accepting evidence, we must also remember that there are people today who do not accept the available evidence for the Holocaust, showing that if a person chooses not to believe an event, then they will not be persuaded. There are none so blind as those who will not see

  10. Shawn Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 9:16 pm

    I find pleasure talking with a good atheist every now and then and even more pleasure when it is a person like Sam Harris who rejects religion as a whole. The fact is, as Evan pointed out, that people like Harris and Hitchins have faith in nonfaith. More amusing is that many of an athiests arguments may be used back on him. So a person argues simply that it is very unlikely that a god such as the god of the old testament exists at all. I might turn around and say is it not even as unlikely that you were once a micro-organism incapable of such intelligent thought? well to a reasoning person, even a scientist, this conclusion is irrational in and of itself. But how do you converse, debate, or argue with a person so bent on believing that belief is irrational. Do you and I not also so strongly believe? I have many atheist friends. It is a pleasure to talk with them. But going into a conversation with an intent to persuade them is foolishness. It is by the grace of God and only that grace that I am aware of him and his power and it will only be by his grace that men like Hitchins and harris or friends of mine will be dissuaded from their fallacious and erroneous faith in non faith. what we can do now is laugh occassionally, respond in love and wisdom, and pray that God will bless our efforts to be salt and light in the world. Light is dissolves darkness and a small light is more effective than a large shadow to vanquish its opposition. and a little bit of salt saturates an entire meal.

  11. Steven Carr Says:
    June 12th, 2007 at 10:36 pm

    ‘As has been pointed out in previous replies, who would die, or let their families be brutalized, for an event they knew to be false, and for no personal gain in this life?’

    Paul points out that circumcision, not resurrection, was the issue Christians were persecuted on, and that Christian leaders were quite prepared to compromise their beliefs to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ.

    Galatians 6:12 ‘Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.’

    History has never been the strongest point of Christian theology.

    Myths and legends come more naturally to believers, such as the myths and legends surrounding the disciples.

    Was John really plunged alive into boiling oil?

  12. *Ken Says:
    June 14th, 2007 at 1:18 pm

    Dr. R.,

    another disingenuous point re the word cannot(or is it sarcasm posing as humility).

    Hitch clearly means the books cannot be reconciled not that the pruported authors got together and couldn’t agree (remember he doesn’t believe in the authorship).

    But that is a better story, suppose they did get together and couldn’t agree, they actually agreed to disagree and later the church chose two contradictory tales be part of the canon. What does that say????

    What is says to me, and you seem to dance around, is that these stories were accepted as parts of a mythical tale and that was acceptable then … saldy these days some need to see them as GOSPEL.

    Shawn …. you miss the point, not having faith, is not having faith, it isn’t having faith in non-faith, sort of like trapeze without a net where life is the trapeze and faith is the net.



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