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Hitchens Mistaken About a Date, a Name, and the Gospels

By Mark D. Roberts | Friday, June 8, 2007

Part 3 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series

Warning: Long post to follow!

In yesterday’s post I said that I have found many errors in god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. These errors have been in the area of my academic expertise: New Testament and New Testament scholarship. I’ll leave it to other experts to evaluate the accuracy of other portions of god is not Great. But I must confess that I was not impressed by Hitchens’s grasp of the material I know well, and that has led me to question his overall reliability as a source of “facts.”

I have found fifteen errors in Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament, as well as sixteen misunderstandings or distortions. Some of the clear errors are not major in terms of content, but they reveal a kind of sloppiness that is unsettling.

Hitchens Mistaken on the Date of Jesus’s Birth

For example, Hitchens writes:

“This [year 2000 hysteria] was no better than primitive numerology: in fact it was slightly worse in that 2000 was only a number of Christian calendars and even the stoutest defenders of the Bible story now admit that if Jesus were ever born it wasn’t until at least AD 4.” (pp 59-60)

Nobody, to my knowledge, dates the birth of Jesus to AD 4. Every scholar puts his birth earlier than 4 BC (the date of King Herod’s death). The most likely date for Jesus’s birth seems to be around 6 BC. My guess is Hitchens remembered the “4″ correctly but not the era. A minor mistake, but an unsettling one.

Hitchens Gets Bart Ehrman’s Name Wrong

To cite one further example of this sort, Hitchens twice refers to the scholar Bart D. Ehrman as “Barton Ehrman” (p. 120, 142). To my knowledge, “Bart” is Mr. Ehrman’s full first name. So, unless he has a nickname unknown to me, it’s an error to call the man “Barton.” Again, this is not a substantial error, but it does suggest a distressing lack of accuracy. (It also leaves me completely unimpressed with the editing of this book. Authors make mistakes. I’ve certainly made plenty in my time. Good publishers have good editors and fact-checkers who catch mistakes.)

By the way, let me clarify something I said in the debate about Ehrman. He is a highly-regarded New Testament scholar, who has done some fine work. I once used one of his books in a seminary course I was teaching. I disagree with him at many points, but I respect his work. I do believe that Ehrman’s opposition to Christianity does color some of his arguments and conclusions, but no more that my own work reflects my Christianity. If you’re interested, in a new book that refutes Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, check out Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” by Timothy Paul Jones. HT: Melinda at Stand to Reason)

At this point my criticis will no doubt say that I’m nit-picking, that the errors in god is not Great are insubstantial. My response, as one who has graded hundreds of graduate school papers over the years, is that you can almost always see the quality of a writer’s thinking in how he or she deals with seemingly insignificant details. ‘A’ papers generally get the names and dates right in addition to the main arguments. Sloppiness in small things is generally an indicator of sloppiness in larger things.

Hitchen’s Gets the Nature of the Gospels Wrong

So now to a larger “fact” that Hitchens gets wrong. He writes:

“However, he [Maimonides, the Jewish rabbi and philosopher] fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors–none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion–cannot agree on anything of importance.” (111)

There are two main problems with this statement. The first problem is calling it an “error” to “assum[e] that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record.” Even the most skeptical of scholars see the Gospels as a historical record in some sense. Most famously, even the Jesus Seminar, which turned skepticism about the Gospels into a media sensation, gave a historical thumbs up (red beads, actually) to some of the sayings and actions of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. I don’t know of any credible scholar who claims that there is no historically reliable material in the Gospels. Ancient historians and classicists generally regard the Gospels as substantially historical, and regard the hyper-skepticism of many New Testament scholars as aberrant.

As much as I think Hitchens made a mistake in what he wrote about the Gospels as not being a historical record in some sense, I actually didn’t count this among the fifteen clear errors, because I was giving him a generous benefit of the doubt. However, the next problem in the same excerpt is an indisputable error.

Hitchens writes that the “multiple authors” of the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” This is plainly wrong, unless, I suppose, we allow Hitchens to fill in the blanks of what counts as important. He might say that nothing of importance at all is addressed in the Gospels. (Later he will say that “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” [282]). Be that as it may, his point on page 111 is that the Gospels are full of disagreement, especially about the things that matter about Jesus, as the context makes clear.

This is simply not true. Though it is true that the New Testament Gospels show considerable diversity in their portraits of Jesus, they agree on many, many things, including matters that are most important both to the Gospel writers and to Christian believers.

In my book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, I devote two chapters to this issue. Chapter 8 is called “What Difference Does It Make That There Are Four Gospels?” Chapter 9 is called “Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?” I do not at all try to minimize the genuine differences among the Gospels. Any careful reader can’t help but see them, whether in the stories of Jesus’s birth or in the stylistic differences between Mark and John. In fact, the early Christians celebrated the unique qualities of the different Gospels. But I also show in considerable detail the extent to which all four Gospels agree on much of what pertains to Jesus, including the most important aspects of His ministry and message.

At the end of Chapter 8, I include a list of 33 key facts about Jesus that are found in all four gospels. I’ll mention about half of these points of agreement here:

• Jesus ministered during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (around A.D. 27 to A.D. 37).

• Jesus had a close connection with John the Baptist, and his ministry superseded that of John.

• Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee.

• Jesus’s ministry concluded in Jerusalem.

• Jesus gathered disciples around him. (This is important, because Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus didn’t recruit their own students, rather the students came to them.)

• Jesus taught women, and they were included among the larger group of his followers. (This, by the way, sets Jesus apart from other Jewish teachers of his day.)

• The ministry of Jesus involved conflict with supernatural evil powers, including Satan and demons.

• Jesus used the cryptic title “Son of Man” in reference to Himself and in order to explain His mission. (Jesus’s fondness for and use of this title was very unusual in his day, and was not picked up by the early church. This is a hugely important point for the one who seeks to understand Jesus.)

• Jesus saw his mission as the Son of Man as leading to his death. (This was unprecedented in Judaism. Even among Jesus’s disciples it was both unexpected and unwelcome.)

• Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification. (This is striking, given the early and widespread confession of Christians that Jesus was the Messiah.)

• Jesus did various sorts of miracles, including healings and nature miracles.

• Jesus was misunderstood by almost everybody, including his own disciples.

• Jesus experienced conflict with many Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and ultimately the temple-centered leadership in Jerusalem.

• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that implied He had a unique connection with God.

• Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. (There are quite a few more details concerning the death of Jesus that are shared by all four gospels.)

• Most of Jesus’s followers either abandoned Him or denied Him during His crucifixion.

• Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week.

• Women were the first witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. (This is especially significant, since the testimony of women was not highly regarded in first-century Jewish culture. Nobody would have made up stories with women as witnesses if they wanted them to gain ready acceptance.)

My list of Gospel agreements doesn’t even begin to tally up the less explicit but ultimately crucial agreements in matters of worldview. The Gospel writers share a common view of reality, one that includes a personal, creator God who has been active in human affairs, especially those of Israel, and so forth and so on. Someone from a culture not influenced by Judeo-Christianity would undoubtedly see commonalities that I take for granted.

As I read god is not Great, and as I’ve read other things Christopher Hitchens has written, it’s obvious to me that he has a good bit of familiarity with the New Testament Gospels. I’d even be willing to bet that he knows the Gospels better than many Christians. Thus I am at a loss to explain why he would say that they “cannot agree on anything of importance.” Even allowing for a good bit of polemical freedom, such a statement is so plainly wrong that it cannot but undermine the reader’s confidence in Hitchens’s reliability.

If would be perfectly fair for Hitchens to have said, “The Gospels agree on many things about Jesus, most of which are rubbish.” Of course I’d beg to differ with the rubbish bit, but at least it would be a fair point for him to have made. But it just isn’t correct for Hitchens to say that the four Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.”

Thus I come to the end of my long discussion of the first three of Hitchens’s errors concerning the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. The first two are admittedly small, but suggestive. The third error is important enough to have merited lengthy analysis. In subsequent posts I’ll move more quickly through the other errors so as to get through this material in a reasonable number of posts.

Topics: Hitchens: god is not Great |

48 Responses to “Hitchens Mistaken About a Date, a Name, and the Gospels”

  1. Collin Brendemuehl Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 5:27 am

    Excellent work. Thanks.


  2. Michael Grant Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 6:28 am

    Looking forward to the rest of this development. For the record I don’t consider this a long post :)

  3. Is God Great? | Goodword Editing Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 7:31 am

    […] Hitchens Mistaken about a Date, a Name, and the Gospels, in which Mark begins to list very specific facts and arguments that are simply not accurate reflections of Christianity and New Testament scholarship. […]

  4. Arukiyomi Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 8:37 am

    Marvellous work. It’s so refreshing to see thoughtful, careful, studious and, most of all, humble responses to those who continue to suppress the truth.

    Keep up the Good work!

  5. rw Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 8:44 am

    Dr. R,

    I would agree with your initial assessment related to careless scholarship. As I had mentioned in a previous post, when you confronted Hitchens about contradictions between the 4 Gospels in the debate, he contradicted himself and bemoaned the fact he didn’t have a Bible in his hotel room. If one presupposes Scripture to be fairy tales, there’s little impetus to look at them objectively and with scholarship. Hitchens is “All hat and no cattle”, as we say here in Texas.

  6. Evan Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 9:24 am

    I concur that when the subject is interesting, a “long post” does not seem that long. Well done.

    As I noted yesterday, this is really the way to address a global claim such as Hitchens was making on the radio. As a sound-bite, delivered very smoothly with a wonderful British accent, the “tut-tut, the Gospels contradict each other in every important aspect” line sounds wonderful and dispositive. The only way to address it is to take the structure apart, doorjam by doorjam. Sure, the date and the name could be considered quibbles, but as the third point demonstrates, Dr. Roberts is just getting warmed up. The third point had some heat on it. I think that the “Ol’ Pepper right down the pipe” is yet to be sent across the plate. Too bad today is Friday; waiting until Monday for the next pitch will be tough.

  7. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 10:20 am

    I agree that Hitchens made some blanket statements that were indefensible on a factual basis. As he confessed in the debate, he is a polemicist at heart, and that shows in his tendency to exaggerate claims. I think it is a shame, because there are legitimate grounds for questioning the validity of the scriptural accounts. But you have to make your assault from a defensible position, and Hitchens is like the undisciplined platoon commander leading a charge out into open ground and exposing his flanks.

    There’s no historical doubt that Jesus existed, and that he was crucified by the Romans. There’s nothing controversial about those facts, and any attempt to call them into question just gives the impression of desperation, of spinning conspiracy theories. The only points that are worth questioning are the supernatural claims of his resurrection.

    The Christ story has many similarities with other stories that combine history and myth. Dr Roberts, I take it that your upcoming book purports to demonstrate that the natural facts of Jesus’ life and works are so well documented that the supernatural or mythical elements of his story must be accepted on the same basis. You’re arguing that you can’t question one without questioning the other, is that correct?

    I think that there is ample precedent to show that the mythologizing of history is a very common, almost inevitable aspect of human culture. Explaining how a group of people could come to believe in a miraculous event that didn’t happen is not a dubious proposition to defend. Such myth-making is not an extraordinary, unusual occurrence but rather a very common event. It happens all the time, even today. New religions and sects form all the time, based on purported claims of divinity or divine revelation. People become convinced that they have been abducted by aliens. Even with events as widely observed as the destruction of the World Trade Center, myths arise that are in direct contradiction to the observed facts.

    The human propensity for mythmaking is so common that everyone needs to have a theory as to why people come to believe things that aren’t true, even Christians. Christians need a theory to explain how Joseph Smith came to falsely believe that he received divine communication from the angel Gabriel. If you are a Protestant then you need to explain how thousands of people could falsely come to believe that they witnessed a visitation from the Virgin Mary at Fatima. Given this acknowledged track record of mythologizing and false witness by people across cultures and across time, the burden is squarely on the shoulders of the Christian believer to convince non-believers that the Scripture accounts of Jesus’ resurrection must be accepted at face value. I’d be interested in any arguments you can make on that topic.

  8. ChrisB Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 10:34 am

    If I may make a comment related to yesterday’s post perhaps more than todays? You said Hitchens made 15 errors and 16 misunderstandings; out of how many “attempts?” I know errors are errors and are important, but knowing it was 15 out of 20 is more likely to persuade people than if it was 15 out of 150.

    That said, thanks for doing this. After Da Vinci Code, God Delusion, and Misquoting Jesus, I don’t think I can work up the unction to read another one of these right now. I appreciate your helping me stay informed.

    My experience so far with this kind of thing is that the “vast” disagreement between the gospels, when pressed, usually boils down to the location of the angles and how many women showed up at the tomb.

  9. Steven Carr Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 10:58 am

    ‘Women were the first witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. (This is especially significant, since the testimony of women was not highly regarded in first-century Jewish culture.’

    John 4:39′Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.’

    Another crass error in the Bible, because the testimony of women was not considered credible.

  10. Steven Carr Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 11:00 am

    ;Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification’

    John 4:25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

    26Then Jesus declared, “I who speak to you am he.”

  11. Wendy Pohs Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 11:13 am

    Mr. Hichens mentioned how the Biblical writers got it wrong; he gave the example of the sun revolving around the earth. So in his mind this discredits all religions.
    Yes he would have a point if the Bible was science instead of revelation.
    Medical science use to bleed patients of their own blood thinking this would be a cure. Would a mistaken notion in science totally discredit it?
    Mr. Hichens arguments to me seem nothing new just packaged for the times, offensive.

  12. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 11:15 am

    Steven: Thanks for your comments, which show careful attention to the text of the Bible.

    The testimony of women was not highly regarded or technically useful in a legal setting, but that doesn’t mean that in all situations the testimony of a woman would be rejected.

    Yes, in John 4 Jesus is clear, with one particular woman. But in many other places he is not clear at all, preferring the odd title Son of Man to the title Messiah. This has to do, in part, with the tendency for Messiah to be understood in a way that would have been incompatible with Jesus’s mission.

  13. Corrie Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 11:57 am

    Mr. Duquette,

    While there are some similarities in the Gospel stories about Jesus and (for example) the mystery cult stories of Mithras and Orpheus, the evidence argues strongy that the mystery cults did not influence the early church.

    1. The first believers were Jews. The cults catered to the pagan Gentiles. While the Israelites had a habit of “going native” and adopting the pagan practices of their neighbors, there is no evidence that this took place among the disciples. Indeed, the first dispute in the church was whether Gentiles had to be circumcised - i.e., convert to Judaism - to follow Y’Shua.

    2. The adventures of Mithas, et al are always nebulous as to time and place. Jesus’ death and resurrection are very specifically located.

    3. There is not enough time for legendary acccretion to occur. Jesus died (and rose) in the year 29 or 30 CE. (I’d always thought that he was born in 3 BCE, not 4BCE, Dr.Roberts. I’m eagerly awaiting your book.) Paul founded the church in Corinth around the year 50. In his letter to them five years later, he makes it clear that the message he preached then was Christ Crucified and Risen. Twenty years is not enough time to merge a pagan mystery cult onto a failed Jewish revolutionary.

    4. People will die for a lie they think is the truth, but no one dies for a lie they know is a lie. The eyewitnesses to the Resurrection gladly suffered abuse, imprisonment, torture, and death rather than recant their story of having seen the Risen Christ firsthand. Their eyewitness accounts do not match the psychological phenomenology of Lourdes and UFO experiences. (Your bringing up the 9/11 “truthers” is unintentionally ironic, since they deny the evidence in order to advance a politcal agenda.)

  14. rw Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Mr. Carr,

    Perhaps a closer look at the story might clear things up. If you’ll notice, the woman was coming to the well in the middle of the day. Why? Wouldn’t it be better to come in the cool of the morning for the day’s needs? No, because thats when all the other women in town would show up to get water. As a ‘fallen’ woman, she’d have to indure the scorn and ridicule of the ‘respectable’ women in town. Coming in the heat of the day would most certainly avoid that. Conversely, when a social and moral outcast that heretofore has avoided social contact starts going thru the whole town announcing this amazing thing, it stands to reason folks are going to take notice. Obviously, she was changed by the interaction with Jesus. She had nothing to gain by exposing herself to further scrutiny. Why not believe her story?

  15. BC Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 12:15 pm

    Dr. Roberts’ third alleged “error” of Hitchens begins with a shockingly dishonest attempt to move the goalposts away from what Hitchens actually wrote, and ends with a long whine.

    Hitchens wrote that the Gospels are in no sense a historical record. Roberts purports to refute this claim by pointing out that the Gospels are historically accurate in some respects. Well, sure. But so what? Most historical fiction is historically-accurate in some respects; this does not magically convert it into legitimate historical record. Hitchens’ basic point — i.e., that it is delusional to treat the Gospels as legitimate history rather than as the Christian myth they are — goes unrefuted.

    Roberts then engages in a lengthy whine about the ways in which the Gospels are consistent with one another, by way of attempting to refute Hitchens’ clearly polemical claim that the four Gospels “agree on nothing important”. Here, Roberts’ recitation simply misses the forest for the trees: notwithstanding the ways in which the Gospels do agree, there are enough significant inconsistencies between them that treating them as legitimate history cannot be justified.

    I do not share Hitchens’ hostility to religion, and I am sure that serious scholarship can reveal shortcomings in his argument. But Roberts’ nonsense above does not get the job done.

  16. Steve_in_Corona Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    Steven Carr,

    Concerning the Samaritan woman - You did in fact neglect to quote the verses immediately following the one you do cite:

    John 4:41,42: And many more believed because of his own word; and said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.

    The significance of the testimony of the women of the resurrection is simply that if one wanted to invent such a story, it would not be wise to give credit to Jewish women for the testimony.

    That is far different from saying that the words of every woman in the land were ignored. The Samaritan passage shows clearly that bias against women, in that many of the men needed to hear it for themselves.

  17. Douglas D Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Dear Pastor Roberts,

    You a are a very elliptical and humorous man - for you chose a passage in which Hitchens erred, and then criticized the correct half of the statement. Indeed, you are correct, Maimonides did not believe that the gospels were a facutally historical record.

    It was my pleasure to explain your joke.



  18. Steve_in_Corona Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Dr. Roberts,

    As to your comment #12 - do I understand you as not equating Jesus’ “Son of Man” self-description with the Messianic prophecy of Da. 7:13,14.

    I think He used this term as indicating His Messiahship, not to hide it.

    I believe John 12:34 supports the view that His audience recognized this connection - after just speaking of His pending death, they state:

    We have heard out of the law that Christ abideth forever: and how sayest thou, The Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?

  19. John D Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Archaelogy has shown on numerous occasions the validity of the Gospel accounts as to place names. One such place was the pool of Bethesda, mentioned in an account of Jesus healing a paralyzed man.

    Robert Duquette,

    I find it telling that you cite “miraculous events that didn’t happen” as support to deligitimize the possibilty of the supernatural. If you had been there to not see it, or disputre it, then I could understand. Your bias against the miraculous and/or the supernatural renders your points suspect. We take it as fact that Booth sghot Licoln. Why? Because of eyewitness accounts. The gospels are a collection of narrative based on eyewitness accounts, yet you seem to dismiss them out of hand because they contain accounts of the miraculous. Aside from bad debate form, I don’t envy your worldview. I hope the worms are gentle with you.

  20. Michael Grant Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    Doug, Hitchens’ statement was far more precise than you’re giving credit. By my reading, Hitchens is NOT saying Maimonides belived the gospels are a factually historical record. I think we can safely assume that Hitchens knew, for example, that Maimonedes rejected claims of Jesus’ miracles including the resurrection. So he cannot mean what you claim he meant in that first half.

    Rather Hitchens is claiming that Maimonedes believed that they were historical *in some sense*. And that sense would be their attestation to the existence of a man Maimonedes called “Jesus of Nazarene”. Indeed the existence of the man Jesus is widely accepted, and the biblical accounts are part of the body of evidence that supports his existence, even to those who reject the supernatual aspects.

  21. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    I am not well-versed enough in Maimonides to comment on what he in fact believed, or even to make a subtle joke. I was just responding to what Hitchens wrote. In think Michael is reading Hitchens fairly by taking “in some sense” seriously.

  22. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    Steve-in-Corona: Indeed, Jesus is redefining the notion of messiahship, bringing in the Son of Man imagery (from Daniel 7) and also the Suffering Servant imagery from Isaiah 52-53. Strictly speaking, the Messiah and the Son of Man are related but often distinct strands of Jewish expecation. The Messiah was thought to be a royal figure who would bring political deliverance to Israel. The Son of Man was more of an eschatological figure, even a kind of Superman, if you will, whose role was more one of divine judgment. Both the Messiah and the Son of Man are connected to the kingdom. But Jesus makes this connection much more explicit that it had been before.

  23. Tim H Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 3:17 pm

    I like Christopher Hitchens’ work very much for its insight and sparkling prose, but much of his critique of Christianity is sophomoric and unworthy of his talents. He says the gospels are totally unreliable because they don’t agree on everything. Christopher, if you had four people witness an auto accident and asked them to write down what they saw, there would be marked differences in their accounts. In fact, wouldn’t one be suspicious if all four gospels AGREED on all points like all of the “news” stories in PRAVDA used to? Furthermore, there are other independent and contemporaneous references to Jesus. Tacitus mentions the Christians as followers of a “dead Jew” in his account of the Fire of Rome in 64 A.D.

    Hitchens also seems to think Christianity only spread by force. Really? Sorry, but Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire to become the dominant religon in three hundred years in spite of force and persecution used against it. Christianity spread throughout Scandinavia among the Vikings in spite of force and persecution used against it. Christianity is spreading rapidly in China today in spite of force and persection used against it. This is in marked contrast to Islam which has never spread anywhere peacefully. Mr. Hitchens needs to brush up on his history. Furthermore, I challenge Mr. Hitchens to tell me where Jesus ever advocated war, torture, theft, slavery, conquest, or racism. Did many Christians pervert his teachings? Yes they did, but that is their fault and not His.

    I am not any sort of practicing Christian, but I have come to believe in a supreme being for the simple reason that the mathematics tells me that all of this, particularly life itself, could not have occured by blind chance. Darwinian evolution is drivel which would have one believe that a tornado going through a junkyard could assemble a 747 even through all of those “billions and billions of years” Carl Sagan used to drone on about through what often seemed an eternity on his “Cosmos” television series. Mr. Hitchens calls himself a rationalist, but he is a fervent believer in Darwinian evolution in spite of the fact that the fossil record (which Darwin himself said was the only way his theory could be proved) has failed abysmally to show one example of one species gradually changing into another. Mr. Hitchens, at least in the past, believed in some form of Marxist economics despite the fact that Marxism is total nonsense. Now who is being entirely rational, Mr. Hitchens?

    Mr. Hitchens should brush up on Thomas Paine or Ayn Rand if he wants to read someone who could skewer religion with a rapier instead of hacking away with a machete.

  24. Bryan Leed Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    Great info to dispute and discredit the infamous village atheist that is Christopher Hitchens! It always helps to be able to pass on good info in conversation, to help keep the believers armed with the truth as ammo.

    Hitchens also got the title of his book wrong. In the Bible, sin poisons everything.

  25. Steve_in_Corona Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    Thank you for answering Dr. Roberts. I knew you must see the Messianic implications from Daniel in the Lord speaking of Himself as ‘Son of Man.’ It just was not clear (to me) in your earlier mentions.

    Indeed the expectations for Messiah, and the rabbis attempts to reconcile the suffering passages with the ruling king passages do make for interesting study. I have studied the two ‘branches’ of opinion concerning ‘bar Joseph’ and ‘bar David’ that existed.

    Of course, instead of somehow two different Messiahs, the New Testament revelation is that there is only one Messiah - to come twice.

    Stephen’s testimony before his martyrdom in Acts 7 makes this point well. The Jews did not recognize their earthly deliverers (Moses, Joseph) the first time they appeared. Nor did they recognize their Messiah - but one day (Praise God) they will.

  26. Greg Kane Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 4:36 pm

    Mark Roberts:
    ”Ancient historians and classicists generally
    regard the Gospels as substantially historical,
    and regard the hyper-skepticism of many
    New Testament scholars as aberrant.”

    Dr. Helmut Koester, Professor of Divinity and Ecclesiastical History at Harvard Divinity School:
    “No direct and first-hand information about Jesus survives. Information from outside Christian sources is unavailable.”
    [Helmut Koester. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Volume 2, Introduction to the New Testament, 2d edition. (2000), pg. 78-9]

    ” What Jesus’ consciousness was and what he might have thought about his own mission lies beyond the reach of historical inquiry.”

    “Unfortunately, all materials in the extant gospel literature about Jesus’ meals with his disciples and with many others must be judged redactional. No direct historical information is available.”
    [Helmut Koester. History and Literature of Early Christianity, Volume 2, Introduction to the New Testament, 2d edition. (2000), pg. 82, 87]

  27. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    Greg: Yes, I’m well aware of what Helmust Koester has written. In fact he was my dissertation advisor. He is a fine scholar (and human being too). I owe much to him, even though I disagree with much that he has written, and am quite sure he would disagree with much that I have written. Helmut is also a fine example of what I was describing. His skepticism regarding the Gospels is extreme, and would be thought so by many classicists and historians. That doesn’t mean he’s wrong, of course. Helmut grew up in Germany under the tutelage of Rudolf Bultmann, whose skepticism was part and parcel of his theology that divorced faith from history.

  28. Greg Kane Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 6:46 pm

    Dear Mark,
    I know you know who Koester is. I know you know what he has written. I read in your account the implication that people who fail to see history in the gospel legends are not to be believed because they are all wearing tin foil hats. The implication is not true.

    Your offer a tautology. “Believe me because all reliable scholars believe as I do. Any scholar who doesn’t is an extremist, and does not count.” Even, it turns out, if they’re editor of the Harvard Theological Review.

    Mark, no one ever cites the consensus of world geographers, even just the non-extremist ones, in proof of the fact that Kentucky is north of Tennessee. They just get out the map and point to the evidence. That you fail to just point to the evidence is proof you yourself know your theory is unproven.

  29. smoss Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    2 Timothy 4:3-4

  30. Walter K. Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 8:58 pm

    I believe your question to be quite honest and a logical one. I sincerely understand why a non-believer would ask such a question as yours. .

    I am a Christian and believe every word of the Bible. I believe the Bible contains infallible, inerrant, God-breathed words. I believe the Bible when it claims Jesus was born of a virgin, healed the blind, made the lame walk, and rose from the dead on the third day. I believe the Bible has clearly shown itself to be the authoritative word of God. The evidence for this is overwhelming. But what may surprise many is the evidence is found not in the New Testament but the Old.

    To understand the evidence some context must be provided. An understanding of the New Testament message (well actually the whole Bible) is necessary. The following is a brief summary of the Bible’s message:

    1. All humans are sinners.
    2. That sin separates us from God.
    3. If we die separated from God, we will spend eternity in hell.
    4. But God, because of His love for us, sent Jesus, His Son, to pay the sin debt we could not pay.
    5. Jesus lived a sinless life (an absolute requirement) and died on the cross for our sins.
    6. He rose from the dead to prove He had to power over death.
    7. All that repent (are willing to turn) of the sins, and turn toward Jesus as their Lord are saved and reconciled to God and will spend eternity with Him.

    Understanding that, when one studies the Old Testament certain prophecies and pictures stand out as compelling evidence that man could not have written the Old Testament without the moving power of the Holy Spirit. A few examples follow:

    1. Exodus 12 : Moses is instructed by God to command the Children of Israel to prepared to leave Egypt (a picture of the bondage of sin) by selecting a lamb without blemish (a picture of Jesus and His sinless life) and to sacrifice the lamb (a picture of the crucifixion) and smear the blood on the top and side door posts of their house. Any house that was “covered by the blood” (a picture a believers faith and trust in the work of Jesus on the cross) would be passed-over when judgment came (a picture of the believer not receiving the final judgment of God). This was written approximately 1445 BC.
    2. Psalm 22:16 – As King David foretells the suffering of the Messiah, he writes: “they pierced my hands and my feet”. This was written before crucifixion was invented. This was written approximately 1000 BC.
    3. Daniel 9 – Daniel not only foretells that the Messiah would come, but WHEN he would come. This was written approximately 535 BC.
    4. Isaiah 53 – The prophet lays out that the Messiah would bear the burden for our sin and would be cut off. This was written approximately 750 BC.

    These are just a few examples of the mind-blowing way God hides His plan in plain sight, but the Jews did not see it. The fact that the Jews did not expect the Messiah to go to the cross shows the brilliance of God, by showing there is no way the Jews colluded together to bring these events about. How is it that these men that lived hundreds of years apart told a tale that fits so perfectly together? The Bible tells us in the book of 2 Peter how this is possible:

    2 Peter 1:21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

    But all the evidence in the world won’t change many people’s minds. Most people love darkness rather than light. The problem is not a head problem but a heart problem.

  31. Walter K. Says:
    June 8th, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Oops. My previous post was directed at Robert Duquette.

  32. Matthew Goggins Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 1:42 am

    My favorite debunking of the gospels is by Earl Doherty. A handy summary of his argument can be found at this link: the Jesus Puzzle.

    Mr. Doherty has done some amazing research. I was surprised at the conclusions he was able to reach. I would certainly like to see Mark respond to Mr. Doherty’s work.

  33. Thomas Buck Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:15 am

    To Matthew Goggins-

    I’ve only had a chance to look at the first “puzzle piece” Mr. Doherty laid out. I would say that the scripture we have dating before Mark was to established Christian communities (and a Christian person in the case of Philemon). The audience of such letters would have already been introduced to the story of Jesus’ life, so the author(s) could presumably move on to deeper topics.

    An illustration of what’s most important in the Christian life is found Mark 2. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He only did the miracle to help along the unbelievers. Clearly, forgiveness was the greater gift. This is why, I believe, Paul focused on the spiritual rather than the historical in his letters.

  34. kindlingman Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 6:26 am

    Why do people continue to debate on ‘facts’ when the issue is faith?
    Hitchens attacks the ‘factual’ ‘historical’ record. And others defend it.
    Seems to me that a stronger case can be made on both sides for the effects of faith and the effects of non-faith in one’s life. Many may accept Jesus as Lord and Savior , yet not practice their faith. Perhaps it would be better to demonstrate through evidence that people of faith live better lives, or happier lives, or more rewarding lives, or wealthier lives or more positive lives or whatever lives than those of no faith. Then the shallowness of ‘truth nits’ in the historical or biblical record may be understood for what they are.

  35. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:43 am

    Corrie says:
    3. There is not enough time for legendary acccretion to occur. Jesus died (and rose) in the year 29 or 30 CE. (I’d always thought that he was born in 3 BCE, not 4BCE, Dr.Roberts. I’m eagerly awaiting your book.) Paul founded the church in Corinth around the year 50.

    I think legends can establish themselves much more quickly than that. Aren’t we awash in urban legends ourselves? How long did it take to establish the legend of the second gunman on the grassy knoll? Or the legendary accounts about the 9/11 disaster. What about the legends surrounding Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon? UFOs? If you open your eyes to how legends, both natural and supernatural, are being created and spread every day, the Jesus resurrection legend does not seem that extraordinary.

    4. People will die for a lie they think is the truth, but no one dies for a lie they know is a lie. The eyewitnesses to the Resurrection gladly suffered abuse, imprisonment, torture, and death rather than recant their story of having seen the Risen Christ firsthand. Their eyewitness accounts do not match the psychological phenomenology of Lourdes and UFO experiences.

    But that’s the point. People do believe that these legends are true, so no “lying” is necessary. Untruths are only lies when the person declaring it knows it is an untruth. The UFO experiences prove this out. These people aren’t lying, they really believe that they were abducted by aliens. These claimed experiences have been studied by psychologists, and have even convinced one Harvard psychologist that they must have occured:

    as reported in the Harvard University Gazette in 1992, Dr. John Edward Mack investigated over 60 claimed abductees, and “spent countless therapeutic hours with these individuals only to find that what struck him was the ‘ordinariness’ of the population, including a restaurant owner, several secretaries, a prison guard, college students, a university administrator, and several homemakers … ‘The majority of abductees do not appear to be deluded, confabulating, lying, self-dramatizing, or suffering from a clear mental illness,’ he maintained. He has encountered only one person who showed psychotic features.” [1] Other experts who have argued that abductees are mostly free of mental illness or delusion are psychologists John Wilson and Rima Laibow, and psychotherapist David Gotlib[2].

    So either you have to conclude that people are capable of internalizing false experiences and memories, or you have to take their word for it. But that means, in addition to the resurrection of Jesus you have to accept the claims of alien abductees, Mormon and Islamis prophets, channelers and just about every other legend.

  36. Robert Duquette Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 8:44 am

    Here’s the link for the above quotation on alien abductions:

  37. Matthew Goggins Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Thomas Buck,

    Thank you for your response. I appreciate your respect and thoughtfulness.

    About the claims of the Jesus Puzzle you wrote,

    The audience of such letters [as the Pauline epistles] would have already been introduced to the story of Jesus’ life, so the author(s) could presumably move on to deeper topics.

    In piece number 4 of the Jesus Puzzle, “A sacrifice in the spiritual realm”, Earl Doherty makes the point that Paul “does not locate the death and resurrection of Christ on earth or in history.” Instead,

    According to him, the crucifixion took place in the spiritual world, in a supernatural dimension above the earth, at the hands of the demon spirits (which many scholars agree is the meaning of “rulers of this age” in 1 Corinthians 2:8). The Epistle to the Hebrews locates Christ’s sacrifice in a heavenly sanctuary (ch. 8, 9). The Ascension of Isaiah, a composite Jewish-Christian work of the late first century, describes (9:13-15) Christ’s crucifixion by Satan and his demons in the firmament (the heavenly sphere between earth and moon). Knowledge of these events was derived from visionary experiences and from scripture, which was seen as a ‘window’ onto the higher spiritual world of God and his workings.

    So Mr. Doherty would certainly agree with you that forgiveness (and love, and the Golden Rule) are more important messages than the miraculously established divinity of Jesus. So would Mr. Hitchens and myself, for that matter.

    But Mr. Doherty’s argument is much more than a scholarly quibble over isolated facts or or a de-emphasis of the miraculous over the spiritual. His thesis is that a close textual analysis of the New Testament, coupled with an exhaustive survey of the first three centuries of the Christian church, leads to the conclusion that Jesus was not a historical person at all.

    According to Doherty, Jesus was nothing more than an allegorical figure invented by a handful of small Christian communities near the Syrian/Palestinian border at the turn of the first century A.D. This allegorical figure was not adopted by the mainstream Christian tradition as a historical person until many years later.

    Mr. Doherty spent many years doing the research to develop and substantiate his thesis, and it shows. I think his work would be a much better target of Mark’s skills than Mr. Hitchens’, whose dismissal of the Gospels is indeed marked by sloppiness and an unfortunate tendency to engage in unsupported polemics.

    (Not that I think Mr. Hitchens’ book is without merit — to the contrary, it is the equivalent of a rousing sermon by an inspired preacher. I myself learned many things from it and took away some valuable lessons. But it does have serious and perhaps fatal flaws.)

  38. Thomas Buck Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 12:57 pm

    Dear Matthew Goggins:

    Not having read much of Doherty, I can’t be sure, but I believe Dr. Roberts has addressed much of what Mr. Doherty uses to come to his conclusions (a believer in gnosticism, sounds like?), in several posting series. Two that have a lot of good material in them are listed on the left-hand side of this page: 1. The Da Vinci Opportunity 2. Are the New Testament Gospels reliable?

    As for the Pauline letters, a quick review of Romans shows Jesus being referred to as a man in Rm 5:15. Good enough for me!

    Peace to you and God’s blessings.


  39. Steven Carr Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:33 pm

    Yes, in John 4 Jesus is clear, with one particular woman. But in many other places he is not clear at all, preferring the odd title Son of Man to the title Messiah.

    That is true. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is very secretive, and in John, he is very open.

    This is known as a ‘contradiction’.

    ‘Contradiction’ is a useful concept , which produces many insights into the Gospels.

    The concept of contradiction often leads to statements like ‘Yes, in AAA, Jesus XXX, but in other places Jesus YYY’

    Many Biblical scholars have embraced the concept of ‘contradiction’, and this has led to rich and fruitful analysis of the texts.

  40. Steven Carr Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Concerning the Samaritan woman - You did in fact neglect to quote the verses immediately following the one you do cite:

    John 4:41,42: And many more believed because of his own word; and said unto the woman, Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.

    The significance of the testimony of the women of the resurrection is simply that if one wanted to invent such a story, it would not be wise to give credit to Jewish women for the testimony.

    That is far different from saying that the words of every woman in the land were ignored. The Samaritan passage shows clearly that bias against women, in that many of the men needed to hear it for themselves.

    SO a passage which states clearly that some people believed simply on the testimony of a women is twisted to mean that because not *every* person believed on the testimony of a woman, then women were not considered credible witnesses.

    If I found a passage where a man testified, and then other men had to hear it for themselves, would I be correct in claiming that the testimony of men was not considered credible?

    Of course, in Mark, the women tell nobody, so the whole subject is just irrelevant.

    The reader is told by the omniscient narrator, the one who knew what was in Pilate’s heart.

    The reader of Mark’s Gospel was not told about a resurrection by any woman.

  41. Steven Carr Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:58 pm

    Paul founded the church in Corinth around the year 50.

    And the converts to Jesus-worship in Corinth simply scoffed at the idea that God would choose to raise a corpse.

    What life-transforming experience had led them to worship Jesus?

    Paul thinks it foolishness even to discuss how a corpse can become a resurrected being, and assures the Jesus-worshippers that Jesus became a spirit.

    Paul thinks the body of sin will be destroyed, done away with , and asks in Romans 7:24 ‘Who will rescue me from this body of death?’

  42. Walter K. Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:02 pm

    You guys still arguing? I settle this with post #30.

  43. Walter K. Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 5:03 pm


  44. Matthew Goggins Says:
    June 10th, 2007 at 8:53 am


    Thanks again.

    I’ve spent some time reading from the various series posted on the left.

    Some of the material addresses gnosticism in a general way, but none of it gets into what Doherty is talking about.

    Mr. Doherty is not a gnostic or a Christian, as far as I know. Please excuse me if I wasn’t clear about that.

    As for Paul referring to Christ as a man, Doherty says (and documents meticulously) that Paul viewed Jesus as a person existing and struggling with evil in a higher realm, not on the earth itself.

    I don’t know if Mark has the time or the inclination to deal with Mr. Doherty’s challenge, but if he did, I would certainly be interested in hearing what he would have to say.

    Take care,

  45. Steven Carr Says:
    June 17th, 2007 at 10:29 pm

    ‘Women were the first witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. (This is especially significant, since the testimony of women was not highly regarded in first-century Jewish culture. Nobody would have made up stories with women as witnesses if they wanted them to gain ready acceptance.)’

    Of course, the first witness (accordinbg to the earliest Gospel was not female.

    It was a young man.

    Mark 16:5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

    So the theory that the evangelists would not have had women as announcing the resurrection, because womeb were not considered credible witnesses is an excellent argument with only two drawbacks.

    Women were considered credible witnesses and it was a man who first annonced the resurrection.

  46. Thomas Buck Says:
    June 18th, 2007 at 3:48 am

    Re: #45

    Steven - The “young man” was an angel, and apparently did not witness to anyone else. That left the spreading of the initial news to some women.

    Also, a few verses later, in 16:9, Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene.

  47. Jimmy Says:
    September 28th, 2007 at 8:23 am

    Mr. Hitchens wrote that Jesus was born in AD 4. You are very upset that the correct date used to be BC 4 but is now “thought to be around BC 6″ !
    This is so much like the old biblical intellectual arguments about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. The greatest minds of the time used to debate that endlessly. Did they ever reach a number they could agree on ? If so or if not, what does it matter ? Mr. HItchens point is that Jesus was NOT BORN in the year Zero. Therefore the second millenium hysteria was just so much numerology. Your own scholarship makes the same point about the year being off.. yet you find it appaling that his date is not this weeks possible tentative assigned year of birth untill the next ancient scroll is found in a cave and everything has to be recalculated. Obviously you just want to say.. Hitchens IS WRONG, GOD IS GREAT. Fine. Just admit it and say it and be happy about it.As he says in HIS book, why can’t people who have faith that everything is going to be just peachy for them forever at least be happy about it ? Attacking such fine points and ignoring the actual point is really not worthy of your effort.

  48. optoneCap Says:
    March 17th, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    im thinking of buying one, who has got one of these:


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