How an Agnostic reads the New Testament

How does an agnostic approach a sacred text like the Christian Bible's New Testament? If one is not ideologically committed to giving the New Testament special treatment, the principles underlying its interpretation are the same as for as any other historically important writings. However, as a manifesto for a new religion, the New Testament has been filtered through a period of oral transmission and doctrinal battles between groups advocating rival interpretations, and one must bear this in mind when reading it. Here is a summary of the analytical techniques by which an agnostic evaluates the historical accuracy of the narrative parts of religious writings like the New Testament. How do we judge which parts of the account are likely false and which parts are likely true?

  1. How do we decide which parts are likely false?

    1. Inconsistency with other evidence

      The best way to check the assertions in the text is to compare them with external evidence, from archaeology or from independent written records. Such evidence is not available as often as one would wish, but there are some famous cases, such as the conflict between Luke's nativity story and Roman records concerning Quirinius's governorship of Syria. Anachronisms are another example of inconsistency with external evidence. For example, it has been argued that use of "Rabbi" as a title for Jesus in the gospels is an anachronism.
    2. Principle of analogy and standard patterns of myth

      Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And how do we decide which claims are extraordinary? We use our existing knowledge of what kind of events are likely and what kind are not. So if we turn on the radio and hear a report that a Martian invasion force has landed, our first conclusion is that we have tuned in to a radio drama. It would take a lot more evidence (all stations saying the same thing, etc) to persuade us that the extraordinary had occurred. We know what historical claims are extraordinary by analogy with the world we live in now: we use existing knowledge and experience, including scientific knowledge.

      So if a text makes extraordinary claims, such as miracles or accurate prophecy, we prefer, in the absence of appropriately strong evidence for those claims, the ordinary conclusion that this is exaggeration, delusion, pious fraud, a popular story, etc. To the best of our knowledge and experience of the world, that is always the true origin of such extraordinary claims. This conclusion is especially warranted if the extraordinary claims follow typical patterns of myths and folk-stories. Since the standard patterns often involve life-stories, this is sometimes specialized to the "principle of biographical analogy".

      The gospel stories make many extraordinary claims that follow standard mythic templates. The most obvious is the nativity story. Many revered figures, both real and mythical, have attracted miraculous birth-stories (Pythagoras, Plato, Alexander the Great, Apollonius, Perseus, Horus, Hercules), some of them involving identical elements, such as the virginity of the mother. In the absence of extremely strong evidence to the contrary, it would be natural to put the Jesus nativity story into the same category.

      One can also apply this criterion to sayings, in the converse of the "principle of dissimilarity" discussed below. People tend to attribute well-known wise sayings to famous figures that they revere. So if a writer attributes a wise saying or idea that was commonplace at the time of writing to one of his heroes (or an obviously foolish remark to one of his enemies), this alone is not very strong evidence that the figure actually originated it. For example, the saying "Those who are strong have no need of a physician, but those who are ill do", attributed to Jesus in Mark 2:17, was a well-known Cynic proverb. Its appearance in the gospel is therefore not strong evidence that Jesus actually said such a thing.

    3. Competing or preemptive tendentious material

      The New Testament writers are explicitly concerned with correct doctrine. Answers to doctrinal questions are given, often as quotes attributed directly to Jesus in the gospels. One may suspect that such quotations are fabricated when we find authoritative pronouncements from Jesus that conflict with each other. Another cause for suspicion is finding an early authoritative pronouncement from Jesus on a matter that later became a topic of dispute. Why was there any argument if the Lord had preemptively settled the issue? An example of both is found in Mark 7:15, which attributes to Jesus a renunciation of the Jewish dietary law: "it is not what goes into a man that defiles him, but what comes out". This contradicts Matthew 5:19 ("whoever, therefore, shall break one of these least commandments, and teach others to do so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven"). It is natural to interpret this as one (or both) of the sides of a later dispute inserting pronouncements into Jesus's mouth. Moreover, if Mark 7:15 were a genuine pillar of Jesus's teaching, how could such acrimonious disputes have arisen later, e.g. between Paul and Peter, over keeping the dietary laws?

      A variant of these arguments can be applied, in combination with the principle of analogy, to cast doubt on the authenticity of any material that is tendentious on issues that became important to the post-resurrection Christian movement but were not important to a single preacher leading a new movement of Jews in Galilee in the early first century. Isn't it more likely that early Christians put words in Jesus's mouth than that he anticipated the issues facing an international gentile-oriented institutional church?

    4. Story repeated with more spectacular elements ("confabulation")

      One may suspect fabrication when a writer offers an account of events that contains striking or spectacular elements that are missing from other accounts of the same events. Why did the other accounts not include these elements? The case for such confabulation is strengthened if, (a) you have independent evidence that the simpler account was written first; (b) you have independent evidence that the extra detail is such as to amplify points that the writer wanted to emphasize.

      A good example is the walking on water story, which in Mark's gospel only involves Jesus (Mark 6:48) but in Matthew's gospel has been expanded to include Peter, who gets a memorable lesson in the importance of faith (Matthew 14:29). If Mark's gospel is truly based on the memoirs of one of the apostles or any other reliable source, it is hard to believe that Peter's involvement could have been forgotten, so one suspects that the story has undergone some improvement. Moreover, we have independent evidence that (a) Mark's gospel was written first and used by Matthew; (b) Matthew wants to give Peter special prominence (e.g. Matthew 16:17-19). A bigger example is the nativity story, which occurs in Matthew and Luke, but is not mentioned by Mark. Again, if Mark's gospel is based on reliable sources surely he would have known about his Lord's miraculous birth: why would he have left out something so spectacularly supportive of Jesus's authority? It is natural to suspect that the nativity is a later confabulation. This criterion may even apply to the resurrection story itself: it is missing from the earliest versions of Mark's gospel, which end at Mark 16:8.

      Possible complications to this logic are (1) there may be some reason why the earlier writer might not have known about the extra detail; and (2) the earlier writer may not have shared the later writer's view of what is important. In the case of Mark's lack of a nativity story, neither of these is plausible. The nativity is so spectacular and narratively satisfying that it ought to have spread with knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. Any reliable informant must have known it. And clearly the writer of Mark wanted to maximize the power of Jesus's teachings, so he would not have neglected to tell the nativity story if he had known it. There is much more evidence that the nativity story is a later contribution: (a) the fact that it goes unmentioned by Paul as well as Mark, (b) Mark's gospel shows some signs of adoptionism: the now-heretical belief that the spirit of God possessed Jesus for the period of his ministry then returned to heaven; (c) invention of birth-stories is common (see principle of analogy).

    5. Unlikely to survive in oral tradition

      This obviously does not apply to the epistles, but some of the everyday detail in the gospel stories is quite unlikely to have been accurately preserved in memory and word-of-mouth transmission. Given how hard it is for most people to remember exactly what they themselves did and said even at important moments in their life, it is hard to believe that the gospels would record precisely what healings and miracles happened and in what order; what was said to Jesus by people he met, debated with, healed, etc; even what was said by Jesus himself unless it was a very memorable saying. This principle of interpretation may sound hostile to biblical literalism, but it can be applied by believers to defuse sceptical criticisms based on minor inconsistencies between the gospels.
    6. Idiosyncrasies of a particular writer

      If a particular writer tends to include characteristic elements in his stories, such as putting certain phrases or ideas into the mouths of his characters, then one may well ask whether these are factual. One might be able to argue that the writer acted as a "filter", picking out certain elements from the memories or traditions on which he drew, but this is only plausible if other accounts contain signs of the same material in its unfiltered form. For the converse, see independent sources below.
  2. How do we decide which parts are likely true?

    1. Consistency with other evidence

      The available evidence indicates that the books of the New Testament were in fact written in the first and second centuries, although not necessarily by the authors to whom they are conventionally attributed. Much of the incidental material is historically plausible, and so one gives it the benefit of the doubt unless these is evidence (of the kind described above) of fabrication or exaggeration.
    2. Agreement between independent sources ("multiple attestation")

      We would normally be more inclined to believe things that are reported the same way by independent sources. This applies to the gospels too, but it is not so obvious what is independent. Matthew and Luke appear to have copied much of Mark, and are clearly not independent of it. Moreover, rumors can easily spread and be reported by independent observers, so one must give less weight to material that would likely spread in this way.
    3. Plausibility of the contrarian ("criterion of embarrassment")

      If a writer reports something that runs contrary to what he would naturally believe or want to believe, then he probably didn't make it up: it is more likely to be factual, or at least handed down from a respected authority. We can apply this principle to reports of sayings and events.

      • Application to sayings ("the criterion of dissimilarity")

        We have mentioned above that the attribution of standard sayings to a respected figure is a typical form of legend-building, and is accordingly suspect. On the other hand, if a weird and unusual saying ("dissimilar" from standard lore) is attributed to a hero, or a wise saying to an enemy, then there is good reason to take the attribution seriously. For example, this form of the criterion of dissimilarity could be used by Christian apologists to support the authenticity of Jesus's final words on the cross, "My god, my god, why have you left me behind?" This cry is downbeat and theologically difficult: the Son is not supposed to be separable from the rest of the Trinity, and he should know that what is happening is a wonderful act of divine atonement for all mankind. Christian apologists can argue that surely this quote must be authentic, since if someone were inventing a messianic death cry they would concoct something more edifying, such as "Now I take the sin of the world onto myself!".

      • Application to events ("the criterion of unpalatability")


        Following similar logic, if a writer reports an event whose significance goes against his usual viewpoint (is "unpalatable" to him), his report is more likely to be factual or from overwhelming authority. This argument is used by Christian apologists who note that Jesus's empty tomb was reported to have been discovered by women. If women had generally low status at the time, surely no-one with a new religion to sell would have invented a story that gave them such a crucial role. Another example is the baptism of Jesus by John: surely no Jesus-follower would have made up a story that had his hero seeking absolution from the leader of a rival religious movement.

      On its own, the principle of the plausibility of the contrarian is not a very powerful tool for determining factuality. The problem is that when a writer reports some unpalatable event or saying, his reluctance may have been overwhelmed not by its authenticity but because it was authoritatively handed down from a previous stage of the movement to which it was not unpalatable but exactly what they wanted to believe. For example, Christ's final words would not have been invented by a second-century Christian, but could easily have been invented by adoptionist first-century believers, who believed (as the writer of Mark's gospel may have) that the Christ-spirit left Jesus to die on the cross, and returned to heaven. That quotation then became fossilized in the canon of sacred writings, unpalatable but authoritative to later writers, and nevertheless fictional.

  3. The argument from silence

    An argument from silence is often presented in the form "We have looked for evidence of X but found none, therefore X did not occur." If left at that, the argument is incomplete. It is crucial to give reasons why, if X had happened, you would have expected to see evidence of it. If I listen at the closed bedroom door and hear nothing, is that evidence that there is no one inside? No, they could simply be keeping quiet. If I go inside and look in all the closets and behind the curtains and under the bed and see nothing, is that evidence that there is no one there? Yes, under that circumstance the absence of evidence of a person is good evidence of the absence of a person.

    Because arguments from silence are often presented incompetently, they have a bad reputation. Some people think that all arguments from silence are wrong in principle, and that if they can pin that label on an argument, they have refuted it. Obviously this is wrong. But it is true that arguments from silence need to be buttressed with reasons why, under the circumstances, silence implies absence.

    An example of a good argument from silence is the complete absence from all canonical scripture (or historically relevant non-canonical writings) of any statement of Jesus having been married. Does this mean that he never took a wife? Presumably if he had, this would have been noted and remembered and reported. The absence of evidence for a wife surely counts as evidence of absence.

  4. Miracles and prophecy

    From the agnostic viewpoint miracles and prophecy are not such a crucial feature of the scriptures. An over-eager atheist might argue that their mere presence calls into question the factuality of the texts in their entirety. Some literalist Christians might naively treat them as evidence for the divinity of Jesus. However, there is plenty of room between naive literalism and hyper-sceptical atheism.

    Some literalists invoke "prophecy" to assign early dates to texts, earlier than events mentioned in them. From the agnostic point of view this is not reasonable. Correct written prophecy is not a phenomenon for which we have any independent evidence. To invoke it for this purpose is essentially to assume that Jesus is divine in order to assemble an argument for his divinity. Our philosophy is to apply conventional methods of analysis to the text first, and see if the divinity of Jesus emerges naturally from that analysis. If it were necessary to assume that scripture is divinely inspired in order to reach that conclusion, that would mean there is no persuasive argument to bring an unbeliever to belief.

    Even if, on similar grounds, we set aside the spectacular miracle stories of the gospels as fable, the rest still constitutes a formidable set of religious propositions, of great importance if true. The key point is the central miracle, the resurrection of Christ. If one denies a priori that this could be true, then it is pointless to discuss the rest. From the agnostic viewpoint, then, one must judge the validity of the accounts of the resurrection using the techniques described above, without assuming its truth or impossibility. The crucial question then is: do the gospels provide strong enough evidence to make a persuasive case that these extraordinary events actually occurred?

Copyright © Mark Alford (2005,2010)

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