Sunday, March 27, 2011

Why The Bible Is Different

About fifteen years ago I began to read a lot of writings from the Mesopotamia. I also read a lot of American Indian myths and quite a bit of Hindu writings. After a year or so of this little journey, one thing became abundantly clear. There is nothing like the bible despite its faults.

The first thing I ever read by Plato was The Republic. Two things struck me about it. The first was that Plato actually chastised the writings of Homer and others who had presented the Greek gods as being corrupt. He actually suggested changing them! (The stories—not the gods). The second was that Plato believed in the gods, but didn't seem to believe much at all that had been written about them. You'll find this is true of most Greeks from his time and the later Romans as well. Almost none of them believed their mythology to be non-fiction, let alone journalism. They knew the stories were made-up. They had festivals and celebrations based around these stories at times because they enjoyed the parties. The wine ran like a river at them. No wonder they had such respect for so detestable a character as Bacchus! Their mythology was nothing but fun and games for them. It was like reading comic books. They just weren't taken seriously.

We might say something similar concerning Plato's writings about Socrates. I doubt that anyone believed these stories about Socrates were anything other than Plato's own tales being put into the mouth of his hero and teacher. It might be true that Socrates said many of the things Plato wrote, but obviously Plato invented the bulk of the dialog that went with it. Of course no one could put down from memory long conversations that took place between people years earlier, so Plato had to invent most of the conversations and probably many of the settings and characters as well. Nobody minded this because this was the way stories were passed down in those days. They got the gist of things right more often than not, and that was all that was important. Virtually 90% of everything you'll ever read from ancient authors that involved real people was heavily embellished and fictionalized. In fact, if other of Socrates' peers hadn't also written about him, most of us today would probably think he never really existed at all and was just a character Plato invented from scratch.

CS Lewis said that part of what convinced him of the truth of Jesus was that the stories about him in the four biblical gospels read more like a person's diary, and at times even outright journalism. The writers seemed to just be reporting the facts of what they saw and heard. That doesn't mean there wasn't any sort of embellishing of those stories. They weren't written until decades after the Resurrection. I doubt very much if any of the early churchmen took the stories and all those long conversations, such as the sermon on the mount, as being told verbatim. Like Plato, the gospel writers probably had to invent some of the dialog. They obviously couldn't remember long conversations from decades gone by, and since no one's memory is perfect, this accounts for their versions of certain events all being at least slightly different. It's probably also true that later writers like Mathew and Luke took the earlier gospel of Mark/Peter for reference in their own writings. John's gospel is of course very different from the others. And it may be that some things in those gospels were simply made-up. This is especially true of Mathew's gospel. We don't know for sure. Did the virgin birth really happen? I've personally always doubted it. I think it's quite possible that Mathew and Luke both invented this to keep up with the Romans around them who had many heroes that were said to have been born of a union between a god and a mortal. Could it be that these writers were only human and caved in to peer pressure? After all, aside from Mathew and Luke, no other NT book makes mention of the virgin birth at all. My question is, does it matter? Can't we be happy and live the lives God wants us to live whether the virgin birth story is true or not? What possible effect could that have on my life? None that I can think of. But embellishments aside, the gospel stories mostly do not read like fiction. They mostly read like true stories about real people. You simply don't get the impression of "fiction" when you read them.

One of the more important discoveries that came from my reading ancient texts was how honest the Jewish writers seemed by comparison. I recall a guy named Peter that I mentioned this to one day, and I really think it was the biggest part of what made him re-evaluate his life and get back into the Christianity he had known as a boy. Pete was very interested in all things Egyptian. He had even been to Egypt a few times. He, like a lot of people, was convinced that the Egyptians were an advanced race just like those fables of Atlantis. I mentioned to him that the biblical writings seemed the most truthful of all ancient manuscripts to me because the bible actually told you all the bad things the Jews ever did right from the beginning. Adam and Eve messed up. Solomon built temples in the "high places". Cain killed Able. David and Bathsheba. Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery. On and on. Kings and Chronicles will tell you not only the great achievements of Israel's kings, but they'll also tell you every little thing they did wrong. I've yet to come across any other ancient writings anywhere in the world that did that. I told Pete to go and read all the Egyptian priestly writings and then come back and tell me all the bad things the Egyptians did. He thought about that for a very long while and realized he obviously wouldn't come back with very much. There's simply nothing about them that seems realistic. And it's the same with their gods. Who on earth would read the stories about Horus, Osiris, or Isis and believe them to be anything but fiction? If you read those writings along with those from the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Akkadians and others, they read as though they had never lost a war and how all the peoples of the Earth were subject to them. We know they're dishonest because their neighbors wrote entirely different accounts about them (and the writings of all their neighbors matched). Where do other ancient texts tell you all the bad things they and their forefathers did? I've yet to come across such a book.

The Jewish writings were simply like nothing else on earth. That doesn't mean they're completely accurate or that God inspired them all. But where we find truth, we find at least a glimpse of the Divine, and you simply won't find that kind of honestly where people are actually self deprecating in any other ancient work. Homer and Virgil probably came closest, but it was seldom the actions of their own people they condemned. It was the actions of their gods!

At any rate, this has been one of the more effective arguments I've used for years when talking about Christianity to people. The self deprecating honesty of the Jews sets their writings apart from all other ancient peoples. I don't think anyone said it before me fifteen years ago, though someone certainly may have. But you're welcome to take this argument and make it your own just as several people already have.

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