good skeptic

What is the goal of a good skeptic?

What’s the aim of being a skeptic? Is it to a priori reject every source of knowledge in the world? Or just everything that you don’t like? Or something different altogether? Broadly speaking the ultimate goal is to accept as many true beliefs and reject as many false beliefs as possible. My aim as a skeptic is not to “be skeptical” for the sake of rejecting ideas, but rather to filter out every manner of falsehood, error, and distortion in order to arrive at the truth.

If the goal is truth, the road there is a careful and honest skepticism that rejects all the falsehoods to arrive at that which stands under scrutiny. 

What is the definition of a skeptic?

Where it gets really tricky is that while looking in assorted dictionaries you will find the word defined in a plethora of ways. We can find “skeptic” being used to refer to someone who strongly disagrees with religious claims, or habitually doubts all generally accepted conclusions, or even a member of the philosophical school of Pyrrho who doubts the ability to acquire any real knowledge at all! All of these definitions seem very negative! In fact there is a very undesirable association with the word skeptic, it’s as though these  definitions were written by proponents of some of these “generally accepted conclusions” who suffered the frustration of dealing with criticism from skeptics!

As Michael Shermer, the author of Skeptic magazine says: “I often hear, “Oh, you’re a skeptic, so you don’t believe anything?” to which he commonly replies “No, I believe lots of things, as long as there is reason and evidence to believe.” But if this is not the case, what is?

A skeptic is not one who rejects everything, but rather carefully rejects falsehoods, errors, mistakes, biases, and distortions of truth.

Ordinary claims vs Extra-ordinary claims

One thing that must be clear is that a good skeptic will not generally be skeptical of all ordinary claims, but will be skeptical of extraordinary claims.

Ordinary claims include things that we know frequently happen, like being pulled over by the police, recovering from an infection with the use of antibiotics, or even rarer things like seeing a “shooting star.” These things are all ordinary claims, because we already have definitive evidence that such things are possible. For example there are undoctored videos of people being pulled over by the police, in which we can see with a high degree of certainty that this is exactly whats happening, therefore we have the evidence. Certainly people can lie about ordinary claims, but unless there is a reason we should be skeptical (for example, knowing that someone is a pathological liar, or their ordinary story doesn’t make sense) we can accept ordinary claims on testimony, because we already have evidence that this is certainly possible.

Extraordinary claims include things that we don’t yet have evidence for, for example the existence of ghosts, the genuine magical abilities of shamans in Africa, the gift of faith healers to cure diseases using supernatural powers, and the capability of psychics to really talk to the dead. These are all extraordinary claims, meaning people have certainly asserted these are true, but careful scrutiny has never provided definitive evidence that this is exactly what happened in these cases. For example, we don’t have even one video of an amputated leg growing out at the beckon of a shaman or faith healer. We may have many testimonies and assertions that “I was healed” regarding diseases that are not visible or can resolve on their own (like some cancers), but later on, many of these people die from those same diseases they claimed to be healed of, so clearly the claim alone is not evidence. We need real evidence, not merely a testimony before we accept an extraordinary claim.

Lets test this: if I tell you my car broke down, do you have any alarm bells? Probably not. Now if I tell you that I saw a real fire-breathing-dragon in the woods? For such an outlandish claim, it seems rather easy to be skeptical. This is something we already do, however, we are prone to different biases, for example if we lived in the middle of a superstitious medieval culture that burned witches, the dragon thing may have not have been so obvious.  This is why we must be very careful to avoid being a bad skeptic.

What makes a bad skeptic?

1. Rejecting things simply because you don’t like them

If you are “skeptical” of something simply because you disagree with the conclusion of that thing, this is not genuine skepticism. For example, a Christian that is “skeptical “of mainstream academic biblical studies because he is frightened by their dire implications to his doctrine of inspiration/inerrancy or an atheist who is “skeptical” of the existence of Jesus simply because he doesn’t want this to be the case are born letting bias cloud their “skepticism.”

2. Rejecting things even if there is evidence to accept them

If you are reject some idea even while there is good evidence to accept it, you are not being a skeptic. For example, when you are “skeptical” about the fluoridation of water, and reject it as a vast conspiracy, even while there are mountains of solid evidence  to support it.

3. Rejecting things on the basis of bad arguments

If you are “skeptical” of something by using logical fallacies and bad arguments, you are not a good skeptic. This happens, for example, when you reject claims made by another person because of an attack on the person herself, by saying she is “a heathen” or a “zealot” instead of actually reviewing the claims she makes. Another example can be: “I’m not listening to the evidence for evolution, because it’s stupid.”

What makes a good skeptic?

1. Be severely skeptical of an extraordinary claim that has evidence against it

There are many things that have been conclusively disproven, and yet millions of people still think these things are true. Take for example astrology, there are wide-scale studies of twins born “under the same sign,” who have a very diverse range of personalities that don’t fit most astrological charts. Or take for example the topic of cancer, which is frequently rife with myths and beliefs that have been thoroughly debunked by solid evidence, it’s fine to be severely skeptical of these claims, because there exists strong evidence against them.

2. Be cautiously skeptical of an extraordinary claim that has no evidence for it

Some claims and assertions simply don’t have any evidence for or against them, in these cases its prudent to be cautiously open towards the claim, but still remain skeptical. Lets take, for example, that your friend reports he saw the Buddha in a vision. We don’t have definitive evidence that the being called Buddha cannot appear in a vision, but we also don’t have any evidence that it was indeed Buddha or that he can. It might seem like a stalemate, and that we should be agnostic on the issue, but this is not the case. Our options are (a) the extraordinary explanation that Buddha did sincerely visit our friend, or (b) ordinary explanation that our friend is mistaken by a  dream, has abnormal brain activity, or is deceiving us. All of these ordinary explanations are 100% possible, we have the definitive evidence, we know this for a fact. On the other hand the extraordinary claim of a genuine Buddha visitation is an unknown, it has no definitive evidence.

As originally shown by the philosopher Hume, unless we have strong evidence to the contrary,  it is always more likely that the ordinary natural explanation is the true one, rather than the extraordinary supernatural one. Whenever we review a testimony, we always have these two options, and because we already know the ordinary is possible, but don’t know if the extraordinary is possible, its always prudent to pick the ordinary explanation and be skeptical of the extraordinary.

3. Be skeptical of mere-testimony because of cognitive biases, including your own

It’s very intuitive to want to believe the testimony of friends and acquaintances if they seem very sincere about their claims. However, there have been numerous lines of evidence that show our brains are prone to a significant amount of cognitive biases, in fact, the list on Wikipedia contains over 160 biases and deficiencies that normal brains can be affected by. Some of the most important things to consider are (a) memory is very unreliable and we can often invent false memories, (b) we are prone to confirmation bias where we “see” things that we expect to be true, and (c) we often use motivated reasoning to defend something we have an emotional connection to, which we would never argue for without this relationship. Everyone is prone to these, including myself, and the best way to be skeptical is to be aware of these biases in yourself and others.

biblical slavery passages

This is a very uncomfortable topic to think about. It’s even more uncomfortable for those who believe in verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy of the biblical texts, or that each of the words in the Bible were specifically picked and inspired by God to contain ultimate and unchanging truth. This can cause all manner of logical gymnastics. I was involved in a few discussions about the biblical texts and slavery and to my dismay heard a few friends argue that the Old Testament affirms slavery for a good reason,  that slavery was a good way to order society at the time. (Unfortunately this was a real statement.)

Others, who are more astute look at the Biblical texts on slavery and cannot accept these at face value, so they make apt comparisons to indentured servitude, saying things like “slavery was a temporary form of indentured servitude, where you worked for seven years to pay off a debt.” (Yes, that’s another real statement). Unfortunately, this is not true, even if it sounds much softer and we would rather it be true. Instead of simply telling you this, let me show you.

OLD TESTAMENT SLAVE PASSAGES

 1. Hebrew slave

  • Hebrew free-persons could not sell themselves into slavery because of financial difficulty:
    If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man(Leviticus 25:39-40)
  • Hebrew males would go free after seven years:“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment.”(Exodus 21:2)
  • Male Hebrew slaves could be provided a wife: “if his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters” (Exodus 21:4)
  • The wife and children are eternal property; slave families were separated, children were taken from the father:“If his master gives him a wife, and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall belong to her master, and he shall go out alone.” (Exodus 21:5)
  • The only way to keep from being separated from ones children/wife is to commit to a life of slavery:“But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife and my children; I will not go out as a free man,’ then his master shall bring him to God, then he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him permanently.” (Exodus 21:6-7)
  • Daughter could be sold, but would never be liberated “If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do.” (Exodus 21:7)
  • However, there were safeguards against female abuse: “If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her.” (Exodus 21:8)
  • Girl slaves could be adopted as daughters, though keep in mind all women were treated like property (daughters were sold into slavery per Ex 21:7): “If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters.” (Exodus 21:)
  • If a man owns a female slave, and obtains another woman he must provide food, clothing, and sex to the woman slave or else free her“If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights. “If he will not do these three things for her, then she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.”(Exodus 21:10-11)
  • Some slaves could be beat, as long as they survive a day or two: “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. “If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for [slave] is his property.” (Exodus 21:21-22)
  • Permanent deformities led to the liberation of Hebrew slaves: “If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. “And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.” (Exodus 21:26-27)
  • A slaves life was worth 30 shekels of gold: “If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall give his or her master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.” (Exodus 21:32)

2. Foreign captive / slave

  • Slaves are possessions not people: “As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. 45‘Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. (Leviticus 25:44-45)
  • These are permanent possessions, even handed down through the generations:“You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.” (Leviticus 25:46)
  • These slaves can to be treated worse than the Hebrew slaves in Exodus 21: you can use them as permanent slaves but in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.” (Leviticus 25:46)
  • Slaves can be captured in war: “When the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. “Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the Lord your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 20:13–14)
  • Women could be captured, shaved bald, and enslaved as a wife: “When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. “She shall also 1remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife.” (Deuteronomy 21:10–14)

3. Other interesting observations

  • There was indeed a difference between a slave bought with money, and a hired servant: “but every man’s slave purchased with money, after you have circumcised him, then he may eat of it.  A sojourner or a hired servant shall not eat of it.”(Exodus 12:44-45)
  • The slave became property of the house, and got to eat the Passover meal: “But if a priest buys a slave as his property with his money, that one may eat of it, and those who are born in his house may eat of his food.” (Leviticus 22:11)
  • Premarital sex with a slave woman doesn’t lead to stoning for adultery because she wasn’t free: “Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment; they shall not, however, be put to death, because she was not free.” (Leviticus 19:20)
  • Slaves are punished with their masters “and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well.” (Exodus 11:5)
  • One biblical text allows slaves to escape and be free! This is probably my favorite one! It seems as if there was some development of doctrine and debate during this era, and at least one genuinely good idea made it. That said, this verse doesn’t simply invalidate the others, its a minority opinion in the text (yes there are different opinions in the Bible). “You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you.  He shall live with you in your midst, in the place which he shall choose in one of your towns where it pleases him; you shall not mistreat him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)
  • Another Deuteronomist text also forbids Hebrews to be forced into slavery (though this only applies to men and only to those of the same nation): “If a man is caught kidnapping any of his countrymen of the sons of Israel, and he deals with him violently or sells him, then that thief shall die; so you shall purge the evil from among you.” (Deuteronomy 24:7)
  • Virgin girls captured in war could be kept as spoils of war, likely for sexual abuse (this explains why boys are not kept): “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. “But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves.” (Numbers 31:17–18)
  • Some people were bought, others born into slavery: “I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.” Ecclesiastes 2:7

NEW TESTAMENT SLAVE PASSAGES

In the New Testament the power dynamics are different, because at the time Christianity was a minority religion without political power or standing armies (unlike the Hebrews of the Old Testament, and 1800 years of Christian history after the writing of the New Testament). This means the New Testament doesn’t actively in-state and regulate the institution of slavery, rather it merely accepts it. In addition, likely to avoid ill words from being spoken against Christian doctrine, the early church writers command slaves to remain slaves, in order that “our doctrine will not be spoken against.”

While there were hundreds of opportunities for the New Testament authors to renounce slavery, they did not. This is the most unspeakable fact that must be noted, they did not renounce slavery. To be fair, in one passage (Galatians 3:28), Paul did say that slaves spiritual worth is equitable to their masters, however, a dozen other places clearly promote and uphold slavery. There is no unison of voices speaking out against the ownership of people, though at least there are two commands for masters to be “fair.” Incidentally, in the Southern US era slavery, masters read these passages, and interpreted their actions as “fair,” because they only beat their slaves if they “deserved it.”

  • Jesus interacted with a slave and didn’t renounce the institution of slavery: “And a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die.” (Luke, 7:2)
  • The epistles (that were written by deutero-Paul) commanded slaves to obey their masters: Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth” (Col 3:22-25)
  • Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling” (Eph 6:5-8)
  • Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything” (Titus 2:9-10)
  • The New Testament commands slaves to honor their slave-master because this promoted good Christian doctrine. All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.” (1 Timothy 6:1)
  • Peter commanded slaves to be submissive, even to abusive masters:“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” (1 Peter 2:18)
  • In an exception to the passages above Paul advises some to become free if they have the opportunity. howerer, this is not a request for the total abolition of slavery, nor is it a condemnation of the practice: Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. (1 Cor 7:21)

Was slavery in Antiquity much better than Southern slavery?

For most contemporary Christians, slavery connotes nothing but a bitter distaste under the tongue. Very often the last resort is that “slavery in the Greco-roman world was not the same slavery we are familiar with, it is much better.” Unfortunately this is not wholly honest. Was it different? Yes, of course it was, time changes many traditions and customs. But the question we should be asking is “was it better?” The answer is no.

  • Slaves in the Greco-roman world could be beat and tortured. There is even a formal roman era law (AE1971) that created rules about how to pay someone to torture and beat your slaves.
  • The only slave testimony that was admissible to court was under torture. “The principle was that slaves, and only slaves, should have their evidence taken only if they were first subjected to torture”
  • Some slaves were indeed paid, but historians cite that this was rare, rather than the common situation, most weren’t given wages but just treated poorly. Workers in the same era, on the other hand, were always paid. Some apologists like to obscure this fact, but there indeed were two separate classes, (a) hired workers and (b) slaves.
  • Slaves were property sold and separated at will by their masters choices, children could be separated from parents, wives from husbands, and so forth.  Even in the Greco-Roman world, slaves were not people but property.

A few short thoughts

After 5800+ years of biblical history, after  1700+ years of New Testament Christianity, after hundreds of millions of people suffered miserable and cruel lives as slaves, before slavery was finally abolished. For some reason the Bible was never clearly against slavery. It certainly cannot be due to a desire for brevity, for there are thousands of words dedicated to ritualistic killing of animals and other obscure laws dealing with vaginal discourse and the like, but nothing that clearly forbids slavery. A simple “Don’t keep slaves, people are not property” would have sufficed, and not have taken up too much room, but its not there. Unfortunately this is our uncomfortable truth, and we have to live with it: (1) the Hebrew Bible establishes slavery, (2) the New Testament permits it, and (3) Christians for over a millennium and a half engaged in it.

The most widespread abolition of slavery happened in very close proximity to the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and other modernist humanist movements. Even John Newton, the Christian, abolitionist, and author of “Amazing Grace” had first spent 4 years as a Christian slavetrader, a decade as a slave investor, until 34 years later, finally joining the abolitionist movement. In this movement were many devout Christians, humanists, freethinkers and more, but it was a movement rooted in humanistic ideals and a “love thy neighbor” method, it was a systematic Biblical teaching, nor part of nearly 6000 years of Hebrew-Christian history.

Before the church joined this movement, many Christians were against it. It was commot to see, as recorded in an era newspaper, abolitionists being rejected by churches: “Also in New Hampshire, in that same year, in a church in Northfield, George Storrs, was lifted from his knees while offering an anti-slavery prayer, and thrown out of the church.” Fortunately today the church has not offered apologies for racism and slavery,  the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptists, the Methodists, and the Episcopalians have all admitted their part in promoting slavery and racism. (Lest you think I’ve invented the idea).

In any case, the abolition of slavery was so connected with modernistic ideas of intellectual freedom, that James H Thornwell, a famous American preacher, wrote that abolitionists are “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans.” And we should all be ashamed of this, that it wasn’t Paul, or Peter, or most Christians living during the first 17 centuries, but the “atheists, socialists, communists [and] red republicans” who ended mainstream acceptance for slavery.

Finally, while slavery has ended in Europe and America, it is still very much in action in other places on this globe, to this end there are organizations working diligently to end this horrific institution, and we ought to do all we can to help.

TOP TEN DELETED BIBLE VERSES

When I was in my mid-teens I was handed my first Bible-conspiracy pamphlet (See examples 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This pamphlet spoke of the great dangers posed to Christianity by a large group of lesbian bible scholars that had fought their way into biblical societies and now were working deviously to corrupt the Bible. Part of their notorious lesbian agenda was the secret removal of bible verses that for thousands of years had contained Gods word! (Another part was making the language gender neutral, so that the New World Government can one day eradicate the sexes, or something like that.) This pamphlet warned that vital Bible verses were being secretly deleted and erased, our new Bibles were being printed missing God’s words! I was aghast, and spent many months discussing with my friends the impending satanic incursion in our world, this Verse-Removal-Conspiracy was surely a sign of the end times.

Ten years later, having learned a few things about the transmission, corruption, and restoration of the New Testament, I can slowly laugh at myself. There has never been a satanic conspiracy against the bible , in fact this “conspiracy” was perpetuated by the most conservative evangelical scholars who translated the NIV in order to try to save the Bible! The very conservative NIV translators often mistranslated and obscured the text to hide contradictions, problems, or other issues. The reason is that during the hundreds of years of biblical studies, academics have amassed irrefutable textual evidence that the Bible we have was heavily modified, edited, and miscopied on thousands of occasions.

Today, it is the job of biblical scholars to go through the thousands of manuscripts, align the differences/similarities, and try to estimate what was likely the original reading. In many cases what scholars have found is that a later copy of a particular passage includes extra phrases or sentences, while an earlier copy, dated to a few hundred years earlier, is missing those sentences. Because of this scholars have been forced to admit that for the last two millennia, we have been treating many verses, which are interpolations (additions of phrases to the text by a scribe), as thought they were the very words of God. As a result, scholars have been removing some of these passages. These passages were never original to the text, they were later additions.

While there are quite a few textual variants, alterations, interpolations, and etc, here is my personal “Top Ten” list of bible verses that that were never in the original text of the Bible.

1. “There are three that bear witness in heaven, the father, the word, and the holy spirit, and these three are one.” (1 John 5:7)

Interestingly enough this is the only passage in the Bible that clearly articulates the Trinity. While there are other passages that may hint at the Trinity this particular passage distilled hundreds of years of theology by the early church into a Bible verse added into the text. This is literally one of the more fascinating manuscript stories as it exists in our modern Bibles in part because the Catholics created a forged Greek text to provide to an 16th century scholar, Erasmus.

2. “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21)

This whole verse is omitted from most modern Bible translations, while the Mark 9:29 has the word “fasting” removed from it based on the earliest manuscripts. I have personally seen people testify of fasting for prolonged periods of time, to wage war with demons. I have also heard testimonies where this process did not work, and the preacher had to embellish another element to the story (“I wasn’t holy enough, etc.”) Ironically enough the whole command, which people devote days and weeks to, was never in the Bible.

3. “Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery… said to Him… the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do you say?… Jesus said “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

This particular story has become one of the defining portraits of Jesus yet, all 12 verses have been removed or footnoted in new translations. If there is one story that is most commonly associated with Jesus, it is, hands down, this one.  Everyone I know loves to quotes from these passages about Jesus. One of the most important doctrines regarding how to treat others who are sinners (“don’t judge them because you are not without sin”) is found only in this passage. Except it was never in the Bible but is a later addition, written down almost four hundred years after the death of Jesus.

4. “And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground.” (Luke 22:44)

I have witnessed countless preachers motioning triumphantly with agony and emotion on their face as they read these words. It’s as if they experience this exact sensation while they read about it. Some have even spoken of a possible medical condition where a person experiences so much stress that they sweat blood. Except, this was never in the original bible, so all the emotional sermons focusing on this were due to a passage that was almost certainly not biblical.

5. “These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons and they will speak with new tongues.” (Mark 16:17)

Pentecostals have only one mention of Jesus teaching about the act of speaking in tongues in the Gospels, this passage is Mark 16:17. However, most of this chapter in Mark is an interpolation, for the original text of Mark (the earliest Gospel to be written, about 10-20 years before Luke/Matthew) ended at 16:8. What is fascinating about this is that millions of Pentecostals have frequently preached that Jesus predicted their glossolaic speech in the Gospels. Unfortunately, this is not the case, it was merely secondary addition of a scribe who later added to the text what wasn’t there.

6. “And they will take up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any poison it will not harm them, and they will lay their hands on the sick and they will become well.” (Mark 16:18)

Another passage from the unoriginal ending to the Gospel of Mark. Unfortunately, people have literally died because of this interpolation. There have been hundreds of Pentecostal churches that have engaged in snake-handling, though today they are a dying breed.

7. “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:13)

The Lord’s Prayer has been repeated by billions of people, trillions of times. It is probably the most repeated series of words in the history of the world (perhaps second only to the Shahada). And besides the fact that there are already two version of the Lord’s Prayer in the original texts, Matthew version (v6:9–13) has 65 words while Luke’s version (v11:2–4) only has 36 words, the ending (a doxology) of Matthew’s version, the one memorized by billions, was a later interpolation but not the original.

8. “And in the same way after supper Jesus took the cup and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

This is a primary Gospel witness of the atoning intent (“for you”) of the crucifixion as well as the promise of a “new covenant.” These are essential Christian teachings that are found in most faith statements. Today most Bibles mention with a footnote that this passage is not found in the most ancient manuscripts, however a couple conservative scholars attempt to defend the idea that the original text had these words, then a scribe removed them and the original was lost, finally another scribe re-added it to explain why it’s missing from the earliest copies. Today we have six different versions of this passage, and only one supports the theological reading that conservatives want, but there is very strong evidence this was a later interpolation.

9. “And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15)

The first of two Christian texts that command what is called “The Great Commission” to preach the gospel to all nations is certainly a later scribal interpolation, part of the “longer ending of Mark” that was not in the original. There is one more passage that commands the Great Commission, Matthew 28:19, so this whole doctrine of evangelism and missions is not completely lost once we remove Mark 16:15. However, when it comes to Matthew 28:19, there has been much debate whether this is an original text, some scholars have argued the whole text is not original. Others just say a part of the text was a later addition. Eusebius of Caesarea, and early church father, quoted this passage without the Trinitarian formula or request for baptism, so this is very strong evidence that, at the very least, “baptizing in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost”, is a later addition, absent from the original Gospel. This means that the Great Commission is absent from the earliest Gospel, and the version present in a later gospel was uttered without a command to baptize people or a Trinitarian formula.

10. Many (not all) passages relating to the Substitutionary Atonement are interpolations.

Okay I cheated, this is more than ten verses, but it’s my blog so I’m the only one who can fire myself. Anyway, the phrases removed in newer Bible translations include “through his blood” in Colossians 1:14; “broken for you” in 1 Corinthians 11:24; “sacrificed for us” in 1 Corinthians 5:7; “suffered for us” in 1 Peter 4:1; “by himself purged our sins” in Hebrews 1:3. Others were edited (to reflect the earliest manuscripts) making changes from “purchased possession” to just “possession” in Ephesians 1:14 or from “that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ” to “what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions” in Colossians 1:24, and etc.

In each of these cases, the verse in question, in traditional English translations, has said something like “Jesus was sacrificed for us” but manuscript tradition changes this into “Jesus was sacrificed. [the end]” or “Christ suffered for us” to “Christ suffered [the end].” Today the doctrine of substitutionary atonement is the dominant doctrine of the Cross in the Christian world, yet this doctrine was not prominent in the early church. While many passages are not originals, there are a handful that are likely authentic, like Ephesians 1:7, but this means the all-important doctrine of the substitutionary atonement is barely mentioned a few times, and is not present everywhere in the New Testament, which is strange for those who claim that it is, in fact, the whole point of the Gospel.

why i changed part 5 v2

This is the conclusion of a series (see Part 1Part 2Part 3, and Part 4) that recounts my journey as a zealous fundamentalist who held many strong dogmatic views and realized these were deeply flawed when placed under careful scrutiny. The aim of this series is to encourage us to admit we are fallible, can be wrong, and sometimes, we need to change our beliefs. I genuinely hope that we can learn to ask difficult questions and be unafraid of change.

Biblical studies scares all my buddies

It is impossible to underestimate the importance of the Bible to my worldview. I grew up with a traditional (sometimes called “literal”) reading of the Bible as my epistemological foundation. This means the biggest questions to life, existence, meaning, morality, teleology, and more, were directly based on the Bible (many were not based on what the text actually says, rather the idea that the text is the source). For just about any question someone could ask me, the final evidence for the answer would be “because the Bible says so.”

What is right? What is wrong? Why is lying bad?  Why do people die or live? What things are good? What should we do in life? What is existence? What is outside of our world?

All of these questions were answered through the epistemic framework that was built solely on a traditional reading of the Bible. At the time, if someone were to grab a hold of this biblical foundation from underneath me, and pull it out like a rug, I would fall into an existential chasm of nihilism. I would literally have no answers, for anything. I would be unable to respond to simple questions about myself like “what kind of thing am I?” The Bible was my only foundation for any kind of knowledge that could be certainly known, and I was not philosophically equipped for anything else.

And so the Bible guided my views, even when I made radical changes. For example, as a young child I forged into the difficult-to-comprehend portions of the Bible to try to grasp at its deep hidden truths. I read the book of Revelations and tried to estimate a date for the rapture based on the fact that I believed the Bible taught this. But later I changed positions and thought that most eschatological views I grew up with were unbiblical because a more in depth reading had showed me so. This move happened because I thought the Bible said one thing, and later another, whatever the case, I would be willing to trust the Bible on anything.  This picture with a quote from Pastor Peter LaRuffa during the HBO documentary Questioning Darwin is probably a pretty accurate depiction of my own former view.

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Though I might have tried to argue that people just misunderstand the Bible, if there was such a 2+2=5 situation.

In retrospect I can see that my unwavering devotion to the Bible often led me on a journey of many twists and turns, a journey that would result in the loss of friendships, fortunes, and fame. The Bible led me to be a young earth creationist and a gap theorist. It made me a Pentecostal who later evolved into a charismatic only to become a cessasionist. It made me be an Arminian who became a Calvinist only to flirt around with Open Theism. It made me accept the idea of a God who would torture people for eternity, but later took me to the belief that sinners in hell would be annihilated like the biblical  imagery of chaff burning in a fire.

I was willing to follow the Bible into whatever ideological direction I believed it was taking me. In fact, to the dismay of my friends, I did follow it.  But I didn’t’ read every part of it with as much enthusiasm as I thought I did… and that would change everything.

About a year and a half ago my wife motivated me to reread the Bible, and envisioning myself as the grand spiritual leader of our family I agreed that we should do another Bible reading marathon.

I had read the Bible before as a teenager, twice, from beginning to end, but to be honest, at the time I had no idea what the heck any of it meant. In my later, adult spiritual development, I spent most of my time confined to only half of the book. To this day I own a few Bibles with most of the New Testament, Psalms, and Major Prophets vigorously highlighted in multiple colors. I had preached somewhere around two hundred sermons from the Bible. I had read at least two dozen theological books, written by leading conservative theologians about the what the Bible taught (including Wayne Grudems extremely thick Systematic Theology). And of course, I had spent the previous six years listening to at least one sermon a day. While most people listened to music, I listened to sermons, thousands of them. For example, during the two years I spent in clinical training for nuclear medicine, I would listen to two hour-long sermons/theology lectures a day, one on the hour-long bus commute there, and another on the way back. This was my life! To sum all of this up, I certainly thought I knew what the Bible said. In fact, I sincerely thought that there were very few people I personally knew who could top my theological and biblical knowledge. Looking back at this fact, I still think it remains mostly true, the one or two exceptions among my friends all have graduate degrees in the field.

So as I started rereading the Bible, I had a very good expectation of what was there. I knew it like the back of my hand. But this time was very different, instead of reading assorted chapters from different places, I tried to read it in one linear direction. Instead of stopping every few minutes to read commentaries that explained away strange things, I wanted to grasp a comprehensive picture of the whole process without interruptions and without other people telling me what I had just read.

Like before, each day I started off with a sincere prayer, asking eagerly “Lord show me your truths in these words, let them speak into my heart.”

And so I jumped into the Bible, enthusiastically hoping God would speak to me with his inerrant word. To make the experience more interesting than previous times, I decided to do something new and supplemented my reading by listening to an audio version of the text instead, often stopping to more closely look at a passage in the text. This time my journey only lasted about 25+ hours until I got stuck in a disillusioned rut somewhere in 2nd Chronicles.

It took me less than a month of daily reading/listening to the Old Testament to start questioning the inerrancy of the Bible.

Half way through this short journey I remember the first time I said to myself “I don’t want to read the Bible anymore.” Hearing this thought scared me, it felt so foreign and sinful, but it expressed my deepest feelings. I had come to God, hoping for his word to illuminate my heart and make sense of everything, but instead I got a plethora of frightening and confusing ideas. I had read them all before, but never taken the time to consider what they really meant. As biblical scholar Paul Wiebe wrote on behalf of the American Academy of Religion “one of the enduring contributions of biblical studies in this century has been the discovery of the strangeness of the thought-forms of the biblical literature of the ‘western’ tradition to us.” And I had previously let that strangeness fly by, but not this time.

As I continued on my journey, this time as an adult, again being reminded of what the Bible actually said, as opposed to what I had thought it said, I continued to be disillusioned and heartbroken. I spent numerous nights the eager fundamentalist “crying out to God” hoping he would justify the inerrancy of the bible and help me understand. And I continued to barge ahead, forcing myself to gulp down large buckets of Scripture, fighting the confusion and disenchantment with each swallow. Fighting against the books that showed instances of an all-loving God commanding people to chop up small children and infants or threatening to force parents to eat their babies (Leviticus 26:29, Deuteronomy 28:53, Jeremiah 19:9, Ezekiel 5:8-10). How could a God who loves us force the death of these little ones? How could a loving God permit people to be used as slaves, and encourage masters to beat these slaves? It wasn’t consistent! I wrestled against biblical texts that promoted sexual slavery, the kidnapping of women to be brides after first killing their families, or the the kidnapping of young girls who were not virgins as gifts for warriors, and other horrible atrocities, all purportedly permitted by an all good, all loving God. I fought it until I simply couldn’t, and I gave up.

I wept.

I was a grown man, a wannabe theologian, a preacher/youth minister, a pastor candidate at a large mega-church. I thought I knew everything, but here I had no answers anymore, just the lament of a dying faith. I was sick to my stomach. I wanted to vomit.

It didn’t make sense. In every sermon I had heard, and the hundreds I myself preached, the Bible was an amazing compendium of writings from dozens of human authors, that came together in a perfect symphony to share one elegantly cohesive message of love. Yet the text I was reading was nothing like it should be. It was filled with putrid violence, vengeance, misogyny, the condonement of vile ceremonies and superstitions. It was riddled with hundreds of contradictions and inconsistencies, scientific inaccuracies, strangely anthropomorphic views of a God who delighted in the smells of burning flesh. I grasped at the last source of hope to me, I decided the only way to save my faith in the inerrant Bible was to read the 615 page book by Dr Norman Giesler that purportedly explains away all of these issues.

I started the book, eagerly hoping to find all of the answers therein, after all, Giesler is an accepted authority by conservatives on this issue. I plowed halfway through the book finding more disenchantment on every page. Had this been a Mormon author, I would have laughed at his ridiculous verbal gymnastics. Had this been a Muslim trying to defend the inerrancy of the Koran, I would have never let him get away with such preposterous ad hoc rationalizations and contortions. But because he was a fundamentalist Bible believer, part of my tribe, I desperately wanted him to be right. I rooted for him during the first two hundred pages, even as I bit my lip, seeing each distortion and fallacy in his argument. Eventually I couldn’t take it, again I felt sick and nauseous. A few days in, somewhere past the halfway point, I closed the book with a final cringe. I looked around, and noting that there was no witnesses I said to myself “I don’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible.” (Ironically enough a friend later told me of another person who lost faith in the Bible, precisely after reading the same book with Gieslers defense of the contradictions.)

And so I gave up on my fundamentalist views of the Bible, in fact, I put aside all and any presuppositions that I had, and set out to find what Bible scholars said of the “good book.” After some research I realized that most scholars were liberals, and my own journey had only mimicked that of most of the great intellectuals of the last few centuries. Some of the most important names in biblical scholarship, like Friedrich Schleiermacher , Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and Paul Tillich all grew up in a staunchly conservative environment and after engaging with the biblical texts became liberals or skeptics. What I found even more ironic was that, just like me, all of these scholars were the sons of very conservative protestant pastors.

I then jumped into historical and textual studies of the biblical texts themselves only to find something even more distressing. The early Christians didn’t have one Bible, certainly not the one I held in my hands, they had a plethora of books that they frequently passed around and copied, but there was no strict canon in the first few hundred years. In fact, even after the dates conservative pastors offer for canonization, there was plenty of biblical confusion. For example, the Codex Sinaiticus (a 4th century “bible,” that is one of our best preserved manuscripts used by most scholars today to reconstruct the New Testament) includes the epistle of Barnabas & Shepherd of Hermas right in the middle of the of the “Bible”; it also excludes many sections of Mark, Matthew, Acts, and so on. Another example, the Codex Claromontanus (6th century) excludes the books of Philippians and Hebrews, but includes Barnabas, Shepherd of Hermas, Acts of Peter, and Revelation of Peter (different than Revelation of John). But besides the fact that different groups of people used different books, there were striking differences in the books themselves. We simply don’t have the original manuscripts of the new testament , and we could only figure out what was on them by using modern sciences to try to estimate what they originally said. What we do have is a collection of thousands of fragments with at least 300,000 variations between all these different ancient manuscripts.

I learned that the “Bible” in my hands was one of many reconstructions by scholars, not a supernaturally passed down text that had never changed. We have (a) many different versions/translations based on (b) multiple different printed Greek texts, (c) based on compiling bits and pieces from thousands of different fragments/manuscripts, which contain (d) hundreds of thousands of differences called textual variants.

The more I read, the more I realized that mainstream biblical scholarship confirmed all of these things I was discovering, and even more so, had been grappling with these issues for hundreds of years. The oft repeated mythical stories that warned about the dangers of higher education, which often include an enthusiastic young preacher who goes to seminary (“cemetery”) and comes back doubting everything are not so mythical. From the world famous evangelist Chuck Templeton (who preached with Billy Graham for many years) until going to Princeton to engage in Biblical Studies, to Robert Funk, the agnostic historical Jesus scholar who had been a fundamentalist in his youth, these myths are real, they are the stories of thousands of people who lost their zeal after engaging in biblical studies. As the top conservative New Testament textual scholar in America, Dan Wallace, said:

  • As remarkable as it may sound, most biblical scholars are not Christians. I don’t know the exact numbers, but my guess is that between 60% and 80% of the members of SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) do not believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sins, or that he was bodily raised from the dead.
  • Also from Dan Wallace: “In one of our annual two-day meetings about ten years ago, we got to discussing theological liberalism during lunch. Now before you think that this was a time for bashing liberals, you need to realize that most of the scholars on this committee were theologically liberal. And one of them casually mentioned that, as far as he was aware, 100% of all theological liberals came from an evangelical or fundamentalist background. I thought his numbers were a tad high since I had once met a liberal scholar who did not come from such a background. I’d give it 99%. Whether it’s 99%, 100%, or only 75%, the fact is that overwhelmingly, theological liberals do not start their academic study of the scriptures as theological liberals. They become liberal somewhere along the road.”

And I too had found myself on that same road.

An unwilling and reluctant sojourner, forced against his own desire, I had abandoned all of my preconceived notions about the Bible.

What often hurts, as I find myself being misunderstood and harshly labeled by others is that I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t ask to be born into a culture that would build my epistemic foundation on the Protestant canon of the Bible. I didn’t ask for this to be ripped out from underneath me. I didn’t want to start questioning the veracity of the Bible. I didn’t eagerly set out to invent errors and contradictions for some evil personal agenda. I didn’t ask for our reality to be what it is, but against all of my deepest wishes, this is the way things are. I can’t change the facts, as much as I would like to! My desire for honesty, fairness, and truth refuses to let me to pretend otherwise. I am here as a reluctant skeptic, I did not come here willingly, but only after there was no possible way I could still justify my views and remain honest at the same time. I can’t plug back into the matrix anymore and pretend it all makes sense, because it doesn’t.

Over time, the disenchanted emotion of a disillusioned young man slowly wore off and I began to move on. In the last year I spent a couple hours every day time reading books by scholars from differing sides, as well as listening to many hundreds of hours of lectures, debates, and etc. After which I stand convinced that the reason conservative biblical scholars are so few (and so loud) is because there are good reasons as to why most scholars reject conservative views of the Bible. In the meantime, I’m still reading and thinking on this issue because it fascinates me, and now I’m learning to rebuild my world from scratch, after my biblical foundation has been ripped out from under me. That said, I haven’t noticed much of a practical difference, most of the things I once considered wrong are still wrong, while I now I simply reject the biblical laws that promote murder, genocide, and violence, without trying to justify them by saying “God can do anything he wants, we deserve torture.” In fact, I’ve noticed that most of us already approach the Bible with a preconstructed moral system, and then use this personal moral system to pick and choose that which we like or to reject that which we don’t (usually by saying something silly like “oh that’s meant for a different culture.”)

So what now, where will this journey finally take me? Quite frankly, I don’t really know, but I do know that intellectual honesty is now more important than ever. I am willing to believe whatever is true, regardless of how crazy or ridiculous it is, but first I must know it is the truth. Not because some authority told me, or because someone strongly feels it is true, but because I am justified in knowing that it’s true. At this point, I don’t want to believe, I want to genuinely know.