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1 The earliest Gospel says nothing of the Nativity Story, virgin birth, angels, star, shepherds, or magi.

The first Gospel to be written, Marks Gospel, which is dated 10-25 years earlier than Matthew/Luke is utterly and completely silent about the miraculous birth of Jesus; not even a one word reference. This means the earliest reference to the Nativity related miracles are from at least 70 years after the fact purportedly happened. (70 is the conservative estimate, most scholars date for Matthew and Luke from 80-90). It could not have been written by an eyewitness.

 

2. The earliest Christian writings are likewise missing any mention of the virgin birth.

The earliest book of the New Testament, 1st Corinthians, which was written in 54AD, contains absolutely no mention of the nativity story or the miracle/virgin birth of Jesus. Neither does the rest of the New Testament. So mysterious is this century long absence of information that some conservative Christian theologians,  James Hastings and Thomas Neufeld, have postulated that perhaps the virgin birth was known and kept secret by a few generations of Christians until being revealed some 80 years later. (Why thisneeded to be kept a secret is beyond me.)

 

3. It was common to write of world leaders as “savior of the world” or claim a virgin/miraculous birth.

World renowned New Testament scholar, J. D. Crossan, tells us “there was a human being in the first century who was called ‘Divine,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘God,’ and ‘God from God,’ whose titles were ‘Lord,’ ‘Redeemer,’ ‘Liberator,’ and ‘Saviour of the World’… Most Christians probably think that those titles were originally created and uniquely applied to Christ. But before Jesus ever existed, all those terms belonged to Caesar Augustus.” In addition it was common to describe notable leaders as having a virgin birth, according to historian Charles H. Talbert, it was widely taught that Ceasar Augustus was conceived after the God Apollo impregnated Atia, and ten months later Augustus, now called the son of Apollo was born. It’s put best by the honest theologians of Homebrewed Christianity, of course Jesus was born of a virgin – it happened a lot back then.”

 

4. If we believe Luke and Matthew, Joseph had two dads.

Yep that’s right, there are two very different fathers listed in the genealogy of Joseph. Luke says that Jesus was “the son of Joseph, the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23-24). Mathew on the other hand says “Jacob was the father of Joseph”  (Matthew 1:15-16). These are two different names, and if you bother to read the geneology, the whole list is different, there are only a few of the same names on there. The amount of apologetic gymnastics that happens over this issue is actually pretty hilarious. There are some four or five different “answers” out there that basically claim “even though the text clearly says X, it really means something else.” 

 

5. Matthew mentions 4 women in his genealogy, all four have an unusual sexual history.

It was rather unusual to list a woman in a genealogy among a patristic people like the Jews. What is even more unusual is that all four recorded have an equally unusual sexual history.

a)Tamar – disguised herself as a harlot to seduce Judah, her father-in-law (Genesis 38:12-19).

b) Rahab – was a harlot who lived in the city of Jericho in Canaan (Joshua 2:1).

c) Ruth – at her mother-in-law Naomi’s request, she came secretly to where Boaz was sleeping and spent the night with him. Later Ruth and Boaz were married (Ruth 3:1-14).

d) Bathsheba – became pregnant by King David while she was still married to Uriah (2 Samuel 11:2-5).

 

6. There has never been a recorded Roman census that required people to travel to their birthplace.

Leading Biblical scholars like E. P. Sanders have pointed out that it’s the practice of the census-takers, not those being taxed, to travel to different locations.

Even James Dunn, a leading conservative Christian scholar admits that “the idea of a census requiring individuals to move to the native town of long dead ancestors is hard to credit.” As it stands, there is literally nothing in the recorded history that ever mentions a Roman census forcing people to travel to their birthplace. (In addition, Geza Vermes and Emil Shurer in “The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ” have argued that taking into account everything we know about history has never been a global census ordered by Augustus, as dictated by Luke.)  The point of a census is taxation, not chaos and a nightmare. Imagine if half the country is traveling for a census, who is taking care of the home, the flocks, or the stable? In addition, there would be no need for a 9 month pregnant Mary to travel anywhere. Joseph could have traveled and registered, even if there was travel required.

 

7. There are two different Nativity stories told by Matthew and Luke, we complied them into one.

While it’s theoretically possible 20 things happened, and each author just happened to pick the 10 that the other author avoided, the curious thing is that most of these don’t overlap. There is a significantly large amount of novel content in both nativity stories. Matthew says X happened, Luke says it was Y, and today, we say it was XY. For example, in Luke the angel spoke to Mary but not Joseph, while in Matthew, the angel spoke to Joseph, but not Mary. Matthew 1:20 vs Luke 1:28.

 

8. There are many purported harmonizations that disagree with each other

Like for many other Gospel differences, the most zealous of believers try to harmonize the stories and put them into one. Usually it involves taking 10 elements from one, 10 from the other, and bringing them together, like a zipper. Part of the problem with this is that it creates a totally different story, it’s like taking two superman comics and gluing the pages together – mixing pages from each of the two comics – you get a third story. Whats also interesting is that there in the diverse harmonization found through history, in academic literature, and on the internet, many of the details vary and completely disagree with one another. For example, Dan Wallace, a leading Christian scholars says one explanation is “nearly impossible” and yet, that is the explanation proposed by N. T. Wright, another Christian, and so forth.

 

9. Mary told her friends about the visit from an angel… but not her husband?

In Luke’s version of the story an angel tells Mary she will have a child, she runs and tells her friend Elizabeth, together they rejoice and make a ruckus, next scene Mary and Joe are happily married, no mention of any tension. In Matthews version of the story, this whole event is absent, and instead, we start with a somber Joseph who is ready to leave his bride because she’s pregnant. There is no reference of her telling him about the angelic visit, or his disbelief of that story, instead an angel appears and tells him, as though he is hearing it for the first time.

 

10. The shepherds visited a cave/barn while the Magi visited a house

While it’s common to see Christmas plays with Magi and Shepherds in the same place, each Gospel author only showcases one group, and not the other, in two different locations. Luke’s story shows the shepherds, who were startled by a whole choir of angels, visiting Jesus in a manger in a cave/barn. Matthew’s story leaps from Josephs dream to the Magi following a star to the family’s house in Bethlehem.

 

11. There are zero singing angels in the story, Luke only shows them talking.

Every single time I’ve heard the Christmas story there are singing angels, it’s been recreated a thousand times in film and drama, and there is always a large group of angel-children singing. However, in the original text, the angels don’t sing the words, they speak the words. Imagine the Christmas story with a hundred tall men chanting in their masculine voices. Now remove the background music. That’s more like it.

 

12. Magi refers to a group of Zoroastrian (pagan) astrologers not “kings.”

I’ve always wondered why the shepherds got a whole angelic choir while the magi a rather monotonous little star. Turns out its because they were wicked pagans who, were probably members of the Zoroastrian religion, and to make matters worse, they were astrologers. The reasons we often hear of “kings” is because an ancient church father, Tertullian, believed some Old Testament prophecies mandated that kings would visit Jesus (Psalm 68:29, 72:10-11) so he did what any good theologian would, and simply taught it as fact.

 

13. There were probably no camels in the picture.

The reason church tradition has included camels as part of the story is because of an Old Testament passage that some believed was meant to be a prophecy about the Nativity. (Isaiah 60:3-6) mentions camels, and so people assumed it must refer to Jesus, and therefore, there must have been camels. However, the New Testament is completely silent on this tradition, and it’s more likely that Persian royalty would be riding horses, but we can’t really know.

 

14. The “Star” of Bethlehem could not have been a star

Before the invention of the telescope the ancients believed stars were small luminaries hung above the globe, perhaps a few hundred miles away, today we know stars are millions of light years away, very large, and that it takes millions of years for their light to reach the earth.  Not to mention the fact that stars can’t possibly shine on one particular house. Some evangelicals have proposed that it was a comet, meteorite, or a new planet, but again, how this could move and shine on a house is unknown. If this truly happened, it would have to have been a supernatural flying-light that was very low and could hover above houses.

 

15. Matthew dates the Nativity during the reign of Herod, Luke dates it over ten years after Herods death.

Matthew says Jesus was born “in the days of Herod the king,” (Mat 1:28) in fact the Magi are shown talking to the King himself, clearly this happens when Herod the Great is alive. Yet Luke on the other hand, speaks of a census that occurs when “when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2). Here is the problem, Herod the Great died in 4 B.C. and Quirinius only became governor of Syria in 6 A.D., that’s more than ten years later! There are currently six different ways apologists try to “explain” this (from the irate “well Josephus the historian was wrong” to “well there were actually two separate censuses or two reigns of Quirinius.” None of these reasons are particularly compelling or have any evidence behind them.

 

16. Luke takes the family back to Nazareth, Matthew shows them fleeing into Egypt

According to Luke, the family came to Bethlehem for a census, Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day in Jerusalem (Luke 2:21), and the family went right back to their hometown of Nazareth (Luke 2:39). There, as Luke tells us, Jesus grew up grew and became strong (Luke 2:22). No fleeing to Egypt is mentioned at all. On the other hand, Matthew starts off with the family living in a house in Bethlehem, and then afterwards they flee to Egypt.

 

17. Luke’s story shows Nazareth as the initial hometown of Jesus, Matthews shows it as Bethlehem.

Luke emphasizes that the family came to Bethlehem for a temporary census, and after the ceremonial purification went back to “to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39). Yet in the Matthews Gospel we see that the family already lives in Bethlehem, next they flee to Egypt. Later they return to Judea, but because of political circumstances, they venture away from their original destination to a place called Nazareth. (Matthew 2:21-23)

 

18. Matthews story of slaughtered babies is based on an out-of-context interpretation of prophecy.

While historians like Josephus liked recording Herod the Great’s atrocities, there is no historical mention of Herod killing all of the children in the town of Bethlehem. That said, it certainly could have happened. Robert Eisenman, a prominent biblical scholar argues that the story likely developed from the fact that Herod killed his own children. In any case, the more interesting thing is Matthew incorrectly claims a prophecy was fulfilled in the slaughter of the Bethlehem children. He quotes Jeremiah 31:15 and applies it to his Bethlehem infants, yet reading the context of Jeremiah 31, we can be absolutely certain that the context speaks of the “children of Israel” being exiled to Babylon. Why do I think that? Because the verse right after that which Matthew quotes (Jeremian 31:16-18) clearly states it.

 

19. Matthews cites the prophecy about Jesus leaving to Egypt… out of context.

In his 2nd chapter, verse 15, Matthew claims that Jesus fleeing to Egypt “fulfills” an ancient prophecy, and he cites a few words from Hosea 11:1 “out of Egypt I have called my son.” Yet when one reads the full verse recorded in Hosea, one clearly sees the “son” in question is the nation of Israel, and the Egypt is indubitably referring to the liberation of Israel from Egyptian slavery. The passage literally says so, the whole chapter talks about Israel being foolish and worshiping Baal after coming out from Egypt, so unless Jesus worshiped Baal, the passage cannot be about Jesus.

 

20. Matthew was likely wrong to translate the word Almah, “young woman” into “virgin”

In Matthew 1:22-23 we see a quotation from Isaiah that claims a “virgin shall conceive.” Matthew translates this from the original Hebrew term almah, however, Jewish Rabbis say the term does not mean virgin, a better word for virgin is betulah. The argument from some conservatives is that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) and in the Greek the word these earlier authors used was parthenos which does mean virgin. Since Matthew was quoting the Greek bible, he was right to use this. To that there are two responses, firstly: well which one is the true bible, the Hebrew text or the Greek translation? Second, the Greek word parthenos is used in Genesis 34:2-4 to refer to Dinah after she was raped, clearly she was not a virgin afterward, yet the same word is used to describe her. This issue has been hotly contested, but as it now stands the New Revised Standard Version, which is the most common academic biblical translation used in seminaries has replaced “virgin” with “young woman” in Isaiah 7:14.

 

21. Matthew’s prophecy about the virgin is completely out of context anyway.

To make matters worse, even if we assume that almah really does mean virgin, a careful reading of the 7th chapter of Isaiah states that the prophecy refers to a localized event that happened during Isaiah’s time. Two kings were planning to invade Judea, but Isaiah tells King Ahaz that God will protect Judea from this invasion, and kill the two kings (Isaiah 7:5-9). Next we have the famous “prophecy” quoted by Matthew about a “virgin.” And the very next verse says “For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.” (Isaiah 7:9). Clearly the the two kings could not have lived from the age of Isaiah to the birth of Jesus, that would make them 500+ year old! To make matters worse, a few verses later Isaiah impregnates a young woman, she bears a child, and concurrently the two invading nations are destroyed. (Isaiah 8:3-5). Prophecy fulfilled, hundreds of years before the era of Jesus.

 

22. Matthew is really bad at quoting the Old Testament

As we’ve seen already Matthew breaks all rules about reading the Bible in context, but not only that, he frequently quotes the OT very loosely. Matthew 2:6 is supposed to be a direct quotation of Micah 5:2, yet there are half a dozen little differences, it’s as though he did it from memory or there were many different versions circulating.

a) The original: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’” (ESV)

b) The quotation: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.” (ESV)

 

23 The Birth of Jesus was likely not on December 25

We really have no idea what date, or even month Jesus was born. Some have theorized that winter would have been too cold for the Shepherds to be outside at night.  In any case “Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus’s birthday, early Christian teachers suggested dates all over the calendar. Clement… picked November 18. Hippolytus… figured Christ must have been born on a Wednesday. An anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus’s birth on March 28” (Jeffery Sheler, U.S. News & World Report, “In Search of Christmas,” Dec. 23, 1996, p. 58). In fact, Biblical scholars have given possible birthdates for Jesus in virtually every single month.

 

24. Marks version of the family of Jesus  acts like they did not get the angels message

We already noted that Mark is missing the miracle birth and visitations from angels. At the same time, Marks Gospel also shows a situation where the family of Jesus literally thought he was crazy and tried to institutionalize him. “And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:21). How could his parents, think Jesus is crazy after being told by angels that this child is God in the flesh? This is yet another hint that the Nativity story was a later addition.

 

25. Many of the world’s leading Biblical scholars consider the Nativity stories as pious fiction.

Certainly there are stalwart defenders of the complete historicity of the two stories, but they tend to be found in mostly one group, very conservative evangelicals. On the otherhand, mainline Christian, Jewish, and secular scholars argue that these things that were written down to cast a backdrop to the story of Jesus, even though the Gospel writers really didn’t know much about the early years of Jesus. Just to throw out some names, some of the scholars who have argued this way includes these three living scholars of international repute, the Jew, Geza Vermes, the agnostic, E.P. Sanders, and the Christian, Marcus Borg.  In the 19th and 20th centuries it was very popular among “liberal theologians” of all stripes, but probably gained significant popularity due to the writings of Rudolf Bultmann, “one of the most influential theologians and biblical scholars of the twentieth century.”

PEOPLE TREAT A SKEPTIC

Having grown up with a deeply devout and sincere Christian faith I have been on a journey away from certainty and dogma, filled with many questions and reluctant skepticism, you can read some bits of it here (Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4, and Part 5). I went from a passionate Pentecostal, to an ardent charismatic, then to a zealous evangelical, a sincerely pious Calvinist, later becoming a liberal Christian, finally ending up as a diligent questioner of all of the above. Certainly I remain open to it, but very skeptical as well.

Whatever else can be said, I should note that I have never done something halfheartedly, I gave it my all, and worked my mind, body, and emotions to their utmost. I was never the Pentecostal hiding in the back, chewing gum, sitting there because my parents forced me to. I was up in the front preaching my heart off. I was never the charismatic who goes to church once a Sunday and prays a lackluster prayer for prosperity, I was the one watching IHOP prayer rooms couple of hours a day and visiting local prophets, trying to receive an impartation to change the world with. I was not the lazy Calvinist who was once saved, and ready to hibernate until heaven, I passionately persuaded people to the gospel, and even wrote ¾ of a 35,000 word devotional book about God (granted this was never finished or published.) And now that I am questioning the reality of everything I did and believed in the past, I have also done this avidly and somewhat publically.

What does that mean for me?  I have encountered an interesting range of emotions, experiences, and personal interactions with people. Some of these have been really rewarding, others have left me with a sinking feeling in my stomach, and a lack of hope for the human race.

What does this mean for you? First, as a fellow human being you can learn from the bad and try to imitate the good. Or, second, as a fellow skeptic, before you tell others you have are doubtful of their religious claims, you should “count the cost” and understand that some people will treat you severely and unkindly.

1. They may threaten you with violence.

This is rarer than all the other kinds, but I have been threatened with violence by at least three people now, one of them a middleaged ministry leader at a local Slavic megachurch. I was told my teeth would be knocked out because that’s what Jesus wants. I was also warned that when a particular gentleman meets me in person, I will receive what I deserve and should be very afraid for my life. Besides the few threats of physical violence, I have had half a dozen threats of “spiritual violence” wherein people tell me they are praying for God to punish me, harm me, kill me, and send me to burn in hell.

2. They may call you names and insults

This is probably one of the most common responses I have received. From being labeled a heretic, atheist, scum, idiot, coward, and the usual slurs and hateful remarks, I have also been privy to some very creative labels. The literary ingenuity of some people still makes me smile. These include gems like “pathetic loser who PISSES me off,” “ignorant idiot who gets off on trying to be smarter than everyone,” and my favorite “stupid calvinist atheist.” (I still haven’t figured that one out.) That said, I’ve probably seen words like idiot and stupid show up quite a bit. It’s really surprising how much conservative Christians can use such rude language when someone asks them difficult questions about their faith-based ideology.

3. They may claim you are evil for asking questions

This is also fairly common, many people have an incessant need to label you, to herd you into some kind of box that they can understand and feel power over. When you fail to provide them with a self-label for which they have a scripted way of negating you, they begin to improvise, and usually do this by blaming your morals. I have had at least two dozen people try to pull the blame-game on me, some accused me of not praying enough, or having a rebellious heart, others claimed its various “secret sins” of pride, sexual sins and etc. Some others stated I had been a lying faker all along, while a few even said I was sinful enough to open the door to satan. In sum, their point is that they only reason I have doubts is because I have failed to be as holy as they are currently being, and because I have a dark, ugly, wicked heart.

4. They may recede into the distance and ignore you

A less common response is complete disownment and apparent indifference. A few people who were good friends or acquaintances just disappeared from my life. One or two even blocked/unfriended me on social media. The truth is, compared to the above three responses, I would much rather see this as it’s much kinder than the others. Still, it’s rather sad that some people can just disappear, but that said, I do understand this and hold no grudges.

5. They may remain as condescending “friends” with one goal

Some remain friends, which is pretty great, but do so in a severely condescending way. They begin to treat you as though you are broken, crippled, blind, foolish or mentally unstable, and they are here to nurse you back to health. Instead of taking your questions seriously, they treat you as though you have some kind of mental/spiritual problem, but loudly claim that they still love you,even while you have this dark problem. Conversations aren’t very open or honest, and most turn into debates where they again reiterate that X is not a real problem, but the problem is in your ugly, dirty, broken heart, and they are loving and praying for you to stop being so darn stubborn and accept their version of truth. Again, at least they stay friends, so that’s swell, but the condescension is a bit taxing.

6. They may be genuinely friendly, even while they disagree

Unfortunately this group is rather small especially compared to the rest. However, they make up for their small size with their big hearts. These people are exceptionally great and are a shining illustration of love and kindness. They genuinely understand where I am at and why I feel this way, they are good friends regardless of our disagreements. These people tend to be less dogmatic and certainly would not classify themselves as fundamentalists, however, many certainly are Christians. Ultimately I hope more of us can learn to be the kind of friends who kindly accept others when they disagree, perhaps trying to win them over by diligent debate, but always from a position of humility and kindness, never scorn or condescension.

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.