Christian Fundamentalism – Is it Valid?
by Dr S.B. Colegrove
During my education in the 60’s and 70’s, I became aware of the awesome size of the universe, the massive geological and fossil time scales and how that negated the Genesis seven day creation account. One explanation given was that the seven days represented seven periods of time. In 1965, Werner Keller published his book “The Bible as History” where he showed “scientifically” that many of the old testament stories could be validated. At about the same time, the theory of evolution was rising in popularity and the creationist movement responded with a campaign to prove the Bible’s creation account. One counter response from the scientific community was by Ian Plimmer who published his book in 1994 titled “Telling Lies for God – Reason vs Creationism”.
By 2000 creationism was still popular. Debora MacKenzie published an article in New Scientist[[i][i]] on the history and growth of creationism in the US. She cited a book published in 1961 by Morris and Whitcomb titled “The Genesis Flood”. This book claims that the entire universe was created in six literal days less than 10,000 years ago. This prompted many responses by the readers with most against the creationist viewpoint. One of the responses helped form my approach to deal with the creationist, ie the fundamentalist viewpoint. It was written by Rupert L Chapman III who is an archaeologist specialising in the study of the Bronze and Iron age in the period 3500-330 BCE. His letter gave the reasons behind the creationist, ie fundamentalist, response. He put the origins of fundamentalism as being at a Bible conference in Niagara in 1895. In the period following this conference, twelve volumes on the The Fundamentals were published from 1909 to 1915. The five fundamentals of Christianity were defined as:
1. the inerrancy of Scriptures,
2. the deity of Jesus Christ,
3. the Virgin Birth
4. the substitutionary theory of the Atonement,
5. the bodily Resurrection and imminent bodily Second Coming of the Lord.
Chapman explained that fundamentalists reasoning is based on the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy. Namely, the Bible is the Word of God. God is absolute truth. Because God’s Word, the Bible, is absolute truth, it is without error – both theologically and factually.
I have found that this belief leads to scientific findings being questioned when there are conflicts with a fundamentalist interpretation of what the Bible is saying. Therefore, I do not intend to make a case for the findings of science versus the Bible’s science. Rather, I will show the fallacy of the fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible as being inerrant.
To explain my interpretation of the Bible, I will approach it from the three aspects of: (1) human memory, (2) conflicting texts and (3) 1st Century world view.
1. Human Memory
When I was a young child I was given the task of reciting word perfect all of the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5. This took a considerable amount of time and effort. I am not sure that I was able to do it, but I remember that my brother was better at it than I was. In the end, just before the test, I was reading the chapter constantly to try to retain it in my memory. It would have been a little easier to remember the shorter but different version in Luke 6:17-49 which is a sermon on the plain. My recollection of this experience leads me to doubt how the writer of Matthew was able to write the exact words of Jesus years after the event together with all the other statements and acts of Jesus.
Crossan[[ii][ii]], chapter 4, “Does Memory Remember?” deals with the memory of educated and literate people. For example, the morning after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in January 1986 where a teacher lost her life, 106 students at Emory University filled out a questionnaire on how they first heard of the disaster. In October of the same year, the students repeated the questionnaire. In this case the accuracy of recall was on average 42%. Only three students recalled correctly. Again, in 1989, 40 students were interviewed. The results from this showed that the stories were more consistent with the second questionnaire, but different to the original story 24 hours after the event. One significant result was that the students were very confident about the accuracy of their story. Even for nonliterate cultures, where one would expect improved recall, Crossan shows in chapter 5 that errors in recall also occur.
In addition to possibly poor memory, there is the problem of how a story changes with repeated telling. There is a group game that illustrates this point. The participants form a circle with a gap in it so that the first and last participants cannot be in earshot of one another. The leader whispers a short story to the first who then passes it on in the same manner to the next and so on. Each person is given instructions to not change the story. When the message gets to the end, the final version is radically different to what it started out as. This illustrates the potential unreliability of an oral tradition. Essentially, the story in an oral tradition becomes grossly distorted with the repeated telling of the story. Once again Crossan[ 2] in chapter 5 gives results of serial reproduction.
The above deals with the problem of recalling what has been heard. Yet there are cases in the Bible where no one heard what was said. One example is Jesus’ prayer in John 17. In addition, John’s gospel contains many long discourses by Jesus. I have not seen any evidence of how the disciples could have known what Jesus was saying in his prayer or, as with the other discourses, how could they have remembered it word perfect even 5 years after the event? I am assuming that the earliest attempts to provide written testimony did not start until this time. The earliest New Testament (NT) manuscripts date from the 4th to 5th century CE and there is evidence of text changes from earlier manuscript fragments (see [[iii][iii]] section 47.2). So there is about 300 years without any surviving intact written record.
From the above, it is not possible for a person to be able to write down the exact words and deeds of Jesus years after the event. What is known is that the disciples were with Jesus for about 4 years and that during this time they would have learnt his approach, expression and ideas. So in their subsequent ministry they would have been able to say what Jesus would have said. This is of course different to what he actually said. This would have then started the evolution of the oral tradition which would have preceded the written tradition.
If both the Old Testament(OT) and the Gospel writers were inspired by the Spirit of God to remember the exact words and events they recorded, there should be evidence of this process happening. For example, such a process by God would not lead to errors in historical, geographical events and places. Also, multiple reports of the same event by different authors would not conflict in areas which each covers the same aspect.
2. Conflicting Texts
It is common for the Bible to be referred to as the Word of God by Christian fundamentalists. In the Bible, this term refers to the spoken word or action of God[iv][iv] and not the written word of God. The only reference to the written word is in 2 Timothy 3:16 which in the NIV is translated as: “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,”. I have highlighted righteousness which is the role of scripture. At the time when Timothy was written, the OT was not compiled. In the Gospel period, the accepted scripture was the Law and the Prophets. This did not include Nehemiah, Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs and later OT books. Many, though not all, of these books were included in the Jewish OT by the end of the first century CE.
Here I give examples of conflicting texts in the Bible. If the Bible is the written word of God and therefore inerrant along the line of the Fundamentalist belief, there should not be any textural conflict. The following examples show the errancy that exists in the Bible.
Benson[ 3] in section 1.1 puts the start of the OT written tradition at about 10th Century BCE when the Hebrews acquired their alphabet from their neighbours the Phoenicians. By this time they would have had a well developed oral tradition. In the formation of this written tradition, multiple but different versions of the same events were recorded. For example there are three different versions for both Sennacheribs siege of Jerusalem, and that by King Nebuchadnezzar.
The following table summarizes the two versions of the story of creation in Genesis 1 and 2.
|Genesis Chapter 1||Genesis Chapter 2|
|The creator is called “Elohim” (God) .||The creator is “Yahweh Elohim” (Lord God).|
|The creation order is plants, animals, man & woman.||The creation order is man, plants, animals, woman.|
|The living creatures are created out of the waters||The living creatures are created out of the ground.|
|God separated light from darkness on the 1st day||The Lord God created light on the 4th day when he created the sun and moon.|
Noah’s flood is another example of two versions that are melded together.
There have been many arguments put forward to show that this flood was a myth based on a local flood and was not a factual world-wide event. I wish to add another justification in support of a local flood. This is found in the insects that play a vital role in the survival and pollination of plants and trees. Miller[[vi][vi]] has found that there are over 30 million species of insects. Their life cycle is much shorter than that of Noah’s flood and they can only survive in their habitat and could not have been in the ark. If there was a complete earth flood, they would have been wiped out. This then leads to problems with re-vegetation after the flood. For those interested in further study on the above examples and the origins of the Old Testament, I would recommend reading reference [ 3] sections I to II.
I will now move on to the archaeological evidence for the OT history. In January/February of 2003, the Compass program on the ABC had a series on this topic by John McCarthy. The transcript of this program is available on the web for reference[[vii][vii]]. I will only give a few examples from this series. Starting with walls of Jericho, “Joshua’s Walls” were supposedly found by John Garstang. However, Garstang had misdated his finds. There is no trace of any occupation when Joshua supposedly arrived. Also, during the period when Joshua conquered Canaan it was an Egyptian province. The only reference to the Israelites known in Egypt is a record of how the Pharaoh Merenptah crushed all opposition in other lands. This is generally dated around 1200BC, around the time when the Israelites should have been conquering Canaan. A quote from one introductory comment that gives the tenor of the whole series is:
“Archaeologists and biblical scholars are now asserting that the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land of Canaan simply never happened. Some even argue that the Israelites, far from being divinely-inspired radicals who replaced Canaanite idolatry with the worship of a single God, we’re simply a group who emerged from the Canaanites who continued the old religion until an astonishingly late date. It is being said that there is no evidence at all to show that David and Solomon ruled Israel from Jerusalem – or that their great kingdom even existed! Although there clearly was a smaller kingdom of Israel at a later date, there seems to be decisive evidence that the Israelites worshiped a goddess, a consort of their main deity, right up until their destruction in 722 BC.”
The earliest of the Gospel narratives is considered by experts to be Mark. The NIV study Bible introduction to Mark says that it was most likely written by John Mark from the testimony of Peter. Benson[ 3] in section 41 gives evidence to support the view that Matthew and Luke copied Mark and in so doing added extras such as the birth and post resurrection narrative plus the sermon on the mount.
The author of Mark displays ignorance of Palestine geography and customs, see [ 3] section 47.3. The first example is in Mark 7:31 where Jesus goes from Tyre to the region of Decapolis via Sidon. Sidon is 48km north of Tyre and Decapolis is south east of Tyre. This trip is over 100km longer by this route. The next case is in Mark 5:1 where Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee into the region of the Gerasenes. This region is 60km south east of the Sea of Galilee. Furthermore, he healed a possessed man and the possessed pigs then ran down the hill into the Sea of Galilee. They would have had to run 60km before getting to the hill to jump into the water. Also, Mark was not familiar with Jewish culture. In Mark 7:3 he has the ceremonial washing for Pharisees and Jews. Unfortunately at that time, they did not do ceremonial washing of hands. Also, in Mark 10:12 Jesus is reported as saying that a woman can put away a husband. At that time Jewish women were the property of Jewish men and only the Romans had this option.
I will move onto some discrepancies in the birth narratives by Matthew and Luke, namely the approximate date of Jesus birth (see [ 3] section 50.1). In Matthew, Herod had all the children in Bethlehem, 2 years and under, killed. Herod ruled from 37 to 4 BCE and if Jesus was born 2 years before the end of Herod’s reign, he would have been born no later than 6 BCE. In Luke, the birth of Jesus is associated with a census and an uprising by Judas the Galilean which occurred 6-7 CE[viii][viii]. So there is at least 12 years discrepancy in the birth date of Jesus. Note that the earliest discovered manuscript of Luke starts at Chapter 3 with the baptism of Jesus by John as in Mark’s gospel.
There are further discrepancies between the four gospels. Mark 1:9, 12,14 has Jesus ministry starting after John the Baptist was put into prison while John 3:22-23 has Jesus ministry concurrent. Mark 1:14-18 has Simon, Peter and Andrew becoming disciples after John the Baptist was imprisoned while John 1:40-42 has this happening before John the Baptist was imprisoned. Matthew 20:29-30 has 2 blind men healed while Mark 10:46-47 has one. Matthew 8:28 has 2 possessed men healed and Mark 5:1-2 one. Matthew 8:22 has a blind and dumb possessed man healed while Luke 11:14 has a dumb possessed man healed. Matthew 8:5-8 has the centurion coming to Jesus while Luke 7:2-7 has the centurion sending elders and friends to Jesus. Matthew 9:18 has Jairus daughter dead when the ruler speaks to Jesus while Luke 8:41-42 has her sick and dying. In Mark 10:17-19 Jesus says to honour parents and this is reinforced in Mark 7:10 where Jesus quotes Mosaic law that if any evil is spoken of parents then that person must surely die. However Luke 14:26 has Jesus saying that to be his disciple it is necessary for that person to hate his parents.
An example of some errors in OT quotes by Mark are: His quote from Isaiah (Mark 1:2) is actually taken from Malachi 3:1. Mark 2:25-26 quotes the case when David went into the house of the Lord and Abiathar was the high priest. However 2 Chronicles 23:6-7 tells that if anyone other than priests and ministering Levites enter the house of the Lord, they will be killed. Also, Ahimelech was the high priest (1 Samuel 21:2-3, 6) and he supplied hallowed bread and he brought it to David.
There are also some discrepancies in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Luke 22:7-8 has Jesus eating the Passover meal the evening before his trial and crucifixion while John 18:28, 19:14 has the trial before the Passover. John does not say that the last supper was a Passover meal. In John 13, the bread and wine is not mentioned, rather foot washing and mutual love is highlighted. For the last supper, Mark 14:22-23 has Jesus giving the bread before the wine while Luke 22:17,19 has Jesus giving the wine before the bread. Matthew 26:47-49 has Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss while in John 18:4-5, 7-8, Jesus surrendered without a kiss. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for Jesus while John makes no mention of Simon but has Jesus carrying the cross all the way which was a rule set by the Romans. Matthew 27:44 has 2 robbers insulting Jesus and Luke 23:40,42 has one. The temple Veil was torn after Jesus died in both Mark 15:38 and Matthew 27:51 while in Luke 23:45 it was before Jesus died. In John there is no mention of the Veil. After Jesus death, Luke 23:42-43 has him going straight to heaven and John 20:17 has him going to heaven after the post resurrection encounters. In 1 Peter 3:18-20 there is the statement that Jesus went to Hades after his death.
The above is a sample of what I consider to be the main conflicting texts. There are others that I have found by searching the web, eg [[ix][ix]] that leads to [[x][x]] which has an exhaustive list of conflicting texts[xi][xi].
3. First-Century Worldview
At the time of Jesus, the Jews, Romans and Greeks believed that the earth was flat, had ends and was supported by pillars and that the sky was a solid dome also supported by pillars (see [ 3] section 39). Also, there was the belief that the Stars can fall from the sky or heaven in Matthew 24:29. It was not until the middle of the 5th century that Socrates proposed that the earth was round and suspended in space. Finally Galileo advanced science to the point where he showed that the earth and planets orbited around the sun. He was forced to renounce this claim on threat of death by the Church of Rome. There has been an explosion in our understanding of the cosmos since the launch of the Hubble space telescope and it is often difficult for us to think in terms of the world view of the 1st Century.
I first became aware of the importance in understanding the world view of the NT when I read commentary on the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls[ 9,[xii][xii]]. In [[xiii][xiii]], the chapter titled “The Dead Sea Scrolls and Christianity” there is the editorial comment: “we now understand that many of the beliefs and practices of the early Church that were once thought to be unique were in many cases prefigured at Qumran.” In a chapter on “Undermining Christian Faith – of a Certain Kind”[ 8], the phrase “Son of God” is used in the Aramaic Apocalypse Scroll. Hershel also states that rulers from the Egyptian pharaohs to the Roman Emperors were regarded as sons of God after induction into office. Julius Caesar went one step further by having “Julius Caesar son of God” inscribed on the Roman coins. Also, in the Greek-Roman times, it was common to deify deceased rulers and emperors[xiv][xiv].
Benson[ 3], in section 35.1 also shows how a righteous person equates with Son of God. Also, when God is addressed as father, this means son of God (Isaiah 64:8). Paul in Romans 8:14 refers to those that are led by the Spirit of God as being sons of God. The OT also has the phrase sons of God or the equivalent in Hosea 1:10, Deuteronomy 14:1, 2 Samuel 7:12-14 and Psalm 2:7.
In Hellenistic times it was common for people who performed improbable or unexplained deeds to be called “god”. For example, in Acts 28:6 Paul is called “a god” because he was not harmed by a snake bite. In another incidence in Acts 14:11-12 both Barnabas and Paul are given the names of Greek gods after the people declare that the gods have come down to them in the likeness of men.
I shall now turn to the contributions by Philo Judaeus. I mention him because his teachings are regarded as the precursor to Christian theology[xv][xv]. He was a Greek speaking, Jewish theologian who died about 45-50 CE, and in his work he modified the interpretation of Jewish beliefs to win over Greeks. Philo’s method for interpreting the OT was allegorical and symbolic. For example, he wrote that Hannah received divine seed, became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. Similarly, he wrote that God impregnated Jacob’s wife Leah who give birth to Reuben. He also wrote that God impregnated Tamar who, in Genesis 38:13-19, tricked Judah into sleeping with her. These interpretations followed the ideas in Greek mythology where gods impregnated mortal women. Philo also taught that God was the god of the whole world and next to God is the Word of God who is the first begotten son of God.
From this worldview background, I interpret the virgin birth of Jesus and the statement that Jesus is the Son of God as meaning that he is the best example of a godly person and is superior to all other earthly sons of God – including Caesar.
What Is My Conclusion?
The title of this paper is a question, namely: Christian fundamentalism – is it Valid? From the above, my answer is NO, starting with the first which then leads on to the other four as being no. The Bible’s content has all the hallmarks of stories and events that are mostly myth. When reading the Bible, I attempt, with a lot of difficulty, to interpret it in the context of the period in which it was written. I treat myth as a story that is not all true but it does contain TRUTH. Therefore the Bible is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”.
The material that I have presented in this paper will, in some readers, provoke hostility and anger because it is counter to cherished beliefs and world views. Such a response has its origin in the understanding that when a story is repeated often, we become increasingly confident that it is true. Even when we are presented with facts that show the story is false, we are likely to reject such evidence and continue to hold on to what we believe to be truth. The story of Jesus life and teachings on earth is an extreme example of this. He encountered considerable hostility from the religious teachers of his day which lead to his crucifixion.
For those who have a desire for spiritual development beyond the limitations of fundamentalism, there are a number of modern theologians who have had the courage to develop a new “Christian” theology. I have given some internet references which lead to publications as well as books. These are listed in references [[xvi][xvi], [xvii][xvii], [xviii][xviii], [xix][xix], [xx][xx]]. In order to answer the question of, Do I continue to exist after death?, the Internet site [[xxi][xxi]] gives stories and analysis of the Near Death Experience (NDE). Recently, the BBC reported on a study[[xxii][xxii]] that has been initiated in 13 hospitals across the UK to see if the Out of Body experience, which occurs with most NDE’s, can be validated scientifically. If successful, this would expand our understanding of the dimensionality of the universe to more dimensions than the space and time that we live in. Recently the New Scientist[[xxiii][xxiii]] had a comment and analysis paper from a group of 34 scientists who signed a statement that requested more research funds be directed towards projects into alternative theories and contradictions to the Big Bang model. In [[xxiv][xxiv]] Lawrence Krauss, who recently published a book titled “Hiding in the Mirror: the Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions”, defined the top three questions of physics as: What is the nature of dark energy? How can we reconcile black hole evaporation with quantum mechanics? and, Do extra dimensions exist? I am looking forward with anticipation to new discoveries about the world we live in over the next decade and beyond. In the meantime I endeavour to make sure that I live a fulfilled life before death.
[i][i][i][ii]Crossan, John D., “The Birth of Christianity”, Harper Collins, 1999.
[i][i][i][iii]Benson, Andrew D., “The Origins of Christianity and the Bible”, Prudential Publishing Company, Clovis CA, May 2003. For extracts and purchase of the book see http://www.jesushistory.info
[i][i][i][iv]For more detail on this topic see The Origins of “the word of God” in [ 3], section 26.1.
[vi][vi]Miller, Scott, interview on the Radio National Science Show on his Nature paper, “How many insect species are there?”. http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ss/stories/s538330.htm
[vi][vi][vi][vii]ABC Compass Programme on “It Ain’t Necessarily So” by John McCarthy.
[vi][vi][vi][viii][ 3] cites attempts by some to show that Luke refers to 6 BCE by citing a Latin inscription from Tibur which does not specifically refer to anyone mentioned by Luke. Note that Herod ruled in 6 BCE and Judea was a client kingdom with taxes collected by Herod and no census would have been conducted.
[ix][ix]Wadel, L., “On Bible Errors and Contradictions: A Defense of the Inerrancy of Scripture”, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/7273/biblicalcontradictions.html
[ix][ix][ix][x]Morgan, D., “Biblical Inconsistencies”, http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/donald_morgan/inconsistencies.shtml
[ix][ix][ix][xi]For those readers who are interested in other ancient manuscripts the Internet site http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/ provides translated text and commentary.
[xii][xii][xii][xiii]Shanks, Hershel, “Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls”, First Vintage Books Edition, July 1993.
[xii][xii][xii][xiv]More details on this are given in, How Men Were Turned into Gods in [ 3] section 40.
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xvii]Spong, J.S., “A New Christianity For a New World”, Harper Collins 2001
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xviii]Birch, Charles, interviewed by Rachael Kohn on “A new theology for a scientific age”,http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s520428.htm
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xix]Cupitt, Don, interviewed by Rachael Kohn on “The Sea of Faith”, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s737700.htm
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xx]Tacey, David, interviewed by Rachael Kohn on “Hooked on Spirituality”, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s788326.htm
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xxi]Near-Death Experiences and the Afterlife, http://www.near-death.com/
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xxii]Hancox, Amanda, “Show me heaven”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/3429619.stm
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xxiii]Lerner, Eric, “Bucking the Big Bang”, New Scientist, 20 May 2004.
[xvi][xvi][xvi][xxiv]Krauss, Lawrence, “Questions That Plague Physics”, Scientific American, August 2004, pp 82-85