Either way, I had about four different posts I could have written this evening. Then, towards the end of my work day, I found someone from my former life had posted this video on Facebook. Said friend was, I have no doubt, intending to use this video to bolster the message of the Bible and apologetics, not the other way around. But I shall use it to show that it’s extremely easy to debunk standard Biblical apologetics, and further to show why they seem so very convincing.
Either way, the video is from a talk given by Ravi Zacharias, a fairly well-known evangelist, at the University of Illinois. A student asks him why I would uncharitably tend to label as a set up question.
I just wanted to ask you, could you explain in a manner more pragmatic than we’re used to why a person should believe in the word of god as the Bible and why they should basically believe every word it says as opposed to any other “holy” [air quotes and everything] book and why they should give their entire lives to Christ.(23 seconds in)
Yeah, seriously. That’s his question. And it’s intended to get a set answer, roughly broken down in to, “This is why the Bible is correct, this is why everything else is wrong, and this is why you should accept Jesus.” The student in question will then, theoretically, be able to go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations because of the Ravi Zacharias method of proving the Bible is the most believable document in the history of the universe. So how does Zacharias respond?
First, with a whole bunch of mealy-mouthed philosophical garbage.
Let me start off as best as I can. First, I believe that truth as a category does exist. Number two, it is possible, in a majority of claims of philosophical and historical statements to verify the truthfulness of those affirmations. Third, I believe there are existential realities from which I cannot run which drive me to find the answers to the existential questions that I live with, not just the philosophical ones. The philosophical ones are real and I have to deal with them, but so are the existential ones. (1:17 in)
This is an awful lot of words that say absolutely nothing. Let’s break it down in to its component ideas. He basically says that he believes truth exists, that truth can be supported by human thought and human history, and that it’s important to pursue truth, not just as a thought exercise, but as an attempt to give meaning to human existence. There is nothing wrong with this, but it doesn’t say anything. More precisely, it doesn’t say anything about the Bible or why the Bible would hold truth. Mostly, it doesn’t explain why we should look to the Bible for truth.
But it uses a lot of big words and sounds really, really smart. And I’m reasonably certain that’s what it’s there for.
Then he tosses in the most random and oversimplified explanation of existentialism I’ve ever heard, in which he says it’s a rejection of rationalism and an appeal to, as Zacharias puts it “gut level feeling.” As someone who has read his own fair share of existentialist thought and is prone to identify himself as one, I have no idea where that idea would possibly come in to play, as existentialism was the realization that relentless rationalistic thinking wasn’t overly helpful in understanding people and the true quest for any person was to figure out how to give their own life meaning. This doesn’t reject rationalism so much as it admits that people aren’t unfailingly rational and probably aren’t ever going to be capable of becoming unfailingly rational. But that’s neither here nor there, as I have no clue what existentialism has to do with explaining why we should believe every word of the Bible and give our entire lives to Jesus. So I’ll just skip on ahead a bit.
You start off by saying, if you take the Bible at the question then why the Bible and why not any other system of thought? You start off with the scriptures and ask yourself the question, here there are sixty-six books by nearly forty different authors over nearly fifteen hundred years that are books on history, that are books on philosophical thinking, that are books on theological thinking and systematic thinking [note, I’ll buy the first three, but I fail to see how the Bible has books on “systematic thinking”]. Now, if the Bible made several assertions one after another that you found out to be false, either historically or philosophically or in the existential realm, you go further and further and if you see that kind of systemic contradiction and failure then you have reason to believe that I cannot really trust this document it is not in keeping with the way I am seeing history and reality. (2:23 in)
I find this fascinating, because what Zacharias is explaining here is more or less exactly the path which I took to stop believing in the Bible and, ultimately, to decide to leave Christianity behind. He even goes on to use one of the earliest parts of the Bible that caused me to begin questioning the validity of the Bible in an attempt to prove the Bible. But I’ll cross that bridge when Zacharias does.
Anyway, what I’d like to point out here is that Zacharias actually neatly lays out the flaws in fundamentalist/Biblical literalist thinking. If your entire belief system depends on the thing you believe in being without flaw, then in the presence of flaws you either have to give up on the belief system or give up on reality. There’s really no way around it. It sets up exactly the sort of impossible arrangement that forces people to leave, live with cognitive dissonance, or remain purposefully ignorant of any data outside of that which is supported by the Bible. That’s why Christianity has a cottage industry of people who create books about history and creationism and then attempt to get those things taught in school.
They use “teach the controversy” to create wedges in education. But they don’t simply want their garbage taught in schools, they want reality removed. Because reality threatens Biblical literalism. The city known as Jericho has been inhabited since before the universe was created. The World Flood occurred during the Old Kingdom period in Egypt. We have no archaeological or documentary evidence for a massive settlement of Jews in Egypt, nor do we have evidence of a mass exodus and re-settling of said Jews. The Biblical account of Persian succession is just flat-out wrong. And it offers three contradictory accounts of the rise of the Persians and return of the Jews to Israel. There is no evidence that Caesar Augustus called for a census of the entire world that required everyone to go back to their home (which is a stupid thing to do, anyway. I filled out a census form a couple months ago. Guess where I said I lived? Texas. Why? Because I currently live in Texas, even if I spent my entire life prior to January 8, 2010 as a resident of Illinois).
Either way, Zacharias then devolves in to an explanation of why the Bible is better than the Qu’ran. It basically boils down to, “The Muslims say that the Qu’ran is literally the perfect word of Allah. But the Bible is better because it isn’t perfect. It just perfectly predicts the future.” It’s a bit that starts at 3:10 and doesn’t get anywhere close to logic. Or Yuma, for that matter. And it hinges on an extremely bizarre definition of “perfection” which he basically reduces to nit-picking over what words are “better than” others.
This, for the record, is a terrible definition of “perfection.” I could make a grammatically perfect statement like, say, “I drive a Maserati GranTurismo.” The sentence is in the right order. There is a verb and a subject. So it’s a perfectly formed statement. Except for the bit where I have never driven a Maserati, never sat in a Maserati, and just so happen to drive a Mazda 6 (with which I am quite happy, thankyouverymuch). Now, by most definitions a Maserati GranTurismo is, in fact, “better than” my Mazda 6. Except the statement doesn’t reflect reality, which would be accurately stated even if the sentence was, “I gone done drived a Mazda 6 to work today.”
What’s my point? Zacharias is picking nits here. Muslim claims of revealed truth hinge on claims that the Qu’ran is the perfect, revealed word of Allah. The question that Zacharias is answering hinges on the claim that the Bible is the Word of God and we should believe every word in it. These are, in effect, two claims to the perfection of two different holy books. And Zacharias has potentially painted himself in to a corner by arguing that you cannot trust the Bible if you find that it keeps making false assertions. So his next step is an appeal to prophecy.
Let me give you an example of this. The Book of Daniel is written in the late 500s before Christ and yet when you study the book of Daniel you begin to see the specifics of a fantastic prophecy. He talks about a massive empire that will come in to being and how that empire will be divided in to four and that empire will be led by what they call a strident, strong he-goat from the west who will be marching several nations under foot but shall be suddenly cut off and his empire will be divided in to four. Those four then merge in to two and those two blend in to one. When you take the book of Daniel, written late 500s, and put it pro-forma on to Alexander the Great in the 300s before Christ you see the stridency of Alexander, suddenly cut off in his 20s, four kingdoms emerge, given to his four generals, those four come in to two, the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid Empires, that merged then in to the Roman Empire. Centuries before to be so specific in prophecy. (4:19 in)
I remember being about 18 or 19. I’d finally decided I was going to really get serious about following Christ and incorporating the teachings of the Bible in to my own life. My plan was to do the whole reading through the Bible in a year thing. I apparently managed to make it all the way up to Daniel, which kind of surprises me. I don’t ever remember making it much past Joshua during those attempts to do the Bible in a year thing. Perhaps I was doing something else and happened to read Daniel for the first time at this same juncture in my life and have just combined the two memories. Either way, I confronted Daniel for the first time. And not the Daniel and the lion’s den story or the Rack, Shack, and Benny story. I read the prophecies.
I remember, specifically, reading the stuff about the one-horned goat charging in from the west, laying waste to all that opposed him, specifically a two-horned ram. Then goat’s single horn fell off and was replaced by four horns, then two, then one. Daniel then helpfully explained that the ram was the Persians, which the Bible splits in to the Medes and the Persians (for reasons that, honestly, don’t make much sense. The Medes were a kingdom and the Persians their neighbors and/or vassals. Then the Persians conquered the Medes on their way to conquering, well, everyone but the Greeks, basically. There is no mention of this construct of “Medes and Persians” in the Persians’ own history that I’m aware of). The goat’s one horn was Alexander the Great, then the four horns were four successor kingdoms.
I found this absolutely fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that I decided it was one of those places where the Bible could be proven to be accurately prophetic. I was shocked to discover that there were way more than four successor kingdoms. There were more like twelve.
It eventually settled down to four kingdoms, plus an independent Epirus, after the battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE. But then there was intrigue in Macedon and that left the borders open for a Gallic invasion of Asia Minor. When Rome came on to the scene the old Alexandrian Empire was split between the Ptolemies, who held Egypt and Syria, as well as Cyprus and a few bits of Asia Minor, the Seleucids, who held the vast majority of the territory from Afghanistan to the Ionian coast, the Antigonids, who held Macedonia, and the Aetolian League, which were a bunch of semi-independent city-states in mainland Greece.
Now, this whole thing might seem like picking nits. But the “prophesy” of Daniel as explained by Zacharias doesn’t actually hold up in light of, y’know, reality. There is an alternate explanation, however. Let us consider verses 23 through 26 of Daniel 8:
“In the latter period of their rule, when the transgressors have run their course, a king will arise, insolent and skilled in intrigue.
"His power will be mighty, but not by his own power, and he will destroy to an extraordinary degree and prosper and perform his will; he will destroy mighty men and the holy people.
"And through his shrewdness he will cause deceit to succeed by his influence; and he will magnify himself in his heart, and he will destroy many while they are at ease. He will even oppose the Prince of princes, but he will be broken without human agency. "The vision of the evenings and mornings which has been told is true; but keep the vision secret, for it pertains to many days in the future."
The interesting thing about this is that there is a very specific and particular king to which this could easily refer: Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucids. Basically, Antiochus IV was a usurper of the Seleucid crown who was considered to be mad, so much so that he was given the nickname “Epimanes,” which means “The Mad One.” Over the course of his life, Antiochus IV raided the Temple in Jerusalem, outlawed traditional Judaism, attempted to force the Jews to worship Zeus, and was ultimately struck down by disease during the Maccabean Revolt.
Certain theologians, including John Drane and Bryan Rennie, associate the Nebuchadnezzar of the book of Daniel with Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Basically, the attempts to force everyone to worship a large golden idol, which led to the whole Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego story, sound a lot like the stories of Antiochus IV attempting to get the Jews to worship Zeus. The bit about Nebuchadnezzar going mad sounds a lot like Antiochus IV’s own purported madness. There’s also a bit at the beginning of Daniel 5 about Belshazzar, the king who succeeded Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel and eventually died and was replaced by Darius the Mede (all of which is BS. The father of Belshazzar was Nabonidus, who was actually still alive and kinda-sorta in charge when Babylon was conquered. By Cyrus the Great) holding a feast and requesting all of the gold drinking cups that were taken from the Temple by his father. Moreover, Jewish numerology associates Nebuchadnezzar with Antiochus IV Epiphanes. I’ll allow Bryan Rennie to argue that point for me.
Either way, Daniel 8 contains a brilliant little prophecy of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Except modern scholarship also tends to place the writing of the book of Daniel after Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Moreover, the Jewish Tanakh places Daniel not in the books of prophecy, but in the third section, the Ketuvim, or “Writings.” This indicates that the compilers of the Jewish canon did not see Daniel as being a prophetic book, but instead a work of history and/or allegory. This is also interesting, as the Nevi’im includes the books that cover the time from the entrance to the Promised Land until the Babylonian Captivity, but does not include Chronicles or Daniel, indicating that both of those books were written later. This is probably key to understanding the historicity and prophetic validity of the book of Daniel.
But I digress.
Zacharias takes the basic statement, “The Bible has accurately predicted the future.” He follows it up with proof in the form of, “Look at the book of Daniel.” The next thirty seconds of the video then basically say, “Since we can believe this prophecy from Daniel, we can believe all the prophecies that point to Christ.” I can go back to this another time, but I’ll gloss over it quickly. No, we can’t. If you read the Old Testament as a narrative of Jewish history and thought it makes sense. But if you read it with the intention of finding Jesus, you have to hop, skip, and jump around, take things out of context, and generally bollix up the whole thing. You have to eisegete Jesus in to the Old Testament in order for any of the arguments of the Old Testament’s prophetic powers to even make a lick of sense.
The thing to realize is that Zacharias has not actually managed to formulate a defensible apologia for the accuracy of Biblical prophecy. But he has created a form of, to borrow from Stephen Colbert, truthiness. It sounds good, but in order to understand why it is not, in fact, good argumentation you have to really get down in to the weeds and understand that the Bible is an extremely inaccurate historical document.
My confrontation with the reality of the successor kingdoms was the first time I had an inkling of that. I did what anybody does the first time unpleasant reality intrudes on a cherished (or, at least, firmly held) belief: I tried to ignore it or work around it. That moment of intrusion, however, opened up the door and each time reality contradicted the Bible from then on I was more likely to look to see what reality had to say and attempt to understand what the real answers were. It became, to borrow from Zacharias’s introduction to the idea, an attempt to come to a philosophical and existential understanding of the truth. And that’s all because of the insistence that the Bible was accurate no matter what reality might have to say to the contrary.
But we’re not quite done. No, siree.
Bruce Metzger, who’s a scholar from Princeton, made the comment, he said, “Take the twenty thousand lines of the New Testament. It is safe for any scholar to say there is a 99.6% accuracy.” No ancient document, none, has the kind of documentary support that the Bible has, over five thousand documents.” (5:54 in)
“Oh, people can come up with statistics to prove anything. 14% of people know that.” – Homer Simpson
I’m just going to lay this right out there for you: I have abso-fucking-loutely no clue what it means to say that the New Testament has a “99.6% accuracy.” That might well be the most completely and totally meaningless statistic ever thrown out by anyone ever (and I’m sure that 56.2% of all people would agree with me on that one). A cursory Google search just for “bible 99.6% accuracy” leads me to a lot of people who are either explicitly re-stating Zacharias’s quote or basically cribbing from it.
I believe I recall someone from back in the day asking me about this quote or one that’s similar. At the time I recall saying that it was a load of BS. And I’m going to keep saying it. Even in the face of this handy-dandy chart put out by something called the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. It’s just a list of historical documents followed by the year of the oldest copy of said document, the number of copies, and a percentage that indicates how accurate said documents are without giving any sense whatsoever of what methodology was used to reach that percentage.
But, basically, it seems to say that if we crunch all the numbers we can be 99.5% sure of being able to create an accurate rendition of the source documents of the New Testament. There are several problems with this train of thought.
First, compare the four Gospels. Each one tells a different story about Jesus and each one has a different conception of who Jesus was and what his message was. Then compare the message of Jesus to the epistles of Paul. You will get a different idea of who Jesus was and what his message was. Then compare the epistles of Paul to the book of James. You will get a still different idea. And so on and so forth.
Then compare the world of the New Testament to the historical record. There are plenty of discrepancies. The big one is the whole bit with Caesar Augustus’s stupidly planned and carried out census of the whole world that required people to go back to their home village and was never actually called. But there’s other stuff that I’m sure I’d love to get in to if I weren’t already 3,500 words in to this post that I wasn’t expecting to be anywhere close to this long.
So even if we can be 99.5% certain that the New Testament is an accurate copy of the New Testament of old based on manuscript evidence, we can’t be anywhere near that certain that the manuscripts themselves are reliable. Moreover, the brute-force number crunching completely ignores the reality of the manuscript evidence. Not all of them are complete. Not all of them are in the same language. Not all of them use the same words. Not all of them put the stories in the same order. So we can come up with a pretty damn good composite picture of the New Testament, but we cannot say that what we can come up with is anywhere close to 99.6% accurate. And we can’t be at all sure that that composite manuscript actually reflects reality.
It’s basically an extremely convoluted way of lying with statistics. But it also makes a compelling sounding case for the accuracy and believability of the Bible. 99.6% is, after all, a big number. And it has a decimal point, which gives the illusion of hyper-accuracy. So let’s break it down one last time.
Zacharias begins by claiming he’s making a simple, humble search for truth. Then he claims that the Bible is the best (and, really, only) vehicle for truth. To prove this he says that the Bible accurately predicted the future between 500 and 300 BCE. He then extrapolates to say that if it did so once, it must have done so again. He then concludes by saying we have a nearly unassailably accurate picture of what the New Testament actually looked like when written.
It sounds compelling, especially for someone who hasn’t researched the specific points that Zacharias brings up. I’d hazard a guess that I’m in a pretty small minority on that one, so I’ll give anyone who has been taken in by that (including 18 year-old me) the benefit of the doubt. And if you are sitting there without any research in front of you it’s hard to refute. It has, in fact, taken me nearly four hours to write a post based on a seven minute YouTube video. And I knew basically everything I was going to say about it going in.
The most important thing to consider, though, is this: the presentation is key. Zacharias tells a story that sounds good because it’s specifically constructed to sound good. He tells a story that sounds compelling because it’s specifically constructed to sound compelling. But absent the construct, his arguments do not logically follow one from another. To wit:
I am searching for truth, therefore I will consider the Bible.
The Bible accurately predicted a single event, therefore it could accurately predict all events.
The Old Testament can be read to predict Jesus, therefore it accurately predicted Jesus.
We have a shitload of old manuscripts of the New Testament, therefore we can believe everything in the New Testament.
These are four thoughts that don’t actually logically progress from each other. It is, in fact, a prime example of what is known as sophistry, using subtly deceptive argumentation. But you really have to know your shit and you really have to pay attention to catch all of it. But the beauty of it is, since the entire point is to defend an all-or-nothing approach to the truth of the Bible, if you can show that it’s false, you can turn the arguments back on the apologist and disprove their use of the Bible.