The Truth About Easter – Part Nine of the Richard Dawkins Challenge – Is Jesus Christ a Myth?

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CHAPTER 9
THE MYTH OF CHRIST

By Ian Wishart

 

“There is overwhelming evidence that the New Testament is a reliable record composed by contemporaries and eyewitnesses of the events” – Norman Geisler, New Testament scholar

 

On the back cover of this year’s bestselling book, God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens’ publicist boasts, “Here he makes the ultimate case against organized religion.”

That’s a pretty big call. The ultimate case against organized religion? According to Hitchens, Christianity is a myth, the Gospels are fairy stories, and there’s “no firm evidence whatever that Jesus actually was a ‘character in history’.”

I guess if he could prove all that, then Hitchens indeed would have penned a worthy tome, rather than a novel with as much intellectual merit as Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Unfortunately for Hitchens, like Dawkins before him[1], he goes for a skate when he starts to tackle the New Testament.

Now again, I make no apologies for getting stuck in here. The point I’m trying to make clearly, so that readers understand where I’m coming from, is this: the purpose of this book is to give you the level playing field of information that the media and atheist fundamentalists like Hitchens and Dawkins are depriving you of. Chances are you have never heard the information contained in these pages.

In the first part of The Divinity Code, I’ve illustrated why atheist presumptions about the non-existence of God are fatally flawed. The fact that most people in the West still believe in God is proof that the atheists have failed to convince the public with their weak, if noisy, arguments. On the other hand, with the huge drop in attendance at organized religious services in the West over the past fifty years, two to three generations of people have now left school with little more than a vague concept of what the ‘God’ they tentatively believe in might actually be. They have even less familiarity with the basics of Christianity itself, let alone the more advanced concepts. On this front, the secularists have been overwhelmingly successful, muddying the waters enough that while people are not prepared to abandon belief in God, they largely no longer believe Jesus Christ is “the way, the truth and the life”.

If one makes a rational decision to rubbish Christianity – the founding religion of the West – on the basis of carefully weighed evidence, well, that’s one thing. But if one’s decision is not based on a first-hand reading of the facts, but instead on what someone mockingly said on talk radio late one night, or on the bluster and out-of-context ‘facts’ of a writer like Richard Dawkins or Hitchens, then that’s a tragedy.

The secularists crack jokes about a religion that they themselves do not actually either understand, nor really know. But if you think this is just a Christian conservative talking, think again. Camille Paglia is an atheist icon. Left wing, feminist, respected at all the right Manhattan parties. But even she is getting sick of people – particularly “artists” – taking the piss out of Christ or, in one celebrated case, putting him in it. American photographer Andres Serrano raised a storm of controversy nearly two decades ago by dunking a plastic crucifix of Christ in a jar of the artist’s urine and photographing it (the 1989 shock-photo entitled, appropriately, “Piss Christ”).

“It’s always Catholic iconography, I might point out,” Camille Paglia remarked in an interview[2] recently. “I am atheist, by the way. It’s never Jewish. It’s never Muslim. So I am saying this is a scandal. The art world has actually prided itself on getting a rise out of the people on the far right. Thinking, ‘We’re avant-garde’. The avante-garde is dead. It has been dead since Andy Warhol appropriated Campbell’s Soup labels and Liz Taylor and Marilyn Monroe into his art. The avante-garde is dead. “Thirty years later, 40 years later, people will think they are avante-garde every time some nudnik has a thing about Madonna with elephant dung, ‘Oh yeah, we are getting a rise out of the Catholic League’.”

Mid-year, in another interview[3], Paglia refocused her guns on the Left’s obsession with crushing Christianity.

“The only people I’m getting at my school who recognize the Bible are African-Americans,” she says. “And the lower the social class of the white person, the more likely they recognize the Bible. Most of these white kids, if they go to church at all, they get feel-good social activism.”

What are they left with? “Video games, the Web, cellphones, iPods – that’s what’s left,” Dr. Paglia laments. “And that’s what’s going to make us vulnerable to people coming from any side, including the Muslim side, where there’s fervour. Fervour will conquer apathy. I don’t see how the generation trained by the Ivy League is going to have the knowledge or the resolution to defend the West.”

Our cultural crisis is precisely that serious, Paglia believes, – as does Pope Benedict, one of the most cultured men on the planet – that we could well be reliving the last days of the Roman Empire.

“If the elite class sees nothing in the West to defend, we’re reproducing this situation of the late Roman Empire, which was very cosmopolitan and very tolerant, but which was undone by forces from within.”

Remember, Paglia is an atheist. Her concerns, however, are that a people ignorant of where they have come from and unsure of what they believe face a major disadvantage when it comes to combating a people motivated strongly by passion and belief – like Islamists are.

So if a thinking atheist can recognize the problem, maybe we should pay some attention. Paglia thinks we need to inject the Bible back in our culture to find a bit of spine. But the Bible won’t provide spine unless one believes it, and Hitchens and Dawkins give great reasons not to believe it, don’t they?

Let’s take a closer look at what the Antichrist’s rock stars say is the smoking gun evidence that the New Testament is a crock.

 

HITCHENS:

  1. That the New Testament documents have been “tampered with”
  2. That the Gospels were not published until “many decades after the crucifixion
  3. That the Gospels are full of contradictions – the flight to Egypt, the Virgin Birth, the genealogy of Christ, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection
  4. That the Gospels contain proven errors – the ‘Quirinius problem’
  5. That the Gnostic Gospels, like Judas and Thomas, are somehow significant
  6. That the very existence of Jesus Christ is “highly questionable”[4]

“The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars,” pontificates Hitchens, “and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of ‘metaphor’ and ‘a Christ of faith’.”

Now I see Hitchens’ problem, he’s been reading too much of Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering’s work! So they have “never been explained”? Christopher, read on.

Rather than a point by point rebuttal, which is frankly passé, let me take you on an epic sweep, Christianity 101 if you like, through the pages of history. During this journey, Hitchens’ and Dawkins’ weak challenges will be answered, and many more besides. It’s a story you won’t hear in a fusty little Anglican church run by a twee vicar from the liberal wing. But it’s a story that needs to be told.

As you would expect in the sacred book of the world’s largest religion, there are some major claims being made. The biggest claim of all, undoubtedly, is that Jesus Christ is God; that the Creator of the universe and the God of the Old Testament decided to come to Earth himself in human form, and suffer life and death in our place as a sacrifice to beat the evil loose in our world. But the Bible is a book that spans nearly 1,500 years in its writings, across 39 books in the Old Testament, and 27 books in the New. Suffice to say, over that period of time, dozens of authors were involved. Yet the finished book sings a remarkably coherent song. Despite the huge timelines and individual idiosyncrasies of the authors, it tells a very clear tale of a God who created the heavens and the earth, who interacted with his people, who tried to keep them pure enough so that Mary could eventually give birth to the saviour not just of the Jews but the entire world.

It is a story that progressively unfolds, which is as it should be given the fact that the Israelites who received the 10 Commandments with Moses were primitive herders for the most part, whilst the society that Christ was born into 1,500 years later was far more sophisticated and westernized. God did not reveal his whole plan all at once, but nor did he reveal it in a way the peasants could not understand in their day. The message had to be able to be heard and followed in 1500 BC, even if layered with extra meanings that would become clearer to later generations.

The Old Testament is not a science book written for 21st century boffins – it doesn’t use modern descriptions or precise calculations when they were not needed by bronze age goat farmers. The average Jewish shepherd boy needed to know the value of pi like he needed rocks in his head. Thus, when describing the measurement around the edge of a circle in 2 Chron. 4:2, the Bible doesn’t use the precise numbering for pi, 3.14159265 etc, but simply rounds the number down to 3. This is not an error, it is merely being practical. Wikipedia notes that science still rounds pi down:

“While the value of pi has been computed to billions of digits, practical science and engineering will rarely require more than 10 decimal places. As an example, computing the circumference of the Earth’s equator from its radius using only 10 decimal places of pi yields an error of less than 0.2 millimeters. A value truncated to 39 decimal places is sufficient to compute the circumference of the visible universe to a precision comparable to the size of a hydrogen atom.”

In other words, horses for courses.

If you want to pounce on the Bible’s use of round numbers (given it was written for people who had not yet invented the decimal point) and use that as proof of error, then frankly you’ve missed the point. Hitchens is correct when he mutters that the Bible doesn’t talk about the creation of germs in Genesis. But nor does God talk about computers or mobile phones. Much of the scientific discoveries of the world would be taking place far in the future. Had God intervened and handed advanced knowledge over on a platter, the future would have been vastly altered and you wouldn’t be here to read about it.

There are areas of the Bible, however, that do evoke images of modern battles, things the ancients would not be familiar with.

“And this shall be the plague with which the LORD will smite all the people that have fought against Jerusalem; Their flesh shall consume away while they stand upon their feet, and their eyes shall consume away in their holes, and their tongue shall consume away in their mouth.”[5]

I doubt that such a weapon description would make any sense to an ancient Hebrew, but from residents of Hiroshima you might get an entirely different reaction. And in case you are wondering, that prophecy is yet to be fulfilled.

Yes, there is a bit of hellfire and smiting in the Bible, but I’ll get to that in due course.

What the Old Testament does do, however, is foreshadow the future. Almost from the very beginning, Genesis onwards, there are coded phrases and double meanings, all of them pointing towards a future Messiah. At first these codewords appear to be mere hints, but like a boulder gathering speed down a hill they pick up the pace and substance as the history of the Israelites unfolds in the pages of the Bible.

You saw in the last chapter the best that 20th century psychics and mediums have been able to offer, and it isn’t that impressive.

In contrast check out the detail and specificity in the following passage from the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel, dealing with the fate of the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre, now part of modern Lebanon and called Sur (not Tyre). At the time, Tyre was a powerful city, and an unusual one in the Middle East. Its settlements stretched for about 30 kilometres along the coast, and are said to have housed some 40,000 citizens. But three miles offshore, on a fortress island surrounded by 50 metre high walls, the city grew as well. The island city had the naval power in the region, while the coastal suburbs provided the peasants, the timber and the infrastructure needed.

The Tyrians had taken advantage of strife in Jerusalem by raiding for treasure and Jews they could sell to Greek slave traders. For this, said Ezekiel, God went looking for vengeance.

 

A Prophecy Against Tyre[6]

1 In the eleventh year, on the first day of the month, the word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, because Tyre has said of Jerusalem, ‘Aha! The gate to the nations is broken, and its doors have swung open to me; now that she lies in ruins I will prosper,’ 3 therefore this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against you, O Tyre, and I will bring many nations against you, like the sea casting up its waves. 4 They will destroy the walls of Tyre and pull down her towers; I will scrape away her rubble and make her a bare rock. 5 Out in the sea she will become a place to spread fishnets, for I have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD. She will become plunder for the nations, 6 and her settlements on the mainland will be ravaged by the sword. Then they will know that I am the LORD.

7 “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: From the north I am going to bring against Tyre Nebuchadnezzar [a] king of Babylon, king of kings, with horses and chariots, with horsemen and a great army. 8 He will ravage your settlements on the mainland with the sword; he will set up siege works against you, build a ramp up to your walls and raise his shields against you. 9 He will direct the blows of his battering rams against your walls and demolish your towers with his weapons. 10 His horses will be so many that they will cover you with dust. Your walls will tremble at the noise of the war horses, wagons and chariots when he enters your gates as men enter a city whose walls have been broken through. 11 The hoofs of his horses will trample all your streets; he will kill your people with the sword, and your strong pillars will fall to the ground. 12 They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. 13 I will put an end to your noisy songs, and the music of your harps will be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the LORD have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD… 19 …”This is what the Sovereign LORD says: When I make you a desolate city, like cities no longer inhabited, and when I bring the ocean depths over you and its vast waters cover you, 20 then I will bring you down with those who go down to the pit, to the people of long ago. I will make you dwell in the earth below, as in ancient ruins, with those who go down to the pit, and you will not return or take your place [b] in the land of the living. 21 I will bring you to a horrible end and you will be no more. You will be sought, but you will never again be found, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

 

To understand this, first let’s take a look at what actually happened to Tyre. The prophecy says God is rewarding Tyre for its treachery by bringing a series of assailants against it, like “waves” hurled in by the sea. The imagery then, is of sequential hits.

The first of these is predicted to be the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar.

According to Jewish/Roman historian Josephus, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops rolled in as promised and utterly destroyed the coastal mainland suburbs of Tyre, reducing them to rubble and selling the residents into slavery and prostitution. Try as they might, however, they couldn’t project their landforce power three miles out to sea where the fortress city remained. The Tyrians, getting wind of the approaching Babylonian troops, had shifted all their loot across to the island before the attack got close, meaning Nebuchadnezzar’s army didn’t secure jewels, gold or other commercial plunder. After a 13 year siege, the Babylonian armies gave up further military action and left, allowing the island city to continue. The mainland however was now a no-go area for the Tyrians. The prophecy about tearing down the walls and tall pillars had been fulfilled. But the ghost town was not yet a place for fishnets.

Two hundred and forty years passed, the prophet Ezekiel was long dead and his book already in print, and then in 333 BC Alexander the Great brought his armies down to Tyre.

“After conquering the mighty Persians,” write theologians John Ankerberg and John Weldon,[7] “he proceeded down the coast of Palestine until he reached Tyre in 333 BC.

“Strategically, he was unwilling to continue down to Egypt while such a fortified city, containing a powerful fleet of ships, was at his rear. He knew he first had to conquer Tyre before proceeding southward, and this comprises one of the most dramatic sieges in military history. Thus, with ulterior motives, he requested from city officials permission to worship their deity, Hercules, within the city walls.

“The plan was to bring in enough soldiers to capture the city. Not unexpectedly, his request was refused. But now, even more determined to take the city, he at once set about entering its gates by the only means available to him – the construction of a causeway across the ocean.

“Alexander’s soldiers were ordered to throw into the sea the very rubble and remains of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests some 200 years earlier. This was a vast undertaking, and it was necessary to use everything they could find.

“According to the second century Greek historian and governor of Cappadocia, Arrian, in History of Alexander and Indicia,[8] the project went well at first. But the farther out the soldiers went, both the depth of the water and the harassment by the soldiers of Tyre increased.”

As Ankerberg and Weldon recount the story, you can almost see it unfolding on a movie screen in front of you.

“It is hard to comprehend the difficulties faced by Alexander. For example, from the high walls the defenders of the city could do considerable damage…occasional raids were also staged against the Greek troops, which greatly hindered their progress. This literally forced them to build two tall towers directly on the causeway for protection. The citizens of Tyre countered with a fullscale raid – even using fire ships to start the towers burning. After routing the Greeks, they then swarmed over the causeway and destroyed whatever they could.

“There were other difficulties. At one point, a great storm washed away part of the causeway.”

Not to be outdone, however, Alexander called in a fleet of 220 ships from six of the nations and cities he had conquered. With these ships guarding the causeway construction by repelling the Tyrian naval attacks, his army was finally able to complete its giant engineering project, a 3.5 mile long sea bridge from the mainland out to the fortress island. He then led his multinational army and naval force in a direct assault on Tyre.

“As Ezekiel predicted, many nations made Tyre their plunder,” continue Ankerberg and Weldon. “Thus, it was only after seven full months of immense toil, in which literally the very dust of the old city was scraped from the shore and cast into the sea, that Tyre was conquered – and Alexander’s army finally marched across a 200-foot wide causeway into the island city. This occurred in 332 BC.”

Say what you like about Old Testament prophets, but the book of Ezekiel has been dated to 571 BC. What are the odds of describing a series of military sieges against a named city 240 years in the future (unlike the vague names used by Nostradamus) and describing, “They will … throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea.”? How many armies waste time deconstructing conquered cities and throwing them into the sea? None. Except for this one. The tide literally washed over what was left of the main settlement of Tyre, in its new form as a causeway and, in almost certainty, peasant fishermen would have used the new feature as a way to get their nets further out into the bay.

“I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the LORD have spoken.”[9]

Tyre, as it was, could not be rebuilt,[10] as most of the original architecture is underwater, forming the foundations of the causeway. Successive cultures swinging through, including the Romans, have built their own towns on the ground scoured clean by Alexander, and today the area features housing scattered around the edges of the old (Roman era) ruins, and more importantly the entire causeway has been thoroughly reclaimed and built on top of. The area, incidentally, has reportedly been hit by no fewer than 11 tsunami since Alexander’s time, so the waves have washed it on a number of occasions.

Certainly, the detail in many biblical prophecies dwarfs anything offered in modern psychic shows. To many, this proves another strand of the divinity code has been woven into the Bible.

One of the world’s leading atheist websites, Infidels.org, naturally denies this possibility. But as you’re about to see, its own back-up explanation is nonetheless an admission of the existence of God:

“They claim that the Bible is filled with recorded events that prophets foretold years and even centuries before they happened,” writes Infidels’ Farrell Till. “They argue that there is no way to explain how these predictions could have been so accurately made except to conclude that the Holy Spirit enabled the prophets who uttered them to see into the future. In prophecy fulfillment, then, they see evidence of God’s direct involvement in the writing of the Bible.

“A very simple flaw in the prophecy-fulfillment argument is that foreseeing the future doesn’t necessarily prove divine guidance. Psychics have existed in every generation, and some of them have demonstrated amazing abilities to predict future events. Their “powers,” although mystifying to those who witness them, are not usually considered divine in origin. If, then, Old Testament prophets did on occasions foresee the future (a questionable premise at best), perhaps they were merely the Nostradamuses and Edgar Cayces of their day. Why would it necessarily follow that they were divinely inspired?” asks Till.

Hello?? Once you let one supernatural pixie into the room (psychic ability) you let them all in. You can’t admit the possibility of clairvoyancy (seeing the future) on the one hand, whilst denying the possibility that other supernatural things exist. And has he even read Nostradamus? I mean, most of the ancient Frenchman’s quatrains read as if he’d been enjoying a long session smoking hooch before putting pen to paper:

 

“In the third month, at sunrise,

the Boar and the Leopard meet on the battlefield.

The fatigued Leopard looks up to heaven

and sees an eagle playing around the sun.

 

To see where the atheist website has hit the rocks, you first have to understand the central question: Is it possible to foresee the future? Under natural laws the answer is no.

Whilst Time is a dimension created within our universe, it appears to be a one way street. Einstein calculated that Time slows down relative to the speed you travel. Even a cyclist biking along at 30 km/h for an hour has slowed down their own reality (albeit by a nanosecond over a lifetime) compared with somebody standing still for the same hour. A person driving a car around town might have gained two nanoseconds compared to the one standing still. The faster you go, the more Time slows down for you. Thus the occupants of a spaceship traveling at the speed of light will theoretically not age at all no matter where they travel in the universe, because Time stands still at the speed of light. To observers watching the spacecraft through a giant telescope on earth, however, time will continue to pass. It will take four earth years for the craft to reach Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system. To the crew of the spaceship, it is a mere blink. They have not aged a day, let alone four years.

If the ship were to then leap to a star system 25,000 light years away, again it would be a mere blink in terms of time for those onboard. But the observers on earth would be long dead, some 25,000 years in the past.

It is for this reason that interstellar travel is considered unlikely. It too would be a one way journey – there’d be nothing left to come home to. One could set out to colonise another planet (presuming you could find one capable of sustaining life), but you could not radio back to earth for extra supplies, nor could you probably return.

But the bigger point is this: It is one thing to slow down time (by traveling on a fast-moving object). It is a totally different thing to travel backwards in time or forward in time. According to science, the future does not yet exist. It is dependent entirely on the choices and actions of every single living entity on the planet. If I choose to turn right instead of left, will I embark on a journey that changes world history? For many people throughout history the answer has been “yes”.

In other words, the future is contingent on what we do in the present. There is no natural or scientific fix for this, which is one reason scientists are incredibly skeptical of claims that anyone can see into the future.

How, then, do we explain the phenomenon?

If seeing into the future is indeed possible for some people, it would be positive proof of the divinity code. And not just any god will suffice. A pantheistic deity, who essentially is the universe, is as much trapped by Time as we are, and could hardly “see into the future”. The task could only fall to a deity that dwelt outside our universe, and therefore outside Time. Let me draw you an analogy as to how it might work.

Imagine the universe is a giant globe, like a planet. Imagine a spot marked X on this Time-globe, representing the moment you were born. A timeline stretches from X across to another point on the globe’s surface, until it reaches a point Y, where you will die at some moment in the future. Your timeline, if you look closely at it, is intersected tens or hundreds of thousands of times by the timelines of other people in your life, even those of people you merely walk past in the street or sit next to on a train. A being outside Time looks at this globe and has the capability of spinning it around (Google Earth-style) to focus on a particular point, or a particular timeline. At whim, this being can zero in on your timeline, pick up any portion and throw it up on a giant TV screen replaying that portion of your life, even if that portion has not yet played in your life.

Only a God who dwells outside Time (and therefore outside of and not reliant on the universe) can achieve this. In real terms, only a Theistic or Deistic God could fit this particular bill. And by definition, only a Theistic God would do it (because a Deistic one, by definition, is not interested in humanity and certainly doesn’t go around giving them visions of the future).

Farrell Till at Infidels has shot himself in both feet with his argument that successful prophecy in the Bible may be mere “psychic ability” to see the future instead. As I’ve just pointed out, scientifically the future has not happened yet and there can be no natural explanation for someone who sees future events successfully. A supernatural explanation, yes. But a natural one, no. Invoking “psychic ability” as an argument against the existence of God is fatally-flawed.

Nevertheless, Till makes an interesting point as his argument continues:

“Even the Bible recognizes the possibility that uninspired prophets can sometimes accurately predict the future:

‘If there arises among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and he gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder comes to pass, of which he spoke to you, saying, `Let us go after other gods’ – which you have not known – `and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams, for Yahweh your God is testing you to know whether you love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul’ (Deut. 13:1-3, NKJV with Yahweh substituted for “the LORD”).

“By the Bible’s own testimony, then, natural psychic ability could offer a perfectly sensible explanation for any example of prophecy.”

Ah, no. If you read the passage Till quoted more carefully, God is issuing a warning. If a prophet’s prediction of the future comes true, and that prophet doesn’t give credit to God and in fact uses it as an opportunity to lead you away from God, then God help you if you take that prophet’s advice. What God is really saying is that the ability to see the future is a direct gift from God, and anyone who uses it for a contrary religious purpose or for their own glory is in serious trouble.

The Old Testament was big on prophecy, but with a couple of provisos: prophecy from God was always accurate. Prophecy from imposters was not. Prophecy from God that was misused by the prophet for their own glory would still be accurate, but the fate of the person who misused it and those who went along with him would involve slow-roasting over an eternal flame.

So the Old Testament predicts the coming of a Messiah. Unsurprisingly, people who don’t believe God exists are turning over every stone they can to try and disprove the Messianic prophecies.

On the “Debunking Christianity” blogsite, a former Christian pastor turned “committed atheist” named Joe Holman, claims to have nailed Jesus Christ firmly back in his coffin by debunking what he says are key prophecies about him.

His doubts, he said, arose after reading John 19:36, “These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken’.”

According to Holman, who was teaching a bible class at the time, his own Bible helpfully referenced the original prophecy back to Psalm 34:20.

“Ah, here I would be able to show the class one of the ‘astounding’ prophecies of Scripture that ‘proves beyond a doubt’ that Jesus was the Christ. What I discovered was, shall we say, underwhelming:

 

19 A righteous man may have many troubles,

but the LORD delivers him from them all;

20 he protects all his bones,

not one of them will be broken.

 

“This is certainly an inspiring verse of Scripture, but you would have to be a fool to take it as a prophecy of the Messiah. I was left in the truly awkward position of explaining to the class why John took a verse like this and wrenched it so violently from its original context.”

Perhaps. But the danger for many people is that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. In ex-Pastor Holman’s case, he simply didn’t know his Bible well enough, or alternatively he needs a Bible with better margin references. In actual fact, I would argue Ps 34:20 is not out of context at all. However, I don’t need to go anywhere near it to successfully re-establish the credibility of the passage in John.

The answer he sought is actually in the Book of Numbers, 9:12. This is a passage about the Passover Lamb, the sacrifice offered at Passover each year by Jews as thanks for God delivering them from Egypt. Passover was the festival that Christ was crucified on the eve of, and in Christian terms he himself became “the Lamb of sacrifice” in place of the Passover Lamb. Anyway, the verse itself says of the Lamb:

“They must not leave any of it till morning, or break any of its bones.”

The context of the verse provides a slam-dunk parallel to the crucified Christ. Just like the sacrificial lamb used at Passover, not only were Christ’s bones intact, but unusually the Romans gave permission for his body to be removed from the cross before nightfall. So this particular verse speaks directly to the crucifixion events hundreds of years later.

Another of Holman’s challenges is the passage in Matthew 2:23.

“And he came and dwelt in the city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene’.” “I’m sad to say that in my 20 years as a Christian,” writes 33 year old Holman, “I never realized that Matthew makes reference to a prophecy that doesn’t even exist! Try as you may, you will nowhere find a place in the Old Testament where it unambiguously declares the Messiah would be a Nazarene.”

At one level he is entirely right. There is no direct reference to the future Messiah doing a stint in Nazareth. But again, Holman needed to drink more deeply at the well of knowledge. Nazareth was an insignificant village in the northern province of Galilee. Quite often in the Bible, provinces and towns are used interchangeably to show nationality or residence.

So we come to a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah, 9:1.

Helpfully, this chapter actually carries the title “To Us a Child Is Born”. Happy with the context? You should be. The verse reads:

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honour Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan – The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned…”

The Isaiah chapter continues, with one of the most evocative prophecies in the Old Testament:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”

Few university-accredited biblical scholars doubt that this is a Messianic prophecy. No ordinary child in Israel could ever be called “Mighty God” without invoking claims of blasphemy. Nor is it just about his name. No ordinary child would “reign on David’s throne…forever”. The mission given to this child, as well as the names, are thoroughly Messianic.

Nor was this prophecy tampered with after the fact by a bunch of happy-clappy Pentecostal Christians trying to re-write the Bible to suit their belief. Chapters 1-39 of the Book of Isaiah are acknowledged, even by the harshest of scholars, to date to around 700BC. The earliest physical copy we have dates from 100BC, and was found amid the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran.

There is no escape from the implications of Isaiah chapter 9. The Messiah would be born as a child, he would eventually rule forever, and he would spend time in Galilee, where Nazareth is. It doesn’t say he will be born in Nazareth, merely that he will “honour” the region – in the same way that a famous athlete brings honour to the country they represent.

Isaiah is a fascinating prophet. He is also the source of the much debated “virgin birth” prophecy at Isa. 7:14.

“The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son and [they] will call him Immanuel.”[11]

Christopher Hitchens claims Isaiah’s verse is taken out of context.

“Saint Matthew [bases] everything on a verse or two from the prophet Isaiah which told King Ahaz, almost eight centuries before the still unfixed date of the birth of Jesus, that ‘the Lord shall give you a sign; a virgin will conceive and bear a son’[12]. This encouraged Ahaz to believe that he would be given victory over his enemies … The picture is even further altered when we know that the word translated as ‘virgin’, namely almah, means only ‘a young woman’.

“In any case,” continues Hitchens, “parthenogenesis [the fertilization of a woman’s egg without sperm] is not possible for human mammals, and even if this law were to be relaxed in just one case, it would not prove that the resulting infant had any divine power.”

John Spong climbs in here as well. His main arguments (unsourced) are that “First, the word ‘virgin’ is not in the original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14. Second, the Isaiah text in Hebrew implies not that a woman will ‘conceive’, as Matthew quotes it, but that a woman ‘is with child’. Where I come from, that means she is not a virgin!”

Both Spong and Hitchens appear persuasive at first glance, but both get a number of crucial facts wrong. The word almah, which Isaiah used in his prophecy, is used interchangeably in the Hebrew Old Testament to describe both virgins specifically, and unmarried ‘maidens’ – which to the old fire and brimstone Hebrews meant the same thing anyway. A maiden was expected to be a virgin or God help her!

Although modern critics translate almah as ‘young woman’, with everything that connotes in our modern promiscuous society, this would be a 180 degree shift from ancient Hebrew understanding. As the authoritative Vines Dictionary of ancient Hebrew and Greek words notes:

“That almah can mean virgin is quite clear in Song of Solomon 6:8: ‘There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number’. Thus all the women in the court are described. The word almah represents those who are eligible for marriage but are neither wives (queens) nor concubines [lovers]…

“In Gen. 24:43 the word describes Rebekah, of whom it is said in Gen 24:16 that she was a ‘maiden’ with whom no man had had relations.

“Thus, almah appears to be used more of the concept ‘virgin’ than that of ‘maiden’, yet always of a woman who had not borne a child.” [my emphasis]

Hitchens believes Matthew was merely gilding the lily by using the word ‘virgin’ when he referred back to the Isaiah prophecy. However, Matthew was using another version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, which had been progressively translated from Hebrew to Greek from 250 BC onward. The Septuagint translators believed the Isaiah verse to be messianic, and they used the Greek word parthenos, which again means a sexual virgin, in their translation.

It is true that the ancient Hebrews had another word sometimes used to describe a virgin, betulah, but this was more often used to describe virility and fertility as part of the expected package. In the Isaiah 7:14 verse, the use of almah makes more sense bearing in mind Mary’s unmarried, virginal state at the time she became pregnant via the Holy Spirit.

For the record, nowhere in the Old Testament, not once, is almah used to describe a married woman, which would be conclusive proof that the word could mean a non-virgin. Attempts by some atheist sites to link the prophecy to other women in the Bible fail, because the other women they put forward are all married and had previously borne children (and none had sons that the people referred to as “God with us”). Betulah, incidentally, the alleged real Hebrew word for ‘virgin’ if you believe the critics, is used in Joel 1:8 to refer to a married woman.[13]

So Hitchens’ attempt to rubbish the virgin birth prophecy on the basis of the meaning of almah fails. You’ll recall he tried appealing to the science on the matter, saying “parthenogenesis is not possible” for human females. In other words, he argues that God could not have made Mary pregnant because, well, that would violate a biological law which shows only a sperm can fertilise an egg. For a God who can materialize the entire universe out of nothing in a nano-second, the task of re-wiring Mary to make her pregnant would be a mere Sunday afternoon distraction. Arguments from people like Hitchens and Dawkins, that deny the possibility of God doing because it would violate a law, amuse me, evoking images of mice that roared.[14] We have laws against traffic offences as well, which are violated every day, even by the politicians who make them.

Turning to Spong’s remaining point, an alleged mistranslation of the ancient Hebrew where the virgin is not apparently about to ‘conceive’ but is already “with child”, we find the good Bishop out of his depth again.

There are two very small variations in the ancient Hebrew word harah, centering on the letter ‘r’.

The future tense, ‘will conceive’ (which appears in the Hebrew Old Testament) has a vowel symbol like this underneath:

 

The present tense, of the word, hareh, “is pregnant” is illustrated with three dots underneath instead:

 

Sadly for Spong, that’s not the version in the book. The problem, on all sides of the debate, is that the ancient Hebrews had no written vowels. The root word for ‘have a baby’ was written hrh in Hebrew, and the context supplies the meaning. When Spong makes assertions that the word definitely meant “is with child” he’s either ignorant or deceiving his readers. The shade of meaning he looks for can only be proven if we know whether the vowel should have been an ‘e’ instead of ‘a’. And we don’t know that. The context suggests a virgin will conceive because, as Spong correctly deduces, a virgin who is now pregnant is technically no longer a virgin. Thus, his own logic shoots him in the foot.

Don’t just take my word for it. The Isaiah Scroll found at Qumran as part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and dated to at least 100 years before Christ,[15] is translated by scholar Fred Miller: “[{Behold}] the virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son and he shall call his name Immanuel.”[16]

So here we have two major messianic prophecies from Isaiah. The task of naming the Messiah’s birthplace, however, falls to the prophet Micah, a generation before Isaiah, around 720BC or slightly earlier.

In Micah 5:2, God speaks through the prophet to his people and says:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times….

“He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.”

The first and last of these three major prophecies about the Messiah, written and published 700 years before the birth of Christ, are too tough for Hitchens to tackle, so he doesn’t. Richard Dawkins – ignoring the virgin birth prophecy – nonetheless tries to give the born-in-Bethlehem prophecy a crack.

“When the gospels were written, many years after Jesus’ death, nobody knew where he was born. But an Old Testament prophecy (Micah 5:2) had led Jews to expect that the long awaited Messiah would be born in Bethlehem,” says Dawkins.

“In the light of this prophecy, John’s gospel specifically remarks that his followers were surprised that he was not born in Bethlehem: ‘Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?’ ”

First things first. I’ve just shown you the Isaiah 9:1 verse that predicted the Messiah would bring honour to Galilee. The fact that some of Jesus’ critics (and Dawkins) were unaware of the specific verse doesn’t change the reality that it was in there, and that we have a physical copy of the prophecy pre-dating Christ’s birth by 100 years.

Second point. The author of John (believed to be the apostle himself) is not going to draw attention to something if it is actually a problem for him. Clearly John was comfortable with the Bethlehem prophecy, and reporting the debate that surrounded Christ at this particular time. In many respects, the mention of Bethlehem suggests John is supporting Matthew and Luke’s Gospels on the Bethlehem birth.

Thirdly, Dawkins’ interpretation is misleading. The people who raised the objections were not “followers” of Jesus but those of a mind to stone him.

To be fair to the atheist websites however, there is an ongoing debate about whether the prophet Micah intended referring to Bethlehem the village, or a particular individual named “Bethlehem”, who is mentioned in the book of 1 Chronicles. Let’s deal with that.

The “Debunking Christianity” site claims that:

“Reading the Micah passage carefully, it refers not to a town (Bethlehem as a town didn’t exist in Micah’s day, as far as I know) but to a particular clan that this messiah figure would be related to (see 1 Chron. 4:1-9 for a genealogical listing of Ephrathah, the father of Bethlehem).”

Allegation 1: the town of Bethlehem did not exist in Micah’s day (720BC).

This passage from the Palestinian municipality governing Bethlehem today should lay that claim to rest:[17]

“Three thousand years before the birth of Christ, Bethlehem was already known as a Canaanite settlement. Canaanite tribes who settled in Palestine, built small cities surrounded by walls for protection against the attacks of raiders. One of these cities was Beit Lahama known today as Bethlehem. So, the word Bethlehem is derived from Lahmo the Chaldean god of fertility,[18] which was adopted by the Canaanites as Lahama. In accordance with the Canaanite practice of building temples to their gods, they built a temple for Lahama on the present mount of the Nativity which overlooks the fertile valleys of the region. Walls, ramparts and other structures in different sites in Bethlehem clearly establish its Canaanite origin 3000 years before the birth of Jesus.

“Bethlehem was mentioned around 1350 BC in the Tell al-Amarna letters, from the Egyptian governor of Palestine to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III. It was depicted as an important staging and rest stop for travelers from Syria and Palestine going to Egypt. The letters also signify that it was a border city of mid-Palestine and an outpost looking out towards the desert. The Philistines had a garrison stationed in Bethlehem because it was a strong strategic point. They entered the land of the Canaanites, mingled with its people and settled in the southern coasts between Jaffa and Gaza. The Philistines had achieved military supremacy over the greater part of the country around 1200 BC, and called it Palestine.

“The narrative of the Old Testament mentions Bethlehem in the first book of the Bible when Jacob , son of Abraham , and his family were journeying to the city of Hebron passing by Bethlehem (Ephrata) (Genesis 35: 16-19). There, his wife Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, and he buried her by the side of the Bethlehem Road where her tomb has been a shrine to this day: “And Rachel died, and was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem.” In that time, Bethlehem was a small, walled town erected on a hill in the northern part of the present town of Bethlehem. The name of Bethlehem (Ephrata) “the fruitful” itself suggests a pastoral and agricultural life. The tale of Ruth, the Moabite, and Boaz suggests an atmosphere of idyllic rusticity that is still obvious today (Ruth 2-4). Ruth’s grandson was King David of whose lineage Christ was born.”

Thank you, Palestine, I think we get the message of Bethlehem’s existence loud and clear. What about the rest of the atheist websites’ allegations?

Farrell Till, over at Infidels, writes:

“What many people who stand in awe of this alleged prophecy fulfillment don’t know is that a person named Bethlehem was an Old Testament character descended from Caleb through Hur, the firstborn son of Caleb’s second wife, Ephrathah (I Chron. 2:18; 2:50-52; 4:4).”

Important, Till argues, is the use of the Hebrew word ’lp, which the King James Bible translates as “thousands” and the NIV translates as “clans”. The Micah passage in question, just to refresh your memory, reads:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans [thousands] of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times…”

This, says Till, is strong evidence that Micah was not referring to the town of Bethlehem at all, but to a clan of that name.

“The fact that the Bethlehem in this verse was described as “little among the thousands of Judah” casts serious doubt on Matthew’s application of the statement. In a region as small as Judah, one could hardly speak of a town as one of “thousands,” yet in terms of a Judean clan descended from Bethlehem of Ephrathah, it would have been an appropriate description for an obscure family group that hadn’t particularly distinguished itself in the nation’s history.”

Allegation 2: Bethlehem refers to the clan, not the place.

Farrell Till overlooks a fundamental point here. If you read the Book of 1 Chronicles carefully, you’ll see Till’s assertion “that a person named Bethlehem was an Old Testament character descended from Caleb” probably does not stack up. It hinges on the Hebrew word ab, translated as “father”. But whilst it did mean biological father, the word also meant “chief” or “leader” and is repeatedly used in that context in the Bible.[19]

Of the 53 references to Bethlehem in the Bible, 51 refer to the village and only two appear to refer to an individual, prefixed in both cases as “father [ab] of Bethlehem”. But in each case, the supposed “father” of this individual named Bethlehem is a different person. In one case it is a man named Salma, in the other it is a man named Hur. Did the alleged man named Bethlehem have two fathers? Far more likely that the proper translation of “father” in this context is “leader”, which implies that Salma and Hur were both leaders of the town of Bethlehem in their respective generations.

Often, disputes over the accuracy of the Bible swing on the meanings of obscure words, and the Micah prophecy is a perfect example. You’ll recall in the paragraphs above the significance of the word ’lp, translated as “thousands” or “clans”. Adding to the problem of translating ancient Hebrew is the fact that the Jews did not have any written vowels or commas before 700AD. Ths vryn vn schlrs hv t gss th mssng vwl nfrmtn s th mnng s vbl.

Kenneth Kitchen, a Professor Emeritus of Egyptology and expert on the ancient Near East, sets out a clear example of how this small Hebrew word can confuse:[20]

“In Hebrew, as in English, words that look alike can be confused when found without a clear context. On its own, ‘bark’ in English can mean the skin of a tree, the sound of a dog, and an early ship or ancient ceremonial boat. Only the context tells us which meaning is intended.

“The same applies to the word(s) ’lp in Hebrew. 1) we have ’eleph, ‘thousand’, which has clear contexts like Gen. 20:16 (price) or Num. 3:50 (amount). But 2) there is ’eleph for a group – be it a clan/family, a (military) squad, a rota of Levites or priests etc…And 3) there is ’lp, a leader, chief, or officer.”[21]

Kitchen then spells out the obvious kinds of problems, many of which are cited as “errors” in the Bible:

“The question has been asked by many: Are not the ‘six hundred three thousand five hundred fifty people’ in such passages as Num. 2:32 actually 603 families/squads/clans, or leaders with 550 members or squads commanded? Or some such analogous interpretation of the text?

“It is plain that in other passages in the Hebrew Bible there are clear examples where ’eleph makes no sense if translated ‘thousand’ but good sense if rendered otherwise, e.g., as ‘leader’ or the like. So in 1 Kings 20:30, in Ahab’s time a wall falling in Aphek could hardly have killed 27,000 men; but 27 officers might well have perished that way. In the previous verse (29) we may equally have record of the Aramean loss of 100 infantry officers in one day (with concomitant other losses?), rather than the loss of 100,000 troops overall.”[22]

Makes sense, really. And it illustrates the dangers of shouting “Eureka! I have found an error!” prematurely, when in fact you may be relying on the vagueness of a very ancient language written for a culture now dead.

On the weight of the evidence and the fact that Micah was making a prophetic verse, and the later claims of Christ to be that Messiah hailing from Bethlehem, the prophecy appears to have been filled.

So far then, we have seen three major prophecies regarding the future Messiah, written 700 years before Jesus was born. All of which withstand the best efforts of critics to find a hole.

Let’s have a look at some others.

In 2 Sam. 7:14, God is recorded speaking to King David about a future descendant of his.

“When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son.”

The prophet Isaiah had much to say on signs of the Messiah’s arrival. In Isa. 40:3, he writes that the Messiah would be heralded in advance by a messenger, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God’.”

John the Baptist is the character most have in mind here, the wild man in the desert warning people to repent and turn to God. Like Jesus, there is corroborating evidence outside the Bible for his existence and the events of his life. For those unfamiliar with the story, John baptized Christ in the river Jordan and at that moment “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’.”

This event, it is said, fulfilled another Messianic prophecy from Isaiah 700 years earlier, where he foretold in this brief extract from a much longer passage, “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him”.

Another Isaian prophecy, 61:1, picks up on this theme further:

“The Spirit of the sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour.”

These were the words, incidentally, that Christ used the very first time that he preached in the synagogue at Nazareth,[23] effectively declaring to his audience that he himself was the fulfillment of the prophecy.

But it was not just the arrival of the Messiah that was prophesied. Isaiah (again) wrote an epic verse that eerily foretells his final days:

 

3 He was despised and rejected by men,

a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.

Like one from whom men hide their faces,

he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

 

4 Surely he took up our infirmities

and carried our sorrows,

yet we considered him stricken by God,

smitten by him, and afflicted.

 

5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,

and by his wounds we are healed.

 

6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to his own way;

and the LORD has laid on him

the iniquity of us all.

 

7 He was oppressed and afflicted,

yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,

so he did not open his mouth.

 

8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.

And who can speak of his descendants?

For he was cut off from the land of the living;

for the transgression of my people he was stricken.

 

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,

and with the rich in his death,

though he had done no violence,

nor was any deceit in his mouth.

 

10 Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him,

and cause him to suffer,

and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering,

he will see his offspring and prolong his days,

and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

 

11 After the suffering of his soul,

he will see the light of life and be satisfied;

by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,

and he will bear their iniquities.

 

12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,

and he will divide the spoils with the strong,

because he poured out his life unto death,

and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,

and made intercession for the transgressors.

 

Anyone remotely familiar with the passion of the Christ will recognize the main points: Jesus was rejected by the crowd when Pilate asked them to show mercy. He suffered and was despised. He carried the sorrow of the people, and God allowed him to be tortured as part of the burden he carried. As the gospels record, Christ’s body was pierced by nails on the cross, and by a Roman spear at the very end. He was crucified at Passover, like a lamb to the slaughter. He was crucified alongside two thieves (the wicked), yet laid to rest in the tomb of wealthy Joseph of Arimathea.

Remember, this passage was written hundreds of years before Christ was even born. It exists in physical copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls that pre-date Christ by a century.[24]

Another prophecy in the same vein is found in Psalm 22. At verse 1 are the words Jesus cried out to God from the cross:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Have we not all cried that ourselves at some point in our lives? And in case you are wondering, the reason Christ called it out was because he had to die on the cross as a man, not God. To achieve that, all supernatural links with Heaven were severed short time before his death. In a sense, the lights of divinity went out, and Christ found himself alone in the universe, hanging on a cross, in pain, dying as a human would die.

But the Psalm continues:

 

7 All who see me mock me;

they hurl insults, shaking their heads:

 

8 “He trusts in the LORD;

let the LORD rescue him.

Let him deliver him,

since he delights in him.”

 

To put this prophecy in perspective, fast forward a thousand years to the moment of crucifixion, and the Gospel of Matthew, 27:41:

 

41 In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42 “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.

43 “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” 44 In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

 

Now cut back to Psalm 22:16, dating from around 1000 BC:

 

16 Dogs have surrounded me;

a band of evil men has encircled me,

they have pierced my hands and my feet.

 

It is worth noting that crucifixion had not been invented when the Psalm was written, and wouldn’t be for a good 800 years. Why would a Psalmist refer to the bizarre case of someone’s hands and feet being pierced? I don’t think I need to re-visit the nailing issue. Another verse in this psalm that is very intriguing is verse 14:

 

14 I am poured out like water,

and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

it has melted away within me.

 

It is intriguing for this reason. John’s Gospel records that because the crucifixions had taken place on the eve of the Passover festival, the bodies of the two thieves and Christ could not be left on the cross overnight.

“Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.”[25]

I probably need to explain something here. Crucifixion was normally a lengthy and agonizing death, but because of the time constraints this particular series had to be shortened. The Roman way of achieving this was to break the legs of victims nailed to the crosses (and by break I mean seriously break). The aim was to ensure that the victim could no longer support his weight and would slump down (presuming the agony did not kill him), thereby suffocating him relatively swiftly as he hung there like a dead weight. It was only because Christ was already dead that the soldiers saw no need to break his legs. But just to make doubly sure he was dead, they ran him through:

“Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.”

The significance of this goes back to Verse 14 above, and is probably lost on many readers: your heart is surrounded by a sac called the pericardium. This sac contains up to half a cup of clear fluid which, to observers, would appear like water. When the soldier pierced Christ’s heart he allowed the water to pour out, and being a narrow wound on a corpse hanging above the ground it would be reasonably spectacular.

Jesus, if an ordinary human, could do many things. But he could not control the manner in which he died, nor the stunning resemblance to prophecies written up to a thousand years earlier.

Dawkins, and others, don’t deal with flaws in their arguments like this. Instead, Dawkins moves on to focus on Luke’s account of the circumstances surrounding Christ’s birth.[26]

“Luke says that, in the time when Cyrenius (Quirinius) was governor of Syria, Caesar Augustus decreed a census for taxation purposes, and everybody had to go ‘to his own city’. Joseph was ‘of the house and lineage of David’ and therefore he had to go to ‘the city of David, which is called Bethlehem’.

“That must have seemed like a good solution,” writes Dawkins, “except that, historically, it is a complete nonsense, as A. N. Wilson in Jesus and Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorised Version (among others) have pointed out.

“Why on earth would the Romans have required Joseph to go to the city where a remote ancestor had lived a millennium earlier?”

With the right snort of derision, Dawkins gets away with his question. But not for long. A British Museum exhibit, a papyrus dated 104 AD, describes a similar Roman census requiring citizens to return to the cities of their birth, regardless of where they were now living:

“Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments”.[27]

The idea in those times, particularly when people lacked surnames as we know them (you didn’t really think Jesus’ last name was ‘Christ’ did you?), was to identify a person with the location they grew up in, where their family hailed from. Thus, you have Saul of Tarsus, Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph of Arimathea or – if you were a wanderer – you’d be linked back to your father, hence John the Baptist living in the desert was initially called John, son of Zechariah.

The Romans may have been great soldiers, but they were also great bureaucrats. Administering most of the known world required the kind of public servant who took pleasure in inflicting pain and inconvenience – like modern bureaucrats, in other words. Rome could not have cared less whether they were making you go 70 miles by foot through country infested by robbers and lions: the piece of papyrus they were holding said you had to be there or you didn’t pass ‘Go’ and went directly to jail instead.

Dawkins then has a go at what appears to be a glaring error in Luke’s Gospel, the reference to a census under Quirinius as governor.

“Luke screws up his dating by tactlessly mentioning events that historians are capable of independently checking. There was indeed a census under Governor Quirinius – a local census, not one decreed by Caesar Augustus for the Empire as a whole – but it happened too late: in AD 6, long after Herod’s death. Lane Fox concludes that ‘Luke’s story is historically impossible and internally incoherent’.

“In the December 2004 issue of Free Inquiry, Tom Flynn, the Editor of that excellent magazine, assembled a collection of articles documenting the contradictions and gaping holes in the well-loved Christmas story…”

Just to see the quality of Dawkins’ source, we checked out Free Inquiry’s article online, and found this:

“Roman records mention no such census; in fact, Roman history records no census ever in which each man was required to return to the city where his ancestral line originated. That’s not how the Romans did things.”

Wake up and smell the papyrus in the British Museum, boys.[28]

What we do know of Roman censii is this: we have papyrus records of censii taking place in 20 AD, 34 AD, 48 AD, 62 AD and of course 6 AD and 104 AD. The clue here is that they took place roughly every 14 years. Allowing for the fact that there was of course no Year 0, go back 14 years from 6 AD and you land around 8 BC, which fell during the time of Herod (he died in 4 BC). We don’t have the paper records for 8 BC, but nor do we have them for a host of other years.

Luke talked of the census being an empire one, rather than just local, and there are records of Rome issuing instructions for a census in Gaul around 9 BC, and a similar one in Egypt at the same time. There were no computers, email or telephones back then, so censii usually took a long time to complete; from the time of issuing orders to finalizing counts could be years.

So a census decreed in 8 BC appears to fit the evidence nicely. It probably took months to organize and took place during 7 or 6 BC. Although technically Judea was not fully Roman, in practice the kingdom was already paying tribute to Rome by this stage, and was a Roman vassal state.[29] Herod may have had his own reasons for going along with the plan, including declining health.

But what of the Quirinius problem? Both Dawkins and Hitchens make much in their books of the fact that Quirinius was not made Governor of Syria until 6 AD – ten years after the death of Herod – according to the Jewish historian Josephus, therefore Luke must be wrong.

Let’s deal with the Quirinius problem head on. A number of scholars now believe that problem may be solvable, and that Quirinius may have been an acting governor of the region in place of the incompetent Varus – funnily enough – between 10 and 7 BC, and that his appointment in 6 AD was his second crack at the job, albeit his first in full title, as Glenn Miller points out.

“The possibility that Quirinius may have been governor of Syria on an earlier occasion (*Chronology of the NT) has found confirmation in the eyes of a number of scholars (especially W. M. Ramsay) from the testimony of the Lapis Tiburtinus (CIL, 14. 3613),” records one overview of the problem. “This inscription, recording the career of a distinguished Roman officer, is unfortunately mutilated, so that the officer’s name is missing, but from the details that survive he could very well be Quirinius. It contains a statement that when he became imperial legate of Syria he entered upon that office ‘for the second time’ (Lat. iterum). The question is: did he become imperial legate of Syria for the second time, or did he simply receive an imperial legateship for the second time, having governed another province in that capacity on the earlier occasion?…The wording is ambiguous. Ramsay held that he was appointed an additional legate of Syria between 10 and 7 BC, for the purpose of conducting the Homanadensian war, while the civil administration of the province was in the hands of other governors, including Sentius Saturninus (8-6 BC), under whom, according to Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4. 19), the census of Lk. 2:1ff. was held.”[30]

There are a couple more aspects to this census business. Firstly, as scholars on all sides have been forced to concede, Luke has proved extremely reliable in noting down correct historical facts throughout the two books he wrote, Luke and Acts. Much of the information, particularly in Acts, has only recently been corroborated by archaeologists. In other words, he went to the trouble of recording detail, and got those details right wherever experts have been able to cross-check. Given his attention to detail, then, we should not automatically assume he got it wrong about an early census. Secondly, there is always the possibility that a later scribe copying one of the first copies of Luke’s Gospel added the piece about Quirinius in an assumptive error of their own.

However, I’ve saved the best till last: a very telling document is referred to by the Roman historian Tacitus in his Annals, and it is The Acts of Augustus[31]. This document records that the Emperor did indeed order a census in 8 BC.[32]

“When I was consul the fifth time (29 BC), I increased the number of patricians by order of the people and senate. I read the roll of the senate three times, and in my sixth consulate (28 BC) I made a census of the people with Marcus Agrippa as my colleague. I conducted a lustrum, after a forty-one year gap, in which lustrum were counted 4,063,000 heads of Roman citizens. Then again, with consular imperium I conducted a lustrum alone when Gaius Censorinus and Gaius Asinius were consuls (8 BC), in which lustrum were counted 4,233,000 heads of Roman citizens.”

The case against Luke on the census, then, appears to be closed. A Roman imperial record, carved in stone around 15 AD, undeniably shows an Empire-wide census ordered in 8 BC which, by the time it reached the subject kingdoms of Israel was probably taking place in 6 BC. The only question left hanging is the exact status of Quirinius, but given Roman reports that he may have been an acting governor at one point we no longer have hard evidence that Luke got it wrong, especially as Luke pointedly used the word hegemoneuontos – “in charge of”, rather than the official word for Governor, legatus.

Finally, after 2000 years, we are quibbling about an alleged historical mistake made in one paragraph of Luke. We assume we know more from this far away than he did. Perhaps, if it could be shown that Luke was sloppy with his facts we would be right to be skeptical. Sir William Ramsay, however, who spent 15 years trying to debunk Luke as a historian and discredit the New Testament,[33] came away singing his praises.

“Luke is a historian of the first rank . . . This author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”

The reason for this about-turn? Luke mentions 32 countries, 54 cities and nine islands and makes no mistakes. In Ramsay’s eyes, that’s pretty impressive.

If you wish to read a more detailed destruction of the Robin Lane Fox book that Richard Dawkins relied on, the website is listed below.[34]

There is more evidence in favour of a 6 or 7 BC birth of Christ. Although there has been much debate about “the star of Bethlehem”, one of the best candidates is a major conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter that began in 7 BC and occurs only once every 900 years according to astronomers.[35] Being a planetary conjunction, it moves over time, and thus could have been what guided the Magi from Persia in the first place. Secondly, being a planetary conjunction, it is the sort of sign the Magi would have been looking for. A clue to precisely this is found in Matt 2:2, where the Magi visit Jerusalem to see King Herod and ask:

“Where is the one who has been born King of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”[36]

This sequence of events also explains another reference that Dawkins has problems with in Matthew’s Gospel – the slaughter of the innocents.

According to the Matthean account, around 18 months to two years after Christ was born, King Herod realized he’d been tricked by the Magi, and ordered the deaths of all the boy children under the age of two in Bethlehem and nearby. Joseph and Mary were warned by an angel to flee to Egypt with young Jesus in advance of this slaughter.

A birth in 7 or 6 BC not only fits the timeframe of the expected census, but it also allows time for Herod to be still alive nearly two years later and angry enough to slaughter the under-twos in Bethlehem. Herod died in 4 BC, which also fits the timing in that Joseph and Mary would not have had to spend too long hiding in Egypt.

There is no other historic mention, outside of Matthew’s Gospel, of the slaughter of the innocents, but there is probably good reason for this. Firstly, Bethlehem was not a large town, and the number of children killed may have been few in number. Secondly, Herod was known for frequent acts of random cruelty, murdering members of his own family when it suited him, so an additional series of murders for no apparent reason would not necessarily merit special mention by historians.

Thirdly, given that these events happened two thousand years ago, we don’t have very good archaeological records, and certainly not enough to categorically declare that just because we don’t have them, this somehow proves it never happened. Only a fool would be so brazen.

Christian researcher James Patrick Holding takes a similar line:[37]

“Although much has been made of the Slaughter of the Innocents – and indeed, any such event would be tragic – there is no reason to assume that it could be considered high on the list of Herod’s atrocities in terms of scope or magnitude. How many boys aged two and under could there have been in and around the tiny city of Bethlehem? Five? Ten? Matthew does not give a number.

“Josephus says that Herod murdered a vast number of people, and was so cruel to those he didn’t kill that the living considered the dead to be fortunate. Thus, indirectly, Josephus tells us that there were many atrocities that Herod committed that he does not mention in his histories – and it is probable that authorizing the killing of the presumably few male infants in the vicinity of Bethlehem was a minuscule blot of the blackness that was the reign of Herod.

“Being that the events of the reign of Herod involved practically one atrocity after another – it is observed by one writer, with a minimum of hyperbole, that hardly a day in his 36-year reign passed when someone wasn’t sentenced to death – why should any one event in particular have touched off a rebellion, when others in particular, including those recorded by Josephus, did not? Herod probably died in March or April of 4 BC; the Slaughter would therefore have occurred during one of his last two years on earth, and it is ridiculous to say that the things he did in the previous 34 years – equally, if not more so, a time of political unrest among the Jews – was insufficient to incite rebellion, whereas killing a few male infants in a backwater suburb would be sufficient in comparison. (Also…it is doubtful that Josephus recorded EVERY atrocity performed by Herod; if he had, his works would be rather significantly larger!)

“The Slaughter of the Innocents, though, is something that fits in perfectly with the character of Herod. (Also, is it perhaps not too far a reach to wonder whether Herod – who had his own son assassinated – hired vigilantes of some sort to perpetrate the Slaughter, and that it was not connected to him until his death which was shortly thereafter, when it was too late for anyone to vent their anger on him?)”

But those prophecies are not the only ones dealing with Christ.

Farrell Till, at Infidels, cites what he claims is an error by Christ:

“Jesus claimed another fulfillment of nonprophecy in Luke 24:46. Speaking to his disciples on the night of his alleged resurrection, he said, ‘Thus it is written and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day’.

“That the resurrection of Christ on the third day was prophesied in the scriptures was claimed also by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: ‘For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the scriptures.’ In two different places, then, New Testament writers claimed that the resurrection of the Messiah on the third day had been predicted in the scriptures. Try as they may, however, bibliolaters cannot produce an Old Testament passage that made this alleged third-day prediction. It simply doesn’t exist,” exclaims Till.

Unless, of course, Christ was referring to Hosea 6:1-2:

“He has injured us, but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.”

Another favourite on atheist websites is Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed, where he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all your seeds, yet when it grows it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.”[38]

The atheist sites claim this is clear proof of a mistake by Jesus, proving he could not be God, because a mustard seed is not the smallest seed in the world.

The clear qualifier in the sentence however is “which a man took and planted in his field”. Christ wasn’t talking about all possible seeds in the world, because again tales of the rare Brazilian tree orchid[39] would be a little esoteric to a Hebrew farmer 2000 years ago and might have led to a whole bunch of questions beginning with, “Where’s Brazil?” and “What’s an orchid?”. Instead, he was limiting his discussion to the seeds that a farmer would ordinarily use.

These are examples of some of the objections raised by critics like Dawkins and Hitchens. They can sound dramatic when taken out of context, but don’t stack up when scrutinized more closely. Of course, as the old saying goes, a lie can be halfway around the world before truth even makes it out the front door.[40]

READ PART TEN

 

 

 

 

[1] See Eve’s Bite by Ian Wishart, Howling At The Moon Publishing, 2007

 

[2] http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/birnbaum_v/camille_paglia.php

 

[3] http://www.thebriefingroom.com/archives/2007/07/camille_paglia.html

 

[4] You’ll see that these points are pretty much echoed by American author and former Christian John Shelby Spong in his latest book, Jesus For The Non-Religious. I won’t relitigate the list, suffice to say the arguments apply against both of these authors

 

[5] Zech 14:12

 

[6] Ezekiel 26:1-21

 

[7]Ready With An Answer, Ankerberg & Weldon, Harvest House, 1997, p. 246

 

[8] II, 18-20, T. E. Page [ed.] Harvard University Press, 1954

 

[9] From Palestine and Syria: Handbook for Travellers by Karl Baedeker, 5th Edition, 1912

 

[10] For further information on the Tyre prophecy, J P Holding’s analysis at Tektonics is worth perusing: http://www.tektonics.org/uz/zeketyre.html. For the sake of balance, the Infidels objections to Tyrian prophecy can be found at this site http://www.infidels.org/library/magazines/tsr/1999/2/992tyre.html , although having studied it I found it a semantic rather than substantial series of objections. For example, Farrell Till (again) complains that the mainland city was named Ushu, not Tyre. This is little more than obfuscation: as historian Katzenstein notes, Tyre was a kingdom and Ushu was its mainland supply town (“Besides the city itself, well-protected by its location on an island, the kingdom of Tyre included a strip of mainland, whose center was the town of Ushu.” (Katzenstein, H.J., `’The History of Tyre”, 1973, p29). The reference to Tyre in the Bible, then, can refer to the city as well as the kingdom land

 

[11] The Dead Sea Scrolls manuscripts suggest the word `they’ was inserted in this verse to describe how the people would see the child. “Immanuel” means, literally, “God with us”.

 

[12] Hitchens is quoting the King James Version translation

 

[13] The Infidels website wrongly records that betulah is only used to describe `virgins’, and uses this error on their part to try and negate the intent of the prophecy

 

[14] There is an argument from critics that Christianity `borrowed’ its myth of a virgin birth deity from older religions. I tackle that in a later chapter.

 

[15] http://www.allaboutarchaeology.org/dead-sea-scrolls-2.htm

 

[16] http://www.ao.net/~fmoeller/qa-tran.htm

 

[17] http://www.bethlehem-city.org/English/City/index.php

 

[18] Hence the more recent association of the word lehem with bread, or food and produce. The word Ephratha means `bountiful’ or `fruitful’

 

[19]Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, definition of ab

 

[20]On The Reliability Of The Old Testament, K A Kitchen, Eerdmans, 2003, p. 264

 

[21] It is this last translation that may be why Matthew’s version of the Micah prophecy differs slightly from Micah’s, substituting “small among the clans” with “least among the rulers [chiefs] of Judah”.

 

[22] Whoops, there go 50% of the postings on skeptic websites, where critics understandably have rubbished some of the seemingly ridiculous numbers in the Old Testament. I think we can consign that problem to history and move on

 

[23] Luke 4:17-20

 

[24] Judaism now teaches that the verse is meant to refer to the State of Israel and the Jewish people’s collective suffering. It cannot be, of course, because verse 53:9 states that the suffering servant has never deceived or used violence – offences the Israelites were repeatedly guilty of throughout the Old Testament. It is very significant that – prior to Christians using this verse in favour of Christ – Jewish rabbis once taught that this verse referred specifically to the Messiah. See: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/m.sion/jmiisa53.htm

 

[25] John 19:31-35

 

[26]The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, Bantam 2006, p. 93

 

[27] Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30

 

[28] This same issue is raised by Spong in JFTNR, p. 22. But we do have evidence of Romans requiring people to return to their towns of origin. Indeed, the Gospel of Luke records that “everyone went to his own town to register”. This is in the paragraph, Luke 2:1-3, that sets out the Roman decree. In the following paragraph we are told that Joseph decided to return to Bethlehem because he belonged to the line of David. It is not suggested in the brief biblical reference that the Romans were ordering Joseph to go to Bethlehem for Davidic reasons – in fact the suggestion is ludicrous because the Romans wouldn’t have known Joseph’s background nor cared. It appears to have been a choice Joseph made because he wished to be counted of that line. It may even be that this was the town of Joseph’s birth, and the fact that Bethlehem and Nazareth were in separate Roman administrative provinces may also have been a factor. We simply are not told, so to argue the point endlessly is pointless, so to speak

 

[29] The Roman historian Tacitus, writing in Annals, records that Augustus carried out a census of “the number of citizens and allies under arms, of the fleets, of subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes” etc. Key phrase in there is “subject kingdoms” – of which Judea clearly was.

 

[30] http://www.christian-thinktank.com/quirinius.html

 

[31] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Res_Gestae_Divi_Augusti

 

[32] http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html (see clause 8)

 

[33] http://www.leaderu.com/everystudent/easter/articles/josh2.html

 

[34] Glenn Miller, http://www.christian-thinktank.com/quirinius.html Richard Carrier at Infidels has waded in from the atheist perspective http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/richard_carrier/quirinius.html, and James Holding at Tektonics runs a comparison of both arguments at http://www.tektonics.org/af/censuscheck.html

 

[35] David A. Pardo: A Statistical Solution to the Star of Bethlehem Problem

http://cura.free.fr/xx/20pardo.html

[36] The verse is usually translated, “saw his star in the east” but some manuscripts have “when it rose”. A planetary conjunction would indeed rise.

 

[37] http://www.tektonics.org/qt/slaughtinn.html

 

[38] http://dqhall59.com/parable_of_the_mustard_seed.htm (This site contains photos and descriptions of mustard plants growing wild in Israel)

 

[39] Just as an interesting aside to this, Mark 4:31 writes the verse this way: “It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground”. This still carries the focus of seeds normally planted in Palestine, but the distinction “in the ground” is useful because the rare Brazilian tree orchid, Gomesa crispa, does not grow in the ground but in the canopies of rainforests, high above the ground

 

[40] For readers who are interested in further exploring the alleged “errors” in the Bible, see this article for some examples of the mistakes many critics make: http://www.tektonics.org/af/ebestart.html

 

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