Nov 23, 2010

Mr Muddle and the missing gospels

Maybe you’ve avoided reading The God Delusion because you just fear there might be something in it. Joan Bakewell in her Guardian review writes ‘Dawkins comes roaring forth in the full vigour of his powerful arguments.’ Claire Tomalin is persuaded too. ‘There is not a dull page…a book that makes me want to cheer its clarity, intelligence and truth-telling

Well can I urge you not to lose too much sleep. I quite like sections of the book and it’s an entertaining read. The problem is that I kept stumbling across mistakes and I mean really basic mistakes. You know, the kind of stuff you’d expect an undergrad. to get right let alone a distinguished Professor.I guess that’s the problem with claiming more than you know.

This is the first of a series of posts that highlight from Dawkins own words why we have nothing much to fear from his book. Each time we’ll look at a basic claim in the book and then dig a little deeper. And each time we can’t help but draw the conclusion ‘well if he got something as basic as wrong as that why should I trust him with the rest?’

How many gospels?

According to Dawkins then, p.121

The four gospels that made it into the official canon were chosen, more or less arbitrarily, out of a larger sample of at least a dozen including the Gospel of Thomas, Peter, Nicodemus, Philip, Bartholomew and Mary Magdalen.

Typical Dawkin’s hyperbole there and if true it torpedoes the Christian faith.  But what’s worth noticing is the authority he quotes for such a conclusion and it is radical scholar Bart D. Ehrman.

But what does Ehrman actually say about the gospels. Does he believe that the gospels that made it into the Bible were on a par with those that didn’t make it?  When you read him he actually says precisely the opposite of what Dawkins is claiming.  Here is Ehrman in his own words:

The oldest and best sources we have for knowing about the life of Jesus – are the four gospels of the New Testament.  This is not simply the view of Christian historians; it is the view of all serious historians of antiquity of every kind, from committed evangelical Christians to hardcore atheists.  This view is not, in other words, a biased perspective of only a few naïve wishful thinkers; it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars who work on the problem of establishing what really happened in the life of the historical Jesus.

Ehrman concludes:

We may wish there were other, more reliable sources, but ultimately it is the sources within the cannon (that is the four gospels in the Bible) that provide us with the most and the best, information.

So for Ehrman the cannonical gospels have always stood head and shoulders above the rest. He and everyone ‘from committed evangelicals to hardcore atheists‘ have always recognised that they are superior. Indeed ‘it is the conclusion that has been reached by every one of the hundreds (thousands, even) of scholars‘ but not of course the conclusion of Dawkins who seems to be more influenced by Dan Brown than Bart Ehrman.

So, I guess that leaves us with one of three possible conclusions.  Either Dawkin’s is deliberately misrepresenting the position of Ehrman in which case why should we not think he is doing that in countless other places in the book or he hasn’t read Ehrman properly or he doesn’t understand Ehrman.

Whatever conclusion we reach we can be sure of one thing – there is nothing much to fear from such muddled unscientific thinking.

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