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Mark D. Roberts

Part 3 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Warning: Long post to follow!

In yesterday’s post I said that I have found many errors in god is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. These errors have been in the area of my academic expertise: New Testament and New Testament scholarship. I’ll leave it to other experts to evaluate the accuracy of other portions of god is not Great. But I must confess that I was not impressed by Hitchens’s grasp of the material I know well, and that has led me to question his overall reliability as a source of “facts.”
I have found fifteen errors in Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament, as well as sixteen misunderstandings or distortions. Some of the clear errors are not major in terms of content, but they reveal a kind of sloppiness that is unsettling.
Hitchens Mistaken on the Date of Jesus’s Birth
For example, Hitchens writes:

“This [year 2000 hysteria] was no better than primitive numerology: in fact it was slightly worse in that 2000 was only a number of Christian calendars and even the stoutest defenders of the Bible story now admit that if Jesus were ever born it wasn’t until at least AD 4.” (pp 59-60)

Nobody, to my knowledge, dates the birth of Jesus to AD 4. Every scholar puts his birth earlier than 4 BC (the date of King Herod’s death). The most likely date for Jesus’s birth seems to be around 6 BC. My guess is Hitchens remembered the “4” correctly but not the era. A minor mistake, but an unsettling one.
Hitchens Gets Bart Ehrman’s Name Wrong
To cite one further example of this sort, Hitchens twice refers to the scholar Bart D. Ehrman as “Barton Ehrman” (p. 120, 142). To my knowledge, “Bart” is Mr. Ehrman’s full first name. So, unless he has a nickname unknown to me, it’s an error to call the man “Barton.” Again, this is not a substantial error, but it does suggest a distressing lack of accuracy. (It also leaves me completely unimpressed with the editing of this book. Authors make mistakes. I’ve certainly made plenty in my time. Good publishers have good editors and fact-checkers who catch mistakes.)
By the way, let me clarify something I said in the debate about Ehrman. He is a highly-regarded New Testament scholar, who has done some fine work. I once used one of his books in a seminary course I was teaching. I disagree with him at many points, but I respect his work. I do believe that Ehrman’s opposition to Christianity does color some of his arguments and conclusions, but no more that my own work reflects my Christianity. If you’re interested, in a new book that refutes Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, check out Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” by Timothy Paul Jones. HT: Melinda at Stand to Reason)
At this point my criticis will no doubt say that I’m nit-picking, that the errors in god is not Great are insubstantial. My response, as one who has graded hundreds of graduate school papers over the years, is that you can almost always see the quality of a writer’s thinking in how he or she deals with seemingly insignificant details. ‘A’ papers generally get the names and dates right in addition to the main arguments. Sloppiness in small things is generally an indicator of sloppiness in larger things.
Hitchen’s Gets the Nature of the Gospels Wrong
So now to a larger “fact” that Hitchens gets wrong. He writes:

“However, he [Maimonides, the Jewish rabbi and philosopher] fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors–none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion–cannot agree on anything of importance.” (111)

There are two main problems with this statement. The first problem is calling it an “error” to “assum[e] that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record.” Even the most skeptical of scholars see the Gospels as a historical record in some sense. Most famously, even the Jesus Seminar, which turned skepticism about the Gospels into a media sensation, gave a historical thumbs up (red beads, actually) to some of the sayings and actions of Jesus in the New Testament Gospels. I don’t know of any credible scholar who claims that there is no historically reliable material in the Gospels. Ancient historians and classicists generally regard the Gospels as substantially historical, and regard the hyper-skepticism of many New Testament scholars as aberrant.
As much as I think Hitchens made a mistake in what he wrote about the Gospels as not being a historical record in some sense, I actually didn’t count this among the fifteen clear errors, because I was giving him a generous benefit of the doubt. However, the next problem in the same excerpt is an indisputable error.
Hitchens writes that the “multiple authors” of the Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.” This is plainly wrong, unless, I suppose, we allow Hitchens to fill in the blanks of what counts as important. He might say that nothing of importance at all is addressed in the Gospels. (Later he will say that “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.” [282]). Be that as it may, his point on page 111 is that the Gospels are full of disagreement, especially about the things that matter about Jesus, as the context makes clear.
This is simply not true. Though it is true that the New Testament Gospels show considerable diversity in their portraits of Jesus, they agree on many, many things, including matters that are most important both to the Gospel writers and to Christian believers.
In my book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, I devote two chapters to this issue. Chapter 8 is called “What Difference Does It Make That There Are Four Gospels?” Chapter 9 is called “Are There Contradictions in the Gospels?” I do not at all try to minimize the genuine differences among the Gospels. Any careful reader can’t help but see them, whether in the stories of Jesus’s birth or in the stylistic differences between Mark and John. In fact, the early Christians celebrated the unique qualities of the different Gospels. But I also show in considerable detail the extent to which all four Gospels agree on much of what pertains to Jesus, including the most important aspects of His ministry and message.
At the end of Chapter 8, I include a list of 33 key facts about Jesus that are found in all four gospels. I’ll mention about half of these points of agreement here:

• Jesus ministered during the time when Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea (around A.D. 27 to A.D. 37).
• Jesus had a close connection with John the Baptist, and his ministry superseded that of John.
• Jesus’s ministry took place in Galilee.
• Jesus’s ministry concluded in Jerusalem.
• Jesus gathered disciples around him. (This is important, because Jewish teachers in the time of Jesus didn’t recruit their own students, rather the students came to them.)
• Jesus taught women, and they were included among the larger group of his followers. (This, by the way, sets Jesus apart from other Jewish teachers of his day.)
• The ministry of Jesus involved conflict with supernatural evil powers, including Satan and demons.
• Jesus used the cryptic title “Son of Man” in reference to Himself and in order to explain His mission. (Jesus’s fondness for and use of this title was very unusual in his day, and was not picked up by the early church. This is a hugely important point for the one who seeks to understand Jesus.)
• Jesus saw his mission as the Son of Man as leading to his death. (This was unprecedented in Judaism. Even among Jesus’s disciples it was both unexpected and unwelcome.)
• Jesus, though apparently understanding himself to be Israel’s promised Messiah, was curiously circumspect about this identification. (This is striking, given the early and widespread confession of Christians that Jesus was the Messiah.)
• Jesus did various sorts of miracles, including healings and nature miracles.
• Jesus was misunderstood by almost everybody, including his own disciples.
• Jesus experienced conflict with many Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and ultimately the temple-centered leadership in Jerusalem.
• Jesus spoke and acted in ways that implied He had a unique connection with God.
• Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, at the time of Passover, under the authority of Pontius Pilate, and with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. (There are quite a few more details concerning the death of Jesus that are shared by all four gospels.)
• Most of Jesus’s followers either abandoned Him or denied Him during His crucifixion.
• Jesus was raised from the dead on the first day of the week.
• Women were the first witnesses to the evidence of Jesus’s resurrection. (This is especially significant, since the testimony of women was not highly regarded in first-century Jewish culture. Nobody would have made up stories with women as witnesses if they wanted them to gain ready acceptance.)

My list of Gospel agreements doesn’t even begin to tally up the less explicit but ultimately crucial agreements in matters of worldview. The Gospel writers share a common view of reality, one that includes a personal, creator God who has been active in human affairs, especially those of Israel, and so forth and so on. Someone from a culture not influenced by Judeo-Christianity would undoubtedly see commonalities that I take for granted.
As I read god is not Great, and as I’ve read other things Christopher Hitchens has written, it’s obvious to me that he has a good bit of familiarity with the New Testament Gospels. I’d even be willing to bet that he knows the Gospels better than many Christians. Thus I am at a loss to explain why he would say that they “cannot agree on anything of importance.” Even allowing for a good bit of polemical freedom, such a statement is so plainly wrong that it cannot but undermine the reader’s confidence in Hitchens’s reliability.
If would be perfectly fair for Hitchens to have said, “The Gospels agree on many things about Jesus, most of which are rubbish.” Of course I’d beg to differ with the rubbish bit, but at least it would be a fair point for him to have made. But it just isn’t correct for Hitchens to say that the four Gospels “cannot agree on anything of importance.”
Thus I come to the end of my long discussion of the first three of Hitchens’s errors concerning the New Testament and New Testament scholarship. The first two are admittedly small, but suggestive. The third error is important enough to have merited lengthy analysis. In subsequent posts I’ll move more quickly through the other errors so as to get through this material in a reasonable number of posts.

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