Part 5 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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So far I’ve shown nine errors made by Christopher Hitchens in his treatment of the New Testament in god is not Great. Today I’ll add six additional errors.
Hitchens Wrong About the Augustan Census
There is no mention of any Augustan census by any Roman historian . . . .” (112)
This comes in an argument where Hitchens is attempting to show that Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is “quite evidently garbled.” But what Hitchens says is not true. In the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus there is a reference to a document produced under Augustus that contained a description of “the number of citizens and allies under arms, of the fleets, of subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes” and so on,” in other words, a census. (Photo to the right: An obelisk in Rome that Augustus used to celebrate his greatness, including his being the son of a god.)
But we don’t even need to go to a Roman historian to find evidence for the censuses of Augustus. In “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus” written by Augustus himself and published throughout the empire in 14 AD, we read of three censuses conducted under Augustus’s authority (in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD; see Acts of Augustus, section 8). If Augustus decreed a census in 8 BC, as he claims, it’s quite possible that this was the census described in Luke 2, which was not finished in Judea until a year or two later.
Hitchens Wrong on the Eyewitnesses of the Crucifixion
In his denunciation of The Passion of the Christ, Hitchens notes that promoters said the film was based “on the reports of ‘eyewitnesses’.” (p. 111). Then he continues:
At the time, I thought it extraordinary that a multimillion-dollar hit could be openly based on such a patently fraudulent claim, but nobody seemed to turn a hair. (p. 111)
Nobody turned a hair because even the most skeptical of scholars believes that the accounts of Jesus’s death have some connection to eyewitnesses. The vast majority of New Testament scholars and classical historians believe that Jesus was in fact crucified under Pontius Pilate around 30 AD. This is found, not only throughout the New Testament, but also in the Roman historian Tacitus (Annals 15.44) and the first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities 18.3.3). It’s would be incredible to believe that the reports of Jesus’s death were not based at least to some extent on eyewitness accounts. This is made even more likely by the fact that the Gospels actually show the followers of Jesus in a very bad light during the passion of Jesus. Most of them abandoned Him, not exactly the sort of thing that early Christians would have made up unless it were true. (For a recent scholarly treatment of the role of eyewitnesses in the development of the Gospel material, see Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Richard Bauckham.) Even if one wishes to argue that eyewitnesses had little to do with the stories about Jesus’s death, an informed scholar would never say that the eyewitness claim is “patently fraudulent.”
Hitchens Wrong About Paul and Women
One of the first things Hitchens writes about the New Testament is:
The New Testament has Saint Paul expressing both fear and contempt for the female. (p. 54)
This is one reason among many Hitchens brings forth as part of his “consistent proof that religion is man-made” (p. 54).
Conveniently, Hitchens offers no references for his claim about Paul’s “fear and contempt” for the female. He offers no references because there are none. Indeed, there are four places in Paul’s letters where he says something about women that we might find uncomfortable, especially if we fail to consider the context in which Paul was writing and thus read him anachronistically (1 Corinthians 11, 14, 1 Timothy 2, Ephesians 5). But in none of these chapters is there anything vaguely resembling fear or contempt. Elsewhere in his writings, Paul strongly affirms the value of women, their role as his co-workers (Romans 16), their empowerment for ministry along with men (1 Corinthians 11-14), their extraordinary right to remain single, apart from male authority (1 Corinthians 7), and even their authority over their husbands’ bodies, along with the husbands’ authority over their bodies (1 Corinthians 7:4). In Paul’s light of Paul’s own culture, his view of women was shockingly progressive. This helps to explain why women, even powerful and wealthy women, we’re drawn to the early Christian movement (Acts 17:1-12; Romans 16:1-2).
Hitchens Wrong About New Testament Scholarship
The contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament have filled up many books by eminent scholars, and have never been explained by any Christian authority except in the feeblest terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” (115)
Christopher Hitchens appears to have read a bit of what is sometimes called “liberal” New Testament scholarship. Here you find an effort to hang onto some measure of Christian faith while rejecting the historical core of the Gospel (the ministry, death, resurrection of Jesus). Marcus Borg provides a popular example of such an approach.
But Hitchens, once again, writes confidently about that which he does not know. For one thing, it rather begs the question to refer to the “contradictions and illiteracies of the New Testament.” But if we interpret Hitchens as referring, for example, to diverse treatments of Jesus among the four Gospels, then he is simply wrong to say that no “Christian authority” has explained these except in terms of “metaphor” and “a Christ of faith.” Some of the finest biblical scholars of recent times have done this with academic rigor and care, including F.F. Bruce, Martin Hengel, Ben Witherington III, Craig Evans, N.T. Wright, Richard Bauckham, and Craig Blomberg, just to name a few. Now it’s certainly possible to argue that these scholars are wrong. But it’s certainly wrong to reject their efforts as non-existent.
Hitchens Wrong on the Nature of the Gospels
Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that. Well, it can be stated with certainty, and on their own evidence, that the Gospels are most certainly not literal truth. This means that many of the “sayings” and teachings of Jesus are hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay, which helps explain their garbled and contradictory nature.” (120)
Virtually every scholar I’ve read, including the most skeptical, would agree that the Gospels are “in some sense literal truth.” The proof is that virtually every scholar who says anything about Jesus of Nazareth bases his or her history on the “facts” of the Gospels. So when a scholar states that Jesus was crucified under the authority of Pontius Pilate, this scholar takes at least that part of the Gospel account as literal truth.
It’s hard to know what Hitchens means by saying that the Gospels, “on their own evidence . . . are most certainly not literal truth.” But whatever he means, this cannot be sustained by a close reading of the Gospels. Now, let me add, that very few scholars, including conservative Christians, would argue that the Gospels are merely literal truth. They believe there is something more in the text. They are literal truth shaped in light of theological conviction. This isn’t a new idea. The Gospel writers say this very thing (see Luke 1:1-4, for example).
The “hearsay upon hearsay upon hearsay” claim shows ignorance of the oral culture in which the Gospel traditions were passed down. It’s an anachronistic mistake. I would point Hitchens to Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitness, and to Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant Through Peasant Eyes.
Finally, I’d be the first to admit that the sayings of Jesus are sometimes hard to understand. But one who refers to them as “garbled and contradictory” has simply not taken the time to understand them. One can certainly reject Jesus’s teaching as untrue, but to criticize them as “garbled and contradictory” says more about the critic than about the teaching itself.
Hitchens Invents or Exaggerates Gospel Disagreements
The scribes cannot even agree on the mythical elements: they disagree wildly about the Sermon on the Mount, the anointing of Jesus, the treachery of Judas, and Peter’s haunting “denial.” (112)
One wonders in what sense the items Hitchens mentions should be included among the so-called “mythical elements.” Usually “mythical” is reserved for things like the miraculous birth, the miracles, etc. Be that as it may, Hitchens invents or exaggerates Gospel disagreements.
For example, the Gospel writers don’t disagree at all about the Sermon on the Mount because that “sermon” only appears in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke has a similar “sermon,” sometimes called “The Sermon on the Plain” but it’s not the same discourse. Furthermore, if you look closely at the different Gospel accounts of the anointing of Jesus, the treachery of Judas, and Peter’s denial, you will see some differences. The story of Peter’s denial, for example, is found in Matthew 26:69-75, Mark 14:66-72, and Luke 22:54-62. The three accounts are very similar, both in English and in the original Greek. The major difference has to do with whether the rooster crowed once or twice. But this could hardly be an example of the Gospel writers disagreeing wildly.
Is Hitchens a Reliable Witness?
I have now shown fifteen errors in Christopher Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament. (A stickler would note that I’ve actually identified more than fifteen if I count every single mistake in a an excerpt.) These errors fall within relatively few pages of the overall book, only about 6% of the total. As I explained earlier, I’m not an expert in many of the areas about which Hitchens writes, so I’ll leave it to others to assess his accuracy there. But fifteen mistakes in relatively few pages doesn’t impress me positively.
But if Hitchens were a witness in a trial, a trial to determine whether God is great or not, and whether religion poisons everything or not, and if, after testifying for the prosecution, the defense was able to show that a small part of his testimony was filled with errors, then this would surely discredit him as a reliable witness. Some mistakes show up in the best of books, no doubt. But 15 mistakes in so few pages is unusually bad. Thus, ironically, I find myself with no option other than to treat Hitchens’s claims about “facts” with the sort of skepticism that he applies to the New Testament Gospels. He has not shown himself to be the kind of careful writer whom I can trust to be truthful.