Part 6 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
Permalink for this post / Permalink for this series
In my last three posts I’ve shown that Christopher Hitchens, in his book god is not Great, makes fifteen errors in his discussion of the New Testament and related scholarship. As I explained, this undermines my confidence in him as a reliable witness in other matters, those where I lack academic expertise. When Hitchens purports to lay out the facts of Western history, or Islam, or Judaism, or . . . is he generally accurate? I can’t be sure.
There’s another problem in Hitchens’s treatment of the New Testament in addition to his errors. This concerns what I’ve called “misunderstandings or distortions.” These have to do with statements that, though they might not be wrong in the strict sense, so misrepresent reality as to be just about as bad as outright errors. I counted sixteen (or so) of these misunderstandings of the New Testament as I read god is not Great. And, once again, I’m focusing only on areas of my own scholarly competence.
Given what I’ve written already, I’m not going to deal in detail with all of these misrepresentations, since this would be extremely tedious both for writer and reader. (No doubt someone will comment that what I’m writing is already extremely tedious. Point taken in advance.) In today’s post I will mention and comment briefly upon a few of them. A few others I’ll pick up tomorrow. The others will have to wait in line for treatment sometime later.
Hitchens Exaggerates the Differences Among the Gospels
Here are two examples of such exaggeration, though there are others:
Matthew and Luke cannot concur on the Virgin Birth . . . (p. 111)
Most astonishingly, they [the Gospel writers] cannot converge on a common account of the Crucifixion or the Resurrection. (p. 112)
First of all, it’s disingenuous to use the verb “cannot” in this claim, which seems to suggest that the Gospel writers actually got together and tried to come up with a common account but just couldn’t do it. Whether they could have agreed or not Hitchens cannot know.
But even if he had said only that the Gospel writers do not concur on the virgin birth or on their treatments of the crucifixion and resurrection, this would be an exaggeration. Matthew and Luke both affirm what we call the virgin birth in no uncertain terms. But they narrate the story from different perspectives, with Matthew focusing on Joseph and Luke on Mary. Difference does not equal disagreement.
Similarly, the diversity in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s death and resurrection doesn’t detract from fundamental agreement on the main points, and even some of the surprising details (like the prominence of women in the resurrection narratives). If the four Gospels told exactly the same story in exactly the same way, what do you think are the odds the Hitchens would deride this as collusion? Methinks he’s a hard man to please when it comes to religion.
Hitchens Misunderstands What It Means to Be a Christian
The best argument I know for the highly questionable existence of Jesus is this. His illiterate living disciples left us no record and in any event could not have been “Christians.” since they were never to read those later books in which Christians must affirm belief, and in any case had no idea that anyone would ever found a church on their master’s announcements. (p. 114)
If this is the best argument Hitchens has for the “questionable existence” of Jesus, then we who believe that Jesus existed can be reassured. Here are some brief reasons why:
• Almost every scholar of New Testament and ancient history believes that Jesus existed.
• It’s quite possible that the disciples of Jesus (those who were with Him in the flesh), did write or influence two of the Gospels (Matthew and John).
• I’ve never seen a definition of “Christian” that requires belief in the biblical books per se. In fact, followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (the Greek word christianoi means “Christ people”) before the Gospels were even written (see Acts 11:26).
• It’s quite likely that some of Jesus’s first disciples did in fact read some of the books of the New Testament, at any rate, though this hardly made them Christians.
• The disciples of Jesus not only heard Jesus talk of perpetuating a community (we call “church”) after His death, but also they were in fact the primary church planters.
I’ll continue this examination of Hitchens’ misunderstandings tomorrow.