Part 7 of series: god is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens: A Response
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Yesterday I began looking at some of the many misunderstandings found in Christopher Hitchens’s book, god is not Great. Today I’ll examine a few more before I press on to further considerations of the book.
Hitchens Oddly Derides and Distorts the Teachings of Jesus
But many [of the teachings of Jesus] are unintelligible and show a belief in magic, several are absurd and show a primitive attitude to agriculture (this extends to all mentions of plowing and sowing, and all allusions to mustard or fig trees), and many are on the face it flat-out immoral. The analogy of humans to lilies, for instance, suggests–along with many other injunctions–that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time. (“Take no thought for the morrow.”) This is why some of the Gospels, synoptic and apocryphal, report people (including his family members) saying at the time that they thought Jesus must be mad. (pp. 117-118)
Some quick responses:
• Admittedly, the teachings of Jesus are sometimes challenging. Yet the person who claims that the teachings of Jesus are unintelligible is telling us more about himself than about the teachings of Jesus. By design, Jesus’s sayings are not simple. But unintelligible? And absurd? Perhaps to Hitchens. Probably not to Jesus and those who have actually tried to understand them.
• The “primitive attitude to agriculture” comment makes me laugh. Indeed, Jesus used illustrations from His world, which in fact had a primitive attitude to agriculture. It’s called effective communication. Had Jesus instead spoken of irrigation and tractors, I fear Hitchens would have criticized Him for showing off.
• The claim that some of Jesus’s teachings are “flat-out immoral” deserves careful scrutiny. Who would you choose to be a judge of what is moral? Jesus? Or Christopher Hitchens? Now before you vote for Hitchens, please note that his example of the immorality of Jesus’s teachings is based on a serious misinterpretation of Jesus’s meaning. From a passage where Jesus is teaching people not to worry, Hitchens thinks that Jesus is somehow against “thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth.” His textual proof is “Take no thought for the morrow,” which appears in Matthew 6:34 in the King James Version of the Bible. In fact, the verb translated four centuries ago as “take no thought” means “do not worry” (Greek, merimnao), as is seen in every modern translation I consulted. If Hitchens had made an effort to understand what Jesus was actually saying, then he’d be relieved to know that Jesus doesn’t oppose sensible preparation, just anxious preoccuption.
• It’s highly unlikely that people thought Jesus was mad because of His primitive agronomy or encouragement not to worry. Jesus was thought to be mad for much greater reasons, largely His proclamation of the kingdom of God. Hitchens shows no indication that He understands what Jesus actually did proclaim as the center of His message.
Hitchens Finds the Commonplace Shocking
Overarching all this is the shocking fact that, as Ehrman concedes: “The story [in John 8 of the woman caught in adultery] is not found in our oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel of John . . . .” (122)
First, Ehrman didn’t have to concede anything. He was quite pleased that this story wasn’t in the early manuscripts of John because this fact seems to support Ehrman’s anti-Christian argument. More importantly, there is absolutely nothing shocking about this whatsoever. Christians have known for ages that this story was not in the early manuscripts of John. Every modern translation of the Bible that I have seen puts this passage in brackets and adds a comment indicating it’s uncertain history. I wonder if Hitchens has read a modern translation of the Bible. If not, such an exercise would at least help him to understand that which he intends to criticize before he misspeaks.
Hitchens Misunderstands the Nature of Jesus’s Resurrection
This supposed frequency of resurrection [in the New Testament] can only undermine the uniqueness of the one by which mankind purchased forgiveness of sins. (143)
One might argue that the frequency of resurrections in the New Testament actually strengthens the case for their historicity, but for obvious reasons Hitchens doesn’t go there. What he misunderstands is the unique nature of Jesus’s resurrection. The other people raised from the dead were raised to ordinary life. We have every reason to believe that, after their coming back to life, they lived ordinary lives and died like everybody else. Jesus’s resurrection was in a unique category as the beginning of resurrection to life in the age to come. Jesus’s resurrection body was different from other bodies, as is seen from the Gospel accounts and 1 Corinthians 15. None of this proves that Jesus actually rose from the dead, of course, or that His resurrection purchased forgiveness of sins (which, by the way, was more about His death than resurrection). But it does show that Hitchens simply does not understand what the writers of the New Testament believed about the resurrection of Jesus.
I’m going to stop examining Hitchens’s misstatements now, though I could keep on going for a long time. I think it’s obvious that he simply doesn’t “get” Jesus or the New Testament writings very well at all. His grasp of the New Testament reminds me of my grasp of the Grand Canyon. I’ve seen it, but only from an airplane. From that perspective, the Grand Canyon looks like a bunch of reddish ruts in the ground, and that’s about it. It doesn’t look that big or that impressive. Plus, from a plane I’ve never seen any evidence that it was carved by a river, or that people hike it, or that it’s worth more attention than a quick flyover. I might be inclined to say that the reality and beauty of the Grand Canyon have been greatly exaggerated by confused people who aren’t to be believed, and therefore I will never go out of my way to visit it on the ground. But if I were to say this, I’d be telling you more about my inexperience, indeed, about my own foolishness, than about the Grand Canyon itself.