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What is the Bible? Why do we say it's God's Word? How did we get it? What makes it so special?
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Is the Bible historically reliable?

Postby jimwalton » Wed May 10, 2017 8:37 pm

Instead of exchanging blanket generalities too easily subjected to disregard, possibly a worthy approach would be to actually examine a specific text and dig into it. Before we talk about historicity, however, we should try to agree on what we mean by it, so we know what we're really looking for. There are at least five different senses of history (these come from N.T. Wright):

- History as event. It happened whether or not we can prove it (such as the death of the last pterodactyl).
- History as significant event. Not all events are significant; "history" consists of the ones that are.
- History as provable event. We can confirm it with hard sciences. It's only historical if we have hard evidence of it.
- History as writing-about-events-in-the-past. It's historical if it's written about. That raises the question of oral history, and whether we reject anything merely spoken. But what makes written accounts reliable and spoken renditions of the same events unreliable?
- History as a combination of 3 & 4, which is often what people mean when speaking of the Bible, where people imagine a correlation between not only what is written but can be proved by other means.

Then, of course, we have to determine our approach (these come from Mike Licona).

- Do we assume something is true until we can prove it to be false? (There's a severe problem with this approach, in that we may assume far too much, and evidence is not as complete as we would like it to be.)
- Do we assume something is false until we can prove it to be true? (There's a severe problem with this approach as well, since a vast majority of historical records may be the sole account of the person or event.)
- Neutrality. Don't assume anything. The one making the claim, positive or negative, assumes the burden of proof for his/her assertion.

There are numerous challenges to knowing what happened in the far-gone-away past. We can't go back and examine it again. We are stuck with the evidences at hand, though we might like photos, videos, or even more hard evidences. So saying, even historians struggle to verify the truth of a hypothesis or an event in an absolute sense. We are always looking at partial records through the eyes of a writer who may have had his own biases, agendas, or inadequacies. We know that opinions can be biased, memories selective, content edited, or testimonies unreliable. What sources are credible, and which are unreliable—and how do we know?

Rather than insisting on absolute truth, we are better to reason our way to probable truth. All historiography is interpretive, and therefore subjective. But we can reason together that, given the available information, the best explanation should have a reasonable degree of certainty against competing interpretations in such a way that we have a rational basis for believing such an event actually happened or that such a person existed. Absolute certainty may be perpetually outside of our grasp, but adequate certainty could be considered as reliable history.

We are looking for interpretations of history that seem to correspond best to all the information we have, cohere with as wide a circle of known "facts" as possible, and eliminate as much bias as is achievable.

So can we lay down some ground rules, and then tackle a specific piece of the Bible rather than cast aspersions in the form of stereotypes and loosely tossed generalities? What text would you like to examine?
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Re: Is the Bible historically reliable?

Postby Aviator » Fri May 12, 2017 5:30 pm

> Do we assume something is false until we can prove it to be true? (There's a severe problem with this approach as well, since a vast majority of historical records may be the sole account of the person or event.)

It depends on the situation. Does the claim have an impact directly on our lives or how we think the world works? If not, then historians tend to loosely call it a "history." But when we look at historical claims, some claims don't really fall into a black and white "true" or "false." Sometimes it falls in "maybe it's true. Does it really matter?" Or "It's probably true. Seems to fit with what someone would say about that event." You and I do this sort of thing every day. A complete stranger tells you about a movie they saw yesterday. Do you demand they provide evidence of it? What if you did demand evidence and they said they had none? Would you not believe them? I would believe them, but I proportion my confidence to the circumstances. I accept that it could be totally false, but just going along with it as if it is true doesn't hurt either. It seems as if watching movies falls within what normal human behavior is, and it doesn't violate my model of how reality works. I know it's not common for someone to lie about such mundane details like this, and I can't see any motivation or gain to be had if I fell for his lie about a movie. He's not asking me to believe he levitated yesterday or something like that. His movie story doesn't require me to reconsider some important political belief I have. But when it comes to what Christians are asking us to believe, it is the equivalent of the stranger telling you they levitated. Your skepticism SHOULD go up for levitation claims. Your bar for what is good evidence SHOULD go up. Your bar for poofing fish and bread into existence and resurrecting should go way up, but you just keep acting as if resurrection is as mundane and normal as watching a movie. The reason you have this bias built into you is because you have spent a considerable amount of your life surrounded by people who all continuously treat this story as if it's absolutely true and totally normal. It's been normalized for you, just like if you grew up in a different religion - you would think that religion made a lot of sense. Talk to an ex-mormon sometime. They'll tell you that the book of Mormon and the story of Joseph Smith seemed perfectly true and reasonable. Talk to a Hindu. Talk to a Muslim. Talk to people who worship their ancestors in China.

Belief is always proportionate. It's always a confidence level. How certain am I that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 meters/second-squared? I'm damn near positive. I've tested it myself many times. I've seen things engineered successfully using this belief that otherwise wouldn't work. How certain am I that this stranger I'm talking to about a movie actually saw the movie he's talking about? I've got no clue, but I'll entertain the idea as if it's true. If I found out I'm wrong about him seeing a movie, it doesn't really matter, does it?

When it comes to something more serious, like determining if someone should spend the rest of their life in jail because of what they are being accused of, we start with the null hypothesis, which means "it ain't so until demonstrated to be so." We do this because if we assumed people were guilty and they had to prove innocence, we know it's possible to be innocent with no way of proving it. So to avoid sending innocent people to jail, we assume people are innocent until proven guilty, because if there actually is good evidence, then we know we're sending a guilty person to prison. If there isn't good evidence, they may or may not be innocent, so we label them "not-guilty." Some countries have all 3 verdicts: guilty, not-guilty, innocent. Innocence has to be proven.

In the case of Jesus violating physical laws, I find Jesus "not-guilty" of violating physical laws. The only evidence presented in favor of him violating physical laws is "Somebody says so here in this book." If that's all it takes to believe, then I'll end up believing multiple claims that contradict one another. This is what Hume was talking about. Violations of our model of reality can NEVER be established on eye-witness testimony alone. Even if it actuality there actually was a violation of physics and the only evidence we have is someone's testimony, we (the people who didn't observe it) are not justified in believing it.

Do we accept eye-witness testimony for criminal cases? Sure, but as with all beliefs, that lies on a "truth" scale somewhere. It certainly isn't at the tip-top of certainty. Eye-witness testimony certainly isn't as certain as DNA evidence. If the DNA evidence contradicts eye-witness testimony, we throw out the eye-witness testimony. If physical evidence contradicts eye-witness testimony, we throw out eye-witness testimony. If all we have is eye-witness testimony, we look to see if there is a motive to lie or if there is evidence of memory error (we can analyze memory error by looking for consistency in one's story, or if a person recalls the same event twice with contradictory details). Even with all of that vetting, we still can't be certain the eye-witness is correct. But we don't wait for certainty to act. We go with which way the scale tips and try our best to be objective about which weights go on the scale.

> Rather than insisting on absolute truth, are we better to reason our way to probable truth?

I agree. And how can we assess the probability of resurrections or poofing bread and fish into existence if we have no hard evidence to confirm that such events are even possible? Therefore we must discard such claims. You see, when you hear an atheist say something like this, your view is "they are discarding all supernatural claims, because they believe the supernatural is not possible." From my perspective, I'm saying "It's not that the supernatural isn't possible. It's that no one even knows if the supernatural is possible. I can't accept something as true if I don't first accept it is possible. And after I accept it's possible, I have to determine if it is probable." Shooting a basketball into a hoop from half-court is possible. Am I going to believe someone if they claim they did? Maybe loosely. What if they claimed they did it 20 times in a row? I probably will call bull-shit at that point, because it isn't probable based on what I know about the difficulty of that shot.

Here are some questions for you.

1) If I claimed to you that I have levitated, would you believe me?

2) If not, why not? And what would it take for you to believe me? 10 eye-witnesses? 20? 100? 1,000? A video? Seeing it in person?
Video would be pretty strong evidence in most cases, but because the claim requires me to discard my model of physics, my bar is even higher: I need to see it in person in an environment I get to control.
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Re: Is the Bible historically reliable?

Postby jimwalton » Fri May 12, 2017 5:48 pm

I largely agree with much of what you said.

> Your skepticism SHOULD go up for levitation claims. Your bar for what is good evidence SHOULD go up.

And it does. But I don't agree that extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence; they just need reliable evidence.

> but you just keep acting as if resurrection is as mundane and normal as watching a movie.

Actually, I don't. You're putting words in my mouth, assuming a position to which I haven't subscribed.

> The null hypothesis

This is not the position that something is false unless proved true, but the position that we don't assume a relationship between two phenomena unless evidence suggests otherwise. By approaching historiography with "it ain't so until demonstrated to be so" is just bias.

> And how can we assess the probability of resurrections or poofing bread and fish into existence if we have no hard evidence to confirm that such events are even possible? Therefore we must discard such claims.

Actually, there is a little bit of hard evidence for the resurrection, but obviously none for the multiply of bread and fish. But we both know that some events are beyond hard evidence. I had a pain in my shoulder last week, for instance. Good luck finding hard evidence of that. I had a thought this morning that I should mow the lawn before it rains—no hard evidence of that either, as well as thousands of other realities. Hard evidence is not the know-all and be-all. Even language is abstract and interpretive. There's no hard evidence that "bad" means what we say it means, or that any word means what we claim it means. Insisting on hard evidence as the basis for true knowledge is simply limiting the scope of knowledge to a thin slice of reality. No one can ever prove the loaves and the fish miracle with hard evidence. That's like looking for Jesus' footprints on the water to prove he did that. It's just pure prejudice to eliminate all phenomena without the support of hard evidence, and irresponsible to discard all such claims. As I said, since language (word meanings) has no hard evidence, we have to discard this entire discussion as meaningless, incomprehensible, and impossible. But it's not. Hard evidence is not the measure of all knowledge.

> From my perspective, I'm saying "It's not that the supernatural isn't possible. It's that no one even knows if the supernatural is possible.

And so the proper perspective to take is "the jury is out," not that it should be discarded.

Here are the answers to your questions.

1) No, I would not believe you had levitated.
2) Levitation is not possible for a normal human being.
3) I would only believe it if given believable reasons to believe it. The source of the information, whether an eyewitness, a document, or my own eyes, would have to be credible beyond a reasonable doubt.
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