There once was a man named Lee who had a brother named Peyton. One day Peyton told his brother that he and a friend had been hassled by the patrons of a bar in Jefferson, Texas. Lee made Peyton drive him all the way to Jefferson to set things straight. He walked into the bar, said something fairly provocative and all hell broke loose. Lee and Peyton found themselves fighting every single man in the bar. At some point during the fight, Peyton was knocked unconscious. When his brother woke him up and told him it was time to leave, Peyton saw every single man in the bar—and two Texas State Troopers—lying unconscious.
This is a story my father told me, told to him by his uncle, about my grandfather. Now I have every right to retell this story, but I have no way of verifying its authenticity, and neither do you. Every person mentioned in this story is long since dead. It is simply a story told to me by someone else, who was himself told by someone else.
Believe It or Not!
Robert Ripley made a career conveying unbelievable stories to the masses. The attraction of these stories was that they aroused the natural skepticism among us all. Well, some more than others.
Ripley’s stories ranged from tales of mermaids and monsters to lost pets and sports. Some of these stories were more believable than others. It’s much easier to believe an absurd sports statistic than it is to believe in the remains of a mermaid. We know sports exist, so it’s easier to believe an outlandish statistic about the record for most overtimes in a high school football game—even if we weren’t there—than it is to believe mermaids exist, even when we see a monkey’s head and torso attached to a fish tail being called a mermaid.
Christians often ask why people don’t believe the stories of the Bible. The answer, as Carl Sagan so eloquently stated, is that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” What makes the stories of the Bible so hard for skeptics to accept is that they describe events that simply do not mesh with what we know about reality.
We have no confirmed examples of water turning to wine, people rising from the dead or a bunch of fish and bread appearing out of nowhere. These things just don’t happen. The attraction of such stories is the same as that of Ripley’s and the story of my grandfather. They convey an unbelievable message that the impossible is not only possible, but has been accomplished.
The Hell You Say?
Most of us have played the telephone game. Someone tells someone else something and the message is passed around the room. The result is always the same. The message the last person in line retells is extraordinarily different from the one originally conveyed.
This is the case with the stories from the Bible. We have no originals. We have copies of copies of copies. We also know there have been some additions. The ending of Mark in the earliest copies we have has two women running out of a cave. Someone added in the resurrection story later. We also know the “cast the first stone” story was added in later, as it also does not appear in the earliest versions we have. This was common at the time, to take a story and add something to it to convey a new message, or add to the message being conveyed.
The story my father told me about my grandfather is one passed down to him by someone else. My dad or uncle Peyton could have been lying or embellishing the story. I may even be lying or could have embellished the story in my own mind since it was told to me. There is no way to tell.
The stories in the Bible are stories passed from one person to another an unknown number of times. There is no way of knowing if the author was lying or the stories became embellished over time. It is also possible that the stories were never even intended to be taken literally at all, but are merely allegories and parables.
To Bear False Witness
Many Christians will cite Josephus and others to attest to the existence of Jesus and his resurrection. The main text cited is one known to be at least partially an interpolation, which is a fancy way of saying forgery. But he did at least mention Jesus in his writings. Why doesn’t this matter?
He and others who wrote of Jesus were not contemporaries of Jesus, but were born after Jesus supposedly died. They were simply retelling stories told to them by Christians who had themselves been told by others. There is no way of verifying if any of these people were lying or embellishing their stories.
Some Christians will claim that Jesus spoke to 300 people after the resurrection, because that’s what it says in their stories. But does it lend any credibility to my story if I tell you that there were 300 people watching my grandfather beat up a bar full of drunken Texans? Does it lend any credibility to the story of the mermaid if the story includes the claim that 300 people watched it jump out of the ocean?
The problem with including witnesses within the story is that they are still simply part of the story. They are characters, no different from all the other characters mentioned within a story.
For Want of a Better World
It’s easy to see the attraction of fantastic stories, and want them to be true. It’s understandable that some people want to live in a world with some form of universal justice, a way to exist even after we are dead and to be reunited with the loved ones we have lost. But wanting it won’t make the Bible’s stories true any more than it can make a monkey’s head into a mermaid.