Brown's enthralling on the stuff he knows about, but unfortunately I had to wade through a feeble and derivative "why Christianity is rubbish" section before getting to the good stuff. The book proper, after the Preface, begins as follows:
"The Bible is not history.
Coming to terms with this fact was a fiddly one for me, because I believed in God, Jesus and Satan (ish). And one aspect of believing in those things and meeting once a week with like-minded people is that you're never encouraged to really study the facts and challenge your own beliefs. I always imagined that challenging my beliefs might make them stronger."
That the Bible, crudely put, is not history, is hardly an earth-shaking statement. If Brown found it so, this probably reflects more on him than on the Bible, Christianity, or Judaism. While the Bible has a profound unity, it is also, in a somewhat banal sense, a library, and a library that contains all manner of literary forms and genres, only some of which claim to be relating what happened when, if that's what Brown means by 'history'.
This may have been Derren's experience; it certainly wasn't mine
I find it odd that Brown seems to think that Christians are never expected to study facts and challenge their beliefs; this certainly hasn't been my own experience, but it may be a fair reflection of Brown's own background, from which he seems to be generalising. Brown describes his religious background as follows:
"Picture, if you require a good vomiting, a whole herd of us being encouraged to display the Pentecostal gift of 'talking in tongues' by a self-styled pastor, with the proviso that if we ceased babbling because we thought it silly then that was indeed the Devil telling us to stop. Envision, as a secondary emetic, me telling a non-Christian friend that I would pray for him, unaware of how unspeakably patronizing such an offer might sound. I would delight in being offended, and puff up with pride at being outspoken and principled. And this the result of a childhood indoctrination followed by years of circular belief to support it."
Brown, then, was a Pentecostal Evangelical in his late teens. Although I've never attended a specifically Pentecostal church, I used to go along to Manchester's main Evangelical Anglican one on Sunday evenings in order to get a serious handle on what my friends believed and why. One thing that I really got from attending there was a feeling of texture -- people believed all manner of things within the Christian matrix, and did so for all sorts of reasons. Some were incredibly curious, while others were incredibly credulous; some were deeply well-read, and some weren't well-read at all; some made a point of testing their faith by reading things and engaging with people who contradicted and opposed them, and others stayed in their own bubbles.
I would be surprised if Brown's Pentecostal friends were radically different from my Evangelical ones in terms of their variety; indeed, it seems to me that such variety is typical for members of any belief group, given how I've seen the same range among Catholic and Atheist friends.
This looks like a man trying to rationalise a wish to walk away...
Brown, anyway, says that his road away from Christianity began when he saw a hypnotist while he was at university in the early 1990s -- he graduated from Bristol, where he'd studied law and German, in 1992. He describes how the hypnotist inspired him to find out more about mind control and other tricks, and to take up hypnotism himself, much to dismay of Christians friends, members of the university's Christian Union, and the congregation of the main student church in Bristol. This in turn led him to start wondering why people believe in the paranormal, which he says led him to ask certain questions...
Well, so he says. He also says that he'd not been to church with any regularity for a couple of years when he started down this road, which does rather lead one to think that he probably hadn't been all that serious about his faith before that point; indeed, it looks as though he must have stopped regular practice pretty soon after starting university, which makes this whole story look like a rationalisation after the fact.
I mean, if he'd been as committed a Christian as he claims he'd been, why stop regular worship? It's not as if community isn't an important part of Christianity, after all. He was an Evangelical, remember; they tend not just to do Sunday worship, but also have house groups, and student Bible study groups, and debates, and talks, and all manner of things. It seems as though he'd never seriously engaged with any variety of Christianity as an adult, and had been drifting away from his faith long before he started dabbling in hypnotism and conjuring tricks.
A fair point, but not one he was unique in stumbling upon...
Still. He says that he started to think about the paranormal, and to read up on it, and says:
"What struck me about the people I knew who did believe in the paranormal was that they clearly had a circular belief system. Essentially, one believes X so strongly that all evidence that does not support X is ignored, and all events that fit in with X are noticed and amplified...
The more I came up against this sort of thing, the more I became concerned that I, as a Christian, was falling into exactly the same trap. Was I not indulging the same sort of circular belief? Remembering prayers that had been answered, and forgetting those that weren't? Or deciding that they had been answered but in a less obvious way? What separated my belief from the equally firm convictions of my psychic friend, other than the fact that hers were less mainstream and therefore easier to poke fun at? Weren't we both guilty of the same comforting nonsense? Surely I was being a hypocrite.
It's a question I still ask of intelligent Christians, because I would dearly like to hear a well-formed answer."
Confirmation bias is, of course, a huge problem, and it's a problem that goes rather beyond belief in God, the efficacy of prayer, and psychic healing. Far too often I've seen historians and others scholars cherry-pick their evidence, and Fern Elsdon-Baker's The Selfish Genius: How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin's Legacy, which I've recently read, details the tendency of contemporary pop-science books to focus on evolution from a zoological angle, without considering the rather challenging discoveries from the fields of botany and microbiology. Lawyers, of course, cherry-pick all the time, because advocacy is a very different thing from honest scholarship, which requires us to account for all the facts, however inconvenient.
So yes, this is a problem, especially in connection with prayer. It's why I get uneasy when people talk of keeping prayer diaries, in which they record their prayers and how they were answered, and with experiments where large numbers of people try to pray away illnesses or nonsense like that. Petitionary prayer is just one type of prayer, and few serious Christians think it's as simple as "having our prayers answered". Christians are expected to do it, of course, but it seems that our doing so is more about bringing us into harmony with God -- "not my will but thine" -- than about bringing God into harmony with us; he's a person, after all, not a machine, and he works, as they say, in mysterious ways.
C.S. Lewis put it well in his 1959 essay 'The Efficacy of Prayer', saying "The very question 'Does prayer work?' puts us in the wrong frame of mind from the outset. 'Work': as if it were magic, or a machine—something that functions automatically."
It can seem lazy to bring up C.S. Lewis in these discussions, as Lewis, sadly, has almost become a cliche in the popular mind, but he is very popular in the Evangelical circles in which Brown once mixed, so I'd be curious to know whether Brown ever attempted to engage with his work. I'd be very surprised if he hadn't been confronted with it at some point. Lewis gave a lot of time to thinking about petitionary prayer, tackling it in a number of essays and perhaps most memorably in his posthumously-published Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. He might not provide Brown with the answers he'd want, but I'm pretty sure he'd at least reassure him that intelligent Christians do at least try to grapple honestly with this aspect of their faith.
One of the great Dawkbot Tropes...
Anyway, Brown says that in order to avoid this self-directed charge of hypocrisy, he decided he'd start looking at the outside evidence:
"It's actually rather straightforward to do this with Christianity, although the believer is not usually encouraged to do so by his peers or pastors.
Not only is the believer encouraged not to question or challenge his faith, but, to use Richard Dawkins' apt expression, any rational inquiry is expected to 'tip-toe respectfully away' one religion enters the room. It is dangerous to question from within, and rude to question from without. We are allowed to question people about their politics or ethics and expect them to defend their beliefs, or at least hold their own in any other important matter by recourse to evidence, yet somehow on the massive subject of God and how he might have us behave, all rational discussion must stop the moment we hear 'I believe'."
This may have been Brown's experience, but it's certainly not been mine; time and again I've heard atheists challenging Christians about their faith, and I used to do so myself when I was an an atheist, before I grew out of such adolescent nonsense after doing a lot of reading, thinking, and arguing.
This, frankly, is a Dawkinsesque trope, and one which I've simply never seen borne out by my own experience, whether as an atheist, a reluctant and uncommitted Catholic, or a convinced practicing one. I've asked loads of other Christians about this too, and like me they say it doesn't tally with their experiences at all. And it won't do to say that well, maybe Christians can be challenged, but other religions can't; I've attended pretty robust debates with Muslims and Jews too.
There are times when it's inappropriate to challenge people about their beliefs -- at funerals, say -- but that's just good manners. In the main, this is something we can and do talk about. Indeed, there's a bit in 1 Peter which says that Christians should always be prepared to explain why they believe the things they do, and should be willing to do this with gentleness and reverence.
I suspect that Brown, like Professor Dawkins, has fallen victim to some confirmation bias himself on this one.
As for not questioning or challenging our faith, I think the old "test everything; hold to what is true" rather puts paid to that nonsense. This may have been Brown's experience, but it's rot to assume that this is the general rule. Look at Thomas's Summa Theologica; it grapples with pretty much every argument against religious belief that there is, and does so honestly and seriously. Yes, I know Richard Dawkins dismisses it on the basis of a handful of misrepresented pages, but it's pretty clear that Dawkins didn't understand those pages or read much beyond them. I'd call Dawkins' handling of Aquinas intellectually dishonest, but that'd be to do a disservice to dishonesty.
The heart of the matter...
After pausing to misrepresent the normal way in which religious believers in the Abrahamic tradition have always interpreted their texts, Brown eventually reaches the nub of his argument, saying:
"To me and my erstwhile fellow Christians, it all rested on whether or not Christ really came back from really being dead. If he was actually resurrected as it says in the Bible, then it's all true, regardless of what one thinks of Christians and their behaviour. If he didn't, then it's all nonsense, and Christianity is a delusion."
I think this is a bit simplistic, but yes, this is broadly right: "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain," as Paul says. And as Timothy Radcliffe puts it, building on that, "if our faith is true, it is the most important thing in the world, and if it’s not true, why are we here?"
Brown says, rightly, that the burden of proof for this lies on the Christians who claim it, and that to their credit, Christians generally try to tackle this head on; he sketchily outlines a couple of arguments in favour of the Resurrection, saying that there are plenty more, but that all these arguments depend on our taking the New Testament stories as accounts of real events, and that there is a "vast amount of impartial biblical research" that shows that the Bible is not history.
And it was at about this point that I decided that facepalming and headdesking were worthwhile practices, not least because the examples of arguments used by Brown relate, basically, to Jesus' tomb being empty, about which Michael Grant rightly says in Jesus: An Historian's Review of the Gospels: "But if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other literary sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty."
This is the kind of area where honest and intelligent sceptics need to grapple with Raymond Brown's Death of the Messiah and perhaps even more importantly N.T. Wright's The Resurrection of the Son of God, which among other things demonstrates just how bizarre it was for a bunch of first-century Jewish fishermen to have gone around claiming that their friend had risen from the dead and was in fact God.
It all depend on looking at things properly...
So, going though Brown's claims sentence by sentence...
"We cannot value personal conviction when we are looking at to what extent the story stands up as fact. Such things must be put to one side; only evidence must be of interest."
Agreed. So when approaching the New Testament documents, and other roughly contemporaneous material, as historians we have to put aside our theological and philosophical preconceptions and convictions. If we start reading the texts in the assumption that Jesus was God -- or indeed that God certainly exists -- then we basically prejudge the texts to be accurate; likewise, if we start with the assumption that Jesus was not God -- or indeed that God doesn't exist, miracles don't happen, and there's nothing to the world other than matter and energy -- then we prejudge the evidence as inaccurate and false.
Neither approach is honest or scholarly; given the scientific impossibility of proving the non-existence of God, the only intellectually honest starting position for a historian in looking at the Biblical texts is agnosticism.
Of course, scholars should make up their minds, and will then do further work and interpret things in line with decisions they've made based on the evidence, but they should always be open to the possibility that they're wrong and be willing to revise their views in the light of new evidence or questions, arguments, and interpretations they'd never previously considered.
Oh! Schoolboy error!
"And the evidence shows very clearly that the stories of the New Testament were written in the first couple of hundred years after the historical Jesus died."
This is about as inaccurate as you're going to get. The stories of the New Testament, as Brown would describe then, can be found in developed forms in the four Gospels and Acts, as well as occasionally creedal statements and references to the Crucifixion and Resurrection in some Pauline letters. Said Pauline letters were written between 50 and the mid-60s AD, while it's recognised by all serious Biblical scholars that John, the last of the canonical Gospels to have been written, was complete by 100 AD; indeed, there's a fragment of it in Manchester's John Rylands Library which dates to about 125AD.
Acts is likewise generally thought to have been written by the same date, for a variety of reasons. I happen to think it was probably written rather earlier than that, such that Luke and Acts were substantially as we have them by the mid-60s AD, but what's clear is that credible scholars see the New Testament narratives as First Century documents.
In other words, the stories of the New Testament were certainly written in the first seventy years after the historical Jesus died. They may even have been written, in some cases, in the first thirty to thirty-five years after the historical Jesus died. They were all written by 100 AD, and probably rather earlier. They were not written in 230 AD.
Another schoolboy error! Outrageous!
"These stories then continued to be edited and revised for political and social needs for much of the first millennium."
Sorry, but no, they didn't, Dan Brown fantasies aside. We have thousands of manuscripts -- whether intact, substantial, or merely fragmentary -- of the New Testament documents from the medieval and classical periods, and what's remarkable about them is how consistent they are. There are loads of minor differences, usually due to scribal error or abbreviations etc, but the textual critics have done quite a job with them.
The New Testament documents, as we now have them, are almost certainly -- the odd punctuation mark aside -- as they would have been in the First Century, and that's not radically different from how they were when the Normans did their thing at Hastings.
Better, but still not quite true...
"Jesus was one of many teachers at a time of massive social upheaval and tension, and inasmuch as one can separate his words from those later put into his mouth, he taught a mix of a much-needed social vision ('The Kingdom of Heaven') and personal stoicism."
Personal stoicism? It makes very little sense to interpret Jesus as a Stoic, a Cynic, or an Epicurean; as John P. Meier keeps hammering home in A Marginal Jew, Jesus was Jewish, and his teaching needs to be understood in that context. Brown, tellingly, betrays no familiarity with this idea.
At the back of the book, Brown says that he read Burton Mack's Who Wrote the New Testament? The Making of the Christian Myth, as a half-believer and finished with his belief in tatters, but this merely shows the need to read widely; Mack, who saw Jesus as pretty close to a Cynic, is very much on the fringes of New Testament scholarship in his conviction that Jesus is best understood as a kind of Hellenistic philosopher.
As for social upheaval and tension, well, I wouldn't be so sure. The Roman senator and historian Tacitus, after all, in a potted summary of Judaean history, writes of first-century Judaea that, "In Tiberius' reign all was quiet" (Histories 5.9). Tiberius reigned from 14 to 37 AD, so was emperor during while Jesus was preaching and when he was executed. That's not to say that things weren't extremely messy before and after Tiberius' reign, but generally it seems that Jesus' lifetime was reasonably peaceful -- if not necessarily happy -- in his neck of the woods.
Serious conflation here, Derren
"After he died, and after the Kingdom of Heaven hadn't arrived, his followers formed communities that were persecuted or ridiculed; they needed stories and legends to inspire them and give them credence."
Brown's conflating stuff here, unfortunately. It is widely believed that early Christians expected the Kingdom of Heaven -- in an eschatological sense, rather than an ecclesiastical or Christological one -- to come fairly soon after the Resurrection, but it's clear that they didn't expect it to come immediately afterwards. Rather, they seem to have expected it to come within their own lifetimes, and only took to writing down the stories they told when it became clear that this might not be on the cards!
Sticking to the central story of Christianity -- the Crucifixion and Resurrection -- it's significant that the earliest New Testament book to have been written, 1 Thessalonians, which was written about 50AD, speaks of Jesus having been executed and raised to life, and also addresses the reality that Christians had died and that more would die before Jesus would come again.
One of the key things we need to remember when reading the Pauline letters is that they were written for the benefit of people who were already Christians, and who were already familiar with the story of Jesus, so these references, within twenty years of the Crucifixion, shouldn't be understood as things Paul made up around 50AD. They were already believed.
Just as interesting is the passage at 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul says:
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."
This passage, though written in the mid-50s, clearly reflects a rather earlier tradition; indeed, it's almost a truism among Biblical scholars that the first sentence here -- if not the second too -- is a creedal statement, that is, it was a statement of belief that Paul received in the mid-30s, when he himself became a Christian, having previously persecuted them.
In other words, if the early Christians made up this stuff, they did it very quickly, pretty much immediately after Jesus' death. And this, of course, invites the question of why they would have done such a thing. How do we explain the early Church, as testified to by Tacitus, Suetonius, Josephus, and others, if we're to dismiss the idea of the Resurrection?
So speaks a man who's clearly not read much ancient history
"So they created them: as was customary, words and actions that fitted present needs were put into the mouths and lives of historical figures and then read as history."
As was customary? Well, yes, this used to happen in ancient historical writing, but it took time: Livy put speeches into the mouths of Roman generals from hundreds of years before his day, speeches that probably tells us rather more about Augustan Rome than the Middle Republic, but this was centuries later, when said historical figures were shadows from the distant past; Herodotus had done the same thing, and it's clear that many of the taller tales he told had an aetiological purpose, a Kiplingesque function to explain things in his own day with reference to events long before he had lived; even speeches attributed by Tacitus to British chieftains decades earlier are clearly things he'd thought they would have said, poetic truths deployed artistically because he had no way of knowing what could have been said.
Not all ancient writers were like this, however, and it's ludicrous and flatly ahistorical to describe this sort of thing as 'customary': Thucydides and Polybius, for instance, make it clear that they tried to be as accurate as possible, especially with reference to things they could check.
The Evangelists clearly had evangelistic rather than historical aims in writing their work, but they wrote close enough to the events they described to be able to check a fair amount of it, even if they weren't eyewitnesses to said events. Indeed, given that the earliest versions of the story of Jesus were extant in the immediate aftermath of his death, it's clear that there would have been been plenty of people around who could have criticised and contradicted any attempts to attribute words and deeds to Jesus fallaciously.
That's not to say that individual little details couldn't have been attributed to him, but the core structure facts of the story can hardly have been cooked up quickly, and we know they were in place in the mid-30s.
Myth-making takes time, that's the problem
"Inspiring figures were enormously bent, stretched and rewritten so that their 'lives' would fit what they had come to stand for."
Yes, this happened all the time in the ancient world, but again, it took time. It didn't happen quickly. This seems to be the main problem for Brown: he's convinced the Christian story took much longer to take form that it did, and given that he thinks it was developed over centuries, he's all too ready to believe that it was similar to, I dunno, Plutarch's Life of Lycurgus. This'd be a fair thing to think if the Gospels were late and consciously ahistorical texts like the Gnostic Gospels, but they were all written early, and clearly based on earlier -- and essentially stable -- traditions.
Communities, not committees, and in a traditional of oral teaching
"Although the Gospels are attributed to individuals, they were written largely by communities."
There's some truth to this; although the conventional attributions of the Gospels to their traditional authors can be dated to the early Second Century, it's clear that the Gospels arose within communities and surely reflected the cultures and concerns of those communities. This, however, is hardly grounds for discarding them as historically valueless.
Michael Grant, to quote him again, says that, "Like Paul, the Evangelists depended to some extent upon eyewitnesses (or their children) and upon the handing down of tradition from person to person. For oral teaching, which required elaborate memorizing, was very highly developed among the Jews; and so the Gospels, too, were largely built up by oral transmission. As time went on the individual items of information (pericopae) which had thus been transmitted were moulded together into somewhat larger units for purposes of worship in the emerging churches."
We, of course, have no tradition of oral teaching, so it won't do to compare modern games of 'Chinese whispers' with ancient oral traditions.
The different Gospels seem to have been written in different ways.
- Mark is the most primitive, and seems in some sense to have been the simple combination of a passion narrative with an account of Jesus' teaching; it's very plausible that it arose almost naturally within a community, but given how there's no consensus on where that community might have been, it seems foolhardy to describe it as the product of one.
- I strongly suspect that Matthew is an early Greek reworking of an Aramaic original, or at least a recomposition of Mark in light of other traditions some of which may have been in Aramaic and attributed to Matthew -- who if the text is trustworthy may well have been literate and competent at a form of shorthand -- but in any case, the mainstream scholarly position is that Matthew was written by a noneyewitness who depended on other sources, at least two of which were written; the vast majority of scholars believe that its author was a Jewish Christian, with most thinking he wrote in Syria, probably Antioch.
- Luke is presented, along with Acts, as the work of an individual, and there is no good evidence to suggest otherwise. The author of Luke speaks of several others having written accounts of Jesus' life before him, and puts forward his work as a systematic synthesis of these; certainly, he seems to have drawn extensively on Mark and also at least two other sources.
- John is something of a mystery, and its authorship has long puzzled people, with scholarship having varied over the years from seeing it as the work of a eyewitness to nothing of the sort, and seeing it as the most historical Gospel to the least historical one. Views vary wildly, with the one thing that's clear being that it's very different to the other three Gospels. It looks, on balance, to have arisen in a different context to the other three Gospels, and to have been, ultimately, the work of two authors: one who wrote most of it, and then an editor from the same Christian community who added in a couple of extra passages, notably the conclusion. More than any of the other Gospels it can be described as the work of a community, but even then it was hardly the work of a committee; rather, it reflects the beliefs of the community in which it arose.
The core facts are remarkably stable, and there's no trace of them ever being otherwise
"Great and powerful stories were told, changed and rearranged over several generations."
Expressed in this way, this is massively simplistic. It seems, rather, that there were three stages in how the Gospels came to be composed: the earliest stage was that of simple memory, with people telling the stories based on what they'd seen or heard -- and we know this was happening in the mid-30s, when Paul met Peter etc; a stage when memories bedded down and were reflected upon, taking on colour with details being picked out based on the experiences and thoughts of the communities in which the tales were told; and finally a writing stage, where the traditions were shaped into written Gospels, which may in turn have been tweaked somewhat in light of the beliefs and experiences of the communities in which they arose.
This needn't have taken nearly as long as Brown seems to think; as I've said, I think there's a strong case for Mark and Luke being written by the mid-60s, with perhaps Matthew in the 70s and John by 90; in any case, scholarly orthodoxy has all four Gospels done and dusted by 100 AD.
Luke clearly drew on Mark, but didn't rearrange the earlier Gospel so much as elaborate on it, adding to it somewhat. Matthew evidently drew on Mark too, and seems to have shared a second source, a collection of Jesus' sayings -- usually referred to as Q -- with Luke, probably rearranging his Q material somewhat in order to create five coherent sermons or discourses. Significantly, though, this isn't a manipulation of facts so much as an rearranging of sayings so as to give Jesus' teachings a more clear shape and to ease understanding.
The basic structure facts stay the same across the Gospels. The Gospels may not be history, but they're historically invaluable. They're not just 'tales'.
Brown says he has a layman's interest in this sort of scholarship, which is laudible if unconvincing; his understanding of this sort of stuff seems profoundly shallow, such that his atheism seems no more deeply-rooted than his faith had once been. It seems to me, instead, as though he just swallows up things that support what he wants to believe.
His promotion of Richard Dawkins' ignorant The God Delusion as his favourite book, a "very important defence of atheism" which "systematically looks at every aspect of faith and 'proofs' of God's existence" is testimony to this, really. I happen to think Dawkins' book is important, simply because it's the highest profile modern rant against religion, and that as such it's good for Christians to read it, but that they shouldn't stop there; they should check what Dawkins says, and consider arguments against at every stage, just as they should with things they might be more inclined to believe.
As Mr Keating says in Dead Poets' Society, "When you read, don't just consider what the author thinks, consider what you think!"
My copy, for instance, has been read and reread, pondered and annotated to a point where the margins are blue with observations and cross-references. It is, frankly, an extraordinarily shoddy book, one that misrepresents Christianity and religious belief in general time and time again. Not that this is surprising: atheism, as Jonathan Sacks has said, deserves better than the New Atheists.
Like I've said, the bulk of Brown's book is fascinating. Well-written, informative, and witty, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to know about memory, suggestibility, unconscious communication, distraction, confirmation bias, and all manner of other wonderful things. It's just a shame it's marred by such an ignorant and misleading opening chapter.