Sunday, 21 October 2012

Biblical inconsistencies, Herod, and water into wine

For many years I was a Christian, but always with some doubts.  I attended an Alpha Course and was recommended to read the Bible. This I did, but found a text full of inconsistencies and downright implausibility's.  To give two examples; one of inconsistencies ( topical for this season ) and one of implausibility.

Matthew 2, says that after Jesus Christ's birth he was taken to Egypt to escape Herod's men.  Now Herod, like all autocrats of his time, was no doubt very bad, but I do not think there is any evidence, historical or archaeological, that there ever was a massacre of children in Bethlehem ?

But Luke 2, says that after eight days Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem, where old Simeon was, in order to fulfil the prescribed Jewish rituals after a birth etc.

Now I think the Matthew story is a fabrication to make it appear that an Old Testament prophesy was being fulfilled; "Out of Egypt have I called my Son" ?

Then there is the story about changing water into wine, John 2.  Now water is hydrogen and oxygen yet wine contains carbon and nitrogen etc, elements synthesised in stars, and one wonders how these elements got into the water or how the conversion took place without incinerating the neighbourhood !!!  The Alpha people say the laws of nature must have been suspended ! But I do not believe this because then we are into myth and magic and anything goes.

If the above, somewhat trivial, stories are fabrications what about the serious stuff in the Bible, such as the resurrection ?  And how can this be believed with any degree of confidence since the accounts were written by the same people ?

I would really value your opinion about the above issues and about miracles in general, since I find that many other religious people have a very poor knowledge of the workings of the physical world / universe and have little facility for critical analysis, hence they tend to believe anything and are not at all convincing.

Response from NB: Thank you for your email – which I will pass on to John with this preliminary response.
The gospels are essentially verbal portraits of Jesus and his life. Portraits, even if painted from life, don’t usually agree in every detail. Of course in the ancient world they knew all about inconsistent testimony, and if the evangelists had been trying to fabricate accounts of Jesus’ life they would no doubt have coordinated to avoid these minor inconsistencies.  But you get the strong sense, especially with Luke and (in a different way) John that they are each wrestling with their data and doing their best to make sense of it – so for example they don’t remove serious criticisms by Jesus of all the then leaders of the Church. 

On the point about the Massacre in Bethlehem, you need to remember first of all that there are almost no contemporary written records from that period, apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls and even they span over 2 centuries. The one non-biblical history of that time comes from Josephus writing around AD94 (though the earliest manuscripts are 9th-10 century) and pretty much everything we “know” about Herod outside the Gospels comes from Josephus.  Herod executed his wife and several members of his family because he thought they were a threat to his throne, and would certainly have had no scruples in putting 20-30 little children to death.  There is no reason why Josephus would have recorded this and since infant mortality was anyway high in the ancient world there is no reason why there should be any other historical record.

However the Protoevangelium of James of c.150 AD does refer to it as does Macrobius (c. 395-423) who is one of the last Latin non-Christian authors. Macrobius was a very learned antiquarian and this is a quote he attributes to Augustus.

It’s clear from the account that the Magi visited Herod a year or so after Jesus’ birth (hence all the children under 3 were killed) so there is no conflict between this and the circumcision. There is no reasonable doubt that Jesus was circumcised on the 8th day – that was a basic duty under the Law.

On the water into wine, if we assume that wine is a solution of Ethanol and Water then “all God needs to do” is to turn Oxygen into Carbon which is physically quite possible (from an energetic PoV) and indeed powers Carbon Cycle stars. We don’t know how to make this happen in aqueous phase at room temperature (no-one has tried), but God presumably does. The reaction emits alpha particles which may be why Jesus told the servants to “stand back” a bit while the transformation was taking place.  I’d like to think that while God was at it He’d have made some CO2 so that the wine was more like Champagne.  (I haven’t done the calculation to see how much energy is released by this, and how much of this energy would go out with the Alpha particles, why don’t you have a go and email me?). Now of course it may be that God did this by quite other means – remember how little we know about what the universe is made of – but at least we can say that this miracle is not “physically impossible.”

On the whole therefore I think it highly likely that both these events were historical.  But even if they aren’t, and the evangelists have made a mistake, that doesn’t really undermine the essential veracity of the gospels.  Jesus lived, taught the most wonderful teaching, lived an exemplary life, was put to death and then his disciples were convinced that he had risen from the dead, and went on to “turn the world upside down”.  We can be quite certain that neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities could produce Jesus’ body. All the rest is, in a sense, incidental detail which falls into place around the central fact.

John adds: 
  • While there is no independent account of the massacre of the innocents, the story is entirely consonant with what we know about Herod’s ruthless and paranoic character. 
  • On miracle, God is not condemned never to do anything radically new, but theologically believable miracles are not celestial conjuring tricks but windows into a deeper reality than is discernable in the everyday – ‘signs’ as John’s gospel calls them.  On the central Christian miracle of the Resurrection see, for example, by Science and Theology in Quest of Truth  Chapter 5.”
And Nicholas further adds: the more I think about the Water into Wine the more I think it must be true:
  1. There is the extraordinary incident of “what have I to do with you, woman?”   This very sharp remark by Jesus to his Mother would never have been made up by the early Church.
  2. The detail of the vast quantity of wine produced (120-180 gallons) would again be very unlikely to be made up. There is a theological point to the 6 water jars but not to the size of each!
  3. Almost all great miracles make a theological point by showing God doing quickly what he does more slowly in the natural world. Normally God turns water into wine through the medium of vines and yeasts – God cuts out the middle man.  Conceivably John could have made this up but he couldn’t possibly have known that…
  4. Normally God turns Oxygen into Carbon in stars and that is what needs to happen to turn water into alcohol.  The process emits radiation which is only dangerous at very short range, so it’s quite safe to do it with people present provided it is done inside a stone jar {I’m sorry I had the idea that he told the servants to stand back but I must have been woolgathering it’s not in the text} but it would not be a good idea to do it in a wineskin that people might be holding.

1 comment:

  1. People should not try to explain Jesus' miracles in a naturalistic way. They did not obey the laws of physics, chemistry, etc! Rather, they broke the laws. God did the impossible. Like walking on water , teleportation (yes), and multipluying food.

    Miracles, by definition, are impossible. The person said "then we are into myth and magic and anything goes." Yes, that is very much true. As Jesus said, "...this is impossible, but with God, nothing is impossible." So with God, the impossible is possible, and so we are in the realm of magic (but not myth).