About Bob Seidensticker

I'm an atheist, and I like to discuss Christian apologetics.

40 Historians Reject the Bible Story: And All Other Supernatural Claims, Too

You never find the details of the Jesus story in a history book, like you would for Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. Why is that? Why is the Bible not cataloged in the library in the History section?

Christians correctly point out that the historical grounding for the gospel story has some compelling points. For example, there are not one but four gospel accounts. The time gap from original manuscripts to our oldest complete copies of New Testament books is relatively small compared to other books of the time. And the number of Bible manuscripts is far greater than that for any other ancient book.

The enormous difficulty, however, is historians reject miracles—not just in the Bible but consistently in any book that claims to be history. The problem becomes clear if we imagine that libraries did catalog the Bible in the history section. Should other religious books get in as well? They couldn’t all be history because they conflict.

Remember the story of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon River? The historian Suetonius reported that Julius saw a divine messenger who urged him to cross. It’s a fact of history that Suetonius wrote about the messenger, but historians don’t think this miraculous appearance actually happened.

Remember Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who ordered the census that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem? Augustus reportedly was himself divinely conceived, and he ascended into heaven when he died. These reports about Augustus are part of history, but the supernatural conception and ascension are not.

Legends about Alexander the Great grew up in his own time. Did you hear the one about how the sea bowed in submission during his conquest of the Persian Empire? Or about how ravens miraculously guided his army across the desert? Alexander is treated the same way—miraculous reports don’t make it into history.

The Alexander biography is a plausible natural story with excellent supporting evidence (coins with his likeness, cities with his name, stone pillars with his laws, the spread of Hellenism and the creation of the successor empires, records of his conquests from outsiders, and so on) and a few miracles. The natural part is the noteworthy part; the miracles add little and are not part of the historical record.

Compare this to the Jesus story, an implausible story of a god documented by religious texts and without any supporting evidence. Jesus didn’t leave any writings himself, there is nothing from contemporary historians, and later historians record only the existence of the religion. In this case, only the miraculous part is noteworthy.

Strip away the miracle claims from Julius Caesar or Caesar Augustus or Alexander the Great and you’re left with precisely the remarkable accounts of those leaders in history. But strip away the miracle claims from the Jesus story, and you have just the story of an ordinary man—a charismatic teacher, perhaps, but hardly divine.

Christians sometimes argue that we should treat the gospel story like any other biography, and they’re right—but they may not like where that takes them.

Image credit: Danika Perkinson via Unsplash


Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor who ordered the census: Luke 2:1.

39 The Monty Hall Problem: A Surprising Game-Show Connection to Christianity

The Monty Hall Problem is a decades-old puzzle with an unexpected application to Christianity.

Suppose you’re on a game show with three doors. Behind one door is a valuable prize, but there’s nothing behind the other two. You get to pick a door and keep whatever is behind it, and you choose door #1. Monty Hall, the game show host, opens door #2 to show you that there’s nothing there and gives you the chance to change to #3. Do you switch?

Most people think there’s no benefit to switching, but this is wrong. To see why, imagine not three doors but three hundred. There’s still just one prize, with the remaining doors having nothing.

So you pick a door—say number 274. There’s a 1 in 300 chance you’re right. This must be emphasized: you’re almost certainly wrong. Then the host opens 298 of the remaining doors: 1, 2, 3, and so on. He skips door 59 and your door, 274. Every open door shows nothing.

Should you switch? Of course you should—your first pick is still almost surely wrong. The probabilities are 1/300 for your pick, #274, and 299/300 for #59.

Another way to look at the problem: do you want to stick with your original pick, or do you want all the other doors? Switching is equivalent to choosing all the other doors, because, thanks to the open doors, you know the only door within that set that could be the winner.

You may have already anticipated the connection with choosing a religion. For most people, they adopted their religion as if they were picking a door in this game show. In the game show, you don’t weigh evidence before selecting your door, you pick it randomly. And most people adopt the dominant religion of their upbringing, which was also assigned at random.

Let’s imagine a similar game, the Game of Religion. You have picked your religion out of the three hundred choices—religion #274, let’s say. The host flings open door after door and we see nothing behind each one. Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, plus religions you have never heard of—all nothing, showing that these are manmade religions. As you suspected, they were just amalgams of legend, myth, tradition, and wishful thinking.

Here’s where the analogy between the two games fails. First, the host opens all the other doors. Only the believer’s pick, door #274, is still closed. Second, there was never a promise that any door held a true religion! Since the believer likely came to his beliefs randomly, why imagine his choice is any truer than the others?

Every believer plays the Game of Religion, and almost every believer believes their religion is the one true religion, with nothing behind all the hundreds of other doors. But maybe there’s nothing behind every door. And given the lesson from the three-hundred-door Monty Hall game, that the door you randomly picked at first is almost certainly wrong, why imagine yours is the only religion that’s not mythology?

Image credit: Poussin jean (CC BY-SA 2.5) via Wikimedia

38 Christianity Without Indoctrination: A Thought Experiment

Suppose we re-categorized Christianity as an adult activity like smoking, drinking, voting, driving, and marriage. These aren’t illegal, but society says you must be old enough to handle them wisely. Starved of its most fertile source of new members, this adults-only Christianity would die out within a few generations.

We adults have common sense that helps us believe true claims and reject false claims. For example, most American adults would reject a case for Islam or Hinduism or Sikhism as quickly as they would reject claims for miracle cures, alien abduction stories, and great prices on swamp land in Florida.

As adults, we’re far better at sifting truth from nonsense than we were as children. And that’s why most Christians are indoctrinated as children before their common sense has matured. This is the idea behind the Jesuit maxim, “Give me a child until the age of seven and I will give you the man.” We find it in Proverbs as well: “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

Children’s minds are pliable, and supernatural ideas from a reliable authority like a parent or teacher are credulously accepted. Getting a fifty-year-old who’s never smoked hooked on cigarettes is like getting a fifty-year-old who’s never heard of Jesus hooked on Christianity. It’s possible in both cases, but it’s far easier when you start early.

Adults raised in a religion think their religious beliefs are reasonable or even obvious, while someone introduced to those beliefs as an adult will often think they’re odd or even crazy. Religious adults will use their intellect to invent reasons to reassure their egos that their beliefs make sense. They won’t admit their supernatural beliefs are ridiculous when looked at dispassionately or that they believe for no better reason than they were raised with them.

We can see this from another angle by imagining a conversation between the father of a six-year-old child and the grandmother.

Grandma says, “Little Johnny is old enough for me to take to Sunday School now.”

“You can take him when he’s eighteen,” his father says, “but I’d prefer he stay out of church until then.”

“But eighteen is too late!” Grandma says. “By then he’ll be set in his ways. He won’t accept the truth then.”

What kind of “truth” is it that must be taught before people are mature, before their common sense is fully developed? Grandma realizes that only while someone is immature can the beliefs of religion be put into their head, but this indoctrination is a poor stand-in for truth. It’s fine for a social custom, not for a worldview claim.

Christian adults should consider how they would respond if asked to adopt a radically different religion. Few would switch, but why? As adults, a foreign religion appears foreign. That’s why religions need access to immature converts to survive. It’s not that the religion in a child’s environment is the correct one but that it’s the familiar one.

Image credit: Pixabay (CC0)


“Start children off on the way they should go”: Proverbs 22:6.

37 God’s Hiddenness: A Creator Who Loved Us Would Make Himself Known

Why is evidence for God so sparse? If God wants a relationship with us and knows hell awaits those who don’t know him, why doesn’t he make his existence obvious? This Problem of Divine Hiddenness may be the most powerful challenge against Christianity.

The evidence we need for God wouldn’t be merely an ancient holy book like all the others, and it wouldn’t be anything as ambiguous as the clouds parting just as you wondered if God existed. It would be truly convincing, such as everyone in the world having the same dream on the same night in which God clearly summarized his plan. You could convince any thinking person that you exist; surely an omniscient god a billion times smarter could do it, too.

Christians often respond that this threatens our free will. C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters explained it this way: “[God] cannot ravish. He can only woo.” This caution against coercion might apply if the issue were faith in Jesus as savior, but that’s not the question. The question is simply, does God exist? No party to a relationship “ravishes” by simply making their existence known, and the Bible makes clear God doesn’t mind giving the evidence. He appeared as smoke and fire to the Israelites during the Exodus. Jesus performed public miracles like healing people, multiplying food, and raising the dead. And consider the apostles—did seeing the miracles of Jesus make their belief counterfeit? Did Paul’s Damascus road experience, during which he saw a vision of Jesus, disqualify him from being a proper believer?

Fifth-century bishop Augustine urged Christians, “Do not understand so you may believe; instead believe so you may understand.” But why? You don’t pick a belief system first and then select facts to support it; it’s the other way around. You follow the facts to their logical conclusion and then believe that. The alternative is a trickster god who gives only vague clues to the most important truth.

Faith is central to Christianity today, but that’s only because there’s nothing better. If God made himself obvious so Christianity were the only religion backed by a real god, faith would be pointless, and Christians would instead vigorously point to the clear evidence in the world proving that they had been right all along.

Another Christian response is to say that everyone already has enough evidence. Paul said disbelievers are “without excuse,” but there is nothing to raise Christianity’s claims above those of other religions. Nonbelievers are justified in demanding evidence, and here again the Bible is supportive. God participated in Elijah’s contest against the priests of Baal, he helped Moses perform miracles in front of the pharaoh, and he proved himself to Gideon. If Christians are sensibly skeptical for demanding evidence of other religions’ miracle claims, disbelievers are justified in making the same demands of Christians. A God too aloof to even make his existence obvious contradicts the claim of a God who wants a relationship. He can’t be both.

Image credit: SHVETS production via Pexels


Augustine (d. 430) was a bishop in Hippo, Algeria. He was an important early theologian and was made a saint.

Damascus road experience: The Bible states that the apostle Paul, while on the road to Damascus, Syria, saw a vision of Jesus. This converted him from a persecutor of Christians to a believer. The term can be used for any dramatic reversal in attitude.

[God] appeared as smoke and fire to the Israelites during the Exodus: Exodus 13:21.

Jesus performed public miracles like healing people, multiplying food, and raising the dead: Matthew 8:16, Matthew 14:13–21, and Mark 5:21–43.

Paul’s Damascus road experience: Acts 9:3–22.

disbelievers are “without excuse”: Romans 1:20.

God participated in Elijah’s contest against the priests of Baal, he helped Moses perform miracles in front of the pharaoh, and he proved himself to Gideon: 1 Kings 18, Exodus 7:8–, and Judges 6:36–40.

36 Virgin Birth Prophecy: Not a Virgin Birth, and Not a Prophecy About Jesus

At Christmas, we’re reminded of the Bible’s best-known prophecy claim, the virgin birth. We’re told that the birth of Jesus fulfilled a prophecy written 750 years earlier in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.

The first problem with this claim is that the evidence of the fulfillment is not independent but comes through the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the authors of which would have read the prophecy. A fulfilled prophecy would have improved the Jesus story, so how do we know they didn’t read about a prophecy and then just write that it was fulfilled?

The three relevant verses in Isaiah 7 are not even a prophecy of a messiah. Here’s the story in that chapter: in the early 700s BCE, Syria and Israel allied with nearby countries for protection against Assyria, the local bully that was vacuuming up smaller states. Judea refused to join the alliance, and Syria and Israel, fearing a potential enemy, moved to conquer Judea.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to tell the king of Judea that, with faith, his enemies would be destroyed. Isaiah gave him a sign: “The young woman will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” Before the boy is old enough to understand right from wrong, Judea’s enemies will be destroyed.

In other words, in five or ten years your enemies will be destroyed—that’s the point of the Immanuel story. The boy is simply a living clock. And not only is Immanuel not a messiah, his three-verse story isn’t even a significant part of this chapter, which goes on to describe Judea’s painful future after conquest by Assyria.

Isaiah prefaces the prophecy to the king with, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.” This sign was obviously a near-term event since it had to come during the king’s lifetime. The Immanuel story is a prophecy, but it’s a prophecy to be fulfilled in a few years, not 750 years.

Remember the Immanuel prophecy: “Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid to waste.” This doesn’t map onto Jesus’s life. And where do we find the crucifixion and resurrection in Immanuel’s life?

The story doesn’t even have a miraculous birth—a virgin woman will have sex, become pregnant, and deliver a boy. This isn’t miraculous or even surprising. If this prediction involved a miracle, we’d expect more to be made of it to eliminate the (obvious) mundane explanation.

Isaiah doesn’t even use the word “virgin.” Since the author of Matthew was literate in Greek, he was likely more familiar with the Greek translation of scripture, the Septuagint. The original Hebrew term meant “young woman.” While modern Bibles often use “virgin” in Isaiah, that seems intended only to preserve the imagined prophecy.

As a final irony, Matthew rejects his own prophecy. The baby isn’t named Immanuel, as Isaiah requires; he’s named Jesus!

Image credit: Chester Cathedral (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Wikimedia


Virgin birth: The virgin birth story is not unique to Jesus. Alexander the Great in Greece, the Caesars in Rome, and the Ptolemies in Egypt claimed to have been virgin born or divinely conceived. The Jesus version probably came out of this zeitgeist rather than being a fact of history.

Septuagint: The Septuagint, also called LXX (for 70), is a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The Pentateuch (first five books) were translated in around 250 BCE and the remainder about a century later. Legend says that 70 Jewish scholars in Alexandria were charged with the translation, and they independently came up with identical translations.

Matthew and Luke: Matthew 1:22–3 and Luke 1:31–5.

The three relevant verses: Isaiah 7:14–16.

he’s named Jesus: In Hebrew, his name was Yeshua. Through first Greek and then Latin, we get our English name “Jesus.” From a variant of Yeshua we get the related name Joshua.

35 Biblical Polytheism: The Bible Admits to More than One God

The first of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” It doesn’t say Yahweh was the only god, just that he demanded to be the primary god. The Bible itself documents the transition from many gods to one god.

This odd wording of the First Commandment is because that section of the Bible was written in roughly the tenth century BCE, the early days of the Israelite religion, when they believed in many gods. The next commandment declares, “I, Yahweh your god, am a jealous god”—jealous because other gods were available, and Yahweh insisted on a commitment.

Acknowledging many gods and worshiping many gods is polytheism. Acknowledging many gods but worshiping only one is henotheism, and the Israelites at this time are more properly labeled henotheists. In this view, different gods ruled different territories just as kings did, and tribes owed allegiance to whichever god protected them. Deuteronomy makes this explicit: “When Elyon divided the nations, … he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, [Israel] his allotted inheritance.”

Here we see Elyon, the head of the divine pantheon, dividing humankind among his children. Each received his inheritance, and for Yahweh, it was Israel. The idea of a divine pantheon with a chief deity, his consort, and their children (the council of the gods) was widespread through the Ancient Near East. Elyon (short for El Elyon) is the chief god, not just in early Israelite writings but also in the literature of other Canaanite tribes.

We find clues to polytheism elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, in the six-day creation story, God said, “Let us make mankind in our image.” Later, he warns the others about man’s new knowledge (“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil”), and that they must disrupt society lest projects like the Tower of Babel succeed (“Let us go down and confuse their language”).

A common Christian response is to say the “us” is either the Trinity or a heavenly assembly of angels. But the original audience for Genesis would never have understood the Trinity. And there is no need to imagine an angelic assembly when the henotheistic interpretation of Genesis growing out of prior polytheistic Canaanite culture is the more natural explanation.

Psalms is another old book that holds snapshots of the many gods in early Israelite religion. We see the assembly of the gods: “For who in the skies can compare to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the [sons of God], a God who is honored [in the great assembly of the holy ones], and more awesome than all who surround him?” Other verses celebrate Yahweh while acknowledging the existence of others: “All the gods bow down before Yahweh.”

Near the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE the evolution from polytheism to monotheism was complete. Yahweh said, “Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.” While that’s a confident statement, the Bible as a whole tells a changing story.

Image credit: Giovanni Lanfranco c. 1625 (public domain) via Wikimedia


“You shall have no other gods before me”: Exodus 20:3.

“I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God”: Exodus 20:5.

“When Elyon divided the nations”: Deuteronomy 32:8–9. This is the Dead Sea Scrolls version, and the translation is from Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God (Wipf & Stock, 2011), 71–2.

“Let us make mankind in our image”: Genesis 1:26.

“The man has now become like one of us”: Genesis 3:22.

“Let us go down and confuse their language”: Genesis 11:7.

“For who in the skies can compare to Yahweh?”: Psalm 89:6–7 (NET).

“All the gods bow down before [Yahweh]”: Psalm 97:7 (NET).

“Before me no god was formed”: Isaiah 43:10.

34 Why Is Christianity Conservative? It Should Be the Change Leader

Why is Christianity conservative—that is, preserving of traditional political or social practices?

On one hand, it’s obvious why a religion would be conservative. Religions help preserve the social order. They’re like many other institutions or movements that want constancy in an area of society. A religion like Christianity needs to be conservative and reject new ideas since it claims to already have the perfect plan given by a perfect source.

On the other hand, Christianity accepts change in important ways. Many Christians feel free to declare competing church leaders or traditions to be heretical. Christianity is not at all conservative when you consider its 45,000 denominations, expected to grow to 70,000 by 2050. Ironically, every new denomination then becomes a stake in the ground, a conservative position that must be defended.

Social improvement comes from change. Slavery in the West was allowed, and now it’s not. Polygamy was allowed, and now it’s not. Voting and other civil rights were not given to women and certain classes of people, and now they are.

Christianity can’t embrace every crazy new social fad, of course, but Christianity isn’t an ordinary institution. It’s supposed to be the only one that comes from God. Its source is perfect, so it should know what the correct moral response is. It should be driving the change by giving us the bitter but necessary medicine to make society a better place on a dozen important issues.

And yet it never works that way. Why does the church never speak with one voice and make moral commands that we moderns find shockingly advanced? Instead, the shocking thing is when its position is too backward, with it constrained by an ancient book from an ancient time with ancient morality.

No modern social improvement was unambiguously advocated by Jesus and the early church. Rejection of genocide, slavery, and polygamy? Civil rights for minorities, immigrants, and women? Education rather than work for children? Laws supporting mixed-race marriages? Why did society have to inform the Church about the correct path on these issues? Shouldn’t we have learned this from the Bible?

Christians have pushed all these issues, citing scripture to justify their positions, but they have been on both sides, giving no unified Christian position. We don’t see clear guidance from Jesus, and these are modern concerns, not ones that the Christian church even saw as problems in its earliest days.

Imagine our descendants in a future society. They will have adopted new social changes. Whatever these changes are, can you imagine Christianity having driven the change? It never has in the past. Christianity has never led a reluctant society through a social change that is now almost universally accepted.

Progressive Christians pushing for social improvement don’t point out truths that were plainly in the Bible all along. These Christians are products of the Enlightenment and modernity, not the Bible.

The Church can be an unchanging fortress of tradition, or it can guide us into a continually improving society. It can’t be both.

Image credit: Clay Banks via Unsplash


45,000 denominations: International Bulletin of Missionary Research, vol 39, no. 1, http://www.internationalbulletin.org/issues/2015-01/2015-01-028-johnson.pdf (line item 45).

33 Recreating Christianity: Christianity in a Post-Apocalyptic World

Could Christianity regrow in a virgin world without Christian books or tradition?

Albert Einstein once said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” Suppose Einstein’s catastrophic World War III happened, and it destroyed civilization. Then, after a thousand years, civilization returned to roughly today’s level of scientific awareness.

After losing all scientific knowledge of optics, thermodynamics, gravity, and other concepts, this naive society has re-discovered it. Nature didn’t change, so they have the very same scientific theories and laws we have now—relativity, evolution, e = mc2, f = ma, and so on.

These post-apocalyptic humans would have different terms and ways of representing things, but whatever notation they invented would be synonymous with our own since they would be descriptions of the same physical phenomena.

Now imagine that all knowledge of Christianity were lost as well. A new generation might make up something to replace it, since humans seem determined to find the supernatural in our world, but they wouldn’t recreate the same thing. There is no specific evidence of the Christian God around us today. The only evidence of God in our world is tradition and the Bible. Lose them, and Christianity would be lost forever.

There is nothing that would let this future culture recreate Christianity, assuming no more evidence than we see today—no obvious evidence for miracles or answered prayer, no God speaking, and no divine appearances. There would still be beauty to wonder at, great complexity in the interwoven structure of nature, frightening things like death and disease, riddles within nature, odd coincidences, and so on. People then, like they do now, might grope for supernatural explanations, but starting from nothing you could invent lots of religions to explain these things. Reality provides no evidence or observation that would guide them to any specific supernatural dogma we have today.

Christians today come to their beliefs because someone initially told them of Christianity, while science is built on objective facts. If no one told you, you wouldn’t be able to figure out Christianity on your own, which is the opposite from how science works.

The Bible comments on our thought experiment. It claims, “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” But that’s exactly the problem—God is not clearly seen. Without God informing humanity of his existence, Christianity could never be recreated. It’s not built on objective facts.

What can you say about a religion that can’t be re­created from evidence at hand today? About a religion whose god is knowable only through tradition? You can say what applies to every other religion: we can’t prove it’s manmade, but it gives every sign of being so.

Image credit: U.S. Dept. of Energy (public domain) via Wikimedia


The New Testament says in two places that no one has seen God: John 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:16.

“The Lord would speak to Moses face to face”: Exodus 33:11.

“Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities . . . have been clearly seen”: Romans 1:18–20.

32 Simplicity: Christianity’s Missing Trait

The Bible in English has nearly a million words. Have you ever wondered why God would need so much space? Not only is this a surprisingly large number of words, but it’s a clue that Christianity is false. Why would a perfect god need a million words? Couldn’t he have gotten his message across at least as clearly (or more so) with a tenth as many words? Or even a thousandth as many?

Just a page or two of instructions would be enough to explain how to be a vegan. That’s a lifestyle with strict rules. Why would it be any more difficult for a perfect god to convey the core of its message in the same space?

For comparison, the U. S. Constitution was written by mere humans and has defined the government for several centuries. It has just 4500 words. The U. N. Declaration of Human Rights has less than 1800 words. The Humanist Manifesto, 800.

Pare away the fluff and think about the essentials in a perfect god’s constitution. It would share personal details about the supernatural: the number of gods, name(s), and relationship to each other if more than one.

It would make clear any non-obvious morality: slavery is good/bad, abortion is okay/forbidden, vegetarianism is mandatory/optional, and so on.

It would disclose what happens, if anything, when people die. If there’s a supernatural realm that we should know about, how does it fit with and interact with our own?

It would define the purpose of our lives. What should we be doing to satisfy the god(s), and what should we know about our future, if anything?

The Bible would look more like the work of an omniscient god by removing Abraham as the founder of the religion and then Moses as the founder and then Jesus as the founder. Imagine it without Old Testament violence, just-so stories, ideas borrowed from other cultures, contradictions, and an evolving message. The Bible is what a manmade religious book would look like.

Or look at the practice of Christianity today. Why is there a Bible Answer Man radio program, and why does GotQuestions.org boast that it has more than half a million Bible questions answered? Shouldn’t God’s message be so clear that there would be no questions to answer? Why are there 1600-page books on systematic theology—why would the study of a perfect god need this? Why is it so complicated? And why are there thousands of denominations of Christianity today?

The more elaborate the story, the more it must be explained. Did Jesus have a human body or a spirit body? Why is God behind so much death in the Old Testament? Why isn’t God’s existence obvious? Why does God initially care just about the Israelites but later decide to embrace the whole world? Why doesn’t the world look like an omniscient and loving god created it? What is the Trinity?

The Church convened 21 ecumenical councils over the last 2000 years to try to make sense of questions like these. “There is no god” would have been the most economical explanation.

Image credit: Cesare Nebbia c. 1585 (public domain) via Wikimedia


Just-so story: a story that explains the origin of something, such as why a place has its name or why we see a rainbow after a rain. Also called an etiological story.

Systematic theology: the organization of Christian teaching into categories—sin, angels, salvation, the Holy Spirit, and so on.

Ecumenical council: a convention of religious experts that resolves questions of Christian doctrine or practice.

31 25,000 New Testament Manuscripts: Not the Evidence You Might Think

Historians have roughly 25,000 manuscripts of New Testament books, far more than for any other book from ancient history. Compare that with 2000 copies of Homer’s Iliad, the second-best represented manuscript. Even more poorly represented are the works of Aristotle, Julius Caesar, Herodotus, and other great figures from ancient history, for which we have closer to a dozen manuscripts each.

We don’t conclude that our record of Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar is so unreliable that it can’t inform our understanding of the past. But if that’s the case, we must then accept the far-better attested New Testament story—or so the popular argument goes.

But that argument is flawed. More manuscripts at best increase our confidence that we have the original version, but that doesn’t mean it was history. Far more impressive than a mountain of manuscripts are Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mesopotamian clay tablets that are not only older but original. No one would argue that their mythology must be accurate simply because they’re original, and the same would apply if we had the New Testament’s original.

Let’s return to those 25,000 manuscripts. The originals of every New Testament book were written in Greek, but most of these manuscripts are translations into other languages. A translation means an extra layer of interpretation. Discard these, and we’re down to 5800 Greek manuscripts.

Now consider when these manuscripts were written. The chart below shows the number of Greek New Testament manuscript copies by century. The twelfth century has the most, with 1090 manuscripts. The printing press was invented in the middle of the fifteenth century, which explains the drop on the right of the chart.

There are a hundred manuscripts from the first four centuries, though many of these are just papyrus scraps of less than a page. The first substantial manuscripts with dozens of chapters date to around 200 CE. Only when we get to the fourth century do we find complete (or nearly so) copies of the New Testament. Our view into the past is so hazy that even when they were written is just an educated guess.

When historians weigh evidence, they want the oldest and most reliable manuscripts. The vast majority of the manuscripts shown in the chart are irrelevant, so our 5800 Greek manuscripts have shrunk to the oldest hundred or so from which scholars make their best guess at the originals. Whether we have 1090 copies from the twelfth century or ten times that number, manuscripts that late don’t inform the re-creation of the New Testament originals.

The New Testament does have the most copies, but this isn’t the evidence many think.

Image credit: Unknown author (public domain) via Wikimedia


Manuscript: A manuscript is a handwritten document. The earliest New Testament manuscripts were scrolls made from papyrus. Parchment, made from animal skins and bound into a codex (book), gradually became more popular over the first few centuries CE.

The chart below shows the number of Greek New Testament manuscript copies by century: the data for this chart came from “Biblical manuscript,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation Inc.), en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_manuscript#New_Testament_manuscripts, retrieved November 4, 2013.

25,000 manuscripts sounds like a lot: “List of New Testament papyri,” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation Inc.), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_New_Testament_papyri, retrieved June 15, 2018.