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Unravelled Threads

September 12, 2007, 8:39 AM

One of the hallmarks of a well-tested scientific theory is that it is supported by numerous, independent lines of evidence. We have the greatest confidence that a theory is true when results from completely different fields of science, which have no obvious reason to agree, all converge in support of the same conclusion, like threads weaving together to form a unified tapestry. This coming together of evidence was called consilience by Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson in his book of the same name.

One of the great success stories of science, the theory of continental drift, bears witness to how this process operates. Continental drift is backed up by independent lines of evidence: rock strata that match up across continents, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; fossils of unusual species that exist in only a few, widely separated places; and magnetic striping in the ocean crust which indicates that the seafloor has been steadily spreading over time. All these unrelated lines of evidence independently converge to support the same conclusion.

This sort of evidentiary consilience is notably absent when we examine religious scriptures such as the Bible. Far from possessing independent lines of evidence that converge on the same conclusion, these texts contain numerous fantastic stories that are uncorroborated by history or even by other retellings of the story elsewhere in the book. Instead of weaving a coherent tapestry, these threads unravel into a tangled, confused mess.

Consider the story of Herod and the slaughter of the infants. This tale is recounted in chapter 2 of the Gospel of Matthew. In it, the tyrant Herod orders all the infants of Bethlehem to be slaughtered in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus, whose parents were forewarned and fled with their son to Egypt.

This tall tale finds no corroboration even within the pages of the Bible. The epistles never speak of it, and Mark and John have no nativity stories. Luke does, but his version is completely different. In Luke's story, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, following which his parents return with him to Nazareth (2:39). No mention is made of Herod's slaughter or an intervening flight to Egypt. The historian Josephus, who chronicled the historically bloodthirsty reign of Herod in detail, also never mentions it.

An even wilder story can be found in Matthew 27. In this story, after Jesus dies on the cross, there is a mass resurrection witnessed by apparently nearly the entire city of Jerusalem:

And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.

Needless to say, there is no historical record of such an astonishing event, and no other book in the Bible so much as mentions it - a stunning omission, considering this easily qualifies as the most spectacular miracle of the New Testament. Yet if we are to believe Christian apologists who say that every word of the Bible is true, this mass resurrection really did happen, and then sank into obscurity without a ripple and was forgotten. Not a single person who witnessed it felt compelled to write it down or make any record. Nor does any Christian evangelist of the first several centuries ever refer to it in their preaching.

If this had really happened, it would have been a catalyst for mass conversions throughout the Ancient Near East and would have been recounted far and wide. It would have been remembered like no other event in human history has ever been remembered. An undoubtable, verifiable miracle of the highest order, one whose recipients could personally testify about it! And yet, the silence of the historical record is deafening. This is one case where the argument from silence absolutely is valid, and the only rational conclusion to draw is that this biblical story is pure fiction and that the events it describes never happened.

The question of how the apostles died is another notable example of unravelled biblical threads. Apparently, to judge from the historical record, the original twelve Christians handpicked by Jesus himself all vanished into mystery and obscurity within a few years, with no reliable evidence surviving to show how any of them died or even what they did during their lives. All we have today are a handful of wild, apocryphal, and often mutually contradictory tall tales.

Indeed, the story of Jesus himself could be considered the greatest unravelled thread of all. Far from enjoying a consilience of historical evidence, the formative years of Christianity are dim and confused and almost completely lacking in extra-biblical verification. Substantial evidence suggests that there may not have been a historical human being at the root of this religion at all, but rather belief in a mythological figure which only gradually, and after many twists and turns, developed into belief in a recent human individual. Although the early defenders of orthodoxy did much to rewrite church history to fit their own newly developed conception, they could not hide the fact that this story is still lacking in points of empirical contact with the external world.


Unravelled Threads

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