How do we tell which parts of scripture are true?

October 27, 2011 • 6:36 am

Pastor Swaim continues his sermonizing at BioLogos in “Maker of Heaven and Earth: Part 3.”  Here he addresses the crucial question of which parts of the Bible are true, and which merely metaphors that nevertheless express some “truth.”

The answer: whether the language is “poetic” or whether the writer clearly says he’s expressing historical truth. Clearly, the first part of Genesis, including the critical creation and Adam-and-Eve stories falls into the former category, and so isn’t literally true (ORLY?):

I contend that there’s more truth—about theology, anthropology, and ecology, and spirituality, and human dignity, and human responsibility packed into this short chapter than a hundred normal books could describe on their own. Like the parable of the lost son, that’s why it’s so powerful. It’s truthful, it’s just not historical. But don’t get tricked into thinking that’s the only kind of truth. But if Genesis 1 is not literal history, then how do we know that the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Luke 24 is literal history? Is that just another poem? How can you tell the difference? Usually it’s pretty obvious from the context. If I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me to the store,” you understand I mean something very different than if I say, “Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me up a wall.” One is clearly literal and the other is clearly symbolic, but they both may be one hundred percent true. Jesus and the gospel writers poked fun at the ignorant literalism of the people who didn’t understand the obvious metaphors when Jesus said things like, “You must be born again” or, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally. They should have been able to distinguish between things that are symbolic and things that are scientific. One is not more true than the other. They’re just different ways of expressing truth. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take Genesis 1 seriously. To the contrary, I’m suggesting we fail to take it seriously when, like a parable, we insist on taking it literally instead. When we make it about six days, when we make it simply a recipe for baking a galaxy. In contrast, in Luke 1, Luke insists that he’s reporting historical events carefully checked against the testimony of eye witnesses. That’s an unmistakable sign that he expects to be taken literally.

So what’s the stuff in Luke 1 that’s literally true, because it’s reported as history? Here’s some:

10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.

11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.

12 And when Zacharias saw [him], he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.

13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.


26And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,

27To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name [was] Mary.

28And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, [thou that art] highly favoured, the Lord [is] with thee: blessed [art] thou among women.

29And when she saw [him], she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.

30And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.

31And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.

32He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:

33And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

34Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?

35And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.

You know the story, and surely must agree with Swaim that because this is in historical language, its literal truth can’t be doubted!  As he says, it’s obvious from the context!  Imagine if we all divined historical truth from things like “context” and language rather than evidence.

And about Genesis, Swaim says this:

Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence. But scholars are divided about chapters 2 to 10.

Here’s some literal history from post-chapter 11 Genesis:

Genesis 17:

1And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I [am] the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.

2And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly.

3And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying,

4As for me, behold, my covenant [is] with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations.

5Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee.

6And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee.

7And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

8And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God.

9And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations.

10This [is] my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised.

11 And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you.

Genesis 19:

14And Lot went out, and spake unto his sons in law, which married his daughters, and said, Up, get you out of this place; for the LORD will destroy this city. But he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law.

15And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying, Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters, which are here; lest thou be consumed in the iniquity of the city.

16And while he lingered, the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him: and they brought him forth, and set him without the city.

17And it came to pass, when they had brought them forth abroad, that he said, Escape for thy life; look not behind thee, neither stay thou in all the plain; escape to the mountain, lest thou be consumed.

18And Lot said unto them, Oh, not so, my Lord:

19Behold now, thy servant hath found grace in thy sight, and thou hast magnified thy mercy, which thou hast shewed unto me in saving my life; and I cannot escape to the mountain, lest some evil take me, and I die:

20Behold now, this city [is] near to flee unto, and it [is] a little one: Oh, let me escape thither, ([is] it not a little one?) and my soul shall live.

21And he said unto him, See, I have accepted thee concerning this thing also, that I will not overthrow this city, for the which thou hast spoken.

22Haste thee, escape thither; for I cannot do any thing till thou be come thither. Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar.

23The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar.

24 Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;

Genesis 23:

1 And Sarah was an hundred and seven and twenty years old: [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.

Genesis 25:

7And these [are] the days of the years of Abraham’s life which he lived, an hundred threescore and fifteen years.

8Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full [of years]; and was gathered to his people.

And so on, all the way through Genesis 50. All literal truth; all “science.”  All a fairy tale.

69 thoughts on “How do we tell which parts of scripture are true?

  1. I think you’ve even picked some pretty tame examples there Jerry! Rib-Eve, Noah’s ark & many more – all supposedly literal by the criterion he states? Job done then (no pun intended on the biblical character) – those things definitely did not happen!

  2. Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence.

    He is speaking nonsense unless scholars is defined so broadly as to be useless (bit like describing Ken Ham as a scientist). In the Tanakh or Old Testament working backwards most academic scholars in the area would accept the Babylonian Exile and Return and the later history of Judah and Israel as happening (though the descriptions are colored by the authors’ biases). The united kingdom of David and Solomon is disputed (some support for David existing though not as a ruler of a large kingdom as described in the Bible). Judges is even more disputed. Support for history in Joshua and the Exodus is low and falling (though some support the idea of a very small exodus from Egypt which merged with the existing population in Canaan). Earlier is very much relegated to unhistoric.

  3. Apparently no one has told Pastor Swaim that there is not only no evidence for Exodus, but that the evidence clearly points to the Israelite developing in Canaan. More irritatingly, unless he was educated in the most Evangelical of places, *he knows this to be true*. Which makes him a liar, don’t it?

  4. “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally.
    Not according to Roman Catholicism.
    According to the catholic church you really do eat Jesus’ body and drink his blood – at the exact point of transubstantiation. Of course it makes more sense to say its a metaphor, a symbol, if you like, but that will not do. It’s a primary distinction between catholic and protestant beliefs and many have died over this single matter.
    There is no logic or sense involved in the question – it’s a mystery that the hierarchy have solved for you (and they do all the thinking so stop asking questions and don’t you dare think of destroying that cracker. I mean that piece of Jesus.

    1. ‘ “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally.
      Not according to Roman Catholicism. ‘

      I don’t think it’s fair to hold Swaim’s feet to the fire like this. He’s not Roman Catholic or claiming to speak for Roman Catholicism.

      I must say that until I read the above, it had never occured to me to wonder what the metaphorical meaning of Jesus’ (reported) words might be, and it does make sense of a kind that he meant “Take my essense into your essence; make me part of yourself.” I just don’t think for a moment that he said those words or meant any such metaphor.

      It is very clear (to me) that the ritual of bread and wine came first (don’t lots of religions have ceremonial meals, with great significance attached to the sharing of bread and drink?), then its symbolic meaning to christians, and the story of Jesus telling them to do so following long after, on a “well, he must have said this” basis.

      1. I think that Christians stole the Eucharist ceremony from Mithraists. Apparently Mithraist had a tradition of ceremoniously drinking the blood and eating the body of Mithras (or Mithras’ slain bull).

        1. Mithraism is probably older than the 1st century (i.e. older than Christianity)

        2. Mithraism was a religion practiced by Roman soldiers, and “Christian” words like evangelion (euaggelion – good news) and parousia (arrival) were originally used in military contexts or otherwise for the arrival or royalty.

        2a. Christians got a bunch of other memes from their pagan neighbors like the concept of hell, healing blindness with spit, the virgin birth, gods decending in the form of a bird, and others. So this would just be one more thing on the list.

        3. There are a lot of Latin-isms in the first gospel written, which is also probably the first mention of the Eucharist (if 1 Cor 11.23-26 is an interpolation). Roman soldiers = Latin speakers. The Didache, written pretty close to when Mark was written, doesn’t know anything about Jesus telling Christians to symbolically eat his body and drink his blood.

        4. Early Christian apologists claimed that Mithraists stole the Eucharist from Christians (Justin Maryr, First Apology ch 66). Easily a case of projection.

        5. There’s no precedent in Judaism for symbolically consuming the flesh and blood of a revered Jewish sage.

        1. Christianity is definitely growing from roman religions, the mithraism (sol invictus / SI). SI churches are converted to christians. The “mystery” of roman catholicism clearly point to mithra’s mysteries. Even the christmas dates and celebration.

          This is a very logical way to develop a religion, by coopting (and later denouncing totally) an existing groups. Islam did the same to judaism in arab land, as christianity did to roman religion.

          In a way, protestantism did the same to catholicism, so did mormonism, and all sects.

          Somebody told me that religious war of minds are very similar to industrial marketing positioning, the cola war (pepsi vs coke), and other brand marketing. The means differs, but the methods and concepts are the same. Build on existing, embrace and attack, similar yet (claimed to be) totally different, demonization of enemies.

          This kind of history of religion is a study worth pursued.

  5. Yet another problem: even the stuff everyone agrees should be taken literally does not paint a very nice picture of God.

    So okay, throw out all the genesis miracles as poetic. The command to slaughter the canaanites isn’t poetic. Nor Deuteronomy’s and Leviticus’ list of crimes and punishement, which includes such wonderful things as stoning to death unruly children and burning to death daughters who dishonor their fathers by have sex (out of wedlock, presumably).

    Swaim seems to think that it’s just the scientific problems that are an issue for Christianity. But frankly, those are merely the tip of the problem iceberg.

  6. So it’s enough just for a writer to say that they’re writing historically? They don’t have to, you know, actually have witnessed the events, or provide any actual evidence that they occurred?

    I guess that makes the Book of Mormon, the Qur’an, and The Odyssey also historically accurate. Or, more recently, A Million Little Pieces.

  7. So apparently the long list of “begat”s in Genesis 5 is also part of the suspected “metaphorical” parts? It doesn’t seem very poetic to me. Basically, the only reason to think it’s a metaphor is because taking it seriously would contradict science again.

    1. I think there’s a similar list in Beowulf. And if you took a drink every time you read “son of” in the Iliad, you’d be drunk before you got to page 3. Assuming you had that strong a tolerance.

      To modern ears such devices don’t sound like poetry, but its worth remembering that we are not the intended audience.

        1. …but not the inspired word of god.

          That’s the difference, isn’t it? We don’t follow moral prescriptions from Beowulf, do we? We don’t reject people based on an Iliad-ian view of morality.

          We don’t have preachers preaching from snippets of either every single week, picking out the random bits they like and leaving aside the other random bits they don’t.

          And frankly, the more we get into the archaeology of the bible, the less historically accurate it appears to be. The bible gets smaller and smaller every day.

  8. ‘Jesus and the gospel writers poked fun at the ignorant literalism of the people who didn’t understand the obvious metaphors…’

    I see.

    So when the author of Luke claimed that the Jews of one generation would be held responsible for the death of Abel, murdered in a myth 2000 years before any of them were born…

    Should we follow the Biblical example and hold Jews of today responsible for the murder of somebody 2000 years before any of them were born?

    I hope not, but then I am not an expert theologian…

    1. Should we follow the Biblical example and hold Jews of today responsible for the murder of somebody 2000 years before any of them were born?

      There are quite a number of rather unpleasant people who’d say “yes”.

  9. Yes, yes, burning bushes, commandments on tablets, slaughter of the innocents. After all, God is speaking to bronze age goat herders, and what did they know?

    But wouldn’t you think that if God had the time and interest to tell his followers not to mix wool and cotton, God could have found the time and interest to command his followers to wash their hands? What, God thought, maybe, his followers had enough on the ball to understand they should avoid pork, but were too stupid to understand hand-washing?

  10. Back in my evangelical days (i.e. middle school), my dad had me read a bunch of Henry Morris. He and most other creationists seem to have an almost opposite idea of how to tell which parts are just metaphor — the writer or speaker (as when Jesus is quoted) has to specifically say that that the following is a parable. Otherwise everything else is to be taken literally.

    1. …and what of the portions of Biblical prose that bridge between the poetic and the historical stuff? What do we use then? The Gutenberg Uncertainty Principle?

      1. I think it is Relativistic Poetic Metaphor-History Duality (RPM-HD). The text is observed either as poetic metaphor or history, but the observation is dependent on the frame of reference of the observer. Now we need the theological equivalents of the double-slit experiment and the photoelectric effect that works in all frames of reference.

        I think this is Sophisticated Experimental Theology (SET). I can haz Templeton grant?

        1. Follow on grant for:
          Miraculously Observed Theistic Hermeneutical Evangelistic Ritual…Fundamentalist Unfailing Canonical Kyrie Eleison Revelation.

  11. Don’t forget the genetics lesson from Genesis 30: characteristics of offspring are determined by what their parents see while mating.

    Genesis 30:38-39: And he set the rods which he had pilled before the flocks in the gutters in the watering troughs when the flocks came to drink, that they should conceive when they came to drink.
    And the flocks conceived before the rods, and brought forth cattle ringstraked, speckled, and spotted.

    Take that, Mendel and Darwin!

  12. He says –
    ““Yesterday Pastor Eugene drove me up a wall.” One is clearly literal and the other is clearly symbolic, but they both may be one hundred percent true.”
    Well one is an event and the other is a state of mind. Can a state of mind be true in the same way as an event?
    Again –
    ““You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.” He was speaking life-changing truth, but he was not speaking literally.”
    Well is that not exactly what Roman Catholics believe? Transubstantiation?

    1. I grew up being told that the RC church was a cult that had perverted the true (i.e. spiritual/symbolic) meaning of the communion ritual. Evangelicals don’t generally do communion, and when they do they don’t think they’re literally eating/drinking the flesh/blood of Jesus.

        1. Here’s an LA Times starting point

          A close colleague of mine (in epidemiology) has let me know how notoriously difficult studying influenza… colds… other easily-passed grubbers are. I bet more such studies are in the works. (religion and social networks are in vogue at the moment)

    2. …they both may be one hundred percent true…

      It’s astonishing and frustrating, how much rhetorical bang people like Swaim think they get for that kind of equivocating buck. No, it’s not one-hundred percent true that hd was driven up a wall. The one-hundred percent true statement would’ve been “Pastor Eugene angered me.” The former construction is just a little bit of poetry.

  13. Pastor Dave Swaim: “Many contemporary scientists use fossil records, and archaeology, and genetics, to insist that humanity is much older than a literal reading of Genesis would allow, and could not have come from a single human couple. Others disagree.”

    Lying fraud. Which contemporary scientists disagree?

    1. He doesn’t say other scientists, just «others,» so technically not lying.

      I was raised as a Catholic and, at least at the time, reading the bible was not encouraged. Everything, including the gospels, had to be interpreted by the doctors of the church.

      1. As I recall, that was one of the largest bones of contention between Luther and the church hierarchy.

        Nice to see nothing has progressed in the Catholic church in…what…500 years?

  14. “Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence….”

    Whenever you see a religious apologist use the phrase:

    “Most scholars agree that…”

    you can be nearly certain that what follows is going to be found somewhere on a continuum from highly dubious to outright bald-faced bullfeathers. Pastor Swaim certainly doesn’t disappoint.

  15. “Hail, [thou that art] highly favoured” was a misprint – as all choristers know, Mary was “Highly flavoured”!

  16. Pastor Dave Swaim: “Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history, and modern archaeology and anthropologists have accumulated libraries full of corroborating evidence.”

    Lying fraud. Here is what the biblical archaeologists actually say:

    Deconstructing the walls of Jericho
    Ha’aretz. By Ze’ev Herzog, Professor of archaeology at The Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Cultures at Tel Aviv University
    This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom. And it will come as an unpleasant shock to many that the God of Israel, Jehovah, had a female consort and that the early Israelite religion adopted monotheism only in the waning period of the monarchy and not at Mount Sinai.Most of those who are engaged in scientific work in the interlocking spheres of the Bible, archaeology and the history of the Jewish people – and who once went into the field looking for proof to corroborate the Bible story – now agree that the historic events relating to the stages of the Jewish people’s emergence are radically different from what that story tells.

    Here’s biblical archaeologist William Dever’s account of how he lost his Christian faith attempting to prove the truth of the Biblical story and ended up discovering the Bible’s falsity. “Losing Faith: Who Did and Who Didn’t, How Scholarship Affects Scholars”:

    About 15 years ago, in my archaeological work I began to write about ancient Israel. Originally I wrote to frustrate the Biblical minimalists; then I became one of them, more or less. The call of Abraham, the Promise of the Land, the migration to Canaan, the descent into Egypt, the Exodus, Moses and monotheism, the Law at Sinai, divine kingship—archaeology throws all of these into great doubt. My long experience in Israel and my growing uncertainty about the historicity of the Bible meant that was the end for me.

    1. I love how even the Baptist in this discussion suggests that Jesus’s resurrection is a metaphor, yet still seems to be perfectly happy believing in God as if it were real. Its such doublethink, I find it hard to wrap my head around it.

    2. Thanks for your comments and the links. They were educational.

      From the end of the first article:

      “Many of the findings mentioned here have been known for decades. The professional literature in the spheres of archaeology, Bible and the history of the Jewish people has addressed them in dozens of books and hundreds of articles. Even if not all the scholars accept the individual arguments that inform the examples I cited, the majority have adopted their main points.
      Nevertheless, these revolutionary views are not penetrating the public consciousness.”

      The million-dollar-question is, of course, how to pentetrate the public consciousness with these findings?

        1. I liked parts of that Nova program, but they really tried to take a light hand on it. Exodus didn’t happen, but maybe some Jews did get stuck in Egypt and get out, why not? They also completely ignored all the history of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its destruction, and spent a lot of time making a big deal about how they found evidence that David was real, while deliberately ignoring that the evidence put him as a vassal for a much larger Israelite kingdom.

          Its like they think that telling the undiluted truth will just wreck people. And it may, but some things need to be wrecked, because the pastors and priests sure as hell aren’t educating anyone.

    3. Dever also said:

      “I never had a pious bone in my
      body. And I realized I was never really a believer, but it just took me 40 years to figure out that it was no longer meaningful.
      That’s when I converted to Judaism. [Laughs] I did it precisely because you don’t have to be religious to be a Jew. And I’m
      perfectly comfortable where I am.”

      Pretty funny, but not exactly a pious believer who truly lost his faith because he found he could not adequately defend the historicity of the bible. I believe by definition, one must *believe* before they can lose their belief. Right? It had nothing to do with “discovering the bible’s falsity.” It had much more to do with his own waning interest in spirituality and not “seeing a God who intervenes.”

      Show me someone who offers evidence that the bible is false and I’ll show you someone with a fatal bias because of a bone to pick with God.

  17. First of all, just because Luke writes that he’s writing “based on eyewitnesses”, he’s not following the conventions of other history writers in the ancient Greco-Roman world. There’s also the fact that Luke shares 65% of his material with Mark and Matthew. And then the extremely high probability that our canonical Luke was written in reaction to a heretic named Marcion, who also used a version of Luke.

    Funny how apologists will ignore mainstream Christian scholarship when it suits them. But since Luke is based on Mark, then we have to determine if Mark was meant as history or allegory. If Mark is allegory, and Luke based his narrative largely on Mark, then it makes no sense whatsoever to claim that Luke is writing history.

    Let’s take a look at one of the biggest allegories/ironies in Mark

    Mark 10:46

    Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man the son of Timaeus Bartimaeus, was sitting by the roadside begging.

    Now if you glaze over this passage and read it like a CNN report like I assume our good friend at BioLogos has done, you wouldn’t notice which word the author of Mark has just taught you. The secret is the redundancy: “bar” means “son of”.

    Mark 14:32-36

    32 They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.”
    33 He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled.

    34 “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” he said to them. “Stay here and keep watch.”

    35 Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him.

    36 “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

    Again, I assume that since the language here is mundane like a CNN report, it must be true, right? Or at least written like a history report. But again, we have redundancy if we assume that Jesus was not praying in Greek here but originally in Aramaic. “Abba” means “father” in Aramaic.

    The synoptic parallels in Matthew and Luke for both of these pericopae omit the redundancy.

    Let’s look at Mark 15:

    6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested.
    7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.
    8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
    9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate,
    10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.
    11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

    What’s that? We have a character named “bar” “abba”. Why would Mark create those redundancies unless he wanted the astute reader to know what Barabbas meant? So it stands to reason that there’s a high probability that Mark invented the character Barabbas.

    Not only that, but Mark’s depiction of Pilate is the complete opposite of how he’s depicted in other literature from the time period, and of course, there is no evidence of a custom for releasing a prisoner because of a holiday in antiquity.

    The scene en toto is patently absurd and looks to be the complete fabrication on Mark’s part for allegorical representation of Leviticus 16 (some manuscripts of Matthew have Barabbas’ first name as Jesus).

    The fact that Luke would repeat this pericope is an indictment of Luke’s supposed skill as a historian.

    1. Luke is obviously a scrupulous historian. He was even able to record the exact words of Jesus in the garden, even though, by his own record, Jesus was alone when he spoke the words.

      Most scholars agree… that is one clever historian.

      1. It makes you wonder if all of that wasn’t told to someone while he was in prison, ala Dead Man Walking, or if Zombie Jesus did some sort of post-resurrection Q&A during those 40 days where he was apparently walking around undeadish. I think either would make kind of an interesting framing device for a Jesus movie, actually, though one would expect it would take a long time for Zombie Jesus to groan out his story.

  18. There’s actually a lot known about which parts of the Bible are most likely literally true.

    Scholars also have a reasonably good idea which parts of the Bible were intended to be literally true.

    Ditto for parts of the Bible that were intended to be taken for literal truth.

    Problem is, the third class is larger than the second and the second is larger than the first. Evangelicals cannot accept the fact that various parts of the Bible portray themselves as more accurate than they are. So they fudge the questions.

    Genesis 1-11 is 100% verifiably false, so they say it was never intended as history (despite the fact that the flood, for example, was taken as history hundreds of years before the Bible was even written — as can be ascertained from Sumerian King lists and the like.)

    At the same time they, over optimistically claim everything else that looks like a portrayal of history actually is correct history (despite the fact that the famous stories in Exodus and Joshua are every bit as verifiably false as the great flood.)

    As a result, they don’t do a good job of answering any of the three questions they conflate.

  19. How do we tell which parts of scripture are true?

    Theology’s actual methodology is: “Ask me” is the right answer…for some values of “me.” If you want to know how do we tell which values of “me” it works for, the method is…ask me.

    But I prefer:

    Wheel! Of! Theology!

  20. Just how do theologians back their (often very large) claims about God and the universe with evidence and reason. Who gives(them)the authority to pronounce on issues to which there can be little or no epistemic justification provided.Whats makes their opinion any more valid than mine, yours or the guy that dilivers my pizza?

  21. Of course Mohler doesn’t agree with Swain – even Gen1-10 are literal truth. Swain has a defective method of establishing truth, namely that if he imagines something to be true it must be so. It is a defect he shares with the vast majority of religious people.

  22. The Holy Book is ridden with contradictions and discrepancies which are observable through reason and research alone.
    Example: the “born again” idea. This comes from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, in which the former explains that one must be born again. Nicodemus naturally questions the Anointed One’s phrase, indicating that he is confused that a human must literally be born again through the female birth channel. Jesus retorts using the metaphoricity of the play on words in Ancient Greek. As Prof. Bart D. Ehrman points out, the calembour works in that language, but not in Aramaic, the tongue which Jesus spoke.
    Therefore this conversation could not have taken place.
    An example of great academic research; BDE learned the two languages, went to the source and analysed the text. Honest biblical scholars have a lot to teach us. BDE, for those who us who are hopeless at but admire science and scientists, provides some great rebuttals with religionists in our everyday lives.

  23. I think it would be a really fun exercise for Albert Mohler, Karl Giberson, Andrew Sullivan, and Mr. Swain to do the following:

    Take your bible and highlight only those phrases that you believe are 100% literal and/or historically accurate.

    So, I’m sure that they’d all highlight Genesis 1:1. After that…well, let the fun begin!

  24. Thank you Jerry Coyne for bringing quoting Bible verses back into fashion. The believers have lulled us into thinking it is blasé to quote Bible verses.

    Skeptic: [Quotes Bible verses]

    Believer: “Ho hum, I got an answer for that one. *yawn*”

    1. People may be blasé (Cloyed with or tired of pleasure; bored or unimpressed by things from having seen or experienced them too often. – Shorter Oxford) but believers may have lulled us into thinking it is passé.

      1. We have been lulled into thinking it is boring and unimpressive to quote Bible verses.

        Mr. Skeptic: [Quotes Bible verses.]

        Mr. Believer: “*yawn* So what.”

        Mr. Skeptic: “Oh! Uhhhhh… Boy don’t I feel like an idiot!”

        Mr. Believer: “That’s right. Just remember your place. And remember I am impervious to your boring Bible debunking.”

  25. Most scholars agree that everything after Genesis 11 is intended to be literal history,

    Wow, BioLogos has really gone downhill. Just kidding, they were already there but people were pretending like they weren’t for some odd reason. Lol.

  26. I will give Swaim some credit here: When we ask how we are supposed to tell which parts of the Bible are literal and which are metaphorical, the response is usually crickets. Either the question is ignored, or it is evaded.

    Swaim has at least attempted to give an answer to this question, and he deserves a nod for that. His answer ultimately fails, for a few different reasons*, but kudos to him for at least trying to honestly answer the question.

    * In short: 1) While Swaim points out some obvious metaphor in the Bible, there are plenty of propositions left on the table that appear to be stated literally but cannot possible be true. The degree of subjectivity is so high that we haven’t really gained much. 2) Completely writing off Genesis 1 leaves Jesus’ sacrifice in jeopardy, a problem which I believe is just salvageable for sects that reject original sin, but a deal-breaker for others such as Catholicism. 3) He is simply wrong when he states that there is archaeological support for the apparently literal narratives of the Old Testament; the exact opposite is closer to the truth. 4) It is far too easy to massage this answer into the old canard, “All the parts that conflict with known science are metaphorical, all the rest is true (until it isn’t).”

  27. Greetings,

    “So what’s the stuff in Luke 1 that’s literally true, because it’s reported as history?”

    Er, it appears that Swain is unaware that, according to biblical scholars, the first two chapters of Luke – and Matthew, for that matter – were added in the second or third century.

    Kindest regards,


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