Chris Hitchens’ Dismal Treatment of the New Testament in “God is Not Great.”


Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great.

It is quite clear that Christopher Hitchens’ book demonstrates much hate for religion; a fact that will hardly surprise those of us who are reasonably familiar with some of his works. His formula is simple: all religion is equally bad/evil/irrational, religion causes suffering in the world, and all religion must be done away with and be replaced with reason. What we do find is that his intense dislike warps his rational functioning in his book.

It is also quite true that Hitchens is a sublime rhetorician and his polemic will prove persuasive to his audience. But that can only take one so far. For a start Hitchens seems to make a number of factual errors in his book, as one Professor of New Testament Mark Roberts, notes, “I found fifteen factual errors in this material (pertaining to the New Testament). I also identified sixteen statements that show what I consider to be a substantial misunderstanding or distortion of the evidence.” This brief book “review” (or more of a critique) will zoom in on some of the really obvious blunders he makes in his treatment of the New Testament. The first of his errors include an incorrect date of Jesus’ birth. For example, Hitchens writes that “This [year 2000 hysteria] was no better than primitive numerology: in fact it was slightly worse in that 2000 was only a number of Christian calendars and even the stoutest defenders of the Bible story now admit that if Jesus were ever born it wasn’t until at least AD 4” (p. 59-60).

In fact, broad expert consensus holds that Jesus was born around 4 BC; a date arrived at using historical chronology via pinpointing King Herod’s death. It also seems that Hitchens doubts, if we may put it that way, that Jesus was actually ever born (“if Jesus were ever born”). That would be a fringe view, if he does go with it, since no historian doubts that Jesus lived which, obviously, meant that he had to be born. I think Hitchens makes a rather inexcusable blunder by getting one of the leading New Testament scholars’ name wrong. In the book Bart Ehrman, widely known for his skepticism of Christianity, is called “Barton,” which is simply incorrect. That’s like a Christian calling Richard Dawkins, Richard Porkins.

Hitchens goes on to write that “he [Maimonides, the Jewish rabbi and philosopher] fell into the same error as do the Christians, in assuming that the four Gospels were in any sense a historical record. Their multiple authors–none of whom published anything until many decades after the Crucifixion–cannot agree on anything of importance” (p. 111).

This is quite a problematic diagnosis. Firstly, it is scholars, and not only Christians, who hold the gospels to be in at least in some sense historical. That much isn’t in doubt. That’s not to deny that scholars don’t debate or dispute anything within the accounts, which they certainly do. It is also held that the gospel authors had theological agendas when they penned their accounts in the way that they wanted to make a case in urging their readers to put their faith in the risen Jesus. Concerning the actual historicity of the gospels Bart Ehrman explains that “If historians want to know what Jesus said and did they are more or less constrained to use the New Testament Gospels as their principal sources. Let me emphasize that this is not for religious or theological reasons – for instance, that these and these alone can be trusted. It is for historical reasons, pure and simple.”

Moreover, most experts in the field are convinced that the gospels read as ancient Greco-Roman biography, as Graham Stanton of Cambridge University believes, “I do not think it is not possible to deny that the Gospels are a subset of the broad ancient literary genre of ‘lives’, that is, biographies.” In agreement David Aune, a well-known specialist in ancient literature, pens that “while the Gospel writers clearly had an important theological agenda, the very fact that they chose to adapt Greco-Roman biographical conventions to the story of Jesus indicated that they were centrally concerned to communicate what they thought really happened.”

Thus Hitchens’ radical view that nothing in the gospels can be seen as historical wouldn’t gain much currency in the professional academy. However, perhaps another false claim he makes is that the Gospel authors “cannot agree on anything of importance.”

Firstly, that is just patently false on its face. The gospel authors agree on many things. For example, though not limited to, that Jesus had a ministry, that he performed miracles and exorcisms, had followers and disciples, irked the religious authorities, was killed by crucifixion, was buried in a tomb, that the tomb was discovered empty by his women followers, that God raised him from the dead, and that the disciples came to believe in that on the basis of several post-mortem appearances. This is not an exhaustive list, but they are impressive facts that all the gospel authors agree on. That considered we should immediately be suspicious of Hitchens’ claim.

Secondly, there are many differences and conflicts within the gospel accounts and we could charitably grant Hitchens that much. However, these agreements are often in secondary details; details that the core narratives are not undermined by. But Hitchens goes on to make another outright blunder, he writes that “The book on which all four [New Testament Gospels] may possibly have been based, known speculatively to scholars as “Q,” has been lost forever, which seems distinctly careless on the part of the god who is claimed to have “inspired” it.” (p. 112)

Let me explain the nature of Q. Firstly, although the four gospels are  independent sources (some more so than others) the gospel authors did, according to professional opinion, consult hypothetical (no longer existing) sources. For example, Matthew and Luke both inherit independent traditions L & M and they also make use of hypothetical Q. We know that they must have had a common source because they agree near verbatim on certain statements, miracles and ministerial narratives that involve Jesus. If this agreed content in Matthew and Luke cannot be found in Mark (which Luke and Matthew did substantially use for source material) then where does it come from and what would explain such cross agreement? The theory is that they both made use of an additional source, whether textual, oral or both, commonly referred to as Q.

However, problems arise when Hitchens says that Q is a “book.” This is very speculative and definitely shows that he has consulted no more than Wikipedia on the nature of Q, and probably also misread the Wiki article. Professor Dan Wallace explains that “Though we would agree that Q really existed, we still don’t know much about it. After all, all we can go on are snippets from Q that were used by Matthew and Luke. The bottom line is that “we know nothing of Q’s nature, size, and import beyond its use in Matthew and Luke.” So, we might ask, how does Hitchens know that Q was a book? Has he discovered a pile of autographs, or manuscripts, or is it just his hypothesis? Well, he doesn’t tell us so we are left to conclude that he just doesn’t understand the very basics of New Testament scholarship.

Moreover his claim that somehow inspiration is undermined because Q “has been lost forever” is problematic. Firstly, we don’t know what Hitchens means by “inspiration,” and wouldn’t expect him to have come to an educated conclusion, especially if we are to judge him by the outright blunders in his treatment of the New Testament. Secondly, it seems irrelevant. Why? Simply because the content of Q was preserved in the Gospels of Matthew & Luke. What really matters is the content. So, why couldn’t have some supernatural being overseen that process and intended for that to happen?

Then again there are problems with Hitchens’ claim that “all four [New Testament Gospels] may possibly have been based” on Q. This is simply false because only Matthew and Luke used Q whereas John and Mark did not. Moreover, the Q material in Luke and Matthew is only but a part of their overall material because they also used, alongside Q, content from Mark and additional unique material L (for Luke’s gospel) and M (for Matthew’s gospel). So that does away with Hitchens’ claim.

Then a final claim in regards to is Hitchens’ belief that Q “has been lost forever.” This is problematic simply because we can’t assume it. It may well be the case that we do find something pertaining to Q in the future. It may not be likely, but it is not impossible. So I’d urge Hitchens to reserve his judgement.

Then the Gnostic Gospels (GG), rather unsurprisingly, make an appearance. According to Hitchens “These scrolls were of the same period and provenance as many of the subsequent canonical and “authorized” Gospels, and have long gone under the collective name of “Gnostic.” “(p. 112)

Firstly, as one might point out, the Nag Hammadi documents are codices (ancient books) and not “scrolls.” Secondly, scholars approach the GG with caution, especially when they provide narratives on the historical Jesus. Why is that? Firstly, they are late having been penned between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. That allows much time for embellishment and motive to rework the original New Testament narratives. We see this in the Gospel of Peter’s account of Jesus exiting the tomb, as exegete William Craig recounts, “one has only to read the account in the Gospel of Peter, which describes Jesus’s triumphant egress from the tomb, accompanied by angelic visitants, followed by a talking cross, heralded by a voice from heaven, and all witnessed by a Roman guard, the Jewish leaders, and a multitude of spectators!” This is the kind of data that we get from the GG; fictional, embellished, reworked renderings of the historical accounts within the New Testament gospels. Scholar Dan Wallace therefore explains that the claim that the Gnostic material provide any credible historical insight into early Christianity “is historically false,” as well as a “misleading and anachronistic attempt to write a revisionist history.” And, as Professor N.T. Wright realizes, what we do read in the Gnostic materials “is a fictional character called ‘Jesus’ talking to fictional character[s].” When it comes to the historical Jesus we have to be very careful what we consider from these Gnostic texts.

Secondly, they were written by, as the name implies, Gnostics. These anonymous authors, however, ascribed the names of the original disciples (Peter and Thomas, for example) and other prominent New Testament figures (Mary and Judas etc.) to their accounts in order to disingenuously gain unwarranted credibility. The point being is that none of the people whose names are given actually wrote these texts. For example, it is just not possible for, say, Judas to have written the Gospel of Judas because by the time the Gospel of Judas was actually written (towards the end of the 2nd century) he would have long been dead, as Wallace argues that “This date makes it clear that the gospel’s origin is too late to be authentically from Judas.”

Thirdly, the motives of these Gnostic authors is clear. They were anti-Christian, had very different theological beliefs to early Christians, and tried to rework the real historical Jesus to their advantage in order to validate their religious views. This reconfiguration goes to some extremes whereby the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas adds information into Jesus’ youth years of where we don’t have any information (except for a mention in the original Gospel of Luke). In this account Jesus sometimes uses malevolent supernatural powers to his advantage. As a child Jesus allegedly made clay birds which he then brings to life (a pointless miracle that has no spiritual meaning as do the ones we read within the original New Testament gospels). In this same account we have a Jesus who curses a fellow child whose body then withers into a corpse (Jesus was just one years old when he made this curse) and also curses the neighbours of Joseph and Mary by striking them blind. This is clearly not what one  would consider the Jesus of history to be; a person who scholars believe was a wise, influential teacher who preached against violence.

Fourthly, there is a very obvious double standard in play here on the part of atheists like Hitchens. What he will try to do is undermine our confidence in the New Testament gospels (our primary sources for the historical Jesus), however, he will then opt for the later GGs and argue as if they are more worthy. However, when we do consider the atheist’s argument what we do then find in the GGs are clearly very late, apologetically and mythologically adorned, speculative and almost certainly fictional accounts of history, especially when it comes to the historical Jesus. Where is the atheist’s consistency here? Where is that rationality they so often champion about?

Hitchens goes on to write that “There is no mention of any Augustan census by any Roman historian…” (p. 112).

This is evidently a challenge to the census report in Luke’s gospel. But remember that Hitchens says “any” Roman historian and, therefore, if we were to be technical, we’d have to correct him since the 1st century Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus recounts an Augustan census (“the number of citizens and allies under arms, of the fleets, of subject kingdoms, provinces, taxes…”). Moreover, Augustus in his work The Deeds of the Divine Augustus records three censuses under his governing. Some Christian apologists have argued that if Augustus decreed a census in 8 BC, as he himself claims, then it’s quite possible that this was the census described in Luke 2, which was not finished in Judea until a year or two later. However, this is an important point for scholars debate the historicity of the Lukan census with some outright rejecting it and others accepting it. But remember that Hitchens said “any,” meaning no Roman historian made reference to an Augustan census, which is false.

To be continued…

4 responses to “Chris Hitchens’ Dismal Treatment of the New Testament in “God is Not Great.”

  1. Pingback: “New” Atheism: 15 Reasons Why It Is Irrational | Historical Jesus studies.·

  2. Actually, with regard to the Gospels, there is an ATHEIST NT scholar (unfortunately I forget the name) who says that Mark was written no later than AD 40! The book of Acts has 82 names, places and events that have been historically verified, with NO errors; John’s Gospel has some 30+. And as for disagreements, a major characteristic of good eyewitness testimony from multiple sources is that they will agree on the major points, while varying in the details because of their differing perspectives. Hitchens’ book should be retitled god is not Great: how religion poisons everything (including the rantings of Atheists).

  3. religion does poison everything…fortunately science and the truth of the natural world is accelerating the pace at which will take their last gasp.

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