Thursday, March 24, 2022

Part IV: Non-canonical books: what could have been in the Bible?

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part IV

The Bible is a collection of works written at different times by different authors. The “canon” of the Bible is the list of books that are included in the Bible. A book is called canonical if it is part of the accepted canon of the Bible, for example, the Gospel of Matthew is canonical. The Gospel of Matthew is the first book of the New Testament. The novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” by J. K. Rowling is definitely not canonical in the sense I'm talking about here — it’s not part of the Bible, it doesn’t pretend to be and no one ever thought it was. However, when I talk about “non-canonical” books, in the context of this blog post, it’s about books that almost made it into the canon, but for some reason, didn’t. The non-canonical books described here are early Christian writings that have similar topics, characters and origins to those that made it into the Bible.

This post comprises two summaries, a short summary of the Book of Enoch and a much longer summary of “Lost Scriptures” by Bart Ehrman, which itself is comprised of short summaries of a number of non-canonical books. The last part of “Lost Scriptures” is a collection of canon lists. The next post in this series, “Part V: Biblical canon scholarship,” will make numerous references to different non-canonical books (and canon lists), many of which are mentioned here.

Photo of Bart Ehrman by Dan Sears. (Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

The collection of heretical works in this blog post has the recurring theme of Gnosticism, a religious approach that emphasizes personal knowledge (gnosis). To me, the practice of Gnosticism today would be similar to neo-paganism: a pointless revival of a dead religion for the sake of seeming hip. But if you are worried about the numerous diverging paths of Christian theology and the accompanying shatter-mess of schisms that is Christian history, then you should add Gnosticism to your list of ways that your theology could be wrong. Many of the Gnostic works appeared to us in 1945 with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, a treasure-trove of manuscripts older than a millennium. 

I’ve included links to Wikipedia for most books, but I have also gained much by studying this website: Early Christian Writings.

The Book of Enoch 

The book of Enoch claims to be written by the patriarch (while some parts are attributed to Noah). It expands on the stories from Genesis of the flood and of the heavenly beings having children with human women. It discusses angels and demons in depth, mentioning Azazel as a demon. The book of Enoch discusses light, lightning, thunder and other meteorological and astronomical phenomena in spiritual terms. An "elect" one is described with properties similar to the Son of Man in Daniel and Jesus in the New Testament. Also mentioned are a "Son of Man" and a "Messiah" that may be the same person. 

Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament

By Bart Ehrman

Summary written in 2015 

Ehrman gives introductions to and the texts of several non-canonical early Christian writings. At the end, Ehrman presents several canon lists from the early church.

Coptic Gospel of Thomas 

The gospel of Thomas contains secret sayings of Jesus. Many of these sayings have counterparts in the synoptic canonical gospels, but some are unlike the canonical gospels. 

Gospel of Peter 

This is a fragment with a story of the end of Jesus' trial, his death and resurrection. It is similar to the canonical gospel stories, but says that Jesus rose from the tomb with two men, all three tall enough for their heads to reach the sky, and at one point heaven asks a question which is answered by the cross (which also came out of the tomb). I wonder if these parts are faulty text restorations or translations.

Gospel of Philip 

This gospel diverges from the canonical gospels in both content and theology. For example, Jesus is said to not be born of a virgin (although maybe the book contradicts itself on this point). Notably, this gospel implies that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. The book does not describe Jesus' life but rather is a number of Gnostic theological reflections, and it is very difficult to understand. 

Gospel of Truth 

This is actually a Gnostic sermon, not an account of Jesus' life. Error and knowledge are personified, and Jesus is described as bringing knowledge of the Father. However, this piece has several ideas that do not contradict orthodox Christianity: that Jesus died, descended into hell and rose again and that people are predestined to be divinely called. But it diverges from orthodoxy by considering that people are saved by knowledge rather than by grace and faith. This is a beautiful piece that makes me think of televangelists. 

The Gospel of the Saviour 

This is generally in agreement with the canonical gospels in theology but it presents novel content. It's a fragment with lots of missing bits so it's hard to determine exactly what it's really saying. 

Infancy Gospel of Thomas 

This gospel records miracles that Jesus did as a child including turning mud into birds, cursing another child to be withered and cursing a child that ran into him, causing the child to die. Jesus also displays wisdom beyond his years when he is educated. Jesus raises a boy from the dead, heals a dying man and plants a single grain of wheat that grows into a hundred bushels. Jesus' father Joseph is a main character. At one point, Jesus heals Joseph's son James. The book ends with the story from Luke of 12 year old Jesus being left behind at the temple at Passover. 

The Proto-Gospel of James

This book, purportedly written by James, describes Mary's birth and upbringing and then Jesus' birth. It mostly agrees with the canonical gospels (where comparison is possible) but sometimes diverges. Mary is described as being born miraculously to a rich family and then left at the temple (like Samuel). Mary is promised to Joseph, a widower. (James is Joseph's son from a previous marriage.) Mary becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit when she's 16 but she remains a virgin even after she gives birth to Jesus in a cave. The wise men visit Jesus at the cave. Jesus is hidden in a manger to evade Herod's slaughter of the infants. 

The Epistle of the Apostles (actually a gospel) 

This book attacks Simon and Cerinthus (two early Gnostics), by describing a proto-orthodox view of what Jesus said to the apostles after his resurrection. Jesus affirms that the flesh will rise. When proving his resurrected body, Jesus tells Andrew to observe his footprints. Then Jesus makes a bizarre quote from a book that I do not know: "For it is written, 'But a ghost, a demon, leaves no print on the ground.'" Jesus says he will return after 150 years, between Pentecost and Passover (oops).

The Coptic Apocalypse of Peter and The Second Treatise of the Great Seth

These two texts are obviously Gnostic and are purported to mostly be the words of Jesus, explaining how proto-orthodox Christians are in error. Jesus did not in fact die, but he only appeared to die. One Gnostic belief is that body and spirit are separate. The spirit Jesus was floating about the cross laughing. I do not consider these books useful for understanding the historical Jesus. 

Secret Mark


This text is quite possibly a forgery. It purportedly comes from a letter from Clement in two extracts, one of which describes Jesus raising a young man from the dead and then spending the night with him. The young man is described as wearing a linen cloth over his naked body, maybe implying some homosexuality. 

Acts of John

This describes the supposed adventures of the apostle John in Ephesus including raising the dead, miraculously breaking the temple of Artemis and commanding bed bugs to leave him and his party alone. Clearly, the book supports asceticism, since the righteous abstain from sex, even in marriage. John describes Jesus as constantly changing in appearance and simultaneously appearing different to different people. John also says that Jesus didn't produce footprints. (See also the Epistle of the Apostles) The book also seems anti-Semitic 'before he was arrested by the lawless Jews, who received their law from a lawless serpent'. In this book, Jesus is said to have appeared to John while he was, in appearance to everyone else, dying on the cross. This book is obviously docetic.

Acts of Paul

Ehrman presents a single excerpt from this book where Paul’s activity in Rome incites Nero to persecute Christians, to the point where Paul himself is executed. Paul’s neck bleeds with milk instead of blood, and Paul later appears to condemn Nero (as Paul prophesied before his execution).

Acts of Thecla

This book follows a woman who is a disciple of Paul. Like the Acts of John, this book advocates against sex inside marriage. This book gives a physical description of the apostle Paul: "Then he saw Paul coming: a man short in stature, with a bald head, bowed legs, in good condition, eyebrows that met, a fairly large nose, and full of grace. At times he seemed human, at other times he looked like an angel."

The Acts of Thomas

This book describes Thomas' trip to India. Like many other non-canonical acts books, it condemns all sexual activity, even in marriage. (One can observe that a fertility-reducing meme is doomed to go extinct.) The book also has a brief description of heaven, and a more lengthy description of hell. Ehrman only presents two extracts; the whole book is much longer. 

Acts of Peter

This book records Peter’s acts in Rome, including a confrontation with Simon Magus, the sorcerer who (like in the canonical Acts) offered to pay for the ability to work miracles like Peter. At one point, the book describes people as reading the 'gospel' and that same thing is referred to by Peter as 'holy scriptures.' Peter goes on to explain how “What we have written down according to his grace, though it may seem to you as yet so little, contains what is endurable to be understood by humanity. …. the Lord was moved by compassion to show himself in another form and to appear in the image of man, by whom neither the Jews nor we are worthy to be enlightened.” Peter goes on to describe a version of the transfiguration. When Peter confronts Simon, he quotes several books as being scriptural/prophetic, including Isaiah, Ascension of Isaiah, Daniel, Psalms, Mark and apparently makes quotes from unknown sources. In Peter’s confrontation with Simon, a slave is killed by Simon then Peter raise him from the dead. Later, Simon and Peter compete to raise another dead man. In a second confrontation, Peter causes Simon to fall out of the sky while Simon was magically flying. The book describes many married couples ceasing sexual activity after becoming Christians. Peter is arrested for causing important men’s wives to withhold sex. Peter gives an impassioned (although slightly gnostic) speech as he is taken for execution on the cross and he requests to be hung upside down, explaining (with a quote from the Gospel of Thomas or maybe the Acts of Philip) that he should be upside down to mimic the 'first man’ unlike the right side up ‘Word.’ Although the Acts of Peter has some gnostic sentiments, most of it seems generally orthodox to me.

3 Corinthians

This is a pseudepigraphical letter from Paul to the Corinthians that refutes some Gnostic principles. Ehrman includes the text of letter from the Corinthians to Paul, and pseudo-Paul's reply. This book seems entirely proto-orthodox in its theology. 

The Correspondence between Paul and Seneca

In reality, Seneca probably didn't know of Paul. This book, probably composed in the fourth century, describes a series of letters between Paul, the now-but-not-then famous apostle, and Seneca, the then-and-less-so-now famous philosopher. Mostly the content of the letters is mutual admiration. 

1 Clement

This is a letter to the Corinthians that is traditionally considered to be from Clement, an early bishop of Rome. The book condemns a young faction, and asks them to return to obedience. 1 Clement quotes widely, especially from the Old Testament (including Esther), but also from some New Testament books, from the deutrocanonical books of Wisdom and Judith, and from unknown sources. This book seems entirely proto-orthodox to me. The book describes the phoenix as if it were a real bird. Clement also explains the principle of apostolic succession to justify supporting the elders at Corinth. Clement's quotations from the gospels and other parts of the New Testament as authoritative (but maybe not as being from "scripture") supports the idea that the process of canonization of the New Testament was more a process of recognition of the existing practice rather than the definition of a new practice. (1 Clement is supposed to have been written around 95 A.D.)

2 Clement

This letter is a sermon (actually it's not by Clement and doesn't claim to be). It quotes Matthew as being 'scripture.' 2 Clement also quotes from a gnostic gospel (maybe Thomas) and unknown sources. Interestingly, both 1 Clement and 2 Clement make an identical quote from an unknown prophetic source. The quote from the Gospel of Thomas (maybe what we call the Gospel of the Egyptians) says 'when the two are one, and the outside like the inside, and the male with the female is neither male nor female.' The author of 2 Clement interprets this verse in a rather orthodox kind of way, saying that it means that we should not be hypocritical, have good deeds and be sexually pure. 

The 'letter of Peter to James' and it's ‘reception’, and The Homilies of Clement 

These pseudepigraphical books promulgate a Jewish Christianity, i.e. opposed to the Pauline idea of the inclusion of uncircumcised gentiles. An interesting quote “Rather they attempt, on the basis of the rule that has been handed down to them, to harmonise the contradictions of the Scriptures, if haply some one who does not know the traditions is perplexed by the ambiguous utterences of the prophets."

Ptolemy’s Letter to Flora 

This book describes a gnostic understanding of the inspiration of the Pentateuch. That is, different parts of the Pentateuch are variously from Moses’ own mind, from the elders of Israel or inspired by an imperfect god. This is actually a strangely sensible interpretation of how Jesus removes some of the Pentateuch laws, strengths others and transforms some symbols from physical to spiritual.

The Treatise on the Resurrection 

This gnostic text defends the idea of the resurrection, but claims that resurrection to be spiritual rather than bodily.

The Didache 

Also known as "The Lord's Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations.”

This proto-orthodox work describes instructions for church life, giving, the sacraments, entertaining itinerant teachers, etc. It quotes the Old and New Testaments. Theologically, it's a bit 'works' heavy. 

The Letter of Barnabas

The text of the book does not mention the author, who was probably not the companion of the apostle Paul. It's a letter arguing that Judaism is wrong and that the Old Testament foreshadows Christ. It’s not gnostic, and Erhman calls it ‘proto-orthodox’ but I think its interpretation of the Old Testament is flawed. The flaw is that the letter of Barnabas considers that the Old Testament Judaism completely wrong at the time it was practiced, whereas it was merely an earlier step in God’s true and good redemptive plan. The letter quotes "Enoch" at two points. Also the letter quotes the Old Testament widely, occasionally from the New, and once from an unknown source. 

The letter of Barnabas also includes the strangest passage that applies numerology to the interpretation of the Old Testament in Christian light. In short, the number of people that are circumcised in Abraham's household, 18 plus 300, is digested as iota, epsilon = JE = Jesus, and 300 as tau = cross. This is especially strange given that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew. 

‘Barnabas’ explains the food prohibitions in the Mosaic law as being commands for other human behaviors by allegory. For example “Nor shall you eat the hyena” becomes a prohibition on adultery, apparently because hyenas change sex over time. The connections to the animal behaviors are strange, comical and often wrong (although the hyenas example has a grain of truth to it).

The letter closes with the “Two Ways”, a passage that also occurs in the Didache.

The Preaching of Peter 

Fragments survive; purported to be by the apostle but probably written too late. Seems proto-orthodox. One quote: "Peter in the Preaching, speaking of the apostles, says, 'But, having opened the books is the prophets which we had, we found, sometimes expressed by parables, sometimes by riddles, and sometimes directly and in so many words the names Jesus Christ...'"


Pseudo-Titus is a late-dated (maybe 5th century) pseudepigraphical book teaching Christians to abstain from sex, even in marriage. The author quotes widely from both the Old and New Testaments. One quote is attributed to Isaiah but is from an unknown source. "So also did the first created man fall because of a virgin: when he saw a woman giving him a smile, he fell." The author also quotes the Didache. 

The Shepherd of Hermas 

This is a long proto-orthodox book by an early Christian, widely considered to be inspired but not scriptural. It consists of a series of visions that include conversations with angels and a woman who personifies the church. The Shepherd of Hermas is one of the angels that talks with him. "But the other stones that you saw cast far from the tower and falling on the path and rolling from the path onto the rough terrain, these are the ones who believed, but have left their true part because they are of two minds. They are lost, thinking they can find a better path; and they are miserable, walking over the rough terrain." "For the world is also held form through the four elements." 

The revelations in the book claim that a Christian has only one chance to repent from sin after being converted.

"Repentance is itself a form of understanding."

The excerpts that Ehrman includes do not quote from other sources. 

The Apocalypse of Peter

This pseudepigraphical book contains the supposed words of Jesus describing heaven and hell, in gory detail. The book starts with Jesus' apocalyptic discourse (see Mark 13) then expands on the two possible afterlifes. The book contains some strange anachronisms: it is set before Jesus death (though written after), but includes references to Christ's death before it happens. The book quotes from Ezekiel's narrative of bones. The tortures of the damned reflect their sins in ironic ways; this work maybe was the inspiration for Dante's "Divine Comedy.”

The Apocalypse of Paul

This pseudepigraphical book starts with an account of someone finding a work by the apostle Paul that was hidden in a house where Paul stayed. The main body of the book expands on the vision of Heaven that Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 12 and describes heaven and hell in great detail. It bears many similarities to the Apocalypse of Peter.

The Secret Book of John and On the Origin of the World 

These gnostic books describe a polytheistic expansion of the creation story where the creator god mistakenly thinks that “It is I who am God, and there is no one that exists apart from me” (Isaiah 45:5-6,12). Thus the creator god is identified as the god of the Bible, and many other angels and gods (e.g. the creator’s mother, Sophia) are involved in the details of creation. "On the Origin of the World” is presented as a letter with the authority of its anonymous author, whereas The Secret Book of John starts with the post-resurrection Jesus explaining the secrets of this strange creation story with the apostle John. The two books are similar in their imaginative and complex expansions on Genesis, but they differ in their exact details.

The First Thought in Three Forms 

This is a series of mythical gnostic discourses told from the perspective of a female aeon (divine being).

The Hymn of the Pearl

This a Gnostic allegorical text about a prince who is sent to Egypt to get a pearl from a dragon's lair. The prince forgets his identity until he receives a letter from home, after which he gets the pearl and returns home to receive a garment that had been waiting for him since he left. The trip and subsequent reunion with the garment may symbolize the body's life and eventual reunion with the soul. 

Canonical lists

Ehrman concludes the book with a selection of passages from early Christians that include lists of books that were considered canonical. These lists are all proto-orthodox. Ehrman claims that no "heretical” canon lists survive and that the lists show that there was broad agreement that the canon should "include the four gospels, the writings of Paul, and several other apostolic texts. They also reveal the criteria for canonicity that were considered in such circles: for a book to be accepted as canonical, it needed to be ancient (near the time of Jesus), apostolic (connected to one of his closest followers), catholic (used widely by like-minded churches throughout the world), and orthodox (promoting the right kind of belief rather than heresy). It appears that of all the criteria, “orthodoxy” was primary… The first author to list the twenty-seven books of our New Testamant as the canonical books (these and no others) was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in 367 CE.”

The Muratorian Canon

This is believed to be the oldest surviving canon list and includes 22/27 of the New Testamanet books, excluding Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter and 3 John, and also includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Shepherd of Hermas is accepted for reading in church but not as scripture.

The Canon of Origen of Alexandria

Origin was born in 185 CE and many of his surviving writings mention various books as being scripture, but he doesn’t give an explicit list. Origen accepted the four gospels, the Pauline epistles (in general, not each enumerated), one or maybe two letters of Peter, one and maybe two more letters of John, the Apocalypse of John and Hebrew. Origen does not consider Hebrews to be written by Paul, and suggests Clement or Luke as possible authors. 

The Canon of Eusebius

Eusebius was a late 3rd to early 4th century church historian. Eusebius classified books in four categoreies:

  1. “acknowledged” as canonical by all the proto-orthodox churches: The four gospels, Acts, the epistles of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter and maybe Revelation.
  2. “disputed” by some churches and accepted by others: James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John
  3. “spurious” books which are accepted but should not be because they are pseudepigraphical: Acts of Paul, the book called the Shepherd, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Epistle of Peter, the Didache, maybe Revelation and the Gospel of Hebrews.
  4. “rejected” as heretical forgeries: the gospels of Peter, Thomas, Matthias, and some others; the acts of Andrew, John and other apostles. 

The Canon of Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius was a 4th century bishop who attended the Council of Nicea. He gave a list of the only approved books for New Testament, giving our current 27 books for the New (listing Hebrews as a letter of Paul) and listing the following books as useful but not canonical: the Wisdom of Solomon, the Wisdom of Sirach, Esther, Judith, Tobit, the Didache, and the Shepherd.

The Canon of the Third Synod of Cathage


This synod ratified Athanasius’ New Testament canon list, but its decision was not binding and the jurisdiction of the synod was not universal. 

Wikipedia tells me that the Old Testament that was ratified at this synod consists of these books: 

Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, four books of Kings, two books of Paraleipomena, Job, the Psalter, five books of Solomon, the books of the twelve prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Daniel, Tobit, Judith, Esther, two books of Esdras, two books of the Maccabees.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Part III: A clash of ideas: books summaries from a period of searching

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part III

For context, start at the introduction.

The post includes my personal summaries of four books and an essay that I read while I was searching for the truth of Christianity:

  • “On Miracles,” by David Hume (the essay)
  • “Mere Christianity,” by C. S. Lewis
  • “The Meaning of Human Existence,” by E. O. Wilson
  • “Jesus: The Human Face of God,” by Jay Parini
  • “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt

Painting of David Hume by Allan Ramsay (public domain) and photography of C. S. Lewis by Arthur Strong (fair use of non-free media). 

My selection intentionally aims to juxtapose these books as glimpses into a grand clash of ideas, but this collection is more an accident of my own history of reading than a representative sample of the best thought on this subject. I think all these works are interesting and useful to the person who searches for the truth of Christianity.

For a Christian, to read Hume’s “On Miracles” is to invite Doubt into your heart, then to offer Doubt a coffee and a comfortable chair. Such an exercise could be considered an application of Venkatesh Roa’s idea of “Accelerating into a Crash,” where the “crash” is the destruction of one’s own faith.

“Mere Christianity” follows second, in the spirit of abject contrast and the celebration of contradiction. The counsel of C. S. Lewis does what it can to cause the reverse kind of “crash” — a gain of saving faith — for the modern or early post-modern person. Lewis’ ideas have been highly influential in the kind of churches that I attended. 

The pendulum swings back to atheism with the work of the celebrated biologist E. O. Wilson, “The Meaning of Human Existence.” Can any work deliver on such a grandiose title? Notice that my summary (written in 2015) reeks of "Eternalist" thinking, when I demand more from "the meaning of life" than Wilson offers. "Eternalism," in this sense, is considering that meanings are fixed and well-defined. For example, an Eternalist would consider that "the meaning of life" is a particular thing that could be summarized in a single sentence. (The Westminster Catechism does this in its first question-answer pair.) This blog series will talk a lot more about Eternalism in Part VI, “On Meaningness,” and Parts VII through X.

As if to proffer a compromise, “Jesus: The Human Face of God” by Jay Parini sets aside questions of whether or not the Bible is factually accurate and deliberately focuses on restoring a degree of myth to our understanding of Jesus and appreciating the mythical aspects. 

It almost doesn’t fit in with the other books, but “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern,” by Stephen Greenblatt is a great book and it earns its place by contrasting a hypocritical 15th century Christianity with both Epicurean philosophy from the 1st century BC and the modern world. This book also inspired the title of my album “Electrons and Void.”

After absorbing all these works, what’s the conclusion? Which idea wins in your mind? I already revealed my eventual siding with the atheists since late 2016, but I think it’s useful to enter into the details. Not every battle in the war goes the same way, and many considerably more interesting questions are raise beyond the binary “Does god exist?” 

On Miracles

By David Hume

Full text available at 

Summary written around 2016

Hume argues that we should not accept reports of miracles, when a "miracle" is defined as a transgression of the laws of nature. He considers that the balance of probabilities is always in favor of a report of miracles being false because the evidence in favor of the natural laws always holding is so strong. Furthermore, because the reporting of miracles is fun, people may be less critical of their observations. 

One way of approaching a potential miracle is to ask a question based on probability. To use Jesus' resurrection as an example: "Which is MORE miraculous: Jesus rising from the dead, or finding the New Testament, the church and the minor byproducts of Jesus' life as they are, supposing that he did not rise?"

In one view, Hume's argument seems circular: each reported instance of miracles must be wrong, because the natural laws are so well established that we can say with confidence that, in general, miracles don't happen. Maybe we can refine Hume's argument as: our prior belief for miracles is so low, that the evidence required for us to accept one as being true is enormous. And that evidence comes as human testimony from a few witnesses which is weaker than the human testimony of many witnesses and from one's direct experience. But the Black Swan idea is at play here, that we shouldn't act based solely on probabilities because the consequences are enormous in the case of Jesus' resurrection. 

Some parts of Hume's argument are not convincing, for example, he seems to think that people wouldn't accept miracles if they were better informed; the experiment of common internet access has invalidated this premise. 

Given Hume's eloquence in this work, I find it ironic that he should dismiss those who promulgate miracles with eloquent words:  “Eloquence, when at its highest pitch, leaves little room for reason or reflection; but addressing itself entirely to the fancy or the affections, captivates the willing hearers, and subdues their understanding.”

Mere Christianity

By C. S. Lewis 

Full text available at 

Summary written around 2015

Lewis describes his opinion of the minimal and essential Christianity, explicitly leaving out aspects that distinguish one denomination from another. He begins by presenting a ground-up philosophy and apologetic case for the truth of Christianity. Essentially, he argues that objective morality leads us to belief in a god (unconvincingly) and that the gospels leave us with compelling evidence that Jesus is one of a liar, a lunatic, or, most likely, Lord. He explains Christian moral fundamentals, highlighting what he considers to be the cardinal virtues and vices. Finally, Lewis develops a philosophical justification for belief in the Trinity including a description of how God is outside of time. I admire this book for its ground-up approach to developing a complete worldview (however brief), and for its analysis of why we can’t evaluate Christianity by measuring how much nicer (or not) Christians than non-Christians (in Book 4, Chapter 10). I had encountered many of Lewis’ ideas in my journey through different Christian cultures.

The Meaning of Human Existence

By E. O. Wilson 

Summary written in 2015

Wilson vastly under-delivers on his promise to expound on the meaning of human existence. He is a biologist but no philosopher. His idea of group evolutionary selection is compelling and his description of co-operative behaviour on ants is vivid and interesting. He presupposes the non-existence of god. Wilson offers an alternative and weaker definition of 'meaning' for the titular phrase such that a description of human evolution and of humanity's place in universal biology suffices.

Jesus - The Human Face of God 

By Jay Parini 

Summary written in 2015

Parini “remythologizes" Jesus by interpreting the Biblical and extra-Biblical accounts of Jesus’ life with an emphasis on the mysterious and internally spiritual aspects, while being deliberately less concerned with the exact factual accuracy of those accounts. I found "Jesus - The Human Face of God” to be occasionally informative, occasionally insightful and consistently theologically ‘liberal.’ Parini leans toward an understanding of the kingdom of God as an inclusive, gradual process, where God brings people into his kingdom by transforming their minds, in contrast to one being ‘saved’ if and only if he or she asserts a particular set of beliefs. Parini devotes a chapter to each part of Jesus’ life: including: 1) the historical context of first century Palestine, 2) his birth & childhood, 3) the beginning of his ministry, 4) his actions as a healer and teacher, 5) his entrance to Jerusalem, 6) the passion, 7) the resurrection, and 8) a highly compressed synopsis of secular & liberal Christian thought on the life of Jesus. 

Despite feeling familiar with the canonical gospel accounts, I found “Jesus - The Human Face of God” to be thought provoking. For example: Parini considers that Jesus developed as a person and a prophet such that he came to realize his divinely appointed role only gradually. Parini definitely emphasized Jesus’ humanity, while I (as a reader more versed in conservative Christian thought) wondered as I read if Parini thought that Jesus was also divine. Actually, this is similar to what happens in the gospel accounts where the apostles consider Jesus to be a rabbi when they meet him, and then come to wonder if he is something more, and finally Peter recognizes Jesus as the Christ. Another example of how the book was thought provoking: Parini emphasizes how no one immediately recognised Jesus after his resurrection; that Jesus had an other-world quality. The resurrected Jesus ate -- and this was noteworthy! Parini considers that “Jesus did not, like Lazarus, simply get up and walk out from the burial crypt and resume life in ordinary time. The Resurrection was not the Resuscitation” (p. 125). This explicit distinction is not one that I had heard before.

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt 

Summary written in 2019

Greenblatt describes the Renaissance rediscovery of a Latin poem called "On The Nature of Things" by Lucretius (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC). Lucretius was a follower of the Epicurean school of philosophy, which espouses the pursuit of pleasure, the avoidance of pain, and the belief that the gods don't care about the activities of people (ergo no reason to consider any afterlife). Mostly the book follows the life and times of the papal secretary Poggio Bracciolin who found a copy of the poem in January 1417. Greenblatt contends that the poem was a catalyst for modernity, and that the poem contains numerous ideas that presumably belong to Greenblatt's 'modern' world view, such as atomism. Greenblatt does acknowledge that the poem is not atheist (which he considers to be a modern worldview trait) but rather deist. However, Greenblatt seems to make some incredible claims about the poem's contents, that, for example, the poet knew about evolution and exoplanets. The author praises Lucretius for his naturalist view of the world and his fun-centric philosophy, by contrast to the warped, hypocritical and unthinking Christian worldview that was common in Europe in Poggio Bracciolin’s times. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Part II: Against evangelicalism

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, part II

The Great Isaiah Scroll. (This image is in the public domain.) Do you think the contents of this manuscript are the final authority on all matters that it addresses?

I wrote this in late 2012 / early 2013, while I was still a Christian. For context about this blog post series, please see the introductory post.


I present an evangelical Christian position on the truth and authority of the Bible in order to demonstrate how that evangelical position is inconsistent with my own philosophical assumptions of minimal prejudice, skepticism, and equal treatment of all truths regardless of how I came to believe those truths. I present an alternative view of the truth of the Bible and logically justify this view from my ground assumptions. Furthermore, I critique this alternative view and highlight some of the new problems that this view presents. I present my summary of "'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God" by J. I. Packer in an appendix.

2 Notation

I use some mathematical notation, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Some mathematical notation from logic and set theory.

Symbol Meaning

a A a is an element of the set A
¬A The statement ‘not A’ (If A is true, then ¬A is false and vice versa)
AB The statement ‘A and B
A B Statement A implies statement B
AB Statement A is true if, and only if, B is true

3 An Evangelical Position

Let D represent the statement ‘Jesus is divine,’ let R represent the statement ‘Jesus’ words are reliable,’ let C be the set of claims made by the Bible, and let B represent the statement ‘For all c C, c is true in a way that accords with the literary style of c’s context.’ Eve, the evangelical Christian, argues like this:

We have a circular argument for the divinity and reliability of Jesus and the truth of the Bible:

D ⇒ R ⇒ B ⇒ D ∩ R
In order to gain saving faith, we must believe the claims of the Bible, so we must enter this circle somehow. For example, we could enter the circle by reading the gospel account of Jesus’ life and accepting it as historically accurate. Once we have accepted the Bible as true, we dogmatically assert B. After all, ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1 NIV).

Anyone who claims to be a Christian but rejects this reasoning is abusing the name; let him or her be anathema.

When someone asserts that a Biblical claim is untrue, for example ‘Methuselah could not have lived for 969 years,’ Eve responds: ‘Since we know that Jesus is divine and that his words are true, dogmatically B, therefore that person is in error.’

Some problems that Eve faces are:

  • What claims does the Bible make? What exactly is C?
  • How do we decipher the context and literary style of each part of the Bible to know exactly what B claims to be true? For example, Jev Doorknocker, the Jehovah’s Witness, finds that the Bible says Jesus is not divine, B¬D.
  • Does the truth of the 66 Protestant books of the Bible really follow from Jesus’ reliability, does RB? What books of the Bible does Jesus quote from? When can quoting a part imply endorsement of the whole? What works did Jesus mean to include what he mentioned the ‘Scriptures’ or the ‘Law and the Prophets’? What about the Deuterocanonicals? (What about Jude’s quote from the Book of Enoch?)
  • How did the canon come about? On what authority do we accept the Biblical table of contents? What about the gnostic gospels? What if someone unearthed a previously unknown document purporting to be divinely inspired?
  • How do we know that the Bible really contains Jesus’ words?

(Actually, Jesus could be divine and parts of the Bible could be false. By lumping all of the Bible’s claims into B, we lose some expressive power, but this simplification is useful here.)

4 A Counter-Evangelical Position

Logo, the logician argues against Eve:

We start by outlining our underlying assumptions. For economy of space, we do not argue from the most basic possible axioms, but we make the barefaced assertion that these axioms are indeed theorems in the logical system that one should build from the most basic axioms. (One of the most basic axioms could be ‘I generally trust my senses.’) We base our worldview on the following axioms:

  1. Minimal prejudice: We should presuppose a minimal set of axioms and logical tools then construct a worldview, rather than presupposing something to expedite our search for truth toward a desired conclusion. We cannot have no prejudice, because we must be prejudiced in the positive toward this espousal of minimal prejudice.
  2. Skepticism: Due to the abundance of error, we must qualify every statement with our degree of confidence in its veracity. Our statement of belief in skepticism itself must be qualified: we cannot be absolutely sure that skepticism is the right philosophical mode for our discussion. However, we should not be paralysed by caution, so we must proceed with using skepticism as a tool. We apply skepticism and humbly acknowledge that anything we deduce is tainted by whatever lack of confidence we have with our skepticism. For example, if we have 99% confidence in our skeptical method and if we know that XY with 95% confidence and we know X with 95% confidence, then we can infer Y, but only with 89% confidence (0.95 × 0.95 × 0.99 = 0.893475).
  3. Equal treatment of all truths, regardless of how we know them to be true: Truth revealed by God is just as true as truth discovered by man under God’s common grace. However, by the axiom of skepticism, we can have sources of truth that are more certain than others.

Logo finds that Eve’s ‘circular argument’ is better stated as an if-and-only-if:

Since DR, Eve’s claim is better stated as ‘the claims of the Bible are true, if and only if, Jesus is divine and trustworthy:’

B ⇔ D ∩ R
This way, no circular reasoning is implied or is necessary.

While dogmatically accepting the Bible has some appeal, we cannot dogmatically accept something without an indisputable argument. The Bible’s claim to be the words of the divine is not sufficient evidence to show that the Bible is true. If a benevolent, truthful God were to reveal things to us, then we could reasonably expect that one of the things God would reveal would be the fact that God authored that revelation. But notice that we can apply the same logic to the Quran, or the book of Mormon, by making the substitutions shown in Table 2.

Table 2: The if-and-only-if logic of DRBD R can apply to several different worldviews.

Label Christianity Islam Mormonism

D Jesus is divine Mohammed was the ProphetJoseph Smith was a prophet
R Jesus is reliable Mohammed was reliable Joseph Smith was reliable
B The Bible is true The Quran is true The book of Mormon is true

To reduce our prejudice toward Christianity, Islam and Mormonism, we have to look at the balance of evidence for and against each, as packaged worldviews. We cannot let a claim that some work is the divine word dominate our judgement about the truth of that work.

Since the divinity and reliability of Jesus are directly related to the truth of the Bible, we can examine whether or not we think the Bible is true in order to determine whether or not we should believe that Jesus is divine and reliable. Some of the claims of the Bible are unfalsifiable. For example, we cannot decide if Jesus was divine or not, except by divine revelation in the Bible. Other claims of the Bible may be falsifiable. For example, could someone live 969 years? Maybe we can develop some level of confidence about whether or not we think Methuselah could live to be 969. The Bible says that Jesus was killed by Pontius Pilate; this is corroborated by extra-biblical sources. If the Bible turns out to be true on the things we can falsify, then we have a more reasonable basis for accepting those parts of the Bible that we cannot falsify. If c = ‘A real man named Jesus lived in the 1st century AD’ and c C, then Bc. If we have overwhelming evidence for c apart from the Bible, then we can increase our confidence in B, but if we have overwhelming evidence against c apart from the Bible, then we must decrease our confidence in B. If someone makes claims that you can verify, then you should trust them. On the other hand, if someone makes dubious claims, you should doubt them.

We accept or reject the truth of the Bible just as we accept or reject any other notion. We evaluate the balance of evidence for and against the Bible by examining as many claims of the Bible as we can and comparing those claims against what we know from extra-biblical sources of knowledge. These comparisons are fuzzy though, because we are skeptics, so we have to weight apparent contradictions by the confidence we have in the opposing statements. If we have some low-confidence reason to believe that Jesus was not a real man who lived in the 1st century AD, but we also have a high-confidence reason to believe that Jesus really did live at that time, then we must accept the claim with higher confidence, perhaps with a slight discounting of its confidence level. Having evaluated all the claims of the Bible that we can, we develop a degree of belief in the proposition B. Because we can’t check everything in the Bible (some of its claims are unfalsifiable), and because we cannot have perfect knowledge to check the Bible with, we cannot reach 100% certain belief in all the claims of the Bible. To evaluate the truth of the Bible at some sub-100% level of confidence, then close our eyes to the degree of confidence and dogmatically assert the truth of the Bible is illogical.

However, our belief in the Bible based on skepticism does not preclude confidence or faithful actions:

  • ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24 NIV)
  • ‘Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”’ (Matthew 17:20-21 NIV)

We trust in the Jesus revealed in the Bible not with a dogmatic faith, but a humble one. We do not face the fragility of dogma, but we have unprejudiced, honest, and fair confidence in what we are convinced to be true based on what we see and we risk our lives on the hope of Jesus, trusting him with what we cannot see. Far from devaluing the Bible or its author, we are loving the Lord our God with all our minds.

Some problems facing Logo are:

  • Logo’s argument is present as if he had all the evidence. However, we only read the scroll of knowledge as it is unfolded to us. Consequently, we face potentially troubling changes as we discover new things and make new theories to make sense of what we discover.
  • Eve (and Kat, the Roman Catholic Christian) may find that she cannot cooperate with Logo because no stable agreement can be found. Indeed, we Christians must unite in love around the truth. However, stable agreement is too lofty a goal. If each person is to honestly seek truth, then we must be willing to cooperate even in the presence of unstable, partial agreements. But Logo cannot stop Eve or Kat from excommunicating him.
  • Logo may be constantly suffering from doubts as he reads the Bible and tries to weigh the claims of the Bible against what he knows from elsewhere. What does Logo do when faced with:
    • Creation and evolution?
    • The Flood and archaeology?
    • Methuselah’s longevity and estimates of the maximum human life span?
    • Miracles and physics?
    • The Great Commission and the survivability of ideas (memes) and Black Swans (Taleb2007)?
    • God’s moral commands and Pinker’s description of the decline of violence (Pinker2011)?
    • The commandments to teach faith to your children and its amazing effectiveness for many religions and one’s own indoctrination as a child (see
    • The claims of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the evolutionary models of religion or the idea that religions are like viruses that have one part lie to create group cohesion and one part truth to aid group survival (see
    • The belief in an omnipotent God and the neuroscience study reporting that people can be made to have religious experiences by sending magnetic pulses into their brains (Persinger et al.2010)? (Maybe it’s just suggestibility (Granqvist et al.2005).)
    • The belief in life after death and the frequent effect of ‘seeing a light at the end of the tunnel’ (or similar) when the brain experiences oxygen-deprivation in a near death experience (I learned about this from Sacks2007)?
    • Arguments for Jesus’ resurrection based on Christianity’s wide and sincere adoption, and the success of Scientology, a demonstrably and wholly invented religion?
    • The age of the Bible, and the general lack of reliability of ancient documents and the extreme suspicion that must be placed on all historical sources (Taleb2007, and others taught me to distrust history)?
    • The creation of man in God’s image (and God’s special plan for my life) and the consistent failure of human-centric theories (and me-centric theories), such as the geocentric astronomical model, vitalism, and the lack of extraordinary biological distinction between people and animals?
    • One’s prior social and intellectual commitments to Christianity and confirmation bias (Nickerson1998)?

    If Logo finds that something contradicts the claims of the Bible with greater confidence than he has in the truth of the Bible, then Logo must reject the Bible.

  • Logo may have built his assumptions on the prevailing cultural tide rather than sound logic and Biblical truth.
  • 5 Conclusion

    I outline my best understanding of the dogmatic evangelical position on the truth of the Bible and I present an alternative view. A dogmatic approach to the Bible is inconsistent with the axioms of minimal prejudice, skepticism, and equal treatment of all truths. Dogmatically asserting the truth of the Bible raises serious questions about the interpretation of the Bible and the canon. My analysis may fall short of doing justice to the evangelical position, in which case my argument would be erroneous. Taking a minimally prejudiced, skeptical view of the Bible satisfies my desire to be humble and intellectually honest but it causes new problems, especially in apologetics. Furthermore, an adherent of this view of the Bible could face social ostracism if he or she were previously rooted in an evangelical or Catholic community.

    Appendix: Summary of ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God

    Am I being disingenuous in arguing against the weak position of Eve? After all, I have previously claimed that every arguer has the obligation to maximally steel-man their opponent’s side, see my post on Nash and the Straw Man. Perhaps Eve’s position could be made stronger – replacing Eve’s position with something more like Logo’s would be a start – but I think that real people hold positions quite similar to Eve. For example, I think the late Dr. J. I. Packer did.

    In ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles, J. I. Packer defends the Evangelical notion of the authority of Scripture over reason, particularly attacking the Liberalism or ‘Biblical Theology’ described in Gabriel Herbert’s work Fundamentalism and the Church of God (S.C.M. 1957). Packer argues with clarity, grace and thoroughness, carefully expressing his opponents positions before mounting rebuttals.

    Packer asserts that the Bible claims to be written by a truthful, divine author and that a right response is a faith in that author that leads us to believe that the Bible is the highest authority on all matters that it speaks. Therefore, any results from history, textual criticism, or any other discipline are subject to being overruled by the words of God should they apparently contradict any well-established truth revealed in the Bible.

    Packer claims that the logical conclusion of the Liberal or subjectivist approach to truth, the one that places reason as an authority over the Bible, is no sensible Christianity at all. By claiming that the Bible is the highest authority, and by making a number of claims on how to interpret the Biblical message, Packer also contradicts the supposedly Roman Catholic notion that tradition is an authority equal to or higher than the Bible.

    While Packer holds the Bible as the highest authority, he claims that reason is most free when it is subject to the assumptions that are faithful to the Bible and that in fact, good reasoning is necessary and useful for understanding and applying the Bible. Packer argues that people’s reasoning is corrupted by sin and that approaching the Bible without the assumption of its inerrancy is a bad way to apply reason.

    I consider that Packer does not adequately address the possibility that tradition may be an authority with equal rank as the Bible (what I understand the Roman Catholic church to teach), however, this question is only tangentially related to Packer’s scope, which mostly addresses the supposed Liberal heresy.

    Furthermore, I find that Packer’s notion of faith that leads to dogmatic belief in the scriptures to be epistemically distasteful. While it is prudent to follow the fullest implications of whatever truth one knows, it is also important to keep one’s mind open to some degree. (This is the philosophical equivalent of the exploration-exploitation dilemma in reinforcement learning (Sutton and Barto1998).) Accepting any dogma is problematic since it leads to the closing of one’s mind; evaluating truth based on degrees of belief (‘skepticism’) seems better to me. Following skepticism, I need not definitely choose a highest authority for truth but rather might tentatively accept both X and Y as sources of truths with varying degrees of confidence and also say ‘I will reject some claim of X if Y contradicts that claim with a greater confidence than X makes that claim.’ For example, I might accept both Scripture and Reason as sources of truth and I would suspect some rational claim against some part of Christianity, unless that rational claim seemed like a fully and direct contradiction that was well-supported by good evidence.

    The advantage of this multi-faceted approach to authority is that I do not need to treat Christianity any differently than other religions before I begin my inquiry. For example, I can open the possibility of Islam being true, then close it if Islam makes some claim that I believe to be outrageous. (However, perhaps my method is denying the general idea of authority, or perhaps it is accepting my own reason as the highest authority.) While I appreciate Packer’s Calvinistic notion of saving faith being a divine gift that goes beyond reason, it makes me wonder how to address other religions. Atheism has developed a number of crafty tools for attacking religions in general, in fact, atheism must defeat religion wholesale. Since I reject other religions myself, it is tempting to accept the logic of some of the atheistic methods. The question remains, why not apply those methods also to Christianity? Atheism’s own answer is: ‘Peter will not reject his own religion because he was brought up being taught that he belongs to a special group and he cannot bear to shamefully admit that he’s wrong.’ I would suggest the same reasoning to a Muslim, to convince him of the truth of Christianity, so why don’t I apply the same reasoning to myself? How likely is it that I was raised believing the truth? To be honest with myself, I must address that possibility by evaluating Christianity with the same measure that I would evaluate other religions. If I say ‘I trust the God of the Bible,’ then somehow I must explain to myself why I do not trust the Allah of the Quran or the concepts advanced by any other religion.

    If the Bible is the highest authority, then what do I do about all the other texts that make similar claims? Shouldn’t I read them, join their community for a time, and see if that text’s deity gives me saving faith in himself (or does some equivalent thing)? Perhaps I am subconsciously using reason as an escape from this logic by claiming: ‘Christianity is reasonable therefore I need not examine other religions; I know it’s true so I don’t need to test other religions as much.’ One danger here is that reason, or science, can assault that position by suggesting that the Bible makes testable predictions which can be experimentally verified in some way. For example, the idea that evolution contradicts Genesis is one such example of how science and the Bible can be seen to be at odds. While I feel comfortable believing both evolution and the Bible, I worry that other tests that science might produce may not end so favourably. I also worry that theology may constantly wiggle under the pressure of what science reveals, leading to a faith that ‘reforms’ to dodge current science while claiming to be some orthodoxy that ‘good Christians have always believed.’ This, perhaps, is evidence that people are good at reconciling apparent contradictions by subtly redefining terms, changing claims and rewriting arguments: see James vs. Paul on ‘faith’ in the light of the Reformation. You can read about the maybe-contradition between James and Paul from an Evangelical position here.

    If I escape the possibility of science contradicting the Bible by asserting that my faith leads to a dogmatic belief in the Bible, then I feel I am rightly stuck with the possibility that I would be suppressing the truth (contrary to Packer’s claims and in unison with his opponents) and that I am committing the epistemic error of treating Christianity and other religions unequally.


        Granqvist, P., Fredrikson, M., Unge, P., Hagenfeldt, A., Valind, S., Larhammar, D., and Larsson, M. (2005). Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters, 379(1):1–6.

        Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology; Review of General Psychology, 2(2):175.

        Packer, J. I. (1958). ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles. Inter-Varsity Fellowshop, London, UK.

        Persinger, M. A., Saroka, K., Koren, S. A., and St-Pierre, L. S. (2010). The electromagnetic induction of mystical and altered states within the laboratory. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, 1(7).

        Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Viking Adult.

        Sacks, O. (2007). Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Knopf, 1st edition.

        Sutton, R. S. and Barto, A. G. (1998). Reinforcement Learning. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.

        Taleb, N. N. (2007). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Random House, 1st edition.