When you are lost in the wilderness, most survival guides will tell you to find an elevated position (like a hill or mountain) from which to survey your location. Often getting above the overwhelming details of your surroundings will help you find recognizable landmarks so that you will no longer be lost. Although I am a computer engineer by training and practice, I have long been a student of history which is the way a mere mortal can rise above his or her temporal context to obtain a wider perspective.
Even though I have been an agnostic atheist since adolescence, I have had many experiences with various flavors of Christianity. My mother was a believer (although her faith was decidedly not based on a reading of scripture). I read a lot of C.S. Lewis. I was baptized around the age of 10, so that it is still a memory I retain. I attended Boston College where I was taught a version of Western Philosophy that included noted Christian writers like St. Augustine. All this is to say that whether or not I would have chosen to study Christianity, I have nonetheless been steeping in it for decades.
To be completely candid, I am somewhat hostile towards this faith. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. What wisdom age has brought me suggests it is not religion that greatly affects people’s behavior and attitudes. People do what they want and justify their actions with whatever fiction is most convenient for them to do so. However, some truly contemptible behaviors have used the cloak of random Biblical passages as absolution and vindication for actions no religion on Earth sanctions. How religion conned the world into believing that only a faith could foster ethics and morality is a feat of advertising well worth studying. History has always been a more reliable (if descriptivist) teacher of human behavior.
A few years ago, I heard an interview Bart Ehrman on Fresh Air. He was promoting his book /Misquoting Jesus/. Something about this topic clicked with me. As I have indicated, I was no stranger to theologians, but few of them were atheists. The best analogy for Ehrman is that he does for historical-critical New Testament studies what Carl Sagan did for space science, which is to say Ehrman brings the consensus view of his discipline to a lay audience. I will admit to being a bit of a fan boy of his (I joined his blog twice), which I have never considered doing for technical blogs). To date, I have read one other Ehrman book, /Jesus Interrupted/, but I expect I will read his Heaven and Hell book at some point. This fall, I found another NT scholar author I enjoy, Mark Goodacre, whose primer, /The Synoptic Problem: A Way Through the Maze/, was a clarifying treatise on why scholars believe in a lost NT source called Q and why other scholars (rightly, it seems to me) find this hypothesis untenable.
As in all academic fields, there are heterodox views of NT study and youtube is the place to find those in abundance. One of my favorite speakers on the subject is Robert M. Price (also a Lovecraft scholar). Price represents the notion that there was no actual historical Jesus and that the cult fabricated him out of similar well-known regional myths. This idea is called Mythicism and has been soundly rejected by the academic consensus.
While I find a lot of what Price and his fellow mythicists say attractive, I do not find this line of thinking compelling or productive. Mythicism is a “just-so” story that fails to account for historical evidence of Jesus found in Biblical and other contemporaneous documents. Mythicism also fails the “sniff test.” Just looking at the three synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke), all of which were written after Jesus’ death by different authors, none of whom actually knew Jesus personally, there are points of agreement about who Jesus was and what he did. More interestingly, there are incidents in these gospels that no writer trying to make converts would make up. These “difficult reading” passages include a story about the family of a young Jesus concerned that he was crazy (which would be a totally normal human conclusion a mother would have to a son that starts spouting off apocalyptic, Jewish fundamentalist sermons in the street!). The historicity of Jesus is a settled question in NT academia. As a starting point for understanding what the consensus view has to offer, it is more convenient to accept this point than to fruitlessly debate it.
NT studies include trying to reconstruct how an obscure Jewish apocalyptic street preacher from a small rural village in Judea grew into an organization that dominated (and often decided) the lives of millions of people across the globe. Understanding this process is not an act of faith, but a duty of the intellectually curious. Regardless of my personal animosity toward the faith, to ignore Christianity’s impact is disingenuous.
Of course, there are theological questions that NT studies bumps into. One of the more curious and fundamental questions occurs fairly early in the readings of the gospels and the letters of Paul (the earliest post-Jesus proselytizer we have records of). The faith promises some kind of salvation (the exact nature of which is beyond the scope of this post) to those who believe. What exactly is it that the faithful should believe? If you look the gospel of Mark (believed to be the earliest gospel), Jesus wants his audience to be more faithful to the Jewish law than the Pharisees. This is a call to a kind of strict fundamentalism that is no longer a part of mainstream Christianity, yet it is canonically a part of the NT. Paul argues that the Jewish law should not apply to recent Gentile converts and salvation was based entirely on the belief that Jesus was bodily resurrected by God. This question of faith does not get settled in the NT, which again is a curious historical oddity.
In case you did not know, the New Testament is a collection of 27 books (“three [like the Trinity] to the third power; it’s a miracle” as Ehrman often quips) all written some years after the death of Jesus. For some of these books, we believe we know who the author was. The first seven letters of Paul are believed to be written by the apostle Paul, for example. Other letters attributed to Paul in the NT are not believed by scholars to have been authored by him. All of the Gospels are anonymously authored. The names given to them are the work of later compilers. The gospels were not the first books of Christianity, but work of later first century AD Greek-speaking Christians trying to create a narrative of Jesus from oral traditions and perhaps written sources no longer available to modern scholars. There is an apocalypse, which was a style of book that contains criticisms of contemporaneous life dressed into mystically language). We know that the author of this book was named John, but this is not the same John who wrote the gospel. The rest of the NT consists of letters from the “apostolic fathers” (early church leaders) in which the doctrines of Christianity were being worked out. That is to say, the letters are the beginning of doctrinal thinking and not completely worked-out policy statements. Remember this point when someone starts citing Scripture at you to justify their personal biases.
Aside from looking at all the places where NT sources contradict each other (which is a lot of fun), learning about the struggles of the young church has softened my views towards (most) Christians.
Understanding the context in which the books of the NT were written and why they were written humanizes Christianity. Christianity becomes an evolving project of centuries guided by human minds trying to understand human suffering, mortality, and how to address both.
Faith that claims to have all the answers remains anathema to me. Faith that encourages questions is one I can live with. Ultimately, I remain disinclined towards magical thinking.