Something Old, Something New

In the next two chapters, Christopher Hitchens takes aim at the Old and New Testaments.  I was a little surprised at his chapter “Revelation: The Nightmare of the ‘Old’ Testament” as he did not focus on the difficult passages that I thought he would.  In fact Hitchens spent more time on rather silly things such as Moses supposedly recording his own funeral or the wording of the Ten Commandments.  Hitchens obviously does not understand what slavery looked like in Israelite society, possibly mistaking it for the American and European versions of it.  Israelite slavery was for families who could not pay their debts and it was a way for them to feed their families and pay back what they owed.  It was not a permanent situation.  Of course Hitchens neglects to mention things how farmers were to leave part of their crops for the hungry or the strong injunctions against oppressing the poor or the strong stand the Old Testament takes for justice.  I guess that did not sound very much like a nightmare to Hitchens.  I doesn’t for me either.

Hitchens then attempts to show “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.”  As a person trained in New Testament studies, this was painful to read.  Hitchens claims that when one Gospel describes an event and another does not describe it, then they are contradicting each other.  When he does not get much out of that route, he takes aim at Mel Gibson.  Whatever the pros and cons of the Passion of the Christ movie, it has nothing to do with the value of the New Testament itself.  Hitchens makes some terrible errors such as describing the gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in this way: “These scrolls were of the same period and provenance as many of the subsequently canonical and ‘authorized’ Gospels.”  These gospels were actually written centuries after the canonical Gospels and are not even of the same genre.  Hitchens speaks of a violent struggle over which Gospels should make it into the canon.  Really?  Which history book did Hitchens read?  There were no lack of conflicts in the early church but the canon was not the one that led to violence.  Hitchens strangely seems to agree with C.S. Lewis’ statement that either Jesus was who he said he was or he was a fraud or a lunatic (or a legend Hitchens would add).  He even praises Lewis for his honesty.  But then he twists Lewis’ intent by saying “Either the Gospels are in some sense literal truth, or the whole thing is essentially a fraud and perhaps an immoral one at that.”  Lewis was not a literalist and so would have had some problems with Hitchens’ interpretation.  By speaking of “literal truth”, Hitchens opens the door to an extremely wide definition, one that he can aim at making the New Testament fail.  The sign over Jesus’ cross is described differently in the various Gospels, so they cannot be literally true and therefore they are frauds.  That is Hitchens’ reasoning.  I believe that the Gospels are literally true in that literally Jesus was born of Mary and his adoptive father Joseph, preached in Galilee, performed miracles, travelled to Jerusalem, was arrested, crucified and rose again.  How all that was described was according to first century standards and in the context of that culture.  Hitchens never does any serious interaction with New Testament scholarship and fails to be convincing in his attacks.

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