Menu Close

Quote of the Day: Atheist Historian Tim O’Neill on How He Views the Bible

tim o'neillI see it [the Bible] the same way as I see all kinds of other ancient texts — indications of what people centuries ago believed. Some of it is very beautiful, some of it contains genuine wisdom, some of it is rather alien and some of it is repugnant. I could say the same about the corpus of Old Norse texts as well. Or texts from Sumeria. It’s hard to have much more than a very general perspective on “the Bible as a whole”, because – as I often have to remind my more emotional fellow atheists — it isn’t a book, it’s a library of texts of different kinds, dates, genres, languages and intentions. The traditional Christian conception of “the Bible” as a coherent instruction manual from God has clear “historical, cultural significance” and certain translations (the Vulgate, the King James) have “aesthetic significance”. But the dismissal of it as “worthless fairy tales written by desert sheep-herders and savages” is just anti-theistic reaction against the way it has been and still is used and interpreted by many Christians. A rationalist can mentally separate the ancient texts from the way they have been interpreted and look at them for what they are.

— Tim O’Neill, History for Atheists, Jesus Mythicism 3: “No Contemporary References to Jesus” (Comment), May 25, 2018


  1. Avatar

    I find Tim O’Neill a tough nut to crack. He’s undoubtedly a hardened atheist, but works to a very reasoned approach to history. In this he is very firm in the view that Jesus was an actual historical figure, as opposed to the entire myth that the likes of Richard Carrier and Robert Price favour (though, of course, nothing at all like the biblical Jesus, which it’s impossible reasonably to accept). The trouble is that he is so firm in his views that he’s almost as prickly an individual as Carrier to interact with, and it’s not possible without very specialist knowledge to be able to form a view on the subject, and where he might be wrong. Ultimately he agrees with Bart Ehrman, and I have a great deal of respect for him academically, so perhaps I veer to the historical Jesus.

  2. Avatar

    Yes. The concept of “the Bible as a whole” assumes that these collected works were all originally intended to be together as some sort of cohesive unit. Rather, they are more like a collection of short stories by different authors bound under a single cover. One of the big cracks in my faith was learning how the bible was canonized.

  3. Avatar

    I suspect that there was an historical Jesus and that his story became a tale with many beginnings and endings and even more in the middle. My wife had a father who lived his life noisily and with little restraint. He got attention for his partying, his excesses, and the family was damaged forever by his life. When he died of cancer finally, he bacame a holy figure in the family and suddenly saint-like in memory. Nobody spoke of his lifelong abuse of self and others. Nobody. It wasn’t until he was dead and my wife went into therapy that she was able to begin to undo the knots of repression around this human monster. I mention this human history simply to point out that Jesus may well have been a human too and there is no reason I can garner why his history would not be entirely skewed as well, used for human needs to be a repository of feelings and needs for people. The very fact that Christians must insist the Bible is magically perfect and out of the mouth of God is a good enough proof for me of the excessive nature of faith just as my wife’s dad’s life history is holy and untouchable. We have no idea just what Jesus accomplished or did not accomplish. What we do have is his church to show us how we need to use those stories now, the tax-free, stained glass hymns and gobble-gobble strutting of damaged preacher humans like Stevie Anderson or Franklin Graham, the priests in robes and big hats. It is a club I am so thankful to be clear of and one that I will forever protest. Yes, Tim O’Neill, some of us atheists are quite emotional about it all. Because feelings are what it all about. People believe this stuff because of emotional needs that cannot easily be addressed in life. As time goes on and science continues to peel the onion, we will see how the Bible is very far from the perfect Word and that we humans are perfectly human, faulted as the earth has faults, part of something always a bit more that we can put into words. Science is the long, reasoned walk out of the cave and inot light. Religion is the dark shadow that we are leaving behind.

Please Leave a Pithy Reply

%d bloggers like this: