Way after than promised, I have finished reading the New Testament, also known as Bible II: The Adventures of God Junior. For details about the edition I chose, see my previous post: Antiquum Testamentum.
While it should come as no surprise to readers with a Christian background, the New Testament is radically different from the Old Testament. Rather than tales of the previously-mentioned endless warfare in the meat-grinder of civilization, the New Testament covers a time of relative peace in the Middle East, the so-called Pax Romana or Roman Peace. The God of the New Testament is less about crushing your enemies, adhering to a long list of rules, and wrecking false idols than he is about loving one's fellow man, forgiveness, and "faith".
I put faith in quotes because the Latin word for faith, fides, has a broader meaning than the typical modern English usage. When we say faith, we tend to mean belief, or even blind belief. But the sense of the Latin equivalent is more a reciprocal relationship of loyalty and honesty. Fides is the same word we see show up in variant forms in phrases like bona fide and semper fi. It is the faith of "good faith". And it's interesting to see this contrasted with what we tend to translate as "works". The Latin opus (plural opera) is fairly translated as work or works. When I consider what Paul says in the larger context of Jewish law, one of the things he seemed to be saying was that it is important to follow Jesus and God's teachings honestly rather than simply going through the motion. I can think of two good examples of what I believe is meant by works rather than faith. First, consider the issue of the disciples picking wheat on the Sabbath or Jesus healing the sick on the Sabbath. Technically this is against the rules since the Sabbath is a day of rest. However, as Jesus says, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." What rest is there in hunger or illness? These things may violate the letter of the old law, but not the spirit of it since a starving or sick man can have no rest. To take another example, among modern Jews, there are certain people who believe in a long list of things that should not be done on the Sabbath. One of these things not to be done on the Sabbath is dialing a telephone. To overcome limitations like this, less faithful Jews have developed various devices and tricks. For example, I saw a video once of a man who had bought a fake hand on a stick that he would use to dial his phone. He argued that the hand dialed the phone, not him. Therefore he claimed that he had no broken any rule. That is not a faithful adherence to God's old law. Thus it is easy to see the point of the argument that works without faith mean nothing.
Non-Christians may find it odd that I make reference to the "old law". By that I mean the laws given in the Old Testament, the ones Jews adhere to in varying degrees to this day. These laws were superseded with Jesus' arrival. When asked about what laws people should adhere to, it is said in the gospels that Jesus only explicitly listed a few things: do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not give false testimony, honor your mother and father, and love thy neighbor. Acts and the epistles of Paul further clarify that dietary restrictions and circumcision definitely do not apply to converts. This is important to keep in mind when common criticisms about the "hypocrisy" of Christians are thrown around. The majority of such criticisms depend on citations from Leviticus in the Old Testament. Aside from those things which also appear in the New Testament, nothing in Leviticus is prohibited to Christians. And many things in Leviticus are, arguably, not even prohibit to non-priestly Jews. Take for example homosexuality. In Leviticus, death is the punishment for homosexuality. In Romans, it is said to be a sin but it is in a list of sins so broad that all of us our guilty. Paul's point, a point commonly reiterated in the modern Catholic church but less so in Protestant churches, is that we are all sinners and our only potential redemption is through God's grace. In other words, homosexuals are just like the rest of us: forgiven through Jesus and damned without him. This difference between Romans and Leviticus is not a contradiction for Christians. The rules of Leviticus simply do not matter anymore. Thus there is no hypocrisy or contradiction here. Let he who is without reading comprehension go back to getting stoned.
On the topic of inconsistency and contradiction, there is some truth to the fact that the gospels do not all tell the same story of Jesus' life. However, having studied both medieval manuscript transmission, oral transmission, and history more generally, parallel accounts like this almost never have this level of consistency. The differences are primarily in the level of detail. For example, if I'm not mistaken, the story of Lazarus shows up in both Mark and John but only John goes into enough detail to actually give Lazarus' name. Faithfully recording the gospels must have been very serious business in the early church and that seems only natural given the obvious importance of God's son showing up, delivering the new law, raising the dead, healing the sick, and then coming back from the dead himself. Similarly, the idea that there is "no evidence" that Jesus ever existed is farcical unless one arbitrarily decides that the Bible somehow does not count. I think most people would be surprised how little evidence we have for people and events in antiquity. It is not that rare to know of something from a single manuscript copy of a single work. And yet we accept those things as historical fact. If you want to start saying that Jesus did not exist at all, you need to start questioning half of the things you think you know about the ancient world.
More generally, most of the criticisms of Christianity that I personally had or had read that lead me to become an atheist as a teenager simply fall apart with a single honest reading of the Bible as a trained historian. It really comes down to a few simple questions, which correspond very nicely with the affirmations in the Nicene Creed. Do you believe there is a God who created the universe? Do you believe that he became man in the form of Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus was killed and came back from the dead? Do you agree with his teachings that we should probably not murder, steal, and so on? Most people can agree to the last question easily. A lot of people have no problem with the first question, though it is quite the sticky wicket. It is those middle two questions that I find the most difficult. Did the apostles and disciples really see what they think they saw? Was human incarnation really the best method God could come up with? If one accepts that we live in a created universe with some driving force behind it, these things certainly seem possible. Unfortunately, without witnessing them, I can not, thus far, come up with an ironclad argument for why these things would be so. Still, this is progress. When reading the Great Books, I am often left with more questions than I started with. I think the Bible is the first time where I have read something and eliminated more questions than I gained. And I have definitely vastly narrowed down the doubts I may have about the Christian faith.
In any case, next up should be Euclid, as I had originally planned. Stay tuned.