‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.2: Hebrews 11:1

Peter-Boghossian-Manual-Creating-AtheistsThis follows on from ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.1 where I criticized Boghossian’s definitions of the word faith as being both lacking in evidence and contrary to some substantial evidence (both of which, if true, make following Boghossian’s definition of faith an act of faith in itself).

In this post I will respond to footnote 3 in chapter 2 of Boghossian’s book (in my kindle it’s found at Loc.545).

I would begin with a plea. If you are an atheist and/or you consider yourself a ‘Street Epistemologist’ ask yourself this question: What evidence did Peter Boghossian give me to suggest elencho changed in its meaning substantially in the New Testament compared to earlier Greek usage? This blog post will explain why you won’t find any evidence for his assertion on this matter. Whether you take the blue or red pill on this is up to you ultimately but I strongly suggest doing some research before hitting the ‘streets’ with this. Atheists often claim to be people who are interested in evidence. If that is the case then why is it so many people have believed Boghossian on this matter? If you took Boghossian at his word in this footnote I will explain how you believed both without evidence and in the face of contrary evidence. In other words… you did the very thing you accuse religious people of.



In his footnote Boghossian does not actually offer an exegesis of Hebrews 11:1 but instead merely contends that the verb elencho is being used in a way which radically differs from its usage by earlier Greek writers such as Homer and Parmenides. He contends that it had previously meant “to question with the aim of disproving” but that in the New Testament it came to mean a “conviction or persuasion or some other species of willing and satisfied affirmation – without argument – without going through the Socratic process of rigorous argumentation.” [Loc.555]

What Boghossian is asserting is that the way the Greeks had used the word, prior to the New Testament coming along, was such that it implied testing and the use of reason but that the word came to mean something completely different in the New Testament.

Now, if you prefer evidence rather than assertions you will be the type of person who will want evidence and Boghossian offers some. He quotes from Souter’s Lexicon of the New Testament (1917). Unfortunately what he quotes from Souter actually undermines his assertion instead of supporting it since he admits it defines the word as “proof, possibly a persuasion”. Notice that this offers no support whatsoever to Boghossian’s assertion that the meaning of the word changed drastically in the New Testament. In fact, it rather suggests the opposite. 

I could not get my hands on Souter’s lexicon but it is more than a little odd that Boghossian would be going to a lexicon which is nearly a hundred years old. Instead, if you go to one of the most modern and most scholarly lexicons of today you find more contrary evidence to Boghossian’s story.


One of the most scholarly and authoritative Greek Lexicons of modern times is A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature – Third Edition edited by F.W. Danker. Go ahead and look up ἔλεγχος in this lexicon and this is what you will find:

2014-01-14 11.49.47

Notice that the three primary definitions offered for ἔλεγχος are:

1] the act of presenting evidence for the truth of something, proof, proving

2] the act of charging a person with wrongdoing, accusation

3] expression of strong disapproval, reproof, censure, correction [1]

A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature – Third Edition edited by F.W. Danker, p.315

As a short aside, notice that the lexicon suggests that faith (πίστις) as found in Hebrews 11:1 is a conviction of something and not an epistemology. (We’ll get back to that one later in the series.)

Boghossian’s story sounds wonderful to those who have already bought into the idea that faith and reason are, of necessity, opposed to each other. But any critical thinker ought to ask themselves where the evidence was for this notion. Boghossian cannot cite one single Greek scholar or source in support of his proposal. Since there is no evidence for his assertions and there is contrary evidence is it not the case that Boghossian is asking me to take his story on ‘faith’ (and by faith here I will mean it in the sense he does to ‘believe something I know is not true’).

So what does Hebrews 11:1 actually say?

Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.

“Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof [manifestation / reality] of things not seen”.

Modern scholars have some minor disagreements over whether the verse is intended as a proper definition of faith (πίστις) or not but no scholar I could find suggested the verse was intended to be an exhaustive definition of the word and several scholars warned against seeing it as exhaustive (which means it would be careless to only look at this usage of the word in the New Testament). [2] There is also some discussion over whether the conviction expressed is a subjective or objective one.

What all scholars agree on is this. The verse is not setting up faith as an opposition to reason. The obvious reason for thinking this is that the verse does not say any such thing. What the verse does suggest is that faith is expressed when there is one specific form of evidence missing – sight! This passage is not a praise of irrationality and believing in something for no good reason whatsoever. It is about keeping one’s strong belief in situations where your sight does not help.

Notice the people mentioned as great examples of faith in the Old Testament: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. When you look up these people’s stories in the OT you find that they had good reasons to believe God would accomplish his promises because most of them had seen God fulfill his promises in their lives before and most of them are recorded as having heard God call them. In some of these stories they appear to hear God in a very audible way. In other words, most of the people on this list had empirical evidence and experiences of God in the past which inspired their faith (strong conviction / belief). It is in this sense that their faith was being commended. Their faith remained even when they could not yet see evidence of what had been promised. Furthermore, the writer to the Hebrews is showing that their faith was not misplaced because those promises are now, in Christ, fulfilled.

As F.F. Bruce put it:

“In O.T. times, he points out, there were many men and women who had nothing but the promises of God to rest upon, without any visible evidence that these promises would ever be fulfilled; yet so much did these promises mean to them that they regulated the whole course of their lives in their light.”

F.F. Bruce New International Commentary of the New Testament – The Epistle to the Hebrews, p. 276

So when we come to the witness and message of the gospel in the New Testament the message is proclaimed that Jesus is risen from the dead, not because it is irrational and certainly not because no-one witnessed it but rather because there was evidence that Jesus had risen from the dead because many had seen it and those who did not had the first-hand testimony of those who did.

This makes sense of statements which come earlier in Hebrews such as:

“It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard, while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit.”

Hebrews 2:3,4

What’s this? The writer is clearly appealing to a belief which was based in empirical evidence. Of course, the modern atheist will claim that such signs and wonders never took place but notice that this is to miss the point. Whether they took place or not is another discussion. What is clear is that the author thought they had and it is an appeal to these things being real and true which is the cause for staying strong during times of trouble.

This understanding of Hebrews 11 also helps make sense of what appears to be the authorial intention in writing the letter. Most scholars agree that this letter is written to encourage those who are considering giving up their faith. Many have pointed out that this is how chapter 10 finishes (remember the chapter distinctions are not part of the autographs). It talks about the hardships they are enduring and the writer is encouraging them by reminding that God has been faithful in the past to his people by using the evidence of people’s testimonies and experience. If anything, such an encouragement is the complete antithesis of asking people to believe for no good reason at all. Perhaps this is why the eminent British philosopher Keith Ward can say:

“This is why belief in God is often called ‘faith’, and not just intellectual assent. Faith is the practical commitment to a relationship with God that will progressively transform your life, liberating it from hatred, greed and ignorance, and enabling it to become a more effective mediator of transcendent beauty, joy, compassion and benevolence.”

Keith Ward Why there almost certainly is a God p.132

The philosopher Peter S. Williams writes:

“Moreland defines faith as ‘a trust in and commitment to what we have reason to believe is true.’ This is perfectly compatible with the observation that ‘faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see’ (Hebrews 11:1). There’s nothing here about faith meaning to be sure of what we believe despite evidence to the contrary. There’s nothing here about faith meaning to be certain of something that we have no reason to think is true. Read in context, the writer of Hebrews exhorts Christians to cling to their warranted trust in Jesus despite the temptation to abandon what they know to be true under the pressure of persecution.”

Peter S. Williams A Faithful Guide to Philosophy p.15


As New Testament scholar George Eldon Ladd once wrote:

“The primary prerequisite for the Christian life in Hebrews is faith… The person of faith is the one who does not consider the visible world of human experience to be the world of ultimate values. He or she recognizes that above are the spiritual realities of God’s kingdom, which cannot be perceived with the physical senses but which are more real then the phenomenal world.”

George Eldon Ladd A Theology of the New Testament p.630,1

If you would prefer a more modern example of this kind of faith being promoted in Hebrews 11 you should look up the story of Terry Waite who was the envoy to the Archbishop of Canterbury who was captured in Lebanon in 1987, tortured, and held captive for 1,760 days. Waite tells of how he worried that his capture would ruin the lives of his family back home yet, despite not being able to see what was going on back home, he believed they would make it through and be there for him when he was released. Was 4154393Waite irrational to have such profound faith in his family? Of course not. He had many previous experiences with his family which led him to believe they would find a way to cope and, with that in mind, he kept believing in them even though he had no contact with them during that time and he could not see them. Just because he could not see his family and his wife this did not detract from his faith in them. This is the kind of courageous faith that the writer of the Hebrews is advocating. [3]

It would appear that if it’s blind, irrational faith you are looking for then one should become a ‘Street Epistemologist’ because the Christian religion is not a place where you will find any such thing. Rather than the ‘Street Epistemologist’ being able to offer me with an inoculation against believing in things without evidence or pretending to believe things which are not true, it would appear the ‘Street Epistemologist’ first needs treating themselves.

I emailed Boghossian’s comments on ἔλεγχος to a New Testament scholar and the reply I got was:

“In brief: what a lot of cobblers.”

Maybe that’s as long as this post needed to be?

If Street Epistemologists care about evidence will they dare question Boghossian’s treatment of ἔλεγχος?



[1] Here is another shot but closer:

2014-01-14 11.49.57

[2] For example:

“Before an account is given of the the heroes of old who have been notable for their faith, a short definition of the word is attempted. This is intended to be neither philosophical in language nor exhaustive in scope.”

H.W. Montefiore The Epistle to the Hebrews (Black’s NT Commentaries) p.186

“Although the structure of his sentence conforms closely to contemporary definitions, modern exegetes have been hesitant to regard the verse as defining faith. The passage is not an exhaustive treatment of what faith is in Hebrews, ‘but the characterization of some key aspects of the faith of the O.T. witnesses’.”

Peter T. O’Brien The Letter to the Hebrews (The Pillar N.T. Commentary) p.397,8

PS. And we didn’t even get to ὑπόστασις! Here is a good place to start.

[3] For a brief glimpse at the amazing story of Terry Waite you could begin here.

@24:04 following in the above Q&A (from a talk which took place on the 19th January 2014) Boghossian uses his story about the changing of the Greek ἔλεγχος from the time of Socrates to the New Testament. This is a factual error on Boghossian’s part and he should not be using it.


A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature – Third Edition edited by F.W. Danker

F.F. Bruce New International Commentary of the New Testament – The Epistle to the Hebrews

H.W. Montefiore The Epistle to the Hebrews (Black’s NT Commentaries)

Peter T. O’Brien The Letter to the Hebrews (The Pillar N.T. Commentary)

Colin Brown (ed.) The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology 

Paul Ellingworth The Epistle to the Hebrews (New International Greek Testament Commentary)

Peter S. Williams A Faithful Guide to Philosophy: A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom

About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
This entry was posted in Atheism, Atheist apologists, Faith, Street Epistemology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to ‘A Manual for Creating Atheists’ Part 3.2: Hebrews 11:1

  1. Pingback: Reviews of “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian | Biblical Scholarship

  2. Given that even the source he quotes does not support his interpretation and given that it seems unlikely any reputable authority ever would, I have to seriously wonder what’s going on. Surely when he wrote the footnote he cannot failed to have known that he had no evidence for his assertion,and yet he asserted it with confidence all the same. Hmmm…..

    Anyway just want to say Hi. I discovered your blog a few weeks ago and have found your articles concise, tightly argued, thoroughly interesting and also charitable/non-aggressive in their tone (which I appreciate). Most of all I appreciate the way you provide specific references to your sources and evidence. So yeah I guess you could say I’m now one of your regular readers. So keep up the good work!

    Oh and greetings from France! (Although I’m actually from New Zealand but hey 🙂

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Hi Ross. It’s good to hear from you. So you’re one of my readers from France! It’s nice to put a name to a statistic.

      As you can see in my piece I’m as puzzled as you are. If I were going to make a contention about something in field of study which is not my own I would like to think I had at least found someone in the field who agreed with me to some degree. But to use a quote which undermines the very point your making from an obscure lexicon written a hundred years ago? Weird. All I can think (being as charitable as is possible) is that he scribbled it down into the footnotes without thinking!

      Well thanks for stopping by and for saying hi! I’m so glad the references are useful. I hope it inspires people to go and read elsewhere too.

      Thanks again.

  3. Pingback: Review of Boghossian’s ‘A Manual for creating Atheists’ by William Lane Craig | aRemonstrant'sRamblings

  4. A load of hair-splitting, semantic nonsense.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Wow. That has to rate as pretty much the most superficial response I’ve ever received.

      Personally I don’t agree it’s “hair-splitting” when Boghossian tries to justify his faulty definition of faith by giving a spurious history to an ancient Greek word and I demonstrate, using evidence, that the word did not mean what he claims. Obviously it’s all Greek to you! 😉

      As for semantics… of course it’s about that! The piece is about the meaning of words. That’s like going to a game of football and complaining that the ball was getting kicked! Duh!!!

      Thanks for making me laugh though. Much appreciated!

  5. Hair splitting nonsense… I agree. Its just that simple.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      So I give a huge amount of evidence and reason to demonstrate Boghossian is wrong and your only reply is two bare-faced assertions. That’s hilarious! Folks… that’s Boghossianism in a nutshell for you. Good job Robert… good job! 😉

  6. Devon Coats says:

    You don’t have to get your hands on a 1907 greek lexicon. A google search is fine and limit the search to books. Hebrews 11-1 is included in the Lexicon. The perplexing, pretending professor doesn’t like the definition of the word in Hebrews so he ignores it and uses another. Its not hair splitting; I believe it is called the Definist Fallacy.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s