October 16, 2009

More on Biblical Contradictions

Posted in Answering Apologists, Atheism, The Bible tagged , , , , at 10:48 am by Andrew

There’s a great discussion going on in the comments section relating to Biblical contradictions; in light of that, I thought I’d clarify the point regarding those contradictions — at least to me.

Let me be clear: there are a lot of bad atheist arguments out there regarding Biblical contradictions. When I see even folks like Sam Harris trot out the ridiculous argument that the Bible is false because is says pi is equal to three, I cringe. As atheists, we don’t want to be making these sorts of easily-refuted arguments.

To me, the point of Biblical contradictions isn’t that the Bible says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed and therefore it’s all hokum; the point is that, taken together, the Bible looks like the work of ordinary people telling stories that try to explain the mysteries of the universe given the limitations of the knowledge they had at the time. It doesn’t look like anyone with a pipeline to the almighty, all-knowing Creator of the Universe. That’s all.

Thus, the point of Biblical contradictions isn’t to poke the Christian in the eye about Jesus’s genealogies, or stars literally falling to the earth and fighting in battles, or any of that stuff. It’s to blow a gentle breeze against what seems to me to be chain of inferences that’s balanced like a house of cards.

As far as I can tell, biblical reliability arguments generally rest on a chain of inferences that go something like this:

(1) The New Testament documents should be treated like other historical documents; otherwise, you’ve got a bias against Christianity.

(2) With other historical works, when the author(s) have established a baseline of credibility, we generally accept what the historian has written as true unless there is a good reason to reject it.

(3) The New Testament documents demonstrate a baseline of credibility with respect to historical facts that we can match up against other historical sources; e.g., that Herod was King in Judea. Thus, we should accept the New Testament accounts as generally historically true.

(4) We should not a priori exclude the miraculous accounts in the New Testament absent conflicting evidence; to do otherwise is to have an anti-supernatural bias.

(5) There is no historical evidence contradicting the miraculous accounts in the Bible; therefore, we should believe that those miracles really occurred, including the Resurrection.

(6) If you believe the Resurrection, then Jesus must be God.

(7) If Jesus is God, then the Bible is true.

Now I would argue that each and every one of these inferences is false. The variance in the accounts between the Gospels goes to the propriety of inference #3, and helps establish that the Gospels don’t really read like history, or (to use the overwrought metaphor of apologists) as differing eyewitness accounts to a car accident. They read like narratives.

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6 Comments »

  1. atimetorend said,

    To me, the point of Biblical contradictions isn’t that the Bible says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed and therefore it’s all hokum; the point is that, taken together, the Bible looks like the work of ordinary people telling stories that try to explain the mysteries of the universe…

    Christians who read the bible as inerrant create their own problems by placing such a high importance on inerrancy. Because they promote their beliefs based on biblical inerrancy and ground their faith in it, they are forced to defend it as well. No wonder they get poked in the eye with arguments over contradictions, or “appearant contradictions” as they refer to them. You make a good point in identifying the greater picture of what the contradictions indicate. It is counter productive to get sucked into a shallow perspective of what the bible is and is not.

  2. atimetorend said,

    I just skimmed through the comments in the referenced post, interesting stuff. For those who argue that biblical contradictions are not an issue for their faith for whatever reason, I wonder how much their faith would stand if there was no bible, if they had just heard the story of the gospel word of mouth from Jesus’ time until now. Then it would really be an article of faith – “I heard, I have no rational reason to trust the reliability of what I heard, yet I believe none the less.”

    To me faith actually makes much more sense along those lines, it is just faith, without needing to defend biblical reliability in a way that does not sound probable at all. Though I probably think that way because I accept your naturalist explaination of how the bible was written in the first place.

  3. Nathaniel said,

    Andrew,

    IMO, you’ve done a passable job, at least through point (4), of laying out the sort of things that an intelligent defender of Christianity ought to say. A few points:

    (3) The New Testament documents demonstrate a baseline of credibility with respect to historical facts that we can match up against other historical sources; e.g., that Herod was King in Judea. Thus, we should accept the New Testament accounts as generally historically true.

    I agree with you that one has to take this consideration in its total context. You’ve repeated your claim that the narratives display too great a variation to be credible as being or containing eyewitness testimony. I’ll repeate my suggestion that you should look at some multiply-attested events from secular history of approximately the same era, reading “across columns.” Then, and only then, will you have a baseline for assessing the relevance of this criticism.

    Incidentally, the sort of example you give here (“Herod was King in Judah”) can be multiplied many times over. It isn’t just the titles of the big historical players that the New Testament authors get right; they also get many minute details right, and offer details that help to explain each other’s accounts, in a way that pretty much defies explanation if the writers or their sources were not on the ground at the time. That is a truly cumulative argument — I am tempted to say, “one long argument.” But its effect, when you put in the study required to understand and master it, is quite overwhelming. A few unresolved discrepancies here or there look quite negligible by comparison.

    • Andrew said,

      Nathaniel,

      Why don’t you just go ahead and make your argument on cross-columnar historical attestations of events?

  4. warren said,

    the bible is for true born again believerws Spirit filled .there might seem to be contradictions, as we study and be students of the word and cross reference and pray for the Sprirt to lead there are no contradictions,plus Paul said from divine inspriation GOd said that it is foolish the things of God because the natural man is spiritually dead,(1 CORINTHAINS 2:10-16} .again there might be some things that we might not understand ,and that is where our faith neeeds to be strong ,and keep growing and learning,as we should know because of the fall of man and sin that has entered in this corupt world ,as you can see we have disagreements of scripture ,but keep focus on above ant to ure great Lord and Savior Jesus,and all who repent and turn from practicinf sin and tustin Him ,when we are glorified and stand face to face ,there will all clearity come to pass , to all who truely believekeep reaching the lost souls for Christ

  5. Part of the problem with supposed Bible contradictions is the manner in which historians have introduced erroneous constructs into the historical record. For example, historians have erroneously introduced a 16 year shift into the historical record in the first centuries BCE and CE, and also the second century BCE. Having done this, both historians and theologians have for centuries had difficulties with Luke 2:1-2 regarding the Roman census and governor of Syria, when Jesus was born, leading to a supposed Bible contradiction. While all along there has been no Bible contradiction. Jesus was born in 12 BCE. Removing the erroneous 16 year time shift, the first Roman census of Augustus is in 12 BCE. And the governor of Syria in 12 BCE is Corvinus, just like the Bible states in Luke 2:2.

    There is irrefutable proof of all this in the book “Jesus was 61″ at:
    http://christjesussonofgod.blogspot.com/2010/05/jesus-was-61.html


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