October 16, 2009
More on Biblical Contradictions
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(1) The New Testament documents should be treated like other historical documents; otherwise, you’ve got a bias against Christianity.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.