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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Showing posts with label hermeneutics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label hermeneutics. Show all posts

Friday, September 16, 2016

Taking the Bible Literally is One Way of Abusing the Bible




"Do you take the Bible literally?" I've been asked that question countless times, usually by atheists or skeptics, but sometimes by others who want to understand my point of view. But like most questions about important things, this one is a little over-simplified and unclear. Much of the confusion comes in from the use of the words "take" and "literal."

In asking whether I take the Bible literally, what is it the questioner actually wants to know? Do I hold to a literal understanding of every sentence in Scripture? If that is his question, my answer is definitely no. But that doesn't mean that I don't hold the Bible as inspired, truthful, or authoritative. It doesn't mean that I believe there are mistakes in the Bible. I don't think there are. What it means is, just like any other important text, I must seek to understand the meaning the writers intended to get across.

For example, I once received a response from an atheist to my article "How Do I know the Bible is REALLY from God?" who said the Bible cannot be true by citing Psalm 58:8, which reads "Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime." He claimed this shows a scientific error in the Bible, since we know that snails don't really dissolve as they travel. Of course, my interlocutor was wrong. The Psalms are a collection of Hebrew poetry and as such one should expect them to use imagery and metaphor to make a larger point. It seems pretty evident that even ancient peoples without laboratories would be clever enough to know that snails don't actually dissolve.

In taking this verse literally, the critic actually abused the text. He tried to make it mean something the author never intended. If you doubt this, then start your stopwatch the next time your spouse tells you that he or she will be there "in a minute" and chastise them if they hit 61 seconds or more. Such actions disrespect the person making the statement.

Literalism verses Symbolism

Perhaps the questioner doesn't mean one must take every colloquialism or figure of speech as literal. Perhaps they are asking whether I take the Bible to be understood as literally versus symbolically. But this simply moves the problem back one level. Symbols are part of the Bible's makeup. The "talking snake" that atheists like to deride in Genesis chapter three is explained to be a symbolic reference to Satan in Revelation 12:9. In fact, even the most conservative of Biblical scholars readily acknowledge that Revelation is awash in symbols pulled from other Old Testament books. Similarly, Jesus primarily used parables to teach people about the Kingdom of God and how they should act.

To say that I take the Bible literally instead of symbolically doesn't clarify whether I believe Jesus has commanded to help only people who I find beaten in the street like the Good Samaritan or whether I take his teaching in a broader context. I must place it against all I know about Jesus and what he taught, the context in which he presented the teaching, and the type of literature in which it is presented. Since the Gospels are a form of ancient biography, I can believe that Jesus literally taught the concept of helping even those you see as enemies, but he used a form of symbolism to do so.

Taking the Bible Seriously

So, how do I answer when someone asks "Do you take the Bible literally?" I respond by saying "I take the Bible seriously." I want to know what the authors of those books intended to convey. In want to understand their teaching and learn from it. If they intended the account to be historical, then I will take it as history. If they intended it as metaphorical, I want to take it that way. In all, I want to respect the text and understand it to the best of my ability. That's the proper approach.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Answering Bible Contradiction Claims (video)



Last week I gave two talks at the annual Speaking the Truth in Love apologetics conference. Here is the video from one of those, entitled Answering Bible Contradiction Claims. Enjoy!



Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Understanding the Bible Requires Humility



The Bible is a unique work in human history. It isn't simply one book, but a collection of sixty-six books written by about forty authors in at least three languages over some 1500 years or so focusing on some of the most important moral and spiritual questions of all time.

One would think such a collection would be utterly incompatible; ideas and precepts would contradict each other on every page. Certainly, skeptics like to make such charges, but some Christians do, too. Take the prohibitions on homosexual relations as an example. In a recent discussion, Brian McLaren holds the passages banning homosexual sex no longer apply. He feels while the admonition was appropriate for those of the first century world, the modern nature of homosexual orientation and unions are something different and therefore the overarching principle of love should take precedence. McLaren pointed to other passages where Jesus seemed to also overturn scriptural commands, such as not working on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:1-8).

Andrew Wilson, who engaged McLaren, disagreed. Wilson holds that Jesus' teaching about the Sabbath in the Matthew passage restores the original intent of the command. It doesn't change it. I tend to agree with Wilson, here. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was correcting the deviations that had snuck into the religious teaching of the day. Jesus is saying that the opinions of the Pharisees were misunderstanding the admonitions. He needed the people to learn the correct lesson.

A Proper Approach to the Bible

The thing I liked the most about the discussion is how Wilson clarifies the way each reader should approach the biblical text. Given there is so much content placed in different genres and written across different times and cultures, there can be places where one would ask “how should I understand this?” Wilson offers a method when reading the scriptures, which is to apply humility four different ways:
  • Humility toward Community– We must first ask how other good, stable Christians have understood such passages. People have a tendency to slant or bend the ideas they receive towards their own experiences, but by asking others one can mitigate such tendencies and pool their common understanding into a more expansive view. This doesn't always mean communities settle on the right understanding, but it is a good first step in seeking a more reliable comprehension of the thought being conveyed.

  • Humility towards Catholicity-Beyond just the local community, one should also ask how Christians across all cultural spectrums would see the passage in question. Obviously, in the antebellum South, slave owners were wont to take Paul's command in Ephesians 6:5-9 as justification for slavery. However, others, such as William Wilberforce and the abolitionist movement explained how chattel slavery was antithetical to Christianity. If one were to humbly listen to those voices outside their primary circle, they could come away with a new and more profound understanding of difficult biblical passages.

  • Humility towards Orthodoxy-While current points of view are important, there is a basis of orthodox beliefs against which all biblical interpretations should be measured. The early church fathers labored incredibly to ensure they understood the primary aspects of Jesus and the Apostles' teachings. Over the course of decades and sometimes even centuries, these core beliefs were honed to precision. Therefore, when one comes across a passages that isn't as clear, it is incumbent upon him or her to make sure such beliefs do not undermine these essential positions of the faith.

  • Humility towards Scholarship-Lastly, one must realize there's a whole lot about a text he or she may not know. For example, how slavery in the ancient world of Paul had a much wider range of experience than the slavery practiced in the South. Scholars explore the ancient language, the cultural background, the types of uses of words, and the opinions of other scholars to come to their conclusions. A truth-seeker must be able to include their voices when struggling with a difficult section of scripture.
The person reading the Bible is well served through this practice of humility. Realize, humility doesn't mean one should de facto accept the word of the community or of scholars, etc. It does, however, give appropriate credence to them and one's mind will be opened to possibilities that may not have otherwise been considered.

Whenever I speak with skeptics, humility towards the text seems to be the biggest thing they're missing. They want to believe passage X proves their point. Their stance may give them assurance, but it ultimately won't further the truth.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Bible Promise Verses and Apologetics



Yesterday, I posted a short clip on how many people take the oft-quoted passage "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" and apply it incorrectly. (Click here to see the video.) I also shared the post with a couple of online apologetics groups. A couple of people were confused on why I even bothered with this point. Why make a big point about something as seemingly small as using Philippians 4:13 to show that they can conquer their difficulties?

The reason is both important and relevant to apologetics. First, apologetics doesn't only concern believers defending their faith against non-believers. 1 Peter 3:15 is clear when it instructs us to be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks. That "anyone" includes those inside the church who may not know as much as you or those who are mistaken in their use of scripture. Paul instructs Timothy to "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth" (2 Tim 2:15). Paul immediately follows this up by telling Timothy to correct errors that are being spread within the church, stating "But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene."

The Problem with Misapplying Scripture

Of course, some may think that this is a bit of an over-reaction. How can a mis-applied verse on a Bible Promise calendar escalate to spreading like gangrene? The problem is twofold. First, there are those who may "claim" these verses and when they don't play out as they expect in really difficult times, they see it as evidence against the Christian faith. This happened en masse in the Great Disappointment of the Millerite movement of 1844, but I've spoken with those today whose Christian beliefs were more rooted in these feel-good promises than the hard task of working out one's salvation with fear and trembling. When they did face pressures, they felt these promises didn't deliver, and therefore Christianity was something of a bait and switch. Others may not leave the faith, but they question themselves or their standing in salvation.

Secondly, approaching the Bible with this kind of sound-bite exegesis is incredibly misleading and even dangerous. One of the biggest difficulties I have in sharing an orthodox Christian belief with Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons is how they try and use the Bible to proof-text their beliefs. They abuse the text in the exact same way as the passage above by ripping it out of its larger context and isolating a verse or two so it can mean what they want it to mean instead of what the author intended. If Christians begin to take all of scripture as a series of verses that stand independently, how can we ever know what meaning the writers actually had in mind and whether this applies or not? Such misapplied Bible verses, even in the guise of providing encouragement, actually encourage the misuse of Scripture. If we chide the Mormons and JWs for doing this, we shouldn't do it either.

In all, I think it's important for Christians to be careful when using individual verses to support any belief. As I've shown before, sometimes people can sound really Christian and even say all the right slogans, but they may not even understand salvation. As believers and faith-defenders it is important we gently correct those who may misuse scriptures, lest they fall into a greater error. The video is one small step in that direction.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

What Does the Bible Promise "I Can Do All Things" Really Mean?



Bible promises are very popular, with calendars, posters and inspirational quotes proliferating Christian stores. However, do those promises really mean what we think?

In this short video, Lenny demonstrates how taking a verse out of its context can distort the message the Scriptures actually convey.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Quick Answers to the Charge of Bible Contradictions



When I speak with skeptics, many of them claim the Bible cannot be trusted because of all the contradictions within it. I usually ask for specific examples at this point, understanding that the objector may have some specific text in mind. (Don't bluff on this! Here's why.) However, when they offer examples, these usually are shown to not be contradictory upon examination.

Below are two short videos where I discuss how most charges of contradictions are simply the objector applying an unreasonable standard on the text. We can break these down into three categories: skeptics either expect robot reporting, snub style to force meaning, or demand "my way or the highway." The second video shows how I treat one specific objection often lobbed against the resurrection accounts: the differences the Gospels record when describing the number of women who visited Jesus's tomb on Sunday morning. Enjoy.

Does The Bible Have Contradictory Claims In It?


Is The Number Of Women At The Empty Tomb A Contradiction?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Are Christians not to Judge Non-Christians?



The command "Judge not lest ye be judged" is one of the most often quoted Bible passages. Less frequently cited but perhaps more applicable is the passage in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul tells the Christians to not judge non-Christians? What are we to make of these passages? In this short video, Lenny offers some clarity to how we should understand Paul's command in light of the examples we've received.



Image courtesy Andrew Hughey and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) License.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

"Where Two or Three are Gathered" Doesn't Mean What You Think" (video)



It's almost commonplace for church leaders and Christians in general to refer to Matthew 18:20, which says "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." They try to use this verse to prove that Jesus can be found in the fellowship of believers. However, in doing so, they are twisting the scriptures just as much as a Mormon or one of Jehovah's Witnesses do.

In this short clip, Lenny explains what Matthew 18:20 really means and why it's important to use the scriptures properly, especially in church settings.



Photo courtesy Grayson Akerly and licensed via the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) License.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Why Studying Science is Important for Evangelism

I recently posted a quote from Dr. J.P. Moreland on why an evolutionary account for moral values and duties fails. The quote was a bit technical, but it did a good job of showing flaws in such a theory just by reasoning through the position. In other words, it didn't appeal to the Bible. I received a comment on the post that this quote will be completely ineffective to any unbeliever who reads it because "it is an attempt to utilize the tools and methods of science and reason to persuade those who simply cannot discern the things of the Spirit. Not one person will come to the Lord as a result of this argumentation."



I don't want to pick on this specific comment, but I have heard similar objections from within the church before. Within the comment are two common assumptions that evangelical Christians voice, both of which I believe are mistaken. I will tackle some others in later posts, but the first unwarranted assumption is that science is not effective or it isn't somehow appropriate when trying to lead others to Jesus.

Science Properly Done Leads to God

It has become a common trope that science and reason are tools of the world and Spiritual things cannot be discovered through them. But the church hasn't always held such a view. In fact, the myth that science and reason sit on one side of a divide while faith and belief sit on the other is perpetuated by those who are desperately trying to divorce God from His reality. Historically, modern science was founded and advanced by Christians who were, in the words of Johannes Kepler, "thinking God's thoughts after Him."1

These scientists took passages like Psalm 19:1-4 seriously, in which the Psalmist declares:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. (ESV)
They believed that they were pursuing the knowledge that God had woven into the fabric of his creation. This is also why Paul points to the understanding of the created order in Romans 1 as God's testimony of himself that holds them accountable:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:18-20, ESV).

God Commanded Us to Explore His World

God wants us to explore the world he created. Even before Adam's fall, the Bible tells us that God placed him in the garden in order to "to work it and keep it" (Gen 2:15). Such a command would require investigation on Adam's part to understand how the world works, how the plants grow, and how to keep them appropriately.

Augustine even encouraged the Christian to not ignore science as it could damage the Christian's witness. In his commentary on Genesis, Augustine writes:
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although "they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."2
If science is done properly, it doesn't lead people away from God. Rather, it should point people to the clear conclusion that the world has a designer. That's the argument that Paul makes in Romans 1 and it is the reason why atheists such as Antony Flew changed his mind and believed that God existed. Of course, people can hold biases and presuppositions that rule out God, and we should recognize that. Science alone isn't the answer. But it shouldn't be discounted as one tool in God's toolbox for declaring himself to a lost world.

References

1. Morris, Henry M. Men of Science, Men of God: Great Scientists Who Believed the Bible. San Diego, CA: Creation-Life, 1982. Print. 12.
2. Augustine, and John Hammond. Taylor. "Chapter 19." The Literal Meaning of Genesis. Vol. 1. New York, NY: Newman, 1982. 19. Print.. Web. http://college.holycross.edu/faculty/alaffey/other_files/Augustine-Genesis1.pdf

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Quick Tips on Dealing with Difficulties


We're at the close of our series looking at the supposed contradictions in the Bible. In all our examples, we have shown that there can be answers to passages that seem to contradict each other or facts that we know today. Since it's impossible to deal with more than merely a handful of examples in this series, I want to leave you with a few checkpoints to use when confronting charges of a contradiction. The following quick tip guide will help you think more clearly in your discussions:

Quick Tips on Dealing with Difficulties

Is it really a contradiction?

  1. The burden of proof rests on the critics
    The Bible is probably the most critiqued and scrutinized book in history. Whenever a person charges the Bible with supposedly containing a contradiction the burden rests on them to prove that the contradiction is actually one and not his or her mistaken reading of the text. The text is innocent until proven guilty.1
  2. If there's a plausible solution, then it cannot be a contradiction
    Remember, I said at the outset that a contradiction is a very specific thing – it must show that the statements are making competing claims about the same thing at the same time. If it can be shown that another understanding of the text is not only possible but would be reasonable, then the charge of contradiction evaporates.
  3. Be sure you know what the text says
    Read the text carefully. Words like "after these things" could mean a significant gap in time. Ignoring them is one way to snub style.
  4. Be sure you know what the text means
    With 2,000 years or more between those that wrote the biblical texts and us, it is very easy to misunderstand the intent of the author. Both Snubbing Style and My Way or the Highway make this kind of mistake, but in different circumstances.
  5. Don't confuse imprecision with error
    Round numbers, shortening chronologies and estimating timelines within days instead of minutes are all considered appropriate in ancient literature. Robot Reporting is really a very recent approach to telling a story. As timekeeping improved, so did the precision in recording time.
  6. The Bible itself is an archaeological document – and one of the highest caliber. Therefore, it should be treated as trustworthy. If another document calls into question the Biblical text, why should one assume the Bible to be in error?
    One thing that always amazes me is how when a critic finds ancient texts that bring the accounts of Jesus into question, they never subject the competing claim to the same critical standard as the biblical text. The so-called "lost gospels" are a prime example of given them the benefit of the doubt while the Bible is supposed to be overwhelmingly convincing.
The Bible has shown its value as a historic document. Authors like Luke have paid particular attention to historic details, getting even inconsequential facts right. As we've seen, most claims of contradiction can be easily reconciled to the satisfaction of anyone who is open to honest inquiry. However, a lot of people I come into contact with aren't really interested in the evidence but ale looking for another excuse to not have to believe what it says. Julia Sweeney, a well-known performer who was on Saturday Night Live exemplifies this when she offers her critique of the Bible. She says:
"To me, the Iliad offers more insight into human character and lessons than the Bible. You know, like Jesus was angry a lot. When he turned all those people into pigs and made them run off a mountain, it was so hateful, not just to people but to pigs. I felt upset for the pigs!" 2
Sweeney is trying to object to the story in Mark 5:2-13. However, her woeful misunderstanding shows that she hasn't even done a thoughtful reading of the text. Jesus didn't turn people into pigs, He cast demons out of people and into a heard of swine. He didn't make them run off a cliff, the demons did that voluntarily. Sweeney gets all the facts of this passage wrong and then tries to imply that Jesus was somehow cruel to both people and animals! It was C.H. Spurgeon who said "I would far rather have a man an earnest, intense opposer of the gospel than have him careless and indifferent." When people run roughshod over the biblical text and then claim "contradiction" they really aren't being honest; they're simply throwing out another smokescreen.3

References

1. Dr. Craig Blomberg writes "Once one accepts that the Gospels reflect attempts to write reliable history or biography, however theological or stylized their presentations may be, then one must immediately recognize an important presupposition that guides most historians in their work. Unless there is good reason for believing otherwise, one will assume that a given detail in the work of a particular [ancient] historian is factual. This method places the burden of proof squarely on the person who would doubt the reliability of a given portion of the text. The alternative is to presume the text unreliable unless convincing evidence can be brought forward in support of it. While many critical scholars of the Gospels adopt this latter method, it is wholly unjustified by the normal canons of historiography, Scholars who would consistently implement such a method when studying other ancient historical writings would find corroborative data so insufficient that the vast majority of accepted history would have to be jettisoned." From Blomberg, Craig L. Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic: 2007. 304.

2. Miller, David Ian. "FINDING MY RELIGION: Julia Sweeney talks about how she became an atheist." San Francisco Chronicle 15 August 2005: Accessed online at <http://articles.sfgate.com/2005-08-15/news/17384089_1_religious-los-angeles-dear-god>.

3. John W. Haley's book Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible underscores my point. Originally published in 1874, it continues to answer almost all alleged contradictions offered to this day. To check it out, see Baker Books republished version here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Differences between Accounts Is Actually a Positive!


As we begin to wrap up our study of the different types of charges against the consistency of the Bible, we find that many of the claims of contradiction are really nothing of the sort. They are merely products of an author using the language, styles, and categories of his day, or perhaps trying to emphasize a particular point or teaching of his subject. Where two or more authors conflict, we can look to the authors' different goals in writing and see that they would report events differently. Regardless, the previous explanations show why the claims that the Bible cannot be the God's Word because it contains contradictions falls away as acceptable alternatives are available for these differing objections.

However, I want to bring up one additional point not often heard when discussing the differences in the Bible and specifically in the gospel accounts. I have claimed previously that the gospels are eyewitness testimony. Either eyewitnesses or close associates who interviewed the eyewitnesses wrote the gospels. The fact that accounts of Jesus' resurrection vary in theme and detail actually strengthen the claim these were eyewitnesses instead of people who all conspired to make up the same story. You see made up stories only deal with main events and they only have one particular point of view. When people get together to invent a fable, they don't worry about the details. You know Hansel and Gretel had bread with them in the forest, but you don't know which forest they were in or what type of clothing they were wearing. These things aren't deemed important to the story so they aren't considered.  All accounts of Hansel and Gretel are pretty much the same—which means they all stem from one source.

Eyewitness testimony, on the other hand, is messy and many times offers different facts. In fact, any police detective will tell you, if multiple witnesses tell the exact same story with the same details it is a sure sign of collusion, meaning the witnesses got together and fabricated what they were going to say beforehand. Cold-case homicide detective Jim Wallace supports this point. In his book Cold-Case Christianity he writes:
"I learned many years ago the importance of separating witnesses. If eyewitnesses are quickly separated from one another, they are far more likely to provide an uninfluenced, pure account of what they saw. Yes, their accounts will inevitably differ from the accounts of others who witnessed the same event, but that is the natural result of a witness's past experience, perspective, and worldview. I can deal with the inconsistencies; I expect them. But when witnesses are allowed to sit together (prior to being interviewed) and compare notes and observations, I'm likely to get one harmonized version of the event. Everyone will offer the same story. While this may be tidier, it will come at the sacrifice of some important detail that a witness is willing to forfeit in order to align his or her story with the other witnesses; I'm not willing to pay that price. I would far rather have three messy, apparently contradictory versions of the event than one harmonized version that has eliminated some important detail. I know in the end I'll be able to determine the truth of the matter by examining all three stories. The apparent contradictions are usually easy to explain once I learn something about the witnesses and their perspectives (both visually and personally) at the time of the crime."1
So, the fact that the gospel accounts differ from each other is actually a good thing! Eyewitnesses will report different aspects of an event because each has a different perspective. It means that the writers didn't conspire to make up one story but are reporting events with the impressions the witnesses really had.

References

1.Wallace, J. Warner. Cold-Case Christianity: A Homocide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospel. (Colorado Springs, CO: David C.Cooke Pub, 2013). 71.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Bible Contradictions - More of My Way or the Highway

Photo courtesy Wikipedia Japan
We're on the home stretch of a series I've been posting covering various types of contradictions that the Bible has been accused of. I've grouped the nature of the accusations into three main types of errors: expecting "robot" reporting, snubbing style to force meaning, and demanding "My way or the highway." For the full list of links to the series, click here. Here's a couple more from our last category.

Strict chronological order in all accounts of the same events

Since the Bible claims to report historical events, people have sought to show that it reports history unreliably. They will sometimes point to different Gospels reporting the same event, but recording that it occurred at different times or in different circumstances.  But it shouldn't surprise you that the way people report historical events has changed a bit in the last 2000 years.  Scholars note that ancient historians would not always feel compelled to report the events of a person's life in the chronological sequence in which they originally occurred. Sometimes they were more concerned about displaying a certain aspect or character trait of their subject, so they would assemble different events around a central teaching or significant point to substantiate their claim.1  Therefore, Matthew felt he had the freedom to report the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness in a different order than Luke.

Assuming similar events must be the same event

Many times the claim of contradiction is raised when different gospel writers offer seemingly conflicting details on a particular event.  For example, Jesus' sermon containing the Beatitudes ("blessed are the poor in spirit… etc") is famously called "the Sermon on the Mount" since it begins with Jesus going up on a mountain with His disciples following Him.  But Luke records that Jesus stood in a level place when preaching the Beatitudes, so it sounds like Luke contradicts Matthew. Of course there could be a level place on the mountaintop, such as a plateau, where Jesus decided to preach this sermon.  That would remove the contradiction.

However, it is also possible that Jesus preached the same sermon more than once in different locations! If the principles of a teaching were important, then it stands to reason that Jesus would want to let many people in different locations hear the message.  There were no newspapers or tape recorders in those days; then only way to disseminate your teachings quickly is to repeat them.   Even today, speakers will recycle full speeches to different groups so that all get to hear the principles that they feel are worthy of more attention. Either way, this cannot be used to prove a contradiction since either explanation is a plausible possibility.


Example: Did Jesus cleanse the Temple at the beginning or the end of His ministry?

All four gospels tell of Jesus driving out the moneychangers from the Temple in Jerusalem.  Matthew, Mark and Luke have this event happening in the final week of Jesus' ministry, while the gospel of John records it very early in chapter two. Is this a contradiction? No.  It's possible that John is not sticking to a strict chronology, but recording the cleansing of the Temple early.  John's Gospel is structured differently from the other three in that John uses seven events to instigate seven major discourses by Jesus, each emphasizing a specific aspect of Jesus' divine nature.

But scholars also recognize that it's quite likely that Jesus cleaned the Temple twice in His ministry - once at the beginning and once in the final week before His crucifixion. The accounts seem to differ in tone (Jesus was thoughtful in John, making a whip with cords and preplanning the event and He told the sellers "stop making My Father's house a place of business" while in the other accounts the actions seem more immediate and Jesus' speech is more aggressive, saying "You have made [this  place] a robber's den."

Since John records at least three Passover visits by Jesus to Jerusalem, it would not be a stretch to believe that within two or three years, the moneychangers had come back to the Temple and once again set up shop.  There was good profit in selling to worshipers and the priests were considered the real authority for the Temple, not Jesus.  Therefore, it is likely that Jesus coming back to the Temple saw the re-established merchants and again drove them out.

References

1. John W. Haley notes that other historical accounts have taken this approach. "From the pen of one writer we receive an orderly, well-constructed biography; another gives us merely a series of anecdotes, grouped so as to suit some trait, sentiment, or habit of the person described.  Thus, in Xenophon's Memorabilia, we do not find a proper biography of Socrates, but we see various points in his life and character set forth by anecdotes respecting him and by reports of his discussions."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Bible Contradictions - My Way or the Highway


The third major way critics will try to claim a contradiction within the Biblical accounts, is to make the mistake I call making it "My Way or the Highway." Basically this means we take our modern biases and understanding of what we think writing should be and try to apply it to people writing in the ancient past.  This is a little different than snubbing style, in that snubbing style usually ignores the intent of the author while My Way or the Highway forces accepted modern approaches as universals to which ancients were somehow supposed to adhere. Many times in these instances, there are facts in dispute – not merely perspective or idioms.  The easiest of these to see is our first example: using modern definitions or classifications and forcing them on ancient writers.

Applying modern definitions to ancient texts

The history of the advancement of science has been fueled to a great degree by the Christian worldview.  Christians knew God was a god of order and He would create an orderly world that would be consistent, knowable and classifiable.  Because of this, they took to exploring their world, learning more about it, and sought to place this knowledge into categories. So, for example, scientists have developed a classification system for all living things known as biological taxonomy.  Your pet dog is part of a larger group (known as a genus) called Canis, including wolves and coyotes.  They are part of a larger family of animals that include jackals and foxes, which are still part of a larger grouping of carnivores: or meat-eating mammals.

This idea of grouping things together makes a lot of sense, but the precision and granularity we see now is a relatively recent invention. It has only being around for some 300 years or so.1 Yet it's a popular ruse to use scientific definitions that weren't even invented during Bible times to show that the Bible's in error.   For example, some object to Leviticus 11:13 classifying a bat as one of the birds since bats are mammals.  However, grouping animals by the fact that they have fur over the fact that they fly is purely arbitrary choice on our part, a choice that was made some 3000 years after Leviticus was written! This is in no way a mistake or contradiction, it's simply the critic trying to force a modern definition on a passage where the writer was using a completely different one.

Example: Does the Hare Chew Cud?

"Nevertheless, you are not to eat of these among those which chew the cud, or among those that divide the hoof in two: the camel and the rabbit …" Deuteronomy 14:7

 Cud chewers today are recognized as animals such as cows who chew their food, swallow it, then regurgitate it and chew it some more. Rabbits and hares, however, do not have a chambered stomach such as the cow to regurgitate food.  Instead, they let some their food pass through their digestive system and expel it where they then take it and rechew it again. This process is known as cecotrophy.  (It should be noted that they are not chewing dung as the makeup of the cecotrophs is quite different than their waste).

Since the classification of cud-chewers was first defined in 1847 by Richard Owen, it would be intellectually dishonest for someone to claim that a 3500 year old writing is contradictory because it doesn't match with this scientific classification. Further, if the ancient Hebrews defined 'cud-chewing" as that process where half digested vegetation was re-chewed by an animal for easier re-digestion (and that is a very specific and scientific definition), I would say the hare fits here fine.2

References

1 Most of the accepted way of classifying plants and animals follows the model set forth by Carolus Linnaeus in his book Systema Naturae.  For more on Linnaeus, see Scientists of Faith: Forty-Eight Biographies of Historic Scientists and Their Christian Faith by Dan Graves (GrandRapids: Kregel Pub, 1996)pp.80-83
2. Esposito, Lenny. "Does the hare really chew cud?" 6 April 2010
http://www.comereason.org/bibl_cntr/con055.asp

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Two More Ways Critics Snub Style

We are currently reviewing different ways critics make mistakes when accusing the Bible of being self-contradictory. In our last post, we saw that people sometimes claim the Bible has a contradiction when it is really only using phenomenological language. Today, we'll look at two additional ways critics snub style to force meaning.

Misunderstanding popular idioms and sayings

Every culture has expressions of speech they use to communicate quickly and colorfully. Teens do this naturally; what used to be hip became groovy which turned into cool, then phat. However, some people try to snub style by forcing common sayings—known as idioms—to be understood literally.  This simply proves the objector is not treating the text fairly.  I remember hearing a story where a translator was helping a person visiting Russia.  Getting to the train station minutes before their departure, he told a local that they had made it by the skin of their teeth, which the translator repeated verbatim.  The Russian looked at the man and was quite perplexed.  Teeth don't have skin! So the man had to interpret the meaning of the idiom in order for his listener to understand what he was saying. Similarly, ancient people also had idioms that they used to speak in a particular way.

Example: Jesus in the Tomb Three Days and Nights

"For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth."  Matthew 12:40

When you look at the accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection, it seems that Jesus was wrong. He died on Friday evening and was resurrected before daybreak on Sunday morning.  That's maybe 36-38 hours at the most, not three days AND three nights.  But in Hebrew speech any part of a day is referred to as a whole day.  We can see this in the passage of 1 Samuel 30. Here, David had been fasting before God to conquer the Amalekites, since they had ransacked southern Israel and captured many people including David's wives.  After his victory, verse 12 says that David "had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights."  But in verse 1, it clearly states that David overtook the Amalekites on the third day, not afterwards. So, here is another instance of the phrase three days and three nights not being used literally, but an expression for covering at least part of a three day period.

Differences in perspective or emphasis

One final way critics will snub style is to view a retelling of an account as a contradiction simply because it is emphasizing a different aspect of the same event. For example, the book of Kings and the book of Chronicles offer similar stories of the Kings of Israel and Judah, but the writers there were hoping to make different points. The author of the books of Kings is more concerned with the way God orders the events of history and downfall of the nation's leadership while the author to Chronicles emphasizes the apostasy from the Davidic covenant and temple worship.

Example: Are Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 competing creation accounts?
"This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, in the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven". Genesis 2:4

 In the first chapter of Genesis, God creates the plants first (day three), then the birds and fish (day four), then the animals, and finally man and woman (day 6). However, Genesis 2 seems to say that man was created first, then the plants, then all the animals, and finally woman.  Aren't these contradictory?  The answer is no, because the accounts are really not talking about the same things.

The best way to understand the creation story is to see Genesis chapter one as an overview of all God did to create the heavens and the earth. Then, like a movie plot that backs up to show the details of a particular event, Genesis 2:4 zooms in on the last creation day to tell the events there.   First, planting "a garden toward the east" does not mean that God hadn't already created plants and animals elsewhere.  In fact, because the location of the garden is qualified ("toward the east") it implies that this activity is very localized. God could simply be recreating plants and animals specifically for Adam. The language could also be perspective-driven; God's previous action of creating animals from the ground is restated while underlining that the animals were to be subservient to man.

We use language the same way today. We may tell a friend "this car was built for you" to someone who finds a car they that fits their personality.  Either way, the claim of a contradiction doesn't stand.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Snubbing Style to Force Meaning

I'm currently writing a series of articles answering the claim that the Bible holds contradictions. Previous posts discuss what a contradiction is, what I classify as the three main categories of errors people make when thinking they've found a contradiction, and a review of the first, which is an expectation of Robot Reporting.


The second major way that people err in claiming the Bible holds contradictions is they ignore the style and patterns of the language itself.  All language uses style to convey meaning.Some are put in by the authors to try and make a specific point while others are merely the way people spoke during that time and culture. Ignoring the fact that language and culture have a huge effect on writing and what people mean can mean coming out with a drastically different idea from what the author was really saying. I call this mistake "snubbing style" and it means that someone is trying to force making the text be in error when it is not really the case.

Ignore use of phenomenological language

The first case where this kind of mistake happens is ignoring language that is trying to describe something we all experience using language that we can all relate to.  An example we use even today is how we speak is the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. Now we all know that the sun isn't really circling the earth, the earth rotates and we see the sun.  But since from our point of view it looks like the sun is moving, we talk about the sunrise and sunset. Anyone who would stop someone else in conversation and say "you've made a mistake, the sun doesn't rise at all" would quickly have no friends!

Similarly, the Bible uses this type of language all the time.  God is depicted as having certain characteristics of a body, such as hands and eyes (called anthropomorphic language) even though Jesus tells us God is a spirit. Other passages talk about how "God remembered Noah" or how God would "once again turn his attention toward" His people.  These are all just linguistic ways of making a point that God is getting ready to do something special. He never forgot or had to be reminded.

Does God Change His Mind?

"But Moses interceded with the Lord…  So the LORD changed His mind about the disaster He said He would bring on His people." (Exodus 32:11,14)

If the Bible says that God is all-knowing and never makes a mistake, then how can he change His mind? This is a perfect example of how ancient writers were trying to help their audience understand the circumstances of that moment.  In this instance, Israel had sinned so deeply, they should have been wiped out by God. Therefore, the exchange between Moses and God is there to highlight the fact that it's not because the Israelites were somehow OK that God allowed them to continue, but it is only because of God's own promise and grace that He allowed them to continue at all.  God didn't change his mind, but His words just help us understand how precarious the Israelites situation really was. It also sets up the idea of the need for an intercessor between man and God — pointing the way to our ultimate intercessor, Jesus.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Three Common Errors in Assuming Contradictions


We're currently discussing how to deal with claims that the BIble contains contradictions.  You can read the forst two posts in this series here and here. As, I've already noted, those who claim the Bible contains contradictions must prove the statements in question are actually contradictory and not meant in different ways.  Usually, though, most "contradictions" are nothing of the sort. Biblical passages generally hold different types of meaning, determined by their context.  Many times, a person is claiming that the Bible has a contradiction usually has some hidden assumptions that are influencing his or her understanding of the passage. In fact, most supposed contradictions are really errors on the part of people who are not treating the Biblical text fairly. In my study of the different errors that people make in treating the Biblical text, I've found that these errors tend to fall into one of three main groups: Expecting Robot Reporting, Snubbing Style to Force Meaning, or My Way is the Only Way.

Don't Expect "Robot" Reporting

The biggest mistake I see when people mishandle the Biblical text is to expect that the Biblical writers were trying to capture every detail of the scene that they describe. Many people assume the Bible offers some kind of strict, court transcript style reporting of whoever is speaking.  But that was never the intent of the authors.  This first group of mistakes-expecting Robot Reporting, that is to expect the Bible to be completely precise in its descriptions of events. But as we'll see, the Bible can be completely accurate without having to record all details of everything it mentions.

Accounts are history, but not transcripts

All ancient historians understood that they wanted to accurately portray their subject matter.  But they would never try to write down a blow-by-blow description of all aspects of the events they record.  They couldn't. Writing in the ancient world was a much bigger deal than it is today.  For one thing, writing was a skill that not everyone had.  We know Jeremiah and Paul had to use secretaries to help them at times.  Paper also was a prized commodity, and unlike books today, scrolls could only hold so much.  A writer would need to be careful to include only the important facts in his account of an event in order to achieve his point.  Other items may be ignored.  A good example of this is the variation in the number of women at the tomb in our example below.
Example: How Many at the Tomb?
  • One woman: John 20:1
    "Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came early to the tomb, while it was still dark, and saw the stone already taken away from the tomb."
  • Two women: Matt. 28:1
    "Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave."
  • Three women: Mark 16:1
    "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him."
  • Five or more: Luke 24:10
    "Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles."
To easily clarify what the gospel writers are doing, let's look at a parallel that happens many times today. Suppose I received a phone call from my co-worker Fred Jones who says, "Hey, we're going to take our kids to see the new blockbuster at the theater, would you like to come?" "Sure!  I'll gather the family and we'll meet you there."

The next day, I talk to three people about my evening.  A mutual fried asks "what did you do last night?"  "Oh, we went to the movies with the Joneses."  Then, my mom calls me and asks why I wasn't at home.  I reply "I took the family to see a movie." A co-worker then asks if I have seen the new blockbuster.  "Yes," I replied "Fred and I both saw it."

Now, have I contradicted myself in any of these accounts?  No.  I've merely reported the relevant details applicable to the audience.  Leaving out some people is not a contradiction.  Remember, we said a contradiction has to be two mutually exclusive concepts.  If I were to say "I saw the movie with Fred and I saw the movie without Fred" it would be a contradiction.  And even then, it's only a contradiction if I'm talking about the same showing of the movie and that we were both present and not present at the same time. This kind of objection is also used to say the number of angels at the tomb is in error, but there's no contradiction here, just more or less information being presented.

Tomorrow, I will discuss some more ways the error of Robot Reporting comes into play. I hope you'll come back for the whole series.

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