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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 Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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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.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bible Contradictions - Don't Expect Robot Reporting

I've been going through some of the so-called contradictions that many Internet skeptics accuse the Bible of having. We're currently talking about the assumption of "Robot" Reporting, that is expecting historical books like the Gospel accounts to have been written in mechanical fashion instead of understanding that the authors would write history the same way other ancient writers recorded the events of their day. We've already talked about one way skeptics fall into the Robot Reporting trap: assuming the Gospel accounts should read like court transcripts.

Photo courtesy Mirko Tobias Schaefer

Another reason not to expect robot reporting is the issue of language.  Jesus probably taught the Judean crowds in Aramaic, the language of that land.  However, the world wouldn't understand Aramaic, so the gospel writers wrote in Greek.  Any time you translate from one language to another, it's impossible to record a word-for-word transcription of a teaching—and that's true even today.

Accounts are factual, but not balance sheets

Since writing was such a big deal, most of the stories of ancient times were received and passed on through verbal repetition.  In other words, people talked to one another and would tell the stories that they had heard. As we said in chapter five, people in ancient days made up for the fact they didn't write by honing their skills to memorize long narratives of text with remarkable accuracy.

Because memorizing played such an important role in keeping the stories clear and correct, writers of the ancient world had to different approach to recounting lists and facts.  Using abbreviated lists or rounding numbers to keep them simpler and easier to remember was not only an accepted practice, but the audience would understand that the writer wasn't trying to give exact counts or name every father/son relationship from person A to person B.

Example: Genealogy in Matthew 1

"So all the generations from Abraham to David were 14 generations; and from David until the exile to Babylon, 14 generations; and from the exile to Babylon until the Messiah, 14 generations."

The genealogy of Jesus we read in Matthew 1:1-17 is a prime example of how ancient writers would keep the integrity of a list intact, but make is easier for people to remember. If we were to compare the lists of Judean kings presented in the books of Kings and Chronicles with Matthew's list, we'll find that Matthew purposely left out some of the kings in order to have three equal groupings of fourteen with each grouping tying into a landmark event in the nation's past. Since the term "father" can also mean grandfather or ancestor, we can see that it being used in a different manner, and therefore is not a contradiction.

There were no Xerox machines in Ancient Rome

The last way that critics make the mistake of Robot Reporting is to assume that any errors found in the text must've been placed there by the authors themselves.  We can see through history that this is clearly false, as many times scholars have identified an error in a number that a scribe made while copying the text. Indeed, a famous example of this was the so-called "Sinner's Bible" that was published in 1631.  This King James Version accidentally left out one "not" from the entire bible when printed — unfortunately, it was left out of the seventh commandment which then read "Thou shalt commit adultery!"

God never promised that every copy of a Bible book would be preserved. 2 Peter 1:21 locates the Spirit's work of inspiration at the moment of the production of the texts by the authors. But no biblical text indicates that copies would be kept free from errors. Now, as we talked about in chapter five, sine we have so many copies of New Testament texts, we can know with over 99% certainty what the original texts actually said.  And since the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947, we've seen that the Hebrew Old Testament text has been preserved with amazing accuracy even after 1,000 years of copying.

Example: Solomon's Horses — 4,000 or 40,000?
2 Chronicles 9:25 reports Solomon had 4,000 horses while 1 Kings 4:26 reports 40,000. Since letters were used for numbers in ancient Hebrew (like Roman Numerals) a copyist mistook one character for another, similar looking one and thus the error.

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.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bible Contradictions - What's a Contradiction, Anyway?

We've all heard the charge that the Bible is full of contradictions. It seems easy to level the charge of "contradiction" at a passage or two that seem to be talking about the same thing, but don't match. However, a contradiction is a very specific thing, and many times people just don't understand what must happen in order for one statement to be considered a contradiction to another. Simply put, a contradiction means that someone is making a nonsense claim. They are saying something that cannot possibly be true. If a statement does have the ability to be true given additional information, then the statement isn't really a contradiction.

This may seem a little confusing, but let me clarify what I mean. Luckily this area has been very well travelled in the study of logic, so we have a solid foundation from where we can base our definition.  The Law of Non-Contradiction is one of the Three Standard Laws of Thought that Professor Ed L. Miller notes that all rational thinking has at its basis. 1 These laws are so simple that they will seem self-evident, even to anyone who hasn't studies critical thinking or philosophy. In fact, Miller says that without these three laws thought and discourse would be impossible.  Without them, "nothing we think or say makes any sense, not even this very sentence."

The first law is the Law of Identity, which simply means that a thing is equal to itself. If I have four children then it is true that I have four children.  The Law of Identity is used to understand different terms that always refer to the same thing.  For example, an unmarried man is a bachelor.  Bachelors and unmarried males are different phrases that refer to the exact same property some men have, so any time I use the word bachelor, I can substitute "unmarried man" and it doesn't change them meaning at all. Another example is "God is divine". If we understand the word "divine" to mean pertaining to God, then the sentence just repeats itself; it says the same thing twice. This Law may seem pretty silly, but you'll see how important it is as we come to the next one.

The Second Law is the one that gets to the heart of what we're trying to understand: the Law of Non-Contradiction. The Law of Non-Contradiction says that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. Using our example above, if it is true that I have four children, then it cannot be true that I do not have four children at the same time and in the same manner.  Bachelors cannot be unmarried AND married at the same time. God cannot be both divine and not divine at the same time if we're using the word divine to mean the same thing.

You see, the Law of Non-Contradiction draws the line between true and false statements.  Look at the statement "Jesus is God."  It would make no sense to say "Jesus is God therefore Jesus cannot be divine."  Because of the Law of Identity above, we can see that this statement is really speaking nonsense.  Jesus either is God or He isn't. If He is God, then He's divine.  He can't be both divine and not-divine at the same time. 

The third law is known as the Law of Excluded Middle, and it simply means you have to choose a side.  Jesus is either divine or he isn't. Since the Law of Non-Contradiction says he cannot be both then when you have two contradictory statements, you cannot hold to both claims.  You must choose one and forfeit the other.

However, note that the Law of Non-Contradiction does specify that we must be talking about the same time and mean the same thing when we point to a claim as contradictory – and this is where most of our critics get into trouble.  The claim must be talking about the same time and the same manner or respect. If I travel to New York and pick up a post card for my wife, I'll write on the back "I'm in New York!" and drop it in the mail box.  If I fly home the next day, I'll beat that postcard to my home.  When my wife does receive the card, she's not going to say "this is a contradiction – you're right here!" It isn't contradictory since the statement was written when I actually was in New York.   Similarly, if I'm daydreaming about Tahiti while at my desk in Southern California, I may say "I'm not really here; I'm in Tahiti right now." Again, this isn't a contradiction since I'm using the words "not really here" to talk about a mental state, not a physical presence. So in order for something to be contradiction, it must hold to two opposing claims that mean the same thing at the same time.


1. Miller, Ed. L. Questions That Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996. p.32
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