XFiles Friday: Reinforcing the error

(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 11.)

Studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is not always as reliable and accurate as one might expect: under certain circumstances, people who witness the same real-world event will give reports that contradict both each other and photographic records of the actual event.

Last week, we saw how Geisler and Turek take this scientific finding and use it to reach the rather perverse conclusion that, since eyewitnesses of actual events sometimes give conflicting reports, we ought to believe that people who tell conflicting stories must therefore be eyewitnesses of actual events, and therefore contradictory stories about the resurrection must be true! This is an obvious fallacy, and it’s interesting to watch Geisler and Turek try and buttress their argument. The added material is no better, as we shall see.

In light of the numerous divergent details in the New Testament, it’s clear that the New Testament writers didn’t get together to smooth out their testimonies. This means they certainly were not trying to pass off a lie as the truth.

Nice, isn’t it? The fact that their stories contradict each other is proof that they weren’t lying. And what, pray tell, would be the proof if they were lying? If the stories of the crucifixion all agree, does that prove that Jesus was never crucified?

But ok, let’s grant the assumption that the Gospel writers might not have been deliberately conspiring to deceive us with a carefully-coordinated story. Geisler and Turek assume the only other possibility is that the Gospel must be 100% true, but they overlook the possibility that the NT writers might have been lying to themselves about what really happened. Denial is a powerful force, and if you can’t face the loss of your beloved Messiah, you’re going to end up believing some inconsistent things. And when you’re in denial, the last thing you want to do is compare notes in a way that might expose the contradictions in your coping story. The result? Contradictory stories.

Geisler and Turek, meanwhile, try to pull a fast one:

Ironically, it’s not the New Testament that is contradictory, it’s the critics. On the one hand, the critics claim that the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are too uniform to be independent sources. On the other hand, they claim that they are too divergent to be telling the truth. So which are they? Are they too uniform or too divergent?

Ooo, gotcha! Reminds me of the story of the four college frat boys. Instead of studying for the big exam, they went out drinking. The next day, they showed up at the very end of class, too late for the exam (and trying to conceal their hangovers) and told the professor that they were sorry they were late, but their car had a flat tire, and could they please take the exam tomorrow? The professor agreed, and they spent the rest of the day schmoozing with their classmates trying to find out what had been on the test.

The next day, having completed their “studies,” they showed up at the classroom for the test. To their dismay, the professor handed them an exam consisting of two words:

Which tire?

Contrary to Geisler and Turek’s smug attempt at turning the tables, it is quite possible for people to share stories that have enough in common to show a common source, while still containing enough “divergent detail” to show that the story itself cannot be relied on as a portrayal of the truth. Just ask G&T about the remarkable similarities between some of the prophecies in the Book of Mormon and in the book of Isaiah!

Borrowing some material from a common source does not preclude the possibility of also including other details, not from the common source, that are inconsistent from one person’s version to the next. Geisler and Turek’s argument does not show that the story is necessarily true, it merely shows that either there was no intentional conspiracy, or that the conspirators weren’t very good at it. Or perhaps it shows that the conspirators were canny enough to recognize that gullible believers would go out of their way to defend the inconsistencies (and even exploit them, as G&T do), so it really didn’t matter whether they gave their story a thorough vetting or not.

Personally, I expect that the discrepancies are due to the fact that variant traditions arose out of the turbulent swirl of rumor and reaction to Jesus’ death, as individual believers rationalized their trauma through various “experiences” (I saw Elvis!) and reinterpretations (maybe he had to die and rise again, like some of the pagan gods). Some stories would be too personal and subjective to achieve the status of urban legend, but others, like the various at-the-tomb stories, would have registered on the collective social consciousness of the shattered and regrouping believers. Once entrenched, they would have resisted attempts to “correct” their discrepancies, due to the way oral tradition worked. By the time the NT writers got around to reporting the stories, the variant accounts would have had to remain divergent, or else run the risk of admitting that the stories themselves were doubtful and subject to correction.

Meanwhile, Geisler and Turek continue to try and reinforce their fallacious argument that, since true events can lead to “divergent” reports, therefore contradictory stories mean the events they describe are true.

[T]hey are both sufficiently uniform and sufficiently divergent (but not too much so) precisely because they are independent eyewitness accounts of the same events. One would expect to see the same major facts and different minor details in three independent newspaper stories about the same event.

If you don’t believe us, then log onto the Internet today and look at three independent stories about a particular event in the news. Pick one story from the AP, another from Reuters, and maybe another from UPI or an independent reporter. Each story will contain some of the same major facts but may include different minor details. In most cases, the accounts will be complementary rather than contradictory.

This is a textbook example of the old illusionist’s technique of misdirection. Some of the variations between the Gospels can be explained as one reporter choosing different details to report than another reporter chose. Geisler and Turek expect us to swallow the conclusion that therefore all of the discrepancies are merely “complementary” rather than contradictory. So when one Gospel writer tells us that Mary ran to the disciples and told them Jesus’ body had been taken and she had no clue where it was, and two disciples ran back with her and found an empty tomb but nothing else, that merely complements the information that Mary originally ran back to the disciples and told them she had seen the risen Jesus, which in turns complements the information that Mary (and the other women) said nothing to the disciples at all, because they were too afraid.

But Geisler and Turek aren’t done yet.

[B]ut even if one could find some minor details between the Gospels that are flatly contradictory, that wouldn’t prove the Resurrection is fictitious. It may present a problem for the doctrine that the Bible is without any minor error, but it wouldn’t mean the major event didn’t happen.

That’s true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really address the fact that there’s a major shift in the degree of consistency between stories about the crucifixion, and the stories about the alleged resurrection. Up to the death of Jesus, the stories are pretty similar, with only minor and complementary variations. Tomb stories, however, all all over the place. Geisler and Turek are correct: the major event did happen, but the major event was the death of Jesus, not a literal, physical resurrection.

It’s interesting, though, the way Geisler and Turek seem to be trying to prepare their readers for the bad news: the Bible isn’t really inerrant, and does present us with some things that are not, in fact, actually true. These guys are Bible scholars, and they know better than anybody what sort of problems the Bible has. Their faith prevents them from admitting, even to themselves, that these are genuine problems, and they do what they can to minimize their importance. But the problems are there, and you can sense the foundations of biblical dogmatism starting to crumble as G&T concede that there may be some problems with the doctrine is without any minor error. (No wonder Bible colleges grow more and more liberal the longer they study the texts!)

It’s a worse problem than Geisler and Turek let on, because you will recall that the whole thrust of their book thus far has been to try and convince us that God exists, but God cannot show up in real life, therefore God would have to communicate to us through a book (and by odd coincidence, the Bible happens to be a book!). If, however, our only connection to God is through a book that sometimes makes mistakes, well…hmmm. That’s a problem. G&T try and minimize it by labelling the errors “minor,” but as we’ve seen, the discrepancies are most pronounced when they concern the central event of the Gospel narrative.

Hmm indeed.

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Posted in IDHEFTBA, Unapologetics, XFiles. 1 Comment »

One Response to “XFiles Friday: Reinforcing the error”

  1. Galloway Says:

    G&T: “One would expect to see the same major facts and different minor details in three independent newspaper stories about the same event.”

    Mathew 27 51 – 53 : ” Then, behold, the veil of the temple
    was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked,
    and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened;
    and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep
    were raised; and coming out of the graves after His
    resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared
    to many.”

    As Ruth Hermence Green notes , “Earthquakes, and
    dead people rising from their graves and going into town.
    Pretty amazing stuff – too amazing for anyone who was
    actually there not to report it. And yet, it only appears
    in Mathew. Either whoever wrote Mathew was lying about
    what he saw, or the other Gospel writers were lying about
    being there. “