XFiles: When Critics Ask Part 2February 28, 2010 — Deacon Duncan
(Book: I Don’t Have Enough FAITH to Be an ATHEIST, by Geisler and Turek, chapter 14.)
We’re going a little bit beyond the Geisler and Turek book right now to have a look at the 18 “errors” that Bible critics allegedly make, at least according to Dr. Geisler’s book When Critics Ask. We only made it through the first five last week, so let’s jump right in and get started, shall we?
6. Basing a teaching on an obscure passage
This one seems like Dr. Geisler is padding his list just a bit, since it’s really just a special case of #5, Failing To Let Easy Passages Explain Difficult Ones. Christians, for example, have no problem basing teachings on obscure passages (or even non-existent ones) without any qualms about the legitimacy of this approach. It’s only when they disagree with someone else’s interpretation that “based on an obscure passage” becomes an issue.
From an apologist’s perspective, though, it’s good to plant the suggestion that it’s wrong to base teachings on obscure passages, because then whenever you get in trouble with your Bible text you can just declare the passage to be “obscure” (rather than wrong or self-contradictory), and that allows you to simply dismiss your critics on the grounds that they’re committing Error #6. It’s a good technique for getting rid of hard problems without actually addressing them.
7. Forgetting that the Bible is a human book with human characteristics
Yes, you read that right. While arguing that the Bible is the supernaturally inspired, infallible and authoritative Word of God, Dr. Geisler accuses the Bible’s critics of forgetting that it’s a human book with human characteristics. Word.
8. Assuming that a partial report is a false report
This is actually a fairly clever, if sneaky, rhetorical maneuver. One of the problems with stories that improve with the telling is that, when you have written records of both the original version and the “improved” version, you can see the details that were added. Likewise, when one writer records one “improved” version and another records a slightly different “improved” version, you can see where the two variants have had different details added.
Usually, the embellishment of an urban legend takes place through the adding of details that were not previously in the story, as the re-teller unconsciously tries to fill in the gaps in the original. It’s less common for someone to deliberately contradict a detail that’s already in the story, though it does sometimes happen.
This situation allows Dr. Geisler to claim that, since the later details are, in many cases, not outright contradictions of the earlier versions of the story, Bible critics are committing Error #8 when they notice that later versions of the stories have added embellishments. That way he avoids needing to explain why there’s visible myth-building going on in the Bible accounts, and can dismiss the “difficulty” as being an error on the part of the critics, even if they’re not claiming an explicit contradiction.
The problem (for Dr. Geisler anyway) is that not all of these variations are so easily reconcilable. For example, in Matt. 28:1-10, we are told a version of the Resurrection story in which the women, arriving at the tomb, see an angel who descends from heaven, rolls away the stone, and tells them outright that Jesus has risen from the dead. They immediately run to go tell the disciples, and on the way they meet the risen Jesus himself, who confirms the angel’s message.
Mark’s version of this same story repeats the idea that an angel told them Jesus had risen from the dead, but adds that the women ran away and told no one. Luke, on the other hand, says no, the women did go and tell the disciples, and Peter ran to the tomb and found it empty, but did not believe the women’s stories, and oh by the way there were two angels telling the women about the resurrection.
John’s version agrees that there were two angels, but insists that when Mary Magdalene (and the other women?) came to the disciples, she/they reported nothing about a risen Jesus, but only that the tomb was empty and that she/they did not know where the body had been taken. Also, according to John, Mary Magdalene was the only one who saw the two angels, and she didn’t see them until after Peter and John ran to the tomb and found it empty (John seems to have added himself to the story at this point). And these angels were sitting inside the tomb instead of standing outside it. And so on.
Lots of conflicts and inconsistencies here as far as the participants involved, the order of the events, whether or not Jesus appeared, to whom, and when, and what the women (or woman) told the disciples to get one (or two) of them to check out the tomb. Dr. Geisler’s attempt to deal with all these variations is to point out that if one story says there were two angels and the other mentions only one, then that’s not a contradiction. Here’s the summary Geisler and Turek offer:
As we have seen, it’s not a contradiction if one Gospel writer says he saw one angel at the tomb and another says he saw two. Matthew doesn’t say there was only one. And if there were two, there certainly was (at least) one! So divergence doesn’t always mean contradiction. Instead it often suggest genuine eyewitness testimony.
Isn’t it cool the way you can make all the other inconsistencies just disappear by focusing exclusively on whether seeing two angels is roughly the same as seeing one angel? Matthew wasn’t even there, and yet somehow, by the magic of apologetics, he’s an eyewitness testifying about how many angels he saw. The Bible critics must be committing Error #8, you see, and therefore we don’t have to pay any attention to critics when they point out contradictions in the Bible. Ah well, moving on…
9. Demanding that NT citations of the OT always be exact quotations
Another popular apologetics ploy: blame the critic for being so darn critical. After all, how dare you demand that God’s inspired prophets be familiar enough with His word to quote it accurately? Hmm, well now that you mention it, that doesn’t sound all that unreasonable, so Dr. Geisler changes it to suggest that critics are demanding exact quotations. That sounds a little more nit-picky, doesn’t it?
The problem is that OT passages cited in the NT are sometimes misquoted in ways that change the meaning of the original text. For example, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14—part of a prediction of the destruction of the kingdoms of Aram and Samaria—as though it were a prediction of Messianic virgin birth. Thus, Matthew is guilty of Dr. Geisler’s Error #4 (Failure To Consider Context), but more than that, he changes a key pronoun.
Isaiah’s original prophecy was that a virgin (or maiden) would conceive and have a son, and would name him Immanuel. Mary, however, did not name her son Immanuel, she named him Jesus. The Facebook generation would call that a “Prophecy Fail,” so Matthew just changes the pronoun and makes it “they shall call his name ‘Immanuel’ which means ‘God with us’.” One tiny, well-placed change that makes it sound like Isaiah was anticipating a child who would have the reputation of being God Incarnate, even though this is not at all the actual topic in Isaiah 7.
If we want to know whether Jesus is really fulfilling prophecy or if the Gospels merely twist the Scriptures to suit their own purposes, this is an important factor. It’s not that we insist on unreasonably precise quotations, we just want accurate quotes. If we find that OT passages have been distorted in ways that obscure the original meaning and introduce entirely new and foreign ideas, then that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Simply accusing people of Error #9 doesn’t resolve the issue.
10. Assuming that divergent accounts are false ones
Déjà vu, eh? We covered this one under Error #8. Let’s move on.
11. Presuming that the Bible approves of all its records
This is the “out” that apologists use whenever anyone notices Biblical heroes behaving wickedly and/or immorally. “We’re not saying that it was right for David to have Uriah murdered so he could take Uriah’s wife, the Bible is merely recording the fact that he did.” There is some validity to this argument, and there have been some critics who have used the sins of the patriarchs as evidence that the Bible is not inspired. Such cases can indeed be addressed by pointing out that the Bible does not endorse everything it records.
What’s less amenable to this sort of exoneration, however, are the numerous instances where God is the Biblical hero Who is threatening to punish children for the sins of their parents, or Who is impregnating someone else’s fiancee, or Who is commanding His followers to commit genocide, or Who is condoning and directing slavery and instructing slave-owners in how to get around the rules that ostensibly liberate all slaves every 7 years. It’s one thing to say the Bible merely records man’s sins without approving of them, but God’s? That’s a tough one.
12. Forgetting that the Bible uses non-technical, everyday language
This one is kind of funny. I wish we had time to do the whole book of When Critics Ask, but I’m just guessing that he’s not going to use this one to explain things like the talking snake in Genesis 3!
Error #12 tries to account for the fact that the people who wrote the Bible didn’t know as much as we do now about the real world and how it works. Such ignorance can be embarrassingly obvious at times (like when God doesn’t get around to creating the sun until the 4th day). Dr. Geisler’s excuse is that the Bible is using non-technical, everyday language, so we shouldn’t expect it to meet the rigorous standards of peer-reviewed scientific literature. It’s a variation on the same ploy as in #9: trying to make critics sound unreasonably demanding.
But it’s one thing to use ordinary everyday language, and something else entirely to have a world view in which heaven is a physical place on the other side of a waterproof barrier in the sky above the Palestine. Yet that is an assumption that the Bible refers to routinely in both Old and New Testaments. When we talk about doors opening up in the waterproof barrier so that the rain can come down (or the prophet/Messiah can go up), that’s non-technical everyday language all right. But even describing it in technical terms would fail to address the fact that no such heaven is actually up there! Yet that’s the heaven Christians are waiting for Jesus to come back from, because that’s the heaven the Bible says he went to and is looking down on us from.
I could do a whole series of posts on the Biblical view of heaven as a literal place in the sky (and perhaps I should some day), but the bottom line is that the Bible isn’t just using layman’s terms, it’s expressing the ideas and assumptions of ignorant and superstitious men. Nor is heaven the only example, though it’s arguably the most pervasive. The Bible records the understanding of men who believed myth and reality were the same thing, and you can’t get around that fact by claiming they were “just using non-technical language.”
Twelve down and five to go, so let’s pick this up again next week.