The Ridiculous Argument from Accurate Names

The Ridiculous Argument from Accurate Names September 22, 2014

Christian apologeticsI attended a Bible archaeology seminar with a speaker who had worked on the excavation of the city of Sodom—or, at least that’s what they hoped. He emphasized that the site matched clues from the biblical account.

He went on to make a popular point—that biblical references validated by unbiased sources strengthen the Bible’s case as a historical document, and this strengthens the case for its supernatural claims.

Argument from Accurate Place Names

Here are additional instances of this popular claim.

Near Eastern archaeology has demonstrated the historical and geographical reliability of the Bible in many important areas. (Source: E.M. Blaiklock, The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology)

Archeology and historical analysis again and again show the accuracy of the events, locations and customs mentioned in the Bible accounts. Never has anybody been able to disprove any of the accounts. (Source: Windmill Ministries)

The Credo House blog adds the discovery of the town of Jericho and several inscriptions that confirm the existence of biblical characters: the Pilate Stone, the House of David inscription, and the Caiaphas Ossuary.

The Cold Case Christianity blog gives similar examples, including:

  • Luke 3:1 mentions Lysanias the tetrarch, and inscriptions have been found confirming this.
  • Acts 13:51 says that Iconium is in Phrygia, confirmed by an inscription.
  • John 5:1–9 mentions the pool of Bethesda, confirmed by archaeology.

Tim McGrew, interviewed on Frank Turek’s 4/4/14 “Cross Examined” podcast, proposes “undesigned coincidences” as important evidence. These are biblical passages from different parts of the Bible that support and explain each other. For example, Paul says to Timothy, “from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures” (2 Tim. 3:15). But Paul circumcised Timothy as an adult, so how could Timothy have known the Jewish scriptures as a child?

But bring in Acts 16:1–3, and we discover that Timothy’s mother was Jewish, but his father was not. Puzzle solved—Timothy learned the scriptures from his mother, but his non-Jewish father wouldn’t allow the circumcision. McGrew argues that almost insignificant supporting passages like these point to the Bible as reliable history.

Here’s a final example from The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Habermas and Licona:

In the past, the Bible has demonstrated that its accounts are trustworthy as far as they have been verified. Moreover, the Bible has never been controverted by solid historical data. Therefore, the benefit of the doubt should go to the Bible in places where it cannot be verified, when there is no evidence to the contrary, and when it seems clear that the author intended for us to understand the event as historical. (p. 31)

In short, the Bible refers to people and places that actually existed; therefore, the Bible is accurate and reliable.

Analysis

Let’s step back and see what we have here. These earnest Christian apologists would like us to believe that the Bible accurately recorded the existence of locations (Sodom, Jericho, Iconium, and the pool of Bethesda) and people (Pilate, David, Caiaphas, and Lysanias). Some story elements are maintained across books (Timothy’s education).

Okay. Is that it? This isn’t hard to accept.

Issue 1. Let me first cast just a bit of doubt on archaeological finds that are both ancient (which means that our conclusions must be tentative) and lucrative (collectors demand ancient artifacts that modern forgers are happy to provide). Some well-known fakes are the James ossuary, the Jehoash inscription, and the ivory pomegranate of Solomon. That’s not to say that other finds are fakes but that we should be cautious.

Issue 2. Archaeology says that the Exodus didn’t happen. Does that un-convince you of anything? If not, why should the verified finds convince you?

If you’re impressed by the discovery of Sodom or Jericho, remember that Troy has also been discovered. Does that give support for the supernatural claims in the Iliad? The Iliad also mentions Perseus, the legendary founder of Mycenae, the ruins of which have also been found. I sense some inconsistency.

Issue 3. If you just want to say that the Bible makes some verified historical claims and so other as-yet-unverified natural claims should also be considered seriously, that’s fine. But surely these Christians want to go further. Surely they want this to support the Bible as accurate in all that it says, including its supernatural claims.

I’m happy to grant that the Bible makes many accurate historical references, but having accurate names of people and places merely gets you to the starting gate. It’s the bare minimum that we demand of a historical document. You haven’t supported the supernatural claims; you’ve simply avoided getting cut from the list of entrants being considered.

Instead of focusing on the Bible’s accurate but mundane statements, show us one thing that we thought was natural but is actually supernatural. After that point, the Bible’s supernatural claims won’t seem so surprising.

“The Bible isn’t inaccurate in some of its testable claims!” That this counts as a Christian apologetic says a lot for what passes for compelling argument in some Christian circles.

It is useless to attempt to reason a man
out of a thing he was never reasoned into.
— Jonathan Swift

Photo credit: Trey Ratcliff


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  • MNb

    Medina existed around 600 CE. So did Jerusalem. Hence Mohammed rode cross the heavens on his horse Buraq.

    • I got no response. You’re right–your logic is airtight.

    • Guest

      Well this does avoid the counter-argument, “The author didn’t mean it to be true.” In fact, many of the arguments for Christianity work for Islam as well, yet they both cannot be true. It’s funny how Muslims read the words of Jesus as obviously showing that Jesus is divine and Christians read the Old Testament as obviously showing references to Jesus. You can find anything if you expect it to be there.

      • Guest

        Whoops! I meant “read the words of Jesus as obviously showing that Jesus is NOT divine.”

  • Dys

    The argument from accurate names is an end result of Christians attempting to dishonestly place an equal burden of proof on biblical claims. They disregard the notion of extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence, and default to “Look! They got some verifiable names, places, and events correct! Therefore everything else is automatically correct as well.”

    So does historical fiction. Yet you don’t see Christians running around trying to claim every piece of historical fiction is entirely true. It’s essentially special pleading, exempting their favorite book from the standards they judge plenty of other works because of their religious beliefs, not on what can be rationally supported.

    And they pull the same nonsense in reverse when criticizing religions they disagree with. For instance, disregarding Mormonism because some of it isn’t supportable given the available evidence. The all-or-nothing approach simply does not work when evaluating historical claims.

    The apologist who claims they have “no reason” to doubt the fantastic accounts of miracles and supernatural events supposedly witnessed by supposed eyewitness accounts in the bible or other ancient texts is recklessly suspending their credulity in favour of their preferred religion.

  • Mitch

    This is very important, but very difficult for many people to understand. There is almost certainly historical truth in the Bible—that does not mean that the Bible is historical truth.

    Christians (and believers of all stripes, but we’ll stick to Christians to remain in-line with the article) often pull out historical “evidence” that does little more than show that some of their myths are based on historical events. This should not be surprising; nearly ALL myth is based on historical events.

    I’ve even had Christians attempt to use Josephus to “prove” that their theology is real. Never mind that Josephus wasn’t even born until right around the alleged time of the crucifixion. Never mind that the language of Josephus (in the “Jesus Section” anyway) is a garbled mess that was obviously reworked by a later writer to fall more in line with Christianity. Never mind that his mentions of John the Baptist don’t support the view of him as subservient to Jesus. Using even later “sources” than Josephus (such as the Apostolic Fathers) is even more specious. But they do.

    As you mentioned, Schliemann found Mycenae and Troy. That does not mean we should start sacrificing goats to Zeus. Siddhartha Gautama was probably real; that doesn’t mean we should all be Buddhists. Mohammed was certainly a real, historical, human being; that doesn’t mean we all need to confess, “La ilaha illallah.”

    Most myth is based on reality. Johnny Appleseed’s folk legend far outstrips the actual work of John Chapman. I have no doubt that Roland or Arthur or Yue Fei were likewise historical personages. No amount of evidence, however, gives credence to the legends attributed to these and similar people.

    The problem is that, believers are already convinced of the correctness of their mythological narrative. Thus, anything that appears to confirm this belief (no matter how loosely) is taken as undeniable fact. They refuse to apply the same standard to their narratives as they do to everything else. They refuse to understand how vulnerable the spread of information can be.

    For a modern-ish example, let’s consider Roswell, New Mexico. Millions of people are convinced that big-headed, gray-skinned aliens crashed in the desert there in 1947. They appeal to vague evidence (that is mostly non-existent) and word-of-mouth stories (often originating years after the actual events). The believers of Roswell are not only convinced by their narrative, they sometimes react with hostility to any who disagree. They automatically disbelieve any “official” source (whether governmental or independent) and often accuse such “opponents” of being part of the conspiracy to hide the truth. Millions of people are as convinced of the Roswell landing as billions of Christians are of the Resurrection.

    And bear in mind that the “events” in Roswell occurred in ’47, and it took about 30 years for the Myth of Roswell to really enter American culture. This is very important, because it shows that many people are willing to believe even the most extraordinary of claims … with next to no evidence, often only the WORST form of evidence: Word of Mouth Eyewitness Testimony.

    And if this could happen in the past three or four generations—at a time when we have all sorts of evidence-gathering techniques and technologies—then how much easier would it have happened in the past? How much more likely is it that rumors and tall-tales would spread like wildfire in the horribly ignorant, impossibly superstitious ancient world?

    Believers of all religions need to ask themselves that question. Alas, they almost never do.

    • MNb

      Trust apologists to twist and distort scientific debates, in this case this one:

      http://www.livius.org/theory/maximalists-and-minimalists/

      Of course apologists stretch maximalism so far that it includes the supernatural elements.

      “I have no doubt that Roland ….. were likewise historical personages”
      That’s an excellent analogy, because Roland actually has been identified.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roland

      Not young and handsome, but quite old. Not killed by muslims, but by christian Basques. Not a heroic battle, but an ordinary ambush.

      • Mitch

        Yup. It’s always educational, learning how legends are birthed from reality. A sad, grim battle turns into epic heroic sacrifice, if given enough time and an incentive to lionize the fallen.

    • hector_jones

      But why doesn’t the government just refute Roswell right now?

      • Mitch

        I think the Freemasons, the Illuminati and/or the Knights Templar won’t let them. 🙂

        • Pansies! It’s the Trilateral Commission that’s really pulling the strings, I tell you!

      • Brian

        They already have.

        If you’re asking why the government hasn’t refuted it to the satisfaction of believers, I think that’s veering into the territory of an impossibility.

        • Pofarmer

          Yeah, but that’s exactly where you are with things like the ressurection. It’s hard to refute things that didn’t happen.

      • RichardSRussell

        Years after the Roswell event, the information about what had caused it was finally declassified. It was a weather balloon that was part of a covert operation to detect Soviet nuclear explosions. This has been known for decades. The ufologists continue to ignore it and allege that the government is covering up the true story. And they will continue to do so no matter what the government says or does.

        • Next you’ll say that all crop circles are bogus as well …

        • Kodie

          Crop circles are obviously real.

        • hector_jones

          Exactly. It’s crop squares that are fake.

  • Scott F

    Just as soon as we find evidence that King’s Cross Station exists, you just know the Potterians are going to be demanding that we Teach the Controversy ™ in the schools!

    • I was just about to say that this argument seems like claiming that Harry Potter is real because it mentions some real places and dates.

      • hector_jones

        Christians dodge this point by adding the part about ‘and the author intended it to be read as true’. That differentiates the biblical authors from honest authors of fiction.

        • Yeah, but that could apply to books like “A Million Little Pieces” whose author claimed it was true before he was exposed as a liar.

  • Greg G.

    Therefore, the benefit of the doubt should go to the Bible in places where it cannot be verified, when there is no evidence to the contrary, and when it seems clear that the author intended for us to understand the event as historical.

    Licona is tacitly saying that we should only consider the confirmed hits but should ignore the confirmed misses when deciding to give the benefit of the doubt. That method guarantees an unreliable view of history.

    Edit: Changed “Lions” back to “Licona”. Damp spell check.

    • Plutosdad

      +1 for “Damp”

      • Greg G.

        Thanks. I hoped someone somewhere would appreciate it.

  • smrnda

    There are many works of fiction which are incredible in their attention to detail of real places and events. James Joyce is pretty accurate on Dublin from what I hear, but this does not mean that Leopold and Molly Bloom were real people. Capote interviewed eyewitnesses when writing In Cold Blood and spent a lot of time in Kansas, but it’s agreed his work contains embellishments (and there’s also a question of how honest the criminals he interviewed would have been.)

    • Kodie

      I’ve been using Gone With The Wind as an example lately. That real places are referenced in the bible has got to be among the stupidest, weakest arguments for Christianity. It goes hand in hand with the bible tells us it is truly the word of god, because in some parts it also give us accurate, verified geographical information. The bible tells us blah blah city or blah blah person, so that’s why I believe it when it also tells us god is real and makes certain demands, and has a place called heaven where we can go after we die, and Jesus came back from the dead and appeared to some people. As if a fantasy fiction or myth can’t be told relative to actual locations.

      • TheNuszAbides

        i suspect it’s more recently not even an “argument ~for Christianity~” but rather a [weak] reaction to [overly simple/simplified] assertions from [obnoxious or misrepresented] nonbelievers, e.g. “the bible is all lies!” which might indeed be spouted by an especially frustrated/simplistic ex-believer, or might be how a pastor’s sermon characterizes “atheist views” that were far more nuanced in their original composition…

  • Paul D.

    A lot of this “evidence” isn’t even real to begin with. For example, there is no known inscription mentioning a Lysanius the tetrarch that would match Luke’s description, though you sometimes encounter the claim (even in scholarly journals!) that one exists. Of course, Lysanius the tetrarch was actually a real ruler as Josephus attests, but Luke puts him in the wrong century.

    • Greg G.

      A while ago, someone was saying that Luke was a good historian and gave a list of about 25 names. I showed that nearly every one of them was known from Josephus and most were known only through Josephus. I also added a couple of names to the list that come from Josephus. I pointed out a few smoking guns that make it obvious that Luke was copying Josephus and using him as a muse.

      The argument was that Luke was a good historian so we could trust him, fitting into Bob’s article. But grading a test by comparing it to the test of the smart kid who sits next to him will give better grades than actually deserved.

      I’ll have to add that information about Lysander to my notes.

      • Wasn’t it the author of Luke himself who said he was a good historian?

        I can say I’m a great dentist, doesn’t mean it’s actually true.

        • Dys

          No, the person who described the author of the gospel of Luke as “a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy… [he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” was William Mitchell Ramsay, a Scottish archaeologist and NT scholar.

          Unfortunately, this quote has been used by apologists to dismiss criticisms of the gospel out of hand rather than face the fact that it isn’t perfect, nor is there any evidence for the miracle claims it contains. They found a quote that supports what they want to believe, and are willing to treat it as the unimpeachable, unquestionable truth.

          Apologists of this type want to treat all claims, both mundane and extraordinary, as requiring equal evidential support, despite not making such an allowance for any other religion.

        • I was thinking that Luke 1:1-4 was an offhand way of the author saying he was a great historian.

        • Pofarmer

          It is a way of making the author LOOK like a great historian, without actually meeting the requirements. Mathew Ferguson at adverse apologetics blog has written about it.

      • Without Malice

        Josephus, in The Jewish Wars, also relates a story of a Jewish military leader who, upon facing capture upon losing a battle, runs away and hides in a cave for three days. When he comes out his men, who think that he had been killed, rejoice as if he had come back from the dead.

      • Loren Petrich

        Richard Carrier: Acts as Historical Fiction – YouTube

        Then the notion that “Luke was an outstanding historian.” In “Not the Impossible Faith,” RC rebuts that notion. Luke was not even a good one by the standards of his fellow Greco-Roman historians.
        * He never identifies himself or his qualifications.
        * He never names or evaluates his sources.
        * He never discusses or reveals his methodology.
        * The preface is a fake: it looks like a history book but it omits key things that a real preface or history would contain.
        * Espouses a lousy method (slavishly follows his sources) and even lies about it (he changes everything).
        * Historical fiction — used “references” like Josephus.

  • Blizzard

    “Hey look it’s not all completely fictional people and places.” (Ergo Jesus.)

    • hector_jones

      Ergo Son of God Jesus.

  • Blizzard

    “And when he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.”

    Clouds are real thingies. Historically/scientifically accurate.

  • Nemo

    Isn’t there an actual King’s Cross station in London? That must mean Harry Potter is real! The books even mention Britain having a male Prime Minister at one point!

  • I do wonder if one day, thousands of years from now someone will come across the ruins of our civilization and wonder if we worshipped superheroes.
    I mean think about it, Batman and Superman are basically myth figures and we produce tons of material about them constantly, including some stuff that might imply to an outside observer we think they are real. And we often bring real world events into comics stories and vice versa.
    I could easily see some future society finding scant evidence about people having Superman figures and Superman clothes, and constantly talking about Superman and just come to the conclusion that people worshipped Superman.
    “If there is a Superman, there must be a city named Metropolis!”
    “It’s widely known fact that Metropolis represents New York City.”
    “No, that’s just Gorbalaxan extrapolation from historical records. A proper DC literalist looks at things differently. Clearly Americans of the 21st century had tales of Superman in New York as well as Metropolis so they are not, in fact, the same place. And the fact that we have found New York as predicted by the historical texts proves that we will find the ruins of Metropolis as well!”

    • adam

      Not only that think of the millions and millions of ‘alters’ in almost every home in almost every room, where those ‘gods’ were worshiped at the center of attention virtually every night.

      • Kodie

        I don’t remember where I read some couple years ago that Elvis Presley may be picked up in the future as one of our gods.

        • A musical god? Maybe like the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

        • Kodie

          It’s really hard to find anywhere on the internet where I might have read this, but it had more to do with his popularity and duration long after his death and the allegation that he did not actually die.

    • RichardSRussell

      Those phonies Superman, Batman, the Flash, Green Arrow, etc. were all hoaxes drummed up by the sly tricksters at DC. Only Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and the Incredible Hulk are real. Marvel at them!

    • Kosh

      ….can’t wait to see books of apologetics explaining the differences in the different versions of the Spider Man gospels……

  • katta

    The old town of Jericho was found, but there never was a wall around it…

    • RichardSRussell

      Raptured away, no doubt.

  • evodevo

    Oh, I get it – does that mean that all those National Treasure movies with Nick Cage were historically accurate since they are set in actual historical places … that exist? and mention actual historical figures? Cool !

    • Greg G.

      Yes, and Forrest Gump was a documentary!

  • Timothy Cooper

    Well that means the Harry Potter books are real then because London is a real place. King’s cross station is a real station, platform 10 1/2 is just hidden so muggles can’t found it.