Christians need to more carefully check the arguments they use. Sometimes these arguments blow up in their faces.
One example is William Lane Craig’s use of A.N. Sherwin-White’s rule of thumb about the growth of legend (discussed in detail here). Craig proclaims that legendary growth is slow when he wants to argue that the gospels are reliable history, but then he’s happy to point to legendary growth when he wants to reject the dozens of noncanonical gospels!
Gospel contradictions and airplane crashes
Apologists walk a similar knife edge with the problem of contradictions between the gospels.
The skeptic will demand, How many women went to the tomb? Was the tomb already open when they got there? How many angels were there? What was the women’s emotional reaction at the tomb? Did the women tell the disciples? The gospels disagree on the answers. (I document a long list of contradictions here.)
That the most important part of the Bible is full of contradictions about the easy part—the basic facts of the story—raises questions about reliability of the supernatural parts.
Neil Mammen responds to this challenge with “Gospel contradictions? Why they don’t exist. A Little Experiment to Teach Skeptics about NT Accuracy.” He uses a 2005 incident at Chicago’s Midway airport in which an airplane skidded off the runway in heavy snow to highlight the fallibility of journalists’ reporting.
He looks at five media sources written within days of the event. Each is a one- to three-sentence summary. Here are the inconsistencies he found across the sources.
#1. According to the first source, the plane went through a “boundary fence,” hit two cars, and killed a child in one of the cars.
#2. Now only one car is mentioned, there’s no fence, and it’s a “6-year old boy.”
#3. The two cars and one death are mentioned, but the fence has become a “security wall.”
#4. Now it’s a “safety barrier,” and the car(s) and death are not mentioned.
#5. No cars, no fence, and no deaths.
He wonders what to make of this, since the accounts vary so widely. Which is it—one car or two? A dead boy or a dead child or none? Some truths, some lies, and some errors? Or all lies? Or all errors? Is it a legend? A total fabrication?
He parallels this with complaints about Bible contradictions. You have multiple sources in the airplane story, which is a good thing, because each source can bring new insights. The same is true for the gospel accounts.
The airplane story and the resurrection story each have inconsistencies surrounding their own common core. In Chicago, did the plane hit one car or two? In the Bible, did one, two, three, or more women come to the tomb? And so on. Let’s be consistent, he says—if you want to reject the resurrection story for inconsistent accounts, do the same for this airplane story.
He also emphasizes that this doesn’t point to the gospel story being “a fabrication.”
Just a few quibbles
- First, notice the brevity of the accounts—that’s because they’re photo captions! They work as an abstract of the story, but no one would argue that they’re complete or that they attempt to be. Read the accompanying stories and then let’s talk about serious inconsistencies.
- Caption 4 is just one sentence long. It doesn’t mention the car, thought the accompanying photo might have told that part of the story. For example, here is one such photo. Also, the title accompanying this summary is, “Plane slides off Chicago runway, boy killed,” which adds yet more information. Taking these into account, the inconsistencies go away.
- Caption 5 (here) has been truncated. Add the next sentence, and the boundary fence, car, and death are back in.
- The only arguments I ever hear about the gospel story being fabricated (that is, deliberately invented, like a hoax) come from the Christian apologists. It’s a fun straw man to knock over, I suppose, but it’s a waste of time since that’s not the argument.
And now, let me agreeUsing photo captions makes this experiment useless as a comparison, but the larger point is correct. Yes, journalists can be wrong, and articles can be incomplete. Let’s start with this point of agreement to see where that takes us in an analysis of the gospel stories.
Modern journalists are trained to focus on the facts. For some media, fact checkers double check to verify that the story is correct. Journalists can be penalized for errors in their stories. Now instead of modern journalists, imagine the followers of a religious leader in pre-scientific Palestine. Their Truth may not have been bound by any sense of journalistic accuracy.
Now add over forty years of oral history before the gospels are written.
Now make that forty years happen in a foreign culture, a Greek culture already familiar with miracles such as turning water into wine, virgin births, and dying-and-rising gods.
Now separate our oldest copies from the gospel originals by centuries. That’s a long time for rival traditions to fight it out and for copyists to add or delete as their own beliefs demanded. (I’ve discussed this long journey here, here, here, and here.)
Now how much confidence can we have in the account?
The Christian may respond that the Holy Spirit didn’t much care about preserving accuracy. It pleased him to trust fallible human processes to document the Greatest Story Ever Told. He was content to let the gospels look no different from other supernatural musings that we justifiably dismiss to the bins of Mythology or Legend.
Neil Mammen might ask us to look to the overlap of the gospel stories to find the truth, but with this approach, we’ve lost Jesus’s last words, the location where the disciples were to meet the risen Jesus, Paul’s 500 eyewitnesses, and even the explanation for how the story spread (in Mark, the women keep silent), but no matter.
Does this approach work elsewhere—when there are competing stories, do we assume the overlapping part must be true? We usually don’t do this for UFO abduction stories. Or the stories from people who saw the 1917 Miracle of the Sun in Fatima, Portugal, an accepted Catholic miracle. Or claims from alchemy. Or the accounts by the eleven Mormons who claimed to have seen the golden plates. Competing tales that are supernatural or at least extraordinary can be and usually are all wrong.
Mammen’s article argues that professional reporters can’t be trusted to get the details right on a mundane story that happened the previous day. But then it expects us to believe the gospel accounts (already suspect because they are full of the supernatural) that were written down decades later? His “little experiment to teach skeptics about NT accuracy” seems to have blown up in his face.
Christians, consider your arguments lest they backfire.
Hoist with his own petard
(that is, blown up with his own bomb).
— William Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 3, scene 4
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 11/10/14.)
Image via Alexis Breaux, CC license