Debunking 10 Popular Christian Principles for Reading the Bible (2 of 3)

Debunking 10 Popular Christian Principles for Reading the Bible (2 of 3) March 1, 2019

We’re critiquing the post “Ten Principles When Considering Alleged Bible Contradictions” from Jim Wallace’s Cold Case Christianity blog. Wallace is certain that his rules will wipe that atheist smirk from our faces once we correctly evaluate Bible verses. (Principles 1–4 are critiqued here.)

Principle #5: Old Testament Quotes Aren’t Meant to be “Verbatim.”

The New Testament often quotes the Old Testament, but these quotes aren’t always perfect. Don’t worry about that—they weren’t meant to be.

The example given is a trivial one. John 19:37 gives the phrase “They will look on the one they have pierced” as fulfilling Old Testament prophecy from Zechariah 12:10, but there the phrase is slightly different: “They will look on me, the one they have pierced.” Wallace says that John never intended a verbatim quote but was simply observing that the prophecy was fulfilled.

Rather surprisingly, Wallace has no problem dropping the claim of biblical inerrancy. It’s good that we agree that God didn’t guide anyone’s hand—either that of the original author or a copyist.

But let’s pursue this. We need to follow principle #2, “Examine the Text in Its Context.” So Zechariah is referring to Jesus as “the one they have pierced”? Continue reading beyond that verse and you see that “on that day” all the inhabitants of Jerusalem will greatly lament this injury. But in the gospels, only the tiny band of Jesus followers even noticed the death of Jesus. No, Zechariah is obviously not a prophecy of the gospel story.

And is that the best example of sloppy quoting from the Old Testament? Here’s a fun one: Matthew says that the resolution of what to do with the 30 pieces of silver, the “blood money” that Judas threw at the priests, was foretold: “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled” (Matthew 27:9–10). But the 30 pieces of silver wasn’t a reference to Jeremiah but Zechariah 11:12–13.

Worse, the Zechariah passage is no prophecy. Say that Matthew was inspired by Zechariah if you want, but it certainly gives no fulfilled prophecy. I wonder how Wallace tap dances away from this one.

Principle #6: Perspectives Are Different Than Contradictions.

The Bible sometimes documents the same event more than once, and these descriptions don’t always match up. But real witnesses don’t describe an event the same way, and you don’t want collusion. Don’t confuse a different perspective with an error.

Wallace tackles a difficult contradiction, the two versions of the death of Judas. Acts 1:18–19 says that (1) Judas bought a field with his 30 pieces of silver. There, (2) he died from a fall. (3) The field was called “Field of Blood” because of this death.

But Matthew 27:4–8 has a very different story. Let’s enumerate the differences. Judas (1) returned the money to the priests. Then (2) he hanged himself. Next, (1) the priests declared the money tainted as (3) blood money, and they used it to buy a field. (3) The field was called “Field of Blood” because of the tainted money.

The stories differ in (1) who spent the money on the field, (2) how Judas died, and (3) the origin of the name “Field of Blood.”

(And don’t get me started about what Papias said about how Judas died.)

Wallace wants to realign the facts so that both accounts are accurate. He makes clear his bias by stating that if the facts can be reinterpreted to preserve the claim of Bible accuracy, they should be.

Here’s his amalgam story. First, Judas returned the money. The priests took it and bought the field—that is, they bought the field with his money. Later, Judas hanged himself, and (whaddya know?) it was in that very field. After he was dead, he fell “and all his intestines spilled out.”

Let’s catch our breath after that impressive bit of gymnastics. It covers most of the bases, though Acts makes clear that the field belonged to Judas and that the fall killed him. There is also no resolution of the source of the name for the field. Most important, though, it’s hard to imagine two writers agreeing on Wallace’s version of the story but then going off and writing such contradictory accounts.

I’ll grant that Wallace has done a fair job in making a composite account from which the Matthew and Acts accounts could come, but it’s still special pleading. The more plausible explanation is two separate, incompatible accounts.

Principle #7: Consider the Viewpoint of “Earthbound” People.

Sure, the Bible sometimes has primitive language to explain natural phenomena, but this isn’t because it was written by primitive people but because it was written for primitive people.

Isaiah 11:12 refers to the “four quarters [or corners] of the earth.” Does this show that the Bible authors thought that the earth is flat? No, Wallace says that this is just an expression—indeed, an expression that we still use. Even today, we say that the sun “comes up,” even though that would demand a geocentric solar system if it were literally true.

I’ll grant that the Bible’s primitive view of science doesn’t prove that an omniscient God didn’t inspire the book—but that’s sure where the clues point. We would expect people 3000 years ago to think that the earth was flat, and every clue in the Bible relevant to this question supports this assumption. There are no hints in the Bible that its ancient authors knew any more about science than their neighbors.

All Wallace is left with is, “Well, you haven’t proven the Bible wrong.” That’s true but irrelevant. It’s his job to show evidence that the Bible is right.

Concluded in part 3.

It’s like Harry Potter for people who thought
Harry Potter had too much science in it.
— Stephen Colbert

.

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 3/10/15.)

Image from Cindy See, CC license

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • RichardSRussell

    The very same arguments that Jim Wallace uses to “prove” the Bible is accurate can also be used to “prove” that the Koran, Zend Avesta, Agam Sutras, Tripitakas, Upanishads, Norse myths, Greek myths, Egyptian myths, Mayan myths, Book of Mormon, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, Dianetics, etc. are accurate. And yet they all disagree with each other. What Wallace needs is a super-rationalization to “prove” how they’re all really consistent.

  • eric

    Don’t confuse a different perspective with an error.

    That might work for some biblical issues, but it doesn’t work for most of the really important theological claims. ‘Is Jesus the foretold messiah’ is not an issue of perspective. The age of the earth and the claim Adam and Eve are everyone’s progenitors is not an issue of perspective. The requirements to get into heaven (example: do acts matter, or only faith) is not an issue of perspective. Yet on all these questions, people’s opinion differs…and they all cite and use the bible (or, for Jews, at least the OT part of it) to back up their claims.

    the Bible sometimes has primitive language to explain natural phenomena, but this isn’t because it was written by primitive people but because it was written for primitive people.

    “Primitive” does not equal “stupid.” I’m sure the vast majority of illiterate stone age human adults would have been able to grasp concepts like “the earth is round,” and “the earth is more than just a few thousand years old.” Erastosthenes measured the diameter of the Earth in around 250 BC, the Hindus believed the earth was over a million years old. So this excuse simply doesn’t work: the people of biblical times certainly had the intelligence to understand many correct versions of empirical claims that the bible gets wrong.

    Moreover, how exactly is it “more understandable” to put the creation of plants before the creation of the sun and moon? Even if we grant that stone age peoples had no basis for understanding how these things came about, there’s also no reason for a God to give them the wrong order, since pretty much either order (the wrong one, or the right one) would be equally understandable.

    • Yes, such claims in fact are deeply insulting to ancient people, along the line of those who insist aliens built the Pyramids etc. because they couldn’t have. It’s not hard to understand the idea of “Earth is round like a ball”.

    • skl

      Moreover, how exactly is it “more understandable” to put the creation of plants before the creation of the
      sun and moon?

      The only explanation I can think is from what the text says: The plants created
      on the third day had light created on the first day. However the light wasn’t sunlight,
      which came on the fourth day.

      Their god who created the light from the sun apparently, and not surprisingly, could create light apart from the sun.

      • eric

        If primitive people needed an explanation that put the light plants needed before the plants, then both the moral and rational thing for the information-holding God to do is simply give them the right order of events.

        It makes absolutely not sense at all to do what you’re saying: to knowingly lie to your followers about plants being made first, then make up another lie about a different light source when your followers wonder how the plants survived without the sun’s light.

        God giving them this story is only moral and rational if it’s what happened. And if the story isn’t what happened, the most reasonable explanation for why it’s in the theology is because people invented the theology while claiming to have been told it by God.

        • skl

          If primitive people needed an explanation that put the
          light plants needed before the plants, then both the moral and rational thing for the information-holding God to do is simply give them the right order of events.

          The author is claiming to give the “right order of events”.

          It makes absolutely not sense at
          all to do what you’re saying: to knowingly lie to your followers about plants being made first, then make up another lie about a different light source when your followers wonder how the plants survived without the sun’s light.

          First of all, the text says the plants had to survive only one day without the sun. Not much of a stretch, really. In the short mean time, the plants could make do with the other light, the non-sunlight created at the very beginning.

          Secondly, it makes about as much sense as any bible miracle.

          God giving them this story is only moral and rational if
          it’s what happened.

          The author is saying it’s what happened. The readers back then believed that’s what happened, and many today still do.

        • Zeta

          skl: “First of all, the text says the plants had to survive only one day without the sun.

          Care to explain how long is a day here? Without the Sun, what do you give meanings to day, evening and morning?

          The readers back then believed that’s what happened, and many today still do.

          Are you one of those who still believe? Why or why not?

        • skl

          Care to explain how long is a day here?

          I would assume the length of time people normally associate with
          evening and morning. The text six times quantifies a day as ‘there was evening and there was morning, a X day.’

          This “day” would be shorter than the longer periods the author acknowledges in verses 14: “And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years

          I’d think that if the author wanted to depict the creative episodes as much longer than a day(s), then the text would say something like ‘And god created the plants over many years, a third season.’ But instead, it just says “And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.”

          Without the Sun, how do you give meanings to day, evening and morning?

          By comparison to the day, evening and morning people experience
          with the Sun.

          Are you one of those who still believe? Why or why not?

          I’ve never been a believer in a particular religion’s sense.

          I’m nonreligious (which is one of the reasons I comment at Patheos Nonreligious).

          But I wouldn’t classify myself as atheist. More like skeptic/agnostic.
          A skeptic/agnostic who never gave the god/religion thing much thought, but is giving it more thought now.

        • Zeta

          You (skl) said: A day is “the length of time people normally associate with evening and morning.
          So, according to you, day is defined with respect to “evening and morning”.

          And what are the meanings of “evening” and “morning”?
          You said, “By comparison to the day, evening and morning people experience with the Sun.
          Then evening and morning are defined based on “day”?
          You also mentioned “with the Sun.” ? In case you have forgotten, there was no Sun when the two words were first used.

          You are very confused in your thinking.

        • skl

          You are very confused in your thinking.

        • Zeta

          Is parroting all you can do now? No more meaningful arguments? What a disappointment from a would-be apologist!

        • MR

          I’ve never seen skl provide a meaningful argument; skl only provides deception.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          If the plants ‘only had to survive one day without sunlight’, then where was the warmth preventing them from freezing crystal-brittle and smashing? Where was the air for them to respire,to prevent them from *exploding*?

        • God’s light according to one of those Fundies I like to bring here to have some lulz.

        • eric

          Secondly, it makes about as much sense as any bible miracle.

          Well, we’re in agreement there.

          The author is saying it’s what happened. The readers back then believed that’s what happened, and many today still do.

          Jim Wallace is defending the notion that God didn’t explain the actual origin of the Earth to his human authors because God was messaging to who wouldn’t understand that explanation. But I see nothing whatsoever in your replies that would support Wallace’s point. Yes, some people today may think the earth is young, or even flat. But the more relevant point is that there were stone age B.C. peoples who thought the earth was round, and who though the earth was old. It is simply not true that “primitive people” wouldn’t understand such things – not only could they, but they actually did.

        • skl

          But the more relevant point is that there were stone age B.C. peoples who thought the earth was round, and who though the earth was old. It is simply not true that “primitive people” wouldn’t understand such things – not only could they, but they actually did.

          I guess some of the possibilities are that
          1) The author of Genesis believed in an old earth but wasn’t interested in reaching the other primitive old earthers, or
          2) The author believed what he was writing.

        • Susan

          I guess some of the possibilities are that
          1) The author of Genesis believed in an old earth but wasn’t interested in reaching the other primitive old earthers, or
          2) The author believed what he was writing.

          A newcomer to your comments would almost think that you’re going out of your way to miss eric’s point.

          I almost certainly think it because that’s all you’ve ever done when you comment.

          The point eric is making is that the excuse people make for their claimed omnideity not explaining things i.e. the way the universe works is that “primitive” peoples were incapable of understanding those things.

          The bible makes claims that are not only factually wrong, but the corrections on those errors were understandable by “primitive” people.

          So that excuse doesn’t work.

        • eric

          If (1), then either God is a narrow-minded deceiver or the bible isn’t God’s words.
          If (2), then either God is ignorant of how the Earth formed or the bible isn’t God’s words.

          Three possibilities…all three of which undermine Christianity’s claim to revelatory truth.

        • skl

          Or the old earthers allowed themselves to be deceived, are ignorant of how the earth formed, and the bible is this god’s words.
          (The text says he can be a tricky god, making in
          seconds an adult man who appeared to be much more than seconds old.)

        • Susan

          Or the old earthers allowed themselves to be deceived, are ignorant of how the earth formed, and the bible is this god’s words.
          (The text says he can be a tricky god, making in
          seconds an adult man who appeared to be much more than seconds old.)

          It’s a fucking story, skl.

          Get over it.

        • Kodie

          So, right at the beginning of the bible, before there were humans to record what happened and what order it happened, there is a massive indication that no one knows how the world started.

      • And that other light source is what? Or was it some sort of magic that has been undone?

        • skl

          I don’t understand your questions. The text seems to answer
          them.

          And that other light source is what?

          God or some other non-sun light source created by this god.

          Or was it some sort of magic that has been
          undone?

          “Magic”, as in miracle. Undone like many bible miracles (e.g.
          parting of the Red Sea which later is un-parted; raising Lazarus from the dead only, I presume, to have him die later).

        • LastManOnEarth

          With this kind of logic, there is no end of bullshit you can “explain”.

        • ThaneOfDrones

          Bioluminescence!

        • God as a giant firefly or glow worm? Hmm … it makes about as much sense as the conventional Christian story.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower
        • TheNuszAbides

          Theoluminescence?

        • Chuck Johnson

          Once an apologist enters the scene, all bets are off.
          Their logic is so flexible.
          Just about anything can serve as a “logical explanation”.

          I can do that too.
          I know about plants requirements for light.
          Plants can survive for a number of days without light.
          They had no trouble waiting for a day or two.
          So why worry about it ? – – – Apologists are professional deceivers.

        • al kimeea

          Bea Arthur – Occupation?

          Mel Brooks – Stand -up Philosopher!
          BA – A what?
          MB – I’m a stand-up philosopher
          BA – Oh! A bullshit artist!

        • Chuck Johnson

          Then God commanded, “Let there be light”—and light appeared. 4 God was pleased with what he saw. Then he separated the light from the darkness, 5 and he named the light “Day” and the darkness “Night.” Evening passed and morning came—that was the first day.

          So we had light and darkness, day and night before the Sun was created.
          In Hollywood, this is a continuity error.

          Let’s just call it a continuity error when we see it in the script handed down to us by the ancient Jews.

  • Lex Lata

    “Principle #5: Old Testament Quotes Aren’t Meant to be ‘Verbatim.'”

    I agree! (Putting aside the question of how we can accurately know what anonymous, long-dead authors subjectively “meant” with their imprecision.) Imperfect quotes reflect flawed people like you and me giving it the old college try, finding (and occasionally fudging) authority for their positions–exactly what we should expect from a messy, handwritten, pre-copy-paste, pre-MFD, literary enterprise of antiquity. Hardly inerrant.

    “Principle #6: Perspectives Are Different from Contradictions.”

    I agree! But sometimes a contradiction or inconsistency is a contradiction or inconsistency. Genesis 1 tells us plants predated humans. Genesis 2 clearly tells us humans came before plants. That’s not a mere difference of perspective–that’s a case of two incompatible chronologies.

    And as for Wallace’s example of Judas’ death(s), I like the way Ehrman characterizes such strained exercises in motivated reasoning. Blending the disparate elements to concoct a unified narrative doesn’t reconcile two competing accounts so much as create a third new account, and this one authored by a man separated from the event in question by mountains, seas, and not a few centuries.

    (Harmonizing contortions of this sort remind me of the contrived explanations that comic book writers often employ to tie up continuity problems that emerge over the years.)

    “Principle #7: Consider the Viewpoint of ‘Earthbound’ People.”

    I agree! The Bible is a large collection of old laws, mythology, folklore, history, philosophy, poetry, correspondence, and propaganda–some of it grubby, some of it grandiose, and all of it as thoroughly “earthbound” and human as the analogs from other religious traditions. There’s nothing about the natural world or observable universe in the Bible that reflects any knowledge beyond what we would expect from people who believed that day, night, and plants existed before the sun.

    [Edited on account of I get confused sometimes.]

    • John Hinkle

      You should sell tickets to your comments. Would you like to have a beer some time? 🙂

      • Lex Lata

        Wow, thanks!

    • The Bible is written by Prophets about their experiences with God and what God told them.

      There are 4 senses of Scripture: historical, moral, anagogical, allegorical

      It is inerrant.

      I would like to see why you think is meant by humans and what is meant by plants. Seems like you confuse the “Light” on the first day (the Rational Soul and the creatures called spirits) with light as the physical wave of energy.

      • It is inerrant.

        Oh, well, there you go. I don’t need any more evidence than that NIGEL says so.

        • No the Church explains why that is with hard thinking. you could look if you cared.

  • On the contradictions, I like Matthew Ferguson’s Bible Contradictions: Why Are They There? What Do They Entail? (HERE) because, before he gets to the case of Judas, he shows other examples in Roman history where we could do similar rationalisations, and explains why historians don’t do those rationalisations.

    I think most Christians (including former me) are just far too used to treating the Bible as special, and are unable to view it as just another historical text or just another religion. And for me, the more I read about other traditions the harder it was to continue to treat the Bible as special, or even as particularly reliable…

    Matthew Ferguson again:

    Contradictions are not odd in ancient history. Different writers have different sources, opinions, versions of the event that they favor, and they will often report two different things.

    Why are there contradictions between the Passion narratives in the Bible? Any honest historian or literary critic would quickly realize that the most likely, most powerful explanation is simple because the different authors had different views of Jesus and adjusted their material to fit their own theological purposes. Mark is not Luke, Luke is not John. Just as we saw with Tacitus, Suetonius, and Dio, these authors reported different versions of events in accordance with their own narratives.

  • El Alacran

    The part about New Testament quotes of Old Testament scripture misses the mark. The Christian Bible was the Septuagint, the Greek translation of what were originally Hebrew scriptures, and this continued to be so until some time afterr 400 C.E. when Jerome’s translation of New and Old Testaments into Latin took hold. Virtually every Nerw Terstament quote of scripture is fgrom tyhe Septuagint, while modern Bible translators lean more on the Masoretic, or preserved Hebrew text — and the Greek translation differs from the Hebrew for trwo reasons: (1) The Septuagint translation and its copying

    • Michael Neville

      That shoots a big hole into the “God inspired the Bible” tradition if God couldn’t be bothered to ensure that translations of His Holy Writ™ were accuate.

      • Greg G.

        IIRC, it was Jerome, in the 5th century, who thought they should pay attention to the Hebrew texts since they were original and, therefore, a step closer to Inspired.

        I could be off by a mile. My notes are far away.

        Edit: Nevermind. I hit “See More” before I read the whole first paragraph, then started reading the second.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    but because it was written for primitive people.

    So he’s saying the Bible wasn’t written for us? Well bye bye then.

    • TheNuszAbides

      Might be worth chasing him down the rabbit-hole to confirm whether or not he can hold up the logical extension: so ‘Jesus’ turns up and releases the ‘covenant update’ (only to Paul of course) … and those people were vaguely less primitive than the OT authors … so, Wallace, who specifically has done the righteously accurate work of subsequent updating?

  • Polytropos

    Principle #7 exposes an important fact. If the Bible contained advanced scientific insights, it would go a long way towards persuading many non-believers (including me) that some sort of supernatural inspiration was involved. How difficult would it really be for an all-powerful god to tell Moses how old the earth is, for example? Or that disease is caused by tiny little creatures too small to see? Or how to make antibiotics? The Nubians were making beer laced with tetracycline 2000 years ago, so there’s no reason why god couldn’t have explained the process in a way the ancient Israelites could understand. But no. Everything in the Bible is consistent with it being written by people who were completely ignorant of even very basic scientific facts.

    • Much simpler as I’ve said a whole lot of times: maybe not quantum mechanics, but a description of the actual nature of the Milky Way and planets. Or at the very least something that was the product not of Bronze Age Middle East cattle herders, already backwards by the time, but of people as Greek philosophers.

      • MR

        Or even a narrative that was consistent with the facts that are discovered. Why even introduce a controversy about the age of the earth or evolution or what have you? God’s power would be no less wondrous for the universe being 15 billion years old. ‘Jus makes no sense.

        • Or imagine in line with the instructions to Noah to build an ark the same but to build a telescope instead, even one as simple as Galileo’s scope, and inviting whatever patriarch or prophet to marvel at God’s creation and describing what one would see with said instrument.

        • “evolution” as you use it is the gnostic delusion of creation hidden behind pseudoscience.

          The need for the uncreated, uncontingent Prime Mover is absolute. Therefore to deny God means you assert everything (or just you, in your ego desperation) is its own uncreated, uncontingent Prime Mover.

          you then try to rationalize this by saying that it took you a long time to do it, and that is why your creative ability is nil here.

          Of course, you being contingent totally refutes you.

        • MR

          Yes, and you’re talking out of your ass. I’ve never taken anything you say seriously. You give me no reason to.

        • Please, if you don’t want to address me, why reply at all?

        • MR

          To show that I think you’re a fraud.

        • Which you have yet to do outside of sneering like a child.

        • “evolution” as you use it is the gnostic delusion of creation hidden behind pseudoscience.

          And you overturn a century of science (a science of which you’re ill-informed) with a sentence. You’re amazing–I don’t know how you do it.

        • It is not science, it is pseudoscience. A term invented by karl popper in shame about his own field.

          It is beginning with a conclusion (in this case, gnosticism) and working backwards to find any excuse you can to claim it is “probable.”

    • TheNuszAbides

      it would go a long way towards persuading many non-believers

      Indeed, it’s curious that the supposedly profound insights of any scripture just happen to only impress the credulous/underinformed/ax-grinders/etc.

  • epeeist

    Complete aside, I went to see Katya Kabanova last night. I was surprised at how anti-Christian it seemed. Two religious bullies (Dikoy and Kabanicha) and the devout Katya who sees no way out of the sin of adultery except by committing the sin of suicide.