Bible “Contradictions” & Plausibility (Dialogue w Atheist)

Bible “Contradictions” & Plausibility (Dialogue w Atheist) December 17, 2018

This exchange occurred underneath my post, Reply to Atheists: Defining a [Biblical] “Contradiction”. Words of Stewart Felker will be in blue. He gave even further replies in this thread than what I have recorded below, if anyone is interested.

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I think you’re being a bit uncharitable with some of this, Dave.

Their question of your method for disputing contradictions and suggesting alternatives — particularly, whether you think that the mere possibility of an alternative interpretation alone is enough to counteract claimed contradictions, or whether you consider the probability of this interpretation (however it is that we determine this) to be important, too — is actually a very important one that you should spend time addressing.

(Not necessarily specifically in relation to this issue of the portrayal of Joseph of Arimathea, but just in general.)

I agree. Whenever I have done this sort of thing, I invariably think my explanation is more plausible than atheist skepticism, or else I wouldn’t make the argument in the first place.

Then I guess I’d say that there are some more specific and “objective” standards for being in a position to adjudicate on issues like this to begin with.

For example, as it pertains to the Joseph of Arimathea issue, how many scholarly commentaries/studies did you consult that look at the various historical, linguistic, and contextual factors relevant to determining what the gospels intended to say here, and if there’s a contradiction?

I can’t say that I’ve spent much time on this in particular; though I have spent some time on whether Matthew’s description of him as a rich man (and perhaps other things here) was deliberately intended as a reference to Isaiah 53. There’s also been the occasional suggestion that something about this whole narrative detail, with Joseph asking permission from Pilate for burying Jesus, may be a call-back to the story of Joseph son of Jacob in Genesis, and his interaction with Pharaoh—though some commentators are skeptical of this, too (Davies and Allison in their seminal commentary on Matthew, for one).

I haven’t made any firm conclusions about either of these things, but they certainly could be relevant to determining the historicity (or lack thereof) of these details. (We may also have some reason for skepticism in the description of Joseph specifically as a *secret* disciple: see John 19:38. This could owe something to the same sort of hagiographical tendency as we find in the early tradition of Gamaliel as having converted to Christianity, too. Again though, this is just a suggestion for further research, and I have no solid opinion on it one way or the other.)

On the other hand, I have spent an enormous amount of time with other details in this narrative and the issue of contradiction here. For example, I’ve probably a cumulative two weeks doing high-level academic research on the likely contradiction (to the other gospels) in Matthew 28:2 alone.

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For example, as it pertains to the Joseph of Arimathea issue, how many scholarly commentaries/studies did you consult that look at the various historical, linguistic, and contextual factors relevant to determining what the gospels intended to say here, and if there’s a contradiction?

None, because it wasn’t necessary for 1) my purpose, and 2) by the nature of the case we were discussing, i.e., “are there literally logical contradictions in the relevant texts?” It was claimed that there were such contradictions. My task was to demonstrate that this was not the case. That’s a matter of logic: not what all the pointy-heads think of the text.

I think I succeeded, but in any event, “DagoodS” offered no counter-arguments whatever to mine, so in my opinion he lost that debate by default or by, in effect, forfeiting. If he actually had an effective response, I assume he would have given it: being an attorney highly trained in debate and also familiar with theological debate.

In other cases, I do delve into scholarship and commentaries: especially linguistic. You’re probably not familiar with my apologetics work, and the scope of it. I have over 2100 articles posted to Patheos, and have written 50 books (ten of them “officially” published), as a professional Catholic apologist.

There are all kinds of scholars, and they all have a bias. If they are orthodox Christian (as myself), they obviously approach the text as inspired revelation and assume that it is consistent with itself and not contradictory (I have no problem with minor manuscript textual errors such as discrepancies regarding, e.g., numbers). That’s a bias, too, but I think it is a “good” bias: all things considered.

The secular or atheist Bible scholar approaches the text with great suspicion and hostility. This will color how they view it, as well. As I’ve always said, atheist anti-theist types approach the Bible and its interpretation like a butcher approaches a hog. A Christian like me approaches it with the reverence and awe that one might give to a great masterpiece of art or literature. It’s a completely different mindset. And that obviously colors the conclusions reached.

But in this instance, I was merely making logical points, and so it wasn’t necessary to delve into “the literature.” I was “defeating the defeater.”

No one is under any illusion that it would be impossible to simultaneously be a member of the Sanhedrin but also to secretly be a Christian. Instead, the question is whether it’s historically plausible for this to have been the case — or whether, as I hinted at, there may have been some sort of exaggeration along the way or something.

And, really, that’s the fundamental question for everything here, I think: what’s plausible, not what’s merely possible (or impossible). All historical reconstruction is done on this basis.

Nicodemus was a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, and seems to have become a Christian, or was quite respectful of Jesus, at the very least. Paul was a Pharisee. I don’t think these things are a big deal. If the Bible reported it, and the Bible has been shown time and again to be historically accurate and precise, then we trust it for details that may seem prima facie more doubtful.

That’s the difference in approach. You — like all biblical skeptics — are speculating and looking for holes in the text, and poking holes in it. That’s how you approach it from the outset. It’s not just the denial of inspiration. It’s the view that the Bible is simply a pack of fairy tales and myths. And some of you even deny that Jesus existed (which I believe to be intellectual suicide, on the level of belief in a flat earth or geocentrism or a 6000-year-old earth.

Plausibility is a fascinating discussion in and of itself, but it, too, is highly dependent upon one’s presuppositions and overall worldview. I find lots and lots of things in the Bible (from a Christian perspective) quite plausible, whereas atheists invariably do not. Why such a difference? Well, it’s not because Christians are dumb and stupid and just “don’t get it” (as is often charged). It’s because radically different presuppositions and premises lead to different views of what is plausible and what isn’t.

Plausibility is one thing, and it’s subjective enough to allow for many opinions, that are not easily synthesized. But what I was doing in the original exchange about Joseph of Arimathea was to note that what was claimed to be literally a logical contradiction, actually wasn’t at all. Ive been through this time and again with atheists. They see contradictions where there are none. And that’s a different discussion.

I think atheists see “contradictions” where they don’t exist, because of hostility and wishful thinking. The bias going in colors their ability to reason dispassionately and as objectively as possible.

I do not (in general) spend time “speculating and looking for holes in the text,” and have not done so in this specific conversation either.

I did say that I’ve “probably a cumulative two weeks doing high-level academic research on the likely contradiction (to the other gospels) in Matthew 28:2 alone”; but that doesn’t mean that I went into things looking for a contradiction here. In fact, I originally devoted so much time toward the interpretation of that verse after having read Eusebius and Augustine’s interpretations of this in response to critics who claimed a contradiction. (And in any case, I originally mentioned that only really to contrast that with my general non-expertise on this issue of Joseph of Arimathea.)

Beyond that, and relevant to the current topic of Joseph of Arimathea, all I really mentioned was “the question is whether it’s historically plausible for this to have been the case [that Joseph was truly a secret follower of Jesus] — or whether, as I hinted at, there may have been some sort of exaggeration along the way or something.”

Again, one potential parallel for there having been some exaggeration or hagiography here was, as I mentioned, the early (non-Biblical) tradition of Gamaliel having converted to Christianity — something that many historians if not most are skeptical of the historicity of.

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More exchanges from the combox:

“kingmcdee”Thanks, Dave, this was an interesting discussion. I do ultimately think that “plausibility” is a somewhat unreliable metric for making decisions about what “probably” happened, because it seems to me to ultimately come down to deciding that, while the text (written by someone much closer to the events than I am, and part of the relevant culture, which I am not) says one thing, my feelings about what is plausible (which are conditioned by all sorts of things, many of which are irrelevant to the discussion) make it such that I can claim that something else actually happened. And, as you say, an atheist could have very different beliefs about what is or is not plausible than a Christian might, and unless he could demonstrate that his beliefs about plausibility were rationally superior, it would be unfair for him to expect us to accept them.

Totally agree. And this is why I think it’s much more productive and worthwhile concentrating on the objective issue of whether logical contradictions are present, rather than the very subjective “wax nose” of plausibility.

Atheists claim hundreds of “contradictions”: so there is certainly no lack of that! I’ve dealt with dozens of them myself, and so have many other Christian apologists.

So what of the middle ground of probability, which assesses the likelihood or unlikelihood of contradiction based on factors inherent to the text itself, or some historical context that elucidates it?

It’s still subjective speculation, and with radically different premises coming in, nothing is accomplished by it. At the end, the Christian says x is plausible or probable and the atheist says it ain’t.

On the other hand, contradictions are objectively determined. Something either is or isn’t. Atheists claim all kinds of logical contradictions in the Bible. I and others have shown that they were mistaken.

Why do so many mainstream Biblical scholars acknowledge the existence of genuine Biblical contradictions, then? And why is denying these any different from denying, say, mainstream scientific evidence about [whatever]? (That’s not to say that literary interpretation and the physical sciences are the same thing, obviously; but they have similar standards of rationality and parsimony and peer review, etc.)

And I really don’t understand this dichotomy you seem to be driving at. In order to determine whether something is a logical contradiction or not, we certainly have to interpret the text, first — which as I’ve said usually requires a lot of detailed philological analysis. That’s where probability comes in.

Like, we should all agree that it’s logically impossible for Judas to have both died by hanging but to have also died via evisceration. Now it’s not logically impossible that he died by hanging, his body remained like that for however long, and then at some point it fell down and his bowels came out. But when we’re trying to determine which of these scenarios the Biblical texts support, here we have to rely on interpretive probability.

Why do so many mainstream Biblical scholars acknowledge the existence of genuine Biblical contradictions, then?

Because many or perhaps even most of them are hostile to the Bible and don’t believe it’s inspired. So they are predisposed to see contradictions where there are none. Premises determine outcomes.

Catholics interpret Scripture in light of the accumulated wisdom of 2000 years of Christian interpretation, and another thousand years or so of Jewish interpretation before that. We think many people who believe in God and revelation have learned lots of things over those 3000 years, that we can benefit from today.

Heterodox scholars (or non-Jewish ones, with regard to a religious Jewish paradigm) interpret according to post-Enlightenment hyper-rationalism and hostility towards religious worldviews and traditions, which is an outlook only 250 or so years old. These produce different outcomes and make people view probabilities and plausibility quite differently.

The apologist like myself can’t possibly break through all those contrary paradigms and presuppositions. Thus I don’t waste my time trying to do so. I don’t go round and round with atheists, playing their Bible hopscotch and liberal scholarship (count the number of [heterodox] scholars who think thus-and-so) games. All I can do is deal with objective and concrete particulars, and demonstrate that a claimed logical contradiction is not one. And so that’s what I do, and why we have been talking past each other this entire time (even after you decided to stop the petty insults and psychoanalysis), about Joseph of Arimathea and the larger general issue.

The one thing that scholars actually do that you don’t seem to be doing is actually taking a close look at the texts themselves (which I’ve now done in my longer comment).

These texts need to be interpreted as best as we can, using our accumulated philological and historical (and archaeological, etc.) knowledge.

Sure, everyone has a perspective and everyone has opinions. But there are certain matters of syntax and philology and historical that we can analyze and debate more objectively, no matter what perspective we come from.

So why isn’t this a good starting place? In fact why isn’t this the most logical starting place? If I’m wondering about the meaning of ὃς καὶ αὐτὸς… in Matthew 27:57 or whatever it may be, why can’t we talk about this like rational people?

That being said: I’ve mentioned the contradiction in Matthew 28:2 several times now; and although you mention the “accumulated wisdom of 2000 years of Christian interpretation,” fascinatingly Eusebius is I believe literally the only person from antiquity who devoted more than a few words to the issue — and even then, he devotes maybe 40 or 50 words to it tops, and really doesn’t say anything more than “it doesn’t contradict the other gospels because it can’t contradict the other gospels.”

This is why we have to go beyond ancient wisdom and use the full resources of modern study.

Hostile premises are present prior to any urge to bring “philological and historical (and archaeological, etc.) knowledge” (which is fine) to the table.

It almost seems like you’re saying no only that there are no contradictions (and so on), but that the very accusation of contradiction — or the very enterprise of trying to interpret the Bible critically — comes from a hostile or at least disingenuous intent.

It’s hostile intent almost always: not necessarily disingenuous, but flowing from premises fundamentally hostile to historic, orthodox Christianity. The Bible is seen (at best) as merely a fairly respectable but solely human book, written by a primitive culture that didn’t “get” many things that we find obvious — thus filled with many potential errors; or (at worst) as a dishonest collection of fairy tales, myths, and legends, intended to control and deceive people.

I think you’re making the whole issue more abstract than it needs to be.

Not to overlook the obvious, but scholars see contradictions where the text most naturally seems to suggest a contradiction, and where all alternative explanations are less plausible than this — not simply because they have some preconceived notion that ancient texts should have contradictions because they were written carelessly or by “primitive people.”

And what they find plausible is (I’ve noted repeatedly) indeed highly dependent upon their presuppositions and overall worldview. Thus, Christians will think many things in the Bible are plausible whereas the atheist and the theologically liberal skeptic do not. Disbelief in miracles and biblical prophecy alone greatly alters interpretation of hundreds of passages. One can’t escape it. Disbelief in the incarnation does the same. We all have our biases.

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Your argument is “modern Biblical scholars interpret according to post-Enlightenment hyper-rationalism” and that their exegesis is worthless anyways. 

I didn’t say liberal scholarship was worthless. Occasionally it provides good insight. But because it is hostile to the Bible and orthodoxy, and starts from erroneous premises, usually it doesn’t.

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I also don’t think it’s fair to accuse atheists of bowing out of conversation because they’re uncomfortable (or not knowledgeable or whatever) when the conversation starts to get into specifics about exegesis and contradictions, etc., as you’ve accused them of; because at the same time that you said this, you said “Not gonna go round and round with that” to me precisely where I finally started to get into the nitty-gritty of this, as it were.

That’s two completely different reasons for bowing out, as I have explained. I’m not interested in what every atheist and liberal exegete (real or imagined) thinks of various biblical texts. It goes round and round and nothing whatsoever is accomplished.

With atheists in my debates, they are claiming the presence of a logical contradiction. I give an alternate non-contradictory explanation and critique theirs. At that point they cease being interested. They don’t wanna go past one round where they give their presentation. Thus, what they ostensibly claim to be interested in, is shown not to be that great of an interest as soon as their view is confuted.

But I never was at any time interested in most of what you offer: endless analysis of texts with hostile skeptical premises underlying all, and never-ending claims of the “implausibility” of every Christian / biblical doctrine. When premises are radically different, discussion is very difficult to have.

That’s why I say that what I will do with the atheist (if I’m in the mood and otherwise bored, which is not always) is examine proposed specific contradictions: whether they are actually present in the text or not (because almost all can agree on the definition of a logical contradiction: though atheists seem to quickly forget as soon as they open up a Bible). But then I do that (such as my 30 replies to Bob Seidensticker), and they go silent and flee for the hills in terror.

You stick around, but I can see (as I’ve been saying over and over) that little or nothing will be accomplished by dialogue between us. But I’m doing some of this meta-analysis and epistemological analysis to at least show you where I’m coming from, since you seem to be having a hard time fully understanding it.

Why does it seem like you almost have a fatalistic attitude toward this? It’s like you don’t think it’s possible to make any sort of determination about the plausibility or implausibility of a claimed contradiction, because people are just too embedded in their biases to be able to have any sort of productive dialogue on this at all.

From my constant experience debating these things with atheists and skeptics for now 37 years. It’s not fatalistic; it’s realistic.

I haven’t said that the level of plausibility is impossible to ascertain; only that different worldviews arrive at wildly different conclusions about any given instance.

But if someone says, “x contradicts y in the Bible” I can show how in fact it does not, and move on. It’s objective and fairly decisive.

Are you suggesting that just a single reply is good enough? What if you’ve overlooked something or made an interpretive error of your own?

That gets back to premises and how they strongly affect interpretation. When discussing an alleged contradiction, the apologist can give his interpretation over against the atheist / skeptical assertion. Readers can then decide which is a more plausible explanation: contradiction or non-contradiction and non-issue.

And of course most Christian readers will think my explanation was more plausible and almost all atheist readers will disagree. That’s just how it is, because of premises and presuppositions. But at least specific, fairly objective subject matter was dealt with (as opposed to “grand” theological issues), where there may be some slight progress in a meeting of the minds.

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I’ve said over and over, that the Christian can argue till kingdom come (as much about one issue as even you would like), and in the end the atheist will say it’s implausible and Christians will say it is plausible, and never the twain shall meet. And so I have to wisely, prudently choose which debates to get into. One must choose one’s battles wisely and choose which hill to die on. Can’t do everything . . .

And as a bonus we’re invariably accused of being anti-reason, anti-science, and anti-scholarship. You haven’t brought up science because it wasn’t involved, but if it did come up, surely you would play that card, too.

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My good friend Paul Hoffer also made an excellent long comment about the nature of plausibility itself.

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Photo credit: image by geralt (12-4-13) [PixabayCC0 Creative Commons license]

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