Atheists, Biblical “Contradictions” & the Plausibility Issue

Atheists, Biblical “Contradictions” & the Plausibility Issue February 4, 2021

This exchange with atheist Eric came about after he analyzed my recent post,  Pearce’s Potshots #13: Resurrection “Contradictions” (?), in which I responded to a “laundry list of 18 alleged contradictions in the biblical accounts, in a neat little chart.” He responded in a combox on the web page of Jonathan M. S. Pearce, called A Tippling Philosopher. His words will be in blue. I will add further exchanges here if they take place in that venue.

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Allow me to summarize his arguments for you [replying to Jonathan M. S. Pearce]:

#s 1-4, 8-18 … You can’t prove logical contradiction in these cases, since it’s possible each gospel omits story-relevant events and appearances recorded in the other gospels. So to use #3 as an example, Mary visiting the tomb before dawn (John) vs. during dawn (Mark) could be explained by her visiting the tomb twice.

#s 5-7, 17… while the plain meaning of the text in these cases might be contradictory, “close examination” hinging on verb tense or alternate word usage or somesuch can be used to remove the contradiction. To use #5 as an example, if we interpret Matthew’s earthquake and stone-rolling to have occurred in the past rather than the standard plain text interpretation of it occurring when the women visit, this removes the contradiction with the other gospels who don’t report any earthquake and have the stone already rolled away when people show up.

#17 appears in both lists because it requires both: it requires passages typically considered to be describing the same event to be describing two different events, and it requires a “close examination” of the verbiage of ‘receive the holy spirit’ vs. ‘filled with the holy spirit’ to say the different verbiage must mean they are talking about different things.

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To this layperson, 2, 9, 11, 15, and 18 don’t pose any major challenge to the narrative; these are ‘simple omissions’ where either some minor detail isn’t mentioned or where one gospel ends earlier in the narrative than another. I would agree with Mr. Armstrong that these are not examples of contradiction. However the rest of Mr. Armstrong’s responses are unconvincing to me, as they take an apologetic approach of trying to reason backwards from the ‘non-contradictory’ conclusion to find some interpretation which would be consistent, rather than letting the text speak for itself and concluding contradiction or non-contradiction based on what it says. “You can’t prove a logical contradiction” is not a convincing rebuttal to apparent prose contradiction.

Thanks for your interesting reply, Eric (and please call me Dave!).

Mary visiting the tomb before dawn (John) vs. during dawn (Mark) could be explained by her visiting the tomb twice.

As I showed, this is not even speculation. The same text actually asserts and documents it, as I noted in my reply to #3:

[I]n fact, in the Gospel of John the text does show Mary visiting alone (20:1), then running to tell the disciples the tomb was empty (20:2), and then after “the disciples went back to their homes” (20:10), being outside the tomb again, weeping (20:11) and then seeing the risen Jesus (20:14-17) and then going to the disciples and telling them she saw Jesus risen (20:18).

So it’s not a matter of “could be explained . . .” The text itself does explain that she was there at least twice. Surely, my other replies can be specifically discussed also, rather than being subjected merely to a sweeping “meta-analysis.” When you provided a more specific reply, as in this example of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb twice, we see that I have a solid answer to it, which was already in my paper (so that you ought to concede this point). Always two sides to every coin . . .

To this layperson, 2, 9, 11, 15, and 18 don’t pose any major challenge to the narrative; these are ‘simple omissions’ where either some minor detail isn’t mentioned or where one gospel ends earlier in the narrative than another. I would agree with Mr. Armstrong that these are not examples of contradiction.

Thank you. This shows that you are interested in serious discussion.

rather than letting the text speak for itself and concluding contradiction or non-contradiction based on what it says.

This gets to the common atheist tactic in biblical discussions of immediately claiming that all (or nearly all) Christian explanations are “implausible” or special pleading and suchlike. You assume what you need to prove, in thinking that all these texts are self-evident before we even get to closely examining them in context, checking the Greek and relevant cross-references, etc. But that issue is a very complex one. What different people find plausible or implausible depends on many factors, including various premises that each hold.

It’s just as wrong and illogical for the atheist to use “implausible” as the knee-jerk reaction to everything a Christian argues about texts, as it is for the Christian to throw out truly implausible or unlikely replies. Both things are extremes. Neither side can simply blurt out “implausible!” or “eisegesis!” without getting down to brass tacks and actually grappling with the text and its interpretation in a serious way. We can’t — on either side — simply do a meta-analysis and speak about replies rather than directly engage them.

Agree or disagree with me, I have undeniably engaged each point (as I have also done in my even more in-depth follow-up reply to the text after the 18 bullet points: soon to be published). To prove that any of my 18 explanations are “implausible” requires more than merely asserting that they are. Bald assertion is not argument. It’s proclamation. Now granted, I did offer only brief replies to some, and noted that the argument of silence, etc., is what was in play, so that it was a non-issue. But you granted that I made a valid point in five instances, which is 28% of the entire list of 18, and so, not insignificant in the overall analysis.

But as for plausibility in general, Protestant apologist Glenn Miller noted about it:

“Plausibility” is a notoriously subjective concept, and one that engages epistemologists to no end. Oxford dictionaries define “plausible” as “seeming reasonable or probable”, but this will not get us very far. What seems “reasonable” to one may seem unreasonable to another. “Reasonable” could entail simply the notion can I can make a “rational” argument–one in which a conclusion is supported by some appeal to accepted premises or evidence. In the case of “reasonable”, all one has to do is demonstrate that the explanation under question is POSSIBLE, given what we know about the situation and players in the scenario under study.

“Probability” is, however, of somewhat more strength, but is still very loaded. Probability would need to be greater than 25-30%, say, for something to be considered ‘plausible’, but even the determination of some “threshold” percentage will be difficult in historical events. Given this somewhat ambiguous criterion, let’s examine two skeptical passages to see how this ‘plausibility’ criterion plays out.

[he then does fabulous lengthy refuting examinations of skepticism from Dr. Robert Price and Farrell Till]

apparent prose contradiction

This is clever, but it is woefully insufficient. Grammar and interpretation of statements often becomes as complex of an issue as plausibility. But in any event, logical contradiction is an entity in and of itself, and there is an entire field behind it (logic) that is regarded as a subset of mathematics, as much as philosophy. Many times in atheist polemics, “contradiction!” is thrown out about as much as “my opponent is lying!” is thrown out in political campaigns. It’s gotten to the point where it often means nothing at all, and is easily refuted with just a few moments of closer scrutiny. I’m pretty sure there is something in the famous ancient Chinese book, The Art of War, to the effect of “never underestimate your opponent.”

[“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”]

Atheists do this all the time, and it leads them to many foolish and unsubstantiated conclusions, because they are so determined to make the Christian out a fool and an imbecile at every turn. Such extreme bias often leads to shoddy reasoning; jumping the gun, excessive “protest” (a la Queen Gertrude’s line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet), etc. I don’t think you’re doing that here, which is why your counter-reply is so refreshing to see.

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See follow-up discussion: “Difficulty” in Understanding the Bible: Hebrew Cultural Factors [2-5-21]

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Photo credit: BarbaraALane  (3-5-18) [PixabayPixabay License]

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