December 11, 2018

This is a favorite argument of atheists and skeptics, who relish opportunities to show how the Bible is so “obviously” contradictory and how Christians are such gullible fools for not seeing that this is the case: supposedly so clearly and often. But, as usual, the truth of the matter is not nearly as simple as the atheist would love it to be. Bible scholars have studied the question (as all matters in Bible interpretation) inside and out, up and down, every which way. It’s not a “slam dunk” that the lists of disciples are contradictory.

My worthy debate opponent (former Christian) “DagoodS” (words in blue) is the latest in this venerable atheist tradition of Bible-bashing. He has a grand old time playing with the names and poking fun at Christians, in his article, Contrary to Popular Opinion. First, he (give him some credit for cleverness) works out an ingenious way to dismiss whatever the Christian says in reply (no doubt, he will utilize it for this very response).

Basically, he wants to have his cake and eat it, too. If we resolve an alleged contradiction, he says it doesn’t matter, because it is just playing games. If there is no contradiction, it doesn’t matter, either, because (now I talk about very common atheist background assumptions) there are so many others in the Bible, anyway (so they assume before proving them) that it is inconsequential. Who cares, after all, if someone patches one hole in a bucket that has 1000 holes in it?

It’s like Freudian psychology: if you tell the Freudian psychologist (who has a prior suspicion) that you’re not nuts, or that your life wasn’t doomed by a rough potty-training at age two, he’ll say that this is part of the malady: denial and self-delusion. If you agree that you are, then he is happy that he can make lots of money having 35 hour-long sessions where you lay on a couch and do most of the talking and prove to his satisfaction that you are nuts.

It also reminds me of the Salem Witch Trials: someone was accused of witchcraft. They could either confess and be executed, or they could deny it, in which case they would be put through ordeals where if they didn’t die, they were obviously guilty, and if they did, they weren’t. It was either guilt or death, and the first led to the second. Likewise, for DagoodS — always quick to spot biblical “errors” –, if you deny them, you’re deluded and a typical gullible, reason-challenged Christian; but if you accept them, then of course you’re sharp and intellectually honest, like he and his atheist comrades.

How convenient, huh? In simply disagreeing with our atheist overlords, we prove by that very act that we have a serious intellectual deficiency. It seems that about half of them are fully prepared to diagnose us as mentally-ill simply by virtue of being a Christian, before they even begin to discuss anything with us. How charitable and magnanimous of them . . .

I’ve noted this myself in my various discussions with him about his imaginary, dreamt-up Bible contradictions. I’ll resolve them (I think, quite satisfactorily) or show that he hasn’t proven that a contradiction is beyond any doubt (which is enough to spare a man from being found guilty at a trial), and he’ll simply ignore my replies or engage in obfuscation, and move on to present another set of alleged biblical whoppers. It’s always the same with this sort of atheist (or Muslim apologist, or liberal Christian, who play the same games): resolve one “problem” they come up with and they’re more than happy to dismiss your answer and regurgitate 1001 more tired, long-since-answered “objections” and “difficulties.” He writes, inexplicably:

A common defense to the claim of contradictions within the Bible is to provide a possible resolution. As long as it is logically feasible, it is felt that this is a defeater for a claim that a contradiction exists. However, the method itself is flawed, and must be abandoned.

Really? Let’s see how this works: a claim of contradiction is made and the Christian shows that, in fact, it is not a logical contradiction (i.e., he provides a successful “defeater”). But somehow this is a flawed method. Huh??!! What am I missing? It’s either a contradiction or not. If indeed it is, it is simple enough to show. DagoodS asks:

[I]f there WAS a contradiction within the Bible – how would you know? 

It’s too embarrassing to everyone’s intelligence to have to demonstrate what a formal contradiction is. Readers who know what a true contradiction entails don’t need to be shown presently. Those who don’t (including, remarkably enough, our esteemed atheist friend) won’t get anything out of such an exercise (or, perhaps, this entire paper), anyway. Either way, it’s a waste of time. On the other hand, if there is no contradiction, then there is no “biblical problem” to be dealt with. It is shown to be a non-issue.

Oftentimes, what we find in atheist “exegesis” is selectively presented information, or else sheer ignorance of various factors (cross-referencing, language issues, illogical thinking brought on by skeptical bias, the rush to show an error when there is none, exaggeration of the difficulty, repeating and parroting of timeworn atheist fables and legends and old wives’ tales about Christian error without examining the reasoning and/or facts oneself, or reading counter-replies, etc.).

In one forum, where this discussion of “names of disciples / how many disciples?” took place [link now defunct], the mistakes of the skeptic provide a classic example of what I describe above. “kwinters” makes elementary errors (and it’s always fun to highlight the skeptic’s ignorance, seeing that his goal was to prove how ignorant Christians are). He cites one Paul Tobin, thusly:

The apologists had tried to reconcile these discrepancies. First they claimed that Bartholomew is actually bar Talmai (son of Talmai) and that his name is Nathanael. . . . we do not know if Bartholomew is Bar Talmai, . . .

Now, this is a very simple matter of language, as “Symantix” had to embarrassingly note:

[T]he author you quoted who questions the nature and meaning of Bartholomew is uninformed. The very nature of the Greek name Bartholomaios (transliteration), means a man who is the son of Tholomaios, or Tolomaios, since we probably have a consonantal ellipsis present. This terminology wasn’t used as loosely back then as it is today; a man today might have a last name of “Hendrickson”, and that doesn’t mean that he’s the son of Hendrick (whether he is even descended from someone by that name is questionable these days). But back then that’s exactly what it meant. And that’s precisely what this name means.

If that weren’t bad enough, kwinters decides to get himself into deeper waters:

I’ve provided the contradictions in the Gospels.

You’ve asserted they used multiple names without providing any evidence at all that this is even possible. You have the burden to prove your explanation is valid, not merely plausible.

If, as you say “the writers of the gospels save Luke, referred to some of the apostles by different names” show me where in the Gospels they refer to the same person using different names. You have provided no evidence to support that they did this.

. . . I could go through the other lists, but I have already seen there’s no example of what you propose. There are just contradictions.

And the Christians (who did a great job) replied:

Symantix: Many Jews had three names, one given at birth, one given on the eighth day of their life, and another given them under Roman citizenship . . . It is not unreasonable to assume that all of the apostles had two or more names; this was very common in that day. It’s even common in this day and age. I myself have two names aside from my last name. Many people call me by one name, and many people call me by the other.

chadn737: I gladly take this challenge.

Under the Roman empire it was very common practice for a person to possess several names. Surnames, as we possess today where not common practice, so other methods of distinguishing people were needed.

For example the Bible clearly states that two of the disciples where named Simon, but one was called Peter by Jesus and the other was named Simon the Canane. The name Canane is what is called a cognomen or personal nickname used to distinguish one person of the same name from another. Cognomen where commonly associated with some aspect of the person, such as occupation, physical characteristics, etc. Eventually these Cognomen evolved into family names. The Greeks (from which the biblical translations would come from) used a similar system of by-names or naming a person according to some attribute. Most people in ancient times therefore had an average of three names: a given name, a family or inherited name like “son of”, and a cognomen or by-name that was attributed to some characteristic of that person.

There are two people listed by the name of Judas. It would be necessary to distinguish one from the other, especially after Judas Iscariot’s betrayal. Thadaeus, which translated from Greek means “breast”, has been used by the Greeks in reference to people of large size. And it is likely used to describe Judas in such a manner.

kwinters persists:

Fine, but we’re talking about Jews, not Romans.

chadn737 replied:

In case you were unaware, the Jews where a part of the Roman empire and Roman culture ruled the day. The practices that descibed where not limited to the Romans, but to all in the empire, being used by the Greeks, Arabs, Egyptians, and yes even the Jews.

My explanation does make sense. You mistake cognomens and by-names as simple nicknames, they are not. They where an essential defining characteristic of the ancient world, as essential as your middle and last name is to you. Centuries later it was these cognomens and by-names that evolved into the family names we have today.

This ignorance of the ancient Hebrew practice of multiple names leads DagoodS to convoluted “solutions” equally as bad, if not worse, than what Christians supposedly come up with. Look at how he explains Matthew / Levi, for example:

Mark then introduces us to, “Levi, son of Alphaeus.” A tax collector. (Mark 2:14-15) . . . Levi the tax collector was also qualified as “son of Alphaeus.” Jesus has a penchant for changing names – the simplest resolution is that he must have changed Levi’s name to “James” bringing us back to the correct 12. Problem solved.

Or is it?

See, Matthew also has a tax collector. Who invited Jesus to eat at the tax collector’s house. Only Matthew doesn’t name this taxman “Levi” but rather calls him “Matthew.” (Matthew 9:9) Apparently in Mark’s list of Mark 3:16-19, the author of Matthew chose the name “Matthew” as being the one Jesus changed “Levi” to. 

In order to avoid confusion, Matthew leaves off “son of Alphaes” when referring to Matthew. Humorously, in case we were so thick to miss the connection, when listing the disciples in Matthew 10:2-4, the author calls him “Matthew the tax collector,” just to make sure we knew which one was the one referred to as “Levi” in Mark . . . It would appear that “Levi” could be anybody’s name!

All this nonsense, involving Jesus as one Who allegedly arbitrarily changes people’s names (including changing Levi to James), rather than to simply grasp the historical, indisputable fact that the Jews could be referred to by more than one name. In warring against overly-complicated solutions, DagoodS falls into that which he belittles: he starts inventing implausible scenarios and assumes with no evidence that they make more sense than far more straightforward and plausible Christian solutions. One can’t fail to appreciate the high comedy and irony of it all.

It’s really not that complicated. In our culture today, we do the same thing with names. I could be called “Dave” or “[Mr.] Armstrong.” That’s two different names for the same person. I could also have a common nickname. Anti-Catholic apologists, for example, have taken to habitually calling me “DA”. My father, Graham’s nickname is “Army.” So he could be called by three different names, interchangeably (not to mention, a full name also, which would be a fourth option).

To bring it back to our topic, then, we can, fairly easily and uncontroversially, determine by deductive logic that Matthew and Levi are the same person:

1) Matthew is described as a “tax-collector” (Mt 10:3) and being “at the tax-office” (Mt 9:9).

2) In the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke this tax-collector called from his office is referred to as Levi.

3) Jesus attends dinner with many tax-collectors and sinners (Mt 9:10; Mk 2:15).

4) Luke 5:29 adds that “Levi made him a great feast in his own house.”‘

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots. It is only the uninformed denial that Jews could have more than one name that would see any difficulty in this. There could be four accounts of something my father did. One might call him Graham, one might call him “Army” (we see Jesus giving a nickname or “surname” to James and John: “Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder” – Mark 3:17; cf. Lk 9:54), another “Mr. Armstrong”, and a fourth, “that Armstrong guy from Detroit and originally from Canada, who worked at Ford Motor Company” (since in the Bible people can be identified both from where they come from and by what they do). A fifth choice is “Graham Armstrong.”

[note, by contrast, the completely implausible “theory” of the nickname, Boanerges, from the atheist Frank R. Zindler [link now defunct]:

The characters James and John, however, may have astrological meaning. The name Zebedee resembles the Old Babylonian Zalbatanu, the equivalent of Jupiter “the Thunderer,” making it only reasonable that James and John would be the sons of thunder.

Right; and they claim that we are the ones who invent implausible, fanciful fictions? Later, he goes on to claim that the twelve disciples are highly related to the twelve signs of the Zodiac.]

That is five different, completely acceptable, identifiable names for the same person. Yet if anything of the sort happens in the Bible, the atheist is quick to shout “contradiction.” It’s utterly asinine! Thus, the Christian who takes the biblical accounts seriously and doesn’t set out to mock and destroy them, shows himself far more reasonable and sensible than the atheist who plays games such as this, with the goal of belittling and ridiculing the Bible and Christians alike. The only one who winds up looking silly (i.e., if someone takes the time of showing how shallow and fallacious their reasoning is) is the atheist or otherwise skeptical person.

Can our friend come up with anything more earth-shakingly compelling than this? He tries playing around with the different lists, and at length concludes:

It would seem we must smash “Levi” back to “Matthew” and “Thaddeus” back to “Judas” and we have a match.

A “match,” huh? Whaddya know! Matthew / Levi has been sufficiently explained, I think, for most fair-minded, reasonable people without an ax to grind against the Bible.

Let’s look at the second example (Thaddeus / Judas). It was seen above that a second Jude would have likely been called some sort of surname to distinguish him from Judas Iscariot (since the Gospels were written after the betrayal of Judas). Jude or Judas was a very common name as it was, and so we would expect (even without the betrayal) a second name for purposes of identification (or simply because there were two with the same first name in one small group).

That seems fairly likely; therefore, this second Judas may have been called by a surname.

When the lists of disciples are compared, Thaddeus (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18) corresponds, by a process of elimination, to the second Jude (Lk 6:16; Jn 14:22; Acts 1:13; possibly – not necessarily – the same person mentioned in Mt 13:55; Mk 6:3). This isn’t an absolute proof (as the atheist almost invariably demands, and usually most unreasonably or with a double standard) of the equation of the two, but it is not implausible at all, given the prevalence of multiple names in ancient Hebrew culture.

Another factor (not brought up by DagoodS) was that a variant reading of Thaddeus in Matthew 10:3 is Lebbaeus (KJV: “Lebbaeus, whose surname was Thaddeus”). Frank R. Zindler of the American Atheists has a field day plumbing the treasures here:

Even though both Matthew and Luke are known to have copied the narrative framework of Mark’s gospel, it is interesting to note that their lists of disciples (or apostles) do not match Mark’s exactly. The simple Thaddaeus of Mark is Lebbaeus in Matthew. Attempts at harmonizing this discrepancy resulted in later manuscripts of Matthew listing Lebbaeus-Thaddaeus – a change that was transported back to later manuscripts of Mark as well. I believe that harmonizing needs such as this arise most commonly when legend or fiction is involved. This opinion is reinforced by the fact that both Lebbaeus and Thaddaeus are missing in Luke, who instead has a mysterious Judas the brother of James. And of course Lebbaeus, Thaddaeus, Judas the brother of James, and James all four are missing in the gospel of John!

Wow! How can we ignorant Christians ever recover from that??!! The KJV manuscripts are considered as outdated by the vast majority of biblical scholars today, but we see, in any event, that the two are equated in the variant text (the KJV reading), and the KJV uses Thaddeus in the parallel list Mark 3:18. The similarity in both is made more plain when it is understood that Thaddeus is derived from the Aramaic tadda, or breast, while Lebbaeus comes from the Hebrew leb, or heart. (Aramaic being the language actually spoken in first-century Palestine, and a development of Hebrew). Much ado about nothing . . .

As another note in passing, other skeptics have tried to make hay of the “contradiction” of Simon the Cananaean of Matthew 10:4 and Mark 3:18, compared with Simon who was called the Zealot of Luke 3:15. But Cananaean (from the Greek Kananaios, in turn from Hebrew quannai or Aramaic quanan) is simply the equivalent term for zealot (Gk., Zelotes). Note: this is a different word than Canaanite (Kananites) which is derived from the Hebrew Kena’an.

That seems to clear up the so-called “contradictions” thus far. Unless the atheist can “prove” that more than one name couldn’t have been used for one person, then he really hasn’t conclusively proved contradiction or discrepancy in the lists of disciples. But wait! DagoodS wouldn’t be worth his salt as an atheist and biblical skeptic if he didn’t bring up Nathanael from the book of John:

Good old Gospel of John throws a wrench in the works. . . . who is Nathanael? (John 1:49, 21:1) Here is a disciple that does not correlate with anyone in any other Gospel! You could plug his name in with anybody – may I recommend Bartholomew? His name is apparently open for some “double-naming.”

Yes; thanks for the solution! Why would anyone equate Nathanael (Jn 1:45-49; 21:2) with Bartholomew? What connection do the two have? Is this more Christian special pleading and sophistry and using any desperate explanation, no matter how week, to shore up biblical inspiration and accuracy, or does it actually make any sense, from a reasoned perspective? Well, let’s see, shall we?

We’ve already seen above how Bartholomew is a surname, meaning “son of Tolmai” (cf. Bar-Jesus: Acts 13:6). It’s a patronymic (meaning, literally “name of the father”). Of this there can be little question; it’s the nature of the linguistics. That already explains a lot, because it could simply be the surname of Nathanael (the latter being a first name). In fact, we see Jesus doing this exact thing in referring to Peter, whose original name was Simon; he was given a new name or nickname by Jesus: Peter, or Rock):

Matthew 16:17 Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah!

For (no doubt) the atheists and biblical skeptics who have a hard time comprehending the Bible, God made sure to have Jesus say this in “English” elsewhere:

John 1:42 “So you are Simon the son of John? You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

This is delightful, because it shows all the different languages in play and how names were used. John is the Greek form of the Hebrew Jona or Jonah (remember, the Gospel manuscripts are in Greek; some believe Matthew was originally in Hebrew or Aramaic; but in any event, specifically directed towards Jews; hence his use of bar). Cephas is the Aramaic equivalent of rockPeter is the Greek word. The author, writing in Greek, translates Cephas for the Greek reader. The fact, therefore, of Bartholomew being a surname, is abundantly clear.

But how does one tie it together with Nathanael? Again, it is simple deduction and comparison of texts (something the atheist — for some inexplicable reason — seems to have great difficulty doing, while they are great at surmising Hebrew-Babylonian or Jewish-astrological affinities all over the place).

Bartholomew is always listed after Philip (Mt 10:3; Mk 3:18; Luke 6:14) or shortly thereafter (Acts 1:13; Thomas in-between), many biblical scholars believe that he is the same as Nathanael, because the latter is said to have been led to Jesus by Philip (Jn 1:45-51; cf. 2:12). Also, mutual exclusivity lends itself to the conclusion that the same person is being talked about: Nathanael is never mentioned in the synoptic Gospels and Bartholomew isn’t mentioned in the Gospel of John. If they both appeared in one list, then obviously one could not argue that the two names may be referring to one person. Most of the other disciples have two names as well.

The argument from affinity in lists of disciples is not at all frivolous or altogether weak, as it might first appear (especially to the skeptic). There is strong internal evidence that these lists were specifically ordered to show certain things. For example, Judas Iscariot is invariably listed last: cf. Mt 10:4, Mk 3:19; Lk 6:16.; whereas Simon Peter (considered the leader of the disciples by most scholars) is always mentioned first (Matthew even uses the word “first”).

Peter, James, and John are presented as a sort of “inner circle” among the twelve disciples, and Peter is again always listed first when these three are mentioned: Mt 17:1; 26:37,40; Mk 5:37; 14:37. Half the time John is mentioned, Peter is also. Let’s look at the lists of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and see if other patterns can be detected:

Matthew 10:2-4 (“twelve”: 10:1-2):

Simon, who is called Peter [1]
Andrew his brother [2]
James the son of Zebedee [3]
John his [James’] brother [4]
Philip [5]
Bartholomew [6]
Thomas [7]
Matthew the tax collector [8]
James the Son of Alphaeus [9]
Thaddeus [10]
Simon the Cananaean [11]
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him [12].

Mark 3:16-19 (“twelve”: 3:14):

Simon, whom he surnamed Peter [1]
James the son of Zebedee [2]
John the brother of James [3]
Andrew [4]
Philip [5]
Bartholomew [6]
Matthew [7]
Thomas [8]
James the son of Alphaeus [9]
Thaddaeus [10]
Simon the Cananaean [11]
Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him [12]

Luke 6:14-16 (“twelve”: 6:13):

Simon, whom he named Peter [1]
Andrew his brother [2]
James [3]
John [4]
Philip [5]
Bartholomew [6]
Matthew [7]
Thomas [8]
James the son of Alphaeus [9]
Simon who was called the Zealot [10]
Judas the son of James [11]
Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor [12]

Patterns (A = Matthew / B = Mark / C = Luke):

1) Peter first: ABC
2) Judas Iscariot last: ABC
3) Simon and Andrew (brothers) listed next to each other: AC

4) James and John (brothers) together: ABC
5) Philip and Bartholomew together: ABC
6) Philip and Bartholomew listed 5th and 6th: ABC
7) James and John listed 3rd and 4th : AC, and 2nd and 3rd: B
8) Matthew and Thomas together: ABC
9) Matthew and Thomas listed 7th and 8th: BC; order reversed (Thomas, Matthew): A
10) James listed 9th: ABC
11) James and Thaddeus listed together, 9th and 10th: AB
12) Assuming for the sake of argument that the second Judas = Thaddeus, then this person and Simon the Zealot or Cananaean appear together 10th and 11th: ABC
13) Again, making the same assumption, James, Simon, and Judas/Thaddeus appear 9th through 11th: ABC
14) The conjunction of Andrew-James-John-Philip-Bartholomew occurs in the 2nd-6th position: ABC (identical order in AC)

Repetitious patterns like these make it more plausible (or at least possible) that Nathanael = Bartholomew, since both are presented as being associated with Philip, the names are used with mutual exclusivity in the synoptic Gospels and John, and since Bartholomew is indisputably a surname, and every surname has a first name to go with it. The atheist may scoff and smirk at this attempted explanation but what can we say? There is no knock-down argument against it, and it makes perfect sense of the data, as a proposed explanation. In any event, no definitive contradiction in these lists has been proven.

DagoodS has some more fun in his conclusion:

Using the method of “any possible explanation” we have two readily available resolutions:

1) Either individuals had different names, and one author called them by one name, another author by their other name, 

Bingo! Even the unplugged clock is right twice a day . . .


2) Different individuals were part of the Twelve, and depending on the moment, a different set was listed. (Remember, apparently members of the Twelve were replaceable Acts 1:26). 

Either answer removes any contradiction, correct? 

Assume, for a moment, there really was a contradiction. That the author of the Gospel of John was completely incorrect that Nathanael was ever a disciple. By using this method, 1900 years later, we obtain the result: “No contradiction.”

Assume, for a moment, there was not a contradiction. That the author of the Gospel of John utilized Bartholomew’s middle name of “Nathanael.” By using this method, 1900 years later, we obtain the result: “No contradiction.”

Can you see how the method, with or without an actual contradiction, provides the exact same test results? That is why this system is ineffective for determination of a contradiction and must be abandoned.

Hardly. What is wrongheaded here is the speculation about a “contradiction” when one hasn’t been established. One can only determine whether an actual contradiction exists by looking at the data we do have, not speculating. The fact remains that there is not enough information on this matter to establish an indisputable contradiction. Nor is there unequivocal proof that there is not (strictly on logical grounds). It’s true that the Nathanael — Bartholomew matter could theoretically be a contradiction, and John was simply incorrect (or right, and the synoptic writers were all wrong).

In Bible interpretation, however (as opposed to skeptical Bible butchery) the goal is to try to approach the Bible fairly, giving the benefit of the doubt that there exists some explanation, where a “difficulty” (real or imagined) arises. In this instance, it has been shown that there are at least plausible, reasonable connections between Nathanael and Bartholomew. For the Christian and the Bible student (if they are different), this is enough to maintain that it is a reasonable supposition to equate the two. For the skeptic, it lacks absolute proof, so they immediately conclude that it is either a contradiction, or else it raises enough doubt on the veracity of the Gospel writers that we can be cynical of other of their presented facts.

One’s conclusions, then, often depend largely upon their suppositions coming into any particular controversial question. The four Gospel writers agree that there were twelve disciples. And so the fair-minded interpreter will try (accepting that unanimous agreement) to interpret the lists of disciples in a way that fits into this more certain knowledge. I have presented one particular solution to the questions raised. Readers may judge it for themselves.


(originally 12-9-06)

Photo credit: The Exhortation to the Apostles, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


May 10, 2018

An atheist mentioned Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties and commented, “How could God’s word have ‘difficulties?’ What on earth was difficult about God’s revelation to mankind [?]. I mean, he’s God, right?”


This is shallow, unreflective thinking. I can think of a number of sound, logical reasons why such a book would exist:

1. The Bible is a very lengthy, multi-faceted book by many authors, from long ago, with many literary genres (and in three languages), and cultural assumptions that are foreign to us.

2. The Bible purports to be revelation from an infinitely intelligent God. Thus (even though God simplifies it as much as possible), for us to think that it is an easy thing to immediately grasp and figure out, and would not have any number of “difficulties” for mere human beings to work through, is naive. The Bible itself teaches that authoritative teachers are necessary to properly understand it.

3. All grand “theories” have components (“anomalies” / “difficulties”) that need to be worked out and explained. For example, scientific theories do not purport to perfectly explain everything. They often have large “mysterious” areas that have to be resolved.

Think of, for example, the “missing links” in evolution. That didn’t stop people from believing in it. Folks believed in gradual Darwinian evolution even though prominent paleontologist and philosopher of science Stephen Jay Gould famously noted that “gradualism was never read from the rocks.”

Even Einstein’s theories weren’t totally confirmed by scientific experiment at first (later they were). That a book like the Bible would have “difficulties” to work through is perfectly obvious and unsurprising to me.

4. Most of the rationale of explaining “Bible difficulties” is not from a perspective that they are real difficulties, but rather, to show that purported difficulties really aren’t such. They are usually based on illogical thinking or unfamiliarity with biblical genre, etc. Many alleged biblical “contradictions” simply aren’t so, by the rules of logic.

5. The Foreword of the book by Kenneth S. Kantzer explains its rationale: “[T]he faith of some troubled souls is hindered by misunderstanding the Scripture. They are confused by what seems to them to be false statements or self-contradiction. We need, therefore, to clear away such false obstacles to faith.” (p. 8)


In another discussion, I wrote:

All complex documents have to be interpreted. When human beings start reading them, they start to disagree, so that there needs to be some sort of authoritative guide.

In law, that is the Supreme Court, In Christianity, it is the Catholic Church, following a consistent tradition of interpretation through the centuries. Protestants reject that authoritative interpretation and adopt sola Scriptura, and so create for themselves all sorts of self-defeating problems and unsolvable dilemmas (I’ve written two books about that).

It’s not that the Bible is profoundly unclear. I have always found it to be clear on any given topic I explored. But one has to have a basic knowledge of how to interpret it. The ancient Hebrews thought about things very differently than the Greeks, and that way of thinking must be learned and understood.

The Bible is crystal-clear about Jesus being God, and the Holy Trinity. I compiled several hundred prooftexts about that in the early 80s. yet there are many religious groups that reject the Trinity.

That’s why we need authoritative interpretation and the notion of orthodoxy: to have a way to determine truths and stop all the relativistic competing interpretations.

The Bible, though inspired revelation, was still conveyed to us through the work of human writers.

My position is that it can be understood relatively easily for the most part by the common man (with just some basic knowledge of interpretation pointers), but that (for various reasons), human beings in fact have come to disagree about some of the major doctrines in it, and thus, a final say is needed, as in many areas of life. The buck’s gotta stop somewhere.

There were always authoritative teachers in the Jewish and Christian tradition. It was only Protestantism that largely destroyed that.


(originally 7-17-17 on Facebook)

Photo credit: photograph from MaxPixel [public domain / Creative Commons Zero – CC0 license]


July 28, 2017

Including Extensive Exegetical Analysis of Micah 5:2

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Wife Judy’s photograph of the spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem (October 2014).


This is my fourth and last installment of replies to atheist Jonathan MS Pearce‘ skeptical series, Debunking the Nativity. I have previously responded to his claims about the alleged mistranslation of “virgin” (Isaiah 7:14), supposed irreconcilable differences regarding the death of Herod the Great and biblical chronology, and the genealogies of Christ. Presently, I am responding to his paper, “To Bethlehem or Not to Bethlehem” (12-16-17). His words will be in blue.


Through the announcements of the Bible itself, Jesus has to be born in Bethlehem or the prophecies are wrong, or indeed Jesus is invalidated as the true Messiah. Having said this, a case can be made for the fact that this Bethlehem prophecy may just be a contrived and poor reading of the Old Testament. We shall return to this later.

The Prophecies

So what are these prophecies? The main offending verse is Micah 5:2 which states:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.”

Let us remind ourselves of how this fits in with what Luke says of Bethlehem (2:4):

Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David…

. . . The first issue with the Micah quote is that it is a mistranslation to claim that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem since the context and the grammar actually mean that one should conclude, as D.F. Strauss in The Life of Jesus (1860, p. 159) does, as follows:

…the entire context show the meaning to be, not that the expected governor who was to come forth out of Bethlehem would actually be born in that city, but only that he would be a descendent of David, whose family sprang from Bethlehem.

So Matthew and Luke, in using this as a prophetic basis for establishing Davidic heritage, mistranslate the prophecy and feel that they need to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem so that Jesus could be born in the place so apparently prophesied.

David Strauss was a notorious theologically  liberal “higher critic” of Scripture (see a book that critiques work, by a contemporary). Let’s see how orthodox exegetes of Scripture comment upon Micah 5:2. For example, the 10-volume Commentary on the Old Testament by Karl Friedrich Keil (1807-1888) and Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890) states:

(Note: We must reject in the most unqualified manner the attempts that have been made by the Rabbins in a polemical interest, and by rationalistic commentators from a dread of miracles, to deprive the words of their deeper meaning, so as to avoid admitting that we have any supernatural prediction here, whether by paraphrasing “His goings forth” into “the going forth of His name” (we have this even in the Chaldee), or the eternal origin into an eternal predestination (Calv.), or by understanding the going forth out of Bethlehem as referring to His springing out of the family of David, which belonged to Bethlehem (Kimchi, Abarb., and all the later Rabbins and more modern Rationalists). According to this view, the olden time and the days of eternity would stand for the primeval family; and even if such a quid pro quo were generally admissible, the words would contain a very unmeaning thought, since David’s family was not older than any of the other families of Israel and Judah, whose origin also dated as far back as the patriarchal times, since the whole nation was descended from the twelve sons of Jacob, and thought them from Abraham. (See the more elaborate refutation of these views in Hengstenberg’s Christology, i. p. 486ff. translation, and Caspari’s Micha, p. 216ff.))

The announcement of the origin of this Ruler as being before all worlds unquestionably presupposes His divine nature; but this thought was not strange to the prophetic mind in Micah’s time, but is expressed without ambiguity by Isaiah, when he gives the Messiah the name of “the Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:5; see Delitzsch’s comm. in loc.). We must not seek, however, in this affirmation of the divine nature of the Messiah for the full knowledge of the Deity, as first revealed in the New Testament by the fact of the incarnation of God in Christ, and developed, for example, in the prologue to the Gospel of John. Nor can we refer the “goings forth” to the eternal proceeding of the Logos from God, as showing the inward relation of the Trinity within itself, because this word corresponds to the יצא of the first hemistich. As this expresses primarily and directly nothing more than His issuing from Bethlehem, and leaves His descent indefinite, מוצאתיו can only affirm the going forth from God at the creation of the world, and in the revelations of the olden and primeval times.

The compelling proof that Micah 5:2 was always regarded as a prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem comes from Jewish sources (before Christ) that concur with this judgment. Here we have recourse to the monumental work, Christology of the Old Testament and a Commentary on the Messianic Predictions, by E. W. Hengstenberg (translated by Theodore Myer; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, vol. 1 of 4, second edition, 1868). In his extraordinarily scholarly commentary on the passage in question, Hengstenberg states:

This History [of Jewish interpretation], as to its essential features, might, a priori, be sketched with tolerable certainty. From the nature of the case, we could scarcely expect that the Jews should have adopted views altogether erroneous as to the subject of the prophecy in question; for the Messiah appears in it, not in His humiliation, but in His glory—rich in gifts and blessings, and Pelagian self-delusion will, a priori, return an affirmative answer to the question as to whether one is called to partake in them. But, on the other hand, the prophecy contains a twofold ground of offence which had to be removed, and explained away at any expense. One of these, the eternity of the Messiah—which was in contradiction to the popular notions, and conceivable only from a knowledge of His Godhead—could not but exist at all times; while the second of these—the birth at Bethlehem—made its appearance, and exercised its influence, only after the birth of Christ. That this should be set aside, was demanded by two causes. First, there was the desire of depriving the Christians of the proof, which they derived from the birth at Bethlehem, for the proposition that He who had appeared was also He who was promised. . . .

1. The reference to the Messiah was, at all times, not the private opinion of a few scholars, but was publicly received, and acknowledged with perfect unanimity. As respects the time of Christ, this is obvious from Matt. ii. 5. According to that passage, the whole Sanhedrim, when officially interrogated as to the birth-place of the Messiah, supposed this explanation to be the only correct one. But if this proof required a corroboration, it might be derived from John vii. 41, 42. In that passage, several who erroneously supposed Christ to be a native of Galilee, objected to His being the Messiah on the ground that Scripture says: ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ σπέρματος Δαβὶδ καὶ ἀπὸ Βηθλεὲμ τῆς κώμης, ὅπον ἦν Δαβίδ, ὁ Χριστὸς ἔρχεται. But even after Christ had appeared, the interest in depriving the Christians at once of the arguments which, in their controversies, they derived from this passage, was not sufficiently strong to blind the Jews to the evident indications contained in this passage, or to induce them to deprive themselves of the sweet hope which it afforded. . . . All the Jewish interpreters adhere to the Messianic interpretation, and in this they are headed by the Chaldee, who paraphrases the words ממך לי יצא in this way: מנך קדמי יפק משיחאi.e., From thee Messiah shall go out before me. (pp. 490-492)

That, in the prophecy under consideration, Bethlehem is marked out as the birth-place of the Messiah, was held as an undoubted truth by the ancient Jews. This appears from the confident reply of the Sanhedrim to the question of Herod as to the birth-place of Christ. And it is not less evident from John vii. 42. The circumstance that, after the tumult raised by Barcochba, not only Jerusalem, but Bethlehem also, was, by the Emperor Adrian, interdicted to the Jews as a residence, renders it probable that this interpretation was not given up immediately after the death of Christ. But even after this edict of Adrian, and after the difficulty had appeared in all its force, they did not, for a considerable time, venture to assert that the prophecy knew nothing of Bethlehem as the birth-place of the Messiah. It is with the later Rabbinical interpreters only, who were better skilled in the art of distorting, that this assertion is found. The ancient Jews endeavoured to evade the difficulty by the fable, dressed up in various ways, that the Messiah was indeed born at Bethlehem, on the day of the destruction of the temple, but that, on account of the sins of the people. He was afterwards carried away by a storm, and had, since that time, remained, unknown and concealed, in various places. Thus speak the Talmud, the very ancient commentary on Lamentations, Echa Rabbati, and the very old commentary on Genesis, Breshith Rabba (compare the passages in Raim. Martini, S. 348-50; Carpzovius and Frischmuth, l.c.). Indeed, we can trace this fiction still farther back. (pp. 495-496)

The Rabbinical interpreters felt, however, that this fiction, being destitute of all warrant, was of no use to them in their controversies with Christians; and it was to these that their view was chiefly directed. Hence they sought to remove the difficulty by means of the interpretation; and as all had the same interest, the result was that the distorted explanation became as generally prevalent, as the correct one had formerly been. KimchiAbenezraAbendanaAbarbanel, and, in general, all the later Rabbins (compare the passages in Wichmannsh. l. c. S. 9), maintain that Bethlehem is mentioned here as the birth-place of the Messiah indirectly only,—in so far only as the Messiah was to be descended from David the Bethlehemite. There cannot well be a prepossession in favour of this exposition. The circumstance that, formerly, no one ever thought that it was even possible to explain the passage under review in any other way than that, in it, Bethlehem is spoken of as the birth-place of the Messiah, and that this exposition was discovered and introduced, only at a time when the other could no longer be received, raises, a priori, strong suspicions against it. (p. 497)

Thus, we see that Strauss merely resurrected polemical Jewish objections to Bethlehem as Jesus’ birthplace, after His death. Previously, Jewish scholars / rabbis agreed that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Hengstenberg even notes a second argument that Jonathan picks up: that Jesus was born in Nazareth:

But the Jews endeavoured, in another way, to wrest from Christian controversialists the advantage afforded by this passage. They denied altogether that Christ was born at Bethlehem. Thus Abr. Peritsol (compare Eisenmenger, l. c. S. 259): “Since they called Him Jesus the Nazarene, and not Jesus the Bethlehemite, it is to be inferred that He was born at Nazareth, as it is written in the Targum of Jerusalem.” Upon this point, however, there existed no unanimity among them. David Gans, in the Book Zemach David, mentions, without any remark, Bethlehem as the birth-place of the Messiah (S. 105 of Vorst’s translation). (p. 499)

The urge to deny that Micah 5:2 teaches a birth in Bethlehem is seen to have its origin in contra-Christian Jewish polemics. Theological liberals utilized these strains for their own destructive ends, and atheists use the latter’s commentary to bolster up their own skeptical ideology: all the way to a mythical Jesus. Now it’s standard practice among atheists, Muslims, and heretics like Jehovah’s Witnesses (all of whom I have debated many times; hence I’m well-familiar with the tactic), to prominently cite theologically liberal self-identified “Christian” scholarship, because the latter no longer adheres to traditional Christian orthodoxy of interpretation. For this reason, Jonathan often cites (and praises to the skies) Catholic exegete Fr. Raymond Brown, who was very liberal in theology, and he quotes ultra-liberal Protestant David Strauss above. These are the reliable “go to” guys.

If Jesus had been born in Nazareth, he still would have fulfilled the prophecies utilised by the Gospel writers.

This is untrue, as just demonstrated at length. The Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem: as was the consensus of Jews before Christ and orthodox Christians ever since. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah and was, in fact, born there.

If we look at the potential theological contrivances in the fulfilment of the prophecy that sees the Messiah being born in the ‘city of David’ in light of the added evidence of the genealogies, then it is hard not to be cynical. With a faulty and clearly manufactured set of family trees which rely on some dodgy usages of the Old Testament and genealogy, a shadow is cast upon the idea that Bethlehem, as a birthplace, is not only prophesied, but seemingly fulfilled.

Not in the slightest. Jonathan was incorrect regarding the genealogies (as I showed in my last installment), and I believe that the present critique is equally lacking in compelling argumentation and persuasiveness..

It is not only the apparent shoehorning of Jesus into a Bethlehem prophecy but the plethora of other issues that cause a sceptic to doubt the veracity of Bethlehem being Jesus’ birthplace. Let us look at all of the evidence which points to the notion that Jesus might well have been born elsewhere.

Yes, let’s. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to demonstrate the weak and insubstantial nature of this so-called “evidence”.

Firstly, there is a serious lack of mention of Bethlehem in any other writing in the New Testament.Although absence of evidence is often claimed (by Christians) as not being evidence of absence, it is hard to deny the force of the lack of mention of Bethlehem. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are the only places in which it is mentioned. Neither do Mark, John, and importantly, nor does Paul corroborate the claims of the other two.

Actually (contra Jonathan’s claims), it is mentioned also in John 7:42 (RSV): “Has not the scripture said that the Christ is descended from David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” But absence of further mention (minus one) is an irrelevancy, anyway. It’s mentioned where it makes sense: in the accounts of Jesus’ birth, and a reference back to His birth later.

Mark’s account starts at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, which is about thirty years after His birth. And so it says that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee” (1:9) because that was His hometown, where He grew up.

It gets slightly more problematic for those who are pro-Bethlehem in that it seems that Jesus was born in Nazareth.

The only times that the Bible refers to Jesus’ birth, is when it states that the birth was in Bethlehem:

Matthew uses the words “born in Bethlehem” (Mt 2:1; cf. 2:1b-6, in which the wise men and Herod make reference to His birth there).

Luke has Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem (2:4), the “city of David”: where Jesus was born: “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son” (2:6-7a). In Luke 2:11 an angel proclaims: “for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

On the other hand, in all appearances of “Nazareth” in conjunction with Jesus, never once does it say that He was born there. The Bible says that He “dwelt” there (Mt 2:23), that He was “from” there (Mt 21:11; Mk 1:9), that He was “of” Nazareth (Mt 26:71; Mk 1:24; 10:47; 16:6; Lk 4:34, 18:37; 24:19; Jn 1:45; 18:5, 7; 19:19; Acts 2:22; 3:6; 4:10; 6:14; 10:38; 22:8; 26:9), “out of” Nazareth (Jn  1:46), “brought up” there (Lk 4:16), that Jesus called Nazareth “his own country” (Lk 4:23-24), and that both His parents lived in Nazareth before He was born, and after (Lk 1:26 ff [the Annunciation]; Lk 2:4, 39, 51). Not one word about being born in Nazareth occurs in any of those 28 references.

Yet Jonathan tells us that it “seems” that Jesus was born in Nazareth?

Paul is at times understood to be writing, in his letters, to people very interested in the Jewishness of Jesus. If he knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and of the Davidic line, you would have thought this would have been a superb mechanism which Paul could have used to argue such Jewishness. Sadly, this evidence is lacking.

This isn’t compelling at all. Paul argued that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah: that’s more than enough “Jewish”! Whenever he calls Him (or contends for Him as) “Christ” he is doing that: it meant “anointed” / “Messiah” in Greek:

Acts 9:22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

Acts 17:1-3 Now when they had passed through Amphip’olis and Apollo’nia, they came to Thessaloni’ca, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. [2] And Paul went in, as was his custom, and for three weeks he argued with them from the scriptures, [3] explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This Jesus, whom I proclaim to you, is the Christ.”

Acts 18:5 . . . Paul was occupied with preaching, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.

Acts 18:28 for he powerfully confuted the Jews in public, showing by the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.

[plus many many more instances: just search “Christ” in the Pauline epistles in the RSV online version]

Paul proclaimed that Jesus was squarely within Jewish tradition, as the Messiah (and God, as well):

Romans 9:4-6 They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; [5] to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ. God who is over all be blessed for ever. Amen. [6] But it is not as though the word of God had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, 

2 Timothy 2:8 Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, descended from David, as preached in my gospel, [perhaps implies a birth in Bethlehem, but certainly means “of the Davidic line”: to use Jonathan’s demand]

The Gospel of Mark seems to indicate that Jesus was born in Nazareth. Mark makes no mention, other than Jesus being from Nazareth, of any other place that Jesus could be associated with in the whole of his Gospel. Mark 1:9 declares, “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

So what? This proves nothing whatsoever. As I noted, Mark starts out when Jesus was 30 years old. It’s simply saying that before His ministry began (initiated by His baptism), He lived in Nazareth; therefore, that’s where He “came from”. He went to John in the wilderness, from Nazareth; He was from Nazareth. That was His hometown. He never lived in Bethlehem, so why would anyone say that He was “from” there? This isn’t rocket science.

Take, for example (by analogy), the singer Bob Dylan. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, but lived in Hibbing, Minnesota from the age of six (I happened to visit this house on our vacation this year: being a big fan). That‘s where everyone who knows anything about him says and understands that he was raised and where he spent his childhood. Consequently, no one ever says that he is “from” Duluth or “of” Duluth or was “brought up” there. Even many avid Dylan fans don’t even know that he wasn’t born in Hibbing.

All of those things are said about Hibbing: precisely as the Bible habitually refers to Nazareth in relation to Jesus. It’s talking about His hometown, where He was always known to live, prior to His three-year itinerant ministry. In the Bible, people were generally named after the places where they were from. Yet Jonathan seems to expect that the Bible should say that Jesus was “of” or “from” Bethlehem, rather than Nazareth, because He was born there. It doesn’t. It says that He was “of” or “from” Nazareth because that was His hometown. And it says that He was born in Bethlehem; never that He was born in Nazareth. All the biblical data is on my side of this contention. All Jonathan has is silence and empty speculation.

As a second analogous example, there is my own father: Graham Armstrong. He was from Essex, Ontario: a small town sixteen miles over the border from Detroit, where he met my mother, and where I grew up. That’s where I always say he was from, as I did during our recent trip all through Canada: noting that I was half-Canadian. My father grew up in Essex. So why would anyone say he was from anywhere else? But he was born in Maidstone, Ontario (now a hamlet of Tecumseh). I don’t think I ever heard in my life, my father saying he was “from Maidstone” (nor did I ever hear anyone else  say that).

My wife was born in Wayne, Michigan and lived there a short time, but moved to Detroit till about age ten and then to the suburban Dearborn Heights after that. She would never say she was from “Wayne” if asked where she was from. She’d say “Detroit” or “Dearborn Heights.” Likewise, three of my four children were born in Southfield, Michigan, and one in Dearborn, but they grew up in Detroit and Melvindale. Thus, my two oldest would say either Detroit or Melvindale was their hometown (our family lived in the latter for almost 16 years), but never their birthplace city. My two youngest would identify Melvindale as their childhood hometown.

I was both born and raised (first seventeen years) in Detroit, so I could say I was “from” there in either sense: but that’s not analogous to the case of Jesus. The bottom line is that skeptics of the Bible almost invariably bring a double standard to it. What is standard usage of language anywhere else is somehow disregarded or ignored when it comes to the same sort of issue as related to the Bible: and it is because of the hostility and polemical agenda of the skeptic or atheist.  But it gets downright silly. The present example of this Bethlehem / Nazareth nonsense is an absolutely classic, textbook case of irrational anti-biblical and anti-Christian bias.

Throughout the Gospel, when visiting elsewhere, such as Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), he is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth. More damaging, perhaps, is the idea in Mark 6 where he returns to Nazareth and this is referred to as his “hometown” (6:1). This is compounded as later in that same episode Mark has Jesus himself saying (6:4), “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and among his own relatives and in his own household.” There seems to be little dispute in Mark’s writing that Jesus hailed from Nazareth.

Exactly. That was his hometown; He was “brought up” there (Lk 4:16). This is no proof whatever that He was born there. 

Jesus of Nazareth

In common vernacular and biblical terms, it is no coincidence that Jesus is known famously as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and not ‘Jesus of Bethlehem’! It seems to me that it is more probable that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth before the Gospels were written so that this title could not realistically be dropped. But since the writers needed Jesus to be born in Bethlehem it was a case of either getting him (i.e. Joseph and Mary) from there to Bethlehem and back again or living in Bethlehem at the birth and then moving to Nazareth, Luckily, the Gospels have both options. Nothing like covering all the bases!

This is all a massive non sequitur and baseless speculation, as just demonstrated. 

 Matthew vs Luke: The Contradiction

As ever with the nativity, the big issues surround the contradictions between the two source accounts: the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.

Luke has Joseph and Mary living in Nazareth, but in order to fulfil that prophecy, he needs to get them to Bethlehem. The Roman census of Quirinius does the trick for him, and he has them travelling down to Bethlehem to take the census (more on that in many other posts).

Why should a verifiable historical census be regarded as a “trick” of the Gospel writers? And why must Jonathan doubt that Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth?

Matthew, on the other hand, has Joseph and Mary seemingly already living in Bethlehem. There is no census, not even a mention of it.

Why does it have to be mentioned? That’s a mere arbitrary assumption. Matthew never implies that Bethlehem was their hometown or dwelling-place. He simply writes, “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea . . .” (2:1). Then 2:23 says about Joseph that “he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth”. There is not a word about Joseph living in Bethlehem as a residence, or about Jesus supposedly being born in Nazareth.

After Herod (who is not mentioned in Luke) chases the family away, killing innocent babies in so doing, the family move to Egypt, probably for a couple of years, and return “out of Egypt” when it is safe and Herod has died, to leave his son in charge.

Herod (the Great) is mentioned in Luke 1:5: “In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechari’ah, of the division of Abi’jah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” [John the Baptist’s mother]

The family then and for the first time move to Nazareth:

 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.”

It is clear that the family had not before lived in Nazareth, directly contradicting Luke.

It’s as simple as that. To get around the problem that Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth” both writers need him being born on the Messianic prophetic town of Bethlehem but later living in Nazareth. Luke has the family already living in Nazareth, born in the Bethlehem by randomly going to a census he didn’t need to go to (more on that later) to return immediately via the Temple in Jerusalem (more on that later) to Nazareth. Matthew has them already living in Bethlehem, born there, and then fleeing to Egypt to return some two years later to Nazareth where they had not previously lived.

The tangles Christians get into to explain away this issue…!

The tangles that atheists get into to explain away clear facts! Jonathan’s view is as clear as mud. Matthew 2:23 (whatever version Jonathan is using) simply says that Joseph “came and lived in a city called Nazareth” (RSV: “he went and dwelt in a city called Nazareth”). Neither Matthew nor Luke say this was the first time, or deny that He ever lived there before. That’s the sort of thing that would have to be present in order to assert a real contradiction.

Christan apologist Glenn Miller, in the midst of writing about the infancy narratives (Nazareth, Bethlehem, and the flight to Egypt), also makes a general point about the atheist / skeptical tendency of charging “contradiction” when in fact there is none:

[I]n the absence of explicit contradiction, one has to interpret the text in such a way as to create a contradiction. There is no contradiction in what the text ‘presents’–at a surface level–but one has to re-create the historical scene “behind” the text, in such a way as to generate a contradiction. In other words, we take textual statements and ‘visualize’ or ‘re-create in our minds’, if you will, the historical sequence behind those texts. Our author [Christopher Hitchens] has taken the gospel narratives and ‘re-created’ the historical scene as one in which the sequences are out-of-synch. But the text itself does not make that explicit at all, and the same textual data can be used to ‘re-create’ in-synch sequences as well (at least two plausible ones, as we will note toward the end of this discussion).

So, in the absence of other data from Hitchens, it would not be unfair of us to say that his ‘flatly contradicting’ statement is unwarranted and needs more evidence to support it. . . .

Note a couple of things from Luke:

Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth

(No mention of pregnancy-crisis)

They travel to Bethlehem

Jesus is born in Bethlehem

Shepherds visit Jesus in Bethlehem

Joseph/Mary/Jesus make a trip to Jerusalem for various Jewish rituals

(No mention of Magi/Flight)

Sometime after the various rituals, they return to their own city of Nazareth.

When we compare this list with Matthew, here’s what we see:

Joseph and Mary are introduced without reference to B or N.


Jesus is born in Bethlehem

(No mention of Shepherds)

(No mention of family trip to Jerusalem for obligatory Jewish rituals)

Visit of Magi

Flight to Egypt

Family settles in Nazareth

But notice that Luke does not indicate a short trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem (for ritual purposes) at all. Neither Matthew  nor Luke have such a trip in their respective narrative, so the blog-visitor’s statement (at least the ‘specifically’ part) is inaccurate.

But also notice that both authors are only reporting some of the events—they share the key elements (i.e., Jesus born in royal city of Bethlehem, Jesus ends up in a despised town of Nazareth), and they each select a subset of the history for their particular point (e.g., Luke has the ritual-trip to emphasize the law-biding character of the family and the acceptance of Jesus by godly Jews; Matthew has the Flight/Secret-Return story to emphasize the early rejection of—or indifference to– Jesus by the Jewish leadership)

With the various omissions of each, it is hard to really construct ‘overlapping periods’ in which to situate anything but the barest of events. The centerpiece birth in Bethlehem anchors everything, and the story ‘ends’ at Nazareth in both. Thus, it would take more explicit textual data to make this into a problem. . . .

What emerges from this first-glance look at the objections, is that much is being made from the omissions and silences in the text. To be sure, one could choose to interpret these silences/omissions in such a way as to construe these problems, but how would one defend such choices? Developing arguments from silence is notoriously dangerous, and rarely is certain enough to carry the conclusion single-handedly! . . .

Notice that our objectors have made two unwarranted assumptions in violation of the above: (1) they have assumed that both Matthew and Luke has ‘purported to give a full account of the story’; and (2) that the omitted events were ‘so central a part of such a story’ that they would have been ‘automatically included’.

Biographical writing is notoriously selective—hence the assumption of ‘full account’ will be wrong almost all the time (especially in antiquity).

(“Contradictions in the infancy stories?”, A Christian Thinktank; I have changed his all caps usages to italics]

Miller then goes on to  make fascinating observations about (providing many documented examples) the techniques of ancient Hebrew writers, such as “telescoping” and “thematic ordering” (versus chronological ordering). This is precisely the sort of thing that atheists and biblical skeptics invariably miss: because they usually know nothing about it and don’t care to get to know it.  Miller concludes:

What this means is that we have to re-prioritize our emphasis on chronological order. The ancients seemed to be interested more in thematic order, and chronology was of minor importance, typically. . . .

What this means is that it will be very, very difficult to find a ‘chronological contradiction’ anywhere in the gospel narratives, since the gospel authors are not even trying to maintain strict chronological sequence—it just was not that important to writers of that period. They arranged their material in the interests of clarity of logical or thematic presentation, instead of chronological.

And this condensation, omission, and telescoping is pervasive in all of biblical literature. . . . this kind of literary style/device is everywhere in the NT narratives: . . . [he provides many many examples]

If . . . the ancient world in NT times would not have had a problem with these omissions, telescoping, ‘harsh abbreviation’, and condensation of accounts, then we would expect that the first set of NT ‘opponents’ would not have used ‘chronological contradictions’ as a point of attack. In other words, among all the problems with the NT that its opponents raise, little-to-none of those problems should be ‘chronological contradictions’. If, on the other hand, the literary environment was otherwise than that described above (based on the Lucian-type literary conventions/ethics), we should expect these skeptics/critics to raise a large number of ‘chronological contradiction’ arguments, against many of the passages in the NT using this device. (I listed at least 15 above, apart from the birth/resurrection narratives). [he then provides many examples of ancient critics of Christianity, proving the point with exponentially more data and argument than is necessary to refute it]

Further related reading:

“Do the ‘Infancy Narratives’ of Matthew and Luke Contradict Each Other?” (Tim Staples, Catholic Answers Magazine, 11-21-14)

“Do the Infancy Narratives Contradict?” (Steven O’Keefe,  ACTS Apologist Blog, 11-21-14)

“Are the Infancy Narratives Historically Reliable?” (Joe Heschmeyer, Shameless Popery, 11-17-11)

“The Lukan Census” (Glenn Miller, A Christian Thinktank, Sep. 2014)

“Herod’s Slaughter of the Children / The Return from Egypt” (Glenn Miller, A Christian Thinktank)

“Critique of a Form-Critical Reading of Matthew One” (John F. McCarthy, Living Tradition, July 2007)

“The Literal Sense of Matthew 1” (John F. McCarthy, Living Tradition, Sep. 2007)

“A Brief Commentary on Matthew 2 according to the Four Senses of Sacred Scripture” (John F. McCarthy, Living Tradition, March 2008)

“Brown’s Birth Of The Messiah . . . Revisited” (Michael E. Giesler, Catholic Culture, 2001)

A reader asks about the Infancy Narratives of Luke and Matthew” (Mark Shea, Patheos, 4-18-17)

“How the accounts of Jesus’ childhood fit together: 6 things to know and share” (Jimmy Akin, National Catholic Register, 2-20-14)

“Why Are The Infancy Narratives So Different?” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-19-06)

“Ignatius Of Antioch And The Infancy Narratives”  (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-1-06)

“Early Christian And Non-Christian Views Of The Infancy Narratives”  (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-5-06)

Harmony of the Gospels: Principles from Lincoln Biographies” (+ Part 2 / Part 3) (J. P. Holding, Tekton Apologetics)

“The Nativity Stories Harmonized” (J. P. Holding, Tekton Apologetics)

“Miller vs Carrier on the Lukan Census” (J. P. Holding, Tekton Apologetics)

“The Slaughter of the Innocents: Historical or Not?” (J. P. Holding, Tekton Apologetics)

“Raymond Brown’s Assessment Of The Infancy Narratives” (+ Part 2 / Part 3) (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-8-07)

“Some Common Objections To The Infancy Narratives” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-18-06)

A Radically Liberal Christmas” [Refutation of Borg and Crossan] (+ Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5) (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-22-07)

“Jesus’ Birthplace (Part 1): Early Interest And Potential Sources” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-15-06)

“Sources For The Infancy Narratives” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-12-06)

“Were The Infancy Narratives Meant To Convey History?” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-11-06)

“Does The Gospel Of Mark Contradict The Infancy Narratives?” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-16-06)

“Some Neglected Evidence Relevant To The Census Of Luke 2” (+ Part 2 / Part 3 / Part 4 / Part 5 / Part 6) (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-12-07)

“Were Ancient People Gullible Enough To Sustain Modern Skeptical Theories?” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 7-13-08)

“Geza Vermes On The Infancy Narratives” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 1-14-08)

“A Response To Annette Merz On The Infancy Narratives” (+ Parts 2 / 3 / 4 / 5 / 6 / 7 / 8 / 9) (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 8-26-16)

“Is The Slaughter Of The Innocents Historical?” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 8-18-10)

“Is Luke’s Census Historical?” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 8-19-10)

“Paul Tobin Vs. Richard Carrier On Luke’s Census” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 8-12-10)

“Agreement Between Matthew And Luke About Jesus’ Childhood” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 11-30-13)

“Jesus’ Childhood Outside The Infancy Narratives” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-9-13)

“Evidence For The Bethlehem Birthplace” (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-5-12)

“Problems With Raymond Brown’s The Birth Of The Messiah (Jason Engwer, Trialblogue, 12-9-15)


July 25, 2017

[many thanks to Jimmy Akin for massive citation of his research]



Herod the Great, by James Tissot (1836-1902) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Atheist contra-Christian polemicist and biblical skeptic Jonathan MS Pearce has challenged me to grapple with his material on the biblical infancy narratives of Jesus (that, of course, asserts massive contradictions). I’m more than happy to do so. At first I hesitated due to time constraints and a feeling that scholars have done — or could do — a much better job, but he pressed the issue, so he is stuck with me now. As the old saying goes, “be careful what you wish for.” Once I fully commit myself to a debate, I’m a relentless bulldog. He first directed me to his article, “Debunking the Nativity – Quirinius vs Herod and the Ten Year Gap” (12-21-16). His words will be in blue.


Jonathan introduces his case as follows:

One of the biggest and most talked about contradiction of the nativity accounts concerns the dating of these two core events in each of the Gospels: the census of Quirinius and Herod. [he then cites Lk 2:1-2 and Matthew 2:1-4, which he assumes — what a surprise! — are blatantly contradictory] . . .

Herod was in charge of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Thus using simple logic we can deduct that, at the time of Jesus’ birth, both the census of Quirinius took place and Herod lived. However, this is extremely problematic since we know that the census took place in 6 CE and Herod died in 4 (0r 5) BCE. This is a gap of at least ten years! It is at least ten years since if Herod was alive at the time of Jesus’ birth and we know he ordered a massacre and suchlike (all of which would have taken some time), then we know he would have survived for some time around this moment and after the birth. This is quite a long period of time to have as some anomaly. On the face of it, either one or both of the Gospel authors are lying. They are simply claiming things as facts which are impossible.

He more or less entirely rests his case on the date of Herod the Great’s death being 4 BC or 5 BC:

Thus based on this list derived from multiple accounts, we can surmise that Herod definitely ruled no later than 4 BCE. We can also use evidence of coinage for Varus’ rule which end in 4 BCE.

To further state the case, Josephus (Jewish War 1.670) has Herod’s son Archelaus ending his reign, which started at the death of his father Herod the Great’s death, after ten years of rule in 6 CE. This means that his father must have died in 4 BCE or shortly before. . . . 

To conclude this section, it seems to be irrefutable, given the evidence, that Herod the Great died in either 4 or 5 BCE. . . . 

Therefore, it is safe to say that Herod did indeed die in 4 or 5 BCE and that if Jesus was born at this time, any claims of a census coinciding with this timeframe would need some serious investigation. On the face of it, the contradiction between Luke and Matthew still clearly stands. . . . 

As Richard Carrier (2011) says: “So the case for any date earlier than 5 B.C. or later than 4 B.C. for Herod’s death is simply untenable in every respect.”

Jonathan bases this primarily on evidence from the Jewish historian Josephus:

The famous contemporary Jewish historian Josephus provides much of the evidence for the timing of Herod’s death. . . . 

The evidence comes from Josephus, Dio and coinage, as well as Roman records of governorship of Judea. Just taking Josephus alone, the various accounts and claims he makes are considerably interwoven with other facts. . . . It is far more probable that, in this particular case, Josephus is correct . . . 

He also appeals to a majority head count of scholars (which is relevant, I agree, yet dangerously close to the genetic fallacy [origins determine truthfulness] or a version of the good ol’ ad populum fallacy: “lots of people [scholars] believe x, therefore it must be true.”):

Some scholars now argue that the eclipse could have been later and conclude that Herod actually died closer to 1 BCE, but these are in the great minority, the motivation of which seems to be to try to get Matthew out of this issue.

Note that he takes a gratuitous potshot at the unsavory “motivation” of the scholars who dissent on the issue (whereas the ones who agree with him — especially the atheists — are, of course, utterly objective and of the highest and noblest motives, always).

Blessedly, Jonathan also graciously provides the way out of his “dilemma” for the Christian apologist:

The Christian is left with several options: either question the date that Herod died, or that the census took place, or claim that Quirinius knocked around twice in the area, or had two censuses. 

Thanks, Jonathan, for the suggestion of how to dismantle the argument of your paper. And so I opt for #1: I question your date for Herod the Great’s death. Wikipedia (“Herod the Great”) takes Jonathan’s position but is fair and thorough enough to note seven scholars who opt for a date of 1 BC (footnotes 20, 52-57):

1. Steinmann, Andrew “When Did Herod the Great Reign?”, Novum Testamentum, Volume 51, Number 1, 2009, pp. 1–29.

2. Edwards, Ormond. “Herodian Chronology”, Palestine Exploration Quarterly 114 (1982) 29–42

3. Keresztes, Paul. Imperial Rome and the Christians: From Herod the Great to About 200 AD (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1989), pp.1–43.

4. Yamauchi, Edwin M., editor (1989). “The Nativity and Herod’s Death”. Chronos, Kairos, Christos: Nativity and Chronological Studies Presented to Jack Finegan. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns: 85–92.

5. Finegan, Jack. Handbook of Biblical Chronology, Rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998) 300, §516.

6. B. MAHIEU – Between Rome and Jerusalem. Herod the Great and his Sons in their Struggle for Recognition in: Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 208 (Brill 2012) pp. 235-243.

7. Filmer, W. E. “Chronology of the Reign of Herod the Great”, Journal of Theological Studies ns 17 (1966), 283–298.

Jonathan mentioned Steinmann and immediately added that Richard Carrier refuted his view. He merely mocks Finegan. But these guys who hold to the 1 BC death date are no dummies. Steinmann “is Distinguished Professor of Theology and Hebrew at Concordia University Chicago. He has authored a dozen books and numerous articles relating to Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, Biblical Hebrew, and Biblical Aramaic. His publications include books on the Old Testament canon, biblical chronology, Hebrew and Aramaic grammar, and commentaries on several Old Testament books . . .  he received a PhD in Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan.”

Edwin M. Yamauchi is a very distinguished Church historian, who studied “Mandaean Gnostic texts as part of his Ph.D. dissertation at Brandeis University. . . . and expanded his linguistic studies in ancient near eastern languages, which included Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian, Ugaritic, Arabic, Syriac, and Coptic. In all he has immersed himself in 22 different languages. . . . Yamauchi’s areas of expertise include: Ancient History, Old Testament, New Testament, Early Church History, Gnosticism, and Biblical Archaeology. He has been awarded eight fellowships, contributed chapters to several books, articles in reference works, and has published 80 essays in 37 scholarly journals.”

Jack Finegan (1908-2000) was Professor Emeritus of New Testament History and Archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. His long list of publications include a number of volumes on biblical archaeology.

I shall be drawing from a great deal of excellent research by my friend and fellow Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin, whose three articles below cast (at least in my humble opinion) grave doubt on Jonathan’s confidence in Herod’s death date (these numbers will be used for citation purposes):

1) “The 100-year old mistake about the Birth of Jesus” (4-13-13)

2) “Jesus’ birth and when Herod the Great really died” (April 2013)

3) “Does Luke Contradict Himself on When Jesus Was Born?” (9-12-14)

Jimmy Akin offers a stunning series of various dazzling historical arguments: far too complex to summarize, but I’ll try to present some key highlights. For example, the available data about a lunar eclipse that Josephus mentions (and that Jonathan draws an argument from):

There was, indeed, a partial lunar eclipse in 4 B.C., which took place 29 days before Passover.

However, this was not the only lunar eclipse in the period. There was another lunar eclipse in 1 B.C., which was 89 days before Passover.

Now here’s the thing:

1) Since there is more than one eclipse in this period, you can’t cite the 4 B.C. eclipse as evidence supporting a 4 B.C. date in particular.

You have to consider other eclipses in the right time frame and see which best fits the evidence.

2) The lunar eclipse in 4 B.C. was only partial, but the lunar eclipse in 1 B.C. was full.

Josephus doesn’t say it was a partial lunar eclipse. He says it was a lunar eclipse, and a full eclipse fits that description better.

3) The 4 B.C. span of 29 days between the eclipse and Passover is too short.

Josephus doesn’t just say that Herod died between the eclipse and Passover. He also names a bunch of things Herod did during that period, including trips that required travel time.

As contemporary biblical chronologer Andrew E. Steinmann points out:

[A]ll of the events that happened between these two [the lunar eclipse and Passover] would have taken a minimum of 41 days had each one of them taken place as quickly as possible. A more reasonable estimate is between 60 and 90 days [From Abraham to Paul, 231 (Dave: by Andrew Steinmann) ].

Thus, again, the 1 B.C. lunar eclipse–89 days before Passover–better fits what Josephus describes. [1]

Akin analyzes (in this same article) Josephus’ arguments as to when Herod was appointed king, when he conquered Jerusalem, and when his sons began to reign, and found them also wanting. He concludes:

All four of the main arguments proposed are problematic:

1) The first argument names an impossible date (one that did not exist) for the beginning of Herod’s reign.

2) Josephus contradicts himself about when Herod conquered Jerusalem.

3) There is another lunar eclipse that fits what Josephus says even better.

4) We have evidence that Herod began giving his sons rulership roles before he died. [based on assertions from Steinmann] [1]

Akin also notes that Josephus counted years in a way contrary to those utilizing his conclusions to arrive at the 4 BC date:

Kings don’t tend to come into office on New Year’s Day, and so they often serve a partial year before the next calendar year begins (regardless of which calendar is used).

They also don’t die on the last day of the year, typically, so they also serve a partial year at the end of their reigns.

This creates complications for historians, because ancient authors sometimes count these additional part-years (especially the one at the beginning of the reign) as a full year.

Or they ignore the calendar year and treat the time that a king came into office as a kind of birthday and reckon his reign in years from that point.

What scheme was Josephus using?

Advocates of the idea that Herod died in 4 B.C. argue that he was named king in 40 B.C. To square that with a 37-year reign ending in 4. B.C., they must count the part year at the beginning of his reign and the part year at the end of it as years. That’s the only way the math will work out.

The problem is that this is not how Josephus would have reckoned the years.

Biblical chronology scholar Andrew E. Steinmann comments:

[T]here is no evidence for this [inclusive way of reckoning the partial years]–and every other reign in this period, including those of the Jewish high priests, are reckoned non-inclusively by Josephus [From Abraham to Paul, 223].

In other words, Josephus does not count the partial first year when dating reigns in this period. [2]

Akin also casts doubt on how Josephus reckoned Herod’s appointment as king, concluding:

Given how Josephus dates reigns in this period, he would not have counted Herod’s partial first year in 39 B.C. but would have started his count with 38 B.C.

Count 37 years forward from that and you have 1 B.C. [2]

He also states that “Josephus gives contradictory dating information for Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem”. [2] He concludes this article:

Putting together the pieces above, we have:

  • Reason to think Herod died in 1 B.C. based on the amount of time he served after being appointed king by the Romans.
  • Reason to think Herod died in either 2 or 1 B.C. based on the amount of time he served after conquering Jerusalem.
  • Reason to think Herod died in 1 B.C. because of the lunar eclipse that occurred before Passover.

More specifically, he would have died between January 10, 1 B.C. (the date of the lunar eclipse) and April 11, 1 B.C. (the date of Passover).

Most likely, it was closer to the latter date, since Josephus records a bunch of things Herod did after the eclipse and before his death, some of which required significant travel time. [2]

Akin moves onto the question of the date of Jesus’ birth in his remaining equally fascinating article:

Luke 2 begins with a time cue that connects the birth of Jesus to the reign of Augustus Caesar. Luke 3 begins with an even more elaborate time cue linking the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry to the reign of Augustus’s successor, Tiberius.

Luke writes:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness [Luke 3:1-2].

The fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar is what we would call A.D. 28/29.

After John’s ministry begins, Jesus quickly comes and is baptized, thus beginning his own ministry.

When that happens, Luke informs us:

Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age [Luke 3:23].

If you back up 30 years from A.D. 28/29 (remembering that there is no “year 0” so you skip from A.D. 1 directly to 1 B.C.), you land in 2/3 B.C., which is the year that the early Church Fathers overwhelmingly assign Jesus’ birth to. [3]

Thus, if Akin’s reasoning is correct (as I believe it is), Jesus was born before Herod the Great died, precisely as Matthew 2:1 (RSV) states: “. . . Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king . . .”

Lastly, Steinmann makes an argument for a 1 BC death of Herod from the coinage of the period:

Additional support for Philip having been officially appointed tetrarch after the death of his father in 1 B.C. may be found in numismatics. A number of coins issued by Philip during his reign are known. The earliest bear the date “year 5,” which would correspond to A.D. 1. This fits well with Philip serving as administrator under his father from 4–1 B.C. He counted those as the first four years of his reign, but since he was not officially recognized by Rome as an independent client ruler, he had no authority to issue coins during those years. However, he was in position to issue coinage soon after being named tetrarch sometime in 1 B.C., and the first coins appear the next year, A.D. 1, antedating his reign to 4 B.C. While the numismatic evidence is not conclusive proof of Herod’s death in 1 B.C., it is highly suggestive.

Given the explicit statements of Josephus about the authority and honor Herod had granted his sons during the last years of his life, we can understand why all three of his successors decided to antedate their reigns to the time when they were granted a measure of royal authority while their father was still alive. Although they were not officially recognized by Rome as ethnarch or tetrarchs until after Herod’s death, they nevertheless appear to have reckoned their reigns from about 4 B.C.

(From Abraham to Paul: A Biblical Chronology: St. Louis: Concordia, 2011, pp. 235–238 [citation])



June 10, 2017


One crack in the glass often leads to many more cracks, and eventually the whole thing collapses. Belief-systems work in the same way. Photograph by “fotobias” (11-3-09) [Pixabay / CC0 public domain]


Jon Curry is a friend of mine, whom I know in “real life.” He used to be an evangelical Protestant. I thought this was an honest and helpful discussion of the issues (on Facebook). We’re both speaking from the heart and being amiable, even though we completely disagree. Jon was originally replying underneath my paper, Alleged “Bible Contradictions”: Most Are Actually Not So. Jon’s words will be in blue. Words of Frank J. Tomasic, another Catholic, will be in green.


Definitely a big deal for me in my de-conversion. I think the difference between you and me though is not whether two texts represent a logical contradiction. I can agree with you that a given problem is not a logical contradiction. The difference is how plausible is your explanation as compared to mine.

So let’s take Mary Magdalene at the tomb. According to Matthew Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb and find it empty. Except for an angel who lets them know that Jesus is raised as he had said he would. They returned to tell the disciples, fearful yet excited, and on the way meet Jesus, worship at his feet, and then continue off to tell everybody. John picks up when they arrive to tell the disciples. What does Mary Magdalene say to the disciples? “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” The disciples leave and Mary sits there crying. Jesus then appears. She doesn’t recognize him. He asks “Woman, why are you crying?” She replies “They have taken my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” She assumes Jesus is the gardener and asks “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus doesn’t react to say “You know, we just met a few minutes ago, have you forgotten?” She becomes aware he is alive for the second time.

Gleason Archer explains this issue as follows: When she arrived to speak with the disciples it turns out she forgot about her earlier encounter with Jesus and also the explanation from the angel at the tomb.

That’s one explanation. There is no logical contradiction between John and the Matthew. In that we agree. She could have forgotten.

Here’s another explanation. She didn’t forget anything. These are two different accounts. Matthew thinks she arrives to tell the disciples and is at that moment aware Jesus is raised, John thinks when she arrives to tell the disciples she is unaware that Jesus is raised.

So for me the problem wasn’t whether or not there was a logical contradiction. There wasn’t. The question is, how plausible is this explanation that seeks to reconcile these accounts? Because if my standard is any old explanation is good enough even if it’s implausible, I think a lot of books are infallible by that standard. Probably every religious text ever written. I judge that the explanation that these accounts are contradictory is much more plausible than the explanation that these accounts are accurate and Mary forgot. Or the other alternative means I’ve heard of trying to reconcile these accounts.

Does that make me a “skeptical hyper critic” going with “incoherent reasoning.” I don’t think so. I’m not saying it’s a logical contradiction. I’m saying Matthew and John see things differently and told things differently. I get that logically it’s possible that they both could be right, but I think it’s more plausible to assume that at least one of them got some of the details wrong.

If there is no contradiction, why does there remain a need in your mind to “reconcile” the accounts? The only reason to reconcile is if there is contradiction. Complementarity doesn’t require it, and plausibility is an irrelevancy. Plausibility comes into play when there are alleged contradictions, which are then debunked in one way or another, and atheists and Christians have different standards for what is plausible or not. So, e.g., the atheist instantly rules out all supernatural reports. Thus in this story, any notion of an angel is rejected outright before the text is even interpreted. For the atheist, there is no such thing, so it was imagination or hallucination or a flat-out fairy-tale, made out of whole cloth.

But you grant that there is no contradiction. Where, then, is the problem? I think this is one illustration of the hyper-rationality that you often exhibit. You miss the forest for the trees, in your relentless analyses of relative minutiae and trivialities.

You even contradict yourself above. You say three times (maybe four) that there isn’t a logical contradiction. Then you say (in direct opposition to those statements), “I judge that the explanation that these accounts are contradictory is much more plausible . . .” So for you, there is no contradiction (that’s logical analysis), but for atheist you and wishful thinking you (always skeptical of the Bible), there is, anyway, despite what your mind just “told” you. This makes no sense. Maybe it does somehow in your mind. It certainly doesn’t make sense to me.

Part of my reasoning in these “difficulties” is that, if there is a possible explanation, the text should be given the benefit of the doubt. It may not seem particularly plausible (a higher level of acceptance) to one given to skepticism already, but if it’s possible, the objection ought to be dropped.

But atheists and theological liberals have had way too much mischievous fun with all of these through the centuries, so I don’t expect logic and fair-mindedness to start kicking in anytime soon.

What I mean is there is a “logical” contradiction, which is like A is not A, and then there’s “contradiction” like the dictionary definition. Statements opposed to one another. There can be a logical way to reconcile them, but then they may just be different. That’s what I see when I look at Matthew and John.

For me it was apologetics that brought me down, because I used to argue with people of other faiths, like you. Like Mormons. And how did I react when I thought they were pretty well cornered but they came up with logically possible but implausible justifications for their beliefs? I didn’t buy it. It wasn’t good enough. Should it be good enough for me? I had a lot of Catholics throw this argument right in my face. When I said that a certain biblical text was opposed to Catholic teaching they’d offer some logically possible but in my mind implausible rebuttal. And when I said that was silly they’d say “You do the same with atheists. Look at Mary at the tomb. Don’t act like you are any different from us.” This was an infuriating response to me. Even if I’m inconsistent, this doesn’t make your interpretation right. You should be honest with the text we are discussing.

But you know what? They were right. I was holding Catholics and Mormons to one standard and myself to another. This tore me up. It was very unsettling. I started to become convinced that I wasn’t being honest with myself. How can I conclude the Catholic is accountable for not accepting the clear meaning of the text but rather an implausible but logically possible explanation, and yet I’m not accountable for doing the same when facing an atheist? Does God blame an atheist for taking the straightforward meaning and rejecting implausible contrived rationalizations? How can that be? This was a very difficult problem for me. Beyond difficult really, it was a full on crisis. Well, you know how it turned out.

The key question here is what determines plausibility? That can be a very different thing for different people, and it is somewhat subjective by nature. People have “plausibility structures.” But we all operate on a set of assumptions that stand or fall as a whole. If we keep seeing things that contradict our view (either in fact, or mistakenly in our perception), eventually, the cumulative evidence (or cumulative falsely perceived difficulties) causes us to overthrow our set of assumptions. That’s what happened to you. It happened to me in a different way, in going from Protestant to Catholic (where I thought there are real and serious difficulties of many sorts with Protestantism, and so had to change). So I understand it in a way.

One would have to examine all the particulars in your case. But you have made up your mind.

In a broader sense, I would note that any worldview whatever has difficulties and anomalies in it that have to be dealt with in some manner. It’s unrealistic for anyone to think that they have all the answers. Nobody does. So we all place our “faith” or allegiance in what we think best explains the world and reality.

From our perspective, if you die and stand before God, He will ask you why you rejected belief in Him. So you’ll [maybe] say, “well, I couldn’t wrap my mind around all of these contradictions involved in Christianity.” And He will say back to you: “Why would you think you could figure everything out in the first place? You knew enough to know that I exist and that Christianity was true. You knew enough to exercise faith.”

Basically, I think what God will say to atheists on Judgment Day is what He says to Job’s “comforters” in the book of Job: that their reasoning was woefully inadequate all down the line because they presumed to explain (or at least complain about) every seeming difficulty that they were confronted with.

Apologetics can and sometimes does “bring someone down” if too much emphasis is placed on it: if a person is hyper-rational and puts it too high in the scheme of things. The apologist must always understand that reason is not all there is. There are many other kinds of knowledge, and grace and faith. The apologist doesn’t claim to have absolutely every answer for everything, and must recognize his limitations.

That’s my opinion on what happened to you, though I immediately add that all conversions and deconversions are extremely complex and multi-faceted. You didn’t realize that any book as large and complex as the Bible will have “difficulties” of many sorts that have to be worked out, or that simply perplex us. Why would anyone expect otherwise? Any text that purports to come from God (if He is anything like He says He is) will be difficult to understand in places. And there are manuscript errors that have crept in as well.

The trouble, too, in your case, is that you go on from at least potentially semi-plausible objections of this sort (Bible “difficulties”), to manifestly ridiculous positions, such as claiming that Jesus of Nazareth never existed in history, and is pure myth. Thus, in that case, you take a position that many many atheists or otherwise non-religious persons agree with me is poppycock and intellectual suicide. In that instance, you have views that you think are plausible and believable that most scholars who would be in a position to have an informed opinion think are most implausible.

Thus, plausibility is a bit of a two-edged sword for you.


When folks jump through all those hoops to not believe, to me it’s a sign then wanted to find something to make them NOT BELIEVE…comfort zone finding for them…


I disagree. I think (as someone who knows him a bit) that Jon wanted to keep believing, but felt that all these perceived difficulties made it impossible to do so. To me it is a problem of unreasonable conclusions and bad logic and not seeing the forest for the trees. But only God knows in the end for sure why someone doesn’t believe in Him.

Nope, sounds to me like he was just looking for a reason….because I’ve seen folks like Jon in my life….complaining about contradictions, and no matter what you responded, they stuck with that, and used it as a crutch to walk away.

It may be. We can’t know for sure. We don’t know all that is in a person’s soul or in their motivations. And I don’t see what is gained by speculating about it. But we can analyze their thoughts and opinions, as I’m doing now.

I agree in that respect, we cant know, but when people continually find reasons, to me, it’s because they are looking for them.

I know Jon and consider him a friend, and I think he has sincere difficulties, which led him to become an atheist (and that this was no easy choice for him at all, as his comments above suggest). I think his reasoning went astray.


“the cumulative evidence (or cumulative falsely perceived difficulties) causes us to overthrow our set of assumptions”

Correct. There’s no single error that I can point to and say “This one seals it, there’s no way around it.” It’s that I’ve got one implausible rationalization here, another there, and eventually I have to ask if the cumulative weight of the evidence points to another conclusion: there are simply some mistakes in here. That’s where I arrived.

“And He will say back to you: “Why would you think you could figure everything out in the first place? You knew enough to know that I exist and that Christianity was true. You knew enough to exercise faith.””

I don’t think God would say that. He would know I don’t pretend that I can wrap my head around everything. He would know that I was making the best judgment I could based on my own limited abilities. It just looks like errors. I’m not saying it has to be. But the Book of Mormon also looks like it has errors. Didn’t I expect that the Mormon would make the best judgment he could, and that the best judgment was that it had errors? Even if there’s a logically possible explanation. Even if he thinks we should give the text the benefit of the doubt and all worldviews have problems.

Keep in mind also that when I rejected Christianity I did not reject belief in God. So I thought about what God would ask me. Have I been honest with myself? Did I pretend to believe what I deep down didn’t believe just to go with the flow and not upset the apple cart?

I look at you and I see a person wedded to religion. Do you squelch your own doubts because it undermines your life’s work? Undermines your livelihood? Are you concerned that when you face God he’ll say look, you knew these implausible explanations were implausible. Did you chase them down and follow truth wherever it would lead, even if it led you where you didn’t want to go? I don’t see you in a better position than me in terms of facing God, assuming there is a God. God might exist and Christianity is wrong, and God expects you to face that difficult reality. Not an easy choice. What of your friends? Will they stick by you (many won’t). What of your marriage? Would it survive? It’s not a given. So believing for you right now is the easier path.

I sincerely believe what I do, just as I grant that you sincerely believe what you do. I’ve already proven that I will follow truth wherever I think it leads, no matter what the cost, by converting from Protestant to Catholic. All my friends but two at the time were Protestants; so was my whole family: even virtually all of my extended family. I became a Catholic because I thought it was true.

And I have lived a life where I sacrifice for what I believe (financially, and in terms of all the insults that apologists receive on a constant basis). I’ve done that as both a Protestant apologist and a Catholic apologist. You know this full well. I know you know, because you have complimented me on persevering as an apologist.

As I said, I don’t claim to know all the answers to everything in religious matters (or any other matters), but I don’t feel the difficulties that you feel. I recognize that there are difficult passages, etc., but that doesn’t overcome everything I do know about Christianity and God. It’s just stuff that is hard to understand, or fully explain, which every worldview has.

I’m just delighted that you are finally talking about something besides politics.

You did make sacrifices, I’m sure you lost friendships. But that’s in the past. Today it’s a very difficult choice for you to reject Christianity. On the other hand if I came back to Christianity it would pretty much be a giant party. So many people around me are constantly praying for that, hoping for that. Sure, I’d eat some crow, but there’s a lot of draw to that for me. There’s a lot of draw for you to stay in the fold. Today. I can’t do it though because I just am not convinced, and I can’t be untrue to myself.

Same here. But I know that I follow truth wherever it leads. That’s proven by my life. You can say that was just in the past. Whatever floats your boat . . . I don’t experience the difficulties that you do, regarding Christianity and the Bible. The last time I had such cognitive dissonance was in my conversion journey to Catholicism. And that is now 27 years ago. My debates with Protestants since then have always made me more strongly convinced, due to the weakness of their arguments.

And the same applies to atheists. When I see how they argue (including the ludicrosity of denying Jesus’ existence), and what they argue for, I become more strongly convinced than ever that Christianity is true.

Not to mention the extreme hostility of so many atheists online that one encounters. That is not exactly a drawing card or enticement to become an atheist. The tree is known by its fruits. You guys love to point out hypocrisy in Christians. That can also be turned on its head by noting the ubiquity of “atheist anger” online. The very last thing that is, is appealing or any sort of good “PR” for the atheist position.

I know you understand that, too, about atheist anger and malice, because we’ve talked about it.

February 14, 2017

vs. Kevin Johnson


A diagram of how arms form in spiral galaxies. Authors: User:Dbenbenn / User:Mysid (11-10-06) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]




I’ve seen many Protestants deny the Catholic counter-reply that if sola Scriptura isn’t taught in the Bible, it is a self-defeating belief, and therefore untrue. It certainly is self-defeating if in fact it can’t be found in the Bible (as I maintain). The inexorable, unarguable reasoning works as follows:

1. Sola Scriptura (SS) is the view that the Scripture is the final authority and only infallible one in the Christian life, higher than councils and Tradition and the Church, none of which are infallible (this is what is known as the formal sufficiency of Scripture as a rule of faith; Catholics deny this), and that every true Christian doctrine is found in Scripture, either implicitly or explicitly (material sufficiency of Scripture, which Catholics agree with).

2. If SS can be found taught in Scripture (and if Scripture teaches what sola Scriptura denies: that neither Tradition nor Church possess binding, infallible authority, as Scripture does), then it is not only self-consistent, but a true and a binding belief (just like anything else taught in inspired, infallible Scripture: God’s revelation).

3. But SS cannot be found in Scripture (Protestants have not succeeded in showing the contrary, that it is there), and Scripture indeed teaches that Tradition and the Church possess binding, infallible authority.

4. If SS is not in Scripture then it is (by definition and nature) an “extra-biblical” tradition and a mere tradition of men. SS obviously cannot be the rule of faith, if what it entails is the Bible being the sole infallible and ultimate rule of faith, because that means that whatever is included in the Christian faith (let alone the rule of faith) is found in Scripture (since it is the rule of faith, according to SS).

5. But SS is not in the Bible; thus it cannot possibly be a guide as to the status of the Bible itself with regard to authority and its relation to Church and Tradition. It is merely one of many “traditions of men” that Protestants (again, quite inconsistently) detest when it comes to Catholic distinctives which they claim are “unbiblical” and “extrabiblical.”

6. SS itself condemns extra-biblical traditions, and Protestants condemn mere traditions of men. These cannot be binding and obligatory upon believers.

7. Therefore, SS cannot be true by its own principles (if it isn’t in the Bible itself)! It is self-defeating (and nothing self-defeating can be true). Nor can it be true by ostensible Protestant principles. And it cannot be binding because all binding principles under the Protestant system must be found in Scripture itself.

8. If it’s not in the Bible (or at the very least, clearly deducible from it), it can’t be part of the Christian faith, and it obviously can’t speak to whether the Bible is the sole rule of faith, because (not being in the Bible) that would mean that a non-biblical tradition has more authority than the Bible itself — the very thing which the principle itself denies. So it is self-defeating and logical nonsense.

9. Of course, the canon of Scripture (quite similarly to this Protestant conundrum) is another non-biblical doctrine depending on Tradition and Church authority, which is also a huge epistemological difficulty for Protestants, but another issue.

10. Ergo, SS can not only not be true, but it cannot be binding either, and whatever is not binding cannot be a rule of faith (and untruths obviously cannot be binding upon Christian believers, as God’s will).

11. Moreover, if SS is not the Protestant rule of faith, then they must find another coherent, true rule, and that necessarily, inevitably falls back upon some sort of authoritative Tradition and/or Church authority, thus putting them on the same exact epistemological and ecclesiological plane as Orthodox and Catholics and (well, in theory, anyway) Anglicans, who all appeal to an authoritative Tradition in their belief-structure and epistemology.

12. Which Tradition and which Church, then, shall a Protestant choose (SS having failed and having been shown to be a false principle)? Well, Orthodoxy or Catholicism. Then we enter into the controversy as to which is more worthy of allegiance.

But I am far less concerned with Orthodoxy than I am with Protestantism. I feel that we ought to stress our commonality with the Orthodox, rather than wrangle with them, which is why I removed almost all of my Internet papers on Orthodoxy (though I plan to probably compile them into a book).

Meanwhile, the Protestant rule of faith is thoroughly incoherent, inconsistent, unbiblical, unhistorical (it was never held to any appreciable extent till the 16th century), and unworkable in practice.

Let Protestants keep trying in vain to find this teaching in Holy Scripture. I’ve yet to see that, and I’ve written more about this issue than any other in my apologetic endeavors. If it isn’t there, it either 1) can no longer be held, or 2) must be radically modified in definition. And if #2 is the case, I fail to see how it can even continue being what it is. If it incorporates tradition within its parameters as binding and obligatory, and/or infallible, it ceases to be what it is; it loses its very nature and essence.

Kevin Johnson (words in blue), an articulate Reformed Protestant, wrote in a comment in a previous thread:

I think perhaps you Roman Catholic guys have been shell-shocked by fundamentalist Protestants for a long time.

“Shell-shocked”? LOL I’m still waiting for those guys to get off a shot that hits anywhere near us! LOL The problem ain’t being shell-shocked, it is either falling asleep or dying laughing at the sheer stupidity and goofiness of their claims, such as Eric Svendsen claiming that we raise Mary to the level of the Holy Trinity, or James White creating an absolute dichotomy between sacraments and grace, which would exclude St. Augustine and Martin Luther from the Body of Christ.

. . . so long that perhaps it is difficult to even conceive of a Protestant actually having credible arguments for what they believe.

I have no problem conceiving that at all. Usually that is the case (at least above the level of premises). I simply deny that this is one instance where a coherent case can be made. It is not only built upon false premises; it is self-defeating, which renders it unworthy of belief. And I am referring to all the most sophisticated versions of sola Scriptura, not the fundamentalist extreme Bible-Only or SOLO Scriptura stuff.

A more balanced view would recognize that men like Calvin and Luther made their impact because while they may not have always been right they were certainly formidable opponents to the Catholic clergy of their day and their arguments did make sense to at least some of the world they lived in.

Of course, but that is another issue. Here we are discussing the principles of authority that they introduced, which were contrary to the received Tradition.

. . . the argument for sola scriptura is not a matter of proof-texting different verses,

Whatever you call recourse to biblical argument and data, it is absolutely necessary in this case, by the very nature of the beast, as shown above.

rather it is a recognition of the authority inherent in the Word of God and a realizing that the whole text of Scripture must be taken into account on the matter.

Catholics don’t disagree with that, but it doesn’t settle the issues of whether 1) SS is true, and 2) whether it is in fact self-defeating. That question has to be dealt with of its own accord; again, because of the specific nature of the thing being discussed, which necessarily involves making an argument from the Bible itself. The Protestant task remains to prove the doctrine from Scripture, and they have not done so. If you say it is deduced, then we can come back and say that a binding Tradition and Church is taught explicitly in Scripture (both notions being fatal to sola Scriptura).

Fundamental interpretive issues like these should be discussed prior to proof-texting your way in or out of sola scriptura.

Sure, but this doesn’t resolve the issue at hand, at all. Scripture is authoritative. It has inherent authority. All of it must be taken into account. All of these things are wholeheartedly accepted by Catholics. But your task is to show that Scripture somehow excludes the binding nature of Tradition and the Church and asserts this principle. And that clearly must be demonstrated in Scripture itself.

If it can’t be found, it collapses, because sola Scriptura would then be an unbiblical tradition of men, which is contrary to its very definition and nature. Anyone can see this, if they can step aside from partisan concerns for the moment, and look at it purely in terms of the logical factors involved.

Otherwise, you have your verses and tradition and I have mine.

That’s what the situation reduces to at length, anyway. Sola Scriptura is simply an entrenched, arbitrary, obligatory Protestant Tradition. But it makes no sense because it can’t be proven from the Bible — not even indirectly — and much in the Bible contradicts it.

In a comment on the Pontificator’s [Fr. Al Kimel’s] blog, Kevin offered the usual rejoinder, that his opponents (in this instance, an Anglican priest) do not understand sola Scriptura and private judgment:

Your critique may indeed speak loudly to the more extreme modern elements of Protestantism that has divorced itself from a fuller understanding of the original Reformation vision. However, your comments do no damage to the doctrine of sola scriptura as it was framed by Calvin and several of the historic Reformed Confessions . . .

Then he goes on to state the outlines of sola Scriptura:

The Bible is self-interpreting. It does interpret itself. I refer you to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph 9 which says: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself…”

Thus, we have a tradition (the Westminster Confession) determining something about the Bible, in the very act of defining the notion that nothing outside the Scripture can do so. The blindness to one’s own “philosophy” or “tradition” here fits in nicely with sola Scriptura. But where in Scripture does it teach that the Church cannot infallibly interpret it (or for that matter, where does it deny that Tradition and the Church can determine the canon: which books are in the Bible in the first place?).

Second, the Bible does belong to an obvious genre–it is the Word of God and uniquely so–as such it has a self-attesting authority as His Word and its revelatory nature dictates that it alone is the guide as to how it should be interpreted.

No one denies that the Bible is unique. But it doesn’t follow from that that nothing outside of it can be an aid to interpretation. In fact, this is denied. To give two examples from the Old Testament itself:

1) Ezra 7:6, 10: Ezra, a priest and scribe, studied the Jewish law and taught it to Israel, and his authority was binding, under pain of imprisonment, banishment, loss of goods, and even death (7:25-26).

2) Nehemiah 8:1-8: Ezra reads the law of Moses to the people in Jerusalem (8:3). In 8:7 we find thirteen Levites who assisted Ezra, and “who helped the people to understand the law.” Much earlier, we find Levites exercising the same function (2 Chronicles 17:8-9). In Nehemiah 8:8: “. . . they read from the book, from the law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” The New Testament is no different:

Acts 8:27-28, 30-31 And behold, an Ethiopian, a eunuch . . . seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah . . . So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless some one guides me?”

In fact, proper Reformed hermeneutics would demand that it is the guide by which all things are to be interpreted and understood.

Exactly; so this “all” would include sola Scriptura itself, the very rule of faith for the Protestant. You keep putting deeper into a rut and a pit. First, Scripture is totally clear and must interpret itself. Now it must be the source of understanding everything! So if Scripture is so clear and self-interpreting, where is sola scriptura clearly, self-evidently taught in it (as it must be)?

Because the Bible is God’s Word to men, it logically follows that not only does it mean something for us but the Scriptures also are clear to us–can anyone doubt that God the Father intended to place in His children’s hands a message that was comprehensible?;

That doesn’t logically follow, but I agree that it is plausible. Even so, it doesn’t follow (logically or as a practical matter) that the comprehensibility of the Scripture has to flow only from itself and without the aid of Church and Tradition. These things not only do not follow; the contrary is explicitly taught in Scripture.

The Jerusalem Council issued a binding decree and interpretation of Scripture on the matters of contraception and application of the Mosaic law in the New Covenant. The Bible even says that those at the Council were specially guided by the Holy Spirit:

Acts 15:28-29: For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity.

In the next chapter, we read that Paul, Timothy, and Silas were traveling around “through the cities,” and Scripture says that “they delivered to them for observance the decisions which had been reached by the apostles and elders who were at Jerusalem” (Acts 16:4). This is Church authority. They simply proclaimed the decree as true and binding — with the sanction of the Holy Spirit Himself!

Thus we see in the Bible an instance of the gift of infallibility that the Catholic Church claims for itself when it assembles in a council. This is neither sola Scriptura nor Luther’s “Bible above popes and councils” revolutionary epistemological proclamation at the Diet of Worms in 1521. Not at all . . . but it is awfully biblical!

Key to understanding the limited role of tradition in relation to interpreting the Scriptures is the fact that while both men and the Church are (you will forgive I hope these references to classic Reformed systematic theology) justified, they are not completely sanctified. Men can and do err, they sin and we all look to Christ for forgiveness daily. The same is true for the Church. The Scriptures speak of ‘both/and’–we are clothed with Christ, yet we die to sin daily. Not until the eschaton are we going to be as we should. That being the case, offering a person an infallible role for the apostles or their hearers (as you posit here), the Church, or tradition is extremely suspect.

This doesn’t follow, either, by the example of the Jerusalem Council. Those decrees were binding and understood as such by Paul, who went out and proclaimed them. It was an instance of an infallible Church giving authoritative pronouncement on biblical teachings. The same thing held for utterances of the prophets and (I should think) the apostles, when they went out and preached the gospel.

Peter in Acts 2, in his sermon in the Upper Room, and in other recorded sermons, gave an authoritative New Covenant interpretation of salvation history. It was binding before it became “inscripturated,” because it was from an apostle. The writers of Scripture itself were sinners just like the rest of us (some, like David, even murderers and adulterers). But somehow God used those sinners to write an infallible, inspired Bible.

Papal and Church infallibility is a lesser gift than what Protestants already believed with regard to the Bible. If God can use sinners to write an inspired Bible, certainly He can use sinful men to proclaim infallible teachings in Tradition, as that is merely a protection from error, not a positive quality of inspiration.

Some have argued that the Church and her traditions have been guarded and guided by the Holy Spirit–and in general I agree. However, why can we not say the same for Word of the Husband (being Christ) that we do for His Bride, the Church?

I agree. That is not our problem. But you have a huge problem because you deny the proper role for the Church and Tradition that Scripture gives them. You want to follow, rather, the watered-down version of Church and Tradition that you received from Luther and Calvin. So you lessen the status of biblical and apostolic tradition based on arbitrary traditions of men.

Are we somehow going to argue that when God speaks, His words are unintelligible to those through whom the Spirit has given new life and written these very words upon their hearts?

That is not required in the Catholic position. It is not so much a denial that Scripture is clear in the main, as it is a protest against the anti-traditional, anti-biblical exclusion of Church and Tradition from the sphere of binding authority. Nor does it rule out the role of the Church in interpretation.

While I am the first to downplay the role of the individual in salvation due to the abuses in Protestantism especially in our day, we must admit the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individual believers. If the Word is truly written on our hearts, does it not follow that we understand what that word is by the work of the Spirit?

We have no problem with that. All we are saying is that if the Holy Spirit can so guide individuals, then He can guide His Church as well (and the Bible portrays this state of affairs as being the case in actuality).

After all this, however, let me say that I do believe the Bible outlines a teaching office for the Church, that it is important both now and historically, and that our interpretation of Scripture should take into account the witness of our Fathers. However, the witness of the Fathers must be faithful to the Word of God, not vice versa.

Of course. We believe that it is. It takes faith to believe that. The problem you and Protestants have is to explain how an individual can trump a received Tradition and the authority of the Church. If you discount the Church’s binding authority because men are sinners, then you obviously have to discount every individual’s interpretation, as each person is a sinner, too!

But you don’t do that. You give the authority ultimately to the individual to decide, by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, what is true and what isn’t, while you deny it to the Church. This makes no sense. And it is not biblical teaching (which is that there is a binding, authoritative [infallible] Tradition passed down and preserved in the Church).

The Church had binding authority in the Jerusalem Council. At what point did it lose this? As soon as the last apostle died (John?), then the Church lost its authority to bind men to interpretations and laws; to “bind and to loose”? That makes no sense, and no such notion can be found in Scripture itself. There is no indication that this profound authority would later be lessened and that the Bible would be the sole infallible rule of faith. That had to wait till Martin Luther, 15 centuries later.

It’s passing strange that a group which claims to be so concentrated on the Bible and opposed to traditions of men, would adopt a principle and rule of faith taken straight from a new, novel “tradition of man” (Luther), which says things about the Bible that the same Bible never teaches, and indeed, often directly opposes. There is no end to the logical and practical and unbiblical absurdities of this position.

But (again), I oppose sola Scriptura not at all because it is “difficult [for me] to even conceive of a Protestant actually having credible arguments for what they believe,” but because of the intrinsic weakness of this particular position. It fails because it cannot stand up to biblical and logical and historic Christian scrutiny, not because we are so reflexively prejudiced against it, or because we are (supposedly) opposing only caricatures of the position. If you disagree with that, then please refute the reasoning above. I’m all for observing you giving “credible arguments for what you believe.” Please do so; you are welcomed, and positively encouraged to make such an argument on my blog.

I will now reply to Kevin’s comments on the Pontificator’s blog. The latter made a reply of his own which (while brief) is well worth reprinting:

I’m afraid that I do not see how classical Reformation hermeneutics in any way avoids the problem posed by Newman on private judgment. You invoke the Westminster Confession for support, but this confession exemplifies the kind of private judgment that Newman decries:

(1) It rejects the infallibility of councils and denies their hermeneutical role as a “rule of faith” (XXXI.4).

(2) It asserts double predestination (III), which ecumenical Christianity rejects as heretical (Council of Orange).

(3) It rejects the veneration of images (XX.1), a practice that is explicitly commended and protected by the Seventh General Ecumenical Council.

(4) It asserts an understanding of Eucharist that would is rejected by both Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism (XXIX).

The list could be expanded, but I’m sure you get my point. The Reformed faith as explicated by Westminster is, by ecumenical standards, idiosyncratic and heretical. But of course the Reformed are convinced that it faithfully explicates the written Word of God.

(Comment by Pontificator — 4/30/2004)

Now on to Kevin’s later comments:

The Westminster Confession was not cited as support for sola scriptura. The relevant portions quoted were given as an example of classic Reformation theology on the subject to help differentiate between the doctrine as it is posed in line with the original intent of the Reformation as opposed to today’s more modern version of the doctrine.

Neither Pontificator’s critique of sola Scriptura nor my own (nor Newman’s, for that matter), depend on caricaturing it in order to fight straw men. The critiques apply to original, bona fide, Reformation doctrine; it goes to the roots. No one who is reading Pontificator’s material lately can doubt that he is raising serious questions about original premises.

If you disagree, then you must demonstrate how either he or I are distorting the original Reformation conception of sola Scriptura, not merely assert it. For my part, ever since 1991 I have been operating with a definition of sola Scriptura from impeccable (mostly Reformed) sources such as R.C. Sproul, Charles Hodge, G.C. Berkouwer, and Bernard Ramm.

If you don’t like those, then there is an easy solution: please provide a definition of sola Scriptura yourself, and I will be happy to show that it suffers from just as many shortcomings and errors as the one I have been using. You can’t go on endlessly claiming your opponent is operating on a faulty definition, without actually arguing the matter at hand. At least not on my blog! LOL

That being said, I would have preferred to see interaction with what I wrote rather than side-stepping the issues and leaving a criticism of the Confession.

Amen! And I desire the same for what I wrote, too.

I confess I need to read more of Newman since it seems that much of popular Catholic apologetics these days is built off of his works–but perhaps you can tell me what he thinks of the historical fact that the Councils themselves contradict each other in certain instances–an odd thing to happen for an infallible tradition. I’m not sure his view is as realistic as some would like to admit.

Having criticized the Pontificator for “side-stepping the issues,” you proceed to do a little fancy footwork yourself, and try to switch the discussion over to alleged contradictions of councils, rather than the internal incoherence and inconsistency of sola Scriptura. I must admit that I saw more than a little humor in that irony.

. . . Again, as I have stated, the Westminster Confession was mentioned merely to point out the original doctrine of sola scriptura to those who seem content to attack a more modern caricature of it.

You need to clarify. Since I am now interacting with you, please demonstrate where anything I have written in criticism of SS would not apply to the version of it held by the Westminster divines. Again, I maintain that all versions of SS fall prey to internal incoherence and self-defeating factors, no matter how sophisticated; no matter how “impeccably Reformed” and so forth. Thank you.

But the same dilemma exists for the Magisterium. On what basis, other than the claim of the Church, do we accept the Magisterium as the authority in interpreting the Scriptures?

Nice try at switching the topic again. Which Tradition one accepts is a completely distinct and separate question from the question of whether sola Scriptura can stand up to logical, biblical, and historical scrutiny. That is the current question. If you wish to concede that you are unable to defend sola Scriptura, from the Bible or otherwise, feel free to do so, then we can move on. But I won’t change horses in mid-stream when there is a legitimate, worthwhile, highly important problem to be dealt with in the Protestant rule of faith.

This question is about the final appeal of authority.

That’s right. But when the claim is made that one position is self-defeating or otherwise quite weak in its construction, then that has to be dealt with first, before moving onto much wider discussions of choosing an authoritative tradition.

The Word comes from God–it’s authority is just as self-evident as God’s ultimate authority as God and the Church has duly recognized this authority over the centuries no matter what communion you belong to.

Of course. No one is denying that.

No one questions the authority of the words of the President of the United States when he speaks and why we think we can question the authority of the Word of God when He has clearly spoken is beyond me.

Again, I have no idea whom you think is doing that. Questioning sola Scriptura is not the same as questioning Holy Scripture. Please read this sentence five times, till it sinks in.

I think perhaps many Catholics are used to arguing with fundamentalist anti-Catholics who blame everything on Rome.

Their mentality is easy to understand, and they don’t interest me because they have nothing of substance to offer. Presently, I am dealing with a sophisticated Reformed Christian (you) who wishes to keep switching the topic to Rome whenever the going gets rough. I hope we can get beyond that, and that you will be willing to truly examine your own viewpoint, and defend it if you think you can, without ever mentioning the word “Rome”! I know you can do it if you really put your mind to it . . .

[passing over further attempts to move the discussion over the Rome’s pre-Reformation culpability]

May 26, 2016

I originally posted this on the anti-Catholic Protestant discussion board, CARM and put it on my website shortly afterwards, on 26 June 2002. Another modified version was published in This Rock in February 2004.
Responses of other Catholics are in blue, red, and green. One Protestant’s response is in brown.
* * * * *

Catholics don’t read the Bible anywhere near as much as evangelicals do, and that is to our shame.

I hasten to add that evangelicals usually are quite ignorant of Church history, at least those nearly fifteen centuries before Martin Luther came along in 1517.

It’s a sad fact of human nature that people tend to pit things against each other that don’t need to be opposed logically (or biblically). It should be “both/and,” not “either/or.” Catholics ought to do more Bible reading, and evangelicals ought to read more Church history. We can both learn from each other. And I thank God that I was an evangelical (I converted to Catholicism in 1990), for this reason, among many others. I brought that love of the Bible with me into Catholicism. I’m not saying that you can’t find Catholics who read their Bibles. I know they exist. But — sadly — they are far too few in number.

It is not (at bottom) a “Protestant” thing to love the Bible, and the falsity of sola Scriptura does not mean that Catholics ought to underemphasize the Bible. Our Church certainly officially encourages such reading and familiarity. But old habits die hard.

Reading the Bible is good and instructive if you understand it correctly.

I completely agree.

The fact is, the number of people who can read the Bible without instruction on how to understand it is very small.

This is a long and involved discussion, but in a nutshell, I think the Bible is pretty clearly understood even if read on one’s own, provided that the person is truly open to what the Holy Spirit is trying to say to them and teach them through the words of Scripture (whether a matter of morals and Christian life, or theology). The fact that most people are not so open, and the nearly-ubiquitous presence of various biases they bring to Scripture from the outset is why the Church’s guidance is absolutely necessary.

The history of Protestant divergent interpretation (where error must be present, because Protestants contradict themselves) proves that beyond all doubt. Their formal system of sola Scriptura has failed abysmally and spectacularly. But I don’t believe that Scripture itself is all that obscure or difficult to understand, at least not in its main outlines. I have never found that to be the case in any serious Bible study I have undertaken on my own (and I have done dozens of them, believe me). One should, of course, become acquainted with basic hermeneutical and exegetical principles. And that takes a little study, too, but one book on the subject would suffice for that end.

The average evangelical may read the Bible more than the average Catholic, but if they are taught to derive the wrong message from it, how does that impute shame to the Catholic who reads less, but is taught correctly?

We are talking about two different things here. My point was the following, very general proposition:

1. It is good to read the Bible, because it is God’s inspired revelation to mankind.

2. Catholics (even solid, orthodox ones) read it far less than evangelical Protestants do.

3. This (given #1) is a bad thing, and we don’t do nearly as good as our evangelical brothers and sisters do in this respect.

Your point, on the other hand is:

1. It is good to read the Bible, but one also needs the Church’s guidance to do it properly and to get the most out of it.

2. Catholics do better than evangelical Protestants in this regard, because they have more guidance, and hence, are less prone to various false interpretations and sectarianism deriving therefrom.

I agree with this too, but it is simply a different (a more particular, “fleshed-out”) proposition from mine. That it is a good thing to read the Bible more, and a lot, as a bare proposition, is indisputable, and the Catholic Church teaches this wholeheartedly. It also teaches that one should submit their theology as a whole to the Church and not oppose one’s own theology to that of the apostolic Tradition of the Church (itself entirely biblical and able to be defended from the Bible, which is the emphasis of my books and website).

I would say, furthermore, that – all things being equal – it would be a better thing to read the Bible without “outside” guidance, than to not read it. That endeavor is filled with dangers of false teaching taking hold, because people often distort biblical teaching to their own ends, but such is life. Anything can be distorted and twisted. Love is, sex is, the use of money is, patriotism is, every good thing is, and that includes Bible interpretation.

But the “solution” of many Catholics – to not read the Bible at all, so as to not be “confused” or “led astray” – is a sort of lamentable, pitiful “kindergarten Christianity” and a laziness. The same people manage to find plenty of time to devote to the “study” of sports, politics, their latest boyfriend or girlfriend, or their lawns and gardens, or to 10,000 different subjects they will learn all about in high school or college, but somehow they can’t find any time to read their Bibles and soak in the words of the very Lord they worship and receive every week. Why? Something is out of whack there, wouldn’t you agree? This practice is not Catholic teaching. So Catholics have the Church to guide them. So what? That doesn’t mean they sit and let the Church do everything for them with regard to biblical learning and literacy; to get by on the bare minimum of effort.

They simply don’t want to do the work, and want Mother Church to spoon-feed everything to them (they want to remain “babes in Christ” who drink “milk,” as St. Paul says). That is not Catholicism in essence. Catholics are to work and strive to understand their faith just as much as any evangelical Protestant does, and that includes Bible-reading. The fact that they don’t do so, for the most part, is an indictment of Catholic catechetics in the last generation, but not on the Church’s teaching itself, because that is not what is taught.

The Catechism, Vatican II, and any papal encyclical on a theological topic are all filled with scriptural references. Even the homilies at every Mass are supposed to be (if they aren’t always in practice) based on the biblical text just read. I hear more Scripture at every Mass, in the readings, the liturgy, and the homily than I ever have at various Protestant services I attended for 13 years. But the Catholic needs to read his own Bible as well. If we don’t, then we don’t love God as much as we think, because love demands that we want to know more and more about the One we love, all the time. The Bible is God’s very inspired words. How, then, can any Christian, not be passionately interested in it?

Dave, thank you for your answer.

You’re welcome.

The main thorn that stuck me with your shorter statement was the comparison to Evangelical practice. With this elaboration you’ve accurately addressed Catholic practice and balanced the comparison with Evangelicals.

Great. Glad you liked it.

I wish the facts were different so that I could argue with you on this point. Unfortunately they aren’t.

That’s why you, I, and other like-minded Catholics need to do all we can to change the situation.

If there is any nit I would pick in your exposition, it would be over the clarity of the Scriptures relative to the preconceptions people bring to the Bible. It is hard to separate the two. People read from their cultural perspectives. (N.B. Cultural perspective doesn’t mean solely national culture, but includes social and religious subcultures as well). It is always a challenge to break outside that perspective.

I completely agree with this. No argument here. That is one reason why I would say an authoritative magisterium is absolutely necessary. The Bible in and of itself is pretty clear on most major things. But people’s biases and cultural slants and unwillingness to pursue holiness get in the way. And, let’s face it, we are all fallible and make mistakes (including logical and factual ones). But the Church is protected by the Holy Spirit and granted the extraordinary gift of infallibility, thus overcoming human weaknesses, foibles, and shortcomings. Praise God!

As you say, it requires reading at least a book on hermenuetics. How many people really do that? I sure haven’t. If you could recommend a reasonable one, I’d appreciate it. I think it requires more than just one book however.

Catholic: Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, Mark P. Shea, San Diego: Basilica Press, 1999, 262p.

Protestant: Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984, 153p.

Protestant Biblical Interpretation, Bernard Ramm, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 3rd rev. ed., 1970, 298p.

People who are interested in what the Bible says read commentary as well as the Bible itself. This is, in fact, a strong proof of the lie of Sola Scriptura.

Well, not really, because sola Scriptura, according to the sharpest Protestant scholars, means that the Bible is the ultimate authority, above Councils and Popes and any tradition, not that no commentary or tradition may be cited or utilized at all. The latter is more properly attributed to an extreme, fringe “Bible Only” position, more characteristic of very low church, fundamentalist, Anabaptist-type, almost completely anti-institutional and a-historical in mindset. The Reformed decry that excess as much as we do, and in fact, Bernard Ramm (see above) rightly excoriates the “Bible Only” position as in opposition to a true sola Scriptura outlook.

Thank you, Dave!

If more Catholics can be encouraged to trust the guidance of the Holy Spirit while reading God’s Word we will be well on our way to finding effective

ways to recognize our unity in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

Evangelization is an important movement in the Catholic Church today. Dave, I hope and trust you are actively involved!

This is agreeable to a Catholic, as long as you aren’t trying to imply that a Catholic can go against his Church (thus pitting the Bible against the Church). We believe that that same Holy Spirit protects our Church from error, so that we can trust that it teaches us true theology. It is not a trust in men; it is a trust in God, that He has the power to preserve His truths in a human institution, by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, despite human sins and shortcomings (just as He preserved His Word in Scripture, by using sinners like David, Paul, and Peter to write the inspired words).

While I respect and agree with your views on this, in what way does it serve the Body to lambaste Catholics, as you seem to have done here, on this forum?

Short answer: it needed to be loudly stated here, for the sake of Catholics who don’t understand this, and Protestants who are trying to reconcile Catholic behavior in this regard with our claims to possess the fullness of Christian truth.

Longer answer: Any viewpoint which is self-confident and healthy, needs to engage criticism openly and honestly, no matter what the forum is. Protestants do that all the time. They write whole books about problems in their ranks, and I highly admire that. It is a sign of health and vigor. It’s important to point this out here because it is a huge problem, and one which several Catholics here have publicly illustrated by their own words. One must point out that the Catholic system does not condone this viewpoint.

I will admit every time that Catholics fall short in practice on any matter that could be mentioned, just as all Christians do, but my concern is to show that this point of view does not follow from official Catholic teaching. That’s what many Protestants believe about us: that we are actually taught to not read the Bible (whereas it is more accurate to say that we are not taught to read it, which is a logically different proposition). I’m sure many lousy catechists have taught these sorts of things, but it is not the teaching of our Church at the highest levels of magisterial authority.

The general stereotype may be factual to a great extent, but it seems that it would likewise undermine the position of any Catholic who is steeped in Scripture.

No it doesn’t. First of all, I never think that stating truth is a bad thing, no matter how many people might take it wrongly. Secondly, I believe in openness and free speech. For non-Catholics to respect us, they have to see us criticizing ourselves, just like every other belief-system does, and not closing ranks and pretending that we are above all the errors everyone else struggles with. This truth is patently obvious, and outsiders see it already, so we have to deal with it frankly. Thirdly, if a Catholic knows Scripture, then they need to demonstrate that in conversation: you know: “walk the walk,” not just “talk the talk.” So I would urge you to go and do that, just as I have been trying to do for eleven years now, since my conversion. The more we show that “Bible” and “Catholicism” are not oxymoronic contradictions-in-terms, the more we appeal to Protestants with the truth of our overall message.

It seems possible that it may precipitate any response that follows along the lines of “I, an Evangelical, know Scripture better than you do, Mr/Ms Catholic. Everyone knows Catholics don’t know Scripture.”

What I do with that mentality is quickly affirm the latter generalization as a proverbial truth (because it is undeniable). I then immediately dispute the particular claim in the first part by challenging the one who says this to do some comparative exegesis, or biblically based systematic theology. That disproves their point as to “them vs. me” and shows that a Catholic who is properly prepared can easily go head-to-head with a Protestant exegete.

In other words, all we can do as individual Catholics who recognize this deficiency in practice in our ranks is show how it is possible to break out of the stereotype, by example, and by demonstrating in argument that the Catholic Church is indeed, far more the truly “biblical” Church than any form of Protestantism. We take all of Scripture into account, not just our favorite pet verses and proof texts. We laboriously preserved the Scripture all those hundreds of years before Protestantism ever saw the light of day; we canonized it; we developed all the major branches of theology based upon it before Luther existed and before Calvin was a twinkle in his daddy’s eye. I will not yield an inch in this regard to the Protestant. I am simply admitting the obvious fact: that Catholics read the Bible far less than Protestants do. There are many reasons for this; some understandable, but no real excuses. That is another discussion too.

Dave, I don’t know why you posted what you did.

I gave my reasons, very carefully, as I always do. If you can’t understand them (whether you agree or not), then why are you responding? On the other hand, if you do understand them, then why not reply to them point-by-point, rather than rail against my whole opinion?

Are you striking dialogue . . .?

I was issuing a rebuke and making a criticism of widespread Catholic practice, because I think self-reflection of any community of belief-system is crucial and a sign of intellectual vigor and (in this case) spiritual health.

I disagree with your assessment . . . you make your point worthless by making the leap that we don’t love God as much as we think if we ‘don’t read our own Bible’.

The point is not made worthless at all, because it is two different points. My immediate point above is that the Catholic Church is indeed a very biblically oriented Church. But my primary point in the thread, of course, is that Catholics ought to read Holy Scripture more than they do. Apples and oranges. What I find fascinating, though, is how and why you think one point renders the other “worthless”? You are simply adopting the false and unnecessary dichotomies that our Protestant brethren are notorious for.

What does that mean?? Do I fulfill my love for God more if I read a Bible that stands on my shelf at home instead of reading the Bible through proper Catechismal studies and Mass liturgical readings?

Did I say any of that? Of course I did not. This is simply you creating more dichotomies. I was very careful to also emphasize the supreme importance of reading the Bible with the aid of, and within the mind of the Church. All I was arguing was that for anyone who loves God, they would – as a matter of course – love His inspired Word, and want to read it more. To me, that is utterly self-evident and quite the no-brainer. Do you really want to disagree with that?

Now, I may desire to know more and more about God, but this is not to be found in some special and more elucidative position because I read the Bible in my bedroom.

I stand by my point. When it is rightly understood (within the proper Catholic framework, that I took pains to set out) I think it is absolutely undeniable. I’m not talking sola Scriptura; I’m not talking neglect of anything else in the Catholic spiritual or liturgical life. Quite the contrary. All I’m saying is that too many Catholics neglect or try to minimize or de-emphasize the Bible. The Church, however, does not do that. Your post proves it yet again. You are not helping the Catholic cause or finding common ground with Protestants (as Vatican II strongly urges) by writing about the Bible in the way you do.

It’s good to reject sola Scriptura, and to submit to the mind of the Church, but it is also good to show forth a positive love for Holy Scripture, and that comes by reading it and becoming better-acquainted with its contents. If the Mass alone were sufficient for that end, then Catholics would already know their Bibles better than Protestants. But they don’t, do they? So I see it as a self-evident truth that they need to do more study apart from the liturgy, prayer-books, Rosaries (and I pray the Rosary, in case you were wondering, and attend Latin Mass also), etc. They need to read the Bible itself: frequently and often.

And to make such a conclusion on your part is just informative for you.

I don’t write to inform myself, but to provoke dialogue, reflection, more understanding, to promote bridge-building, and to learn things myself, as a result of generated dialogue.

Perhaps for you personally, it serves you best to read at home, but this is not necessarily indicative of “proper love” shown of God.

Of course merely reading a Bible doesn’t prove love of God. But a person who loves God will be very interested in reading His words. Why do I have to even argue that?

This is obviously time to see what popes and Councils have to say on the subject. You (and other like-minded Catholics) are not simply opposing me on this point, but what your Church teaches you in its infallible magisterium as well:

1) Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture): Pope Leo XIII, 18 November 1893

. . . there are not a few Catholics, men of talent and learning, who do devote themselves with ardor to the defence of the sacred writings and making them better known and understood . . . We cannot but earnestly exhort others also, from whose skill and piety and learning we have a right to expect good results, to give themselves to the same praiseworthy work, It is our wish and fervent desire to see an increase in the number of the approved and persevering laborers for the cause of Holy Scripture . . .

Let all, therefore, especially the novices of the ecclesiastical army, understand how deeply the sacred books should be esteemed, and with what eagerness and reverence they should approach this great arsenal of heavenly arms . . . As St. Jerome says, ‘to be ignorant of the Scripture is not to know Christ’ [In Isaiam, Prol.] . . . ‘A man who is well grounded in the testimonies of the Scripture is the bulwark of the Church.’ [Ibid., 54:12] . . .

. . . the Church by no means prevents or retrains the pursuit of biblical science, but rather protects it from error, and largely assists its real progress. A wide field is still left open to the private student, in which his hermeneutical skill may display itself with signal effect and to the advantage of the Church . . . such labors may, in the benignant providence of God, prepare for and bring to maturity the judgment of the Church; on the other, in passages already defined the private student may do work equally valuable, either by setting them forth more clearly to the flock and more skillfully to scholars, or by defending them more powerfully from hostile attack . . .

. . . the studies of non-Catholics, used with prudence, may sometimes be of use to the Catholic student . . .

2) Divino Afflante Spiritu (The Most Opportune Way to Promote Biblical Studies): Pope Pius XII 30 September 1943

[section 9] . . . these same Predecessors of ours . . . recommended the study or preaching or in fine the pious reading and meditation of the Sacred Scriptures. Pius X most heartily commended the Society of St. Jerome, which strives to promote among the faithful — and to facilitate with all its power — the truly praiseworthy custom of reading and meditating on the holy Gospels . . . proclaiming it ‘a most useful undertaking, as well as most suited to the times,’ seeing that it helps in no small way ‘to dissipate the idea that the Church is opposed to or in any way impedes the reading of the Scriptures in the vernacular.’ [Letter to Cardinal Casetta, ‘Qui piam,’ Jan. 21, 1907, Pii X Acta, 4,23-25] And Benedict XV . . . exhorted ‘all the children of the Church, especially clerics, to reverence the Holy Scripture, to read it piously and meditate on it constantly’; he reminded them ‘that in these pages is to be sought that food, by which the spiritual life is nourished unto perfection,’ . . . he likewise once again expressed his warm approval of the work of the society called after St. Jerome himself, by means of which the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles are being so widely diffused, ‘that there is no Christian family any more without them and that all are accustomed to read and meditate on them daily.’ [Spiritus Paraclitus, Sept. 15, 1920, A.A.S., 12 (1920), 385-422]

[section 62] . . . ardently desiring for all sons of the Church, and especially for the professors in biblical science, for the young clergy and for preachers, that, continually meditating on the divine word, they may taste how good and sweet is the spirit of the Lord . . . .

3) Vatican II: Dei Verbum (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation): 18 November 1965

[section 25] “Therefore, all clerics, particularly priests of Christ and others who, as deacons or catechists, are officially engaged in the ministry of the Word, should immerse themselves in the Scriptures by constant sacred reading and diligent study . . . . Likewise, the sacred synod forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful, especially those who live the religious life, to learn ‘the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ’ (Phil. 3:8) by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures . . . Therefore, let them go gladly to the sacred text itself, whether in the sacred liturgy, which is full of the divine words, or in devout reading, or in such suitable exercises and various other helps which, with the approval and guidance of the pastors of the Church, are happily spreading everywhere in our day. Let them remember, however, that prayer should accompany the reading of sacred Scripture, so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, ‘we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles.’ [St. Ambrose, De Officiis ministrorum, I,20,88]

It is for the bishops . . . suitably to instruct the faithful entrusted to them in the correct use of the divine books . . . They do this by giving them translations of the sacred texts which are equipped with necessary and really adequate explanations. Thus the children of the Church can familiarize themselves safely and profitably with the sacred Scriptures, and become steeped in their spirit . . .

[section 26 – last; ending of document] So may it come that, by the reading and study of the sacred books, ‘the Word of God may speed on and triumph’ (2 Th. 3:1) and the treasure of Revelation entrusted to the Church may more and more fill the hearts of men. Just as from constant attendance at the eucharistic mystery the life of the Church draws increase, so a new impulse of spiritual life may be expected from increased veneration of the Word of God, which ‘stands forever’ (Is. 40:8; cf. 1 Pet. 1:23-25).

I rest my case.

Thanks for the reply. Lengthy and too much info at one time, but thanks anyway.

You’re welcome.

I posted my questions and comments to you before you replied with your reasons for your post, so ease up.

Fair enough.

I also see that another fellow Catholic felt the same way that I did. You surely knew you would arouse some response in that area.

People like their comfort zones. I don’t think they have a leg to stand on, now that I have cited the highest authorities. The case is very clear-cut, in my opinion.

Your reasons you state for posting are mine as well, which I recently explained to another fellow Christian on this board.

Good; glad to hear it. That’s why further clarification is always helpful.

I think however, that you are talking to the choir, so to use a good ole Protestant expression. Most Catholics on this board are quite well read in Scriptures and have made note of their intense Bible studies. There are some, I know, that are not so like-minded.

I think Catholics who engage in discussion on the Internet are likely to be relatively more well-read in Scripture. But I don’t think that undercuts my overall point.

But, if you want to do something with your thought, take it to the catechists and the parish directors. That is where you will find the vacuum.

Well, I hope my website and books have that effect. That is how I am seeking to reach those folks. Looks like we agree for the most part.


Meta Description: Catholics ought to do more Bible reading, & evangelicals ought to read more Church history. We can both learn from
each other.

Meta Keywords: Catholics & the Bible, Catholics & Bible-reading, Bible Study, exegesis, hermeneutics, scriptural meditation, Bible-reading

April 11, 2016


Partial view of the Mandelbrot set. Step 11 of a zoom sequence: Double-spirals with satellites of second order. Analog to the “seahorses” the double-spirals can be interpreted as a metamorphosis of the “antenna”. Created by Wolfgang Beyer with the program Ultra Fractal 3 [Wikimedia Commons /  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


I have linked to Blogspot paper versions from Internet Archive. Allow a minute or two for them to upload, and select versions from July 2015 or earlier. This atheist professor claimed that he would make a reply to my critiques in due course. He never did (it’s now coming up on six years). I was so surprised by that, I almost fainted . . . But I had fun refuting this hogwash.


Meta Description: Five replies to an atheist professor’s You Tube series dealing with alleged falsehoods or contradictions in the Bible (esp. messianic prophecies).
Meta Keywords: Atheism, Agnosticism, biblical skepticism, Bible difficulties, alleged biblical contradictions, biblical inspiration, biblical revelation, atheist exegesis, atheist eisegesis, atheist critiques of Christianity, atheist critiques of the Bible, ProfMTH
November 16, 2015

Dr. Theodore Drange (b. 1934):  prominent atheist philosopher and anti-theist, with whom I sparred several times in the early 2000s. Photo from the mid-1990s [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]
(18 March 2003)
Introductory comments will be in green. This is one of those instances where the person refused to have his words cited, so I paraphrased them.
* * * * *

One person on the atheist list where I conducted the discussion in the paper above (agnostic, I believe), asked how my arguments in Section I confirmed the existence of an everlasting punishment in hell. I replied:

This misses the point entirely. The question I was dealing with was the proposition: “1. Are unsaved sinners eternally tormented?” Under “No” were the ten passages I considered. I showed how none of them disproved a state of everlasting punishment, or stated anything contrary to it. That was all I had to do to disprove the claim. These passages, then, are shown to be consistent with the proposition “everlasting torment exists.” In other words, the Bible doesn’t contradict itself at all with regard to this matter. It teaches eternal punishment and torment of unrepentant, unsaved sinners. Ted himself provided several excellent passages (some of the very best proof texts) which clearly teach everlasting punishment: Matthew 25:41,46, Mark 9:43-48, Jude 1:6-7, and Revelation 14:10-11.

This is the biblical teaching, and no passage under his “No” list offered anything to overthrow it. So the argument has been annihilated (no pun intended). I look forward to the other nine “arguments” which purport to “prove” biblical contradictions, if they are going to exhibit this shockingly illogical argumentation, complete neglect of context (such as example #6, where Paul was arguing rhetorically and Ted absurdly interpreted it literally), etc. This is why I have no time for this sort of thing. I’m only doing this as an example of the silliness involved; then I will move on to something of substance.

It wouldn’t annoy me as severely as it does if you guys wouldn’t presume to be such biblical experts, and claim to know as much about such things as educated Christians or biblically oriented apologists like myself (a point I have complained about many times in the past on this list). The pose and pretense of having knowledge where, in fact, there is little, is just a bit too much to take, and I was in the mood to expose the absurdity of it today. It’s fun for a while, as a diversion and pedagogical, educational endeavor (for readers of my website), but I can only stomach so much of it, because I don’t consider it a serious discussion. It’s a farce.

The person who presented the list of contradictions (from Ted) and challenged me to repy to them, claimed that he saw “no reason” to believe that I possessed more knowledge of the Bible than “many” of the “sceptics” on that list. I replied:

This will be great fun, then. Stay tuned. It’ll make for a very entertaining website paper, when those who claim to know as much about the Bible as 25-year serious students of it, and Christian apologists like myself, prove how little they really know. And of course, if that were the case, certainly you would be willing to let me post your words and “exegesis” on my website (which you have never yet agreed to), so that you could lay bare my lack of biblical knowledge right in front of my (mostly) Catholic and Protestant readers.

If the rest of [Dr.] Ted [Drange]‘s laundry list of alleged “contradictions” are as ridiculous and insubstantial as the first portion, it will be a pathetic showing indeed. I fully expect this to be the case, based on my universal past experience in such discussions [it was]. Some things are utterly predictable. Atheists attempting biblical exegesis is one of these. Nothing personal; it is simply something where you guys are over your head and don’t have a clue.

A third atheist, who claimed that Dr. Ted Drange and the second person knew about as much of the Bible and its study and interpretation as I did, then claimed that my statements such as those above were indicative of a “vast cockiness.” I answered:

Why is it “cocky” to simply state that someone doesn’t know what he is talking about? You guys state this all the time about me and Eric (another Christian / theist on the list). Why is it that it isn’t cocky when you state it concerning your area of expertise (philosophy), but it is when I make statements in the area of my expertise (apologetics and the Bible)? I’m demonstrating how the arguments are entirely groundless. I’ve only completed two sections out of ten, and I fully expect to find the same profound ineptitude and illogical “exegesis” in the other eight [I did].

I have never met an atheist who understood how exegesis is properly done. Granted, I haven’t met every atheist. I’m simply stating my own experience. You and others here are welcome to show me how you are different. I’ve seen no evidence of that thus far, and much evidence supporting my long-held opinion.

He stated that most atheists used to be “pretty staunch Christians.”

Not very educated ones, as far as I can tell. And leaving the faith at age 10 or 15 does not suggest to me a great deal of knowledge obtained. I just “heard” many of your “anti-testimonies.” I didn’t see anyone studying the Bible and Christian apologetics and theology for, say, 25 years, as I have done. I didn’t see much at all. So someone maybe read the Bible through once? Whoop-de-doo! That makes you know as much as I do about biblical exegesis? And I’m supposedly the cocky one???? Whatever my experience is, and whatever you think of it, doesn’t release you and others here from defending your silly, misguided attempts at biblical exegesis when they are critiqued.

I was supposedly setting myself up for “colossal humiliation.”

Well, we’ll see who puts up a better argument, as we proceed in this, won’t we? I’m not worried. I assure you I won’t lose a moment’s sleep over the outcome of this thread and discussion. This is my ground you are on now. You’re in my ballpark; my turf. I don’t claim to be any sort of expert in philosophy. I’ve never stated that. But for you and your atheist friends to claim to be such regarding the Bible is a manifest absurdity that must be exposed for what it is, once in a while, anyway: a pretense and a farce. That is the cockiness here; not anything on my end, despite my obviously strong feelings on the subject.

I’ve found that experts in any field get quite upset when people who know little about it come in and pretend that they are some sort of “expert.” If you come onto my ground and start talking foolishness, you will hear about it, because no one wants silliness to prevail or to be taken seriously in his own field of inquiry that he loves (and in my case, that which I have devoted my life and energies to). So I have not minced any words. You may consider it cocky potshots; as far as I am concerned it is stating a simple truth, with passion.

He asked if I thought that one must believe the Bible in order to understand it.

Theoretically and as an abstract notion, no. In practice, however, I don’t recall ever coming across a skeptic of the Bible (in my many hundreds of dialogues and debates over now 22 years) who didn’t quickly fall prey to basic logical errors and silly exegesis based on crude misunderstandings, such as I am presently examining, in Ted’s ten areas of alleged biblical contradiction regarding salvation.

The Christian holds that belief will at the very least make a person fair enough to approach the Bible on its own terms. Prior hostility and disbelief, on the other hand, almost inevitably lead to really silly mistakes of even elementary logic. It is clearly the overriding desire to show how foolish Christians and Christianity supposedly are, which lead to such otherwise inexplicable errors from intelligent folks. You can’t do proper and constructive exegesis of the Bible if, as I have said, you approach it the way a butcher approaches a pig. Such a person doesn’t want to draw out the meaning of what is there, but rather, draw out (what they mistakenly think is) the guts of the Bible and devour it like bacon.

How do you expect a person who loves and defends Holy Scripture for a living to react to that? You can sit there and deny that this is what is happening with lists like Ted’s, but I will have to strongly disagree. And we Christians get sick and tired of this. Don’t believe in the Bible and God if you wish, but also it would be nice if you didn’t pretend to understand things that you clearly don’t understand. Context, linguistics, cultural backdrop, and logic are not matters of faith, but things that we can agree upon, as standards. These are what are being violated left and right.

It’s not simply a matter of atheists not believing in the content of the Bible or the doctrines being pilloried. You are claiming that what we believe is contradictory all over the place. But you have not established this in the least. The arguments thus far have been atrocious; laughable. My job is to defend the Bible from hackers, and I will do so with vigor, at such times as I decide to engage in this sort of thing, that I consider quite foolish at bottom, because of the desperately flawed approach of my opponents.

Nor is this a matter of mere disagreement. One either knows how to do biblical exegesis or not. Two people who know how to do it can honestly disagree on the conclusion with regard to a passage. That happens all the time. It is the stuff of biblical commentary and scholarship. But at least those two (if they are Christians) love and revere the text they are studying, whereas you are only trying to tear it down. You come to it with your agenda. Pretending to know how to interpret Scripture and acting as if anyone can do it without having to study very much, is what is so objectionable.

Otherwise intelligent, philosophically-sophisticated people like [name] and Ted put up these ridiculous lists of biblical “contradictions” as if they were some profound, unanswerable “argument” against biblical inspiration or the cogency of Christian faith. Well, that gets my dander up. It really angers me, and that is why I decided to take on this latest charade.

It was then stated that the person who put up the list “rightly” opined that some skeptics on the list were as familiar with the Bible as “most Christians” and even “many apologists” like me. I was called “paranoid” for denying this and stating my opinions as recorded above. He complained that I have for some time now “groundlessly” argued that atheists “don’t know beans about the Bible.”

Not about the Bible per se, but how to exegete it and properly study it, which is a different thing.

. . . and that I felt that atheists are “automatically biblical morons” because they don’t accept what the Bible teaches . . .

I granted that there could be such a thing in theory. But in my long experience, I have never met one who didn’t commit basic errors of fact and logic, such as we see with Ted. That has been my experience, and I can’t “re-write” that, just because you object to it and it offends you. Too much baggage exists, and this makes it quite difficult for the atheist Bible scholar to possess enough objectivity to do a decent job at it. I have little patience with atheist attitudes and dogmatic thinking, with regard to pretentious and presumptuous attempts at biblical exegesis.

Ted and [name] are good at finding bogus, absurd “proof texts” to “bolster” their attempts at tearing down the Bible and trying to make Christians look foolish and ridiculous. Beyond that, I have not observed this ability that you cite. The proof is in the pudding. One can talk a good game, but how do they perform when subject matter and particular passages are actually out on the table? I am showing exactly how such “lists” can be systematically dismantled as worthless and absurd. So that has some value. When someone is this ignorant and doesn’t know it, and thinks quite the opposite of his own abilities, it is always entertaining (but ultimately sad as well). It’s the sort of thing where you have to laugh to keep from crying. My arguments (and Ted’s) speak for themselves. I say that they are lousy and insubstantial, and often illogical and lacking the least consideration of context, which is an elementary principle applicable to the interpretation of any literature whatever.

The fact remains that I have yet to meet an atheist Bible scholar who didn’t commit the basic fallacies that I have been complaining about. There may be one out there somewhere; I have never personally met one. And that fits in well with my general theory that all people have bias in one direction or the other, and that this affects their work. In matters pertaining to the Bible, I think it is better to have a bias in favor of its inspiration and essential cogency than to have the opposite view, because (as a rule of thumb) it is better to respect the literature or system of thought that one is studying. The atheist could study Christianity and the Bible, and do philosophy or anthropology of religion, of course. How well they will do at that is another story entirely.

It’s simply common sense. I’ve devoted my life to the study and defense of Christianity. I’m not a scholar, but I know quite a bit about these things, and people often falsely think that I have a master’s or even a doctorate in theology (oftentimes, people who themselves have these degrees think that). I’ve been engaging in dialogues on these matters with people of almost every imaginable belief system for longer than you have been alive. I know about this stuff, and it’s not arrogant for me to assert that, any more than it would be for Ted to claim he knows his philosophy. Of course he does; he is a professor. I respect that, and I don’t knock it at all.

It’s beyond silly (and arguably arrogant as well, since you are throwing around the charge of arrogance) for you to claim that all this study and time devoted to theology and the Bible and apologetics matters not a whit, and that Ted and [name] know as much as I do (or as Eric [the other active Christian apologist on the list] does) about these things. That would be like claiming that if you studied philosophy for the next 21 or so years, that I would still know as much philosophy as you do.

Clearly, if you study something that long and specialize in it, you will know much more about it than someone who hasn’t done so. I don’t pretend to know remotely as much about philosophy as you or most members of this list. I like to talk about things, learn, and put up a fight if I think I have a strong, reasonable case to make, but I won’t pretend to know something I don’t know (That’s one major reason why I like to cite others who DO know much more about various philosophical matters than I do, because my own opinion matters little to you guys since many of you think so little of my philosophical knowledge and abilities).

The following two propositions are distinct:

1. No atheist can do Bible study simply because he is an atheist, and because, therefore, it is impossible for him to do so, because he doesn’t believe in the Bible and Christianity.

2. No atheist I have ever met has shown me that he is capable of doing serious Bible study. Why that is, is a matter of speculation, and I have my opinions. There may very well be such a person, but I have yet to encounter one myself.

I believe in #2, not #1. As long as you keep thinking I believe #1, you will miss the point of what I am contending. Meanwhile, I am showing – as an altogether typical example of that which I decry – how Ted’s list suffers from all the usual, garden-variety shortcomings of such endeavors by atheists. We can keep making these statements back and forth, or the atheists among you who claim to know relatively more about the Bible and the study of it, can refute my arguments. I’ve seen nothing which would sway me from my opinions in the slightest. These discussions always greatly strengthen my faith, in fact, once it is seen how very weak and groundless the opposing views are. I thank you for that. It is a great blessing. :-)

Scholars who study Greek or Roman mythology (that is, those who don’t literally believe in the factuality of that which they study) respect their subject matter (unlike most atheists and the Bible). They know what they are talking about. I’m not like the feminists who argue that one has to be a woman to have the slightest inkling of what abortion is about. People can certainly understand and possess insight into things they don’t themselves believe or experience.

This is not a question of whether or not one believes something. I understand a great deal about Protestant theology (having been a fervent evangelical Protestant myself for 13 years), and I critique it all the time, where it differs from Catholic theology, but I don’t believe it myself. I respect it as a relatively coherent system, and I disagree with it. I don’t consider Protestants fools and gullible simpletons for believing such “ridiculous” things, in the way many atheists view Christians en masse and the Bible. I don’t think Protestant theology is “ridiculous” at all. I respect Protestants highly and have written as much in print, in my second book. That is the difference.

If you come to the Bible, on the other hand, thinking it is chock-full of silly myths, old wive’s tales, legends, moral monstrosities, and contradictions, then you will tend to “find” that which you already believe is there. But that makes for terrible exegesis, because the goal is wrongheaded and fundamentally flawed from the outset. Simple and highly relevant things will be overlooked, and the results will be easily refuted, as we are seeing with Ted’s list. The folly is apparent to one and all.

And if one totally refuses to admit that they have botched an argument, then they cannot be persuaded. [name] and Ted are true believers in the Bible’s profound incoherence and absurdity. No argument (or so it seems thus far) can convince them otherwise. They are impervious to proof and reason on this score. They can’t admit the slightest error in their “exegesis,” whereas Christians do so all the time in our exegetical discussions with each other. We’re not nearly as dogmatic about exegesis as atheists are when they pretend to engage in it.

Ted’s list of “proof texts” are a compilation of “mini-arguments” for the propositions he asserts. For example, his first two false propositions are the following:

1. Are unsaved sinners eternally tormented? NO.
2. Will everyone get saved? YES.

Ted offered ten “prooftexts” for #1 and 6 for #2. I systematically responded to all of these and refuted them. Then I responded to all the other false prooftexts in the other eight sections. Once one claims to find a correlation between a Bible text and a proposition, this is an argument. In fact, that is exactly what systematic theology does. One might, then, call what Ted is doing, “systematic biblical atheology.” He tries to prove that the Bible (almost all NT texts) doesn’t teach what it in fact teaches, or that it teaches several contradictory propositions simultaneously. He failed miserably at that task, as I think I have demonstrated.

This has always been the case whenever I have examined such alleged contradictions offered by biblical skeptics or atheists. The Muslim apologists engage in the same sort of thing. They get their lists from liberal Christians who deny the inspiration of Scripture, then they run with it and think they have made some profound argument against Christianity. It’s the same old same old, and it is laughably devoid of substance and strength as an argument.

I don’t claim that my biblical exegesis (as a layman and non-theologian) is superior to Ted’s simply because I believe in Christianity and biblical inspiration and he does not. I claim it is more reasonable and cogent because of the exegesis and arguments I offer, derived from my much greater experience with the biblical text and study of theology in general. I can only offer arguments and see what the response is, just as in philosophy. The most basic errors of neglect of context, or simple logical errors are pretty straightforward. One doesn’t have to know all that much to know when a person doesn’t have a clue what he is talking about.

If, for instance, someone were to tell me that “the Detroit Pistons lost to the Washington Wizards on Friday night, March 14th,” they would be guilty of a factual error. If they told me that every foul shot is worth three points, they would be wrong. If they claimed that Michael Jordan is a lousy basketball player or that Rick Fox leads the league in scoring, I don’t have to know much about basketball at all to know that all these statements are false. But since I know quite a bit about the Bible and exegesis, it is all the more easy to spot someone who doesn’t know how to do it. And I am showing WHY this is so, not merely asserting it. The mere assertions are all on Ted’s side, with his silly supposed prooftexts which prove no such thing.

I freely admit (and have always done so) that all people have biases. That has been my strong opinion for many years now. It is best to admit our biases up front and then attempt to be as fair as possible, despite the biases. The fact that atheists (at least those who concern themselves with refutations of Christianity and the Bible) seem unable to do this concerning the Bible is one of the more humorous aspects of this whole fiasco.

My atheist friend stated that I needed to be more “dispassionate” in order to successfully argue.

People are passionate about things they love. I love God and I love what I believe to be His inspired Word. I don’t take kindly to people coming in and attempting to do a hatchet job on that inspired Word, when they have little inkling of how to do exegesis, and give the Bible less respect as literature than they would give an issue of the New Yorker or a review of a movie or a book report from a ten-year-old. If a person insults your wife or your children, or mother, you react strongly, in no uncertain terms. People are not utterly rational, completely objective thought-machines, devoid of passion and emotion. We’re not a bunch of Mr. Spocks, for heaven’s sake. This is not improper, and I will not apologize for it or be ashamed of it. It is a normal human reaction.

I understand that it is uncouth in scholarly circles to show passion, and the pretense is that everything is so dispassionate and “objective.” I don’t buy that (Kuhn and Gould suggest quite otherwise), but in any event, this is one of the luxuries I have in being a mere layman, not a scholar. You are not a scholar, either, though you obviously know your stuff in philosophy. To my knowledge, [name] is not (I don’t know what he does for a living). I can be myself. If I feel something strongly, I will express my disapproval. But I also provide solid arguments in addition to my disapproval and disgust at what I am critiquing. That is the bottom line: giving the arguments and the reasoning.

We’ve observed plenty of passion from the atheists here, too. One person — whom I have actually come to like — is actively ignoring one of the two most active theists, after having severely scolded him in no uncertain terms (and used to do the same with me, the last time around). You regularly take your potshots at Eric. Everyone has feelings, and they come out, either veiled or direct. I prefer the direct approach. I am a straight shooter who says what he means and means what he says. It’s my inner-city Detroit upbringing, no doubt. :-) There is never any mystery as to where I stand.

Another person on the list, who later stated that he wasn’t an atheist (he is either an agnostic or a theist who is a biblical skeptic) described the Bible as “stone age goatherders’ fairy tales.” I replied:

This is precisely why atheists are so terrible at biblical exegesis, because this is their opinion of the Bible. This makes my point more eloquently than my many hundreds of words trying to assert this same thing.

Oh, by the way (to clarify a mundane point of fact), the great majority of the texts we have been discussing (all but two so far) are from the NT, which is hardly the “Stone Age.” And many of those texts were from the Apostle Paul, hardly a “goatherder,” but in fact, an extremely sophisticated, educated, urbane writer (and originally a Jewish rabbi) quite familiar with all the prevailing pagan philosophies of that time, having grown up in Tarsus, which was a center of such learning in that period.

To further belabor an inconvenient point of fact: according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 ed.), the Bronze Age began at approximately 3000 B.C. in the Near East, with the use of copper. Use of bronze itself greatly increased from 2000-1000 B.C. The Iron Age followed. The Bronze Age followed the final Neolithic period of the Stone Age. The Britannica dates Moses at c. 14th-13th century B.C., and Abraham at c. 2000 B.C.

So even the first writings of the Old Testament were approximately 1600 years after the ending of the Stone Age in the Near East, with the beginning of the nation of Israel and the Hebrews 1000 years after the Stone Age. The New Testament is more than 3000 years after the Stone Age. That makes your description a bit off (though I’m sure historical accuracy was not your main concern: taking a shot at the Bible and Christianity was).

Just one example of countless ones of the very thing I have been describing . . .

Another atheist on the list, Leonard Cleavelin, gave permission to post his words (which will be in purple):

The Bible is actually a wonderful work, and I actually do enjoy reading it. But when I do read it (which I’ve done more of than I may let on), I don’t take it any more seriously than it deserves. It’s a wonderful work of mythology, interspersed with some interesting moral exhortation, quite a bit of wisdom, a good deal of outright foolishness, some dubious “historical” works, some fascinating tales of a man who may or may not have lived in the first century CE around whom some interesting legends grew, a number of letters of varying quality, and finished up by an account of what has to be one of the greatest drug induced hallucinations ever experienced by a human being (the book of Revelation, of course :-) ).

However, my knowledge about the Bible is limited to the Bible as a literary work: its plots, its stories, its memorable passages and characters. I don’t know, and don’t pretend to know, anything about the Bible as God’s revelation to man, because of course I don’t believe that it is such a thing. Therefore, it is no use to me to get to “know” the Bible in the way Dave and other apologists and defenders of the faith have come to know it.

Mine own humble opinion is that Biblical “exegesis” is what computer hackers like to call a WOMBAT: a Waste Of Money, Brains, And Time, but that’s because I don’t have any emotional or intellectual investment in the truth of the Bible, and therefore I have no great interest in or desire to defend the Bible against its detractors. I can see where someone might enjoy such an activity its own sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that;

. . . I sincerely appreciate the time and effort you’re taking in producing these lessons . . . and I realize you’ve still got 80% of your work ahead of you, so don’t drop what you’re doing to address any of my concerns immediately, but my observations to this point are:

1) Try not to be too bedazzled by your own eloquence. The “worthlessness”, “absurdity” and “silliness” of Ted’s list are no doubt obvious to someone who shares your faith in the Bible. However, while I admire the amount of time, effort and intellectual ingenuity you’ve put into explaining away all of the difficulties raised by Ted’s list, I’m not convinced by your explanations, most likely because I don’t accept the Bible as being anything other than great literature and mythology. Not only is it merely literature, it’s not even one coherent literary work; it’s a collection of various works, and that collection took many thousands of years to compose and compile. Of course it’s going to have contradictions in it. So what? That’s only a problem if one is trying to use it to justify a coherent set of beliefs…. :-)

Whether it is inspired or completely self-consistent or not is irrelevant to the question of determining whether said texts teach a particular doctrine or support a particular proposition. Logic applies to the texts and assertions based upon them, and if the latter are illogical or (in many instances) complete non sequiturs, then the argument fails, regardless of what you think about the Bible or inspiration, et al. One can try to determine what a text teaches or asserts, and produce various arguments for points of view, whether that text is fiction or non-fiction. One could claim, e.g., that the character Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, contradicted himself, and produce the texts which prove it.

My enterprise here (like much of apologetics) is merely a negative one; removing needless obstacles to faith and acceptance of Christianity. These arguments are lousy, period. It has nothing to do with my supposed “eloquence” or how many insults I direct towards the pitiful arguments (not the people). The bankruptcy of the arguments themselves is apparent, in my opinion. Is it forbidden for a theist on this list to charge that a given atheist doesn’t have a clue about biblical exegesis?

2) The more basic question seems to me, why should one accept that the Bible represents God’s revelation to man? Once you’ve accepted that premise, then it makes sense to invest money, brains and time in the great exegetical labors you’ve engaged in. But if one doesn’t accept that initial premise, why bother?

Because I am removing an irrational, illogical objection and refuting an attempt to demonstrate profound, massive contradiction in the Bible. The success of that project depends not at all on what one thinks about the Bible being inspired or not. This is strictly a matter of logic and language, and elementary things like consideration of context in deducing the meaning of a text.

3) I’ll reiterate what I think was my initial question in this discussion: not how can one believe in the Bible given its many contradictions (though that is a question I’ve asked many times), but rather, given these apparent contradictions and the amount of time and effort that you have to engage in to “explain” these contradictions away, how can you say that the Bible tells us unambiguous guidance as to what to believe and how to behave?

I can do so only by commenting on the Bible and dealing with so-called “problem texts.” I have used this list of Ted’s as an opportunity to do so. I don’t expect to convince you or anyone else here (what else is new?). But I do expect to demonstrate to many hundreds of people who read the web paper with an open mind (not already made up and set in stone), that such attempts as Ted’s are facile, silly, and complete failures. And that is well worth my time, because my goal as an apologist is to defend Christianity and build up the faith of Christians and show them how their beliefs are quite rational indeed. To show the utter weakness of various and sundry cynical atheist attempts to show the irrationality of Christianity and the Bible, accomplishes all these tasks. I would hope that you can at least admit that there are logical problems in Ted’s presentation, but perhaps that is too much to expect.

Doesn’t this sword cut both ways, though? If you come to the Bible thinking it is the [one can add “infallible” or “inerrant” at this point if one is of that particular stripe of Christian] Word of God, then you will tend to “find” that which you already believe is there, too.

I fully agree, as I stated in a response to Steve. I am biased towards the Bible being inspired and non-contradictory; absolutely. The difference is that I freely admit my biases. You guys are not doing so.

How does that make for any better “exegesis? Why is that goal any less fundamentally flawed from the outset than the other approach which you denigrate?

Because at least the person respects his subject matter, and doesn’t have an inherent hostility (usually including an irrational emotionalism) against it. Do you think a guy in the KKK is able to write rationally about African-American culture and contribution to American society? Can a Palestinian terrorist write a fair treatment of Israeli goals, aspiration, and culture? Can a liberal Democratic strategy-maker or office-holder write a fair, logical, sympathetic essay on the “glories and profound political thought and societal and legal contributions of Republican conservatism”?

These are extreme examples, but sometimes those are needed to belabor what I think is a rather obvious point that you guys keep contending against. So an atheist who thinks all this negative stuff about the Bible is able to fairly and objectively interpret it? I think not. It’s not absolutely impossible to conceive, but as I have said, I have never seen it myself. And the sad results of that endeavor are in front of us, as I continue to respond to the alleged contradictions.

The bottom line seems to be that what constitutes good exegesis depends on one’s presuppositions.

Logic doesn’t depend on that. It simply is. Reading the writer’s sentence before and after a “prooftext” doesn’t depend on that. It’s not that difficult. Looking up the meaning of a Greek word in a Greek lexicon doesn’t depend on presuppositions, but on languages as they exist, and scholarship in that regard. You could, I suppose, start going after the credentials of the Greek scholar . . . .

The basic question that still needs to be answered is: “What good reason is there for believing that the Bible is the revelation of God to man?”

That’s beyond our purview, and I wouldn’t try to address that on this list, because it is off-topic, and the discussion would quickly devolve into a three-ring circus. We do best here with clearly laid-out propositions and arguments to be debated (preferably purely philosophical ones, without getting into attempted biblical exegesis by those who view the Bible as the equivalent of Alice in Wonderland or Aesop’s Fables or the mythology of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome).

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