The Demons! The Demons! Replying to Armstrong on Biblical Contradictions

The Demons! The Demons! Replying to Armstrong on Biblical Contradictions July 29, 2017

As you no doubt know by now, Dave Armstrong and myself are having a new religious war. Or something.

Putting the deconversion accounts to one side, let’s see what he makes of my claimed biblical contradictions. We shall start with my claims about the demoniacs and the where it all took place. As previously mentioned, there are two potential problems (neither of which I particularly care about, I just like to see how Christians react – and this is a great point in hand):

Problem 1 – the Gospels contradict each other on where this took place – the country of Gadara or the country of Geresa
Problem 2 – one or two demons

Problem 2

I will start with Problem 2 because Dave appears not to have even read my original piece, deferring to the very argument I decry.

It’s ridiculous to claim with any confident certainty as to whether these instances are even contradictions. The “one or two” [men / demons] supposed “contradiction” is clearly not one at all, by the rules of logic. This is one of the most common atheist / skeptical errors: in their rush to show how absurd the Bible and Christians are, to believe all this stuff that they despise so much. Mentioning one is as easily explained as saying that one writer drew from a (non-infallible) oral tradition in which one was mentioned, and the second from a tradition that mentioned two. Even those weren’t necessarily contradictory. In order to be, one account would have to say “only one” and the other “two.” That would be a logical contradiction. But they don’t and so it is a non sequitur (like innumerable atheist “exegetical” arguments are).

Jonathan, oblivious to the rules of logic,  nevertheless asserts that “most skeptics”believe there is a “clear contradiction” here. So much for the cogency and logical coherence of their thinking. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. All we need do (as St. John Chrysostom and St. Augustine did) is posit that one person was more remarkable or prominent than the other. Mark and Luke mention one, Matthew two. Likewise, in Matthew 20:30, two blind men are mentioned (with again one mentioned in Mark and Luke).

The number of demons are multiple in all accounts (Mk 5:9-12; Mt 8:31; Lk 8:30-33), so that is a non-issue as well. Why, then, does Jonathan wonder about “one or two demons”? It’s neither. It is “many.”

Wow. Okay, so he starts out by attacking my logic, and then says that they all state many. But the passages are very explicit, as I quoted them:

Mark 5:1-2
They came to the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gerasenes. 2 When He got out of the boat, immediately a man from the tombs with an unclean spirit met Him,

Matt 8:28
When He came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way.

Luke 8:26-7
Then they sailed to the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27 And when He came out onto the land, He was met by a man from the city who was possessed with demons;

Whether you like it or not, Jesus was either met by one man or two. I couldn’t give a withered fig as to whether this is remotely important or not, but it is a contradiction.

It seems almost pointless, but I am simply going to requote my original piece and hopes that he actully reads it since it deals entirey with his point:

Now let us talk about the numbers. JP Holding has a hilarious defence here which includes this:

If there were two of them, there was at least one, wasn’t there? Mark and Luke center attention on the more prominent and outspoken of the two, the one whose demonic occupants called themselves “Legion” (Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, p. 325).

This is simply terrible as I will explain:

This is ridiculous because no two claimed numbers that are different can ever be a contradiction because one number is always smaller than the other, and is thus claimed to be a subset of another.

If I said I played football against a team of 10 men the other day (when there should be eleven), you would claim, “that’s OK, you obviously meant 11 men since 11 men includes 10 men. Just because you said 10 doesn’t mean there weren’t 11!”

There is a patent misuse of language here. I can’t believe that people would ever claim such tripe without feeling like they are simply lying to themselves! But Holding goes on to expand:

So why would they leave one man out? Three responses come to the fore. 1. The first is a theory that Matthew here (and elsewhere) doubles to fit the criteria of “two witnesses”. However, Matthew does not double characters consistently enough for this to make a worthwhile explanation [Keener, 282]. It also doesn’t make a lot of sense because Matthew already has at least a dozen witnesses present in the form of Jesus and his disciples.

As Holding himself claims, this is not consistent enough to be a worthwhile defence. I will leave it at that. Remember, if there are multiple theories for doing something, then it usually means most theories are wrong. This is the least probable of the three Holding mentions.

2. A second idea is that Matthew, copying Mark, has followed a normal literary procedure for the day, in that he has left out other accounts by Mark (1:23-6 of the demoniac; also the blind man of 8:22-26) and so has chronologically displaced them, quite intentionally. Of course we do not agree that Matthew copied Mark, at least not in his original Aramaic edition; but the same process could conceivably have taken place using common oral tradition or an Aramaic original.

This is another incoherent attempt at harmonising. There are not two distinct events involving single demoniacs. This is one event involving two demoniacs. This thesis, by Holding’s own language, is only as good as “could conceivably” – itself a hugely unlikely probability. I would say it is less likely than that. The language is clear and concise. One has to really gerrymander in order to maintain inerrancy here.

3. The third idea is simply practical: the second guy didn’t do much, or as much. While the one guy came forth yelling and saying Legion and all that, the other probably hung back in the bushes yelling and physically cowering. We don’t know exactly what happened, but the bottom line is that if he didn’t do anything special, and Mark and Luke are emphasizing action, they aren’t going to divert from the main story and tell all about the guy hiding in the bushes that had to be called out or chased down, and change their whole story to accommodate him. We can see an actual example of this within Luke’s Gospel. Wright in The Resurrection of the Son of God [613] notes within Luke the example of how Peter is reported only to have gone to the tomb, yet on the Emmaus Road the disciples say that “some of our number” went to the tomb. Clearly, “Luke is quite capable of highlighting one person when he knows, and tell us later, that more than one was involved….If Luke can say that there was one person, and then later that there was more than one, the numerical differences between the different accounts of the women and the angels cannot be regarded as serious historical problems.” Obviously this would apply to the demoniac story as well.

Wow, they really are inventive. One account says two demoniacs, another says only one, so the account that mentions only one was really talking about two but since one of the demoniacs only hung round in the background not doing much, he only mentions one. Not accurate history at all. This is not “diverting from the main story” by mentioning two since in Matthew, when he mentions two, there is no diverting. One is perfectly capable of mentioning two without there being a distraction! So this falls down on merely looking at Matthew. Another example of ad hoc improbability. Highlighting Luke and the Road to Emmaus does not get Luke off the hook, but merely sends him deeper into examples of inaccuracy! And even if the Road to Emmaus example stands, the language is different and vaguer. Matthew says two, Luke and Mark say one. Rather explicitly. I love the “obviously” thrown in as a rhetorical device. It’s not obvious at all.nt_israel-flat

Here is another defence from a discussion I was having elsewhere:

“Each of the Gospel contains details that are not in the others. But none of those details contradicts the details in the others. If I tell you that Jack and Jill went to the mall and bought a DVD, but I tell another person that Jill went to Walmart and bought a DVD, did I contradict myself? Nope. I just didn’t give the same detail. A contradiction would be if the mall did not have a Walmart. You don’t have such a thing in this case. We know that Jesus went to an area containing two cities, Gerasa and Gadara, and while he was there he cast demons out of two men that met Him as he came ashore and they knew who Jesus is.”

Again we have a misuse of language in this false analogy. Names are not synonymous with numbers. If I say in a news report “One person was shot yesterday at a bank robbery” that does not leave the possibility that I could mean “Two people were shot yesterday in a bank robbery”. This is simply a bastardisation of the English language and does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny. I would simply be wrong in my first claim.

This should really put to bed the “response” that Armstrong offered, which was no response on this point at all.

Problem 1

It really does seem like Armstrong really does find presenting “an answer” as good enough. He goes with this:

Personally, I think that the most plausible explanation is that the seemingly “contradictory” accounts are simply using alternate names for the same area. As we all know, this is very common today. Jonathan is from England. Or is he from Great Britain? Or the United Kingdom? All are valid names for the same country. I’m from America; also known as the United States. Ancient Persia is now Iran. Ancient Babylonia is Iraq. France is also Gaul.

I myself am a midwesterner, a Michigander (indeed, from the “land of the Great Lakes”), and Detroiter (also known as Motown and the Motor City and the Automobile Capital of the World). I’m an Anglo-Saxon, Scottish-American, and Canadian-American (northern European, ethnically). We regularly visit friends near Pittsburgh, and can say “we visited the Pittsburgh area.” We could also say, “we visited Pennsylvania” or “Pennsylvania Dutch country.” Jesus was from Nazareth; hence is called “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Nazarene” (Mt 2:23; Mk 14:67) [actual town of origin] or “Jesus the Galilean” [larger region]. The Sea of Galilee itself is also called Lake of Gennesaret and Sea of Tiberius.

He’s really stretching things here, and being not a little disingenuous. He is false analogising at best with most of these. The Gospels present two different names based on two different towns. They are not two different names for the same thing. At best, they will have different properties (size, people, geographical features) but with some overlap. Great Britain and UK (NB, in popular parlance here) are simply two names given to exactly the same place. France and Gaul are different because they are separated by history. Two names for almost the same geography but not used at the same time. If you used France back then, or Gaul now, you would get odd looks. The same goes for his other examples. You simply cannot apply these examples to the Gadara / Geresa problem. And this is his main argument to which he adds:

All of this sure seems perfectly consistent with calling the same area the “country” (chōra) of either the Gerasenes or the Gadarenes, after the two major cities. Why is this even an issue, I wonder? Well, it is because atheists, in their zealous rush to make fun of Christians, Christianity, and the Bible, start to lose their logical rigor and rationality, leading them to contend for implausible things: as presently.

So he has the Gaul gall to say this of me whilst using a fallacy of false equivalence. It’s worse, because he then uses other defences simultaneously that are exclusive to the one he has already used.

He states that they are “alternate names for the same area” and then goes on to quote that they “may be harmonized on the historical grounds that geographical boundaries overlapped, and on the exegetical consideration that “country” embraced a wide area around the cities”. So now we have not the same area, but overlapping areas, and nothing more than a “may”. He might want to look at Bayesian probability ascribed to terms like “may”.

415px-The-Decapolis-map.svg

The thing is, I don’t think you would ever call the edge of the Sea of Galilee “the country of the Gerasenes”, either. It’s just geographically bizarre. Just looks at the map, and be honest with yourself. Gerasa is 50km away – you just wouldn’t call that the “country of Gerasenes” – you just wouldn’t. Wikipedia recognises the issue:

The author of the Matthew Gospel appears to have moved the setting to Gadara to make it more plausible. However it is still 10 km away, so Origen speculated that there had been a town called “Gergasa” on the shores of the sea.[13]

[13] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary (Presbyterian Publishing Corp, 2006) pages 148-149.

It’s important to note that this statement isn’t just plucked out of thin air, but from a commentary on Mark. As I mentioned in my previous post, the problem was well-known enough for Origen to think he had to propose a solution.

From what I can gather, Gadara, the closer settlement, was far larger at the time of Jesus’ activities.

A member of the Decapolis,[2] Gadara was a center of Greek culture in the region, considered one of its most Hellenized[3] and enjoying special political and religious status.[2] By the third century BC the town was of some cultural importance. [source]

And later, it became a semi-autonomous city placed under control of Herod. It appears to be a more important, contemporarily speaking, city than Gerasa. So why would the Gospel writers call the area of the Gerasenes when people would not have been called Gerasene who lived there? A smaller town some fifty whole kilometres away from a larger city! This was my point in the original article that, again, David did not deal with.

Which leads me back to my original conclusions, all untouched by David Armstrong’s protestations. He is appealing to scenarios that are unbelievably unlikely such that, well, I don’t believe them.

When early church fathers recognise an issue, then there might well be an issue.

To be honest, Armstrong will have to do a good deal better to win this war!


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