Monday, August 26, 2013

Yes atheist polemics can be wrong

As in this.  This is from a graph that was posted and celebrated on the ironically titled Friendly Atheist blog some days ago.  The gist is that it's a graph showing the contradictions of the Bible.  When you look at the lines, it takes your breath away.  Wow!  There are that many contradictions!  It reminds me of Bart Erhman's breakout book Misquoting Jesus.  In that book, Ehrman turns biblical scholarship, if not all literary scholarship, on its head.

First, he suggests that it's absurd to think just because a source is closer to the time it describes that it's necessarily more accurate.  Which is odd, since skeptics often say the NT can't be trusted since the letters were written so long after the events.  Second, he loved to say that there were more mistakes than there were words in the entire NT!  That is true, if you take all the the hundreds or thousands of fragments, codices, parchments and combine them and add up all the mistakes.  But then, you'd have more than just the number of words in the NT.  You'd have all the words in all the combined manuscripts.  Which wouldn't make much of a case.

Most importantly, he also conveniently dodged the fact that the lion's share of "mistakes" are in fact slight and insignificant differences.  A variant geographical spelling, a shifting in position of a preposition, a change in someone's tittle (did John come baptizing, was John the one who was baptizing, did John the Baptist come to the Jordan?, etc.).  There are some significant differences in some of the account, but they are few and far between (and worthy of much scholarly debate).

Finally, he would always end by pointing out the fact that the story of the Woman caught in adultery was not in the original manuscripts!  Oh no!  It can't be!  Except every Bible on every bookshelf in every Christian store has that footnote next to the 8th Chapter of John: This story is not found in many of the earliest manuscripts.  It doesn't mean a thing.  And yet, Ehrman, who says it's his goal as a professor to get his students to question their faith, is more than happy to play fast and loose with the inconvenient facts he ignores in order to make points that really don't exist.

I like Dr. Ehrman, don't get me wrong.  He was a fundamentalist who got burned when he realized just how skewered scholarship has to be in order to accommodate a fundamentalist world view.  But as we see, that holds true for fundamentalism in anything: Catholicism, Liberalism, and yes, Atheism.

So we have the above mentioned graph, that was supposed to show 'the contradictions of the Bible!'  Except it doesn't.  Oh I'm sure there are a few.  We all know the Passion narratives aren't exactly the same word for word, or that there are two creation accounts. And yes, there are some differences in the manuscripts that have some weight to them.  But for how massive the Scriptural canon is, compared to other writings of the ancient  world, they're beyond solid and almost amazing in their inner consistency and accuracy.

So the ones pushing that graph have to rely on the most hilariously ignorant take on the Bible and what it says, suggesting strongly that they have never even read the biblical texts, if they believe what this graph says is contractions.  When Jesus says if you believe in Him you will never die, and the author of the letter of Hebrews says it is appointed that we all die, that is NOT a contraction.  But guess how it showed up on the graph.

It reminds me of a humorous anecdote we used to hear in my Protestant days.  It was used to illustrate a person who didn't understand the Bible, even if they believed in it.  He decides to just let the Spirit guide him through opening the Bible and pointing to two verses, and that's what the Spirit wants.  So he opens up and puts his finger on Matthew 27.5: Judas hanged himself.  He then flipped the page and put his finger down on Luke 10.37: Go and do likewise.  A point our good intellectually superior atheists appear to have missed.


  1. Off topic, but MAN am I tired of the "two creation accounts" when every time I've read Gen 1 & 2 it's a pretty obvious structure: Overview - detail. We all encounter such a structure in every day conversation EVERY day, yet when it comes to these chapters, suddenly so many people can't seem to grasp the structure.


    *whew* thanks for letting me get that off my chest, Dave. Go about your day. =)

    See also this protestant scholar I am a fan of.

  2. I've never been bothered by the idea that the wording as well as the structure lends itself to being two different accounts from two different source, ultimately pointing to the same thing of course. But for different purposes. What we call the first chapter is a more universal take down of God's relation to creation as opposed to the usual ideas ancients had about it. In the second round, we have creation of Man and humanity's relation to God. The overall creation is of less importance there, it centering on man and man's unique position in God's creation. Just the wording shows two different sources, but it's still pointing at the same truths, just for different purposes.

  3. Well I've always been wary of basing too much on wording when you're receiving something from a translation.

    After all, #1 on this list here (which I think you'll get a kick out of regardless) is all a huge misunderstanding between cultures in our own time. No matter how much we study, who knows how much more we're missing from that culture.

  4. To be sure you don't want to hang *too* much on this or that wording (the wording is different in Colossians than Romans, so Paul must not have written Colossians – I’ve never bought that). But there are clear difference in the first two "Chapters" in Genesis. And that's OK by me. Nobody argues that there are two different birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. And yet that doesn't mean anything to the overall consistency of the narrative. It can still point to a coherent whole, even if they came from other sources. The consistent use of the Tetragrammaton (thanks for giving me a chance to use that awesome term) in Genesis 2 while the more general term used for God is exclusive to Genesis 1. That can't be a coincidence, two narratives or one. The basic flow of narrative from vast universe to pinnacle of man, to man first and everything created for him, also shows two separate purposes. Which, for me, is just fine. As I used to say in my Protestant days, God can do more than just inspire authors. He can inspire editors, too.


Let me know your thoughts