The author, Lee Strobel, is still interviewing Dr. B about the gospels. He’s going over a series of tests to see whether or not the gospels are reliable. I’ve been trying to cover 2 tests per post, but we’re probably going to spend this entire post on test #4, because test #4 is:
4. THE CONSISTENCY TEST
That’s the actual sub section heading. So, let’s dive in.
Here’s a test that skeptics often charge the gospels with failing. After all, aren’t they hopelessly contradictory with each other? Aren’t there irreconcilable discrepancies among the various gospel accounts? And if there are, how can anyone trust anything they say?
Finally, an actual question I had when I was still a Christian going through my “doubting” phase! Longtime readers will recall that I started my journey on the road to atheism because of discrepancies I found in the gospels. (That’s not the only reason, mind you. It is not even the only trigger event.)
Also, the first Biblical contradiction I ever noticed in my entire life was in the gospels. So I am interested to read this section.
Dr. B points out, quite fairly, that there are big contradictions and little ones, but still refers to them as “apparent contradictions.” Notice the phrasing. Dr. B clearly does not believe that the gospels contain contradictions, even though he’s going to admit, in a moment, that they do.
“My own conviction [says Dr. B] is that once you allow for the elements I’ve talked about earlier–of paraphrase, of abridgment, of explanatory additions, of selection, of omission–the gospels are extremely consistent with each other by ancient standards, which are the only standards by which it’s fair to judge them.”
I could be convinced to agree with this, except for one thing. Often, Christians don’t judge the bible by ancient standards, insisting that the Bible, all parts of the Bible, aren’t just written for first century Christians, but today’s Christians. Yes, even the parts that say that women have to submit to their husbands. Those are applicable today, of course, despite the fact that we as a society know better now. We can’t discuss judging the Bible by ancient standards then.
But now that it’s time to discuss contradictions in the gospels? Now we have to apply ancient standards.
Dr. B points out that, if the texts had been too identical, it would have made the gospels look less reliable because then the writers could be accused of conspiracy. Which is sort of fair, but you don’t have to be identical in order to be consistent.
Set that aside. In the last chapter, we discussed how Matthew and Luke clearly copied from Mark, because the passages in question were too similar. So the gospel writers already being accused of copying.
Other than that, I agree. The accounts can’t be too similar, but they also can’t be wildly contradictory, which in some places they really are.
If the gospels were too consistent, that in itself would invalidate them as independent witnesses.
I think Dr. B is confusing “too similar” with “too consistent.” If my best friend and I tell the same story, in our own words, the stories are going to differ a little bit. We might be confused on, say, whether or not the person was wearing a purple shirt or a red one. But in order to be taken seriously, our stories do need to be very consistent. If I tell a story about a co worker stealing money from the register, and my friend tells a story about a co worker robbing the safe, we are not telling the same story. That’s the kind of inconsistency police would pounce on. No one cares if we can’t remember what color shirt the thief was wearing at the time the crime was committed.
Strobel slips in some quotes from experts about how the gospels have just enough discrepancy to be reliable, but not so much as to be unreliable.
Strobel tells us that he is going to ask Dr. B about some contradictions that “skeptics repeatedly seize upon.”
I began with a well-known story of a healing. “In Matthew it saws a centurion himself came to ask Jesus to heal his servant,” I pointed out. “However, Luke says the centurion sent the elders to do this. Now, that’s an obvious contradiction, isn’t it?
This….is a soft ball contradiction. But sure, we’ll roll with it.
Dr. B says that this is only a contradiction to our 21st century minds. To the mind of the ancient Romans, however, it wasn’t. The their minds, “the centurion” and “the centurion’s messengers” are the same thing.
Then Dr. B continues to say that we do the same thing today.
“In our world, we may hear a news report that says, “the president today announced that…” when in fact the speech was written by a speechwriter and delivered by the press secretary–and with a little luck, the president might have glanced at it somewhere in between. Yet nobody accuses that broadcast of being in error.”
I would hope that, if the president is going to have something attached to his name like that, that he would at least be the one reading and editing that speech.
Set that aside.
If the president’s press secretary is the one to announce it, then yes I would consider that broadcast to be at least a little bit in error. It wouldn’t be something that would invalidate the entire article, but it would be enough to show me that perhaps this article is lacking in a few details.
Set that aside. I’m not sure how valid all this is, when God, who supposedly wrote the Bible, told his followers what to write, he would have known that thousands of years later people were going to look at that and go, “huh?”
Remember, Christians believe that God dictated the words of the Bible to holy men, who wrote it all down. Wouldn’t you think that an all powerful being who could see into the future would say something like, “jee Luke, future readers are gonna be kinda picky. You think you could go ahead and edit this for me?”
No one expects a news broadcast to be word perfect. That is not true of the Bible.
Strobel thinks Dr. B’s explanation is plausible and sure, why not. It is a minor contradiction, after all. Let’s move on to a bigger one.
“What about Mark and Luke saying that Jesus sent the demons into the swine at Gerasa, while Matthew says it was in Gadara…..Gerasa, the town, wasn’t anywhere near the Sea of Galilee, yet that’s where the demons, after going into the swine, supposedly took the herd over the cliff to their deaths.”
Dr. B tells us all that there’ve been ruins of a town matching the Biblical description called “Khersa.” Dr. B says that if this was transliterated into Greek, it would come out sounding something like, “Gerasa.” And Gerasa was a town in the province of Gadara.
A quick google search reveals that this is a plausible explanation. I could believe that the author would need more time to look this up before shooting back any follow up questions, so I will move on to Strobel’s next point which is the genealogy of Jesus. Apparently Matthew and Luke have minor differences.
Dr. B pulls out the old “One genealogy is Joseph’s, the other is Mary’s” explanation. Since Joseph and Mary are kinda sorta related, at some point the blood lines merge. I’d like to believe this. I mean, when you think about it, Mary’s genealogy matters way more than Joseph’s does.
The thing is, there’s no in text support for this. In fact, Luke’s genealogy does not even mention Mary. And unless Mary and Joseph have the exact same father, it’s unlikely they’d be that similar.
In case we are not satisfied by that explanation (I’m not), Dr. B goes on to say that any discrepancies could be a result of Joseph’s legal lineage verses his actual human lineage. Sometimes there was no male heir, so an heir had to be created using various methods.
Apparently some names were even omitted, with we are told was normal for the time period. Well yeah, if you’re going to try to trace someone’s heritage all the way back to freakin’ god (which Luke’s does) you’re going to have to leave out a few names, for obvious reasons.
Dr. B then points out that some names were translated from other languages, and could therefore look like different names.
So, let me tell you what I like. I like that Dr. B is presenting different options. I like that he’s not picking one and sticking with it regardless of argument against it.
I also like this because I can make an educated guess that someone just got something wrong somewhere and it doesn’t really matter, but a conservative Christian doesn’t have that option. And so I shall respect Dr. B’s statements for what they are –educated guesses.
Not wanting our conversation to degenerate into a stump-the-scholar game, I decided to move on. In the meantime Dr. B and I agreed that the best overall approach would be to study each issue individually to see whether there’s a rational way to resolve the apparent conflict among the gospels.
You said you were going to ask the hard questions! The touch questions. The questions atheists really ask! And then you throw out incredibly softball contradictions and expect me to be ok with being told to go and read the Bible yourself and try to resolve the “apparent” contradictions?
Do you know what a headache that is? It’s also pointless. It’s far better if you just accept that the gospel writers were flawed humans who got things wrong sometimes. It’s a far more plausible explanation and it’ll save you a lot of headache.
Christians, does it really matter if some of the minor details are wrong? What matters is that you still believe in the major details. Like the fact that Jesus came, he died, he rose again, and he did it all to save you. If you focus on that instead of chasing yourself in circles over the little details that don’t truly matter, you’ll have a more fulfilling walk with God. You’ll also avoid falling into the trap of thinking that if some of it isn’t true, all of it must be true. Because that’s not necessarily the case.
Once you create that house of cards, it gets exhausting not to knock it down.