Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Alleged Mistakes in the Bible

Ray limits himself, in chapter 11 of How to Know God Exists, to alleged contradictions between one biblical statement and another.  Having apparently settled, to his own satisfaction, the scientific accuracy of the Bible in the previous chapter, he does not address alleged scientific mistakes in the Bible, and for some reason he takes no notice of alleged historical mistakes (e.g. having Quirinius as governor of Syria and Herod the Great as king of Judea at the same time).  Even so, he's obviously bitten off a larger subject than can be handled in one chapter; consider, e.g. that the Skeptics' Annotated Bible finds an alleged contradiction on nearly every page, and that Bart Ehrman's God's Problem lists several allegedly contradictory explanations of human suffering alone, it would take a book several times longer than this one to cover all alleged biblical contradictions even in a cursory manner.  But even given the necessarily limited scope of one short chapter, Ray's handling of the question is problematic.

Ray argues that biblical passages must be interpreted in the context of the whole Bible.  This is actually a bit question-begging, since it assumes from the start that the Bible is entirely self-consistent and free from contradictions, which is of course the point under consideration.  And even so, in practice "the context of the whole Bible" tends to mean "the context of what Ray thinks the Bible means."  Ray insists, thus, that there is no contradiction between claims that nothing is impossible with God, and the claim that despite God being with Judah, the men of Judah could not defeat the chariot-equipped armies of the plains dwellers in Judges 1.  The men of Judah were, Ray informs us, apparently fearful and disobedient, although no biblical text hints at such lack of faith on this occasion.

Ray makes a fair case that some alleged contradictions are mere nit-picking (e.g. the supposed contradiction between Jesus' command to love even one's enemies and his command to his disciples to limit their first evangelistic mission to Jewish towns).  And he omits entirely some rather well-worn apparent contradictions (e.g. the dueling genealogies of Jesus -- through Joseph the husband of Mary -- in Matthew and Luke).  But he makes a near-total hash of some efforts.  

Take, for an obvious (given Ray's emphasis on the Ten Commandments as the standard by which God judges us) contrast between the Old Testament emphasis on Sabbath observance (not working on the seventh day of the week) as a permanent institution and the New Testament insistence that Sabbath observance was a matter of personal choice, irrelevant to serving God.  Ray argues that Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly and delivered us from the letter of the law, but this doesn't really address the issue.  Presumably Jesus equally perfectly fulfilled the commandments against adultery, theft, and idolatry, but Ray does not seem to feel that observance of these is a matter of personal preference.  He argues that Christians are saved by faith, not by following the law, but this doesn't really answer the question of why not murdering or stealing are acts that are expected to follow from faith, and not working on Saturday is not.  A similar point applies to Ray's similar treatment of circumcision.

Changing the subject is not quite the same thing as showing that a seeming contradiction is not a real contradiction.


  1. It would presumably be possible, even today, to slap together a "Hellenic Bible" which (like the Hebrew Bible) was an anthology of history, mythology, poetry and philosophy. It would consist of works by Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, etc. And it would be just as easy to say, as believers say about the Old and New Testament, "Here is a work written by many different authors over hundreds of years, and yet there is not one mistake or self-contradiction in it."

    This would seem an impossible task, since Aristotle appears to have gotten many things wrong in physics and biology, and Plato appears to speak disparagingly of Homer, and Homer and Sophocles appear to have different version of episodes involving the loves and deaths of the heroes, etc. But all these apparent falsehoods and contradictions could surely be made to vanish if enough faith and creativity were employed -- i.e., what the non-believer would call "special pleading."

    But then why go to the trouble of reinventing the circular argument; we can just observe how obvious it is to orthodox Christians that the Book of Mormon is full of nonsense and falsehoods, and how easy it is for the LDS apologist to use the same kind of hermeneutic to defend his text that the Christians use for theirs.

  2. Steven, would you be cool with us flicking this review and Ray's rebuttal (and your counter-rebuttal, etc, etc) on the wearesmrt wiki as a sort of informal debate?

  3. BathTub asked me:

    Steven, would you be cool with us flicking this review and Ray's rebuttal (and your counter-rebuttal, etc, etc) on the wearesmrt wiki as a sort of informal debate?

    I'd be honored. Feel free.

  4. Excellent.

    Unfortunately it will be hard to bead Terry's Undies for popularity at this point!