Friday, July 24, 2009

A quick harmonisation of the Gospel birth accounts

A commenter over at another blog has been throwing out "biblical contradictions", so I thought I'd share my recent response to him.
It's rather humorous to hear him say things like:
If the text is errant, then it gets its authority from matching and providing new insight into a present experience of "god" or life or experience, however you define the ineffable quality of being in the middle of here. And to me it does not "downgrade" the Bible, but rather "upgrades" the rest of life and its resources as means to spiritual truth.
The birth narratives have contradictions...Great stories though - seriously, I think they are beautiful.
So, the falser they are, the more beautiful? I think this man needs to rethink some things. But if you read his comments, he clearly treats the Bible differently than any other writing he encounters, so this is just one more way he does so.

I didn't devote a ton of time to the harmonisation, but it wasn't really all that hard. Here we see yet another way skeptics like him don't bother trying to get to the bottom of the story; they just see a post in the Skeptic's Antiquated Drivel and assume he's got a silver bullet in his gun. It's a shame, really.

Lk 1:21On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.

So they didn't go on the 40th, they went on the 8th.

39When Joseph and Mary had done everything required by the Law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee to their own town of Nazareth.

Back to Naz they go. Doesn't say how long. Doesn't say they never went back to Bethlehem. Doesn't say they never left Naz again their whole life long. Doesn't say whether they left on vacation or back to live there.

Matt 2:1After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magia from the east came to Jerusalem 2and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the eastb and have come to worship him.”

This is about 2 yrs after Jesus' birth.

7Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. 8He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

9After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the easte went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

Looks like they're in Bethlehem at this point, 2 years later.
Did they go back to live there after they'd returned to Naz? Did they decide to move?
The text doesn't say.
Then they flee to Egypt, when Jesus is ~2 yrs old.

Still in Matt 2 - 19After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” 21So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, 23and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”

So then they go back to Nazareth.
Where's the contradiction?

There is no compelling reason to harmonize them, unless one has an interest in doing so.

Spoken like a true skeptic, with the intention to be unfair to the text.
You harmonise EVERYTHING ELSE, but you're not interested in even trying to harmonise the Bible. Your bias is showing.


David Bryan said...

So would you say the sign above Christ on the Cross actually said, in its entirety, "THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS" (i.e., a composite of all four gospels' takes on the sign's content)?

Rhology said...

Yeah, probably.

Funny thing is, I never really thought about the birth accts like this until I was talking to Steven and Burk. Thought plenty about the Rez accts, but not the birth.

It's just one more reason to blog. :-)

David Bryan said...

So how do you get around the fact that each gospel account stated something explicitly regarding what the sign said, when in reality only one of the four was actually right, at best, and the other three (or all four) were (in some cases drastically) in error as to what the sign actually said?

Word verification: butbeter. As in, "Living the Gospel: it's like debating theology online, butbeter!" ;P

justfinethanks said...

Spoken like a true skeptic, with the intention to be unfair to the text.
You harmonise EVERYTHING ELSE, but you're not interesting in even trying to harmonise the Bible.

Who harmonizes everything else? Do skeptics harmonize the Koran? Take these two verses:

He it is Who hath created for you all that is on earth.
Then He turned to the heaven, and made them into seven heavens. -- Sura 2:29


Are you the harder to create, or is the heaven that He built?
He raised the height thereof and ordered it;
and He has made dark the night thereof, and He brought forth the morn thereof.
And after that, He spread out the earth. -- Sura 79:27-30

Pretty straightforward contradiction if you ask anyone sane. One claims that God made heaven first, and the other says that Earth came first. So there, the Koran isn't inerrant, right?

Well, if you are a Muslim apologist, you will insist that actually the arabic word for "then" can also be rendered as "furthermore," so there is really no contradiction. In fact "mistranslation" is the most common refrain for every contradiction that you can point out in that crazy book.

Of course, which is more likely, that every single translator got the Koran wrong when rendered in English, or the bevy of clear contradictions are actually clear contradictions?

There is really no good reason to say that the Koran is coherent unless you really, really need it be.

It's the same the Bible. Most of the "harmonizations" require such stretches of logic and semantic twisting that it renders the idea of any contradiction existing anywhere unthinkable. If "The God Delusion" was placed in the Bible right after Revelation fundies would STILL declare it inerrant and coherent

The Book of Dawkins: "The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry."

Apologist: Ah, yes, this is perfectly compatible with the call for rationality in 1 Thess 5: "test everything, keep the good."

The Book of Dawkins: The theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity.

Apologist: You are totally taking this quote out of its historical context! The audience understood the word "nature" to reference the works of God, who was equated to nature. And "selection" simply refers to God's choices. So this refers to how God choosing is the only comprehensible way that life could have come about.

The Book of Dawkins: "God is a Delusion"

Apologist: Only a stupid biased skeptic with a prior commitment to naturalism would ever actually read this as Dawkins saying that God doesn't exist! Clearly, Dawkins is simply corraborating 2 Thess 2:11. First, Dawkins affirms the reality of God by declaring "God is," then he affirms the delusion that God sends by declaring "a delusion." It's poetic, really.

See, as long as you are willing to keep your exegesis nice and flexible, you could make any two phrases or ideas harmonize.

Frankly, to declare that either the Koran or the Bible aren't contradictory is to render the concept of a "contradiction" meaningless.

Rhology said...

David Bryan,

If someone were to recount one of your recent posts thusly:

A good while ago, a woman asked what might cause traditions now confined mostly to monasteries and certain parishes. I responded to her. My parish priest generally says that, if you want to effect change in a parish, embody the change you wish to see. If God blesses it, it'll spread. An increased exposure to monasticism in America is absolutely essential not only to customs such as these, but to an entire Orthodox prayer life and tradition of the surrender of one's heart to Christ. We are babes in this country and need to drink as deeply from these monastic waters as we can. By their increased witness here -- may God grant! -- I think we'll see the biggest leaps forward in preserving and passing down an authentic Orthodox identity.

Would you consider yourself to have correctly represented?

Point is, diff evangelists telescope diff details. It's like the one angel at the tomb vs two angels at the tomb question. Where there's two, there's always one. Probably just the one spoke, so the one author mentioned only that one.
Nowhere do the authors say "this and only this is what the sign said, and nothing else". I'm not trying to wiggle around, I'm just asking for a real contradiction if one wants to claim such. A real contradiction has to fulfill certain requirements, and this doesn't get there.

BTW, if you sink this ship, EOC goes down with it too; the Bible is part of Sacred Apostolic Tradition. It's not like you gain anythg from poking holes in the Bible, notwithstanding comments you've made in the past that sound like they could have come from the pen of a liberal Protestant.


I'd be careful about that Qur'an example. Each one isn't saying the same thing, which is what a contradiction requires. It's one thing to create the Earth and another to spread it out. I didn't realise there was a Skeptic's Annotated Qur'an out there - this certainly approaches the "quality" of thought that went into the Drivel.

if you are a Muslim apologist, you will insist that actually the arabic word for "then" can also be rendered as "furthermore," so there is really no contradiction.

That's another good point.
Look, I'm no fan of the Qur'an, far from it, but since there ARE serious problems with the Qur'an, I say we use those, not crappy ones like this one you've brought up. And so I'm saying that for the Bible - you say you have serious contradictions; BRING THEM FORWARD. Stop acting like you have good ones and then, when challenged, citing birth narrative "inconsistencies". It's all a big bluff.

There is really no good reason to say that the Koran is coherent unless you really, really need it be.

I agree, but not on the basis of this example.
But such is not the case for the Bible.

If "The God Delusion" was placed in the Bible right after Revelation fundies would STILL declare it inerrant and coherent

And if vanilla whipped cream were in your shirt pocket, you'd still be saying stupid stuff.
If Jell-O had no bones, the further they fly the much.
The rest of your comment is just lame emotional venting. Let's deal with reality here; the God Delusion is not in the Bible. Yawn.


David Bryan said...

"Correctly represented"? Well, that gives the general gist of the post, yeah. Not the post in its entirety, but the main chunk. Which I suppose is your point regarding the sign.

My point is that there aren't different accounts of my post; there's just the one, cut-and-paste chunk you put here. There are different accounts of what the sign said, and you've brought up discrepancies as something of a problem before, usually within the deuterocanonical books and with the snarky "Oops! Did God make a mistake?" remark. My question is, why does Protestant -- I would say fundamentalist -- innerancy not require that the gospel writers account exactly what was said? Each one does, after all, say, "the sign said, x," and x is something different in all four accounts. You do seem to wiggle here and beg a double standard.

And actually, this strawman of the Scriptures is not our fight in the EOC. We're fine with one gospel saying one angel and another saying two, because men wrote the thing. Inspiration doesn't necessarily produce airtight, factual data synchronization. For us to point stuff like this out doesn't "poke holes" in Scripture. There's still far and away enough agreement as to the major events (Nativity, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost) that Scripture very strongly stands as a faithful witness to the Advent of Christ and the reality of His Church.

Seth said...

"King of Jews" sign conflict...

There's a simple resolution requiring only a small amount of homework:

1. In John, the text says Pilate wrote an inscription, which is a misleading translation since the Greek reads he wrote a "titlos" or a title, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews" - probably this is the Latin version, written in full.

2. The text was translated into Aramaic and Greek (J19:20).

3. Mark does not quote the full title, but references "the charge against him" or KJV "superscription of his accusation". This is the "epigraphe tes aitias" and refers to the claim of being "The King of the Jews."

4. Luke references the "epigraphe" over him, and adds, depending on the Gk. source, "written in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew." The addition of "This is..." is not in conflict since Pilate's full script contains it. The ommission of "...of Nazareth..." is not in conflict since it is the charge that is referenced, not the titlos.

5. Matthew specifically references the "aitia" or accusation, and his matches the Luke version.


Rhology said...

Very sharp, Seth. Thanks.

I've responded in a different direction.

Dr Funkenstein said...

"You harmonise EVERYTHING ELSE,"

does anyone actually do this for everything they read? eg I can think of a few biographies I've read where the author indicates sources are contradictory because the protagonist was a flamboyant character or so on, and thus a lot of myth and hearsay had built up around them, or they propagated false tales to cast themselves in a favourable light or to generate interest (eg off the top of my head, the biography of the boxer Jack Johnson by Geoffrey C. Ward has a number of such examples)

Even if I was trying to harmonise two conflicting sources, I firstly wouldn't allow for just about anything I could dream up, and I'd be aware I'd have no hope of verifying most (or even all in some situations) of the harmonisations I could think up - the products of my own imagination don't necessarily count as factual occurrence

"but you're not interesting in even trying to harmonise the Bible."

there's a reason for that. From what I've seen of the apologetic approach to this, harmonising the bible requires a lot of things:

1. A level of leeway not applied to other texts eg the starting assumptions that the text must be inerrant, the people who wrote it mustn't have made any mistakes or told any lies, that the text hasn't been altered after the fact to remove problematic passages or add others that make it more coherent etc etc.
2. the mistake in thinking because you can think up harmonisations, no matter how much of a stretch it is, at least one of them must have happened - it's quite feasible that even if you can think one or several up, none are actually true.
3. Inability to actually verify most (or even all) of these harmonisations
4. the assumption your view should automatically be favoured:

eg here

Your claim: there was a second wave of creation of birds etc

Alternative hypothesis(AH): there was no second wave of creation, thus the stories contradict

Evidence in text to support your claim: none

Evidence that is at least consistent with the AH, even if not fully conclusive: absence of any mention of 2nd wave of creation

In such a situation, why should the better supported claim be forced to bow to your presuppositions?

5. operating assumptions that do not have any real credibility or reason to be taken seriously, and that would never be applied to any other text:

eg Gleason Archer

Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not yet found it.

That is to say, all the testimonies of the various witnesses are to be taken as trustworthy reports of what was said and done in their presence, even though they may have viewed the transaction from a slightly different perspective.

Only injustice would be served by any other assumption-as, for example, that each witness is assumed to be untruthful unless his testimony is corroborated from outside sources. (This, of course, is the assumption made by opponents of the inerrancy of Scripture, and it leads them to totally false results.)

If you needed a textbook example of special pleading or self sealing argumentation (, those would be perfect

"Your bias is showing."

As we all know, Christians generally and presuppositionalists in particular have no known biases...

*rolls eyes*

Rhology said...

Dr Funk,

Of course, everyone has biases. But some are fairer than others. My point is that ppl always harmonise texts they read, allowing for, among other things:
1) their distance from the text
2) their distance from the mind of the author, who knew things the reader doesn't
3) the fact that they didn't experience the events described; they're just reading about them, and there's not infinite text about the events
etc. It's not an unusual leeway at all.

My fundamental presupp is that God is and speaks, and that the Bible is inerrant is a corollary of that. But even taken in a different context, say, as an agnostic, my contention is that the Bible contains no errors, if one reads it fairly. There will be spiritual things in there about which the agnostic can marshal no evidence for nor against. There will also be accounts of historical events, etc, about which one CAN marshal evidence. That's partly what I'm talking about here.
Also, a contradiction is a proven and absolute incompatibility between two accounts. Not something "suspicious" or "a stretch". You're trying to demote the definition of "contradiction", and that's not advisable.

I firstly wouldn't allow for just about anything I could dream up

Join the club; neither do I.

I'd be aware I'd have no hope of verifying most (or even all in some situations) of the harmonisations I could think up

Nor do I think I'll be able to.

(And I corrected "interesting in even trying" to "interestED" in the OP.)