Friday, May 20, 2011

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible and an unproven contradiction

Fresh from the last post, which dealt with an alleged contradiction in the Bible, @AtheistOK tweeted the following to me:  Pick any five you like meaning, of course, that I should pick any 5 from the list to resolve.

Me: And if I do, what will you conclude? What's in it for me?
Him:  I thought you only argued for the sheer joy of disputation itself. It never actually convinces anyone, does it?
Me: Yes, it does convince people. Not incredibly biased folk such as those who take the SAB seriously, tho. And it's your move.
Him: Um, knight to queen's bishop 5
Me: Right, well, thanks for that. Unsure why you originally tweeted me, actually.
Him: I'm always unsure of that myself. I take it you aren't up explaining to ANY of the 31 Biblical contradictions, then?
Him: You can choose any five you want, I don't really care which. I doubt you can deal with any of them.
Him: Come to think of it, Rho, just pick one to start off. We can get into the details better that way.

So, I guess I'll forge ahead.
Look, though, first let me echo what JP Holding has said about the Skeptic's Annotated Bible:

Editorial commentary in the form of pictures and one-sentence comments are not arguments. SAB is the Internet equivalent to a brick wall scribbled with graffiti. It performs no analysis of the social background, the literary data, or context. It is merely "instant reaction" from an angry Skeptic, and that sort of arguing isn't arguing at all. We feel no more obliged to offer a response than they would feel obliged to respond to a preacher whose only argument was, "You're a sinner bound for hell!"...By estimate perhaps 40-50% of SAB's comments are either "argument by outrage" or places where SAB takes moral offense, usually against a cultural norm. Most of the rest are easily answered by links, and I would encourage readers to spend their time better reading other material on this site that, while answering SAB's claims, has nothing to do with them directly...Overall, almost none of SAB deserves detailed response and many cases require no more than a "So?" as a response.
Quite so.
Here's a great example. Is soteriology and the relationship between faith and works not a subject that's, you know, sort of wide and deep in the Bible?  Yet there you go!  Just throw it out there like a Catholic Answers stooge, as if context has no meaning or import. I myself have filled numerous pixels on this very topic, here, here, here, here, here, and here among many others.
I'm not saying consult with me; I'm saying consult with someone.

Here's another good example. The speaker isn't taken into account. The purpose, the context, the question asked, the surrounding situation; none of that is dealt with. None of the theology is explored, none of the prophetic portent of what it means to say that Elijah was to precede the Messiah. No exploration of the fact that John the Baptist was interested solely in pointing people to Jesus at all times, and to zero degree in any fascination with himself, or the fact that he was actually John the Baptist, not Elijah. Yet as the fulfillment, the antitype, of Elijah, it is also fair to call him Elijah.

But at AtheistOK's request, I picked out one that had me scratching my head for about an hour, so I'll delve into that one here.

Did Jesus baptise?
Yes - John 3:22
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized.
No - John 4:2
Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples.

So first, is it best to start off when reading an author with the presumption that he had zero short-term memory and had the intellect of a cricket? Did he simply totally forget what he wrote a few sentences above?  Why not assume the same thing of @AtheistOK?  He may protest, but that's OK - he's protesting because he doesn't remember what happened before. Fair's fair, right?

W. Hall Harris III makes an excellent point in his exegetical commentary:
So John’s disciples come to him troubled about an apparent contradiction in doctrine though the explicit problem they mention is that Jesus was baptizing and multitudes were coming to him. (Whether Jesus was or was not baptizing really wasn’t the issue though, and John knew that because he didn’t mention it in his reply. In 4:2 we are told that Jesus was not baptizing, but his disciples. That reference would seem to cover this incident as well, and so the disciples of John are just reporting what they have heard, or think they heard.)
Matthew Henry's relevant comments:
We read of Christ’s coming into Judea (ch. 3:22), after he had kept the feast at Jerusalem; and now he left Judea four months before harvest, as is said here (v. 35); so that it is computed that he staid in Judea about six months, to build upon the foundation John had laid there. We have no particular account of his sermons and miracles there, only in general, v. 1.I. That he made disciples; he prevailed with many to embrace his doctrine, and to follow him as a teacher come from God. His ministry was successful, notwithstanding the opposition it met with (Ps. 110:2, 3); mathetas poiei —it signifies the same with matheteuo —to disciples. Compare Gen. 12:5. The souls which they had gotten, which they had made (so the word is), which they hadmade proselytes. Note, It is Christ’s prerogative to make disciples, first to bring them to his foot, and then to form and fashion them to his will. Fit, non nascitur, Christianus—The Christian is made such, not born such. Tertullian.II. That he baptized those whom he made disciples, admitted them by washing them with water; not himself, but by the ministry of his disciples, v. 2
The preceding commentaries provide, in my estimation, the true meaning of the passage and a good deal of what we're supposed to take from it. That is, if we weren't so busy suppressing the truth about God that we know, for the sake of our evil desires.

Now, to prove a contradiction, the skeptic has to demonstrate that none of the proposed harmonisations to a given difficulty is sufficient. Any harmonisation that is possible means that no contradiction is provable from the standpoint of the modern reader of an old text. You weren't there, you don't know. I wasn't there either. I have a decent grasp on what is possible and what isn't possible, so though most everyone and even I might consider a certain event highly unlikely, weird stuff happens sometimes.

Given that, one more point.  New Testament Koine Greek did not contain much punctuation, if any. No quotation marks, no periods, no question? marks, no parentheses.
Here's an example image of a manuscript copy from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.
Notice how there are English sentences in there, but they all bleed together in Greek.  Thus, when translating, the translators have to place English punctuation according to what works best in English, taking the Greek meaning into account. Obviously, it's difficult, but these guys are pros.

With respect to this passage, I believe that may very well be what happened: a slight oversight by translators. Here is the text as it appears in the modern NASB:
John 4:1Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2(although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were), 3He left Judea and went away again into Galilee.

Here is my proposed re-punctuation, with the changed punctuation marked in red boldface:
1Therefore when the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that "Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John 2although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were," 3He left Judea and went away again into Galilee.

There is no way to know from the Greek text whether this is the proper English-translated punctuation or not. I would hold that it very possibly is, and that the translators simply didn't consult the SAB during their translating. I know, it was a huge oversight to not consult a shallow skeptical website, but there you go.
The message transmitted to the Pharisees by those who were reporting about Jesus' and His disciples' activities was slightly mistaken. The messengers were wrong; perhaps they saw Jesus in the water and assumed He was baptising.  Perhaps they themselves heard about it secondhand and embellished the story a bit b/c they didn't like Jesus, or b/c they wanted to tell the Pharisees what they thought they wanted to hear.

Also, it is a continuing theme throughout the Gospels that Jesus explicitly conferred His authority on the disciples, to go out and do ministry as His shaluach, His apostoloi, His sent ones.  A messenger like that at that time, when he spoke, it was as the man himself speaking. Thus, when the disciples of the Lord baptised, it's as if He Himself was baptising for it was under His watch and with His authority, though He didn't physically immerse people with His own hands.

One thing for sure - God knows all the ins and the outs of this passage, and He knows far better than I, or the author of the SAB, or @AtheistOK.  Even if I didn't have an answer for this difficulty, that is not a sufficient reason to surrender my faith in Jesus or in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. Why?  B/c bottom line, atheism reduces to utter absurdity, and if everything is absurd, trying to find the truth that the Bible is errant is absurd.  Seeking truth is absurd. You found the truth? Meh. So what?

The Bible is shown to be true again:
1 Corinthians 15:16For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. 19If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied...32If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.  


Matthew C. Martellus said...

Thus, when the disciples of the Lord baptised, it's as if He Himself was baptising for it was under His watch and with His authority, though He didn't physically immerse people with His own hands.

This is not unlike saying "Bill Gates developed Windows" even if (whatever the case may be in actuality) he only managed and oversaw the project, and did not actually write any of the code himself. We use this kind of language all the time. In this case, Jn. 4:2 simply serves to clarify and disambiguate the statement in Jn. 3:22.

It could also be the case that Jn. 3:22 refers to a different, earlier point in time than Jn. 4:2. That is, Jesus baptized some disciples personally. Later, His ministry became more popular, and His disciples started doing all of the baptizing, and it is this situation that Jn. 4:2 references.

Either way, these are two possibilities that the skeptic has to defeat in order to justify a claim of contradiction in these verses.

Rhology said...

It could also be the case that Jn. 3:22 refers to a different, earlier point in time than Jn. 4:2.

It could I suppose, but if you look at it closely, I am far from confident that the text supports that possibility, to be honest. That was my first idea, but I rejected it. :-)

Matthew C. Martellus said...

I am far from confident that the text supports that possibility, to be honest.

I'm not saying that's the exact meaning that the text communicates, but on the other hand, there's nothing in the text to rule it out. It is not specified exactly when Jesus arrived in Judea, when He left, and when the various Baptismal events occurred. In addition, there's nothing that constrains Jesus to be baptizing the entire time that He and the disciples were in Judea. One might argue that there are better interpretations, but when discussing contradictions in Scripture, the issue is the consideration of all feasible interpretations, not the best feasible interpretations.