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What Constitutes Contradiction?

I was hanging out over at Austin Cline’s place online when I came across a comment in the blog section from a theist who offered this, “Similar to political writers of today, I believe the authors of Matthew and Luke put a ‘spin’ on their accounts that would best appeal to their intended audiences.”

The context was one that all of us ex-fundamentalists will be familiar with: how to handle Biblical contradictions. This particular Rabbit Hole is one of those rides where I just have to come right out and declare, “If you haven’t experienced it—you just can’t know what you’re missing.”

The Problem
The Bible tells a story in one place. Then in another place, it retells or references the same story. This story might appear in more than two locations, but the idea is that unbelievers will claim the story contradicts from one telling to the next. As faithful fundamentalists, however, we weren’t allowed to believe the Bible contradicts, so we had to offer an explanation for these events.

The Solution
The explanation offered is the one you see above. In fact, when I was in church, it was explained thus: “Suppose you were on a street corner, and you observed an accident. Well, when the police take your statement, it will be very different than the statement of, say, one of the drivers involved in the accident.” So, I might say “the red car ran the light and hit the white car,” but the driver of the white car will say, “the red car came straight at me,” and so it goes. It’s the same story—but the different vantage points mean we get varying descriptions of it. You might also be familiar with the analogy of the five blind men and the elephant—all describing different parts of the same animal—while none of them sound like they’re talking about the same thing at all.

It is a reasonable explanation for why two stories may sound different, when, in fact, they’re the same. I would expect vantage point to play a role in relating almost any event. But it is also reasonable to recognize that at a certain point, a difference in the story can present an irreconcilable contradiction. So, if a red van and a white truck collide, and I describe a black convertible and a white van colliding, something is amiss, and “vantage point” can’t really fix this level of contradiction.

Surely if such contradictions did exist—errors so blaringly obvious nobody could miss them—Christians would be aware. Fundamentalists memorize Bible passages for fun, for goodness’ sake. Unless it were some really minor issue tucked away in some remote corner of some irrelevant passage—they’d have discovered it by now, surely?

I can see how a person not raised as a fundamentalist might think this would have to be the case. But let me share a secret: Fundamentalists, for the most part, don’t ever do side-by-side readings of their texts. When they read about Jesus’ birth or resurrection, they read from one story at a time. They don’t take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and read them in a parallel fashion. But let me tell you, the first time I did this, my fundy head blew clean off. It didn’t blow so much as a result of finding a contradiction, as it did the reality that I was thoroughly familiar with these verses, but I had never noticed any discrepancies in them at all. It had never occurred to me to even try to read the stories side-by-side to see if they aligned. And it wasn’t that I didn’t perceive these passages as contradictory once I read them—it was that I didn’t ever notice these discrepancies were even in there—after years of Bible reading and Bible studies.

It was epiphanies like this that really drove me the hardest during my years of deconversion. It was the many times I recognized I’d been trained not to think and not to question. I recognized I was wearing blinders, I had no idea were ever put on me. I don’t pretend that no Christian has seen what I’m about to show you. And I don’t pretend no Christian—even ardent literalists—offer no explanations for what you’re about to read. But I will tell you that this is one of those things that most lay Christians—however carefully they read or scrutinize their Bibles—don’t know is in their Bibles.

What is the crux of the Christian religion? Upon what does their specific sales pitch hinge? The Resurrection. This is the single most significant event in the evolution of Christianity. It is their sign of assurance of an afterlife, the means of man’s redemption and reconciliation with god, and the main and most important signal that Jesus was, in fact, the Son of God. And I guarantee you that nearly every theist you will ever meet has not done what you’re about to do in this post: Read the Resurrection tales side by side.

Don’t groan—they’re surprisingly short stories. But I invite anyone who has never done this—atheist or theist—to take a moment and do it. And I’m putting the tales right here, to make it easy for even the laziest minds. I’m not going to offer up any personal critique or assessment of what follows. I’m not going to tell you what problems I think exist in these texts. You read them. You be the judge. You decide.

All I Ask:
Before you rush to look up the apologetic that will somehow attempt to reconcile what I’m presenting below, read the passages for yourself and then honestly answer this simple, single question: “If four different people told me the same stories I just read—and I didn’t already believe these stories can’t contradict—would I consider them contradictory?”

And we’re off…

Luke 24:1-10
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words. When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles.

Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.″Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

Matthew 28:1-10
After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, goin
g to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.” So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

John 20:1-16
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Make up your own mind.

Comments

  1. says

    Religion studies have been discussing and comparing these passages for centuries, side by side. I compared these passages and the differences in a class this semester, just saying, it is not that big of a bomb shell really, different scenarios will produce different differences…

  2. says

    I like the first one. Their immediate conclusion to a missing body is that his corpse has been reanimated. At least the one in Matthew had an angel, however ridiculous that may seem, it's better than an empty cave.

  3. says

    I like your point and I agree with your premise, but the example here, I must say that the stories are indeed fairly alike… Some hyperbole in one, leaving out the fact that Simon Peter was there in the other, forgetting one person in yet another. Seems a reasonable approximation of the "true" events considering these stories were only written down tens of years later.

  4. says

    I just realized that the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics is considered absolutely correct according to the Bible! I read "Jesus, Interrupted!" by Bart Ehrman earlier this year. This post reminded me very much of that book. Wondered if you had read it, Tracie? (Matt and Jen both mentioned it on the show a while back both giving it thumbs up).

  5. Martin says

    This post is a really good companion piece to my coverage of the same topic back in January. To me the question all boils down to how seriously to take the idea that the Bible is the inerrant and inspired word of a deity. If Christians weren't insistent upon making that claim, then it would be easier to accept wildly contradictory accounts of a single event as natural discrepancies about details between different witnesses. But if there's an omniscient mind behind the Scripture, you'd expect a much more airtight narrative. Perhaps God needs a really good story editor. Or he needs to bring in a script doctor for rewrites!

  6. says

    hey, pretty good article. My only complaint would be that your arguments are pretty out-of-date. Christians have harmonized these so-called contradictions for over 100 years. If you want to know where Christian apologetics are headed, you should check out apologetics315.blogspot.com It's a really good site with a lot of relevant argumentation that you could tackle. You could also check out my website http://www.rationallychristian.blogspot.com I need some feedback from atheists to make sure I'm not lagging behind on argumentation either, haha! Thank you for your time and good luck with your website!Joel

  7. says

    Thanks Joel. The ole' this has been discussed for a hundred years and a lot of people don't believe it argument really is airtight. Can't wait to read your blog to find such other intellectually stimulating arguments!

  8. Martin says

    Christians have harmonized these so-called contradictions for over 100 years."Harmonizing" is not "proving." Exactly which if any of the accounts can be confirmed, independently, to be factually accurate? That's what matters.

  9. says

    PM:>Religion studies have been discussing and comparing these passages for centuries, side by side.I addressed this in my article: "I don’t pretend that no Christian has seen what I’m about to show you. And I don’t pretend no Christian—even ardent literalists—offer no explanations for what you’re about to read. But I will tell you that this is one of those things that most lay Christians—however carefully they read or scrutinize their Bibles—don’t know is in their Bibles."I've heard your reasons in personal correspondence for what you believe and why. I need to note that your views on Christianity are not orthodox in the sense that they fail to represent the vast majority of Christians that people on this list would have encountered in the real world if they walked in to a church. You are a theist, but your view of books (as you expressed to me–and I can provide the quotes) are that they inspire "supernatural" experiences in you when read, but that it doesn't matter to you if their content is, from a literal standpoint, totally false or not. I think that's important to this post and your comment. The fact is, if these stories were in no sense the same, that would not impact your view of them whatsoever, because you don't expect them to align to begin with.Leto:>I like your point and I agree with your premise, but the example here, I must say that the stories are indeed fairly alike.I would agree with regard to the first two accounts, if I totally discount the endings. The next two vary a great deal in my view, with the last one being utterly off the mark compared the the prior three. However, as I said, each person, own mind. Up to every individual.Dago:I have not read Jesus Interrupted.

  10. says

    Joel:>Christians have harmonized these so-called contradictions for over 100 years.I addressed this in the article: "I don’t pretend that no Christian has seen what I’m about to show you. And I don’t pretend no Christian—even ardent literalists—offer no explanations for what you’re about to read. But I will tell you that this is one of those things that most lay Christians—however carefully they read or scrutinize their Bibles—don’t know is in their Bibles."The two comments (from Joel and PM) remind me of the blinders I described in the article–reading, but only really absorbing what one wants to hear. Did you also miss this? "Before you rush to look up the apologetic that will somehow attempt to reconcile what I’m presenting below, read the passages for yourself and then honestly answer this simple, single question: 'If four different people told me the same stories I just read—and I didn’t already believe these stories can’t contradict—would I consider them contradictory?'"That comment was followed at the end by this: "Make up your own mind."Note I don't direct people initially to a site where someone can tell them what to think. I ask them to read and form a personal opinion first, before reading the apologetic explanation. That is because I trust most people to recognize crap when they see it. I understand that doesn't guarantee some won't. But I know that the apologetic response to every problem is "here is what you believe and why you believe it." And to Christians, it's not odd at all to have someone dictate "their" beliefs to them. It's par for the course. I've heard Christians often describe their own doctrines in terms of "this is what _we_ believe," and ask in Bible classes, "What do _we_ believe about this…?" They might just as well be saying, "Can you tell me again what I believe about this?" And it takes very little to stop-gap a person's doubts who is already at that level of not thinking.So, rather than asking, "Well, you've read it yourself, what do you think?" You would send them to a site where they're told what to think about these passages by others who have no more information on this matter than they do.These stories are not supplemented by some secret appendix that offers more data about what _really happened_. Any attempt at rationalizing will include _making stuff up_.People, however, can believe what they like. I'm giving them the data, not telling them what to think. If they feel a need to go and find someone who is happy to tell them what to think, then they're happy with their blinders. Should they read apologetic responses? In the article I said that was fine. I just asked them to think for themselves for a moment before doing so. No harm. No foul.

  11. says

    Regarding the different witnesses, different stories explanation. This explanation has an inherent problem: who are the witnesses? The scene is described as if from an outside point of view. Do Luke and his partners claim that they were there to view the action? Do any of these Christian apologists discuss the source of the accounts? Just saying something happened doesn't really work if you don't explain how you know it.

  12. says

    Great post Tracie, as usual. Discrepencies in testimonies are to be expected, the problem here is that the result of these alledged testimonies, the Gospels, claim to tell an absolute truth. For such a claim, the evidence seems not only poor, but inexistent. The accounts are not even plausible to begin with! We know that the Gospels, just like the Bible, were objectively mistaken on a number of events (the Census, the visit of the Magis, the Massacre of Innocents, Barabbas, etc). Why should we consider them more genuine when they tell the story of the resurrection, especially since they contradict themselves so widely?

  13. says

    That was actually an exercise we did in Sunday school back in high school. The mental gymnastics we went through to make the stories fit together and still be literalist and divinely inspired were amazing. I accepted it then, enjoying the exercise, but in retrospect … if you have to work that hard to make the stories fit together (and like a badly told story that doesn't make much sense, linear as it is), it probably doesn't actually work.

  14. says

    The Census doesn't even make sense. The idea is a population count. Who the hell then demands that people move to someplace other than where they live to be counted for a census? That's the definition of a moronic procedural.

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