An Inconsistent “Truth”

Ben’s third argument is another familiar one, though it seems odd to see it presented as though it were a positive evidence in favor of the Christian gospel.

A third feature of the Gospels vouching for their authenticity as eyewitness testimony is the one we have already discussed: The superficial inconsistency of detail. I think this suffices to justify a dismissal of factual infallibility. To my way of thinking, testimonial cogency is superior to factual identicality insofar as the former compels belief and the latter invites us to suspect a conspiracy. I therefore see no reason why we should equate divine involvement with infallibility. And I certainly cannot see the logic in your objection that noting the discrepancies between the different narratives is tantamount to demonstrating their overall falsity. It only disproves the falsity of inerrancy. It doesn’t disprove the hypothesis that 2015 years ago an incandescently mysterious event occurred which has been filtered through to us in the form of a collection of scattershot Greek texts which, over, as a result of their transaction with the divine, may yet be regarded as Holy.

Ben is responding to a post of mine in which I point out the internal inconsistencies in Matthew’s story about guards allegedly being posted on Jesus’ tomb, and thus being actual eyewitnesses of the alleged resurrection. It’s not a post that even tries to claim that “noting the discrepancies between the different narratives is tantamount to demonstrating their overall falsity.” I’m only looking at one narrative here, not comparing different narratives. One suspects that Ben is following a script unrelated to anything I actually said in the post he’s replying to.

But regardless, let’s look at his third “evidence” for the so-called authenticity of the Gospel accounts: what he calls the “superficial” inconsistency of detail found in the different accounts. He is on the right track when he argues that the Bible is not infallible, and that we therefore should not expect to find evidence of any divine intervention preventing the text from containing errors. That kind of intervention is something that a real God would be quite capable of providing, and would arguably want to engage in, but it’s clearly not there, so from an apologetics perspective, it’s best to just lower one’s standards and move on.

So what about “the hypothesis that 2015 years ago an incandescently mysterious event occurred”? Leaving aside the fact that Jesus would have been only about 3 or 4 years old 2,015 years ago, I think we can agree that something significant happened in the first century, just as something significant happened in the seventh century (or the first century, according to the Muslim calendar) when Mohammed started Islam, and in the nineteenth century when Joseph Smith started Mormonism. Any time a major new religion occurs, we can call it a significant event, whether or not it is “incandescently mysterious”.

The question we want to look at today, though, is what we learn about such religions merely by observing the existence of inconsistencies in their origin stories. According to Ben, such inconsistencies “[vouch] for their authenticity as eyewitness testimony.” But do they?

Let’s think for a minute about what it means for a story to be “true” as opposed to being “untrue.” A true story is, by definition, one that is consistent with the actual, objective reality of the things it claims to describe. This consistency isn’t merely an attribute of a true story, it’s literally the definition of what it means for the story to be true. And consequently, the converse is also true: inconsistency with the actual facts is what it means for a story to be untrue. We cannot tell a true story that is inconsistent with the facts, and we cannot tell an untrue story that is consistent, in every detail, with the reality of the things it describes.

When we have stories, therefore, that describe the same alleged events, and these stories are not consistent with each other, then the first thing we know is that at most one story can be telling the truth. We don’t know that any of them are, but we do know that, at best, all but one of them must be false, at least in the areas where they disagree.

But more importantly, we do not know whether any of the stories is true even in the areas where they agree. Ben indirectly alludes to this when he says that too much agreement would lead us to suspect a conspiracy. Of course, we don’t need any conspiracy theories to explain convergent stories. People are quite capable of agreeing on a common story that suits their biases, whether or not the story is actually true, even without a formal, intentional conspiracy. And that means that agreement between stories, with or without related inconsistencies, is not sufficient to tell us whether or not any of the stories is genuinely consistent with reality.

This is especially true in cases like Matthew’s story of the guards, where we only have one person telling us a story. Even in a single story told by a single person, the measure of the truth of the story is not its consistency with itself. It’s only true to the extent that it is consistent with reality. And you can’t determine how consistent it is with reality just by saying “It has a few superficial inconsistencies, but not enough to suspect a conspiracy.”

What, then, is the point of arguing that inconsistencies are somehow evidence for the “authenticity” of the gospel stories? Consider what this particular argument is doing. We know that untrue stories are, by definition, inconsistent. What this argument does is to point out ways in which “mostly-true” stories can also contain similar inconsistencies. In other words, it emphasizes the characteristics shared by both mostly-true stories and untrue stories, while downplaying or obscuring the difference between true stories and untrue stories.

Now, under what circumstances is it advantageous to blur the distinction between a true story and an untrue story? If we have a true story to defend, we’re not going to want to make a point of comparing it to an untrue story and pointing out the similarities. We’re going to have much better arguments to appeal to, simply because our story is already consistent with reality. But if we’re trying to sell an untrue story, then it’s to our advantage to emphasize any similarity we can find between true stories and untrue stories. In the first case, we wouldn’t want to do it because we’d only be raising doubts about whether or not our story is true, but in the latter case we’re raising doubts about whether it is really false.

Thus, this argument is most advantageous when used to argue that an untrue story is really true. To be fair, most of the times I’ve seen this argument, it’s been used to defend Christianity against falsification, and not as a positive argument in its favor. I think Ben is being a bit over-enthusiastic in his claim that this argument is actively vouching for the authenticity of the gospel. At best it can only raise doubts about whether Christianity is really false. But then again, I can remember how I felt about some of the more glaring inconsistencies in the Gospel, and how eagerly I grasped at anything that would help me believe it wasn’t just silly. So maybe this argument is a bigger deal than it seems to me right now. But that doesn’t make it relevant or valid as a criterion of historicity.

Just as a postscript: I’m glad to see that Ben does have one big point going for him here. He has learned that we get a much better, more reasonable, and more realistic understanding of the Bible when we discard the idea that it is somehow supernaturally inerrant. This was a principle I found proved time and time again on my journey from believer to ex-Christian: the more we discard the fundamentally incoherent notion of supernatural intervention and the more we embrace the simplest explanation that fits the facts, the less complicated and confusing and irrational the world becomes. Telling the truth really IS easier! Ben has already experienced this phenomenon at least once, and I hope he continues to do so.


  1. says

    we do not know whether any of the stories is true even in the areas where they agree

    One of the ways I like to illustrate that point is by considering Spider-man comics. If we stepped back from our societal knowledge that they are fiction, and assumed the role of historians from the year 4155, trying to determine whether Spiderman was real, we’ve got an interesting problem. The technology Peter Parker supposedly developed appears to be a bit in advance of technology from the 1940s (although the company Apple could probably have done it…) So it’s maybe plausible. There is a city called “Gotham” and there were newspapers and whatnot. The milieu Spiderman operated in seems consistent and credible, and there are many interlocking accounts of his existence. There are some contradictions in the various accounts, of course. Etc.

    If you were to try to resolve the major inconsistencies in the Spiderman story by claiming that the villains he fight (who are clearly improbable: space aliens?) are metaphors for egotistical parts of the human spirit, then you’re retconning the entire mythos and have decided implicitly that the canon of Spiderman literature is a fiction. It’s the philosophical equivalent of destroying the village to save it.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    If the “infinite universes” theory is true, then somewhere there’s a universe that’s exactly like ours, except that all the Gospels are internally consistent with one another, with no self-contradictions whatsoever. Do you suppose that, in that other universe, Ben would be consistent in admitting that this perfect consistency is in fact an argument against the historicity of the Gospels? Or, maybe, the reverse?

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 1: There is a city called “Gotham” …

    Peter Parker/Spidey does his thing in a place called “New York” – well, last I heard, he and Mary Jane had moved to “Brooklyn”. An unrelated fellow named Batman lives and works in “Gotham”.

    What the hell do they teach in the schools where you grew up??!?

  4. says

    Pierce Butler@#3: Peter Parker/Spidey does his thing in a place called “New York”

    HERETIC!!!!!! You walked into my TRAP!! You’re one of the New Yorkist Sect!!!

    (When I was growing up there in the 60s, some people still referred to it as ‘Gotham’ and I am not sure why. Is that no longer a thing?)

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    … testimonial cogency is superior to factual identicality insofar as the former compels belief …

    Considering that one dictionary definition of “cogent” is “compelling”, this is, at best, tautology. The other definitions I found were “clear” (the Bible? hah!) and “logical” (tee-hee-hee..).

    Perhaps Ben got a cookie when he recited Biblical lessons in the way his parents/teacher preferred, and possibly a scolding or worse when he got them mixed up. I see no other reason why he would find that narrative “compels belief” to his “way of thinking”.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 4: You walked into my TRAP!!

    You left a manhole cover unsealed, and I escaped into the sewers!

    …some people still referred to it as ‘Gotham’ and I am not sure why.

    I think that came out of poetic allusions in the stories of Washington Irving. He also picked up on some old riff laying around since the days of “New Amsterdam” and called NYC “Knickerbocker” – a reference now used only, sfaict, in the name of a basketball team (and a relatively boring one when compared to those uptown Globetrotters).

    • Pierce R. Butler says

      Correction (from Apple’s Dictionary app, I think taken from Merriam-Webster):

      …2 ( Knickerbocker) a New Yorker.
      • a descendant of the original Dutch settlers in New York.

      ORIGIN mid 19th cent. (originally in sense 2) : named after Diedrich Knickerbocker, pretended author of W. Irving’s History of New York (1809). Sense 1 is said to have arisen from the resemblance of knickerbockers to the breeches worn by Dutchmen in Cruikshank’s illustrations in Irving’s book. … Knickerbocker, also spelled Knikkerbakker, Knikkerbacker, and Knickerbacker, is a surname that dates back to the early settlers of New Netherland that was popularized by Washington Irving in 1809 when he published his satirical A History of New York under the pseudonym “Diedrich Knickerbocker”. It was also a term for Manhattan’s aristocracy “in the early days”[1] and became a general term, now obsolete, for a New Yorker. It may refer to: [long list of people, teams, places, stuff]

  7. Kevin Kehres says

    I’m sorry, but “superficial inconsistency of detail”? Like the day the execution took place? Don’t you think at least the gospels would agree on that? And why does only one gospel tell of the earthquake and the zombie saints walking about Jerusalem? It’s utter nonsense to call that “superficial”.

    The thing I find most embarrassing about the gospels is the ending of John. … So, let me get this straight. There is this once-ever event of an actual god-person coming to earth and doing wonderful things. All kinds of miraculous stuff. And the best you can do in reporting all of these things is to say

    “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

    Seriously? The WHOLE WORLD would not have room for the books that would be written about the wonderful things? About this once-ever appearance of a GOD on Earth? And you can’t be bothered to write it down? ANY of it? Not even ONE MORE THING? Why? Did you run out of parchment?

    Do you suppose the author of John was trying to get a three-book deal from his publisher? But the first one didn’t sell enough?

    Fiction. Pure fiction. Bad fiction at that.

  8. says

    It doesn’t disprove the hypothesis that 2015 years ago an incandescently mysterious event occurred

    Well, what it is is more of a shifting of the burden of proof. Ben, and similarly many apologists, make the mistake* of thinking that we’re out to falsify** (or “disprove”) the claims as opposed to merely finding them insufficiently supported by evidence. So, I will agree that different accounts of an event doesn’t mean that the event didn’t happen, but neither does it mean that it did.

    * My cynical side suspects that many do so intentionally knowing that many in their target audience won’t notice the error.

    ** Granted, though, the title of your post includes the word “disproof.” Skimming over the post, though, it seems this was more of a “This isn’t believable, and here’s why:” post.

  9. says

    that 2015 years ago

    I’m also often entertained by how Christians like this seem to know so much, yet appear to fail at basic math. I mean, wasn’t Jesus supposedly born in 1 AD? If he was 30, then that means this all would have supposedly happened in 31 AD, which is 1984 years ago.

    It makes me wonder if they’re just parroting the arguments of apologists (which these arguments are, as you note) and not really thinking for themselves.

    • Deacon Duncan says

      In fact some ancient historian (I forget who) screwed up the dates and most historians today believe that the actual birth of Jesus was 4 B.C. Talk about a premature birth!

      • Nick Gotts says

        Dionysius Exiguus (“Little Dennis”) come up with the “A.D.” reckoning in the 6th century C.E. But 4 B.C.E. has no more real support than 1 C.E. for Jesus’s birth year: it’s just based on the fact that 4 B.C. is the year Herod “the Great” died – but the only connection of the latter with Jesus’s birth is the obviously retconned birth narrative in Matthew.

  10. Kevin Kehres says

    Deacon: That’s another of those “minor inconsistencies” of the NT.

    If you go by Matthew 2:1 — “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king…” you get a date of no later than 4 BCE, because that’s when Herod died.

    Contrasting with Luke 2:1-2 — “1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)” — which gives us a date of no earlier than 6 or 7 ACE.

    Like claiming FDR was elected President either in 1932 or in 1944.

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