I’m currently reading Chris Hallquist’s book UFO’s, Ghosts, and a Rising God. (Hallquist has generously made it freely downloadable in ebook format at the previous link.) It’s a very interesting book so far, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in future posts. It concerns attempts to argue for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, concentrating mostly on the logical fallacies made by Christian apologists as they try to do this. The main thesis is that if one believes the historical evidence available to us (preserved in the New Testament and early Christians writings) is enough to establish the resurrection as an historical event, then one ought to accept a lot of other stories that are based on far more impressive evidence – these stories include all kinds of pseudoscience and paranormal events that the typical Christian is not willing to accept. But on p43, Hallquist made a point that is so fantastic I think it is worth singling out for attention here.
We’re all familiar with the fact that the New Testament contains multiple versions of several stories – for example, the Christmas and Easter narratives – and that these stories contain different and sometimes conflicting details. Critical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman often encourages people to read the different versions of a given story side-by-side, making a list of the details each author includes, then comparing the lists to see if the details could all be true. I intend to post my own such lists in the future (links will be provided in time):
- The virgin birth narratives
- The crucifixion narratives
- The resurrection narratives
We’re also probably all familiar with the fact there have been many attempts by conservative scholars to harmonise the different versions of these stories; ie, to construct a larger story that seamlessly incorporates every detail from each of the different versions.
One example is the story of Peter’s “three denials” of Jesus. According to Luke 22:34, during the last supper, Jesus said “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” When we read the three accounts of Peter’s denials from Mark 14, Matthew 26 and Luke 22, we see Peter disowning Jesus to (at least) six different people or groups of people. A typical apologetic tactic here is to say that Peter did disown Jesus six times, but each author only recorded three denials each. Here the claim is that each author who says Peter disowned Jesus three times is telling the truth in the same way that I would be telling the truth if I said “I have three dollar coins in my pocket” even though I actually had six – and that Jesus’ prophesy was true too, in the same way.
The point of this post is not to examine the merits of such harmonisation attempts, but to think about the logic behind them. Hallquist does this by referring to a famous joke. A quick google search will show that there are many variations of this joke (an interesting point in itself), but here is one version I found:
As final exams neared, two students, very confident of their A averages in Chemistry class, decided to spend a weekend enjoying the social life of a nearby college. Although their Chemistry final was the first thing Monday morning they were reasonably certain they could pull it off. After a very late Sunday evening they overslept and did not arrive back on campus until Monday afternoon. In the hopes of avoiding failing the exam the two decided to tell their professor that they had a flat tire on the way back to campus.
Sympathetic to the situation, the professor allowed them to make up the exam. After being seated in different rooms the two opened their exam books and began working.
The first question, for 25 points, was a simple question on fusion. When they turned the page to answer the next question, however, both students shared the same look of despair though they were seated in different rooms.
75 point question: Which tire was flat?
Source – eBaum’s World
The idea, of course, is that without being able to confer with each other, the students almost certainly gave different answers to the tire question.
But what should the professor make of such conflicting answers?
Suppose one student said the front left tire was flat, and the other said it was the back right one. Should the professor conclude that really there were two flat tires, and that both students only told part of the story?
Of course not! Clearly there was only meant to be one flat tire, and both students were giving their version of “events”. You would only dream of constructing a larger story with two flat tires if you were committed to defending the honesty of the two students’ accounts from the outset. And that is precisely what is going on with conservative attempts to harmonise contradictory gospel stories.
If I was wrongly accused of a crime, and my accusers produced such obviously contradictory accounts of my “guilt”, I would certainly hope that my judge could grasp this simple bit of logic!