A Sampling From 4 Topics
by Dave E. Matson
© Copyright 1991, 1994 Dave E. Matson
[all rights reserved]
selections culled or based on the text serving as an introduction
Note: title headings in bold face added by Dan Pezze unless otherwise noted, all emphases, underscorings, parentheses, bold-face matter, etc., are the authorʼs
Are Bible-Believers Always 100% Right And Never Wrong???
In its strictest sense a contradiction consists of the statement “A” and not “A.” That is, if we state that the earth is spherical and (at the same instant) not spherical, then we are guilty of a contradiction. Obviously, if the critical parts of a problem passage [in the Bible] do not fit the form “A” and not “A,” then we do not have a contradiction. That is to say, any loophole at all gets one off the hook. That is the idea most biblicists have in mind when they offer forced, improbable explanations. In short, believing that the Bible is something akin to a dictation from God, biblicists assume that the book is inerrant; they will not budge unless proven 100% wrong. In truth, the biblicists are playing with loaded dice! Produce a flat contradiction, and they will quickly supply the “presumed” meanings that dissolve that contradiction. Supply the presumed meanings and arrive at a contradiction, and they will invoke the rigorous laws of logic to admit every possible loophole. That is how they play the game. The possibility of error is alien to them. [brackets added]
How Good Are Exotic Explanations?
A miracle, for example, is not established if ordinary explanations are available; the latter are infinitely more probable. Fraudulent claims and confused witnesses abound the world over while, as far as I can tell, no supernatural event has ever been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Objectivity means sticking to the face value of a verse (the common meaning of the words) unless doing so would be a clear cause of error. Again, it is a matter of starting with the common explanations and working, if necessary, towards the more exotic ones. Objectivity is not a matter of trying to see if our ideas will fit in, but rather of seeing if our ideas should fit in. Exotic explanations can always be squeezed in if we throw the truth out. “Objectivity” is a fisherman who goes into muddy waters with a big net. “Wishful thinking” is a fisherman who uses a teaspoon! Now, it is just possible that a fish might leap into that teaspoon while the big net comes up empty. But, who are you going to depend on for dinner? An argument which lacks objectivity is like a fisherman who uses a teaspoon to catch fish!
The Big Difference Between What Might Have Happened and What DID Happen
We must reject ad hoc arguments as they are not the fruit of positive evidence. They are the gods of the gaps, thriving where positive evidence is absent. The fact that something might have happened is a mighty poor substitute for the claim that it did happen!
We must weight the merits of biblical inerrancy against that of errancy. On those scales what might have happened is a hollow weight.
Take the Bible At Face Value… And What Value Would it Have Thereafter?
If the Bible is authoritative in all matters, as fundamentalists claim, then its passages must be taken at face value. (Of course, if a passage clearly fits another genre, such as poetry or allegory, then it must be interpreted accordingly.) Thus, if the Bible appears to be making a factual statement, then the biblicist must accept it as such. To do otherwise is to strip the Bible of its presumed authority and to acknowledge reason as the higher standard. That is the last thing the biblicist wants to do! His Bible is supposedly above man-made standards. Yet, that is exactly what he must do least he find himself joining the flat-earth Bible-believers! Few Bible-believers really take the Bible at its literal word: they accept what makes sense to their mind and find reasons for rejecting the rest.
What Does the Bible Mean?
Do We Take a Vote?
If the Bible does not mean what it says, then what does it mean?
Are Those Who Pose As Godʼs Messengers … Liars and Lunatics, Or Are They Plain Nuts?
Unfortunately, God* is rather stingy on verbal communication and short on personal appearances. Nor is he in the habit of giving his earthly messengers foolproof identification. Thus, given a world full of liars and lunatics who are only too happy to pose as Godʼs* messengers, one is at risk here. Of course, if you are one of those rare individuals who speak face to face with God every morning before breakfast, then you may have some privileged information. You might also be a nut with a malfunctioning brain!
* I use [the word] “God” here in the usual sense, and also as a stand-in for the various logical alternatives. [brackets added]
A Sampling From 4 Topics
by Dave E. Matson
—————- 1 —————-
Peterʼs Denials of Christ
During the first centuries of the Common Era many different gospels were circulating within the Mediterranean community. Even Luke (Luke 1:1) mentions the flood of active gospel writers in his day! Only centuries later (after still more gospels) did the church choose 4 of them as the heart of its New Testament. Four loose horses, selected from the herd, now found themselves hitched to the same wagon!
In all likelihood, gospels1 were written by Christian communities in Rome, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and other lands often far removed from Jerusalem and Galilee. (Jerusalem, itself, was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans, and much of Palestine was uprooted for a time. Partly as a result, Christian leadership passed into the hands of the gentiles who were scattered about the Mediterranean. )
Let us draw a few parallels between the gospel writers and local newspaper reporters. Those parallels will be useful in guiding our analysis.
Each reporter writes for a specific audience, usually a town or a region. Similarly, each gospel was created (or adapted) to serve a particular religious community, church, or a faction within a community.
Each reporter ideally writes to fill a need. Similarly, many gospels probably began as an official response to some ideological crisis. Schisms within the community and new competition without, the consequences of changing times, occasionally threatened the old order. A written document not only served to define and fix a doctrine but allowed it to reach a wider, more dispersed audience. It served as a theological anchor amid confusion.
Each reporter writes a complete report. That is, each report is self-contained and requires nothing further to make sense to its original audience. Similarly, the Gospels were not written as chapters to be bound together! Each author, according to his own purpose and ability, included everything he felt his audience needed to know. Luke, for instance, does not send his readers to Mark or Matthew for additional details. Indeed, he treated Mark as little more than raw material in need of editing! Anything useful to Luke was copied while the rest of Mark was discarded like a pile of fish bones.
Each reporter draws from various sources and molds the information to his or her needs. Similarly, Matthew uses Markʼs gospel (more than 90% of it!), which he freely edits to suit his own needs. Luke, using more than 60% of Mark, even corrects some of Markʼs rough grammar! To them Markʼs gospel was nothing more than a very human, if newsworthy, source; it is hardly the sacred “word of God.” Accordingly, Luke informs us that his account is superior to the gospels then circulating. Obviously, Matthew and Luke were not in the business of harmonizing their gospels with those already existing. They were in the business of writing their own definitive accounts.
As you can see, each Gospel had to make sense all by itself, at least to its original audience. Secondly, the gospel writers were not in the business of harmonizing their differences. We must analyze the Gospels accordingly.
That is our first point.
Our next step is to ask how one might intelligently judge conflicting reports, whether they be of an automobile accident or of a historic event. Obviously, given independent reports, those elements common to all versions are most likely to be correct. That is the common bedrock to which all intelligent discourse is rooted.
To abandon that foundation—without compelling evidence—is to abandon any pretense at rational inquiry. Here is where many attempted solutions fail, including an argument that supposedly involves 12 accusations and 12 denials.
Let us now identify the common thread running through the Gospel accounts of Peterʼs denials.
Overlook, for now, the three “group accusations” against Peter2. All 4 Gospels clearly depict the lone accuser as the only accuser. That is, Peter promptly denies each accusation the instant it occurs. Each accusation leads to one denial.
Now look at the “group accusations.” We might make allowance for some “thinking aloud” within a group, accompanied by dirty looks directed at Peter. However, in each case only one accusation is formally lodged against Peter by a representative of the group, and it provokes the denial.
As you can see, the common thread running through all 4 Gospels is that of one specific accuser provoking a denial, the sequence being repeated 3 times. Any analysis that denies this basic thread is one of desperation and shall be dismissed without further ado.
Finally, Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:72, and Luke 22:61 confirm that we are dealing with just 3 denials.
Therefore, we may tally the 4 accounts in parallel. (The expanded edition of The New Oxford Annotated Bible* applies throughout unless otherwise noted.)
Let us see how these accounts stack up.
Accuser #1, the accusation, and Peterʼs response
One of the servant girls approached Peter.
“You also were with Jesus the Galilean.”
“I do not know what you mean.”
One of the High Priestʼs servant girls came by and looked at Peter.
“You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.”
“I neither know nor understand what you mean.”
A servant girl looked right at Peter.
“This man also was with him.”
“Woman, I do not know him.”
The girl who was attending the gate questioned Peter.
“Are not you also one of this manʼs disciples?”
“I am not.”
The location of the first denial
Peter is sitting in the courtyard with others, these presumably being the guards with whom Peter initially sat.
Peter is warming himself by the fire in the courtyard, presumably still sharing it with the guards.
Peter is sitting by the fire in the middle of the courtyard, sharing it with those who seized Jesus.
The girl who questioned Peter is stationed at the gate. The denial plainly occurs just after Peter enters and before he has moved beyond the range for a normal conversation. (There is no suggestion that either the girl or Peter were shouting over a distance, and we must not rewrite the text to conform to our prejudices.)
The timing of the first denial
The sequence of events is identical to Markʼs account.
The denial occurs after Peter seats himself in the courtyard, after Jesus is questioned at some length and confronted with many witnesses. (Jesus is questioned in the presence of all the chief priests and elders, and they ask him if he is the son of God. His answer causes the High Priest to ask, “Why do we still need witnesses?” The fatal question—and final judgment —occurred that night.) In many translations a cock crows immediately after Peterʼs denial.
Those who had seized Jesus had kindled a fire and were seated. Peter joins them. An unspecified (but apparently short) interval passes before the denial.
There is no appreciable delay as Peter had followed at a distance and was shortly admitted to the courtyard. The denial occurrs as Peter passes the gate, before he warms himself at the fire, before Jesus is questioned.
Accuser #2, the accusation, and Peterʼs response
A servant girl recognized Peter near the entrance to the courtyard and pointed him out to bystanders. (She is a different girl than accuser #1.)
“This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I do not know the man.” (As an oath.)
A servant girl saw Peter in the gateway or passageway and pointed him out to some bystanders. (“And the maid saw him, and
began again to say…” can only refer to the previous maid mentioned in Mark 14:66.
Thus, she is the same girl as accuser #1.)
“This man is one of them.”
Scripture only tells us that Peter denied the accusation.
A man passing by recognized Peter. (The “some one else” who saw Peter, presumably at the campfire, would not be one of that group. Those around the campfire were already aware of Peterʼs presence.)
“You also are one of them.”
“Man, I am not.”
A spokesman for some of those around the campfire put the question to Peter. (They are the “others” [Good News Bible] who are near enough to converse with Peter.)
“Are not you also one of his disciples?”
“I am not.”
The location of the second denial
Peter went out to the “porch.” (The Good News Bible interprets the location as “the entrance of the courtyard” and The New English Bible speaks of a “gateway.”) It is there that Peter is pointed out.
Peter is in the “gateway” (“passageway” or “porch”) when he is pointed out. (This appears to be the same spot as in Matthewʼs account.)
There is no sign that Peter has moved from the campfire when someone else notices him “a little later.”
Peter is standing near the fire to keep warm.
The timing of the second denial
Peter walks a short distance, presumably because the first accusation left him in an uncomfortable spot. A servant girl quickly spots him. (“And when he went out to the porch, another maid saw him…”)
Peter walks a short distance, presumably because the first accusation left him in an uncomfortable spot. He is spotted again by his first accuser.
A “little later” Peter is again identified.
The High Priest questions Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. How long this took is not clear.
Accuser #3, the accusation, and Peterʼs response
The bystanders who had witnessed the second denial approached Peter.
“Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”
“I do not know the man.” (Sworn with a curse.)
The bystanders who had witnessed the second denial soon questioned Peter again.
“Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.”
“I do not know this man of whom you speak.” (Sworn with a curse.)
Another man, who had not previously accused Peter, lodged the third accusation.
“Certainly this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.”
“Man, I do not know what you are saying.”
One of the servants of the High Priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, questioned Peter. (He is probably a member of the campfire group since his question immediately challenges the second denial.)
“Did I not see you in the garden with him?”
Scripture only tells us that Peter denied the accusation.
The location of the third denial
A little earlier Peter had been in the gateway or entrance of the courtyard.
He is probably still there.
Peter still seems to be in the “gateway” (“passageway” or “porch”) as the same bystanders accuse him again after a little while. There is no suggestion that they had to seek Peter out.
Peter is probably still warming himself at the fire. The third accusation, which consists of a forceful statement combined with evidence, is likely a delayed response to Peterʼs first or second denial. We have the same audience which witnessed Peterʼs earlier denial(s) and, thus, a stronger accusation is required. Therefore, Peter is probably still at the campfire. In Luke, all the action seems to take place around the campfire, and there is not the slightest hint that Peter left the area during the course of his three denials.
Peter is standing by the fire warming himself when the second accusation occurs, and the third accusation appears to follow immediately.
The timing of the third denial
A little while passes. At the third denial the cock immediately crows. (“And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’”) There is no hint of two cockʼs crows.
A little while passes. At the third denial the cock immediately crowed a second time. (“And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’”) The next morning all the officials gather to plan their strategy; there is no evidence that Jesus was questioned further.
About an hour passes. Peter had not finished his third denial when the cock crowed. (“And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.’”) There is no hint that the cock crowed a second time. Luke actually tells us that the cock would not crow that day until the third denial! The next morning the chief priests and scribes gather and ask Jesus if he is the son of God. Jesusʼ answer causes one of them to ask, “What further testimony do we need?” The fatal question occurred that morning. Obviously, final judgment has not been pronounced before that moment.
Possibly only a few seconds have elapsed. The third accusation follows on the heels of the second, and it appears to challenge Peterʼs second denial. And, at once, the cock crowed.
The conflicting number of cockʼs crows is just the tip of the iceberg! How many errors did you catch?
Check out these potholes if you will: Peter is standing near the gate (having just entered) when he made his first denial [John] versus sitting at a fire in the middle of the courtyard [Luke]. The first denial occurred before Peter warms himself by the campfire, before Jesus is really questioned [John] versus after he has warmed himself by the campfire, after Jesus has been questioned at length [Matthew, Mark]. The morning after we find the officials getting together merely to plan their strategy [Mark] versus gathering to question Jesus [Luke]. The fatal question about Jesusʼ identity (followed by the dramatic claim that no further witnesses were needed) occurred that night [Mark] versus the next morning [Luke]. The second accuser speaks for those around the campfire [John] versus an individual near the entrance to the courtyard [Matthew]. The second accuser is a man [Luke] versus a woman [Matthew, Mark]. The time between the first two denials is enough to question Jesus about his teaching and his disciples [John] versus the time to walk a short distance and be quickly spotted [Matthew]. The second accuser addresses Peter [John, Luke] versus the bystanders [Matthew, Mark]. The same servant girl is responsible for the first two accusations [Mark] versus two different girls [Matthew]. In some Bibles, including the King James Bible, the cock crows twice (with a matching prophecy) [Mark] versus once (with a matching prophecy) [Matthew, Luke]. In answering his third accuser Peter states that he does not know Jesus [Matthew, Mark] versus he does not know what they were talking about [Luke]. The third denial occurs at the campfire [John] versus at the gateway [Mark]. A few seconds probably elapsed between the second and third denials [John] versus about an hour [Luke].
Note that the accusations and denials, where given, differ in every single Gospel!
Apologists are quick to offer excuses as to why the Gospel quotations all differ, but does not it strike you as odd that one must continually apologize for Godʼs inerrant book? Is it asking too much of Godʼs inerrant book, if the Bible be such, to get the quotes right?
As for the contradictions between the Gospels, I am fully aware that a small army of biblicists has worked overtime to harmonize each and every one. You will find their various excuses scattered here and there in the apologetic literature. Do weigh their arguments for inerrancy against the case for error, merit for merit and weakness for weakness, and you will find their defenses forced and contrived. Biblicists lean upon the ad hoc fallacy and find refuge in the dubious translation of a word. The improbable loophole is their fortress, begging the question commonplace.
A Close Look at Several Faulty Solutions
Let us now look at a few suggested solutions in depth.
The Two-Campfire Model
Illustrating A Basic Blunder
One solution, offered to me by the editor of a Bible newsletter, envisioned two campfires—one in the passageway near the gate and one, mentioned by Luke, in the middle of the courtyard. Just how this arrangement is supposed to sweep the above contradictions away is a mystery to me, but it does weaken a couple of them.
The rule of reasoning this fellow was following, so very common in Bible apologetics, holds that any loophole destroys the claim of error.
At first glance this rule appears reasonable, but it is easily the single biggest blunder in Bible apologetics! It is the chief source of misunderstanding between those who defend biblical inerrancy and those who reject it. Therefore, this rule deserves our closest scrutiny.
In its strictest sense a contradiction consists of the statement “A” and not “A.” That is, if we state that the earth is spherical and (at the same instant) not spherical, then we are guilty of a contradiction. Obviously, if the critical parts of a problem passage do not fit the form “A” and not “A,” then we do not have a contradiction. That is to say, any loophole at all gets one off the hook. A harmonization—any harmonization—will do the job.
This is the reasoning most biblicists have in mind when they offer forced, improbable explanations. In practice, Bible-believers extend this approach to biblical statements about historical and scientific matters as well. That is, they count every loophole that does not press the wildest imagination to the breaking point (and a few that do).
In short, believing that the Bible is something akin to a dictation from God, biblicists assume that the book is inerrant; they will not budge unless an error is proven with 100% certainty—and sometimes not even then. “Donʼt claim an error,” they say, “unless you are 100% certain.”
The problem with this philosophy is that, in the real world, statements often carry hidden or imprecise meanings. We are not dealing with well-defined mathematical propositions. That is not the way people write or talk.
The statement “The earth is spherical” is not, according to how we actually speak, necessarily contradictory to the statement “The earth is not spherical.” I may offer the first statement to you as a close approximation of the earthʼs shape as seen from the moon. Later, I may offer the second statement in recognition of the fact that the earth is slightly flattened at the poles. It is a matter of perspective.
The statement “Los Angeles has a population of 2,968,528” is not necessarily in conflict with the statement “Los Angeles has a population of 3,000,000.” The intelligent reader assumes that the second figure was rounded off, not that the author has contradicted himself.
The statement “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” is not necessarily a blunder by some poor half-wit!
The hard rules of logic ignore the abbreviated ways in which we write and speak. The real world is full of sentences that clearly have unstated conditions or implied meanings attached to them.
Indeed, the simplest statements about everyday life are exceedingly difficult to make if rigor is demanded! If written communication is to function at all, let alone efficiently, then we must allow for unstated (but identifiable) conditions in a statement.
If a flat contradiction (the most certain form of error) is not necessarily an error in practical discourse, then what is?
The biblicists are playing with loaded dice! Produce a flat contradiction, and they will quickly supply the “presumed” meanings that dissolve that contradiction. Supply the presumed meanings and arrive at a contradiction, and they will invoke the rigorous laws of logic to admit every possible loophole. Thus, by one means or another, the Bible-believer makes all those nasty errors go away! That is how they play the game.
Either we must seek a more realistic definition of “error” (and, consequently, of “proof”) or else admit that we cannot even rule out Little Red Riding Hood! Give me the loaded dice of the biblicist and I can defend Santa Claus — or a flat earth!
Perhaps we should take a lesson from the sciences—that immensely successful enterprise—which put the moon within our reach.
Scientists long ago recognized that our knowledge of the physical world is largely a product of inductive reasoning. In principle, inductive reasoning can yield a high degree of confidence, but it can never confer 100% certainty.
The uncertainty of inductive reasoning follows from the fact that any set of observations can be explained, in principle, by an infinite number of hypotheses! There will always be loopholes, even to the most rigorous conclusions about the physical world!
(Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, tests and refines our beliefs about the physical world by exposing contradictions and laying bare the hidden but logical consequences of oneʼs assumptions. It can provide a fail-safe path from “A” to “B.” In mathematics the “A”s are arbitrarily given up front as postulates that define the system. Thus, in principle, we can reach conclusions within the world of mathematics with 100% certainty by way of deductive reasoning. Mother Nature, however, is not so accommodating. She does not supply us with a priori truths. We must work backwards to uncover the basic truths about our universe, and that is the job of inductive reasoning.)
Strictly speaking, my own consciousness is the only thing I can know with certainty about the real world! Everything else appears to require various assumptions that, at least in principle, might be false.
Take something rather basic, for example, such as the physical existence of the earth beneath your feet. How can we prove (with 100% certainty, mind you!) that the earth is not an illusion?
Perhaps you are just a brain wired up in some alien laboratory, and the earth is merely an illusion programmed for your benefit! Perhaps those aliens are applying signals to the various areas of your brain even now to simulate false senses of touch, taste, sight, smell, and sound. Can you disprove that model with 100% certainty? As far as I know, nobody has the foggiest idea how to do that. Thus, I have given you one of an infinite number of logically possible defenses for a nonexistent earth!
By now you may feel that we are in a hopeless quagmire, but that is true only if we insist on 100% certainty. Once we make the reasonable assumption that our collective senses do give meaningful data about the real world, once we understand that every proof concerning the physical world must contain an element of uncertainty, then we are back in business.
If we err in trusting our collective senses at their most basic level, then we have lost nothing! We have nothing to lose, and, judging by the success of the sciences, everything to gain. This is the only “leap of faith” that science allows itself. It is the bare minimum if we are to understand reality at all.
Truth and error, then, at least in the physical world of atoms and energy, cannot be established with 100% certainty. Outside the realm of mathematics, of abstract reasoning, proof of error is always accompanied by loopholes. No amount of data will ever remove all doubt.
To put it another way, in matters of inductive reasoning no one can ever plug the last loophole. There will always be loopholes in every theory about the real world. It is how we handle them which marks us as seekers of truth or wishful dreamers.
The simple fact of pointing out a loophole counts for nothing in evaluating a claim about the physical world.
For each bone of contention we must weigh the available evidence and select the better argument. Which argument makes the more credible claims? Both will have loopholes—that much we already know.
That brings us to the very important concept of objectivity.
“Objectivity” is not an easy term to define, and books probably have been written on the subject. In a nutshell, an objective procedure tries to maximize the chances of being right by employing rules distilled from past successes.
What might these rules entail?
To begin with, an objective argument favors explanations with an established track record. The most common experiences, the most likely assumptions, are tried first in the evaluation process. Secondly, an objective argument attempts to minimize the number of assumptions needed to explain a matter fully. We discard all unnecessary baggage.
Consequently, an objective argument concerning the real world must, at some point, be grounded in repeatable observations. Judging by the phenomenal success of the sciences, it appears that we need nothing more to explain things save logic itself. Thus, in keeping with our concept of objectivity, we must strive to explain the universe in those minimal terms. If someday that proves insufficient, then we will adjust our thinking accordingly.
You might object that this procedure is prejudiced in that it rules out a god-creator from the very start. But, all that is really being asked for is that extraordinary claims be backed by extraordinary evidence, and that the unknown be explained in terms of the known. So far, it has been very easy to explain human history and the workings of our universe (to the extent we understand them) without invoking a god-creator. So far, invoking a god-creator to explain scientific fact has been akin to piling on unneeded baggage, an exercise in speculation. Until that changes, science will favor natural explanations and rightly so.
Most Christians readily understand that the Hindu explanation of the universe involves exotic and unnecessary assumptions. However, most of those very same Christians, who displayed such sharp eyesight, become as blind as cave fish when their own turf is up for grabs. If you cannot understand that invoking God to explain nature is presently to tote excess baggage, to explain the unknown with the unknown, then at least understand the principles behind the concept of objectivity!
Who are you likely to believe — the employee who says he is late because of a flat tire or the employee who says that he was kidnaped by Martians but managed a quick escape? Flat tires do happen, so even a skeptical boss is not going to require much proof. However, you can be certain that he will not buy into the marauding-Martians story short of a national investigation.
It is a foolʼs gamble to bet on improbable explanations when common ones will do.
A miracle, for example, is not established if ordinary explanations are available; the latter are infinitely more probable. Fraudulent claims and confused witnesses are in abundance the world over while, as far as I can tell, no claim of a supernatural miracle has survived close scientific scrutiny.
Objectivity means sticking to the face value of a verse (the ordinary, most common meaning of the words) unless doing so would be a clear cause of error. Again, it is a matter of starting with the common explanations and working, if necessary, toward the more exotic ones.
Objectivity is not a matter of trying to see if our ideas will fit in but of seeing if our ideas should fit in.
“Objectivity” is a fisherman who goes into muddy waters with a big net. “Wishful thinking” is a fisherman who uses a teaspoon! Now, it is just possible that a fish might leap into that teaspoon while the big net comes up empty.
But, who are you going to depend on for dinner?
An argument that lacks objectivity is like a fisherman who uses a teaspoon to catch fish!
Let us now get back to the two-campfire argument. That two campfires are lit, that the second one is conveniently located to support biblical inerrancy, is strictly an ad hoc argument with no support from the text whatsoever. None of the Gospels remotely suggests such a scene!
We must reject ad hoc arguments as they are not the fruit of positive evidence. They are the gods of the gaps, thriving where positive evidence is absent. The fact that something might have happened is a mighty poor substitute for the claim that it did happen!
To sum up, we must weigh the merits of inerrancy against those of errancy. On those scales what might have happened is a hollow weight. Thus, the two-campfire defense lacks objectivity. The solution tries to overthrow the face value of the text without benefit of factual support. Those are excellent grounds for rejecting any interpretation.
How Many Times Did the Cock Crow — 1, 2, 3???
Another faulty argument, concerning the number of times the cock crowed, claims that the cockʼs crow in Johnʼs account corresponds to the second cockʼs crow in Markʼs account.
Thus, John only focused on the last cockʼs crow whereas Mark gave a somewhat fuller account by also mentioning the first. (Today, many modern translations drop Markʼs first crowing of the cock but retain his statement that the cock had crowed twice.)
Where, may I ask, is the evidence for this harmonization? There is not an iota of evidence in the Gospel of John suggesting that 2 cockʼs crows are involved and that the first went unreported!
Now, John may have accepted 2 cockʼs crows in the story—or 3 or 7—but we do not have the right to put such figures into his mouth without compelling evidence. What if John accepted one cockʼs crow and wrote accordingly? Should not the plain meaning of his words be our starting point?
Who are we to say that John really meant something else? We must mold our interpretation to what the text says, not by what it fails to rule out! It is that old god-of-the-gaps argument again, egged on by the usual a priori assumption of biblical inerrancy!
We are not at liberty to interpret the Gospel of John with an eye to Mark: the two accounts were written at different times by different people, and probably in different places and for different reasons.
Any attempt to harmonize them by force, at the expense of the natural meaning of the Johannine account, presumes inerrancy as a starting point.
Of course, that will not do if oneʼs goal is to establish biblical inerrancy by rational arguments.
Matthew and Luke—Only 1 Cockʼs Crow
A similar problem exists with Matthew and Luke who know of only one cockʼs crow. Indeed, Luke implies that the cock would not even crow that day until the third denial!
You may object that the Bible could not possibly have meant that, but that is exactly what it says. (In judging legal promises and biblical inerrancy, it is the statement on the paper that counts!)
Luke says, “Before the cock crows today.” Luke does not say, “Before the cock finishes crowing.” I know of no respectable translation that supports the latter interpretation.
Who Did “Number 2” Speak To?
Let us consider one more example. In John and Luke the second accuser addresses Peter; in Matthew and Mark, she addresses the bystanders.
It is naive to claim that Peterʼs accuser first addressed the crowd and then put the question to Peter. In Matthew and Mark the accuser is a woman; Lukeʼs accuser is a man.
Consider also the full implications of such a claim.
Though the story is getting into detail, we must believe that Matthew and Mark both overlooked the accusation against Peter, while John and Luke both overlooked the accusation addressed to the crowd!
This naive and awkward defense dismisses the central thread running through all 4 Gospels. (Each Gospel speaks of 3 accusations and 3 denials.)
The case for error, on the other hand, merely requires that we take the text at face value and apply some common sense. (Since the Gospels originally circulated as complete units, we may easily be picking up on two different traditions.)
Thus, we must reject this defense.
Gleason Archer, in his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, argues for another defense, a variation of the 12-accusations-and-12-denials argument. He suggests that the second accuser in Matthew and Mark is the same girl while those of Luke and John are separate individuals. They all launch their accusations within seconds of each other, and this barrage provokes several quick denials out of Peter. Archer counts this as one accusation and one denial.
Thus, a group of accusations is fobbed off as one accusation, and Peterʼs replies are treated likewise! Cute!
Obviously Archer has wholly abandoned—with a vengeance—the common bedrock underlying the four accounts. Need we say more?
That scotches his argument right there.
A final comment does seem appropriate, however.
Read Archerʼs commentary (pages 339-341) and count, if you can, the number of ad hoc (god-of-the-gaps) arguments he uses to make all the fractured pieces fit together. Then read his remark about us Bible critics being “incompetent to sit in judgment in any court of law.”! 3
Archerʼs defense is no better than the first one.
Peterʼs Denials—A Summary
The conclusion favoring biblical error has these points in its favor:
- it arises naturally from the face value of the verses in question;
- it employs no ad hoc assumptions;
- it respects those threads common to all 4 Gospels;
- it is fully compatible with the early, independent circulation of the Gospels; and
- it invokes an explanation with an excellent track record. 4
In short, we do not need any exotic assumptions or hanky-panky to make the facts fit.
Compare those credentials with what the biblicists offer:
- defenses loaded with ad hoc assumptions;
- defenses which do violence to the common thread running through the 4 Gospels; and, therefore,
- defenses which rest primarily on events which might have happened rather than on events which probably happened.
There is only one rational choice here.
The Bible has erred.
—————- 2 —————-
Biblical Harmony: Hosea vs. Kings
Hosea 1:4 speaks of the murders that Jehu committed at Jezreel, i.e., the fact that Jehu wiped out the king of Israel along with the royal family. (Indeed, he managed to nail the king of Judah as well!)
II Kings 9:6-10 and 10:11, on the other hand, claim that God ordered Jehu to kill King Joram of Israel (Ahabʼs son) and all of Ahabʼs family. (Part of Godʼs sentence was carried out at Jezreel.)
II Kings 10:30 sums it all up. God tells Jehu that he did a great job in exterminating Ahabʼs descendants!
The murders of which Hosea speaks are important enough that he feels no need to specify them by name, and that can only mean the murder of Joram along with Ahabʼs family line. (Had Hosea a lesser crime in mind he would have found it necessary to supply additional detail, if only to avoid confusion with the above noteworthy event.)
The two accounts obviously refer to the same event, and Hosea condemns the action while II Kings totally approves. Furthermore, God gave his approval after the dust had settled.
Thus, there can be no question of some terrible miscarriage in the execution of the order, one that might have alienated God. In fact, God rewards Jehu! (Only later does Jehu run afoul of God.)
Can any two biblical accounts be further apart?
Obviously, these authors are working at cross purposes. Nor is that rare in the Bible! William Neil is refreshingly candid:
It is not unusual to find one book of the Bible written to correct another. Job was written to protest Ezekielʼs doctrine that a man receives his just desserts in this life. Ruth was intended to tilt at the prohibition of mixed marriages by Ezra and Nehemiah.
(Harperʼs Bible Commentary, 1962, p. 321)
The Bible scholar Howard M. Teeple gives us an example from the New Testament:
Inconsistencies and conflicting points of view occur [in the Bible] . . . not only between the Old and New Testaments, but also within them. For example, Paul states that Christians are not obligated to obey the Jewish Law now that Christ has come (Gal. 3 and 5), but the author of the Gospel of Matthew stoutly upholds every letter of it (Matt. 5:17-19).
(I Started to be a Minister, 1990, pp. 239-240)
Farrell Till, former minister and editor of The Skeptical Review 5, analyzed several examples of discordant views in the Bible. Here is the conclusion he reached:
The truth is that the Bible, rather than being remarkably consistent and harmonious in its themes, is a book riddled with discrepancies and divergent theological views. Although unity of theme . . . was undoubtedly a criterion considered by the councils and conferences of rabbis and clerics who arbitrarily made canonical decisions, the selection processes were nevertheless imperfect in that they failed to produce a Bible free of discrepancies.
(“A Perfect Work of Harmony?” The Skeptical Review, Winter 1993)
Among serious scholars there is no question about it: Perfect harmony among the books of the Bible is but a myth.
—————- 3 —————-
Those Who Went to Heaven
John 3:13 claims that only Jesus (he that came down from heaven) had ever ascended to heaven:
No one ever went up into heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of Man whose home is in heaven.
(John 3:13 The New English Bible)
No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
(John 3:13 The New Oxford Annotated Bible)
And no one has ever gone up to heaven except the Son of Man, who came down from heaven.
(John 3:13 Todayʼs English Version)
But II Kings 2:11 tells us that Elijah was taken up into heaven by a whirlwind. Genesis 5:18-24 and Hebrews 11:5 speak of Enochʼs trip to heaven.
Although Enochʼs destination is not specifically given, as it is for Elijah, there can be little doubt about what the author meant. Enoch was, after all, one of the good guys—and he was not going to sheol!
That only left heaven as the Old Testament divided the universe into heaven, earth, and sheol (the pit or underworld).
By Jesusʼ time, entire books had been written and attributed to Enoch, and they describe his trip through the heavens in considerable detail.
One defense claims that the writer is speaking of Jesusʼ authority to know heavenly things, and that the statement applied only to the immediate group. However, had Jesus intended to limit his claim to those present he could have said, “None of you has ever ascended into heaven. . . .”
Look at John 3:13 again; it is quite universal.
There is nothing in the surrounding text that disputes the universal meaning of the phrase “no one,” and if there had been we would possess excellent grounds for claiming a contradiction. (One cannot revoke the clear meaning of a statement without damage; either oneʼs ability to write is called into question or oneʼs consistency suffers. Either case is fatal to biblical infallibility.)
Thus, those who make this claim are in the unenviable position of correcting their supposedly inerrant Bible!
A similar defense may be found in Brad McCoyʼs 136 Biblical Contradictions Answered. 6 McCoy states: “In John 3:13 Jesus is in effect saying that no one had been to heaven and then came down to talk about it, except himself the one who had descended from heaven and was then on earth.”
The text says nothing of the sort! The claim made in John 3:13 is quite categorical, John 3:12 notwithstanding.
If that were Jesusʼ intention he might have said, “I am the only one who can tell you about heaven, and if you have trouble believing what I say about matters down here on earth, then you will never believe me concerning heavenly things.”
Was that so difficult?
Both defenses are nothing more than bald-faced attempts to rewrite Scripture!
—————- 4 —————-
A Very Great City
Jonah 3:3 informs us that the old Assyrian capital, Nineveh, was an exceedingly great city, three dayʼs journey across! Tʼwas a really, really big city!
Assyria was the first world-class power to really collide with Israel, and the size of its fabled capital may have slipped out of focus.
At any rate, the Bible gives us a figure of 3 dayʼs journey. Scholars, using old travelersʼ accounts, usually reckon a dayʼs journey in ancient times as 20 miles or thereabouts. The fact that Jonah was probably on foot is irrelevant since Jonah is not the standard of measurement.
That gives us a city 60 miles in diameter!! Holy flying swordfish! That is bigger than Los Angeles!
Archaeologists have dug up portions of Nineveh, and their findings tell a far different story—it turns out that Nineveh scarcely exceeded 3 miles at its greatest width. It extended over some 1,850 acres with a circumference of about 8 miles.
How do Bible-believers reconcile these facts?
The Denial “Theory”
Jonah could never have been so far off, so the Bible must have had something else in mind.
Unfortunately, Jonah was not the only one to assign a large dimension to Nineveh. The Anchor Bible has this to say:
Bewer [Bewer, J.A., 1912: Jonah] gives ample citations from classical sources, most of which accentuate its inordinate size.
(The Anchor Bible, Jonah, p.230)
Ancient embellishments are not that rare. Aristotle, himself, is said to have speculated that Babylon had been taken for 3 days before all of its citizens became aware of the fact! Herodotus, that famous historian of the ancient world, held that Babylon was in the shape of a square whose sides were 14 miles long.7 Diodorus Siculus, another ancient Greekhistorian but of a later period, claimed 8 that Nineveh was a quadrangular city with a circumference of 60 miles.
Thus, Jonahʼs embarrassing account of Nineveh cannot be dismissed with the idea that no one could have taken it literally. Many Bible scholars believe that the book of Jonah was written several hundred years after the fall of Nineveh; facts had given way to legend.
The Province “Theories”
A few biblicists claim that the Bible is really talking about a region or a province instead of a city.
What do the professionals say?
The translators of The New English Bible, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Todayʼs English Version, The New Jerusalem Bible, and other top-rated Bibles say “city.”
That should settle it!
The Hebrew word, here rendered as “city,” also applies to Jerusalem, Jericho, and virtually every other city mentioned in the Bible! Thus, if we are to take the Bible at its word, we are talking about a city.
We are not talking about some province having the same name.
Nineveh is also mentioned in Genesis, II Kings, Isaiah, Nahum, Zephaniah, and Matthew. None of these passages refers to a region; most of them unmistakably refer to a proper city.
Strongʼs Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible gives only one meaning for “Nineveh.” It is the name of the last capital city of ancient Assyria.
Nor is the Bible talking about sprawling suburbs. Ancient Mideastern cities, even important ones, were shockingly small by modern standards. The larger ones surrounded themselves with walls to guard against bands of robbers, passing armies, etc. Those walls marked the limits of the city. There were no suburbs.
Nor can we count the farmland around Nineveh as a kind of “suburb.” Farmlands attached to Nineveh would certainly lie closer than 30 miles! The poor farmer is not going to spend a whole day walking to his field! If Nineveh needed that much grain, they would have imported it from nearby regions.
Nor do we have evidence that Jonah was using the capital of Assyria as a symbol for an entire nation, as is sometimes done with Jerusalem or Babylon in the Bible. A city spanning 60 miles is, indeed, exceedingly great—not so a 60-mile-wide nation. Furthermore, Jonah later removes himself a short distance from the city, builds a little hut, and waits to see what will happen to Nineveh. Obviously, Jonah is referring to a city whose walls he can keep an eye on while sitting a short distance away.
We do not hear of Jonah traveling from town to town, as Jesusʼ disciples did, to prophesy to an entire region.
The “Greater Nineveh” “Theory”
Perhaps our would-be revisionist will claim that Nineveh was surrounded by many small towns and cities, which, being closely tied to Nineveh, made up “Greater Nineveh.” The Jehovahʼs Witnesses, in fact, support a variation of this argument.
In their June 1, 1993 issue of The Watchtower the Jehovahʼs Witnesses claim that the Book of Genesis refers to a group of 4 cities in ancient Assyria as the “great city.”
We are further informed that mounds corresponding to these four cities have been located and that they form a rectangle whose sides add up to 60 miles! “Evidently, then, Jonah included all these settlements as one ‘great city,’ calling them by the name of the city listed first at Genesis 10:11, namely, Nineveh.” (The Watchtower, June 1, 1993)
Out of that land he went forth into Assyria and set himself to building Nineveh and Rehoboth-Ir and Calah and Resen between Nineveh and Calah: this is the great city.
(Genesis 10:11-12 The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures)
Thus, we have the Jehovahʼs Witnessesʼ solution to the problem.
But can it hold water?
Contrary to their claims, Rehoboth-ir and Resen have never been found! 9 Nor is there any mention of those cities in the clay tablets that have been recovered.
The peculiar name of Rehoboth-ir (“open space”-“city”) appears to be a reference to the wide streets or open spaces of Nineveh!
Rehoboth-ir. In all likelihood, this is not a city name but a phrase which describes Nineveh as a city of broad streets; the Gilgamesh Epic speaks analogously, and repeatedly of Uruk-rebitu “Uruk of the spacious markets,” the Akk. epithet being actually a cognate of Heb. rehob (singular).
(Anchor Bible, Genesis, p.68)
Thus, the “city” of Rehoboth-ir is probably nothing more than a description originally attached to Nineveh in praise of its wide streets or spacious plazas. It might even have referred to an open part of that city.
That is how The Harper Atlas of the Bible (1987), the work of 50 renown Bible scholars, handles it; “Rehoboth-ir” follows the name of Nineveh, the two names designating one spot on the map.
As for Resen, The Illustrated Bible Dictionary thought that it might correspond to a mound located on the right bank of the Tigris River about a third of the way between Nineveh and Calah. It is so placed in The Harper Atlas of the Bible.
Instead of having 4 cities in the shape of a square, as suggested by The Watchtower, we are reduced to 3 cities that sit on the upper Tigris River like pearls on a string. If anything, they form a straight line!
Consequently, the latter portion of the Jehovahʼs Witnessesʼ claim is destroyed. But what of Genesis 10?
Does the Bible, in fact, associate 4 cities with Nineveh?
To answer that question, let us consult several renderings of Genesis 10:11-12 from highly regarded Bible translations:
From that land [Babylonia] he went to Assyria and built the cities of Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir, Calah, and Resen, which is between Nineveh and the great city of Calah.
(Todayʼs English Version)
From that land [Shinar] he migrated to Asshur and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen, a great city between Nineveh and Calah.
(The New English Bible)
From this country [Shinar] came Asshur, and he built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and Resen between Nineveh and Calah (this being the capital).
(The New Jerusalem Bible)
Todayʼs English Version (also known as the Good News Bible) clearly pegs Calah as “the great city.” The New English Bible implies that Resen is the great city. The New Jerusalem Bible seems to be saying that Calah is the capital (great city). If you consult other scholarly translations, where a priori assumptions about biblical inerrancy do not intrude on good translation, such as The New Oxford Annotated Bible, you will not find the cities of Genesis 10:11-12 collectively named “the great city.”
According to the Anchor Bible, that unsurpassed scholarly but readable work consisting of scores of volumes, the above verses of Genesis were written at a time when Calah was greater than Nineveh in political importance. “The final clause, therefore, should apply to Calah, as the word order of MT demands, and not to Nineveh, as is commonly assumed.” (The Anchor Bible, Genesis, page 68)
The contradiction between the NEB and the other translations in naming the “great city” may be due to the use of different manuscripts or the ambiguity of the Hebrew. All translators must begin by choosing the manuscripts they will use, and, contrary to popular opinion, there are several choices. Many translators now use “critical texts” which select from several different manuscripts in an attempt to avoid corrupted portions of each. Besides the problems of choosing oneʼs manuscripts, the Hebrew itself is often ambiguous. Thus, even good translations can contradict each another surprisingly often.
It should be clear by now that the Jehovahʼs Witnesses have read their own doctrinal needs into Genesis 10, even as they have for certain archaeological findings.
The expression “great city” may also be found in Revelation: it refers to Rome—usually called “Babylon” as it was dangerous to openly oppose Rome. Revelation 11:8 may be an exception since the name “Sodom” is applied to Jerusalem in Isaiah 1:10, the city where Jesus was crucified.
None of these verses in Revelation, however, have the slightest connection with Nineveh. I only mentioned them because some biblicists have actually used them to support the “Greater Nineveh” idea!
Consequently, the attempt to resolve the problem of Ninevehʼs size by way of Genesis 10 does not hold water.
If there are other arguments involving “Greater Nineveh,” then let our would-be revisionists produce a map showing the vicinity of ancient Nineveh. Let them show that towns and villages form a well-defined cluster about Nineveh, one that is 60 miles in diameter. Let them show that the Hebrews referred to such an arrangement as a “city,” if they can!
Next, our would-be revisionists must turn to the Bible and show us why we cannot accept Jonah 3:3 at its face value. Is it because a certain number is a wee bit inconvenient?
Whatever happened to biblical inerrancy? Perhaps biblical inerrancy is just a matter of reinterpreting the Bible when it gets a little wild!
Unless the above steps are taken, any would-be revisionist is just whistling in the dark. Speculation must not be confused with facts, and facts are needed if we wish to overrule the face value of a passage.
Another faulty solution claims that the passage refers to the circumference of the city, but a 19-mile-wide city is hardly an improvement! 10
Still another approach views Jonah as walking “into” the city in a roundabout way. Perhaps he spent his day checking out the bazaars!
Surely, this is not what the ancients meant by “a dayʼs journey,” an expression that seems self-explanatory. It would be a very confusing way to describe the size of a city, and the ruse is clearly shot down in many good Bible translations. Here are several translations of Jonah 3:3-4 for your inspection:
Jonah obeyed at once and went to Nineveh. He began by going a dayʼs journey into the city, a vast city, three dayʼs journey across. . .
(The New English Bible)
So Jonah arose and went to Ninʼeveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Ninʼeveh was an exceedingly great city, three dayʼs journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a dayʼs journey.
(The New Oxford Annotated Bible)
Jonah set out and went to Nineveh in obedience to the word of Yahweh. Now Nineveh was a city great beyond compare; to cross it took three days. Jonah began by going a dayʼs journey into the city and then proclaimed, “Only forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown.”
(The New Jerusalem Bible)
Jonah went at once to Nineveh in accordance with the LORDʼs command.
Nineveh was an enormously large city a three daysʼ walk across. Jonah started out and made his way into the city the distance of one dayʼs walk, and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”
(Tanakh-The Holy Scriptures)
This last translation is from the Jewish Neviʼim. Since the ancient Jews wrote the Old Testament, a Jewish translation just might be useful in clarifying the subject.
There is one Bible translation (of which I am aware) that actually supports a version of the second defense above, and that is the NIV (New International Version, 1978). We find that “Nineveh was a very important city—a visit required three days.”
Since the NIV is a serious contender, at least among conservatives, we need to examine its treatment of Jonah 3:3.
Dr. Blair 11 informs us that all the translators of the NIV were expected to subscribe to the “high view of the Scripture” set forth in the Westminster Confession of faith, the Belgic Confession, and the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals.
When translators are hobbled with doctrine, doctrine will hobble the translation. Indeed, Dr. Blair gives us 12 examples in the NIV where translation has been so affected. Other examples, such as Genesis 2:19, Isaiah 7:14, and Acts 22:9 may be added to the growing list. It seems that the NIV is determined to translate away every Bible error it can lay its hands on! Even an honest conservative, such as O’Brien 12, will admit that doctrine has intruded in places.
Take the afternoon off sometime and look through all the modern Bible translations at a large library, if you will. You will find that the NIV is the odd man out in its handling of Jonah 3:3. Its rendering of Jonah 3:3 appears to be based on Stuartʼs translation:
There is no merit to Stuartʼs translation, “requiring a three-day visit,” which depends on Wisemanʼs incongruous weaving of Assyrian evidence regarding diplomatic visits to royal cities . . . Jonah is hardly sent to Nineveh to negotiate treaties or the like.
(The Anchor Bible, Jonah , page 230)
Thus, we may dismiss this rendering of Jonah 3:3. It is one of those places in the NIV where doctrine has overridden good translation.
A pathetic attempt to get around the problem, yet another variation based on twisting the meaning of a “dayʼs journey,” imagines that Jonah was a feeble walker.
Thus, he would not have traveled very far in a day. But alas! Jonah is not the standard of measurement. None of the translations say that Jonah walked for 3 days; the city was a 3-dayʼs walk across. Jonah went into the city a dayʼs journey. The usual standards apply, and, as mentioned earlier, that means about 20 miles per day in ancient times.
At this point the biblicist may wish to join hands with the liberals who deny the historicity of Jonah. For once, the biblicist would be right—but at great cost to the fundamentalist doctrine!
If the straightforward narrative of Jonah can be dismissed, then what of Noahʼs flood? What about Jesusʼ statements in Matthew 12:40-41? Where does the avalanche end?
If the Bible is truly authoritative in all matters, as fundamentalists claim, then its passages must be taken at face value. (Of course, if a passage clearly fits another genre, such as poetry or allegory, then we must interpret it accordingly.)
Thus, if the Bible appears to be making a factual statement, then the biblicist must accept it as such. To do otherwise is to strip the Bible of its presumed authority and to acknowledge reason as the higher standard.
That is the last thing the biblicist wants to do! His Bible is supposedly above human reasoning.
We thus arrive at an important point.
If the biblicist advances a claim—such as hyperbolic usage—which denies the face value of the passage, then the burden of proof is on his shoulders. Furthermore, he may not invoke such a defense merely because the passage is scientifically or morally embarrassing.
To do so, again, is to undercut the very pillars of biblical authority in favor of human reason. If the Bible does not mean what it says, then what does it mean? Who decides? Biblical authority is reduced to a consensus of human opinion!
The “hyperbolic” and “allegorical” defenses are attractive to the biblicist precisely because they plaster over a multitude of sins. They fill those odd gaps not amendable to normal repair. Therefore, let us see if either applies to Jonah 3:3.
Is the evidence for such usage overwhelming? On that point alone rests every valid claim of hyperbolic or allegorical usage.
Archerʼs Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties affirms the historicity of Jonah, as do most apologetic works. If Matthew 12:40-41 is accepted at face value, then Jesus himself supported the same. Therefore, the biblicist dare not conclude that allegorical or hyperbolic usage characterizes the Book of Jonah.
That leaves Jonah 3:3, the specific claim about Ninevehʼs size, for our consideration.
Clarkʼs commentary on the Bible treats the passage as factual. Clark even cites one or two ancient accounts attesting to the huge size of Nineveh, though he cautions his readers about their reliability.
Consider also, if you will, the various defenses of Jonah 3:3 that are common to many apologetic works, defenses already noted. They all assume that the passage is factual.
How, then, with such dissension among his ranks, can the biblicist claim overwhelming evidence for a non-literal interpretation of Jonah 3:3? Obviously, at least from a conservative viewpoint, there is nothing about this passage that demands a non-literal interpretation.
There is nothing wild about this passage except the size of Nineveh. Thus, the biblicist is obliged to take it at face value or else admit that reason has overridden the authority of the Bible!
Therefore, allegorical or hyperbolic usage is of no help to the biblicist in this instance.
::: Summary of the Non-literal Options :::
In judging the case for biblical inerrancy, we must accept the face value of a passage unless another genre (poetry, allegory, etc.) obviously applies. That is, we may not abandon the face value of the text unless the evidence compels us to do so.
We are not compelled to abandon the plain meaning of a biblical passage merely because it is morally or scientifically embarrassing. (One might expect an ancient work to contain such errors, a possibility that we cannot rule out a priori.)
We are not compelled to abandon the plain meaning of a biblical passage unless sticking to it would be a clear and obvious abuse of the authorʼs intended meaning.
Therefore, the burden of proof is on those who claim that a passage fits another genre. Poetic usage, allegorical usage, hyperbolic usage, and other non-literal usages must always be justified by positive, compelling evidence. We are never at liberty to substitute mere speculation for the plain meaning of a text.
Once the biblicist accepts Jonah as an historical account, then he is stuck with an impossibly big city called Nineveh.
If you accept biblical inerrancy on faith, then you will be blind to biblical error. Like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand, you cannot see beyond the blindfold of your own making. How can you recognize error if your mind is closed to the very possibility? If that is your mentality, then biblical errors will appear as mere puzzles to you, as something that might be explained away if time allowed. Indeed, the true fanatic does not even worry about the lack of good answers; Jesus will simply hand them out once we get to heaven!
The heart that rejects reason cannot be called upon to recognize the force of evidence, be it piled ever so high! Let such a mind slumber on, for it would take the labors of Hercules to awaken it! I speak to the man or woman whose mind still functions.
There is no substitute for reason.
It will not do to claim that God wrote the Bible, thus conferring inerrancy on it. We have no way of knowing, a priori, what God wrote—if anything. Furthermore, in this line of thought we must first establish Godʼs existence. Of course, we would still have to prove that, in fact, God wrote the Bible. No shortcut here!
If the Bible is divinely inspired, then how might we know it? God 13 (or his agent) may choose to inform us directly; we may learn by mystical means; we may conclude that this is the case after analyzing the evidence.
Unfortunately, God 13 is stingy on direct communication and short on personal appearances. Nor is he in the habit of giving his earthly messengers distinctive uniforms or foolproof badges. Thus, given a world full of liars and lunatics who are only too happy to pose as Godʼs 13 messengers, who are we to believe?
Of course, if you are one of those rare individuals who speak face to face with God every morning before breakfast, then you may have some privileged information. You might also be a nut with a malfunctioning brain!
The second option is not much better.
Mystics are always disagreeing with one another. How do we know, without appealing to evidence, who is right? How do we know that feeling right is being right?
Thus, in the end, we cannot escape the need to analyze the evidence, to exercise our reason.
No matter how you slice it, we cannot establish 14 the inerrancy of the Bible—or any book—before studying it. Such a study, if taken seriously, cannot begin with the premise of inerrancy. We must not be so foolish as to assume the very thing we must prove! (Arguments that use biblical inerrancy to prove biblical inerrancy are as common as weeds after a spring rain!)
If we approach the Bible with an objective, open mind—and not the fortress mentality born of the dark fears of ignorance—then it soon becomes obvious that its pages contain numerous errors. Before you is a small sampling of the Bibleʼs errors, drawn from a vast ocean.
- A capital “G” will be used in “gospel” whenever the word serves as a direct substitute for the names of one or more of the 4 Gospels.
- The second accusation in John and the third accusation in Matthew and Mark are the group accusations.
- The gifted reader will probably recognize that the rules guiding a criminal trial are not those for determining the best interpretation of a text. Archerʼs analogy is not sound, but that is another story for another time.
- Discrepancies in accounts widely separated in time and space usually turn out to be contradictions.
- The Skeptical Review: Skepticism, Inc., P.O. Box 617, Canton, IL 61520-0617 (Farrell Till edits this 16 page, quarterly review of Bible errors)
- McCoy, Brad: 136 Biblical Contradictions Answered (1985; pamphlet, photocopy, 30 pages). (McCoy, whose present address I do not have, wrote this pamphlet in response to 136 Biblical Contradictions put out by Crusade Publications.)
- Josh McDowell mentioned this tidbit in his Evidence that Demands a Verdict [Hereʼs Life Publishers, Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972, 1981: Volume 1]. (Herodotus sometimes allowed his readers to choose from several accounts.)
- The Watchtower (June 1, 1993), page 4 (The Watchtower is a publication of the Jehovahʼs Witnesses.)
- Harperʼs Bible Dictionary. 1985. Paul J. Achtemeier, General Editor Harper & Row, San Francisco; (see “Rehoboth-ir” and “Resen”)
The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible. 1962. 4 vols. George Buttrick, Chief Editor; Abingdon Press, Nashville, Tennessee; (see “Rehoboth-ir” and “Resen”)
The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. 1980. 3 vols. J.D. Douglas, Chief Editor Inter-Varsity Press; Tyndale House Publishers; (see “Rehoboth-ir” and “Resen”)
- If you recall your geometry, the diameter of a circle is found by dividing the circumference by pi. Pi is approximately equal to 3.14.
- Blair, Edward P. 1987. The Illustrated Bible Handbook
- O’Brien, David E. 1990. Todayʼs Handbook for Solving Bible Difficulties
- I use “God” here in the usual sense and as a stand-in for the generic sense.
- That is, to supply the evidence and reasoning necessary for a consensus of expert opinion.