If you find a discrepancy in the Bible, does that mean Jesus didn’t exist?

Even if we don’t know whether there was one angel or two angels at Jesus’ tomb, we can still know things about whether God exists and whether Jesus rose from the dead.

First, we can know that the universe was created and designed because of reliable, experimental evidence that the universe came into being and is finely-tuned for life. And second, we can know that Jesus was buried, that his tomb was found empty, that a variety of people had experiences of him appearing to them after his death, and that the Christian movement had an early belief that he was resurrected from the dead. We know those core things like we know anything – because we have good evidence. Other things that are more peripheral may not be as supported by evidence. We can remain agnostic about those peripheral things, but that agnosticism about peripheral things doesn’t undermine the things that we know.

William Lane Craig answered a question related to this problem for a person who accepted the minimal facts case for the resurrection but then though that someone this case couldn’t work unless he accepted inerrancy as well.

Here’s the question:

After re-evaluating my Christian faith and pruning it for two years, I can’t shake what seem like two disparate conclusions. One is that the evidence for Jesus resurrection is impecable. But the other is that there seem to be some very awkward realities about the composition of scripture (like errors or authors claiming to write by another name). Yet, the authors of the New Testament, including Jesus, seem to use Scripture in a way that assumes it is word for word from God.

While inductive logic is used to arrive at a strong historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, inductive logic can also be used to arrive at a strong case for many of the peculiaraties about Scripture previously mentioned.

It seems that the approach which many apologists take at this point is that, having established the authority of Jesus by the resurrection, if the argument being raised against scripture contradicts an opinion expressed by Jesus in the Gospels, then the argument for a contradiction must have no possible harmonizations for it to really stick. But I don’t see how this is fair to say, since (1) it seems unfair to use inductive logic to evidence Jesus’ resurrection but then not use it for criticisms against the Bible and (2) an inductive argument can be strong despite what Jesus as recorded in the Gospels says, especially since we cannot assume the precision with which many of the saying were recorded. And (3), anybody can cook up a harmonization of some verse that is possible but not plausible, which I am sure you have seen first hand many times.

Yet, holding these two positions in tension tends to be corrosive to my faith and ultimately leads to a certain bitterness against God for allowing the biblical writers to play fast-and-loose with his words and for not providing a clarity that brings more certainty about what is from him and what isn’t. Any help you can give to relieve this tension would be greatly appreciated.

Now Dr. Craig has a long response on his Reasonable Faith web site, but I just want to quote you this:

But secondly, suppose you’ve done all that and are still convinced that Scripture is not inerrant.  Does that mean that the deity and resurrection of Christ go down the drain?  No, not all.  […]As you recognize, we have a very strong case for the resurrection of Jesus.  That case in no way depends on the Bible’s being inerrant.  This became very clear to me during my doctoral studies in Munich with Wolfhart Pannenberg.  Pannenberg had rocked German theology by maintaining that a sound historical case can be made for the resurrection of Jesus.  Yet he also believed that the Gospel resurrection appearances stories are so legendary that they have scarcely a historical kernel in them!  He did not even trust the Markan account of the discovery of the empty tomb.  Rather his argument was founded on the early pre-Pauline tradition about the appearances in I Corinthians 15.3-5 and on the consideration that a movement based on the resurrection of dead man would have been impossible in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing his corpse.

Evangelicals sometimes give lip service to the claim that the Gospels are historically reliable, even when examined by the canons of ordinary historical research; but I wonder if they really believe this.  It really is true that a solid, persuasive case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made without any assumption of the Gospels’ inerrancy.

By contrast, the case for Jesus’ belief that the Old Testament Scriptures are inerrant is much weaker.  I think there’s no doubt that (5) is the premiss that would have to go if biblical inerrancy were to be abandoned.  We should have to re-think our doctrine of inspiration in that case, but we needn’t give up belief in God or in Jesus, as Bart Ehrman did.  Ehrman had, it seems to me, a flawed theological system of beliefs as a Christian.  It seems that at the center of his web of theological beliefs was biblical inerrancy, and everything else, like the beliefs in the deity of Christ and in his resurrection, depended on that. Once the center was gone, the whole web soon collapsed.  But when you think about it, such a structure is deeply flawed.  At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center.  The doctrine of inspiration of Scripture will be somewhere further out and inerrancy even farther toward the periphery as a corollary of inspiration.  If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

We have mainstream scientific evidence for God’s existence, and a mainstream historical evidence for a minimal facts case for the resurrection. None of that evidence depends on inerrancy being true.

So can we please just accept what can be known from experimental science and standard historical methods, and work our lives around that, and not nitpick about peripheral issues so much? I am inerrantist, and so is Dr. Craig. But you don’t have to be in order to accept that the mainstream evidence that shows that universe was created and fine-tuned, and that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. Don’t let “one angel vs two angels “stop you from accepting things we can know. You can just stay agnostic about the things you think we don’t know.

8 thoughts on “If you find a discrepancy in the Bible, does that mean Jesus didn’t exist?”

  1. It is also worth noting that those of us who are inerrantists don’t say that the COPIES we have are inerrant, but only that the ORIGINALS were. If minor errors crept in with a scribe writing the wrong number of angels or something similar, and even if we now can’t determine how many angels there were from the copies we have, it doesn’t mean the originals weren’t inerrant.

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  2. What we have with the people who bring up this kind of argument that says that since we don’t have the original manuscripts and all copies are not absolutely identical in the minutest detail that we cannot claim Biblical inerrancy is nothing more than a case of “Bart Ehrman-itis”.

    Wk’s article goes a long way towards showing that the argument is little more than a smokescreen designed to avoid the real issue which is: who was this Jesus and did he really rise from the dead and what does it all mean.

    We don’t base our affirmative positions about Christ upon a belief in inerrancy, but as I mentioned in another post, we base our position of inerrancy upon the historical facts regarding Christ’s identity and resurrection from the dead. If he is really who he claimed to be, providing proof positive by his resurrection from the dead as attested by BOTH the NT as well as the historical and factual spread of Christianity in a very hostile environment, and he esteemed the OT as inerrant as well as commissioning a new group to tend and teach (via a NT of writings) the followers that would come to be, I, for one, find it very difficult to disagree with him (Christ) on the issue.

    JMG

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    1. It’s so weird to me, when I am presenting the scientific evidence for Creator and Designer, then the minimal facts, that the person will jump all the way to the end of the story and nitpick about something they find distasteful “am I going to Hell?” or something they want to fault God for. It’s not being honest with the data. We can know lots of stuff, and you can’t undermine the stuff we know with “I’m offended” or some other nitpicky detail about one or two angels.

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      1. WK, I agree completely.

        Just because someone has found something that they are not comfortable with or which is not the way they think it should be does not trump the scientific evidence for God or the historical evidence for Christ. To attempt to do so would be like saying, “I’m not really sure if story of George Washington having wooden teeth is true, so, therefore, everything that we think we know about him must really be only a myth”. That of course would be an absurd conclusion, but it is the kind of thing that is rampant on social media like the internet where anyone can say anything without being held to logical accountability.

        You cannot dismiss settled facts simply because you might have found something else which is not settled. To be consistent, unsettled issues should bow to settled ones, not the other way round.

        JMG

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        1. I should have known you guys cannot actually grasp that your “facts” are not actual “facts”. Its like you have blinders on. You are so bought in to the marketing of christianity- you have forgotten what it was like before you were saved – how things look to an outsider and how to reach them.

          You dismiss very serious things as nitpicky and almost silly. But you do it to your own detriment – like cults that turn inward. You don’t even see that you are inward. You are dismissive and proud.

          If you took your own bible more seriously, you may make more outreaches toward the unbelievers and skeptics. As it is, you look more happy to be “right” than to actually reach someone.

          But lucky for Christianity – there are others on the front lines, and I would say Dinesh is one, who actually “gets” the arguments against these “facts” and so he addresses them. He knows what is known and what is hopeful.

          Go ahead and pat each other on the back and be satisfied with your dismissal of these people who are “just using smoke screens to avoid God”. This is why churches are shrinking and secularism is on the rise.

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          1. Prudence,

            You said:

            I should have known you guys cannot actually grasp that your “facts” are not actual “facts”.

            Really?

            FACT: A trinitarian understanding of the deity who created the universe suddenly emerges in the midst of what was and continued to be a fiercely monotheistic society (Judaism). Please explain.

            FACT: Christianity began very early in the geographic location of Judea and was, therefore, in the very place where the bodily resurrection of Christ was claimed to have taken place. If the claim was false, how could it have been given credence by anyone in the same location with the nearby presence of a tomb occupied by an inanimate corpse? And this is especially curious when there existed many in the very same place (Jews, Romans) who were quite hostile to the claim and who would have been quick to expose the claim as a fraud if they had at their disposal any means to possibly do so. Please explain.

            FACT: The same trinitarian understanding of deity very rapidly swept through what had been a polytheistic culture (Greco-Roman) with an ever-expanding pantheon of Gods suddenly causing large numbers of these life-long polytheists to disavow all the Gods that they had previously paid homage to as false, and to fully embrace Jesus Christ himself as the only true God. Please explain.

            Fact: James, a brother of Jesus, was actually killed for his belief that his own brother (Jesus) was God in the flesh, and he is depicted in the NT as the early leader of the church in Jerusalem despite the fact that during the time of Jesus earthly life he is depicted in the gospel accounts as among the rest of Jesus’ siblings as considering Jesus their brother to be mentally unstable. Why the change in his demeanor toward Christ? What would it take to convince someone that their own brother was God in the flesh. And if the resurrection claim is false and the gospel narratives nothing but fictional stories, then what would be the motive for the writers to fictionally depcit James (as well as the rest of Jesus’ siblings) so unfavorably in the gospel narratives and only later (in Acts) hold him up as the prime leader of the mother church in Jerusalem? Please explain.

            This is but a scratching of the “factual” surface, and, if one is really going to make an attempt to cast doubt upon the claims concerning the deity and resurrection of Christ, then one does so to their own detriment should they turn a deaf ear and blind eye to these (and there are abundant others) historical FACTS.

            Virtually all I have said above can be distilled from just a few extra-biblical writings such as those of:

            Tacitus, Annals 15:44 (scroll down to near the bottom)
            http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/annals.html

            Pliny the Younger’s Letter to Emperor Trajan re Christians
            http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/text/pliny.html

            Josephus’ comment regarding the death of James, Jesus’ brother, Antiquities 20.9.1
            http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=J.+AJ+20.9.1&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0146

            And, no, what we have presented here is NOT the reason that churches are shrinking or becoming secularized at all. On the contrary, it is precisely the lack of sound apologetic teaching in those churches that has left their congregations ill-prepared to even attempt an answer to the over-blown contradiction charges of the internet skeptics or the old-news revelations of textual difficulties in the popular writings of the Bart Ehrmans of the world. The plain truth is that far too many of those occupying the position of the pastorate just don’t want to be bothered with apologetics and would rather just by-pass the subject altogether in favor of a “just-take-it by-faith” message that doesn’t require any factual, historical support or defense. And worse still, is the sad reality that many of them have serious doubts in their own minds as to the factual defensibility of the claims of Christianity because they too where either neglected by their own teachers or were the victims of teachers who eroded their confidence in those claims with faulty, one-sided reasoning of their own.

            You said further:

            “If you took your own bible more seriously, you may make more outreaches toward the unbelievers and skeptics.”

            So, are you saying I should look at it in a way that doubts the truth of what it says? Exactly how will this benefit the message of the Bible or the people I am conveying that message to? By saying it is faulty I will convince people of its truth? Does that really make any sense? I’m sorry but with my mind as open as I can make it, I just can’t see it.

            Prudence, we are not engaging here in any mutual “back-patting”. We are simply making the joint observation that we each have encountered the phenomena (especially I would say in the environment of the internet) of folks who seem so very quick to, in Biblical terminology, “swallow a camel and strain at a gnat”, when they are so eager to dismiss solid, historical facts and the questions that they entail simply on the basis of textual issues that themselves have multiple plausible solutions. I hope you can see why such a position would frustrate us. Simply because we are undecided on which of multiple plausible and theologically neutral variations for a textual issue (and regarding your Abiathar passage, I did not dismiss it at all, but I presented to you a perfectly viable and grammatically feasible answer to it) is no warrant for dismissing the remaining 98 or 99% of the text as faulty. Remember there are no issues in the vast bulk of the text.

            And regarding the alleged Biblical contradictions that one can find in droves on multiple skeptical websites, please give place to the multiple apologetic websites that deal directly with them. I am always amazed that so many skeptics actually think that no one ever noticed these apparent difficulties until they found them, as though countless people had read them for centuries and never noticed them, and never provided any answers to them.

            As I said before, I’m not an authority on D’Souza, but he may well be presuppositional (“just take the Bible by faith, and if God has really equipped you to, you will”) in his apologetic approach. That might explain some of the things your are saying about him, and that position, too, is a major reason why Christians are poorly prepared to answer skeptics and, thus, why they and their kids are leaving churches or are victims of secularized, emergent theology.

            JMG

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  3. You know, we deal with this kind of thing all the time in modern life. A football (American rules) game happens, 50 different newspapers and websites record the game’s events and if you read all of them, the yards gained/given up will vary here and there, and the descriptions of how the team prevailed/fell will vary according to home or away or other personal bias. It’s even worse in soccer, where the desire to turn a pithy phrase leads to all manner of exaggeration that make Americans seem sane by comparison. You’ll find that kind

    If I were like all of those skeptics and the written records were all I had, I would have to doubt that the game ever was played, given the fact that there are variances in the accounts. Thankfully I am not and can assume that there was in fact a game and that the major points occurred as specified. That kind of lazy approach to critical thought has always annoyed the crap out of me.

    I am myself an inerrantist, but I have understood the word to refer to the originals. The Scripture we have is sufficiently unchanged (hooray for Dead Sea Scrolls?) that we can know true things about God and about ourselves from it.

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