Background Probability

The Agnostic Popular Front has moved to its new home at Skeptic Ink, and will henceforth be known as Background Probability. Despite the relocation and rebranding, we will continue to spew the same low-fidelity high-quality bullshit that you've come to expect.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Contradiction #30 - Vicarious punishment?

SAB #30

We have in our Bibles a few Bible verses which clearly indicate that children ought not be put to death for the sins of their parents.

What then are we to make of verses described divinely ordained genocide in the Hexateuch, wherein the soldiers are ordered to completely destroy "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites" leaving "alive nothing that breathes" as they find themselves stabbing eastward into the Promised Land, wiping out city after city along the way.

Moreover, we have the following from Isaiah 14:21-22 (YLT):
Prepare ye for his sons slaughter; Because of the iniquity of their fathers, They rise not, nor have possessed the land, Nor filled the face of the world [with] cities. And I have risen up against them, (The affirmation of Jehovah of Hosts,) And have cut off, in reference to Babylon, Name and remnant, and continuator and successor, The affirmation of Jehovah.
Isaiah 14 is basically one long fuckyoulogy to the late king of Babylon, which seems like a harmless bunch of invective until we get to the part at the end praising YHWH for wiping out all the sons of Babylon.

I would suppose the apologetical approach to this problem is to carve out an exception for divinely ordained genocide, so the rule should be taken to read "Do not kill the children for the sins of their fathers, unless that sin happens to be the sin of being born into the wrong tribe."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Contradiction #29 - Guided by voices (nigh unto Damascus)

SAB #29

Here are two stories related to us by the author of gLuke. Actually, it is the same story, twice, with somewhat variant details. In the first account, it is said that Paul traveling companions "stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man" while in the second one it is said that they "saw indeed the light, and were afraid; but they heard not the voice of him that spake" unto Saul of Tarsus.

The only possible apologetical approach to this problem is to claim that the verb signifying hearing means something different in each story, perhaps merely "hearing" in the first case but "comprehending" in the second. One could well imagine Paul's companions hearing an indictinct sound like the adults speaking in Charlie Brown animated specials. It would seem that this approach to reconciling these verses is the one favored by the NASB.

The problem with this solution is that the same verb is used in both places and there is no reason from context to believe that hearing with comprehension is not implied in both places. Indeed, I've yet to see any exmaples in the NT in which ἀκούω is taken to mean hearing a voice without making out the words. Even in verses like Mark 4:12 is it taken as read that the listeners are understanding the words and the surface meanings of the parables, but not the profound meanings thereof. Unless such examples prove forthcoming, it is the utmost in special pleading to claim that this word means "hearing a voice without catching the words" in just this one place, given how often it is used throughout the NT to denote hearing voices.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Contradiction #28 - An unforgivable sin?

SAB #28

When I was a kid, I was travelling for some reason with my Dad and his best friend. Possibly they both brought their whole families along, I really cannot now recall the context of the trip. At any rate, they got into a really energetic argument over whether or not there is a unforgivable sin named in the Bible, and if so what it might be. As best as I can now recall, one of them vigorously defended the view that a particular sort of blasphemy is a divinely condemned thoughtcrime (or perhaps spoken offense) which God will never forgive, while the other man maintained that all synoptic references to an unforgivable sin were not really about blasphemy per se but were rather about the total rejection of the Christian gospel.

This apologetic has a certain appeal, because it is difficult to imagine anyone but a confirmed apostate taking excessive joy in blaspheming the most obscure third of the Christian Trinity. That said, the crimes of blasphemy and apostasy have always been listed and punished separately, both in Jewish tradition and in Christian catechisms. The apologetical attempt to cleave them together into a single unforgiveable sin seems hamfisted at best.

Moreover, if the universe is such that there is only one word or deed or state of belief that will earn someone irrevocable eternal damnation, surely a loving deity would make it abundantly clear to his beloved creations what exactly that might be. The fact of widespread confusion on this issue, a confusion that I first encountered so many years ago, militates against the position that an all-powerful being actually wants everyone to be saved.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Contradiction #27 - Touching Reunions

SAB #27

This alleged contradiction hinges on the notion that Jesus' prohibition on touching, which he spoke unto Mary Magdalene in John 20:17, was a general prohibition which applies to everyone in the time between the bodily resurrection and the ascension. For once, I found the apology at Looking Unto Jesus more or less satisfactory, although the Fourfold Gospel reads waaay too much into the Greek.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Contradiction #24 - Does God tempt?

SAB #24

James 1:13 clearly states that "God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man" but we can see several examples in the Hebrew Scriptures in which God directly tempts his followers to do evil things, such as when God tempted Abraham to perform a child sacrifice, or when God tempts David to conduct a census. We also see at least one example of God sending an otherworldly Adversary on a mission to tempt his beloved servant, a mission which was both approved and subtly suggested by God himself.

I've yet to see any worthwhile treatments of this problem, but perhaps I'm not looking hard enough. Suggestions are welcome.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Contradiction #22 - Does God repent?

SAB #22

This one is a theological puzzle about the nature of the Hebrew God, and a doozy to boot. The central question here is whether the God of the Hebrew Bible ever changes his mind and repents of an earlier course of action. Here are four key passages which argue that YHWH never repents. All but the last of these four verses make use of the Hebrew word נָחַם (Strong's H5162) which is the very same word used in loads of other verses to indicate divine repentence, usually accompanied by a changing in course of dealings with the covenant people.

In order to untie this Gordian knot, the apologist must maintain that נָחַם means one thing in Numbers 23:19 and 1 Samuel 15:29 and Ezekiel 24:14, but must be taken in context to mean something else entirely in all those other verses. Good luck with that.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Contradiction #20 - Who is righteous?

SAB #20

The problem here is one of equivocation between at least two meanings of the word "righteous" in the OT. The relevant terms here are Strong's H6662 and H6663, and they are used alternately to describe total blamelessness or to describe righteousness in the everyday sense of the term, that of upstanding character which is nonetheless well short of moral perfection. All an apologist has to do to wriggle out of this bind is to note that Hebrew and Greek words (like any other words) can take on different meanings in different contexts.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Contradiction #19 - New Moon sacrifice?

SAB #19

The problem here is that YHWH himself prescribes two different sacrificial recipies for the same religious festival. The problem with the problem, here, is that any true believer is free to say that God changes the rules for worship however and whenever He wants. Indeed, all Christians are theologically committed to the proposition that God changed at least a few ground rules a bit with each new covenant.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Contradiction #18 - How did Judas die?

The two Bible stories depicting Judas' death contradict each other on various points. The various attempts to cobble all these bits together are actually quite entertaining reading. They all depend upon ignoring the plain reading of one passage in order to forcefully interpret it in terms of the other one.

It should be clear that Judas either died from hanging by his neck or else from a particularly nasty fall. To try to pretend that both of these things happened in a bizarre tragicomical sequence is to say that one's own proposed synthesis takes priorty over a straightforward reading of either text on its own terms.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Contradiction #17 - Jesus testifies of himself?

The next purported contradiction in the SAB short list is between two passages in gJohn: John 5:31-40 and John 8:12-20.

In the first passage, Jesus seems to say that if he alone bore witness of himself, his testimony should not be considered true, but then he goes on to marshal other purported witnesses to the truth of his ministry. In the second passage, Jesus seems to say that even if he does testify on his own behalf, his testimony ought to be believed because of such other witnesses. Taking both statements fully in context, I honestly don't see much of a problem here. The contradiction only holds up if we completely eliminate the context and then take the remaining snippets completely literally. I don't recommend pursuing this one.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Contradiction #16 - When was Jesus crucified?

This purported contradiction is clearest in the NIV, one of the few translations which takes the trouble to translate into our modern time system. At the very least, this shows that the NIV translators were dedicated to methodological consistency in this particular case.

It appears that Jesus was crucified either at 9 a.m. or else sometime after noon. This may seem like a small detail to some readers, but the inerrantist literalist apologist must find some way around it, which means that he must find fault with one or both of the NIV translations of these verses.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Contradiction #15 - Did the Nephilim die in the Noahide flood?

SAB #15

First off, who are the Nephilim of Genesis 6:4 and Numbers 13:33? Evidently, they are a race of misbegotten superhumans, born of unholy unions between mortal women and fallen angels. At this point, the average Bible reader may become uncomfortable on account of the obvious parallels to pagan myths of demigods, but it gets so much weirder if one strays outside of the usual canonical scriptures.

At any rate, the question for the apologist here is how this mythological race of preternatural giants survived the great flood, in which "All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died." I have yet to see a passable reply to this problem.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Contradiction #14 - Who rose first?

SAB #14

This one is too easily dismissed by all but the most dedicated literalist. The apologists reply here is that Jesus was "the first that should rise from the dead" into a new (immortal and incorruptible but nonetheless physical) body, while all the other Biblical resurrections are either spiritual or else mere bodily resuscitations back into original mortal form.

This is a good enough reply, except that it raises the awkward question of what became of Jesus' physical form upon his ascension into the vacuum of space. Presumably, it has been placed in cold storage awaiting Jesus return to the planet Earth. Also, it is presumably being retrofitted with bizarre orally deployable weaponry.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Contradiction #13 - Accursed for lack of figs

SAB #13

This is a fascinating problem of narrative chronology arising from difference between two of synoptic gospels, at Mark 11:19-21 and Matt 21:17-19. These events are narrated as having taken place on the same morning, but while Mark has Peter hearkening back to Jesus cursing the fig tree the previous day, Matthew depicts the event as taking place all in a single morning.

Probably the best way to visualize the problem in its entirety is to visit the CARM page exploring this issue in some detail and including a handy parallel table of events. Upon seriously considering this problem, the innerantist will be forced into fabricating ad hoc solutions (e.g. two fig trees) or else reconsidering whether both of these sources can be taken to be chronologically accurate.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Contradiction #12 - Who bought the field of blood?

SAB #12

Matt 27:6-8 and Acts 1:16-19 seem to be telling very different stories about a certain place called the field of blood. One has only to read these stories side by side to get the sense that something went amiss between the synoptic authors of gLuke and gMatt when they both attempted to explain the mythical relation of this particular field to the literary figure of Judas Iscariot. Two obvious questions arise here: Why is this field called the field of blood? and Who purchased said field?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Contradiction #10 - Who ascended first?

SAB #10

The question here can be put very straightfowardly: According to the Bible who was the first person to ascend directly to heaven? There are three possible answers to be found in the Bible itself: Enoch, Elijah, and Jesus. The Johannine gospel seems to be distinctly at odds with the Hebrew scriptures on this question.

Here is one apologist's reply which I found immensely entertaining, since it relies on the idea that Enoch and Elijah were translated into an indescribable limbo (which doesn't lead to paradise) rather than to the bosom of Abraham wherein righteous Jews are said to abide. J.P.H. is ignoring various Hebrew sources and traditions in a valiant attempt to remain ignorant of the fate of Enoch and Elijah according to the Hebrew Scriptures, which he claims are the revealed and perfect word of God. Seems like he should be trying a bit harder than that.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Contradiction #9 - Zin or Sin?

The problem here is that a story from the Book of Exodus is retold in the Book of Numbers in a totally different setting. Here are the relevant verses and here are the relevant maps: Kadesh Barnea, Rephidim.

Here is a single map to illustrate the distance between these two regions and cities:

I've not yet found any harmonies of these two stories, but I'm guessing that some apologists will fall back on "nearly the same story happened twice" as we've seen in gospel harmonies. Naturally, I'm hoping for a more creative and interesting solution.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Contradiction #8 - David turned not aside

2 Samuel 24:10
And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done: and now, I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant; for I have done very foolishly.
1 Kings 15:5 (KJV)
Because David did that which was right in the eyes of the LORD, and turned not aside from any thing that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

This one pretty much speaks for itself. For an apologist to get out of this one, he has to maintain that (somehow) David "sinned greatly" in the matter of the census, but at the same time he "turned not aside" from the Lord's commandments concerning the census.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Contradiction #7 - Unshod and staveless?

This one is a bit unusual in that the alleged contradiction arises from an in-house dispute within the synoptic gospels, that is, between gMark and the other two. Here are all the relevant passages: KJV, NIV.

The author of Mark makes it clear that the disciples are to "be shod with sandals" and carry a staff, while the other two authors seem to have Jesus saying that the disciples can go forth without even such necessaries as these.

I would suppose that a common apologetical approach would be to say that it is understood that Jesus was talking about packing extra staves in Matt 10:10 and Luke 9:3 and that these verses must be taken in light of his earlier insistence in Mark 6:8 that they are to take just one walking stick. The only problem with this approach is that the authors of gMatt and gLuke both dropped the part about wearing sandals in their retelling of Mark's story! Such a deliberate redaction does not argue for reading the later books in light of the former, but rather for ignoring the earlier tradition in favor of the revised version of the story.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Contradiction #6 - Did Jesus Baptise?

The next contradiction is a small conundrum from the Gospel attributed to John. Full context here. All Bible verses are taken, of course, from the one and only perfectly preserved English translation of the Bible.

John 3:22-23
After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized.

John 4:1-3
When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) He left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee.

Prior to reading chapter 4, a straightforward reading of 3:22 would lead most people to conclude that Jesus had both tarried and baptized with his disciples. When we get to 4:2, however, we find that Jesus should not be considered to have been personally engaged in acts of baptism. There are several possible hermeneutical workarounds for this problem.

One solution, suggested by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (Professor of New Testament at the École Biblique in Jerusalem) is that these two verses were authored by two different people, the later of whom was attempting to put a midrashic gloss upon the earlier account. In an article published in New Testament Studies he posits the possibility of "a Johannine editor, whose specific contribution is to be found in the interpolation at John 4:2." This does not eliminate the contradiction inherent in a plain reading of these two passages, but it does explain how such contradictory passages could end up effectively side by side, evidently situated within the same gospel pericope.

Another solution has been suggested by Calvinist blogger Alan Maricle who claims that Jesus "didn't physically immerse people with His own hands" but rather deputized his disciples to do the baptizing for him. To accept this view, one must take John 3:22 to mean "he tarried with them and [they] baptized" while Jesus merely supervised. The problem with such an attempted reinterpretation is that the verb form of baptise doesn't allow for it. Here, βαπτίζω is used in the imperfect active indicative third person singular form. To quote Dr. Peter Moses, "In this verse we have the imperfect active indicative of baptizo in the third person singular. The imperfect tense shows continual action whilst the third person singular indicates that at this stage Jesus Himself kept on baptizing people."

There are other solutions, to be sure, such as the hypothesis that these two verses represent two distinct phases in Jesus' ministry. According to this model, Jesus personally baptized some of his early followers, and later deputized his inner circle to do the baptizing on his behalf or in his name. It borders on special pleading, however, to attempt to read this transformation of Jesus' ministry into a single pericope spanning John 3:22 through 4:3, describing a single missionary trip from Galilee into Judea.

Of all the possible solutions, I personally find Murphy-O'Connor's hypothesis most plausible, because it explains both the parathetical and paradoxical nature of 4:2, which reads on its face like an editor's note correcting an error in the original text. Of course, such a solution is not available to those who consider 4:2 to be inherent to an innerrant autograph, but it must be noted that (alas!) we simply do not have the original manuscripts.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Contradiction #5 - Baptizing in the Name of _______?

This contradiction focuses on a fascinating little theological dispute over whether baptisms are to be performed in the name of Jesus (alone) or using the trinitarian formula of Matthew 28:19. Here are all the relevant verses: KJV, NIV

So far, all of the apologetical attempts to deal with this problem seem to hinge on the implicit claim that the author of Acts meant "in the name of" to mean something different than the author of gMatt when he uses the same Greek words. Obviously, this is unwarranted special pleading. Thus far, I've not found any convincing answers to this little conundrum, trivial though it may seem.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Contradiction #4 - Mystery Mom of Abijam

The response to this problem is typically something along the lines of "Maachah is the daughter of Uriel and the granddaughter of Absalom" and this solution hinges on whether the Hebrew word "daughter" in 1 Kings 15:2 should be taken to mean "granddaughter" instead. I checked a couple of Hebrew lexica, and sure enough the word בַּת (bath) is one of very wide semantical extent, and can be used to describe literal daughters, adopted daughters, daughters of a tribe, and essentially any female descendants of a given ancestor, as in C.S. Lewis' coinage of "daughters of Eve" for all human females.

As to the problem of Maacha/Michaiah, the typical explanation is that the latter name is a theophoric honorific, while the former is a given name. The Bible doesn't actually state this, but it does have a plenitude of both throne names and theophoric names, so it's not an implausible explanation. Moreover, it seems likely to me that the chronicler had access to the four books of the kingdoms (Samuel and Kings) and therefore wouldn't have gotten the names just plain wrong.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Contradiction #3 - Father Abraham's faith (and works)

This particular contradiction is so blatant that is needs only be pointed out: KJV, NIV.

No amount of hermaneutical contortionism is going to untie this gordian knot, seeing as the later verses (attributed to James) were written specifically to uphold the doctrine of faith plus works in order to counter the earlier Pauline doctrine of faith alone. Naturally, this has spawned Christian factions on both sides of the issue, entire denominations lined up on one side or the other of this first century debate.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Contradiction #2 - John the Baptist was Elijah the Prophet?

The question here is a bit difficult to frame sensibly, partly because it is unclear what should be taken to mean when someone claims that one prophetic figure is (in some sense) the incarnation of an earlier prophetic figure. It is especially unclear when operating within a worldview that denies reincarnation in favor of another view.

The problem here is both shallower and deeper than it might seem. Let's start in the shallow end, with the sayings of Jesus from two of the synoptic gospels along with angelic testimony from the third:

Mark 9:10-13 (KJV)
And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean. And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come? And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought. But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him.

Matt 11:10-14 (KJV)
For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.

Luke 1:13-17 (KJV)
But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth. For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink; and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb. And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Taking all the synoptics together, we are lead to believe that John the Baptist is to be identified (in some missional or spiritual sense) with Elijah the Prophet, especially respecting the fulfillment of a prophecy found in the final chapter of the Old Testament. Seems clear enough, that is, until we get to the fourth gospel.

John 1:19-25 (NASB)
This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent to him priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” And he confessed and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” They asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you, so that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” He said, “I am A VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, ‘MAKE STRAIGHT THE WAY OF THE LORD,’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, and said to him, “Why then are you baptizing, if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

Here we have John the Baptist flat-out denying that he is to be considered either Christ or Elijah in the sense those terms were taken to mean by his hearers. Instead of identifying himself with the prophecy of Malachi 4:5-6 he identifies himself with another prophecy from another prophet. How is this conflict between the synoptics and the Johannine narrative to be resolved?

A favorite apologetical trick consists of a bizarre reversal of the fallacy of equivocation, where the apologist explicitly claims that the same term (or phrase) takes on completely different meanings in similar biblical contexts. Here, the apologetical equivocation takes the following form:

1) "He is Elijah" means one thing in the synoptics
2) "He is Elijah" means something else in gJohn
:. He is both Elijah (sense 1) and not Elijah (sense 2)

This could be made to work, of course, if a good contextual or cultural reason is given (beyond special pleading for the sake of forced harmonization) to believe that we really should take the same phrase in two different senses. In this case, I've yet to see any good reasons given to warrant such semantical sleight of hand.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Contradiction #1 - Yeshua ben Yosef ben _______?

The first of the alleged contradictions is a fairly straightforward question of fact: Who was Joseph's father? I defy anyone to attempt to answer this using only the gospels themselves without the benefit of commentators, exegetes, or would-be midrashic fabulists. Can anyone suss out Joseph's father sola scriptura, as it were?

If one has to resort to lexical legerdemain to explain away this problem, it comes down to how willing we are to entertain pleading for a special treatment of these texts, one which somehow or another avoids the plain meaning thereof.