Are Atheists Trying to Have It Both Ways?

This week’s post was inspired by a point that’s come up several times in our Atheist Christian Book Club. In discussions about the historicity of the Bible, the Christian contingent has raised an objection that goes something like this:

Atheists are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re plagiarizing! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re embellishing!

The idea is that atheists won’t give the Bible any credit. When the same story is repeated in multiple gospels, atheists ignore the corroboration, and when the story is recorded in only one gospel, atheists call out the lack of corroboration! I’m going to address these two points separately, as I believe they stem from different misunderstandings.

On the point that atheists dismiss multiple accounts as plagiarism, it’s important to emphasize the difference between corroboration and collaboration. When evaluating the historicity of an event, it’s important to not just have multiple sources, but multiple independent sources. We know the writers of the gospels were not independent; Matthew and Luke used Mark as one source (sometimes quoting Mark verbatim), and a predominant theory also has them using a second “Q” source as well. If Matthew and Luke are taking stories from Mark, you don’t have three sources – you have one source: Mark.

Ideally, we’re looking for corroboration without collaboration. You have corroboration when 4 accounts told from differing perspectives tell the same story; this is evidence that the story is legit. You have collaboration when 4 accounts remix, reuse, recycle, and generally crib off of each other. Collaboration in the gospels doesn’t by itself prove that the gospels are false, but it should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why does God need to plagiarize himself?

One the idea that atheists dismiss unique accounts as embellishment, I see two separate situations where atheists may object. One is where accounts differ but can be harmonized, and the other is where accounts contradict and cannot be harmonized. Sometimes, harmonization is easy: if a story takes place in one gospel as an isolated incident and has no obvious connection to any other events (for instance, the blind man of Bethsaida in Mark 8), you can slot it into the overall narrative with no qualms.

Other times, harmonization may be technically possible, but doing so only raises more questions. The empty tomb is a classic example. Who did the women see on arriving: an angel (Matthew 28), two angels (John 20), a young man (Mark 16), or two men (Luke 24)? Reconciling these differences requires some mental gymnastics to understand what the gospel writers were trying to accomplish.

If there were only men at the tomb, whoever said there were angels is embellishing the narrative. If there were angels at the tomb, why say there were men instead? What is to be gained by diminishing one miraculous detail from an unabashedly miraculous story?

If there was one figure at the tomb, whoever said there were two is also guilty of embellishment. If there were in fact two, why say there was only one? How does reducing the number of figures help the narrative in any way?

Alternatively, if the gospel writers didn’t change these details, were they getting their information from competing oral traditions? If the original traditions were exaggerated, perhaps they’re not as reliable as apologists would have us believe. Once again, this should be a red flag. If scripture is divinely inspired, why is he inspiring such crummy writing?

Even if we were to set aside accounts that can technically be harmonized, we’re still left with contradictions. I shouldn’t have to say that contradictions are never evidence for the veracity of a story, and while some atheists like to bring out long lists of “contradictions” that are really nothing of the sort, I believe some are nigh impossible to reconcile.

  • Were Joseph and Mary originally from Bethlehem and relocated to Nazareth, as in Matthew? Or were they from Nazareth and went to Bethlehem for the census, as in Luke?
  • Did Simon Peter become Jesus’ disciple after being brought by his brother Andrew, as in John? Or was it after Jesus helped him catch fish, as in Luke?
  • After Jesus’ death, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem, as in Acts? Or did they proceed to Galilee, as in Matthew?

Overall, the biggest problem with the Christians’ objection is how easily it can be turned back around on their own arguments:

Christians are trying to have it both ways! If the gospels say the same thing, it’s because they’re trustworthy! But if they don’t say the same thing, it’s because they’re independent sources!

Similarity and dissimilarity are not both evidence for the same thing. If the gospels are independent sources, why are they copying each other? And if they are trustworthy, why are they so difficult to reconcile?

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