Monday, August 03, 2009

Harmonizing Scripture

Christians try to harmonize apparent contradictions in Scripture given their presumption that Scripture is inerrant. To unbelievers, this is special pleading. Of course, unbelievers resist harmonization given their presumption that Scripture is errant. So the bias cuts both ways. If harmonizing Scripture is an exercise in special pleading, then, by the same token, refusal to harmonize Scripture is special pleading.

I’d add that harmonizing discrepant accounts is hardly confined to Scripture. It’s quite easy to come up with examples of apparent contradictions outside Scripture. In fact, these are ultimately harmonious, yet their consistency depends on some key piece of evidence. What is more, the key piece of evidence may not be self-evident. And, in many cases, it may not be available.

For example, I recently saw an episode of a nature show called River Monsters:

In this episode, a racehorse was attacked by some sort of aquatic creature. The culprit obviously had to be fairly formidable to pose a threat to an animal the size of a horse.

One theory is that a crocodile attacked the horse. A crocodile would be big enough to take on a horse. However, there were some problems with that explanation. Crocodiles didn’t frequent that part of the river. The bite marks didn’t match a crocodile bite. And an eyewitness said the creature appeared to be a shark.

So another candidate was the bull shark, since bull sharks can swim in fresh water, and have–indeed–been found far upriver in certain parts of the world.

However, there was a problem with that theory as well. The river had a dam downstream. A shark would be unable to ford a dam.

Suppose this is the only information we had. Suppose an eyewitness said he saw a shark attack the horse. Someone would then point out that this must be a mistaken since there was a dam downstream which posed an impenetrable barrier to a shark swimming further upstream.

This, would, in turn be cited as yet another example of how unreliable eyewitness evidence tends to be.

But that’s not the end of the story. As it turns out, the area was flooded several years earlier. The floodwaters crested above the dam, making it possible for bull sharks to ford the dam.

One of the locals was able to explain that to the host. So that threw suspicion back onto a bull shark as the culprit.

That explanation hadn’t occurred to the host. You’d have to be a local yokel to know that. It was part of the oral tradition of that particular region. Not something that’s necessarily written down for posterity.

Of course, nowadays there are local newspapers or news stations which keep records of such events. But in the past there might be no permanent record. The key piece of information would die with contemporaries.


  1. Very nice. Watch an animal show and then become inspired to see a parallel between the alternative explanations for the real world of nature and analogizing that to the seemingly conflicting accounts of Scripture.

    Well done.

  2. Great example, but you don't need to watch a TV show to see this :)

    Read enough ancient history and you'll find plenty of contradictions between accounts of battles, reigns of kings, etc. Historians have to try and harmonize and reconcile these varying accounts all the time. But no one ever doubts the battle actually took place, or that the king never reigned. Nor do historians take the leap that ancient historian "X" can't be trusted.

    Yet hyperskeptics do this all the time when it comes to scripture, betraying a double standard - or an ignorance of how historians handle ancient accounts and try to harmonize them.

  3. "But in the past there might be no permanent record. The key piece of information would die with contemporaries."

    A die-hard skeptic might then say something like: "Well, then why didn't your God prevent this hypothetical "special pleading" key piece of information from being lost so that skeptics like me would have more confidence in the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture? Your God doesn't seem very powerful since things got lost... such as the fact that we don't have the original manuscripts!"

    It's not hard to imagine a staunch atheist or non-Christian mounting such an objection. Goodness knows, I've read their rants for a long time.

  4. For another example like Steve's, one that's similar to the different accounts of Judas' death in the New Testament, see here. J.P. Holding has a lot of material on harmonization here, including examples from extra-Biblical and modern sources.

    Whether we're willing to give a source the benefit of the doubt depends on the identity of the source. If an astronomer refers to a sunrise, we give him the benefit of the doubt. He probably didn't intend to refer to an actual rising of the sun. If a five-year-old refers to a sunrise, we don't give him the same benefit of the doubt. Critics of Biblical harmonization need to address the Christian arguments for giving the Bible the benefit of the doubt.

  5. Truth:

    Wouldn't such a reply be begging the question against the bible's theology about God's providence over redemptive history? That is, since God has obviously thought it somehow better that sometimes we have to have "faith" and not "sight" (making sure not to interpret these in an irrationalist manner), we should not expect that we would never be in an analogous situation with regards to scripture. If anything, the bible's teaching would suggest we probably would encounter such situations.

  6. I agree, I've seen plenty of failures of interpretative charity on behalf of fellow skeptics. Not every apparent discrepancy is created equal and finding problems that aren't there doesn't do anyone any favors.