Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Contradictory names

1. A stock objection to biblical inerrancy is really or apparently contradictory names in the extant text of Scripture. Examples include 2 Sam 21:19, Mat 1:7-8,10, and Mk 2:25-26. Bart Ehrman says the case of Mk 2:25-26 was the first domino in his apostasy. 

2. I'll make some preliminary points before getting to the main points. To an outsider, this may look like Christians clinging desperately to the inerrancy of Scripture, which betrays them into special pleading. Let's take 2 Sam 21:19: who killed Goliath–David or Elhanan? 

Even if you don't come to the text with a prior commitment to inerrancy, it's puzzling. After all, David is among the most celebrated figures in Jewish history, and the confrontation with Goliath is unforgettable. So how could a case of mistaken identity ever arise? 

Likewise, if the error originates with the narrator, we'd expect scribes to correct it. Or if a scribe introduced an error into his copy, that wouldn't automatically spread to copies independent of his copy. It's hard to see how the narrator or scribes could be confused about something like that. 

That said, one commentator regards the MT reading as a scribal emendation. Cf. A. Steinmann, 2 Samuel (Concordia 2017), 406-407. Another commentator, after summarizing other options, proposes that this might be a variant name, based on comparative linguistics. Cf. D. Tsumura, The Second Book of Samuel (Eerdmans 2019), 299. 

3. Apropos (2), let's take a comparison: John Ruskin was named after his father–John James Ruskin. And even as an adult he continued to live with his parents when he wasn't traveling. In addition, his father hired a man-servant for his son named John Hobbs. But because it was impractical to have three guys living under the same roof, answering to the same first name, they decided to call the man-servant George. 

Now we know this because Ruskin explains it in his autobiography. And it's a very logical explanation. But if we didn't have his explanation, there'd seem to be a contradiction. It looks like John Hobbs was confused with somebody named George–when, in fact, the original reason was to forestall confusion!

4. In the case of Mt 1:7-8,10 (Asa/Asaph, Amon/Amos), one possible explanation is scribal error/scribal confusion. 

5. Moving onto the main points, these "contradictions" are, of course, discussed in conservative commentaries and monographs defending inerrancy. But in my experience, the debate on both sides suffers from unexamined assumptions. If you say the Bible uses the wrong name for someone, what makes a particular name the right name for someone? I haven't seen that discussed. 

In practice, a proper name is a tag we give a person so that we can refer to them. Names are ways to identify people and differentiate them from other people. A name picks them out. 

One candidate might be the original name. The person's birth name or baptismal name. The name their parents gave them.   

But that's clearly too restrictive. Take nicknames. Those aren't birth names, but that doesn't mean a nickname is the wrong designation to use for someone. Some nicknames stick. Indeed, many people use the nicknames other people gave them–if they like the nickname. 

Consider a different example, as a boy, C. S. Lewis decided to call himself Jack. And he continued to call himself Jack for the rest of his life. That wasn't his birth name, but it became as much or more his real name than his legal name. 

6. To take another example, consider names like Charlemagne, Charles the Bald, and Richard the Lionheart. These certainly weren't their original names. Their parents didn't look down on their baby boy and say, "Let's call him Richard the Lionheart". Minimally, these are names they acquired later in life, as adults. 

It's also possible that these are posthumous designations. Names conferred on them by posterity.

So some names may be retroactive names. They aren't the original name. Rather, it's what they were known by later on. During their lifetime or after they died. 

7. I'd add in passing that a name in one language may be translated into its counterpart in another language. A French name may be Anglicized, and so on. 

8. Apropos (6), some names may be folkloric names. This is how the individual was remembered by posterity. 

Suppose, in popular memory, an individual with one name is confused with another individual by another name. In folklore, he's now referred to by a different name. And originally that may be a mistake. But if it catches on, then that's how he's referred to. 

Suppose an individual is confused with a better-known member of his family. That becomes fixed in popular usage. That's his folkloric name. And that happens prior to when a biblical account is written.

At the time of writing, should a Bible writer correct folklore and revert to the "correct" name? Or should the Bible writer use the folkloric name because that's what readers recognize? 

The confusion didn't originate with the Bible writer. Moreover, the issue for inerrancy isn't whether the correct name is used but whether the correct individual is referred to. Names aren't true or false. They're just designators. What's true or false is the referent. Even the "wrong" name may have the right referent if that's how it's come to be understood. Perhaps that's what lies behind the apparent confusion in Mk 2:25-26. 

By the time the Biblical account is written, folkloric usage overrides original usage. The Bible writer is not in error if he copies folkloric usage so long as he's talking about the right person, regardless of the current designation. 


  1. Not dissimilar from the updated toponyms used throughout Scripture.

  2. https://carm.org/who-killed-goliath-david-or-elhanan

  3. In my native land I'm known as: Warhawk of the Windswept Skies, Long of Sight and Quick of Flight, of Ironclad Talons, Sabre Beak, and Blood-tipped Wings, Son of the Merlin and the Peregrine, of the House of Dawnstar, Raptor among Birds of Prey, Master of Mews, Protector of the Aerial Realms, Ungloved and Unhooded, Unbowed and Unbent, Slayer of Dragons.

    Here I'm known as "Hey you, yeah you, the guy in cubicle #49 next to the photocopy machine!"

  4. --Suppose, in popular memory, an individual with one name is confused with another individual by another name. In folklore, he's now referred to by a different name. And originally that may be a mistake. But if it catches on, then that's how he's referred to.--

    I lean towards a variation of this is the 'Did Muhammad Exist?' debate.

    On the one hand, there is an inexplicable lack of proof - and often, contradicting evidence - for a historical Muhammad.

    OTOH, as David Wood argued in his friendly debate with Robert Spener on this topic, the principle of embarassment applies with the various sordid episodes found in the Hadith - most egregriously, the Satanic Verses and stealing Zaynab from his own adopted son.

    However, what if Muhammad was never a historical person, but once the Abassids made him up... All the various oral folkloric legendary figures of the Arabs got transposed onto him?

    Over time, the retelling of those tales - now with Muhammad as the protagonist - would replace the original characters. Especially when the Hadith and Sira are written down and survive for posterity, while their oral inspirations are lost to time without any trace.

    1. What issue regarding the criterion of embarrassment is that what make strike a modern reader as an embarrassment may not have the same connotations in a different culture. In addition, charlatans aren't distinguished by their capacity for self-criticism. They behave in shameless ways, but it doesn't occur to them (or to their devotees) that their behavior is shameful).