Sunday, July 01, 2012


I’m going to discuss one example in Roger Olson’s laudatory review of Ken Sparks’ book. I’ll have more to say about the review, but this example raises a number of complications, so I’ll treat is separately:

In other words, according to Sparks, there are records in Scripture that simply cannot be trusted as true because of the Bible’s humanity. He begins with blatant contradictions such as the accounts of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus and death in Matthew and Acts; they cannot be reconciled. Most people are not particularly bothered by that. Only neo-fundamentalists find it necessary to try to harmonize them. The differences are not important theologically.

i) I’ve discussed the death of Judas on several occasions. For instance:

ii) If the death of Judas wasn’t theologically significant, the NT wouldn’t record his death in the first place. It fact, it’s important enough to merit two separate notices.

iii) Of course, it’s not as important as the death of Christ. If, however, Olson thinks that either or both Matthew and/or Luke misreported the death of Judas, why think they are more reliable in reporting the death of Christ?

iv) Unbelievers complain that Christians are guilty of a double standard. They say that if we ran across the same discrepancies in secular sources, we’d admit that they were genuine contradictions, but we carve out an exception for Scripture. And there’s some truth to that accusation, but so what?

a) There’s nothing inherently arbitrary about treating identical claims differently depending on the source. Suppose a salesman on a late night cable station makes claims about his homemade remedy for Migraine headaches?  Suppose JAMA makes the same claim about the same remedy.

Is it special pleading if I credit the claim by JAMA while I discount the claim by the salesman, even though these are identical claims? No. Because the respective source makes a difference to the credibility of the claim.

b) Likewise, we don’t treat all secular sources alike. The same claim might be plausible or implausible depending on who said it. Is he in a position to know what he’s talking about? Does he have a motive to dissemble?

v) A botched self-hanging is more plausible than if a lynch mob did it. It’s logistically tricky to hang yourself. Ideally, that’s at least a two-man job. So I don’t think it’s antecedently unlikely that Judas botched his suicide.

vi) The two accounts share some distinctive details. But if they represent divergent, independent traditions, why would they have anything distinctive in common?

vii) Are the two accounts of Judas’ death “blatantly contradictory” or “irreconcilable”? How would Olson (or Sparks) be in any position to know that?

I mean, think about it. In order to reconstruct what “really” happened, you have to have some basic background information.

For instance, what’s feasible in this situation turns on specific facts on the ground. Where was the hill? Was the hill high or low? Steep or sloping? How many trees were there to choose from? How were the trees positioned in relation to the hillside? How were they positioned in relation to each other?

What kind of boughs or branches were there? Did Judas hang himself high off the ground or low off the ground? What kind of rope did he use?

When homicide detectives reconstruct a crime, they go back to the scene of the crime. But we don’t know where Judas hanged himself, so we can’t picture the scene.  You can’t visualize a generic hill with generic trees. You must be able to visualize the specific layout to reconstruct the incident. What may seem ridiculous in the abstract might be obvious if you saw the actual layout.

viii) I’ll finish with two personal anecdotes:

a) I was once involved in a minor accident. I was waiting at a stoplight to make a left turn onto a two-lane street. A car in the opposing lane was waiting to make a right turn. When the light changed, I turned into the outside lane. He should have turned into the inside lane. Instead, he turned into my lane, causing a collision.

When the insurance agent called, I explained what happened. Even though I talked her through the accident, she couldn’t form a mental picture. I had to send her a homemade diagram of the intersection, to accompany the verbal description.

b) I once observed an accident. The car ahead of me was stopped at a traffic light. There was a car in the oncoming lane. When the light changed, the car ahead of me turned left at the same time the car in the oncoming lane entered the intersection. That caused a collision. Indeed, the passenger in the oncoming car was thrown into the windshield.

Due to the severity of the accident, I pulled over and left contact information with one of the drivers. I got a call from their lawyer. Just sitting in his office, he wasn’t able to mentally reconstruct the accident. I had to describe the intersection as well as the sequence of events.

c) At this late date I’m a little fuzzy on some details. I don’t remember if there was a left-turn light. I don’t have a visual recollection of the traffic light. But based on what I do remember, I can fill in the details.

Had there been a left-turn light, the traffic light facing the opposing lane would have remained red while the driver ahead of me executed his left turn.

Because, in actuality, the oncoming car proceeded forward the moment the light changed, I can infer that there was no left-turn light. Hence, the driver ahead of me failed to yield right-of-way, rather than the driver of the oncoming car.

I can reconstruct the accident because I was there, and I remember enough to figure out the rest. But if I was the lawyer or insurance agent, sitting at a desk, I couldn’t visualize the accident.

Unbelievers who insist that the NT gives contradictory accounts of Judas’ death haven’t paused to consider what they’d need to know to know that. All we have to go by are two brief synopses. And even these aren’t purely descriptive, for they include OT allusions.

You can’t see (in your mind’s eye) and imaginatively compare the two accounts when you don’t even know what hill it was on.

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