Sunday, January 07, 2018


A perennial issue regarding inerrancy, historicity, and the Resurrection, is whether the Resurrection accounts are discrepant. Can the differences be harmonized? 

One problem with answering the question is due to the ambiguity of the question. In addition, some people, like Bart Ehrman or Harold Lindsell have a very rigid definition of what it means for an account to be factually accurate. 

There's more than one sense in which the Resurrection accounts may be reconcilable or irreconcilable: 

i) It's possible to collate the original order of events 

ii) There are plausible ways to collate the original order of events

iii) The accounts are hopelessly contradictory

(i) is a more ambitious claim than (ii). According to (i), by comparing the different accounts, we can reconstruct the original sequence. We can thereby demonstrate that the accounts are harmonious.

According to (ii), given the available data, there's more than one way to sequence the events. Although we can't detail the original sequence with certainty, we can demonstrate that the accounts aren't necessarily (or even probably) contradictory. 

Let's take a comparison. Suppose you walk into a high school cafeteria for the first time. You see a bunch of students at tables talking and eating. At first glance, the distribution appears to be random. 

However, if you come back day after day, you notice a pattern. Usually the same students sit together. The crowd self-segregates into smaller groups or cliques. Some students are friends with other students, although no student may be friends with every student. There may also be unpopular students who don't belong to any clique. 

In addition, there may be overlapping cliques. Two different cliques can share at least one student in common. Suppose Ted and Ed belong to the same clique, while Fred and Ed belong to another clique, but Ted and Fred don't belong to the same clique. 

Suppose there's a high school reunion ten years later. Let's say four alumni who attend the reunion jot down who they saw in diaries when they return home after the reunion that evening.

What would these entries have in common? It wouldn't be surprising if they have almost nothing in common besides a generic reference to their high school reunion. They might not name their alma mater, because they are making a record for their own benefit, and they know what high school they attended. They don't need to remind themselves of that.

In addition, it wouldn't be surprising the four accounts fail to mention any of the same students. That's because, when they go to their high school reunion, they don't want to reconnect with all their former classmates. They didn't even like some of their classmates. 

Instead, they want to reconnect with members of their clique. When they attend the reunion, they will have their eye out for a subset of students they want to see again. 

However, it wouldn't be surprising if at least two of the four accounts mention one or more students in common, due to overlapping cliques. At the reunion, Ed spoke to Ted and Fred, even though Ted and Fred didn't converse with each other. 

But contrast, it would be extremely surprising if all four accounts mentioned all the same students. Indeed, that would scarcely be credible. If the accounts are accurate, you'd expect one account to omit names included in another account. That's because socializing at such an event is not a random aggregate, but discriminating. Some former classmates are looking for other former classmates in particular. They won't write about most of the people in attendance. It would be a telltale sign of artificiality if all four accounts mentioned all the same students. 

Now, if you attempted to correlate these four accounts, could you reconstruct the original order of events. I don't see how that's possible. For one thing, these accounts are highly selective. There's not enough information to say who saw who first, then who saw who second, then who saw who third.

Moreover, it's not reducible to a single linear sequence even in principle. For the way in which members of one clique reconnect at that event aren't synchronized with how members of another clique reconnect at that event. There's a different sequence for each witness, because each witness talks to one classmate, then another, then another. And that will be different from the people another classmates talks to. 

Put another way, at a high school reunion there are reunions within reunions. They will break up into their old cliques, and chatter away with members of their own cliques. There will be parallel conversations in different cliques.

Furthermore, some arrive at the event sooner and leave sooner, some arrive later and leave later, some arrive later and leave sooner, while some arrive sooner and leave later. There will be many different chronologies within the same event. 

Compare that to the first Easter. You have different groups going at different times. It's not coordinated, but spontaneous. Some people may go back more than once. Some go as individuals, others go in groups. It's like the high school reunion with different cliques. 

When different witnesses write that down, or share their testimony, there will naturally be omissions, and it will be hard to intercalate one account with another account, since each account is selective, and even if they overlap, it will be hard to say who did what first, then who did what second, then who did what third, in a uniform series of encounters. 

It's completely unreasonable to think a reader should be able to harmonize the four accounts in that sense. Did Ted talk to Ed before or after Ted spoke to Fred? 

But what we may be able to do, using our imagination to fill in the gaps, is to arrange the same information in different possible configurations. What a critic of the historicity or inerrancy of the accounts must demonstrate is that there is no way to arrange these accounts into a plausible sequence. But the same imponderables which prevent a harmonist from reconstructing the original sequence prevent the critic from demonstrating a contradiction. 

I think the best we can expect at this distance from events is to mentally try out different combinations. And more than one hypothetical combination may be consistent with the available information. Go back to the illustration of four entries from different diaries about the same reunion. Your ability to correlate those accounts will be limited. That isn't special pleading. That's just the situation that confronts an outsider reading partial accounts of the same event. There's no presumption that the four accounts are inaccurate just because  we're unable correlate them with certainty, for reasons I've given. 

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