• Perfect Harmony


    I’m currently reading Chris Hallquist’s book UFO’s, Ghosts, and a Rising God.  (Hallquist has generously made it freely downloadable in ebook format at the previous link.)  It’s a very interesting book so far, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in future posts.  It concerns attempts to argue for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, concentrating mostly on the logical fallacies made by Christian apologists as they try to do this.  The main thesis is that if one believes the historical evidence available to us (preserved in the New Testament and early Christians writings) is enough to establish the resurrection as an historical event, then one ought to accept a lot of other stories that are based on far more impressive evidence – these stories include all kinds of pseudoscience and paranormal events that the typical Christian is not willing to accept.  But on p43, Hallquist made a point that is so fantastic I think it is worth singling out for attention here.

    We’re all familiar with the fact that the New Testament contains multiple versions of several stories – for example, the Christmas and Easter narratives – and that these stories contain different and sometimes conflicting details.  Critical New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman often encourages people to read the different versions of a given story side-by-side, making a list of the details each author includes, then comparing the lists to see if the details could all be true.  I intend to post my own such lists in the future (links will be provided in time):

    • The virgin birth narratives
    • The crucifixion narratives
    • The resurrection narratives

    We’re also probably all familiar with the fact there have been many attempts by conservative scholars to harmonise the different versions of these stories; ie, to construct a larger story that seamlessly incorporates every detail from each of the different versions.

    One example is the story of Peter’s “three denials” of Jesus.  According to Luke 22:34, during the last supper, Jesus said “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”  When we read the three accounts of Peter’s denials from Mark 14, Matthew 26 and Luke 22, we see Peter disowning Jesus to (at least) six different people or groups of people.  A typical apologetic tactic here is to say that Peter did disown Jesus six times, but each author only recorded three denials each.  Here the claim is that each author who says Peter disowned Jesus three times is telling the truth in the same way that I would be telling the truth if I said “I have three dollar coins in my pocket” even though I actually had six – and that Jesus’ prophesy was true too, in the same way.

    The point of this post is not to examine the merits of such harmonisation attempts, but to think about the logic behind them.  Hallquist does this by referring to a famous joke.  A quick google search will show that there are many variations of this joke (an interesting point in itself), but here is one version I found:

    As final exams neared, two students, very confident of their A averages in Chemistry class, decided to spend a weekend enjoying the social life of a nearby college.  Although their Chemistry final was the first thing Monday morning they were reasonably certain they could pull it off.  After a very late Sunday evening they overslept and did not arrive back on campus until Monday afternoon.  In the hopes of avoiding failing the exam the two decided to tell their professor that they had a flat tire on the way back to campus.

    Sympathetic to the situation, the professor allowed them to make up the exam.  After being seated in different rooms the two opened their exam books and began working.

    The first question, for 25 points, was a simple question on fusion.  When they turned the page to answer the next question, however, both students shared the same look of despair though they were seated in different rooms.

    75 point question: Which tire was flat?

    Source – eBaum’s World

    The idea, of course, is that without being able to confer with each other, the students almost certainly gave different answers to the tire question.

    But what should the professor make of such conflicting answers?

    Suppose one student said the front left tire was flat, and the other said it was the back right one.  Should the professor conclude that really there were two flat tires, and that both students only told part of the story?

    Of course not!  Clearly there was only meant to be one flat tire, and both students were giving their version of “events”.  You would only dream of constructing a larger story with two flat tires if you were committed to defending the honesty of the two students’ accounts from the outset.  And that is precisely what is going on with conservative attempts to harmonise contradictory gospel stories.

    If I was wrongly accused of a crime, and my accusers produced such obviously contradictory accounts of my “guilt”, I would certainly hope that my judge could grasp this simple bit of logic!

    Category: Bart EhrmanBibleChriss HallquistChristianityJesusResurrection


    Article by: Reasonably Faithless

    Mathematician and former Christian
    • DRC

      Well put. There seems to be a double standard about the methods to verify the gospel stories are true. The fact that many details agree between the gospels is claimed to bolster the veracity of the story, but the differences do not count against it. Someone even once told me that the differences between the gospel stories merely illustrate the “authenticity” of the Bible because you would expect small differences wherever their are multiple accounts of any true historical event.

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Yes, I’ve noticed that too! Oh look, these are so similar they must be true! Oh and these are so different the must be true!

    • BK

      Hey, I decided to take you up on your challenge, at least in respect to the denial of Jesus by Peter in the passages you have listed, but also looked at the John 18 as well which has the same account.
      I found all the different versions of the bible I have at home, English Standard Version, New King James Version and New International Version to see if there was any translation differences.
      As I am a scientist by training, I did the scientific thing and made a table of each denial, 1st, 2nd and 3rd and to whom each passage said the denial was made.
      Firstly all three translations agreed in each passage as to the person to whom the denial was made, when one said servant girl in one verse, they all said servant girl in that verse. For the Mark and Matthew versions of the 3rd denial they used equivalent phrases ‘those who stood by’ was used in one translation and ‘bystanders’ in another, I think we can agree that in this case these are different ways of translating the same thing. For the Luke passages 2nd denial ‘another’ was used in one translation and ‘someone’ in another, again different ways of saying the same thing and don’t change the meaning of the verse in this case.
      All four gospels were in agreement that the 1st denial was made by Peter to a servant girl, with John adding more information stating she was the servant girl at the gate, which still makes her a servant girl, so no discrepancies there.
      The 2nd denial has a little more variation, Luke has ‘another’, Mark the same ‘servant girl’ as the 1st denial, Matthew ‘another servant girl’ and John makes my life easy by saying ‘they’. Luke and Johns accounts have too little information to make their accounts discrepant with the others, ‘they’ and ‘another’ are references that could describe any individual present at the time, including any servant girls. Mark and Matthew both say it was to a servant girl, but differ in whether it was the same or a different one to the 1st denial. I know you may see differently on this to me, but this doesn’t seem like a deal breaker discrepancy to me, it doesn’t affect the meaning or understanding of the passage.
      For the 3rd denial, Mark and Matthew say it was to a ‘bystander’ or ‘those who stood by’, depending on the translation, Luke just says to ‘another’ and John mentions a specific servant that asked Peter the question that prompted his denial. As ‘another’ and ‘bystanders’ are not mutually exclusive, there is no reason to think that a separate person or group of people is being described, the another in Luke could quite easily be one of the bystanders in Mark and Matthew. John adds extra information, knowledge of specifically who the individual was, but again this specific servant certainly could have been one of the bystanders, John just happens to know who he is and adds more detail, again the specific servant is not mutually exclusive from the bystanders.
      In conclusion, after looking at the passages, there were clearly a lot of people present at the trial of Jesus and more than one person was witness to the denials of Peter. Jesus predicted Peter would deny him 3 time, and the passages all describe Peter denying Jesus.
      Sorry have taken a while to write this and am now running a little late!
      It was a cool exercise to do, thanks for the prompt, it’s great getting in and looking at Gods word closely! 😉

      • Reasonably Faithless

        Hello BK. Thanks for reading and responding. I appreciate the time you took to write it, and I’m glad to have given you some enjoyment, even if it was from reading your Bible 😉

        According to the NIV, and the ESV (regarded as two of the most reliable modern translations):

        Mark 14
        1st – servant girl
        2nd – same SG
        3rd – those standing near

        Matt 26
        1st – SG
        2nd – different SG
        3rd – those standing near

        Luke 22
        1st – SG
        2nd – someone else
        3rd – “another”

        If we say (for argument’s sake) that “someone else” could refer to the same “different SG”, this would bring the total number of denials down to 5. But this is absolutely not 3. You’ll notice that Mark specifically says the second denial was to the *same* SG, but Matt says it was a *different* SG. The 3rd denial also has a contrast between specifically a *group* of people (Mark and Matt) and a *single* person (Luke). (So I disagree with your claim that there is not really a difference here.)

        I forgot to include the passage from John 18. This actually adds to the confusion a little, but could possibly be charitably presumed to have just interchanged the order of the 2nd and 3rd denials from Mark or Matt.

        But with all that said, this represents an extremely insignificant difference. I agree that it isn’t a “deal breaker discrepancy”. As I said in the blog, I intend to do this for the resurrection and other stories (you might like to pre-emptively do this yourself). You will certainly see more important differences than those in the Peter story. (BTW, I believe the Peter story is one of the ones in which Matthew and Luke based their telling on Mark’s version, so you’d only expect them to make minor variations.)

        In any case, I think you’ve done a fairly good job of showing what people will do when they *want* several different versions of the same story to really be the same version. As I said in the blog, I can only hope that if I was on trial for a crime I didn’t commit, and if my accusers gave testimonies with as disparate details as we have here, that the judge would not just try and find a way to make them look the same!