Are differences really contradictions?
The other week, Bart Ehrman and Peter J. Williams squared off on Unbelievable? with Justin Brierly on the historical reliability of the gospels and the issue of alleged contradictions—of course—came up. One of the ones specifically mentioned involves the death of Judas. So, I figured that this would be a great opportunity, new month and all, to start off tackling one of the most cited “contradictions” that, if people would just slow down and think about, would never even be considered to be one, if they were consistent with their own presuppositions.
First, let me just say that I like Peter J. Williams and his work, but—sigh—he sorta got steam-rolled by Ehrman. I also realize that in a radio/video time-limited format, you really don’t have time to say, “Hold up! Slow down. Let’s look at the text.”
Now, to give credit where credit is due, lots of people over the years have taken a swing at this “contradiction”, and they’ve come up with some—let’s just say—inventive resolutions to this alleged problem in the narrative. Atheist Amateur Exegete tackles a number of the proposed resolutions in this post, and demonstrates their problems. Michael Jones, over at Inspiring Philosophy takes a somewhat fresh shot at the problem in this video, and I think that he’s heading in the right direction, but I believe that he misses something that is clear to a careful reader, and would have been readily evident to a first century reader steeped in the Old Testament prophetic tradition and classical rhetoric.
So, enough introduction, let’s get to the meat of the matter.
First, we need to define what a “contradiction” is.
A contradiction is
“To be logically committed to the assertion of some statement, S, and its denial, not-S, at the same time.
For example, the statement, “I love you and I don’t love you,” rests on the existence of two contradictory assertions that are conjoined. The contradiction is only truly a contradiction if the same emphasis is placed on all parts of the statement in both affirming and denying aspects. However, if one meant something else by what is being affirmed and denied then what is being presented is not a logical contradiction, but rather a paradox.
“A paradox is generally a puzzling conclusion we seem to be driven towards by our reasoning, but which is highly counterintuitive, nevertheless.
For example, the statement, “I know that I know nothing at all,” appears to be a contradiction, however it is meant to serve as a contrast between what is known locally, in the individual, in contrast to the total sum of possible knowledge.
Many times I think critics confuse the latter with the former.
Matters Under Consideration
I know, someone just probably swallowed their gum, because I just said that the problem is “portrayed” as such. But, if we think clearly, and simply remember a few facts about the Bible things will clear up because I’ve hinted at part of the solution already. So, what facts need to be remembered?
First, the Bible is not one book, and they are not all written by a single author. Though all the texts are brought together into a single volume for the sake of convenience, they were written at different times, for different purposes, to different audiences, for different reasons. Second, chapter/verse divisions are something imposed on the text to aid in locating specific statements. We have to be able to mentally remove them and look at the broader context around statements, so never read a single verse or statement alone without taking its larger context into consideration. Lastly, keeping the former facts in mind, engage with the text thoughtfully.
Now, what most critics will do, and such is the instance here, is cite Matthew’s entire context, which details Judas’ interaction with the priests following his betrayal and returning the money they paid him to facilitate matters, having realized what he had done and the intentions of the Jewish rulers, and what transpired. Matthew’s version, found in 27:3-10, in my opinion, is meant to recount strict facts in light of reflection upon certain prophetic statements. However, when Luke’s version is brought up, only 2 verses, vs 18 & 19 of chapter 1 of the book of Acts, and are placed in parallel to Matthew without the larger context of the Acts passage. Such actions, in my opinion, is an attempt by the critic to cheat in considering them.
Winners Never Cheat
This “fudging” on the part of the challenger is often missed in an attempt to defend inerrancy and reconcile the differences—often in painfully contorted ways—rather than tapping the brakes, putting on our thinking caps and opening our Bibles and actually looking at the texts.
Vs 18&19 come almost in the middle of the larger context of Luke recounting events that take place between the Ascension and Pentecost, specifically, they occur in the middle of a statement made by Peter to the disciples. Now, in most translations vs18-19, are marked out as a parenthetical statement (eg ESV, NIV, NKJV, NASB). To add to the matter, it appears that Luke interrupts the narrative to provide a translation of a term from Aramaic to Greek at the end of v19, so it’s difficult to tell if the entire parenthetical is Luke interjecting into the narrative or if everything up to the translation is meant to be representative of Peter’s own statement (see below). This matter is compounded by the fact that the original Greek didn’t have punctuation marks where the author could make such delineations apparent to the reader. Most translators, when rendering the text end Peter’s words at v17, and resume them with his quotations from Psalms in v20.
But, for the sake of the argument, let’s just assume that the entire parenthetical is Luke breaking into the text, especially given the fact that there’s an intentional distancing in vs19 by the use of the third person plural pronoun referring to the residents of Jerusalem. If Luke is dependent on Matthew and Mark as sources, as Markan priority suggests, then he (Luke) is simply being poetic in his explanation of why Judas needs to be replaced, given how Peter is speaking in line with common rhetorical rules regarding speeches in literature (see also Michael C. Parsons’ discussion in the introduction in his commentary). If that’s the case, then Luke isn’t expecting his original audience to take this as being a literal description of events–given the high context nature of the culture into which Acts entered as a literary work, thus negating the need to rehearse actual events as they happened–nor is it contrary to Matthew’s matter-of-fact presentation.
However, what if what we have here is the use of two, independent parenthetical statements, rather than a single one. Let me demonstrate what I mean.
Here’s how it’s punctuated in the ESV, and highlighting the relevant portion:
“Acts 1:15–20 (ESV): In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“ ‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“ ‘Let another take his office.’ (Emphasis added)
Now, let’s play with the punctuation a little to show what I mean by two parenthetical statements:
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” — And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.— “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“ ‘May his camp become desolate,
and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“ ‘Let another take his office.’
Now, Triggerman, someone might say, aren’t you just trying to fudge things to help your own argument?
Let me explain my reasoning behind this to see if it will help.
First, the explanation “Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out,” appears to fit more with the continuation of Peter’s thought from v17 given that the original Greek doesn’t have a conjunction (ESV “now”), but begins with a masculine demonstrative pronoun form of οὗτος that could be rendered as “This man”, followed by the consequential phrase “men oun” and a verb that seems best to be understood reflexively due to the use of the middle voice (see the discussion in Bock’s commentary below). We could translate it, picking up at the end of v17, “He was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry. (v18)This man certainly got a field as a reward for his unrighteousness…”
Doing this would provide a contrast between what was intended for Judas as a disciple and what he actually received for his betrayal. Further, by attributing v18 as a continuation of Peter’s words, it fits with the later direct citations from the book of Psalms in v20 by paralleling imagery from the Old Testament of the destiny of those who do evil, especially when when saying that he “fell headlong and burst open” (eg. Job 27:22; Psalm 5:10; 35:8; 37:24; Prov. 11:5 Jeremiah 49:5). As Darrell Bock writes,
“The image is vivid and graphic, intended not only to describe but also to leave an emotive impression on readers to prevent their following Judas’s negative example of unfaithfulness and betrayal.(“Acts: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p171)
Also, I. Howard Marshall in his exegetical commentary on Acts (p85-6) argues that the Lukan version should be understood as complimentary to Matthew’s version. This is especially relevant if we are to understand v18 as a continuation of Peter’s speech.
Second, v19 seems to be a historical reflection, and given the fact that the pronoun shifts from singular to plural, offering an explanation about the name of the field, as well as a translation of the Aramaic term. V19 is chronologically and narratively displaced in the context of the statement being made, so it makes sense to set it apart and recognize it as a unique parenthetical.
Interestingly, if the critic really wanted to demonstrate a “true” contradiction, v19 would be my pick because Luke translates the Aramaic Akeldama with a different word than Matthew ( Χωρίον Αἵματος vs Ἀγρὸς Αἵματος). This point also seems to be a blow to Markan Priority and the belief that Luke was using them as a source, unless the critic wants to take a position that if Luke had Matthew as a reference, he was translating it from Aramaic or Hebrew as the church father Papias contended Matthew had in its earliest existence.
If it is the case that this is simply Peter speaking rhetorically, or a speech constructed by Luke for rhetorical purposes within his narrative, then any attempt to reconcile them in literal, historical terms–as so many have tried to do–is simply foolish and will wind up doing damage to both texts.
Now, given that this is an specific interpretation—explanation of how a text should be understood—of a particular text, and that I have stated on numerous occasions that I do not hold to the Inerrancy of a particular interpretation, someone might say,”Well that’s just your interpretation,” and dismiss the argument out of hand. Such responses can be ignored.
A second, more plausible argument that could be raised is one in regard to translation and punctuation. Namely that I am not a professional linguist or translator and that my knowledge of the original language—which is largely self-taught—has no real authority. Therefore my argument has no basis. However, that is attack on my credentials and not on the soundness of my argument.
Another argument against mine could be in regard as to why my translation and subsequent interpretation of the text uses an existing translation, but simply rearranges the punctuation so as to help my argument. This would be argued as being circular. However, as I mentioned, the original text had no punctuation and the uses of punctuation and rules of English grammar that are being applied is somewhat arbitrary already to make the text coherent to native English speakers , and so it could be argued—from my position—that argument is subject to the same allegation of circularity.
My argument is based on 3 points: 1) the larger context of the Acts passage (location in a speech); 2) sentence structure and pronoun usage; 3) overall coherence and application of categories. It is incumbent upon any response to demonstrate that at least one point is false, and that any other understanding is likely possible. However, the likelihood of overturning this argument is due to the strength of fundamentals of the three points because the overall coherence and application of categories holds to the fact that there is an immediate relevant context in which the sentences appear as well as linguistic structures to which the pronouns are dependent.
What I have noticed in many of the scholarly texts and discussions related to the Acts passage is a removal and distancing of vs18-19 from their larger context. The problem with this is that a failure to anchor statements within their larger context winds up robbing them of meaning and causes all manner of far-fetched prognostications on what they mean, when a straightforward reading of the text often sorts the matters out.
Issues Relating to Inspiration and Inerrancy
Now, what some will try to do is use an apparent irreconcilable difference between two texts as a wedge in an attempt to attack the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. As I have written before, such arguments are themselves fallacious. As RC Sproul has written with regard to inspiration,
“The writers of Scripture were chosen and prepared by God for their sacred task. Whatever the process of inspiration may have been, it did not override their personalities as they wrote. (Can I Trust the Bible? p,26)
If such is the case, then Scripture is the means by which God has chosen to make his Truth known. As such, we can say as Sproul does,
“What was overcome or overridden by inspiration was not human personalities, styles, or literary methods, but human tendencies to distortion, falsehood, and error. (ibid)
This goes back to coherency with presuppositions. If we take Markan priority seriously (I don’t) then we are presupposing that Luke is redacting (editing) multiple threads, including Mark and Matthew in his work. I would argue that, if this was true, it doesn’t mean that Luke changed anything. In fact, it means just the opposite: it means that Luke chose to do something creative with it in his narrative and saw other Old Testament parallels that Matthew didn’t or couldn’t work into his narrative.
However, if Acts is early—like pre-AD65 early—that means that the likelihood that Luke is rehearsing the events leading up to Pentecost with a measure of attention to detail that allows BOTH to be true in different ways. This is where I think thoughtful atheists like Amateur Exegete gets very close to a reasonable conclusion, when he writes,
“Attempts to reconcile passages like Matthew 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18-19 are not only futile but disrespectful. In creating these tired and contrived explanations, pop-apologists mute the voice of the authors, forcing upon them a view that they did not hold.
Now, the “view” that he believes that they didn’t hold was inerrancy, or at least one driven by a belief in some kind of robotic inspiration or a ridiculous fundamentalist literalism that doesn’t allow for nuance via the use of rhetorical tools. But that’s beside the point. It comes down to simply being able to reconcile the that of an event (found in Acts) with the how of an event (found in Matthew).
This allows for Matthew to be Matthew, and focus on his concerns and content, allows Luke to be Luke and focus on his as well, while allowing God’s truth to be found in both. It allows both to be inspired by God, and by that fact for both to be inerrant in their own unique and God glorifying ways by giving us, a people who are removed by thousands of years, insight into the apostolic interpretation of events.
Undoubtedly, I’ll simply be accused of trying to put lipstick on a pig, but that’s okay. I’m not the one who has the problem.