Recently, an article by Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary has been making the rounds.
As I read it, I was stunned by the profoundly patronizing attitude displayed by the author towards conservative Christians. I was deeply disappointed at his misrepresentation of conservative responses to the issues he raises. Dr. Carey’s article is useful in one respect: it provides an excellent case study of the validity and honesty of modern liberal biblical scholarship.
Before I get into the substance of the article, I will comment on my own personal journey of biblical study: For the past three years, I have been studying the Bible intensively. After becoming an Orthodox Christian, I developed a profound interest in dialogue with Protestants concerning the substance of Biblical teaching. At first, my studies were purely apologetic. I was spending (and continue to spend) literally three hours or more daily reading the Bible (both Testaments), reading books about the Bible, reading articles about the Bible, and listening to lectures about the Bible. As I read both liberal and conservative scholars, I became progressively disillusioned with the state of modern scholarship.
Perhaps the best example of my disillusionment concerns the book of Daniel. Daniel is a book that presents no middle ground: it is either genuine prophecy or outright forgery. Purporting to be written during the Babylonian captivity, Daniel presents us with a detailed history of world empires down to the time of Christ (if one approaches the book as a conservative) or the time of Antiochus Epiphanes (if one approaches the book as a liberal). The unanimous consensus of modern critical scholars (following the ancient pagan, Porphyry) is that Daniel is a forgery, written to encourage Jewish people during the crisis sparked by the desecration of the Temple under Antiochus IV. Daniel 2, however, presents a sequence of four kingdoms immediately followed by the kingdom of God. Were the book simply after-the-fact prophecy about the Maccabean Period, the fourth kingdom would have to be Greece, requiring interpreters to find three kingdoms preceding Greece.
The problem is that there were not three major kingdoms that preceded Greece. There were two: Babylon and Medo-Persia. In order to solve this problem, modern scholars argue that Daniel understood Media and Persia to be separate kingdoms. As I read liberal studies of the book of Daniel, I searched for real justification for this idea. The text itself seems to mitigate strongly against it. Daniel 5:28, for example, speaks of “the Medes and the Persians” as a single kingdom. Daniel 6:8, 6:12, and 6:15 refer to “the laws of the Medes and the Persians,” obviously implying that this was a joint kingdom. Furthermore, plain references to the kingdom of Greece do not fit within the mainstream understanding of the four-kingdom schema. As soon as the Greek Empire was established by Alexander the Great, his kingdom fell into civil war and split into four, under four different generals. This is plainly referred to in Daniel 7:6 by a leopard (indicating the speed of Alexander’s conquest) with four wings (representing the four generals). The difficulty is that this is the third, rather than the fourth beast. Modern scholars therefore have to fight against the text and insist that this beast is actually Persia. Daniel 8:8 likewise refers to a kingdom which divides towards the four winds of heaven, and modern scholars agree that this refers to Greece. The problem is that the preceding kingdom (Daniel 8:5-7) is a two-horned goat, clearly indicating Medo-Persia, and soundly refuting the idea that Daniel understood Media and Persia as separate kingdoms.
If this is true, then the fourth kingdom, the fourth beast, must be Rome. If that is true, however, then Daniel is genuine prophecy. This is why I say that Daniel leaves us no middle way. Yet modern scholars persist in their absurd twisting of the book in order to continue in their “strong delusion” (2 Thess. 2:11) that one may approach the Scriptures naturalistically and emerge with anything like fact-based conclusions. Daniel is but one example of where I have found modern critical scholarship utterly wanting in its reading of the Bible. I could write similarly about the unity and authorship of the Pentateuch, the unity of the prophetic books, or the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Letters. I have written this in order to give a counter-point to Dr. Carey’s personal testimony of his lost faith in the inspiration of Scripture. Studying the Bible does not mean that one will eventually dismiss the Bible’s inspiration. One must be willing, however, to recognize that modern academia is in fact deeply naturalistic in its orientation. As naturalism is a false worldview, modern academia is likely to produce many false conclusions, and I believe that study of the Scripture bears this out.
With this said, then, let us proceed to the individual claims of Dr. Carey and see how they stand up to analysis. Dr. Carey identifies the problems he raises in the strongest possible terms, writing that “But no such explanations exist [for the problems raised].” What are the problems raised in the article?
One must realize when analyzing alleged contradictions in the Scriptures that the substantial reliability of the Bible does not rise or fall with its absolute inerrancy. The dividing line between a conservative and liberal biblicist is not inerrancy, but the trustworthiness of Scripture in its substance. While I personally have come to the conclusion that the Bible is inerrant, I know faithful Orthodox Christians who have come to the conclusion that such a word does not precisely describe the phenomena of Scripture. That said, let us take a look at the contradictions that Dr. Carey raises and see whether it is true that “no explanations exist” for such problems.
Did Jesus say that whoever is not with him is against him (Matthew 12:30; Luke 11:23), or did he say that whoever is not against him is for him (Mark 9:40)?
This is not a contradiction in the least, because the Lord intends these statements in different ways. In the former, Christ speaks of those who have cast out demons in His name but who have not yet joined His circle of disciples. He indicates to the Apostles that they must not prevent such men, because they will not soon afterward be able to speak evil of Him. In other words, they are well on their way to joining the fellowship of Jesus. By contrast, in Mark 9, Jesus is speaking of His work in binding the strong man (Satan), and delineates between the side of Christ and the side of Satan: whoever is not on Christ’s side is on Satan’s side. Matthew and Luke both indicate that those who cast out demons in Christ’s name were in fact on Christ’s side. But what truly renders this alleged contradiction absurd is the fact (carefully left out of the article by Dr. Carey) that Luke 9:49-50 reports the same account reported in Mark 9:40! Dr. Carey was attempting to show that Luke and Matthew were editing and revising Mark’s Jesus. Yet the fact that Luke presents both accounts side by side indicates that no such revision was in process. Both statements are true, because they are in different contexts and are meant in different ways.
Who was there to visit Jesus’ tomb?
One must realize, of course, that silence does not constitute a denial. That some women were reported to be present at the tomb in one Gospel does not mean that the Evangelist believed they were the only women at the tomb. Richard Bauckham, in fact, argues in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that the differing lists are indications of which witnesses were consulted in the composition of the resurrection narratives, rather than being intended as a comprehensive list of who was present at the Tomb.
How did Judas die (Matthew 27:1-10; Acts 1:18-19)?
This alleged contradiction was actually noted by the Fathers of the Church. While St. Matthew reports that Judas bought a potter’s field and hanged himself, St. Luke reports that Judas fell and his stomach broke open. It is evident that both authors are working from a common tradition, as both report that the “Field of Blood” was purchased with the money he received after he betrayed Jesus Matthew indicates that it was the chief priests who purchased the field, but because the money was Judas’, it would have been purchased in his name and legally owned by him as in Luke. For more, see here. Is harmonization, then, truly implausible? The traditional harmonization explains that Judas hanged himself, the rope broke, and his stomach burst open as he fell. Given the common elements in both accounts, indicating common tradition, there is no reason to dismiss such a harmonization as implausible.
That plausible explanations exist for each of Carey’s three alleged contradictions is enough to refute the claim that “no explanation” exists. Why did Dr. Carey not inform us that he knew there were explanations, but found them implausible? For readers not versed in the literature, such arguments may appear powerful and such statement definitive. They are not.
2) The Synoptic Problem
With a colorful chart, the instructor was explaining how the Gospels were composed — that Mark was written first, and that Matthew and Luke relied upon copies of Mark. As soon as I saw that chart, I instantly knew where we were headed! There was no way the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses who simply remembered things differently.
Dr. Carey implies that the “Synoptic Problem” is an insurmountable one for traditional Christians. I found such a statement utterly bizarre. Many conservative scholars, such as Dr. Craig Blomberg (who has written extensive books on the historicity of the gospels) accept the priority of Mark and the dependence of Matthew and Luke on Mark. If this hypothesis is true, then St. Mark wrote his gospel based on the testimony of St. Peter (given Papias’ early testimony, often summarily dismissed without justification) and St. Matthew relied, in part, on Mark because St. Peter was part of the Lord’s “inner circle” of Apostles. St. Luke then relied on Mark because Luke was not a witness at all. Even if Dr. Carey’s understanding of Markan priority is correct, then, this presents no challenge for the traditional Christian: the Church has always known that there is a textual relationship among the first three Gospels! Unfortunately, Dr. Carey does not report the serious challenges to the present (waning) consensus about the priority of Mark and the existence of a second source called Q (Quelle, German for source) which Matthew and Luke were dependent on. A series of essays edited by Mark Goodacre and Nicholas Perrin called Questioning Q provides a serious critique of the prevailing hypothesis. John Wenham’s Redating Matthew, Mark, and Luke presents an even more radical challenge. Yet none of this is reported by Dr. Carey, because he wishes to convey an impression of utter certainty within modern biblical scholarship. Such certainty does not exist.
3) Premarital Sex and Scripture
My second memory involves the one thing that most bothers pious high schoolers: sex. Our church leaders warned us not only to abstain sexual intercourse but also to avoid those heavy makeout sessions that lead to removing sweaters, exploring panty lines and so forth. And depending on what the meaning of is, is, I pretty much succeeded. But I was also reading my Bible. And nowhere did I find all this stuff about saving sex for marriage. (That’s because the Bible doesn’t include that message, certainly not consistently.)
This is by far the worst argument presented by Dr. Carey. While he notes the fact that an “adult leader” at his church could not provide an answer to his query, this is meaningless. In fact, the New Testament contains a plain answer to the question of sex before marriage. St. Paul says, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Cor. 7:8-9) That marriage is the only place where sexual passion finds its proper outlet obviously implies that sex is forbidden before marriage. Furthermore, since the Apostle speaks to the unmarried, comparing them with himself, it is clear that he includes both men and women in this category. Whether or not Dr. Carey’s “adult leader” knew the answer to his question, it is absolutely inexcusable for a “biblical scholar” to present such a question as unanswerable. The Scripture contains a clear witness against premarital sex, for both men and women.
4) What About Slavery?
Finally, Dr. Carey refers to St. Paul’s command that slaves must obey their masters, likening it to black slavery in the American South. Such a comparison is deceptive, for several reasons.
First, it fails to take into account the breadth and sophistication of the Apostle Paul’s thought. For example, in the letter to Philemon, the Apostle has taken both a slave and a master as his spiritual children. He sends Onesimus (the slave) back to Philemon (the master) with the command that Philemon receive Onesimus as if he were Paul himself (Philemon 1:17). Then, in a hint that we should not miss, St. Paul says that he knows Onesimus “will do even more than I say.” (Philemon 1:21) What more could Philemon do than receive Onesimus as a brother? The only option would be to free him. The foundation of this radical commandment is Paul’s belief that the crucified Jew had become king of the universe. God had summed up all things in Christ and presented the Church as a new, united humanity. This meant that there could be “neither slave nor free” (Galatians 3:28). Indeed, in Ephesians 6 itself, Paul reminds masters that the Master in Heaven, Jesus Christ, shows no partiality when judging slave and free. Aristotle had argued that slavery was written into the fabric of the cosmos. Paul said the opposite. This is why there were no abolitionists among the pagans. Slaves were numerous, however, among the Christians, and St. Gregory of Nyssa argued that masters must release their slaves. This also underlies the difference between black slavery and St. Paul’s view. The anthropological justification for Southern slavery was that blacks are a different “kind” of person. Paul’s teaching about the unity of all humankind in Christ annihilates such heresy. The process of releasing all slaves is not nearly as simple as Dr. Carey (sitting at his computer in a comfortable chair in the modern West) presents it. Many rich Christians in the fourth century released all of their slaves—and the slaves were furious! Their masters, while rich, did not have enough money to provide homes and livelihood for all of their former slaves, and the slaves were left destitute. Institutional slavery requires care and time as it is unraveled.
In my studies, I have learned that much of academia, far from being neutral or unbiased, is deeply biased. Like all of us, academics are products of our time. It just so happens that our time is deeply secularistic and naturalistic in orientation. That naturalism is a false way of looking at the world has become clear to me in the way naturalist scholars treat and interpret the Bible.