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While browsing some Christian apologist websites recently, I randomly came across a page on a site called Tektonics Apologetics Ministries, run by one J.P. Holding (a pseudonym), that purports to be a rebuttal to Ebon Musings. That page can be viewed here.
Mr. Holding was not unknown to me. I'd heard of him before, most notably on Earl Doherty's website, The Jesus Puzzle, where Doherty eloquently and thoroughly dealt with the weak counterarguments Mr. Holding raised to his mythical-Jesus theory. Some time later I wrote an article for my own site called "Foundation of Sand", listing some of the more notable contradictions in the Bible. In the interest of thoroughness I picked out selected treatments of these contradictions from several Christian apologist websites attempting to resolve them, to show how their responses were not adequate. Mr. Holding's site was one of those I used.
And now it seems I have come into Mr. Holding's radar. It heartens me to know that my efforts have not gone unnoticed, that he considers my work enough of a threat to his cherished beliefs to deserve a response from him - even if he does try to pretend otherwise. From the very beginning, he makes it clear that my arguments are entirely beneath him, that my website is "just the usual list of issues" (so why did he bother to write a specific reply to it?), and that he would be fully justified in dismissing everything I say out of hand if he so desired.
But despite this bravado, I think I've given Mr. Holding more of a run for his money than he cares to admit. As I will demonstrate, regarding most of the contradictions I have raised his proposed solutions fail to satisfactorily resolve the problem. In a few cases, he does not even attempt to address the problem, but rather tries to obfuscate his way around it, and rest assured I will point this out wherever it happens.
However, before I get to my defense of the contradictions he claims to have solved, I will first take some time to clear up several of the ad hominem attacks he has launched against me.
1. "It seems that the only heaven [I] want to enter is Sound Bite Heaven...." I am accused of being "in a rush to endorse as many disrespectable positions as he can in as little space as possible. Most essays relevant to our subject area are less than 5 printed pages in length."
Response: Does quantity equal quality? I think not. I would rather make my essays short and memorable than long and dull (partly to conserve space on my website, of which I have a limited amount). In most cases, the issues I raise do not require too much writing to cover in sufficient detail anyway; but when such detailed treatment is necessary, I do not hesitate to provide it, as I hope this rather long reply will show.
2. It is said that I "hadn't the courage" to write to Mr. Holding to inform him that my site used some of his answers.
Response: In regard to my cowardice in not informing Mr. Holding that I had linked to his site, I will note only that he did not tell me he had written a reply to me, either. I came across his response to my site completely by accident. I will accept Mr. Holding's charge, therefore, only if he admits he's as yellow-bellied as I am.
3. Most issues on my site are "dealt with cavilierly and with the assurance of freethinking know-how."
Response: The essence of freethought is continual questioning and verification; arrogant self-assurance is the fundamentalists' domain. Though I have done what I think is a reasonable amount of my own research on religion and related issues, I know that there is always more to learn. I founded Ebon Musings to increase my own learning as much as to disseminate my thoughts to others, and I hope that in neither of those goals do I come across as arrogant or cavalier; I strive at all times to maintain a minimal standard of civility and academic respectability. I have no interest in insisting I am right if the facts prove me to be wrong, and I will not deny that Mr. Holding's response has shown up some minor errors I have made. I am duly grateful to him for pointing these out so that they may be corrected. However, I still feel that his replies do not satisfactorily resolve most of the issues I have raised, nor do a few mistakes on my part alter the major thrust of my point. I will not respond to every article Mr. Holding cites in his response to me. My site is not a full-time ministry, I have my own material to work on, and in most cases the answers to his claims should be perfectly obvious to anyone who gives the matter a bit of thought. Nevertheless, to make it clear that I give serious issues the detailed consideration they deserve, I have written this reply to him.
4. I play "the role of the temporal provincialist, having learned well at the feet of the masters like Ingersoll, Paine, and Till."
Response: Blush though I do to admit it, I have never read the writings of freethought icons such as Ingersoll and Paine. They are on my reading list, but that list is also quite long. As for Farrell Till, I know of him but have never followed his work in detail. Perhaps Mr. Holding should consider that, rather than slavishly follow each other's leads, some freethinkers have done their own work and independently come across these errors and contradictions in religion.
5. Mr. Holding asks "where I get the nerve" to evaluate the Bible as illogical, internally contradictory, and poorly written, considering the many scholars who believe otherwise. I am accused of belonging to the "Ken Smith School" of exegesis.
Response: In few places is the argument from authority so blatantly and fallaciously deployed as it is here. Since many people with suitably impressive letters after their names have declared the Bible to be the greatest thing ever written, how dare I disagree. Of course, these eminent scholars are all Christians who might have just a teensy bit of bias here. Personally, I stand by my opinion, and feel it more objective than the opinions of any number of Christian scholars since mine is untainted by confessional interest. (It is obvious that an atheist could conclude the Bible is well written and still not believe in it.) As for Ken Smith, I have never heard of him, but if his arguments are as Mr. Holding depicts them then I agree that he needs to do more research to better understand his subject material.
6. "You won't find a clue anywhere that Ebon is doing anything but following the McKinsey dictum to 'read the Bible like a newspaper' (other than maybe using a concordance now and then)."
Response: If I am guilty of this, there is a good reason for it - I set out to refute the many fundamentalist Christians who claim that one can do exactly this, just read the Bible as if it were a newspaper with no understanding of the social or historical context of the time necessary. (Jack Chick is probably a good example of this group.) Regardless, in most cases I feel that Mr. Holding's more convoluted and obscure explanations still do not adequately resolve the issues I have raised. As for concordances, I cannot comprehend why Mr. Holding seems to have a grudge against them. (We can't all be experts in ancient Greek and Hebrew, after all.) Could it be that he resents them for leveling the playing field, as it were?
7. Mr. Holding complains "Although numerous alleged contradictions are examined, almost all of which I address on the site, my own responses are referred to less than half a dozen times. Apparently Ebon thinks he can get away with something by only picking the defenses he wants to deal with."
Response: I was unaware that Mr. Holding's site was considered by all Christians to be the gold standard of apologetics, so I apologize for that. I hope he isn't offended that I didn't use the answers his website offered for every contradiction. However, I know that if I had responded to only one website's apologetics, I probably would have been accused of refuting the weakest ones out there (no offense, Mr. Holding).
8. I am accused of "stay[ing] in a corner and avoid[ing] the toughest answers".
Response: We will see whether it is I or he who avoids the most difficult problems.
Before we get on to the contradictions, I will make one final note: I usually try not to engage in ad hominem attacks and ridicule of my opponents, or at least try to keep them to a minimum. But this time, I am going to meet Mr. Holding on his own ground. The temptation to let him reap what he has sowed is irresistible. He has previously dismissed my dazzling wit and trenchant bon mots as "snide", even while thinking nothing of making similar comments himself. We will see if I cannot force him to acknowledge my cleverness this time, and perhaps it will make for more interesting reading.
The Two Contradictory Creation Accounts
Mr. Holding begins:
The first cite has to do with the alleged contradictory creation accounts. This is a matter we have dealt with in some detail here, but rather than deal with the evidence of dual creation accounts in other ANE cultures,Though I haven't studied the beliefs of other Ancient Near East cultures in detail, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Bible wasn't the only book of mythology from around that time that had this structure. After all, I would be the first to agree that it, like every other holy text mankind has ever produced, is merely a reflection of its time and place of origin.
linguistic and grammatical data, chiasms, and dischronologized narratives,"Dischronologized narratives" is just a more complicated way of saying that sometimes the Bible does not relate events in the order they happened, generally because the writers wanted to rearrange their timelines in order to make some sort of point. I have no problem at all with this idea - for obvious reasons - and if Mr. Holding accepts it as well, then I suspect we're closer to agreement than he realizes.
Ebon selects an answer offered by the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry which, while ultimately correct in summary, does not explore the matter to the same level of detail that our article does.As stated previously, if I had chosen only one apologist website to draw responses to these contradictions from, I have no doubt I would have been accused of using only the weakest site out there. I prefer to show that I can deal with Christian arguments from a broad variety of sources.
Not that Ebon's answer to CARM is worth the effort; it only amounts to "Yes, it is a contradiction! Read it for yourself!"
I would cheerfully agree that this is an accurate summary of my answer. That's exactly what I invite believers to do - read the verses for themselves, see how they conflict, then go read the apologists' explanations and see the linguistic and logical gymnastics routines they go through in an attempt to resolve the contradiction. Then ask yourself, which is more likely - that such convoluted rationalizations are really true, or that these are errors, plain and simple?
Now turning to Mr. Holding's treatment of this issue, we see what will become a common theme. When faced with a simple and obvious contradiction such as this, the apologists typically try to escape it by weaving complicated webs of supposition and speculation, while ignoring (if I may mix my metaphors) the plain facts that blow their carefully constructed houses of cards apart.
Mr. Holding's response is a good example of this. First, he juggles verb tenses around, suggesting that what 2:19 describes is not God creating animals after Adam, in contradiction to chapter 1, but rather God bringing "samples" of already created animals to Adam for him to name. That interpretation, however, ignores verse 2:18, in which God says that Adam is alone, and so he (God) will create a "help meet" to keep him company.
I will not deny that Mr. Holding is not alone in suggesting this harmonization, but he quotes from another commentator whose perspective on the matter is unintentionally revealing:
Without any emphasis on the sequence of acts the account here records the making of the various creatures and the bringing of them to man. That in reality they had been made prior to the creation of man is so entirely apparent from chapter one as not to require explanation. But the reminder that God had "molded" them makes obvious His power to bring them to man and so is quite appropriately mentioned here. It would not, in our estimation, be wrong to translate yatsar as a pluperfect in this instance: 'He had molded.' The insistence of the critics upon a plain past is partly the result of the attempt to make chapters one and two clash at as many points as possible.
Just who these anonymous "critics" are we are not told, but apparently they include the translators of the KJV and RSV versions of the Bible, which both render verse 2:19 in the simple past tense: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed". Unsurprisingly, it is only the NIV which uses the pluperfect - the NIV, the translation produced by evangelical Christian inerrantists who confessed in advance their agenda to "smooth over" many of the difficulties and contradictions in the Bible, which they accomplished through several egregious mistranslations (since they are probably deliberate, it would not be right to call them errors). As above, this still ignores God's statement in 2:18 that Adam was alone. And anyway, might it not be said that the insistence of the apologists upon a pluperfect is motivated by an attempt to make chapters one and two not clash? What's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
For Mr. Holding's next trick, he suggests that the order in which the two creation accounts describe the creation of plants (before man in chapter 1, after man in chapter 2) is not contradictory because chapter 2 describes the creation of plants "of the field" - meaning agricultural varieties - not plants in general, which were indeed created before Adam.
But this interpretation too is trivial to puncture. By Mr. Holding's own admission, verse 2:9 states that fruit trees (those "good for food" according to the text and surely a category included in plants "of the field") were only created after Adam. But verse 1:11 says that fruit trees were made before people, on the third day. Again, the contradiction stands.
There is one more stark contradiction in this text, one which Mr. Holding's article does not breathe a whisper of, and yet it derails all of his carefully laid apologetics. Genesis chapter 1 states that creation took a full week - seven days, evening and morning. But the second creation story, beginning in 2:4, says this:
"These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens."Catch that? This verse says "In the day" - that is, one day, singular - "that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens." Chapter 2 goes on to list all of God's creative acts without any suggestion that any time was passing. In short, while chapter 1 spreads the creation out over a week, chapter 2 compresses it entirely into one day.
Suggesting that time was passing in chapter 2, but that the writer did not see fit to mention it, is untenable. Again, the opening to the second creation story mentions the day, singular, in which God made the heavens and the earth. But according to chapter 1, the heavens and the earth were created on separate days, the second and third respectively. Mr. Holding states that the author of Genesis would have to be a "flaming knucklehead" to miss an apparent contradiction as obvious as that between the first two chapters, and so we can conclude that it was deliberate. But then it is only fair to ask, how is it that he failed to notice this very obvious inconsistency? Perhaps he was a knucklehead after all.
Certain translations (the NIV again) seem aware that this is a problem and try to eliminate it by translating the "in the day" of 2:4 as the less literal "when". But that makes this verse rather redundant, as is shown by the NIV's strained-sounding translation: "This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the Lord God made the earth and the heavens."
Mr. Holding makes one last stab at saving this book from errancy, stating:
Given these internal clues, we would argue that if any contradiction is found ... it is intentional -- serving a rhetorical or polemical purpose -- and therefore, of no consequence for any supposition of inerrancy.
I'm sorry to be the one to inform him of this, but even if the writer (or writers) of Genesis deliberately intended the text to conflict like this, that doesn't make it any less of a contradiction. This is a simple matter of definition. If two statements cannot logically both be true, then together they are a contradiction. The writer's intent simply does not enter into it. If I said "Black is white," it would not be any less of a contradiction if I meant to say it. Likewise, if Genesis chapter 2 says mankind was created before animals and plants, and Genesis chapter 1 says animals and plants existed before people, then what we have is a contradiction. And again by definition, if the Bible contains contradictions, then it cannot be inerrant. That such is the case is all I intend to demonstrate. Mr. Holding and his ilk can then set angels to dancing on pinheads all they want arguing about why the writers might have phrased it this way.
On Making Graven Images
The next contradiction Mr. Holding has allegedly dealt with concerns God's contradicting himself on the issue of making graven images - first he forbids it, then later commands it on at least two occasions. The second instance in which he commands it is the more interesting of the two. As punishment for the Israelites' disobedience, God sends serpents which bite and kill them; when they beg forgiveness, God instructs Moses to make a brass sculpture of a serpent and put it up on a pole, and whoever looks at the sculpture lives.
Aside from maturated "why didn't God just snap His fingers and do away with the images" commentary...
I'm not sure if Mr. Holding misunderstood me or if he simply made a typing error. In either case, his sarcastic "maturated" seems to be all the response he thinks my commentary on this episode is worthy of. Which is a pity, because I think there's a legitimate issue here. If Jehovah wanted to end the plague he sent, why didn't he use his Super-God-Magic and put a stop to it instantly? Why did he go through this tedious and unnecessary voodoo of having Moses create a brass sculpture to cure the sick?
Anyway, addressing the more substantive part of his response:
My reply is, "What part of the definition of 'image' does Ebon not understand?" As I quite clearly stated ... "an 'image' in ancient thought is not merely something that has an appearance, like a statue or a picture, but something that serves as a focal point for the presence and power of a deity" .... Ebon merely restates the original skeptical argument using the assumed definition of "image" as "anything like a statue or picture."
There's more to this issue than Mr. Holding wants to admit. It is true that God bars his people from creating "images" (Hebrew pecel) a word which does indeed have the meaning Mr. Holding attributes to it. But images are not the only things God prohibits his people from creating. In the same commandment, he also forbids the manufacture of "likenesses" (Hebrew tmunah). This word does not have the same specialized meaning of "idol" - if it did, why would God repeat himself? Instead, it has a meaning close to what the word has in English, namely (guess what?) "anything like a statue or picture". Exodus 20:4 spells it out:
"Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth." (my emphasis)
A statue of a serpent undoubtedly falls squarely into the category of "any likeness of any thing" (as do statues of cherubim). The contradiction stands: God first told his people not to make likenesses, then told them to do it. And while Mr. Holding would like to pretend that likenesses not made for worship, such as the serpent, are OK, another Biblical verse casts further light on this discrepancy and shows clearly the intent behind God's original commandment:
(2 Kings 18:4)
[Hezekiah] removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.
In other words, the Israelites did end up worshipping the serpent after all, even though it was not originally made for that purpose. If God (as Mr. Holding would surely be first to insist) knew in advance this was going to happen, then we clearly see why he prohibited the making of all images and likenesses, whether intended for worship or not. And yet, he later contradicts that blanket instruction by inexplicably ordering the creation of a likeness, knowing it was unnecessary and knowing it would end up enticing people to sin. The contradiction stands.
Does God Change His Mind?
Mr. Holding's next rebuttal targets the contradiction I offered on the issue of whether God can or does repent. His first claim is that the Semitic style the Bible was written in
...typically expressed itself in extremes...
and so there is nothing unusual or contradictory about a prophet making an absolute statement ("Sinful city X will be destroyed by the wrath of the Lord") that does not come to pass when those targeted for destruction repent of their sins. The example Mr. Holding used was of God sending the message, through Jonah, that the city of Nineveh would be overthrown, then not doing so when the people repent of their sins. However, there are three things wrong with this:
Mr. Holding goes on to argue, although my original article dealt with this, that the Hebrew word being used for repent is nacham, which actually means something closer to "regret" or "grieve".
Now here is a question: Is it not possible to grieve and feel sorry over something -- even if we know that it is going to happen, even if we cause it to happen? Of course it is. And there is no reason why this cannot also apply to God, as we shall see.
But there is a very good reason why this cannot apply to God - namely, God is all-powerful. He can, by definition, cause things to turn out any way he wishes; again by definition, he can never be forced to choose a course of action with substandard results. Mr. Holding has anticipated this weakness in his argument and races to head it off:
...as if Ebon had the omniscience to know that any other course of action would have been better beyond the myopically-glimpsed presumptive short-term....
What a strangely limited imagination. What a curious lack of credit for Mr. Holding to give to his god. As soon as an apparent deficiency shows up in God's Grand and Mysterious Plan, the apologists quickly insist that God had no choice, and couldn't have made things turn out any better than this. No freak coincidence, no puny little miracle or itsy-bitsy revelation, no subtle influence at just the right time, no slightly different spin imparted to a single atom at the beginning of the universe would have resulted in even an infinitesimal improvement, an outcome even a little bit better than what we see. We are expected to believe this. And yet, this is a god for whom
Past, present and future... can be seen as a whole.... God also knows how things would turn out differently had a different path been taken at every potential choice-making nexus. God knew you would turn left at Main Street this morning; but He also knows what would have happened had you turned right. (original emphasis)
Forgive me for being just a bit incredulous that a mind like that couldn't have rigged things to turn out in a way that would give him no reason to regret the outcome. Human free will is plainly not a barrier to God getting events to transpire as he wants. Throughout the Bible, he has no problem doing impressive miracles or slaughtering those who break his laws, often in full view, as an example to others (see, for example, 1 Kings 18:38-39), or, more relevantly, directly manifesting himself to convert sinful nonbelievers and dramatically changing the course of their lives (Acts 9). To insist that none of these actions, or indeed any other action God could possibly take, would have resulted in an improved overall outcome in any of these situations, is to blatantly deny that God is omniscient and omnipotent.
Sins of the Fathers
The next contradiction I will deal with is bound to get confusing, as the apologists have elevated hair-splitting to an art form in their attempts to wriggle out of it. As always, though, the plain facts and simple wording of the text will make the deficiencies in their arguments clear.
The problem dealt with here is whether, according to the Bible, we are punished for the sins of our ancestors. Mr. Holding explains how the verses which state that we are not are intended to forbid the ancient legal concept of "vicarious punishment", where, for example, a murderer who kills a man's son might have his own son put to death. I will not argue with this. However, he then goes on to apparently say that while vicarious punishment is forbidden to humans, God can indulge in it all he pleases:
[These verses are] of a different order than verses and situations like the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Deut. 5:9, Exod. 20:5, the destruction of the Canaanites, Achan's sin (Josh. 7), the son of David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12) and the vengeance of the Gibeonites on Saul's sons (2 Sam. 21, where a national treaty was violated by God's chosen king), which all involve "direct affronts to the majesty of God." Such affronts were dealt with quite differently than internal human affairs....
In other words, although God has forbidden humans to practice vicarious punishment, he can and does do it himself whenever he's offended by something. The answer to the contradiction, according to Mr. Holding, is that humans are not allowed to punish you for your father's sins, but God is. (As I previously noted in my reply to the CARM apologetics ministry, which posed a similar counterargument, one might be forgiven for asking - what's the point of not allowing mortals to punish you for someone else's crime, if God's going to kill you for it anyway?) Thus, according to the Bible and Mr. Holding, if a man kills your son, you are not allowed to kill his son in return; however, if that same man blasphemes God, God is entirely free to kill his son as punishment, and fully justified in doing so!
How can this be called justice? How can it be fair to punish the innocent along with - or instead of - the guilty? And why is God allowed to do this, but not humans - why should it make any difference who the offended party is, or who's meting out the punishment? Justice, by definition, is universal and objective. If a given crime nets you five years in jail in one district's court, but the same crime is only punishable by a fine somewhere else, then what we have is not justice. Likewise, it would not be just to decree that assaulting a richer or more powerful man is a more serious crime than if the act were perpetrated on someone of lower status. Justice cannot be justice if it recognizes such distinctions. And this is a standard that the God of the Bible thoroughly fails to meet. His denying humans the right to punish the innocent for the crimes of the guilty is laudatory, but his reserving that same right to himself, to use whenever he deems fit, is blazingly hypocritical, not to mention cruel, unfair and tyrannical. I know I am not alone when I state that any being with such a twisted idea of fairness would not be worthy of my worship.
Mr. Holding heaps scorn on arguments such as this, labeling them "arguments from outrage":
Simply stating outrage is not a sufficient form of argument; it is merely a substitute for true argument, with the intention to win over the prospective convert by means of tugging on their heartstrings like an orchestral harp. If the reader finds the God of the Bible cruel, unjust, bloodthirsty, etc... then that is their own personal problem. What must be done -- but I have seldom seen done -- is an analysis proving that a given action/directive by God was indeed unfair and/ or cruel.
I would venture to say that the "argument from outrage" is more sufficient than Mr. Holding would care to admit. (And don't tell me that the "Jesus wuvs you" claims so common in Christian literature are not simply the polar opposite of the argument from outrage, also meant to win converts by tugging on the heartstrings.) When we are told that God is a God of love and mercy, who cares for us poor suffering humans so much that he sent his own son to die in our place (see previous parentheses) - and then when we read that that same God is a God of hatred and war, who orders the mass slaughter of people who don't worship him - men, women and children, the old and young alike - it doesn't take much intelligence to recognize that something is very wrong. Such profoundly contradictory character attributes are not usually found in the same individual, except in the case of severe psychological problems. If the best Mr. Holding can do in the face of such an argument is to retreat behind cold logic and say "it doesn't matter if God's unjust or capricious, he can do what he likes and you still have to worship him anyway", then I would suggest he has already conceded the point.
But say we rise to his challenge and attempt to offer an objective analysis showing that God is indeed unfair, unjust and cruel. I believe this is very easy to do; trivial, in fact, and I don't see why Mr. Holding makes such a big deal about it. My case will rely on only two simple axioms which I firmly believe are true, and if Mr. Holding really wants to dispute either of them, then I invite all concerned to decide whether I, the atheist, or he, the Christian, has a better and more consistent morality.
1. By the definition of justice, it is not fair to punish someone for something he or she did not do.
2. By the definition of justice, all individuals must be treated equally, with no special rights or privileges for anyone when it comes to punishing crimes.
Granting these two simple principles, now let us turn to the case at hand. There are instances in the Bible in which God punishes some people for things other people did, such as the examples Mr. Holding lists above. This violates axiom #1, trivially. The Bible states that humans cannot punish vicariously, but that God can. This violates axiom #2. Therefore, God is not acting justly when he does either of those things, and thus he is unjust.
There - the case is complete. What's the problem here? Asking me to prove that God is unjust when he punishes the innocent for the sins of the guilty is like asking me to prove that a bachelor is unmarried. It's a simple matter of definition.
Mr. Holding makes a last ditch effort to dispute what everyone knows justice is:
"Why should God be allowed to do what we can't and what He tells us not to do? Why do the innocent have to suffer because of the actions of the guilty?", referring to the standard as primitive, barbaric, etc. We can expect little else from those who think that there is no life beyond their narrow view in the first place, and who do not recognize the right of God to do with His creation as He pleases, but for the Christian, the matter is resolved with a single thought: If the innocent cannot die for the sake of or under the punishment of the guilty under God's justice, then the sacrifice of Christ could not be permitted either. The principle established thereby is far, far more important than our puny lives.
And therein lies the heart of the matter. Mr. Holding and his brethren are not claiming that God's granting himself the right to punish the innocent for the sins of the guilty is fair. Rather, they claim that whether fair or not, it must be allowed, because their entire religion relies and depends on the principle that justice can be done when an innocent person suffers for the crimes of others - a principle embodied in the doctrine of the substitutive sacrifice of Jesus.
This is a truly sad pass we have come to. Mr. Holding's religion is founded on a rock of illogic, and to defend it he must abandon the most ancient, obvious and time-tested ethical principle humanity has ever invented, namely that fairness consists of punishing the guilty and rewarding the innocent and not vice versa. The idea he replaces this with, that the crimes of the guilty can somehow be "transferred" to an innocent being and resolved by shedding that innocent's blood, is a primitive superstition owing far more to ideas of sympathetic magic than to any logical code of ethics and justice. As a freethinker, I reject this concept unambiguously as barbaric and irrational - and if pulling out this central brick causes all of Christianity to fall, then so be it. The "right of God to do with his creation as he pleases", including taking innocent life, I reject as well. History has furnished us with far too many examples of the horrors caused by those who honestly believed they were acting as God's agents exercising his right in that regard at his command.
On Jephthah's Daughter
The next contradiction deals with the issue of human sacrifice in the Bible. While there are many verses in which God condemns it in no uncertain terms, there is one very startling passage that strongly implies he sometimes accepts and even approves of it. This passage is the story of Jephthah's daughter, found in Judges chapter 11.
Mr. Holding's "response" to this contradiction is especially worth reading, for two reasons. The first reason is that everyone should see for themselves how weak his defense is. He does a satisfactory job clearing up some minor side issues, but when it comes to the heart of the problem, the best he can do is to hem and haw and argue that maybe Jephthah really didn't do what the text says he did - a defense which implicitly concedes the existence and the seriousness of the contradiction.
But despite the weakness of his response, despite the fact that it leaves a fundamental problem unanswered, Mr. Holding preemptively concludes that the contradiction has been resolved and hurriedly changes the subject. Here is the second reason I encourage all interested to read his reply, because it provides an illuminating glimpse into the mind of an apologist - that mentality that will not, cannot, allow the Bible to be wrong or errant no matter how blatantly obvious the contradiction is. I invite all readers - weigh my arguments against his for yourself, and decide who makes a more persuasive case. If you agree with me that Mr. Holding's argument is wanting, then ask yourself: What does it say about his intellectual honesty that he will not acknowledge this?
Mr. Holding lists three "key questions" relating to this issue and claims that a problem arises only if the answer to any of them is "yes". Those questions are as follows:
1. Did the "spirit of the Lord" inspire Jephthah's vow?Mr. Holding starts out by arguing that the answer to the first two questions can safely be taken to be "no". I will not dispute this, because I consider them side issues irrelevant to the main problem.
2. Did Jephthah make the vow knowing a human might be involved?
3. Did Jephthah actually sacrifice his daughter?
However, there is a fourth question that needs to be considered, one that I would have assumed was patently obvious, and yet it seems to have not even occurred to him. Let's insert it between questions 2 and 3:
2a. Did God accept Jephthah's vow knowing a human would be involved?Of course, to ask this question presupposes that God did accept Jephthah's offer. If Mr. Holding wants an out, I'll give it to him: No explicit reply from God is given. However, the very next verses go on to tell us that Jephthah got exactly what he asked for, specifically victory over the Ammonites. In fact, the text tells us explicitly that Jephthah did not win just by lucky chance, but that "the Lord delivered them into his hands" (11:32). What other meaning can be drawn from this, other than that God did indeed accept the offered bargain?
But if God accepted the bargain, he did so knowing full well who would end up being sacrificed. Remember, as Mr. Holding himself has said, God's omniscience extends to being able to see the future. Maybe Jephthah wasn't expecting his daughter to come walking out of the house to greet him, but this is a red herring. The issue is not whether Jephthah endorsed human sacrifice, but whether God did. Stockyards surrounding the house, ancient customs of women meeting their returning menfolk outside the city, and so on - none of these matter a bit to God's all-knowing eye, the one that perceives "Past, present and future... as a whole". When Jephthah made his vow, God knew, even if Jephthah did not, that Jephthah's daughter was the one who would be sacrificed. There is no way around this conclusion.
Questions arise at this point. If God does not endorse human sacrifice, then why did he accept Jepthah's bargain, knowing a human sacrifice would result? Why did he give Jephthah exactly what he asked for, rather than condemning him? After all, throughout the Old Testament, God has no problem letting people know it whenever they do something that displeases him, no matter how minor it is. If he was against this, why didn't he say so, and indeed why did he then go on to give Jephthah what he asked for, actions which would certainly lead an impartial observer to conclude that God endorsed the deal? He could even have said something like, "Since you are a faithful follower of mine, Jephthah, I'll give you what you asked for, but I don't want a human sacrifice in return. That's not the way I do things." But no. He accepted Jephthah's deal in the full omniscient foreknowledge that that sacrificial knife would end up piercing the soft flesh of an innocent young girl. This is depraved and barbaric, and in light of God's clear condemnations of human sacrifice elsewhere, a blatant inconsistency.
But wait - did Jephthah actually go through with it? Mr. Holding's only defense left is to argue that he did not, but instead gave his daughter to the temple to live as an acolyte:
We note... that Jeppie's daughter spent some time in the wilderness bewailing the fact that she would always be a virgin and never have children. This sounds like Temple service to me! It's either that, or a kid with wrong-headed or peculiar priorities....Such a reaction to the news of her fate is perfectly understandable and normal, Mr. Holding's claims to the contrary. I myself, only a few days ago, watched a movie where the primary lament of a character who believed he was about to die was that he was a virgin and would never get to know what sex was like. Mr. Holding seems to think that people should act like robots, all of them always reacting in the way he expects to a given circumstance. Perhaps he would not express himself in this way if he was doomed to die, but that hardly means everyone else would do the same.
Furthermore, Jeppie's own misery is perfectly understandable; as Miller explains: "As the only child, and if given to the priest in this fashion, Jephthah's entire estate would go to someone else." As important as this was in the ANE, small wonder Jeppie was upset! That vow cost him not only his daughter's life with him at home (and since he was thrown out of his own house, that made the companionship all the more valuable to him), but any chance he had of giving his property to a true descendant.Mr. Holding's alternative explanation is not sufficient; it does not satisfactorily explain Jepthah's reaction. If Jephthah had merely promised to hand his daughter over to Temple service, he had lost very little thereby. It's hardly as if he would never get to see her again, and any negative repercussions (i.e., his property passing on to someone else) would take place only after his death. He could even avert this problem by having another child. No, under this interpretation, Jephthah's despair makes little sense. However, if we instead conclude, as the text says, that he had promised to personally butcher his only child and burn her body for God, his misery becomes entirely understandable.
As the text says - because despite Mr. Holding's smokescreens, he cannot escape the fact that the Bible tells us exactly what happened to Jephthah's daughter, and her fate was categorically not the one he would desperately like to believe it was. The plain, brutal facts are these: Judges 11:39 says that Jephthah ultimately "did with [his daughter] according to his vow which he had vowed." Mr. Holding weakly suggests that this is "non-specific", but the opposite is true; it is perfectly specific. The vow that this refers to is, of course, the one contained in Judges 11:30-31: "And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the Lord, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands, then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the Lord's, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering."
The text specifically and clearly says burnt offering (Hebrew 'olah, meaning holocaust, burnt offering, sacrifice). It does not say Temple service. Jephthah did as he had vowed, and what he vowed was to make a blood sacrifice. How obvious does this have to be before Mr. Holding is forced to acknowledge it? To what lengths will he strain to resolve even the most plainly insoluble problems? The text itself flatly and undeniably shoots down his tortured solution. Mr. Holding simply has no case whatsoever here.
As if Mr. Holding's argument in this regard needed to be any more thoroughly pummeled, we read on to learn that it became a custom in Israel that "the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year" (11:40). Are we really expected to believe that the entire nation turned out to mourn and weep over a single girl being committed to Temple service? Is it that terrible a fate? Again, Mr. Holding's response is utterly insufficient. It does not fit the facts. Twist and turn as he might, this time he cannot escape what his own Bible says - and what it says is that God accepted a human sacrifice, contrary to his decrees elsewhere, which leaves this contradiction standing.
Mr. Holding's page triumphantly proclaims that we should not "expect [me] to touch" his reply to this issue. In response, I will fling his challenge right back at him: I dare him to address this discrepancy and either show, clearly and specifically, where I have gone wrong, or else admit defeat.
On Animal Sacrifice
The next two contradictions we will come across, relating to the issue of animal sacrifice, are "resolved" by one of Mr. Holding's favorite tactics: Whenever the plain, simple meaning of the words of the Bible produces a contradiction, he retreats behind scholarship and argues that the verses in question are really an extremely complex exposition of obscure and complicated ancient literary tactics common to ANE modes of thinking and transmission of language that you stupid skeptics can't be expected to understand anyway, so just shut up and let us tell you what it really means. (He also uses numerous ad hominem attacks, sadly all too typical of his site, in one of which he compares skeptics to KKK members; but that will not be dignified by a response here.)
In other words, to escape the contradictions, he claims the Bible doesn't really mean what it says. I think I would be justified in claiming victory right at this point.
But let us examine Mr. Holding's response in more detail. He says that Jeremiah's claim that God did not command animal sacrifices, which contradicts the detailed instructions in Exodus, is really just a "negation idiom" meant to grab the listeners' attention through shock and hyperbole, and that all Jeremiah is really doing is calling people's attention to what is most important - namely obedience to the Covenant and to God's commands. Likewise, he argues that when the Psalmist says God wants obedience and humility instead of animal sacrifice, he really means that God wants obedience and humility along with animal sacrifice, and is merely emphasizing the importance of the former along with the latter.
However, there is a problem. Mr. Holding says:
This sort of outrageous, rhetorical teaching technique was quite common to Semitic and ANE culture. Hence, we have Jesus' parables, with outrageous images of a beam in the eye and a pharisee swallowing a camel; hence, similar language in Rabbinic works of the period; hence, the majestic and excessive language describing the military prowess of the Egyptian and Babylonian armies in their respective cuneiform texts; and so on, throughout the literature of the ANE.and goes on to provide a long list of other verses in the OT where this technique is used. But none of these verses uses the technique as it is used in the verses from Jeremiah and Psalms. They all use hyperbole and exaggerated language, but none of them blatantly contradicts one statement like this as a way of drawing attention to another. (The one exception is Hosea 6:6, but since this too states that God does not desire sacrifice and burnt offering, but rather mercy and obedience, we can throw it on the pile of contradictory verses rather than allowing Mr. Holding to circularly use it to bolster his case.) Indeed, the one verse he directly cites in this regard, 1 Samuel 15:22, states that obedience is more important than sacrifice, but still maintains that God does desire sacrifice.
I can only imagine how Mr. Holding will try to bludgeon me on this point, if he condescends to write me another reply:
Now we may anticipate our subject's response: "That's not what the text says!" From the perspective of a Western mind reading and English translation with a heart of stone, perhaps not. But to a Semitic mind reading in a language with a much higher level of poetic sophistication the text says that very thing. This is... but a fact of the culture that wrote the book, and no amount of chronological snobbery can change that.Though Mr. Holding seems to have anticipated the obvious response to this, his rebuttal to it is not sufficient, and so I will drag it out: Is the Bible, then, not universal? Is it not, after all, written to convey timeless truths that any human being can understand? Is it necessary to have a thorough education in Ancient Near Eastern languages, modes of idiom, and means of expression before we can even begin to comprehend what it is trying to tell us? (If so, why isn't Mr. Holding demanding that all those uneducated lay believers who are getting the Bible all wrong stop believing in it until they've been trained to know what it really means?) Does the Bible, in sum, cater only to a specific people living at a specific time, and can it only be understood through the lens of their outlook and mindset? If this is what Mr. Holding is saying, then I would suggest he has largely made my case for me. (See "The Argument from Locality" for more on this topic.)
In synagogue services, Jeremiah 7:22 was read at the conclusion of the reading of Lev. 6-8. [Fein.CommJer, 75] If Jeremiah 7:22 were indeed a flat condemnation of sacrifices, then how is it possible that it was attached to the end of a Jewish liturgy that gave instructions for such sacrifices?I agree, it is strange that the Jewish people would not have noticed this if what I argue is the case. Then again, they've also been walking around for millennia with an obvious inconsistency in the first two chapters of their very first holy book, and that doesn't seem to have bothered them too much either. The lesson for the day is that, against the overriding will to believe, reason and common sense are virtually powerless.
One final point needs to be made. Say we grant Mr. Holding everything we ask for, and accept for the sake of argument that the Psalmist, Hosea and Jeremiah were not saying what they seem to be saying. Then Mr. Holding has merely redefined the problem. If, as they all say, God values obedience and humility over blood sacrifice, then why did he command such sacrifice? Why did he ask people to do something that really wasn't all that important anyway? In Leviticus, Exodus and indeed the entire Pentateuch, we get whole chapters devoted to this topic, page after page describing in painstakingly precise detail exactly how to butcher animals to take away people's sins with their blood. It's hardly the Israelites' fault, I think, that they saw this as of primary importance.
To Be or Not to Be... Happy
Once again, according to Mr. Holding, my comprehension has failed me. Once again I have completely failed to understand the actual intent behind part of the Bible, a timeless document meant to convey universal truths written in dead languages in obscure and ancient formats that only a select highly educated few can understand.
This particular failure of mine comes in regard to a contradiction I listed in the Book of Ecclesiastes, where one verse says that sorrow is better than laughter and only fools are happy, and another verse in the next chapter says that nothing is better than being happy. How silly of me to ever think this might be considered inconsistent. I should be grateful for the wisdom of Mr. J.P. Holding, who condescends to inform me that Ecclesiastes is written in a format known as "proverbial literature", and that:
...the genre has a high rhetorical function and cannot be read as though it were absolute... (quoted from here)Given that Proverbs, Psalms and no doubt other books of the OT also contain this format, I would say that Mr. Holding has just granted himself a convenient out for a great number of contradictions. But let us consider his case in more detail. We are told that Ecclesiastes is "paradoxical" (shades of God "feigning ignorance"), and if we read between the lines of his reply, we learn that Biblical scholars are divided on what exactly its contradictory statements are meant to mean. Unsurprising, an atheist such as myself might say, and even less surprising that another option - that the book is simply internally inconsistent and is not meant to convey any message of significance - is never even considered.
...the book of Job from the OT (and others) are all examples of this genre in which problems were discussed and resolved via dialogue...I don't doubt that Job is an example of such a thing. But would Mr. Holding kindly mind telling us which verses in Ecclesiastes actually resolve any of the problems it raises? Are there any such verses? Is there any point in this book at which God (or some other authority) steps in and lets us know what he thinks about whether being happy is good or not?
I don't wish to leave myself open to the charge that I would expect the Word of God to spoon-feed us everything we might ever need to know, because I don't believe that, and I find nothing inherently wrong about the idea that God might have left us to work out some things for ourselves. But this is a fairly major question whose answer has important and wide-ranging implications. Are we meant to be happy or not? Should we torture ourselves with asceticism, hard work and self-denial, or should we celebrate the gift of life we have been given? Given that the answer to this question has fairly split Christianity right down the middle for just about all of its history, a little divine guidance would not be unwelcome here.
However, such is not forthcoming. These two statements are both posed and then left "in tension" (to use Mr. Holding's words); the reader is left hanging, without ever being clearly told what the answer is. It is obvious that they cannot both be true. Either happiness is better than sorrow or the other way around, but each cannot be better than the other. Since the text does not clear this up, I consider myself fully justified in continuing to offer this as an example of a Biblical self-contradiction.
How Did David Kill Goliath?
I would like to concede something at the outset here. For once, Mr. Holding has gotten it right - I am not a Bible scholar, and I indeed had not heard of chiasms before he brought them to my attention. Now, thanks to him, I know what they are. I am duly grateful to him for this.
Unfortunately, he hasn't even attempted to actually answer the contradiction here.
1 Samuel 17:49-50 says clearly that David slew Goliath with a stone from his sling, as everyone knows. But the very next verse, 17:51, says equally clearly that David actually killed Goliath with a sword. Mr. Holding has not even begun to address this very amusing dilemma. Instead, his entire response is to suggest that this chapter is written in a chiastic structure, to aid memorization so that it could be more easily transmitted through oral tradition.
That's all well and good, but he hasn't made the problem go away. Either David killed Goliath with a sword or with a stone. He didn't kill him with both. How is flatly stating "chiasm" supposed to help resolve this? Mr. Holding seems to think he can make this problem go away by flinging literary terms at it, rather like the stereotypical doctor who thinks that giving a medical problem a long Latin name is the next best thing to a cure. But the patient is still sitting in the waiting room, grumbling and muttering and threatening to sue for malpractice. One of these verses must be correct, and one incorrect, but we are not told which, nor offered a harmonization (indeed, no harmonization is possible, so stark is the inconsistency). Mr. Holding has left this contradiction untouched, and so we move on to other matters.
On David's Sins
Judging by his proposed solution to our next contradiction, Mr. Holding took top honors in Hair-Splitting 101 at whatever apologists' college he went to. (Clown college, perhaps?) The problem at hand is this: Was David's only sin in the matter of Uriah the Hittite, as 1 Kings says, or did he also sin by taking a census, which 2 Samuel states but 1 Kings forgets to mention?
Since it will help later on, the exact two verses in question will be quoted in their entirety.
(1 Kings 15:5)
"David did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, and turned not aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, save only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite."
(2 Samuel 24:10)
"And David's heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the Lord, I have sinned greatly in that I have done."
Mr. Holding's reply to this blatant contradiction is an incredible feat of hair-splitting that must be seen to be believed:
...it should be obvious that "returned [sic] not aside from anything that he commanded him" is not the same as "never sinned".... To cause a problem here the critics need to find a place where David disobeyed a direct command from Yahweh -- not places where he committed sins.I confess myself completely baffled by what for lack of a better term we shall call Mr. Holding's logic. What, precisely, is the difference between disobeying a command from God and committing a sin? Aren't the two identical? Isn't "disobeying God" the very definition of sin?
Apparently, we are intended to believe that there is some difference between David disobeying a command of God intended specifically for him to obey, and David disobeying a command of God intended for everyone to obey, and that the latter is sin while the former is not. I don't buy this and I don't even think most Christians would. It is not "obvious" at all that those two are not the same thing, and until Mr. Holding explains what the distinction is, this contradiction will remain standing.
Perhaps recognizing the monumental inadequacy of this argument, Mr. Holding tries to escape the problem by taking a different tack:
And actually, there's no need to fuss about that phrase about Uriah, because it is a late add-on to the text -- it does not appear in the LXX.As I have said earlier, I am not a professional Biblical scholar myself, and thus I can't confirm or deny what the Septuagint says. However, another conservative Christian scholar seems to feel that Mr. Holding is mistaken in the above statement, as he argues (rather passionately) that the LXX actually does not even exist:
It's plain to me that someone is wrong in a rather large way here. But as I said, I'm just an amateur, so I will respectfully withdraw and allow these two worthies to fight it out among themselves. Let me know when you reach a conclusion, guys.
How Long Does God's Anger Last?
And at long last (whew!) we reach our final contradiction to be addressed. (Final until Part 2, that is.) Mr. Holding's response to this one is brief; if he was tired by now, I don't blame him. In fact, his response can essentially be distilled to one word: he says that God's promise to either keep or not keep anger "forever" is hyperbole.
Unfortunately, his wording is a bit ambiguous, and it's not really clear whether he means God's promise to not keep anger forever (in Jeremiah 3:12) or his promise to keep anger forever (in Jeremiah 17:4) is the hyperbole. Both possibilities will therefore be considered.
Possibility 1: God was speaking in hyperbole in Jeremiah 3:12. He can and does keep anger forever.
As best as I can tell, this seems to be the answer Mr. Holding supports. I believe this to be the case based on his claim that 3:12 is a conditional statement, contingent upon the fulfillment of something else.
But I can't see how he reaches this conclusion. 3:12 is of the format: "Do X, says the Lord, and I won't be angry at you; for I am merciful and do not keep anger forever." It is plain to see from this wording that God's promise not to be angry forever is not predicated on X actually happening. He may not show mercy right now in this specific instance if X is not done, but his statement that he does not keep anger forever remains universal. (Which would seem to create a considerable problem for the Christian idea that Hell is an eternal, endless punishment, but never mind that.)
Possibility 2: God was speaking in hyperbole in Jeremiah 17:4. He does not keep anger forever.
This possibility, too, is contradicted by the text. The previous verse, continuing this threat addressed to the sinful Judahites, lets them know that they "shalt discontinue from thine heritage that I gave thee" (17:3). The text says "discontinue" - not "temporarily suspend". There is a strong implication of permanence here, and obviously, if God can dispense any sort of permanent punishment (such as Hell), then he must keep anger forever in at least some circumstances. Mr. Holding seems quite comfortable airily dismissing such statements as hyperbole. Personally, if God told me "do Y and I'll be angry at you forever", I would not take the chance that he didn't actually mean this and might forgive me at a later date. Hence lies the danger, as I'm sure many of Mr. Holding's fellow believers would tell him, of interpreting the Bible too loosely and non-literally. Once you start, how do you tell where to stop? How does he know, for example, that the Gospel account of the resurrection of Jesus is not a metaphor, the expression of an obscure literary tactic not meant to be taken literally? (Indeed, critics such as Earl Doherty have argued exactly this, that the Gospels are in fact the result of an ancient Jewish literary process called midrash. I trust I do not need to tell Mr. Holding what that is.)
I do not know if Mr. Holding will deign to write me a further reply or not. I do know that, regardless of whether he does, I intend to write second and third parts to this article demonstrating how his responses to the rest of my contradictions are just as insufficient as the ones just refuted. I have also made some modifications and additions to "Foundation of Sand", rendering his response to it outdated by adding some brand-new contradictions which I think are quite compelling, and which I have never seen any apologist source address, much less resolve.
Mr. Holding may complain that I am giving him a moving target, throwing up new contradictions as soon as he refutes the old ones (and I acknowledge he did find a satisfactory harmonization for at least one of the original ones I provided). Perhaps this complaint has merit. But I must remind him that, logically, the Bible could still be errant even if he had managed to resolve every contradiction I originally proposed, a task which he fell far short of doing anyway. He is the one who has taken up this gauntlet, to defend the Bible against charges of inaccuracy, and unfortunately for him, he has to be right every time. I only have to be right once.
Earlier in this response I described the mind of the apologist, that mode of thought which cannot - will not - allow the Bible to ever be wrong no matter how glaring the error or how stark the inconsistency. In relation to this, I have a question to pose to Mr. Holding and anyone else who insists on the complete inerrancy of their chosen holy text:
What would it take to convince you that you were wrong?
What, hypothetically, would the Bible have to say to be contradictory? Can you give an imaginary example of two discrepant verses that you would accept as impossible to resolve? If you cannot, then I would venture to say you have locked yourself into a circular loop, a self-fulfilling prophecy. When one knows that the Bible can never be wrong, it is not hard to see why one would be able to rationalize away literally any contradiction, no matter how stark it is, no matter how strained or nonsensical the answer is. When one knows ahead of time what the answer will be, it is little surprise when one finds it. Is this what Mr. Holding has become? Is he helplessly enslaved to the thought virus of theism? Or does a ray of light, an avenue to intellectual honesty, pierce that dark box he has locked himself into?
I trust he will let us know in his next reply, if indeed there is a next reply, by answering my question.
Onward to Reply to J.P. Holding, Part 2