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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A Case Study in Skeptic-Think

In the early dates of my online apologetics, I visited a site called Cygnus-Study. Bede gives the run down of the site here. Cygnus had a list of four "Biblical Errors" for which, he proclaimed, "there can be no answer." I responded to a couple of these that were actually quite easily answered. That was almost two years ago. I had the occasion to revisit the site (after a long absence) and decided to see if the "Biblical Errors" list had expanded, or had removed the two that I addressed, or had at least been modified. To my slight surprise, the list appears to be the same four "Biblical Errors" as two years ago.

While reviewing my criticism of his first "Biblical Error," I realized how common such antics are by skeptics. So I thought that a little discussion was in order about No. 1:

1. Paul on Jesus

Acts 20:35 - I have shown you all things, how that so laboring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

The only problem with this is that Jesus did not say this anywhere in the New Testament. We can know that Paul never met Jesus while Jesus was alive as a human. We can also know that from Jesus and Paul's interchange on the road to Damascus that Jesus never spoke these words. (Acts 9:4 -16). The only other possibilities would be someone telling Paul that Jesus spoke them, which would be hearsay, or Paul making up words for Jesus. The latter is clearly the case as can be seen in how common of a practice this was from the varying accounts in the Gospels.

Error No. 1 in Biblical Error No. 1

Fallacy of Definition: Too Narrow. Cygnus is wrong that "Jesus did not say this anywhere in the New Testament." Acts is a part of the New Testament and it records the statement here. Even if we are generous and conclude that Cygnus is referring only to the Gospels, he is committing a non sequitur. Acts 20:35 does not say that the Gospels record this saying. It simply states that Jesus said it. It would be a further non sequitur to argue that the Gospels recorded everything that Jesus said.

Error No. 2 in Biblical Error No. 1

Fallacy of Exclusion. "We can know that Paul never met Jesus while Jesus was alive as a human. " Paul need not have "met" Jesus while Jesus was alive to have heard this from Jesus. Paul certainly could have heard Jesus speaking during his three year ministry without having "met" Jesus. According to all the Gospels, Jesus often spoke to large crowds. In any event, even if Paul had not heard it from Jesus, he could have heard it from other Jerusalemites. Or from the Christians he was persecuting before his conversion.

Error No. 3 in Biblical Error No. 1

Disingenuous Appeal. "We can also know that from Jesus and Paul's interchange on the road to Damascus that Jesus never spoke these words. (Acts 9:4 -16)." Notice that Cygnus takes the Acts 9:4-16 account as an exhaustive recording of all that occurred between Paul and Jesus at that time. Does Cygnus really take the book of Acts to be a fully-exhaustive accurate portrayal of Christian history? Not hardly. He's conveniently taking Acts as a valid witness -- perhaps in a skewed sense -- when he really thinks Acts is unreliable. Skeptics often interpret the Bible in a skewed way to enhance their supposed contradictions or errors.

Error No. 4 in Biblical Error No. 1

False Dilemma. "The only other possibilities would be someone telling Paul that Jesus spoke them, which would be hearsay, or Paul making up words for Jesus."

As we noted above, Paul could have heard this from Jesus apart from having met him, apart from someone telling him about it, and apart from Paul making up words for Jesus.

Error No. 5 in Biblical Error No. 1

Non sequitur/Proves too Much. "The only other possibilities would be someone telling Paul that Jesus spoke them, which would be hearsay....."

It does not follow that because the statement is hearsay that Jesus did not say it. Indeed, this argument proves too much in that every statement by Jesus in the New Testament is hearsay. Even if Matthew and John were written by eyewitnesses, their telling us what Jesus said remains hearsay. Indeed, all historical writings are hearsay. What about when Paul tells us what he saw and did in his own hand? Still hearsay because the majority of Paul's letters (like many ancient letters) were basically dictation -- taken down by a secretary or scribe. Further, we do not have the original documents, but copies of copies. This too is hearsay. The same is true for the writings of Josephus, Tacitus, Pliny, and everyone else who wrote something down in history and has fortunately been preserved. Even though we have good reasons to believe the scribes accurately rewrote from the original manuscripts it remains hearsay. Thus, labeling something in ancient history "hearsay" is not all that illuminating. Finally, simply assuming that because it was hearsay Jesus could not have said it is a non sequitur.

And it is actually here that we have the most likely explanation for the source of Paul's knowledge -- that other early Christians told Paul what Jesus said. Indeed, Paul admits to going to Jerusalem, meeting James the brother of Jesus and living with Peter for over two weeks. Prior to that he had close contact with representatives of the Jerusalem Church and worked closely with members of that Church in Syria. There is nothing in the least unlikely about Paul having learned sayings of Jesus that were -- due to the happenstance of history -- not recorded in the Gospels.

Error No. 6 in Biblical Error No. 1

Vague and Ambiguous/Unproven Assumption/Non sequitur. "....or Paul making up words for Jesus. The latter is clearly the case as can be seen in how common of a practice this was from the varying accounts in the Gospels."

The term "varying accounts" is vague and ambiguous. Further, it is far from proven that the "varying accounts" in the Gospel means sheer invention. In fact, the Gospels show much more dependence on established teaching than they do creativity. Most of Mark is used by Matthew and Luke. So too is Q. There are good reasons for concluding that the rest of the material in those gospels was likewise derived from preexisting sources, "M" and "L". The Gospel of John, whether dependent on the others or not, shows much similarities and therefore also relies to a great extent on established tradition. So we might just as well argue that because the Gospels tend to use preexisting source material Paul too likely used preexisting source material.

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