A Method to the Madness

Anyone who has engaged me for even a short period of time, will hear me say, “What is your methodology?” Apparently there is some confusion as to what I mean by it, or why I am asking this question.

Primarily (albeit not exclusively) I use this question in discussing the Bible. I believe it is helpful in order to focus the discussion as to how the other person views it, and also reveals our own personal biases. It may even give us a chance to pause and reflect as to the viability of the process we use to make a claim and why it is not persuasive on those that may not agree with us.

Imagine two people discussing over who the smartest person in the world is. The debate quickly deteriorates to:

“Jan is.”
“No, Jim is.”
“No, Jan is.”
“No, Jim is.”

And it turns out that the two people are using two different methodologies to determine “smart.” One may be using an IQ test (in which Jan prevails) and the other is using Grade Point Average (in which Jim prevails.) They can discuss and debate and outright fight until the cows come home, and neither will ever get the other one to agree, because they are using different standards.

Of course a third person may join in, who feels the number of published articles is how we determine the smartest person, a fourth may join in using another standard, and we watch it fragment into a mess.

Unless we agree, or at least recognize a mutual methodology, the debate will never even get off the ground. The two people may walk away with “IF we use IQ, then Jan is the smartest, but IF we use GPA, then Jim is the smartest.” We might disagree on the methodologies, but at the least we have gained an appreciation of an alternative position, using an alternative method.

One of the easiest demonstrations of this problem is in the field of inerrancy. A skeptic may point out what appears (to them) to be a contradiction, say in Judas’ death. They would point out that the Gospel of Matthew has Judas dying by hanging, the priests buying the field, and it being called a “Field of Blood” because it was purchased with “blood money.” (Matt. 27:3-8) The Book of Acts has Judas dying by evisceration, Judas buying the field, and his blood all over the place resulting in it being named “Field of Blood.” (Acts 1:18-19)

To the skeptic, the two different modes of death, two different purchasers, and two different reasons for the name of the Field, all in a relatively short account, add up to a contradiction.

However, the Christian inerrantist quickly points out that Judas’ body could have fallen, causing it to sustain further injury, that the priest’s purchase was in the form of agency on behalf of Judas (or vice versa) and that field of Blood could certainly have double meaning. Hence no contradiction.

“Ding!” And the fight is on…

After pages of posts which dredge up analogies and counter-analogies, and what is wrong with the other person’s analogies and “How can you not see that…?” Each walks away partially frustrated at the blindness of the other person and partially with the feeling of vindicating their particular position. Neither has remotely persuaded the other. The choirs of both camps have cheered (or jeered) as expected.

The debate never even had a chance to get off the ground because each party was approaching it with a different methodology. The skeptic was using a method that a contradiction exists, if literally taken on its face one account does not align with another account. The Christian was using the method that any feasible explanation that could possibly align the two accounts would prohibit it from being a contradiction.

We may smile at the idea of two people fighting over who is smarter, because of how many ways that can be determined, yet it is the same problem here, and rarely is it even discussed, let alone agreed upon. How many ways can a contradiction be determined?

Rather than wade in with swords drawn and shields up, I would prefer we first establish how we recognize a contradiction or not. We first establish a method by which we can determine if two accounts should be considered aligned, or that they disagree. Of course, both sides are wily enough to understand the import of methodology, and this, too, can degrade into dispute. But at least it is revealing, and generates further discussion.

For example, (continuing with inerrancy) if the Christian desires the methodology of any possible explanation eliminating the claim of contradiction, I would willingly agree. The question is whether we can stay wedded to it. I could then point out, using the method that “any possible explanation means no contradiction” how we could align any number of accounts. The Gospel of Peter records that Jesus stated on the cross, “O Power, My Power, why have you forsaken me?” Using the “any possible explanation methodology” this is easily aligned as Jesus having said it in addition to the “My God, My God…” Or we could state that the author of the Gospel of Peter was emphasizing how Jesus obtained his “Power” from God.

Using any possible explanation, we could eliminate almost all contradictions in all accounts of history. This renders inerrancy as not singular, but rather “designed” by reducing the requirement of determining a contradiction.

Simply put, the Bible would lose its special status of inerrancy, since by this methodology, many more books would be inerrant. It would no longer be a sign of divinity.

The danger of establishing a methodology is that we may be called to be consistent in it. If I claim Jim is the smartest because of GPA, and all of a sudden Joe has a higher GPA, my own methodology would force me to recognize Joe as smarter than Jim. In the same way, if we utilize “any human explanation” our own methodology would force us to recognize vast numbers of works that are equally inerrant. Making the very concept of an “inerrant Bible” about as unique as the fact that it is printed on paper.

Or another way in which methodology can dig deeper into the discussion is to question how certain verses are used in the manner most convenient for the person making the proposal.

At one time, in discussing Paul, I pointed out how he indicated he went to Jerusalem on two occasions, 14 years apart. (Gal. 1:18 – 2:1). However Acts indicates that it was at the initial meeting that Barnabas introduced Paul. (Acts 9:26-27) At least one apologist proposed a 14-year gap between the sentence in vs. 26 and the sentence in vs. 27.

Being me, I asked how someone came up with this method of inserting 14 year times, when none is even hinted at. I was criticized for asking the apologist for coming up with a system, when history does not provide us with enough information as to why the author wrote what they did.

Wait a minute. I am asking why the apologist is requesting, within their method, for me to read the verses differently than what is a straight rendition. If they can insert, solely to support their argument, a 14 year period between sentences, can I, equally, to support my argument, insert a 14 year period where I desire? And if they complain, can I equally assert I should not be under the requirement of determining what system an author uses?

No Christian apologist would allow me to insert time as desired, why would they expect me to accept it in them?

Don’t get me wrong, perhaps the methodology CAN be established. Perhaps one could point out how an author tended to combine their accounts by topic, rather than chronologically. If it was pointed out that an author talked solely about Herod, and after completing that account, reverted back to a story about James, and after competing that account, reverted back to a story about Paul, it may make sense to insert periods of time between sentences. Is that how the author of Acts wrote?

If one could establish that as a methodology, it would certainly bolster the claim of inserted time. Remember, it is the apologist making the claim that what would not be normative (that if a person is in Jerusalem in Sentence one, and is still in Jerusalem in Sentence two; it is the same trip) rather than shy away from showing why we should read it differently—bolster it! Don’t complain that we are asking too much—demonstrate your argument!

I find that each person, whether they realize it or not, are using some type of methodology to make determinations as to what historically happened.

Another example—I may point out I believe the Gospel of Peter is historically accurate.

An apologist may claim, “No, that was written too late.” Bam! We have our methodology. In order to determine what is historically accurate, apparently we are to use a cut-off date. It is timing that will determine historical accuracy.

But this presents two problems:

1) How does timing have anything to do with historical accuracy? What date does one use for our cut-off date? 100 CE? “Within the lifetime of eyewitnesses”?

Can we reasonably state that no person could lie prior to that date, and no person could be accurate after it? What if I had heard some tales about Jesus, and thought, “What a great character! I will write a fancy story about him” and completely make it up. Yet I write in 80 CE. Does that mean, under this method, we must determine it to be accurate?

Or we have another poor author that obtained his information directly from a Disciple. It is confirmed by Mary’s granddaughter. It is reiterated, in exact form, by another friend of another Disciple. But he has the gall to write in 150 CE. Too late? Can’t be true?

2) Can one stay consistent in this methodology? What about the Torah? It records events long before it was written. It is (I believe) a universal consensus that some of the stories were passed by oral tradition over at least 400 years. Is that too late? Within our “cut-off” date, why does the Tanakh get a pass, yet the New Testament adheres to such strict time-constraints?

Further, we have books written within this time frame. The Gospel of Peter could have been written prior to 100 CE. 1 Clement and the Epistle of Barnabas beat 2 Peter. Why are they excluded? Even within the timing method some “oops” occur.

(A parenthetical thought. Some may think I am being too harsh, too literal or too stringent by demanding a date. Remember, it was not me that proposed “too late” as a reason to exclude a certain book as being historically inaccurate. Even by the word “late” timing is implied.

I would agree that accounts recorded closer to the events may be more accurate, due to failing memories, but we must also consider the ability of the source to observe the events, their own bias, and an opportunity to modify. Since all of the books were written years after the events, all of them introduce these problems. The fact they were written in 50, 100 or 150 CE does not diminish that problem.

Besides, these are alleged to be inspired by an eternal God. He could write history at any time, and be accurate. Why is the New Testament limited to such an exacting time-frame? If God inspired an author to write of Joseph accurately over 400 years later, could he not do the same with Jesus?)

Or does one exclude a book because of it not being accepted by tradition? By the Church fathers? Again, we run into the same problems.

Which church fathers? Some questioned Revelation, some did not. Some questioned James, some did not. Many accepted 1 Clement, Epistle of Barnabas, and Shepherd of Hermas. Why did they become excluded, if we are using Church tradition?

Further, if we are to rely upon the Church fathers, what else do they tell of that within this method, we are to include as historical? Papias wrote that Judas was killed by a chariot. If we accept Church tradition, then Matthew and Acts are incorrect. Unless we hold to the earlier account. (Ah-ha! That “timing” method again. Did you catch it?) In which case Acts must be incorrect.

Or does one use doctrine to determine what is historically correct? Can one exclude the historicity of a book, simply because it is Gnostic?

This is a particularly revealing method. If the book makes claims as to Jesus’ statements which are unwelcome to the Christian, is it excluded, NOT on the basis of its accuracy, but on the doctrine contained therein. Doctrine the Christian does not like. This demonstrates a bias.

We all have bias, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. But we must be careful, due to our bias, to not exclude what actually happened, things we don’t want to happen. Orthodox Christianity does not want a Gnostic Jesus, and therefore is prone to a bias against it. Desire is a poor methodology.

Most likely, though, is that people use a combination of each of these methods. A combination that unwittingly manages to conform to exactly what the person wants to be true.

If your methodology is convenient, just to bolster your own argument, it is not as persuasive.

That is why I ask for methodology over and over, to the point I am sure many are tired of it. To see if we can break out of the mold of “This is what I want, how can I get there?” to “Can we be consistent in determining what happened?”

Rather than inspect Jan, and attempt to determine a method by which we can claim she is the smartest person, can we develop a method and live with the results, even if they are not Jan?

If a person presents an assertion as to an unusual or unique situation, such as a certain set of books being divine, or a set of miracles happening, or a complex reading of a straightforward sentence, I wonder how they come up with a way to differentiate and separate out these books, miracles and readings from all the others. I am curious to know the “why” they are different and the “how” we determine it.

That is the reason I so often ask for methodology.