This is the second post of my blog series concerning Tim and Lydia McGrews' A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This post will concern pages 5 and 6 and the first paragraph of page 7.
The McGrews observe that:
"A favorite tactic of the adversaries of Christianity in the eighteenth century... is to point to various discrepancies, real or imagined, in the telling of the same story and to conclude that the texts contradict each other and therefore are untrustworthy at best and worthless at worst.
The McGrews go on to point out that the discrepancies can be exaggerated and multiplied by the use of "arguments from silence" which are arguments that assume that because some piece of information was not mentioned by an author, that therefore the author did not know such an event occurred (or, more strongly, that the author believed the event NEVER occurred). The McGrews add that such arguments from silence are "tenuous" and that,
"By such reasoning we can easily find 'contradictions' even in the writings of one and the same historian, as when Josephus mentions facts in his Antiquities that we might have expected him to repeat in his Jewish Wars (Paley, 1859, p. 337). When we extend it to the comparison of multiple authors who treat of the same subject, the results are ridiculous... [I]t is a risky business to speculate upon the motives of authors for including or omitting various facts. To create an appearance of inconsistency by this device, or by such means to justify elaborate hypotheses regarding editors and recensions of the gospels, is methodologically unsound."
The McGrews go on to offer up the old "The contradictions prove the testimony of the gospels was independent..." argument, and finally they remind us that their case for the resurrection will not rest itself upon simply assuming that the gospel's reports are true.
So let's take these assertions, one at a time.
An argument from silence is just a special type of argument from absence. An argument from absence is just what it sounds like: an argument in which not seeing something is used as evidence to argue for or against some conclusion. The usual counterpoint to these arguments is that "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence". PZ Myers provides a perfect reply to this canard:
"[Absence of evidence] is just evidence of variable strength, from laughably weak (I have no evidence of a teapot in orbit around the sun, which isn't a very strong case since no one has looked for an orbiting teapot, and it's a tiny target in a vast volume anyway) to extremely strong (there are no dragons in my backyard; I have looked, and there are no large firebreathing reptiles gnawing on virgins back there)."
We can apply PZ's method to the gospels and to Paul easily. Some parables, some miracles, are reported in one or two gospels and are never reported again. That's easy enough to understand. If Jesus was always going around performing healings and teaching wisdom we could expect that certain examples would not be known or remembered or written about to each gospel author. So I won't spend time arguing for a contradiction based on silence unless I think that the silence is very unlikely and peculiar for the writer, given that he knew about the facts in question.
To give you an example: the Gospel of Matthew reports that a bunch of saints rose from the dead and wandered around the city when Jesus was crucified. No other gospel reports this "night of the living dead" scene, which is a little odd since one would think that this would've been one of the most astonishing and gut-wrenching events that would've stuck in the minds of those who saw it... That is, unless the event is a fiction by Matthew. And things get even worse: even if the silence of the other gospel writers doesn't affect you, then riddle me this: why is the zombie-fest of Matthew, surely one of the most chilling, shocking, and ripe-for-story-telling event in history not mentioned by any historian during any decade ever? You reckon maybe it just didn't happen?
Another example: Take a look at the Easter narratives in the gospels. Mark says the women saw a young man but does not mention the women seeing Jesus at or near the tomb. Matthew says the women saw an angel. Luke says they saw two men. John says they saw two angels, and adds that Mary finds Jesus (upon leaving?) the tomb. No apologist can reconcile these by using the old line: "Well, Mark didn't say that there was only one man, or that the man wasn't an angel disguised as a man, and it doesn't say that Mary definitely did not see Jesus on her tomb visit, so there's no contradiction. You're just arguing from silence." The whole thing is absurd.
What about the McGrews' claim that "By such reasoning [arguments from silence] we can easily find 'contradictions' even in the writings of one and the same historian, as when Josephus mentions facts in his Antiquities that we might have expected him to repeat in his Jewish Wars (Paley, 1859, p. 337)." [words in brackets are my addition for clarity].
I've found the original document written by William Paley and read the relevant part of it. Click here to read it yourself. It is strange that the McGrews refer to Paley, since Paley doesn't lay out this argument himself, but simply refers us to "Lard. part i. vol. ii. p.735 et. seq". Not very helpful. From what I have gathered, this reference probably refers to some work of 18th century Christian apologist Nathaniel Lardner. But which book does Paley refer to? Perhaps it is part i. vol. ii of "The Credibility of the Gospel History"? But that book, insofar as I found on googlebooks, doesn't have more than 700 pages (which is a problem since Paley refers us to page 735). What to do? I'm not sure. But I shouldn't have to chase down a source like this. The McGrews could've done a better job of citing specific examples in Josephus of what they mean. Or they could've at least given a source which actually does list such examples.
The McGrews further argue that minor differences and small contradictions on matters of detail prove that the witnesses to Jesus' resurrection were not in collusion, and therefore the contradictions are actually beneficial to their case for the resurrection! Not so fast, say I. I'm not arguing for collusion. But the contradictions we've seen here are not just simple differences like "Was Jesus' robe purple or scarlet?" If this was the only sort of contradiction in the gospel narratives, the McGrews would be completely correct in their point that little differences can add strength to their case. But it isn't, as demonstrated above.
And what we've discussed does affect their case very seriously. Yes, contradictions, especially really serious ones that we've been discussing, don't mean that "nothing at all happened that Easter morning." But it does mean that our only sources on the issue are wildly unreliable, which is not encouraging for someone who must rely solely on them to prove an extraordinary claim of a miracle.