[Editor’s note: This question is a follow-up from the class Answering the Hard Questions which we have been teaching the past three weeks.]


Hi guys! Thanks for the great apologetics series!  I left last session with two questions.

  1. One is regarding the use of the “copying error” as a tool for explaining discrepancies between texts. If we allow for errors in copying, don’t we then open the door for the argument: “Well, then, how do I know that OTHER things were not copied incorrectly?” I know some answers, but I think it might be helpful to talk about this “copy error” argument…
  2. The second question is about the “burden of proof” concept. We said that the skeptic is the one who has the burden of proof when they bring up the issue of contradictions. I think that we could explain that a little more thoroughly. From my perspective, yes, if someone brings up the general comment “Oh there are lots of contradictions in the Bible”, our response would be “Hmm! Can you point out one or a few?”, which could then lead to a productive discussion. That is what I understand about what it means to place the burden of proof on the skeptic. However, if we are putting forth the principle that the Bible is the Word of God, and someone counters with “Well, if it is, how come…?” and then they bring up some of the contradictions that Dan discussed, isn’t it then OUR burden to support our claim about the Bible? (Otherwise there wouldn’t be Apologetics, right?)


Great questions.
About copying errors, we know that these happen.  God could have somehow miraculously made perfect copies or he could have made manuscript copies miraculously impervious to degradation.  Obviously, he did not do this, as intervening in natural processes does not seem to be God’s thing.
So, God used humans to maintain the manuscripts of both the Old and the New Testament. This process will inevitably produce errors as copies of copies of copies are made.  We know this because we have thousands of manuscripts of both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Old Testament.  Only a small fraction of such copying errors can produce something that people can try to claim as contradictions.  Only when there are parallel accounts of the same event, such as in Jeremiah and 2 Kings or in two different gospels, and only when there is a copying error in one of two such parallel accounts, can potential supposed “contradictions” arise.  This situation is not common. Even when there are copying errors in parallel accounts, even these will rarely produce something that critics will call a contradiction. For example, if a word is spelled incorrectly, or if two words are transposed, even the biased critic will not be able to sustain a claim of contradiction. In fact, the best that I know (but there may be an exception), the only example of a copying error that has produced a claimed contradiction is the copying of numbers.  An incorrectly spelled word is easily discovered.  An incorrectly copied number (such as 700 instead of 770), is not easily detected.
But that is the point.  We know for a fact, that copying errors in numbers are more likely, by far, than copying errors of letters, because Amerixan is obviously wrong (It is American), whereas 770 is NOT obviously wrong, if it should be 700.  For this reason, 1; numerical copying errors are more common and 2. numerical discrepancies should not be used in any reasonable claim that there is a clear contradiction in the Bible.  People who do so are either uninformed or disingenuous.  As people who read the Bible which we understand to be inspired, we should be cautious about assuming numbers are exact in the Bible for this reason. Of course, very rarely are specific numbers important to the meaning of the text.  For example, whether 700 or 770 people died in a particular battle does not affect any important question about Christianity. Ironically, if the number is significant (such as the number of apostles), the likelihood of a copying error is greatly reduced, as context would prevent the copying error.  This is my response to your copying error question.
Normally, I am VERY skeptical of burden-of-proof arguments, but in certain situations such claims of burden-of-proof are reasonable.  We use burden-of-proof arguments in our court systems because the possibility of making a mistake against an accused so greatly outweighs the problem of a mistake with regard to a guilty party.  I have heard burden-of-proof arguments used in debates about the existence of God. This was done in our debate with Michael Shermer on the existence of God, as you know, Jaime.  In this case, there is no logical reason that the burden of proof should be on the believer, and Shermer’s claim that the believer has a burden-of-proof was not justified.
On the other hand, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, I believe that the burden-of-proof ought, reasonably, to be on the believer. This is because our experience tells us that it is extremely unlikely that a person would be raised from the dead.  For this reason, this is an example of what I would consider a reasonable burden-of-proof argument against a believer.  So, I am willing to accept a burden-of-proof argument against my own position in some cases.
Having said that, I strongly agree with Dan that, when it comes to contradictions, the burden-of-proof is on the one who claims the contradiction.  Dan explained this in his presentation, but perhaps he could have expanded a bit on what he was doing.  What he said is that a claim of contradiction only holds up if there is no reasonable way that the two things can both be simultaneously true in the same sense.  Here is why. The one who claims a contradiction is claiming that the Bible is false witness–that, in essence, the Bible (if we could personify the Bible) is lying.  This charge can only be maintained if there is literally no reasonable way that the two things can both be simultaneously true in the same sense.  Otherwise, the charge must be rejected. Period. End of story.  Any falsely claimed contradiction can be used to illustrate this.  For example, in Genesis 37:36 we learn that Joseph was sold into Egypt by Midianites.  In Genesis 39:1 we learn that he was sold into Egypt by Ishmaelites.  The claim of the Muslim critic of the Bible’s inspiration is that there are two contradictory sources, and that this example proves that the Bible is factually in error and is therefore corrupt.  Well, either this claim is true or it is false.  If this is not a clear contradiction, then it is not a contradiction at all, and should not be used at all.  The fact is that Midianites were Ishmaelites, as Nebraskans are Americans and Los Angelinos are Californians.  What this illustrates is that if two things COULD be contradictory, but are in fact not factually contradictory, then they are NOT contradictory by definition, even if the critic believes they are.  The burden of proof for claimed contradiction is on the one claiming the contradiction.
Let me give another example.  Let us say that in a trial there was seemingly contradictory testimony. If true, then one person is lying or perhaps both.  If it can be shown that there is in fact no clear and incontrovertible contradiction, then the person cannot be convicted of lying based on the information.  Does this prove that he/she did not lie? NO!  But that is not the point.  The supposed contradiction CANNOT be used as evidence of lying in this case, because it turns out that the two do not inherently contradict.  The same applies to claimed contradiction.  Such an argument is a logical argument, and if the logical argument fails, then the argument fails.  This is what Dan was saying last Saturday.  To claim a contradiction is to claim false testimony. Could the writer of Genesis be lying about the people who sold Joseph into slavery?  Perhaps, but the supposed contradiction is not evidence that they did.   We would need a different kind of evidence.  For example, if one could prove that there was no such thing as a Midianite, then the Bible would be disproved, but right now we are talking about proofs of error based on contradiction.  At the risk of being overly repetitive, the burden of proof with such arguments are on the critic, not on the Bible believer.
But you are asking a different question.  What if a believer hears about a supposed contradiction on-line or from an atheist or Muslim friend? In that case, is not the burden of proof on the believer?  This is a different situation.  If we are talking with a fellow believer, we are not engaging in a logical debate with the one who made the false claim.  This is a very different situation.  In this case, we are not engaging in a logical back-and-forth. What we have here is a person who was given false information.  In such a situation, our job is to provide accurate information, not to demand a burden-of-proof.  I suppose that in such a situation the more informed believer could USE an burden-of-proof argument. But let me return to the Midianite/Ishmaelite example. Someone hears that this is contradiction.  Our job is not to ask the worried believer to supply a burden of proof.  Our job is to explain to this person that a Midianite is an Ishmaelite.  Job done.  In this case, we are not supplying proof that there is NOT a contradiction.  No, in this case, we are proving that there is not a clear and unavoidable contradiction.
Returning to my other example.  In a court, if someone were to say that someone lied because their testimony contradicted another, if we were to show that the person’s testimony did not contradict, then we would have successfully defended the person.  Did we prove that he/she did not lie? NO!!!  WE did not have to prove that he/she did not lie.  All we had to do is prove that there is no clear contradiction, because in this case, the burden of proof for lying is on the one who claims that there is a clear contradiction which PROVES that someone lied.
So, you are right.  If someone comes to us with a concern about a bogus claimed contradiction, then it is our job as an experienced believer to explain why the claim is false, but this would not be a burden-of-proof argument on our part.  It would be applying a burden-of-proof argument on the person who is not in the room–the one who made the false claim of a contradiction.  I hope this is not too confusing.
John Oakes


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