Sunday, September 24, 2006

Dialogue with a Skeptic Regarding Elijah and John the Baptist, Round Two (vs. "paul")

By Dave Armstrong (9-24-06)

This continues the discussion from the first round. "paul" has replied at the Debunking Christianity blog. Here is my counter-reply. His words will be in blue. Any past words of mine cited will be green, and his past words purple.

* * * * *

Dave wrote: "Thanks for your food for thought." And then a bit later wrote: ". . . invariably (without exception) in dealing with atheist Bible interpretation, I discover the overlooking or utter ignorance of elementary issues and aspects of sensible Bible interpretation."

Well, you're welcome Dave . . . I think. Perhaps your view will be modified as you spend more time in your "discover(y)" process.

Hey, I can't change my own experience, can I? A lot of skeptics no doubt have had many negative experiences with Christians. By the same token, I have run across atheists and agnostics who do a very poor job at exegesis (every time I have discussed the Bible). I can't change that fact by wishing it away.

A quick note to Dave. Since this blog exists to debunk fundamental Christianity, I'm going to stay pretty close to that pursuit here.

That's fine, but I retort by saying that if the fundamentalists (a relatively small portion of Protestants) are the worst proponents of Christianity, intellect-wise (and often theologically, I would add), then they can hardly adequately defend themselves against a bunch of generally sharp skeptics, now can they? That make for a quite lopsided contest and rather stacked deck (and a wrong impression given to your readers).

But if you're like me, and enjoy vigorous debate you seek the best dialogue opponents rather than the worst. I'm trying to provide something hopefully a little better than standard "fundamentalist" fare. I understand that they are your main target, but I'm still duty-bound as a Catholic Christian apologist to defend the Christian faith, and fundamentalists are my brothers and sisters in Christ (no matter what they may think of Catholics). Besides, on this issue I doubt there would be much difference in their view and mine. It's not like we're discussing Mary or the pope.

Some problems that are exposed in a discussion of Elijah are scriptural inconsistencies, errancy, and, as you put it, the "fundamentalists" "woodenly literalistic interpretation" of the Bible.

And the atheist / agnostic / skeptical view of the Bible, which often falls prey to the same erroneous method and presuppositions.

Dave, you believe "many fundamentalists can be excused somewhat for ignorance (having a tradition of anti-intellectualism) and more or less blind acceptance of faulty traditions in their own sphere." Dave, you can, of course, approach fundamentalists that way, but it seems dismissive to me. I prefer to question instead of "excuse," giving fundamentalists the opportunity to demonstrate where I may be wrong. My exhibiting the fundamental method of literal interpretation is not an endorsement, but rather is a way of pointing out what appears to me to be inconsistency, absurdity and contradiction.

Sure, no problem. I was simply pointing out that our environment, whatever it is, has a profound effect on how we think and reason (or lack of same).

Also Dave, you refer to me as an "atheist" in your opening sentence. I don't know enough to say there is or is not a God. I'm open to a demonstration though. It seems to me that if you had "the mind of Christ" (as fundamentalists claim) you would know that, but then, your particular belief system may not believe that.

The "mind of Christ" does not mean having His knowledge, including reading minds. It means that one approaches issues in the way that Jesus would. It's a theological statement, not an epistemological or neurological one. I meant no personal offense in calling you an atheist. I saw somewhere where you made a statement, "other atheists . . .," implying (at least in my mind) that you were one of their number. An innocent-enough mistake, no?

In addition to discussions about the Bible, I personally also look for evidence of a God in those who call themselves by God's name.

As you should. I hope that I am a good witness and not a bad one.

Dave quotes: "he [Enoch] was taken up" and "was an example of repentance to all generations." (cf.49:14) This quote argues against Daves #3 possible answer, i.e., "Elijah was sinless." In this quote (Ecc.49:14) Enoch, serving as an "example of repentance," implies there is sin to be repented from. This would indicate that Enoch was not "sinless," so neither would Elijah be sinless "by [Dave's] analogy."

This is good; a perceptive observation on your part. What you say is true, but the analogy I was using there had to do with whether Elijah died or not, as opposed to whether he was sinless. But it is indeed significant evidence against Elijah's sinlessness, by analogy to Enoch.

But, if one believes the bible, one doesn't need the Ecclesiasticus quote to point out Enochs sin. The protestant canon states: "all have sinned" Rom. 3:23. Further, Romans 5:12 reiterates the idea that "death [comes] through sin" and "all have sinned."

That doesn't have to mean "absolutely every." Indeed, it cannot, since it isn't confined to men. Therefore, it can include angels, many of whom never fell and hence, did not sin and have not sinned.

However, Dave has as yet, failed to answer the contradiction of Elijah not being subject to the scriptural death sentence for sin if Elijah did not die.

That is what my three possibilities were about. I would say my opinion is probably #2: "God could have made an exception to the general rule, since almost all rules admit of exceptions." It is only a contradiction if two things are simultaneously unquestionably true:

A) Elijah did in fact die (which we're not absolutely sure about, but it seems most plausible and likely),


B) absolutely every person must die because of original sin, with no possible exception able to be granted, even by God Himself.
#B is difficult if not impossible to prove. Catholics, of course, believe that Mary was without sin, but in order to do that, she had to be given the extraordinary grace by God in the Immaculate Conception so that she could be preserved from the original sin that would have inevitably been her lot, but for the special grace. Yet her case is quite unique (being the mother of Jesus Who is God Incarnate) and doesn't seem to me to be analogous to Elijah.

David further compounds the contradiction by pointing out Enoch, who is a more definitive example (at least from scripture), of this inconsistency.

I deny that you have accumulated enough evidence to even call it a "contradiction" in the first place. I would say it is appropriate to call it a "possible contradiction" or a "paradox," but until you firmly establish A+B on some objective basis, you have not yet succeeded in proving the undeniable existence of a contradiction.

In fairness, Dagoods had already pointed Enoch out.

I hadn't read "Dagoods" so that is neither here nor there as far as I am concerned. The Enoch-Elijah analogy is fairly well known to students of the Bible. We Catholics even use both events as analogies to Mary's Assumption: being received bodily into heaven without (seemingly or possibly) undergoing death in the normal fashion.

Daves #2 possible answer: "God could have made an exception to the general rule..."
I see no evidence that Dave has given that "God...made an exception to the general rule" that the wages of sin is death and that all have sinned therefore all must die.

Fair enough, but that is not the same as proving that such an exception is intrinsically impossible or could not have happened and simply not have become a matter of record in Scripture.

There is still the suggestion that God made an exception to the 'rule' of no reincarnation.

Reincarnation is a concept of eastern religion and has nothing to do with Judaism or Christianity. In this instance, it is absurdly read into the text.

Again, there is a problem with Dave's reference if he wishes to establish that "Elijah was a very righteous man" "because of great zeal for the law." For example, Elijah had 450 of Baals prophets killed(I King 19:1). Yet, the same law for which he purportedly had "great zeal," commands "thou shalt not kill" (Ex.20:13,Deut.5:17). The Hebrew "lo tirtzack" literally translates "any kind of killing whatsoever" The Complete Hebrew/English Dictionary by Dr. Reuben Alcalay.

This is nonsense; the prohibition is of murder, not all killing; otherwise the Jewish religious system would be completely absurd because many offenses called for a death penalty and there was also permitted killing in war, for the right reason, and for self-defense, etc. (just as in almost all ethical systems, throughout history, religious or otherwise). "Kill" is not the best translation. It was used in the KJV and followed in the RSV and ASV, which were revisions of same, but note that in the later NRSV and NASB translations, which were revisions of the revisions, the word "murder" is used in both places. The same is true ("murder" in both passages) of at least nine more major translations, from my own library: NIV, NEB, REB, Amplified, CEV, Knox, Moffatt, Goodspeed, Jewish Publication Society (1917). If the intention was supposed to be "all kinds of killing," then all these translators erred fundamentally in rendering the word as "murder."

So there is a contradiction between the Maccabees quote and what Elijah purportedly did in I Kings 18,19.

Not at all. See, here again you are talking about a supposed contradiction that you have not proven (probably the most common mistake of atrocious skeptical Bible interpretation: they see "contradictions" under every rock). The capital punishment of false prophets was part of the Mosaic Law that Jews and Christians believe God gave to Moses (see, e.g., Deut. 13:5).

To continue, Dave states: "furthermore, Elijah is the person used to illustrate the principle of "the prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects" (James 5:16-18). Dave says: "The idea is that the more righteous one is, the more powerful his prayer will be. Hence, Elijah's prayer could stop the rain for three-and-a-half years and then cause it to start up again (5:17-18)." Let me quote vs. 16 and 17a, which Dave didn't: "Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. 17a Elijah was a man just like us". The writer of James goes to the trouble of pointing out that Elijah was "just like" them, after a discussion on confession of sin.

Good point. This is why I think that the "exception" explanation is the most plausible of the three. But James may have simply meant that Elijah was a man as they were, in 17a, rather than meaning that they were potentially as righteous as he was. In this scenario, he would be saying, "Elijah was very righteous, but he was still a man just like us (whereas Jesus was God), and he could accomplish such great things with his prayers. I don't know for sure. I'd have to read more commentators to see how that phrase is usually interpreted.

Given Dave's explanation of righteousness, imagine how much rain someone could stop who didn't have 450 killings to their credit.

If the killings were justified, then they would have no inverse relationship to a person's righteousness. Say, for example, there were 450 of the world's worst terrorists in one place: people who had blown up women and children and tortured people, and committed unspeakable crimes (beheadings, mutilations, etc.). If a person flew over them and dropped a bomb killing them all, would that be an evil act or a virtuous one? I say the latter. Or are you a pacifist, who wouldn't kill an intruder into your home who was trying to murder your family, on grounds that this would be wrong or evil? In the biblical worldview., God has the power over life and death, and He is the judge. He created us; He can decide who should be punished with death. False prophets were in this category. Therefore, Elijah did God's will and this was a righteous act (albeit a very unpleasant task).

To my question: "How did Elijah come to be John the Baptist (Matt.17:12-13)...". Dave answers: "He didn't." Then quotes Luke 1:17. Dave, you probably know you're going to have problems with your local skeptic when you try to use Luke to explain Matthew.

Why would that be, pray tell? There are four Gospels which give an account of the ministry of Jesus. The scholar who wants to get at the whole picture will use all four in tandem. Their historical accuracy has long since been confirmed by archaeology and historiography (especially that of Luke). But it's funny, isn't it, how when a skeptic wants to tear down the Bible, he has no qualms about using whatever he wants to do so. Hence, Ed Babinski jumps all over the place when he tries to vainly argue that the Bible teaches a flat earth (a paper which I refuted, and he hasn't been heard from since). He used Matthew, Daniel, Revelation, Genesis: anything was fair game. But let a Christian dare defend the Holy Scriptures and all of a sudden it is a naughty no-no to use one Gospel to help interpret another! It's just one of many skeptical double standards in "exegesis."

What you point out is not an explanation, but a scriptural inconsistency.

See, here we go: the "contradiction under every verse" mentality. My explanation is perfectly plausible, sensible, and far more cogent and plausible than this idiotic "reincarnation" interpretation. But in your zeal to see "contradictions" everywhere you simply ignore it and go right on stubbornly asserting the contradiction. Well, that may impress your fellow skeptics but it looks downright ridiculous to those who don't have an ax to grind against the Bible that virtually predetermines a negative appraisal of every problem of Bible interpretation that may come up.

To me, the most likely explanation for the inconsistency is that the gospel writers didn't collaborate. There is some evidence of copying, but it's not like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John got together one night over a latte and came up with the gospels.

We are not claiming that they did. The utility of the Gospels in the historical sense lies precisely in the fact that they are four relatively independent witnesses to the same events, and help establish the truths of what they dealt with just like four witnesses at a court trial can "fill in the blanks" of various unanswered questions as to what happened at a scene of the crime, who was where, who believed what, etc.

I'm sure you are also aware of the evidence that some of the books of the bible have been tampered with? (If you want me to go into detail, just let me know. But, because you possess a "concordance and/or an average understanding of the Bible," I'm gonna guess you have other books as well and you're up on that stuff?).

I know that this excuse is used by skeptics almost every time they can't prove some criticism of the Bible to any appreciable extent. I won't play that game with you. I'm not gonna play "Bible textual hopscotch" and go down an obscurantist rabbit trail every time a skeptic cannot rationally defend their claims. It's a cop-out and another double standard. Again, when Ed Babinski wanted to "prove" that the Bible taught a flat earth, he never questioned any of those texts, did he? Obviously, the skeptical farcical rule of thumb is "whatever text 'proves' what we want it to prove for our anti-Christian purposes is unquestionable, but whatever text supports Christian arguments or doctrines is automatically questionable as to authenticity or appropriately early date."

Based on that evidence, one could speculate that some scribe at some point injected Luke 1:17 or that perhaps the original writer of Luke saw the problem, but that may be, understandably, too speculative. So I'll approach this differently. Luke 1:17 is not only inconsistent with Matthew 17:12-13, but is also inconsistent with Mal.4:5-6 which states: "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." Malachi apparently didn't read Luke before he wrote this because he neglected to qualify that God would send a prophet "in the spirit and power of Elijah."

He doesn't have to! This was my argument and what you continue to not understand. Hebrew idiom didn't necessarily require the qualification because this was a common way to speak and think and write.

No Dave, the words attributed to Jesus in both Matthew and Mark do not say that "John the Baptist was a type or prototype."

They certainly do in terms of the ideas and forms of Hebrew thinking and with all the relevant data taken together. I showed how the text concerning the Mount of Transfiguration alone absolutely ruled out your interpretation, because Elijah wasn't persecuted to death. But you care little about understanding that culture and how it approached things. This is the problem. You anachronistically superimpose modern thinking into a pre-modern, pre-scientific, fairly unphilosophical culture. You are the one who assumes that you are so logically superior to these ancient people, yet you are committing logical whoppers left and right and won't deal directly with my actual arguments about the texts taken together. You would rather assume ignorance and contradiction rather than granting a benefit of the doubt that maybe the texts can be sensibly interpreted without their having to be contradictory.

Let's assume Jesus was an expert on "Hebrew thinking." It would be logical to deduce that Jesus knew that the Jewish people really expected "Elijah the prophet" and thus could have clarified their mistaken literal interpretation of Malachi, He did not.

He did on the Mount of Transfiguration. But you have to use deduction. Apparently you are less able to see that your interpretation is ruled out by what He said there, in and of itself, than the disciples were. They were thinking more logically than you are today.

As a matter of fact, if one adheres to the notion of scriptural inerrancy, one would believe that Jesus could actually "know their thoughts" (Matt.12:25). So Jesus could have clarified, as did the writer of Luke 1:17 who saw the importance of so doing, that John was "in the spirit and power of Elijah" rather than saying "Elijah has already come."

Again, He did make the necessary distinction. As soon as he said "Elijah" would suffer and be persecuted just as he was to be, any Jew worth his salt knew that He must not have been talking literally about Elijah. In this instance, the real Elijah had just appeared on the mountain with Jesus. Furthermore, we know that the disciples understood what He meant, because we were told so. Here is what I wrote in my first reply:

Matthew 17:10-13 is a parallel to Mark 9:11-13, where Jesus refers to John the Baptist as "Elijah." But this passage shows that the disciples understood this prototypical thinking, since it tells us "the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist" (17:13). Moreover, both Elijah and Moses are described as appearing with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:3-4). We know that this Elijah returned from heaven is distinguished from John the Baptist (as a person) because even as Jesus and the disciples were coming down the mountain, Jesus referred to Elijah as "already come" and that men "did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of man will suffer at their hands" (Matt 17:12-13).

This (persecution to the death) was true of John (and Jesus) but never of Elijah, so it absolutely proves that Jesus thought John and Elijah were two different men, even though He called John "Elijah" - in prototypical language. It also rules out reincarnation (which is utterly contrary to biblical Christianity anyway) because it shows that Elijah was still alive as a distinct person even after John the Baptist was murdered, whereas in reincarnation, Elijah would have ceased to be when he "moved into" John's body.

This clinches it, as far as I am concerned. You haven't overcome this reasoning. You haven't even tried to do so.
It's also not beyond the scope of the gospels to demonstrate that people took what Jesus said quite literally. For instance, Nicodemus, a learned pharisee and member of the Jewish ruling council thought Jesus meant one must be physically born again. But Jesus, purportedly, took the time to clarify the mistake (Jn 3).

That's right. Well, He did so in the passage above. And it's even in Matthew, so you can't utilize that excuse (something in Luke rather than Matthew) to try to avoid the clear implication.

But your reply to my evidence above (the green text) is a combination of irreparably illogical gobbledygook, desperate skepticism, and (rather astonishing) head in the sand ignoring of what is right in front of you:

No Dave, this "absolutely proves" that "Jesus" said here, as "Jesus" said in Matt. 17, that John the Baptist was Elijah. You cannot possibly know, so cannot claim to know what "Jesus thought." At best, you have to go by what Jesus purportedly said.

Right. Here is a classic case of what the skeptic does when he is caught in utterly incoherent arguments: pretty much nothing: simply mutter the opposite of what has just been proven, as if that overcomes the rational argument.

Dave, I will grant that there is such a thing as "prototypical" thinking, but you have failed to establish that gospel references to Elijah are an example of such.

I see. I will leave that judgment to readers on both sides. One of your number admitted that some atheists / agnostics make lousy arguments against the Bible and Christianity. If indeed this is a glaring example of one of those (as I contend), then I trust that your fellows will be able to make that judgment and drop this line of argument, since it makes your side look silly and special-pleading desperate. The first part about Elijah's death actually is a decent objection and worthy of attention and respect, but this second part about John being a reincarnation of Elijah is flat-out ludicrous.

Dave responds to my 2 Chron. 21:12-15 reference which indicates that scripture may have had Elijah alive three years after the whirlwind incident:

But that is in a different book, so why should I care about it (by your own reasoning, vis-a-vis use of Luke to interpret Matthew, expressed above)?

"The notes to my RSV Bible claim that this letter is "a creation of the Chronicler" who used the name of Elijah "to give more rebuke of Jehoram." Sorry Dave, "the notes to [your] RSV Bible"? Is that supposed to carry weight?

It carries weight as a possible scenario, no more no less. I would give it infinitely more weight than your interpretation, which has exactly no "weight" at all for anyone, if we want to talk in "scholarly" and "academic" terms. At least these guys are Bible scholars.

I'll skip through the insults Dave, but found one other assertion to address.

Atheist / agnostic treatment of the Bible and constant insinuations of the ignorance of those who accept it as inspired revelation is one long perpetual insult. So spare me the lectures about some strong words I may use in response here and there. You get sick of things in Christianity or how some Christians may act; we, too, get fed up with the potshots and unjust criticisms of those in our ranks and of the faith and holy book and the God that we love and devote our lives to. If you can "spout off" about many things, so can we. But bear in mind that from our perspective you are attacking things which are holy and sacred, whereas when we "attack" we are defending same and simply disputing your opinions for the most part: and many of them quite implausible and incoherent and inconsistent at that.

Dave, if John the Baptist was indeed Elijah, as Jesus purportedly said, then Elijah did indeed suffer. Dave, I never claimed to know what Jesus "thought," as do you.

When did I claim that? I am going by what He said, as shown in my words that I cited above. Logic requires certain things, so that if a person says one thing, another is ruled out. That was the case here. Plus we know that "the disciples understood that he was speaking to them of John the Baptist" [Matthew 17:13] . It requires no "mind-reading" of Jesus, but simply straightforward, rational interpretation of the logical consequences of what He stated and acceptance of the report of what they understood. Case closed. End of discussion.

I only state what Jesus purportedly "said." That it's problematic is my point.

I did no differently. There is no "problem" here; only a creation in skeptical minds of a non-issue and non-problem. I suggest that in the future you and your colleagues stick to the first part of the argument regarding Elijah, which is at least interesting and some semblance of a possible "difficulty", whereas this other stuff is foolish and viciously circular (at least how you have presented it).

But I did enjoy the exchange again, despite our not-surprising strong disagreement.

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