So, Jerry Coyne has started reading John Polkinghorne, in another attempt to claim that he is versed in “sophisticated theology”, which would be more impressive if it didn’t seem obvious that he’s more interested in checking the name off a list than sitting down and reading and understanding it. Anyway, he decided to take on Polkinghorne’s discussion of the Resurrection, and uses that to claim what science has that theology doesn’t..
The main thrust of Coyne’s attack is that there are inconsistencies in the NT accounts of the Resurrection, and ergo it didn’t happen. So what are those inconsistencies?
But there are contradictions even about who found the empty tomb, and what happened thereafter. In Luke, the empty tomb is found by unnamed women who came from Galilee with Jesus, in Matthew and Mark the empty tomb is found by Mary and Mary Magdalene, while in John the tomb is found by Mary Magdalene alone. And in Luke it is the “women from Galilee” who prepare Jesus’s body with “spices and ointments,” while in the Gospel of John the body is prepared by men: Joseph and Nicodemus. Polkinghorne doesn’t mention these disparities.
And I’m really not sure why he should. I’ve already addressed why those inconsistencies aren’t important and are easily resolvable to a satisfactory way. These don’t seem to be critical to the story, and certainly could be things that were misheard or misrecorded through the various years between the event and when they were purportedly recorded. So why in the world should anyone care about these discrepancies? Coyne uses this to leap to this conclusion:
It is the willingness to overlook contradictory evidence that distinguishes theology from science, and here we have a prime example. In his fervor to prove the central tenet of Christianity, which he must do if his faith is to have any credibility, Polkinghorne ignores all the confabulations of the gospel authors to seize on two elements of the story that are consistent, pretending that this consistency is evidence for the truth of a tale. But the stories aren’t independent, and aren’t even consistent in the ways Polkinghorne maintains.
But those inconsistencies aren’t, actually, contradictory evidence. We would expect there to be discrepancies in the accounts if we’re going to treat them like historical accounts, which is precisely how atheists should want them to be treated. Are these discrepancies really meaningful? Would they impact the fact of the Resurrection if it was a fact? I fail to see how. So it is only if you treat the NT like a directly divinely written work that you can claim that these discrepancies as a problem. I don’t think of them that way, and neither do an awful lot of Christians.
Now, this could still be a problem if it was a problem for Polkinghorne. But what was his argument?
. . . the most persuasive argument in favour of the authenticity of the empty tomb story is that it is women who make the discovery. In the ancient world, women were not considered to be capable of being reliable witnesses in a court of law and anyone making up a tale would surely have assigned the central role to men. (p. 123).
Let me translate this. What this says is: 1) It is consistent with all the stories that it was the women who made the discovery and 2) that if people were making up this story, they would not have done that since women were not considered credible witnesses. They would have instead had it be a man who discovered it for maximum believability. We cannot deny that if the story was invented the inventors would have known this fact, and so we don’t have a good explanation for why the story starts out in a manner that would hurt its credibility. Not a slam-dunk, but I do think it an interesting question. But note that the key to this argument is not, in fact, 1), but 2). 1) establishes that all of the stories have this quality, but 2) is what makes the quality something that reflects on the truth of the story. Thus, Coyne’s reply that there are other inconsistencies and so all the stories are not totally consistent misses the point entirely. Polkinghorne’s point is that they are all consistent on this specific point and this specific point is one that you wouldn’t think would be present if it was made up.
This, then, is why I criticize Coyne for wanting to be able to claim to have read the works without caring to understand them, in just the same way that theists — myself possibly included — want to get credit for having read the New Atheists without taking the time to really read them and get the arguments. If Coyne understood the argument, then he’d have a completely different objection, if he had one at all. But he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t get the tea example either. He doesn’t get a lot of the arguments. If he did, he’d have better objections, because there are objections to all of them, as I pointed out in reviewing the debate between Haught and Coyne.
The reason that the “You don’t know sophisticated theology” comes up is because it really looks like they don’t understand the arguments they are criticizing, and so give counter-arguments that don’t actually hit the argument being made and pass over really strong counter-arguments. This reply of Coyne’s, again, does not, in fact, hit the argument being raised. It focuses on the wrong part of the argument. So, again, Coyne doesn’t really know sophisticated theology. Simply reading it is not enough. And the same can be said, maybe, of me when I do biology. All it means is that more reading and more thought is required. That’s not a bad thing.