Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Women

The last thing I’m going to directly talk about in Pearce’s examination of the Resurrection is the story of the women who came to the tomb and saw the risen Jesus.  Pearce explicitly calls out the differences in the women who came to the tomb as being impossible to reconcile:

Theists like to dismiss the contradictions here as being harmonisable or not at all important.  Personally, I don’t see them as harmonisable.  John is very clear in stating one woman and you would have to really want to achieve an agenda to translate that as “at least one woman, Mary”…

Pearce also relies heavily on the idea that this sort of numbering is a crucial contradiction that you cannot reconcile by saying that focusing on one out of the entire number doesn’t preclude there being more people that are not mentioned.  In talking about the angels at the tomb, he says:

Imagine going through life thinking like this:  That every time you gave a numerical answer, you could actually be referring to any number above the actual quantity referenced.  This was one of the first, simple contradiction arguments I got into when I first started arguing about Christianity and the Bible.  It was precisely this sort of rationalisation that opened to my eyes to what I saw as people being dishonest with themselves.  If you are the sort of person who can convince yourself with this type of argument, then we probably shouldn’t be talking.  You are probably convincing yourself of an awful lot of other nonsense that you really shouldn’t believe (Young Earth Creationism is a prime example).

Or, cognitive dissonance isn’t just an issue for Jesus’ early disciples; it remains equally problematic for his modern-day followers.

Strong words, and since I find these numbers arguments utterly unconvincing and unimportant it would imply that I shouldn’t be talking to Pearce, have a mindset that should convince me of Young Earth Creationism when I’m not one, and that I’m afflicted by cognitive dissonance because I don’t find Pearce’s purported contradiction at all convincing.  I suspect that I could reply directly to his words above as “Them’s fightin’ words” [grin].

Okay, so let me start by saying that he is characterizing the argument or attitude wrong.  The counter is not that whenever you say or come across a statement that gives a number you should assume that it could be any number up to infinity instead of what was said.  Provisionally, you should accept that the number in the account is an accurate one if you have no reason to think that it number might be different.  But Pearce here is not talking about a simple listing of a number, but instead is pointing to different accounts and saying that their use of a different number — either directly or, more commonly, implied — is a contradiction that means that the story cannot be believed, and the response is that especially in the implied cases you can reconcile the two cases by noting that as long as nothing in the account with the lower number is directly contradicted by there being more people then those people might have been there and just not something that the first account focused on or bothered to mention.  So this is what Pearce is opposing and what he says cannot be reconciled in any reasonable way.

Let me demonstrate that that sort of situation is actually reasonable in general by using this discussion:

Defense Attorney:  So, what happened when my client approach your teller window?
Teller:  He pointed a gun at my face and demanded that I give him all the money from my station.
Defense Attorney:  Ah-HA!  But it has been established that he actually pointed two guns at your face!  Your account cannot be reconciled with that clear fact, so therefore you are lying and my client is innocent!

Now, of course, in this case we can easily see that it’s ridiculous to dismiss their testimony or their account or the various accounts because of a difference in numbers.  The important things in the account are not in question, which are that the robber threatened to shoot the teller if they didn’t hand over the money.  Whether the robber was using one or two guns doesn’t change the fact that there was at least one gun which was used to threaten the teller and commit the crime.  And in general this is indeed how we handle numbers.  If I say that my manager was at the meeting and someone else says in a separate telling that another designer was also at the meeting, we don’t conclude that one of us is lying about who was at the meeting but instead conclude that both of them were at the meeting and that I didn’t note the designer’s presence in my telling of the story.  So, in general, in cases where the numbers don’t align we do, in fact, simply expand the total numbers to include the highest number, which is exactly the argument that’s being made and is exactly the argument that Pearce, for some odd reason, thinks we never make and can never make reasonably.

Now, of course, there are cases where we won’t make that expansion, and there are two main ones.  The first case is when there’s a direct contradiction in the two tales.  So if I had said that I had a one-on-one with my manager and someone else said that that designer was there, then one of us would have to be mistaken because a one-on-one meeting only has one designer and one manager except under exceptionally strange circumstances that would have been mentioned in my story.  The second case is where there isn’t a direct contradiction, but where it would seem reasonable that the person with the lower number would have mentioned the other people in their story and so we wouldn’t have had the discrepancy.  So what we need to do to dismiss this argument is not merely point out that the numbers don’t match, but instead point out that either the accounts have a real and direct contradiction in them that means that they can’t all be correct, or else that the other authors would have mentioned the other people if they were really there.

So let’s look at what they say (as per Pearce’s summary on page 210).  Luke’s account cannot contradict any of the other accounts, because all he says is that the women who came with him went.  Pearce translates this as being at least four, but since Luke isn’t specific about who it was it is indeed possible that some of the women who came with Jesus out of Galilee didn’t go, or that they did in fact all go and the others didn’t mention them (like saying that the group from work went to a pizza party at the park does not mean that I necessarily attended or that someone from another group who had left the group a short time before didn’t go).  Mark mentions Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome.  Matthew leaves out Salome, but again he might just have left out Salome — or, rather, the stories that he followed didn’t mention her — since she isn’t a key character in the story.  This actually has interesting implications, since if Matthew used Mark as a source as most claim then it seems quite likely that Matthew would have seen Mark’s reference to Salome and yet still deliberately left it out, which would suggest that the traditions he was following suggested to him that Mark’s adding of her wasn’t credible or wasn’t important.  And if this taken to be an actual difference in the accounts, a minor difference like this, as I’ve argued before, is not an important enough contradiction to worry about, as Mark could be wrong that she was there or Matthew could be wrong to have excluded her and no matter which of these we chose nothing important would change.

So that leaves John, who only includes Mary Magdalene.  But from the stories, Mary Magdalene was closer to the apostles and it is reasonable that she was the one who went and told them about the empty tomb.  Mark’s claim that none of them told anyone about it is obviously not correct, and is likely him following traditions that didn’t come up with a credible idea for who went and told the apostles, so he left it out.  John, being seen as an account of a specific disciple, is obviously focused more on their experiences, and so it is entirely reasonable that it would only have mentioned the one who went to the disciples and told them about the empty tomb.  So Mark may well be correct that some of the women didn’t tell anyone but misses that one of them did — which, again, must be true for the story to be known — and from John’s account that doesn’t mention that anyone didn’t tell the disciples but only mentions Mary Magdalene she was probably the one who went to tell them.

(As an aside, the comment about them wondering who will help them move the boulder is probably an addition in Mark but not something he made up.  In the oral histories, someone would have likely asked at some point how they expected to move the boulder on their own and that is a lampshade of the issue, which then would have stayed in the story for its dramatic effect.  But it is likely the case that they would have made arrangements to get the boulder moved or had a plan for it).

Anyway, from this it seems like we have a pretty easy way to reconcile all the stories.  Even just using the specific texts there’s no interesting contradiction there and it’s easy to reconcile them, even before a deeper analysis of what each author was doing in their accounts.  So, again, I don’t see why this is something that is at all worth worrying about.  But Pearce thinks this can’t be harmonized, and thinks that arguments that expand the numbers to the largest one that makes sense and doesn’t cause a contradiction are obviously bad arguments that cannot be at all countenanced.  And I admit that I absolutely cannot see why, and would need more than an accusation of “Cognitive Dissonance!” to accept that he’s right and I’m wrong.

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4 Responses to “Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Women”

  1. jayman777 Says:

    Apparently Pearce didn’t read John 20:2 where Mary speaks of “we”.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Good catch. That’s actually an explicit refutation of Pearce’s overall point, as it mentions only one name but then implies that there were more unnamed people. Pearce may have a reply to that, however (if he has one, it would be that that was an interpolation and not in the original text).

      • jayman777 Says:

        A quick look at Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament shows no notable textual variants in the manuscripts (i.e., John 20:2 does not even appear in the book because it is not worth discussing). And if someone were going to make an interpolation wouldn’t he put an interpolation in v. 1 too to name the other women. An interpolation only in v. 2 is apparently too subtle for many to even catch.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Good points. Jonathan has responded to other comments and posts so maybe he’ll have a comment on this at some point.

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