We have cited the general principle from Rihbany's Syrian Christ that differences in minor details are an expression of an ancient Eastern principle that such differences "don't matter" -- and as such, the Bible (with the Gospels particularly in mind here) were written under a different semantic contract than that which we adhere to. Hence it is anachronistic to call such differences errors, for those who read the text would not have agreed.
Here ar replies to some objections. As a reminder, here is what Rihbany said of this:
There is much more of intellectual inaccuracy than of moral delinquency in the Easterner's speech. His misstatements are more often the result of indifference than the deliberate purpose to deceive. One of his besetting sins is his ma besay-il -- it does not matter. He sees no essential difference between nine o'clock and half after nine, or whether a conversation took place on the housetop or in the house. The main thing is to know the substance of what happened, with as many of the supporting details as can be conveniently remembered.
The implications of this should be clear. Gospel writers who differ on minor points such as times, number of angels at a tomb, exact locations, and so on, are signators to a semantic contract that Westerners haven't even read. We'll develop this point more with applications at a later date.
Objection: You just found a quotation in a book that offers an excuse for inconsistencies in the Bible, and then he submits it as definitive proof without making any effort at all to show that the quotation is true.
This is not a counter-argument, but a way of casting doubt on an argument without directly addressing it. One could take what is written by any scholar and merely say the writer "submits what he says as definitive without making any effort at all to show that what he says is true." The critic needs to show us that Rihbany's claim is wrong. As long as a claim has a reasonable semblance of being true, one is obliged to address its particulars. If Rihbany had said, "Easterners speak the way they do because aliens make them do it that way" then I wouldn't blame any Skeptic or critic for dismissing it; but not a word of what Rihbany says here is unreasonable or outrageous, and the critic has no basis for just waving him off.
The primary problem with Rihbany's key to understanding biblical discrepancies is that it completely ignores the widely accepted Christian premise that the books of the Bible were inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent entity. Hence, when Rihbany spoke of biblical writers who knew "the substance of what had happened" and then presented "as many of the supporting details as can be conveniently remembered," he, to borrow one of his own terms, conveniently forgot that these writers were presumably not speaking on their own but were being guided by an omniscient deity, who would have known all of the supporting details of "what had happened." Any errors or even ambiguities, therefore, would not have been the fault of the writers but of the omniscient deity who was allegedly guiding them as they wrote.
That can be reworked just as easily in reply using the words of a Skeptic who thought the Bible in error when its geographical reference, though correct in ancient times, were now out of date:
The primary problem with this key to understanding biblical errors in geography is that it completely ignores the widely accepted Christian premise that the books of the Bible were inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent entity. Hence, when someone spoke of biblical writers who knew where a city like Ezion-geber was in their own day, he conveniently forgot that these writers were presumably not speaking on their own but were being guided by an omniscient deity, who would have known that Ezion-geber's geography would change. Any errors or even ambiguities, therefore, would not have been the fault of the writers but of the omniscient deity who was allegedly guiding them as they wrote.
This idea does not cohere with the following:
Matthew 10:16 "Behold, I send you [the disciples] out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. 17But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. 18You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; 20for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you." See also Luke 21:12
The objection assume a false model of mechanical dictation for inspiration. See here. One can say "I will tell you what to say" to a newscaster and hand him a script; one can also say the same to someone and give them general advice: "Tell him about your trip to Spain" -- leaving you to fill in the details.
Luke 1:67 Now his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 6 Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited and redeemed His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David, 70As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets, who have been since the world began.... Now if Zacharias was 'filled with the Holy Spirit' as he spoke, I doubt that Luke meant for his readers to understand that Zacharias was speaking the 'substance of what had happened' and then giving 'as many supporting details as he could conveniently remember.'
Well, no, certainly not in this case, since Zachariah wasn't even reporting an event where anything "happened" but was offering a paean of praise for his good fortune. But even so:
If that is all that there was to the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit, then why was God even bothering to fill his prophets and writers with the Holy Spirit?
The duty is in the doing, isn't it? A little promoting to write a gospel, or compose an oracle; and the ripple effect goes on from there.
Acts 28:25 So when they did not agree among themselves, they departed after Paul had said one word: "The Holy Spirit spoke rightly through Isaiah the prophet to our fathers, 26saying, 'Go to this people and say: "Hearing you will hear, and shall not understand; And seeing you will see, and not perceive; 27 For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them."'
Now was Paul right when he said that the Holy Spirit had spoken these words through the prophet Isaiah, or was this just something Isaiah had said on his own, telling 'the substance' and giving 'as many supporting details as he could conveniently remember'?
Isaiah wasn't giving a historical account; he was delivering a prophetic oracle. The objection assumes that God can only inspire one way; but as noted above, one may direct by a script, or one may direct by general instructions. If the end product was sufficient to spread the word to all reasonable persons, what exactly is the problem?
2 Peter 1:20's says that "no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation."
The Gospels are not "prophecy" -- they are narrative, specifically ancient biographical narratives.
In verses 18-20, Jesus had pronounced a curse on a fig tree that didn't have figs on it in, and immediately the fig tree "withered away." It is difficult to see how anyone could think that this was just a symbolic or hyperbolic withering, so the fact that the tree literally withered becomes important in understanding the rest of the passage, because Jesus used this supernatural feat to tell his disciples that if they had faith, they would be able to do the same thing and even greater things: "If you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also if you say to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea," it will be done."
So in essence, if one uses a figure of speech to illustrate a lesson, and does so after performing a literal action, then by extension, it isn't a figure of speech? So if a football coach tells his team, "You'll not only beat these guys like you did the guys last week, you'll cream them!", it means that the coach is about to pass out those little containers of sour cream that comes with your baked potato?
It needs to be said repeatedly: genre, genre, genre. The fig tree withering is part of a narrative discourse, something describing what happened. The saying of Jesus comes from the mouth of one in an Eastern culture where one telling you to get out of his sight will tell you to "pave the sea".
Works like Rihbany's are just a case of looking for excuses. It is just an apologetic effort of his time done in an effort to explain away inconsistencies of the Bible.
What's missing here is an argument showing that indeed Easterners were not given to such means of expression. In other words, this merely assumes Rihbany simply makes things up, which is an accusation, not an argument.
Contrary to what Rihbany claimed, Jewish leaders, at that time, were very concerned over inconsistencies and discrepancies in books like Ezekiel. They were, in fact, so concerned over discrepancies in Ezekiel that this book was almost rejected outright. Only through the efforts of Hananiah ben Hezekiah, a first-century AD rabbi, was this book spared the rejection that was accorded apocryphal and pseudepigraphic writings. According to Jewish tradition, ben Hezekiah retired to his chamber with 300 jars of oil for his lamps and did not come out until he had harmonized to his satisfaction the discrepancies in Ezekiel that had been troubling his rabbinic cohorts.
Ben Hezekiah worked to solve contradictions to the Law and theology as described in the Torah, which were considered more important than incidental details in a report such as, the difference between nine o'clock and half after nine, or whether a conversation took place on the housetop or in the house.
In addition, the Talmud dates to, at the earliest, AD 225 (which is actually the dating for the Mishna's compilation by Yahudah ha Nasi) to the 7th century AD (according to Jacob Neusener Invitation to the Talmud, has this beritha from b. Menahot 45a about the questionable nature of Ezekiel. Now let us look at Zimmerli's commentary on Ezekiel, vol. 1. He in speaking of other mentions of Ezekiel in Baba Batra 15a says:
This text, however, can scarcely support critical conclusions about genuine recollection retained here of a process of editing the book of Ezekiel," Walther Zimmerli. Ezekiel 1. Hermeneia, trans. Ronald E. Clements. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979, p. 74)
So lets see if there are any earlier attestations to the canonicity of the text. First is Ezekiel part of the LXX? Yes. Now lets look at Qumran. Ezekiel was such an important document to this community that it informs the Rule of the Community, the Damascus Document and the War Scroll. So this "endangered book" is freed from that peril.
And what were those inconsistencies? It failed to support and validate the Temple sacrificial system as the traditions of the elders had grown to revere. It was not so much internal inconsistencies or even contradictions between it and the Pentateuch as it was advocating a new form of worship, for instance the lack of separation between Jews and Gentiles in the Temple precincts. The idea that God would include Gentiles in the covenant community was appalling to the Rabbis.
Now let us take up the maxim of Dr. Michael Swartz of The Ohio State University, when we read the Mishna and Talmud we must always keep in mind the anti-Christian polemic of the rabbis [Swartz is Jewish]. So, now let us think what is a central teaching to Christianity: "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile," so this 'inconsistency' would seem to legitimate a Christian claim and show how it was anticipated in the OT, thus the rabbis would not exactly be found of this. The polemical nature of the Talmud [Mishna + Gemarra] needs to be accounted for.
Note that the Talmud did exist prior to its being put in written form. However, the point is that using a polemical document does not always suffice as a great form of evidence.