Having now been engaged in apologetics actively since 1998, and more years than that on the side, I have long since come to a conclusion that is appropriate for any new readers and will be familiar to veteran ones.
I'll sum it up to begin: Whenever you run across any person who criticizes the Bible, claims findings of contradiction or error -- they do not deserve the benefit of the doubt. They have to earn it from you. Here's why.
It doesn't take very long to realize that a thorough understanding of the Bible -- and this would actually apply to any complex work from any culture -- requires specialized knowledge, and a broad range of specialized knowledge in a variety of fields.
Obviously the vast majority of believers spend their entire lives doing little more than reading the Bible in English (or whatever native tongue) and importing into its words whatever ideas they derive from their own experiences. This process is very often one of "decontextualizing" -- what I have here called "reading it like it was written yesterday and for you personally."
Of course if the church as a whole is locked into this mentality, you may well suspect that critics (whether Skeptics or other) and those in alternate faiths are no better off.
Let's anticipate and toss off the obvious objection: "Why did God make the Bible so hard to understand, then?"
It isn't -- none of this keeps a person from grasping the message of the Bible to the extent required to be saved; where the line is to be drawn is upon those who gratuitously assume that such base knowledge allows them to be competent critics of the text, and make that assumption indifferent to their own lack of knowledge -- what I have elsewhere spoken of in terms of being "unskilled and unaware of it."
And is my observation to this effect justified? Well, ask yourself this question after considering what various fields of knowledge a complete and thorough (not to say sufficient for intelligent discourse, though few even reach that pinnacle, especially in the critical realm) study of the Bible requires:
- Linguistics/language -- indeed three languages: Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Criticizing the Bible in English is a hallmark of critics, who must inevitably resort to one of several excuses: "The translators obviously thought this was good enough, so that settles it."
It never occurs to them to ask why a certain translation choice was made, or to make a critical study of the word in question as needed; in a most extreme case -- veteran readers know to whom I refer -- we have persons who think that it is impossible for there to be any new insights into ancient languages, and will openly reject out of hand any more recent study suggesting a word or words have a more nuanced or different meaning than the chosen English word.
It is also wrong to assume that even the matched English word can be vested with the same contextual significance as the original word -- any bilingual can attest that there are plenty of examples between languages of words that do not adequately capture all nuances when they are used to translate another word.
A reader has added that English itself has changed, not only in the hundreds of years since the KJV, but also in the last decades since the NIV was written (which is the reason there is a new TNIV coming out, and why we now even have word studies on the KJV).
- Literature -- One prominent critic advises people to "read the Bible like a newspaper." That is absolutely the worst advice that can be given for reading any text that isn't a newspaper. The genres of the Bible include narrative, poetry, proverbial literature, wisdom discourse, a treaty (that's what Deuteronomy is), legal codes, genealogies, biography (that is what the Gospels are), personal letters and general letters, rhetoric (an art form in the ancient world), riposte, and apocalyptic.
Treating each one as a newspaper -- written yesterday and with our own ideas in mind -- is a mistake constantly made by critics who impose their own genre-demands on the text.
In the News(paper)
By the way, the critic's advice, actually, is itself fairly bad for what he is trying to get across. The critic in question said this only with an eye to newspapers reporting news stories, but as a reader pointed out:
The Bible is very much like a newspaper in that it reports on actual historical events. Newspapers can and do contain the genres listed above. Narrative? In 1977, seven U.S. papers serialized the Star Wars novel by George Lucas/Alan Dean Foster. Poetry? On occasion in the Family section, particularly around holidays. Proverbial literature? You'll see that in "Thoughts for the day" columns.
Wisdom discourse? Syndicated columns by Billy Graham and Dr. James Dobson. Treaties? Yes, when warranted. Legal codes? Papers routinely report new laws that take effect on the first of every year. Genealogies? Yes, particularly in Mormon newspapers. Biography? In the obituaries or even in news or special supplements (many papers have published bios on George Lucas). Personal and general letters?
In the letters to the editor section; and sometimes the general news section (such as the "Jedi homicide" case reported in the Kansas City Star). Rhetoric and riposte? The editorial page. Apocalyptic? Perhaps in the religion section. Or the editorial or news section when partisans declare the world will end when the opposing candidate is elected. I would also equate the Bible allegorically as a recipe for living; here, too, newspapers provide recipes in Food sections. And comic strips are a visual/textual means of expressing narrative, rhetoric and parable.
So in a sense, the critic is right. But not in the way that he intended: Newspapers have more than one genre, too.
- Textual criticism -- this is a specialized field of determining the original state of a text.
- Archaeology -- a field with many sub-fields of it's own, which may involve knowledge of geography, geology or chemistry.
- Psychology -- the study of human behavior, essential to understanding the motives of persons in a text; yet most people do not even have basic knowledge of their own psychology. This aspect is complicated by the variance in human behavior we note in our next entry:
- Social sciences -- it is in this field that we have found the most lack among critics, and not much less of it in others. It would shock the average Christian to be told such things as that: persons in the world of the Bible did not have what we would call an internal conscience; or that Biblical society was heavily focused on honor, much like Japan's culture.
No, most assume that people everywhere and at every time have been pretty much the same. That's one of the biggest mistakes a critic can make.
- Logic -- most critics think they have a handle on this one; but most have done little more than memorize the names of a few fallacies, and then look for them everywhere they go. Sadly this is the one area in which people are mostly "unskilled and unaware of it" -- or else, they presume that this is all they need, and never bother to study in any other area.
- Miscellaneous -- as a catch-all, for example, you may have to learn a bit about biology (for example, if someone says the Bible teaches wrongly about the ostrich's living habits) or other areas.
That's quite a list, but there's one more note to add -- the holistic ability to put all of it together. How serious is this? Very. A carefully crafted argument about a text being an interpolation can be undermined by a single point from Greco-Roman rhetoric. A claim having to do with psychology can be destroyed by a simple observation from the social sciences.
Not even most scholars in the field can master every aspect -- what then of the non-specialist critic who puts together a website in his spare time titled 1001 Irrifutible Bible Contradictions? Do these persons deserves our attention? Should they be recognized as authorities?
No, they deserve calculated contempt for their efforts. By this, I do not mean emotional or behavioral contempt, but a calculated disregard for their work from an academic perspective. They have not even come close to deserving our attention.
Skeptics who object that this site does not always link to the articles it is addressing need to be told that their efforts do not deserve links. The Aryan Stormfront page may as well object that Holocaust memorial sites do not link to them; or, the Flat Earth Society may as well demand links from professional geology and geography departments at college websites. Ought they to link to such people? Not at all.
So likewise, I refuse to link to persons who have learned al they know about the Bible from reading a few popular books with no conception of the broader issues and fields at hand. Why do we need to link to people who refuse to come to the social world of the Bible on its own terms, and accuse scholars who are experts in the social world of the NT of being ignorant, based on nothing more than a bare English reading of the texts? These people deserve not links, but obscurity.
We can anticipate a pushback: Well, Holding, isn't that what you are, you jerk? How much do you know?
Enough to know how little these other people know. Enough to know that we spend too much time watching television when we should be bettering ourselves. Enough to know that even the best scholars sometimes miss some of these things.
And if you think you can catch me on something, well, issue a challenge. My own views on various matters have changed over the years as I have learned more (notably, where eschatology is concerned), so an education from a worthwhile source is always welcome.
The catch is, such sources are few and far between, and I have yet to meet a critic of the Bible who would qualify on that count, and one that doesn't think that they are more skilled than they are.
So what do you do if you're an earnest seeker? If you have any spare time, use it. We recommend books here -- pick an area you think will interest you; try to become as good as you can with it, meet up with people who know a lot about their own areas of interests -- if you don't have time to get into a great deal of it, cooperate somehow. If you don't have time at all and can't make it, work with someone who does. Teamwork is better than nonwork.
So, in close: Don't take any critic's word in an age when any person with typing skills can post a website claiming just about anything. Chances are they haven't done a fraction of the homework they need to do to be a reputable commentator.
Update 10/20: More than a decade after writing this article, it has become prophetic in retrospect. Books like The Death of Expertise have documented that we now live in a world where the warrant for contempt of the sort described is widespread.