Tuesday, March 14, 2006

There's no reply at all

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible notes a contradiction:
Acts 7:4 says that Abram didn't leave Haran until after his father died.

Gen.11:26 says that Abram's father was 70 years old when Abram was born, and Abram's father lived to be 205 (11:32). Clearly, then, Abram was at least 135 when he left Haran.

Yet Gen.12:4 says he left Haran when he was only 75.
Most interesting is their note that they have "Christian Responses (none yet)". Allow me to provide one.

SAB correctly notes an issue that bothered me when I first studied the genealogies of Genesis. Yes, a straight-forward newspaper reading of Genesis gives us an issue to deal with.

Before I deal with it, let me say that there is the possibility that Stephen, whose speech is quoted in Acts 7:4, is just flat out wrong in his rendering of Jewish history. Luke, the author of Acts, is recording for posterity a speech given by Stephen, and as a recorder is only responsible for ensuring that the recording is accurate, not that the original material is. A parallel example might be the New York Times reporting that a politician said something that turns out to be incorrect. Does that make the NYT wrong? Not at all. So long as their recording of the statement is accurate, then the NYT is not in error. Such a politician DID say such a thing, and it's the politician, not the NYT, on the hook when that statement turns out incorrect. Same for Acts. There are no guarantees that every statement recorded is accurate. But I do expect that Luke has accurately recorded what happened and what was said. I'll let the others work out that theology.

Now I don't believe that Stephen is wrong; it's just a possibility that must be admitted before we start.

But here's what I think is really going on here:

The SAB misquotes (or at least truncates) Gen 11:26 when they say that "And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram." with a period at the end. What it actually says is that "And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran." That might seem a small thing, but I think the existence of the other names in the genealogy is significant because it parallels another passage with a similar problem (Gen 5:32) which I'll examine first and then back therefrom into my solution. Though the vast majority of the genealogies name one son (at age x, y fathered z), these two both allege (on the surface) triplets. We shall see that beneath the surface we have clues that explain what's happening.

Gen 5:31 says that, "And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth," leading us to think that he had triplets that year. But such is not the case. Ham is noted as the youngest (Gen 9:24) and Japeth as the eldest (Gen 10:21) and that might be fine for triplets, except for this:

"Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood" -- Gen 11:10.

If Shem celebrated his centennial 2 years after the flood, then he was 97 when the flood came. Yet Noah is said to have fathered Shem at 500 with the flood at 600 (Gen 7:6) so Shem should have been 100, not 97, when it came. The fact that Shem is not the eldest give us the possibility that the 100 years was the age of the elder brother only, and that the author did not bother to give us as much detail as we'd like.

We have a similar pattern in Abram's case: Abram, Nahor, and and Haran all born in the same year (from a straightforward reading). Yet it's likely that Haran is older than Nahor, since Nahor marries Haran's daughter (Gen 11:29). If, as Josephus alleges, Abram's wife Sarai is also Haran's daughter, then Haran is likely older than Abram as well.

In each case we have these similarities:
  • An allegation of triplets.
  • The person in the main Jewish line is named first.
  • The person named first is not the eldest
  • The person named first has demonstrable chronology problems if alleged to be the eldest.
So the simple solution is this: the author of Genesis, in cases where only one son is part of the story (c.f. Gen 5:4-28 for a whole busload of them) the age "at birth" is the age of the father when that specific son was born and the others are subsumed under a note that he had "other sons and daughters". In the two cases where multiple sons come into the story they are named together, but the age "at birth" is the age of the father at the birth of the eldest of the three.

Applied to Abe, that means Abe probably left Haran at 75, meaning he was born when Terah was 130, the 70 referring to the birth of Abe's brother Haran, Terah's firstborn.

Is it the correct solution? I don't know. Does it fit the data? I think it does. Does it resolve the contradiction? Yes. If it is a correct reading then Genesis is not in error, we have simply failed to understand the method of the author. I think that's very likely, and in a lot more cases than just genealogies. There are many, many passages where we are assuming that a newspaper-like reading explains everything even as it gives us seemingly insurmountable problems.

But those are a speculation for another day.


tya said...

nice post

Anonymous said...

Very-very good!

Anonymous said...

Nice try, except that we are talking about a book that is supposedly the divinely inspired word of your PERFECT god. To take your first consideration, which we'll call the NYT Argument, if the NYT quotes a politician that makes a statement, where evidence to the contrary proves it to be false, the NYT would be very quick to point out that said politician made a false statement. The author of Acts does not do this (which a PERFECT god would be sure his PERFECT word would do). However, you pretty much dismissed this argument yourself, so lets move on to your other rationalization ... um ... explanation. We'll call this the Undetailed Argument (which it really boils down to). It simply makes no sense for a PERFECT god who wrote a PERFECT word, NOT to give us details, especially when in his omniscience he KNOWS that later on someone is going to preach a sermon that will appear in his holy book, and will seemingly contradict the author of Genesis. And you are wrong, rationalizing an explanation for an apparent contradiction is NOT the simplest solution. The simplest solution is that it is a flat out contradiction. But you will not accept anything that doesn't fit with your preconceived idea that it is the divine word of your god. When one reads ANY text, one must not approach it with any presuppositions, but look at it objectively.

ooopsitsme said...

When one reads ANY text, one must not approach it with any presuppositions, but look at it objectively.

I strongly disagree with this comment. I think in order to understand what anybody is trying to communicate you must also regard context and culture. And Of Course... Who is the Author...

It's a given on this side of the divide I believe in God's credibility and His kindness to man to deal with all when dealing with one.

It doesn't require too tough an effort to research certain Hebrew customs and liberties when dealing with genologies.

It's not quite the fantastic gymnastics of imagination you are implying the author of this article has used.

I seem to recall too something about how there is no such thing as a Hittite .... and well you know what... I am glad someone who questioned also had the sincerity to honestly enquire and even better someone had the good sense to actually look.

El Borak said...

But you will not accept anything that doesn't fit with your preconceived idea that it is the divine word of your god.

But that's where you're wrong, as I am perfectly willing to accept it. As an historian, I understand that texts have problems, texts have contradictions, and texts have imperfections. I treat the bible as a piece of history, and contradictions don't bother me in the least. If I threw away every text with contradictions, I would know nothing as soon as the second newspaper of the day came out.

But I also accept your proof (which contradicts your assertion) that looking at something 'objectively' is not so easy as it looks. Your argument is full of conclusions about what a perfect God ought to have done better; it is wholly theological (if I might use that word here). If objectivity were the goal, you might have spent your time illustrating in what way this admitted speculation about Hebrew genealogies can be shown incorrect with other similar genealogies.

As another commenter noted, the Hebrews took 'liberties' with their genealogies. Another way of saying that is that they had one system while we have another. The important thing is to attempt to understand their system in trying to understand their documents. If all you're looking for is a place where Hebrew systems don't match modern ones, you might as well go no further than "bats aren't birds."

FirstLove said...

good work!
I would chuck the 'NYT argument' because Stephen is said to be filled with the Holy Spirit and is considered a prophet in that sense. Also the Bible claims: that "ALL scripture is useful" so the NT account is provided by the Holy Spirit for our edification not for confusion.
You can see how it confused the issue with the previous commentator.
Clearly some people say and do things that God did not inspire; and the Bible honestly reports the true history (even when the historical person is wrong).
But the account of Stephen is generally considered to be a clarifying biblical commentary and also a statement of the historical account as it was known in the 1st century.
Abraham the historic person is known by the Biblical account and his age was 75 when he left Haran. So with specific info, we reconcile the ambiguous, as you did in this post. Good work.