A number of people have recently asked me virtually the same question about about my debates with conservative Christian apologists: In my opinion, when these people say things that don’t seem to make any sense, are they being dishonest, or do they genuinely believe what they say?   (I’ll give my opinion and then ask yours.)

I’ll give an example from an event that some people have asked about.  It was an “apologetics conference” hosted by an evangelical group; the attendees were almost entirely committed evangelical Christians.  Normally at this kind of event, the organizers only have representatives of their own views, who give their talks to prove and affirm that their religious views are right.  But for this conference they decided to have another voice represented, and that voice was me.

I had a great time.  Two of the others speakers – Mike Licona and Craig Keener — were already friends of mine (a third I had never met before).  We disagree up and down the line on most everything connected with religion in general and the New Testament in particular, but I consider Mike and Craig to be good and sincere people.  The crowd was very welcoming and we all had some good laughs.

In their presentations the three of them argued that the Gospels do not have any bona fide contradictions (they each had different ways to approach the issue); I argued they have contradictions up and down the line.  We all tried to support our views.

After we had made our presentations there was a panel discussion, in which the moderator appealed to one specific issue to see how we would each address it.  It’s a minor but intriguing difference between the Gospels.  In Mark Jesus sends the twelve disciples out on a mission to preach the coming kingdom, and he instructs them NOT to take anything with them (no bread, bag, or money) EXCEPT a staff (Mark 6:8); Matthew has the same passage, but in his account Jesus says the opposite: the disciples are NOT to take a staff (Matthew 10:10).  And so the moderator asked us: which did Jesus really say?  Take a staff or not?

My view was, and is, that the episode may not have happened at all, but if it *did* happen then obviously Matthew and Mark can’t both be right:  Jesus either said to TAKE a staff or NOT to take a staff. Craig and the other presenter tried to explain that even though this may seem to be a contradiction, in fact it wasn’t (I can’t remember how they explained it; I think when I was a conservative evangelical I probably said the event happened twice, once when Jesus said to take a staff and the other time not).

But Mike took a different line.  He said that Mark correctly reported what Jesus said.  Matthew changed / reversed Jesus’ instructions.

And then it got even more interesting.  The moderator asked if we thought Matthew’s account was “inerrant.”  Craig and the other fellow – since they don’t see a contradiction – said Matthew does not contain an error.   And then, somewhat to my surprise, Mike too said that Matthew was inerrant.

So in his view, Matthew reports the OPPOSITE both of what Jesus actually said and reverses what Mark (correctly, in Mike’s view) reports he said.  BUT, that is not an error.

I was a bit incredulous.  If you want to know what Jesus said, and you read Matthew, you would think he said the opposite of what he really did say.  How could that not be a contradiction of Mark?  And if Mark is right in what Jesus said, Matthew is wrong, how could that not be an error?

Mike had an explanation.  In his view, Matthew was fully cognizant of what he was doing when he changed Mark’s account.  This was standard practice among ancient biographers — to alter accounts they had inherited when they wanted to emphasize one point or another.  Since Matthew was doing it on purpose it was not an “error.”

I suppose on one level that might kind of, sort of, make sense?   In this view Matthew didn’t make an “unconscious mistake.”  He made a “deliberate alteration.”   But well … really?  It’s not an error?  It gives a false report of what Jesus said.   Sure seems like an error to me, whether Matthew meant to contradict mark or just did it by accident.

In my view it’s like this: if I give you a piece of false information – for example, if I say that after he lost the election in 1980 Jimmy Carter divorced his wife Rosalynn (which he did not!), then, well, it’s not true.  It’s an error.  Maybe I simply made a mistake:  I thought they had gotten a divorce but I was wrong.  Or maybe I I intentionally said they did because I had some agenda or wanted to make a point.  But in either case, whether I say it on purpose or by accident, my report is wrong.  You would not say that my statement was inerrant.

Or .. more simply: if you ask someone for directions and they *intentionally* give you the wrong ones:  would you say that the directions are completely accurate without error, since the person had reasons for what she said?

I’m just giving one solitary example out of a hundred that could be made.  Apologists often insist on views that make others not in their camp scratch their heads.  If you’re in the camp of head-scratchers, you know what I mean and no doubt can cite far better examples of your own.  I pick this one simply because it’s fairly easy to explain.

But the question I’ve been being asked is: do I think apologists who say such things REALLY believe them?  Or are they being dishonest, knowing full well that they can’t be right but insisting they are because in the end that will, in their view, lead to a better result (e.g., the conversion of unbelievers).

My personal sense is that whatever their deep conscience is telling them below the surface, they really believe (on the surface, or at least in their heads) what they say and do not think they are presenting falsehoods.  That is, I personally suspect that (all of the time? Most of the time?) they are not being dishonest or at least trying to be dishonest.   That what they say is what they genuinely believe.  At least I think that’s what I think.

But what do you think?