Apostles on the Witness Stand
We’re all familiar with the many charges of contradiction in the text of the Bible, but most come from those outside Christianity. However, there are many professing Christians that say the same thing, only they resort to arguing that some parts are either allegory (contrary to the context) or non-divinely inspired. But today I’d like to focus on the charge of lying, because some move beyond the “human error” charge to deliberate falsification. Let’s cross-examine some of these charges.
Charge: Paul lied to King Agrippa
In Acts 26 Paul gives a defense before the king, and in Acts. 26:15-23 he tells of his experience on the road to Damascus. But when we check the account in Acts 9:3-9 we see much less detail, only that Jesus told him who He was and that he should go to the city to await further instructions. Did Paul lie? If so, then all the gospel accounts lie as well, since they each have unique content.
But rather than a case of lying, this is merely a case of faulty thinking skills (aka fallacious reasoning). If I say, for example, that there is one apple on the table when in fact there are 10, am I lying? No. The only way I’d be lying is if I said there was ONLY one apple on the table. Or if I said that I live in the United States, have I lied because I didn’t give more detail such as my state, city, and street address? Again, not at all.
In the same way, Paul has not lied either. The defense he made to Agrippa in no way negates or contradicts the account in Acts 9, but simply adds detail. Did Paul write Acts? No, Luke did, so we have more reason to accuse Luke of lying that we do for Paul. Yet as a historian, especially one of that culture and time, Luke was not obligated or expected to give every detail in every account of an event. Neither are the four gospels contradictory just because they don’t adhere to modern western standards of historical recording. The order of events was not as important to the ancient historian as the lesson learned. Even so, the facts themselves were of course expected to be true and accurate, however we may wish more detail were included.
Verdict: Not Guilty.
Charge: Peter lied about his angelic vision
In Acts 10:5,22, 32 we see accounts of an angel giving instructions to Cornelius. First the angel says “Send men to Joppa to get Peter”. (Notice that I didn’t add all the details: “Your prayers… Now send… He is staying…”. Did I just lie? No, I gave the primary point of the message.) Next the sent ones relay the message, and they say, “We came from Cornelius… he is righteous… an angel told him to ask you to come… so he could hear what you have to say”. (Did the messengers lie by adding “so he could hear…”? No, this does not conflict with vs. 5 at all.) Then Cornelius repeats the original statement, then adds his own statement, “we’re here to listen to what the Lord told you to tell us”. (Did Cornelius lie? No. First, he didn’t say that the angel said those exact words, and second, it has been presumed by all parties involved that the sending for Peter was for a purpose: to hear a message from God. This is not any kind of lie or deception or embelishment of a story, but a reasonable understanding of the purpose of the summons.)
Now in Acts 11:13-14 that purpose is given as the words of the angel. Did Peter just lie by attributing words to the messengers that were not recorded earlier? Not at all. Even if they didn’t say them (and remember that the quote marks are not part of the original writings), it was understood as the purpose of the summons by all parties involved.
This sort of error in reasoning is why some believe that Eve lied or was forgetful in her statement to the serpent about what God had said. We do not have recorded for us that God said anything to Eve, but neither do we have recorded for us that Adam said anything to her. So to presume who told her what is reading into the text, as is charging her with either lying or forgetting. And her own testimony was that God said the words, a statement never denied or corrected by God, Adam, or anybody else.
Verdict: Not Guilty. But now let’s take a look at an incident in the OT that illustrates another type of error in reasoning.
Charge: Samuel (and God!) lied to the people of Bethlehem
In 1 Sam. 16 we see that God tells Samuel to use a cover story to protect himself from Saul. The cover is true; Samuel will make a sacrifice. But this is only to concel the actual purpose of the trip: to anoint the next king of Israel. God could have simply overridden the impulse of Saul to kill Samuel, or kept him from finding out, but chose instead to arrange this story. Did God lie? Did He make Samuel lie? Isn’t it a lie to conceal something, to leave out important details?
Now we cannot deny the fact of deception on God’s part. But is it any less deceptive for captured soldiers to escape prison camp by traveling in disguise? Would it be a sin to lie in order to get a criminal to release hostages? If we do not think of these as wrongdoing, then neither should we call it wrong to devise a cover story to protect someone from harm. This is a far cry from, say, if God said someone was with Him in heaven when they weren’t. So we see through this example that lying which God forbids involves intent to cause harm.
Verdict: Not Guilty, since protecting the innocent is not a sin.
When we remember that to charge someone with lying we charge them with a deliberate intent to harm in some way, and not mere forgetfulness or being non-specific, it becomes obvious that the examples given in this post only incriminate the plaintiff instead of the defendant. But we should also note that to report someone telling a lie is not the same as endorsing it, any more than reporting a murder is the same as condoning it. We must learn to make this important distinction, one that applies to any given text.
The Bible is more than doctrine; it is history, poetry, and example as well. There has been plenty of time for scholars to study textual evidence and liguistics, and for skeptics to present evidence they think undermines the credulity of the Bible in whole or in part. No other text has been so thoroughly scrutinized, so by this time there is not really any grounds for questioning the accuracy of the words.
Instead, our challenge now is about interpretation, about learning more of the context, but most of all, about thinking clearly and logically. We can trust the words as being those which God wanted recorded, whether as doctrine, example, warning, inspiration, or insight. Once we understand what God is communicating to us in these various ways, our ultimate challenge then is to walk in step with Him.