The Genealogies of Jesus

Hi Pascal,

In When to give, Where to stand you requested that I begin laying out some of the reasons I find it difficult to trust the Bible, and that I do so by starting with the content being presented in Romans. You said,

Are you willing to start in the center of the bullseye before working outward? Show me your objections to Romans 1 and the interpretation that I’ve offered. Start there. If scripture is unreliable, perhaps it will be self evident.

I understand and respect your choice to start with Romans as a topic of Biblical discussion. It is very culturally relevant and you’ve done extremely well presenting it so far. I mentioned that Romans is not the best book for me to start with if the goal is to demonstrate key obstacles that stand in the way of the faith I’d like to have. However, I did list some of the potential issues that skeptics like myself face concerning the concepts discussed in just the first seven verses of Romans. A Skeptical Response to the Bible – Romans 1:1-7 was an attempt to demonstrate some of the issues I currently have. I didn’t find the time (or perhaps I felt it was too tedious an endeavor) to continue laying out objections to the rest of Romans 1. We’re probably both grateful for that. 🙂

You responded to the issues I raised in that post with Small Bites and I replied to that with Love, Gray holes, Supernatural Ladybugs, and Scripture and Small Bites (response) and Clarifying “The Problem”. Then you wrote a series small-bite posts to address some of the other issues. Thank you. It took great dedication to take time to read my objections, consider them, and respond. I owe you the same. I apologize that this has been so long coming. Before we get too far into Romans 2, I want to clarify my position on the remaining points you raised against my concerns with Romans 1:1-7.

Jesus’ genealogies – revisited

As a bit of reference, in A Skeptical Response to the Bible – Romans 1:1-7 I wrote:

Let’s get back to the subject of Jesus’ parentage (since it affects your quote from Paul). I, like St Augustine, am confused by the differing genealogies between Mathew and Luke. Who was Joseph’s father? I haven’t been convinced by the answers I’ve seen, though I hold them as possible…

I mentioned a few other issues with the genealogies in that post. The issue of the competing genealogies of Jesus between Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38 is relevant to Romans because of Paul’s view that Jesus was descended from David according to the flesh (see Romans 1:3, KJV).

In Small(er)(er?) Bites you said you address issues like this by looking for a scholar you trust and evaluating their conclusions on the argument.

Trusting authorities

I am sympathetic to your approach here. I think we all operate this way of necessity. You are completely capable of being an outstanding Bible scholar in whatever area you choose. Unfortunately, we live short lives and don’t have the time to be experts in all areas, so we often defer to the conclusions drawn by those we trust. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but we are often tempted to take that trust too far. I’m not saying you’re taking it too far, but I do want to clarify what I’m talking about in case someone other than you ever reads this. This also might help you understand my difficulty with trusting the Bible. Read on. 🙂

When I was a strong believer there was far too much re-inforced evidence bolstering my trust in the entire Bible (penned in answer in the crossword puzzle of beliefs), even when evidence about a specific issue was lacking or seemed to contradict. When I faced the challenge of trying to make sense of a confusing passage (like you’re facing with the genealogies) I drew my conclusions in light of at least four things. I read various relevant passages of the Bible in context. I often deferred to the interpretation given by a trusted authority or expert in the field, assuming it passed my evaluation. This is the method you mentioned (though I’m sure you applied the other methods as well). I also usually consulted and agreed with the consensus of my peer-group. Ultimately, in each case I listened the opinions of those I trusted and then solidified my own interpretation through prayer (given the weight I assigned each piece of evidence at hand) and filtered by (what I believed was) the Holy Spirit. These four things may not have agreed on every conclusion, but one thing they did do was support each other in the assurance that the Bible was completely correct – if only it could be understood in context with knowledge we may not currently have. There were no dissenting voices on that point. The Bible authorities and my peer-groups were not going to lead me anywhere that didn’t involve trusting the Bible. My view of the Holy Spirit (which was probably just my own mind feeding back to me what I’d learned about what a Holy Spirit should be) was never going to lead me to believe that the Bible is untrustworthy (and thus undermine itself).

As I matured and grew more inquisitive, I began to understand and find great appreciation for the scientific approach to determining what to believe about confusing issues. In my faith experience, there were authorities everywhere. God was the ultimate authority. Bible scholars, especially those that agree with the position I already held, could easily gain my trust. When they did, their words would have a very large impact on my beliefs. Like you, if I trusted a fellow-believer’s character/witness and their words both concurred with my interpretation of the Bible and passed through he filter of my Holy Spirit unscathed, I’d invest a lot of trust/belief-equity in their thoughts about other topics as well.

As a skeptic who follows science, I still sense some of that. If I trust a certain astrophysicist, for example, I’m more likely to trust their other ideas as well. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. But I’m careful to remember that in science, there are no authorities. We are all intuitively testing, interpreting and reporting the consistencies in nature. None of us are governing nature. There are experts we can trust to some extent (because they dedicate their lives to understanding an increasing our knowledge in specific areas), but if I am confused about something, the best approach to finding truth is to find the scientific consensus, evaluate the competing views, and investigate it myself. I know you do the same thing. However, there are those who defer too much to authority, and readily use their trusted authority’s words as an excuse not to deeply investigate the issue themselves. As you know, this is a pervasive problem (which often manifests in the argument from authority) in both religious and secular endeavors, so I thought it worth mentioning. 🙂

Authority vs investigation – then and now

How does this apply and what’s the real issue I’m getting at? There’s a difference in the tools I used to reason when I was a believer vs a skeptic. When I was a believer, I didn’t understand meta-cognition, science, or The Problem, so almost all my weight was really placed on authority. The authority of a trusted Bible scholar. The authority of my peer-group. The authority of what my internal sense of God would tell me (e.g. the Holy Spirit). Their answers were sufficient to satisfy me concerning most issues, so I often left out an important step. If I had this trust in scholars, peers, the reliability of scripture and the Holy Spirit, I did not need to investigate the issue further. I took their word for it. I had no motivation to investigate because I like the answer they gave me (trust scripture) and I didn’t want to dig too deep to find any other answer. The Bible pushes a faith that seeks to preserve itself. My faith was self-perpetuating and confirmation bias, pattern matching, innumeracy and the other fallacies I mentioned in The Problem were writ large on my interpretation of events.

When I became more inquisitive and started to investigate problems deeply myself, it became apparent to me in most cases that my trusted authorities were being biased. They weren’t looking at the evidence objectively or they weren’t following rules of logic that I’d come to trust in order to make sense of the world. They were much more certain in their conclusions and their conclusions were much more varied than would be expected if they were following the standard rules of science. Other people’s Holy Spirits were leading them to different conclusions. This would be expected if we are each our own Holy Spirit – rather than each possessing one central Holy Spirit from which everyone hears the same information. Trusted authorities (including the Holy Spirit inside me which is best explained by my own mind) were using motivated reasoning. You say the true God (assuming there is one) and science must agree, because he is not out to deceive. If that’s so, I find it an indictment of this concept of God, because from what I understand of science, it does not seem to validate many of the testable claims made about God from the Bible (and it falsifies a number of them). This makes it difficult to conclude that the Bible is trustworthy.

Your interpretation of Piper’s answer to the genealogy problem

Back on topic. Concerning the problem of the differing genealogies of Jesus, you looked for a scholar you can trust and settled on Piper. You said:

So I read what he had to say here.  What did I like?  I liked his humility.  He offered two explanations and opined that one was more plausible than the other.  But then he said – – we don’t currently know.  I think that humility is similar to what you advocated in the discussion with Linuxgal about rock bottom.  I don’t think according to Bayes, but if I did, this would tilt me toward belief in the context of all other evidence.

Thank you for the link to Piper’s post. I indicated I’d previously heard several solutions and found each of them unsatisfactory. The sermon you cited, unfortunately, didn’t offer an explanation that differed from what I’d already seen. What I find relevant is that we each think there could be a solution to the problem of differing genealogies (which would allow them to both be correct), but we disagree on the probability that both actually were correct.

Bayes’ Theorem – what it is and why we should all learn it

When you said you “don’t think according to Bayes,” I’m not sure if you mean that you don’t know if Bayes’ Theorem applies to the way you think, or if you mean that you’ve evaluated Bayes’ Theorem and have come to the conclusion that you do not think that way. When discussing Bayes’ Theorem in Inerrancy you said,

In simple terms, my beliefs have been formed this way too.  As evidence accrues, I’m willing to reassess my beliefs.

That’s it. Everyone thinks this way. It’s inescapable. I believe Bayes’ Theorem describes the way we all think, whether or not we admit it. We just aren’t all aware of what it is or what it does. It’s not a way of thinking or something to conform to. It’s just a mathematical way to describe how minds work. Our minds are Bayesian engines. Bayes’ Theorem is a way to represent mathematically what we’re doing when we think. It is very effective at describing why we believe what we do and identifying why we believe differently than someone else. For two people so heavily invested in one another that hold such differing views, learning about Bayes’ Theorem could be incredibly helpful. It is immeasurably beneficial in medicine, statistics, economics, philosophy, mathematics, astrophysics, theology, history, biblical studies, and many other subjects, but it’s especially helpful for understanding how and why we each come to our beliefs. Please consider investing the time to learn Bayes’ Theorem. It will be immeasurably helpful if we can talk about things like prior probabilities to identify where specifically we disagree. There’s nothing anti-faith or anti-Christian about learning or using this tool. It’s just another way to talk about meta-cognition, but much more precisely. I almost presented my assessment of the genealogy issues using Bayes’ Theorem, but decided against it. You thought this is long and hard to read. Ha! 🙂

As an aside, months ago I spent two afternoons thinking about a mathematical equation that could represent why we believe what we do. What are the mechanisms for belief and faith? How do they work together? How can I describe them in a universal way that would encompass all people in all scenarios so we can begin to understand one another better. I showed you the first rough draft of the first stage of one equation after 1 hour of thought. After the next two afternoons I had 3 equations. I put it down for a while and stumbled upon Bayes’ Theorem when reviewing the book called Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. When I looked up Bayes’ Theorem I found it was extremely close to the second and third versions that I’d developed months earlier. It has been discovered and rediscovered many times throughout history. There’s evidence that it may be an intrinsic part of nature, bound to be discovered by all advanced cultures across time – like Pi or the Pythagorean Theorem. Maybe God wants you to understand it as a tool for examining his handiwork – the similarities in reasoning shared by all his conscious creations? Now that I know about it, I’m seeing it mentioned and used many places (pattern matching is kicking in).

You said “this would tilt me toward belief in the context of all other evidence.” I’m not sure what the “this” is that you’re referring to. Is it Piper’s humility or the fact that one of the two explanations to the problem of Jesus’ genealogies was more plausible than the other? If it’s his humility, that doesn’t help me, though I did appreciate that from Piper. Humility can help me respect or even trust him more, but it can’t make the issue of the genealogies go away or cause me to take his word for it. If it’s his answers to the problem, I’m confused. I’m curious about how the existence of possible explanations would tilt you toward belief that one of the explanations is true. Many possible but unlikely solutions do not warrant belief if none of them are individually probable. This is where being able to communicate on a Bayesian level would be very helpful. I think it may be an issue with how Piper presented the information.

Let’s investigate – a closer look at Piper’s answer to the genealogy problem

Here’s a closer look at Piper’s article. It is from this article and your trust in Piper that you claim to trust that both genealogies are correct.

Why, when you compare Matthew’s genealogy with Luke’s between David and Jesus, are they almost completely different? All the names but two are different. A major commentary published in 1978 by I. H. Marshall says, “It is only right therefore to admit that the problem caused by the existence of the two genealogies is insoluble with the evidence presently at our disposal” (p. 159).

If Piper had stopped there, you may not have come to the same conclusion. Or perhaps you would have looked for a different trusted Bible scholar to support your view of a consistent set of genealogies. That’s what I would have done. But Piper didn’t stop there. He continued with this:

What he means is not that the two are in unresolvable conflict. There are suggested solutions, but we just don’t know enough to be sure these solutions are the proper ones. I’ll just mention two. One suggestion is that, from David to Jesus, Matthew “gives the legal descendants of David—the men who would have been legally the heir to the Davidic throne if that throne had continued—while Luke gives the descendants of David in that particular time to which finally Joseph, the husband of Mary, belonged” (Machen, Virgin Birth, p. 204). So, for example, Luke says in 3:31 that the son of David was Nathan (2 Samuel 5:14), while Matthew in 1:6 says the son of David was Solomon, who was heir to the throne. The two lines could easily merge whenever one of Nathan’s descendants became the rightful heir to the throne.

The other suggested solution is that Luke gives Mary’s genealogy and Matthew gives Joseph’s as Jesus’ legal father. The key to this interpretation is extending the parenthesis of verse 23 to include Joseph. So it would read, “Jesus was about 30 years old, being the son (as was supposed of Joseph) of Heli etc.” By including “of Joseph” in the parenthesis the point is made that Jesus is really the son of Mary, not Joseph, and Heli is his grandfather (Mary’s father). Both of these solutions are possible; the first is more probable; but neither can be proved.

Concerns with Piper’s answer

When Piper says, “What he means is not that the two are in unresolvable conflict,” I think this is a little misleading (probably unintentionally). Marshall clearly feels we don’t have a good answer that keeps the genealogies both correct. Piper is asserting the Marshall believes that the two are not in unresolvable conflict while Marshall actually makes no claim one way or the other there (at least not in what I read). Then Piper says, “There are suggested solutions, but we just don’t know enough to be sure these solutions are the proper ones. I’ll just mention two.” The two he mentioned aren’t “just two” among a host of equally likely answers. From what I’ve seen, they are very likely the top contenders and each have significant problems. His wording in those two sentences seems to be implying there is a solution that keeps them both correct, but we just aren’t sure which one is right. An intellectually honest assessment of the issue would involve presenting the possibility that one or both are either fabrications, somehow corrupted versions, or otherwise false in some way. Speaking as if we can be sure that there is actually a solution if we can just hone in on the right evidence is the result of rationalization – starting with the conclusion and trying to find evidence to justify it rather than starting with the evidence and taking it where it leads. I respect Piper greatly as a person, but I do not trust him to the level I once did because many of his conclusions appear to be affected largely by motivated reasoning. Marshall’s seem more worthy of trust to me because he actually discussed the problems with the views. I appreciate that humility more than Piper’s that only goes half-way. Marshall made a more honest and objective portrayal that focuses more on truth than comfort. But this is what we should expect. Marshall is doing the exegesis and has a higher interest in justifying his conclusions. Piper’s focus is on encouraging his flock.

Piper’s stance is further challenged when we look at what his source, Marshall, said about the solutions Piper put forward. Here’s I.H. Marshall’s full conclusion on each of the solutions Piper proposes in the sermon you referenced:

There is in fact no wholly satisfactory method of bringing the two lists into harmony with each other.

a. The theory of Annius of Viterbi (AD 1490) was that Matthew gives the genealogy of Joseph and Luke gives that of Mary (c. Hauck, 51-58). On this view, Eli (3:23) was really the father of Mary, and v. 23 must be interpreted to mean either that Joseph was the son-in-law of Eli, or that Jesus was supposedly the son of Joseph but in reality the grandson of Eli (Geldenhuys, 151f.). Neither of those interpretations of the verse is at all plausible, and the theory does not fit in with 1:27 where the Davidic descent of Joseph is stressed. …

c. The theory which has gained most support in modern times is that advanced by Lord A. Hervey* (cf.Machen, 202-209, 229-232; F. F. Bruce, NBD 458f.): Matthew gives the legal line of descent from David, state who was the heir to the throne in each case, but Lke gives the actual descendants of David in the branch of the family to which Joseph belonged. The details of this theory vary in different authors. One method of harmonization between the two lines of descent is to suppose that Jacod in Matthew’s list was childless, and that Joseph, the physical son of Eli in Luke’s list, was reckoned as his heir. Problems arise at the next stage backwards with regard to Matthat (Lk.) and Matthan (Mt.): were these one and the same person? (See Machen, 207-209, for a discussion of the different possibilities.)

This context helps us evaluate Piper’s conclusion. He presents only the good parts of the two theories and says, “Both of these solutions are possible.” He then says the “c” in the quote above is “more probable; but neither can be proved.” He leaves out the reason that neither theory actually seem to be good solutions. In fact, for theory “c”, which is Piper’s “first” theory that he claims is more plausible (and upon which I think you are concluding that a solution is likely), Marshall says this:

There are un-doubted difficulties with this theory, but they may not be altogether incapable of solution. But solution depends upon conjecture, and there is no way of knowing whether the conjectures correspond to reality.

It is only right, therefore, to admit that the problem caused by the existence of the two genealogies is insoluble with the evidence presently at our disposal.

The two hypotheses Piper proposed in order to challenge Marshall’s statement (by attempting to demonstrate that there were workable solutions) were each already considered by Marshall. Marshall evaluated both of them before he concluded that neither of them are a solution to the problem. That is, neither make sense of the competing verses while being likely correct. After all, what does insoluble mean?

Marshall quotes Machen, pages 207-209. I read that as well. Let’s take a look. Here’s Machen’s book online (I linked to a few pages back for context), but Google leaves some pages out. Here’s what appears to be an exact copy including the missing pages, starting at the last paragraph on page 202 and continuing through the end of page 209 – so it includes the section discussing Piper’s “more probable” solution. This is both Piper’s source and his source’s source.

Piper’s second solution that he says is less likely is Marshall’s solution (a). You can see Marshall’s challenge to (a) above, but Machen also challenges that solution in his book. He thinks it is not likely as it requires editing the Biblical text and it doesn’t seem a natural reading or intent.

Why Piper’s chosen solution doesn’t seem likely

I’ll spare you the details about Piper’s chosen solution (Marshall’s solution “c”), but after reading the relevant sections of Machen’s book, my conclusion is in alignment with Marshall’s. There is no good way to reconcile the problems. Machen presents several options and the problems with each along with some possible solutions. He concludes that one of these solutions is likely correct. However, when I look closely at the issues he lists and attempts to resolve, I see that they involve many overloaded assumptions and Machen never seems to presents a clear path to any of the the solutions he proposes. Machen does not adequately support his own conclusions of a solution that is likely. In fact, I traced each proposed solution, including the one Piper chose as the most probable, and in each case along the path of explanation Machen made it clear the solution was not likely. So Machen, who is Piper and Marshall’s source, concludes that there could be a solution but he shows that none of the ones he proposes are likely. He probably starts with the assumption that there must be a solution that preserves biblical accuracy. Piper echoes his views. Only Marshall reads through Machen’s path and acknowledges that none of them are likely.

The solution Piper recommended (and that you’re probably agreeing with) is one of those Machen showed was improbable and it is certainly not what I would call “likely” given the evidence. Also, when Piper says of his favored solution, “Luke gives the descendants of David in that particular time to which finally Joseph, the husband of Mary, belonged,” this is expressly not an accurate expression of what Machen believes is the most likely version of the solution Piper is quoting. According to Machen’s favored view, Luke most likely includes at least one instance where a nephew is mentioned rather than a direct descendent. You can read about this in the link.

When Piper concludes that “Both of these solutions are possible;” that might be correct, but you’d have to do something to make either of them correct. Depending on the solution you choose, you’d have to assume the Bible has some errors or significant typos that changed the original meaning of the genealogies OR assume there were other mistakes or deceptions involved. I’ll be happy to get into more specifics later. Either way, you don’t get a clean answer with the text as is.

When Piper says, “the first is more probable; but neither can be proved”, his phrasing does not mean that the first is probable (i.e. likely the right answer). He’s saying that it is more likely than the second. That doesn’t mean the first is likely. If you look at either of the solutions in detail, do they honestly seem likely? Marshall didn’t think so. Machen didn’t think so. I don’t think so. If one of them really was likely, wouldn’t we expect more of a consensus about it among different scholars? I don’t question Piper’s honesty, but I think he would have been more accurate to say something like, “the first explanation is more likely than the second, but neither are individually likely with the evidence we currently have. Still, we can have trust that the Bible is accurate and there is a solution.”

None of this is an indictment against Piper or Machen (I liked Marshall’s answer). Their faith pushes them to trust the Bible in spite of their confusion, so they start with the belief that it is correct and work backward to possible solutions. This is the opposite of the reasoning I think works best, but it is expected and understandable. Piper is just looking for the best answer given the assumption of biblical accuracy. He’s following the Bible by speaking to his audience for the purpose of encouraging their faith. As someone who doesn’t hold the presupposition that the original form of the Bible was necessarily completely accurate in every way, I find myself needing a more honest, objective, and complete assessment. I’m working from the opposite direction – from the evidence to the conclusion, not the other way around. I need to convince myself the Bible’s accuracy (and therefore the justification for trusting it) hasn’t been falsified by the various competing accounts of Jesus’ genealogy, and Paul’s beliefs about Jesus’ ancestry.

Marshall vs Piper

So Marshall thinks that this theory “may” save the two genealogies and “may” comport with reality, but it isn’t likely or we can’t know with the evidence we now have. As for the evidence, theologians and Christian philosopher’s, archeologists, and other scientists have been working together on this problem for close to 2000 years. A “lack of evidence” is not a compelling case for why we don’t have a solid answer that all denominations can agree upon.

Marshall continues with this line:

Further problems arise within the Lucan genealogy itself.

It turns out the account in Luke’s gospel may not be internally consistent and shows indications of having been something else entirely at first. It could have even been the same list as Matthew presented. This isn’t a commonly held view, but it’s existence is at least eyebrow-raising. Don’t take my word for it. See Marshall’s original work here. Scroll down a few pages to see the honest concerns with Luke’s genealogy.

What are other Christians saying about the genealogy problem?

After reading Piper’s response and his cited source materials, I also read about 10 articles on the subject of Jesus’ genealogies. I then watched about 10 YouTube videos from various people, few of which came to the same solution about the genealogies, but each of which were confident in their solution. Most of them refuted the solutions presented by other videos or articles I read and very few of them take into account the issues raised by Paul (which throws another kink into the works). I took notes and was originally planning to discuss each of the major attempted solutions and issues in this post, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Many others are certain in their answer to this problem, but I have to come to a conclusion myself. I have about 5000 words written relevant to the details of specific solutions proposed for the genealogies of Jesus and I’ve changed my mind several times, but I’m not going to go into those thoughts here. I’ll save the reader from the complexity of nested if/thens that are involved when parsing all that information.

It does get complex. Here’s a taste. Is one or both really the genealogy of Jesus or his step-father? Could Luke really be talking about Mary’s genealogy, and if so is that really how it would have been recorded? If Matthew was just demonstrating why Jesus’ step-father’s genealogy wouldn’t have worked, is that really how adoption genealogies are written? Could adoption even work given the cursed line in Matthew’s genealogy, Paul’s “descended from David in the flesh” statement requiring Mary’s genealogy, and Mary’s Nathan in Luke’s/Mary’s line given the other messianic prophecies about the line of Kings? Could it be that neither are Mary’s genealogy but Paul’s beliefs are still valid since Mary’s unlisted genealogy meets fulfills Paul’s beliefs? You can see a hint of this in sources (linked above). Maybe the genealogies are just there to distract us?

Paul’s views further complicate the issue

This is all a discussion of the possible ways to reconcile the genealogies between Matthew and Luke. However, none of these discussions factor in the third compounding variable that my objection was based upon. Paul and other author(s) think Jesus was descended from David in the flesh. In this scenario, Piper’s proposed solution (c) (which I think you’re agreeing with) is irrelevant since both Matthew and Luke trace the lineage to Joseph who isn’t Jesus’ father (in the flesh). Only a solution that traces Mary’s lineage could satisfy Paul’s claims of Jesus. If both Matthew and Luke really do trace Joseph’s genealogy, that does not mean that Paul’s idea about Jesus being descended from David in the flesh must be wrong. It just means the genealogies recorded in Matthew and Luke do nothing to support his idea, so they are essentially distractions, or at best irrelevant, to Paul’s point.

Why the genealogies matter to me

Why have I spent so much time on this? First, I am absolutely not trying to disprove the Bible. I’m trying to demonstrate to myself that there is a solution that I could consider likely. Likely enough for belief. Honestly, on many levels it doesn’t matter at all. I never gave this a moment’s thought until after all the other issues had cause me to lose my faith. Now its just one of many problems that I must find a plausible solution for if I’m ever to have trust in the Bible. My faith is gone, my friend. I envy you. I cannot overcome a large number of very unlikely issues. I may be able to overcome a small number of issues with plausible solutions. I’m giving it a serious effort. I’m trying to whittle away at the issues to see how many serious ones remain. The genealogies of Jesus are probably not even on the list of serious issues I have with the Bible, but I’m just starting with things relevant to your first post in Romans.

My current position

My present belief about this issue is still that there may be a solution (I’m hoping for one), but it’s probably not likely. I don’t want to call this a conclusion because I’m still investigating. There is one potential solution that I’m still interested in pursuing. I’d like to find out more about the competing views, including those from ancient and modern Christians and Jews, get a consensus from both, investigate the native language and customs quite a bit more to see if maternal and/or legal/adoptive ancestry really might have been recorded that way, etc. All I have so far is what a few people have said about what ancient customs were like and how things were recorded, but they’ve been contradicting each other (possibly to support their own favored solution to the problem).

An example of why I don’t trust the Bible

For me, the point is not necessarily whether or not we can think of a solution to this problem. The point is, what is the level of trust that the competing genealogies evoke with a natural reading? This is relevant to your question about why I don’t find the Bible trustworthy, and an answer to your challenge to start in the issues surrounding Romans 1. How deep do we have to go, and how much conjecture or how many layers of assumptions do we have to apply in order to find a resolution to the problem (Occam’s Razor)? That’s the key issue for me because I’m usually incapable of letting my desire strongly influence my beliefs, so my beliefs depend almost entirely upon plausibility considering the evidence. How likely is something to be true as it is recorded? When we’ve found a potential solution to a Bible problem, what level of belief is objectively warranted (without assuming the Bible must be true) in the notion that the solution we found actually reflects reality? Would we have arrived at that solution if we started with the evidence rather than the conclusion that the Bible is accurate?

For the genealogies of Christ, the unfortunate reality seems to be that they hurt rather than help the reliability of scripture. They also don’t support the idea that God is not the author of confusion (or is He? – look under “Why is the Bible Hard to Understand”). It would have been so easy for one or both to just explain why the genealogy they’re recording is going to be different than expected/traditional.

At this point, I don’t need to be convinced that the Bible is trustworthy. Science doesn’t prove things, it has theories that it fails to disprove so they become more likely over time (and with successive failures to disprove them). I’m very comfortable there. Right now I’m just trying to find a way to convince myself that the Bible isn’t untrustworthy. Do the genealogies call into question the accuracy of the Bible? Unfortunately, thus far, the answer is yes. The simplest, and most likely explanation for the nearly two thousand years with no strong reconciliation is that the Bible is not inerrant. One or both authors – or one or subsequent copyists (that could preserve inerrancy) – probably just made a mistake. A mistake is much more likely and easier to reconcile. I don’t have to know that there was a mistake to make sense of this, I just need to allow the possibility.

The problem of certainty

In my opinion, we should never believe that something complex and nuanced (e.g. the Bible) is inerrant without extreme justification. If the only issue I had with the Bible was this genealogy, I may have been able to preserve my beliefs. However, this is a minor mark in a vast sea of issues I notice when reading the Bible. But here’s what gets to me. As a Christian I didn’t just think there was a solution to these two different genealogies. I knew there was. I knew with certainty that there was no mistake in the original writings. In my experience, pastors don’t normally preach that there might be a solution to this and other problems. They usually preach that there is no contradiction, period. They claim the solution is X, Y, or some combination. Whatever the solution they believe to be correct, they usually say it is fact. It is the Truth. Or if not a specific solution, they (including Piper) are certain that there is some solution. This presupposition of biblical inerrancy is self-perpetuating. One would have to see an overwhelming amount of evidence to seriously doubt that belief. That’s what happened to me (not in Romans). This is the problem I have with most faiths. The desire for the beliefs to be true leads to an unjustified level of confidence. It misleads people by forcing them to dismiss alternative truths that, based on empirical evidence, are more likely.

I think faith has great merit, but this tendency toward certainty, and this need to gloss over the nuance and potential errors given the natural reading of scripture, feels dishonest. It’s not a problem that all believers share. I think you do a much better job at confronting the issues than almost any believer I know. However, it does seem to be a culture of trust. That’s inherent in faith. It doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, the Bible has several great examples of saints questioning God. But there’s a difference between questioning the reasons God chose to do something and the notion of objectively evaluating the claims of scripture without a presupposition of its truthfulness (i.e. without faith).

As a Christian I trusted. Most believers feel led to claim knowledge about Biblical accuracy. I can’t escape the feeling that the Bible seems to coerce (after all, what is the concept of Hell if not God’ ultimate coercion?) believers into buffeting their reason with desire. I think this is almost always a bad idea when we’re interested in truth, and especially so when it happens in areas that we can have no logical certainty. The truth is, we simply don’t know the answer to the genealogies, or any other unresolved biblical issue. Anything that makes us feel bad for admitting that is harming us in some ways. When our faith tells us our eternity is tied to the amount of certain belief we can muster without (or in spite of) evidence, we often just decide to stop investigating and lean on trust. See Proverbs 3:5-6. This happens not only when the evidence is lacking, but even (as in the this case) when the evidence is in opposition. We are assigning certainty to something that is unknowable and, honestly, it feels extremely deceptive to me. Don’t you sense some hint of what I’m getting at? If God exists and he is not deceiving us, He and science should go hand-in-hand. Reality and the word of God will not differ. One significant problem is that the concept of faith is not compatible with the scientific method – the best method we’ve come up with to reveal reality.

Did you evaluate all the issues in the Bible objectively before coming to a conclusion about its accuracy/trustworthiness? I don’t know anyone who did. To be clear, no believer I know came to the conclusion that the Bible is accurate by first learning science well (including the fallacies mentioned in The Problem), then examining all the relevant issues and objectively evaluating the likelihood of truth in each case, and then deciding whether the Bible was worthy of trust. Most conversion stories of ALL faiths usually involve trusting the claims about their scriptures/stories made by trusted authorities while the converts were at an impressionable or desperate time in life.

If I do have a phenotypical difference from many of believing friends it is my inability to adapt to this requirement of strong belief before critically examining evidence (to a level appropriate to the claims). I had that ability when I was young and my life revolved around trusting authorities. Now that I’ve grown and learned something of science and meta-cognition (which seem natural and right to my way of thinking) I can not just will myself to trust in the perfection of an authority when I see strong, repetitive, and compelling evidence to the contrary. Whether I like it or not, I must admit that the strong, unjustifiable certainties desired of the faithful are harmful to an individual’s ability to reason about other things. This illuminates the intrinsic discontinuity and danger of certainty in religious/philosophical/hypothetical (a-priori) reasoning. Coming to conclusions before examining the evidence (a-posteriori, empirical) reasoning leads to insufficient reliance upon evidence to drive a conclusion (an objective evidence-first approach seems to be the best path to truth).

Imagine a Scientologist who is certain of his faith and the complete reliability of his scriptures. There’s little hope he or she would come to doubt his scriptures over a few individual issues pushed by non-believers who he inherently distrusts. There’s also little chance an adult aware of science, meta-cognition, competing faiths, and all the issues in the Mormon scriptures would come to embrace it with certainty. It does seem that science, meta-cognition, and critical thinking are an impediment to certainty. People who value such qualities will find it very difficult or impossible to receive the call of faith.

Faith – I don’t like it but I still want it

My personal issues with the concept of faith do not keep me from wanting it. Actually it’s the hope I want more than the faith (at least the concept of faith as I view it). I do feel ill-suited, or perhaps ill-designed, to adapt to this requirement for salvation, but if we’re talking about a God that might actually exist, I don’t want to quit the race just because I have a wooden leg.

We currently disagree

You concluded that, based on Piper’s assessment, there is no issue with Jesus’ genealogies in Mark/Luke and Paul’s “descended from David according to the flesh” beliefs. I have a few ideas of how you may have got there, but I don’t want to presume. If you took a path that is well-investigated, doesn’t rely heavily on the views of trusted authorities, and doesn’t involve an presupposition of Biblical accuracy, perhaps I can follow you there. If it isn’t such a path, I think I’ll need to find another route. I’m serious about wanting to get there, but I’m a skeptic, so I have to work harder for it. 🙂


You said, “If scripture is unreliable, perhaps it will be self evident.” In my view, the varying concepts between Matthew, Luke, and Paul about how Jesus genealogy fulfills Old Testament promises provide convincing evidence that their views are not in obvious harmony. There’s no certainty that no solution could possibly exist, but a single satisfactory solution has not been accepted by the vast majority of Christians after almost 2000 years of trying. This does not invoke confidence in the scripture’s reliability. It is certain that we do not have enough evidence to know whether the solution to the problem of Jesus’ ancestry is in favor of Biblical accuracy. Anyone claiming the answer to Jesus’ genealogy is this or that without using words like “probably” or “I believe” is definitely going too far. In my assessment, if we do not presuppose ultimate reliability in scripture, an honest assessment of the evidence points to differing or mistaken views, authorship, or copying as the most likely explanation(s) for the discrepancies among the competing verses. Any of these cases would seem to indicate that scripture is less than fully reliable.

Gentleness and respect,


  1. Oh Russell. You know I’m your biggest fan. But as a fellow blogger, I have to challenge you to learn from Pascal and take “smaller bites”. Maybe <1200 word bites. I want to read and think about every word that you write, but my attention span panics when it sees how the scroll bar moves almost imperceptibly as I advance one screen-length through your paragraphs.

    That said, I am always humbled by your words and even ashamed of how much I let desire and the authority of others influence my faith. I respect your position and your steadfastness in your demand for evidence. It is weakness that draws me back to Christianity again and again—not faithfulness. And certainly not evidence. Maybe someday time will heal me and I'll be strong enough to let all of that go. Your words help me get there.


    1. Haha. My wife agrees with you. She said I should title it “The Cure for Insomnia.” 🙂

      I know, I need to work on being more concise than thorough. I think I’m not blogging well because I’m not focusing on blogging. Honestly, lately I’ve just been responding to my friend, Pascal, not trying to capture an audience. I know that hurts his efforts and makes it more difficult in general to read, so I’ll try to take your (and his) advice about post length. It’s not like I don’t know the recommended limits. I’m just not seeing myself as “blogging” here. But I should still respect them.

      It may please you to know that I did show restraint. This post was originally attached to three more, totaling over 11,000 words. I broke them up this morning and then this one grew. There are three more coming. I don’t know that I can do sub-1200 on the others since they’re so long already, but I’ll try to keep them shorter than this one. Maybe my next attempts will be better. 🙂

      Don’t be ashamed of letting desire or authority influence your faith or your beliefs. That’s not “wrong.” It’s not “weakness.” It’s the normal, natural state of affairs and it’s perfectly acceptable for most people. For those people, it can give them great meaning and hope. For those who can live at peace in their own mind with the confidence in the source and implications of their faith, it is a powerful and incredible way to live. I envy it. It just doesn’t appear to be for everyone.

      Actually, you, Pascal and I aren’t so different. We each live by evidence and our process of reasoning is identical. There are just a few minor differences in the weights we put on certain kinds of evidence based on our experiences. Those differences aren’t normally a bad thing. I have some comments about this already written in one of the three posts that I split off of this one. Hopefully, it will be encouraging to you. Stay tuned…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Regarding your 4th paragraph in response to me—I don’t think it is acceptable for me. I’m not at peace. I’m tired of feeling like I’m always trying to talk myself into something. I haven’t written on my own blog in a while because it has developed multiple personalities, and my posts ultimately seem to cancel each other out—what’s the point? There’s nothing peaceful or powerful about the way I’m living right now.

        Thanks for your kindness. I look forward to your future posts.


        1. You remind me of myself at a very recent time. This quote from Thomas Paine in the Age of Reason was powerful:

          I do not mean by this declaration to condemn those who believe otherwise; they have the same right to their belief as I have to mine. But it is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe.

          In one way, I completely agree with Paine. In another, I don’t believe I’ll ever be free of the struggle. You are not alone.


            1. Ha! I’m a closet whatever-I-am too (hence my blog title), so you’re not alone either. I mostly agree with Paine, although I’m not sure about the association with happiness. Even when I’m faithful to what my mind tells me, I don’t think I can say that I’m happy. Forsaking a life-long identity might have something to do with that. But if I’m going to be unhappy either way, I can at least be honest—despite all of my efforts to convince myself otherwise, if God exists at all, he is far away from me.



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