From *The Skeptical Review*, 1993 / March-April:
by Farrell Till
The how-it-could-have-been scenario is a common tactic that fundamentalists use to "explain" passages in the Bible that pose serious problems for the inerrancy doctrine. They like to believe that as long as they can suggest an interpretation that removes the spectre of contradiction or discrepancy from a problem passage, then they have preserved the inerrancy doctrine, no matter how far-fetched or unlikely the interpretation may be. They insist that just as long as the interpretation is not absolutely impossible, they are justified in believing that it could have happened or could have been the way the interpretation explains away the problem.
TSR readers have often encountered this tactic in the rebuttal articles of our fundamentalist contributors. The most recent examples of it occurred in Bill Lockwood's articles written in response to what I had said about the problem of Sarah's seminal emission mentioned in Hebrews 11:11 . A problem incidental to this passage was the claim that Sarah "counted him [Yahweh] faithful who had promised [that she would have a son]." I showed that the Old Testament record of Sarah's response to the promise had depicted Sarah as anything but a believer that the promise would be fulfilled, because when Yahweh made the promise, she laughed at the absurdity of her having a child in her old age (Gen. 18:9-15 ). With no textual evidence at all to support him, Lockwood proposed, as a how-it-could-have-been way out of the problem, that Sarah had simply "changed her mind" ("Sarah's Power to Conceive: a Response, Summer 1992, pp. 14-15). On the actual matter of Sarah's power to "make a deposit of semen," Lockwood argued that the Greek expression katabole spermatos didn't have to be interpreted according to its literal or face-value meaning. "(I)f you don't have a can't-possibly-be-anything-else case," he said, "you don't have a case against the Bible" (second reply, Autumn 1992, p. 13).
The only thing a statement like this proves is that inerrantists cannot think logically. I don't have to prove a can't-possibly-be-anything-else case in this or any other matter that challenges the inerrancy doctrine, because I make no extraordinary claims about the Bible when I question the inerrancy claim. To the contrary, the inerrantist is the one who must establish can't-possibly-be-anything-else cases. The matter is as simple as what William Lindley said in his letter specifically in response to Lockwood's attempt to shift the burden of proof to those who question the inerrancy doctrine: "(T)he notion that a written text is supernaturally free of error is so strange that the burden of proof ought to be the other way" ("Reader Reaction," p. 12).
Lindley has merely recognized the principle that says that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof. When I say that the face-value meaning of Text A contradicts the face-value meaning of Text B, I am making no extraordinary claim, because contradictions are commonplace in written documents. On the other hand, when inerrantists say that a collection of 66 books containing thousands of words, written by different people, in different languages, is totally and completely free of mistakes of any kind, that claim is so extraordinary that it requires extraordinary proof. Since there is nothing at all extraordinary about how-it-could-have-been explanations, such "proof" really amounts to no proof. An apologist can't just say, "Well, Text A could have meant this, whereas Text B could have meant that"; he must present a couldn't-possibly-mean-anything-else case or his argument to preserve inerrancy fails.
When, for example, I point out that Matthew's genealogy of Jesus differs substantially from Luke's, I am only stating an obvious conclusion that anyone can reach by reading both genealogies. Inerrantists will say, of course, that Matthew traced the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, whereas Luke traced it through Mary, but there isn't a hint of any kind in the entire book of Luke that he intended his genealogy to be so understood. In the absence of evidence that this was what Luke intended, the inerrantist accomplishes nothing by merely saying, "Well, it could have been this way, so to have a case, you must prove that it couldn't possibly have been this way." No, a thousand times no! Such a position as this is not at all compatible with the nature of evidence. A lot of things could have been or could have happened, but just because something could have happened doesn't mean that it did happen. A copyist could have corrupted the text after Luke wrote it. Joseph could have been orphaned at an early age and then adopted by another family, and so Matthew traced the genealogy through the biological father and Luke through the adoptive father. Either one of these would serve as well to "explain" the inconsistencies as the traditional claim that Matthew traced the genealogy through Joseph whereas Luke traced it through Mary, but none of the explanations would work unless couldn't-possibly-mean-anything-else cases could be made for them.
When inerrantists use the how-it-could-have-been tactic, they are simply resorting to desperation hermeneutics. The quest of those who engage in it is not to discover the intended meaning of the Bible text but to preserve a cherished belief. In the final analysis, the meaning of a problem passage isn't important. Importance lies in the ability of an interpretation to explain away a discrepancy or contradiction, and for that reason, any interpretation will do that resolves the problem of discrepancy, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous it may be. The absurdities that Bible fundamentalists have proposed in the name of this how-it-could-have-been tactic are too numerous to analyze in one article, but one has only to read a book like Gleason Archer's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties to see this desperation hermeneutics at work. I have had skeptics and freethinkers tell me that reading such works as this and seeing the absolute absurdity of the how-it-could-have-been tactics used in them provided the final impetus that they needed to cross the line separating their belief from skepticism.
In a booklet that examined discrepancies in the four gospel accounts of Peter's denials, Dave Matson identified nine inconsistencies in the way the story was told. These concerned such matters as the actual nature of the denials, their locations, their timing, etc. On the matter of Peter's location when he made the denials, the gospel writers seemed confused about where Peter was at the time, especially when his second and third denials occurred. Matthew and Mark, for example, said that Peter left the campfire in the courtyard after his first denial and went "out into the porch," where his other denials were made (Mt. 26:71-73 ; Mk. 14:68-70 ), but Luke and John wrote the story as if Peter's second and third denials were also made as Peter was standing by a fire (Lk. 22:55-60 ; Jn. 18:18-27 ). As a way out of the problem, inerrantists have suggested that there were two campfires on the scene so that even though Peter moved about, he was still in the proximity of a fire. In his analysis of this "explanation," Matson made some excellent observations about basic fallacies inherent in any-loophole-will-do hermeneutics.