A patient wakes up in a hospital and says, “Doctor! I can’t feel my legs!” The doctor replies, “Yes, we had to amputate both of your arms.” (Paraphrased from The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, by Douglas Adams.)
The reason this joke works is that when we read the first sentence, we build a certain mental image of the situation. But the second one, the punchline, causes us to rethink this image to make it fit not the facts that we imagined, but the facts that we are given.
What does this have to do with apologetics?
This is exactly what Biblical inerrantists do when they try to get rid of contradictions in the Bible: they use the rule that if two statements do not directly contradict each other, then they can both be right. For instance, Matthew 27:46, 50 says:
About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”–which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
while Luke 23:46 says
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
If you think these two passages give contradictory reports of what Jesus’ last words were, then you’re not thinking like an apologist: Matthew notes that Jesus cried out after saying “Eloi, Eloi”. That cry must have been “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”, rather than the “Aaaaarrrrrghhh!” you were probably imagining. The fact that Matthew didn’t say this explicitly, and that Luke doesn’t mention the “Eloi, Eloi” part simply has to do with the way that two different observers will highlight different details in their accounts of an event such as, in this case, the final moments of the most important person in human history.
In the joke above, we’re surprised by the doctor’s comment, because if the patient’s arms were missing, we expect that a) he would have noticed it, and b) would have said as much. Human language has low bandwidth and fairly high redundancy, so when we learn to tell stories, we learn to pack a lot of information into few words, partly by taking advantage of the associations that the listener will make: if I say that I walked into a house, I don’t need to tell you that it has walls and a roof: that’s implied. If the house is being built and doesn’t have a roof yet, or if the roof was torn off by a tornado, you’d expect me to say so. Failure to mention such salient details often constitutes a lie of omission. In jokes, of course, it’s part of the storytelling technique.
Now let’s turn to the death of Judas:
Matthew 27:5 says:
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.
while Acts 1:18 says:
With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out.
Using the principle that if one passage says “A”, then a passage that does not clearly say “not A” is not a contradiction, the inerrantist can harmonize even these two passages. I’ll quote one because you just can’t make this stuff up:
Judas could have tied a rope to a tree branch that extended over a cliff (after all, you have to get some space between your feet and the ground to hang yourself). In this situation, the rope/branch could have broke before or after death, and Judas plummeted to the ground and landed on some jagged rocks.
Certainly, these explanations are plausible, thus a contradiction has not been established.
In the mind of the apologist, then, Matthew and Luke (the author of Acts) are both like the patient in the joke: they both omit salient facts that any reasonable observer would be expected to include. If there were a cliff involved, one would have expected them to mention it. Conversely, if no cliff is mentioned, it is reasonable to assume that there was no cliff, and therefore this constitutes a contradiction.
But even assuming that Judas hanged himself over a cliff, just as the apologist claims, that brings up another problem: the cliff can only be inferred by comparing the two passages. Each passage, by itself, tells an incorrect story, but since it’s internally consistent, there is nothing to arouse the reader’s suspicions. In other words, when you read Matthew 27, the text gives you an incorrect impression of the events being recounted.
In other words, you can’t just read a passage and assume that it really says what it appears to say: its apparent meaning may be significantly modified by other passages in other books by other authors. Imagine 900 pages of setup lines intermixed with punchlines, at random.
What a hell of a way to write a book. Couldn’t God have done better than that?