2011-06-17

Dealing with the "contradictions" in the Bible


Copyright 2011 © Nathan L. Bostian

On a fairly regular basis, one of my students will come to me with questions about whether the Bible contradicts itself. Sometimes their faith is shaken. Sometimes they are trying to find a reason not to believe in the Bible. Whether they are shaken or skeptical, their underlying concern is this: How could a perfect, truthful God give us an imperfect, flawed Book?

This week, I wrote one of my students the following essay on "Bible contradictions". What may surprise you is that I disagree with many Christian attempts to "defend" the Bible almost as much as I disagree with skeptical attempts to debunk it. It seems that most modern skeptics and many modern Christians are guilty of reading the Bible wrongly: In a way that is completely foreign to the purposes and materials found in Scripture itself.

This is particularly true in the American "Bible Belt" where Conservative Christians and angry Atheists get locked in battles over Scripture. Because neither side really understands the nature of what they are reading, they can't help but misunderstanding both the text and each other.

it's like two illiterates arguing over the meaning of Tolstoy's "War and Peace".

I think there are five main factors that come together to create an un-informed view of what the Bible is all about for both Christians and non-Christians in modern culture. Here is my short list:

1. Christians often fail to admit when the Bible does actually have contradictions.

The debate and discussion over the meaning of the Bible simply starts off wrong when Christians are unrealistic about the Bible itself. The Bible not only has parts that are clear, inspiring, rational, and intelligent, but it also has parts that are confusing, paradoxical, messy, and crude. Christians should admit that.

I think most of the difficulties in Scripture can be resolved by knowing how Scripture texts have been copied, the culture they came from, the original language, the historical setting, and a sense of how Scripture's message developed over time. So, most of the Bible's supposed "contradictions" are really caused by the misunderstanding or downright ignorance of the reader.

But, not every problem in Scripture can be explained this way. There are contradictions. There are some contradictions between one part of the Bible and another (internal contradictions). And there are some contradictions between the Bible and the outside world, such as science or history (external contradictions). And while I don't think Scripture has a ton of contradictions, I think it has some. And Christians should be honest and admit this too.

For instance, when Jesus sends out the disciples, we have the following accounts of what Jesus says:

Matthew 10.10 [Jesus said] Take no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.

Mark 6.8 [Jesus] ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

Luke 9.3 [Jesus] said to them, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic.

So, in Mark Jesus allows them to take a staff, while in Matthew and Luke he did not. Now, we could come up with inventive theories about how this is not a contradiction. Perhaps we could say the text was copied the wrong way. Perhaps we could say they appear to be talking about the same incident, but really they are describing similar but separate incidents. But, at the end of the day, these explanations seem forced and false.

The clearest explanation is that on this one point, the Gospels do not agree.

And you know what, it's OK. The basic message is still the same in all the Gospels: Jesus is sending his disciples out on a preaching and healing mission and he wants them to rely on very few material possessions, and instead depend on the providence of God.

Furthermore, this contradiction does not alter the historicity of the event. We can reliably know that (a) Jesus existed; (b) He had disciples; (c) He sent them out to preach and heal; (d) In so doing, he gave instructions about what to take and not take, including money, clothing, and staffs.

I have read the entire Bible multiple times, and translated nearly all of the New Testament out of Greek. I know of no discrepancy that affects the basic meaning or historicity of the New Testament. And in regards to the Old Testament, there are portions that are not historical in the sense that we think of as history. Yet, the basic trajectory of meaning found there is intact. More on this later.

But long story short, there is no need for Christians to go to absurd lengths to defend the Bible against every claim of contradiction. Nor should Christians have their faith threatened by small discrepancies in Scripture. Our faith does not ultimately rest on the Bible, rather it ultimately rests in the God to whom the Bible points to, and in Jesus who fully reveals God. More on this later too.

2. Many modern readers are abysmally ignorant of ancient cultures, literary styles, and standards of accuracy.

This should be a no-brainer, but it isn't. Modern scientific history, sociology, politics, and science has only existed for around for 200 years in the Western world.

Before that, the world simply did not know these disciplines as we know them now, and thus did not judge literature by their standards. Another way of saying it is this: Neither the Bible writers nor ANY writer up till the Enlightenment tried to hold to a modern scientific standard of accuracy or citation or evidence. Those standards simply did not exist yet.

The Bible writers were not trying to write a science book. The science they knew was extremely crude, and often inaccurate by our standards. When God inspired the various writers to write Scripture, he was not inspiring them to write science. God knew humans would develop that on our own. God was inspiring humans to write about things we could not grasp on our own power, like the nature of God, the reality of sin, the need for salvation, etc.

For instance, Genesis 1 is a poem, not a scientific lab report. And this poem is about the superiority of Yahweh over all other created realities. It is NOT a scientific description of the creation of the world. Likewise, Genesis chapters 2-11 are symbolic, allegorical and legendary. It is given to teach things about God's relationship with humans and the world in a colorful, memorable way. Nothing truly historic starts happening until Genesis 12, and even then it is not history as we think of history. It is more of an imaginative re-telling of the foundational lives of the Hebrew people.

That does not mean it is not true, just that it is not historically accurate. Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" is not historically accurate, even if it tells a lot of great truths about the human condition, and even tells a few accurate things about Roman culture. But it is not a scientifically historic and objective retelling of the events of Julius Caesar's life. The same is true for much of the Old Testament.

When we get to the New Testament, we are dealing with a more historic, factual period in literature. What we read in the Gospels and Acts is a religiously motivated re-telling of events that historically happened. As such, the early Christian writings are more-or-less historical, and we can place more emphasis on the fact that Jesus really lived, died, and was raised from death in space and time.

But even in these writings, the standards of accuracy are not what we would expect of history. In addition, these documents are very selective in the events they discuss and the perspective they discuss them from (for instance, they leave out nearly all of Jesus' childhood and young adulthood). This is very different from a modern historical biography, which tries to give a comprehensive account of a person's entire life and cultural background from multiple perspectives.

Thus, in the New Testament we can gain a pretty accurate account of some events in Jesus' life and the early Christian community, but there will be large areas we are not fully sure about. In short, our information about Jesus and the early Church is based in history, but not the same kind of historical method as say, reading a modern history book about Abraham Lincoln or the Civil War.

3. Many modern readers seem to want the Bible to be like the Quran, and then get upset when it is not.

The Muslim view of the Quran is that it was directly dictated by God through the Angel Gabriel (God spoke Arabic) and recited by Muhammed. In this process, according to Muslims, NONE of Muhammed's human viewpoints or personality was involved in the making of the Quran. To use an over-simplified analogy, Muhammed was a "divine typewriter" that spoke exactly what he received from God.

The Bible, on the other hand, was written by dozens (hundreds?) of authors in around 70 books over the course of 1500 years. Each book bears the stamp of the interests, prejudices and viewpoints of the human authors, cultures and communities involved in writing them. There was no divine typewriter here, but rather a gradual development over time of the Biblical message.

Some Christians and many skeptics want to treat the Bible as if it was some sort of Quran. The act as if the Bible miraculously appeared from heaven, fully formed. These Christians do it to supposedly defend the absolute "inerrancy" of the Bible, and keep firm the "foundation" of faith they believe is the Bible. Skeptics follow the same tactic to set up a straw man argument.

The logic goes something like this:

Major Premise: The Bible is inspired by God.
Minor Premise: Anything inspired by God must be perfectly factual according to modern scientific and historic standards
Conclusion: The Bible is therefore inerrant.

But then the Skeptic says: Wait! The Bible has errors! Therefore the Bible MUST NOT be inspired by God!

To which the [modern, conservative] Christian replies: No! I will go to absurd lengths to prove that the Bible has no flaws, no matter how badly I seem to be grasping at straws!

However, the minor premise is really problematic. It assumes that God comes from modern, western culture (God must be a white European?). It also assumes that God inspired the Bible to be a book of science and history, instead of having another purpose.

Yet, it is pretty clear that the Bible's purpose is to draw us into relationship with God, not to give us a databank of obscure scientific and historical facts. To use a crude metaphor: The Bible is more of a collection of Love letters and family stories, written to help us know and love God, rather than a scientific textbook.

In fact, while the "inerrancy" argument above might work if one were discussing the Quran, it simply does not work with the Bible. The Bible is not under judgment from Western science, because it was never intended to function as that type of document. Since Muslims view the Quran as the direct dictation of God, perhaps they feel the need to prove the Quran's inerrancy (I don't know for sure: Ask a Muslim).

But the inspiration of the Bible was never understood as being authored that way, so Christians should feel absolutely no need to defend the Bible as if it were perfect in the modern sense. And Christians who treat the Bible as some sort of Quran are doing more harm to their faith than they realize, since their faith is ultimately resting on the Bible instead of on the God to whom the Bible points.

4. Many modern readers fail to grasp the concept of development and trajectory across time in Scripture.

This is another no-brainer which few people seem to really grasp. But the Bible is developmental. Its message developed over 1500 years.

Just think of how the American concepts of "democracy", "civil rights" and "science" have developed over just the last 230 odd years since the founding of the United States. And that is less than 1/6 the time that Scripture covers!

When the Bible began being written, it was written to and for a group of semi-nomadic Semitic tribes who lived in a society that was brutal and barbaric beyond imagination. They had no centralized government, a barter economy, sporadic national defense, inter-tribal warfare, and no organized system of transportation, irrigation, taxation, communication, education, commerce, or food distribution.

Imagine how simple and primitive God's messages to those people would have to be.

They had no language for "universal human rights" or "social justice" or even "unconditional love". They had no concept of a society based on law rather than on blood ties. They had no understanding of a universal, eternal, loving God. God had to start at rock bottom to get these concepts through to them.

And when the Bible finished being written, there was more for God to work with in revealing Godself to us, but society was still primitive by our standards. Several Empires rose and fell from the beginning of the Bible to the New Testament era. But Rome had risen victorious. They provided social systems and stability, as well as universal currency and a system of laws. Also, the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers had written by then, so there was a language to talk about God's nature and the nature of human existence.

Yet, even at this time Greco-Roman culture was racked with poverty, illiteracy, war, violence, slavery, patriarchy, hierarchy, aristocracy, and ethnic prejudice and hatred.

My point is that, since God is dealing with humans who grow and change and evolve as individuals and as a culture, God has to adapt in the way God communicates Godself to us. God has to use available resources.

Thus, as culture develops over time, we see a development of how the Bible conceives of God and God's relation to humanity. For instance, from the beginning of Scripture to the end of Scripture, we see the following development:

In terms of Godself: God begins as the highest God among many lesser gods; Then all lesser gods are seen as demons or angels, with God as the only God; Then God is seen as the Ultimate Reality that holds all of Reality together; Then God is seen as a Father who loves humans; Then God is seen as an eternal Father who has an eternal Son and shares an eternal Spirit. Later Christian Theology (after the Bible) saw this as the basis of "The Trinity".

In terms of violence: In the earliest Bible texts, violence is just part of the way things are and God helps various tribes to victory over others; Violence then becomes something punished within society, but still used by Israel to invade and get rid of non-Israelite cultures; Violence is then questioned by the prophets, who foretell of a coming age of Peace when "swords will be beaten into plowshares"; Violence is then rejected by Jesus Christ, who refuses to start a violent uprising, and instead defeats violence by allowing himself to be murdered and then rise again; Violence is finally spurned in the later New Testament is wholly beneath Christlike standards of living, and only the government is given "the sword" to protect society.

I could go on with other examples in terms of slavery, civil rights, women's rights, the concept of justice and love, and dozens of other issues.

But the point is that, across Scripture, we often do not find an exact agreement. In fact we may find Scriptures that are at odds with each other on many issues, such as the use of violence or the treatment of women. Yet, we can discern a trajectory and a development across time. This trajectory goes from barbaric to civilized, from law to love, from prejudice to justice, from tribal to universal.

So we should expect earlier Scriptures to have more simplistic and crude viewpoints on various matters than the later Scriptures. Likewise, we should expect the Church and later Christian thinkers to take the trajectory of Scripture and more fully develop the trajectory found there.

As an analogy, think of how you might answer the same question if a question were asked by a 5 year old or a 50 year old. Your answers to the 50 year old would be considerably more developed and nuanced than you answer to the 5 year old.

How would you answer change if a 5 year old or 50 year old asked "What is God like"?

How would you answer change if a 5 year old or 50 year old asked "What is right and wrong"?

How would you answer change if a 5 year old or 50 year old asked "What happens when we die"?

In a similar way, when you are dealing with the Bible, the earlier portions are the social equivalent of dealing with a 5 year old. In all honesty, I would say the New Testament is the social equivalent of dealing with an early teen. And if you move up to our culture, we are probably the social equivalent of a late teen or early 20-something.

We have a lot to learn. And to do that we need to follow the trajectory of Scripture, even if that trajectory differs from the exact wording of earlier portions of Scripture.

For a more extensive essay on the concept of developmental revelation, see my blog here:
http://natebostian.blogspot.com/2011/02/developmental-revelation-and-divine.html

5. Many modern readers fail to understand that the Word of God is foremost Jesus Christ, and only secondarily the written text.

This is very simple, really. Yet few people seem to get this. The Bible is not "The Word of God". The Bible is "Words about God". The Word of God is described most famously by John:

John 1.1, 14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

The Word of God is Jesus, who is God embodied in human form. God's ultimate self-communication does not come in a book, but in a Person.

The Bible needs to be accurate enough to get us into relationship with this embodied Word of God. It does not have to be perfect history or flawless science. It does not even have to be great literature (some of it is, but some of it is not).

It just needs to tell us enough to know Jesus and follow him as Lord.

Jesus is the Point of the Bible. He is the target which the trajectory of the Bible ultimately points us to, no matter how many detours the Bible takes along the way.

That is why, when the Bible describes its own purpose, it says this:

2Timothy 3.15–17
[15] The sacred writings… are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. [16] All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Notice, verse 17 does NOT say:

"so that everyone may have a flawless record of ancient history"

or

"so that everyone may have a transcript of creation science"

or even

"so that believers may have religious knowledge to make them know they are right and non-believers are wrong"

rather

What Scripture gives us is for action, to help us live a Christ-like life "proficient and equipped for every good work". Scripture is not a repository of data and facts to know, but rather wisdom to live as we follow Jesus.

And the qualities of "inerrant" (without scientific or historical flaw) or "infallible" (without fallacy, ignorance, or error) are really out of place to describe the Bible. First of all, these adjectives describe what the Bible is NOT rather than what it IS. Second, they operate within the rules and worldview of modern Western European categories, which the Bible does not.

Perhaps it is better to speak of the Bible as "reliable". When we follow its trajectory across history, it reliably leads us to the God who became embodied in Jesus. Or maybe we should merely use the word that 2Timothy uses above: Inspired (or in-breathed). The Spirit of God breathed and flowed through the authors and communities that formed the Bible, steadily steering them on a course to Christ. That is a much fuller idea of the Story we find in Scripture: It is fully reliable and thoroughly inspired to accomplish the purpose God gave it to us, which it to point us to The Point who is Jesus.

To treat the Bible any differently, or to read it through modern lenses of history and science (whether for or against it), is an adventure in missing The Point.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.