Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem

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Well you guys, I read chapter 3 of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It and it was mind-blowing. (See also my thoughts on chapter 1 and chapter 2.)

In this chapter, Enns tells us that there are 4 stories of Jesus in the bible, and 2 stories of the Israel. On the surface, this is obvious. In the New Testament, we find 4 gospels, each giving the story of Jesus' life, written by different writers. Each comes from a different perspective, and indeed, I've heard this discussed in church/bible studies before, how Matthew emphasizes Old Testament prophecies, Luke was written for a Gentile audience, John only includes 7 miracles, etc.

What I've never heard before is that actually the writers embellished the story, added stuff, moved sections to other places in the story, and basically "shaped" it in order to communicate a certain view to their audience. Yeah of course I knew that each gospel comes from a different perspective and emphasizes different aspects of Jesus' life, but the idea that they wrote stuff that didn't really happen is shocking to me.

But wait right there. The phrase "stuff that didn't really happen" isn't really right. Enns explains that in ancient times, the goal of the writers was not to produce an accurate historical account of what happened. If I describe parts of the bible as "stuff that didn't really happen," it's technically a correct description, but it misses the point.

I guess. I mean, I can believe that ancient writers had different goals and methods than we modern readers expect, I just have no idea what I'm supposed to do with that.

But anyway, this perspective, where we read each gospel separately and just take it for what it is, rather than trying to force all 4 to fit together, is for me a mind-blowing new way to read the bible. Particularly in the parts where the 4 gospels differ.

As an example, Enns talks about the different accounts of Jesus' birth. First of all, it's only mentioned in Matthew and Luke. Mark and John totally skipped the Christmas story. Hmm why is that?

"AHA, THAT'S NOT A CONTRADICTION! It happened, they just didn't put it in! Next!"

Yeah that was the voice of Perfect-Number-5-years-ago if she were to discuss the accuracy of the bible with a skeptical friend. I was so good at defending the bible from all doubts, but I never actually asked why the different accounts are different. Why did Matthew and Luke talk about Jesus' birth, while Mark and John didn't? Could this tell us something about their different perspectives or reasons for writing?

Nope, I never thought about that. All I felt was thankful that this supposed "contradiction" was easy to explain, and we could move on.

All right, what about the accounts actually given in Matthew and Luke? Why are they so different? Enns even says, "Even though Matthew and Luke both include and birth story, their versions are so different you couldn't blame an innocent reader for concluding they are talking about two different births." [p 83] And, wow, yes, he's right, and how in the world have I never thought that before?

Matthew talks about the wise men and the escape to Egypt. Luke talks about the angels and shepherds and the baby lying in a manger. Both have Mary, Joseph, the virgin birth, and happen in Bethlehem. But why wouldn't Luke include the parts that Matthew did, and vice versa?

"AHA! That's not--" no, stop right there. Yes, yes, the apologetics hero is here to tell us clearly all of them happened, the part in Luke happened first, and then the wise men part in Matthew, maybe when Jesus was 2 years old. It's not a contradiction. Fine.

I know the apologetics answer. But I never thought about what it would be like to just read Matthew and engage with the story he is telling, without trying to shove in the other "facts" that we "know" from reading Luke. (Because maybe some of that stuff was actually made up to suit the story each writer was trying to tell. It makes no sense to pull it out with no context and drop it into a completely different story.)

According to Enns' book, Matthew is making Jesus look like Moses. He escaped an order to kill all the male babies. He was later brought out of Egypt. The wise men followed a star *cough pillar of fire cough cough*.

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Similarly, there are 2 stories of the history of Israel: one told in 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, and the other in 1-2 Chronicles. I knew there were a few differences- Chronicles only talks about the kingdom of Judah, and generally takes a more positive view. I had no idea that the writer of Chronicles actually changed some parts of the story to make it that way.

And the example given in the book is just mind-blowing. Remember how I said everything in this chapter was mind-blowing? Yeah.

2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 both give an account of the prophet Nathan giving a promise from God to David. However, in 2 Samuel, it goes like this: "Your house and your king will endure forever before me. Your throne will be established forever." 1 Chronicles says it like this: "I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever." [p 93]

So how come in Samuel it's "your" and in Chronicles it's "my"?

"Are you for real? This is your example of a 'bible contradiction'? Come on, it's just one word! Same thing! It doesn't matter."

That's our friend Perfect-Number-5-years-ago again, helpfully explaining to us how the bible has no contradictions, or at least, no contradictions other than an unimportant word here or there.

But no, Enns says. It is important.

Samuel was written during the time of the kings of Judah. "Your throne will be established forever" meant that there would always be a descendant of David ruling over Judah. But Chronicles was written after the exile. The line of kings was gone. The writer reinterprets God's promise; now the account has God saying "my house and my king." In other words, even though we don't have an actual king right now, God is still in control. Have hope.

Which, I'm fine with the writer trying to communicate that message, but dang, if that's not what the prophet Nathan actually said to David, you can't pretend it is. But apparently in the culture at that time, you could.

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I learned how to read the bible through my love of logic puzzles. An example:

George and Wilma are lying dead on the floor. There are pieces of broken glass around them, and a puddle of water. They are in the living room, which also has an open window. How did they die?

And if you would like a hint:

Hint: They died of suffocation.

Okay, think it over, and then read the answer.

Answer: George and Wilma are goldfish. The wind knocked down their fish tank and it broke, so they died of suffocation, unable to breathe when exposed to the air.

Logic puzzles (or lateral thinking puzzles) like this are challenging because the initial impression you get from reading the story is wrong, and you need to go back and check what was actually explicitly (literally) said, rather than what the writer seemed to be saying. In the end, what was being described turns out to be totally different than what the story said when taken at face value.

Here's another logic problem:

During the creation of the world, on the third day, God said, "Let the earth bring forth plants" and it was so. All kind of trees and vegetation grew.

On the fifth day, the animals that live in the air and seas were created. On the sixth day, land animals were created first, then people. Male and female God created them.

Now no shrub of the field had yet appeared on the earth and no plant of the field had yet sprung up, when the Lord formed a man from the dust. The Lord formed the animals, and brought them to the man to see what he would name them, and if a suitable helper for the man could be found. However, no suitable helper was found, so the Lord formed a woman from a rib taken from the man.

So, in what order were the plants, animals, and humans really created? (Turn to page 71 for the answer.)

Answer: Of course, Perfect-Number-5-years-ago is ready to supply us with the apologetics answer. You see, Genesis 1 is more general, covering how everything in the world was created, and Genesis 2 is just the specifics of what happened on day 6. (Yes Adam totally named all the animals in one afternoon. He was a busy bee.) When it says in Genesis 2 that no plants had grown when God created the man, it just means in that particular area. Of course there were plants elsewhere in the world, but this part is just referring to the Garden of Eden, which God specifically planted just for Adam and Eve.

So, just as in the case with the dead goldfish, we see that our first impression upon reading Genesis 2 is actually not what the writer was trying to say.

That's how "defending the bible" works, and I now see that it misses the point entirely. The reality is, there are 2 creation stories, and we should let each of them stand on its own. They're not talking about things that "really happened" so there's no need to try to reconcile the stories so they occur in the same universe.

How many other bible stories have I completely changed in order to smooth out the contradictions? Well, not "completely changed"- all the literal words are still there- but they're totally reinterpreted so the end result looks nothing like the story that the writer seemed to be telling when we first read it.

And that's what we (evangelical Christians) mean when we say we respect the bible. We treat it like a logic problem, looking for little ways the writer was being tricky and saying things that actually meant something completely different than what you would think.

We should be examining the contradictions and odd bits as a way to help understand what messages the different writers were trying to communicate. Not ignoring them. Not treating them as battles and attacks from atheists.

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Anyway, all these ideas about ancient writing practices seem to make sense and make me feel a lot better about the bible, but I have to ask: If the stories in the bible didn't really happen, then what is my religion based on?

I thought that the bible was recording things that happened, things that God did, and from those accounts we can draw conclusions about spiritual and moral topics. But apparently, the writers started with their ideas about what God is like and who we are, and embellished history (or made stuff up) so that their ideas could be seen in the stories.

Rather than being a collection of spiritual teachings with facts and evidence to back them up, the bible apparently starts with the writers' opinions and goals, and builds a world based on them.

The writers' opinions. So who were these writers? Just some people living in the Middle East a few thousand years ago. Umm, so why would I care about their opinions? What makes their writing unique and worth reading? How is this different/more special than any other ancient religion? What's the point?

Maybe I'm going too far. A lot of the bible stories actually did happen, or at least are based on real things that happened. But how do we separate out which are real and which are made up? (Actually, I bet Enns would argue that trying to separate them like this totally misses the point. And that the term "made up" is not really a good descriptor here.)

What the heck is my religion? Just something I feel should be true about God? Just a story that resonates with me and gives me hope, but doesn't come with any proof or any way to show obvious superiority over other religions?

I thought the bible was the evidence, but apparently that's not what the writers intended it to be. I'm not sure what to do with that.

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Discussion questions:

Have you ever explained away a supposed "bible contradiction" in a way that totally missed the point of the story?

The bible is the best-selling book of all time. Is that because there truly is something unique about it that sets it apart from other books? Would it still have that uniqueness if the stories aren't true?

How much "making stuff up" can you tolerate before the whole religion is baseless? Personally, I agree with Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, when he said, "If Christ has not been raised, we're all screwed." [slight paraphrase] For everything else (the most important being Jesus' miracles), it better be true or somebody better give me a really good explanation of why it was okay to write stuff that didn't really happen.


My other posts about The Bible Tells Me So:

The Worst Bible Story
Blaming the Biblical Victim (And More Horrifying Implications of Scripture) 

The Bible's Contradictions Matter, And It's Not a Logic Problem 
The Bible is a Model, So Use Your Brain 
Jesus Takes the Bible Out of Context 
The Old Testament Does Not Predict Jesus 
Peter Enns Makes Me Want to Actually Read the Bible Again


  1. Have you read Zealot by Reza Aslan? I had a similar reaction to that book as you did to this one.

  2. I haven't read it- looks interesting though. ^_^