I have always loved the Bible, and I do still enjoy it as literature (I probably read it more than most of my Christian friends), alas I simply cannot trust it as a divinely inspired book.
Why? The answer is long, and a little complicated, so I hope I won’t bore you, in fact, it’s because of this that I have been putting off this series of posts for a very long time. When it comes to detailed and controversial topics like this, I tend to wear out half of my audience and enrage the other.
- Because questions like these tend to get very hostile, very fast, let me first assure you, I am not writing out of enmity, hatred, or strife, rather I write from sincerity and a deep longing to accept things that are true and reject things that are false. I likewise wish for you to do the same. I am willing to believe anything, so long as I can at least be somewhat confident that its the truth. You may not agree with my conclusions, but at least you may see that these are reached after careful and honest investigation.
It took a very unrelated event to finally force me into writing this. It all began as I was listening through an obtuse lecture series on the epistemic problem of induction (I’m not boring, I promise). Grappling with difficult questions made me recall how easy things once were, and for a second I began to wish that I could yet again just accept the Bible as a divinely inspired book which contains God’s word. Things would be so simple and easy! There is so much comfort found in such an idea: “God wrote a book” and we have it. Believing that you have “Gods book” provides you with an epistemic foundation, an existential anchor, and reassuring solace when dealing with the unknown. In fact, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Hindus, and others who claim to have divine writings from around the world attest to this feeling every day.
This made me wonder: so why did I choose to take the difficult path? Why can’t I just take the easy way? Why can’t I just believe what I was taught and quietly live my life? What is it within me that burns and hungers for truth?
Why can’t I just believe in the “good book” like most of my friends? Why must I spend thousands of hours of my life searching for answers, critically thinking, analyzing, and questioning? It’s so much easier to just think “(my version of) God said it, I believe it, that settles it!”
This question pulled me away from the lecture series, and I went and picked up my Bible, yet again, almost crossing my fingers, with the eager hope that I would see something new and wonderful. As I read a few pages I was quickly reminded: I chose the only path I could choose while remaining honest.
- This actually happens to me all the time. I wonder if I am crazy, and think perhaps I’ve just been deceived by the devil. I wonder if the Bible is indeed Gods inerrant word and I’m just crazy or blind. In this panic I rush to pick up my Bible, eagerly read it for 15-30 minutes, and every single time I put it down, being even more certain: The Bible, for all intents and purposes, looks nothing like a perfect book written by God, it’s utterly human and flawed.
This series of posts will explain why.
WHAT OPTIONS DO WE HAVE?
When we approach the Bible, we generally have two options, either
- It was divinely inspired or influenced by God (at least at some level), or
- It was composed only by human means without any divine involvement
I contend that when one honestly examines the evidence, its undeniable that #2 is the only honest answer.
THE BIBLE CONTAINS MANY VOICES THAT DISAGREE AND CONTRADICT
The most dishonest words I ever uttered from the pulpit are these: “As proof that the Bible is real, consider that it is perfectly consistent, even though it’s written by 40 authors over 1,500 years. It tells one cohesive story with one consistent theme!” This is a Christian meme, a viral transmitted idea, that dominates Protestant culture. The more fundamentalist one is, the more likely she is to hear this, believe it, and re-transmit this meme to others. And yet, scholars of the Bible tell a vastly different story. (And here, allow me to cite the scholars, because one can try to argue that I am wrong, but the true experts don’t think like me.)
Michael Carasik, a Jewish scholar of the Bible writes:
- “The different parts of the Bible were written at different times, in different styles, by different people with differing perspectives. That world, like our own, was on in which people disagreed, often loudly, about politics and about religion. These disagreements, along with other compositions that can sometimes be very personal are all found today lumped together in what we call “the bible.” (1)
Jacques Berlinerblau, another scholar of ancient Hebrew literature says:
- “One of the greatest challenges that a college professor of Bible faces is getting his or her bewildered charges to not think of the Bible as they would a modern book. The Bible is an anthology. It is a collection of discrete documents written by different people, with different perspectives, living at different times, and beholden to completely different worldviews… This would account, in part, for that jarring inconsistencies, puzzling contradictions, and thematic tensions found in the finished product.” (2)
This same idea is echoed by most textbooks on the Bible, including those used in Christian seminaries, see for example Robert Kugler and Patrick Hartin’s seminary textbook, titled “An Introduction to the Bible”
- “Readers of the Pentateuch, Genesis though Deuteronomy have long observed the presence of double version of narratives, contradictions of fact, and variations of vocabulary and styles.” (4)
Yoram Hazony, in his award award winning book “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” declares that;
- “The biblical authors disagree among themselves time and time again, even over what might seem to be issues of the greatest importance. No one can harmonize Isaiah’s claim that in the time of the king-to-come all the earth will have one God with the prophet Micha’s vision, in which each nation will walk with its own god, and Israel will walk with theirs. Similarly, Isaiah sees mankind beating their swords into plowshares and coming to be judged at Jerusalem. But the vision of Joel is different, and he writes that when the nations come to Jerusalem to be judged, they will beat their plowshares into swords – for judgment will come on the battlefield. To understand the Hebrew Bible, then, is first to recognize it as an artful compendium, whose purpose is not – and never was – to present a single viewpoint.” (5)
Yet if you go into a Christian bookstore, you will find dozens of books by popular fundamentalist leaders that claim to resolve all of the “alleged contradiction,” though most of these are written by authors who are not biblical scholars. For example, Ken Ham (who is an anti-evolutionist minister), Norman Giesler (a minister and philosopher), Josh McDowell (a minister and apologist), Henry Morris (a minister and engineer), though there are a few cases where real biblical scholars publish this as well, like the Harvard trained Gleason Leonard Archer, Jr (pastor, theologian, and biblical scholar). Because there are thousands of biblical scholars, one can always find some ultra conservative theologians that have a commitment to biblical inerrancy, but this position is in the minority among Jews/Christians in biblical studies, and completely absent among scholars of all other backgrounds.
In fact, many believers are comfortable with admitting these discrepancies as part of their theology. This is what a Marc Zvi Brettler, a Hebrew scholar and a practicing Jew writes:
- “According to my view of biblical authority, it is within my rights to “select” particular biblical texts as more important than others. I perform this selection out of an awareness that the Bible is a contradictory anthology, and thus speaks in many voices… I must decide which voice is authoritative… I must decide if I should “hold the feast of Booths for seven days” (Deut. 16:13) or if I should append it to “a complete rest on the eight day” (Lev 23:39. Similarly, I would have to decide whether the prohibition against eating nonslaughtered meat applies to me (Deut 14:21) or only to priests, and whether as a nonpriest I may eat a cow found dead by the side of the road (see Lev 17:15). These texts are to my mind irreconcilable, and along with many other examples, offer clear proof of the validity of the documentary hypothesis, the theory that the Torah is a composite document, written by different authors at different times and reflecting different interests.” Engaging Biblical Authority: Perspectives on the Bible as Scripture edited by William P. Brown, Marc Zvi Brettler (link)
Or the Christians Seminary professors Ronald J. Allen, Joseph R. Jeter, in their textbook “One Gospel Many Ears”:
- “Some biblical writers disagree with one another. The Deuteronomist, for instance, assumes that obedience begets prosperity while disobedience calls forth a curse, but the book of Job says, “not necessarily.” Readers are advised in 1 Peter to be obedient to the emperor since the emperor is Gods agent, but the book of Revelation regards the Roman empire as an instrument of Satan. The Bible is not a rigid anvil… [there are] many forms of pluralism in the Bible.” (6)
And as previously mentioned, Bruce Metzger a leading biblical scholar and who was himself a deeply devout Christian, wrote that:
- “The Bible thus speaks with many voices, and, from the time of its emergence as an authoritative sacred text, readers and interpreters have noted its many repetitions, inconsistencies, and contradictions.” (7)
WHAT TYPES OF BIBLICAL DISCREPANCIES ARE THERE?
There are hundreds of instances where different biblical authors narrate the same sequence of events or doctrines with significant and irreconcilable differences. There are many lists and examples of this, for examples, visit BibleViz. Generally speaking, biblical discrepancies occur because of two issues, (a) when some historical event did indeed occur but due to the unreliability of human memory and oral tradition, this is retold quite differently by various authors, and (b) because of the fact that the Bible was written over such a wide range of cultures, political views, and time periods, that in many cases historical (or mythical) events, and doctrines/teachings, were reinterpreted by different authors in their own context.
1. Historical discrepancies
As an example, there are two stories regarding the death of Judas, with radically different storylines, locations, and events portrayed. In one story Judas returns the money to the temple and hangs himself, in another story, he keeps the money –using it to purchase some property, but falls headfirst and is killed by the fall. While some creative attempts by conservative Christians have been employed to try to explain how one can both hang himself, and die by falling headfirst, these always fail to account the many other differences (i.e. Did he return/keep the money? Did he purchase the field or did the Pharisees purchase it? Why was it bought and named?). Some other examples include the discrepancy as to when Jesus was seized in the Garden of Gethsemane, the two different times during which Jesus died, the differing dates of the Nativity, as well as the radically different Nativity stories as a whole
Both of these are historical discrepancies. The event that the stories are based on likely did happen, in some form, however, because humans are prone to misremembering, embellishing a story, theologizing, and retelling it incorrectly, we see very different versions of the story.
As an example, the earlier writings of the Torah contain many instances where the text depicts Yahweh giving the Hebrews ceremonial laws regarding burnt offerings (Ex 20:24, 29:10-42, Lev 1:1-7:38, Num 28:1-29:40). Yet, during a different period in Hebrew culture, we see another set of authors claim otherwise, the book of Jeremiah depicts God saying “For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, ‘Obey My voice, and I will be your God.” (Jer 7:22-23). It’s patently obvious there are two very different views on what God actually said, this cannot be denied without resorting to blatant dishonesty. In this case, its clear that we are seeing two sets of biblical authors in a debate over what Yahweh actually said in the past.
There are many even bigger theological discrepancies, for example, should a follower of Yahweh kill ones enemy, murder their children, and take their girls into slavery (Exodus 32:27–29, Ezekiel 9:4-6, Numbers 31:17–18 , 1 Samuel 15:2-3) or should a follower of Yahweh love their enemy, turn the other cheek, and give prayer and wealth to ones enemies? (Matthew 5:38-47). Other theological disagreements are centered on the questions like whether God can deceive people or not, and whether the Gospels teach salvation by faith or salvation by works. These kinds of theological discrepancies, in my opinion, are far worse than narrative or historical discrepancies.
WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL?
In the beginning of this post I laid out two possibilities (and these may represent a range of positions, not so much a black/white dichotomy).
1.The Bible was divinely inspired or influenced
2.The Bible was composed only by human means (no divine influence)
In the end it is the goal of any intellectually honest individual to survey the Bible and to see what theory the evidence fits better.
Here is an undeniable fact:
- The Bible has discrepancies and contradictions. Or at the very least, it’s written in such a way that there are hundreds of verses that seem to be contradictions (even though for some unknown reason are not) which has led almost all biblical scholars and countless readers to become convinced the bible has contradictions. This surely could have been avoided by a divine author seeking to clearly convey the truth in a way that avoids confusion. Surely if God were the author he would have known the two stories of Judas’ death seem to be impossible to reconcile, and would have written them more clearly?
Ask yourself, which theory does this fact fit better? The first or the second? Are historical discrepancies and theological inconsistencies a better fit for the “divine hypothesis” or the “human hypothesis”? I strongly believe that if we are to be fair, we must admit the inability of the Bible to present a cohesive and consistent voice is very strong evidence that it lacks divine inspiration. Humans make historical mistakes, are highly inaccurate, change their mind regarding theology; God does not.
(To be continued)