So, where were we?
Oh yes, that’s right. I was in the middle of saying that inerrantist appeals to the Bible’s original manuscripts were a dead end because the church has never possessed said manuscripts and, moreover, because there likely never were singular manuscripts from single authors in the sense most people usually imagine. Oh and I ended the main body of the post by saying the Bible has contradictions.
Nothing too crazy, right?
Look, I realize that claims like this fly in the face of what most everyone who reads this blog has long been told, even those of you who don’t hold the Bible in high esteem.
But it’s also not necessarily a minority opinion. To be clear, your average evangelical American would certainly label me grossly misinformed at best. But, to varying degrees, the historic branches of the Church (Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant), not to mention adherents of the Jewish faith, have all taken a less literalistic stance towards the Bible than American evangelicalism has held for the last 150 years or so. And I don’t just mean recently. I mean since the first and second centuries (and earlier on the part of Judaism).
In fact, the notion of inerrancy (as opposed to inspiration or even the more flexible infallibility) is a relatively novel invention. It’s no coincidence that it began to gain traction in Western Protestantism soon after the Enlightenment, around the same time the Roman Catholic Church doubled down on Papal Infallibility. Both moves were attempts to ground faith in a totalizing authority that would be immune to the perceived ills of modernity being realized, at the time, in various political, scientific, and philosophical revolutions.
*I know that was a dense couple of paragraphs, even for me. The tldr (too long didn’t read) version is that inerrancy is a modern invention, coinciding with Papal infalibility, that the church adopted to ward off challenges to biblical authority in the last 200 or so years.*
So let’s just get right down to it. What sorts of challenges – be them contradictions and/or errors – am I talking about?
I spent some time thinking about it and I came up with a handful of categories. These aren’t comprehensive. There may be more. And some of these may overlap or be unfairly simplistic. Sadly, despite my best attempts, this is a blog, not an academic conference.
Anyway, onto the errors:
The first category of errors are scientific errors. Depending on how you read it, the Bible certainly has scientific errors.
There are at least two kinds, explicit and implicit. An example of an explicit error would be the verses in Genesis 1 (and elsewhere in the Bible) that describe the sky as firmament. Ancient Near Eastern peoples actually thought the sky was a solid mass that held back celestial water. We now know this to be scientifically inaccurate.
An implicit error would be a conclusion drawn because of faulty scientific knowledge but one not explicitly stated. One example would be much of the Bible’s explicit treatment of and commentary on women based off of an implicit (in the text) assumption at that time regarding female mental capacity.
Do note that these errors, particularly the explicit category, seem much more benign when we remember that the Bible is not a science text book and never presents itself as such. When we accept that the aims of the Bible are often alien to our own and are given the freedom to contextualize the subject matter of the text appropriately, the threat of these scientific errors is muted and travesties like patriarchy and science denial are more easily corrected.
This broad category – which greatly overlaps with the contradictions category that will be discussed below – covers everything from weird chronological problems (as when trying to reconcile the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke), to archeological challenges (such as the scant evidence for an Exodus or the conquest of Canaan), and even includes simultaneously scientific difficulties such as genetics-based skepticism over a historical Adam and Eve and geological skepticism about a global flood.
All of these sorts of difficulties deserve (and will likely receive) post-length examination at some point. But it’s important, as with the scientific errors, to frame them appropriately.
Many of these historical challenges only appear erroneous because they are being examined on our terms through an anachronistic (adjective: belonging to a period other than that being portrayed) interpretive lens.
For example, the lack of archeological evidence for the conquest of Canaan – at least as portrayed in Joshua and Judges – becomes much less problematic if the original (and known) intent of the author(s) was to present a theological and/or political argument to a people in a much later period, perhaps Judah during the dynastic period or scattered Israel in Babylonian exile.
Similarly, the difficult to reconcile nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke become less daunting if we presume that they were crafted and/or embellished intentionally, not to deceive, but to make bold political and/or theological claims about the (very real and historical) person of Jesus to their diverse, scattered, and/or persecuted audiences.
Evangelicals are fond of saying the Bible doesn’t contain contradictions and they are remarkably adept at either smoothing them over with the tricks of translation (the NIV is notorious for this) or doing serious mental gymnastics to deny their very presence.
And yet some of the most glaring contradictions resist revisionist harmonization. Most of these also deserve a more direct analysis and, fortunately, someone has already provided one. For example:
That time when one of the prophets corrected a historian. Perhaps we shouldn’t try to defend some of those more violent texts.
Who killed Goliath, and how? David you say? Are you sure? A close look at the text suggests it’s not that simple.
The curious case of Chronicles. Does an obscure story cast some doubt on the Exodus narrative?
The twelve (or so) tribes of Israel. Why is it that it’s never as simple as Jacob’s four wives always wanted it to be?
Those are just a few Old Testament examples, on top of the nativity narratives already mentioned from the New Testament. And as with the nativity stories and the other historical examples, many – if not most/all – of these contradictions become non-threatening when we let the Bible speak for itself as an ancient document and allow the norms and expectations of the ancient world to help dictate our interpretations.
When that happens, suddenly we realize that the inspiration and authority of the Bible doesn’t come from an inerrant text but from the way the Spirit of God interrupts and confronts our expectations within the proclamation of the text and, in the process, directs us back to the person and work of Jesus.
There are a few more categories I didn’t cover here. The first is minor textual and grammatical errors. These are the errors often cited by skeptics when they are trying to attack the Bible by simply adding up the total number of errors/subtle differences that are exist between in-tact manuscripts. Evangelicals, quite rightly, are quick to remind these opportunists that most of these errors change nothing of the text’s meaning. As such I don’t feel the need to spend much time on them.
But the other category, which I referenced in my first post in this series, concerns the subject of myth. Using the Bible and myth in the same sentence is arch-heresy for most evangelical Christians. But it’s a category that demands to be taken seriously if we are to maintain a high view of scripture. And I believe Christians should want to maintain a high view of scripture. And so myth is going to get it’s very own post.
Lastly, I need to address the often violent nature of the biblical narrative which, historically, has been used to justify a multitude of great evils. This subject deserves more than just a post. It deserves an entire series of posts. And it will certainly get one in the coming weeks. But in the mean time it will get an abridged treatment as part of this series.
And then, after all that, once I’ve thoroughly undermined everything you once held dear about the authority of the Bible, I’m going to attempt to build you back up again by showing that all of this needn’t lead you to abandon the belief that God inspires and speaks through the Biblical text, that is still provides an authoritative account of divine revelation, and that some of your most cherished (or loathed) spiritual practices like memorization and mediation can be retained.
If I haven’t scared you off by this point then I’m trusting that you’re along for the duration. In that case I’d love to hear how you’re processing all of this. Love it or hate it, everyone benefits from communal dialogue.
If you need some resources to dig deeper, I provided a bunch in yesterday’s post.
And as always, the best way to join the move the conversation along is by reading, wrestling, commenting, and sharing!
Grace and peace.