A few weeks ago I wrote about genocide that was commanded by God in the Bible. This week I wanted to finish the two part serious on Peter Enns book, The Bible Tells Me So…Why Defending Scripture Has Made US Unable To Read It.
Some would deny that the Bible contracts itself or offers differing perspectives, but anyone who has studied the Bible in depth cannot deny these – though many do enter into intense gymnastics to jump around or try to explain away the contradictions.
Enns talks about the fact that there are four different gospel stories that do not all line up perfectly. It should also be noted that while these gospels are traditionally attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, these disciples were unlikely the authors of these gospel accounts (John is one exception – though it was redacted heavily). Each gospel writer tells their story in unique ways because they were addressing a specific audience and wanted to get specific points across.
The birth of Jesus is not even mentioned in Mark (the first gospel written) or John. Many scholars agree that Matthew most likely created some of his birth stories (e.g. the Magi and killing of babies by King Herod).
And then there’s the resurrection story.
Who is first to find an empty tomb?
In Matthew it was two women – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary and are greeted by an earthquake and an angel.
In Luke there are many women including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Jesus, and the other women. No earthquake and not angel but two men (the two men could be interpreted as angels).
Marks gospel has a shorter and a longer ending. The longer ending was most likely added on sometime in the second century. The shorter ending has four who visit the empty tomb – Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Solome. They see one man (not two) and do not experience an earthquake.
John’s story has Mary Magdalene who goes alone to the empty tomb and runs back to tell the disciples. Peter and another disciple race back to the tomb. There is no angel, no man, and no earthquake.
So we have four differing accounts. Was it two women? Four women? One women? Did they see an angel or angels or men? Was there an earthquake? These answers depend upon which gospel story one is reading from.
Enns then writes about the two differing stories within the Christian Old Testament. The first story is told in 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings while the Israelites were in exile. The second story that was written about two centuries later, after the exile, is 1 & 2 Chronicles. These two stories note different details and do not always agree.
This reminds me a lot of the prophets which we talked about at length my Hebrew Bible class. The different prophets challenged each other, saw things differently, and disagreed because each was wrestling through their current context in light of the past and trying their best to see into the future.
2 Samuel 24 states, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them…”
1 Chronicles 21 states, “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.”
So which is it? Was it God or was it Satan? (I wrote about the evolution of the view of Satan here).
Below is a short (not exhaustive list) of other places the Bible contradicts itself take from a great book by Kenton Sparks titled Sacred Word Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture
In some places God changing God’s mind and others claim that God never changes God’s mind – Gen 6:6-7; James 1:17
Some places describe God as having a physical body and others no body – Is 6:1; Amos 9:1; Jn 4:24.
Some texts say that Israel knew God’s name as Yahweh, while other texts say that they did not know God’s name – Gen 28:16; Ex 6:2-3.
Some texts tell Israel to boil the Passover meal and another forbids boiling it – Deut 16:7, Ex 12:9.
Some texts declare that God will judge the children of sinners and others say that God will not harm them – Ex 20:5; Deut 24:16.
One text says that Jesus’ family was originally from Nazareth, and another that says Bethlehem – Luke 2:1-4; Matt 1-2.
One text says that Jesus’ family moved to Nazareth soon after his birth, and another that says this took place several years after – Luke 2:39-40; Matt 1-2.
One text declares that there is no excuse for idol worshipers and another gives them an excuse – Rom 1:18-23; Acts 17:29-31.
One text says David paid 50 shekels of silver for Israel’s temple site, and another that says he paid 600 shekels of gold – 2 Sam 24:24; I Chron 21:25.
The Bible claims there was a world wide flood that killed almost everything, but geological evidence proves this never happened.
If one reads the Bible seriously, one cannot just ignore these things and claim the Bible is without error.
How then should we read these stories?
I think a better way to read these stories is to ask why the original authors wrote these stories down the way they did. There was a point, a reason, why these stories exist (and others don’t) and continued to be passed along.
If one believes that God inspired the Bible, and believes that God’s Spirit was at work among the people who canonized the Bible, then we have these stories for a reason. I do not think that the reason we have these stories is to give us a rule book for how we are to live in the 21st century, but rather they are to give us a way people have engaged with the divine through their perspectives, their times, and in their places.
The Bible, as Enns suggests, is not a simple how-to manuel where we look how God acted in one stories and we extract that to mean that is how God acts in all times and places. The Bible is much more complex than that.
I cannot write without adding what I see as the crux of the story – Jesus. I read the Bible as a human journey to better understanding God, i.e. progressive revelation. This revelation climaxes in Jesus who I believe is the image of God. Jesus shows us that God is not distant, angry, or punitive, but is loving, forgiving, and merciful.
Unfortunately, a lot of violence has been and continues to be done in the name of a non violent and loving God. I would say that this god is not the god revealed in Jesus, but just as the Israel often viewed God as violent because of their consciousness at the time, we continue to struggle with ways to better understand God today. In this way the Bible seems most relevant to us in the 21st century!