Questions and Challenges: Part 3

“And why does it [the Bible] have so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies?

I am not a rector, the priest-in-charge of a parish. But, throughout my life and in a few churches I have been in positions of spiritual leadership with a certain limited authority. It is not uncommon for such a figure to receive a complaint from a parishioner/congregant followed by this or similar statement of emphasis, “And you know, I’m not the only one who feels this way. There are several others, and I speak for them, too.” As far as I am concerned — God help me — there is only one proper response to such a thing: “Well, trot them out so I can deal with their specific complaints one-by-one and face to face.” There is no real place in the church for nameless others and generic complaints. It is impossible to effectively address either.

I feel that same way with the challenge before me in this post: “And why does it [the Bible] have so many inaccuracies and inconsistencies?” To this I want to respond, “Well, trot them out so I can deal with them one-by-one, specifically and not generically.” This complaint, as it stands, lacks the courage of its convictions. It is not possible to refute such a general and baseless charge. And yet, I must say something about it, I think.

I remember the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton and his infamous statement, “Well, it depends on what the meaning of “is” is.” Oh, Bill: if you have to parse the language that precisely, you might just as well admit that the charge against you is true. What I am about to do might seem similar, but I think it is not at all the same. The charge stands that the Bible contains “many inaccuracies and inconsistencies,” to which I’m afraid I must respond, “ Well, it depends on what you mean by inaccuracies and inconsistencies.”

Let me explain by way of example. The opening line of Charles Dickens’ great novel A Tale of Two Cities reads:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Life, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Well, Charles, which it it? Pick a side. Can you image a single sentence more crammed full of inaccuracies and inconsistencies? And yet, we do not count this as such because we recognize the form as a beautiful literary device used to great effect by the author to tell a single truth; it was an age of hyperbole, the best and worst of everything co-mingled and co-existing. Only an illiterate would accuse Dickens of authoring inaccuracies and inconsistencies. But, many Biblical critics fall into just this unfortunate habit. By failing to appreciate and understand the Biblical text for what it is — its various literary, theological, and historical forms — they find inaccuracies and inconsistencies where there are none, where, in fact, there is great truth.

Let’s consider the Gospels, for example. If you assume that these are documentary style historical records in the modern sense — what a reporter with camera and microphone would have seen and heard had one been present — then you will find inaccuracies and inconsistencies. But, history of that kind is a modern literary form unknown to the four evangelists and their historical contemporaries. For them, for much for much of human history, written and oral history was an agenda-driven recounting of events. Don’t misunderstand: the events were not fictitious, were not made up of whole cloth. But, neither were they simply reported “objectively.” They were edited, arranged, interconnected to achieve a purpose. St. John says as much; he lays his cards on the table near the end of his Gospel:

John 20:30–31 (ESV): 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John, probably an old man when he writes this, has reflected on the events surrounding Jesus for an entire lifetime, has woven them into worship and prayer and faithful service, has based his life on them. And now he tells them in a unique, theologically reflective way that he prays will conduce to faith in his readers. In doing so, he pens a narrative that looks very different from the other three Gospels, the Synoptics (same view). Careful readers will notice the differences. One, in particular, stands out to me. John seems to place the death of Jesus a full day before the authors of the Synoptics. Why? To make the death of Jesus coincide with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs at the Temple, to show the blood of Jesus as that which averts death, to show the death of Jesus as the beginning of God’s new exodus and liberation of his people. John is not making a chronological statement but rather a theological one. This is not an inconsistency or inaccuracy because John never intended to give his readers a precise timeline of events; he is giving his readers something much more important — the deeply theological meaning/truth of the events. Bible critics will point to this as a problem; Christians accept it as a gift.

There are other differences even amongst the Synoptic Gospels. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew becomes the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. And, the text of the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer differ in the two Gospels. If you are of a mind to, you can explain away these differences: surely, Jesus had a basic “stump speech,” a standard “ready-to-hand” sermon and prayer that he taught throughout Galilee, adapting them as necessary for the people and the places. But really, why try to account for the differences at all, as if they actually are inconsistencies and inaccuracies? That is is give far too much credence to a baseless, generic charge against Scripture. They are simply different tellings of a common, received tradition adapted to the purpose of the author and the needs of his readers: nothing more or less, and certainly nothing compromising or nefarious. The different accounts of the events of Resurrection (Easter) morning fall in this same category. It is difficult to reconstruct a specific timeline and dramatis personae — who was there, when and where. That is not the point of the story. Something so unexpected, so radical, frankly so unbelievable has occurred that you cannot image a polished, connect-the-dots recounting of it. Only a somewhat breathless, slightly askew narrative can even begin to do justice to the wonder of this inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. This is theological literature — by God! — and not some humdrum “just the facts, ma’am.” If you still want to insist that these differences constitute inconsistencies and inaccuracies, I can only suggest that you learn the art of story telling and then get back with me. Also, read some real theology while you’re at it.

Without the plaintiff coming forward to identify specific inconsistencies and inaccuracies, this is perhaps the best I can do by way of defense and rebuttal. Actually, I can think of several other examples of supposed contradictions that are usually hauled out to debunk the Bible. I could mention them and address them, but why should I do the plaintiff’s work for him? No, if he has specific charges to make, he must trot them out himself.

Now, I am going to say something that might shock some of you. Here I express my own opinion and you are free to disagree. I would not be bothered by minor, real, factual errors in the Bible. Suppose, for example, that a chronicler made a mistake in the order of succession of two Israelite kings. Would such a thing invalidate Scripture? I think not. Remember that, as with most everything God does in relation to the world, there is dual agency at play: God and man as co-workers to achieve God’s will. For some reason that I don’t fully understand, this is the way that God chooses to work. He condescends to unite us — our gifts and our flaws — to himself and to grant us the dignity of working with and for him. And — no surprise — humans are not perfect; we make mistakes. The human co-authors of Scripture were not exceptions. Please don’t let this scandalize you; I offer it as a personal conviction and you are free to reject it. But, I would ask you to consider this. Read the Gospels. Read the Acts of the Apostles. Read Galatians, especially chapter two. Ask yourself this: were the apostles inerrant? Peter, Paul, James, John were terribly flawed individuals. And yet they were faithful. And yet, God did not hesitate to put the Church into their hands. There is an old saying that God draws straight with crooked lines. The whole of Scripture shows that to be true. The apostles made some real blunders and were not thereby invalidated or cast aside as useless. Can we possibly grant the same grace to the authors of Scripture?

Well, whatever you think about that, here is what we can say with certainty about the Scriptures: it is the book that God has given us, the book that God wants us to have, the book through which the Holy Spirit works for us and for our salvation. Paul says it best, and we really need to say nothing beyond this:

2 Timothy 3:14–17 (ESV): 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

And that is why my faith would not be shaken if an interlocutor could produce a real, factual error in Scripture, a minor slip of the author’s pen. The sacred writings — as we have them and not in some imagined pristine form — are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. That is their purpose.

About johnaroop

I am a husband, father, retired teacher, lover of books and music and coffee and, as of 17 May 2015, by the grace of God and the will of his Church, an Anglican priest in the Anglican Church in North America, Anglican Diocese of the South. I serve as assisting priest at Apostles Anglican Church in Knoxville, TN, and as Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of the South.
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