In today’s post I’d like to go back to that intriguing little article by Louis Markos in the journal First Things, which he entitled “Errant Ehrman.” If you’ll recall from my post last week, Markos starts the article by indicating that he felt “great pity” for me because I was the wrong kind of fundamentalist back when I was a conservative Christian. My problem, he indicates, is that I applied modern standards to decide whether the Bible was inerrant. Here are his words:
He [Ehrman] was taught, rightly, that there are no contradictions in the Bible, but he was trained, quite falsely, to interpret the non-contradictory nature of the Bible in modern, scientific, post-Enlightenment terms. That is to say, he was encouraged to test the truth of the Bible against a verification system that has only existed for some 250 years…..
And so, as I pointed out last time, the right kind of true believer is obviously one who does not “test the truth of the Bible” by modern standards using modern criteria, but only by pre-modern, pre-Enlightenment ones. I suppose I could live with this criticism if I had even the most remote sense that Markos really means it. But I simply don’t think he does. And not only for the reasons I pointed out last week. Here’s another strange thing. The prompt for this discussion of my pitiable state is a book by Craig Blomberg that Markos is reviewing for the journal (why he put my name in the title rather than the name of the author of the book is somewhat beyond me). In this review he points out that, unlike me in my fundamentalist days, Blomberg has the right understanding of the Bible as having no contradictions or mistakes of any kind. This is what Markos says:
Blomberg offers as his definition of inerrancy one penned by Paul Feinberg: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”
I have to say that I wonder if Markos really intends us to take him seriously. On the one hand he wants to argue that we are not to evaluate the Bible on post-Enlightenment terms, and yet he also wants to argue that the Bible contains no contradictions with science. Uh, how is that to work exactly? Does he mean that the Bible does not contradict the scientific views of, say, 1000 BCE? I suppose that’s true enough. But technically speaking there were no “social, physical, or life sciences” then. So he must be talking about modern science. Does he really want to say that the Bible is not at odds with modern science??
It’s true that he presents a couple of caveats to protect himself. (a) The books of the Bible is inerrant “only in their original autographs.” That means that if you find a flat out contradiction, it is a contradiction only because scribes changed the original text to create a problem. And how do we know that? Well, truth be told, we don’t. The opposite is actually the case. Textual scholars have known for 300 years that scribes altered their text to get *rid* of contradictions, not to create them. But there is also this: (b) The books of the bible are inerrant only when they are “properly interpreted.” So if you can’t resort to scribal mistake to account for contradictions, then you can simply always say that crazy agnostics find problems with the Bible simply because they don’t know what the text really means. If they *did* know the real meaning of the text, they would see that there are no contradictions, no discrepancies, no conflicts with any of the modern sciences.
So, to reiterate my first point, I don’t see how Markos imagines a pre-Enlightenment understanding of the Bible is going to help us to see that the Bible does not contradict what the sciences tell us. Doesn’t his definition of inerrancy presuppose a post-Enlightenment agenda and criterion of evaluation?
But the bigger problem is that I’m afraid what he says is simply not true. It is oh so easy to show that the Bible contains discrepancies with science (in “what it affirms”) and flat-out contradictions. This is shooting fish in a barrel. Let’s just stick with the Hebrew Bible for a minute. (If I feel inspired, I may continue this into the NT in a later post). Here are a couple of “for instances” that any sophomore religious studies major could point out (and that major scholars who have devoted their lives to the task of interpreting the Bible have elaborated for many years):
A couple of scientific queries. Let’s stick with Genesis 1-2.
- Have you ever noticed that God creates “light” on earth before there was sun, moon, and stars in Genesis 1? (The reason it is taking place on earth is because that first day – it’s a real day, btw, not a geological age — consists of an “evening and a morning”). That there was, in fact, water on earth before sun, moon, and stars? That there was vegetation on earth before sun, moon, and stars? This is not a far-out liberal reading of the text. It’s what the text says.
- Is it possible to interpret Genesis 2 in any way other than to say that it’s author believed that Adam and Eve were the first two humans who were created directly by God – Adam from the earth and Eve from his side – and not as descended from earlier forms of primate? (This does not contradict the “physical…sciences”??)
- Is it not the case the Genesis 2:5-7 really does say that Adam (the first man) was created “when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up” – that is, before there was any vegetation on earth, let alone other animals (which are all created after Adam in order to see what he would name them).
Are we really to believe that when “correctly interpreted” in pre-Enlightenment ways, these . problems are going to disappear? Or consider discrepancies. I’m about out of space, so here I’ll just mention two. Let’s be generous and leave the creation stories behind, and move on to the book of Exodus.
- Can Exodus 6:3 be right when it says, quite explicitly, that Yahweh was not known by his name Yahweh to the Patriarchs starting with Abraham in the book of Genesis, when Gen. 4;26 indicates that people were calling upon the “name of Yahweh” long before the Patriarchs, and Gen. 15:6- explicitly says that Abraham believed Yahweh, and that Yahweh says to him “I am Yahweh” and Abraham then addresses him as “Yahweh”?
- Or (one of my favorites) in the account of the ten plagues that Moses performed against the Egyptians to convince the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” if Exod. 9:6 is right that during the fifth plague “all of the livestock” of the Egyptians were killed, then how can 9:19-20, 25 also be right that shortly afterward, during the seventh plague, the hailstorm killed all of the “livestock” of the Egyptians in the fields? What livestock?
OK, I obviously could go on like this for days, weeks, and months. These are issues well known to everyone who studies the Bible closely. I do not think it is pitiable to think that the Bible has errors. I should point out that, for what it’s worth, the definition of inerrancy that Markos sets forth, quoting Blomberg quoting Feinberg, is very, very close to the definition I myself would have given in the days of my fundamentalism. It is not an improvement on what I thought. It is what I thought. I don’t think so any more. At the end of the day, it’s for one simple reason: it ain’t true. Maybe *that’s* the pity….