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Being Willing to Accept the Truth

Here I’d like to add just a couple of more reflections on whether critical scholars *have* to claim there are contradictions in the Bible because of their beliefs.  As I tried to state as strongly as I could in my previous post, I think the answer is absolutely not.

To begin with, let me stress that I started learning about serious contradictions when I was in a Christian theological seminary taking biblical studies courses with committed Christian teachers who were devoted to the church.   But they were also scholars and refused to accept fundamentalist understandings of the Bible.  Their theology was much more sophisticated than the simple “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” mentality I had grown up on.

These were incredibly intelligent and learned scholars intimately familiar with the texts in Greek and Hebrew and massively well-read in scholarship going back centuries in various modern languages.    They didn’t accept easy answers and pushed their students to realize that knowing what the New Testament really is, as opposed to what one might hope it could be, is vital not only for the sake of true knowledge in and of itself but also for the right understanding of the Christian faith among people committed to the truth.

And they knew full well the Bible was filled with contradictions.  They didn’t *have* to find them.  But they wanted to know what was true, and not to hide their heads in the sand or stick their fingers in their ears and hum loudly so as not to have to think or hear something that was uncomfortable for them.   Would that more Christians were like that.  (Many, many are, of course; but not many of the ones I grew up with!)

These scholar-professors were certainly not invested in creating contradictions that weren’t there.  But they were interested in knowing more about these biblical books, in reality, not in fantasy.   Even though I no longer accept my teachers’ views theologically – I am no longer a Christian – I continue to accept this approach to the Bible.  That means on one hand that I don’t take this approach because I’m a critical non-Christian.  I take it because I think it’s important and consistent with the truth, for both Christians and non-Christians.

On the other hand it means that …

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Were Miracle Stories Originally in the Gospels?
Do My Biases Mean I *Have* to Find Contradictions?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    robgrayson  May 21, 2019

    Apologies for the off-topic comment: as a recent new subscriber, I’ve noticed that I seem to only be able to see comments on a post once I’ve left a comment on it myself. Is this by design, or is there some way to see comments that I’ve yet to discover?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      Really? That’s weird. Better send me an email so we can figure it out.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  May 21, 2019

    The reality is that many people can’t deal with the contradictions inherent to both Life and History (which is just a record of Life)–and that isn’t just theists. Certain personality types want to rationalize everything, claim they’ve found a perfect system of belief, and for them any contradiction at all is a problem. This habit of thought persists from one system to the next, and corrupts all of them.

    “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Well said, Herr Kant–but you still tried to come up with a way to prove beyond a doubt if an action is moral. And you couldn’t do it. 😉

  3. Avatar
    johnmaxx  May 21, 2019

    For me, the debate revealed (again) the human propensity to view topics through the lens of the belief systems important to that individual. While reading Rev Firth’s portion of the debate, I was reminded of the internal machinations often required to reconcile certain aspects of faith against a reality contradictory to that faith. A thinking process I myself deployed during much my earlier life in order to resolve any evidence contradicting my religious belief system. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty, of course. A form of self-deception of which the practitioner is nearly always wholly unaware. It’s a fascinating and sometimes dangerous part of being human.

    To his credit, Rev Firth’s arguments seemed credible on the surface; it’s obvious he’s given the idea of Biblical contradictions a great deal of thought. But as Occam’s razor suggests, the simplest conclusion is usually the one closest to the truth. In this case, the conclusion being the writers of the Gospels had a different understanding of both events and, in some instances, the teachings of Jesus. Not radically different, but different nonetheless.

    From my point of view, Dr. Ehrman has nothing to defend. Those who read his work know him to be a good critical thinker who his well reasoned in his points of view. His open-mindedness and intellectual honesty are precisely what interests me with his writing.

  4. Avatar
    nichael  May 21, 2019

    I’d like to add a few word to your final point about “a tiny flaw making the whole superstructure collapse”.

    It seems to me that this sort of strict, literalist reading is a problem with many on both sides of this discussion as it is often framed. Just as there are those who claim that, say, if the Bible implies that the earth was created in seven days it *must* be true, there are those on the “other side” who make the argument that since we can prove that this is not factually true it necessarily follows that there can be *no* validity to any of the (moral, ethical, spiritual, etc) teachings in a text such as the Bible.

    [Perhaps this is best typified by things like Bill Maher’s “Talking Snake” rant. That is, if there was no talking snake it immediately follows that any discussion of the comfort, sense of community, teachings of care and charity, etc, that one might take from such a text can serve as nothing more than the basis for a cheap, snarky gag-line.]

    In short, these are not historical documents and should not be treated as such. Any argument based on the assumption that they are (from either side of the debate) is badly missing the point.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      I’m not sure what you mean by saying they are not “historical” documents. Do you mean they don’t present history as it really happened? I guess I’d say that that could be said about most documents! But it’s certainly true of the Gospels….

  5. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  May 21, 2019

    This is simply the wisest comment that I have heard (read) from you or ANY honest biblical scholar. My respect for you, already immense, has grown exponentially by reading this.

    Thank you for your service to humanity,, sir.

  6. Avatar
    jogon  May 21, 2019

    Bart, given Matt Firth’s attempts to wriggle out of contradictions based on the original Greek, which he doesn’t seem to have a clear grasp of, do you think some contradictions become more apparent if you can read the texts in Greek?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 21, 2019

      Yeah, well, that Jairus one is dead obvious if you actually read it in Greek. Non-Greek readers may have thought he had an interesting counter, but uh… I’ll probably deal with that in the next post.

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  May 21, 2019

    It’s really helpful to hear your thoughts and analysis of this issue. That’s something that has always mystified me – the need that some Christians have to see the Bible as factually correct in all places, and as the literal transcription of the word of God. I’m guessing this is more a modern phenomenon(?) I knew by the time I was 7 or 8 that there couldn’t have been a literal “first couple” – Adam and Eve (though I did believe in the divinity of Jesus until about my sophomore year in college, for some reason). I think your analysis of why some Christians need to see the Bible as containing no contradictions is spot on. If they can question one part of it, that then risks opening up the floodgates for a critical analysis of the entire thing. One has to wonder how a mature understanding of their faith can be so threatening to some.

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  May 21, 2019

    It was in a Bible class, decades and decades ago, that I first realized that the two genealogies of Jesus are different. The teacher was reading these genealogies aloud when I suddenly blurted out “Hey, these two genealogies are different.” I was then told that the first genealogy was that of Joseph and the second was that of Mary. I scratched my head, and more than a little puzzled, then asked “Why didn’t the Bible authors just say this as it would have taken only a few words to do so.” I was then told that the Bible was written in a male dominated society where genealogies could never be listed as coming from a woman. This was for me the first in a long line of dominoes to fall. The discovery of other contradictions on my own, such as in the empty tomb events, were more important in my search than the theodicy problem affecting you because these contradictions, and how they occurred, result in questions about what we can really know about the historical Jesus which is the crucial question of Christianity.

  9. Avatar
    AstaKask  May 21, 2019

    The thing is, if you allow this kind of maneuvering for the Bible you have to also allow it for other documents, religious or not. I wonder what that would do for the historical profession…

  10. Avatar
    mikezamjara  May 21, 2019

    Exactly, They inhabit a house of crystal and they spend much time trying to avoid it to collapse and, at the same time they stone everyone who disagree with them so they wonder why are they prosecuted. I think part of the problem is the “sola scriptura” doctrine with that protestant denominations have inlfuenced the christian world. Jews don.t believe it since they accept oral traditions like the Talmud, nor Catholics nor orthodox accept it since they have their auntorities and traditions. My sense is that neither Jesus or their followers or Paul had such a narrow view of Scripture. Do you agree with that?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 22, 2019

      Yup.

      • Avatar
        mikezamjara  May 22, 2019

        Although I said “my sense” , the truth is that I dont know, do you have any reason for thinking that neither Jesus or Paul believed in something like the “sola scriptura” doctrine.

  11. JulieGraff
    JulieGraff  May 21, 2019

    Would a diamond shine if we could only see it from one angle?

    • JulieGraff
      JulieGraff  May 21, 2019

      Just for fun between us, I’ll add that this comment made me think of Carl Sagan’s “Flatland” … and applying it to the study of Scriptures… .. if you don’t know about Carl Sagan’s (Scientist 1934-1996) “Flatland” here is a link to his explanation of it: https://youtu.be/N0WjV6MmCyM

  12. Avatar
    HawksJ  May 21, 2019

    Two questions, Dr.:
    1- If somehow (say, for example, context) you could be reasonably certain that both Matthew and Luke were referring to same historical event (sermon), would the fact that one believed it happened on a large hill and the other believed it happened on flat land, be a contradiction?
    2- You claimed in your last two posts that there are literally ‘thousands’ of contradictions in the Bible. Even using a VERY liberal definition of ‘contradiction’, how can that be? That would mean that there are, at the very least, 2-3 on every single page (on average, of course). You don’t repeat mistakes like that, so you must believe it to be true. Explaining how that could be might be a good topic for a post!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      1. Of course it would! Unless the large hill was a flat plain! 2. Yeah, probably an exaggeration . But of course some pages have many contradictions on them. I’ve never tried to count.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  May 25, 2019

        So, that begs the question (on the sermon): how confident can scholars be that those two writers were referring to the same event, and yet got a very basic fact wrong?

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2019

          Same reason people get facts wrong today, all the time, even the next day!

          • Avatar
            HawksJ  May 27, 2019

            Do scholars think they are referring to the same event/sermon?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 28, 2019

            Yes, they think that both Matthew and Luke had read the sayings found in both sermons in Q, and then provided different narrative contexts for them — Matthew on a mount and Luke on a plain.

  13. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  May 22, 2019

    I’d have a worrying dilemma if I was a fervent believer wondering how to behave and/or what to be, after reading “Blessed are you poor” and “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. I think it would worry me. Especially if I also read the ‘eye of a needle’ passage about rich people. Would I need to give away my worldly goods, I would wonder. I’d agonise about that if I was an actual true believer televangelist. Luckily, there are few of them.

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  14. Avatar
    Jayredinger  May 22, 2019

    “A man should look for what is and not what he thinks should be.” – Albert Einstein

  15. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  May 22, 2019

    Although I believe there is a guiding force in the universe, I couldn’t remain a Christian because the Bible has more issues than just a slight contradiction or two….

  16. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 23, 2019

    Hi Bart, I think you are so very right in your comment that “It’s never good to think something is completely different from what it really is. And in my opinion that’s precisely what fundamentalists do when it comes to the Bible”. It’s encouraging to me that in this post, you point out that there is a lot of non-contradictory stuff in the Bible as well and I can also accept your statement that you don’t have a stake (or as we Brits would say ‘an axe to grind’) in there being contradictions in the Bible. You nevertheless present this postion as if you’ve never had an axe to grind. Surely, like all of us, you are on a journey in your intellectual life? I certainly get the impression that you did indeed have ‘an axe to grind’ in your earlier works (but to be fair, I’ve only read your recent works, so feel free to shoot me down). However, is it not the case that your were angry with yourself for intially being a fundmentalist and denying your crtical scholarly talents – which you clearly have in bucket loads? Was that not part of your motivation? Were you not driven by seeking to set the record straight with yourself and maybe by transference, were you not also angry with other fundamentalists (in a polite and scholarly way) – angry that they would deny their common sense, logic and knowledge, to prevent the undermining of that faith which gave them perhaps false emotional support? What your scholarship has done in some ways is to maintain the mystery, the enigma, the histroical and theological questions about the man Jesus of Nazareth. You have made it clear that it’s not an easy path to throw you lot in with this particular son of man – it’s a hard road intellectually as well as practically and it was then for the disciples just as it is now. But for all their contrdictions and errors, the gospels present a picture (yes a hazy one) of a beautiful, powerful, remarkable, challenging, enigmatic and wise man with some extraordinary intellectual talents as well as apparent magus-like healing abilities (arguably more so than any other miracle worker). And so we are all the time being re-faced with that question: But who do you say that I am?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 24, 2019

      The only major axes I have to grind in my earlier books have to do with Christian fundamentalism, which I think is not only flat-out wrong but highly dangerous and damaging. As to whom I think Jesus really was, I lay that out in my earliest trade book, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, which states principally views found widely among critical scholars, nothing particularly novel.

      • Avatar
        Neurotheologian  May 24, 2019

        I obviously ought to read the book, but I think I have gathered the gist. In the book, your conclusion appears to have been that Jesus was a deluded failure – deluded in believing and preaching that the end of the age was immanent and that God’s Kingdom would ‘come in power’ and overthrow the present world order, espeically the Romans and a failure in the sense that he misjudged his strategy of raising a rebellion, over-estimated his popularity and support and got himself ‘bumped off’ in the process and it thus all ended in disaster. Is that too harsh? I can certainly see how John the Baptist could be seen as an apocalyticist of immanent destruction brought about by ‘a baptizer in fire’ and I can see that the disciples of Jesus may have intially thought Jesus would be just this. However, I get from the Gospels a subtler, more enigmatic concept of the ‘Kindgom of God’ from Jesus. A sea-change from John the Baptist and the OT prophets, such that ‘even the least in the new Kingdom will be greater than John’. A sense that the Kingdom of God is neither here nor there (non-local), the Kingdom of God is among you, the Kingdom is within you. I get a sense even in the synoptics, of an inner realisable soteriology, *as well as* a future eschatology. I get a sense of heaven and hell in a different realm, a sense of the soul being more important than earthly life (‘what does it gain a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his own soul…’), a sense of the importance of inner communion with God – a direct relationship with the father through faith, a sense of the spiritual as well as the physical, a sense of the importance of inner motives as more important than outward law-abidance and above all, a sense that Jesus knew that his destiny was to suffer, to outwardly be judged as a failure by ‘man’, but inwardly to be obeying God and fullfilling the Messianic secret – to be the lamb of God, the suffering servant and only subsequently to return in Glory as the Enochian-Danielian Son of Man. That’s who I think Jesus was and is and is to come.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 26, 2019

          I don’t think I would ever use the word delusional for an ancient apocalyptic prophet.

          • Avatar
            Neurotheologian  May 26, 2019

            Yes, I admit ‘deluded’ was a bit harsh, but it was to make a point. Would the following sentence be any better or have a different meaning: ‘badly (and sadly) mistakenly believing that he had received a message from God about the immanent end of the age and coming of God’s Kingdom on earth, due partly beeing to him being influenced by John the Baptist, the authors of 1st Enoch & Daniel and other contemporary apocalypticists’? ‘Badly’ because, it would mean he misled thousands of people at the time (and in hindsight, now millions), influencing them them to give up earthly purusits, make huge sacrifices and devote their lives to a lost cause and ‘sadly’ because of the crucifixion. Maybe that could be another axe you may have been grinding? To be fair, ‘deluded’ adds a perjorative and perhaps derisive feel to ‘badly and sadly mistaken’ – but wouldn’t that be the natural corollary?

          • Bart
            Bart  May 27, 2019

            I would say that is still too loaded for my tastes, but maybe it’s a matter of taste. I would simply say that Jesus expected the climax of history to occur with a catastrophic intervention of God in his own generation. And if asked whether I think he was right about that or not, I’d say that he was obviously wrong about it. But I don’t think he was *more* wrong about ultimate reality than most anyone else. Probably 99.999% of all humans who ever have lived have been fundamentally wrong about ultimate reality!

  17. Avatar
    cestmarrant  May 25, 2019

    I’d like to see two Christians (one a fundamentalist, and one not) debate the inerrancy of the Bible!

    • Bart
      Bart  May 26, 2019

      When I was a Christian (non-fundamentalist) I would have used pretty much the same arguments I did in the debate.

  18. Avatar
    Neurotheologian  May 26, 2019

    I am not sure this is the best place on the blog and I am happy to have this comment moved to an appropriate stream – just let me know where if you move it to 😊 The point I want to make is about the idea of Jesus being an ‘apocalypticist’. The term is of course, a relatively modern one (Schweitzer?) and, like all such terms, the definitions can vary, but I think we agree that we a talking about a style of preaching about the reality (not necessarily immanency) of a future time when God’s authority will take over from human authority on the earth and a kind of ‘omnisciently fair’ (ie righteous) judgement of humans will take place which will be based on human motivations which will be revealed. Also, this apocalypticism includes predictions about some ‘pretty bad stuff’ happening just beforehand (seismic, cosmic and geopolitical) which is described in metaphoric and poetic language such as ‘baptizing in fire’, ‘bowls of fire’ trumpet blasts, significant numbers (such as 12, 7, 50 and 666) and beasts charging around etc. It also involves shocking supernatural events and a sense of the hidden becoming revealed in various ways. To be fair, are there not hints of apocalypticism in all predictive prophecy from Isaiah through Nostradamus to David Icke!? In fact, are not all monotheistic faiths eschatological and apocalyptic to their cores? Don’t all theists generally believe in a beginning and an end, a benevolent creator, who will put things right in the end and *at* the end? So, isn’t apocalypticism inherent in monotheism? Also, isn’t labelling Jesus simply as an apocalypticist, making an over-simplification which prevents one from appreciating the many non-apocalyptic components of his teaching and his mission? For example, his teaching about the Kingdom of God prior to apocalyptic events being ‘within you’ and non-localized; his demonstration of love, his acts of healing, his practical teaching about the precedence of inner motivation over outward acts? Also isn’t labelling Jesus simply as an apocalypticist, a way of thinking about him as ‘badly & sadly’ mistaken, a failure in his mission, dead and buried and irrelevant to today?

    • Avatar
      Neurotheologian  May 27, 2019

      Absolutely a fair point, Bart. I am loading the conclusion of Jesus being mistaken with the corollary of the consequences of his being wrong and how one might then emotionally react to that. I’m trying to test how you feel about it and I’ll be honest, if I beleived Jesus was completely wrong, I’d feel disappointed to say the least. I’ll also admit that’s why I am tempted to wonder whether the writers of Mark and Mathew were conflating Jesus’s predictions about the destruction of Jerdusalem with his predictions about the end of the age. Maybe Jesus himeslf did conflate the two, but he was certainly right about the destruction of Jerusalem and of the terror to come to those in Judea, after all, he was only preaching to Jews, not even to Samraritans (as a rule) and certainly not to gentiles in the coastlands! Anyway, conflation may have been the only prophecy game in town – Isaiah certainly went in for it! Maybe we are being to presentist in judging the veridicality of Jesus’s apocalyptic predictions?

  19. Avatar
    dankoh  May 28, 2019

    At the risk of stating the obvious, the reason the fundamentalists cannot abide contradictions is that they insist the Bible (OT and NT) is the word of God, either directly or via inspiration, and therefore must be perfect. (In the Jewish Torah service, one of the lines said “The law [Torah] of God is perfect…” so it isn’t just Christians.) So they cannot admit to ANY flaws.

    But if you understand that everything in the Bible was written by men (and a few women), the contradictions and other flaws are exactly what one would expect to find in any human endeavor.

    It also occurs to me that the fundamentalists could explain away the contradictions by saying that when God inspired the authors of the Bible, they misheard a few of the words. But I haven’t heard anyone make that argument yet.

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