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How Biblical Discrepancies Can Be Theologically Liberating for a Christian

I have been trying to show that the portrayal of Jesus going to his death in Mark’s Gospel is radically different from the portrayal in Luke’s Gospel.  I’ve been making this comparison for a purpose, in order to show as clearly as I can that reading the Bible historically – seeing its discrepancies – does not compromise its value.  On the contrary, as I came to see as a committed Christian who was no longer a conservative evangelical, this way of reading the Bible *increases* its value.

A person can still revere the Bible while thinking there are contradictions and discrepancies in it, not only in small things but in large things.  But one has to understand it in a non-fundamentalist way to do so.   The point of finding discrepancies is *not* so you can go away saying that the Bible is worthless (“bunch of contradictions”) but, on the contrary, so you can recognize the vast depths of its theological meaning, as seen precisely *in* the (big) differences you find in it.

Here is how I describe the importance of recognizing the differences in the Bible, in relation to the Passion narratives of Mark and Luke, in my book Jesus Interrupted.

************************************************************

The Pay-off

The problem comes when readers take these two accounts (Mark and Luke on Jesus’ death) and smash them together into one BIG account, in which Jesus says, does, and experiences everything narrated in them both.  When that is done, the messages of both Mark and Luke get completely lost and glossed over.  Jesus is no longer …

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Why Even Bother Being a Liberal Christian?
How Did Judas Iscariot Die? Readers’ Mailbag June 18, 2017

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Comments

  1. Silver  June 19, 2017

    I am currently listening to your colleague Jodi Magness’ Great Courses lecture series ‘Jesus and his Jewish Influences’. It appears that in her input on Josephus she casts doubt on his credibility, specifically instancing his account of Masada. If his reliability is questionable this causes concern about other areas of his narrative e.g. the dating of Quirinius’ census – an issue which I know apologists have tried to query in order to justify Luke’s Nativity story.
    Please have you any comments?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      YEs, as with every historical source, one needs to evaluate each and every statement that Josephus makes. But every instance has its own issues. With Quirinius, we have inscriptional evidence that appears to confirm his statements.

  2. RonaldTaska  June 19, 2017

    On to the theodicy problem: For me, the contradictions in the Gospels were a bigger factor than the theodicy problem although the theodicy problem is a HUGE one. With regard to the theodicy probIem, I somehow rationalized that God knew what He was doing better than I knew and that in heaven all would work out better than it had on earth. The Gospel contradictions, in contrast, meant that the Gospels just could not be trusted and that is, for me, even a bigger problem. It meant that the Gospels were made up stories not actual historical events. That changed everything….

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      Ronald

      While generally acknowledging your points, may I suggest something of a third paradigm – that while a given text – or even several texts may be suspect – when one finds clear, repeated, formal statements, e.g. Jesus of Nazareth a MAN attested by God (Acts2:22) – and 10 more texts that formally state that Jesus is a MAN (vs an impersonal human nature actuated by a deity….) then it seems we can comfortably rely on the fact that in THEIR mind Jesus was ontologically a man distinct from God… Which is exactly what Paul says in 1Tim 2:5 – there is one God AND (someone other than the one God), the man Christ Jesus.

      Now as to reconciling and relating to God Himself …frankly I think that is an entirely distinct issue. God met me – and dragged me to Christ (a few months later) – without a single bit of Biblical knowledge (I was raised atheist). The Bible did not come into my life for some months later – though I did, unfortunately, kow-tow to the evangelical memes re the Bible (along with the neo-fascist right-wing memes endemic in evangelicalism) – till relatively recently.

  3. alexius105  June 19, 2017

    Yes. But such contradictions don’t point to a real Jesus. They show Jesus was whoever the gospel author wanted him to be. This is, of course, bad for making dogmas, but denominations still produce them even though they are based on contradictions.
    And theology is about dogmas. It’s about things you must believe in order to get into heaven. They are of most importance. That is why I think contradictions can be a good tool to show people they are following a construct, word, not The Word.

    • godspell  June 20, 2017

      Since we find innumerable contradictions in accounts relating to 100% historical persons, they certainly don’t point away from a historical Jesus.

      If people want to discuss whether Jesus was historical or not, they should study some actual history. Most people never have, and they don’t know how the study of history works.

      Theology is about more than dogmas, incidentally. You might want to study that as well, if you want to critique it intelligently, as Bart has done.

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      Totally agreed.

      In fact to begin to break the Dominionist hegemony we need to break the fallacy of certitude. Recognizing errors in the Bible is key. I am on a game plan for this action – along with many others – by introducing the timing of Jesus cleansing of the temple in Mt and Mk – esp. relative to the cursing of the fig tree… ETC.

  4. dougckatyBE  June 19, 2017

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Bart. It’s one I can relate to in many ways. But…when you say “They were all authoritative in the sense that they showed me legitimate ways to think theologically” my discomfort level rises. It is getting harder and harder for me to take seriously the ‘theology’ of any pre-scientific culture, especially as represented in texts generated by decidedly self-serving elements of the ‘orthodox’ (or soon to be orthodox) religion of the times. The ‘Theo’ behind any theology I am likely to be convinced by these days is going to have to be a lot more universal than just the history of one rather small group of people living in a rather small area the the east end of the Mediterranean Sea over a rather small time span, compared to the ‘Big Picture’ history we are now aware of. But I will continue to be ‘tuned in’ to you and appreciate your work as a good way to better understand the people in that culture and their spiritual descendants that are such a significant and influential part of our culture and political systems today.

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      I like your direction – what is the deal with slaughtering animals….

      OK – one could argue that was the level the Creator needed to meet them at.

      The real issue then becomes – really for each of us – who is this Creator? How can we know? How can we “reconcile”/relate to this Creator….

      For those who find discomfort in such a consideration outside their Nelson Bros ASV – I remind them that there are 400+ denominations all claiming to use the same book… so what good is that???

  5. godspell  June 19, 2017

    “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”

    But then there’s another truth, and another, and yet another., and none of them agree.

    :\

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      You should have a happy face!

      Jesus was clear – HE is the truth.

      See Him – not all the apologists smoke and mirrors (even a little of Bart’s smoke and mirrors…:-) ).

  6. Epikouros  June 19, 2017

    It’s been interesting to read your posts on this topic, especially since your experience was so different from mine. By the time I was 16 or so, I stopped believing that the Bible was factual. At that point, it all fell apart for me. If I didn’t believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead, what was the point of calling myself Christian? I recognized that many people got spiritual insight from the Bible, but why was it any more useful than reading, say, _The Iliad_? I’ve enjoyed reading your posts, which are very informative (and clearly heartfelt). But I still remain somewhat mystified. If you don’t really believe the stories in the New Testament actually happened, why go to church on Sunday and contort yourself into seeing them as somehow metaphorically true? For me, it would be like worshiping at the shrine of _War and Peace_. I’ve read that book multiple times, and love it. Natasha and Pierre are “real” to my imagination, but I know they never actually existed. Why pretend otherwise? I can enjoy the book (and learn from it) as a work of fiction, but why try to make it something it’s not?

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      You need to get to know Bart better…:-)

  7. bradseggie  June 19, 2017

    When you realized that the Gospels were not historically accurate, what did you think had happened historically? Did you conclude it was unknowable and unimportant?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      No, I thought we could figure it out, and that it did indeed matter — for those of us interested in history (as I deeply am). But that’s not hte same thing as saying that it mattered theologically.

  8. bradseggie  June 19, 2017

    When MLK was shot, Jesse Jackson said he was the last to cradle MLK’s head as Dr. King lay dying on a Memphis motel balcony. The morning after, Jackson appeared on TV wearing the same bloody turtleneck he’d worn the day before. It was stained, he said, with MLK’s blood. King’s associates have long disputed this account.

    Would you say that Jesse Jackson’s statement, though not literally true, was true in the sense that it conveys truth (eg, that Jackson is the moral successor to King)? Does it not matter whether it is historically true?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      I would say that it is important to know the history for knowing what actually happened, and to know what the claim means metaphorically as well. Both matter.

  9. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  June 19, 2017

    For the love of knowledge, after earning my M.A. in Communication, I will probably go on to study Classical antiquity. Before Christianity in antiquity (CIA) is my passion. Me and you should start a blog together Bart! It is, not it’s, because we do not use it’s or don’t, or end a sentence with a preposition… (old Havard joke)-called mythology, because we can not prove it true? Or, is it the truth is being kept away by capitalist, and leading authorities because they think they are messengers of God.

  10. doug  June 19, 2017

    What a freeing experience it was for me to no longer have to twist the words of the Bible around to try to get them to be consistent! The fact that I’d had to *try* to make it consistent had started to bother me, in terms of an honest reading of the Bible.

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      Doug

      Nice statement! When I begin interacting with evangelicals – the basis is “the love of the true” – a good value regardless of theology. If you love the truth – you do not have to twist the facts!!

  11. Lev
    Lev  June 19, 2017

    “When people talk about why I lost my faith (I don’t know why *ANYONE* should care. But they seem to)”

    I can only speak for myself, but I can think of three reasons why I care about your story. The first is the human story element – you’re an exceptionally talented and persuasive scholar and communicator who I admire and respect, so I’m always keen to learn more about the human backstory to Bart Ehrman and what made you the man you are today.

    The second relates to faith. As a Christian, I had a sense of nervousness about hearing your story at first, fearing that learning whatever led you to abandon your faith would lead to a personal crisis of my own! I feared there may have been some dark biblical secret you had unlocked in your research, and if I learnt it also, my own walls would come tumbling down!

    Finally, I had a similar faith journey to you where I spent a few years as an evangelical fundamentalist before becoming a liberal Christian, so when I heard the story you hear – that when you abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy you also abandoned your faith – I was curious to learn if that was the case as I’ve known others to have gone down the road that people falsely attribute to you. I suspect this is why Christians like me care so much about your story.

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      Since Bart did not answer – I can tell you the answer because he has answered in many other places. The answer is NO.

      I will let him address since it is his question – but my understanding is that theodicy is what did in his faith in the “Christian” God.

      Regardless, the real issue is what his faith was originally based on…. That is a matter I have never heard him discuss.

      • Lev
        Lev  June 22, 2017

        Hey Greg – I guess you accidentally responded to my post, rather than the person this was intended for, as I had not asked a question.

        • GregLogan  June 23, 2017

          Lev

          Thanks for the follow-up.

          I was responding to your last paragraph – this statement specifically –

          that when you abandoned the doctrine of inerrancy you also abandoned your faith – I was curious to learn if that was the case as I’ve known others to have gone down the road that people falsely attribute to you

          The reality is that Bart did not abandon his faith when he abandoned his belief in the reliability of the Bible – but later because of the theodicy issue.

          Greg

  12. GregLogan  June 19, 2017

    Bart

    I thought your lecture on this issue – in which you worked your way up through Mark – Jesus being silent – and then only at the end crying out Lama Sabacthnai was superb – and I saw the reality of the Jesus in Mark in such a different manner than the Jesus elsewhere – one much more similar to the one crying with tears to be saved from death in Hebrews (a strange bit for someone who is really a god in a bod…).

    Thanks for breaking this implicit mis-approach to the gospels – to see each of them as complete – and a portrayal of Jesus, etc.

    Greg

  13. GregLogan  June 19, 2017

    Bart

    Speaking of reading each within its own self – I find that when we consider the evolution of thought – we need only look at Paul. In his earliest text – 1, 2 Thess – he is all about the magnificent eschatology. Then what happens when Jesus does not return…. He changes focus – till finally we have a whole lot of suffering inc. famine, nakedness and death by the sword… BUT we still have the love of God (not sure how that will help when I am starving – but Paul seems to think it is important…and, maybe I am missing something… but…).

    Greg

  14. DestinationReign  June 20, 2017

    As you rightly point out, the “tone” between Luke and Mark regarding Christ’s dying words is practically irreconcilable, but that is only through the lens of historicity. In reality, this subject is actually one of the most revelatory aspects of higher Truth in the Gospels. Remember, each Gospel pertains to timeline increments of the Church Age; this is one half of the bedrock Truth that brings higher revelations. The other half is the fact that the Christian Church Age has been a time of darkness in which Christ’s people have not represented Him accurately to the world, but have instead desecrated His (higher) image and repelled the world from Truth. (This again relates back to John 9:4-5.) With 30,000+ denominations all seeing and believing conflicting things, Christianity truly is Mystery Babylon.

    As I have mentioned in previous posts, Luke’s gospel pertains to the present juncture – the “end of the age” wherein Christ’s people (the Body of Christ) must awaken (or resurrect) unto Truth as we enter the “third day”/third millennium. This entails a closer and more intimate relationship with God the Father. Hence, after 2,000 years of Christian discord in which God’s people have been “alienated” from him, (Matthew and Mark) Luke’s altered “last words” are revealing these very truths. Also remember, John’s gospel represents the Millennial Kingdom Age – when Christ’s glory will be revealed with finality. So, there we see His last words – “It is finished.” Again (and again), Gospel differences reveal higher prophetic Truth.

    Returning to Luke, it is the gospel directly pertinent to the transition from darkness (2,000 years of Christian religiosity – or the “dark ages”) to light. Luke is the Gospel of awakening in preparation for the coming of the Kingdom. As such, it is the only Synoptic where we see Jesus restoring the hearing of the man whose ear was severed by the sword. This is what Christianity has done for 2,000 years – waywardly wielding the sword/Word of God and preventing a true understanding of Scripture and higher Truth. And so again, only Luke (which means “light”) features Christ restoring ears to hear. That is the point at which we are at now – through an entirely new and transcendent application of Scripture. And the differences (and contradictions) throughout the Gospels is the most significant aspect of that scriptural application.

    Remember, as it says ONLY in Luke’s Gospel pertaining to Christ dealing with His disciples at the time of the third day resurrection – “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Viewing that as only a historical declaration keeps those words dead and buried. But understanding that this is actually being fulfilled NOW brings them to life! OUR minds are now being opened to understand the Scriptures! And so, it is crucial to have an understanding of the purpose and pattern behind Gospel differences/discrepancies/contradictions.

  15. anthonygale  June 20, 2017

    When considering the example you give, I think combining Mark and Luke creates a more interesting portrayal of Jesus. People can experience conflicting emotions that are not always congruent with their thoughts. You could say that in the combined version, Jesus knows what he needs to do but has doubt and, despite his despair, can pull it together for the sake of others who need him. It portrays a Jesus that is more complex than in either account, being a stronger character than in Mark and arguably than in Luke as well. I don’t think faith is the lack of doubt, it is trusting in the face of doubt. Similarly, courage is not the absence of fear, it is doing what it necessary in the face of fear. So, one could argue that the combined story shows there is nothing wrong with doubt or fear. Even Jesus experienced them, yet he trusted God and fulfilled a great destiny.

    I agree that it is a mistake to ignore the individual accounts because, as you point out, there is value in understanding what they say, which is missed if you assume they say the same thing. But I don’t think the combined version is any less meaningful. To play devil’s advocate/apologist, one could claim that the differences between the accounts, which reflect their emphases, result from the authors omitting from their sources. I’m not saying I believe that, but considering how little is certain about the historical Jesus, I don’t see why they (some of them at least) are less likely to be historical.

  16. Alfred  June 20, 2017

    Thanks for another interesting post Bart. I was brought up as a Catholic and at each Mass there was a reading from the OT, the Gospels, and the other books of the NT. These are centrally set readings for the world-wide Church. They are chosen in part for the congruence and this is ten reinforced by the following sermon. This approach almost completely eliminates the possibility of seeing the different books as intended by their author. Of course the Church encourages personal Bible study also but the comparative approach was never something suggested to me. As it seems from your accounts that most/many Protestants also read the Bible in this way is it reasonable to think that generally speaking we’ve been doing it wrong for 1700 years? That this biblical conflation into a single new text has been the basis of Christian thought ever since the books were bundled together?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      Yes, I think this kind of reading has been going on since the second century, literally.

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      Mohammed

      While that is a neat apologist trick to keep the unlearned in bondage – ultimately to buying the apologists’ books – it is completely bogus. The reason is simple – there ARE errors in the Bible – you can find them yourself – as, as Bart noted, once allow for an error – all those other errors that you have been disingenuously sweeping under the carpet for years (decades?) come eagerly to light – and finally, upon a genuine manifestation of a love of the truth – you recognize they are simply errors – you have a clean conscience (which is the end of our charge…).

      The point is simple – God is not the Bible – He can be related to WITHOUT the Bible. The Bible itself TELLS us that, e.g. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc., etc.

      OH – and please note – the other huge apologetic fallacy re “need” for an inerrant Bible – there are some 400 different denominations – some vastly different – all based on the Bible…. Hmmmm… which God is real – we still do not know EVEN WITH the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.

    • GregLogan  June 20, 2017

      Maybe that is why they have ended up with a sort of religious madness in the evangelical church – including incorporating Jesus into the essence of God as a distinct person of God….

  17. Mohammed Musa  June 20, 2017

    Bart,
    Once conceding there are errors in the Bible, you have opened a Pandora’s Box. How do you know which parts are true if you admit some parts are false?
    “… But how do you know Jesus except as he is presented to you in the Bible? If the Bible is not God’s Word and does not present a picture of Jesus Christ that can be trusted, how do you know it is the true Christ you are following? You may be worshipping a Christ of your own imagination.” (Does Errancy Matter by James Boice, page 24).
    As the religious reformer, John Wesley, said:
    “If there be any mistakes in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth.”
    Bart, majority will ignore your advice.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2017

      Yes, that’s why scholars devote their lives to deciding what is historical and what is not. It’s not an easy matter of simply throwing everything out once you realize there are mistakes. It’s a matter of engaging in careful historical analysis, as happens with *every* source we have from antiquity. See my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

      • Mohammed Musa  June 21, 2017

        Bart,
        my major problem is that i cannot afford to buy your books (I am earning less than $1/day). I am one of those members benefiting out of your benevolence and i am very grateful for that. Until of recent the only access i have to your materials is your debates on U-Tube and book reviews about your books by your critics. is there any way that members can read your materials online?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 22, 2017

          That’s why God invented public libraries!

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  June 22, 2017

          I noticed my local library didn’t have any scholarly books available, so I had them order one for me. I’m actually reading it now.

        • Pattycake1974
          Pattycake1974  June 23, 2017

          I might be able to help out with that. Just click on my name and send me an email.

    • GregLogan  June 23, 2017

      Mohammed

      While that is a neat apologist trick to keep the unlearned in bondage – ultimately to buying the apologists’ books – it is completely bogus. The reason is simple – there ARE errors in the Bible – you can find them yourself – as, as Bart noted, once allow for an error – all those other errors that you have been disingenuously sweeping under the carpet for years (decades?) come eagerly to light – and finally, upon a genuine manifestation of a love of the truth – you recognize they are simply errors – you have a clean conscience (which is the end of our charge…).

      The point is simple – God is not the Bible – He can be related to WITHOUT the Bible. The Bible itself TELLS us that, e.g. Enoch, Noah, Abraham, etc., etc.

      OH – and please note – the other huge apologetic fallacy re “need” for an inerrant Bible – there are some 400 different denominations – some vastly different – all based on the Bible…. Hmmmm… which God is real – we still do not know EVEN WITH the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.

  18. Mohammed Musa  June 22, 2017

    Bart,
    You should try and visit our libraries in Africa one day.

  19. SidDhartha1953  June 24, 2017

    The lack of “reverence” fundamentalist/literalist Christians show for the authors of the Bible is much the same, in my mind, as the way film makers dishonor authors when they release a film called *Bram Stoker’s Dracula* or *Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein* that are anything but. It’s fine to retell the story your own way, but don’t claim that it’s the story you decided to improve(sic).

    • SidDhartha1953  June 24, 2017

      Funny story about “The Seven Last Words of Christ:” my former wife and I were members of a Catholic church choir in Greenville, SC, years ago and we were rehearsing a setting of the Latin text. When we got to the section that begins “Mulier…” (Woman) the first syllable was written as a long musical phrase, so it came out “Moooooo…” That was the end of the rehearsal — we couldn’t get over the thought of Jesus making cow noises from the Cross.

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