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If the Bible is Contradictory, How Can it Be Authoritative?

In my previous post I explained why the contradictions found in the Bible affect a certain understanding of the inspiration of Scripture.  The contradictions are not a point in and of themselves (OK, OK, so there are contradictions.  So what?).   There actually is a payoff.  In factd, several.  One of the payoffs is that the fundamentalist Christian claim that the Bible has no mistakes of any kind is almost certainly wrong.   But as I have said this is not the only point or even the most important one.

I think we can all agree that most people read the Bible for religious reasons, pure and simple.  They think that in *some* sense it is the word of God, and that it provides the guidance they need for what to believe and how to live.   But what if there are *different* and even *irreconcilable* differences from one biblical author to another on precisely these issues?  Which part do you follow?  For then it is not a simple matter of reading any part of the Bible and saying, “OK, that settles it!  That’s what I should believe.  Or that is how I should behave/conduct myself.”   Because if another part of the Bible says something else, then … then you’re still stuck: what should you believe or how should you behave?

Even fundamentalists are confronted with this problem, and they have to come up with theological explanations about how the Bible can contain the very words of God, the directions he has given to his people, word-for-word, if the words in one part are at odds with words in another part.

On the most obvious level, most …

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The Strangest Moment of My Teaching Career
Are Contradictions the Real Point?

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Comments

  1. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  June 29, 2018

    Considering contradictions, when Ecclesiastes 3:3 states there is “a time to kill”, does that mean all killing? animal slaughter? something else? Does this verse contradict the Commandment?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      Even believers in the ten commandments often say that in times of war all bets are off.

  2. rburos  June 29, 2018

    I’ve often mused over the differences in this between Galatians and Matthew, as they seem to me to be irreconcilable. My fundy friends (and yes, they are dear to me) get upset that I’m just being argumentative. I can’t wait to see how this thread plays out because it is THE question when talking with Americans about the Bible. Thanks.

  3. Judith  June 29, 2018

    This post is invaluable to me!

  4. Pattylt  June 29, 2018

    For me, one of the most morally rehensible part of the OT is the acceptability of slavery. Instead of clearly stating,”Thou shalt not own another human as property” we get various rules on how to own them and tricks to keep the Hebrew males that you might have to release after 6 years. In this case, I am more moral than God. Even the N.T. doesn’t correct this or even seem to have any contradictions about it!

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    • prestonp  July 2, 2018

      Pattylt  June 29, 2018

      For me, one of the most morally rehensible part of the OT is the acceptability of slavery. Instead of clearly stating,”Thou shalt not own another human as property” we get various rules on how to own them and tricks to keep the Hebrew males that you might have to release after 6 years. In this case, I am more moral than God. Even the N.T. doesn’t correct this or even seem to have any contradictions about it!

      Are you preaching or asking Bart a question?

      The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” The bible has much to say about how we are to treat each other. Love is the overriding principle and the foundation for everything we do. God hates when we mistreat one another and when we are abused by others.

      It is important to note that neither slavery in New Testament times nor slavery under the Mosaic Covenant have anything to do with the sort of slavery where “black” people were bought and sold as property by “white” people in the well-known slave trade of the last few centuries.

      The extreme kindness to be shown to slaves/servants commanded in the Bible among the Israelites was often prefaced by a reminder that they too were slaves at the hand of the Egyptians. In other words, they were to treat slaves/servants in a way that they wanted to be treated. 

      “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death. (Exodus 21:16)”

      Paul gives clear instructions that Christian “masters” are to treat such people with respect and as equals. Their employment position did not affect their standing in the Church.

      “1 Timothy 1:10” 

      Bart, do you think you have any obligation or duty to try to correct or inform others when they make comments that are in error in response to what you have posted? On the forum you don’t moderate, I have begun to do that. However, I’m confident you have some responsibility along those lines, don’t you?
      By encouraging a firestorm of reaction that misrepresents biblical principles, isn’t the poison spreading from the root of bitterness and wreaking havoc exactly as promised?

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      • godspell  July 4, 2018

        I think people tend to forget that basically all cultures accepted slavery of one form or another (many still do). The modern revulsion towards slavery is precisely that–modern. And largely created by devout Christian abolitionists (like Harriet Beecher Stowe).

        The text is one thing. Your reading of it another. The books of the bible have always been read selectively, and the personality, education, and background of the people reading it have always mattered.

        It is, I think, much easier to read the bible as anti-slavery than pro-slavery, but both currents can be found, because both currents existed, in both Jewish and Christian communities.

        If you and your neighbors profit from slavery of some kind, it’s going to be a lot harder to find the moral will to condemn it. It didn’t take hold because of religion. I have no doubt at all that if civilization had been created without any concept of God or gods (and I doubt it ever would have done), there still would have been slaves. The strong tend to oppress the weak. Religion has, to some extent, served as a curb on this tendency. But it can also be used to justify it.

        To me, the most eloquent statement on the subject comes from the Africans brought here to a new country–who became among the most devout Christians who ever lived. In many cases, after early attempts at conversion, they were actively discouraged from Christian worship–I read one account of a man, James Smith, who had a very strong personal conversion, became a sort of lay minister, preaching to those around him–and was savagely beaten for it.

        Because, you see, it was harder to justify inflicting this kind of bondage on fellow Christians. Once American chattel slavery took on its mature form, it became more and more important to dehumanize the slaves. We’re still suffering from the after-effects of that.

        It was the black churches that served as the resistance to this campaign of dehumanization, and basically the only white people who gave them any material aid were themselves devout.

        And that should be weighed into the balance. “Christianity got slavery wrong.” Which Christianity? Can anyone be foolish enough not to see there are, and always have been, many Christianities? Many atheisms, too. And the worst of them……..

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  June 29, 2018

    With my background in psychology I never underestimate the human mind to rationalize and justify, just about anything! If you have a belief in divine inspiration and inerrancy of the text there are “some” fundamentalists that cannot see these contradictions due to their defenses of rationalization and justification. I’ve seen some Christians simply perform a type of Biblical Algebra where one verse simply cancels out another. For example, passages in the OT where God is depicted killing people or saying people who are not followed the God of Abraham should be killed are simply summarily dismissed as being part of the Law which they are under no obligation to follow, yet they never seem to question the cruel and harsh was God is depicted.

    My question today is along the lines of my last question where I asked how you deal with Fundamentalist/Evangelical students that disagree with your conclusions because of their beliefs. As I discuss these issues on another forum with some Fundamentalist friends I have realized they have a difficult time thinking Historically rather than Theologically. Is it difficult for those students to see the difference between viewing the text from an Historical perspective as opposed to a Theological perspective? How do you teach them to see the text as an Historian would examine the text?

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    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      Very difficult indeed. Some students take an entire semester to get their minds around it; others never do get it.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  July 1, 2018

      One of the hardest things for a human being to admit is that maybe — just maybe — something we believe is simply wrong. Have you ever noticed that we desperately try to avoid the feeling of being wrong? That’s because that feeling of being wrong is so full of negative social emotions: embarrassment, shame, betrayal, resentment, etc. That’s why we create mental barriers to being wrong. Accepting that we may be wrong is simply to painful.

      Check out the TED talk by Kathryn Schulz.

  6. ftbond  June 29, 2018

    If a believer is not saddled with the notion that NT texts are “scripture”, but rather, just texts that are representative of a basic orthodoxy of the faith, and, if a Gentile believer (in particular) understands that the Law of Moses was given to Israel, and *not* to Gentiles, then it entirely changes that believers perspective. But, it doesn’t change (one bit) whether that believer can believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected, nor does it change the myriad of implications of that resurrection.

    What I see in the writings of many skeptics is a very brittle, wooden, and (to be honest) un-thinking approach to (in particular) the NT. And, rather than concluding that just maybe the NT really *shouldn’t* be regarded as some kind of “authoritative scripture”, this same brittle and wooden approach leads to skepticism – about what? About the conclusions resulting from that same brittle and wooden approach. It’s not at all surprising to see that many skeptics were those that were once attracted to the Fundamentalist approach.

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    • HawksJ  July 1, 2018

      “But, it doesn’t change (one bit) whether that believer can believe that Jesus was bodily resurrected, nor does it change the myriad of implications of that resurrection.”

      It absolutely does change (a) whether one can believe in the resurrection and (b) what the implications would be (the NT writers themselves couldn’t even agree what it meant).

      Indeed, unless one believes the creation story, including the ‘fall’, there is no reason why a sacrifice was required in the first place, let alone worrying about the implications thereof.

  7. Apocryphile  June 29, 2018

    LOL! Sort of puts the Bible in perspective, but then, I don’t think it’s much different from other holy books that have been stitched together from the writings of multiple authors over centuries. I think we must acknowledge that this is a realm where logic and rationality play little role, and where people not only do not think, but don’t want to think. Still, it’s instructive to point out the problems faced by believers in a literal interpretation of the Bible.

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  8. Robert
    Robert  June 29, 2018

    Ultimately, if anyone ever gives these questions serious consideration, everyone chooses their own canon within a canon, their own favorite popes, or preferred interpretations, religious or otherwise. Or they just absorb some more or less unconscious set of views from their parent(s) or someone else. Does that sound cynical? I think it’s just human behavior.

  9. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 29, 2018

    The (generic) Church’s position on divorce has always been a puzzler.

    Mark 10:9 says, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Here, the ban on divorce is absolute — because marriage is something that GOD has put together, it is therefore forbidden to dissolve it under any and ALL circumstances, for ANY reason.

    But Matthew 5:32 says, “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, SAVING FOR THE CAUSE OF FORNICATION, causeth her to commit adultery.”

    Well, which IS it? If marriage cannot ever be dissolved because it is an institution that God put together, then it cannot be dissolved even if adultery is present.

    Either Man can, or Man cannot, dissolve marriage for any reason. Which is it? I could argue both ways from the Gospels. And i honestly don’t know why most of Christianity has followed the stricter enforcement.

    As for the Torah and whether Christians should follow it — the Apostle Paul is emphatic. The Law is now null and void. At best, it was like a schoolmaster before Jesus came, but not that Jesus has come, we no longer need a schoolmaster.

    For this reason, Christians are under no requirement to keep dietary restrictions or put signs on their doorposts. But the 10 Commandments are just as much a part of the Law as are the dietary and ritual laws. If the ENTIRE Law is now null and void — because it cannot ever save helpless mankind — then ALL of it is null and void, INCLUDING the 10 Commandments.

    • ftbond  July 2, 2018

      My guess that that you have not really figured out that adultery itself *breaks* the covenant of marriage. In Jesus’ teaching, *divorce* did not break that covenant, so that even with a divorce, that covenant was still in effect. But, adultery? Well, it’s found in countless places in the OT: adultery breaks that covenant. Jesus agreed with this.

      Getting a divorce *after* your spouse commits adultery is a “western” thing. In Jewish law, if someone was convicted of adultery, then the marriage was simply terminated, and at times, the offender was pronounced “dead” to the family. (see The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage – Maurice Lamm)

      Jesus’ teaching, though – that simply getting a divorce was a no-go – was a hard teaching to swallow. However, he was in agreement in holding that an adultery was, itself, breaking the covenant. There was no “divorce” about it.

      I think, though, you’d really need to spend some time to actually *study* the issue. I mean, you’re asking all these questions about it. Is there something prohibiting you from going off and finding the answers?

      If nothing else, start with that book I recommended. Once you’ve read it, then you might get some idea of what Jesus is talking about… (just a suggestion)

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  July 2, 2018

        For someone who claims to have read “The Jewish Way in Love and Marriage,” you sure learned NOTHING from it.

        Did your book even go into what an “agunah” is? An agunah is a woman whose marriage has broken up, yet her ex-husband refuses to make it official with a bill of divorce, which means she cannot remarry or indeed engage in any kind of sexual relations without it being adultery.

        Which is why it’s NONSENSICAL to claim that adultery is what dissolves marriage. Marriages — in Judaism — REMAIN intact, even if adultery has occurred. Only a bill of divorce, known as a “get,” dissolves marriage.

        (By the way, does your book even mention “get”? Does it define the difference between female and male adultery inside a marriage? Somehow I doubt it. If a husband visits an unmarried hooker, did he commit adultery?)

        According to you, adultery itself dissolves a marriage. Errant NONSENSE. Because if it did, then Jesus’ remarks about no divorce save in cases of “fornication” make no sense, because the matter is already moot.

        And in any event, these words contradict the ABSOLUTE ban on divorce that Jesus lays down in Mark. If adultery dissolves marriage, then this remark too makes NO SENSE.

        There’s a REASON for the Catholic Church’s absolute ban on remarriage after civil divorce. It’s because the RCC bases its doctrine on Mark, and says, because marriage is something that God put together, no man is capable of breaking it, for ANY reason. There is therefore no such thing as divorce, and anyone who remarries after (civil) divorce is simply committing adultery.

        Jesus DIDN’T agree that adultery breaks the covenant of marriage.

        You claimed that “Getting a divorce *after* your spouse commits adultery is a “western” thing. In Jewish law, if someone was convicted of adultery, then the marriage was simply terminated.”

        OBVIOUS nonsense. Contradicted by Jesus’ own words. Matthew 5:31: “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:” Matthew 19:7 says, ” Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement?…” OBVIOUSLY, the concept of legal, WRITTEN divorce is ANCIENT, not “western.”

        As for myself, you’d be surprised. I have spent my entire life looking for answers to such questions. The person who needs to learn more is you, not me.

  10. John Uzoigwe  June 29, 2018

    Wow! I love this post. You are a great inspiration to me. Thanks!

  11. mikezamjara  June 29, 2018

    Dear Dr Ehrman. I have a seen a lot of affirmations about “Most scholars think this or that” how is it determined that in your field? does it mean professors teaching in universities, curators in museums or how. how are fundamentalists accounted in that affirmation

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      In the field of biblical studies it’s complicated (not, say, in chemistry or American history). I usually say something like “most critical scholars” conclude this that or the other thing, to differentiate between those who have a religious perspective that may affect their views and those who accept evidence regardless of the religious implications.

  12. doug  June 29, 2018

    When I was in my teens and believed the Bible was inerrant, that gave me some comfort. In the midst of the chaos, confusion, and fear, I had a solid rock to cling to. But the more I studied the Bible and thought about it in relation to our worldly realities, the more I saw the problems… and the freer I was to get my own life.

  13. Kirktrumb59  June 29, 2018

    Wait!! Fundamentalist Christians (and Jews and Muslims and…others) cherry pick their scriptures when it suits them to do so, and they are inconsistent in so-doing? Say it ain’t so.

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  14. tompicard
    tompicard  June 29, 2018

    good points, i agree the bible is not authoritative,

  15. forthfading  June 29, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    How did you get through a prestigious evangelical college (Wheaton) without these issues effecting your faith or your view of scripture? What was was it about Princeton that got you to see these issues clearly? Was it the level of scholarship, the professors, your cohort, etc?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      It’s easy to accept a certain view of Scripture if everyone around you does. It’s only when you study hard on your own and think about the issues that you can be open up to other possibilities.

      • Boltonian  July 2, 2018

        Well said! When anybody trots out, unthinkingly, the tribal view (about anything) I respond by stating my own dictum: ‘Read widely, think deeply.’ And that can be done only by oneself.

  16. anthonygale  June 29, 2018

    If someone were to collect writings from X number of religious scholars (say 27), all having PhDs from reputable institutions with years of research experience, and published them in a book…how many discrepancies in opinion, or even contradictions, might there be? At least a few. Perhaps a lot. Should I then question the “authority” or reliabilty of these experts? The same could be said about any field. I remember reading in a textbook once that Pluto is a planet. This is now considered wrong. Should I now doubt that the Sun is a star or the moon revolves around the Earth?

    Im not saying that the Bible’s contradictions arent a problem and don’t have implications. But I do ask what makes someone/something authoritative and, given that contradictions and mistakes seem inevitable, how do you decide when that authority is questionable or a text is unreliable?

  17. Silver  June 29, 2018

    I am currently reading ‘Jesus before the Gospels’.
    In the section ‘Swords in the Garden’ you cast doubt on the story because it flies in the face of Jesus’ words about those who live by the sword die by the sword. How does this fit with Luke 22:36 – 38 where Jesus is reported to have told his disciples to purchase weapons?

    In the section ‘The Barabbas Episode’ you state that there appears to be no mention of the practice of releasing prisoners at the behest of the mob outside the gospels. In my wider reading I have encountered the following:

    1. Josephus records that when the Roman governor Albinus was preparing to leave office he released prisoners who had been incarcerated for crimes other than murder. ‘he was desirous to appear to do somewhat that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be most plainly worthy of death, and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling occasions, he took money of them, and dismissed them; by which means the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with robbers.’ (Antiquities 20.9.3).

    2. In the Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition, written in around AD 300) it records that “they may slaughter the passover lamb for one….whom they have promised to bring out of prison”.

    3.A piece of papyrus also records a Roman governor of Egypt saying: “You were worthy of scourging but I gave you to the crowds.” (P.Flor 61, c. AD 85).

    4. Pliny the younger notes such practices and who had responsibility to do so, “It was asserted, however, that these people were released upon their petition to the proconsuls, or their lieutenants; which seems likely enough, as it is improbable any person should have dared to set them at liberty without authority” (Epistles 10.31).

    Do you see these references as germane to the Barabbas story?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      1. Yes, the injunction to purchase weapons, on this theory, is a later legendary accretion; 2. I’m not saying that governors could not release people if they wished. I’m saying we have no reference to some kind of Passover tradition of releasing a prisoner, let alone an insurgent who has, say, murdered a Roman soldier!

      • dankoh  July 13, 2018

        Regarding those swords: In each of the gospels, it says that one of the disciples cut off a servant’s ear during the arrest. He does this at the moment when armed soldiers are in the middle of making a touchy arrest, and yet nothing happens to him! Have you ever heard any satisfactory explanation for this?

    • godspell  July 2, 2018

      The entire story told is that Jesus told his disciples to buy swords, and they brought back two (swords are expensive). He said that would be enough. So if this happened, it wasn’t Jesus trying to build an army. It was Jesus making a symbolic gesture, as he often did. “We had weapons and didn’t use them.” The story I see is of a man who is acting out a play he’s constructed in his mind. Which ends with his own death, and the coming of the Kingdom. Well, no theatrical production is ever 100% successful.

  18. talmoore
    talmoore  June 29, 2018

    The Bible has been used to both oppose and support
    Slavery
    War
    Genocide
    Bigotry
    Oppression
    Nationalism
    Capitalism
    Socialism
    Monarchy
    Persecution
    Segregation
    etc.

    “If any one, as he pleases, form a dogma agreeable to himself, and then carefully search the Scriptures, he will be able to produce many testimonies from them in favour of the dogma that he has formed.” – Pseudo-Clementine Homilies,2,10

    • godspell  July 5, 2018

      Anything ever written that had any influence over people has been used in similarly confusing fashion.

      And usually contains no end of contradictions.

      Because human nature is itself contradictory.

  19. James Chalmers  June 29, 2018

    From a comment yesterday:Then Jesus said to the woman, “I was sent only to help God’s lost sheep–the people of Israel.”
    ◄ Matthew 10:6 ►Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.
    ◄ Matthew 10:5 ►These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans.
    So why then did Paul go among the gentiles?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      Because he saw himself as the one God had called to extend the mission to the nations, now that it had been proclaimed to the Jews.

    • prestonp  July 2, 2018

      Parable of the Wedding Banquet
      Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

      “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’

      “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

      “Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

      His chosen people rejected Him, so He invites others, the gentiles. Jesus Christ, who “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him”

      “I’m not saying that governors could not release people if they wished. I’m saying we have no reference to some kind of Passover tradition of releasing a prisoner” Bart

      This is a reference.

      “It’s easy to accept a certain view of Scripture if everyone around you does. It’s only when you study hard on your own and think about the issues that you can be open up to other possibilities.” Bart

      That isn’t true. You can accept to a point the majority opinion and reserve doubts at the same time. You can still be open to many possibilities. In fact we are instructed to, “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” Also, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, BUT TEST THE SPIRITS, whether they are of God… By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”

      • flcombs  July 5, 2018

        “test all things…” Etc. Absolutely! Of course before you said that God hides truth from the “wise and learned, even today”. So you must mean that testing should only be done by the ignorant and unwise, which is a low standard.

        Testing is why many have a problem with claims of Bible inerrancy or of Jesus being the Messiah based on the OT. Many of the OT verses claimed for proof of Jesus as Christ don’t fit or pass the test. Claims of authorship of the Bible books and authentication of the stories don’t pass the test for many, especially by the standard used to reject others.

        People can believe based on little or no evidence. But legitimate and sincere proof and “testing all things” require the best objectivity and knowledge one can obtain. If God really wants truth tested it goes counter to your claims elsewhere that God hides truth from the wise and learned.

  20. snf7893  June 29, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    I am a lay person who has never read the bible in full. My goal is to read it cover to cover. I am looking for the best english edition for a student which exhibits the least theological bias. Any recommendations?

    Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      I would recommend the NRSV, which I especially like in an annotated edition, such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

    • J--B  July 2, 2018

      I found “The New Oxford Annotated Bible – New Revised Standard Version With The Apocrypha” (Fourth Edition) very helpful when I read through the entire Bible 2 years ago. It has great introductions to all the books by noted scholars and insightful essays, tables, glossary and maps.

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