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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 [...]

Why Have I Stopped Explaining How I Lost My Faith? Readers’ Mailbag June 4, 2017

I will be dealing with two questions in this weeks’ Readers’ Mailbag.  The first is about what happened to that thread I was supposed to be doing on why I lost my faith (!) and the other about whether Mark’s account of Jesus’ death contains an inner discrepancy (one verse flat out contradicting another).   QUESTION: I'm a bit confused. A few weeks ago you said you were going to write about what you tell your students on the last day of school about why you lost your faith, but it seems you may have gotten off track, unless I missed a post or two….  Anyway, I am sorry I seem to have missed the posts that were about what you say to your class each year about why you lost your faith. I hope you will repeat it sometime soon.   RESPONSE: Ha!  Right!  I can see how this could be confusing.  When I started this thread I did not know it was even going to *be* a thread.  I had planned to make [...]

Why It Didn’t Happen that Way. The Stories of Jesus’ Birth

In the previous post I began to discuss (as a review for many readers of the blog) the historical problems with the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke.  The point of the discussion is that the stories cannot be accepted as historically accurate.  This is a huge issue mainly for fundamentalist Christians and conservative evangelicals – and those they have managed to persuade that if a story does not describe what actually happened, then it is worthless and should simply be thrown out. For others – whether theologians, pastors, parishioners, or simply lay-folk interested in Christianity – the stories are important for other reasons, for example in the ideas they are trying to convey. In any event, here is the second post dealing with the historical problems that arise when you compare the two accounts to one another. ***************************************************** It may be possible to reconcile these accounts if you work hard enough at it.  I suppose you’d have to say that after Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, as in Luke, they decided to move [...]

2020-04-03T02:15:17-04:00June 2nd, 2017|Bart’s Biography, Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Another “True” Story that Didn’t Happen? Jesus’ Birth in Luke

I have been trying to illustrate the point that critical scholars who remain Christian have long made, that there can be stories in the Bible that are not historically accurate but that are trying to convey larger theological truths.  My first illustration had to do with the death of Jesus; in this post and the next, I will deal with the birth of Jesus.   This is a topic I’ve dealt with several times over the years on the blog; but it’s worth covering it again!   I’ve drawn this discussion, again, from my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. ***************************************************** “True” Stories that Didn’t Happen (at least as narrated): Jesus’ Birth in Luke We may take an example from the familiar stories at the beginning of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  These are the only Gospels that narrate the events of Jesus’ birth (in both Mark and John, Jesus makes his first appearance as an adult).  What is striking – and what most readers have never noticed – is that the two accounts [...]

2020-04-03T02:15:26-04:00June 1st, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

Is Theological “Truth” More Important than Historical Accuracy?

In the previous post I began to explain how there could be an account in the Gospels that is not historically accurate because an author is more interested in conveying what, to him, is a theological “truth” than in giving a history lesson about what actually happened in the life of Jesus.  In my view, the early Christian story tellers and Gospel writers (often?) changed historical data in order to make theological points.  What mattered more than historical accuracy was the ultimate point of the story. In this post I give a concrete example of how it works.  To make sense of what I have to say about this story you need to remember what I said yesterday about how the Passover feast worked in the days of Jesus.  This particular example involves only a small detail in the Gospel of John – a tiny detail, in some ways.  But it is illustrative of a larger point.  Sometimes Christian authors changed a historical fact in order to express what, for them, was a theological “truth.” [...]

2020-04-03T02:15:35-04:00May 30th, 2017|Canonical Gospels, Public Forum|

An Example of a True Story that Didn’t Happen: Part 1

I have been trying to explain (without complete success) that the Bible, in the view of some scholars starting in the early 19th century, could contain “true” stories that “didn’t happen” – or at least didn’t happen as they are narrated.  One important point I want to make about this claim: I am *not* saying that I personally hold this view.  I’m not saying I think these stories are necessarily “true” as far as I’m concerned.  I’m saying that the idea is that these stories were designed to convey truths, rather than objective history lessons. I talk about that in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium, and try to demonstrate the point by giving a couple of particular examples.  The first example will take two posts for me to cover. ********************************************************* What, though, is the evidence (that there could be true stories in the Bible that didn’t happen)?  Or is this simply a theory cranked up by biblical scholars with too much time on their hands and not enough sense simply to [...]

Finding More Problems in the Old Testament

Yesterday I started detailing some of the contradictions and historical or scientific problems with the Old Testament that I started to find when I was a graduate at Princeton Seminary, starting to examine the Bible not as the inerrant revelation from God Almighty but as a more human book that could indeed have mistakes in it.  The account I gave of these problems was lifted straight from my textbook: The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.  There’s a reason for that.  The problems I found early on in my more scholarly investigation of the Bible have stuck with me and continue to strike me as some of the truly most important ones, and therefore the ones most appropriate to introduce to college students themselves reading the Bible critically for the first time. This is a second and final post on the same topic: a few more comments on a few more problems that strike me as completely irreconcileable, once a person admits that there can indeed be problems in the Bible.   Again, this is excerpted [...]

2020-04-03T02:21:04-04:00May 12th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Finding Problems in the Old Testament

I have been explaining that while at Princeton Theological Seminary, I started finding that there could be mistakes in the Bible.  My first realization of this involved my study of the Gospels, but I was studying the Hebrew Bible as well, and I finally got to the point where I had to admit there appeared to be mistakes there as well.  Lots of mistakes.  Contradictions, discrepancies, historical errors.  And these show up right off the bat, in the book of Genesis. Let me detail some of the differences I started finding, as I later summarized them, many years later, in my textbook on the Bible, where I talk about why Moses almost certainly didn’t write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy) and about some of the tensions one finds in the text. ************************************************************* As already mentioned, the critical scrutiny of the traditional view of the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch deepened and became more rigorous as scholarship advanced.   In addition to the problems just mentioned, other troubling features of [...]

2020-04-03T02:21:11-04:00May 11th, 2017|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Public Forum|

Writers Who Contradict Themselves

In response to the question of why the authors of the New Testament sometimes contradict themselves, I’ve so far discussed two phenomena: (1) sometimes (as with Paul) an author changes his mind about something over time, and (2) sometimes an author (as with John) incorporates a number of earlier sources in his or her writing when these sources are sometimes at odds with one another, thereby creating discrepancies, or “literary seams” as I called them in my previous post. Now I deal with a third and final thing (there may be more explanations, but these are the ones I’ve thought most about). In my view, authors – not just NT authors, but authors in general (and whatever we can say about the writers of the NT, at least we can say they were authors!) – often simply are careless and don’t notice mistakes. This is not only true of authors, it’s true of readers. Very often, when I point out internal discrepancies, for example, in the Gospel of John or in the Book of Acts, [...]

2020-04-03T17:45:25-04:00November 1st, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Discrepancies *Inside* the Fourth Gospel

OK, back to contradictions. This thread (such as it is – so far there’s been no thread) began with a reader’s question of how there could be contradictions in the work of a single author? Was he just inattentive? Didn’t he care? Was he sloppy? In the previous post I pointed out that with someone like Paul, it was possible that he changed his mind about some things over the decade covered by his letters. But how about internal contradictions within a book? There are lots of these two? How can they be explained? In some instances they can be explained by the fact that an author has taken a variety of different sources and incorporated them into his writing. On occasion, these sources have discrepancies (sometimes very slight) between them, and the author for some reason or another did not choose to smooth them out. Or he didn’t notice them! (More on that in my next post.) A terrific set of examples comes from the Gospel of John. Most people reading John don’t see [...]

2020-04-03T18:06:12-04:00October 31st, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Reader’s Questions|

Why Are There Contradictions in the New Testament?

QUESTION: If I had collected a lot of stories about a person and put them together into a “biography” I would at least make sure that all the stories were at least somewhat consistent. I don’t understand why the writers of the gospels didn’t make sure their final product made sense – they certainly didn’t seem to have any problems changing things to suit them in many cases. Did they just write down everything they heard without any regard to whether one story or dialog totally contradicted another in the same story? Did they not even care? RESPONSE: This is a great question, and I wish there were a simple (let alone great) answer to it. Let me make a few observations more or less off the cuff, without presuming to make anything like an authoritative pronouncement on the matter…. First, the question refers to internal discrepancies *within* a single author, not to discrepancies between authors. One of the most interesting features of the canonical Gospels’ accounts of Jesus is, of course, that they are [...]

My Jesus Class and … Destroying Christianity?

My first-year seminar on “Jesus in Scholarship and Film” is going extremely well. Last week I gave the students an exercise comparable to one I mentioned earlier on the infancy narratives of the Gospels; this one was on the passion narratives. They were to read each of the Gospels accounts of Jesus’ trial, death, and resurrection carefully, several times (Matthew 27-28; Mark 15-16; Luke 23-24; John 18-20). Then they were to choose two of the four, and compare them very carefully, noting all the similarities, all the differences, and any apparent discrepancies that they thought in fact could not be reconciled. As a side note: probably three or four times a week I get an angry note from someone who has read one of my books or heard me give a lecture or listened/watched one of my Great Courses courses, who is upset because I am “trying to destroy Christianity.” I’m always completely baffled by this comment. (I got it yesterday from a retired Episcopalian priest; I would think an Episcopalian cleric would be the [...]

2020-04-03T18:05:14-04:00October 16th, 2013|Canonical Gospels, Reflections and Ruminations|

Inconsistencies in the Hebrew Bible

Yesterday I started answering a question about whether the problems in the Hebrew Bible were as significant as those in the New Testament, and my response was: Yes! Even more so! In yesterday’s post I talked about the problem with the manuscripts. In this post I’ll talk about internal discrepancies and contradictions. Rather than write the whole thing out, though, I’ve decided just to include a chunk that deals with the issue from my Introduction to the Bible, which is due out in the Fall. Here I am talking about what 19th and 20th century critical scholars discovered with respect to discrepancies within the Pentateuch, leading to the theory that the first five books of the Hebrew Scripture actually derived from four major sources, written at different times, that have been spliced together, creating internal problems. ****************************************************************************************************************** The internal tensions came to be seen as particularly significant. Nowhere were these tensions more evident than in the opening accounts of the very first book of the Pentateuch, in the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 and [...]

2020-04-03T18:28:19-04:00June 8th, 2013|Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Reader’s Questions|

The Infancy Narratives Compared

In two previous posts I’ve detailed what happens in Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth and then in Matthew’s.  I will assume those two previous posts in the comments that I want to make in this one.  The problem people have with reading these two accounts, usually, is the problem they have reading the Gospels (and the Bible as a whole) generally.  Or at least this has been my experience.  It’s the problem of assuming that one account is basically saying the same thing as some other account. People do that with the Bible all the time.   With the New Testament, people tend to read Matthew as if he’s saying the same thing as Mark; John as if it’s the same thing as Luke; Paul’s letters as if, at heart, they’re the same thing as James; Revelation as if it’s the same thing as John.  And on and on and on. One of the most important tasks I have as an undergraduate teacher of the New Testament is to get students to see that each of [...]

2020-04-03T19:08:51-04:00December 13th, 2012|Canonical Gospels|
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