“Id be curious to see what you think about the following. A common argument against Christianity is pointing out contradicting scripture and/or other sources or schools of belief. A leap is then made to say that due to those contradictions it all must be false.”
Today I’m going to answer a question from a friend that I have known for many years. We met when he was a member of the church that my parents we co-pastors at, and we used to hang out after worship services all the time. I know him to be an intelligent, reasonable, and respectful person, and though we now disagree on matters of faith I am going to do my best to address his question thoughtfully. I fully realize that some of what I have to say on this topic will offend people, and given the subject matter this is essentially unavoidable. I am going to answer this by talking some about what I have studied, and some about what I have gone through myself. I just ask that you consider my opinion respectfully, and I will do my best to reciprocate during any conversation that may follow.
The question as I interpret it is this, “Does the acknowledgement that there are varying schools of theological thought regarding Biblical interpretation, AND/OR the existence of contradictions within the text of the Bible itself, necessarily lead to the conclusion that the entire Bible is wrong.”
The short answer to this is no, of course not.
The Bible is not ONLY a collection of theological works designed to make the case that Jesus Christ was the son of God, and the messiah allegedly prophesied by the Hebrew scriptures (Tanakh). In addition to the prophetic and theological claims in the Bible there are historical claims, family lineages (often the main roadblock to people reading the Bible in it’s entirety), scientific claims, poems, songs, personal letters, prayers, essays, and coded messaging written from a tiny prison island off the coast of Greece. Some of these claims can be assessed by historical standards, some of these claims can be assessed by scientific standards, and in the case of the poems or songs it isn’t even necessarily a logical question to address their truth claims. They weren’t written to be true or false, they were designed to be artistic, and thus the only real value judgement you can place on them is that of literary value (I know that there are many people who will be upset that I just discredited the entire book of Psalms… breathe! I’m not saying they aren’t useful for theological wisdom, I’m simply saying they aren’t useful for verifiable truth claims the same way that a historical narrative or scientific claim is).
Having said all of this it would not be logical to say the entire Bible is false, just because there are contradictions. There are many claims which we can, and have, proven to be true using the canons of historical research methodology. For example, because of the discovery of the Tel Dan Steele in the mid 1990’s we have solid extra-Biblical evidence that there most probably WAS a King David, and a political dynasty associated with his family. So when evaluating the Bible we not only do so as a theological text, but as a historical one, a literary one, etc… In that context each claim that the Bible makes can be validated, or not, based on it’s own merit, not as part of some systematic effort to discount the entirety of the text.
Now, because I doubt my friend wanted me to blather about historical research canons, textual criticism, epistemology, hermeneutics, or northern Israeli archaeological excavations I will move on to what I think the question was aimed at. Namely, do I believe that it is rational, GIVEN these contradictions and various interpretations, to pursue Christian faith as a religious practice. Put even more plainly, are contradictions and opposing interpretations of Christian scripture fatal to any pursuit aimed at ascertaining truth about God directly from the Bible?
After years of trying to answer this very question myself I have come to the belief that the contradictions/varied interpretations are fatal to the goal of coming to understand God, or God’s plan/will.
Now, to any of you who may be reading this from a Christian perspective I know that what I have just said immediately makes you defensive. I know this because I have jumped in to arguments with people over far less than this during MY time as a Christian. I also acknowledge that to the extent that you agreed with anything that I have written so far, you will likely now finish this post viewing it through another lens. So having accepted that, I will try to present my case in a way that doesn’t result in anyone digging in, and reflexively defending their position, but rather in a way that encourages intellectual evaluation both from myself, and from you. It is skepticism that led me to question my Christian faith, and I work very hard to make sure I don’t abandon that skepticism now that I have moved to the other side of the fence.
So, let me briefly make my case. There simply ARE many MANY contradictions in the Bible. I know this has become an atheist mantra, and as you should justifiably do with a talking point from any ideological camp, you should question it. I am often shocked to discover that many atheists, when questioned, struggle to come up with a single contradiction within the Bible. Instead they often say something to the effect of, “well they are there! if you deny that you are just a liar.” And while this is technically true, it does little to convince anyone that the point the atheist is trying to make is of any more merit than the one they are refuting, and certainly doesn’t encourage respectful dialogue.These people seem to be blindly accepting something as true based solely on having heard it from someone they happen to agree with, which is often EXACTLY what they want to criticize theists of! It’s more than a little frustrating… Anyways, sorry, had to get that off of my chest… Where was I? Ah yes, some of these contradictions are not particularly meaningful, some of them can be accounted for by nothing more sinister than scribal error (the ancient equivalent to a typo), and some of them are VERY important (for example the different stories about the 10 commandments; exodus 20 & Deuteronomy 5, two different creation narratives Genesis 1 & Genesis 2, the 2 totally different family lineages of Christ; Matthew 1 & Luke 3, the differing stories about his last days/resurrection see: every gospel ending, the entire last 12 verses of Mark, the inclusion the comma Johanneum in 1 John 5, etc…) So having established that there are, in fact, contradictions (and this is only refuted any more these days by the most literal fundamentalists), I will move on to what I think this means.
When we sit down to try and discern truth from a source like the Bible we do it for many reasons. One reason is that there simply IS wisdom to be found! It isn’t all wisdom, and you certainly have to look passed an awful lot of ugliness, but if you are willing to apply modern notions of morality to separate the awful outdated practices, from the timeless intuitive ones, then you can certainly find wisdom in the Bible. Beyond this, however, we grant the Bible more credit than it is likely due, because NOT questioning the Bible is the default position for many of us. We read the Bible as if it is the word of God, because often we grew up being told it was the word of God. We rarely stop to consider that this is a very common practice for those who wish to indoctrinate people en masse. political parties do it, societies do it, and EVERY faith tradition does it… It is not surprising, then, that the most accurate predictive indicator of what political party somebody supports is simply knowing what party their parents support, the most accurate indicator for what moral values they possess is an evaluation of the cultural norms for that individuals particular time and location, and by far the most accurate predictor of what people believe the “true” religion is, is once again just identifying the religion of their parents.
The trouble is that these are, for the most part, well known facts. I, for example, knew that these things were true long LONG before I began questioning my faith. I satisfied the cognitive dissonance that existed in my brain (Between knowledge that I had been raised to believe something to be true, and an innate desire to question everything I was “supposed” to believe) by seeking out faith based answers to the questions that I had… I knew that a religion had to be more than just something that my parents accepted for it to be utimately true, so I sought out books to study it’s truth claims. What I was doing was satisfying the inherent desire that many of us have to feel like the positions that we hold are well thought out, well reasoned, well researched, and more than just accepting what we have been told. The problem is that often times the research I sought out was either Christian, and thus predisposed towards validating the belief I already held, or it was from a non-Christian source that I was in all honesty only using to either learn how to refute, or to pay lip service to the fact that I had “looked at both sides.” The watershed moment, for me, came when I was seeking out a way to debate why Islam was incorrect. As part of this effort I began researching Islamic apologetics methods, and seeking out arguments that Muslims use against Christians… I wanted, like always, to be well read and prepared. What I discovered was the the methods and the claims that Muslims used to refute Christianity were nearly identical to those Christians used to refute Islam. This, finally, got me really thinking. I realized that despite the fact that I had claimed to read the Bible skeptically (and not surprisingly constantly found ways to justify my prior belief) for years, that what true non-biased skepticism ACTUALLY required was treating the Bible the same way that I would have treated the Quran… While this felt blasphemous to me as a Christian, I recognized that anything short of that was intellectually dishonest. So I read the entire Bible, truly skeptically, and my Christian faith did not survive… (If you choose to view this as an indictment of me, instead of an indictment of the text then I understand, but I think it does a disservice to the quest I was on. I was not seeking to leave the church, I was seeking to discover truth. While I do not think every search such as this inevitably leads to the conclusion I reached, I would encourage you to try to remove yourself from your beliefs and read the Bible as a non-biased observer. If you are unable to, then I suggest that it may be nothing more than fear of where skepticism may lead that is keeping you from a truly honest evaluation. If it is worry about how God may react to a critical review of the Bible, I would offer that IF he exists he gave us these brains for a reason, and I highly doubt that it was so we could cease to use them when it came time to evaluate “his word.” I’m sorry that this seems accusatory.. moving on)
There are tenants of Christianity that simply cannot survive the multiple interpretations/contradictions of the Bible. In order for man to need saving, man needs to be fallen, in order for man to be fallen the doctrine of original sin must hold true, in order for original sin to be true the story of Adam and Eve must be true (Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 5:12, 18-19 “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned…Therefore as by the offence of one judgement came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous”). Very few scientifically minded Christians, these days, believe that the story of Adam and Eve is anything more than a parable. It simply contradicts everything that we have come to understand scientifically about the history of life on earth. But man MUST be fallen, if Jesus’ sacrifice was justified, and so for years I concocted stories about how Adam and Eve wasn’t literally true, but that man was still fallen… I invented many such stories. I understood that my belief in the creation story was metaphorical, and that it was an analogy to the fall, and not an actual account of it…. What I, of course, found was that among those who held a similar belief that there were as many interpretations as there were people. This to say nothing of the fact that there was a sizable (and growing) chunk of Christians who simply said I “wasn’t Christian” for abandoning my belief that Adam and Eve WAS a historically accurate narrative. What dawned on me is that none of these people, or indeed myself, had any more textual basis for their claims than anyone else. We were all just making it up as we went to make sure that it fit into the criteria we needed it to fit into, in order to further justify our pre-existing world view. Sure I would change my mind about something every once in a while, and I promise you that every time I did I would tout it as evidence that my faith wasn’t static, and that it was an intellectually honest quest. In reality, however, I was doing nothing more than using the language that I thought was required to demonstrate that I was rationally evaluating the evidence, in an effort to try and convey the message that I couldn’t possibly be brainwashed! I knew the terminology which meant I should know how to avoid it!
Of course if I was making it up as I went along, then that was acceptable for everyone else as well, and what went out the window was any valid criteria to be able to evaluate what the actual “truth” was. Fundamentalists recognize this today and it is why, despite the contradictions it forces them to accept, they refuse to acknowledge that there even ARE contradictions. They simply assert that “you are interpreting the text wrong if you believe there to be contradictions” or, “the original manuscripts did not contain contradictions!”. While I find this to be intellectually dishonest, what they recognize is that either the Bible is the 100% accurate word of God, or that it is completely open to interpretation and loses all “absolute” authority. The claim that we are forced to interpret the Bible because the “original manuscripts” have been lost, and that subsequently we are forced to try and discern the word of God as best we can through research and thoughtful reflection is a great platitude, but there is never any criteria laid forth for how one can go about actually achieving this objective. It is, of course, true that we don’t have the original manuscripts, but rather copies of copies of copies, but given that that is true, who then gets to be the ultimate arbiter here on earth of deciding what is and is not correct interpretation?? Catholics would say the Pope, fundamentalists will claim that the holy spirit guides interpretation and keeps it accurate (for the most part), Muslims would say clearly no one in the Christian faith does, which is the explanation they offer as to why the Bible contains so many errors, and Christianity is practiced in such a variety of ways. I, as an atheist, say that the Muslims are correct, but should probably speak into a mirror before they hand me their literature about why Christianity is false.
We can all read a text and find meaning/wisdom. Whether it’s the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, or Dr. Seuss. We can all use our own reason, apply it to anything, and derive meaning from it. The question isn’t whether or not the “entire Bible is wrong.” It is whether we are capable of separating the wisdom, from the outdated notions of science, morality, and human nature. I believe that most people ARE capable of this. That said, being beholden to the unverifiable religious claims of the Bible makes it more likely that you will mistake something terrible, for being something wise (views on homosexuality/women for example). In This context while the whole Bible is not wrong, using it as a means to try to access ultimate truth, or derive a moral compass from IS absolutely wrong.