Since the time of Athanasius, Christians have held onto the idea that the New Testament, as we have it today, is the authorized word of the church and of God. It stands as the highest ‘earthly’ authority, much in the same manner that the constitution of the United States stands as the authority of the law over the courts and senate (albeit, recently the executive branch has tried to overpower it). Although the “New Testament” has not been the same since its inception, and there are in fact a few “canonized” versions of the New Testament depending on what flavor of Christianity you follow, there are those Christians out there who feel that the Bible does not contain a shred of error, by the very fact that it is said to be ‘canon’.
Until recently, a compilation of contradictions had been posted up in my Biblical Errancy forum. A few weeks ago I took it down. I want to be clear that its disappearance is not because I suddenly feel that these Christians are correct; the Bible does in fact contain contradictions. I took them down because that list contained a lot of useless information. I mentioned before in some of my other articles that I have come to agree with Richard Carrier on the point that contradictions are boring. In any canon, whether it is William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Homer, Transcendentalist, there will always be contradictions. I do not agree, however, that the problem rests on human fallibility. This has become, to me, an intellectually lazy response. Humans are fallible, even incompetent, certainly. But this also implies that the authors of the books of these works were also incompetent in their composing.
Why is this implication wrong? For starters, this implication has other implications. The primary reason why it is assumed that the authors were incompetent is because of the assumption that these books were written by eyewitnesses, or by the more liberal Christian perspective, second-hand accounts, who were simple gentiles who had no formal education. (The disciple John, for example, is often considered to be the author of the Gospel of John by many evangelical Christians.) It is because of this implication that the assumption exists that these authors were just not well educated, and probably imbeciles. But this could not be further from the truth.
The authors of written literature in antiquity, such as the Gospel accounts, were not incompetents, or even the uneducated. Rather, the authors of the Gospel narratives were well educated and were probably scribes or even scholars, all within elite society. There are many ways to show this for a fact. The easiest way to prove this is to show allusion to, and use of, other ancient literature within the Gospel narratives. Not only will I show them, but also express them to you in a way which makes clear that allusion is actually intended and not coincidental. In other words, I will show that the authors of the Gospels intended to contradict each other for specific reasons using these models as guides.
The implications of this are numerous. This would indicate a deliberate intent, signifying the control the author had over the narrative. Bluntly put, it would show the author was creating plot rather than writing down events from specific memories. Another implication which would be evident is the use of models by the author, signifying that they had access to libraries of information, could read them, and interpret them in a format that suited their own literature. We’ll explore these implications, and others, as we explore some of the most unique contradictions. This series is for you, the layman, not for you, the scholar (if any really read this). If you want a more scholarly format with endnotes and detailed information, buy the book in the near future published in an academic press.
Why do this study and for what purpose? I do not want to confuse my readers with my intent. As many readers will note, the old compilation that had been up previously was largely the work of Dennis McKinsey, author of Biblical Errancy. The views and opinions expressed in that earlier version no longer reflected my own. Dennis’ reasons for exposing these contradictions were to “fill the void by teaching a kind of Sunday-School-in-Reverse, by telling people all the things they should have heard in Sunday School but didn't.” (Dennis McKinsey, Biblical Errancy 33; September, 1985) He sought to expose the Bible’s flaws, present them to the world to offer balance. While this is noble and useful in some ways, it is largely irrelevant outside of offering Christians information to chew on. Yes this does provide balance as he suggests, but not in a way that is, in my opinion, meaningful. While exposing the contradictions, he offers no explanation for them, and he makes it very clear in his literature that his intent is not to explain them.
My purpose is not the same as Dennis’. Where I still respect Dennis and think he is doing a lot of good, I differ in that I feel the explanations are more important than just providing information. In our lives, we’re provided lots of data, but there are very little instances when we are taught how to apply that data, or even how to interpret it. Dennis has provided a lot of data, much of it accurate—some of it not; but no way to understand or interpret it. This study will attempt to present a way to interpret the contradictions—indeed, even the Bible itself—which will help the layperson understand the intent behind the various books of the Bible. Unfortunately this article can not be comprehensive or complete. It is merely a survey of a few contradictions as opposed to a full list, partially because of time and partially because of interpretability.
INTRODUCTION TO THE BIBLE – A QUICK OVERVIEW
Before we get into the thick of the contradictions I want to discuss, a quick review of the Bible and what exactly it is, is important. Although many people think they know what the Bible is, most do not have a clue as to the intricate details of it, or even how many books make it up. Keep in mind this is only a review and will not be comprehensive.
To start, the Bible is not one book. It is actually many books. Depending on which canon you use, the amount of books in it will vary. Over the past two-thousand years, there have been many variations of the Biblical canon. To this day there still is not one “official” canon, but perhaps thousands of “official” canons. As Bart Ehrman (2003) rightly notes in his book Lost Christianities, the only period in which rivaled the diversity of Christianity today is Christianity in antiquity, where the concept of orthodoxy was almost non-existent until hundreds of years after its origins. In fact, this is why you see the creation of so many so-called apocrypha. (Peter Gruen, 2003) Where no canon had existed, people freely adapted to and altered the text as it fit their own culture, lifestyle, politics and religious views.
Getting this important point across is key to understanding the Bible as a whole. The very concept of ‘canonization’ came about because of the constant reworking and rewriting of scripture. It was an attempt to “out due” all other types of Christianity and all other types of collected books. (Bart Ehrman, 2003) So the formation of the canon, initially, was to make the claim of authority. This should not be confused with the idea that the books of the canon of orthodox Christianity espoused by Athanasius was actually inspired and actually held authority, this is a circular argument that holds no grounds in history. The important thing is that you have this period both prior to and following the institution of canon of people of all different Christianities and Judaisms creating literature they deemed to be inspired, while they were creating it! This is, in many ways, similar to the authorship of Virgil’s Aenid, where while writing his narrative, used models and created narrative, all to create a history of Roman civilization, complete with allusions to Homer throughout. Many of the books in the Bible reflect rewriting earlier traditions from literature which also existed as rewritten tradition. The books of Kings and Chronicles reflect this, 1 and 2 Samuel, the various prophetic books, as well as Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and of course Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
As an example, the concept of water plays a specific role in the books of the Bible. In three locations water purifies Israel and is in some way involved in its destruction and rebirth, not always in the same manner. First the flood of Noah, which leaves a remnant left representing God’s pious followers. The next instance is the crossing of the Red Sea where Moses parts it, leaving both sides standing as if “jello” (Thomas L. Thompson, 1999), where the event of passing through the parted halves represented the righteous Israel who follows the will of God. The third instance is the Baptism of Jesus. Jesus is baptized with water, and a dove comes down to signify the event is to purify – as the bird with the olive branch at the end of the flood story signifies to Noah. Jesus’ death represents the death of Israel, but his resurrection signifies its rebirth as a new, pious, holy nation under the will of God, who is not “with them”. These motifs and tropes echo each other not because they resonate the historical reality of three separate events, but because the authors who wrote them were interpreting other literature in a unique but fascinating way. To these authors, these events represented a part of their story, not a part of their history.
While just exposing contradictions in the Bible can show they exist, without proper interpretation this can tell us a little of the motivation behind the formation of the canon; it doesn’t explain why specific books were chosen over others. It also doesn’t offer any sort of substance beyond the obvious problems. Is it any wonder why so many Christians are eager to hunt down apologetic material that offers more answers (even if these answers are often flawed and inaccurate representations of reality)?
Understanding the authors and more specifically the genre of the books of the Bible are the only ways to truly understand how and why such works were written, interpreted, and reworked into new books and new material for thousands of years. Part of this understanding is about contextualizing the authorship of the Hebrew Bible into its historical scene. And part of that scene involves a keen relationship between author, socio-cultural world, and the literary works they are using. Obviously a Sumerian scribe in the second millennium BCE writing about Enkidu would not be using Egyptian hieroglyphics or Semitic literature. However, a Jew living in Alexandria who was trained at a Greek Gymnasium would have access to, and be able to read, ancient Greek epics and philosophical dialogs. But a Hellenistic scribes knowledge of literary works spans beyond this.
Before the scribe ever reached their first year at school learning grammatiks, they would have heard the epics of Homer sung in the street by muses, witnessed the plays of Euripides or heard an actor reciting a tragedy of Oedipus. They would have heard the discourses of Plato on the street with philosophers teaching students or arguing with other philosophers. The world of literature in antiquity was not just written, it was heard. It was heard from those who not only recited these stories, but freely adapted them as well. A muse would alter a scene from Homer to reflect his or her audience. A philosopher would build on an earlier principal or relate them in a new way. An actor would recipe a scene from Agamemnon perhaps reflecting better light on the character of Agamemnon’s wife. And when the student was finally taught in school how to write, they learned by changing or adjusting the story line and interpreting it in their own ways.
As we move forward on this journey, recall these very important points: (1) The Bible is not one book but a series of books, (2) they represent the thoughts and times they were written, (3) they were written with purpose and intent, (4) freely interpreted from earlier literature including Biblical literature, (5) there is no such thing as ‘canon’, and (6) the literature of these books was not just read but heard. Now let us move to the first chapter: The Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus