—2 Timothy 3:16
One day the older daughter said to the younger, Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.” That night they got their father to drink wine, and the older daughter went in and lay with him.
“THE B-I-B-L-E, YES, THAT’S THE BOOK FOR ME.” WE SANG LOUDLY, SCRUBFACED, girls in dresses and boys in tidy pants. The year was probably 1968 or ’69, and scores of us were attending Vacation Bible School, a week-long event like a day camp that is still held each summer by churches across America. One summer, not long ago, my nephews attended four of them back to back. Some churches use commercially published curricula; some make up their own. The advertised materials have catchy themes, like “Power Up! (Jesus helps you to power up),” or “Rickshaw Rally (Racing to the Son),” or “Mission Possible (sharing your faith with your friends).” If the church is large enough, children split by age groups and, in the company of their peers, do art activities, sing songs, and listen to stories taught by enthusiastic volunteers. Bible Schools vary, but they share the same intent: to introduce children to God’s wonderful Word. “I stand alone on the Word of God—the B-I-B-L-E.”1What they don’t teach in Vacation Bible School is that the Bible is laden with contradictions that can be reconciled only by contorted logic, improbable conjecture, and leaps of faith. These range from transcription errors to historical inaccuracies, internal contradictions, and logical impossibilities. Evangelicals who have left the faith often attribute their de-conversion to the fact that they finally sat down and studied the Bible, including the parts that are neglected in sermons and Sunday schools.
A number of books and websites now catalog the errors in the Bible. One particularly thick tome is called The Encyclopedia of Biblical Errancy (to contrast with the doctrine of inerrancy).2 For over a decade, its author, C. Dennis McKinsey, also produced a monthly periodical on the topic. Some biblical “errors” are stories that contradict each other, since many Bible stories are repeated more than once. Other errors are texts that align with pre-scientific understandings of the natural world but contradict what we know now about chemistry, biology, or physics. Another category of problems involves opposing commands, incompatible images of God, or contradictory theological statements. Yet another category includes failed prophesies and promises. Occasionally, even, one book of the Bible misquotes another or distorts the meaning of an earlier text.
For modernist Christians, who acknowledge the human construction of the Bible, the actual contents of the book come as no surprise and pose no threat. From their perspective, it may even seem petty to harp on errors and contradictions that are simply to be expected when humans struggle to comprehend the Divine. And yet, the importance of such harping cannot be overstated. Millions of people believe the Bible to be inerrant, and their numbers are growing. This belief leads them to adopt social and moral priorities that range from silly to cruel to dangerous. This chapter contains a small sampling of obvious contradictions in biblical texts.3 Acknowledging small errors such as these can open the door to examining deeper moral and spiritual flaws in the Bible texts.
How Bible Stories Contradict Science
The Bible records histories that contradict what we now know to be the laws of biology, astronomy, and physics. These histories also contradict findings in the fields of linguistics, neurology, and infectious disease. While they contradict recent discoveries, they are consistent with pre-scientific understandings of how the world works. In other words, they fit the scope of human knowledge, and misinformation, that would have surrounded the writers during the period when they were produced.
- God creates day and night and plants before the sun and moon are created (Gen. 1:3–5, 11, 16). Note that some ancient peoples believed that the sun ruled the day but did not cause the daylight. Creation of day and night before the sun and moon would be consistent with this view.
Adam lives 930 years, Seth lives 912, Enosh 905, etc. (Gen. 5).
- Biblical genealogies fix the date of creation around 4000 BCE. Evidence exists that human cultures predate this time by tens of thousands of years and that the age of the earth is around 4.6 billion years.
- Human linguistic diversity results from a wrathful miracle. God punishes those who built the Tower of Babel by making them unintelligible to each other. Prior to this only one language exists (Gen. 11:1, 7–9). We now know how languages split off from each other. Linguists can trace their evolution, mapping changes to human patterns of migration and contact between or isolation of linguistic groups. Ironically, in the previous chapter of Genesis, people are divided into nations, everyone “according to his language” (Gen. 10:5).
- A flood covers the Earth with water more than twenty feet above the highest mountain. (Gen. 7:19–20) This would require rainfall at the rate of 8460 inches per day for forty days and nights to cover the planet in an ocean five miles deep and bury Mt. Everest under fifteen cubits (or 22 feet) of water.4
- A race of giants inhabits the Earth before and after the flood (Gen. 6:4, Num. 13:33). No evidence, archeological, anthropological, or otherwise suggests that this was ever true. Note that these verses also contradict the biblical account of Noah’s flood.
- Jacob alters the genetic characteristics of cattle by letting them view a striped rod (Gen. 30:37–43). Note: although contrary to modern science, this is in keeping with the understanding of the time. It has not been uncommon for primitive people to believe that offspring are altered by things a female sees during her pregnancy.
- There are winged creatures that go about on four legs, and the Israelites are given detailed rules about which they can eat (Lev. 11:20–23). In reality, winged insects all have six legs, and winged mammals and birds have two.
- A house can be infected with the disease leprosy, and God prescribes a cure (Lev. 14:33–57). In actual fact, although leprosy horrified ancient peoples because it caused disfigurement, it is extremely difficult to transmit, would not be caused by a house, and rarely spreads even by direct contact with infected persons.5
- The sun and moon stand still so that Joshua can finish abattle (implying the rotation of the Earth is halted) (Josh.10:12–14). Imagine, if you can, the implications of Earth abruptly halting its rotation.
- The shadow of the sun moves backwards, implying that the Earth reverses its rotation. (2 Kings 20:11, Isa. 38:8).
- Satan takes Jesus to a high mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen (implying a flat Earth or a small “known” earth) (Matt. 4:8).
- A wide variety of psychological, neurological, and physical disorders are attributed to demons and are to be healed by casting out of demons (1 Sam. 18:10, 11; Matt. 9:32–33; 12:12; 17:14–18; Acts 5:16, etc.).
These oddities are defended by literalists in a variety of ways. They may argue that a Hebrew or Greek word has alternate meanings that are more compatible with scientific understandings of the world. They may gather one-sided evidence to support their belief that miraculous oddities actually occurred. For example, some Evangelical scholars insist that a day is missing from history based on astronomical calculations, and that it can be traced back to the time of Joshua.6 Or they may simply assert that things are different now. Needless to say, these arguments often put them at odds with scholars who don’t have a literalist agenda.
Many oddities are explained, even by biblical literalists, as figures of speech. One example is the story in which Satan takes Jesus to the top of a high mountain from which the kingdoms of the world can be seen. Another is six “days” of creation. The figure-of-speech argument doesn’t work, though. When an author uses a metaphor, he or she understands that it does not represent literal reality. So do his or her readers. Authors, even fallible, human ones, take care not to use figures of speech that readers will mistake for non-figurative speech. Yet this is what happens with the Bible. For centuries, virtually everyone regarded these passages as literal. Since many of them fit a pre-scientific world view, there would have been no reason for people in the past to assume otherwise. Would an all-knowing God dictate metaphors that he knew people would interpret as literal truth?
How Bible Commands Oppose Each Other
- The covenant of circumcision is to be everlasting (Gen. 17:7, 10–11). Circumcision doesn’t matter (Gal. 6:15).
- God encourages reproduction (Gen. 1:28). God says that women are spiritually unclean after giving birth and require purification (Lev. 12:1–8). Note that the issue is not physical uncleanness; the purification required after giving birth to a girl is twice that required after birthing a boy.
- Abraham and his half sister marry with God’s blessing (Gen. 17:15–16, 20:11–12, 22:17). Incest is wrong (Lev. 20:17, Deut. 27:20–23).
- God gives us wine to gladden our hearts (Ps. 104:15). and
Jesus turns water into wine after wedding guests have drunk
all wine provided (John 2:1–11).
Believers are commanded not to be drunk with wine (Eph. 5:18).
- God prohibits making any graven images (Exod. 20:4).
God instructs the Israelites to make graven images (Exod. 25:18).
- God prohibits the killing of innocent children (Exod. 23:7).
God approves and even demands the slaughter of innocents Num. 31:17–18, Deut. 7:2, Josh. 6:21–27, 7:19–26, 8:22–25, 10:20, 40, 11:8–15, 20, Judg. 11:30–39, 21:10–12).
- We are not to rejoice when our enemies stumble or fall (Prov. 24:16–18).
The righteous rejoice when they see vengeance (Ps. 58:10–11).
- Anyone who calls someone else a fool deserves hell (Matt. 5:22).
Jesus calls people fools. (Matt.7:26; Matt. 23:17, 19; Luke 24:25.)*
- Divorce is wrong except in cases of unchastity (Matt. 5:32).
Divorce for any reason is wrong (Mark 10:11–12).
- Jesus says not to resist evil but to love your enemies (Matt. 5:39, 44).
Jesus repeatedly curses his enemies (Matt. 6:15, 12:34, 16:3, 22:18, etc.).
- Jesus says that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17–18; Luke 16:17).
We are told he abolished it (Eph. 2:13–15, Heb. 7:18–19).
The contradictory mandates contained in the Bible are one cause for the splintering of Christianity into denominations and sects. They are what allowed Quakers to live as Christ-centered pacifists while the Puritans slaughtered natives for the glory of God.7 They are the reason that Eastern Orthodox artists devoted centuries to creating sacred images which Spirit-filled iconoclasts later smashed and burned. They are the reason that some fundamentalists forbid family planning, while others see God as mandating stewardship of all resources including parental time and energy. Church members who attended the funeral of a murdered college student, Matthew Shepherd, with signs proclaiming “God Hates Gays”and “Gays Deserve Death” believed they were following a biblical directive. So do congregations who post “open and affirming” statements communicating their acceptance of homosexual worshipers. Each of these courses of action has a solid basis in some part of scripture.
How Images of God Conflict with Each Other
Changing concepts of God are addressed in another chapter, Evolutionary De-ology, but the fact is that incompatible images of God exist even within the same parts of the Bible, within both the Old Testament and the New. Christian leaders—ministers, missionaries, and writers—focus on those images of God that fit their preferences and then downplay the contrary parts of scripture. Some passages get discussed frequently; others almost never. Carefully chosen texts are used to support a wide range of behavior and of moral priorities on the part of believers. Human behaviors can be called “godly” even though they are diametrically opposed to other behaviors that are also called godly.
- God shows no partiality (2 Chron. 19:7, Ps. 145:9, Acts 10:34,
God chooses favorites including his Chosen People, descen
dants of Abraham (Gen. 12:1–3).
God hated Esau and loved Jacob before the twins were even
born (Mal. 1:2–3; Rom. 9:11–13).
God decides who will be born dumb, deaf, blind, (Exod. 4:11).
God has mercy on whom he chooses (Rom. 9:18).
- God is angry, vengeful, and jealous (Gen. 4:15, Exod. 20:5, Num. 25:3–4, etc.). God is love (2 Cor. 13:11, 14, 1 John 4:8, 16).
- God forbids punishing children for the sins of their fathers
God punishes children for the sins of their fathers (Isa. 14:21,
and throughout the Pentateuch).
- God sows discord (Gen. 11:7–9).
God hates anyone who sows discord (Prov. 6:16–19)
- God cannot even look on evil (Hab. 1:13).
God created evil (Isa. 45:6–7, Lam. 3:8, Amos 3:6).
- God does not lie (Exodus 34:6, Deuteronomy 7:9–10, Thess. 1:2). God condones trickery (Gen. 34) and deludes people (2 Thess. 2:11–12).
To be blunt, because the Bible was written over a time period spanning centuries and was integrated “by committee,” the biblical God is a mass of contradictions. The more carefully and completely one reads the Bible, the more incoherent the image of God becomes. If one attempts to build an image of God that integrates all of the characteristics, attributes, and behaviors the scriptures describe, the resulting description is nonsensical. Words have to be redefined so thoroughly that they become meaningless.
How Bible Stories Are Contradictory or Garbled
It is common for a story to appear more than once in the Bible. The book of Genesis repeats the creation story. Joshua and Judges repeat early accounts of battles and events that occurred during the formation of the Hebrew nation. Later writings refer back to earlier writings. And when they do, the stories often vary. Sometimes they are altered in ways that call into question their very meaning.
- God created sea creatures, birds, and land animals before
man (Gen. 1).The birds and land animals were created after Adam, aspossible companions for him (Gen. 2).
- The birds were brought forth from the waters (Gen. 1:20, 21). They were formed from the ground along with the beasts (Gen. 2:19).
- All humans not on the ark were killed by the flood (Gen. 7:21). There were giant humans after the flood as before the flood (Num. 13:33). Noah and his family entered the ark, then they entered it again (Gen. 7:7, 13).
- To show his faith, Abraham offered up his only begotten
son Isaac (Heb. 11:17).Abraham had a son, Ishmael, who was born before Isaac (Gen. 16:15).
- Jacob was buried in a cave at Machpelah bought from Ephron
He was buried in a sepulcher at Sechem bought from sons
of Hamor (Acts 7:15–16).
- David slew 700 Syrian charioteers and 40,000 horsemen (2
David slew 7,000 Syrian charioteers and 40,000 horsemen (1
The gospel stories alone contain a host of inconsistencies. In Matthew, Herod slaughters innocent babies to destroy the Christ child, in Luke he does not. In Matthew, Jesus says that John the Baptist is Elijah the Prophet, yet in the Gospel of John, the Baptist denies this designation. In one account, a Roman centurion comes to beseech Jesus to heal his servant. Another text reports that the centurion sends the elders of the Jews on his behalf. When Jesus is arrested, Roman soldiers dress him in a scarlet robe or in one that is purple, depending on which account you read. Perhaps the most well-known conflicting stories in the New Testament are the varying accounts of the resurrection. A tongue-in-cheek quiz that can be found in Appendix I illustrates how widely they differ.8
Literalists often claim that contradictions are simply fragments of the same story, even when this seems dubious. The process of integrating such details is called harmonization. Apologists work to weave a story that includes all of the pieces from various descriptions of an incident. If this is possible (and it always is) then there is no contradiction. Take, for example, the story of the centurion and his ill servant (Matt. 8:5, Luke 7:2). A harmonizing solution might be to suggest that the centurion first sent the elders to talk with Jesus and then spoke with him directly. In the case of the contradictory resurrection accounts, apologists argue that they are simply written from the vantage points of different eyewitnesses, all part of the same larger story.
The critical flaw in this approach is obvious: just because it is possible to weave a story doesn’t mean the story is true or even reasonable. Ask any prosecuting attorney or judge. Competing explanations must be examined in terms of likelihood and logic. One must ask: which is more likely, that these pieces make up one obscured but coherent story or that they simply disagree? This question is largely ignored by apologists because they hold an a priori belief in the inerrancy of scripture. Given this assumption, any account that harmonizes discrepancies and supports inerrancy has an absolute advantage over one that doesn’t. Any interpretation suggesting that a contradiction is, in fact, a contradiction must be wrong. Therefore it is wrong. Case closed.
How Do Biblical Prophesies and Promises Stand Up?
Evangelicals teach that the Bible is bursting with fulfilled prophecies, especially Old Testament verses that foretell the birth, life, and death of Jesus. But even the most frequently cited verses should be treated with caution; prophecies and fulfillments tend to converge in the telling. Professional fortune-tellers have a shared set of techniques that they use to create the illusion of fore-telling: one of the most common of these is vague or mystical sounding predictions, the meaning of which is clear only in hindsight. They count on the human mind to link prophetic utterances and later events in ways that seem improbable, even supernatural. Without intending to, we are all prone to finding marvelous connections where none exist. Even the Bible writers were no exception. For example, a verse in Isaiah says that a young woman will conceive and bear a child. This verse was taken out of context and altered by a gospel writer to provide evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus.*9 It is now quoted by literalists as proof positive that Jesus was a long-awaited Messiah.
Besides the dubious nature of many “fulfilled” prophecies, some very explicit biblical promises and predictions turn out to have been untrue.
- Jesus says that some alive at the time of his sermon will still be living when he comes with his new kingdom (Matt. 10:23, 16:28). They are all long dead. Two thousand years have passed since he promised to return “quickly.”
- Jesus says that a prophet cannot perish outside of Jerusalem (Luke 13.33). He, himself, was crucified outside the city on the hill of Golgotha.
- Jesus promises that his followers will do greater works than he did (John 14:12). He walked on water, healed the blind and deaf and raised the dead. They did not.
- He promises that if he dies, all men will be drawn unto him (John 12:32). Yet untold millions have lived and died without ever hearing anything about Jesus.
- Jesus says that the end of the world will come when the gospel has been preached to every kingdom, and Paul claims that this had happened by his time (Matt. 24:14; Rom. 10:13, Col. 1:23). We now know of entire tribes that passed into extinction without any awareness of Christianity.
- Believers are told that they will be able to drink poison or handle snakes and not be harmed (Mark 16:18, Luke 10:19). Yet members of churches that handle snakes as a demonstration of faith are bitten with fatal results.10
- Jesus tell his followers: “Ask and it will be given; seek andyou will find” (Matt. 7:7-8; Luke 11:9-10). Yet many ex-Christians tell of years spent praying to have their doubts removed before they finally abandoned the faith.
Some apologists argue that these apparently failed promises are really misunderstandings. They say that the true meaning in the words of Jesus and the apostles was abstract and must be understood within a broader theological context. But consider this: the Jesus of the gospels used simple sayings and stories to teach simple people. When the stories were parables, he interpreted them. To argue that the meaning of his promises is hidden, abstract, or available only to scholars and theologians is a denial of the ministry of Jesus as depicted in the gospels.
Jesus told us to approach God like children approaching a heavenly father, with simple child-like trust, which Christians, from the beginning, have done. Early on, Christianity spread among the poor and uneducated—simple people, like those Jesus chose as disciples. Even today, this is where much missionary work takes place: in rural Africa, in the highlands of Guatemala, in the inner city. It would be far more difficult to win converts if these people thought of God’s promises—of healing, material blessings and answered prayer—as theological abstractions. And it would be downright ungodly of God to reveal himself in such a way that vast numbers of people would turn to him because they misunderstand his message. My children call that kind of behavior “tricksy.” It is.
Imagine: I promise my daughter a reward, whatever she asks for, if she comes home with an A on her math test. She brings home her paper with a big A and a silver star at the top, hands it to me, and waits, bright-faced, expectant. “Oh,” I say, “what I really meant was that all that studying would have its own reward, that you would have the satisfaction of having done well. See how good it feels?”
“But you promised whatever I asked for! You lied to me!” she protests.
“Oh, no.” I tell her, “I didn’t lie. It’s just that you don’t really understand what you are asking for. If you understood what to ask for, then you would get what you want.”
This chapter illustrates the challenges faced by those who take the Bible as their “firm foundation.” A whole industry has sprung up to convince believers and nonbelievers alike that these difficulties are inconsequential. Shelves of books argue that transcription errors are trivial, historical errors don’t exist, and the natural laws were different in times past, or that modern science is simply wrong. They tell us that doctrinal contradictions are really misunderstandings of doctrinal nuance and complexity, and that in the Bible God has always been fair and loving, however much the stories might seem to suggest otherwise.
Gleason Archer, Ph.D. was a leading apologist for biblical inerrancy. His book, New International Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties,11 opens with a set of “Recommended Procedures in Dealing with Biblical Difficulties.” Here is the first guideline:
Be fully persuaded in your own mind that an adequate explanation exists, even though you have not yet found it …we may have complete confidence that the divine Author preserved the human author of each book of the Bible from error or mistake as he wrote down the original manuscript of the sacred text.*
Archer’s guideline is in direct opposition to the rules of scientific inquiry, the rules that have led to the greatest accumulation of knowledge and technology in the history of the human race. Archer says, essentially, that the reader must start the process of inquiry by assuming a certain outcome. Don’t look for the most likely hypothesis suggested by the evidence, he says, nor the one that is most straightforward or reasonable. Start by believing that a certain conclusion is already true. Then, rather than looking for evidence that might prove you wrong, which is what science would demand, look for evidence that you are right. Examine the evidence through the lens of that conclusion. Ask yourself, “What explanations or interpretations can I come up with that would allow me to maintain my belief that these texts are not contradictory?” If you can find any at all, then you have succeeded in your task. By implication, if you cannot, the problem lies with you, not the text.
Archer’s approach, in almost any other field of inquiry, would be considered preposterous. (Rule 1: Decide in advance what you want to believe is true.) Imagine this approach being applied by the physician who is diagnosing your lethargic child, or the judge who is trying a criminal case, or the husband who is in marital therapy. The risks are, respectively: misdiagnosis, wrongful imprisonment, and divorce. Imagine it as the approach of the cold-fusion researcher, the engineer trying to decide whether a space shuttle is ready for flight, or the president trying to decide whether to take his country to war. Imagine it as the approach of a parent who wants to find out whether her teenager is sexually active. The risks range from public ridicule to spectacular catastrophe, from unnecessary war to painful estrangement.
How then, is this approach fit for evaluating some of the most crucial questions a human can ask: Why are we here? What is the meaning of God and goodness? What is the taproot of morality? How might we build a just and compassionate society? And how shall we express our need for meaning, community, and joy?
When could it be more important to constrain our own biases, to open our minds to difficult truths, than in the pursuit of our highest values? Surely our quest to understand goodness must be as intellectually rigorous and honest as our quest to understand molecular biology or physics or any other area of scientific inquiry. Yet this is not the approach taken by Evangelical scholars who defend the Bible as the literal word of God. Their methods are not those of scholarly inquiry but of debate and legal defense.
The lengths to which literalists will go in their defense of the Bible, even wedding themselves to foolishness, suggest that biblical literalism is rooted in fear. Most literalists are deeply moral people. But they mistakenly believe that abandoning the God-concept of our spiritual ancestors means we must also let go of their quest for meaning and any moral truths they may have discovered. They fear that without perfect and timeless scriptures, we humans will lose the ability to make contact with that perfection which transcends time—the great “I AM,” as the God of Moses calls himself.
If one imagines the Bible as a gift, this is a fear that the package is the wrappings, that unwrapped it will be empty. If we acknowledge and explore its human construction, the Bible will lose its power to connect people with the ultimate sacred reality that we call God. The peace, communion, and moral inspiration offered by Christianity will evaporate. But consider that the opposite may be true: it may not be possible to place the wrapped package on an altar, exalt the wrappings themselves, and genuinely appreciate what lies inside.
When the Bible is understood in its literary and historical context; errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies pose no threat to spirituality, whether that spirituality is theistic, non-theistic, or even explicitly Jesus-centered. The graver threat to what Christians call godliness may be fundamentalism—religion that flows from literalism and fear, religion based on anachronism and law. Fundamentalism teaches, in effect, that the tattered musings of our ancestors, those human words that so poorly represent the content of human thinking, somehow adequately describe God. Fundamentalism offers identity, security, and simplicity, but at a price: by binding believers to the moral limitations and cultural trappings of the Ancients, it precludes a deeper embrace of goodness, love, and truth—in other words, of Divinity. In fact, as we shall see in upcoming chapters, it also has the power to put believers on the side of self-centeredness and cruelty.
*The same Greek word mo-ras’ meaning stupid or dull, is used in both Matthew 5:22 and Matthew 23:17 and 19. In other places Jesus uses even stronger words that are translated “fool.”
*In Isaiah 7:14, the Hebrew word translated “virgin” in most English language Bibles is actually ha’almah or “the young woman,” not habethulah, meaning“the virgin.” Some English translations have corrected this, including The New English Bible, The Good News Bible, and The Revised Standard Version. Furthermore, taken in context, the verse is a promise to King Ahaz and Judah of deliverance from their enemies during a time of war.
*Some Inerrantists take exception to Archer’s qualifier: that inerrancy is limited to the original manuscript. They insist that if a perfect God made a perfect revelation to humankind, then he did not limit himself to perfect revelation in ancient Hebrew alone. Christians who take this stance may believe in the inerrancy of the King James Version in English and the original translations into other languages as well. But because this argument is easily tested, scholarly inerrantists usually limit themselves to making claims about the original text.
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