Before I began listening to debates between Bart Ehrman and conservative defenders of biblical faith, and before I started (slowly, still) reading Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted, I read a paper by a New Testament scholar at the conservative Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry.
Rodney Whitaker’s paper, “The Moon of Our Darkness,” was a defense of the Bible as the guide for the Christian’s life. And, the paper offered me the first time I can clearly recall being confronted with a factual discrepency in the biblical record.
Also before I started investing time in Ehrman’s debates and writings, I read C.S. Lewis on Scripture by Michael J. Christensen. That book, which attempts to use Lewis’s perspective to navigate contemporary controversies about the Bible, began with several examples of factual discrepencies in the Scriptures.
Through decades of Christian schools and church attendance, I never heard any of these discrepencies addressed. In fact, I heard, on a few occasions, ministers and teachers suggest their weren’t any discrepencies or contradictions, and they even suggested people who don’t believe the Bible because of contradictions couldn’t point out any.
And so for the better part of 30 years, I believe the Bible contained no factual discrepencies.
Now, as a 42-year-old who went to conservative Christian schools from kindergarten to 12th grade (with only the exception of part of 2nd grade), I want to try to understand a different point of view, and I want to consider its validity or lack thereof.
Part of that process has included considering what Bart Ehrman has to say.
Unfortunately, I think the narrative people took away from this blog is more simplistic: that I just picked up Ehrman and thought he settled everything.
Tim Keller, not aware of my background, once said to me in a blog post, “If you are going to recommend [Ehrman’s] views as the basis for making faith and life choices, you should at least read a couple of books by Bruce Metzger, Ehrman’s mentor.”
Uh, I’ve been basing my faith and life choices on American, Bible-believing fundamentalism. That’s why I should read Metzger.
So Ehrman, who himself has a fundamentalist background, has raised some questions that are interesting to me and relevant to me because I’ve seen how sweepingly literalist interpretations of the Scriptures were applied within social situations, schools, and churches — and the results typically varied between ugly and harsh.
But even the reputedly enlightened Reformed crowd seems to care very little about the way sweepingly literalist interpretations are applied in America each day.
Among some Reformed circles, you can easily become too liberal, but you can’t become too conservative.
Many fundamentalist, Reformed, and evangelical leaders don’t seem to care about addressing discrepencies because they’d rather have their congregations snowed and compliant than well-informed. Besides, admitting actual, plain-sense contradictions could get messy.
Furthermore, those leaders are caught in their own contradiction: God inspired everything in the Bible for a specific purpose, but wait, the factual discrepencies result from conventions of ancient near East literature so the discrepencies don’t matter.
If God had a specific purpose for inspiring an historical record, couldn’t he do it correctly? Couldn’t He do it as precisely as He set so many biological and chemical processes in place? Of course He could.
And, if He wanted the canon to contain certain stories, why include details that will be contradicted later? He could tell a meaningful story without including unnecessary details.
To draw on the Christensen book again:
“There are historical problems. For example, how did Judas kill himself? Matthew 27:3 records that he threw his money at the feet of the priests and went out and hung himself. Acts 1:18 records that Judas bought a field with the money he received and there fell headlong on the ground, his body bursting open and his intestines spilling out. [[Burch’s note: he couldn’t have thrown the money at the feet of the priests and then bought a field with it, even if the stories of Judas’ death could be patched together.]]
“There are genealogical problems. The genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1 does not agree with the genealogy of Jesus in Luke 3. Neither does the genealogy of Genesis 4 square with that of Genesis 5.
“There are factual problems. According to Matthew there was one angel at Jesus’ empty tomb. Mark says it was a young man sitting down. Luke says two men stood by the women and proclaimed the resurrection. And John says two angels sat where the body of Jesus had lain, and appeared only to Mary Magdalene.
“There are numerical problems. 2 Samuel 10:18 records that David slew the men of 700 Syrian chariots. 1 Chronicles 19:18, a parallel account, records that David slew the men of 7,000 Syrian chariots.
“There are major and minor inconsistencies. Who commanded King David to take a census of Israel — the Lord or Satan? 2 Samuel 24:1 claims ‘the Lord.’ 1 Chronicles 21:1 claims ‘Satan.’ Whom did the voice from heaven address at the baptism of Jesus? Matthew 3:16 reads, ‘THIS is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ Luke 3:22 reads, ‘THOU art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’”
I realize most people, myself included, haven’t read the Bible in a “horizontal” way, comparing parallel accounts and such.
However, in light of the above excerpt from Christensen’s book, why would God use particular details if He was also going to provide contradictory details? He could have provided differing accounts in which details did not conflict.
In other words, two different eyewitness accounts of any type of incident could rely on two different sets of details — instead of having conflicting information going head-to-head.
I’m still having trouble with the idea that something is factually inaccurate yet truthful — at least in the context of saying God inspired certain writings.