This week's blog is a guest post by Stephen Fierbaugh:
By Stephen Fierbaugh
As I stood alone in the dark cinder-block guest house where my driver had just dropped me, I was more scared than I had ever been before. I was deep in Africa, and I knew that somewhere not far away there were militants who would kill me without a second thought. A few nights earlier, they showed up at a nearby school dormitory and told the girls to go home, get married and have babies. They had lined up the boys and slit their throats.
I was there to help locals translate the Bible into their own languages. It was the first time some of them had ever read anything in their own language. Our security depended upon the secrecy of the project, yet everyone in the area seemed to know all about us, even the mosque across the road. If only one of these people sold us out, we were all dead.
“Is this worth it?” I asked myself in the darkness. I was at a faith crisis, because a few months earlier, I had discovered that the Bible isn't inerrant. It's one thing to talk about martyrdom in Sunday school. It's another thing to be sweating in Africa worried that you're wasting your life on a lie.
Inerrancy and the Puzzle of Genesis
It started when my small group was studying Genesis. Someone asked, “So which day were plants created?” The first two chapters are two accounts of creation. Chapter one is general creation, while chapter two focuses on the creation of man. Genesis 1 says plants were created on the third day (1:11-13), and man on the sixth day (1:26-31). But Genesis 2 explicitly says that plants weren't created until after man was around to care for them (2:5-7). “Well, it looks like plants in general were created on the third day, but domesticated plants, 'of the field', were not created until after man.” That satisfied him and the discussion moved on.
Do you see what I did there? I superficially examined the passages in question, formed a reasonable hypothesis, and regarded it as a solution without any deep investigation of the text or other evidence to support it. This is a common method of exegesis with difficult passages.
A short while later, I encountered the same passages in my daily Bible study and decided to give them a deeper look. It turns out that my theory doesn't bear out. Chapter 1 clearly refers to all plants. In 2:5, “shrub of the field” actually refers to wild uncultivated plants, while the companion “plant of the field” refers to cultivated grains, so it is all-inclusive of plants in general.
In fact, after considerable study, I discovered that there isn't an easy explanation for the discrepancy in the timing of plant creation between Genesis 1 and 2. This disturbed me. I had always believed that the Bible was inerrant: absolutely true all the time in all ways. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
, the conservative doctrinal statement on the topic, explains, the Bible is “of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.” and “without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.” Article XIV affirms its “internal consistency”.
As a practical matter, this doctrine means that the Bible speaks with absolute authority because it is perfect and trustworthy. We can disagree over whether various passages are literal or figurative, or their meaning, but the text does not contain internal contradictions, nor is it contradicted by external science or archeology. It is the one source of absolute truth that we can depend on.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovered about their “perfect” computer, HAL, a claim of perfection is destroyed by a single instance of imperfection. Where there's one mistake, there's likely to be more.
But I've studied the Bible my entire life, and I wasn't prepared to throw it overboard so easily. With deep prayer, I decided to investigate further. I turned to that fount of wisdom, the Internet. It turns out there are plenty of websites eager to provide lists of the contradictions in the Bible. I sat down to study them.
Most of the “contradictions” fall into three general groups. About a third are trivially dispensable. Whatever point they are making isn't coherent enough to understand, or has an explanation so self-evident within the text that it isn't worth further comment.
Another third are paradoxes or have simple explanations. The Bible is full of paradoxes, like grace vs works, or free will vs predestination, but they aren't contradictions. On the contrary, they are one of the many things that makes the Bible stand out among literature, and it hangs together thematically remarkably well because of them, not in spite of them. Likewise, there are plenty of “contradictions” which if taken without any context might appear bad, but really have fairly easy explanations.
Most of the remaining third are more difficult to reconcile. It took study, checking out commentaries or going back to the Greek and Hebrew. But eventually, most of them too turn out to have reasonable explanations. For instance, ancient authors didn't cite texts the way we do, they often arranged items thematically rather than in sequential order, and names are mangled as they are transliterated between languages. An example of this type of contradiction is whether there were one or two angels at the tomb, which varies across Matthew 28:1-2, Mark 16:1-5, Luke 24:1-6, and John 20:10-14. It looks bad until you seriously study it, and then it has reasonable explanations which don't strain credulity.
That leaves only a short list. A few passages really do have serious contradictions. They aren't amenable to simple reconciliations. The commentaries either ignore these passages, or spin incredibly unlikely explanations replete with suppositions or facts that simply aren't in evidence.
Some pastors suggest that contradictions are because translators made mistakes. I have a high view of the Forum of Bible Agencies International's (FOBAI) translation standards and Scripture quality, so simply suggesting that the NASB, NET, and NIV translators all made mistakes doesn't cut it. Part of a good (and honest) translation is reconciling parallel passages if the texts can support it, but leaving them different where they are, in fact, different in the Received Text.
In some cases, two parallel passages disagree on a simple number, and one or the other made a mistake. A simple and particularly clear example of this is 1 Kings 7:26 and 2 Chronicles 4:5. First Kings reads, “It was four fingers thick and its rim was like that of a cup shaped like a lily blossom. It could hold about 12,000 gallons” (NET). 2 Chronicles is identical except it says 18,000 gallons. Inerrancy requires perfection, and as trivial as this discrepancy is, it dooms it.
Chronicles is replete with this problem. For example, it completely mangles the account of David's warriors; compare 2nd Samuel 23:8-12 with 1 Chronicles 11:10-14. Or compare 2nd Samuel 24:24 with 1 Chronicles 21:24-25; did David pay 50 shekels of silver (20 ounces, about $375) or 600 pieces of gold (15 pounds, about $298,000) for the field?
I have a lot of empathy for scribes and translators who are working in difficult situations: hot, with poor light, and sometimes fearing for their lives. Chronicles' errors go on and on because the Chronicler, probably Ezra, was doing the best he could, but his sources in the ruins of Jerusalem were in poor shape. He simply made honest mistakes.
The best known of the problem passages are the genealogies in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Entire books could be written (and have!) attempting to reconcile them. After King David, they agree only at the exile (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel). There are at least eight major contradictions in the genealogies, and most of them are complex with sub-problems. A simple list of the contradictions would be a lengthy article of its own. The biggest problems are actually between the genealogies and their Old Testament equivalents.
Explanations and Excuses
This has been a problem since the earliest days of the Church. Paul recognizes it in 1st Timothy 1:3-4 and warns “not to spread false teachings, nor to occupy themselves with myths and interminable genealogies. Such things promote useless speculations rather than God's redemptive plan that operates by faith” (NET). If we claim the Bible is inerrant, then we are forced to promote useless speculation to explain Matthew and Luke's genealogies. Likewise, we spread teachings that couldn't possibly pass a laugh test: Jesus becomes the product of an implausibly long line of unrecorded levirate marriages.
Article X of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy provides the standard “out” for explaining all of these issues: Only the original autographs are inerrant. If we only had the original handwritten scrolls, we'd see that all these issues vanish. This has two fatal flaws.
The first is that Chicago's God is too small. It posits that God was powerful enough to create a perfect book, and cared enough to do so. But then He either wasn't powerful enough to preserve it, or simply didn't care enough.
The second is that it fails on the factual evidence. We may not have the actual handwritten autographs, but we have several orders of magnitude more early manuscripts than we do of any other ancient text. The New Testament that we have is substantially identical to the New Testament as it existed in the second century. Likewise, the Dead Sea scrolls show that our Old Testament is also as it existed in the time of Jesus. Indeed, some of the mistakes are so troubling because we have enough copies to have deep insight into their nature.
Sweating there in the dark in Africa, I thought about the Bible and wondered if it is worth dying to bring it to people groups who don't yet have it. I thought about the contradictions, and I thought about what the Bible has contributed to my life over the years. I thought about the tears, some of heartbreak and some of laughter. I thought about the intellectual basis for my faith.
I've read thousands of books. The Bible is unique. It is superlative in a way that words don't do justice. As literature, as history, as poetry, as moral instruction, as the story of how God relates to man, it stands apart. It touches my heart and soul in a way no other book does.
Men stop beating their wives when they read it. They stop living in fear of demons. They start caring about their children. We may not notice it as much in the U.S. because many biblical teachings have become our society's norms, but it is stark overseas. Jesus changes lives, and he does it through the Bible.
I realized I love my wonderful errant Bible. I believe it is worth the sweat, tears, and risks to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to read the book I love so much. I don't have to understand it all; I just have to give others the same chance to discover God in its pages.
I am on a journey, and not sure where God leads. Errancy in the Bible tells me that I need to be humble, allow for my imperfect understanding, and reject any “Christian” doctrine or social view which flies in the face of loving our God and loving our neighbor.
Stephen Fierbaugh has a Bachelors in Bible and a Masters in Intercultural Studies. He is active in Bible translation and has extensive experience in Africa. Stephen is the author of Surviving Celibacy.