Let’s Appreciate the Bible’s Contradictions

There’s much to be gained when we explore the quirks of sacred scripture.

More and more I find that the folks who attack the Bible have a lot in common with the folks who proclaim its unquestioned authority. Each, after all, depends on a literal reading of the text to make their point.

Fundamentalist Christians do so because their trust in the Bible’s inerrancy is central to their faith. This can have dangerous consequences. Applying ancient law to contemporary culture is only possible if we overlook the revelations of science and ignore our ever-deepening understanding of human nature.

But humanists, atheists, and anti-religionists who attack the Bible from a similar literal stance are equally culpable. The result is less critical; it doesn’t result in homophobia or sexism. It does, however, result in lazy rhetoric and the wholesale dismissal of an ancient text that has much to offer us.

The men who compiled and edited the Hebrew scriptures two millennia ago had every opportunity to correct its contradictions — but chose not to.

A typical attack on the Bible starts with the absurdity of its anthropological claims. How can the two originating humans have a trio of boys — Cain, Abel and the oft-forgotten Seth — yet give rise to the entire human race? Other arguments focus on the book’s innumerable contradictions. There are even dueling versions of the creation story in Genesis 1 and 2. How can we take such a document seriously?

In my recent theological studies, I was struck by an especially keen insight: the men who compiled and edited the Hebrew scriptures two millennia ago had every opportunity to correct its contradictions — but chose not to. They didn’t remove one of the two creation stories for the sake of clarity because they recognized that each contains rich metaphors that shed unique light on the nature of existence.

The Old Testament contradictions don’t end there. In 1 Samuel, David slays Goliath, but in 2 Samuel it’s a warrior named Elhanan who makes the kill. The inclusion of Elhanan’s story forces us to ask tough questions — to wonder, for instance, if propaganda plays a role in the earlier text. It’s a good question, and it speaks to the wisdom of the Bible’s editors that we’re given room to ask it.

[Both Old and New Testament] authors knew that language can only approximate the profound truths of their subject matter.

The New Testament, too, is often dismissed because of the inconsistencies found across the four Gospels. But again, church leaders who canonized the New Testament in the fourth century CE chose to keep those contradictions in play, recognizing that a single Gospel could not approach the complexity of the story being told.

Matthew, for example, begins with a genealogy that links Jesus to David, creating a genetic bridge between the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. John, on the other hand, opens with the vision of a cosmic heritage that reaches back to the beginning of time — and beyond. Its opening verses could prompt a lifetime of study and meditation.

Both Old and New Testaments ask the reader to attempt that most difficult of intellectual tasks — to hold contradictory thoughts in the mind simultaneously. Their authors knew that language can only approximate the profound truths of their subject matter, that contradictions are essential to the reading experience.

Across generations of rabbinical studies, debate over the many meanings of a single Bible passage has been considered sacred work.

It seems clear that Fundamentalists are doing the text, its authors, and themselves a disservice. But they’re not alone. All of us can rise to a higher standard, not just in our rhetoric but in our exploration of the text, and in our ability to benefit from it. You don’t have to believe in God to use the creation narratives as the catalyst for a debate on the nature of stewardship, or to use the story of the Good Samaritan as a model for how we might move through the world.

We should enter the Bible ready to wade through its complexities, to struggle through the ethical quagmires that force us to question our assumptions. We can take our lead from ancient Jewish tradition. Across generations of rabbinical studies, debate over the many meanings of a single Bible passage has been considered sacred work. We would be wise to adopt a similar attitude.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Norman Allen
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