Monday, October 22, 2007

Alleged Contradictions In the Bible

As I mentioned in an earlier post (October 2), I want to deal with some of the issues that have been brought to my awareness by one of our listeners who wrote me a letter saying that he was a non-Christian for a number of reasons. In fact he gave me his top ten reasons for why he is not a Christian. Earlier I dealt with one of his reasons, the idea of hell. He found that to be horrendously cruel, primitive and just a horrible idea.

Today I want to deal with another reason he gave, namely that the Bible is full of contradictions and thus is not a divine work of God and has to be the ruminations of human beings rather than being uniquely inspired by God.

Many of the alleged contradictions in the Bible can be reverted back to what we find in the Gospels. For example, a frequently cited alleged contradiction involves the female discoverers of the empty tomb. According to Matthew the discoverers were Mary Magdalene and another Mary. If you go to the Gospel of Mark you'll read that they were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke claims that it's Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and then others. If you read the Gospel of John he focuses solely on Mary Magdalene.

To provide a defensible argument against this kind of dogmatic assertion with respect to contradictions it's helpful to point out that Gospels are complimentary, not contradictory. If John, in the example I just cited, had stipulated that Mary Magdalene was the only female to discover the empty tomb while the other Gospels claimed that more than one woman was involved, we'd be faced with an obvious contradiction. But that's not what's going on. The complimentary details provided by the Gospel writers simply serve to flush out the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey likes to say.

Not only that, but credible scholars always look for a reliable core set of facts to validate historical accounts. In other words, they look for this reliable core, and in this case liberal and conservative scholars agree that the body of Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and as a member of the Jewish court that convicted Jesus Christ to death, he's unlikely to be Christian fiction.

When we consider the role of women in the first century, Jewish people were very, very clearly oriented to thinking that women were mere chattel. What's remarkable is that the empty tomb accounts would feature females as heroes of the story. This demonstrates that the Gospel writers recorded what happened, even if they felt it culturally embarrassing.

One other point, and that is, if each of the Gospel writers presented secondary details in exactly the same way, critics would dismiss the accounts in the Gospels on the basis of collusion. Instead, the Gospels provide unique, yet mutually consistent, perspectives on the events surrounding the empty tomb. So we can safely conclude that, far from being contradictory, the Gospel accounts are clearly complimentary. A consensus of credible scholarship considers the core set of facts presented by the Gospel writers to be authentic and thus reliable, and the unique perspectives provided by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually preclude the possibility of collusion.

In a court of law, someone is considered innocent until proven guilty. Sadly, when it comes to the Bible people often render a guilty verdict without considering all the evidence.

4 comments:

David Mackey said...

I think this is the first post I've commented on I have absolutely nothing to disagree with. One item I would add to your discussion of the Gospels and similar "contradiction" hotspots is that the authors are each portraying a certain message through the stories they tell - who they include or exclude indicates something about the message they are telling.

reality check said...

I would enjoy hearing you on the rational responders radio show and/or website.

Travis said...

Welcome to the blogosphere, Hank!

You make some good points, but I think the thing people generally fail to realize about the Gospels (Christians, in fact) is that they're not eyewitness accounts. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did not follow Jesus and the disciples around like CNN reporters following a presidential candidate along the campaign trail.

The Gospel accounts were written down years later, compiled from various accounts and stories that had been passed by word of mouth and eventually written down by these and other writers, who had to take the patchwork of stories and weave around them a sensible narrative to make the story work. They were never intended to be 100% accurate journalistic records of Christ's time on earth, and the people who read and wrote these works in the 1st Century AD would have understood that. They would not have thought them problematic at all if they did not completely agree on certain "secondary" details.

Think of the lists of disciples in the four Gospels and in Acts: Bartholomew is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but not John, where suddenly there appears a Nathanael. Thaddaeus appears in Matthew and Mark, but Luke and John have someone named "Judas (son of James)" or "Judas (not Iscariot)". Those are not complementary details, unless you want to try to argue that the composition of the Twelve changed over the course of Jesus' ministry, or that these men were known by two or more, completely unrelated names.

The fact is that the key players are all listed the same, and John, writing later than the other gospel writers, is farther from the events and unlike Matthew and Luke, he does not have Mark's gospel to use as a source for material. So a few of the inconsequential disciples' names get changed or even omitted altogether (there's no list of the 12 in John like there is in the other three gospels). Big deal. they don't serve as anything but filler in the story anyway. John was unconcerned with them, so why should we worry?

John has lots of real differences, including three trips to Jerusalem, compared to only one in the other three Gospels, and the driving out of the moneychangers occurs in chapter 2 of John's book, while the other three writers all place it in the last week of Jesus' life.

There is lots of good reason out there to believe in the Gospels, that they are, in essence, true, and moreover, that they are useful in guiding us through life and helping us know how to follow Jesus. But let's not pretend that the differences in their accounts don't really exist. It's enough to understand the spirit and intent of the original writers and not to try to ascribe motives and methods to them that were not extant at the time.

Shields Home Team said...

Hank,
I just wanted to thank you for this blog and encourage you to keep it up. This is my first visit and I look forward to future posts.

God Bless you!