The Bible: Pure or Special Blend?

I think another aspect typical of inerrantist approaches to the Bible interfered with communication in a recent discussion of the subject of “literalism” in the comments on an earlier post. There I asked about the specific meaning, in context, of Matthew 16:28. One commenter kept trying to turn the discussion onto the breadth of possible meanings of “kingdom of God”. Thinking about why this happened, I suspect that this commenter may have been substituting (consciously or unconsciously) Mark’s version of this saying, found in Mark 9:1, where it says that some standing there will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God come with power. Matthew’s version, on the other hand, specifically mentions the coming of the Son of Man, and is thus less open to interpretation as something other than a reference to the “second coming”.

One of the ways literalism/inerrancy keeps its plausibility is by either choosing one version of a saying or story that is multiply attested in the Bible, or by blending several versions of the same story. By doing so, discrepancies and tension seem to disappear. The cost, alas, is that the specific voice of a specific author (in this case Matthew) can scarcely be heard. Instead of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the letters of Paul, and other unique perspectives from early Christianity, inerrantists tend to offer their own “special blend”, in which the flavor of one or none of these writings actually comes through clearly.

I invite readers used to reading the Bible in this way to pour themselves a cup of pure Arabica (or some other specific coffee that isn’t blended – your choice) and take a specific Gospel and see what it does and doesn’t contain, without always bringing in details from other Gospels. Let each voice get a hearing! You’ll enjoy more any future blend you make, if you can distinguish the different flavors that contribute to it.

  • http://tomverenna.wordpress.com Tom Verenna

    Thanks James…now I want coffee…

  • Anonymous

    When the gospel authors and Paul refer to the “kingdom of God,” they almost certainly mean an earthly kingdom in which God would reign in conjunction with his messiah(s).That’s the only interpretation that makes sense if one considers the language of the authors and the time the “books” were written.The Jews believed, based on the Hebrew scriptures, that God would reward their good behavior by vanquishing their enemies and setting up a world where justice reigned and swords were beaten into plowshares. Jesus believed the same thing, which is why he announced his ministry by reading a passage about freeing the oppressed and feeding the poor. He promised his followers would “inherit the earth,” not be sent to the sky after they die.And that’s why he attracted followers. It is unlikely that first century Jews would have understood or followed a Messiah who preached an existential kingdom of individual salvation. What use was “personal salvation” when the people were in desperate poverty and under the thumb of the cruel Romans?The earliest Christians worshipped with the Jews precisely because they agreed on eschatology and the nature of God. It wasn’t until the Temple was destroyed that Christians had to break from overtly Jewish eschatology and interpret Jesus’ sayings in a less sectarian manner.Even Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, when he talks about the second coming, the dead saints are dead in the ground when they rise and meet Jesus, and they all go to earth. The dead saints do not come down from heaven with Jesus.The fact is they thought all this was imminent in their time, the way Hal Lindsey predicted the end of the world in 1988. The first-century Jews used Daniel to calculate years the way Lindsey used the NT to calculate his. paulf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03089281236217906531 Scott F

    In his online “smackdown” with Bart Ehrman, Bishop N. T. Wright writes (hee hee) “the kingdom did come through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Not ‘come’ fully, of course; but, in the usual language, it was radically inaugurated.” The intervening 2000 years of societal collapse and human folly, punctuated finally by grudging progress, makes this kind of rationalization puzzling and frustrating.To all those who think reactions to literalism are overblown, Bishop Wright is an exemplar of what is out there even when cloaked in supposed moderate Anglicism.

  • Bryan

    I think another way literalism cloaks itself is by distance from the Answers in Genesis crowd. By that I mean the Christian mainstream who correctly see the obvious flaws in certain literalist positions like creationism, but consider that sufficient to declare that they are therefore not “literalists.” But all the while, they hold literalist readings of most of the bible including the entire NT (perhaps not Revelation for many of them).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    James – Can you please explain how one can be a christian and not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. I have emailed you before about this and have thought alot about it. If the Gospels truly don’t coincide in the original manuscripts then what else can be explained away? Is Genesis true? I am just curious how a christian can use the Bible if in fact they are errors.Please explain. Thanks!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Jon,One is a Christian without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible in the same way the earliest Christians were. They had no New Testament yet. Extremely few could read the Jewish Scriptures. When it came to the interpretation of the latter, they appealed to some parts (e.g. the creation story, the Abraham story) to overrule others (e.g. divorce and circumcision, respectively).Perhaps in light of this I might ask how anyone can be an inerrantist and a Christian! :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    Yes this is true. Great point on that. As you well know, this is not an easy thing to swallow considering inerrancy is something I have believed all my life. I am led to think about OT men like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and even Job. Most would agree that they were “Christian” yet they had no “Bible”. This also makes a great case to those who practice legalism in the church. They hold to a bunch of “rules” that were never intended to be such. In light of all this, do you think that we are seeing “end times” events being played out today?

  • Anonymous

    Jon, that the Bible contains contradictions isn’t really the question. Scholars have written hundreds of volumes comparing the differences between the stories within the books (for example, how did Judas die or where did Jesus’ parents live before he was born) and the differences between the Bible and recorded history (for example, just about the entire story of Daniel or the simultaneous reign of Herod and Quirinius).Most churches keep the flocks completely ignorant about this type of study because they look at the Bible as a devotional manual, and it would serve to dampen enthusiasm.The real question is how one reconciles one’s faith in light of those many, many contradictions. 1) Do you pretend they don’t exist? That is the fundamentalist response.2) Do you alter your view of God and his will in light of the facts? Maybe God’s will for us is to love our fellow man and not focus so much on dogmatism. That is a more liberal response.3) Do you lose faith and become agnostic? If God didn’t write the book, what good is it?Certainly there are variables along that spectrum, but those are the basic choices. To me, the first one is not an option. I used to think there was a way to reconcile the problems to where they didn’t exist, but I can no longer believe something I know to not be true scientifically and logically. pf

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Jon, in fact most people would find your statement that the patriarchs were “Christians” strange.What did you have in mind when you asked about “end times events”? I have a whole bunch of posts about that subject…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    Well, as you know Revelation/Daniel and eschatology as a whole can be interpreted so differently. In your opinion are we seeing today what has been predicted in the Bible. Are we seeing the “growth pains” if you will?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    Anonymous – I certainly don’t want to pretend as if errors are not there. If there really is we need to know how it effects us. Should it change the way I approach life? What should I be doing differently if anything? Certainly it is understandable that because the Bible was written with human hands there would be errors and the fact that it was copied so many times there were errors.Was the canonical Bible errorless in the original manuscripts? That is my question. Could it be that through the copies and interpretations we are left with errors?

  • Anonymous

    Jon, (I’m pf or paulf, I can’t remember my google sign-on and the system won’t let me create a new one with the same email address):I don’t think the original manuscripts were perfect. If God could do that, why not make the copies perfect as well? He is God, after all.What you do with your life is what you decide. That’s my point. What do you think the Bible means? I’m old enough that my life is set no matter what I think, but I suspect you are young enough to have choices. Follow your own path, not what you think an old book written by pre-scientific people is telling you to do.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13338677991161252796 Metro

    I grew up in a Catholic faith tradition. I was never taught that the Bible should, or could, be taken literally. It was a book of metaphor, of parable. Jesus told folks as much.Later in life I met people who claimed that the Bible certainly was not subject, could not be subject, to interpretation.After speaking with such people at some length I realized that they were actually more deluded than I, because they fully believed that they were living Biblical lives, but in fact they were simply picking and choosing the bits of the Bible they chose to take literally. Just as I did.A whole Bible is a Bible full of holes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    Maybe the copies are with errors because if they weren’t we might put the actaul documents above what was written. It’s the same as literalists putting their doctrine of inerrency above what was written.

  • DuckPhup

    What about the Old Testament? There are many places where something is obviously missing… left unsaid… such that it raises suspicion that some bits may have been deleted. Take Deuteronomy, for example… 23:12 And thou shalt have a paddle upon thy weapon; and it shall be, when thou wilt ease thyself abroad, thou shalt dig therewith, 23:13 and shalt turn back and cover that which cometh from thee: For the LORD thy God walketh in the midst of thy camp…(unsaid?…)23:13(a) and skulketh amongst thee unseen in the wee hours, like unto a freakin’ prowler; 23:13(b) and verily, it honketh him off mightily when he trompeth upon a steaming pile of thine poop, and it squisheth up warmly betwixt his toes.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11483701198522017443 Don

    It has been well said that what is good in the Bible is not original, and what is original is not good. Fortunately everyone not in an institution quietly ignores Biblical commandments (e.g. Leviticus) where they conflict with the wisdom we learned from the ancient Greeks (who deserve far more credit). I’ll see your Ten Commandments and raise you one Euthyphro Dilemma.”The people of Samaria are guilty as charged because they rebelled against their God. They will be killed in war, their children will be smashed to death, and their pregnant women will be ripped open.” — God, as quoted in Hosea 13:16.Gentle, loving, family-values Jesus as selectively portrayed in church is only one side of the far more disturbing and coercive Jesus that emerges from a full reading of the gospels. Sampler: Luke 14:26: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” And so on with hell (unquenchable fire, wailing and gnashing of teeth, etc.), unpardonable sin, raca, “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword”, eye-plucking, and so on.Fortunately we don’t have to be intimidated. The bible doesn’t stand up to scrutiny on an ethical level, or any other.”A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.” — Albert Einstein, quoted in http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/einstein.htmLive a good life, accept the inevitability of your eventual death, and stop worrying. Oh, and Happy New Year(s) (insert apostrophes to taste.)”I do not fear death, in view of the fact that I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.” — attributed to Mark Twain.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16623045145691355028 Reformed Baptist

    “‘A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.’ — Albert Einstein, quoted in http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/einstein.htm“In other words you endorse Christian herd morality, because you are afraid to actually break from the whole framework of Christian ethics. You have a cultural hang over. I think an interesting German philosopher pointed this out a long long time ago. What was his name again? I think his name was Nitezche or something like that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11483701198522017443 Don

    “In other words you endorse Christian herd morality, because you are afraid to actually break from the whole framework of Christian ethics. You have a cultural hang over.”Or maybe Buddhist herd morality? My point is that compassion and the golden rule do not stem from the Bible but that Christianity falsely takes credit for deeply rooted aspects of basic human nature. I have a lot of empathy for Nietzsche (oh the irony), but FWIW I don’t think he has the last word on morality. But that is a side track, which from the tone of your ad hominem post seems to be your cunning plan.Feel free to make a constructive, good-faith contribution to the topic of biblical inerrancy at any time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    DuckPhup -I don’t appreciate your comments and it seems to me you have mistakenly interpreted those passages you quoted. I think you all are missing the point here. You all think you can explain a God that frankly cannot fully be explained. Those people in Hosea were living in sin. They turned their backs on God. Death is the punishment for sin. Let the creator take the created. For what power does a pot have over the pot maker? If those people chose to repent God would have spared them. He did this in Ninevah with Jonah. God is a God of mercy and grace. He’s also a just God and requires punishment for sin. Do you let your children get away with disobeying you? I certainly hope not. I know when my son disobeys my wishes there are consequences for his actions. The same goes for us and the people in the OT. The OT. was written to us the need for a Saviour.

  • Anonymous

    Jon:My kids drive me crazy, but as punishment, do I kill them? Would I ever contemplate eternal torture for them? No.How about you? Do you think everlasting torture for your kids is an appropriate and moral response to disobedience? If you do, then you are a bad father. Just as any “God” who would torture people for acting on the impulses he put in them is an evil being.And I dare you to tell me otherwise. The idea that God is God and whatever he does is justified (which I wholly subscribed to for most of my life) is sickening because it enables the believer to dehumanize all non-believers. It’s the Osama bin Laden defense. It really is a root of much evil in this world.BTW, the idea of eternal torture as punishment for the wicked is a very late idea. It isn’t in the Hebrew bible, and it is very doubtful that the word “hell” as written and quoted in the NT means anything like the Dante’s Inferno-type place that moderns have in mind. Jews didn’t believe that the soul was separate from the body. That idea came from Plato. Jews believed when you were dead, you slept, or were unconscious. At some point between the time the testaments were written, the idea developed that the righteous dead would be resurrected to share in the kingdom of God came about.

  • Anonymous

    jon, that last comment was from me, pf.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    No I certainly do not wish to kill my kids nor do I even think such thoughts. However, I am not my kids creator either. It boils down to this: whether or not someone admits that they believe in God or a God or whether they choose to accept absolute morals doesn’t really matter. It is my belief and many other Christians that regardless of whether you believe God, He is still there and there are punishments for sin. That punishment is death. The idea of eternal hell is not one that I hold to either. I don’t find that that doctrine can be fully documented. Now with this in mind, I cannot in my right mind, go to someone who doesn’t even belief in a God and tell them they are sinning. Because in their mind they can do whatever they want. So, it is hard for “unbelievers” to understand a God who punishes people for not following Him. Many people attack Christianity with this idea that God is all good and then they throw the evil problem at them. Well, if God knows the future, and I believe He does, maybe all this evil, is really for good. I know, I know hard to swallow right? Sure is and I don’t pretend to understand it either. But God works in ways we simply don’t understand.

  • Anonymous

    Jon, 1) You (and your spouse) DID create your kids. Not God. 2) The idea that “sin” creates “death” and that humans “deserve” it for disobeying God rests on very shaky foundations. Why do you believe it? Because someone wrote it in a book 2,000 or 3,000 years ago? Those people believed in genocide and slavery, I wouldn’t take seriously the finer points of their theology.3) You don’t really believe what you don’t understand. This is one of my rules for life, like deities don’t ever tell humans to kill one another. People say they believe in the Trinity, for example, but they really are just regurgitating what they think they are expected to believe because everyone else believes it. God is only good to the extent he acts good. Christians are willing to excuse his apparently evil acts because, well, it just is. That attitude isn’t a real assent of God’s goodness, it’s just punting on the issue due to peer pressure and fear of judgement.

  • Anonymous

    Arrgh, one again, that was me, pf.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02006009533880485920 Jon

    I’m past the judgment part. I don’t believe God performs acts of evil. I do believe He does things we do not understand and for some looking at it, it may seem evil. You may say I’m foolish, but I refuse to live without hope, hope for something more. I refuse to believe this world just evolved. I refuse to believe that Christ did not exist. There are many evidences outside of the New Testament that suggest that Jesus was historical and that His disciples did have a change of heart. A change so strong that many of them died for their beliefs. Sorry for the soapbox there, but the only thing I can’t explain to people are the personal experiences of the presence of God in my life. He has manifested Himself over and over and yet there is no way to prove that to people. This is where faith comes in I guess. I believe something I cannot feel or touch. If someday I die and there is nothing, I will have lost nothing, on the other hand if heaven exists I have gained everything.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16623045145691355028 Reformed Baptist

    “Feel free to make a constructive, good-faith contribution to the topic of biblical inerrancy at any time.”Already did… where were you?

  • Anonymous

    Jon:Good luck in your endeavors. I appreciate the rational discussion of which many Christians are not capable.Just a couple of points.You sell yourself short if you think there is no hope apart from God. There is plenty of hope and goodness that is not tied to concerns for the afterlife.I don’t doubt there was a historical Jesus, nor that his followers had strong beliefs. But that is not evidence that he was a member of the godhead who came to earth to die for your sins. People have lots of strong beliefs they die for, that is not evidence for the truth of those beliefs. One extreme is David Koresh at Waco. In Jesus’ day, Jewish zealots died by the tens of thousands for their beliefs, you don’t take that as proof of their correctness. Followers of Mohammed and Buddah and Joseph Smith died for their beliefs, that doesn’t make those beliefs true.If you follow your arguments to their natural conclusions, the result might not be what you expect. Just be open and don’t be afraid to develop.pf

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