If you’ve read much apologetic commentary, you’ve seen this one: the story in the Bible is marvelously consistent despite it being composed of 66 separate books. From 40 authors from all walks of life. In 3 languages. From 3 continents. In different literary genres. Over 1500 years. No, not marvelously consistent—supernaturally consistent! Praise the Lord.
But poke at this argument, and it unravels quickly.
The Christian claim
We’ll start with claims for the Bible’s consistency in apologists’ own words.
The Bible is comprised of 66 Books written over a period of about 1,500 years by over 40 authors from all walks of life, with different kinds of personalities, and in all sorts of situations. It was written in three languages on three continents, and it covers hundreds of controversial subjects. Yet, it fits together into one cohesive story with an appropriate beginning, a logical ending, a central character, and a consistent theme. (Source)
The unity of Scripture demonstrates its supernatural inspiration. Only the one true, holy God could provide us with such a flawless Bible that reveals such a matchless message: the Lord’s staggering love for His creation. (Source)
One of the remarkable features of the Bible is its magnificent continuity. This is because God Himself is the source of the Bible. (Source)
Wow—this sounds like the sycophantic praise North Koreans give their various Great, Dear, and Brilliant leaders. But it’s simply wrong.
Problem 1: the Bible isn’t consistent
In the first place, no, the Bible isn’t consistent. Not even close: the Bible says that Christians sin and that they don’t, that God can’t be seen and that he can, and that works save and that only faith saves. There are two incompatible Ten Commandments, there are two creation stories, and there are two Flood stories.
It can’t get Jesus’s genealogy straight. It’s unclear who the disciples should evangelize. It contradicts itself about whether people deserve punishment for their ancestors’ sins or not. “God is love,” and yet he demands genocide and drowns the world. It says that Satan works for God and then says that he’s God’s enemy. It admits that there are many gods and then says that Yahweh is the only one. The epistles of Paul don’t say the same thing as the gospels, and the gospels don’t even agree with each other. Jesus is wrong about the timing of the End.
And then there are the contradictions about the crucifixion and resurrection. What day was Jesus crucified on? Who brought the spices? Did the women spread the word about the resurrection? The 45,000 Christian denominations show the result of the ambiguity.
Christian apologists will say that these aren’t contradictions, but they agree that they’re apparent contradictions. Consider these book titles that attempt to seal the leaking dike: The Big Book of Bible Difficulties, The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Hard Sayings of the Bible, and Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible. These books admit to at least apparent contradictions in a Bible that they say is supernaturally consistent. No omniscient god would create a Bible with contradictions of any sort, apparent or actual, and a Bible full of apparent contradictions that needs weighty books with rationalizing excuses isn’t consistent. More.
You might be able to sidestep a contradiction by labeling an incident or story as allegory, but then you’ve lost any biblical authority. The authority now rests on the person who decides what can be taken literally and what must be allegorized.
The Bible’s canonization process
Some versions of this argument say something like, “When Moses sat down to write Genesis, how could he have known that all the future books would fit nicely together like jigsaw puzzle pieces? Only the hand of God explains this!” But of course the canonization process (the picking of the official books to include in the Bible) worked the other way around. They didn’t look from Moses forward but from their present backwards, picking books that fit with the consensus view as they understood it. The Marcionites, Gnostics, and others were considered heretics from the standpoint of the winners, and the books from the hundreds of candidates were the ones that best fit the Christianity of those winners. It’s odd to celebrate that these books fit well together when they were deliberately chosen to fit well together.The canons of Christian sects don’t even agree. For example, the books of 3 and 4 Maccabees are included in the Georgian Orthodox Bible, and Tobit and Judith are included in the Roman Catholic Bible, but none of these books are included in the Protestant Bible. “Magnificent continuity” is apparently in the eye of the beholder.
And, as noted in the previous section, these books don’t fit particularly well together. Each individual book was written to serve the purposes of that author, and those purposes varied. The books of the Bible are asked to do what they were never written to do—be consistent. For example, it would make no sense to scold the author of one gospel for telling a different (and contradictory) story from that in another gospel when he had no goal to tell the same story. He was giving his message, not writing a news article.
No, Jesus isn’t on every page of the Bible
Another popular Christian claim is that Jesus is on every page of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. But if that’s the case, Jews should be an important authority, since the Christian Old Testament is their scripture. And since Jewish scholars haven’t converted, they obviously reject this argument.
Arguing that their bias prevents them from seeing Jesus can be turned around with just as much authority, and now the Christian’s bias is the obstacle to an honest assessment.
When you look at the Bible, the stories it tells are about a lot more than Jesus. In just the Pentateuch (the first five books), we get a just-so story that explains creation. Then God gets annoyed and destroys the world in a flood. Then God promises a great people to Abraham. Then God gives the Promised Land to Moses. Each of these stories reaches a conclusion, and a The End could plausibly wrap up each one. None is about Jesus.
After more adventures of a small country in a dangrous world, we get Jesus in the New Testament. The Christians will tell you that now you can say The End. They will explain these repeated reboots of the story by appealing to progressive revelation—God apparently dribbles out his perfect message over time. But this cuts both ways, and Muslims will tell you that that process continued, and only after adding the Quran can you say The End. And the Mormons tell you that only after adding the Book of Mormon can you say The End. And every cult leader and reincarnation of Jesus will say the same thing.
Concluded in part 2 with a challenge to the skeptic.
- Top 20 Most Damning Bible Contradictions
- Why the Gospel of Mark Is Likely NOT an Eyewitness Account
- How Reliable is Apostle Paul When He Knew Very Little About Jesus?
- Contradictions in the Resurrection Account
- God Is Love—Does That Make Any Sense?
he’s wrong about something,
that Christian is going to wonder exactly what else
his onetime hero is wrong about.
All it takes is one realization
that one thing is drastically in error,
just one brick removed to start the Jenga tower shaking
like the mythic Walls of Jericho themselves.
— Captain Cassidy, Roll to Disbelieve blog
Image from Andrew Ridley, CC license