Is There Hidden Meaning in the New Testament?

Is There Hidden Meaning in the New Testament? November 21, 2019

Answers in Genesis has a series taking on Bible contradictions, but one of their most recent entries—Are Paul’s Letters Hard or Easy to Understand—left me confused. In this post, they broke down (and solved, of course) a Bible contradiction that I don’t think I have ever heard mentioned before:

An alleged contradiction is said to occur between 2 Corinthians 1:13 and 2 Peter 3:16. One passage states that what was written could be understood, and the other states that there are things which are hard to understand. Is this an irreconcilable contradiction?

Say what now?

I guess I expected a series reconciling Bible contradictions to focus on contradictions that are particularly egregious, or well known. This just seems like hair splitting.

What are the two verses?

2 Corinthians 1:13—For we are not writing any other things to you than what you read or understand. Now I trust you will understand, even to the end.

2 Peter 3:16—As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.

This really does not feel like a contradiction. But bear with me, because in my confusion over why Answers in Genesis even felt the need to address this “contradiction” I noticed something profoundly interesting.

Paul, who wrote 2 Corinthians, tells his readers that he is “not writing any things to you other than what you read or understand.” In other words, he says there are no secret meanings in his writings.

But you know what? I tried reading 2 Corinthians 1:13 in context and found myself utterly confused as to what Paul was trying to say. Why is this? It’s in part because he’s writing to people he’s met, and he keeps vaguely referencing things that happened while he was with them. Paul founded the church at Corinth. A few years later, he wrote them this letter. He’s building on things he already taught them—things we don’t have access to—which can sometimes make his letter difficult to understand for us today.

While 2 Peter claims to have been written by the Apostle Peter, it refers to Paul’s letters—which would have been contemporaneous—as “scripture.” For that and other reasons, scholars think 2 Peter was written between AD 100-150 and is pseudoepigraphical—i.e., it only claimed to be written by the Apostle Peter.

With this understanding of the timeline, the passage in 2 Peter makes complete sense. By the time we arrive at AD 100-150, Paul has been dead for decades. We know that the early church was a time of divergent sects and argument between different Christian theologians or church leaders. There was actually much more theological diversity in the early church than there is in Christianity today—and every one of these groups would have been claiming to base their beliefs and teachings on Paul.

It makes perfect sense that the person who wrote 2 Peter would reference “untaught and unstable people” who “twist” Paul’s letters “to their own destruction, as they do all the rest of scriptures.” He’s intervening in a period of great theological dispute. He’s insisting that he is Paul’s true theological heir, and that all those other people saying Paul’s letters mean something else are wrong.

Now, fundamentalists like those at Answers in Genesis don’t leave room for pseudoepigraphical books. If 2 Peter says it was written by the Apostle Peter, by golly, it was written by the Apostle Peter. In this sense the larger contradiction is Peter’s reference to Paul’s writings as “scripture,” which would have been completely ahistorical—not even evangelicals dispute that the Bible canon wasn’t settled until much later.

Even from a fundamentalist standpoint, though, claiming there’s a contradiction between these two verses still feels like splitting hairs. Why not assume that Paul said he was being straightforward in his writing, and Peter noted the obvious—that some people were twisting Paul’s writings to mean things they didn’t?

This really feels like missing the forest for the trees.

When I read 2 Peter 3:16 today, my response is fascination. Disagreement over Christian doctrine—doctrine I’d been taught to think of as obvious or settled—occurred so early on that the canonical books of the Bible themselves refer to the swift divergence of disparate Christian sects.

This makes me genuinely curious what else I would find if I reread the letters in the New Testament today, as a nonreligious adult with some training in the classics, rather than as an evangelical teen. I wonder whether fundamentalist insistence in taking these passages literally and refusing to read them historically actually flattens them, erasing meaning that might otherwise jump out at the reader.

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