The Bible’s Contradictions And Ours

The Bible’s Contradictions And Ours February 15, 2014

The blog Unreasonable Faith asked which Bible contradiction is the hardest one to explain away. I wonder whether the ability to harmonize the Bible – or, more accurately, to pretend its discrepancies have been resolved – isn’t simply one example of the human ability to hold to contradictory ideas. One can find instances of this which are connected with the Bible, such as when someone manages to harmonize the Bible’s difficult content with the claim that it is inerrant. But one can also find the same thing among atheists, whether in the form of holding firmly to the view that atheism is the rational position despite the evidence that some atheists are anything but rational, or in the form of embracing the possibility of the existence of spiritual beings (one person’s ghost is another’s god).

The aforementioned contradictions in worldviews are not necessarily a problem. They are just a reminder that as human beings we do not have it all figured out and wrapped up in a nice neat package. The world we experience is more complex than any humanly-constructed worldview has managed to do justice to. That is why people regularly discover the inadequacies in one and switch to another, hoping that it can do better justice to certain aspects of their experience. And that is why some of us stop looking for the perfect worldview and choose instead to work within the one we have with a hefty serving of humility, and a willingness to treat it as what it is, namely a set of useful symbols rather than a definitive set of answers to life’s questions.Nevertheless, some of the contradictions can be annoying, especially when they are not acknowledged as such. One particularly irritating contradiction for me as a Biblical scholar is when people dismiss the Bible as so much nonsense because it has contradictions, and yet embrace other literature (or the longest running science fiction show in TV history) and happily ignore, harmonize, or even embrace its plot discontinuities.The Bible does not have contradictions because it is trash. It has contradictions because it is a collection of human literature. There is a great deal in there that is worthy of criticism. But if you cannot understand why some people appreciate it nonetheless, then you are almost certainly not treating it the way you treat other human creations – or at least, not the way you treat the ones you happen to like.In which case, the same sorts of contradictions you see in the Bible also dwell within your very self.

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  • a reminder that as human beings we do not have it all figured out and wrapped up in a nice neat package.


    “Only the madman is absolutely sure.” – Robert Anton Wilson (The Illuminatus! Trilogy, 1975)

    • David Evans

      Kudos to you for remembering a particular phrase from that vast and annoying work

  • David_Evans

    “the view that atheism is the rational position despite the evidence that some atheists are anything but rational” is not an instance of holding contradictory ideas.

    “All rational people, on looking hard enough at the evidence, will come to be atheists”

    does not contradict

    “Some people who come to be atheists are not rational”.

    Also “one person’s ghost is another’s god” is seldom true if “god” is understood as the being atheists typically disbelieve in. Ghosts are rather pathetic creatures, bound in a repeating pattern from which they are unable to escape, and quite unworthy of worship. Alternatively they may simply be impressions of a past event left in some physical recording medium we don’t yet understand. An atheist could certainly believe in that.

  • David_Evans

    “One particularly irritating contradiction for me as a Biblical scholar is when people dismiss the Bible as so much nonsense because it has contradictions, and yet embrace other literature…”
    I don’t think many atheists dismiss the Bible as so much nonsense – many of them love Ecclesiastes, for instance. What we dismiss are the ideas that the Bible is the word of God, can be considered inerrant and provides an infallible guide to morals. None of which any sane person believes of any secular literature, even Star Trek.

    • Christians have done to the Bible what the Nazis did to the Swastika, that is, turned something that previously had positive meaning into a symbol of sociopolitical tyranny. Thus it becomes a symbol that one now must eschew.

      In secular circles, I hardly quote the Bible unless it is out of the Jefferson Bible, because it is widely known that Jefferson was an open-minded sage. But even then, some will jump me for being a jerk bible-banger.

    • I was tempted to respond “Well clearly you’ve never been to a Star Trek convention.” 🙂 But I appreciate your point – tackling inerrantism but pointing out contradictions can be useful. But I have in fact encountered atheists for whom the delights of Ecclesiastes are not on their radar, or are merely more evidence that the Bible is a self-contradictory mess. Usually such people started out with the assumption that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, and that if it isn’t, then it is garbage. Having realized that it is not the former, they may switch to the latter, but without getting beyond the problematic binary options.

  • I don’t think that the comparison of the way some atheists view the bible with the way some atheists view Doctor Who is a particularly useful or valid comparison. Atheists do not invoke Doctor Who as an authority on science curriculums, middle east politics, global warming, marriage equality, affordable health care, and the host of other issues for which the bible is invoked as a contemporary authority. Doctor Who is entertainment; and even though some folks are picky about their entertainment, even though the show may touch on social issues occasionally, I’ve never heard of an atheist granting Doctor Who the sort of religious authority that most christians grant the bible.

    Most atheists would concede that the bible might hold as much comparative value as any other ancient literature filled with a mixture of mythology, philosophy, some history, and theology. Pointing out contradictions in the bible is a way of arguing against the pervasive social and political influence of conservative christians who hold the bible to be infallible.

  • arcseconds

    That a position is rational doesn’t mean that it’s only possible to come to that position by rational means! A rational position might be attained and held irrationally, just like any other position. So presenting a person holding position X irrationally does not show that position X is an irrational position.

    You’re convinced that belief in a historical Jesus is the rational position to hold (possibly allowing for a robust agnosticism consistently applied to other figures usually thought to be historical), as it’s the position that makes the best sense of the evidence. But you holding this belief because of the evidence doesn’t prevent someone else from holding that belief irrationally, say because they fear death and Jesus actually existing and actually dying on the cross gives them hope for salvation (understandable, perhaps, but not rational).

    That such people exist doesn’t prevent your beliefs about it from being rational.

    (And as i write this, I’m wondering whether this isn’t the mistake that casual mythicists make… irrational people believe in Jesus therefore belief in Jesus is irrational)

  • $41348855

    A good example of atheist irrationality can be found in Richard Carrier’s essay on evolution in The End of Christianity. Carrier argues that the evidence fits the theory of evolution 100% (P(E|H)=1). This can’t possibly be true. All theories have loose ends.

    The theory of plate tectonics was generally established in the 1960s. In
    light of the theories of evolution and plate tectonics we can make
    sense of the way plant and animal species are distributed round the
    world. Before the 1960s we couldn’t. At that time some of the evidence couldn’t be explained by the theory of evolution.The evidence before the
    ’60s didn’t match the theory 100%; not because the theory was wrong, but
    because of our limited understanding.

    In another fifty years we will have a better understanding of
    evolution than we have now. So in another fifty years the evidence will
    fit the theory better than it does now. That means that the evidence
    can’t possibly fit the theory 100% now. If the evidence did fit the theory 100% now it would mean that there was nothing more to discover; that future research couldn’t improve the fit between the theory and the evidence.

    • David Evans

      I like David Deutsch’s view that it’s rational to believe the best available theory. Before plate tectonics we had to assume sunken land bridges and various methods of sea- and air-borne dispersal of organisms, and that was a weakness in the theory. However there were many more facts that didn’t make sense on the alternative theory of special creation. In that sense evolution, with its loose ends, was the best available theory. I agree that Carrier’s 100% cannot be defended, but possibly some not much smaller figure could be.

      • $41348855

        Yes, I don’t want to be seen as nitpicking. I mentioned it because the entire purpose of Carrier’s essay was to calculate exactly how well the theory of evolution fits the facts. He did this by using Bayes’ theorem, something that he would like to see used more often. Personally, I would rather not put a figure on it. I’m happy to settle for a more subjective judgement. But if you’re going to make a supposedly rigorous analysis you need to avoid getting it so obviously wrong.

      • arcseconds

        The best available theory may not itself be very likely, though. What you really ought to do is to give the theory the probability that the evidence supports, which should include an assessment of how likely the alternatives are, and how likely some other theory currently unknown might be true.

        Evolution seems practically a certainty (although I’m sure we’ve got more to learn about how the mechanisms play out). Dark matter? That may be the best theory, but I wouldn’t want to treat it as anywhere near certain as yet. It’s just the sort of thing some new physical theory will swoop in and do away with completely.

  • Guest

    What contradictions?

    • If you’re not that familiar with the Bible and so aren’t aware of the contradictions, a good place to start learning about them is the infancy stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Compare what the hometown of Jesus’ parents is assumed to be, the geographical movements, the relationship to dated events (the death of Herod the Great and the census under Quirinius), and of course the two different genealogies of Joseph.

      • Guest

        Can you give an example of one that has not been successfully explained?

      • Guest

        Can you give an example of one that hasn’t been successfully explained? Some of those were done centuries ago.

        • If your standard for harmonization is that anything is acceptable, then of course you will consider the matter resolved. You may even be among those who are happy to ignore that the Gospels say that both genealogies are Joseph’s and say that one is Mary’s, preferring to harmonize contradictions than to stick to what the texts actually say. But if you do that, then in what sense are you defending the Bible rather than attacking and undermining it, in the interest of defending a doctrine about the Bible which is allowed to overrule what the Bible actually says?

          • Guest

            It sounds like you don’t have anything.

          • You haven’t addressed the example I mentioned yet. In Matthew, Jesus’ family lives in Bethlehem at the beginning, and after fleeing to Egypt they seek to return there. But because it isn’t felt to be safe, they settle instead in Nazareth.

            In Luke, the family is from Nazareth. They go to Bethlehem. After Jesus is born, within a matter of months, they go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices and then return to Nazareth.

            The two seem irreconcilable even without bringing in the problem that there was a decade between the death of Herod the Great and the census under Quirinius.

          • Guest

            Matthew doesn’t say they lived there, only that Jesus was born there.

            Quirinius was ruling in some capacity in Syria before he was appointed governor. Tyndale’s translation refers to him as a lieutenant.

          • You don’t seem to be reading the text very carefully. Did they live in Nazareth, go up to Bethlehem for a census, and after Jesus was born take care of everything the Law required after childbirth (look it up, we know how long that took) in Jerusalem and then return to Nazareth? Or did they live in Bethlehem some 2 years after the star appeared, flee to Egypt, try to return to their home in Judaea, and then decide to make their home in Nazareth?

            You are going to have to decide whether you care more about taking seriously what these texts say, or your doctrine of Scripture.

            The census under Quirinius was connected with the transfer to direct Roman rule after Archelaus was deposed. It could not take place both then and before the death of Herod the Great.

          • Guest

            The census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was decreed by Augustus, while Herod was alive and Quirinius was a ruler in Syria. The later census in 6 A.D. is the one you’re trying to confuse people with.

          • What is your evidence for a Roman census in Judaea prior to the institution of direct Roman rule? Why did it not cause the outcry that Quirinius’ census did? What is your evidence that Quirinius was “ruler of Syria” during the reign of Herod? Why was Herod’s kingdom included? But again, above all else, what is your evidence for your conclusions about what happened?

          • Guest

            Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of professor? Why do you ask me all these n00b questions? Were you hoping I didn’t know, or that I’d tell you because you don’t know?
            Will they give a professorship to just anyone these days?
            How can that help anyone?

          • This is funny. You seem to lack the skills to even look up whether I am a professor and of what, and you don’t address the details that I mentioned to you, and this is how you try to distract from that? Why not just discuss the topic, instead of insisting that you know how to resolve these contradictions while not explaining how?

          • Guest

            What you are is a heretic and a waste of my time.

          • Sticking labels on people is easy, especially when hiding one’s own identity. Engaging in substantive discussion is harder. And as your comments demonstrate, acknowledging we do not know everything and have much to learn is harder still, harder perhaps than the actual learning process.

  • Guest

    This guy did a pretty good job disposing of such claims:

    • I think your standards are too low.

      • Guest

        That’s possible, and it would explain my presence here.